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What does our psyche want now?
1 February 2017
I recently attended a talk by the American depth psychologist and author James Hollis, whose books I had long admired.
“I often ask my new clients if they they think they have a soul and what it may be asking of them,” he said. That made me think. Hollis did not mean soul in the traditional Christian sense, but rather the part of us that is separate from our ego, that is part of our unconscious and that has a connection to something larger than ourselves.
In the traditional Christian sense, soul is opposite to body, but in depth psychology soul refers to the Greek word psyche. Rather than being this ethereal, floaty thing that many of us imagine, in this sense soul is closely connected to our human experience, particularly our deep emotions, our longings, our joys, our mystery. This was an idea developed particularly by the archetypal psychologist James Hillman.
By ego, I mean the part of ourselves that we are aware of and which we think of as ‘us’, but which is only the tip of the iceberg and does not encompass our unconscious. It is our ego that tries to control our lives, and our environment, and which is constantly on the lookout for threats.
We need our ego to run the business of life, but if its needs dominate then our psyche/soul may need to make itself felt through neurosis and painful symptoms.
Writing in his book What Matters Most, Hollis says soul is a metaphor to describe our essence: “It is the energy that blows through us, that enters us at birth, animates our journey, and then departs, whither we know not, at our passing.”
Soul, by its nature, is actually impossible to fully define. While it lives in the unconscious it is constantly making itself felt in our conscious lives, through our emotions, dreams and imagination.
The reason Hollis asks his clients if they think they have a soul is because he is wanting to get away from the assumptions many people bring to therapy; that they have a ‘problem’ and that it is somehow the therapist’s job to get rid of this problem.
Depth work is not about solving the problem but about recovering the life we’ve somehow lost along the way, he says. Clients often come with a symptom, such as an addiction, a depression, an anger issue or a relationship problem, and they want the therapy to eradicate this symptom.
But depth therapy does not “cure” people or eradicate symptoms. “We don’t solve these problems, we outgrow them,” says Hollis. But to outgrow them may mean exploring what the meaning of the symptom is, what is our psyche trying to get us to pay attention to in our lives?
Mostly we are governed by our egos and we think we know what we want or what we need. But the psyche/soul may have a different idea of where we need to go. It is our ego that desperately wants to get rid of the symptom.
Some approaches, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), try to get rid of the problem the client brings. CBT can help, and I use some CBT approaches in my integrative therapy. But my experience is that often CBT can seemingly get rid of the symptom, only for it to re-appear in another form. If the underlying issues are not dealt with this is always a risk.
But how do we know what our psyche is asking of us? One way of exploring this is through therapy with a practitioner who has experience in working with the unconscious. Other ways in include noticing our dreams and what they may be telling us.
As palliative care doctor, and therapist, Michael Kearney says in his book Mortally Wounded: “My own personal and work experience has [shown me]…that soul is connected to depth, to death, to the imagination, and that it brings with it a sense of meaning.”
By James Hollis:
Swamplands of the Soul, Inner City Books, 1996
What Matters Most, Gotham Books, 2010
By Michael Kearney:
Mortally Wounded, Morino Books, 1996
Why couple therapy may not fix your relationship in the way you expect
5 January 2017
“Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live your way some distant day into the answers.”
Rainer Maria Rilke
The quote above, from the Austrian poet Rilke, says something about the couple therapy process and how changes in a relationship are often achieved not by applying a new technique but rather by a gradual shift in awareness and perspective.
Many couples who are struggling in their relationships come to therapy to be fixed. Or, more accurately, they come to get their partner ‘fixed’. They hope that the therapist will tell their partner what he or she needs to do differently or what techniques the couple needs to put into practice in order to solve the problem they come with.
While there is a place for techniques and tools in helping couples tackle their problems, it is naive to think that these alone will lead to sustained improvements.
In my experience couple therapy is more of a stuttering, unpredictable process than a linear improvement. Over time I would expect a couple’s relationship to improve but it is often a case of two steps forward one step back. There may be periods where nothing seems to be improving at all.
But if the couple is able to stick with the process and hold a little less tightly their desire for a solution to their problem, something different can emerge.
Often that something different comes from each partner being willing to feel their pain, and sometimes to share it, without immediately blaming the other person.
Frequently one of the things that needs to happen in couple therapy is for each person to understand how they have contributed to the stuck place the couple finds itself in. Once we begin to recognise our own responsibility we can then stop pointing the finger so quickly at our partner. This takes the pressure off them a little, which can open up a space for something new to enter the relationship.
In my own relationship I’ve found that, when I’m unhappy about something, the simple act of being heard by my partner can make a difference. It often means that the thing that was annoying me so much doesn’t seem quite so difficult any more.
As couples we can sometimes get stuck in an “I win, you lose” mentality, in which power struggles take over and we feel that unless we get our way it will be unbearable. The reality is that it is always going to be difficult for two people to share their lives and that we need to find ways of making space for the differences but still allowing each person to have their feelings acknowledged.
John Welwood, one of my favourite writers on relationships, says in his book Journey of the Heart, : “Techniques rarely have any impact when used as short cuts, to bypass letting a difficulty affect us, work on us and move us to find our own genuine response to it.”
Are parents responsible for how their children turn out?
12 March 2016
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.
“I blame the parents”, is a common judgment, often muttered under the breath when in the presence of a badly behaved child or young person.
This kind of judgement highlights why being a parent can bring up a lot of anxieties, when it comes to what sort of person the child develops into.
And it can be a heavy burden, if a parent believes that he or she is responsible for “negative” character traits or behaviours, or for an unhappy disposition, on the part of the child.
But sometimes I believe that parents can take too much responsibility and can even beat themselves up for not being good enough.
Donald Winnicott, a pioneering paediatrician and psychotherapist, came up with the idea of the “good-enough” parent. This referred to the parent who provides a good-enough environment in which the child feels loved but is also given healthy boundaries.
It’s important to recognise that this does not mean parents can’t make mistakes. Making mistakes is inevitable - perfection is not possible. The idea of being good enough gives us permission to be imperfect and to be compassionate towards ourselves as parents.
The kind of person a child develops into will depend on different factors. Good-enough parenting is one factor, while inherited characteristics will be another. As the child gets older, peer pressure will play an increasing role as will the values in the society or culture the child grows up in.
But I believe there is also something else at play, which is harder to describe or measure. I’m thinking of the mysterious force that makes each person the unique individual they are.
Sure, we can look at children and make sense of their characters by referring to how they have uncle John’s creativity or mum’s dancing ability. But in his book The Soul’s Code, James Hillman talks about the guiding force that all humans are born with. He uses the analogy of the acorn becoming an oak, arguing that every person arrives in the world with a possible calling or destiny.
Hillman argues that modern psychology has become reductionist, attributing a child’s obsessions or “pathologies” to poor parenting or genetics.
A different response would be to welcome the uniqueness of each child, even the parts that cause us pain or discomfort as parents. Perhaps we could then trust that the child will find its way in the world, following its own calling or destiny.
What is co-dependency?
March 24, 2016
Sometimes psychological phrases seem to enter the mainstream and, in recent years, one such phrase has been ‘co-dependency’. But what does it really mean?
One way of understanding co-dependency is as ‘relationship addiction’, particularly if it is a relationship that keeps the partners stuck in behaviours that are limiting or destructive.
Co-dependency can refer to partners, adult children, siblings or whole families. In this article I’m focusing on partners.
Frequently there is an addicted, troubled or dependent partner and a supposedly stronger partner who’s role can be a kind of helper, caretaker or who tries to fix the person who has the ‘problem’.
Co-dependency began as a description of how some people seem to be drawn to relationships with alcoholics or drug addicts and stay in these relationships even if they are treated badly or the addict shows no serious signs of change. On the face of it the ‘healthy’ partner is trying to help the addict but the reality is that, at a deeper level, they find it almost impossible to walk away from the tie.
The ‘healthy’ partner is also getting some form of psychological benefit, often at an unconscious level, from being in a relationship with someone who is much more obviously disturbed or distressed.
Frequently it turns out that the ‘healthy’ partner had a parent or other family member who was an alcoholic or addict and that, in some way, their relationship pattern is mirroring important aspects of their parents’ relationship or dynamics in their family of origin.
While it began as a description of relationships involving people addicted to alcohol or other drugs, co-dependency can be used in a broader way to describe someone who stays with a ‘problem’ partner but nurses underlying resentment towards that partner.
The ‘healthy’ or ‘helping’ partner may seem caring and nice, but often underneath this there is a deep fear of not being in control, which can lead the ‘healthy’ partner to being manipulative. There is also often a need to be admired or approved of.
US psychologist Pia Melody was one of the first people to write about co-dependency. She argues that both partners in a co-dependent relationship have deep feelings of shame and inadequacy that began in chilidhood.
The addict deals with these unbearable feelings through his or her addiction or troubled behaviour. The ‘healthy’ partner deals with shame and inadequacy by their addiction to the relationship and to trying to fix the partner.
For Mellody, the antidote to co-dependency is for the individual to come to terms with the wounds of childhood. In her book Facing Co-depdence she says: “Experience your feelings about the less-than-nurturing events of your past. Because if you don’t, the issues from your history will be held in minimisation, denial and delusion and truly be behind you as demons.”
The Drama Triangle
Posted on April 15, 2014
Many couples that run into problems find themselves on the ‘drama triangle’. This is a model that maps the unhelpful behaviour patterns couples can find themselves in. It was developed by US psychiatrist Stephen Karpman in the 1970s.
The persecutor, rescuer and victim are all roles that people in relationships can play. These roles interact with each other, so there is always someone in a more powerful position and someone with less power.
While individuals may shift between the different roles, they usually feel more comfortable in one of the roles, due to their personality and the behaviour patterns in their family growing up.
What are the roles?
A rescuer will often have grown up in a family where the child’s needs were not acknowledged and so he or she grew up looking after others’ needs in order to feel loved. The rescuer was the good, responsible child who avoids confrontation.
The victim got the message from their family that they were not able to handle their own problems and so grew up expecting others to step in and make things okay. They can often feel anxious about things.
The persecutor is the person who criticizes their partner. But it is important to realise that underneath the persecutor is a victim – someone who, as a child, did not have their needs met and often feels powerless. Putting their partner down helps them escape their inner self of low self-worth and makes them feel powerful.
A rescuer can be controlling
Often couples will begin their relationship with one of them in the rescuer role and the other in victim role. The rescuer gives the victim the message: “You need me to help you – just do what I tell you.” While the rescuer seems helpful and nice on the outside, they are actually being quite controlling of their partner.
The person in the victim role often feels their problems are overwhelming and they can’t cope.
The two make an unofficial deal – that the rescuer will get to feel good about themselves and feel that they are in charge, while the victim gets looked after and doesn’t have to take responsibility.
Becoming the persecutor
What can happen is that the rescuer gets fed up with their role, maybe they feel their efforts are not fully appreciated or they just feel tired out. So they then start to criticise their partner, therefore becoming the persecutor.
Another possibility is that the victim gets fed up with being the victim and becomes critical (the persecutor), which makes their partner into the victim.
The way out
The way to help a couple step out of the drama triangle is to, first, get them to see what is going on and how the two of them are usually playing one or other role. With this awareness the members of the couple can be encouraged to take more responsibility for their needs by accessing their inner ‘adult’.
The adult is that part of us that does not take too much responsibility for our partner (the rescuer), neither does it expect our partner to make us feel good (the victim). The adult is able to clearly express what he or she wants, instead of trying to manipulate or intimidate their partner to get what their needs met.
Handling disagreement or conflict in relationships
6 Dec 2013
When we are annoyed or hurt by something our partner has said or done, how can we express our feelings in a way that they will really hear what we are saying?
A common approach in couple conflicts is to accuse our partner of ‘making’ us feel angry, upset or sad by their behaviour. While at times it might be ok to use this approach – sometimes we need to blow off steam – it often fails, as it tends to put the other person on the defensive. It also allows us to avoid taking responsibility for our feelings.
This kind of criticism is often accompanied by words like ‘always’ and ‘never’, such as, ‘You always take the kids’ side against me’ or ‘You never listen to me’. Again, this kind of blaming language is unlikely to get the other person to genuinely talk about the grievance you have.
While there needs to be a place for argument and conflict in any relationship, if a couple is in the habit of dealing with conflict in an accusatory and blaming way it is unlikely to help resolve problems.
One approach to avoiding this kind of blaming is called ‘compassionate communication’, also known as ‘nonviolent communication’. This approach, developed by American Marshall Rosenberg, can be used with our partners or anyone else we may find ourselves in conflict with. It has four components:
Observation – we tell the other person what they are doing that we don’t like. But we do this without judging the behaviour.
Feelings – we say how we feel when they behave like this: afraid? Sad? Hurt? Irritated?
Needs – we say what needs of ours are being affected by their behaviour. For example, our need to be respected.
Requests – this is when we tell the other person what we want from them that will improve the situation.
An example: Sue is feeling more and more frustrated by how little emotional contact Michael is willing to offer. Many women would say, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why are you so closed off? It drives me up the wall!’ While understandable, this kind of response is likely to make Michael even more closed off.
Shifting the energy
But when the complainant can be specific about exactly what behaviour she is unhappy with and what her feelings and needs are it can shift the energy away from blame.
So Sue could say: ‘When I get home and you don’t ask me about how my day was I feel lonely inside and distanced from you.’
She may add that this means her need for emotional closeness with her partner is not being met. She may then make a request. This could be that they agree to spend some time, perhaps over a glass of wine or while cooking the meal, re-connecting with each other by talking.
In his book Nonviolent Communication, Rosenberg says that when we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion.
He says: ‘Through its emphasis on deep listening – to ourselves as well as to others – nonviolent communication fosters respect, attentiveness and empathy and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart.’
The need to sometimes disappoint our parents
Posted on May 3, 2012
A common reason people come to therapy is that they are unhappy about living a life that doesn’t feel authentic or meaningful at some profound level. Part of the reason for this is that they have taken on – consciously or unconsciously – their parents’ expectations of what they “should” do and how they “should” be.
The therapist’s role is to help the client get in touch with their deeper needs and wants, even if those conflict with parental expectations.
This process can take time because the messages we get from parents – about the kind of person we should be – may be extremely subtle. Nevertheless, we usually know deep down what will please them, or disappoint them.
The danger is that we either let our lives be lived according to parental expectations and thus devalue our own deeper wishes, or we can go to the other extreme of doing the opposite to what our parents want, in order to punish them.
While rebelling may make us feel we are being independent, it can also be a sign that we are simply defining ourselves in opposition to our parents and are stuck in a kind of adolescence. In this case we are no closer to living an authentic life than the son or daughter who dutifully complies with the family expectations.
There is also the possibility, as Jung pointed out, that we end up living out our parents’ unlived lives. Jungian author James Hollis argues that many women, whose own lives have been frustrated by gender limitations, have sought to live out their squashed ambitions through their sons, which explains the prevalence of the ‘My son, the doctor’ jokes.
But how to find out what we really want and need, as opposed to following parental expectations? One way is to become more aware of the parental voices in our heads. For example, most of us carry around an inner voice that tells us what is ok and not ok to do, and which can be very critical of us if we fail to meet these standards. This “inner critic” is often derived from one or both parents.
There are other, less critical but usually much softer voices that we can tune into when we make a sustained effort and a soulful approach to therapy involves tapping into that part of ourselves that is compassionate and has genuine wisdom. This part of ourselves often shows itself in what people call intuition. For instance, we may not know why but we just have a strong sense that our parents’ religion, occupation or many of their values are not for us.
For example, we may have been brought up by parents who were uncomfortable with, and judgmental about, anger or sexuality. This can mean that whenever, as adults, we feel angry or sexual it can be accompanied by feelings of guilt. Or our parents may have been left-wing politically and judging of any career that didn’t reflect these values, making our desire of being an entrepreneur feel like a kind of betrayal.
As small children we absorb our parents’ values and expectations. What is not approved of is often disowned and this process continues, as we get older, with the expectations of schoolteachers and peers. As author Robert Bly says in A Little Book on the Human Shadow, a small child is like a running ball of energy: “But one day we noticed that our parents didn’t like certain parts of that ball. They said things like, ‘Can’t you be still?’ or, ‘It isn’t nice to try and kill your brother.’ Behind us we have an invisible bag and, the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag.”
Not disappointing our parents, however, can become a betrayal of ourselves and sometimes that may be the choice – to be true to ourselves and disappoint others or to please others but fail to honour our own journey. It may also be that, if we have the courage to disappoint our parents by finding our own path, we are actually able to develop a more authentic relationship with them in the longer term.
A Little Book on the Human Shadow, Robert Bly
Under Saturn’s Shadow, James Hollis