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

Ego states

I went to the V&A museum the other day. Specifically I went to see the two Rodin sculptures that are here -the Prodigal son and John the Baptist . I know them of old and never cease to be moved by them. The third one I came across by chance. She is called the Frog Princess by Gilbert Bayes and is up in an alcove above the visitor’s heads. I was disappointed by the presentation of the Rodin bronzes. Previously they had their own room which made their impact all the greater. Seeing them amongst a host of other statues took away some of their power. The consolation was finding the Frog Princess who seems to me to epitomise exuberance and joy- in contrast to the Rodin work which seems more serious. Taken together this trio seem to comment on what is often called the human condition. We know of the gravitas that the Baptist represents. One cannot imagine him dancing with the Frog Princess nor being as vulnerable as the Prodigal. John the Baptist stands for strength and certainty. He will remain standing no matter what storms rage around him.

i went to see Rodin. I came away having discovered Bayes’ princess-despite her being less obvious than Rodin. I see this in my therapy room.My patients come in with gravitas, vulnerability, anxiety and so on. The danger is that they forget to look for joy in the more hidden places.  (It is an inherent danger of psychoanalytic work that we over emphasise the not-working parts and miss the hidden places of fun, dancing, pleasure and the like. There can be something punitive in psychoanalysis. Or perhaps it suits a certain personality type. I suspect Rodin’s pieces would be drawn to these elements. I can’t quite see the Princess going this way.)

And that is my point here. As therapists we can too easily get caught up in the “serious stuff” of our patients lives. Which is as it should be. But we do ourselves a disservice if we never take time to find the hidden delights such as the Frog Princess.IMG_0453Version 2IMG_0450

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


PerhapsI am currently learning how to do wood carving. I find myself struggling. I have no “natural” feel for tools, having never been taught how to use them. My memories of tools is always of being cautioned not to damage them. A useful lesson but on its own it only served to sap my confidence around tools. Added to this is a high fear of getting it wrong. My tutor says, nonchalantly, “Don’t worry. It’s only a bit of wood.” He may well hold that view but for me my whole world rests on that bit of wood. All my critical voices come out, accusing me of incompetence, stupidity, clumsiness and a host of other criticisms. I have to work very hard to hear anything that reminds me that I am a novice. (I have been doing this for a total of four weeks. But my super ego is relentless.)

I see the same conflict in many of my patients. They have grown up feeling a failure-a message conveyed intentionally or otherwise by their parents. A not uncommon story from my patients  is “I was a sort of afterthought for my parents. Or an accident. I grew up as if I was an only child whose job it was to look after his parents. I never really played with them. And my siblings were already a lot older than me.” A severe depressive episode as an adult was one consequence for this patient. Another was a desperate need to be liked by everyone. Conflict had to be avoided at all costs.

Other patients have had parents who were actively abusive – verbally and physically. What followed was a depth of rage and anger that again lead to depression. Many marriages have foundered on this history in one partner or the other. Sitting in the relative comfort of my therapist’s chair, it is easy to see the fault lines that lead from present difficulties back to childhood. Less easy is the healing of these lines. All too often the act of naming them re-creates the original trauma – or at least triggers a reaction akin to the original one.

A friend suggested a book to me “The Insistence of God. A theology of Perhaps” by John D.Caputo. He writes about the word “perhaps”

“‘Perhaps is the abdication of faith, decision, ethics, judgement and knowledge, of philosophy and theology, a retreat to the safety of the indecisive and uncommitted.”

As a therapist I take up a “perhaps” stance. I constantly hear myself saying “I wonder if …” Or “You seem to be saying …” Or something similar. Always tentative. Gently probing. Or trying to be gentle! (One of the aspects of psychiatry that I disliked was the emphasis on diagnosis. “This person has schizophrenia. This one is Bi-Polar. Here we have a schizo-affective disorder”. There was a fantasy of  certainty. These symptoms equal that illness for which these are the correct drugs. All too often there was no room for “perhapsness” I think Caputo is describing what is also called Play of which the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott writes

“Psychotherapy takes place in the overlap of two areas of playing, that of the patient and that of the therapist. Psychotherapy has to do with two people playing together.”

I think we play a game of “perhaps”.

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


I’ve been thinking about bridges recently. How many there are and how different they are .Some look “rustic” and wobbly. Others look as though they could last a thousand years. But they all serve the same purpose. To overcome an obstacle of some kind. To allow us to continue our journey. They cross a variety of obstacles. A river or stream. A chasm. A road. Some are free. Some charge. Some are designed for cars etc whilst others are strictly only for people. Mostly they serve as the only way across an obstacle. Some are major feats of Engineering whilst others are no more than a couple of planks thrown across a stream. They also allow us to go out and come back again.

I like the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff with its Troll living under the bridge. That troll seems to represent an important aspect of bridges. That they are potentially dangerous. (Not mechanically. A well made bridge will stand for a very long time. Any Engineer whose bridge is not fit for purpose soon learns the error of their sums!) To cross a bridge is to go from one realm to another. Sometimes simply from one side of a stream to the opposite bank-a journey of a few yards whilst the Jiahozhu Bay bridge in China runs to 26.4 miles.One makes a crossing to another place-be that a short step or a marathon distance. It represents a step into our future. We come back-if we choose-changed. But we have a choice of sorts. We can try to find another crossing. We can go back the way we’ve come. Or we can cross and risk our troll Bridge 2wanting to devour us as we cross. (The troll also raises the interesting question of what happens below the bridge. Who owns the space under the crossing? And what relationship is there between the life going across the bridge and life underneath the bridge?)

Mehmet Murat ildan observed “The fate of bridges is to be lonely; because bridges are to cross not to stay.” That is the risk we take on crossing a bridge. They are not meant to be our home .(Even the troll lived under the bridge.) In the work of therapy bridges come up a good deal. A person enters therapy from one side of the bank. They will spend a long time exploring that bank. Describing its history. Its wildlife. Its pleasures and dangers. But at some point there will arise the question of a bridge-if they are to move on. “Can I come back if I want to?” is a familiar question in therapy-no matter how it is phrased. It is the question we ask in every transition. “What if I don’t like it there?” Which is where bridges come into their own. They provide a return route if we want it. Children bring their own “bridge” with them when they have a comforter. It provides a link between what is known and what is new.

The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote a paper on “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena”. In it he writes “… there is a third part of the life of a human being…it shall exist as a resting- place for the individual engaged in the perpetual human  task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet inter-related.” I think that describes a bridge.Bridge 1



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

The formless void

Recently I’ve found myself thinking about words, language, speech etc. I like words. I like the feel of them. As  a nurse, counsellor and lecturer, words have been my stock in trade. Certainly as a counsellor I use words to try and shape what it is my patients bring to the session. I will often use words to try and interpret the feelings in a session. “I think you’re trying to say ….” Or “I wonder if what you’re grappling with is …”  If done well, an interpretation can give  a name to something that was only previously experienced as a feeling. An emotion. Something “without form and void.” waiting for a word (Logos?) to give shape and meaning. This is not always a pleasant process. To discover something that one has kept hidden can be discomforting. The only justification for naming something is that this moves it from the unconscious and unknown to the conscious and known. (This was Freud’s view of psychoanalysis .To make conscious the unconscious.) If something is consciously known, it can be thought about and, hopefully, understood.

We reach places, sometimes, where words aren’t enough. Our bodies tell us their thoughts .We are sad and need a hug. We are tired and need rest. I have spent my professional career |believing” in words and their power. s a therapist I work with my feelings but give them back to my patients in words. I have spent many long years in personal therapy. Again all to do with words.

Various friends are involved in the “alternative” therapy scene Reiki, Alexander technique, Sacro-Cranial work etc. I’ve always quietly humoured these friends and “allowed” them their quirky views about body and spirit-particularly body. So it is with some amusement I find myself seeking out a body therapist. So far I’m pleased and surprised at how much information he gleans from my body about my soul. (I wasn’t really aware of those links. I still think it’s more to do with magic than “real” therapy!)

I began by talking about the value of words. i still hold to that view. But I’m learning that my body also wants to have its say and play its part in shaping the  sometimes formless void of my experience.


.formless void

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


The image is of the Narcissus, who, legend tells us, fell in love with his own reflection. What has this to do with this blog? I set up this blog to write psychoanalytically about things that interested me. Over time I have covered quite a range from Jimmy Saville to ISIS. Then in February this year I needed major heart surgery and my gaze shifted inwards. I wrote a few pieces about my struggle to make any sense of my illness but have not written much since. I enjoy writing and am left with left with a problem. Since my focus is still predominantly inwards, do I cease  writing? Or can I say something about the experience of illness and recovery from a psychoanalytic perspective-without becoming narcissistic? I don’t have an answer yet but I’m going to write about me and see where that takes me.

One of the problems with an illness that comes out of nowhere is that there is no preparation time. One minute one is living one’s life quite happily. Suddenly one learns that all is not as it seems. That minor ache turns out to be a symptom of something very serious that has the potential to kill you. Suddenly the clock has struck thirteen and all that went before is questioned. not to mention all that might happen tomorrow. If thirteen can be struck once, then all the rules change. To use my favourite mis-quote from Gatsby “The rock of the world rests firmly on a butterfly’s wing.”

This, of course, is not unique to illness.On a personal level Rape, assault, burglary all challenge our sense of an inviolate self. On a national level, war must do much the same. Our boundaries are nowhere near as reliable as we had thought. The challenge is to find a way to live with the consequences of this boundary violation without losing all sense of self. (I remember when I left hospital commenting that I felt as though I had spent 10 days behind enemy lines, living undercover. By which I think that I meant I had to work very hard to keep my identity secure in a place where there were very few familiar landmarks.)

Freud suggested the idea of Signal anxiety and Primary anxiety. .The function the former being “… an alerting mechanism which forewarns the ego of an impending threat to its equilibrium. Primary anxiety being the emotion which accompanies the dissolution of the ego.” The writer goes on to observe that Primary anxiety may be seen as an inwardly directed form of vigilance. (A Critical dictionary of Psychoanalysis 1968)

Which seems to take us back to mine-and others- experience of anxiety being helpful at some level. Albeit wearing and exhausting at times…


Counselling, Reflective Practice, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being


We recently lost one of our dogs. We were walking them in local woods when Hamish caught a scent of something irresistible and off he went. After an hour of calling him we reluctantly came home. A second trip was no more successful and we again came home, since night was coming. The house felt very empty, despite our other dog. In the morning we were told that Hamish had been found and was safely ensconced with a local dog warden. We couldn’t understand why we hadn’t been contacted directly since he had a name tag and contact number. Unfortunately this had come off and we hadn’t realised it. (He now has a new one, securely attached.) He came home none the worse for his night out.

His absence was palpable, even though we have two dogs. He brings an energy to the place-even when he’s asleep.The playwright Tom Stoppard has the line “Death is the absence of presence” in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. That was how we felt that night. There had been a death and there was now an absence . Happily it was short-lived absence. I began to think about  how this absence due to something lost is often played out in clinical work. Many of my patients come with lost objects. Sometimes living. Sometimes dead. But absent for whatever reason. And this absence always feels like a death. Part of my work as a counsellor is to help my patents find those objects that they have lost. “Lost” here having many meanings. Lost as in misplaced. Lost as in deliberately hidden. Lost as in denied. The effect is the same. Death and the absence of presence. This is not easy work for either of us .It is often painful -although one hopes it is ultimately healing. The discovery of something previously lost is not always a joyful reunion and as a therapist one is not always loved for pointing out the absence. We do the work out of a belief that if something is present, it can be thought about and known. (This may lead to a good death and a proper burial. Or to an incorporating this new object into oneself.)

When I was first thinking of this blog, I intended to end it on that last paragraph. That would have made a neat ending and another “successful” blog. But a friend challenged me recently about  my own lost objects- or those objects that I have temporarily disowned. As therapists we spend a lot of time helping our patients find their own lost objects. This can be a way of denying our own vulnerability. We sit quietly in our therapist chair and comment on what we think is happening. We claim therapeutic immunity from being asked about our lives. Our task, we say primly, is to help you, the patient .We understand your interest but will not satisfy it for you. (Or a variation on that theme.) There  is truth and value in this reply. We are there to help our patients who won’t be helped by hearing about my divorce or my car crash etc. The danger comes when we try to apply therapeutic immunity to ourselves.

As therapists we are as vulnerable as our patients. We know about hurt, loss, grief, rage etc. As well as about joy, pleasure, delight, longing etc. The danger for us is to deny these feelings- particularly those that challenge us and threaten to overwhelm us. Here is where we need friends, partners and the like to remind us of our lost objects and to help us bring them back into consciousness. Mercifully, we are not omnipotent. Much as though it is a fantasy in which we sometimes indulge!sussex-spaniel-1

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

Therapy as prayer

The analyst Mike Eigen wonders if psychotherapy might be seen as a form of prayer. On first reading I was sceptical. Prayer seems to involve a lot of wishes and hopes and a certain amount of intellectual sleight of hand. Or the prayer tradition in which I grew up was like this. Prayer was a divine slot machine. One put one’s money in the machine and back came an answer. It may not have been the answer one wanted, but the get out clause read “The answer may sometimes be ‘No'” Thus most options were covered. How, I wondered, could psychotherapy be a form of prayer? (My patients might have their own answers to that question!) Then I remembered that there are other prayer traditions that pre-date the Evangelical slot machine version. The Orthodox church has long had a tradition of contemplative prayer which may be seen as clearing one’s mind of external concerns so that one can better hear God. A kind of centring down into one’s emotional, psychic depths. that then make thought and understanding possible.

It is at this junction that one can see links between therapy and prayer, particularly given that one root of the word “therapy” has ideas of healing and curing. (Psychotherapy being known as the talking cure.) Prayer makes room for the Other, which philosophically is defined as “the counterpart who defines the self” (Wikipedia) Defining one’s self is a central part of the work of therapy. I could put all my patents under one broad heading. Their headlines might be depression, anger, marital  problems. But at root they all ask “Who am I?” My task as a therapist is to be the Other whom they can use in whatever way they wish. The classic Freudian analyst presents a blank screen onto which the patient can project whatever material they choose. Thus one becomes a lover, a hero, a bastard, a thug, a father, a mother. The list goes on. What links these projections is that they are Other than the patient and can be explored in the transference relationship.

Prayer seems to serve a similar purpose. God can become Judge, Jury, Benevolent father, tyrannical manager. And a lifetime more than these. With skill and practice one can begin to understand why God might be seen as this or that. As Tyrant or Lover. (And this might be where classical theology and classical psychoanalysis meet. In both cases the Object- God or the analyst- does not change. Their task is to hold and contain, thus allowing healing to take place.)

This quote sums up both prayer and therapy for me.

“Before you can live a part of you has to die. You have to let go of what could have been, how you should have acted and what you wish you would have said differently. You have to accept that you can’t change the past experiences, opinions of others at that moment in time or outcomes from their choices or yours. When you finally recognize that truth then you will understand the true meaning of forgiveness of yourself and others. From this point you will finally be free.”
― Shannon L. Aldertherapy as prayer