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.