About Patrick McCurry

I'm a psychotherapist based in Eastbourne and Brighton, UK.

The truth about family holidays

I’ve noticed  that two of my busiest periods for new clients contacting me – both individuals and couples –  is the end of the summer and the beginning of the year. Both of these are times when people have spent significant periods with their families and/or partners, without the usual distractions of work, school, etc.

In this post I’d like to focus on the family holiday and the ambivalent attitude many of us have towards it.

A bit like having a new child, having a holiday with our family or partner is something most of us look forward to and we project lots of positive expectations onto it. But, also like having a child, we can often fail to anticipate the downside – the stresses it can place on relationships.

We tell ourselves the holiday will be relaxing, it will give us a chance to bond with children or re-connect with partners, it will be a break from work and the humdrum. All this may actually be true but it is also the case that holidays can bring to the surface tensions within the couple or family relationship. And unlike most of the year, there is little escape from these stresses when you’re spending nearly all your time with these people.

Balancing needs

My own experience gives me an insight into why so many new clients seem to contact me at the end of the holiday season.  I nearly always look forward to a family holiday and it is usually a  genuine break from work and I return feeling refreshed. But at the same time I sometimes struggle with balancing my own needs and wants with those of other members of the family.

At home it is easier for achieve this balance because I have time away from my partner and children, I have other activities such as work or other social contacts. On holiday we are all thrown together for a week or two and that can be challenging.

I find it helpful looking at this through the perspective of the inner child. The inner child is a metaphor for the part of us that can sometimes feel vulnerable, afraid, angry and is very sensitive. It is also the part of us that can be playful and joyful. Being aware of, and acknowledging the needs and wants of this inner child is very important, but we must not let it rule our lives.

I have an internal ‘little boy’ who can sometimes feel overlooked or unwanted.

Neglecting our own needs and wants

On holiday much of the focus is on what my children need or want, or my partner, and the danger is that I neglect my own needs and wants. This leads to my inner child feeling neglected and I begin to feel irritable and run down. This is all made worse because we tell ourselves that on holiday we are “supposed” to be enjoying ourselves and so if we’re not we can feel we’ve failed in some way.

On the other side of all this, of course, is that family holidays do also help me feel more connected with my partner and children because I get to spend more time with them and can share that time without the usual distractions of work and routine.

I don’t believe the tensions or arguments that surface on holidays are necessarily a bad thing because I see them as inviting us to look at elements of our family or couple relationships that may need attention. In that sense, tensions on holiday can play a positive longer-term role in our relationships.

It can also be helpful to adjust our expectations of holidays and to begin them with our eyes wide open. If we remind ourselves that some tensions are likely and have an idea where these tensions may emerge, we can prepare ourselves for them.

What does our psyche want now?

I recently attended a talk by the American depth psychologist and author James Hollis, whose books I had long admired.

James Hollis

James Hollis

“I often ask my new clients if they they think they have a soul and what it may be asking of them,” he said. That made me think. Hollis did not mean soul in the Christian sense, but rather the part of us that is separate from our ego, that is part of our unconscious and that has a connection to something larger than ourselves.

In the traditional religious meaning, soul is opposite to body, but in depth psychology soul refers to the Greek word psyche. Rather than being this ethereal, floaty thing that many of us imagine, in this sense soul is closely connected to our human experience, particularly our deep emotions, our longings, our joys, our mystery. This was an idea developed particularly by the archetypal psychologist James Hillman.

By ego, I mean the part of ourselves that we are aware of and which we think of as ‘us’, but which is only the tip of the iceberg and does not encompass our unconscious. It is our ego that tries to control our lives, and our environment, and which is constantly on the lookout for threats.

We need our ego to run the business of life, but if its needs dominate then our psyche/soul may need to make itself felt through neurosis and painful symptoms.

Writing in his book What Matters Most, Hollis says soul is a metaphor to describe our essence: “It is the energy that blows through us, that enters us at birth, animates our journey, and then departs, whither we know not, at our passing.”

Soul, by its nature, is actually impossible to fully define. While it lives in the unconscious it is constantly making itself felt in our conscious lives, through our emotions, dreams and imagination.

The reason Hollis asks his clients if they think they have a soul is because he is wanting to get away from the assumptions many people bring to therapy; that they have a ‘problem’ and that it is somehow the therapist’s job to get rid of this problem.

Depth work is not about solving the problem but about recovering the life we’ve somehow lost along the way, he says. Clients often come with a symptom, such as an addiction, a depression, an anger issue or a relationship problem, and they want the therapy to eradicate this symptom.

But depth therapy does not “cure” people or eradicate symptoms. “We don’t solve these problems, we outgrow them,” says Hollis. But to outgrow them may mean exploring what the meaning of the symptom is, what is our psyche trying to get us to pay attention to in our lives?

Mostly we are governed by our egos and we think we know what we want or what we need. But the psyche/soul may have a different idea of where we need to go. It is our ego that desperately wants to get rid of the symptom.

Some approaches, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), try to get rid of the problem the client brings. CBT can help, and I use some CBT  approaches in my integrative therapy. But my experience is that often CBT can seemingly get rid of the symptom, only for it to re-appear in another form. If the underlying issues are not dealt with this is always a risk.

But how do we know what our psyche is asking of us? One way of exploring this is through therapy with a practitioner who has experience in working with the unconscious. Other ways in include noticing our dreams and what they may be telling us.

As palliative care doctor, and therapist, Michael Kearney says in his book Mortally Wounded: “My own personal and work experience has [shown me]…that soul is connected to depth, to death, to the imagination, and that it brings with it a sense of meaning.”

 

Further reading

By James Hollis:

Swamplands of the Soul, Inner City Books, 1996

What Matters Most, Gotham Books, 2010

By Michael Kearney:

Mortally Wounded, Morino Books, 1996

Why couple therapy won’t ‘fix’ your relationship in the way you expect

“Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then 9504443699_d6effb8b17_zgradually, without noticing it, live your way some distant day into the answers.”

  • Rainer Maria Rilke

The quote above, from the Austrian poet Rilke, says something about the couple therapy process and how changes in a relationship are often achieved not by applying a new technique but rather by a gradual shift in awareness and perspective.

Many couples who are struggling in their relationships come to therapy to be fixed. Or, more accurately, they come to get their partner ‘fixed’. They hope that the therapist will tell their partner what he or she needs to do differently or what techniques the couple needs to put into practice in order to solve the problem they come with.

While there is a place for techniques and tools in helping couples tackle their problems, it is naive to think that these alone will lead to sustained improvements.

In my experience couple therapy is more of a stuttering, unpredictable process than a linear improvement. Over time I would expect a couple’s relationship to improve but it is often a case of two steps forward one step back. There may be periods where nothing seems to be improving at all.

But if the couple is able to stick with the process and hold a little less tightly their desire for a solution to their problem, something different can emerge.

Often that something different comes from each partner being willing to feel their pain, and sometimes to share it, without immediately blaming the other person.

Frequently one of the things that needs to happen in couple therapy is for each person to understand how they have contributed to the stuck place the couple finds itself in. Once we begin to recognise our own responsibility we can then stop pointing the finger so quickly at our partner. This takes the pressure off them a little, which can open up a space for something new to enter the relationship.

In my own relationship I’ve found that, when I’m unhappy about something, the simple act of being heard by my partner can make a difference. It often means that the thing that was annoying me so much doesn’t seem quite so difficult any more.

As couples we can sometimes get stuck in an “I win, you lose”  mentality, in which power struggles take over and we feel that unless we get our way it will be unbearable. The reality is that it is always going to be difficult for two people to share their lives and that we need to find ways of making space for the differences but still allowing each person to have their feelings acknowledged.

John Welwood, one of my favourite writers on relationships, says in his book Journey of the Heart, : “Techniques rarely have any impact when used as short cuts, to bypass letting a difficulty affect us, work on us and move us to find our own genuine response to it.”

(Photo courtesy of Tom Blackwell, creative commons, at Flickr.com)

 

 

What scares us about intimacy

I think that most of us, if asked, would say that we want an intimate relationship with someone. A relationship in which we can truly be ourselves and feel close.

So why is it that so many people struggle to find this in life?

This is a complex question. But one strand to it is the fear of either being engulfed by our partner or being abandoned. In other words, we can experience our partner as either too loving/controlling/intrusive/demanding or too absent/uninterested/cold.

Our experience as infants can feed into this drama and prime us to see relationships through a particular lens. For example, an infant may experience their primary caregiver (usually mum) as being “too present” and not providing enough space and freedom for the child to explore. This chid may grow up to experience a fear of being smothered or controlled in adult relationships.

However, an infant experiencing their caregiver as sometimes cold or uninterested may be particularly sensitive to what they experience as rejection or abandonment in adult intimate relationships.

“Engulfment fears generally lead to withdrawal in relationships, while abandonment fears lead to clinging,” says therapist John Welwood in his book Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships.

Each partner may at times feel a fear of engulfment or a fear of abandonment, but often each person gravitates towards a particular stance. This obviously creates tension and unhappiness.

“She’s always trying to get me to do things with her, but hates it when I just want to relax watching some sport on the TV,” he says. Or she may comment, “He seems more interested in his job and his friends than in me – I feel like he doesn’t love me.”

The effect of this is that one partner is often pushing for something more, while the other is trying to pull away – which is known as a push-pull effect.

Partners can be stuck in this dynamic for years, without understanding why they can’t seem to get genuinely close. Or people can change partners and then find the same patterns of push-pull in each new relationship.

Part of the way out of this stuck pattern is understanding how our early experiences may have influenced the way we relate to people as adults. If we can feel empathy and compassion for ourselves as a child, who felt either deprived or dominated by parents, we may be able to see our partner more clearly and take his or her behaviour less personally.

We may also find ourselves, gradually, being able to allow ourselves to be vulnerable with our partner and to let go of judging them.  Which is a good foundation for truer intimacy.

What is co-dependency?

Sometimes psychological phrases seem to enter the mainstream and, in recent years, one such phrase has been ‘co-dependency’. But what does it really mean?

One way of understanding co-dependency is as ‘relationship addiction’, particularly if it is a relationship that keeps the partners stuck in behaviours that are limiting or destructive.

Co-dependency can refer to partners, adult children, siblings or whole families. In this article I’m focusing on partners.

Frequently there is an addicted, troubled or dependent partner and a supposedly stronger partner who’s role can be a kind of helper, caretaker or who tries to fix the person who has the ‘problem’.

Co-dependency began as a description of how some people seem to be drawn to relationships with alcoholics or drug addicts and stay in these relationships even if they are treated badly or the addict shows no serious signs of change. On the face of it the  ‘healthy’ partner is trying to help the addict but the reality is that, at a deeper level, they find it almost impossible to walk away from the tie.

The ‘healthy’ partner is also getting some form of psychological benefit, often at an unconscious level,  from being in a relationship with someone who is much more obviously disturbed or distressed.

Frequently it turns out that the ‘healthy’ partner had a parent or other family member who was an alcoholic or addict and that, in some way, their relationship pattern is mirroring important aspects of their parents’ relationship or dynamics in their family of origin.

While it began as a description of relationships involving people addicted to alcohol or other drugs, co-dependency can be used in a broader way to describe someone who stays with a ‘problem’ partner but nurses underlying resentment towards that partner.

The ‘healthy’ or ‘helping’ partner may seem caring and nice, but often underneath this there is a deep fear of not being in control, which can lead the ‘healthy’ partner to being manipulative. There is also often a need to be admired or approved of.

US psychologist Pia Melody was one of the first people to write about co-dependency. She argues that both partners in a co-dependent relationship have deep feelings of shame and inadequacy that began in chilidhood.

The addict deals with these unbearable feelings through his or her addiction or troubled behaviour. The ‘healthy’ partner deals with shame and inadequacy by their addiction to the relationship and to trying to fix the partner.

For Mellody, the antidote to co-dependency is for the individual to come to terms with the wounds of childhood. In her book Facing Co-depdence she says: “Experience your feelings about the less-than-nurturing events of your past. Because if you don’t, the issues from your history will be held in minimisation, denial and delusion and truly be behind you as demons.”

Are parents responsible for how their children turn out?

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.

Kahlil Gibran

“I blame the parents”, is a common judgment, often muttered under the breath when in the presence of a badly behaved child or young person.

This kind of judgement highlights why being a parent can bring up a lot of anxieties, when it comes to what sort of person the child develops into.

And it can be a heavy burden, if a parent believes that he or she is responsible for “negative” character traits or behaviours, or for a child’s seemingly unhappy disposition.

But sometimes I believe that parents can take too much responsibility and can even beat themselves up for not being good enough.

Donald Winnicott, a pioneering paediatrician and psychotherapist, came up with the idea of the “good-enough” parent. This referred to the parent who provides a good-enough environment in which the child feels loved but is also given healthy boundaries.

It’s important to recognise that this does not mean parents can’t make mistakes. Making mistakes is inevitable – perfection is not possible. The idea of being good enough gives us permission to be imperfect and to be compassionate towards ourselves as parents.

I remember one mother, who was distressed when she saw her daughter behave in an insecure and “needy” way, convinced she had passed this onto her. Even if there was some truth in this, it would have been passed on in an unconscious way. We cannot help but pass on messages to our children through our own behaviour.

But judging ourselves harshly as parents is not the answer, I believe, as long as we have done our best given our own conditioning.

In any case the kind of person a child develops into will depend on different factors. Good-enough parenting is one factor, while inherited characteristics will be another. As the child gets older, peer pressure will play an increasing role as will the values in the society or culture the child grows up in.

But I believe there is also something else at play, which is harder to describe or measure. I’m thinking of the mysterious force which makes each person the unique individual they are.

Sure, we can look at children and make sense of their characters by referring to how they have uncle John’s creativity or mum’s dancing ability. But in his book The Soul’s Code, James Hillman talks about the guiding force that all humans are born with. He uses the analogy of the acorn becoming an oak, arguing that every person arrives in the world with a possible calling or destiny.

Hillman argues that modern psychology has become reductionist, attributing a child’s obsessions or “pathologies” to poor parenting or genetics.

A different response would be to welcome the uniqueness of each child, even the parts that cause us pain or discomfort as parents. Perhaps we could then trust that the child will find its way in the world, following its own calling or destiny.

Is it ‘selfish’ to have needs?

Clients will often seem puzzled when I ask them what their needs are in life. Some will even deny they have needs at all or regard it as somehow selfish to acknowledge them.

Those who find it difficult to recognise their needs are sometimes those who spend much of their lives focusing on others, on trying to keep everyone else happy.

But I would say that having difficulty in recognising our needs and getting them met in an appropriate way applies to many of us – not just people who have been brought up to deny their own needs.

This is an important issue because we all have legitimate needs and just because we ignore them they do not disappear. In fact, when we ignore them or are unaware of them these needs will still be directing our behaviour at an unconscious level.

Beyond the very basic needs of food, shelter, safety, warmth and so on, our needs include:

 

  • Physical touch and affection
  • Sex
  • Time for relaxation
  • Understanding
  • Respect
  • Belonging
  • Intellectual stimulation
  • Fun and play
  • A spiritual life/sense of meaning
  • Friendship/companionship
  • Love

I think the reason many of us find it hard to identify and express our needs is because this was dangerous for us as children. We may have got the message, implicitly or explicitly, that our needs and wants were a bother to our parents.

For women there is also society’s message that they should be giving to others and be putting others’ needs (children, family) before their own.

 What happens when we fail to recognise or communicate our needs?

As stated above, if we ignore our needs they do not just disappear but will come out in unforeseen and often unhealthy ways.

For example, the person who doesn’t feel they have the right to ask for some down time when they get home from work may end up snapping at his or her partner or children.

Psychologist Pia Mellody describes how a child whose needs were not met appropriately can grow up into a “too dependent’ adult or an “anti-dependent” adult.

The too-dependent adult expects other people to take care of their needs and wants and does not take responsibility themselves. The anti-dependent, however, is unconsciously afraid to ask others to help meet her needs because that would make her feel vulnerable. She thus finds it difficult to be in a truly intimate relationship.

In her book Facing Codependence, Mellody says: “Not tending to one’s needs and wants appropriately is often connected to a feeling of low self-esteem (shame).”

The solution to this is gradually becoming aware of one’s needs and wants and finding ways to communicate them to others. As part of this process the individual will need to tackle the toxic guilt or shame that may arise when he begins to value his needs.