Available entertainment over the recent end of year break included the chance to laugh at the prospect of us all being killed. The climate crisis satire, ‘Don’t Look Up’ presented a mirror of our times, with scientists struggling to communicate imminent planetary annihilation by comet to a disbelieving public.
This new year sees the 60th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s landmark environmental work, Silent Spring. Her ‘fable for tomorrow’ begins with a stark picture of a rural American town that has died, its people taken ill, its farm animals barren, its insect life no more and all birdsong silenced. Recognizing the widespread harm caused by indiscriminate use of highly toxic insecticides, her book inspired an emerging environmental protest movement, leading to stricter regulation and a new awareness of how human activity was damaging the natural world.
Separated by sixty years of change, what strikes me most about both these works of warning is they seek to call attention to signals in the environment others have missed – or simply cannot see – and each insists these signals have meanings, with implications for the need to take action for purposeful change.
Not seeing the bigger things
In the same decade that Carson was warning of environmental collapse, a pioneering psychiatrist turned her attention to another neglected area of human experience. Conducting over two hundred interviews with dying hospital patients, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross gave moving shape to their stories with a new theory of how we cope with loss.
In her equally ground breaking publication, On Death And Dying, she proposed five separate stages of coping: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Although later critiqued for proposing a linear ‘stage’ process to change, her assertion that our primary response to loss is ‘denial’ holds truest for me.
Although now commonplace to hear talk of someone being ‘in denial’, this can often sound critical, as though there were something dysfunctional about this deeply human response.
For Kübler-Ross the denial she encountered in her patient interviews struck her as a ‘healthy way of dealing with the uncomfortable and painful’.
I think our human propensity for denial is testament to our powerful capacity to use our brilliant imaginations for self-protection. When faced with the intolerable, we unconsciously block out what threatens our fundamental sense of security.
Not seeing the smaller things
Because denial has acquired this shade of critical meaning, I find a more psychotherapeutic term, the process of ‘discounting’, much more helpful to use.
This theory emerged from a school of thinking in Transactional Analysis in the 1970s, when it was recognised that patients struggling to manage their lives and relationships had one big thing in common: they each engaged in ‘discounting’, whereby their thoughts and behaviours were often based on being plainly unaware of significant aspects of themselves, other people or wider reality.
Just as we can deny our larger reality in a life crisis I believe that an unconscious unawareness of smaller things is part of our day to day human experience. We all regularly discount some aspect of ourselves, of others and the world, simply in order to live in the best way we can. And as our denial must eventually give way to our awareness for change and growth to happen, so must our discounting.
The uses of psychotherapy
Psychotherapy often involves the paradoxical question, ‘What is it, that at some level, I am unconsciously choosing not to notice, and why?’ I see the process of psychotherapy as a sustained collaborative inquiry between therapist and client, so that clients can move at their own pace from self-protective discounting to self-expanding awareness.
In Carson’s fictional doomed American town, her explanation for the crisis is, ‘The people had done it themselves’. And just as her work helped many people to become aware of what they were not seeing and begin to account for healthier ways of relating to nature, so the business of psychotherapy can liberate individuals.
It can do this through carefully exploring their beliefs, feelings and behaviours in order to increase awareness of other ways of being and discover new options for change. In this way, psychotherapy at its most effective helps people, in the only way possible, to do it for themselves.
Chris Horton is a registered member of the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP) and a psychotherapeutic counsellor with experience in a diverse range of occupational settings. He works with individuals (young people/adults) in private practice. He is available at our Lewes and Brighton & Hove Practice.
Carson, R. (1962) Silent Spring Houghton Mifflin Co. Inc
Kübler-Ross E. (1969) On Death and Dying Routledge