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How we can unconsciously treat others the way we were treated

The biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs reveals him as an extremely talented but complicated individual. This was true as much in his personal life as his business career.

Jobs was adopted as a baby and knew very little about his birth parents. His birth father was 23 when Jobs was put up for adoption. Although Jobs did not know much about his birth father, when he himself was 23 he seems to have unconsciously repeated this emotional wounding, by fathering and abandoning a child of his own.

The story suggests that history can repeat itself, often without us realizing. One of the goals of psychotherapy is to help individuals stop repeating the same old patterns of behaviour – patterns that may have been absorbed in some way from childhood, or even from earlier generations.

In simple terms this means that we often treat others the way we were treated. If we were raised by parents, or caregivers, who did not show us real empathy and love it will be difficult for us to treat our own children – or ourselves – in an empathic and loving way. And that can have very serious knock-on effects when it comes to sustaining close relationships in adulthood.

At the extreme end, parents who are aggressive and hit their children often produce individuals, particularly young men, who are prone to using violence. In Why Love Matters, psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt points out: “The child comes to expect violence from others and doesn’t hesitate to use it himself. He attributes hostility to others even where there is none because he has become highly sensitised to expect violence.”

This theory extends to other forms of treatment. If we are criticised a lot as children we will often become critical of others (and ourselves) as adults. Similarly, if our vulnerable feelings are dismissed or devalued as children we can grow up suppressing these feelings in ourselves and criticizing others who show them.

Ultimately, the response to this predicament is not about blaming our parents, although we may need to give a place to legitimate anger and sadness over what we did not receive. It is more about taking responsibility for our own lives but in a compassionate and loving way rather than a “stop whingeing” stiff upper lip way.

In psychotherapy it is the relationship between therapist and client that can help in this process as it enables individuals to get in touch with, and accept, feelings that were dismissed or crticised when they were growing up. This supportive approach can help the individual understand that they are not fundamentally flawed and have the capacity to develop new ways of behaving and relating.

As Gerhardt points out, the therapeutic relationship can help the client rebuild neural pathways in the brain that affect emotional experience, although this process is a lot slower for and adult than it would be for an infant.

“It is not enough to organise new networks in the brain by offering new emotional experiences,” she says: “For these networks to become established, the new form of [emotional] regulation must happen over and over again until they are consolidated. But once they are….some degree of real healing can be achieved.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Subpersonalities – who is driving our bus?

Many of us see ourselves as coherent, unified individuals making our way through life.

But, when we really think about it, we may recognise that actually we are made up of many different parts that come into play in particular situations and which sometimes seem to take over our normal personalities. We may sometimes wonder who is really in charge, or ‘driving our bus’.4055369011_500bb75fc1

These ‘subpersonalities’ can play a very important role in our lives without us realising. But the more aware we can become of them, the more fully we can live our lives and be present in relationships.

For example, we may have an inner exhibitionist who comes to life when we sing karaoke, an Incredible Hulk who suddenly erupts when we lose our temper over something trivial, an inner martyr, saboteur or perfectionist.

A common example is the man who is domineering at work but henpecked at home, or vice versa. Then there is the meek person who becomes extremely aggressive when behind the wheel of a car.

The idea of subpersonalities is similar to, but takes further, Freud’s idea of ego, superego and id (or Berne’s three ego states in Transactional Analysis).

Disowned or unconscious parts

Often subpersonalities represent disowned or unconscious parts of our personality. If we have been brought up to be well behaved and respectable we may try to avoid letting ourselves go, but then find we have an inner hedonist when in certain situations.

Subpersonalities can help us in areas of our lives where we are struggling.

I sometimes suggest to clients who find it hard to acknowledge their angry or assertive side that they imagine an animal to represent this. They come up with lions, tigers, panthers and so on, which can then be developed into subpersonalities and find a more conscious place in the individual’s life.

A client may then say, “When I was asking my boss for a rise and felt nervous, I imagined the panther we’d talked about in therapy and that gave me the courage.”

It can help to give names to our subpersonalities and to imagine them as particular characters. What do they look like? Sound like? A rather quiet and serious man I knew had a subpersonality called Paulo,  who was a South American womaniser and adventurer. Paulo would appear very occasionally in this man’s life and the man was rather afraid of this part of himself. Giving a name to it helped him to get more in touch with his disowned exuberance and spontaneity.

Accepting our subpersonalities

It is important that we learn to accept all our subpersonalities, even though we may feel more comfortable with some than others. There are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ subpersonalities as all are legitimate expressions of our being.

In fact, subpersonalities only become harmful when they control us and that is usually only the case when we are not aware of them.

As well as these subpersonalities there is the part of us that can observe, sometimes called the aware ego.

It can be helpful to work with subpersonalities in therapy. The therapist can facilitate the client to have a conversation with a subpersonality, perhaps using an empty chair to represent the subpersonality. Or different subpersonalities can even ‘talk’ to each other. This can be a great way of helping heal inner conflicts.

Further reading

Subpersonalities:the people inside –  John Rowan

Embracing our selves – Hal and Sidra Stone

Photo from Multicriativo at Creative Commons, Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/multicriativo/

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Resisting the pressure to be ‘happy’

‘Tears are words that need to be written.’

– Paulo Coelho

We live in a culture where there is often an unspoken pressure to be happy, upbeat or positive.

Sometimes this message is explicit, as in ‘You just need to think positive!’ or ‘Don’t feel sorry for yourself, cheer up!’ We may even hear this kind of exhortation after the death of someone close, if we have not bounced back to normal after a couple of months – ‘You just need to let go and move on!.’

I think there is a danger that, in following this cultural norm we disconnect from legitimate feelings that do not fit in with this belief, such as sadness, grief, emptiness or melancholy.

Yes these ‘negative’ feelings are part of being human. The risk is that if we disconnect from these, uncomfortable, feelings we also feel less connected to all our feelings, including those of joy or excitement.

We are using record levels of anti-depressants, not to mention alcohol, food, TV and other substances/activities to distract ourselves from darker feelings.

In his book Against Happiness, Eric G. Wilson criticises the modern Western culture of striving for happiness. He points out that much of the world’s art and creativity has its origins in dark feelings.

“I am afraid that our…culture’s overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life.”

This is not to say that there are not times in life when it may be necessary or helpful to ‘think positive’ and Wilson stresses that he is not trying to romanticise clinical depression, which is a deeply distressing condition. Nor is he questioning the importance of joy, exuberance or satisfaction in one’s life, which often arises spontaneously.

His target, rather, is the superficial notion of happiness which seeks to exclude any troubling feelings and instead try and create a world where only ‘positive’ feelings are allowed.

My training is in transpersonal, or ‘soulful’ psychotherapy. This is a therapy that takes a holistic or spiritual perspective on a person’s experience and does not see pain as something to automatically try and eradicate.

James Hillman, an American psychologist and author who built on the ideas of Carl Jung, argued in favour of soul in his essay Peaks and Vales. According to Hillman it is our soul that connects us to the messy realities of life, including failures, defeats and difficult feelings. Soul also makes itself felt through our psychopathologies – our obsessions, addictions, depressions and other symptoms.

While we may want to get rid of these ‘problems’, if we can pay attention to them, look beneath them, we may discover that they are communicating something to our conscious selves about a part of us that needs to be honoured or acknowledged.

Similiarly, feelings like sadness, grief or emptiness can spur us to make a bigger place in our lives for nature, art or human connection. Or these feelings may simply need to be felt, with no obvious outcome sought.

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Paying attention to our calling

.Acclaimed ceramicist (and author of The Hare with Amber Eyes) Edmund de Waal’s ceramics are very pure and minimalist in their design. He recalled how, at age five, he made his first pot and the teacher asked him why he didn’t decorate it with some colours.

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De Waal’s ceramics

He declared to the teacher that it was finished. “Even at that age, I must have known what I wanted to do with my life,” he says.

Reading this reminded me of how a person’s “calling” can be present from a very young age but that many of us don’t pay attention to the little clues and hints that may be pointing us towards our destiny.

This theme is relevant to therapy because many people find themselves feeling unhappy or dissatisfied without quite being able to put a finger on it. They may just have a feeling that they are not fulfilling their potential in some way.

Depth psychologist James Hillman argues that from infancy we all have a definite character and calling but that we often come under pressure to behave in psychologically “healthy” and conformist ways that can rob us of our uniqueness – a bit like the pottery teacher who wanted de Waal to add colours to his pot.

In his provocative book The Soul’s Code Hillman presents his acorn theory, which is about “reading a life backwards”. This means seeing early passions and obsessions not as problems to be corrected but as possible indications of a person’s future calling.

More mystically, Hillman draws on Plato’s idea that each of us is given a kind of guardian angel, or daimon, at birth, who guides us. This can also be seen as an inner spirit or guide., the little voice in our heads that often gets drowned out.

It is very important to pay attention to our childhood, and subsequent life, to catch early glimpses of the daimon in action, says Hillman.

“A calling may be postponed, avoided, intermittently missed. It may also possess you completely. Whatever; eventually it will out. It makes its claim. The daimon does not go away.”

What usually distracts us from following our calling are the social and family pressures to do what is expected, to make money, to marry the ‘right’ person, raise the ‘right’ kind of family and do the ‘right’ things. But then we may find ourselves strangely unfulfilled.

Psychologist and story teller Michael Meade says: “The real work in this world is not simply to succeed and ‘become somebody’, the real issue is to become one’s intended self.” He adds that the challenge for us all is to live with passion and purpose, and he quotes the poet E.E. Cummings, who said: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

In therapy clients have the chance to explore what really excites them, what they are passionate about but are not honouring in their life. This could be an artistic or musical gift, a desire to study or travel, or some other kind of passion.

He highlights numerous cases of famous people whose gifts or destinies were hinted at in their childhoods. For example, Eleanor Roosevelt, civil rights campaigner and wife of the famous US president Franklin Roosevelt, came from a very difficult family background in which both parents and a brother died before she was 11. She became antisocial, threw tantrums and retreated into day dreams about being the mistress to her father’s large household and accompanying him on his travels.

A conventional therapist would find no intrinsic value in her daydreams, suggests Hillman, in fact they would probably label them as delusion. For Hillman, however, they are not a pathology but rather a manifestation of her future calling as one of the most influential  First Ladies in US history

While most of us are not going to become famous artists or public figures, we can still look at our lives, our longings and dreams from a different perspective – one that is curious about which is our unique path and how we can honour it.

Photo by escdotdot, http://tinyurl.com/osn48b2

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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.

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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

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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.