2014. That date is a detail from the science fiction stories of my childhood. And here it is, and here I am at the age of 48. I have spent most of my life working with the idea of how we as humans can nurture each other, and help each other become more able to both give and receive nurturing. These days that extends to wondering how we can achieve more nurturing for all the other living things on the planet. This photo was a surprise – I took it in a hurry (as wild vervet monkeys are quick and difficult to photograph) and was not really able to see what I was taking a picture of, other than an adult monkey. It was only when I downloaded the picture onto a large screen that I saw the suckling big-eyed baby. May 2014 be full of such surprises.
All the things that happen to us produce an emotional response. Thankfully, emotions move through us if they are allowed to be expressed. If emotions cannot be expressed they are stored in the psyche. The long term implications of these simple and obvious facts are critical to human stability.
To elaborate, if we lose someone we love then we become sad, if we are allowed to mourn, then the sadness eventually passes. If someone hurts us, we become angry, and if we are allowed to protest against the violation (hopefully appropriately and in a way that our protest is heard and respected) then the anger dissipates. The exact type and intensity of emotional response to given events will vary depending on different personalities and their psychological history, but emotional responses cannot be avoided.
If (for whatever reason) the normal function of emotional response and subsequent expression is inhibited, unprocessed emotions will lay themselves down in the psychic bedrock in layers upon layers upon layers, all filled with potential energy. And one day, when it gets hot enough, they will blow through a crack into consciousness. This eruption almost always wreaks havoc and is usually a great surprise to everyone.
So, it follows that we should think twice before we tell ourselves and others (especially our children) that we must “get over it”; that things are “not so bad”; that we must “stop crying”; that we must put “a lid on it”; that we should stop “throwing a tantrum”. We need to stop preventing emotional expression either through unspoken disapproval, or explicit prohibition. Little meltdowns every now and then are preferable to a major eruption that destroys everything in its path. And interestingly, the more we are allowed to have our true emotions and are supported through their expression early on, the better we become at managing them constructively later in life.
I have devoted my life (consciously and unconsciously) to working at a deep level with individuals and groups. Specifically, I have tried to bring the ideas of depth psychology to the general public, through teaching and writing. I have believed, fervently, that a little bit of psychological knowledge can go a long way. For example, I nurtured the naive belief that if only people knew that they were using a defense mechanism, then they would stop doing so and relating to them would become much easier. Now, this is true, in theory, and occasionally in practice.
However, there are some significant difficulties associated with such a firmly held set of convictions. If looking at our deep self was simple, everyone would be doing it. If it was so obviously rewarding, then more therapists trained in working with unconscious processes would be wealthy. Most of them are not. As Rod Anderson (therapist of note) recently pointed out to me, Jung apparently said something to the effect that 20% of one’s work on the self can be provided by the therapist in terms of insight, the rest is endurance and action which can only be done by the individual him or herself. Also, deep work (again according to Rod), helps to unleash deep truths and can in fact call one’s entire life into question. Unleashing deep truths can be explosive, and so everything becomes disrupted when one does the deep archaeology on the self. For example, if I discovered that my career choice was based on managing a deep-seated wound, what happens to me when that wound starts healing? Becoming less neurotic can throw the cat amongst the emotional pigeons on a fairly ongoing basis.
Also, a therapeutic intervention will feel very enlightening at the start – there is a real honeymoon period. The first few insights are often quite groundbreaking. If one adds the fact that the first few conversations with a compassionate person with insight can be deeply reassuring and compelling, then the early phase of a journey inside the self can feel rather good. However, at some point, it will start feeling rather difficult, as all the old painful feelings have to be faced, and even the compassion of the therapist does not provide sufficient comfort. At that point, it is easy to become profoundly disappointed in the deep work itself, as well as in the person who may be the catalyst and / or supporter along the way.
So, I still believe that deep work provides the greatest freedom for the individual in the long run, but it takes an extraordinary capacity to delay gratification in order to walk that torturous road. And, it takes a great deal of faith in a mysterious and intangible process to keep going. I hold the faith, but it is sometimes a thankless task when trying to convert the world at large. But I have to keep holding the faith of the benefits of depth work, because how else do I justify a life time of decisions and actions?
Anger is such a terrifying emotion. Every now and then I become aware of feeling furious about something. It may be triggered by a seemingly inconsequential event such as an interaction with a rude customer service person, or more seriously by a random act of cruelty. Those reactive flashes of engagement with the world are still manageable, although unpleasant.
Sometimes, however, the thing that happens resonates at the core level of myself, reminding of a violation that occurred before I could fend for myself. And then, with the surge of a volcanic eruption, I become subsumed by the primitive ferocity of a threatened wild animal, and I pity those who stand in my way. It is only later that I understand the dislocation in time and space, but by then the damage is done.
I am good at helping other people solve their interpersonal problems. I am even quite good at solving my own problems as long as they are not in the realm of significant intimacy. I have spent years teaching others (and myself in the process) how to be more assertive, spend time more wisely, manage emotions, make presentations, facilitate, mentor, coach, counsel, manage teams and groups and do inner work, which means getting to know the contents of the unconscious part of the psyche. I think that along the way I have made a difference to some people and I am pleased about that.
Many of the people who have allowed me to work with them have asked me why I do this kind of work. Over the years my answer has become more honest, or rather more accurate, as I have become more conscious about the truth. In trying to help and heal others, there is of course a part of me that I am trying to heal, and my way of doing that has involved (amongst many other strategies) an intense and relentless research project aimed at understanding the psyche and its functioning. Somewhere inside me, driving me mercilessly, is a childlike belief that if I could just understand how the whole thing works, then maybe, just maybe, I can rewrite my personal history, and so prevent the unthinkable from having happened. Except of course it did happen, and even though to this day I am still not really sure what happened, I have all the symptoms of a survivor of the unthinkable and unbearable. I have painstakingly reconstructed most of my history out of many fragments discovered over the years, but a crucial hole remains, and so do the essential symptoms. Real intimacy remains a continual struggle. And so the research continues. I will keep us posted.
We suffer loss everyday. We lose our youth, our health, inexorably and we lose the people and things that we become attached to. Conceivably, this is an unbearable part of being human, and in many instances, losses are indeed experienced as unbearable. However, surprisingly, we also recover from losses, even remarkably painful ones. I have been thinking about the things that help us recover from loss.
It seems that we as humans have an inherent capacity to grieve – in other words we have inbuilt mechanisms which help us metabolise the experience of loss. Elizabeth Kubler Ross did important work in this area and her books are well worth reading if one is struggling with loss. We have emotions that help move us through difficult experiences, if we are allowed to feel them and ideally express them. Sadness (and maybe first, anger) helps us to accept the eventual separation from the people and things that we are attached to. The experience and expression of grief allows us to come to terms with the loss. However, many of us have lost our capacity to grieve, or we never developed it in the first place. Grief is messy, and in world that insists on the shiny one-sidedness of perfection as the ultimate goal, we increasingly shy away from the useful chaos and misery of grief. We have fewer and fewer rituals that evoke our deepest meaning-making capacities, and so we are losing touch with our archetypal predisposition to heal.
Another idea is that loss is never the final act of the drama. As an insightful friend recently commented, anything that had life once, eventually supports new life. In that way, we live forever. This idea is possibly not comforting in itself, but it does embed each of us firmly in the cycle of life, and this may deliver a sense of belonging that, although abstract, softens our felt isolation from a creative source.
Finally, loss keeps us humble. It forces us to re-evaluate our relationships, our lives, our choices. It reminds us of what we do value, and sometimes encourages us to newly appreciate people and things around us that had apparently lost their lustre. With the full experience of loss, we wash the dust from our eyes and our hearts, and we discover that, remarkably, they still work.