Deep Haven

 “There is perhaps one attitude toward that environment which can be said to be characteristic of the emotionally mature human being… however widely and richly his feelings in this regard may fluctuate, over however wide a range, in the varying circumstances of his everyday life. One can think of this basic attitude as a firm island upon which man grounds himself while directing his gaze into the encircling sea of meanings, more or less difficult of discernment, and some no doubt inscrutable, which reside in this area of human existence.

This basic emotional orientation can be expressed in one word: relatedness.”

~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960

 

I am simultaneously being pressed by internal forces and consciously resisting writing this. Perhaps that is always the case – but this one feels both like it needs to be written, and that maybe this is not the place.

Is it really about psychotherapy as a practice? Or is it just about me? And to what degree is that the same thing anyway? I seem to understand my client’s experience most when I reach down through some deep point of heavily processed identification, broken down to its nearly universal archetypal core.

So this is personal. And perhaps as it helps me to listen more deeply, reach for unprocessed content, and feel my way into the stories and memories my clients share with me more specifically and thoroughly -  it is also professional.

I was raised, as we all are, in a particular place, in a specific environment, with objects, landmarks, buildings, animals, trees, roads, yards, sidewalks, walls, bus stops, schoolyards, playgrounds, woods, bugs, beaches, and homes – my own and others.

And I see, in my own children, the intense and self-regulating meaning that rivers and bridges, neighborhoods and subways stops – and our little house-like apartment hold for them.

We live in a peopled and people-focused world, and traditional psychoanalytic models focus primarily on our relationships to other human beings – but sometimes we need to value and talk about our relationships with creatures, non-human living things, inanimate objects, places and whole environments.

Winnicott speaks of the almost magical properties that transitional objects – lovies, blankets, pacifiers and teddy-bears have- to soothe and self-regulate – as well as to absorb our aggression in the form of chewing, yanking, pulling, biting, dragging, wearing down and using up. Yet, for Winncott these are symbols, developmentally useful displacements for content that would be otherwise directed toward our caretakers.

They are not relationships in and of themselves. Object-relational theory refers to human objects, and any non-human object is most-likely merely representative of a human one.

You can’t have relationships with a non-human thing – can you?

Jungian clinicians might reach beyond the personal, childhood human caretakers, and explore our relationships to the non-human aspects of our environment – approaching the relationship as a symbolic, numinous manifestation of archetypal content.

I once knew of a client in a psychiatric day treatment program whose psychiatrist wanted to increase his medication because the client held on to a persistent belief that all pens, rings, and water had magical, sacred properties. When this was discussed in team-meeting, I suggested: “Well, then I suppose you will have to medicate me as well, along with every poet and writer, anyone who has ever worn or removed a wedding ring, and all the people who have been baptized or been immersed in a mikvah.”

The universal archetypes that live embedded in the psyches of the human species that organize our instincts around forged metal, perfect circles, writing implements, and purity are present, to some degree, in every ring, pen, and pool of water.

But Searles suggests there is another layer as well, a simpler one:

“…man relates to his nonhuman environment on a dual level. That is, however important is the level of his relating to, for instance, a cat or a tree in terms of their constituting, in his perception of them, carriers of meanings which have to do basically with people (by way of displacement and projection of his own unconscious feelings on to the cat, or the tree, transference of interpersonal attitudes on his part on to them, perceiving them through various cultural distortions and so on), there is also another level on which he relates to them: to the cat as being a cat and to the tree as being a tree.”

~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960

 

And not a cat that is universally representative of Cats as an archetype, but a cat with a name, and multi-colored paw-pads, and spots and stripes and a temperament that are all unique to him, and a tree that is a certain size, with branches positioned in a specific way, leaves of a certain type and color, that becomes a tree that is known, nearly memorized in all its specificity – loved, that grows with us over-time – and is not merely representative of The World Tree – although perhaps that is present too.

When animals die, trees are torn down, old homes demolished or renovated beyond recognition there is a self-consciousness to our grief. I too often hear clients say: “Its silly of me to be so upset! Its just a…” dog, tree, house, neighborhood…

Kohut might see some of these relationships as self-objects – as experiences and transactions that help us to understand, organize, experience our Selves, discover the shape and size of our identities.

Searles might agree:

“The environment can be seen to provide a milieu… as contrasted to to the interpersonal milieu, in which the child can become aware of his own capabilities (referring here to physical strength and dexterity, ingenuity, and various intellectual abilities) and of the limitations upon those capabilities. In his relatedness to the environment he has opportunities to see, in a particularly clear-cut, realistic fashion, that he is in various ways powerful, but not omnipotent.” ~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960

And most of us feel strange and self-conscious speaking of such relationships.

I do to. (See, this hasn’t gotten very personal yet, has it?)

So I’ll wade in:

A book I read over and over as a young child made perfect, exact sense to me for many years:

A friend is someone who likes you.

It can be a boy…

It can be a girl…

Or a cat…

Or a dog…

Or even a white mouse.

A tree can be a different kind of a friend.

It doesn’t talk to you, but you know it likes you, because it gives you apples….

Or pears….

Or cherries….

Or sometimes a place to swing.

 

A brook can be a friend in a special way. It talks to you with splashy gurgles.

It cools you toes and lets you sit quietly beside it when you don’t feel like speaking.

 

The wind can be a friend too.

It sings soft songs to you at night

            when you are sleepy and feeling lonely.

Sometimes it calls you to play.

It pushes you from behind

as you walk and makes

the leaves dance for you.

It is always with you

            wherever you go,

            and that’s how you know

            it likes you.

A Friend is Someone Who Likes You,

~ Joan Walsh Angulnd, 1958

 

And certainly our relationship to non-human organic systems or time spent at your favorite sitting rock cannot entirely compensate for the lack of healthy human love.

“I have no illusion, for example, that a beautiful maple tree, beloved to one’s childhood, can really have made up for the lack of a childhood friend.” ~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960

Culturally, we see the idea of having living relationships with non-human objects as childish, as unreal, as not valid, as unimportant, as pretend, as mere anthropomorphizing.

But perhaps we need not think so hierarchically. Maybe all of it is important. Maybe it is all part of how we come to know ourselves, to be soothed, to give back, to experience the limitations and finiteness of the world, and of our own resources.

“Thus the exploration of this whole subject… impinges upon a deeply rooted anxiety of a double-edged sort: the anxiety of subjective oneness with a chaotic world, and the anxiety over the loss of a cherished omnipotent world-self” ~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960

What if our expansive childhood sense of connection to the world is a naive template for healthy relatedness to our environment, the first step that can later be forged into mature understanding of our connection to the natural world we are embedded in, and which is too often derailed and subsumed by cultural and economic pressures and demands?

Sometimes you don’t know who

            are your friends.

Sometimes they are there all the time,

but you walk right past them

and don’t notice that they like you

            in a special way.

And then you think you don’t have any friends.

Then you must stop hurrying and rushing so fast…

and move very slowly,

and look around carefully,

to see someone who smiles at you in a special way…

Or a dog that wags its tail extra hard whenever you are near…

or a tree that lets you climb it easily…

or a brook that lets you be quiet when you want to be quiet.

 A Friend is Someone Who Likes You ~ Joan Walsh Angulnd, 1958

So, I stopped hurrying and rushing so fast and looked around very carefully on a recent visit to the home of my childhood: a very small lake community outside of Minneapolis.

At the age of fifty, I had no remaining connections to any people left in the area – the humans and pets that I had been attached to had all died, relocated, or our paths diverged to the point of well-established disconnection. I had only returned once, for four hours, about ten years earlier – and that was my only visit since my early twenties.

I was able, without the distraction of relationships to humans from the past – to visit the town, as anonymous as a tourist, to a place, a location, a lake, an ecosystem, that had introduced me to myself and the larger world – that had given to me, and terrified me and taken from me, and introduced me to my powers and my limitations, and that had vulnerabilities and strengths of its own.

I lived lakeside for a decade – walked barefoot or bicycled down every narrow street, the hot, melting tar left sticky spots on my toes. I knew every dock, every patch of sand, every good swimming spot, every duck nest, every climbing tree, every chipmunk hole in the square mile around my home. I knew where the snow banks gathered, the best spots to make snow angels, the secret pathways through the trees into neighbors lawns and the short cuts home when the dinner bell rang.

I haven’t thought about, haven’t spent time remembering this relationship in years. As I sat by the lake, under the railroad overpass, near the old people fishing for sunnies- I realized that I had been to many many lakes in the past thirty years – but none of them was my lake. And, not mine in the possessive sense, but my lake in the relational sense. I had a relationship with this lake, that was like no other, and was representative of nothing else and was too specific to be merely symbolic. It is a relationship, in and of itself.

The lake was as alive as any person to me. A babysitter who rocked and cradled me while floating on my back, or dozing in the sunny bow of a bobbing whaler. A lake that sung me to sleep through my bedroom window with splashes, lappings against the shore rocks. A being that loved and consoled all that was inconsolable. An entity that was always present, and always accepting of my return. A playmate to re-create myself with and within, a toy box filled with shiny rocks, agates, treasures and mysteries, salamanders and snapping turtles.

A mentor that challenged me to strengthen my skills and test my capacities: How long could I hold my breath? How far I could swim?

A being that tolerated no hubris – when I tried to walk across the lake on the muddy bottom and breathe in water as I’d seen in Tom and Jerry cartoons, I learned quickly what I was and was not capable of.

An organism that taught me about the earth’s vulnerability – as one weekend we all awoke to the lake belching up green sludge, a shocking, overnight algae overgrowth, provoked by an imbalanced and ill-use of its waterways. The towns around its shore began to feel sympathies with the “ecology” movement of the early 1970′s and we all donned patches on our jeans and bumper stickers which read “What you take to the lake – TAKE IT BACK!” to discourage polluters and dumpers. Endangered fish, and rare water lilies grew in ponds and inlets – and we hammered signs into the trees warning others not to tamper with the lake’s delicate balance

A teacher who taught me my first lessons about fate, error, injury and death – as children and adults alike succumbed to its powers:  drownings, boat accidents, and floods. The lives of people and animals swallowed through thin ice in the winters or summers’ destructive storms that we watched come toward us across the lake – a violent wall of wind and water, lightening and thunder, snow and hail and ice.

A punitive authority figure: arbitrary and unyeilding, drawing down lightening strikes, tornadoes, slicing uncareful toes on sharpened rocks unseen in muddy shallow water.

A transforming creature, whose shores and trees and wildlife shifted and adjusted with the years and the seasons from liquid to frozen and back again.

A location that instructed me about theft and injustice and my own complicity – as it retained is Dakota name with no trace of the Dakota people, except for a few remaining ancient mounds and middens.

The more we are able to relate ourselves to this environment as it really is – the more our perception of it becomes freed from seeing it to be bathed in Evil or Good or what not – the more satisfying and rich is our relatedness to it. ~ The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles, MD 1960

It was, and is, a relationship – although I own no property there, have no lake access or boat, and have only visited substantially once in thirty years. I had an effect on that non-human entity – I threw rocks, and caught fish, and cleaned trash from its shores, guarded and disrupted its wildlife, tended to it and harmed it as it soothed and warned, scolded, frightened and instructed me in the realities of life and the challenges of living.

I suspect we all have such primal relationships with some environment or non-human relationship specific to us – a city block, a park, a summer camp, a rosebush in the back yard – and it is part of the work of the psychotherapeutic process to help us identify the imprint we leave upon our environment, and the imprint it leaves upon us.

And whatever happens next, as this world heats, and storms, and floods, and bakes – we should not miss a chance for intimacy, for relatedness with the living world around us.

We live in a world of human relationships. And we must all, at this historic crossroads, come to recognize the relationships that we have, as human beings, with the world. We have affected each other. We have been affected.

Whatever happens next: That is relatedness. That is intimacy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Conflict

Anger (v) c.1200, “to irritate, annoy, provoke,” from Old Norse angra “to grieve, vex, distress; to be vexed at, take offense with,” from Proto-Germanic *angus (cf. Old English enge “narrow, painful,” Middle Dutch enghe, Gothic aggwus “narrow”), from PIE root *angh- “tight, painfully constricted, painful” (cf. Sanskrit amhu- “narrow,” amhah “anguish;” Armenian anjuk “narrow;” Lithuanian ankstas “narrow;” Greek ankhein “to squeeze,” ankhone “a strangling;” Latin angere “to throttle, torment;” Old Irish cum-ang “straitness, want”). In Middle English, also of physical pain. Meaning “excite to wrath, make angry” is from late 14c.  ~  ( http://www.etymonline.com)

So someone is always angry at me about something. At least one person a day, often more than that.

Often enough with good, fair reason and because of something I have done or not done, said or not said. I am running late. I push when I should have held back, or held back when more was needed from me.  I can make my own errors, stumble about, bang into a painful bruise. Sometimes I am clumsy, slow, frustratingly thick-headed. Or lost in my own projections, operating on an erroneous assumption, or stuck in my own subjectivity.

Sometimes people are angry because they have been sold a bill of goods, hopefully not by me, although I am probably also a participant, that psychotherapy can offer them a cure, some relief, when the truth is less certain. Sometimes it can and sometimes it can’t.

People get angry that I don’t have the magical powers to take their pain, their confusion, their ambivalence, to heal the wound away.

Some become angry that I don’t just know. Right away, instantly, what is needed and how to provide it. Sometimes people become angry because they have told me what they want from me, and they believe that I am withholding, refusing to cough it up.

Some want to control, extract, command that I fill their need to their exact specifications and are enraged at the dereliction of my professional duties when that need remains thwarted, unfulfilled, exposed, empty when I can’t. Or won’t.

Some become smaller, exceedingly polite, self-diminshing in order to metabolize the anger that a mis-attuned moment has activated. And then I have to drag  it out of them:

“I wonder if something I said made you feel angry?”

“No. I am not angry….”

“Well, something shifted in our conversation and it seems like maybe I said something that hurt? Maybe anger is a strong word for you? How about annoyed?”

“Well, okay. Yes. Maybe I was a little annoyed”

Some become angry because I can see the pathway in, I have gazed at a vulnerable and naked space in them – and they want to cast me out and drive me away. Some are secretly terrified that I will go and their anger helps them organize a pre-emptive strike. Sometimes anger helps people self-regulate, manage their dependency, separate.

Sometimes the anger that emerges in session, or is directed toward me is obviously displaced, patently unfair. A lashing out. And still, somehow, it is almost always understandable to me when I can hold, or uncover the subjective context that it is embedded in.

Usually I am a participant. I bear at least some responsibility. At the very least I lit the fuse, even if I didn’t build the bomb.

Sometimes the client is angry or disappointed that I have my own wound. And they have found the very spot where my needs, my history, my trauma, my vulnerability lives and they want something from me in the exact pocket of my psyche where I have nothing to give at all.

Some attack or express contempt for my core values, my stance, my beliefs, my sense of what is right. Some reject the models of psychotherapy I have embraced, the patch of ground I stand my professional identity upon.

And of course, I get angry too.

I breathe and do my best to stay cool. I contemplate the tightness in my chest: What am I responding to? Where do I feel strangled, offended, tormented, grieved, distressed? What needs to be opened up between us in order to be released from this constriction? Where has our relationship grown too narrow?

If I am caught off-guard, or feel too reactive, too agitated, I  may ask to table the discussion until I can think with a cooler head. But the arrival of anger must never be ignored or forgotten. It is a sacred signal and attention must be paid. We must return to it, examine it, discover its gifts and lessons once our nervous system and our heart-rates have settled.

Anger and aggression have important, constructive functions too: to establish boundaries, to protect privacy and autonomy, to fight for justice, to correct imbalances, to guard vulnerability, to take risks, to hunt for prey, to compete for resources, nurturance and provisions, to challenge and surpass ourselves.

And sometimes to forcibly remove obstacles to intimacy and wholeness.

In relationships, anger points our attention toward the tight, narrow, constricted, strangled, tormented, wanting aspects of ourselves and others so we can broaden and console our hearts, release our fears, open wide our souls.

As frightened as we are of it, anger is a sacred energy – and a central one in the psychotherapeutic process.

I don’t ever intentionally provoke a client’s anger, but I am not fearful of it.  I don’t avoid conflict, because I know the gifts that it can bestow.

I try to inform every new client that comes into my office that anger has a place in our work:

“There will be times when I  disappoint, disturb or upset you. I won’t have done it on purpose, although it might feel like I have. Sometimes you may not notice it while you are in session – as most of us are taught to be agreeable and polite and avoid talking about such things – but it may strike you after you leave – on the subway ride home or even the next day. You may notice something sticking in your head, something I said or didn’t say that struck you the wrong way, that feels off, or annoying, or wrong. You may think to yourself  ‘Why the hell would she say or do that?’  If you notice any feelings or thoughts like that it will be extremely valuable and important, if you can, to bring that back in to our next session, or even to jot down a quick note so it doesn’t get lost in the weeks events- so that we can remember to talk about it. It may be hard and uncomfortable, but its really valuable  – and its an essential part of how therapy works.

It helps me to understand you as precisely as possible, to be a better therapist for you. You may point out things that I haven’t recognized or considered- or that I had a different perception of. Sometimes you may be distressed by some real limitation or blindspot I have, or even some core value that I hold that you disagree with. That is okay too. I can’t promise that I can always change or stop it whatever has been upsetting, but I can promise that I will always do my best to examine my part of any divergence that  comes between us and I will absolutely care about how it makes you feel. And if we can talk about it frankly, it may give us a chance to find a new way through, a new solution, a new space.”

It seems that whenever I have neglected to invite anger to enter into the process as a welcome guest, conflict barges in unannounced and unexpectedly, harming the therapeutic relationship – sometimes irreparably. Anger and conflict are experienced then, as definitive proof that something is wrong in the therapy, rather than as a vital component, a therapeutic mechanism of healing and connection.

Or, the relationship proceeds walking only the most avoidant and  domesticated paths, making the woods and the wilds of our innate aggressive impulses appear more terrifying, a place too dangerous to ever venture.

Conflict is part of the therapeutic process, not a failure of it. And part of this job is to initiate people into the generative, creative, and intimate uses of anger, and to learn how to move through the angry states in our psyche and our relationships in order to live, to love courageously, fearlessly, and honestly.

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.

And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.

And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. ~ (Standard King James Version Genesis Chapter 32: 24-26)

Even when seems to have knocked us out of joint, conflict can bring blessings. Owning our anger explicitly, consciously, and constructively makes us more whole, and less afraid of ourselves.

And other times my job is just to survive it, withstand it, not be destroyed by it, and not let my love or my empathy be destroyed by it. To continue to have compassion for the distress that is present in front of me, to take all the responsibility I can for my part, and to understand that the rest is not about me at all.

If I can. I can’t always.

And sometimes even that is not enough.

It does neither of us any good for me to merely withstand abusive energies. Limits must be set. There are things I can’t accommodate. Angers I cannot absorb. It is my responsibility in those moments to set limits, protecting us both. I cannot let a client who needs me, harm me or compromise my integrity or we are both lost.

Anger is at once an energy which destroys and derails, and one which creates, strengthens, and fuses and purifies, through its refiners fire and alchemical heat.

Part of my job, as I see it, is to initiate clients into the constructive, transformative, generative uses and processes of anger.

Any one can get angry- that is easy- or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy ~ (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, 1109a.27)

If we can manage to wrestle through conflict squarely and bravely together – operating in good faith – or setting limits when anger has temporarily washed good faith away – certainly it is not difficult to see how to carry those processes out into the world, into other relationships.

The word wrestle, derives from “wrest” from the Old Norse, meaning “to bend” and the healing forms of anger make way, when we have listened to each other deeply, for us to release our tormented tightness and constriction, and discover how to bend toward each other.

What is external occurs internally as well, so our well negotiated conflict also becomes model, a mirror to help us sort through purely internal arguments between conflicted self-states.

It is exactly as if a dialogue were taking place between two human beings with equal rights, each of whom gives the other credit for a valid argument, and considers it worthwhile to modify the conflicting standpoints by means of thorough comparison and discussion or else to distinguish them clearly from one another.  ~ C. G. Jung, The Transcendent Function.

How else will we change each other? How else will be transformed?

If we avoid what we fear in ourselves, and in each other – what will be possibly be able to learn about ourselves?

The shuttling to and fro of arguments and affects represents the transcendent function of opposites. The confrontation of the two positions generates a tension charged with energy and creates a living third thing… A movement out of the suspension between opposites, a living birth that leads to a new level of being, a new situation. ~ C. G. Jung, The Transcendent Function.

But first we must embrace the wrestling match.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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