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.”

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

Whomper asks the best questions

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” ‘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.

 

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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.

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Hope, Madness, Narratives, Psychoanalysis, Psychosis, Religion, Schizophrenia, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

The enemy within?

Like so many others I’ve watched with concern Donald Trump’s attempt to ban certain groups from entering America. His argument is that they are  a threat to national security. I suspect that America is quite capable of producing home-grown terrorists without importing them. Psychologically his attitude is fascinating – albeit dangerous.

 

In psychoanalysis there is the idea of two states of mind in which we live. Technically called the paranoid-schizoid position and the depressive position. In the paranoid-schizoid position the infant has two mummies. The good mummy who comes when called, feeds me when I’m hungry, changes me when I’m wet and so on. I love this mummy.  Then there is the bad mummy. She leaves me too long, does not instantly respond to my needs and so forth. I hate this mummy. Eventually the child comes to recognise that the two mummies are one person. The bad mother is also the good mother. And vice versa. The child is faced with a problem. How to live with its responses to this mother. How do I reconcile my love of the good mother with my hatred of the bad one? What does this say about me? I have to live with my capacity for hatred as much as I live with my capacity for love. (R.D.Laing explored this tension brilliantly in his book “Knots”.) It is the problem Juliet faces in Romeo and Juliet when she falls in love with Romeo and laments that her only love has sprung from here only hate. Bringing these two positions together is what we call the depressive position. It takes courage to live in this place.

I think we are seeing something similar being played out with the rise of far Right political groups. The enemy is the immigrant who is taking our jobs, stealing our benefits and generally being parasitical. We then go to our hospital and are grateful to the Pakistani doctor who cares for us. The African   nurses who look after us. The Chinese Radiographer who scans our bones. These are good people! The bad ones are the other kind. (Whoever they may be.)

We separate good “mothers” from “bad” ones. Why? Because to recognise the split within ourselves would be too painful. We would be forced to acknowledge our own ambivalences. We see this splitting off in men who murder prostitutes. In women who will allow a dangerous partner to look after her children. In the killing of gay men by straight men who fear what they desire.And in the psychotic states of mind like schizophrenia where the denied part is heard as voices which can be disowned.)

It seems to me that this is Donald Trump’s agenda. In banning Muslims from coming to America he is attempting to banish split off parts of his psyche. And that of a segment of America. He can hate the poor, the needy , the vulnerable. In much the same way as some religious groups demand “modesty” from women. (If I lust after  a woman’s body, why is it that this is the woman’s fault? Why should she wear a burka and cover up all but her eyes? Why should some christian groups demand that wives are submissive in all things to their husbands?) In Trump’s terms, we might wonder what parts of himself he is putting into the poor etc-from whichever country they come. I suspect from his bombast that he cannot tolerate his own needy parts. His narcissism stemming from a profound insecurity. What makes him dangerous is, of course, that he has mobilised a part of America that feels dispossessed and unloved. Perhaps with some justification.  Brexit in the UK seems to me to demonstrate something similar.

As a counsellor, I have some idea about how I might work with a patient exhibiting these attitudes. Where does the hatred come from? What triggers the fearful self loathing? I would hope that, over time, we would build a strong enough relationship for my patient to let go of some of their fears. To come to a place where they could grow some self-love and nurture the parts of themselves that they so despise. (The despising coming from a fear of vulnerability and neediness)

But I am not a politician. Trump is not my patient. Nor are the Brexiteers.  Perhaps it is time for the clinicians and politicians to sit round the table together and share some insights. Then we could move the social narrative on from a split, paranoid-schizoid position to a more integrtated depressive position.

 

internal-conflict

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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?

 

 

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Counselling, Hope, Psychoanalysis, Religion, The Inner World, The unconscious, Ways of Being

Aleppo

aleppoI have nothing new to say about the battle for Aleppo. Many better writers than me have written reams about it. Psychoanalysis knows all about war, murder, envy and hatred. Both within and without. It also knows about love, care, compassion and kindness. Within and without. Aleppo has seen both of these worlds-the internal and the external. I want to use Aleppo as a metaphor for the inner journey.(I know something of this battle zone. I know nothing of a physical war zone. Thankfully)

I was watching the news last night. A Syrian man was interviewed walking among the ruins of the city. He was surrounded by rubble which he was looking at despairingly.(I was reminded of Hercules and the Augean stables.) He commented that if only the rubble could be cleared, others would return to the city. This seemed a powerful image for  the work of therapy. We all have our own rubble. Sometimes it’s a relatively small pile-or seemingly small. I don’t think any rubble is truly small, representing, as it does, the ruins of some kind of demolition. That pile was once something else. A building. A planned project. Something left behind by a previous owner.

The Syrian man was faced with a painful task. He had no clear idea who or what he might he find underneath the rubble. His family. His home. His life. In some ways it might have been easier to go somewhere else and leave the past buried where it was. Except that he has a right to see what might be buried there. To see what he can salvage that might help him begin again.

His comment about others coming back if the rubble is cleared struck me. I’ve seen so many people  over the years who have lost their friends and family because they can’t get through the rubble. That’s why I think counselling can be so helpful. It provides a space for someone to begin the rubble clearing process. We can’t move al the rubble as counsellors. But we can help the individual find the courage to begin some of the work. Week on week we can think about what might be involved. Where to begin. When to stop. We can offer a space to talk about what has been found in the rubble. What to do with that memory? How to find a way to  the past without being irrevocably dominated by it. It’s slow and often painful work for both the therapist and the patient. Frustration is present. Along with fear and loss. (Also joy and hope.) As a therapist one has to hold all these feelings until the patient can carry them home. Or leave them behind. Move the rubble and others can come along and help.

Freud characterised this struggle as the conflict between id, ego and super ego. Rubble clearance is another way of thinking about this.

 

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

Home is where we start from

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” . T. S. Eliot

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Matthew’s gospel notes that the Magi ” Having been warned by God in a dream,  that they should not return to Herod, departed into their own country another way.”  I would have  liked to have eavesdropped on the conversation the Magi had on their way home. But now I want to pick up on Mathew’s comment. Many of my patients tell me that coming for counselling is the hardest thing they’ve done.But in the end they go back home-albeit by a different route. And know the place for the first time.  If I come home a different way I see things I had not previously noticed. It takes a while for me to orient myself. Then familiar landmarks come into sight and I know where I am.

This coming home via a different route is a common reaction from my patients. They go back home but with a different perspective. The major perspective shift is usually their view of themselves. Which in turn alters their view about family, work, hopes and dreams. Rarely do people not go home (although that’s not unknown).

The Magi did not go to Bethlehem empty-handed. They brought their gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, which they left with the Holy family. In return they left with gifts. They’d seen something that would stay with them for  a long time. Even if they were unsure about some of its’ implications. There is no record of how this group of travellers lived post Bethlehem. The same is true for therapists. Rarely do we get to see what our patients do post therapy. We have to trust that we have done our work well enough for them to go home. Wherever that may be. To know it for the first time.

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