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

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.

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.

Living with the challenges of a family member with dementia

 

Dementia is becoming an increasing challenge, not only for many older people, but also for their close family and friends.

It is particualrly challenging for family members who find themselves in the role of carer or needing to support a parent or spouse with the illness.

If you find yourself in such a role you will doubtless experience a whole range of emotions. Many of these are so-called “negative” emotions – such as anger, sadness and helplessness. But, unpleasant as they may be, such emotions are completely normal in this situation.

You may also experience guilt if you find yourself feeling what you regard as “uncaring” emotions towards the loved one – such as anger.

I believe it is very important to normalise such emotions because much of the message we get from our culture is to hide such emotions, to medicate them or to judge ourselves harshly for having them. The more we can make a place for these emotions in our lives, the less toxic they become.

We need to see dementia not as not just a medical disease but also as something that has important psychological and emotional meaning, both for the person with dementia and the carer. That is why I encourage the carer, for example, to view the person with dementia’s unusual behaviour as not simply random acts caused by the deterioration of the brain, but perhaps as communicating a deeper meaning relating to that person’s life or experience.

Understanding the person with dementia’s history and early life can shed light on behaviour in the latter years. Unresolved issues from childhood may be reactivated and the carer may be drawn into this and have their own, earlier, unresolved issues touched.

The way in which the person with dementia copes with the ongoing loss and deterioration of the illness may in part be influenced by much earlier experiences in their lives.

By becoming empathic, trying to see the world through the person with dementia’s eyes, we can begin to understand some of the unusual behaviour. And in letting go a little of our expectations of a “normal” relationship we may become open to something new, something different. This could be a moment here and there of calmness and connection with the loved one, an awareness that we can temporarily let go of our everyday worship of time or a discovery within ourselves of unknown reserves of patience or love.

Letting go of our usual expectations of relationship opens the door so that, in this very difficult experience, there is the potential to find meaning. It is often through suffering that we learn, that we find meaning, even if that meaning does not become visible until long after the event.

Living with the Challenges of Dementia: a Guide for Family and Friends, by Patrick McCurry, is published by Sheldon Press on 16 July 2015. It is available for pre-order before then, at Amazon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The importance of acknowledging your Shadow

We all have a psychological Shadow. By this I mean those parts of us which we hide, deny or repress. Sometimes we may be aware of our Shadow, but much of the time we hide it even from ourselves.

But it is vital that we try and get to know our Shadow, or at least parts of it, because otherwise it can play an extremely unhealthy role in our lives.

So, what is the Shadow and how do we know about it? The idea was developed by Carl Jung and the Shadow basically refers to those parts of ourselves that do not correspond with how we like to see ourselves.

For example, we may like to think of ourselves as honest, respectable and hardworking and criticise those who are not like this. Almost inevitably there will, therefore, be a part of us that is (or could be) dishonest, disreputable and lazy. It is not that we need to act out our dishonesty or laziness necessarily, but more that we can acknowledge that we contain those parts within ourselves.

If we cannot accept all the parts of us, including the ones we judge as “bad”, we will project these unaccepted parts onto others and judge them.

This process is an unconscious one. We are mostly unaware of what we are rejecting within ourselves, as it has usually been going on since we were children. So, if as a child we were shamed by parents when we were too exuberant, we may have put that part of us in the Shadow in order to win our parents’ approval.

As a child this is not a conscious decisions, it’s just something that happens, so as we grow up we don’t even realise that we have disowned our exuberance and that it is in our Shadow.

But we may notice that we judge harshly those who we experience as being “too” exuberant.

The way we judge others, particularly, those people who really annoy us is usually a clue to what is in our Shadow. Another way we can learn about it is through our dreams. So, for example, being pursued by a tiger in a dream could represent how we run away from our own anger or wildness.

The Shadow can never be completely known. It is, by its nature, mysterious and unconscious. But we can get to know parts of it and own those parts instead of judging them in others. The more we can do this, the more integrated and whole we become.

Why you should never see a therapist who is ‘too nice’.

Most people who become counsellors and therapists want to help people. That may seem obvious. But sometimes, if we try to be too helpful, it can actually get in the way of effective therapy.

At some point we will probably do or say something that annoys or hurts the feelings of the client. This ‘mistake’, this not being the ‘helpful’ or ‘caring’ therapist may be uncomfortable for us. But there will probably be learning in there about the client’s earlier relationships.

To clarify, I am not talking here about genuine misconduct by a therapist, such as intentionally harming a client or not respecting boundaries. I am thinking more about the ‘honest’ mistakes many of us make. This could be not seeming to understand what the client is saying, forgetting something that the client regards as important or finding oneself suddenly very sleepy and trying to suppress a yawn during a session. It could even be arriving late for a session or double booking a client.

At one time or another I have made all these mistakes. Because most of us therapists feel we should be helpful and caring, it can be tempting to be too ‘nice’ and apologise immediately for our not nice behaviour. But the nice response is not always the best therapeutic response. While we need to question ourselves about such mistakes and examine whether we may be acting out something from our own past, it can often be  helpful to look at the mistake as potential information about the client and the client-therapist relationship.

For example, if I am slightly late for our session and apologise immediately that makes it harder for the client to feel angry with me. And, because many of us struggle with owning our anger, it is important that the therapist is not over nice, otherwise the client senses that the therapist is uncomfortable with the client’s anger.

If I make a mistake and behave in a way that is unusual for me, I ask myself, why have I done this with this client and not another and why now? Often the answer relates to an earlier relationship of the client’s and to the developing relationship between therapist and client.

So, if the client feels let down and that he is not important to me when I am slightly late for our session, what does this experience remind him of in his earlier life? It may be that he didn’t feel he was important enough for his mother or father, that they seemed more interested in other things than him. That little boy was not able to express his feelings to mum or dad, but the adult client can be given the space to express his hurt or anger and for those feelings to be validated and accepted.

Often the mistake will occur at a stage in the therapy when the relationship between client and therapist is strong enough for the client to bring to the relationship some of these more difficult feelings, such as anger or hurt.

Psychoanalyst Patrick Casement talks about this in his book Learning from our Mistakes, when he argues that often the mistakes therapists make with their clients “have an uncanny parallel to key environmental failures in the patient’s past history”.

The key thing to remember is that unconscious processes are often at work in these ‘mistakes’. In some sense, the client needs the therapist to repeat the earlier wounding so that there is the potential for a different resolution.

Casement says: “Patients may revisit key experiences of early failure by their parents, or other caregivers, through their use of similar failures by the analyst…how much this…is fortuitous and how much it may be unconsciously determined, we may never quite know.”