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

In the Way


I’ve just been walking my two dogs along the Ridgeway. It is a lovely old walk with some breathtaking, heart lifting views. (And walking through the English countryside on a June morning is hard to beat.) Wikipedia tells me that people have been using this path for some 5,000 years which makes it feel all the more special. (I would like to think that my own direct ancestors walked this path since my family come from Bucks as far as records go back. Whether they did or not, it still adds an extra layer of appreciation for the route.) The walk left me thinking about Ways-and all the phrases linked to this. Being in the Way; The Quaker Way; The Marxist Way; Rights of Way. The list is long. But all convey a feeling of movement. Of going from one place to another. And of Travelling rather than Arriving.

A friend was telling me the story of a university that spent a lot of money organising its campus. After a while it became obvious that the students were, literally, voting with their feet. The carefully laid down organisational routes were ignored as the students made their own Way across the campus. (As one who has spent the past seven years in Higher Education – a misnomer? –  I am well aware of the difference between Institutional ideas about paths and student / staff ideas. The same extends to the provision of Mental Health services. I read the other day that the Recovery Model is intended to put the patient at the centre of the process, not the psychiatrist. (We need a ‘model’ to tell us this?) There seems to be an issue here about whose way is being walked. And who determines what one chooses to look at en route. I love walking in woods. I rejoice in  an old gnarled tree, bent over by the wind. I love the sight of Beech trees just coming into leaf. Equally I am enthralled by an unexpected vista. A view that suddenly appears from “nowhere”. It is the variety that is fascinating.

There is a formula for finding out the age of a hedgerow. Hooper’s law,  which says that to age a hedge we count the number of different species found over a 100′ stretch and multiply this number by 100 (why  multiply by 100 I have no idea!) So a hedge with five different species will have begun life in the sixteenth century.  I find something similar in clinical work.A given conglomeration of material suggest how long these patterns have been in place. And how deep-rooted they are. Which gives some indication of how important they are. An oak of several hundred years standing is more pivotal than some ivy climbing it.

Walking  along a Way provides a useful metaphor for clinical work. One day is never the same as the previous one. Each time I see things differently. Depending on the light, the shade, the wind or the rain. Sometimes my attention is caught by one thing, sometimes something different will catch me. The pleasure is in the unexpected. I find the same to be true in clinical work. No two sessions are the same. No matter how long a patient has been with me, we still see new things, depending on where we are standing at the time.Again, this for me is one of the pleasure of psychoanalytic work .I begin a session in silence and allow my patient to begin. From here we walk, seeing what we can notice. We are, together, in the Way.

The link is to a reading of Robert Frost’s poem “The rRoad Not Taken”-  for obvious reasons.





Counselling, Psychoanalysis, Psychosis, The Inner World, Ways of Being

Walls and Ladders

ladder and wall“I vividly recall when I was in analysis for the second time being determined that I was not going to use my analyst’s couch. I sat for three sessions in a chair crying hard as we visited painful material. Part of  me was well aware of how helpful the couch would be. Another part of me  saw it a wall that would imprison me. The following week during another tearful session my analyst gently suggested I re-consider using the couch. I relented. Climbed onto the couch and allowed it to hold me – as my analyst has understood it would. Sometimes walls are helpful. Sometimes not!”

This is a line from my last blog about walls. I want to re-visit this idea today. Robert Frost in his poem Mending Wall wrote “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/ What I was walling in or walling out.” It seems to be a question that is not asked often enough. I have just had a brief exchange on Twitter. Someone had posted this link

It is about care workers abusing dementia patients “for laughs”. Understandably the writer had no time for this kind of behaviour. Yet it left me thinking of the myriad ways in which we can separate different parts of ourselves. We know that the guards in the Nazi concentration camps often enjoyed a concert given by the prisoners.The guards could be moved to tears by the beauty of the music. Yet send these same musicians to the gas chambers with no second thoughts. We may assume that those who torture others as part of their daily work go home and kiss their wives, play with their children and lead good lives. and tomorrow will go back and continue their torture – because this is their job. Care workers who abuse their patients are no different. Mostly they are “good” people who will think hard about their child’s birthday present and remember their wedding anniversary. They are not monsters with two heads full of hissing serpents. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph one man who became a torturer for the Taliban describes some of the things he did. “We always tried to do different things: we would put some of them standing on their heads to sleep, hang others upside down with their legs tied together. We would stretch the arms out of others and nail them to posts like crucifixions.” What I found most harrowing about this count was less the cruelty inflicted – deeply unpleasant though this is – but that this was not a mindless neanderthal thug from an impoverished and abusive home. He was a married man with a young child and a degree in Business Studies who came from a wealthy family. (He points out that he did not join the Taliban from choice. His 85 year old grandfather was held hostage by the Taliban. The price of his freedom was that another family member became a conscript. I am not at all sure what I might do in this situation. If my wife was taken and tortured, what price would I pay to free her?)

As ever a psychoanalytic insight takes us some way to being able to construct a theory about torture.

“Moreover, Freud found that the suffering which a person, or group of people, inflict on themselves by self-destructive lines of thought is very much bound up with a twisted ‘love of Father’. This occurs when the child has been made to feel worthless and degraded by abuse that it is received by a show of affection. Still further, the deep connection between paranoia, religion and homosexuality emerge here: “We have translated the words “unconscious feeling of guilt” as meaning a need for punishment by some parental authority. Now we know that the wish to be beaten by the father, which is so common, is closely connected with the other wish, to have some passive (feminine) sexual relations with him, and is only a regressive distortion of the latter.” ( It would be interesting to wonder how this man’s friends behaved, given that he was probably not alone in his situation.

It is not that much of a jump from a business man becoming a Taliban enforcer to care staff abusing their elderly patents. Vulnerability, need, defencelessness can provoke kindness, care and sympathy. It can also provoke violence, cruelty and sadism. We attack in the vulnerable those parts of ourselves we cannot face. Thus the patent who is demented inevitably reminds us of our own future.  Figures from The Alzheimer’s Society suggest that one person in every 14 over the age of 65 and one person in every six over 80 years has some kind of dementia. When we are young and healthy, we do not want Banquo’s ghost attending us all day. We do not want to acknowledge that we might well suffer the various indignities that happen in late old age.

A key psychoanalytic “doctrine” is the idea of Projection. “… the process by which specific impulses, wishes, aspects of the self, or internal objects are imagined to be be located in some object external to oneself.” (Rycroft A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis) Thus Gays are threatening me. Blacks are dangerous. Immigrants are taking over. Women are bitches. All are forms of projection. I locate my own fears, insecurities, murderous fantasies in some other group. And then attack them in an attempt to replace an internal “enemy” with an external one. I opened this blog with a quote from a previous blog of mine about walls. Having now read 900 words there might be question about what any of this has to do with walls. A short answer is that walls face two ways. They include and exclude with each category defining the other. Wendy Pullan from Cambridge University observes “There’s a tendency to villify those on the other side. It’s very easy to say: we can’t see them, we don’t know them, so we don’t like them.” (Quoted by John Henley in “Walls: an illusion of security from Berlin to the West Bank” The Guardian, Tuesday 19th November 2013)

So why build walls when as Janet Napolianto, recently US secretary for homeland security observed “Show me a 50′ wall and I’ll show you a 51′ ladder.” (op cit Henley 2013)

We don’t always want a 51′ ladder. Sometimes we want a 49′ ladder. Then we can reasonably claim that we are trapped. Which is where I began. I found myself increasingly unhappy with 49′ ladders and 50′ walls. I wanted some 51′ ladders to allow me to look over my walls.