Discussion Individuals

Heinz Kohut and why we still need empathy for ‘childish’ feelings

There’s a common idea that when we become adults we must be independent and ‘rational’. We must not behave ‘childishly’ by needing others too much or not being able to easily handle our feelings.

But how nice it would be, as adults, if we were able to receive the empathy that many children get!

For example, if a child is very anxious about something, such as making friends at school, his parents will probably try and comfort or reassure him.

They may empathise with his anxiety, perhaps telling him that they too sometimes felt anxious about school when they were small. Then they might give him some practical tips on making friends or handling his feelings.

As a result, the child feels understood and supported – more able to take on the challenge of school.

But we do not usually extend this kind of empathy and understanding to other adults in our lives, such as partners. If our partner is very anxious about something that we don’t understand we may judge them (openly or to ourselves) as being ‘childishi’ or ‘irrational’.

We may even go further, suggesting they ‘get a grip’ or ‘don’t make such a big deal about it’.

But just because we are adults does not mean we no longer need the empathy and support we got as children.

Pioneering psychotherapist Heinz Kohut was the first to argue strongly that the needs we have as children do not suddenly disappear when we become adults. He was challenging the view that well-adjusted adults should be independent, self-reliant and get along without others if they need to.

Kohut defined the needs that children have, and which we continue to have as adults:

  • the need to be mirrored: children need to be shown by adults that they are worthwhile and valued. This happens not through what adults say but throught subtle cues, such as facial expression, tone of voice and attention. When the child feels this positive attention he or she grows up feeling secure and loved.
  • the need to idealise: if the child experiences at least one parent as calm, confident and powerful then he or she has someone to turn to when the world feels overwhelming. Over time the child absorbs or ‘internalises’ this influence and so is able to soothe themselves when things are difficult.
  • the need to be like others: children need to know that they belong and are not too different from others or that they don’t fit in.

Kohut’s argument was that these needs continue throughout life and that, at various times, we need to feel support and empathy from those closest to us.

Therapist Michael Kahn says in his book Between Therapist and Client: “Kohut’s theory is a useful counterweight to the quite common belief that as mature adults we are supposed to do it all on our own, that only the weak need other people.”

While all adults continue to have these needs for mirroring and empathy, those whose needs were not adquately met in childhood will have more severe needs. These people are still looking, as adults, for these childish needs to be met. In therapy these “immature” feelings can be welcomed and explored, not criticised and judged.

In therapy the individual is able to get in touch with the unmet needs of the child, and the probable anger and sadness that flowed from that situation. By experiencing an empathic response from the therapist the adult can begin to release some of the difficult feelings and, over time, to become more able to comfort themselves and take responsibility for their lives.

Discussion Individuals

The need to sometimes disappoint our parents

A common reason people come to therapy is that they are unhappy about living a life that doesn’t feel authentic or meaningful at some profound level. Part of the reason for this is that they have taken on – consciously or unconsciously – their parents’ expectations of what they “should” do and how they “should” be.

The therapist’s role is to help the client get in touch with their deeper needs and wants, even if those conflict with parental expectations.

This process can take time because the messages we get from parents – about the kind of person we should be – may be extremely subtle. Nevertheless, we usually know deep down what will please them, or disappoint them.

The danger is that we either let our lives be lived according to parental expectations and thus devalue our own deeper wishes, or we can go to the other extreme of doing the opposite to what our parents want, in order to punish them.

While rebelling may make us feel we are being independent, it can also be a sign that we are simply defining ourselves in opposition to our parents and are stuck in a kind of adolescence. In this case we are no closer to living an authentic life than the son or daughter who dutifully complies with the family expectations.

There is also the possibility, as Jung pointed out, that we end up living out our parents’ unlived lives. Jungian author James Hollis argues that many women, whose own lives have been frustrated by gender limitations, have sought to live out their squashed ambitions through their sons, which explains the prevalence of the ‘My son, the doctor’ jokes.

But how to find out what we really want and need, as opposed to following parental expectations? One way is to become more aware of the parental voices in our heads. For example, most of us carry around an inner voice that tells us what is ok and not ok to do, and which can be very critical of us if we fail to meet these standards. This  “inner critic” is often derived from one or both parents.

There are other, less critical but usually much softer voices that we can tune into when we make a sustained effort and a soulful approach to therapy involves tapping into that part of ourselves that is compassionate and has genuine wisdom. This part of ourselves often shows itself in what people call intuition. For instance, we may not know why but we just have a strong sense that our parents’ religion, occupation or many of their values are not for us.

For example, we may have been brought up by parents who were uncomfortable with, and judgmental about, anger or sexuality. This can mean that whenever, as adults, we feel angry or sexual it can be accompanied by feelings of guilt. Or our parents may have been left-wing politically and judging of any career that didn’t reflect these values, making our desire of being an entrepreneur feel like a kind of betrayal.

As small children we absorb our parents’ values and expectations. What is not approved of is often disowned and this process continues, as we get older, with the expectations of schoolteachers and peers. As author Robert Bly says in A Little Book on the Human Shadow, a small child is like a running ball of energy: “But one day we noticed that our parents didn’t like certain parts of that ball. They said things like, ‘Can’t you be still?’ or, ‘It isn’t nice to try and kill your brother.’ Behind us we have an invisible bag and, the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag.”

Not disappointing our parents, however, can become a betrayal of ourselves and sometimes that may be the choice – to be true to ourselves and disappoint others or to please others but fail to honour our own journey. It may also be that, if we have the courage to disappoint our parents by finding our own path, we are actually able to develop a more authentic relationship with them in the longer term.

Further reading

A Little Book on the Human Shadow, Robert  Bly

Under Saturn’s Shadow, James Hollis


The importance of sadness

‘Only love can break your heart’
– Neil Young

I will often hear a client say, ‘I’m afraid that if I start crying, I’ll never stop.’ The sadness they are holding in feels so overwhelming that they try to keep it all pushed down.

Another client will say: ‘I don’t feel I’m making much progress – I’ve felt so sad all week.’

But recognising, and experiencing, our sad feelings something new can be freed up, a space can be made for other feelings.

In contrast, by consciously holding it all in, or unconsciously repressing the sadness, we can end up in a worse situation in the long term.

To feel sadness, to feel grief, is to be at odds with the dominant values of our society. We are told to ‘think positive’ and to get on with things. Or to distract ourselves from such uncomfortable feelings with TV, work, drink, cleaning the house or anti-depressants.

And yet, when we suppress these feelings they do not disappear or melt away. Instead, they flow below the surface of our consciousness like an underground river. They make themselves felt through illness, tiredness, anxiety, depression or addiction.

This is what Carl Jung meant when he said, ‘The gods have become diseases’, that when we do not attend to all parts of ourselves, like the ancients honoured their gods, the result is neurotic symptoms.

When we feel sad about something it can be very tempting to push the feeling away, to distract ourselves or ‘count our blessings’. This is especially likely if we grew up in a family in which sadness was not really seen as an acceptable emotion and instead was judged as ‘self pity’.

Psychotherapist and author Robin Skynner, in Families and How to Survive Them, distinguishes sadness from depression. He points out that sadness is a rich, deep emotion even though it hurts. It can make us feel more alive and connected to others.

Depression, on the other hand, which often results from suppressed sadness or anger, can leave the individual feeling empty, ‘dead’, and disconnected from others.

This is because if we try to squash one important emotion, such as sadness, we end up squashing, or ‘depressing’, all our feelings including ‘positive’ ones like joy and enthusiasm.

It is important to recognise that sadness plays an essential role in our development because it helps us deal with loss. From early childhood onwards we experience losses, large and small, in our lives. These can range from the gradual losses involved in the process of a child separating from mother, to the loss of a job or the death of a loved one.

Feeling sad about these losses, grieving them, enables us to honour what has been lost and, ultimately, move on.

Being told to put the event in the past too quickly, before the loss has been grieved and the sadness expressed, can result in a false feeling of moving on.

In therapy it is an important moment when a person is able to get in touch with sadness that has been pushed down, rejected or forgotten about. Frequently this sadness relates to the unmourned losses of childhood, such as how parents were not able to be there for the child in the way the child needed them to be.

Providing a supportive space for these feelings to be expressed can help the individual come to terms with the losses and disappointments of childhood. That, in turn, can enable the individual to take more responsibility for their life and not continue in the vain hope to find parental substitutes to give them what they didn’t get as children.


How much should you know about your therapist?

ImageIn the novel Lying on the Coach a therapist makes a dramatic decision – he will try a completely different approach with his next client and be as honest as possible.

Uncomfortable with the gap between his professional persona and personal life, the therapist, Ernest, decides to be much more open with clients.

“Is it so impossible for therapists to be genuine, to be authentic in all encounters?” he asks himself.

Ernest finds himself getting tangled up as he realises how difficult it is to be genuinely open while also maintaining appropriate boundaries.  The matter is made more complicated by the fact that his client turns out to be a woman he finds himself highly attracted to and who wants to seduce him for her own ends.

Nevertheless, Ernest’s struggle to be open does bring benefits to the therapeutic relationship, even with a duplicitous client!

Clients who have been frustrated by their therapist’s with-holding of personal information may applaud Ernest’s attempt to be more open.  After all, there is a grain of truth in the cliché of the therapist who replies to every question with another question.

Controversy over how much therapists should disclose about their personal lives goes back to the days of Freud, who argued that therapists should be a ‘blank screen’. But much depends on the theoretical approach of the individual therapist. Those from the ‘psychodynamic’ school, who work more with clients’ projections, are likely to be less self-disclosing than ‘humanistic’ therapists.

One of the main objections to self-disclosure has been that it can be used for the therapist’s gratification. For example, certain disclosures could lead to the client feeling they need to care for the therapist.

Whether there has been any increase in self-disclosure is unclear but the growth in therapists’ websites and social networking sites has clearly made it much easier for information to be made available and shared.

To what degree therapists should take advantage of these channels is debatable and will depend a lot on the individual personality.

Irvin Yalom, existential therapist and author of Lying on the Couch, is at the more open end of the spectrum, possibly because of his background in group therapy where there is more pressure on the therapist to self-disclose.

Yalom argues that therapist disclosure encourages client disclosure.  He is happy to say whether he is married, whether he liked a particular film, etc. Disclosing this kind of information does not mean the reason for the question – the process – cannot also be explored, says Yalom.

But there are caveats, he insists, such as being aware that any information given to a client may be passed on to their next therapist! So don’t disclose anything you genuinely want to remain private.

This suggests that there are three levels of information therapists work with – public, personal and private. A therapist may choose to disclose some personal information, in the interests of the client, but will not disclose private information.

Jungian analyst Jane Haynes says in her memoir that she is willing to share aspects of her personal life selectively with clients. She says there are some aspects of one’s personal life that are private, even secret, and other areas that it may be beneficial to share.

She says: ‘Any therapeutic disclosure requires careful thought and personal scrutiny. Possibly, it is in those creative tensions that distinguish spontaneity from impulsiveness that wisdom resides.’

It seems likely that the more experience a therapist has the more likely they are to self-disclose. In a study of leading therapists’’ approaches, author Michael Kahn says that most became more self-disclosing the course of their careers: ‘[They came] more and more to trust their spontaneity and express their human warmth.’

Nevertheless, Kahn believes that caution is the watchword when it comes to disclosure, as ‘it can reduce the opportunity for the client’s valuable exploration of fantasy.’


Between Therapist and Client, by Michael Kahn

The Gift of Therapy, by Irvin Yalom

Lying on the Couch, by Irvin Yalom

Who is it that can tell me who I am?, by Jane Haynes.

Discussion Individuals

The power of vulnerability

When we were children we used to think that when we were grown-up we would not longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability…to be alive is to accept vulnerability.

–       Madeleine L’Engle (novelist)

I’m often aware how difficult, how very hard it is, to acknowledge my own vulnerability. After all, being vulnerable means being open to physical or emotional wounding. But when I do acknowledge this part of myself, and show it to someone I trust in an appropriate way, it is extremely powerful.

That would seem to be a contradiction – how can dropping one’s familiar protection actually be powerful?

I think it’s because vulnerability is what can connect us, at a deeper level, to others and help us feel less alone. It is also an acknowledgement of reality and of our humanity – that even though we try to, we can’t control our lives or control others.

There is a difference, however, between being in touch with one’s authentic vulnerability and being over identified with it.  People who are over identified with their vulnerability are often extremely sensitive and find it hard to protect themselves and get their needs met. They are often regarded, and see themselves, as ‘victims’, always been taken advantage of or exploited.

Authentic vulnerability is less about blaming others and more about just being open about one’s deeper feelings – such as sadness, distress, loneliness or anxiety.

I’m thinking of a couple going through problems I was seeing, in which the man allowed himself to cry at his fear the relationship may not be saved. His partner was moved emotionally and it enabled them both to show a deeper part of themselves to each other.

But vulnerability is regularly devalued in our competitive and materialist society, which values ‘masculine’ qualities like strength, fortitude and mental toughness.

Because of this many people, particularly men, have an understandable reluctance to show, or even allow themselves to feel, vulnerability. To them it can feel like weakness and it intensely scary, especially for those who were shamed by parents when they showed vulnerability as children.

Because of the large number of people who were shamed as children for feeling sad or distressed, showing one’s own vulnerability to others is something to be done cautiously. Otherwise we can be re-shamed if someone sees our vulnerability and tells us not to behave ‘like a child’.

But there is also a high price to pay when we protect our vulnerability too rigidly, as these defences can become barriers to connecting with others at a deeper level.

In my therapy work, with both individuals and couples, I am constantly struck by how hard it is for people to be seen in their vulnerability. They shield their face, look down or even try and make a joke.

With a couple, I will try and express appreciation at the risk one of them has taken in showing true vulnerability. I will also try and make sure that the other partner does not squash or dismiss what has been said.

This is because it is these moments of vulnerability between partners that offer the prospect for deeper connection and healing. To show vulnerability is to let go, even if only for a moment, the desire to be powerful and to be ‘right’. Instead, it opens a small space for the other person to be moved and to connect.


The danger of wanting our children to be happy

When I think about what I want for my children sometimes I feel I should be more pushy – get them to apply themselves more, learn more, aim higher. At other times I’m able to take a more relaxed approach – let them find their own passions and interests and let me support them in this, I say to myself.

At these times the over-riding feeling is often, ‘I don’t mind what they choose to do when they grow up – as long as they’re happy.’

On the face of it this attitude seems commendable for many liberal parents, especially those whose own parents had very fixed ideas about ‘acceptable’ jobs and careers.

But underneath the apparently supportive and progressive stance there can be a more subtle, unspoken, pressure. It is something like, ‘Do what you want to do, be who you want to be. But don’t let me down by being unhappy, even if that is what you are feeling.’

Novelist James Runcie, son of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has highlighted the problem when discussing his own experience of being a parent. Saying you don’t mind what your children to as long as they are happy can actually be a very controlling message to give your children, he argues.

This is because it only makes them feel more unhappy when they realise they cannot live up to your unrealistic expectations.

Even with young children there is a danger that they will get the message that it is somehow ‘wrong’ to feel unhappy, upset, angry or lonely.

When my six-year-old son says he is sad because no-one would play with him at school my first reaction is to try and reassure him – ‘I’m sure you’ll find someone to play with tomorrow – let me talk to your teacher in the morning.’

It is much harder for me to simply listen to him and to acknowledge his feelings. There may also be a role for reassurance and practical help, such as helping him develop more social skills.

But if I try to immediately rescue him from his painful feelings too quickly he is less likely to confide in me in the future as he will not have felt genuinely listened to.

It is only when our children feel they are not failures if they are unhappy, upset or sad that they can more authentically experience happiness and fulfilment.

At a deeper level perhaps we need to accept that we cannot control our children’s happiness and that apparent symptoms of unhappiness are not necessarily problems to be ‘fixed’. Instead, as psychologist James Hillman argues, a child’s ‘problem’ of tantrums, shyness or sadness may be expressions of that child’s ‘calling’ or destiny and have some meaning connected to their development that we are unaware of.