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Acknowledging and honouring our losses

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”

– Macbeth

A few years ago I moved from a large city to the smaller town where I now live. There were many good reasons for this move, and overall I am happy with the change.

But as well as the gains there are also losses – looser connections with old friends, a less cosmopolitan and ‘sophisticated’ mentality, poor public transport.

It is sometimes difficult for me to give a place to these losses, as I can tell myself I need to be positive about the move if I am to be happy in the new location.

But unless we are able to acknowledge and make a place for the losses in our lives, it is paradoxically harder to ‘move on’.

Nancy Newton Verrier, a pioneering writer on adoption, says that loss is not well understood in our society: “We tend to deny its importance on many levels.”

She gives the example of a couple who get married – this is a happy occasion and yet there is always also a loss involved for those individuals, notably their independence. Similarly, when a baby is born there is joy but also, for the couple, a loss of what their relationship was and an adaptation to becoming a family.

In her book the Primal Wound Verrier says: “There is no permission in our society to recognise in each of life’s transitions the polarities between gain and loss or joy and sorrow. We are expected to be happy, sing songs…but never to mourn.”

The difficulty is that, if we cannot allow ourselves to acknowledge the losses that often accompany the joys and excitement of life changes, we cannot truly give ourselves to life.

Novelist Tim Lott makes some interesting points about loss and having children in his recent Guardian column. He points out that watching one’s child grow up means feeling a continual series of losses (as well as joys), as they move from dependence on you to semi-independence, culminating in the final loss when they are old enough to move out.

He says: “I sometimes wonder if the pain of seeing them grow up is merely an echo of one’s own pain – the loss of childhood we all had to go through.”

Our discomfort around loss is understandable. Feeling our losses brings up sadness and, in some cases, anger.  But if we hide our losses (and these feelings) from ourselves we are inviting trouble.

Feelings like sadness that are repressed have a nasty habit of making themselves felt in other, less direct ways. These include depression and illness.

In therapy there is often a lot of work around grieving early losses, what therapist John Bradshaw calls “original pain feeling work”. This refers to the losses we all suffered, to greater or lesser degrees, as children. These include not being accepted for who we truly were or, in some cases, emotional, physical or sexual abuse.

Acknowledging and grieving these losses is not about becoming a ‘victim’, but rather about mourning the losses the child experienced but was not able to mourn at the time. Rather than victimhood, this process can lead to empowerment because it brings us into a deeper and more compassionate relationship with ourselves.

It involves, says Bradshaw in his book Healing the Shame That Binds You, “making contact with the lonely inner child…this child is that part of us that houses our blocked emotional energy.”

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Discussion Individuals

Subpersonalities – who is driving our bus?

Many of us see ourselves as coherent, unified individuals making our way through life.

But, when we really think about it, we may recognise that actually we are made up of many different parts that come into play in particular situations and which sometimes seem to take over our normal personalities. We may sometimes wonder who is really in charge, or ‘driving our bus’.4055369011_500bb75fc1

These ‘subpersonalities’ can play a very important role in our lives without us realising. But the more aware we can become of them, the more fully we can live our lives and be present in relationships.

For example, we may have an inner exhibitionist who comes to life when we sing karaoke, an Incredible Hulk who suddenly erupts when we lose our temper over something trivial, an inner martyr, saboteur or perfectionist.

A common example is the man who is domineering at work but henpecked at home, or vice versa. Then there is the meek person who becomes extremely aggressive when behind the wheel of a car.

The idea of subpersonalities is similar to, but takes further, Freud’s idea of ego, superego and id (or Berne’s three ego states in Transactional Analysis).

Disowned or unconscious parts

Often subpersonalities represent disowned or unconscious parts of our personality. If we have been brought up to be well behaved and respectable we may try to avoid letting ourselves go, but then find we have an inner hedonist when in certain situations.

Subpersonalities can help us in areas of our lives where we are struggling.

I sometimes suggest to clients who find it hard to acknowledge their angry or assertive side that they imagine an animal to represent this. They come up with lions, tigers, panthers and so on, which can then be developed into subpersonalities and find a more conscious place in the individual’s life.

A client may then say, “When I was asking my boss for a rise and felt nervous, I imagined the panther we’d talked about in therapy and that gave me the courage.”

It can help to give names to our subpersonalities and to imagine them as particular characters. What do they look like? Sound like? A rather quiet and serious man I knew had a subpersonality called Paulo,  who was a South American womaniser and adventurer. Paulo would appear very occasionally in this man’s life and the man was rather afraid of this part of himself. Giving a name to it helped him to get more in touch with his disowned exuberance and spontaneity.

Accepting our subpersonalities

It is important that we learn to accept all our subpersonalities, even though we may feel more comfortable with some than others. There are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ subpersonalities as all are legitimate expressions of our being.

In fact, subpersonalities only become harmful when they control us and that is usually only the case when we are not aware of them.

As well as these subpersonalities there is the part of us that can observe, sometimes called the aware ego.

It can be helpful to work with subpersonalities in therapy. The therapist can facilitate the client to have a conversation with a subpersonality, perhaps using an empty chair to represent the subpersonality. Or different subpersonalities can even ‘talk’ to each other. This can be a great way of helping heal inner conflicts.

Further reading

Subpersonalities:the people inside –  John Rowan

Embracing our selves – Hal and Sidra Stone

Photo from Multicriativo at Creative Commons, Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/multicriativo/

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Discussion Individuals

Resisting the pressure to be ‘happy’

‘Tears are words that need to be written.’

– Paulo Coelho

We live in a culture where there is often an unspoken pressure to be happy, upbeat or positive.

Sometimes this message is explicit, as in ‘You just need to think positive!’ or ‘Don’t feel sorry for yourself, cheer up!’ We may even hear this kind of exhortation after the death of someone close, if we have not bounced back to normal after a couple of months – ‘You just need to let go and move on!.’

I think there is a danger that, in following this cultural norm we disconnect from legitimate feelings that do not fit in with this belief, such as sadness, grief, emptiness or melancholy.

Yes these ‘negative’ feelings are part of being human. The risk is that if we disconnect from these, uncomfortable, feelings we also feel less connected to all our feelings, including those of joy or excitement.

We are using record levels of anti-depressants, not to mention alcohol, food, TV and other substances/activities to distract ourselves from darker feelings.

In his book Against Happiness, Eric G. Wilson criticises the modern Western culture of striving for happiness. He points out that much of the world’s art and creativity has its origins in dark feelings.

“I am afraid that our…culture’s overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life.”

This is not to say that there are not times in life when it may be necessary or helpful to ‘think positive’ and Wilson stresses that he is not trying to romanticise clinical depression, which is a deeply distressing condition. Nor is he questioning the importance of joy, exuberance or satisfaction in one’s life, which often arises spontaneously.

His target, rather, is the superficial notion of happiness which seeks to exclude any troubling feelings and instead try and create a world where only ‘positive’ feelings are allowed.

My training is in transpersonal, or ‘soulful’ psychotherapy. This is a therapy that takes a holistic or spiritual perspective on a person’s experience and does not see pain as something to automatically try and eradicate.

James Hillman, an American psychologist and author who built on the ideas of Carl Jung, argued in favour of soul in his essay Peaks and Vales. According to Hillman it is our soul that connects us to the messy realities of life, including failures, defeats and difficult feelings. Soul also makes itself felt through our psychopathologies – our obsessions, addictions, depressions and other symptoms.

While we may want to get rid of these ‘problems’, if we can pay attention to them, look beneath them, we may discover that they are communicating something to our conscious selves about a part of us that needs to be honoured or acknowledged.

Similiarly, feelings like sadness, grief or emptiness can spur us to make a bigger place in our lives for nature, art or human connection. Or these feelings may simply need to be felt, with no obvious outcome sought.