Some of the people I see exploring whether to begin therapy, often express doubts as to whether their troubles are significant enough. I often hear the refrain – “nothing that bad has happened to me, maybe I’m just being self-indulgent, or isn’t this all a bit naval gazing?.”
I think simplified, what the client is really saying is; “Am I justified in feeling this pain and am I worthy of this attention ? ”
This blog will look at how therapy can help us incorporate our painful experiences as part of a fuller engagement with ourselves, the people in our lives (our relationships) and as a different approach to living
The Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein who was interested in early development, theorised that a key early and ongoing development task is the sad but necessary realisation that others are different and separate from us, with their own needs rather than as extensions of our own. This confronts us with the loss of what we hope and want the other person to be, but if we are able to face and mourn this loss, we can move onto to a more realistic and more liveable life. When the disappointments by the other are too great, or conversely, the other attempts to be everything for us, this task is all the harder.
Voltaire, the French philosopher and writer, in his novel ‘Candide’, tells the story of a group of travellers who have suffered various trials and tribulations. On hearing of a murder at the Ottoman court they pass an old man peacefully tending his garden. They ask the old man about the trouble at the court and he replies that he doesn’t know anything about it, since he doesn’t keep up with the affairs there. Rather he tends calmly to his own small holding. Voltaire used this example to put forward the idea that in order to live a ‘good life’, we should not overly concern ourselves with worldly affairs, but find a task we can attend to, that leaves us satisfied but tired at the end of the day.
In my therapy practice I relate to this, not in the sense that we should ignore politics or activism, I think these are important, but in the sense that I regularly experience how clients want to engage me in their ‘rages against the machine’, with different viewpoints and perspectives. What I often find is that, smuggled into these arguments are parts of themselves they find difficult, or are unable, to face: the bad one is the other one over there – and if only they thought like me, the world would be fine.
I try to carefully and tactfully sense what is behind these things, and the defenses or shames against feeling them, and try to create a safe enough space where these grievances and pains can be heard, allowing air to the wounds. Allowing, over time, a sad but realistic acceptance of the wounds, limits and realities of ourselves and perhaps the human condition. Rather then than therapy being self indulgent, perhaps it is one the best things we can do for the world, by trying to understand ourselves so that we don’t project our own hurts and conflicts outwards. This is why in therapy I will always be thinking about, and trying to help you understand what is happening inside of yourself, using myself as an instrument to understand what is happening between us, utilising the self awareness I’ve gained through my own work on myself, to help you understand and accept yourself more fully.
In his book, Voltaire argues that the melancholic position is the only one from which we – any of us who have suffered disappointments, broken hearts, loss, (all adults that I know) – can ever truly live. He contests that we cannot escape suffering, since to some degree, the world is a brutal and cruel place to live. Perhaps rather than getting lost in despair or raging about this, what we can do, is to cultivate our inner worlds, pulling up the weeds, planting, feeling, exploring. Not trying to rid ourselves of the pain or anxieties of life, or the world, but to learn – as sad as it is – to try and accept that these are part of the human condition. That after we have loved and lost, battled our own minds, tried to find the magical other, and failed, that perhaps the best way forward is to attend modestly and honestly to our own human natures, to its wild thorny ways, to our own sometimes unkind and cruel ways, and to do our best to be honest about these, rather than defend against them, driving them underground. To cultivate what we can, humility, acceptance, forgiveness and grace. Like tending a garden, the work is never complete.
Paul Salvage is a Psychodynamic Psychotherapist trained to work with adolescents from 16-25 and adults across a wide range of specialisms including depression, anxiety, family issues, self awareness and relationship difficulties. He currently works with individuals in our private practice in Hove.
Further reading by Paul Salvage –