Freud meets Hendrix
Dr. Bruce L. Thiessen
Going by the stage name Dr. B.L.T., singing and playing his guitar for spare change most weekday mornings outside Noah’s Bagels on J Street, he seems to be just another down-on-his-luck artist trying to scrape by. Few would suspect that Dr. B.L.T. has actually earned his title with a PhD in psychology, or that he is a practicing psychologist, college professor and accomplished writer of both songs and articles in psychological journals. Yet the simple musician is as much as part of who Dr. Bruce L. Thiessen is as the professional therapist. He has found a way to marry his dual roles, using music as a key tool in his therapy, and allowing his public performances to expand his understanding of the human psyche.
What came first for you, music or psychology?
Music has always come first for me. That’s where my passion lies.
Was music therapeutic for you?
It always has been therapeutic for me, because whether you’re on the top of the world or the bottom, music can take that feeling and bring it to another level. Something creative can come out of it, so you feel like you’re in the midst of a creative process. It’s very affirming in that way.
But how can it help people deal with psychological problems?
Psychotherapy has always been about catharsis, being able to express your feelings. One of the most painful things about going through difficult conflicts and feelings is that sometimes they get stuck inside of you, so just having a way to mobilize those feelings in an expressive way takes the edge off it so your mind can more actively work on arriving at solutions.
And just listening to music does that?
Not just listening, but if you’re identifying with the words and the music, if the musical aspects allow your emotions to become engaged, and if the lyrics engage your mind and your emotions.
When did you first make the connection between music and therapy?
I’m not sure if it was ever a formal type of thought process that allowed me to make the connection, it just seems natural for me that music and psychology go hand-in-hand. It’s all about expressing yourself and communicating and not being afraid to tread on any subject matter having to do with emotions.
Say I came to you and I was suffering from depression and had some other issues. How would you bring music into our therapy session?
At the center of almost every serious psychological problem is a conflict having to do with the struggle for identity. One of the things I might do to help a person carve out their identity, since identity is so much related to a person’s personal history, is have them go into their life and reflect on significant periods in their life and try to remember songs that they heard that allow them to relate to that experience, and to just put together a chronological series of songs that tell their life story. That would allow them to see a more complete picture of themselves, so they have a stronger sense of their identity.
Does it work for someone who’s not a big music fan?
I think everyone’s a music fan on one level or another, though they may not be aware of the degree to which music influences their lives. And there might be certain blocks to being able to appreciate music, some of which could be actually emotional and mental blocks, and through the process of therapy, we may be able to tackle some of those blocks, which would allow them to gain a better appreciation of music.
So then it’s abnormal not to be a music fan?
I think music is so much of a core of who we are as human beings. It seems so natural for the human psyche to be drawn toward music that I do believe it’s an integral part of who we are as human beings.
And you’re obviously so drawn to it that you spend a significant amount of time just sitting on the street playing. What does that give you?
For one thing, it allows me to bring attention to a cause I represent, Compassion International, which is an organization that helps children in a variety of underprivileged nations to be able to eat and provides them with an education. So music can be a tool in that way. It also has the purpose of allowing me to be comfortable playing in front of people. Sitting there by yourself with your guitar and playing is a whole different experience than doing it with people sitting around you. It just allows you to gain that relationship with other people while you’re playing, and it’s all about relationships.
How do you think people see you? Do you think even one person in 10 would see you on the street and think you were a psychologist?
No, I don’t really fit the mold of the typical psychologist by any means. In fact, I think that’s what popular music is all about, stepping out of the mold and gracefully defying people’s expectations.
People project what they want to see. They might see me as a homeless person, although I don’t really look that part because I take care of my personal hygiene and try to dress nicely. I don’t really fit that, so then they try to go somewhere else in their experience.
Do you have fun analyzing those people while you play?
Being a psychologist is really all about experimenting. So this is like a big experiment. People have this idea of who you are, and when they find out differently, it blows away their stereotypes and frees their minds.