Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Pursuit of Happiness - 2

By Kevin Murphy MSc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

The pursuit of happiness, about which I was writing recently,* would appear to be moving up the political agenda if plans by the UK government are anything to go by. British Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans last month to measure the UK’s national mood. Put simply, he intends to measure the nation’s happiness.
The UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS), which produces data on the economy, unemployment and crime, will start measuring the quality of UK life from next April. The rationale for this move is, according to Mr Cameron, that current indicators do not show overall wellbeing.
The ONS will ask people how satisfied they are with things such as their relationships, locality and work, with the aim of producing national and regional wellbeing measures by the summer of 2012. But first it will decide what questions to ask and how much weight should be given to each.
Mr. Cameron said he remained focused on maintaining Britain’s recovery from deep recession, but just as a government can create the climate for business to thrive, it can also create a climate that is more family-friendly and more conducive to ‘the good life’, to use his own words.
It follows a trend set by the previous Labour government whose plan to flood the country with a wave of newly trained psychotherapists continues unabated. In 2007, to combat a rise in depression and so ensure its citizens remained happy, New Labour promised 10,000 new therapists, trained in a particular quick and cheerful version of the usual traditional treatment. Last year funding was upped to provide hundreds more.
The mantra appears to be – as if it wasn’t already stitched into popular western culture – happiness good, sadness bad. And to get you there as quickly as possible, they not only have the personnel but now they will have the tools to measure the attainment of objectives. If it wasn’t so serious, it might make a good comedy.

Now it is fair to say that a country, at government level, can create conditions to increase the happiness of its citizens. Full employment, lower taxes, better healthcare, better childcare, better eldery care and secure pensions would do it for most people. Anything beyond that, any attempts by government to delve into the nitty gritty of people’s happiness might leave it open to straying into George Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ territory. Why would you need a ‘happiness index’ when the improvements that people need are obvious?

One, therefore, has to reasonably ask if it's for other purposes. But what could they be? Political gain…? A form of social control whereby anyone who doesn’t conform to the national mood is just not trying hard enough? Remember, a happiness index can have a grand-sounding purpose to begin with – the measure of national wellbeing. But what happens if the index, despite the best efforts of government, shows a low national mood? What government will want to publicise its own failures? Does that then leave it open to manipulation?
Equally, what if the index shows a high national mood – happiness abounding – what will that say to anyone who doesn’t feel they share that sentiment? Are we to see a new stigmatising of those whose 'mood' falls short of the accepted norm?
The dangers inherent in such a well-intentioned state policy are not hard to see. Unfortunately, like a fashion that takes hold, it is now in train and unstoppable. Last year, President Nicolas Sarkozy asked Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, a former White House adviser and World Bank chief economist, to find new ways to measure economic progress in France that will also take into account social wellbeing.
The move by governments to start involving themselves in the business of people’s happiness is a regressive move for many reasons. But, perhaps, one of the most insidious effects of this will be not on happiness but, paradoxically, on sadness. In a culture where happiness is the ultimate goal and where therapies and medications are designed to deliver it in whatever way they can, there is no room for sadness. Sadness is becoming the last taboo word that contemporary individuals can utter.
And yet, within the concept of sadness we find vital clues to all the ingredients that go to make up the modern individual – identity, sexuality, ego ideals, unconscious drives, desire and repression. And in sadness we also find, to a greater or lesser extent, echoes of the major contemporary symptoms that afflict society – depression, anxiety, fear, phobia, obsessiveness, hysteria and weaknesses inherent in the human bond.
The drive to measure happiness and in doing so erect a socio-political banner around which we should all rally might seem well-intentioned. But its effect will be to further banish the concept of sadness to the realm of unacceptability. This is a trend that has long been in progress, probably since the 1950s when mood altering medicines were first produced. In the US alone, the sale of these medicines now accounts for $22 billion annually. Eradicating sadness is big business.
What this amounts to is that the very symptom that contains so much vital information as to who we are and why are we are this way, is being erased from the picture. It is no longer ok to be sad. And if this is the case, then it is a move in the wrong direction. Sadness is as much a part of human life as happiness. We can’t know one without having experienced the other. We can’t uncover any truth about ourselves unless we recognise the opening that sadness creates and follow it wherever it leads.

* See blog of 26/11/10.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Obscure Object of Desire

By Kevin Murphy, MSc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

“We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with some delusion and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.”
When you read these lines, it is as if they were written about our most recent property boom and its subsequent collapse. Yet they were written a very long time ago, in the mid 19th century. Despite that, they are still incredibly relevant. What they tell us is that the fever that gripped this country for the ten year period up to 2008 was, in the context of history, nothing new.
The lines are taken from a book called ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’. It was written by a Scotsman called Charles Mackay when he was living in London and working as editor of the London Illustrated News. The book was published in 1841 and it is a compilation of some great historical delusions that have beset countries, nations and communities.
Now you might argue that surely there has never been an example of a bank or a small group of financiers bringing a country to its knees. Yet the very first example is from France in the 1720s when the country was almost brought to bankruptcy because of a dodgy share scheme, devised and promoted by the leader of the government with the help of Scotsman John Law. It promised riches for all from trade with Mississippi and Louisiana and thereby created a frenzy of buying and selling in the stock.
At the same time, there was a similar scheme going on in England called the South Sea Bubble*, whereby a group of high ranking politicians and businessmen promised great riches from trade with the east coast of South America, despite having nothing to back it up except hype. They sold shares in their South Sea Company that reached such heights – fuelled by greed at all levels of society - that an act of Parliament had to be brought in to put a stop to it. Needless to say the whole thing came crashing down and this too almost brought the UK to the brink of bankruptcy.
The scary part is that the pattern gets repeated over and over again in the present day. An introduction by Professor Norman Stone of Oxford University says that the UK and French delusions were the forerunner of the Great Crash in 1929. And that many other forms of mass delusion have their counterparts in the modern world. But if you want a really interesting and familiar description of what an economy looks like when things collapse you’ll find it in the book where the author describes the aftermath of the Dutch tulip boom**. Yes, there was a time in history when tulip bulbs in Holland were selling for more than diamonds.
There are many other examples in the book ranging from a craze for fortune telling, to witch mania, to The Crusades, to haunted houses, to duelling among men. They all have the same thing in common. At one point or another they gripped the public imagination and for a time became the most important issues of the day, to the exclusion of practically everything else. They were delusions that operated on a massive scale.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, how this country’s obsession with property falls into this category too. For a time, the market in property rose to heights that were unsustainable but nobody cared. It was a market built on very little that could sustain it, other than hype, expectation and greed. It took over the entire thinking process of an entire nation, to the exclusion of all else. And, like the collapses in Charles Mackay’s book, when the dust settled a handful were blamed for the excesses of the many. Not everybody partied in Ireland during the Celtic Tiger years, as has been suggested. For many the Celtic Tiger passed by without ever stopping at their door. But enough partied to suggest that we may have been caught up in a delusion of sorts.
It is a testament to the grip that economics has on current thinking that no-one has ever mentioned the word ‘delusion’ in the context of the Irish property experience. ‘Delusion’ may not be in the vocabulary of economists. Maybe they have other words to describe a form of madness that overtakes a nation. And yet, is there any other word for it?
The French psychoanalyst and thinker Jacques Lacan has, central to his vast and often complicated theories, a concept known simply as ‘object a’. ‘Object a’ is something we never see or touch or smell or feel or hear but it is a central part of all our lives. Its singular power is to make us want it but it does so by taking the shape of real things in the world. And not just make us want it but to desire it more than anything else. Even though it is something we can’t put a name on, it lands, much like a rare invisible butterfly, on other objects in the real world and so we believe that the thing it lands on is the thing we really want.
Property became our ‘object a’ in this country for a decade or so. Something tangible that promised riches, security, comfort, success, social status, it became the thing we most admired. The invisible butterfly of ‘object a’ landed on it turning property into the obscure object of desire.
There are two things to remember about ‘object a’, however. The first is that it emanates from deep within all of us and is a memory, an idea even, of a loss we suffer from the moment we are born. It is the lingering taste of a time when all our needs were met, when all desires were filled and all lack abolished. That is what ‘object a’ becomes for each and every one of us, a nagging memory of something lost that we seek to re-find all our lives. That’s why the real object, when we eventually fix on it, becomes so intensely important and desirable.
The second thing is that if we get too close to ‘object a’, if we get too close to the thing that will potentially quench all desire and satisfy all needs, common sense tells us but it took Dr Jacques Lacan to spell it out in his teaching, we are in danger of turning off the very fire that burns within us and drives us forward. No lack, no desire. Getting too close to our ‘object a’ therefore is a dangerous thing; it is so good it is bad for us. We see that most clearly when greed drives the citizens of a nation to clamber over one another to seek the comfort of riches. The lessons of distant and recent history are that the process ends in tears.
But ‘object a’ need not be property. Sometimes it is the opposite or same sex, sometimes it is stock market shares, or fame, or eternal youth, or the nirvana of a pain free existence through drugs. And it moves around, all the time, jumping from one thing to the next. As soon as we have captured it in one form it moves to the next thing. Faraway hills are often greener, isn’t that the old phrase?
That’s why, after the dust has settled on the property boom and its aftermath, there will be something else to take its place, hopefully after a suitable amount of time has elapsed and hopefully something that will not be as catastrophic for the economic well-being of the country. But there will be something and it will delude us into thinking that this new thing is ‘it’. Before the property boom we had the dot-com boom and after it we can reasonably expect something new that will make us forget some of the lessons of the past. Let’s hope we don’t forget all the lessons of the past. It's not that we have a problem remembering the lessons of bad experiences. But the lure of ‘object a’ simply never goes away, pushing us ever onward to re-find it in its newest form.
* The word Bubble was used in the mid-19th century to describe any scheme that grew from nowhere, had little to sustain it and could burst at any moment. The current phrase ‘property bubble’ used in connection with our economic collapse comes from this.
** Mackay, C., (1841 [1995]), ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’, Wordsworth Editions, p.95.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Pursuit of Happiness*

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.
The pursuit of happiness is something that is an intrinsic part of every person’s story who is brave enough to come for psychotherapy. And I say brave not just in the sense of personal courage in overcoming one’s own internal fears. But courage also in the sense of being able to overcome the residue of societal antipathy toward the very act of seeking out therapy, or ‘going to someone’ as it is often put.
Yet, when you consider the vast amounts of time, money and energy spent on consumer items, on spiritual enlightenment, on bodily improvements, on escapist activities, on therapies that enourage people to ‘act out’, on medical solutions, on illicit drugs, you begin to see that the pursuit of happiness is not confined to those who take the direct therapeutic route.
But what is happiness? Is it the end goal of therapy? Is that what is being promised?
The idea of happiness was first written about by Aristotle, the Greek philosopher. He believed that the end goal of all human existence was happiness, or what he called the Sovereign Good. He believed that we are drawn, almost without any choice in the matter, into trying to find this state of bliss. For him, happiness was a flowering, a flourishing of the human individual. He believed that true happiness contained three important elements. These were wisdom, virtue and pleasure. So, in order to find happiness we had to be wise enough to know how to follow the path that would lead there; we had to be virtuous enough to do all the right things that would make us happy and we had to be able to enjoy, to know the experience of pleasure and so recognise happiness when we had it.
Now while these were the internal requirements that people needed, there were some external factors that contributed to our reaching happiness also. These included a little bit of wealth, a lot of health, some good luck and, indeed, the possession of beauty or good looks. Remember that Aristotle was writing in the context of a society that was predominantly run by men and where women were often not encouraged to get an education. It was also a society built on and supported by legalised slavery, so happiness was not for everyone.
However, that is not to take away the influence of Aristotle. If any of the above ideas about happiness seem familiar to you it is probably because his thinking has been influential in Western thought ever since. And remember, he was writing about 300 years before the birth of Christ. But it is still his ideas about happiness that, modified as they undoubtedly are, have conditioned our way of thinking about the subject today.
Now by contrast, we have Freud. His writings began much more recently in 1895. His idea of happiness is of a quite different order. He believed that when we sought pleasure, a stepping stone to happiness, we were actually seeking to reduce tension or excitation within our bodies and our minds. We were returning to a place of contentment, so to speak, and the pursuit of happiness was designed to restore calm to our internal economy.
But he also added an important point. From birth and early infancy on, we lose a place of perfect contentment by virtue of growing older. We don’t quite know what it is we have lost but we know we have lost something good. Eventually we forget that we have even lost it. But a trace memory lingers on and this memory of what we lost, in terms of an all-satisfying existence, prompts us to re-find it over and over again throughout our lives. It is, if you like, a form of Aristotle’s thinking but in reverse. Instead of being pulled by the promise of happiness that our rational minds tell us is out there, Freud’s thinking was that we are set on a trajectory from the earliest moments of our lives to find again something that we lost and that had once provided us with blissful happiness.
If one goes with Aristotle’s view, then the assumption is that most people will eventually find happiness, using wisdom, virtue and pleasure to make it happen. Yet, while some people do find happiness in their lives, one could say that human kind is more characterised by its discontent rather than by its feelings of happiness or contentment. Very often people are at their most discontent when they have reached a point of contentment, and usually they seek out a new mountain to climb in order to put themselves back into a place of striving and longing, in order to experience the satisfaction of reaching happiness once again. It’s an intrinsically human thing. Often too, you’ll find that many people know that the route to happiness is to follow some simple rules like: don’t go to jail; don’t harm anyone; be faithful in your key relationships; don't use drugs; use food and alcohol in moderation; keep physically and mentally fit; do things for others occasionally; have some form of religious or spiritual faith; the list goes on and on.
The point here is that people broadly know what they should do to make themselves happy. They have the knowledge, in the Aristotelian sense of the word, of what is necessary. Yet they never seem to quite put the knowledge into action, or if they do it all falls apart after a while. This, then, is the more Freudian concept at work. We are driven to re-find something but we are not sure what it is. We seek it here, we seek it there. We think the other has it and want it from them. We think it is in a bottle or in a drug. We think sex will do it. We think fame, or money, or status, or power have the answer. And yet, the answer is not outside of ourselves. Nor is the answer, when we do find it, ever the place of absolute bliss either.
That is why psychoanalytic thinking does not promise happiness to people. In fact, it considers it fraudulent to do so. Rather it seeks to help people open their eyes and see things as they really are. The business of living is occasionally flawed, occasionally beautiful, but ultimately human, with all that that entails. The pursuit of happiness is about knowing that perfection is never achievable and so the question turns to discovering who you really are and being able to be happy with that.
* The above blog is based in part on a paper I presented to The Associaton for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in Ireland’s 17th Annual Congress, ‘How to Act - Ethics and the Psychoanalytic Clinic in a Culture of Suppression and Demand' held on Saturday, December 4th 2010 at Independent College, 60- 63 Dawson St., Dublin 2.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Greed is Not Good

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

An interesting aspect of the financial crisis that is besetting this country at the moment, and one that has been curiously overlooked by most commentators, is the predominant involvement of men. Now, given that men still hold the lion’s share of top jobs, that might not be surprising. But that is not what I mean.
When you examine the factors that led to the Irish economic meltdown you come across a particular pattern. One small sector of the banking world, run by men, found a marvellous way of earning huge profits by over-investing in property. Then the rest of the banking sector, run by men, decided to follow. And when the bubble burst, everyone was over-exposed and the rest is by now familiar to all of us.
So putting it simply, a male group mentality was at work here. It ensured that one small group, who were small players in the overall market, sought to shake off its small status and outdo everyone else. And then the bigger players decided they were not going to be outdone by these minnows and became just as reckless in their lending.
This male group mentality effectively saw everyone go over the cliff at the same time, and take the economy with it. It was a mindless adventure that showed a complete disregard for common sense or, dare we say it, ethical behaviour*. Why would a group of highly paid, highly educated men behave that way? Did they so desperately want to succeed?
Operating not only at the helm of the reckless banking sector but also in Government and in the regulatory authorities we find almost exclusively men. Accepting this, why then were there no male voices shouting stop? Why was their such an unspoken agreement that everything was fine when patently things were not? Are we to assume that that is simply how things go? Because if we accept this then by definition we have to accept that the same thing will happen again in the future. Equally, if we throw our hands up and say that this is simply the reality of the commercial world then we are effectively declaring it an ethics-free zone and that too becomes problematic.
So, if the current recession is bad news for the reputation of the banking sector, the Government and the regulatory authorities, it is also bad news for the reputation of men. Something prompted an arrogant, blindly reckless approach to conducting business. Something ensured that the men at the top of these organisations stop acting out of duty to the common good and focus exclusively on the sole interests of their own and their shareholder's remuneration. In doing so they put everyone’s wellbeing in jeopardy. Something made transgression of the rules an acceptable thing to do.
Now you will probably hear someone say that if women ran the system we might well have ended up in the same position. Well, that’s true, we might have. But we can never know that with certainty until that day comes. What we can say with certainty is that men were in charge and this is categorically how it ended up.
So what was it about these normally staid male bankers that prevented them from seeing sense, from shouting stop, from engaging in unsound and at times unlawful activities? And remember, we saw a similar male dominated system at work in church child abuse scandals but that is a different day’s work.
Focussing on the financial world for now, the generally agreed twin engines of global capitalism are greed and fear. Greed is the pursuit of profits beyond any measure of limit. Fear is the panicked flight from the possibility of losing what one believes one has already gained. Translated in psychoanalytic terms, greed in this case is the excessive pursuit of the ‘thing’, the lost thing that will satisfy all desire, fill up all lack, eradicate all unpleasure. Freud called it Das Ding, and it is ultimately an attempt to re-find an infantile nirvana. Fear, in this case, is the neurotic terror that arises with the prospect of this imaginary nirvana being closed off to us forever.
Also at work between these two poles is the essentially male characteristic of wanting at all cost to be the undisputed possessor of the phallus, the symbol of sexual power. Now that’s not to say that women don’t want to be sexually powerful either. They do, but psychoanalytically they tend to want it in more diffuse ways than men. They want it as an overall experience in their lives - one that is usually bound up and woven into key relationships. Profit-focussed men, on the other hand, usually want it by way of tangible objects. And usually in a single-minded way that can ignore broader issues such as rules or the greater good . That’s where money and possessions come in - they offer the perfect, culturally endorsed objects on which such men can fix their desires.
It is interesting, therefore, but perhaps not surprising, that practically no man (one or two brave souls perhaps) within the financial sector seemed willing to jeopardise his place within that mostly male group system by raising a warning flag. No one appeared willing to risk being seen as less than a man by suggesting that the party was not actually a party and that it might end in tears. Or that a limit (if not in law then at least in common sense) had been crossed for which a price would have to be paid.
And, we must also not forget, that psychoanalytically speaking men are formed differently to women. Those who take up the position of men go through separation from their mothers or primary carers in a more blunt way than women. And the first person they have as a male role model ie their father, is usually an imagined competitor for the same woman’s attentions. Girls too have to separate from the all providing love of their mothers but they become Daddy’s girls until they reach an age when societal and cultural prohibitions subtly guide them back to mother. The passage to adult womanhood is not as direct, blunt or as nakedly competitive as it is for men while still containing plenty of pitfalls to throw the route to adult female development off course.
The point being that men’s single mindedness, their competitiveness in regards to other men, their focus on objects to acquire or win or achieve, their diversion of sexual energy into making money can be good things at times. In our current climate they were ingredients that led to disaster because an extra ingredient was missing.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that human beings possessed the power of reason to secure our happiness and to provide us with a good will. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant said that a good will has nevertheless to cope with the problem, uniquely human, of unruly desires. And if you class greed as an unruly desire, our banking community, who were not alone in this, failed spectacularly to deal with this form of unruliness. The way of dealing with this, Kant said, was duty - the necessity to act out of reverence for the law. He said an action done out of duty (the result of human reason and a good will) has a moral worth, but action out of inclination (our self interest) does not.
French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Dr Jacques Lacan came along a little later and said a number of things in this regard. For too long, the concept of good has been confused with the concept of pleasure, and he believed they are not and should not be considered the same thing. Being guided by what is pleasurable is not the same thing as acting for the good. He said that a more ordinary measure would be to carefully examine our own motives, find out what it is that makes us act, question what our true desires really are and in the process come to see just how truly human we are. This, he believed, could well be a principle for good that might be valid for all.
To do anything else, to continue linking good with pleasure, might well be to adopt as a universal rule the proposal that we have the right to enjoy any person whatsoever, directly or indirectly, as the instrument of our pleasure. And, if memory serves me correctly, the last person to propose that idea was the Marquis de Sade.

* The Associaton for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in Ireland’s 17th Annual Congress, ‘How to Act’ - Ethics and the Psychoanalytic Clinic in a Culture of Suppression and Demand. Saturday, December 4th 2010. Independent College Dublin, 60- 63 Dawson St., Dublin 2. Keynote Speakers: Ian Parker and Christian Dunker. Ian Parker is Professor of Psychology in the Discourse Unit at Manchester Metropolitan University and a practising psychoanalyst. Christian Ingo Lenz Dunker is Professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology of the University of São Paulo, Brazil and a practising psychoanalyst.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Answer is in the Small Details

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

People will often tell you that they have a poor memory. They can’t remember details of their life, particularly the further back they go. They assume it is a natural thing, or perhaps, a hormonal imbalance. In some cases people will tell you that, actually, there are things they don’t want to remember. Think of the number of people who believe the past, their past, should be left alone, that it is best not to ‘go there’. This attitude stems from a very distinct attitude to memory. That, like the sleeping giant of children’s stories, it must be allowed to slumber on undisturbed.
Equally, it’s surprising how many people don’t want to remember and aren’t aware of it. That’s because the poor memory that so many proclaim to have is, in reality, a desire not to know. This is probably what differentiates psychoanalytic psychotherapy from so many other therapies being offered today. One of its central beliefs is that memory is an essential element in recovery. That's not to say that we are on the hunt for trauma that never happened or to concoct false memories. No, the issue is ordinary memories, small things, little details of one's life that actually happened. There is a wealth of knowledge about ourselves tied up in those small details.
Yet consider for a moment how many therapies have been devised since psychoanalysis first opened up the field in the late 1800s that allow people avoid the challenge of remembering. Cures, if that is not too strong a word for it, are being offered all the time that convince people there is no need to ‘go there’. I have a difficulty with relationships in my life, so let’s fix relationships. I have a fear of intimacy, so let’s focus on intimacy. I am sad all the time, so let’s work on being happy. If we cut the heads off all the dandelions we certainly will have what looks like a perfect lawn. But the dandelions are still there under the surface, ready to emerge again.
There is another group of people, very common in therapy rooms, who will tell you that there is nothing to remember. They can see it all clearly and they believe that honestly there is nothing much to talk about. This group of people are labouring under a very similar misconception as those who tell you have they have a poor memory and can’t recall much. This latter group achieve exactly the same result as the first group – they stay away from the detail of their past life - but with a uniquely different avoidance tactic. They refuse to consider detailed memories from their lives because they have already decided there is nothing of value to speak about. What they never allow themselves realise is that once they talk about a particular memory, the very act of speaking transforms it in such a way that new aspects of it emerge, aspects that were, yes, forgotten. Buried behind the seemingly obvious pictures of their past life are hidden details that only emerge when attention is focussed on recounting them.
As such, psychoanalytic psychotherapy is the opposite of those therapies that say if you can get rid of the symptom you are cured. Naturally, it is an attractive proposition. A person who goes to pieces in the company of strangers is looking for a handy tip to help them cope. A person suffering from depression is looking for the secret to happy thoughts. A person who is afraid all the time is looking for a quick way to be confident. A person who can not engage sexually with another human being is looking for the ‘right way’ of doing it. This approach suggests that the complaint or symptom is ‘outside’ of me, not really part of me, and it can be fixed with a bit of tinkering that won’t really necessitate me getting involved much at all, other than following a few simple instructions.
The psychoanalytic approach, the first and original form of psychotherapy, sees all the psychical symptoms of the modern age as the result of faulty ideas that operate unseen in the background of our minds. They are active at the unconscious level and wield enormous influence over our choices, decisions and interpretations of who we are and how our lives operate. These ‘ideas’ are formed by the often unnoticed experiences, the trivial happenings, the off-hand comments, the insignificant hurts that are part and parcel of everyday life. It doesn’t always have to be traumas. We don’t notice them because we bury them as soon as they happen, we repress them automatically in some cases. And often the ideas that result from these experiences cause the problems. We might have been too young or too afraid or too distracted to process the experiences fully. We usually repressed the experiences so quickly and so effectively that we were not even conscious of doing it. But those experiences were stored away.
French psychoanalyst and lecturer the late Dr Jacques Lacan said many insightful things but two are of relevance here. The first was his description of the unconscious mind as the ‘memory of everything we have forgotten’.
We file things away, store them, and sometimes actively wish to forget them. But in our unconscious mind they remain part of us, part of our experience and part of our ideas that inform the way we live our lives. Whenever we make a life choice and can’t figure out why, it is the effect of buried memories at work. Whenever we do something that goes against our better nature or against what we know to be the right way of doing things, it is the effect of buried memories at work. And whenever we find ourselves repeating the same negative patterns over and over again, it is the effect of buried memories at work.
And it is not the memories themselves. Rather it is the imaginary ideas that we have attached to these memories – ideas about who we are, where we deserve to be in life, how it is that we are seen by others, whether or not we deserve success or failure, whether we will ever find love or whether we even deserve to find love and so on and on. These exert powerful and unseen influences on our ability to be happy with who it is we are, and on the choices we make that ultimately guide the direction of our lives.
We de-fuse the effect of these memories and these imaginary ideas in psychoanalytic psychotherapy by giving them articulation in speech. And the more we speak about the life we have had, and the one we want to have, and about the imaginary ideas that surround us in our daily lives and in our dreams, about the insignificant and often trivial details of experiences we have had, the more we loosen the grip that misconceived ideas have on us. Think for a moment about a real person that you know, someone you believe is perfectly happy and fulfilled and has achieved what they want in life. Is that person, in your view, trapped by ideas that are dragging them down? Is that person expending vast amounts of energy holding back knowledge of themselves by suppressing memories or believing the memory of their past is just a hazy blur? The answer is probably not. In rock and roll terms, freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. In psychoanalytic terms, it is the word for re-finding what was lost. To quote Jacques Lacan again, we do not remember because we are cured. We are cured because we remember.

Monday, August 30, 2010

A Little Trust Goes a Long Way

By Kevin Murphy, MSc,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

I was talking to someone* recently who had concerns about the faithfulness of their same-sex partner. This person couldn’t relax in the relationship because of an inability to trust them. Everything the partner did involving other people, particularly others who might become love rivals, was treated with suspicion and inevitably led to bad feeling and often rows.
It reminded me of someone else who once asked me in another context – this was a person* whose long time partner had had numerous secret affairs - whether trust was necessary in a relationship. It might seem like a curious question to ask. Is trust important in a relationship? Most of us, standing in an objective position, would say unequivocally that yes trust is essential in relationships. It was even cited by golfer Tiger Woods’ ex-wife as one of the reasons she decided on divorce.
We might even go so far as to ask can one have any quality of relationship where there is no trust? Yet the person who asked me this question had lived for years with excuses, being persuaded they were imagining things and that, ultimately, they were the one with the problem.
It reminded me of someone else * whose relationship collapsed because their partner did not believe they were fully loved by them. This person had, in reality, been head over heels in love with that partner but had never shown it. You could say that an inability to trust had been at the root of that problem too. Except now the trust was curiously taking place in what you would expect would have been a much more positive setting.
This notion of trust turns up in many guises. It is not enough to say that a person is not trustworthy and therefore we cannot allow ourselves trust them. Sometimes we find ourselves in relationships with people who, in fact, are trustworthy and whom we do, in fact, love. It is we who have the problem.
The more traditional concept of trust arises in those situations where we implicitly trust partners who, unfortunately, abuse that trust and cheat behind our backs. In such situations we are usually constantly asked to do the very thing we are already doing i.e. trust the person even more.
The reality of human relationships is that there are no guarantees. We enter into them, mostly, in good faith and with a good deal of trust. We have no choice. But when we find ourselves unable to trust enough to allow ourselves fully communicate our feelings to the other person, then we have a problem.
Equally, if we cannot allow ourselves trust enough to enjoy what is otherwise a loving and faithful relationship, then equally we have a problem.
And, also, if we find ourselves trusting in a cheating partner so much that we ignore the evidence of our instincts and often our eyes, then we have a problem in this situation too.
In these situations, trust is like a target that we all aim at but in some cases either overshoot with too much force or else we fall far short of it because we didn’t apply enough. So why is trust such a difficult thing to get right?
When trust is absent from a relationship, the ordinary things are difficult. Being together, speaking to the person, relying on the person, enjoying the person’s company; it effects all aspects of our ordinary interactions. This tells us the fundamental place that it occupies in terms of its importance to human relationships.
Trust is something we learn very early on in our lives. We are in the care of others far longer than any other form of life on the planet. With loving parents it usually never becomes an issue. But if anything upsets the delicate balance of our early relationships – anything from outright aggression to casual indifference – then it reflects in our later adult relationships. It is interesting to note how much emphasis modern media – magazines, movies, music, novels – puts on relationships, particularly romantic/emotional relationships. It is equally interesting to note increasing divorce rates and rising demand for relationship counselling services. When you add into the mix the changing face of community and family structures and the changing styles of parenting, you begin to see how our learning about relationships as we develop might have changed over the decades.
But trust is not just about us and the other person. In the first instance it is about us and our relationship to ourselves. If we have confidence we can allow ourselves trust in others. If we have self-belief we can sustain ourselves better against the collapse of trust. And if we have a little courage we can allow ourselves love in a way that fully includes the other person rather than holding back waiting for the worst to happen.
* Details excluded in order to ensure confidentiality.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Dreamer is the Key to the Dream

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

You don’t often hear people talking about dreams in public. It rarely makes it onto the topic list of chat shows. You don’t overhear it in coffee shop conversations between friends. Yes dreams will get a cursory mention here and there but apart from a few details and a shrug that usually suggests ‘how weird is that’, they have almost been relegated to the realm of not really being part of our lives. They happen, they can disturb us but they are ultimately seen as trivial and are quickly forgotten.
Part of the reason for this is that our logical, scientific world has no place for dreams. Dreams do not tell us what it is they are trying to say in any coherent or easily understandable way. And that is enough for them to be ignored.
In contrast, I’m reminded of tribes such as the Sambia in Papua New Guinea, or the Quiche Maya in Central America, or the Aguaruna in Peru and many other indigenous peoples who all view dreaming as an experience of the soul leaving the body at night. Indeed, the Sambia make dream interpretation part of their shared, spoken culture from childhood onwards. As such, the pictures that the ‘soul’ sees on its flight in dreams are to be afforded a respect and an attention that you don’t find in the Western world. We simply don’t believe in any of that.
And yet, psychoanalysis and its understanding of the unconscious was founded on dreams and dreaming by Sigmund Freud. It does not view dreams as the soul leaving the body at night. Rather, it sees dreams as a representation of our inner lives, often disguising our real wishes in order to add to the puzzle they represent.
You will find many therapies today that seek to interpret dreams using various different means in order to crack the code, so to speak. The puzzling nature of dreams is not a good enough reason to ignore them. Quite the opposite, in fact. The can be a valuable route to understanding, or the 'royal road' to the unconscious as Freud once called them.If someone is having difficulty in their lives, the content of their dreams can often give a rare insight into the hidden depths.
I was speaking to a man recently* who said he was having the same dream for a very long time. It wasn’t taking place every night but it always contained the same figures and the same ultimate result: he woke up in a sweat, terrified. He came to me and asked me to interpret the dream. He had heard that dream interpretation was an essential part of the theory of psychoanalysis. He had also heard that it involved listing the elements of the dream and then deciphering what they meant according to a check list of symbols.
There is a form of dream interpretation that uses a check list of symbols but contemporary Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalysis sees things a little differently. The meaning of any dream depends not on the configuration of symbols and their generally applied meanings. The meaning of a dream depends on who is dreaming it.
So it is less to do with the things that are happening in the dream, although they are important, than on who it is who is having the dream. The man in question was repreatedly having the same very frightening dream and yet his life was effectively trauma free. He had no ugly experiences, nobody had abused him, he was successful in his career and his relationships were solid.
In such circumstances you might ask, how could this be? To get to the bottom of this conundrum, some therapies would probably spend endless hours going over and over the contents of the dream in order to put meaning and sense on them. Instead, our work together focussed not on the dream but on this man’s life. After patient and lengthy work we discovered something in his past that had never been resolved, something he had forgotten about, and something he had only remembered when prompted by an association he had during one of our sessions.
It became clear to this man that he had spent a long time repressing a set of experiences that he had never quite forgotten but had never considered to have had any effect on him. And yet, when he recounted them in our sessions he was aghast at how he could have missed their importance.
The dreams he was having were particularly related to his unique set of experiences in an earlier part of his life. These experiences had been effectively ‘forgotten’ and would have remained that way were it not for the insistence of the same dream occurring repeatedly.
The anxiety that had built up around his earlier experiences had remained untouched and was effectively seeping out into his dream life. His daily life remained unaffected. He had ensured this would be the case when he first believed he had dealt effectively with the original unpleasant experiences. But his dreams were telling him otherwise, in a way that was impossible to ignore.
I mention this example in order to illustrate two popular misconceptions about dreams and their interpretation. Firstly, they are important and while they should not be obsessively attended to, they should not be ignored either. Dreams that affect us should be paid attention to because they occur for a reason that is usually directly related to some part of our inner lives. Secondly, the meaning of any dream is less to do with the 'symbols' and what they purportedly mean and more to do with who is having the dream. The unique and particular details of the life experiences of the dreamer are the keys to unlocking the dream.

*Details of this person have been changed to ensure confidentiality.

Note: The next blog will appear on Tuesday August 30, 2010.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Parents Are Only Human Too

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

Have you ever considered the popular view of parenting? You find, broadly speaking, there are two sides to it. There are those who love their children to bits, would do anything for them, give them everything they can and who represent a model of family life. The other side of the coin is the parenting style that is abusive, neglectful , and that sees children as a burden to be resented.
There are no prizes for guessing which of the two our society likes to promote. And is it any wonder? Parents who care are to be encouraged rather than parents who don’t. The problem arises with the ideal of good parenting that emerges from this. It follows that to give everything – both emotionally and materially - and withhold nothing is good parenting. It also follows that those who cannot but who might want to give everything materially are somehow disadvantaged in this regard.
While we can argue these ideas at length, there is another point at stake here. It is that the impression is created that we can always be aware of the effects of our actions, our personalities and our responses on our children. That everything being given or withheld is within our gift to understand and evaluate. You will see this philosophy most at work in the plethora of parenting tips that flourish in the media – do this and everything should work, do that and everything should be fine. It is action-based, practical, tangible, observable and ultimately cosily founded on common sense. As if the simple act of carrying out ‘the right thing’ is enough, be it feeding, educating, playing, communicating or any other aspect of raising children.
The thing that never gets represented in any of this is the individual who acts as parent, their history, their own desires, their own failings. My point might be best illustrated by an example. I was talking with a woman* some time ago who told me that her life had been filled with anxiety and anguish despite having had a happy childhood with happy caring parents. How does that work? That is a good question. On the face of it there was no trauma, no abuse, no deprivation of any kind. And yet her adult life was stuck in a cycle of anxiety, sadness, low self esteem and broken relationships.
It was only after some time that she came to ask questions about who these people were who had raised her, yes her parents. And the questions were not around the usual clichéd ones like, ‘Did they love me?’ Rather the questions she asked were around the issue of, ‘Who were they before I came along? Who were these people at the time I was born? What were their desires, hopes, fears?’ Even at a glance you can see that framing the questions in this way offered a completely different perspective on something that often gets taken for granted.
When you next look at a glamorised photo of a loving mother with a baby, it might be interesting to do the following exercise. Ask yourself, if one was to include the complexity of that woman’s life into one’s understanding of her happiness, what possible factors would you include? If you assume her to be all-loving and perfect, what factors could have brought that about?
The woman I was referring to above discovered that her mother had actually been engaged to another man before she met her father. This first man died and her mother then met her father and married him. She loved him but the shadow of her first love was always hanging around in the background. And while her mother did everything she could to love her daughter, something of the sadness that she had experienced with the loss of her first love permeated through, almost without realising it.
This is the point I was trying to make earlier about parenting. Parents are people. They have had their own histories before they ever have children. They may well love their children more than anything in the world, but the echoes of an earlier life trickle through. Yes there is an ABC of what to do as good parents. But there is another engine at work also; one at the core of every human being, where their true but often disguised desires and wishes generate ideas, choices, emotions and actions. This is what is continually being put in place up to the moment we become parents. And this is the foundation on which we base our own parenting abilities and style on.
Before our parents ever had children, they already had a rich and complex inner life that brought them to adulthood. And before we, as their children, ever knew anything about it, it was this that formed the backdrop to our experiences of being parented by them.

*This is a composite illustration taken from a number of case histories.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Man Who Hated Holidays

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

If I can, I’m going to try and draw two things together that, on the face of it, seem worlds apart. Let’s take the first thing first. I was talking to a man once who said he hated going on holidays. He didn’t like being away from home, he didn’t like flying, he didn’t like the sun and he went as rarely as he could. Any time he did go away, he felt uneasy, anxious, was prone to panic attacks and the entire experience was miserable for him and for anyone who happened to be with him.
The second thing is that Jean-Gerard Burzstein, doctor of philosophy and teacher and practitioner of psychoanalysis in Paris, was speaking in Dublin on Saturday and Sunday to the Association for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in Ireland about issues of contemporary psychoanalysis. As you would expect, he was attempting to bring an understandable focus to a relatively complex array of concepts and theory.
So how on earth would one bring two things like this together; the nuggets of wisdom from complex theoretical concepts, and the position of a man who didn’t like going on holidays? Not an easy task.
Let’s take the man who hated holidays. An interesting thing about him was that, in his view, it was not ok to hate holidays. He should like holidays. All men liked holidays, going to the sun, or distant places, getting a tan, enjoying freedom of choice. By not being able to do it, and by not liking the fact that he wasn’t able to do it, he was somehow less than other men. An interesting place to see oneself, you might think.
Now Jean-Gerard Burzstein – and I had the privilege of chairing his second talk on Sunday – was pointing out why psychoanalysis is efficient, in contrast to the way some like to paint it. It is efficient he said because it focuses on the cause rather than the symptom. So instead of figuring out ways of trying to help this man get to like going on holidays, it would seek to find out the cause behind why he didn’t like holidays and how he could come to understand it in such a way as to bring about change for him.
In contemporary Freudian-Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Mr Bursztein said the things that form us most fundamentally are our experiences as infants and young children in terms of dealing with the simplest of things: being loved, being satisfied, and being frustrated in relation to our primary care givers. These are the earliest experiences we have, at an age and stage when words are not available to us. Put in a slightly more formal way, the 'who we are' (identity) and the 'what we truly wish for' (desire)are the result of intersubjective (between people)dynamic.
The man who hated holidays said that he was never been able to understand why it was so unpleasurable for him. He said he hated the feeling of vulnerability when he was away, the feeling that something bad might happen. Yet when he got home, he looked back fondly on the experience and seemed to enjoy it once it was over.
Mr Bursztein in his seminar spoke about a core concept in contemporary theory, the fundamental phantasy. This is a group of imaginary ideas we have about who we are and what we represent to the world, that we form in the earliest part of our lives, particularly when we measure ourselves and decide on our place in relation to the people we have as significant adults around us. Some of us are very lucky in that we have adults who seem to do all the right things. Some of us are not. And some of us are lucky from the start in that we have the right inner resources to deal with ups and downs while some of us are not.
In terms of the few things he said, the predicament of the man who hated holidays can be viewed in a particular way. Let’s recap for a moment: the fundamental phantasy is an imaginary way that we prop ourselves up in relation to others. It is not always helpful but it can be all we have.
What the man who hated holidays seemed to be saying was that the experience of going away made him feel vulnerable, unsafe. Some vague threat was pending in the wings, something that would affect him negatively. It would, whatever it was, see him overcome in a way that he would not be able to cope with. The threat would have to be human so he would be overcome or overwhelmed by another person or persons in some way. The thought of it was enough to create anxiety.
The fundamental phantasy is our way of propping ourselves up, showing ourselves to be capable of withstanding the feeling of helplessness, a feeling that is with us at the earliest stages of our lives until we become independent beings. It is not always a secure construct, sometimes it gives way. Nor is it always a beneficial one - sometimes it runs counter to who we really are.
The man who hated holidays didn’t like hating holidays. It wasn’t manly, it wasn’t how he liked to see himself. It showed him up as being weak and fearful. He liked to see himself as strong, independent, resilient, capable of doing things like anyone else. The fear he experienced when faced with going away was at odds with how he lived the rest of his life. So the mask slipped, some idea he had of himself wasn’t working very well when he was faced with going away.
Mr Burzstein said that according to the man who reformulated Freudian theory – Dr Jacques Lacan with whom he worked and researched up to the latter’s death - said that neurosis occurs when we sacrifice our own desire to the demands of an other or others who we perceive as significant. This way of managing ourselves begins from the earliest stages of our lives. We carry on the habit as adults. It isn’t terminal, however, as we have a second chance of correcting the situation with psychoanalysis.
The man who hated holidays displayed the same characteristics. A fundamental phantasy was at work in his imaginary life, in which he saw himself as incapable of withstanding the supposed threat that the desire of unknown others would impose on him against his will. It only ever came to the surface when he had to travel to an unfamiliar location. In fact, it surfaced with such force that it was deeply unpleasant for him.
This phantasy was held in check during his everyday life by the conscious belief that he was strong, resilient, capable of doing anything he wanted. But when it came to travelling abroad, that belief system collapsed and didn’t support him. Mr Burzstein in his seminar said that belief systems we have about ourselves that are purely in the imaginary realm will always come crashing down. The antidote is to discover the truth about ourselves through analysis. That way we don’t end up spending vast resources of energy and time fending off imaginary threats that threaten to pull down our imaginary ideas about ourselves.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Learning How to Be A Better Lover

By Kevin Murphy
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.
I was reading a woman’s magazine in a waiting room recently and it prominently featured an article on top ways for a woman to pleasure her man sexually. The tips themselves were hackneyed enough; that is to say, they have been recycled in various formats for many years now. But two things about it caught my attention. Firstly this was the second women’s magazine in a few months to run an article on the importance of women knowing how to sexually satisfy their men. There is obviously a demand for it. The previous article was a little less tasteful and a lot more graphic, despite being a mainstream publication aimed at teens and young twenty year olds.
Secondly, the more recent article introduced the topic along the lines that with the right sexual technique, and therefore a fulfilling sexual experience, love can blossom. If I was reading it correctly, this meant that in order for love to be possible, and by love I presumed it meant the vague multimedia-concocted version that is low on ordinary detail and high on promise, then one had to have a successful first sexual encounter with the man of your choice.
Thinking about it now, it must represent an alluring thesis for any woman. If one can turn oneself, through the use of tips and suggestions from a magazine or tv show or movie, into a modern day Mata Hari, then love is guaranteed. Successful sex, the definition of which is sex that satisfies the man according to the magazines, leads to love. As a formula, it is blindingly simple.
Leaving aside for a moment the often heard argument as to how thirty to forty years of feminism could have lead to this, there is a psychoanalytic perspective that probably needs airing in this regard also. From the latter perspective, the message is a curiously twisted one. On the one hand the woman is required – once again – to take responsibility for all things sexual. She must acquire the knowledge that will satisfy the man. Now while it appears to be putting the woman into the position of power, it also has the curious effect of making the woman into a sexual object.
For those who are familiar with psychoanalysis, this is the basis of hysteria – the woman becoming the object for an ‘other’ in a way that links in with her sexuality. This discovery led to Freud’s (and Josef Breuer’s) book ‘Studies on Hysteria’ in 1895, the book that is generally credited with being the start of psychoanalysis.
So, in an unintended twist, while taking on the mantle of all-knowing sexuality, the contemporary woman transforms herself into the object of sexual pleasure. The double-edge of this particular sword is that while the woman will undoubtedly attract the attentions of the opposite sex (if that is her choice) she will also run the risk of being defined in particularly narrow and objectified terms. For some it is not a problem, for others it most definitely is.
What of those women who may well be comfortable with their sexuality but who reject the requirement to become expert man-pleasers in bed or in any other part of their lives? And what of those women who suffer varying degrees of disrespect on account of this predominant ideology at the hands of their male partners? And what of those women who are made to feel inadequate because their brand of femininity precludes them from this way of being a woman?
It’s only when you look beneath the surface of things that you get a glimpse of the real complexities at work. The magazine idea of the perfect sexual woman, alluring as it might be, leaves many women behind. As such it represents an ideal for a section of women but not all women. That section, or constituency of women for whom it works, may well be in the ascendant because it is a value system that is most loudly heard. And we must not forget that powerful commercial organisations have a vested interest in promoting this ideology and fuelling its continued rise.
Now there is certainly an argument to be made that sex should be talked about, rather than hidden. Of course that is the case. But once we accept that it should be talked about and brought out into the open, the next question to be asked is ‘how’ it should be talked about and ‘how’ it should be brought into the open. In a way that elevates? Or in a way that diminishes? Often the world we live in is intent on ensuring that the lines between these two positions remain conveniently blurred.
Of course, to even raise such a topic is to be branded as someone with no sense of humour. Such has been the case, listening to the radio recently, for anyone daring to criticize the new Sex and the City movie. It’s only a bit of fun. Well, I can understand that. I jokingly complained at being called too early for my appointment in the waiting room mentioned above because I had only had time to reach sex tip number three. Now I’ll have to make another appointment.
So the ‘fun argument’ is all very well, but humour is a very subjective thing and to require people to find something fun or funny borders on the dictatorial.
Also, despite those who try to pass something off as ‘just a bit of fun’, every piece of humour has a deeper layer of meaning whether we like it or not. And that is something that was known long before Freud’s ‘Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious’ was published in 1905. There’s nothing wrong with being able to enjoy a joke once we can clearly see that the joke is not being made at someone else’s expense.
It is fun to read about sex tips in magazines. We all want to know how we can do things better. And it may even raise awareness of what to do and what not to do to make oneself a better lover. But we also have to remember that other meanings are also being communicated: that 'standards' of sexual performance are now being prescribed; that better sex leads to perfect love; that a woman is a better woman by having more sexual knowledge. But in this rising tide of objectified sexuality something of the richer complexity not just of womanhood but of human relationships is being swept away.

* The next blog will appear on Tuesday June 22nd, 2010.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Seeing Indulgence for What It Is

By Kevin Murphy, MSc,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

Every once in a while you will hear people say that their experience of going to therapy is one of indulgence. They are indulging themselves. They are indulging their sense of having something worth talking about. They are over-estimating the issues they have to deal with. In short, they are saying it is a form of vanity.
If someone feels this way then the common sense approach would be to let them go with their instincts and simply stop attending therapy. This is the outcome for some. For others, though, the belief that they are indulging themselves is actually an element of their problem. Distinguishing between the two is important for the therapist to do his or her job properly, although in reality it is usually the person in question who makes the call. And not often the right call.
The belief that one is indulging oneself might play well with the current social discourse that people who go for therapy just need a stiff talking to. It plays into the ‘pull yourself together’ school of thought. But the lived experience of people who come for therapy is that they have repeatedly tried this route. They are in therapy because they actually have tried to ‘pull themselves together’ and it hasn’t worked.
Once they start coming, though, something else happens for them. A gradual lifting of their discomfort, of their fears, or of their sadness, and with it a glimmer of personal well-being, and suddenly, often quite quickly, a negative tone emerges. A little voice says, you see, there was nothing ‘wrong’ with you. The broader social discourse kicks in with plenty of examples of people who do not go to therapy. There are any number of ideal lives out there we can imagine that are trouble free and that we want to imitate.
This negative tone with regard to being in therapy contains within it aspects of a broader attitude that people have towards themselves. The negative, punishing sense of indulging oneself, of being vain enough to believe you have problems, of seeing oneself as unworthy of even attending therapy can, for some people, be part of a wellspring of self-criticism that runs deep. It is the voice that doesn’t allow us feel good about pretty much anything we decide to do to improve ourselves. It makes itself known in company, with new people, when new opportunities for career or relationships emerge. It even seeps into existing relationships and ensures we occupy a back-seat position, even while seeming to be fully in control. It is most felt at times in our lives when we need to move forward.
It can often be hard for someone to see this for themselves, although some people are acutely aware of it. It is easiest for an independent observer to pick it up, often immediately. The message that we give ourselves about therapy being an indulgence can be so strong that people simply drop out and leave all possibilities for change unexplored. There is a comfort in that. The opposite of the no-pain, no-gain mantra favoured by sports coaches is the no-change, no-risk mantra of those in this situation.
There is a part of ourselves that wants us to remain as we are, unchallenged, unchanged, unquestioned. If a person is happy that way, then that is fine. But if a person sees therapy as an indulgence, decides to walk away and then finds that their life is still a confusing, dissatisfying, badly joined-up jigsaw, then that is probably clear evidence that the experience of it as an indulgence was designed to stop them in their tracks. After all, that is essentially the effect it had. Paradoxical as it may seem, it is possible to want to feel better but not want to feel better at one and the same time.
On this basis, you could say that the experience of therapy as an indulgence could be the signal that a degree of resilience against it is required, so as not to believe wholeheartedly in what it appears to be telling us. The negative image about ourselves that it tries to portray can often be designed to stop us moving forward, to keep us fixed in the same place. If it arises, the negativity implicit in it, along with its consequences, can usually be found in many other aspects of our lives also.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Death of a Famous Man

By Kevin Murphy, MSc,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

In the wake of the untimely death of broadcaster Gerry Ryan I was talking with a group of people about it and one of them said he could not understand the huge emphasis that was put on it across the Irish media. He felt that more important news was being downgraded while news of the death was given prominence. Now you could put this down to what we call Irish begrudgery. Or was it a genuine astonishment at the outpouring of sorrow, one that pushed everything else off the front pages? Or was it a cynical response to the fact that a mere entertainer could have had such a place in the country’s collective heart?
Why would we not mourn the untimely death of someone who was so well known? It seems such an obvious question doesn’t it? But not everyone gets it. And yet we did display, through the media, a large outpouring of grief for him. You could say we did it for Princess Diana too. Or that we did it for Michael Jackson. Or for any number of famous people who died young or tragically.
The individuals themselves had become symbols of various kinds for us and so we mourned their passing for many reasons. The common element was that each encountered death with all its finality and bluntness. As such, we too had to encounter some of that finality and bluntness in their passing. Death ensures the speaking stops, that no more questions about future possibilities get asked or answered, that all relationships are truncated, that impenetrable absences are created and that living memory must now become a precious archive.
Such deaths bring us face to face with the unexpected. We don’t encounter death as a possibility in our daily lives. It is discreetly veiled off. No matter how many war reports or crime reports we read about or watch, death remains subtly out of view. It is a human thing. We drive cars at break-neck speed because we believe it will never happen to us. No soldier goes to war believing he will meet death. Even though death is the inevitable end to all of us, we could not jump out of bed in the mornings if we kept that thought to the forefront of our minds. You could say we know it and we don’t allow ourselves know it at the same time.
And of course we are helped in that by science which through its advances helps us live longer. And by medicine which ensures that we can overcome most of the serious setbacks and recover, thus continuing on life’s long road. Civil laws too ensure, for most but not all, that we can walk home safely, that our homes will not be invaded, that our towns will not be overtaken by some marauding gang and our lives abruptly ended. Despite the risk of national wars, the prospect of close, imminent, unpredictable death has been staved off. Yes cancer and other bodily diseases threaten us but we don’t expect to be randomly murdered on our doorstep. The possibility has been edged further and further off toward the far horizon of most of our lives. We simply expect to be around for a long, long time. The untimeliness of the deaths of famous people upsets this mindset.
Yet for most of mankind’s history, life was short, brutal and bloody. Our ancestors who built the Newgrange megalithic tomb some 5000 years ago had a life expectancy of 35 years. The same thing existed until recently in remote tribes that still lived in a traditional way. But the onset of democracy ensured at least we had a right to a life without oppression. Along with that, we had advances in medicine culminating in the mass production of antibiotics in the late 1940s thus making us immune to many traditionally fatal infections. Our lives may have gotten longer but the untimeliness of the death of someone famous triggers a dim recollection of a time when life was short, or could be cut short by the most unexpected circumstances.
And so our lengthening life expectancy has brought with it an inevitable belief that life will be long. Not only will it be long, but the enduring peace that has existed in Western society since World War 2 has convinced us that we will not have to face our own death until a long life is behind us. Until someone famous or someone close to us dies, we carry on whistling past the graveyard, as the saying goes.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Women in Love*

By Kevin Murphy,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

What would you say to a woman who repeatedly gets herself into relationships in which she is exploited? Or what would you say to a woman who is cheated on repeatedly by the same partner? Or what would you say to a woman who knows she has an emotionally abusive partner but still believes it is her best hope of love?
It would make you wonder, wouldn’t it? And I don’t mean make you wonder about these particular women. Rather it would also make you wonder about the position of women generally.
There are many, many women who are intelligent, educated, independent and living contemporary, liberal lifestyles who yet operate on an almost old-fashioned model of what it means to be in a relationship. They find themselves playing curious second fiddle to their partner. And yet in their more public life, if anyone suggested they take up the same position with regard to career, society, or education, they would instantly oppose such a move and rightly so.
Why is that? I ask because we are at the tail end of a revolution in terms of women’s position in Western culture, one that has seen a great deal of the unfair, unequal and undemocratic practices of previous generations completely abolished. Yet now, at a time of greatest freedom and opportunity, we find a great many women occupying a paradoxical position. They enjoy the right to display their femininity as powerfully as they wish – in varied lifestyle and career choices – and yet despite this some can still display profound uncertainty around their position within emotional relationships.
Now obviously there are women who remain impervious to these issues and who can rise above most interpersonal obstacles through sheer force of will. They are interesting too but we might consider them another day. For the moment, it remains a conundrum that so many women can ‘appear’ strong and resilient and yet find themselves on the receiving end of disrespectful and undermining behaviour. And while most who find themselves in this situation can articulate what is going on, few find themselves able to do much about it.
I was reminded of this while reading an article by psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller** in which he sought to apply some deep theoretical notions to this area. Key to any psychoanalytical understanding of the different positions that men and women take up, is the idea that women occupy a rather special place in terms of the road they take to adult maturity. Not for them the rather uniform developmental path that exists for men. Instead, contemporary psychoanalysis sees something of a healthy incompleteness in the path that girls take to becoming women. That’s not to say that women are incomplete, far from it. It is an attempt to show that women are to be found, because of this incompleteness, on the side of the infinite, emotionally unbounded and yet sharing in a connection to enigmatic forces, whereas men are pretty much a finite set.
What this means in reality is that when it comes to love, women are directed at much, much more than a satisfaction of bodily pleasures, although that is important too. There is something of a ‘beyond’ at work to which they intuitively respond.
And if men, by contrast, are pretty much a finite set well that makes them ideal for forming armies and churches and nations and all those other institutions that centre around distant, and not-so-distant ideals. The women we are referring to, on the other hand, have a greater understanding of the here and now, the importance of ordinary things, the basics, the necessity of speech in the conduct of love relationships, the place of human-ness, love and mystery.
But how does this impact on the place some women, such as those suggested above, find themselves in their relationships today? Well, according to the contemporary theory of sexuality, the first action at work in keeping women ‘stuck’ in these kinds of situations is this very thing. Their sense of infinite-ness is one that orients them towards love as a quantifiably different thing from men’s love, a love that, as outlined above, is based on a living, demonstrable, almost tangible sense of itself. This is their way of evaluating the ultimate success of a relationship.
The second action at work is that the person they choose to remain ‘stuck’ with will have, from the outset, represented an ideal so powerful that they will find themselves emotionally invested to a degree they would not have imagined possible. This unconscious ideal will have formed around a great deal of the experiences of the woman’s past life, the figures in it who were important to her, the values they will have represented and these will have combined with her own inner forces driving the imaginative constructions that place the man in this ideal position.
The third action usually at work is the absence of satisfaction, a desire not met, a dream unfulfilled in the relationship but, paradoxically, with the promise of it happening always just out of reach. We are never more hungry than when we are given the promise of food and likewise our desire remains strongest when it is not wholly satisfied.
This is the contradiction of our times. Freedom is available to most women in the developed world, a freedom fought and struggled for, and one that is allied to financial, intellectual and emotional independence. Yet some women, despite partaking in these new freedoms, find an older regime is at work within them when it comes to love relationships.

*The next blog will appear on Tuesday 11th May, 2010.

** ’Of Distribution Between the Sexes’, J-A Miller, in Psychoanalytical Notebooks, A Review of the London Society of the New Lacanian School, Issue 11, London, December 2003, pp.9-27.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Question of Sexuality

By Kevin Murphy
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

It’s easy to presume that when the word sexuality is mentioned nowadays that we are talking about homosexuality or transsexuality or some strident form of heterosexuality. Either way, the word conjures up some exceptional connotations.
Indeed the flip side of this is that the other kind of sexuality, the ordinary business of being a man or of being a woman, is beyond question.
But the 'ordinary' business of being a man, or of being a woman – an issue central to the whole notion of sexuality – is very far from being beyond question. At the heart of most problems that surface in the consulting room of therapists the world over is this very thing. I am not talking – as my presumption above might lead you to believe – about the question of whether one is a transsexual man or a gay woman. I am referring to the 'ordinary' question that has relevance for everyone as to ‘what kind of man or woman am I?”
I suppose I ask this question because a major international congress of psychoanalysis is taking place in Europe in June and it is going to bring speakers from all over the world who will give their ideas on these very topics. The 8th International Congress of the New Lacanian School is taking place in Geneva on June 26 and 27 and the theme – Daughter, Woman, Mother in the 21st Century - is very much around these ideas.
Psychoanalysis has, since Freud and latterly since Jacques Lacan, focussed a great deal of its attention on the issue of sexuality. In particular it has edged further and further into the notion of what it is to be a woman. Now any consideration of what it is to be a woman naturally brings you into considering what, equally, it is to be a man. Hence the focus, in the first instance, on these seemingly obvious issues.
But there is nothing obvious about them. What is it to be a woman? Or to be a man? We take the questions so much for granted that we don’t even ask them anymore. Why should the questions even be asked? A man has a penis and he loves women. A woman has breasts and a vagina and she loves men. Is there any more to be said?
If we move for a moment to consider those who offer a clearly different perspective on this question, where does it leave men who love men? Or women who love women? These men have penises. These women, too, have female genitalia. The object of their sexual attentions however is for people of the same sex. Are they any less men? Or women?
And where does it leave someone like Caster Semenya, the South African 800m Olympic champion who, according to latest reports, has male reproductive organs and yet is a woman?
Psychoanalysis has long said that biology does not determine gender. You can adopt a male position even with a woman’s body. One can equally adopt a female position with a male body. There are no guarantees when it comes to the sex that we evolve into. And although social conditioning does have a part to play in it, why has it not influenced the growing population of homosexual people around the world?
The answer, according to psychoanalysis, is that the more powerful determinant of what we decide we are comes from within. The recent biographical movie with Sean Penn as US activitist Harvey Milk is a case in point. During his life, particularly his political life, he had almost an entire society telling him he was wrong. And did it make any difference? No, it didn’t.
Because to have accepted what society was telling him – much as it is for anyone with a different sexuality – would have been to deny who he was; it would have been to deny the person that he knew and believed himself to be. To accept that, is to live each day as a lie. And since we only get one life, one has to ask how bearable can that be?
And that, interestingly enough, brings us back to my first point. The ‘ordinary question’ of what it is to be a man and the ‘ordinary question’ of what it is to be a woman suddenly becomes a much richer thing now. We are no longer dealing in clichés anymore. It is no longer as simple as the man goes to work, the woman stays at home, the man plays golf, the woman has babies, the woman dresses pretty, the man acts tough, the woman uses her charm, the man uses his brawn, the woman is emotional, the man is not… The list goes on and on, added to over the centuries by various ideas about what makes a man and a woman.
Freud puzzled over the woman part of the question and didn’t quite answer to his, or anyone else’s, satisfaction. Jacques Lacan took up the challenge after him and brought it to a much more elevated psychoanalytic place. We choose our sex, at an unconscious level, and we choose it under the influence of our parents in the first instance. And that choice is not made until after puberty.
There is no instinct at work that tells us how to be a man and how to be a woman. We puzzle over it long after we have reached adulthood. To help us know what to believe we use whatever cultural sign posts are available and very often some of these are least helpful to us. Consider the body image issues that afflict people today.
Quite simply, as Jacques Alain Miller, Lacan’s son in law, has said, there is an absence of real knowledge available to us about what one must do, how one must live, as a male or a female. And it is from this perspective, from the almost ‘never settled’ position of our chosen sexuality, that we engage in relationships and adopt ideas about ourselves and live up to ideals throughout our lives.
In the context of the consulting room, it is not so much about having all the right answers, as having the broad theoretical framework with which to ask the right questions.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Escaping the Phantasy

By Kevin Murphy
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

What is it that goes wrong for us when, say, our relationships seem to end in disaster? Or when we repeat patterns of behaviour that are not good for us? Or when our lives are plagued by a sadness that we cannot understand? Or when we simply find it impossible to be ourselves when we meet a potentially interesting partner, sometimes to the point of avoiding new prospects? When I ask this question, I suppose I am asking it in the broadest sense of ‘what is it’ that goes wrong.
I was prompted into thinking along these lines while listening to Paris-based psychoanalyst and philosopher Jean-Gerard Burzstein who was in Dublin last weekend giving a lecture on behalf of the Association for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis in Ireland (APPI).
Now most therapies might start looking for answers to these questions in the actual conditions of the complaint. So if it was to do with relationships, they’d immediately start looking at the way you view relationships and so on. If it was a repeating pattern, they’d begin looking at the triggers that make that behaviour swing into action. And if it was a lifelong sadness, they’d start examining the things that made you sad. Burzstein was in Dublin to remind his audience of psychoanalytic practitioners that while psychoanalysis might begin similarly, the ‘thing’ it looks for is entirely different.
As far as he was concerned, and I concur with his views, contemporary psychoanalysis operates on the basis that what goes wrong is something of a different order. People engaging in difficult, problematic, symptomatic, negative and unproductive patterns of behaviour are, even to an outsider, easily perceived as being ‘stuck’ . In psychoanalytic terms, however, this being ‘stuck’ is elaborated even further to include the notion of being ‘trapped’.
And what is it that people are trapped in? Well, to put it simply, we become trapped in ideas we have about ourselves and the world that we inhabit. Now it is not just a case of coming up with ideas that do not serve us well and then becoming trapped by them and in them. There is, according to Bursztein, a little more to it than that.
From the very earliest age our thinking becomes conditioned by what we see around us of our close family, particularly mother and father. This in turn gives us our main set of ideas about who we are and who or what we perceive ourselves to be. This process happens incredibly early in our lives and it happens at the imaginary level, often contrary to things as they appear in real life. We are filling in with our imagination what we are still incapable of understanding fully. This helps explain why good folk can sometimes produce confused kids. Equally it helps explain why sound adults can emerge from troubled backgrounds. But it also helps explain why in an age of relative peace, of greater sexual and personal freedoms, along with great strides in science and social progress, we have increased numbers of depressions, anxieties, phobias and addictions.
According to Bursztein, each of us develops a fundamental phantasy within ourselves. This is a core notion, if you like, about what our position in the world is in relation to our primary carers, usually our parents. It works invisibly, behind the scenes, informing our actions, our choices and our ideas. It can inhibit us, prohibit us and can see us doing the same thing over and over again with no positive results. It comes into being as our way of dealing with the realisation - that each and every one of us comes to very early in our childhood - about our place as either a male or female child of male and female parents. It is, in turn, determined by the nature of the adult people who are raising us, by our adaptation to the myriad developmental changes taking place, and by our capacity to accept the necessary ups and downs of the process.
Positive people are marked by a sense of resilience. They get that from an early age. People who can enter into successful relationships have a confidence about them. They also get that from an early age. People who do not spend their lives repeating patterns of behaviour are relatively free of the need to re-find something that was lost; they have accepted loss, whatever it might be, as part of the human condition and they move on. This too is learned at an early age.
For those people who are unable to live in this way, the fundamental phantasy is at work, strongly tying them to an unyielding and unhelpful set of convictions about themselves. Psychoanalysis does not work by simply telling someone that they must change their beliefs about themselves. Bursztein made the important point last weekend that it works by using the person’s own language to trigger and unlock the old meanings.
He called this effect, ‘retroaction’. The key to psychoanalysis is retroaction, in a sense. It is not speaking for the sake of speaking. It is the release of new meaning by an effect of going back. In the same way that each sentence we utter is only possible to understand when the last word has been spoken. We understand every sentence in this retro-active way. And so too with the experiences of our lives, like half-finished sentences our experiences are made clearer to us by the act of speaking them out, of finishing them in the dynamic presence of a trained other. And where is this retro-action being directed? Towards the fundamental phantasy, first in establishing what it is and then in allowing the person step away and free themselves from it.
Sometimes this happens without the person even realising it. I have written before about people saying they have no idea how they feel better after therapy but they do. For others it does not happen because they have been unable in their speaking to allow themselves get close to the simple experiences of their lives. By that I mean simply speaking about themselves.
But the act of speaking still remains the great liberator. It is not rocket science. But it is not simple either. It involves a continuous effort to overcome our own resistances to speaking, particularly about ourselves. Yet if we manage to allow ourselves the ultimate freedom, as psychoanalysis requires, to speak about ‘everything and anything’ that comes to mind, without censorship, without editing, then we are half way there.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Therapy? Are You Mad?

By Kevin Murphy
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.*

If you need therapy you must be mad. So runs the old fashioned attitude. But it is not so old that, despite our modern attitudes and enlightened approach, it still doesn't linger in many people’s minds. The word ‘mad’ is long since gone from medical and therapeutic usage. But it lives on in the popular imagination.
I mention this because the predominant unspoken, and sometimes spoken, fear that people have about coming to therapy is that they are mad. Either they are mad to need therapy or else they will be diagnosed as mad once they are in therapy or if anybody they know finds out about them they will be labelled as mad. There is a recognisable degree of paranoia here but the greater part of this fear is reasonable and is due to the product of social stigma which is a very powerful tool.
The word itself is short-hand for not being normal. Normal people don’t need therapy. Normal people have happy lives. Normal people fall in love with the perfect person and have perfect relationships. Normal people don’t need to go to someone to ‘talk’ about their problems. It’s all pretty attractive stuff, this normal world occupied by normal people.
I was reminded of this listening to a seminar last weekend by London based psychoanalyst Gerry Sullivan. He was in Dublin speaking on the topic ‘The Role of the Father; Decline or Displacement?’ for the Association for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in Ireland. He pointed out that for Freud the three broad structures that operated within society were psychosis (clinical madness), perversion (of the sexual kind) and neurosis.
The last of these is the largest category by far and the one into which all our obsessions, hysterias, phobias, compulsions, addictions, depressions and anxiety-related conditions are grouped. This, for Freud, was the category that underpinned society, this was normal. To be normal, for Freud, is to be neurotic.
One can only wonder, therefore, where this message has disappeared to in the past one hundred years or so? How have people suffering from sadness, fear, inadequacy, inability, hidden prohibitions, and all the other afflictions that make dealing with reality difficult, come to consider themselves as abnormal? It is a hard question to answer without taking into account the societal changes in the past century. But we can safely assume that somewhere along the way we have forgotten how flawed human beings actually are. Or maybe not forgotten but chosen not to recognise it. And so we now find ourselves in the 21st century believing that any flaw is not just unacceptable but is a sign of some inherent abnormality.
Advances in science, while undoubtedly welcome, have also had the unpleasant side-effect of creating a body of thought in which there is no place for ordinary flawed humanity. The popular social discourse, too, requires our young people to be word-perfect and looks-perfect pretty much from the start of their lives. There is very little room now for difference or anything that falls short of the imaginary norm of perfection. Anyone unlucky to find themselves in this position, and there are very, very many, is then left dealing with a potentially uncomfortable relationship with themselves, to whatever degree it manifests.
Why? Because we have come to believe too much in ideals. An ideal way to live, an ideal way to look, an ideal way to interact with others, an ideal way to think. And while that might serve us reasonable well in our relations to the outside world, what one often finds is that the very place it breaks down is when the person is left to their own devices, isolated to whatever extent, in their own company and with their own thoughts. The reason is because this pursuit of ideals is often one that is devoid of meaning, in the sense that it does not satisfy us or answer our questions at a core level. This is not to say that having achievable goals and setting out in a defined way to reach them is not a good thing. No I am talking about demanding of ourselves that we become flawless and display no weaknesses or deficiencies in the living out of our lives. One is a reasonable ask. The other is not.
* The next blog will appear on Tuesday April 13th, 2010.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Staying Away From the Talking Cure

By Kevin Murphy
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

As I was saying last week, there are reasons why people should not do psychotherapy. And while it may seem counterproductive for a psychotherapist to say so, I am outlining some of those reasons in order to help people who do choose to enter into therapy to do so with a greater sense of purpose. Last week I mentioned the concepts of relationship, commitment and change that are inherent in the process. I said that if people had difficulty with any of these areas then it might be a good idea for them not to do therapy.
This week I wanted to look at an often overlooked area: speech. It might seem like an obvious thing to say but psychotherapy is a talking therapy. The phrase comes from Freud who essentially invented it and it has been taken on since then in many other forms of therapy. But as the name suggests, the talking cure, as it was known in Freud’s time, is about, well, talking.
It is always interesting to notice how many people do not do much talking in their lives. Naturally we can’t go around talking about how we feel to total strangers. Even friends and family can get tired listening to us if we talk too much about ourselves. But, as an exercise, try and notice next time you opt to say nothing when there is something important you want to say to people you know well and you would otherwise be comfortable speaking to.
The art of speaking, at least from a therapeutic point of view, is not about knowing exactly what you want to say or having the words to describe deep or complicated ideas about ourselves. The first thing people are asked to do in psychoanalytic psychotherapy is to simply talk about the first thing that comes to mind. We are not referring to buried things, or deep things, or complicated things, or meaningful things. We are simply referring to whatever is foremost on one’s mind.
After that, it is about allowing oneself to follow on to the next thing that comes to mind, and then the next and so on. The experience, generally speaking, is that by the end of the session we are usually on to a subject we had no idea we were going to speak about and one that engages our interest fully. And it is all done by not directing the person to talk about anything in particular.
Now this might sound like a simple process but there are people who have difficulty with this very simplicity. And, in fairness, it is easier to understand how it works once one has done it a few times rather than explain it in cold print. Be that as it may, it can pose a problem for some people. The freedom of speaking about whatever one wishes can be too much. The requirement to speak about whatever comes to mind can often be problematic for some, despite its simplicity. And so if the business of speaking – and remember, the act of speaking requires us to put ourselves into the forefront of what we are doing – is too difficult or too onerous then psychotherapy might not be the ideal choice for you.
And finally on this subject, we come to the notion of freedom. Without going in to it too obscurely or too deeply there are broadly two types of freedom at work when it comes to psychoanalytic psychotherapy. The first kind is the kind I referred to a little earlier and it is the freedom to speak about whatever comes to mind, in whatever way you wish. By this latter point - in whatever way you wish - I mean that it doesn’t have to be in a formal beginning-middle-end style of narrative. So, you see, this first type of freedom is quite extensive. Psychoanalysis allows us to speak about things that come to mind in whatever loose order they happen to come. There doesn’t have to be a big point at the end of it. Stylistically speaking, we don’t have to begin in a flourish and marshal all our points to an overwhelming conclusion.
Once we are speaking out the things that come to mind, as they come to mind, then we are doing it properly. Again, this is easier to do in practice than to explain in print. But if allowing yourself the freedom to speak without having to come to neat conclusions about everything, or have a definite reason for choosing to speak about something in particular, might not be for you, then you might want to reconsider doing psychotherapy.
The second form that this freedom takes is the freedom that comes when the mistaken illusions under which we operate begin to lift. This takes place some time after we have begun the work properly and it is first noticeable in small ways. We stop seeing things in exactly the way we always have and it is first brought home to us when we experience the sensation of having a completely new and refreshing take on something ordinary. This is a sign that a new freedom is emerging in how we view the world and our place in it.
Naturally, such a shift can mean giving up on old illusions we have had – I can never succeed, I will never be loved, I will never change – and with it comes a degree of resistance. Why? Because, paradoxically, we might want to change but we might also want to remain as we are. I touched on this when I spoke about the concept of change and here I am simply broadening it out to include the notion that freedom from old ideas is the ultimate form of change. If, however, you think you might have difficulty with that kind of thing, then maybe psychotherapy is not for you.
So the conundrum exists that although people might opt for therapy in order to change themselves or aspects of their lives, they can resist it at the same time. Some even believe they can change parts of themselves as if they were somehow unconnected to the totality of who they are. Psychotherapy works best when it approached with a degree of open-ness and honesty. It does not work when change is sought while holding on to and refusing to give up on old ways of thinking about ourselves. Why? Because the old ways of thinking about ourselves are usually the reason we seek out therapy in the first place.