I recently began a drawing class. I’d often wondered if I had any latent ability to draw. J still don’t know the answer to this question since my artistic career was short lived. I stayed for one session and decided that this was not for me. Or, that this way of leaning did not work for me. We spent 15 minutes playing with pencils. Learning the difference between H and B leads. Soft and hard. Then we were given a landscape to fill in, using different techniques. Cross hatching; herringbone; vertical over horizontal. All of which were present in a Van Gogh sketch we were shown. “I can see all those  techniques in Van Gogh’s picture.” our tutor quipped brightly. (I am not, i discovered, any Van Gogh.)

I struggled for about 10 minutes trying to fill in my landscape with these styles. At the end of it  I looked at it and thought  that all I had done was to take something I had admired and spoilt it. My scribblings added nothing the landscape we had been given. I talked about this experience with somebody recently. “If you truly want to draw something, sit down and look at it until you understand it.” I haven’t used this advice because I’m not sure how much I want to learn to draw. But it rang true in my experience as a counsellor. If I want to understand somebody, I have to spend the time just seeing them. Observing them. Looking at them. It’s an intimate experience. And a scary one. For both me and my patient.

Scary for my patient because I am made into God who sees all and understands all. Scary for me because there is a danger of believing this fantasy. Scary, too, because as much I see my patients-or try to- so I am also seen. Much as I try to become the classic Freudian blank screen, “I” inevitably intrude.

There is a tension in this being seen. For some people it is comforting to have me make an observation about them that has truth in it. To comment that they seem lonely today. Or that I am puzzled about where they are right now.  Others find it intrusive and persecutory. For some counselling becomes a game of Hide and Seek. I am and am not expected of find my patient. If I fail to find them, there is a pyrrhic victory. They have successfully avoided being found. But the rage and fury that follow can be overwhelming. Trying to comment on this process is itself fraught with the same  difficulties.

The other aspect of  being seen is that it is a reminder of our separateness. The lover who gazes into her beloved’s eyes and melts. The baby who looks up at his mother. These are bitter sweet experiences because they simultaneously remind us of our joinedness and our separateness.

My next blog will explore this tension further.

Counselling, Mindfullness, Psychotherapy, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, Ways of Being

I see you

Counselling, Madness, Narratives, Psychoanalysis, Reflective Practice, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

Whose dream?

I was talking with someone recently.We were talking about Christmas. They commented that it was downhill now until Easter. They meant, I think, in term of the Churches’ calendar. I nodded and we carried on our conversation. But something nagged at me about this view. Then I remembered the story of the Massacre of  the Infants by Herod which is recorded only by Matthew. The story is that the Magi call on Herod first asking where they can find the new king. Herod knows nothing of this but asks them to come back to him when they have found him :”that I may come and worship him also.” They are warned in a dream not to return to Herod who when he realises this orders the slaughter of all children under the age of two. We next read that Joseph also has a dream telling him to flee into Egypt to protect his family from Herod. This he duly does and we hear nothing more of them until Joseph is told in yet another a dream not to go back to Judea.Following this dream the family go back to Galilee and we hear no more of them until Jesus is baptised by John the Baptist which marks the official launch of his mission.

It’s an interesting story. Angels, visions, dreams, Magi, refugees and so on.  Many things worry me about it but it is the dreams that most intrigue me. If I were still a “bible believing Christian” I might be happy to accept that God spoke to people in dreams. As a psychodynamic counsellor I understand dreams rather differently to Matthew. I see them as our unconscious nudging us to attend to something important. We give ourselves our dreams. (Always an uncomfortable thought!) Freud wrote “By exposing the hidden dream-thoughts, we have confirmed in general that the dream does continue the motivation and interests of waking life, for dream-thoughts are engaged only with what seems to be important and of great interest to us.” (The Interpretation of Dreams :1900)

If we could allow Joseph to free associate about his dreams, it would be fascinating to see what came out. I imagine most potential parents dream about their new baby. Dreams about its safe delivery and concerns about its future. Thoughts about its impact on the couple and the family.We might wonder about some ambivalence on Joseph’s part. This new baby has caused him more than the usual amount of trouble. A Virgin conception, visits from Royalty, the envy of the Governor, time in exile, mass murder as a consequence of this baby. And all before its first birthday. That’s quite a lot to take on. So perhaps Herod isn’t the only man who feels murderous towards this infant. Joseph’s dream tells us as much about his inner world as the story does about Herod’s. We might wonder if Joseph’s “flight dream” is also about his own wish to run away  to a place where nothing is known about him. He can remain anonymous and live his life quietly.

All this is pure speculation on my part. I have no idea about Joseph’s dream-thoughts. We have no record of them. But the alternative is that God is a mass murderer. Or at least chooses to do nothing about the actions of Herod. We don’t have a record of how many babies were killed by Herod’s soldiers. We don’t know how many families were devastated by the murder of their children. But God appears unbothered by this. His interest is solely in the preservation of His own- making him no different from Herod. Perhaps my next blog will explore what we might understand of God’s unconscious.



Counselling, Narratives, Psychoanalysis, Psychosis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

Whose Story?

Reading the birth narratives of the four gospel writers is fascinating. Each writer gives their own account of the Christ event. Matthew wants to assure us of Jesus’ legitimacy.He traces his lineage all the way back to Abraham, (how much more kosher can a man be?) Mark is all action. Within nine verses  of chapter one, Jesus has arrived .like a sports star making their first appearance for their new team. Luke also puts Jesus into a contact. One of supernatural events all round. Miracles galore. John is all philosophy. Jesus is the divine logos. The Word before all words. These introductions tell us as much about the Four as they do about Jesus. What they also tell us is a lot about their Christ. Their version of salvation etc.

It is hard to find the “real” Jesus here just as much as it might be today .The central character is swamped by a lot of other people’s needs. The need to legitimise him. The need to show his intellectual pedigree. The necessity of showing him as a man of action who gets his sleeves rolled up from the start. So it is in the counselling relationship. My patients bring me their stories neatly edited for  public consumption (which , of course, is also for their private consumption.) A large part of my work is to find the hidden story. No picture has any depth without the interplay of Light and Shade. Spaces and Activity. In the same way that the narratives of the gospels took time to form, so do our narratives. Unlike Athena coming fully formed from Zeus’ head, our narratives take time. And in exactly the same way that our narratives fit a particular version of ourselves, so do the gospel stories. They also tell us a lot about the needs of the writers. Each one crafts a Jesus whom they need to fit  their versions of themselves. So when Uncle Fred  tells his war story for the thousandth time this Christmas, try to see what he is wanting to tell you about himself rather than worry too much about the historical accuracy of the story.(This is , of course, one of the major problems with having a sacred text. How should we read it? How should we understand it?)

The Birth of Jesus represents a turning point. It also  stands as the story of Everyman. Mary is having a baby and babies represent new starts, new hopes, new anxieties. Nothing will be the same again. This infant will call for his parents to grow and change as he does. How they manage this challenge will shape how the baby manages his challenges as he grows up. A similar process takes place in the counsellor’s room. As therapist and patient meet, get to know one another and risk intimacy, so a new life can be born. This life needs nurturing as do the parents.(The question of who cares for the therapist belongs in another piece!) And as with the biblical narratives our work as therapists is to try to understand what lies behind the stories .What am I being told about  my patient when they tell me about  their marriage? Or their work? Or how they feel about seeing me?

I like the picture in this blog. It conveys a sense of hope without diminishing the struggle. It also conveys a sense of hope – without which nothing is ever achieved. T.S.Eliot in his poem Journey of the Magi,  has the Magi asking the question “… were we led all that way for Birth or Death?” It is a question that is often asked in counselling as patients struggle with new understandings of their stories. It is also a question that Christmas in particular raises, with the impossible weight of expectation placed on it-and us. “Is this a Birth or a Death?” The answer may be that it is both.


Counselling, Mindfullness, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

True Names

I read this piece recently and it stayed with me.

“Elodin reached in to his pocket and pulled out a river stone, smooth and dark. ‘Describe the precise shape of this. Tell me of the weight and pressure that forged it from sand and sediment. Tell me how the light reflects from it. Tell me how the world pulls at the mass of it, how the wind cups it as it moves through the air. Tell me how the traces of its iron will feel the calling of a loden-stone. All of these things and a hundred thousand more make up the name of this stone.’ He held it out to us at arm’s length. ‘This single, simple stone.'” (The Wise Man’s Fear  by Patrick Rothfuss)

It seems to me that Rothfuss has captured the essence of good counselling here. At one level there is a patient with a particular difficulty sitting in front of me. That difficulty might be called Anxiety or Depression or Anger. That represents the stone. My job as a counsellor is to get beyond the obvious label and think with my patient about all the influences that have gone to create this problem. A divorce; an alcoholic parent; a psychotic parent; a violent father; an unsatisfactory marriage. The list is endless. As are the ways in which each element has shaped my patient. And the choices they have made as a consequence of these influences. (All of which makes the argument that therapy should be a long-term process. Not time limited  to 10 sessions with a CD as back up.)

This attention to detail is one of the many things that I enjoy as a practitioner. I have the luxury of 50 minutes each week to invite my patient to stop for a minute and consider what they’ve just said. To go back to a mood  or a way of sitting or a feeling in the room.I long ago worked out that I couldn’t save the world. I don’t know what to do about ISIS. I don’t know how to stop global warming continuing. I can’t eradicate poverty. (The list of “I can’ts grows longer each year-or so  it seems to me!) But I can be the best counsellor I know how to be for the person sitting in front of me. I am interested in the weight and pressure that forged them. About how the world pulls at them. At how the light reflects from them. This I can do. True Names

Borderline States, Counselling, Madness, Psychosis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

Humpty Dumpty

humpty-dumptyFor a variety of reasons I’ve been thinking about Humpty Dumpty this week. He makes an interesting case study. What strikes me most is his sense of omnipotence. He knows he is an egg. He must know that eggs and walls do not go well together-no matter how one defines  “egg” and “wall” and “risk”. There is a refusal to accept his vulnerability-which, we assume, is why he is found sitting on top of a wall. Because his fantasy is that he is unbreakable. This belief almost has the power of a psychotic delusion which is usually defensive. I have lost count of the number of patients who believe themselves to be Jesus and to have special powers. (As one begins to unpick this idea it becomes apparent that the underlying belief is just the opposite. That they are of no worth to anyone. So in response to this depressing thought, they evolve the fantasy of being messaianically important.And who is to blame them?)

If we were looking at Humpty Dumpty clinically we might diagnose an underlying depression. Or at the least feelings of low self worth. It is an interesting phenomena that I have seen many women who have ben abused as children repeat that pattern in adulthood. They manage to seek out men who will continue that abuse-albeit not physically. This serves to confirm an unconscious belief in their own worthlessness. Is this part of Humpty’s grandiosity? That he fundamentally lacks any sense of self worth? The famous exchange between him and Alice in “Through the looking Glass” gives a sense of his thinking.

” ‘When I use a word” Humpty Dumpty  said in a rather scornful tone ‘it means just what I choose it to mean- neither more nor less.’ ” How much more grandiose can one get? To believe that the only meaning of a word is what I choose to give it at any moment. Centuries of meaning are thrown away and Humpty rules supreme. (How dreadfully humiliating to have to abide by someone else’s definition of something. Like “egg” and “vulnerable”!)

Given this omnipotence is was only going to be a matter of time before Humpty had a  great fall. There could be no other outcome that allowed him to keep his integrity. He could hardly go back to the hen-coop and regale his fellow eggs with his adventures. Nor was he going to become a successful egg in the human world.Sadly he felt that he belonged nowhere- which opens up the possibly of a differential diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder. The tragedy of his great fall is akin to a successful suicide.  It is a pyrrhic victory. Suicide proves my omnipotence. “None of you could help me. In the end the only person I could count on was me.”

As a final thought here is Geisha performing her interpretation of Humpty Dumpty. Enjoy, as they say!

Borderline States, Counselling, Madness, Psychoanalysis, Psychosis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Religion, The Inner World, The unconscious


Every day brings news of a new violation. Yahoo answers tell me that , worldwide, one person is murdered every minute. (And we talk of animals being dangerous killers!) Today I was thinking particularly of the Paris killings and of the death of Becky Watts. I wonder if one common link between these two murders is Envy. We know that Nathan Matthews has spoken of his envy of Becky. It also seems probable that, at least in part, envy plays a role in the latest Paris killing (linked once more to Syria.) In each case there seems to be an undying belief that someone else is getting what is “rightfully” mine. Be that political recognition, wealth and prestige or simply more love. The etymology of envy is, simply, “feeling ill will at another’s fortune”. Melanie Klein, an early and highly influential psychoanalyst who came after Freud,  suggests that an envious attack is  launched on something good (see my piece last week about internal objects.). The attack is made simply because the object is good. That becomes a source of envy. This is compounded by a feeling of being left out. That everyone else gets / has all the good things except me. (A familiar feeling in families, friendships, marriages, organisation and nations to name a few.) Most of the time, most of us can manage our envy. Either by reminding ourselves of  the good things we have-both within and without. Or by doing something about the root of our envy. Many a thing has been accomplished by a person thinking “Well, he or she can do that. Sod it, so can I! (If envy leads on to reparation, then it can be a healthy spur .When it is allied to the death instinct, it can morph into murderous rage and hatred. Just watch a set of children playing. Or a couple of dogs with a bone.)

In clinical work, envy can be a spoiler. The patient becomes so envious of the therapist that they find any contribution intolerable. Rather being able to take in something nourishing, they are so incensed that their envy leads them to try to destroy the therapist and any good thing they might say or do. This might be one way of thinking about ISIS and similar groups. Their envy leads them to destroy the envied object rather trying to take some nourishment from it. One of the many tragic aspects of the killing of Becky Watts is that her step brother’s envy was not understood early enough. (Which is not to blame anyone or anything.) If he had been able to talk about his murderous envy in a safe place, it is just possible that this enormous tragedy might have been avoided.

Much the same might be said of ISIS and their kin. If we had understood their envy of us, we might have been able to prevent many deaths. And those yet to come. (Perhaps it’s time for the Prime minister to appoint a resident psychoanalyst to his team. Or a sub team of therapists working as  a parallel group to the cabinet, using their understanding of parallel processes to inform the work of the politicians.)

Borderline States, Counselling, Madness, Psychoanalysis, Psychosis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Religion, Schizophrenia, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

Depression 1

This week I want to finish off the trilogy of Anxiety, Anger and Depression. (They are all part of the same family tree of emotions coming of the central trunk of fear of being annihilated.) Firstly, however, it will be helpful to define some terms.  The image on the left is of a mother breast feeding her baby. In psychoanalytic language the breast is known as an object and forms a central tenet in analytic thinking and writing. This gives rise to what is known as objects relations theory. The idea being that the mother’s breast stands for the whole process of nurturing, being fed, being cared about. The baby’s experience of the breast will include the smell of its mother, an awareness of her feelings, a sense of being the centre of the universe- albeit briefly! All these feelings are encapsulated in the word “object”. The theory goes on to suggest that this external breast- object- morphs into an inner representation. Thus the experience of being nurtured in real life is taken in by the infant as an inner experience. So the infant of an anxious mother will acquire a sense that the world is not a safe place. That he or she is also unsafe- that at any moment a disaster will occur which will overwhelm them. A child of a depressed mother may well acquire a sense of low self worth due, in part, to a mother who was too preoccupied with her own concerns to care about her baby.As the baby grows up it will find that it makes choices that seem to confirm their view of themselves.This can be expressed in all manner of ways .At the extreme end is suicidal depression running through to  paranoia and Manic depression. These are linked to the inner world and the individual’s relationships with its internalised objects.

Some examples:

Mike who finds it very difficult to hear anyone who does not agree with his view of things. (The fear being that everyone is intent on stopping him pursuing his dream career.)

Jane who cannot allow herself to be angry for fear that everyone will reject her if she shows he true feelings about something or someone.

Marie who is a compulsive carer who has to rescue anything or anyone in distress. Less from compassion and more from a complex mix of fear of her own anger and a terror of being unloveable.

In all these cases their actions and activity comes out of a difficult inner world. Their relationship with their inner objects is conflicted.  This makes the activity of living a  difficult one.

In part 2 of this blog I will focus on depression and one way of thinking about it.

brewast feeding mother