Most of us of a certain age will remember watching Mary Poppins as children; indeed the 1964 Disney film continues to occasionally grace our screens, usually around Christmas and at a less-than-prime viewing slot. Even for those of us whose memories of the film have faded, we probably remember the leitmotif of the film: Mary Poppins’ ‘A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine go Down’. In the film Mary signs the song to Matthew and Jane, the two children for whom she is a governess, with a view to teaching them an important lesson: even though they are to clean their rooms, a task they understandably find less than enjoyable, it is a job that can still be rendered meaningful, even fun, when approached with the correct attitude.
Fast forward to 2014 and not a day goes past that sugar – and our dietary consumption of it – are not being vilified by the media. We are constantly being told to limit our intake of sugar and that of our children; this despite being paradoxically and perversely bombarded by Big Food Corporates encouraging us to buy their food, whose primarily nutritional ingredient seems to be this very feared white substance. Sugar is now the fat of the nineties and arguably significantly more deadly.
What has all this got to do with psychotherapy? Well, it depends on what you consider psychotherapy to be. Few psychotherapists will agree exactly as to the primary objective – the holy grail – of what psychotherapy is actually for. However, once you cut through the differences, the similarities are not so far apart. Arguably, the role of psychotherapy is to help clients find more bearable ways of carrying their losses: it is not to eradicate or distract us from those losses.
Losses are present in every moment of our lives. Like Matthew and Jane listening to Mary Poppins extol the virtues of finding fun and meaning in a seemingly mundane task, the loss for them was not engaging with more immediately gratifying options promising them a warming comforting spike of dopamine or adrenaline. Much like what happens to us when we consume sugar.
In ancient Greece it was Socrates who suggested that ‘the unexamined life was not worth living’. He did not say that the sad life; the loss laden life; the mundane life, the life where we have to clean our room, ad-infinitum, was not worth living. People coming to talk to a psychotherapist, irrespective of their presenting issues, have come to talk about their lives and to think about how they can live them in a way that becomes more bearable; to work out what their spoonful of sugar could be, that can make their life – the medicine – more bearable.
The challenge for us all is in finding ways to recognise that we are all addicted to sugar: life has gone from being, at best, sugar coated, to one consisting of one-hit followed by another of pure unadulterated sugar streaming not only into our mouths, but our eyes, our emotions and into our brains. Modern life has turned us into junkies, we crave, seek and focus on that next hit without pausing for thought. We are connected 24 hours a day: news, social media, gaming, on-demand films and television, not to mention the perils of online porn and online gambling; the latter two often considered the ‘crack-cocaine’ of behavioural addiction. Mobile phones now have more applications to connect us than most entire households had 20 years ago. Yet paradoxically, we are also more disconnected than ever before: from each other and from ourselves.
We are constantly being bombarded to want more, need more, be more, have more, consume more, and ‘live’ more. ‘Sugar’ is dolled out to us from every angle and we crave more and more of it to try and appease the gnawing void of existential anxiety within us. How then, to slow down? To remove the virtual intravenous drip of sugar keeping us drugged up and ‘happy’ and to start to get in touch with reality; we can’t have it all – decisions are expensive as one decision precludes the alternatives and because everything ends. Like any addict knows, you can only keep the uncomfortable feelings at bay for a while; eventually, they will surface requiring the next hit.
Kleinians talk of therapy aiding clients in moving from the ‘paranoid-schizoid position’ to the ‘depressive position’. It is this that I believe we all need to try and do if we are to start to find constructive ways of finding life meaningful; to breathe through the mundanity and everyday difficulties that comprise being a human being. Perhaps this is what Mary Poppins may have been alluding to with her song; how can slowing down, breathing, feeling, help us sugar coat each moment and accept the medicine that is life? Perhaps therapy is about supporting us, teaching us to do this for ourselves, in removing the IV drip that keeps us tranquillised yet anxious whereby we desperately try to avoid any uncomfortable sensation that may arise, and instead learn to trust our own emotional process and build upon our resilience. It is this, I am sure, that Socrates would have agreed, is the correct attitude and that constitutes the examined life.
Image credit: Wikipedia