Aylesbury, Borderline States, Counselling, Dreams, Hope, Narratives, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being


In our creative writing class last week we were asked to write a short piece about Time. for some reason the formula above cam e in to my mind. Im not sure whty. I don’t usually remember formulae. But it prompted me to do some thinking. Then i n the coffee shop recently i heard two people talking. One was talking to his friend about going on holiday.

“If it’s just the three of us, then we get along fine. We all slot into our roles and it works very well. Then my son comes along and everything changes .I’m not sure why. I guess we’ll just have to try and make it work.”

This reminded me of the Speed / Distance /Time  formula. Which them lead me on to musing about our psychic equations. The relationship between the different parts  of ourselves. The Ego / Id / Super Ego  combination of Freud’s work.  Or Melanie Klein’s two positions. Or Jung’s ideas about our shadow side. (All this whilst drinking my latte.) It was almost cold by the time I’d finished my reverie!) That we are  not single entities. We know this to be true in our bodies. They are designed to work as a system, not as separate little kingdoms. The speed / distance /time formula is also bot relationships within a system.

And the problem with systems is that they challenge our omnipotence.  Whilst my eyes know, logically, that they have to rely on my ears to help them, a part of them would love to declare UDI from the rest of the body. (Fortunately this doesn’t often happen!) So in the inner world. My love cannot function without an awareness of my hate. And vice versa.  My patients have to face this tension. My ability to help them comes at a cost to their omnipotence. By seeing me thee is an acknowledgement that they need help.

So, with all this as context, here is the piece that I wrote for my class.

Time is furious. She thinks that she reigns supreme. Controlling all galaxies, empires and lives. She measures our mortal span. Three score years and ten. She defines our galaxies .Defines the star Sirius, for example as being 8.6 light years from Earth. bt she cannot rule alone. If she is to be useful, she has to be  in relationship. In this formula she is defined by Distance and Speed. Much as she resents this fact, it is True. To be useful she must share with Distance and Speed. And they with her – which gives her some satisfaction. Distance needs her along with Time. Speed the same. In a perfect world, Time would be supreme. But this is not  the case. So like a haughty dowager,  treating Distance and Speed as her servants. Ignoring the fact that she is dependent on them. Thus keeping intact her fantasy of self-sufficiency. The doxology comes to mind. “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” Time is always relative.

In my preparation for this blog I found this quotation. I think it sums things up very well. (I\m only glad i found it  at the end of my work, not at the beginning otherwise I might have felt I had nothing new to say!)

“There is no Jesus without Judas; no Martin Luther king, Jr, without the Klan; no Ali without Joe Frazier; no freedom without tyranny. No wisdom exists that does not include perspective. Relativity is the greatest gift.”  (Chris Crutcher, King of the Mild Frontier.)

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

The road less travelled

Robert Frost’s lines are so well-known that it seems unfair to use them yet again. But they do sum up what I want to write about better than any other lines. So once again these lines will be used to talk about journeying. I was talking with one of my patients and we were going along familiar and comfortable ground, which is not to underrate its importance. One of the core ideas in therapy is that of working through. That process whereby we visit and revisit a theme or topic until there is a sense of resolution and understanding. But occasionally it becomes too easy to follow the familiar twists of known material and to miss something important. If I’m alert to my patient and listening properly to them I become aware of hints about other aspects  of familiar material. My task then is to bring them to my patient’s attention and to invite them to explore this new place.

When my wife and I are on holiday in a new city, we often allow ourselves to get lost. We’ll see a side street and choose to go down it. Just to see where it goes. It’s fun with somebody else. I don’t enjoy doing it by myself. I panic about getting lost forever, although Google maps are surprisingly empowering! It is on these streets that one gets to see the hidden life of a city, the elements that are not on public display but are more private and intimate reflecting a real life rather than a sanitised one. Marrakech was particularly keen that tourists only go along prescribed routes sending us via the souks rather than a different set of streets. Other cities have been more welcoming.

The process of psychotherapy and counselling goes along a similar pattern. I want to take my therapist along known, familiar routes that are prepared for their arrival. I set out my market stalls of attractive goods, all carefully displayed. I do not invite them to look underneath my stall and see the rotting fruit, the rats, and other detritus lurking there. Yet the under stall is as important as the public display. Here is the stuff that is real and messy and has to be managed in some way. It is definitely not for public display! Nor do I expect that it should be. But therapy is different. It is about those less travelled roads. About the stuff under the stall.

A patient asked me about the meaning of a particular psychoanalytic term. Or rather, they couldn’t allow themselves to ask. They gave their understanding of the term and promptly dismissed what they said. “Oh! you probably know all about that, don’t you. You’re the counsellor. I don’t know stuff like that. I’ve probably got it all wrong, as usual.” I was quiet for a little while then commented on the way they had asked – or not asked – the question. This took us into a rich conversation about their envy of me; their reluctance to have to allow themselves to not know something; their difficulty in allowing me to share something with them. These were themes that ran through their life and had shaped much of what they had done. The conversation was rich and enjoyable as we began to reflect on that moment. It would have been easy to give a “correct” answer to the question.  This would have missed so much. I had to risk taking us down a road less travelled. Hopefully we’ll continue to explore this road in future sessions.

The road more travelled is, usually, seen as much safer. Mostly it is better signposted and there is more traffic. The less travelled roads can feel more lonely. Less well signposted. This is why we invite our patients to walk with us. We do not simply give them a map and compass and tell them to meet us at the next trig point. We walk the road with them – and they with us. It is always a shared journey. It requires as much courage from the therapist as from the patient – something our patients don’t always see! Nor, of course, are they necessarily aware of how many of our own roads we have explored. Nor of what we have discovered going along them. (Perhaps it should be a rule when choosing a therapist. Don’t trust them if they haven’t got blistered feet!)

And, to close, a lovely interpretation of Frost’s poem.





Counselling, Dreams, Hope, Madness, Narratives, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

Beauty and the Beast

 For Kevin who very helpfully suggested that I write this particular blog. I hope it meets with your approval!


I recently went and watched the current version of Beauty and the Beast, directed by Bill Condon. I loved it. I’m always willing to be seduced by a romance. This film ticked all the boxes as far as I was concerned. Love, passion, pain, denial, deceit, justice and a few more issues en route. what was not to like? I hesitated for about two weeks before allowing myself to go and see it. I didn’t have an accompanying child and was genuinely concerned about how  I might be seen going to this film as a man by myself. In the end I gathered up my courage  and went to see it-half expecting to be asked to produce my CRB certificate. I wasn’t!

The story lends itself to various interpretations .One is see it as a narrative about Stockholm syndrome Another reads it as a  feminist story. Another as a psychoanalytic account. Or even as “just” a fairy tale!   All of which can be laid onto the story. As Bruno Bettelheim wrote “… fairy tales carry important messages to the conscious, the preconscious and the unconscious  mind, on whatever level each is functioning.”  (The Uses of Enchantment 1975)  . For this blog, I want to write  about it from a psychoanalytic perspective. I want to take a Kleinian view and think about the ways in which both Beauty and the Beast have to come to terms with parts of themselves they have previously denied. And the consequences for both themselves and others if they fail to achieve this understanding.

I think one of the many things that is going on in this story is that both Beauty and the Beast have to recognise themselves in the other.

Initially they both deny the Other in themselves. Beauty hates the Beast for holding her captive.  But we all know that hatred brings with it  a host of other feelings. Rage, anger, fury, and a wish for vengeance, the capacity for similar cruelty. (ISIS amongst others is demonstrating this so clearly. The victim is capable of as much cruelty as the perpetrator.) In the early part of the story, Beauty can protect herself from her beastliness by projecting it into the Beast, who is a willing recipient of these feelings-for reasons of his own.  For the Beast the challenge is to risk accessing  his own vulnerability and allow himself to become loving and caring. To see in himself the parts of himself owned by Beauty. In so doing he has to risk rejection. There is no guarantee that Beauty will love him or see anything in him beyond  his beast self. Both have a vested interest in not changing. Barrack Obama caught this idea in his comment “Change  will not come if we for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Unfortunately it is not only Beauty and the Beast who are trapped in the castle. Others are also involved and trapped by the spell that binds the Beast. They can only find freedom if the Beast learns to love. The metaphor is not difficult to see! But it remains true in the inner world. Until we learn to love and be loved, many aspects  of our personality are frozen. Ironically the converse is true. If we never learn about our hatred what meaning is there to our love? (This is where I struggle somewhat with the gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion etc. We are  never shown his anger about what is happening to him. He is presented only as a suffering servant whose task is to fulfil someone else’s mission at considerable cost to himself. Most carers admit to knowing the shadow side of their caring self. Jesus is portrayed as having no shadow, certainly by the gospel accounts of is life.)

For both Beauty and the Beat, their responses will affect the future of others. (Whenever someone comes to me for counselling with a history of violence I invariably assume a family history of violence.  It is much the same  with anxiety. The anxious woman sitting in my room nearly always  comes from a line of worried women. Generations pass on their damage to the next one.)

In the end, both Beauty and the Beast take a risk. The result is health and wholeness for all parties. But it was a long journey! 



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

Emotional etymology

I realise how often I will look up a word’s etymology when writing a blog. It seems a way in which I can ground my thoughts and my writing. A literary “ground of my Being”. It gives me a sense of starting from somewhere honest, which is the original sense of the word “etymology”. It has to do with true meanings. But words don’t remain static. Thankfully. They “slip, slide, won’t stay still” to quote Eliot. ( A friend wrote a brave and fascinating piece on the word “cunt” I’m not sure I would have been as brave!) My thoughts then wondered off to my clinical work and the idea of clinical etymology i.e. what are the origins of this symptom, idea, fantasy etc.  (Freud’s essay on The Rat Man is a classic example of the beginning of a symptom and the ways in which these symptoms changed over time. It is also an exploration of the creative uses to which we put our symptoms. It is also quite opaque at times with Freud making extraordinary jumps of understanding and interpretation. But why should this be a surprise? If language is full of hidden histories, how much more so our unconscious lives?)

To take this idea a little further, we can follow Lacan in suggesting that the unconscious  is  structured as a language. Which might give us access to wondering about what part of speech any given symptom m might equate to. Thus a symptom may serve several functions. It might work as a noun, having a naming function which also serves as a limiter i.e. it is this thing, not that thing. It is depression, not anger. A symptom may also  be a verb. a doing word i.e. I”do” psychosis. It is an active process that needs a subject and an object to fully make sense. (Which is why whenever we take a clinical history, we try to put a symptom into a context. When did this symptom first begin? How do you use it? There is really no such thing as an isolated symptom .Somewhere in the unconscious we will find the rest of its family.

And like any good piece of writing, I’m now struggling to find a satisfying way of ending my blog. I think M.Scott Peck sums it up beautifully when he writes, in The Road Less Travelled “The fact of the matter is that our unconscious is wiser than we are about everything.”

Counselling, Dreams, Hope, Mindfullness, Narratives, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Reflective Practice, Religion, Spirituality, The Inner World, Ways of Being

Whomper asks the best questions


” ‘They’re all so unlike me’ he thought, ‘They have feelings and they see colours and hear sounds and whirl around, but what they feel and see and hear, and why they whirl around doesn’t concern them in the least’.” (Whomper)

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” (Thomas Pynchon)

As a counsellor I find myself interested by Pynchon’s observation, because there really are no wrong questions in therapy. Certainly not from the point of view of the patient-  or of the therapist listening to the patient. Within the confines of the 50 minute session, all questions are interesting and important because they are all a form of communication which can lead into other issues. So the simple question about holiday dates has one reply. “I’m away throughout August.” The question could rest there. But the work lies in hearing the unasked thought. Perhaps  “I envy you. A whole month off. Lucky you.”  Or  “But you can’t leave me for a whole month. I need you.”  This can then take us to a conversation about envy, anger, hatred jealousy, abandonment and so on. (As well as a genuine wish that the therapist has an enjoyable holiday!)

Whomper and the other Moomintrolls find themselves affected by a nearby volcano exploding and disrupting their normal lives. (Volcanos are good at that!) The rest of the family seem quite sanguine about events. Not so Whomper who wants to ask all sorts of difficult questions about things and cannot understand why nobody else is as bothered as he is by these events. It is interesting that Jansson gives him the task of worrying because his name, Whomper, carries a sense of  someone who rushes about carelessly, just muddling through. Yet he ask the most interesting questions “What”and”Why”.  when I was lecturing it was common for a shy or diffident student to ask the most interesting question. “But… why do we do this?” Sometimes they almost apologised for asking a “Silly” question. Whomper seems to be doing this. “Why do people do this? What do they feel about things?”

I spent a few years in a very fundamentalist Christian group. I was one of those who always asked the “wrong” questions. I remember saying something one day and being looked at with blank bewilderment. If had spoken in Hebrew or Swahili, I could not have been more marginalised. It wasn’t that I had asked a “wrong” question, it was that I had asked a non-question. The thought processes that lead me to ask my question were inconceivable to the mind of the person to whom I was speaking. (I fairly quickly chose what questions I asked where and when. And  of whom!) For Whomper seems to be encountering something like this. (Perhaps that’s why he’s always in a hurry. So many questions to ask and so many possible answers .And so little time taken to hear the unasked question.)unknown


So unlike Pynchon, I’m not sure there are wrong questions. But that’s the luxury of being a therapist. One is always trying to understand the meaning of the question. To try and understand why “they” have feelings and see colours and hear sounds.


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

Moominland and the Ineffable

“The principle of linguistic relativity holds that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ world view or cognition.”

As a therapist, I am always working at the edges of language. I have come to see this as characterised by one  of the Moomintroll characters, the Ancestor.  He is rarely seen but adds his own distinct contribution to life in Moominland. He is usually seen out of the corner of the eye as he scuttles about the place, doing and Being on his own terms.  He is beyond language. He is experienced as a presence. A Something… Trying to define him is almost impossible but therein lies the conundrum. How does one name the unnameable? This, I think, is what we mean when we talk about the Numinous. The Wholly Other. The Ineffable. The philosopher Heschel wrote of the ineffable that “The search for reason ends at the known; on the immense expanse beyond it only the ineffable can glide. It alone knows the route to that which is remote from experience and understanding.”f6270db845fb789354a75144ddcb781a

As a counsellor I seem to spend much of my time on Heschel’s vast expanse. I am constantly trying to shape and understand my patients’ material. I usually say that  I listen for the “unsaid said”. This is  experienced at a visceral level beyond language. I will have a sense of something being communicated beyond the words used. The struggle then is to find words for their experience.  It is an inexact science! As a mother learns to hear and interpret her baby’s sounds, so a therapist engages in something similar. And as a mother teaches a child to be able to put words to its feelings, so do we as therapists. Eventually the baby learns to understand that this particular feeling means it is angry. Or anxious. Or hungry. Thus it learns to understand something of what is going on inside itself. And, thereby, to take an appropriate action. To get some food. Or to have a sleep. Or to avoid the source of its anxiety.

The problem is with words which as T.S.Eliot observed “Slip. Slide. Will not stand still”.  So it is with feelings and the reality they express. Naming them can be tricky. I often use a host of different words to try and cref6270db845fb789354a75144ddcb781aate a description of what I think my patent is expressing (rather like an Impressionist painting). At the end of a session my hope is that I have pointed out the ancestor’s existence. How he and my patient get on is another part of the work. Possibly the topic of another blog.

Counselling, Dreams, Hope, Madness, Narratives, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

3D Chess

I tweeted recently that counselling often feels like playing chess. With multiple boards in multiple dimensions. With multiple players. As a counsellor I spend a lot of time with my patients trying to work out which piece belongs to which game. (In which dimension!) Chaos theory tells us that a butterfly stamping its foot in Brazil can cause an earthquake in Cumbria.

Chess is often used as a metaphor for politics. If I make this move now, what will be the long term consequences for my game? If I sacrifice my Knight here, will that eventually allow me a strategic victory in 50 moves time. We call this board sight. A good player reaches a level where they can read a board intuitively. Or at least a certain number of moves ahead.  It’s a skill we all develop in our career, if we stay long enough. A good teacher develops a sense of what might help a child. A good manager learns to read their team. A nurse develops a sixth sense about their patient.

What is seen so often in my counselling room is a patient who has no broad sight. They move a piece almost randomly,  with little understanding of how this will affect the rest of their game. A Bishop is given up here, a Knight there.  This pattern gets repeated game after game. And they are unable to work out why this is happening.chess-board

A chess game is just a chess game. We can always decide to take up Scrabble or Table Tennis. It doesn’t matter much. Real life is more serious. When I assess a new patient their stories have a sadly familiar ring to them. The woman who has anxiety problems. Her mother was the same. As was her Grandmother. The man who is violent and has problems controlling his anger. His father was angry and violent. As was his Grandfather. People often come to me when they see the  pattern repeating in their children. It is not uncommon for a husband or wife to be the driving force in someone seeking counselling. Their behaviour in the family is causing problems and difficulties.

Any single chess game can be complicated enough. As well as challenging, demanding and enjoyable if one knows what is happening. Or at least knows how to think about thinking about.  When it is real life and the individual has no idea about the game they are involved in, this terror is compounded when it seems that another game somewhere else is affecting the current one. My grandfather’s game from eighty years ago can still affect the moves I make now,  particularly if he is still playing it out through and in me.  Messages about how women should behave, what a man should or should not be able to do, these are alive today, impacting on my life today. Suddenly I find myself moving my pawn to that square for no apparent reason. Regardless of the risk to that piece.
chess-boardIn my counselling  I work with people who have some awareness of their lack of board sight. What frightens me are the politicians who wish to use their power to play out a game they don’t know. We don’t know the impact of Brexit. I don’t know the  impact of the recent USA elections.  The increased popularity of the far Right feels like a chess game played with real people. Real people are and will be hurt.

I wonder if Theresa May and Donald Trump want an In-House therapist?