Smoke and Mirrors

 

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.

What ever you see I swallow immediately

Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.

I am not cruel, only truthful—

The eye of a little god, four-cornered….

~  Sylvia Plath, Mirror

 

We all know the story of Narcissus, and the dangers of falling too deeply in self-love, mesmerized by our own reflection.

And we all know that fairy tales warn us of the black arts of deceptive mirrors which seduce us into the belief that we are indeed the “fairest of them all”

Psychoanalytic theory has wrestled with the idea of the reflected self – and the hunger we all have to see ourselves accurately and completely. The need to gaze at ourselves is simultaneously labeled as narcissistic disease, and the same mirroring gaze is the cure itself.

Self-involvement, self-regard, self-love, self-awareness, self-negation, self-esteem, selfishness and self-reflection. Our fascination with mirrors speaks to our archetypal hunger to see ourselves in both a flattering and an accurate light, our fear of what we may find, the tricks and dangers that lurk through the looking-glass and the wish to know realities that require the aid of the reflecting glass.

For without such reflections we cannot begin to know ourselves at all.

 

Relationship as Mirror

I  your glass Will modestly discover to yourself

That of yourself which you yet know not of.

Shakespeare ~  Julius Cesar

The first literal and metaphorical mirror we encounter is  “the gleam in the mother’s eye” – a glimpse of our infant-selves, feeding, reflected in the dark pupil of a care provider. For those lucky enough to first see themselves in an eye-mirror that is smiling, admiring, bonded, and loving our most primordial sense of Self will be surrounded in adoration and security. For those with depressed, absent, distracted or indifferent care takers the first glimpse of ourselves may be anxious, disrupted, hopeless or fragmentary.

And some cannot find themselves there at all.

Mothering and mirroring are archetypal functions entangled and intertwined  long before psychoanalysis conflated them:

In Christian art the mirror came to represent the eternal purity of the Virgin Mary. As the medieval writer Jacobus de Voragine wrote:

As the sun permeates glass without violating it, so Mary became a mother without losing her virginity She is called a mirror because of her representation of things, for as all things are reflected from a mirror, so in the blessed Virgin, as in the mirror of God, ought all to see their impurities and spots, and purify them and correct them…”  ~ The Fitzwilliam Museum 

Over time early caretakers wield their parental power with “an increasing selectivity of responses.” As the mother’s face-mirror shifts from admiring to disappointing, approving to disapproving, flattering to shaming it prunes our sense of our own strengths and weaknesses, and helps us to assemble a socialized self – a mask, a false-self, a personae to introduce ourselves to the world.

The first experience of a disapproving mirror casts us from the garden, initiates us into the processes of repression and introduces us to sin and shame.

The most destructive energies within us must first be met with some approval for their self-preserving, evolutionary function in order for us to integrate them into our own self-image, and learn to modulate them and use them effectively.

The consequence of the parental self-objects inability to be the joyful mirror to a child’s healthy assertiveness may be a lifetime of abrasiveness, bitterness and sadism that cannot be discharged- and it is only by means of therapeutic reactivation of the original need for the self-objects responses that the actual lessening of rage and a return to healthy assertiveness can be achieved.  ~ Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of Self.

In Kohut’s model, the psychotherapist creates an opportunity for a corrective experience  by assuming transferred responsibility for these mirroring needs – as a self-object that helps to repair and integrate distorted or unmirrored aspects of the Self. The therapist offers an accepting, admiring gaze, one that allows the client to shed the distorting self-representations left over from being raised surrounded by fun house mirrors.

For Kohut, the need for healthy self-mirroring objects, accurate enough, even through its imperfections, is life long. Psychotherapies that span a life-time are not seen as failed – but as necessary compensations for our ongoing need to see and accept ourselves as we are over time.

No one looks in a mirror just once. We feel the need in to check in on ourselves, to peer and peek, take in and groom our reflections, sometimes several times a day, every day as we grow, mature and decline over for the course of our lives. We wonder if we could know ourselves over time, if we could have a sense of how life passes through us at all without our mirrors.
 
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman

Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish. ~  Sylvia Plath, Mirror

Mirrors & Shadows

In myth, scripture, fairy tale and legend, the mirror as archetype serves far more uncanny functions, functions more dangerous, ambivalent, sacred and transcendent than merely regulating our self-esteem.

Mirrors reveal to us what cannot be shown to anyone else, what we do not know, and perhaps don’t want to know about ourselves at all.

Whoever looks into the mirror of the water will see first of all his own face. Whoever goes to himself risks a confrontation with himself. The mirror does not flatter, it faithfully shows whatever looks into it; namely, the face we never show to the world because we cover it with the persona, the mask of the actor. But the mirror lies behind the mask and shows the true face. ~ CG Jung “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious”

Our truest face, our whole Self includes a shadow that is terrifying to us, as almost every scary movie will attest to. What is more frightening than staring in a mirror, alone, in an empty house, at night with nothing to encounter except yourself in the quiet dark? What horror will be revealed? What chilling doppleganger lurks underneath our daytime persona?

We are horrified and titillated by seeing our denied, demonic shadow selves reflected.

There are destructive creatures lurking in our personal unconscious that can only be vanquished, by taking indirect aim through their reflection, as Perseus defeated Medusa. Complexes that are so potent, that if we attempt to face them too squarely, too directly we could be turned to stone.

There are monsters and entities which are only recognized by empty mirrors which reveal their soul-lessness.  Our undead selves, the haunting self-apsects not alive but not dead either,  vampiric states that drain us when we are unaware, our eyes closed to what has emerged to feed when we were not awake to ourselves.

In Psychology and Alchemy, C.G. Jung details a dream in which a mirror appears as “an indispensable instrument of navigation” referring “to the intellect which is able to think, and is constantly persuading us to identify with its insights (reflections).”

Metabolizing shadow content is one of the functions of psychotherapy too, as well as safely and incrementally,  breaking down the repressions, fear, and judgement which caused those self-states to find themselves banished to the mirror-lands to begin with.

Here the focus of psychotherapeutic work is less on the psychotherapist as corrective mirror,  but more as a warm and accepting guide, who’s job is to usher us into active relationship with our own Unconscious.

Mirrors can also show us glimpses of worlds far beyond our personal unconscious.

 

Mirrors, Soul and Spirit

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

~ 1 Corinthians, 13:12 King James Bible

 

Mirrors are windows into alternate universes, to magic realms, to the upside down places, and can transport us to the dream-lands and spirit worlds. They are the looking-glass we can fall through, and the portal which both dark and benevolent spirits pass through to contact us.

Faust on his journey with Mephistopheles first falls in love with face of Divine love – Heavenly beauty, the Anima, manifest as the face of Helen of Troy when her image emerges in a magic mirror. It is this contact with his own soul and the redeeming spirit which, in the end,  will ultimately save him.

And from her living body, lying there

Comes there indeed all heaven my soul to bless?

~ Faust, Goethe

Mirror phenomenon are also representative of the intuitive function: To look in a mirror lit only by candle light reveals the spirits of those who have died. Or practice mirror gazing, catopromancy,  as Pythagoras did, and divine your fate  as it emerges in the glass. Reflection under the moonlight  opens the mind’s eye to  the images, intuitions, and guidance of larger psyche:  the instincts and perceptions unconsciously repressed or consciously dismissed in the light of day.

Without the silvered glass we may never retrieve unknown, forgotten or lost pieces of our own soul.

 

Soul Loss

It was a maxim both in ancient India and in ancient Greece not to look at ones reflection in the water and …the Greeks regarded it as an omen of death if a man dreamed of seeing himself so reflected. They feared that the water-spirits would drag the persons reflection or soul under water, leaving him soulless to perish. This was probably the origin of the classical story of the beautiful Narcissus, who languished and died through seeing his reflection in the water ~  Paula Elkisch, The Psychological Significance of  the Mirror

Like photographs, when isolated cultures without mirrors were introduced to them for the first time, it was often  assumed that the reflection was their actual  soul, having left the body.

We cover mirrors following a death so the soul does not become lost within them and a broken mirror is an image of a shattered soul in pieces, and it will take  seven years before its wholeness is restored.

If the mirror is “‘a thing that has been made the screen for mans projections” (Elkish)  then through the processes of projection we lose some part of our soul.

So, what then are psychotherapists as personified blank-screens and mirroring-objects gathering up client’s projections and transferences – but soul-stealers and head-shrinkers, holding our client’s souls hostage for a weekly ransom?  As psychotherapists we must always acknowledge the darker aspects of our powers and the archetypes that are present in the therapeutic transaction. As clients, the mirror as archetype reminds us that we must remain always cognizant of the  dangers of becoming trapped, lost, hypnotized by images of our own projected soul.

It seems that the fear of loss of self (or soul) together with the attempt at retrieving the lost makes the mirror so fascinating ~  Paula Elkisch, The Psychological Significance of  the Mirror

 

Mirrors, Tricks and Miracles

The universe is at root a magical illusion and a fabulous game ~ Alan Watts

Of course stage magicians also rely on mirrors to create pleasurable tricks and amusements.   It is a deception that we participate in happily, willingly, suspending our disbelief to delight in the hidden mirrors ability to make things appear or disappear, or to make something or someone dense, burdensome and heavy transform into something as light as a feather. As we watch the volunteer from the audience levitate, mirrors obscuring the mechanisms of suspension, our own burdens feel lighter too.

Mirrored tricks and illusions can have profoundly healing effects: Mirror-boxes are used to effectively treat phantom limb pain following amputation. The intact limb is placed in front of the mirror box, which masks the missing limb. The patient watches the mirror while they stretch, unfurl, scratch, or massage the intact limb, relieving the discomfort of the missing limb. The mind is not fooled into the literal belief that their missing limb has been restored, but the brain is fooled and the illusion soothes and relieves.

And perhaps psychotherapy is at its very best, a similar curative illusion, a healing trick, a soothing substitution – rather than a literally corrective experience for losses incurred in the past. A trick which both participants must remember is both an illusion and a cure.

Or maybe it is something else:

 

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,

Searching my reaches for what she really is.

Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.

I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.

She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.

I am important to her. She comes and goes….

~ Sylvia Plath, Mirror

An image presented itself to me in a hypnogogic state recently – as I drifted in between sleep and waking:

I sat in my office chair, my face hidden from view, my head behind a mirror inside a box  much like a medicine cabinet. I sat across from an unknown Other, who I could see only dimly, but who saw their soul reflected when they faced me. They were transfixed, filled with yearning, with deep hunger for more contact, to forge a deep and lasting relationship with the face in front of them. I was not fooled. I knew that I was not what they sought. But it was nearly impossible to impress the truth upon them: What they thought they could only access through  “me” was merely a reflection of their Self:  “wholeness, totality, the union of opposites, the central generative point where God and man meet… the fountain of our being which is most simply described as God” ~  Edward Edinger – Ego and Archetype

“Mirror”: from the Vulgar Latin, “mirare” to look at,” variant of Latin mirari “to wonder at, marvel, be astonished”  - also the historical source of “Miracle” and “Miraculous”

What you seek is already within you. This reality is subjective, not the outer, objective reality.  ~ Ram Dass, Polishing the Mirror quoted in Parabola vol, 39, issue 1

 

It is your own lush self

you hunger for 

 ~ Lucille Clifton, Eves Version

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is What Happened

Someone asked me to write this. Sort of.

They asked me if I could state, in tangible terms, the kinds of healing that I have seen take place in my work as a therapist.

And I can’t. Because it didn’t and doesn’t somehow seem to be my prerogative to codify or co-opt my client’s experiences to say how I think they have been healed, or not. That is up to them to define. I have no idea what they think has helped about therapy unless they tell me.

Sometimes they point to powerful defining words – for good and ill – that  I said, years, even decades earlier, that I have no recollection of ever saying.

I do this to my psychotherapist too. If you’ve read my writing over time you’ve seen me do it, and you should know he is a very good sport about it.

Is healing always even the goal?  Sometimes the goal is just surviving.

Some weeks, it is an extraordinary accomplishment and more than enough that we are all still here, and still pursing hope, meaning and connection and living out of our values in the face of  life’s suffering.

Certainly I’ve seen people transform their lives in front of me: Leaving abusive scenarios behind, finding love, healing relationships with partners, becoming parents and more attuned parents, getting through school, sorting through confusion, negotiating and resolving crises,  mourning deaths and other unfathomable losses, facing down fears, coming out of all kinds of closets, changing careers, owning their true identities, at first managing, and eventually shedding symptoms and anxieties.

But I don’t think these accomplishments were because of me. Sometimes the client does though. When they thank me, I try to stay gracious and not too self-effacing and accept their gratitude as a sign of appreciation of my sticking near them through it.

But often that is all I am doing. Staying near. Bearing witness, and letting what I am seeing change me. Staying out of the way, and trying to clear some thickets here and there that may be blocking their true path. Babysitting their most vulnerable needs until they are ready to value and care for them on their own. Making a dark time a little less lonely, and a little less terrifying. Normalizing some stuff that they worry is crazy.  But the growth is theirs and may have happened without me.  Maybe I made the unfolding a little easier. So I try to accept the gratitude – but it always feels strange to do so.  Like a plant thanking me for its growth and harvest  when all I did was water it once or twice a week.

But here is what I can talk about – and will try to do so briefly. Briefly. Ha!

I will try to talk briefly  (that is hilarious) about almost thirty years as a client in my own psychotherapy.

I arrived in New York City in the year after my 21st birthday, to work in the theater and to  be near a boy – who I thought was a man,  a few years older than me – but I see now was just a boy. The boy fell in love with someone else, and for some reason didn’t tell me. I don’t know why. We weren’t living together, we weren’t committed – perhaps he felt bound by an underlying and crushing dependency that I barely contained – as I lashed  myself tightly to any peer, friend, lover that I could, hoping to survive the sinking ship of a family that I had left behind. Perhaps he feared that if he left he would sink me. And  he was kind of right. But he still should have left for the girl he did love rather than making me feel increasingly crazy, confused, burdensome and complaining about my “jealousy problem.”

I had other problems, certainly. I had inherited them. My father had come from a deeply abusive, very wealthy and epically pathological family – and spent his life trying to expel his pain with unnecessary surgeries – over  20 times under the knife – narcotics, religion and rage. He remarried to a woman with three sons who became his real family and I was at best a tolerated guest. My mother had left him when I was ten, after falling in love with our parish priest, who was also a terrifying narcissist, and ultimately “defrocked” by the Episcopalian diocese.  He also eventually left, taking the house out from under us.

So maybe that is why the boy was scared to leave me. But he agreed to go to couples therapy. So we went. We were matched at a fee for service clinic with a young man fresh out of his internship, maybe about the boys age – 25 or so – much older than me,  so I thought. I don’t remember much of these sessions, except that they eventually  helped me to tell the weak scared boy to go, for Gods sake.

And then I sunk. Which was necessary. Which was practically mandatory – because I thought, up until that loss, that the life I had inherited was sustainable. That it was wacky, funny, unconventional perhaps, but I was sure it was all fine.  And that life would keep unfolding that way and that I could keep making a funny story about it at cast-parties after rehearsal, and that there was no harm done.

And suddenly, it was clear to me that something had happened again, that I never ever ever wanted to happen again, and that there was plenty of harm done. Plenty.

I began seeing the 25 year old therapist myself twice a week. I began noticing that I had symptoms, which I had never noticed as symptoms before. I would spend hours getting dressed, unable to see myself accurately in the mirror not because I was fussy about clothes but because I  unable to tell what I looked like.  I was not a night owl, I had regular, and pretty severe insomnia, terrible nightmares, intrusive memories, flashbacks, night-shame from my increasingly obviously not-so-normal childhood.

I began trying to tell the kind young therapist the story so far – to recount, recall  and reorder for myself  what exactly had happened. I came in to each session and told some other part of the story. I told  him, and myself for the first time what it actually felt like, parts of the story that I had ignored, the distressing, disturbing, terrifying, traumatic memories that swirled in my head instead of sleep. There was no familial or social relationship that would have listened. And my own shame and dissociation made it impossible to tell even if there had been.

This was it. Psychotherapy created the space for me to locate myself in the middle of a swirling tornado of chaos and confusion.

It took me years to tell it all. I barely noticed the young therapist because the need to tell it all was so overwhelming.

At the end of seven years, I said: “I think I am finished telling you what happened.” And I noticed that he was still in the room. And that he hadn’t left, or become terrified himself, or ever once looked away. That he had stayed through all of it. That I finally had a witness, who had heard the whole story, who had traveled from my first home, and then after my family exploded, back and forth, between my parents houses with me – who had made it through with me, and this meant that perhaps, I had made it through as well.

Then there was the present to deal with. How would I protect myself and how could I exist outside of the chaotic family that I loved and was attached to? How could I separate and individuate – and jump into the void and all the unknowns of adulthood  from a platform so unstable? How had I been and how would I continue to repeat this story?  How had I projected it on to others? How was I, without realizing it, recasting the characters from the original script in my adult narrative? How could I do something new, create something healthier for myself? Would I even recognize, or be attracted to available relationships when I encountered them? Would I always over-adapt to compensate for the wounds of others?

The flashbacks receded. I slept soundly through the night most nights. I could get dressed and leave the house easily enough. The panic attacks faded away. I don’t know when. I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t come to therapy for symptom reduction. I came to save my soul.

And eventually this (although for many years this was too terrifying): How did this all show up in my relationship to my therapist himself?  How did fear, distrust, anger, injury, paranoia, anxiety, chaos affect my ability to see him clearly, to connect to him? I began to actively use the therapy as a chance to watch the slow-motion replay: I could see my error, my out-of-bounds, my avoidance, my need, my indirection, my suspicion, my fear as it effected my participation, my attachment, my authentic presence in  therapeutic relationship right in front of my eyes. I saw what triggered my reactions and over-reactions, and learned  that forgivable acts can activate memories of unforgivable ones.

This felt like a super-power, x-ray vision. With this discovery I was suddenly able to see myself, and others  – and assess if I was giving what I should, if I was receiving what I needed. I could sense balance and imbalance, sustainable mutuality, and untenable lopsidedness in my relationships. I began to seek out others who could sense and speak of this too.

My joys and sorrows were increasingly responsive to the real events and stressors in my daily life – and less and less and less  about an unprocessed past bleeding out all over a messy present. I created reliable, loving, respectful relationships with friends, and chosen family in the present and the salvageable and loving members of my family of origin.

I mourned for all of those I had to let go.

I took up the profession for myself somewhere along the line, graduating from social work school just after I turned thirty, and eloped, marrying a man I had met five years earlier, the summer before graduation.  And I continued in therapy to deepen my examination of how my limitations and history were activated and projected into the therapeutic relationships in my own office and to keep my relationship with my husband and my in-laws – another family! – growing and healthy. And that parallel process – of being a psychotherapist – and being a client – strengthened and healed me even more.

And the relationship still exists, and always will. I don’t know how a 25 year old boy was able to contain a deeply traumatized 21 year old girl. But he did. And we have grown up together, and practiced parallel to each other now for over twenty years. I see him when life permits or requires. And that is less important than all that is absolutely permanent between us.

So: Can I say, in tangible terms, how I have seen psychotherapy heal, as a psychotherapist?

I guess the answer is yes.

It’s the Relationship…

I sometimes dread being introduced to other psychotherapists.

“Hi! Nice to meet you – you are a therapist too?!  That’s great – I do CBT, Motivational Interviewing and Behavioral Activation – what do you do?”

Uh.

Umm.

Shrug.

“I have an office…”  I’ll vague out and drift off.

When faced with the alphabet soup of “evidenced based psychotherapies” I find myself lost and speechless.

I don’t begrudge or devalue any of those interventions for the therapists and the clients that find them useful and meaningful.

But that isn’t what I do.

None of  the methodology, measures, the cognitive distortions or neuropsychological reprogrammings would have pulled me from the quagmire I inherited – there were only a few simple things that had any chance of aligning me with my soul’s mandate and the pursuit of meaning in my life: Image, Words, Metaphor,  Relationship.

I can’t eliminate behavior, and wouldn’t even dare arbitrate which behaviors are healthy or unhealthy. I can’t fix a damned thing. And I don’t practice therapy that fixes anything, because, frankly,  I never wanted to participate in a therapy or enter into a relationship with a therapist who wanted to fix me.

I can’t make anyone’s  problems go away, including my own. And as I get older, and watch myself revisit the same conflicts and complexes in  subtler forms I wonder if “change” in the sense that most people imagine it when they speak of psychotherapy, is possible at all, and if it is even desirable.

Healing is a word that means more to me than “behavioral change”  but only if “healing” primarily means  living with ever deepening compassion for our own, and other’s wounds and vulnerabilites.  I am not a “healer”  who knows how to make wounds disappear entirely, if at all. Scars, sensitivities, vulnerabilities, residues, susceptibilities, remain, even if the bleeding stops.

And often enough life gets better and worse and better and worse  on its own – with or without psychotherapy.

So what do I do?

Its not just other therapists that want to know  – clients also want to know “what kind of therapy” I practice – and they are especially entitled to an answer, and one that is not cloaked in mystification.

And here even the language of depth therapies fail me:  I do not “do” psychoanaylsis or analytical psychology, existential or Buddhist psychotherapy  – although these models and many others feel useful and meaningful to me at times in making sense of my own experience.

So I have an office. I sit in it. People come to see me, or sometimes we go walking together.

I care when the people who come to see me are angry, murderous,  numb, disappointed, in agonizing pain, terrified, lost, stuck, bored, nauseated, lonely – even when it is very hard, very painful, or when they feel these things because of something I have done, or something I have not done or cannot do.

Sometimes when things turn brutal for someone I care about  I’ll  just hang on for dear life. I don’t give up. I don’t turn away. I am not pushed over.

I stick around. I listen and I don’t retreat, and I am not easily scared or chased off.

I try to picture in my mind’s eye the people, places, things, and images that I am hearing about or sensing. Sometimes images, feelings and pictures seem to  float up in my own mind, drawn from my own life experience,  themes from stories I have read, myths I have heard – and I put these into words to see if they are connected to the pictures and feelings that are bubbling up in the person near to me. I remain curious and committed to understanding the words and pictures and sensations that are being communicated to me as precisely as possible. I surf through the waves of my own watery unconscious and the unconscious of my therapeutic partner. I keep my filter down and my aperture open wide.  I try to stay connected in the bumpy, rocky, scary, severe, extreme places where most social relationships will not venture. Where even  familial relationships can’t, won’t or don’t go.

I lend my self out. Not my “healthy ego”  - my Self, my heart, my dreams, the pictures in my head.

There are many of us who work in this way, and who could work in no other way.

I do this because it was done for me, and this meant the world to me.

Once, many many years ago, when I worked on a unit that served severely mentally ill adults, a psychiatrist pulled me aside to offer me some encouragement. “Do you know why your clients are doing so well?” she asked. “Do you know why they are getting better? Its not because you make sure they are compliant with their medication. Its not because you set clear behavioral objectives and treatment goals. Its because you love them like you belong to them. It’s because you take them into your heart like they are your own. You give of yourself, and they feel that and it makes them stronger.  I don’t know why everyone just doesn’t do that.”

At the time I didn’t know what to make of what she said. But I didn’t then and don’t know now how to work any other way.

A few years later, at that same job, I would come to understand the need people had to work from objective and objectifying stances rather than out of their subjectivity.

On the unit we all had small safety windows in our offices – so therapists and mentally ill clients could feel both safe together talking with the doors shut. As I sat at my desk to take my lunch break, and get some paperwork done, I felt several pairs of eyes peering at the back of my neck. I looked out the window to see four or five of my clients lined up to peek in on me, one after another, while I ate.

I opened the door:

“What’s up ? Can I help you guys? I’m on a break right now okay?”

“Come on” one of the older guys said to the crew “we better go so that we don’t use her all up!

I was getting used up, although it was never because of  them. The agency and mental health system I worked in wasn’t designed to support those who worked like me. It was designed to socially control the greatest number of people for the least amount of money. Commitment, abidingness, endurance, resolve, availability, intuition and meaning were far less important than outcomes and measures, and the elimination of unwanted behavior.

Although it is true, then and now, that I must always be vigilant not to give too much, not to give more than is required, or needed. I remain careful not to ever give in a way that will make others feel indebted to me or that leaves me drained or resentful. But that is my job, my responsibility to regulate. And if, and when, I give more than I can afford, or more than others need of me, it is my job to correct and compensate for, and never ever because others have used me up.

On my long morning run just after an introduction to a perfectly nice evidence based psychotherapist who had recited his alphabet soup of what he “did”, I heard these words rising up from my beating heart:

“Its the relationship that heals it is the relationship that heals the relationship that heals. This is my fervent belief and this is where I put my professional faith”

When I got home, I googled a bit trying to locate the rhythm and the cadence of these familiar words and realized that this mantra had resurfaced, slightly paraphrased, from a book I had read only once over twenty years ago:

It’s the relationship that heals, the relationship that heals, the relationship that heals – my professional rosary.  ~ Yalom, I. (1989), Love’s Executioner, London: Penguin Books, p.91

My acupuncturist once said to me: “I don’t know how you do it. How you work the way  you do.”

I don’t always manage as well as I would like.

When my own life becomes a challenge or crisis erupts for me, or when I foolishly attempt an “objective” survey of the scope of what I have undertaken I can overwhelm myself: Caring for my elders, for my children, for clients. When I attempt to itemize the breadth and depth and range  of all the different forms of care-taking I am immersed in, when I look at my days and weeks and attempt to catalogue all the pain, fear, vulnerability and dependency that is attached to me I sometimes fear that I can be used up and that I could drown in a flood of other people’s needs.

But, when I breathe, and move through my day moment by moment – I see that I am more buoyant than I realize  and that I am tethered not only to my teachers, mentors, guides, and therapists, who stayed afloat with and for me, but that I stay afloat with, for, alongside and because of  the deep and real relationships I have forged with those who pass time my office.

Image, words, metaphor and relationship cannot use me up. They fill my heart and keep me afloat.

It’s the relationship that heals the relationship that heals the relationship that heals.

Both members of the therapeutic couple.

All of us. Always.

Skin Deep

Because skin is so nuanced in its response to environmental circumstances and psychic fields it serves as a barometer for physical and psychological well-being.
~ The Book of Symbols – The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism

Extroverts are fueled by extensive social interactions in the external world while introverts are agitated, overwhelmed, and made anxious by such experiences, no matter how they appear on the skin’s surface.

Introverts are fueled by intensive contact with their own, and other’s internal, intimate subjective processes, while excessive focus on internal experience can unskin an extrovert leaving them feeling naked, exposed, anxious and uncomfortable.

My clients may imagine that I am an out-going, expansive and social creature – because, in our culture, extraversion correlates with being “well-adjusted” confident, and happy. But those who know me well, or who have seen my Meyers-Briggs know where I really fall on the continuum.

Introverted, highly sensitive, thin-skinned – any and all of those are accurate – I have developed some externally successful compensatory mechanisms that I wear as a protective hide in group and social settings: Because I like words, and have a lot a language at my disposal, I can be funny sometimes (humor is one of my favorite social shields). I am a good idea-person, a supportive teacher, an empathic healer and mentor. In groups, I am expressive and excited about new ideas, notions, theories, and problem solving.

Because I have a lot of thoughts to offer – usually drawn from reflecting on and by myself in private spaces – I can sometimes find myself pressed by the collective into leadership positions.

I am, in point of fact, a peevish and brittle leader: Non-intimate relationships and group dynamics can too easily drain and distress me even as we focus on solving a problem together or addressing a collective task at hand. When our work is over, I have a hard time understanding what a brief, curtailed, surface relationship might want from me or why they would want or expect anything at all.

To paraphrase C.G. Jung: Intensity is my aim, not extensity. (~ C. G. Jung, Psychological Types – General Description of the Types Ch. 10)

Non-intimate social events and groups can make my skin crawl and my feet itchy. Any chatty, surface engagement requires that I set aside significant recovery time afterward. It is depleting enough for me to take part in these processes that unless I calibrate my exposure, I can become fatigued, burdened, impatient, and plain old cranky due to the amount of energy it takes for me compensate for my inherent nature. I end up spending all my fuel and taking in little – because I only truly refuel in private and personal spaces.

Most frogs…have permeable skin that can easily absorb toxic chemicals. These traits make frogs especially susceptible to environmental disturbances, and thus frogs are considered accurate indicators of environmental stress: the health of frogs is thought to be indicative of the health of the biosphere as a whole.(web source http://www.savethefrogs.com/why-frogs)

I, and other introverted souls are biopsychosocial indicators. We are among the first poisoned by contaminants in the psychological environment. We sense too easily, and too intensely the unspoken, unconscious agendas, hostilities, resentments, hungers, wishes, at play in any social, non-intimate gathering.

Everything enacted in the room and yet unacknowledged seeps inside me. At any given community meeting, class parent gathering, cocktail party all the unnamed, unspoken affect rings louder in my ears than any verbalized dialogue, as I take in a mouthful of toxicity that I would be too impolite, off-putting or downright bizarre to spit out:

“Excuse me, but isn’t it interesting that you chose to cut Harriet off here, just as she was elaborating on her point? Did the two of you quarrel earlier in the evening? I’ve noticed that even though you are smiling, that something about your tone makes me uncomfortable, or even feel scolded… Is there something I have done previously that offended you? Perhaps we were discussing something that was unsettling or threatening to you? I can’t tell what the subtle tension in the conversation is about, but it felt hostile somehow, and I’d feel much more comfortable if you could talk about what may be angering you directly. Oh! and could you please pass that red-pepper hummus? So yummy!”

Instead, I quip and wise-crack, or try to talk, talk, talk, on top of the bubbling, oozing, latent content that bombards me and threatens, like quick-sand to swallow me whole. I keep my eyes peeled, sometimes ending a conversation too abruptly as I lunge for the nearest exit attempting to save my hide.

(The introvert) is always facing the problem of how libido can be withdrawn from the object. The object assumes terrifying dimensions, in spite of conscious depreciation… But, therewith, the introvert severs himself completely from the object, and either squanders his energy in defensive measures or makes fruitless attempts to impose his power upon the object and successfully assert himself. But these efforts are constantly being frustrated by the overwhelming impressions he receives from the object. It continually imposes itself upon him against his will; it provokes in him the most disagreeable and obstinate affects, persecuting him at every step. An immense, inner struggle is constantly required of him, in order to ‘keep going.’ Hence Psychoasthenia is his typical form of neurosis, a malady which is characterized on the one hand by an extreme sensitiveness, and on the other by a great liability to exhaustion and chronic fatigue. (~ C. G. Jung, Psychological Types – General Description of the Types Ch. 10)

This porous-ness requires that I reside primarily within the realm of intimate one-on-one relationships, with brief, purposeful and well-planned trips beyond this membrane. I am my happiest, most fulfilled and generative in interior spaces.

So, to live in the world of other human beings: I became a psychotherapist.

I can’t count the number of times thick-skinned folk say to me: ” I have no idea how you do the work you do! I couldn’t stand listening to other people’s’ feelings all day!”

Frankly, I don’t want to listen to much else.

Psychotherapy is the only job I could find, other than perhaps, living as a sponge on the sea-floor, where being such a pore-bearing creature gives me a significant professional advantage.

I connect to a single person, in a private space (or a natural space if we are on a walking session). We engage in inherently private processes, sharing excruciatingly personal or subjective details about our innermost perceptions. Where else would I be allowed, professionally mandated in fact, to offer my internal impressions back to the person who evoked them – and to have that returned in kind?

Skin is a responsive tactile boundary between self and other and the inside and the outside of an individual.
~ The Book of Symbols – The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism

And, it is also true that the very same people who try my patience, drain and exhaust me in the world at large, are the very same people who I would undoubtedly feel bottomless patience, expansive empathy, warm affection and deep admiration for if we were to engage in the intimate processes of forging a therapeutic partnership.

It’s a pretty good gig for those who need to live in the interior-lands.

The finest clothing made is a person’s own skin, but of course, society demands something more than this ~ Mark Twain

A neighbor recently sent me an email which stated that of all her neighbors, I was the one that she felt least connected to, and that she found this distressing. (Was this for real? I was flabbergasted. ) She felt that whenever she encountered me that I was always in a rush, that I never seemed to want to stop and chat. (Chat? What on earth about? ) Moreover, she said, that even factoring in differences and variations in personal privacy, she had determined that I was insufficiently social, and that as a result, our relationship (Did we ever have one? I couldn’t think of a single instance when I had laid eyes on her in the past year) was in need of repair. How would I feel in her circumstance? (What circumstance exactly? The one where my neighbors want nothing more from me than a brief, cordial greeting? “Relieved beyond all imagining” were the only words that came to mind)

An extrovert, in external conversation, frustrated and injured that a confounding introvert was withholding much needed social contact. An introvert, misunderstood and in flight from an extroverted pursuer, in an internal monologue about the internal need to avoid extraneous social contact.

I forwarded the email to my more extroverted husband, who responded easily and effortlessly and who has made a point stopping and chatting more. No skin off of his nose.

The thick-skinned and the thin-skinned misunderstand each other all the time. It is not easy for us to comprehend each other. Our experience of ourselves and others, internal and external worlds is inverted. It is too easy to assume our own way of being as a template, and pillory or pathologize those who live inside or outside of their skin differently than we do.

Yet, we all live along a continuum of inner and outer spaces, some cluster toward the center, others distributed toward either end. We are all needed for our species to find balance. Our varied skills and awarenesses are incomplete without our complement. And ultimately the margins that divide us are as narrow as the skin of our teeth.

“Skin the rabbit!!!” my midwestern farmer grandmother would exclaim as we raised our arms high over our heads and she peeled our dirty play clothes up into the air before our evening bath. A false, active, social self stripped away, a true, vulnerable, private, home self set free.

Home and home-like environments are where the introverted return to refuel themselves, when supplies are running low. Retreat into natural environments is also extremely nurturing for the introverted.

One of the communities where I am most comfortable in my skin is a group of community gardeners. We focus on planting, watering. Our hands are dirty. We are unconcerned about external appearances. We sweat and work together. Our conversations focus on our common interests, our shared labors and our personal relationship with bees, seeds, sun, sky, vegetables and flowers. We have internal experiences outside together.

In Winnicotian theory, some of the aspects that Jung might classify as indicative of introversion, are framed as a developmental, maturational achievement: This is Winnicott’s Capacity to be Alone, which is above all the capacity for people to be alone together. To be in the presence of another person – simultaneously wholly in your own skin, and wholly present with the other, who is also wholly in their own skin and wholly present with you.

Not surprisingly many introverted people find their way into my office, and probably into many other therapists offices too. They want to find partners, to raise families, to secure non-toxic work, and ways to be connected to the community at large, to be of use, in ways that suit them. Many have internalized a culturally endorsed, critical bias against their own way of being.

Extroverts come to therapy fearful of their “people pleasing” tendencies, their need for stimulation, their difficulty being alone, their fear of intimate spaces.

And ultimately the psychotherapeutic process creates a space where intimacy can happen, in self-regulated doses, as we examine and accept our own and each other’s inner and outer layers, as we learn somehow, at last and over time, to get under each other’s skin.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

Balancing Act

Objects fly through the air, stars wheel through the universe. All fall eventually. If we become obsessed with definitively mastering the decline, we are lost. If we achieve peace within the intervals of rising and falling, we find grace.

(Arthur Chandler, On the Symbolism of Juggling: The Moral and Aesthetic Implications of the Mastery of Falling Objects. http://www.juggling.org/papers/symbolism/)

In the minor arcana of the Rider Waite tarot deck, a juggler is depicted, in the act of balancing, exchanging, juggling the flow of energy between two large coins. In more ancient decks, The Juggler (now more commonly titled The Magician) was considered a symbolic entity important enough to be placed in the front of the archetypal gallery of Major Arcana.

The cards are said to represent balance, as a positive action. Reversed, the card implies imbalance, the need to recover the center and rhythms necessary to keep the balls steady and flowing movement through the air between human hands. The message of the Juggler is this:

Learn at first concentration without effort; transform work into play, make every yoke that you have accepted easy, and every burden that you carry light.
(Anonymous, Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, p. 8)

The conception of medical, physiological homeostasis permeates psychological diagnosis. Traditional western psychology and psychiatry seek to identify and quantify the archetype of a perfectly balanced mind, as well as create diagnostic codes for all the ever multiplying transient or enduring ways that we can find ourselves out of balance. Even the Diagnostic Manual’s Global Assessment of Functioning Scale (which assigns all human functioning a number between 1 and 100 – 1 equaling imminent death and 100 representing The Perfectly Balanced Human) evokes the archetypal Master Juggler:

100-91 Superior functioning in a wide range of activities, life’s problems never seem to get out of hand, is sought out by others because of his or her many positive qualities. (DSM IV Global Assesment of Functioning Scale – emphasis mine)

And certainly, a preoccupation with the processes of balance, counterbalance and imbalance in all its forms: equivalence, compensation, correspondence, fairness, justice, homeostasis, equilibrium, equality, symmetry, evenness, centeredness, quid pro quo, and tit for tat have been woven into the very fabric of all psychotherapeutic contemplation.

In Freudian thought all dreams, slips and symptoms are potential solutions to states of internal imbalance. The uncoordinated triplet team of consciousness – Id, Ego, Superego – attempt to pass and juggle conflicting needs between each other. One member aggressive and full of appetite, another practical and concerned with working the crowd, and the third, the conscience of the troupe trying to keep the other two in check. A symptom, in this model, is merely one aspect of the self over-correcting for the wild toss of another. The analytic therapist’s job is to help the bickering internal troupe get their act together.

For Jung, dreams, and unconscious phenomena are acts of counterbalance and compensation for whichever stance we have consciously identified with. The Unconscious swings and tilts to balance out whatever it is we believe to be true about ourselves in our waking Conscious life.

In narrative, social and environmental therapies the circle widens. The individual is embedded in a system which is inherently out of balance. Personal imbalance is seen as an extension of and appropriately reactive to injustice, narrative burden, unsustainability, or unconscious guilt stemming from being the un-entitled beneficiary of or hoarding resources without true entitlement.

And each of these seem to me, as always, to be single facets of a still incomplete truth, all of them more incomplete without the others.

An overcommitment to consciously maintaining personal balance creates its own form of disease: A life that is seemingly, superficially never “out of hand” simply banishes chaos to its hidden depths.

A perfectly and consistently balanced human, if one were to exist, would be inert, fixed, stagnant, immobile, inanimate. How monstrously impervious this perfectly balanced human, would be, more of a “thing” than a “who.”

The existential therapies remind us that we are no thing, nothing at all, and that teetering on the brink of meaninglessness, discombobulation and existential dizziness are necessary to apprehend the brevity of our lives, and begin to take real responsibility for our choices and our effect upon each other.

Some ascetic Sadhus, Hindu holy men, spend many years standing on one foot, discovering the balance that can only emerge from negotiating an asymmetrical stance.

Life is inherently out of hand; death, illness, pain, loss, grief, war, disasters natural and man-made, trauma, heartbreak, abuse, cruelty, racism, sexism homophobia and heteronormativity, oppression and injustice in all its forms, including the depletion, exploitation, and hoarding of the earth’s resources. In the face of all that life can throw at you there are times when blatant mental imbalance is the sanest, healthiest most healing response.

We are all embedded in enormous systems, familial, social and planetary, which are also cycling, swinging wildly, falling in and out and passing through imbalance, equilibrium and back again. Living and breathing balance requires and contains imbalance within it.

We will all lose our footing.

No one is impervious. We will all drop the ball.

The universal deadly sin of every routine is The Drop. Dropping is so common in juggling that every performer must come to terms with the inevitable accident that breaks the rhythm of the routine and calls one’s skill into question.
Since drops are inevitable, and even the most accomplished professional jugglers drop in public performance of their routines, one might well ask why a drop should be considered such a disaster.

Part of the reason has to do with the psychological interaction between the audience and the performer….Admiration for the juggler becomes submerged in the more general feeling of wonder at what the human mind and body can accomplish together. It is the overcoming of gravity with style and grace, and produces the kind of internal affirmation that comes with any art or sport done supremely well.

The drop breaks the spell. The audience is reminded of human fallibility when the juggler has to stop and start all over again. Now the creeping doubt has entered everyone’s mind: will the juggler drop again? The second drop confirms this doubt, and the audience now sees only a struggling human being endeavoring to ward off disaster. After the third drop, even the memory of the magic is gone, as both performer and audience only wait for the ordeal to conclude.
(Arthur Chandler, On the Symbolism of Juggling: The Moral and Aesthetic Implications of the Mastery of Falling Objects. http://www.juggling.org/papers/symbolism/)

Extreme imbalance, too many too repetitive “drops” become destructive in their own way. They break down the faith that others have in us, along with our faith in ourselves, our resilience and the world around us.

One of the most common early by-products of imbalance in intimate personal relationships is resentment. If the spirit of quid pro quo is violated, exploited, or ignored, and the energetic, logistical and personal exchange becomes too chronically lopsided resentment compounds, festers and mutates into toxic contempt, hopelessness, and love-killing exhaustion.

Learning how to make necessary corrections and adjustments to preserve the loving core of intimacy is the work of couples and family therapists: Do I accept and try to accommodate the low ball, hold out for a higher toss, or stop trying to feed my partner the ball in just the way they demand it? Should I ask for more, settle for what I’m getting or give less?

When one member of a family or social system changes their rhythm or their stance – the entire network is thrown out of its precarious homeostasis, everyone reels and teeters. “Change back!!” they seem to cry, as their footholds crumble out from under them. A deeper equilibrium, a truer justice often requires that we mourn the loss of an unjust balance and pass through a period of disorienting imbalance before we find a stance that allows everyone to have some part of their need acknowledged and met.

Our relationships, and perhaps Love itself require some balancing component in order to thrive, and without it, we will too soon reach breaking points, beyond which the old center can never be recovered.

We hold many apparently imbalanced relationships as sacred in the service of growth and nurturance: Parent and child, teacher and student, sponsor and sponsee, therapist and client. There are vast power differentials, discrepancies in knowledge and experience and attention, the most obvious giving flows in one direction. Yet, there are symmetries, larger circles of justice exchange and evenhandedness at play: Someone gave this to me, so I now give it to you. In caring for you, I care for untended aspects of myself.

The mystic symbol of justice, that is equivalence and equation of guilt and punishment. …In its most common form two equal scales balanced symmetrically on either side of a central pivot. A Dictionary of Symbols, J. E. Cirlot

All of our theologies and most of our philosophies circle around cycles of cosmic balance and justice. We construct an evenhanded tit for tat, eye for an eye, the equivalence of opposites: Heaven and Hell, Good and Evil. Alternately we embrace the long view of cyclic karmic justice: what goes around comes around. Souls are weighed and balanced in the afterlife in the mythic psychostasis: in ancient Egyptian cosmology, the human heart is weighed on cosmic scales against the feather of Maat, the goddess of order and justice – while a monster “waits below the scale, ready to devour the unbalanced heart.” (The Book of Symbols The Archive for research in archetypal symbolism pp. 512)

Individual psychological equipoise and the ultimate cosmic balance intersect to complete the hermetic formulae and the Master Juggler’s circuit: As it is above, so it is below. As it is below so it is above, As it was in the beginning, so it will be at the end. As it is within, so it is without.

The therapist, is only supposedly, a skilled juggler and juggling teacher – able to keep many balls in the air, managing their own internal and external challenges to equanimity and flow while incorporating all that the client throws at them, and passing back the ball at the right speed, spin and rhythm so that the client can receive it, polish up their own act, and expand their bag of tricks. Therapists make split second assessments as to whether a client is trapped in sticky bullshit stasis, if they need to pushed off of a false-too-comfortable standpoint – or if they are reeling too near to dangerous overwhelming imbalance requiring all the therapist’s skills to help them stabilize. Young clinicians often wonder, when they have fallen on their asses, in life or in session, if they themselves are stable enough to go forward in the work.

I am no Master Juggler although in session I have learned to keep quite a few balls up in the air. Usually just one or two more than any given client, (although sometimes, admittedly, I must scramble to keep ahead).

Just as the Juggler or magician has had to train and work for along time before attaining the ability of concentration without effort, similarly, he who makes use of the method of analogy on the intellectual plane must have worked much, i.e. to have acquired long experience.
(Anonymous, Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, p.10)

I’d better at least look like I’m good at it by now. I’ve been practicing almost everyday for nearly two decades – and perhaps for long stretches I can manage to appear as if it never gets out of hand.

But it does. Of course it does. I get knocked off my pins, blown off my center, lose my flow and rhythm and toss out ill-timed passes with humbling regularity.

The drop is inevitable.

And although I can still be shaken when my act has inadvertently slipped into an ordeal for the most part I have learned to enjoy the momentary peace within intervals of rising and falling.

copyright © 2013 All rights reserved Martha Crawford

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