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.