Journal

Thoughts on the changes ahead

“For a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living”. Virginia Woolf

You have known your partner/ wife/ husband/ friends for a long time and they are who they are, always have been and always will be – chances of them changing are slim. Or, maybe they do change and we just do not notice.

We tend to see ourselves as more flexible and cable of change than others, it is partly due to our tendency to judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behaviour and partly because we are strongly attached to the idea that we all have essence, a core self within us.

I would also argue that you most likely love and/or hate the people in your life and/or feel frustrated by them and/or any of the many possible combinations of feelings we can develop in relation to other people because of who you believe they are – at the core. 

But this view is problematic because changes are often so gradual that it is hard to draw a line between who we were in the past and who we are today.

The paradox of Theseus’ ship may illustrate this well. A ship goes on a long voyage and requires significant repairs: new planks to replace the old ones, fresh oars to replace the decayed ones and so on.  By the time the ship returns to port, there is not one single piece that belonged to the ship when it departed. Is this the same ship, even though materially it is completely different?

This paradox can help us to look beyond the immediacy of our relationships and consider them at longer stretches of time.  It also invites us to consider our relationships as activities, rather than mere concepts.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus provides another useful image of the constant change in relationships with his famous saying: ‘It is not possible to step twice into the same river’ – the river we step into a second time is changed from the river we stepped into originally and we have changed too.  A marriage, or any relationship for that purpose, that facilitates personal growth changes the relationship itself.

Under these assumptions, a meaningful relationship is about expanding its boundaries, taking perspective and focusing on shared goals.  If we accept that every day we wake up to a different relationship, we can reinvent it.  And whilst essentialism – the idea that we all have a stable and historical set of characteristics which make us who we are – helps us to make a coherent sense of who we and other people are, it can prevent us from having a clearer view of our relationships.

For me the question remains: am I at the receiving end of my relationships or am I a full participant?

In search of a good relationship: curiosity

In his most celebrated book, the Prophet (1923), Kahlil Gibran wrote on marriage:

“And let the winds of the heavens dance between you”.  “Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music”.

Gibran describes poetically the need for space between partners in a relationship; for me, the purpose of maintaining this space is to cultivate curiosity and a small dose of healthy tension that enable us to see our partners as changing and growing and different to the people they (and of course, we) were previously in the relationship.

In a way, it is choosing to speak in a language that describes people as becoming rather than complete.  It is a language that enables us to consider people’s potential as well as what they have become, acknowledging that in relationships, any relationships, partners influence each other.

Cultivating curiosity is our best way to ensure that a relationship remains fresh, invigorated and enduring.

 

Longing for connection

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea”.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

 

This beautiful quote makes me think of how sometimes in couple therapy, in our attempt to help struggling couples, we focus on assigning tasks and work.  Instead, learning to long for the depth of connection, we can make a paradigm shift from how can I get what I want to how can we get what we want together.

 

Cultivating relationships: a poetic take

In Antoine de Saint Exupery’s The Little Prince there is a dialogue between the little prince and a fox, which for me describes beautifully how a relationship is cultivated.  Here is an excerpt, no extra words needed.

The little prince was lying on the grass crying when the fox appeared.

“Good morning,” said the fox.

“Good morning,” the little prince responded politely, although when he turned around he saw nothing.

“I am right here,” the voice said, “under the apple tree.”

Please–tame me!” he said.

“I want to, very much,” the little prince replied. “But I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand.”

“One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox. “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things already made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me . . .”

“What must I do, to tame you?” asked the little prince.

“You must be very patient,” replied the fox. “First you will sit down at a little distance from me–like that–in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day . . .”

The next day the little prince came back.

“It would have been better to come back at the same hour,” said the fox. “If, for example, you come at four o’clock in the afternoon, then at three o’clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o’clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you . . . One must observe the proper rites . . .”

“What is a rite?” asked the little prince.

“Those also are actions too often neglected,” said the fox. “They are what make one day different from other days, one hour from other hours. There is a rite, for example, among my hunters. Every Thursday they dance with the village girls. So Thursday is a wonderful day for me! I can take a walk as far as the vineyards. But if the hunters danced at just any time, every day would be like every other day, and I should never have any vacation at all.”
So the little prince tamed the fox. And when the hour of his departure drew near–

“Ah,” said the fox, “I shall cry.”

“It is your own fault,” said the little prince. “I never wished you any sort of harm; but you wanted me to tame you . . .”

“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

“But now you are going to cry!” said the little prince.

“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

“Then it has done you no good at all!”

“It has done me good,” said the fox, “because of the colour of the wheat fields.”

 

 

You will need other people

In the second century AD, the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, wrote to himself in his Meditations: it is your duty to stand straight- not held straight.  Aurelius, a Stoic, believed that self-reliance, acceptance of what cannot be changed and clarity of thought to be of utmost importance and crucial to a fulfilling life. Much of his writing and the writing of other Stoics served the basis for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and other therapy approaches. Generally speaking, self-reliance to various degrees, has been the Holy Grail of many therapeutic approaches. Whilst self-reliance is believed to be a factor in developing resilience, it can also push people into a life of loneliness and isolation.

Self-reliance is important in developing a solid sense of self and to what psychologists and psychotherapists refer to as healthy boundaries – to me, practically speaking, boundaries are our ability to say no and yes genuinely. Yet, boundaries, if not allowed some permeability to the influence of others and can leave us feeling depleted and emotionally empty – we should be able to allow some people to influence us.

Dan Siegel has written substantially about how inescapably relational and interconnected we are, as he has put it and as most research suggests, we have moved from a “single skull” model to the neurobiology of “we”. What we do influences others and what others do influences us.

The author of to Write Love on Her Arms, Jamie Tworkowski writes that we may need many things in life but above all we will need other people and we will need to be that other person to someone else. And when I think of what it is that people grapple most in psychotherapy it is their relationships.

Relationships and friendships have been the subject of many psychology and other social sciences experiments and examinations and we now know that they keep us mentally and physically healthy. Good relationships can also improve our immune system, enhance our creativity, can drop our blood pressure, ward off dementia in the elderly, ward off depression and the list goes on.

There are many ideas I appreciate in Stoicism, self-reliance is not one of them. To me, the problem with self-reliance is that it is mostly an illusion. Whilst I believe that there is some degree of self-reliance, for example the ability to comfort and soothe ourselves, we are very much dependent on other people for love, acceptance, care, growth, warmth, physical contact, belonging, feeling significant and having meaningful exchanges.  Our ability to self-soothe is a learnt one and as we grow up we depend on others to “teach” us how to do it. Even setting personal boundaries requires other people to share these boundaries with us.

One of the best strategies in developing resilience, as I see it, is not developing more self-reliance abilities but developing richer, more meaningful and enduring relationships. To care for and be cared for by others seems to be what we humans have evolved to do.

Developing relationships can be quite a challenge for some people; studies show that if a person grew up in a non-caring, non-loving environment and have had little experience of physical and emotional closeness, he or she could have difficulties in seeking closeness with and support from others – such support will mean little to them.  Yet, studies also show that we can change that and develop a stronger sense of trust and belonging, which in turn can help reduce stress and anxiety levels and isolation.

 

Fourth therapy risk

Warning

Warning

In May I wrote that despite psychotherapy’s main aim to help people to become more aware of what they do and how they do it, there can be tendencies that if ignored may leave a person feeling isolated and impoverished and possibly feeling defeated.

Here is another one I want to flag up

 

Labels and diagnoses: Whilst the use of labels and diagnoses can be useful in giving meaning and direction, it is important to remember that they are man-made and as such they are non-natural. There is no objective truth when it comes to human behaviour, we are complex and creative. It is far more useful to see human behaviour as fluid and alive. We need to remember that we use labels to give meaning to our experiences, the world can be quite overwhelming without them and of course there are situations in which labels and diagnoses are important in order to offer a person a useful if not a life saving treatment. Yet, in therapy, labels can create a distance between the therapist and the client, a distance that misses the complexity of the person and constrict his or her experience. We need to go slow and easy on the diagnosis and enable our full potential come alive. In other words, therapy is a conversation not a dogma.  This holds for therapists and clients alike.

 

Emotions and relationships

tangled cables

Emotions seem to stir within us without much warning; some are easier to recognise than others – especially the ones that are more socially acceptable. We often try to extend those we perceive to be pleasant and avoid the disturbing ones.  Wanting to avoid certain emotions has to do more with misunderstanding our relationship with emotions rather than the emotions themselves. Psychologists themselves can add to the confusion by dividing emotions into negative and positive ones, thus suggesting that some are more desirable than others.

There are a few theories about what emotions are and there are several definitions, each aligned with a specific theory. The general tendency is to consider emotions as a source of information about external and internal changes, both physical and psychological. There is, according to some theories, a cognitive stage that helps to make sense of raw sensations converting them into feelings. According to this view, feelings are a subjective representation of emotions; this distinction becomes less useful when we struggle to make sense of complex situations.  In this post, I refer to emotions and feelings interchangeably as they not always distinguishable.

Lisa Feldman Barrett of North Eastern University in the US believes that an emotion is the brain categorising sensations and making them meaningful. These sensations are our responses to our immediate external and internal environment.

It is not unusual for people to struggle to identify some feelings, some can be complex and contradictory at the same time. We can feel sad about the ending of one relationship and at the same time excited, guilty and fearful about new possibilities, to give one example. Those feelings that we find hard to name are also hard to understand and can therefore be overwhelming and confusing.

If you cannot tell what you are feeling, it can be a lot more difficult to know what to do. While naming a feeling or an emotion is not necessary for its purpose, it can help to put a frame around them, to understand the experience and to make the experience meaningful. In a way, labels can be liberating, they might not change our feelings, but they can give us the possibility to choose our response.

This is not without caveat, once an emotion has a name, cultural rules start developing regarding when it is right and desired to feel what.  Sadness has definitely got a bad name in a society that obsesses about happiness, the same may be true for fear, doubt, grief and despair to name a few.

If we treat all emotions and feelings as equal, we can get a much richer picture of what is going on for us most of the time; more so, we can enrich our relationships, especially with those closest to us.

Studies (e.g. Kashdan and colleagues, 2015 ) show that naming our emotions can help us to master them and our inner life. They write that “being able to carefully perceive and distinguish the rich complexity in emotional experiences is a key component in psychological interventions”. I would add a key component in our wellbeing and the wellbeing of our relationships. They found that labelled emotions become easier to regulate and they either become irrelevant or facilitate personal striving, for example anger propelling a person to defend him/herself.

When a person struggles to regulate intense emotion, such as distress, important life aims become secondary and that influences our relationships. By and large, our relationships probably have the biggest impact on how we feel.  People who are close to us can make us feel loved, acceptable and that we belong. They can make us feel rejected as well. Getting to know our emotions can have far reaching benefits to our social life.  For a relationship to work, we need to let others influence us.

The idea in practice

  1. Emotions are a useful source of information about what is going on around us and within us, they can tell us whether our environment is safe, nourishing and enriching or hostile and harmful to our wellbeing. Accepting emotions and feelings as such can help us to engage in richer, enduring and nurturing relationships.
  1. If you don’t find it easy to identify feelings, try identifying body sensations, they are a good place to start. Tension, pain, shallow or deep, slow or fast breathing, fast heart rate etc can be tell a lot. Because conceptual knowledge is embodied, it can also serve to modify internal sensation and reduce intense emotions.
  1. Build a vocabulary as you would for a new language. Feeling sad for the loss of one thing and hopeful about the prospects of something new can take place simultaneously. Richer labels offer more flexibility and potential less social pressure. Psychotherapy can be useful in identifying emotions and feelings and linking them to people and situations. It can also be useful in learning to regulate them and get a true sense of managing our responses.

 

Three therapy risks

riskOne of psychotherapy’s aims is to help people to become more aware of how and why they do what they do and potentially offer additional ways of engaging with others and improving the quality of a person’s life.

Psychotherapy can make a significant difference when it incorporates into the work natural change processes such as education, friendships, family relationships, commitments and community life.

I find these conditions to be fundamental in shaping who we are and they are often the basis on which we become who we are.

And yet, psychotherapy is not devoid of risks; ignoring some aspects of a person’s life can leave a person feeling isolated and impoverished and at times defeated.

These are the three risks that I see regularly:

  1. You out of context: Your inner world is more important than your relationships, family and community. In doing so, we can miss the social context of suffering.  Courage, effort, endurance and overcoming setbacks are important and can only be experienced in a social and relational context.
  1. Awareness without action:  You learning everything you can about yourself, becoming highly aware of what motivates you, your wishes and fears and the experiences that formed and shaped you, without actually plunging into life and without taking risks. There is a Jewish saying that translates roughly as: insights and enlightenments without action slowly lose their life, erode and wear out.
  1. Everything is subjective: What it could usefully mean is that your experience is as valid as anyone else’s; sadly, it sometimes translates into “all is subjective and all is valid”. For healthy relationships to thrive – on any scale – not everything is subjective and not everything is valid. There are some objective truths which we mustn’t compromise on such as child abuse or any other abuse, violence, bullying, racism, sexism and slavery to name a few. Whilst our experience and all our feelings are valid and important not all behaviour is acceptable or justifiable.

I believe that entering psychotherapy with these risks in mind can increase therapy’s potential to offer us long-term and meaningful healing.