Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Let's Hear It for Freedom of Speech

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Dublin, Ireland.

One of the questions that people who are thinking of doing therapy ask is, ‘What will I talk about?’ Everyone who comes to it has a different answer to the question.
A lucky few know exactly what it is they want to say. For the rest of us there is a lot of striving and struggling and searching for what it is we want to get out. It depends on what idea you have of therapy beforehand.
Some people have seen movies and TV shows where the therapist acts like a wise interviewer. They expect to be asked questions all the time to which they can respond in a more or less passive way.
There are other clients who believe they should focus on the particular set of circumstances that brings them to therapy, to the exclusion of other valuable areas of their lives. The focus might be an oppressive person in their lives, an unshakeable fear, a collapsed relationship, or a pattern of living that they cannot break.
There is another group who do not like talking at all. They began by thinking they wanted to try therapy but didn’t realise that it would involve work. They come and speak freely for the first one or two sessions but then suddenly they don’t come anymore.
The only conclusion you can come to is that the business of speaking about themselves wasn’t comfortable for them at all. In therapy-speak, they fell victim to the natural ‘resistance’ that we all experience.
So what is it that people should be talking about in therapy, particularly in analysis? The answer is everything and nothing in particular.
Freud’s fundamental rule, which is still applied to this day, is to talk about whatever comes to mind without criticizing or censoring what you say.
Freud said it should be like the experience of sitting in a moving train, looking out the window and describing the changing landscape to the person who is with you, in this case the therapist. This is a powerful analogy because not only does it get across the notion of speaking about the first thing that one ‘sees’, i.e. whatever comes to mind. But it also gets across the equally powerful notion that the client must be free to speak about the next thing that follows on from this. So it is a stream of pictures or ideas that are being described, in no particular order, with no particular agenda.
This form of therapeutic approach is known as free association. It shifts people away from feeling obliged to talk simply about the symptom that they are trying to get cured. It allows them a freedom to range over whatever ideas come to mind. In that way, insight is gained from viewing many aspects of a person’s life. You will often hear clients say they are amazed at new aspects to their own experiences, ones they had simply never considered, that spring to mind during this process and sometimes in the days following it.
It frees the person up from the often unhealthy grip they have on the issues that are causing them problems - causes are not to be found in the symptoms anyway - and in a very simple way it allows the person the freedom to drop one idea and move to the next, as it arises. For anyone who has been ‘stuck’ on particular issues in their lives, this in itself can be a liberating experience.
It also moves the client away from the unhelpful belief that there is a right and wrong way of undergoing analysis. There is no right or wrong way. As long as you are speaking about yourself, your life, your view of the world you inhabit, your imaginings, dreams, fantasies, fears, hopes, memories, ideas and ambitions then you are doing it correctly.
Clients can often feel they have to work on an idea until it is sucked dry in order to understand it and draw out everything from it that will bring them insight. But this is not the case because not every idea has a discernible nugget of truth in it. Free association allows the search to go on in a natural, more unhindered way until an idea that does contain some form of meaning for the client presents itself. If it has meaning in it, it will provide a rich seam of further ideas. If not, it won’t and so we move on.
Allowing oneself to speak without self-censorship and allowing oneself to tap into the never-ending possibilities that language offers is a kind of freedom that most of us don’t get the chance to experience in our daily lives. You could say it's freedom of speech but not as we know it.

•The next blog will be posted on Tuesday, January 13, 2009.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Good Friends are a Healthy Sign

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Dublin, Ireland.

Having good friends on whom we can rely is central in most people’s lives. Friends are the people, other than our families, who care for us, accept us for who and what we are, who share the same ideas, tastes, beliefs and who are there to support us in our times of need.
A friend in need is a true friend indeed, as the saying goes. Hollywood movies thrive on this concept, TV sitcoms would be lost without it and novels would be particularly empty of plot points if it wasn’t for the existence of trusty friends.
Not only do they offer support and companionship and warmth and humour throughout our lives, they also offer points of identification for us that make up the very fabric of who we are.
In the same way that we borrow bits of them, they borrow bits of us. That’s why you can tell good friends by the way they seem so content in each other’s company and how they can communicate with each other without needing to say very much. They have, if you like, swapped and shared so much in common that they are almost like siblings except there is no blood connection.
And that other old phrase, ‘you can tell a man by the company he keeps’, lets us know that we are equally reflected in those we choose as friends. Some people believe that body language is a key indicator of the true nature of a person but you can tell as much as you need to know about someone, and often in a fraction of the time, by the friends they have.
You can often see this clearly in children and teenagers. Their behaviour and value systems are shaped by the wider peer group and the smaller circle of close friends they have around them. If a child or a teenager is displaying troublesome behaviour then you can often find similar behavioural patterns within their group.
Children who begin drinking alcohol early or engaging in premature sexual behaviour or smoking or drug taking or engaging in anti-social behaviour are usually learning it from or having it reinforced by their peer group.
Equally, we often measure the healthy development of children and teenagers, and even adults, by the very existence of friends. Those without friends cause just as much concern to their families as those who have the wrong types of friends.
I began thinking about this when someone described to me recently an experience they had with a group of their friends. These friends were very quick to pick up on a number of this person’s failings and to talk about them openly and not always kindly.
What struck me was that when this person described some of these hurtful comments there would always be a reference to the people who made them as ‘friends’. This naturally prompted me to ask the question: ‘What kind of friends are these?’
This was an adult who up to recently thought they had enjoyed the company of these people but the subtle effect they were having was a negative one. It had been going on for some time and it always left the person feeling negative about themselves, doubting themselves, feeling inadequate and unworthy and confused.
This was not a healthy situation but the idea of having friends was so important that this person was prepared to accept what was happening, dismiss it as an over-active imagination, in order to feel they belonged to the group. The lure of belonging is a very powerful one.
Coincidentally, this same person met a new group of friends and it was through this that the behaviour of the first group became clearer. The second group of friends were inclusive, interested and interesting and there was a marked absence of negative, personally-directed comment.
We often hear it said that it is wise to steer away from negative people. But we can often choose a person or persons as a friend before we know their true nature. Equally we can often be at a place in our lives where we desperately need someone to call a friend. And, in fairness, most people appear interesting and fun when we first meet them. But once a bond of friendship has been established there are some whose true colours shine through, and not always in a good way.
That is why it is so important to maintain a strong sense of who we are and who our friends are. Are they having a negative effect on our sense of confidence and esteem? Do they criticize and undermine our qualities? Are we on an equal footing with them or do they see us as somehow inferior? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you need to examine the relationship a little more closely.
Mutually empowering friendships are vital for a fully rounded approach to life. They are a positive indicator of our mental health. But friendships that seek to dominate us, demean us, exploit or control us, are not true friendships. If you see it happening, it is time to redress the balance or move on. And if you can’t change it or move on, then it is time to ask questions of yourself.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Puzzle of Sex

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Dublin, Ireland.

When people talk about sex it is fascinating how many times alcohol comes into the conversation. Now you could say there is nothing surprising in that. After all, alcohol has been spurring sexual desire for as long as records began. The Greeks found it particularly useful.
Plato’s philosophical dialogue ‘The Symposium’, written after 385 BC, takes the form of a group of speeches, some light, some heavy, given by a group of men including Socrates at a ‘symposium’ or a wine drinking gathering (the Greek verb ‘sympotein’ means "to drink together") at a house in Athens.
The theme of the drinking party was to talk about the nature of human love and it was so well done that historians centuries afterwards used the text to learn about sexual behaviour in ancient Greece. And in the middle of it all, the wine was flowing freely.
You could say we have been following their lead ever since. Sex and alcohol go together like, well, bread and butter. In the normal course of events there is nothing wrong with that.
Take two consenting adults who have a few drinks, engage in sex, fulfil each other’s bodily needs in a mutually respectful way and you have something that is both a good and positive thing. But while alcohol will fuel desire even in the most inauspicious of situations, not all sexual encounters are mutually fulfilling.
What about a person who gets drunk regularly and has sex with a different stranger each time? Now that might seem like the height of liberal living. But what if the person in question always feels dirty and guilty afterwards?
Now we are into the area of repetitive behaviour, low self esteem and the potential for depressive symptoms. The only way the person can have sex is when they are blind drunk, a state in which they are an emotional cocktail: equal parts vulnerability, insulation from the physical experience, and little discrimination as to who they are having sex with.
And what about the person who, already in a relationship, becomes a sex nuisance after a few drinks, who demands of their partner that they satisfy their sexual need right here, right now, in a dizzingly varied selection of positions and role plays? It might sound like a fantasist’s dream but the demands are such that the person in question does not see that the relationship is crumbling before their eyes.
Or what about the person who is out for an evening and attracts a dream partner but who cannot perform sexually because they over-do it on alcohol? Or, alternatively, the person in an established relationship who needs a few drinks in order to have sex because they find the experience daunting? Or the person who finds sex, regardless of their gender, a submissive experience in which their desires are not met?
Sex, as defined by our culture, is one of the peaks of human experience; the one act that offers complete satisfaction; the one that supposedly never disappoints, no matter how bad it is; the one human way of relating to another that by-passes all the words necessary to communicate feelings.
And yet, the therapy room tells another story. Yes, for some sex can be fun, or exciting, or completely satisfying, or all of these things. But for others it can be so intimidating that they need a stiff drink before even contemplating it. Or it can involve such a degree of exposure, in the emotional as well as the physical sense, that it can be overwhelming. Or, if circumstances are not right, it can bring feelings of insecurity, violation or exploitation, potentially causing emotional wounds that take a long time to heal. Or it can confront some with their own sense of disempowerment or personal inadequacy. Some even find that no matter how often or in whatever variety of ways they do it they are still left with a sense of not being satisfied.
This is because sex is a conundrum in the sense of an intricate and complicated puzzle. It not only has the potential to satisfy but the potential to confuse. It not only has the potential to confirm our identity but to undermine it also. And it can not only make us feel confident in terms of our sexual gender but at times doubt it too.
Sex is a human act that, despite what TV or magazines will say, is an amazing experience for some but not for everyone. It is one that brings us to a very fundamental place in human experience in which we can find either greatness or guilt or very little feeling at all.
Unless we are pretty confident about whom we are and who the person is we are engaging bodily with, we tend to get around these uncertainties with a drink or two. Yes, alcohol undoubtedly fans the flames of our desire. But it quietens our fears also.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Road to Desire

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Dublin, Ireland.

I was at a lecture given by a colleague last week. She was talking on the subject of female hysteria. In particular she was talking about the notion of women’s sexuality and how, in part, it is constructed around the idea of identification. To identify with someone is, in pure linguistic terms, to be the same as. So in order to position oneself as a desired and desirable woman, a woman can identify with the images in the world around her, real or virtual, that exemplify this characteristic most.
There is a comfort in identification – it satisfies a tangible desire to have an ideal, to have a goal worth striving for, and it presents us with a formula for success that actually exists. It is a tried and tested route to achieving desirability. And desire, human desire, is a profound and unrelenting driver of our lives.
It was an interesting idea but it was something else my colleague said that intrigued me.
In the process of this identification, of becoming ‘like’ or ‘the same as’ someone else, there is another feature that is sometimes overlooked. The downside of identification is that we stop being ourselves, or rather never even become ourselves in the first place. We ‘construct’ ourselves according to a blueprint that has been designed by someone else, who in turn got it from someone else, who in turn… and so on. And, indeed, this can happen in men as well as women.
But my colleague gave an anonymous example of a female client who was seeking to escape a troublesome identification with an ‘other’ in order to ‘find the real her inside’. In becoming identified with someone else, she had lost sight of who the real ‘her’ was inside. I found this intriguing because one can see so many signs of identification today that can have troubling consequences. When women give themselves over to an ideal of womanhood that belongs, not to them, but to another or others, where does that leave the real person inside?
Well, for starters, one can spend one’s life looking for a partner who validates the ideal that one is striving to be. This gives us an entirely new perspective when it comes to the relationships that the person enters into. The notion of loving someone and being loved by someone now moves to the arena of loving someone who loves us back in a way we want to see ourselves being loved. Being loved is not enough now, one has to be loved in a way that fully validates the identificatory persona that has been adopted. And so a seemingly simple process now has a few added twists and turns to it.
Equally, it brings with it the possibility that, if we bury the real person behind a façade based on identification with another, how then are ‘our’ needs to be satisfied? Especially if ‘our’ needs never really come into it in the first place?
It is interesting when it comes to the therapy room how many women, particularly young women, describe the feeling of not being successful in relationships despite doing everything in their power to give those same relationships their best shot. In their view, the lack of equal effort from their partners is a puzzle. And yet when you consider it in the light of this notion of identification, it becomes a little clearer.
Entering into a relationship with the desire to be desired involves taking on the persona of another whom we imagine is perfectly desirable. This is the identification that I spoke about earlier. It is not a consciously planned thing but goes on almost automatically for most people. In this way, the person will dress, laugh, talk, walk, think, speak and love in a way that has been prescribed by the invisible hand of another or others. And by ‘other’ I mean real people, or media projections, or culturally accepted forms of womanhood.
So when it comes to 'the relationship' we have to ask ‘who is it that is entering into this relationship’? Is it the real person or the acceptable façade? And if the love relationship is not working is this question of authenticity at the root of it or not?
These are tough questions for anyone to ask of themselves. Some find it easier than others. And some women, particularly those whose identifications work best for them, whose outer persona and inner self are more closely aligned, know when they are not the problem. But for those whose identifications are not serving them well, who are trying to be something they are not, then this conflict can be a major factor secretly undermining their attempts at successive, and successful, relationships.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Chains of the Past

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Dublin, Ireland.

Have you ever noticed how some people relate to past events in their lives? Things that should be gone and forgotten are as real and alive today as when they happened. They are the bad memories that refuse to go away, the past events or occurrences that refuse to stay in the past. You will often hear people say how they try and bury them or not think about them but it doesn't seem to work.
We are used to thinking that the event or incident must been particularly traumatic, it must have been something particularly awful that was done to us. And frightening events such as physical or sexual abuse come into this category and will indeed be difficult to forget. But very often there can be small psychical traumas too that arose from quite ordinary events that we also try and bury.
A person's siblings got more attention than they did; a person grew up with a mother who was unhappy all the time; they had parents who didn’t exactly hate each other but there was no love in evidence; they cannot forget a moment in early childhood when they realised they were not quite as special as they thought; someone close to them died and it was never fully explained or understood.
The pain these incidents bring, often many years after the event or series of events, is real and unmistakable. And the effects in a psychological sense are often subtle but powerful. A person ends up living a life onto which trauma, big or small, is irreversibly glued, like something we can’t shake off.
Bad memories don’t go away just because we want them to. In fact the more we try to push them away or bury them the more they return to us. It’s like that burial scene in the Coen Brothers' 1984 movie 'Blood Simple' where the character who has been killed just won’t stay dead. The potency of that scene, in part, derives from this primeval concept that burying something is no guarantee that it won’t come back to haunt us.
A common definition of trauma is an experience that is completely unexpected and one for which we have had no time to prepare ourselves. You can think of a car crash or unprovoked violence as an example. But if you look at rescue services or armed forces, who train for their jobs quite extensively, you will still find trauma ocurring quite frequently. The incidence of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, is unusually high. So even situations for which we are trained can be traumatic.
In other words, this notion of trauma can crop up in places that are far from ‘usual’ and in ways for which we cannot prepare ourselves. Even emotional relationships that end suddenly and unexpectedly can bring a degree of trauma with them.
The common element with all forms of trauma is the inability of the person who has undergone it to put the experience into words. This is a result of not being able to find a place or a context for what has happened. It is as if it had taken place in a realm outside of our reality. And, indeed, this is close to what has actually happened. We live our lives according to a set of rules, values and understandings. But then a situation or event occurs that completely up-ends those systems which allowed us live so successfully. And because it has hit us at such a fundamental level we are left quite literally speechless. That is trauma.
It brings with it a number of features. The first is that, in the absence of having words that might make sense of the experience for us, we re-visit the memory again and again in order to try and understand what has happened. This is also why people dream about it repeatedly. It is forcing itself on us again and again so that we might gain an understanding of it.
The second feature is it shakes our trust. We stop trusting everyone, and everything we have been told or taught or trained to think is now open to question. We even lose faith in ourselves.
At the large end of the scale, with major trauma, the person is left in a world where nothing makes sense anymore and this, if untreated, can lead to serious mental health problems.
At the lighter end of the scale, the lack of trust makes itself felt in an unwillingness to seek help from any other person, trained or otherwise. Without help, some spend their lives glued to a set of hurtful ideas that stifle growth, happiness and fulfilment.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Crossing of Sexual Boundaries

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Dublin, Ireland.

Once a week I work in a prison with offenders who have committed various crimes. With sex offenders a common thing they talk about is the fear of committing the same or similar crime when they get released. There might have been an element of pleasure in whatever crime they committed before they ended up in prison but for most of them the thought of once again facing arrest, a court of law and a heavier prison sentence is a very real fear. For some, even the thought of re-committing the act itself can be riddled with anxiety.
This fear of committing the same crime again doesn’t fit with most people’s ideas of sex offenders. Yet the people I see have elected to seek therapy because of it. They have also come because the stress of being in prison, or 'doing the time', is getting to them.
I am not offering them a State-run sex offender’s programme where they are forced to attend as part of their court sentence. Nor are they promised the chance of early release for attending. The treatment I offer them is not set out into modules where they learn to accept what they did, train their minds not to do it again and learn to identify and avoid risk situations. But before I go any further, perhaps a little reality might be useful.
The most recent statistics suggest that sex offenders avoid official rehab programmes. In September, Government figures revealed that only a tiny fraction of convicted sex offenders in Ireland are completing rehab. Just 42 of the 578 sex offenders released from prison in the past five years have completed the Sex Offender Rehabilitation Programme.
Now that has to be a very worrying trend. Is it something in the programmes themselves? Or is it something in the offenders? It could be a bit of both. One very real problem is the fear sex offenders in prison have of being identified by the ‘ordinary decent criminals’. Signing up for such a course could bring the risk of this happening a little closer. And if it happens it will lead to a beating or worse.
Or it could be that serious sex offenders - by which I mean unrepentant, serial offenders - don’t believe they have a problem. Some child abusers, for example, are characterised by their full belief and willingness to proclaim that the enjoyment of children for sexual purposes is natural and that they are doing nothing wrong. They are also characterised by their unwillingness to submit to therapy, which may lie behind the disturbing statistics mentioned above.
The low uptake of official rehab is indicative of another characteristic. Predatory sex offenders gain their power from allowing their victims believe that is was ‘they’ who were somehow at fault. Signing up for rehab is, among other things, an admission of guilt. Sex predators and those with sexual perversions thrive on other people’s sense of guilt so that their own remains untouched.
The men who come to me are prepared to submit themselves to therapy even though they are promised nothing tangible in return. They are not being forced to be there. They come in the hope they can somehow make sense of what it is they have done and what kind of person they are to have done it.
It is a different mind-set and it indicates a desire for treatment which no-one else had to put into their heads. They are not preached at, or indoctrinated or ‘mind-trained’ in any way. But they are helped analyse their crime, their lives up to the point of the offence, the impact on their victims, their own belief systems when they were breaking the law and, hopefully, their own ways and means of avoiding a repeat offence.
When someone elects to undergo that kind of therapy, it is not to try and ‘beat the system’. If they are it eventually becomes easily distinguishable from those who genuinely want to change their lives. In therapy, particularly psychoanalytical psychotherapy, there really is nowhere to hide.
And we must be mindful that not all crossing of sexual boundaries ends up in a prison sentence. I spoke with someone recently who described an early sexual encounter that left little doubt but that they had been raped. Yet this person told themselves for years that it was a genuinely consensual encounter.
I met a woman recently who had a man touch her under the table throughout a meal at a social occasion. She had been too shocked to say anything about it to those present. And now she felt angry and upset.
When sexual boundaries are crossed by those who know what they are doing, the acid test is the confusion the perpetrator leaves behind. The victim is always left confused and compromised by what took place. It is one of the reasons why so many rapes and sexual assaults go unreported.
Similarly, the acid test of whether social sex pests and the more serious sex offenders are genuine about changing their ways is when they make the choice themselves to seek therapy and remain in it no matter how challenging it gets.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Reality of the Dream Relationship

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Dublin, Ireland.

The world turns on relationships. The ideal way of living is within a relationship. The most successful people in the world have relationships which, in turn, are most successful. Without a relationship life is empty and we feel isolated and different from everyone else. If we don’t find someone to share our lives, then not only are we doomed to loneliness but a very clear message goes out to all around us that we are ‘different’ in a negative kind of way. A partner is our comfort, our companion, lover, friend and, ultimately, our assurance to the rest of society that we are ‘ok’ people.
You’ll probably have found a lot of common sense in the above passage. But, equally, when you reality test it, there are certain things that stand out as being not necessarily true. The world doesn’t turn on relationships. It carries on turning whether we have relationships or not. It might be an ideal way of living for most people but not necessarily for all people, particularly if the relationship is bad. The most successful people in the world can often have disastrous personal relationships. Without a relationship life can sometimes be lonely but we are not ‘doomed’; there is such a thing as independent living. People around us can start wondering why we don’t have a relationship but that is as much our own sensitivity as anything else. And we don’t, or rather shouldn’t, need a partner to show society that we are ‘ok’.
The first set of views I presented above stem from an idealised belief that relationships are always good and always beneficial. But relationships have two sides. They are not all trouble free, personally empowering, psychologically fulfilling, or a full time joy. They can have a problematic side to them too.
In the therapy room I work with people who have difficulty with relationships that have ended, usually badly and usually leaving them with more questions than answers.
It is not always women who are mourning the loss of a partner either. Men, too, have an equally hard time when relationships end that they had hoped would succeed.
Part of the problem lies in the expectations that have been disappointed. The ideal image of the ‘whole person’ in contemporary society is one who has a good relationship with a partner, from which both can draw love, happiness, support and fulfilment. It would be trivial to suggest that we sometimes see having a partner as a commodity but in analytic work it is not unusual to hear the concept of ‘partner’ talked about in the same checklist for lifestyle perfection as the career and the apartment.
And so the reality of the relationship becomes based on an imaginary ideal. We all need ideals, goals, objectives and dreams for the future. I’m not disputing that. But the reality of relationships can be very different from the ideal. They involve two people, either same sex or opposite sex, who come together often from widely differing life experiences and with equally differing inner lives and desires. Love, as we know it, is the ingredient that can blend these differences together and place them on a shared path. But love has its obstacles too.
For some people the act of loving involves too much giving to the other. They can be carrying wounds from previous relationships or life experiences; they can have unrealistically high demands on their partners; they can have issues with intimacy; or they can simply be unwilling to let themselves go emotionally because it means loss of control. Either way the devastation that failed relationships cause is all too real.
When we love, we invest part of ourselves in another person. This energy and emotion is now cut loose from the one we loved and sends us into a tail spin of emotions. Therapy is a way of gathering in that energy so that the sense of pain and loss can be healed and the person can eventually move forward again.
This can be either a lengthy or relatively short process depending on the circumstances of the break-up and the presence or otherwise of extra burdens that the break-up represents. Here I’m thinking about issues such as excessive dependency, self esteem, the factor of infidelity, or physical or emotional abuse.
A common way of dealing with the pain of break up is to find another relationship quickly. There is a prevalent view that relationships are things we can jump in and out of with ease, starting another when the previous one ends. But pain, like all energy, has to go somewhere. And if it is not dissipated properly it accumulates and moves with us into our future relationships.
When a relationship fails we need time to make sense of that failure and often that means taking time out to come to some kind of understanding of what has happened. In that way we can be made stronger by the experience rather than weakened by it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Family and Society

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Dublin, Ireland.

I was invited to speak briefly this week at the Céifin Conference which is held every year in Ennis, Co. Clare. It puts the emphasis on what it terms ‘values-led change’ by shining a light on the quality of our social, political, economic and spiritual lives.
Organised by Fr Harry Bohan, a sociologist, Director of Pastoral Planning of the Diocese of Killaloe, a parish priest and the founder of the Céifin Centre, this year’s theme was ‘Family Life Today: The Greatest Revolution’.
I spoke as a father rather than a psychoanalytic psychotherapist about the notion of the family as the basic unit of society, a position that is enshrined in our Constitution. As such, the integrity of the family must be protected because otherwise the fabric of society will be threatened. No one can find any argument with that.
The family is the cradle out of which the individual emerges; the individual is the basic component of society and therefore society is enriched or impoverished depending on the health or otherwise of the family.
I made the point that the burden on the contemporary family – of doing this particular job on behalf of society – is becoming too heavy. The family as we know it today is not just the basic unit of society but the ‘isolated’ basic unit of society.
The growth of urbanisation, the fragmentation of communities, the economic realities that force extended families to live apart, and the changing attitudes to ideas such as neighbourliness, community and belonging are all factors that contribute to this.
Naturally, this trend is also happening against a backdrop of wider cultural movements. Increasing secularisation with decreasing spiritual values and the growth in the ‘isolationist’ trend towards self-sufficiency and independence from a shared reliance on others are part of the picture also. And that’s before we consider political action, and to an even greater extent inaction, when it comes to supporting family life.
I mentioned in passing that some years ago ‘individualisation’ of tax was brought in to favour those stay-at-home spouses who went out of the home to join in and contribute to the booming economy. Despite the pro-family rhetoric, sometimes even blatant anti-family measures slip under the radar unnoticed.
My point, however, was that the family is only strong because of the quality of its connections to other families through communities that share sustainable and sustaining values. This is what guarantees the family’s strength and its ability to function properly.
If the job of the family is to raise well rounded children who are capable of facing the challenges of life, then perhaps at a macro level the modern family is doing a good job. But if you take the old African saying, once quoted on the Oprah Winfrey TV show, that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ then a new perspective emerges.
Our western idea is that a two-parent or one-parent family is an ideal model. That’s an idea that suits our system, if you like. Since industrialisation, western societies have needed workers for its industries so social living moved from the land to the cities, from communities to geographic or postal locations. The nuclear family is an ideal model for mobility to go where the work is. Now we are so used to it that it seems as if it is the most natural way in the world.
Yet it puts a heavy burden on two parents, and often times on just one, of being the sole providers of guidance, of elder relationships, of mediator with the outside world, as well as the basic requirements of providing love, care and security.
There is only a small place in our model of the nuclear family now for aunts, uncles, grandparents, neighbours or friends to have any hand, act or part in how our children should be raised. In fact, more often than not we actively discourage it as interference.
When was the last time you saw someone in the street telling a child that wasn’t theirs to behave? There is no authority behind such an act anymore and so it rarely happens. If it does, it has little effect.
When it comes to the therapy room, this modern phenomenon brings some interesting features with it, especially for people who are suffering the effects of a damaging family life.
Each person’s situation is unique but a common element is the intensity of the primary relationships that exist and have existed in their family. There have been little or no outside influences from extended family members, little dilution of the tension, little alternative or substitute relationships and practically no getting away from this intensity if the relationship was not good.
And so a bad situation continued to get worse until these people’s lives became unmanageable. This is not about blaming parents for problems. They are as much a part of this cultural system as their children. But before we can talk about change we must recognise the problem. And so far there has been nothing to suggest we have started to do that.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Coming to Terms with Grief

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Dublin, Ireland.

As a culture, we don’t have much room for death. By that I mean we don’t have anything in the way of preparatory rituals or public discussions on the subject. Certainly there is a process once we die, of funeral arrangements and so on, but that’s about it. In this regard the late author Nuala O’Faolain’s radio interview with RTE’s Marian Finucane on April 12 of this year was both brave and ground-breaking and worth a listen for anyone who can access it. It is the voice of woman talking about her own impending death.
Death is hard for everyone. For those who are about to die and for those who will be left behind. But what is probably hardest of all is the lack of guidance that our culture gives us in terms of how we should prepare for, deal with and cope afterwards with the death of loved ones. It is an interesting concept considering that death is the final stage for each and every one of us.
In the western world we have technologies that can put people into the farthest reaches of space. We can see inside the human cell. But we have no technology to help us deal with the reality of death. Instead we shy away from death and everything to do with it. It is as though we want to ignore that it has happened as quickly as possible and get on with our lives.
You could say we have evolved a culture that doesn’t so much promote living as shun the notion of dying. For a very long time we even took it further and treated old age, the stage before death if you like, as something decidedly unattractive and unworthy of our attention. As a cultural attitude, it was a curious way to live considering that sooner or later we would experience the death of someone close to us.
I had a client recently who was coping with the sudden death of their partner. A major burden in this client’s grief was the attitude of those in the outside community. After the burial, it was as if things should get back to normal as quickly as possible. But that is not the way it is with death. There is no set time in which someone should ‘get over’ the death of a loved one. Often it can take a long time, particularly if the death has been unexpected.
You find the famous five-stage grief model of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and the four-stage model of John Bowlby misinterpreted again and again in this respect. In Kubler-Ross’s case, the Swiss doctor was actually describing the stages the dying person went through, not the bereaved who is left behind. But yet you find people coming to therapy with a knowledge that they are in the ‘denial’ stage or the ‘anger’ stage. That is a useful model if you have been diagnosed with terminal illness but not so much if you are the one left behind.
Certainly there is shock, denial, anger and eventually acceptance when we lose someone. And yes the Bowlby model does offer an insight with its ‘phase of numbing’ or its ‘phase of yearning and searching’ for the lost person that can last several years. But it would be a mistake to assume that grieving is like moving through a check list. We don’t pass through phases like an automaton, ticking boxes and then arriving at acceptance when all the pain is over. Grief is messy and confusing and because our culture has no room for it or no idea how to alleviate the burden of it, it has to be done in private, away from the public gaze. So it is isolating as well as everything else. And despite people’s best intentions, it is only when you are ‘better’ that are you welcome back in society again.
But the bereaved person needs an opportunity to fully honour the one who is lost to them, to relive their life in stories and memories, to feel they are beside them once more, to let them ‘live’ again in whatever way they can. Grief is worked through not by forgetting or ‘getting over’. It is worked through by re-experiencing, by remembering, by re-telling the stories of the dead person’s life again and again, by admitting the loss that their death represents and by celebrating their lives and their contribution to the lives of others. This would be in line with Sigmund Freud’s concept that he outlined in his famous 1917 paper ‘On Mourning and Melancholia’.
And yet it is this very place that our developed western culture lets us down. We have chosen to embrace life while at the same time ignoring the place of death in all our lives. While good friends and family provide a vital role in making up for this lack, therapy too takes up where society leaves off. Grieving is the process whereby someone we love is lost to us. It is a painful and sometimes lengthy way of coming to terms with that loss. Our culture’s desire for it to be quick and unobtrusive is unhelpful.
Sometimes the loss comes at the end of a long and painful illness. Sometimes it comes out of the blue. Whatever way it comes, it leaves us searching for meaning, for a way of understanding what has taken place and for a way of coping with it in order to move forward. In our increasingly secular world religion offers fewer people comfort in the face of death and so the business of making sense of it becomes even harder. But patience, openness, a listening ear and the recognition that grief is not some form of illness to be hidden away can all help it reach a natural end and allow something new to grow in its place.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

How to be a Resistance Fighter

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Dublin, Ireland.

I was talking to a woman some time ago who told me that she had been to a psychiatrist. She had been suffering from depression and had gone to see if she could get some help. She described the experience as useful but then, for a reason she didn’t quite understand, she decided to break off the treatment and didn’t go back. When I asked her why she did this she said she ‘had just felt stupid lying there not knowing what to say’.
That was that, she moved on and, as it turned out, someone else joined our conversation so I didn’t get the chance to discuss it further. But something about what she said has stayed with me since.
Psychoanalytic psychotherapy tends to focus on what people say, the words they use, in order to probe for a deeper understanding of what is going on ‘behind the scenes’. The reason this woman gave for breaking off her treatment was, on the one hand, short and seemingly straightforward. But looking a little further it has an underlying richness that illuminates a central element in the therapeutic process.
She said she had felt stupid lying there not knowing what to say. What she was actually describing, without realising it, was a moment that has a fundamental role in analysis. It was the moment of resistance. Sigmund Freud made this a central element of his classical psychoanalytic theory. It is the moment when forces within us fight against our competing desire to get something out. It is the irresistible force meeting an immoveable object that physics likes to speak about. The result is inertia, a dumbing silence in which nothing is said and nothing can be said. The experience from the client’s perspective is one of not having anything to say.
We repress thoughts and ideas that give rise to unpleasure. It happens in all of us and it happens often without us having to consciously think about it. It’s not all bad either, sometimes repression is necessary in order to allow us survive certain experiences and situations. But once something is repressed it has a tendency to return either as a direct memory or in other more diverse routes. And since it was usually unpleasurable to begin with, our automatic reaction is to keep it repressed. This activity of keeping something repressed is called resistance.
So how do we know this ‘resistance’ when it occurs? Well, as I said, it is when a client reaches a point in their story where there are no more words, when they fall into silence, when they become acutely aware of the therapist's presence and when they see a picture in their mind and tell themselves ‘no I will not talk about that’. A great many people come to therapy and censor out what they will and will not talk about. At least at first they do, until they get comfortable with the process, trust their therapist and realise they are wasting their money if they are not going to be honest with themselves.
I don’t mean to be puritanical about this. Every one of us experiences resistance in the consulting room at various times when we are the client. Sometimes we win over it, and sometimes it wins over us. But that is part of the challenge of therapy, returning again and again to see if we can overcome this inherent desire to keep things buried, if we can get to new things, throw new light into our dark corners.
Resistance also surfaces in the way some people tell themselves why things should remain hidden and out of sight: it will upset us, it will bring back bad memories, there is no need to go into all that old stuff again in order to move forward. All of these are very reasonable reasons. Modern psychoanalytic practice, particularly Lacanian theory, believes that each session should follow the path that the client decides to speak about with only minimal interruption or direction from the therapist. It does not dictate that a client’s history should always be forensically sifted in every session. It does not demand that the scene of trauma or unpleasant experience be revisited relentlessly. The pace is set by the client and each session grows out of those things the client wishes to speak about. The rationale is that if something repressed is trying to find expression it will eventually makes itself known either directly or indirectly.
Resistance also makes itself heard in the inner voice that tells us not to enter into or continue with therapy, as my example above showed. Resistance emanates from within and is designed to stop us doing the work of therapy, of asking questions of ourselves, of sorting through the experiences of our lives, of undertaking any kind of work that will question the very things which resistance is trying keep hidden. In short, it has succeeded when it brings therapy to a halt before it has reached its goal.
The woman mentioned above said she felt stupid lying there with nothing to say. Not only had resistance brought her to a stop in what she wanted to say, it then heaped a sense of embarrassment and humiliation on top for good measure. It didn’t really matter what ploys she unwittingly used against herself, the end result was exactly what the unconscious part of her wanted. She walked away from therapy with her questions unanswered and her dark corners comfortably unperturbed.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Lure of the Norm – 2

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Dublin, Ireland.

Last week I wrote about the effect that norms have on our lives. I’ve come back to the issue this week because there are a number of other important ways in which norms impinge on us, and not always in a positive way.
A client of mine has lived as a single person for many years and even though they would ideally like a partner and a companion, this client nevertheless leads a productive and fulfilled life. The group of friends this client socialises with are all in couples and any who do become single don’t remain so for very long. My client, therefore, is often the only one who is single in a more or less continuous way.
The interesting thing is that this client can sustain two very different positions at the same time. On the one hand there are moments when life can be lonely and when a companion, lover, partner, is something that would make all the difference. On the other hand, this client can lead a full and productive life, always engaging in new projects, living a financially independent lifestyle with a good circle of friends and with the freedom to do what they wish, when they wish.
The norm of being in a relationship is something that this client is aware of, particularly from the examples of friends and, indeed, from the wider society. Movies, books, TV and magazines are also brimming with the message that completeness and happiness lie within the human relationship. This is the culture in which this client, no more than the rest of us, belongs and that is something to be accepted.
Occasionally one of this client’s friends will offer a helpful suggestion as to ways that a partner could be attracted: a different style of presenting oneself, a different method of socialising, a different ‘look’ and so on. Curiously, it is times like this that my client finds most upsetting. Living as a single person; being different to the norm; the day to day realities of earning a living; socialising as a single person and dealing with life’s ups and downs without the benefit of a supportive other, are all manageable.
But when friends verbally apply the norm of the dual relationship lifestyle in the form of ‘helpful’ advice then it becomes problematic. By suggesting ways in which my client can ‘fix’ their single situation there is the implicit message that it is a wrong or flawed or unsatisfactory way to live. Now the norm is being actively applied rather than just passively accepted.
The effect is, as I mentioned last week, to create an insider-outsider way of thinking. Anyone who complies with the norm is on the inside and therefore is ‘ok’. Anyone outside the norm is made to feel as if there is something wrong with them.
An interesting question arises from this: why is it that those outside the so-called norm appear to have a greater understanding of issues such as diversity and pluralism than those inside it? We can all agree with the liberal viewpoint that there are many ways of living one’s life but in practise we can be quite conservative and prescriptive about how it should be done.
The lure of the norm can have an effect not only on the way we see others but on the way we see ourselves. When someone comes to therapy you often find that they tell their story in broad strokes. They will describe things they have done or said or thought or felt in terms of it being ‘just the way other people’ do or say or think or feel. There is a comfort in this. It makes them feel normal, just like everybody else.
But there is also a negative side to it. When we are like everybody else we stop being ourselves. And that is what psychoanalytic psychotherapy is searching for: the person behind the complex of identifications and projections that make up our social selves. For behind our social selves there is another us; the one that is not being heard, the one whose life is not being lived; the one whose needs are not being met.
The only way of finding out who this person is and what this person truly wants is to stop imagining that we are ‘just like everyone else’. In broad terms yes we are but in a particular sense we most definitely are not. And so the business of therapy is to find the vocabulary, the words, to describe this person more accurately and more precisely; to use fresh, new words that do not apply to everyone else in general or anyone else in particular.
We are looking for the words that refer only to the client’s uniquely individual life. It is what is often referred to in the text books as the search for ‘subjective truth’. It is the furthest thing from cliché or normative descriptions or hand-me-down opinions of oneself that you can get. That is the goal of therapy; that something new and unique is found where something old and general used to be.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Lure of the Norm - 1

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

It’s good to feel like everyone else. The world seems so much more understandable. Things fit where they should fit and fall into their proper place. If we think and act like everyone else then we have evidence that what we think and do is ok. Why is it ok? Because everyone else does it, so it must be ok.
As circular thinking goes, the idea of a norm to which we can all aspire, and from which we can all direct our lives, is a comforting thought. Apart from giving us a sense of who we are and where we belong, norms can also give us a very useful way of judging unacceptable behaviour in ourselves and others. It is impossible to imagine murder becoming an acceptable norm. Or violence, or crime, or physical abuse, and you can probably make an even bigger list.
Norms have their uses. But there is another side to them. You often hear distressed people say,‘I just want to be normal, lead a normal life, do normal things’. It is the verbal expression of the desire to live the way others seem to live, without difficulty or fear or depression or addiction or phobias or oppression or discomfort with whatever the norm happens to be. As a desire, it makes sense. We move towards norms quite naturally. Sometimes we do it so well there is almost a homogenization of personality going on. Look at clubs or gangs or other tightly knit groupings within society.
But what if we don’t match the norms? Those who don’t are often made to feel like outcasts, sometimes bullied, or victimized or made to suffer varying forms of injustice. Those who don’t accept, or who cannot comply with the norm due to physical, emotional or intellectual limitations are judged harshly. If someone doesn’t fit that standard, then they can’t belong. Equally, those who actively choose not belong deserve what they get.
Different people can find themselves outside 'the norm' at different times in their lives. Sometimes they know why they are there but sometimes they don’t. Some cope by denying what is happening and you find this in addictions of all kinds and in some personality disorders. Others will believe they are unworthy to belong and you find this in anxiety and mood disorders. Some believe the norms are just plain wrong and continue to live as they believe they should. You see this most clearly in the area of sexuality and gender identity.
Does that mean that anyone outside the norm is wrong? No, throughout history there have been plenty of examples of norms that are not just or equitable or appropriate. Even in contemporary society you can see examples of this. Think of sub-sectors of society where physical appearance is paramount, or financial wealth, or liberal sexual values, or personal and corporate greed, or even drug or alcohol use.
If you look hard enough you can even find norms that are publicly accepted yet privately rejected. Enjoying good mental health is one such. It has a paradoxical relationship with society. Everyone agrees that it is a good idea and an essential requirement for a full life. And yet ensuring it through therapy is more often than not seen as a sign of weakness rather than strength.
New norms are continuously being devised and old ones discarded but we have yet to embrace the norm of personal enquiry into our own psychical lives. That would involve a true examination of the norms by which we live.
Next week I'm going to return to this topic in order to look at one or two other ways in which norms effect our lives, in sometimes negative ways.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Remembering and Forgetting

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

Clients often say they have no memories of their childhood that they can recall. They may not have had an abusive childhood, no trauma that they can recount, and lots of normal things may have happened to them and their siblings. That’s not to say they don’t experience difficulties in their adult lives because they obviously do. But they never connect these two things.
It probably sounds strange when you put it down in black and white this notion of not having any childhood memories. But, in fact, it is more frequent than you would think. Many people who come to therapy, and even those who don’t, see it as a blithely normal phenomenon in their lives that they have few early personal memories. They put it down simply to being that kind of person, having a bad memory.
After working for a number of months with one particular client recently he said he could remember a time in his early life when things were difficult for him. He didn’t think much of it as he spoke. But then he remembered the reasons why things had been so difficult at this time; a change had taken place in his living arrangements. This prompted another memory of other changes that occurred and how he had not adapted well to those changes either.
He looked at me and wondered how it was that he hadn’t thought of this period in his life before now. And suddenly he remembered another detail of this period that was again linked to what he had already remembered. And on and on it went until bit by bit he had built up a fuller picture of a time in his early life that he had not remembered, and felt he was unable to remember, for many years.
Psychoanalytic theory is rich in research and ideas on the notion of repressed memory. Most people assume that only the very bad stuff gets repressed. But that is not the case. Often mundane, fun, friendly, cheerful or encouraging memories get buried along with some particularly upsetting or unpleasant experiences. Nor does the business of repression end in childhood. There is an ongoing repression that can follow through into adolescence and adulthood.
That is why remembering is so important. And why the assumption you have forgotten when in fact you have not been able to remember is so significant. Yes, some people do have bad memories; there is no doubt about that. Not remembering names and faces or where the car keys were put down are intrinsically human traits. But to have whole swathes of one’s life effectively hidden from memory is a different matter. There is a different energy at work here. And it is like living without a past.
It is natural to try and hide this shortcoming. People will talk about anything else in therapy, usually current experiences, in order to mask this deficiency. But when a client stays the course and is able, as the client I mentioned above, to put a single marker down on the icy slopes of memory, then it is a wonderful beginning. This becomes the new, and in some cases, the first foothold from which the climb can begin. Maybe that’s why we call the business of undergoing therapy ‘work’. Once this foothold is established it allows for another foothold to be established and so on until they form the links between the daisy chain of memory that stores our life experiences and runs back and forth through our lives. A lot of memories will be ordinary, run-of-the-mill and some won't. But each carries a rich emotional charge that resonates through our being once it is re-found and re-experienced.
The great French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan famously said: ‘We are not cured because we remember, we remember because we are cured.’ So if there is a test of whether therapy is working or not perhaps it is this: that we can have at our disposal the dense tapestry of memories that make up who we are. And that we can engage with them without being afraid or sad or angry or inappropriately overjoyed.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Unspoken Command to Enjoy

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

An often unspoken reason why people enter therapy is the desire to learn how to enjoy their lives again. Certainly the stated reason is to find a way of freeing themselves from fears or anxieties or depression or addictions. But behind it is the implicit wish to enjoy.
To enjoy what? To enjoy one’s life and the ordinary things that one does. To re-find an enjoyment in relationships. To experience again the enjoyment of taking on something new, going in a new direction, deciding on a new challenge. And yet to reach this goal can sometimes, but not always, be elusive and involve quite an amount of therapeutic work.
We live in a culture, by which I mean western culture generally, where there is an unspoken command to enjoy. In our contemporary society this finds its voice in various ways. People in shops say it to us when we buy a coffee, or in restaurants when our meal arrives, or when a friend gives us a gift, or when we are going on holiday or out for an evening. The images of success that are presented to us daily are of people who appear to know the secret of how to enjoy. Enjoy! It is a well-intentioned wish, a desire that we find pleasure in whatever it is we are doing.
But the opposite, as far as society is concerned, equally holds true. Our pathology, our un-wellness if you like, resides in not being able to enjoy. It is often revealed by this very lack because the flip side of not enjoying one’s life or one’s life experiences is the unavoidable conclusion that there must be something wrong. So enjoyment becomes a goal that we not only set for ourselves but one that is set for us by society at large. It can then become a burden, a seemingly unattainable state of mind that some can reach but not others. And that’s before we consider the realm of what psychoanalysis calls the ‘beyond of enjoyment’, the place of excess pleasure, the place where the illusory promise of final and total satisfaction leads us.
In the Victorian era, the dominant discourse was to Obey! We had to obey our leaders, religious and secular, our parents, our community and our elders. In the modern and post-modern eras, the dominant discourse is, yes, to Enjoy! And it is interesting how both seem to be communicated with that stern sense of doing what you are told because it is good for you. Many commentators point to the similarities between the consumerism of the present and organised religion of the past as an example of this shift.
All things being equal, the command to enjoy should be far easier to achieve than the command to obey. After all, one involves sacrifice and adherence to rules while the other does not. And, when all is said and done, the command to enjoy is more fun.
But at a time of great personal and civilian freedoms we often find, at least in the clinical setting, the ability to enjoy is diminished. And this might be in spite of living a life that, on the face of it, participates in varied pleasures and enjoyments. In reality some people live extraordinarily ‘fun’ lives as well as enjoying close personal, family and emotional relationships, a busy social schedule, a measure of success in their careers, good social skills and strong personal attributes. But while pleasure surrounds them, the ever elusive full enjoyment of, and complete satisfaction from, those pleasures is always just out of reach. Psychoanalytic psychotherapy has many theories as to why the notion of attaining full satisfaction, full enjoyment, is so problematic. Without going in too deeply, it offers a rounded sense of what it means to be human, in all its glories and failings, so that enjoyment has a context. Certainly it is attainable, in a personal and subjective sense, but when enjoyment is sought as the panacea for our failings, to fill up our sense of lack, it will always fail to give us what we ask of it.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Culture of Being in Therapy

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

Some clients will say they want the magic six sessions. That’s all. They don’t want to be in therapy any longer than that. Some don’t actually come out and specify a number but by visit six they start to get itchy feet. Eventually they let you know that their thoughts are turning to leaving. Now, in one sense, this is a compliment. I have obviously done something right for them to feel good enough in themselves to want to finish their therapy. And there’s nothing wrong with feeling good. To re-find your sense of wellbeing and enjoyment is one of the goals of psychoanalytic therapy.
As long as people understand that after six sessions we have only scratched the surface. The bigger questions such as ‘how have I become this person?’, ‘why has my life taken the route it has taken?’, ‘why do I keep repeating the same patterns?’ take longer to answer.
With these kinds of questions – the backdrop to a whole range of psychical symptoms and symptomatic behaviours – the expectation of a six session cure becomes a problem. Yes, some therapies will offer the hope that your symptoms will go away if you focus exclusively and briefly on them. And, yes, some clients feel better in a short space of time just from having someone listen. If either or both of these approaches work, then fine. But the idea of the short, fast cure, alluring as it is, has led many people to miss out on the true potential of discovery, transformation, insight and self knowledge that comes from consistent, patient work in psychoanalytic therapy.

Sometimes it is the unease of clients themselves that drives this desire to cut the whole experience down to its barest minimum. The very fact of being in therapy carries a potent stigma that has a curiously reverse effect. Instead of seeing it as an activity through which they can regain control of their lives, they see it as a further sign of their weakness or hopelessness. We don’t stigmatize people who go to a gym to make their body stronger and yet we do it to people who want to make their minds stronger.
There are any number of reasons to perpetuate the myth of brevity. These range from financial (therapy costs money), through social (I’d hate my friends to know), personal (I don’t want to go to therapy) and on to the opposing theoretical perspectives that fill up our university libraries. But the fact remains that there are no quick fixes. This is something we intuitively know from many different spheres of our lives. Yet the attraction that it can somehow magically happen is a powerful idea that is hard to resist. It fits perfectly into our culture of expediency because it promises an instant rehabilitation to the norms that we must all adhere to.
Psychoanalytic psychotherapy is the opposite. You could say it sees itself on the side of the human being, who is individual, different to the norm and who deserves the respect of having time and attention spent on him or her. It does not seek to patch people up, turn them around and send them back out into society to fulfil their designated roles as quickly as possible. It takes as long as it takes in order for a client to get back into the driving seat of their own lives, not into someone else’s idea of what their lives should be. If it takes six sessions or six months or six years then that’s what it takes. And for however long the client chooses to turn up, then I choose to be there too. And, no, I don’t turn away clients who only want to come for one session to test the water.

Monday, September 8, 2008

How Can Talk Change Anything?

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

A client once asked me ‘How can talking change anything? I mean, it’s only words isn’t it?’ I remember being a little knocked back by the question. It was a bit like asking a baker why he uses flour to make bread. It was so obvious it took me by surprise.
Or maybe it was because behind the question I could sense that this particular client had reservations about being in therapy in the first place, which turned out to be the case. But even so, they had posed an interesting and challenging question. Can talking make a difference? I’ve thought about it a lot since it came up.
If I could replay the situation I’d probably say something like ‘words are the only things we have to change our ideas about ourselves’. That might sound a little pompous or profound but it’s not meant to be. Words are the carriers of our thoughts, our feelings, our wishes, passions, dreams, ambitions, fears. They are the things that allow us illuminate what would otherwise be a very dark world, a kind of darkness in which very little of what we humans need to survive would be available to us. I’m thinking of comfort, hope, understanding, community, inner strength, and certainly love.
Sometimes words even shape who we become in life. Consider comments that significant people have made to you at formative times in your life, using words that have stayed with you for a long, long time. For good or bad, words linger and become part of our mental landscape so that they are as much a part of our personalities as our accent or our laughter or our turn of phrase.
We sometimes take for granted in our noisy world of multi-media outpourings how potent language can be. We also overlook the fact that we are in a sense forged by words; first by the words of our parents when we are helpless infants and later by our own choice of speech and language. The very way we structure an idea that we communicate in words indicates how we feel about it.
That’s why psychoanalytic psychotherapy focuses on words. It is a talking cure. It is the job of the analyst to listen in a way that most other people in your life don’t listen. And because words are so rich with meaning it is possible to tell the same story many times to an analyst and each time it comes out slightly different so that something new is revealed.
Because of this richness the analyst, unlike a friend or family member, never gets tired listening to your story and is always concentrating on the key words that signify what might be going on for you behind the depression or the anxiety or the sexual inhibitions or whatever it happens to be. And these are the things that are explored and questioned and interpreted: words. The business of listening is not magic or mysticism; it is a science that is taught and an art that is learned. For the fifty minutes that you are in session, it is about you and only you and the words with which you choose to tell your story.