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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.

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Couples

The ‘four horsemen’ of relationship breakdown

American couple therapist John Gottman has been researching for many years the reasons why relationships fail.

He has identified four important reasons, which he names the Four Horsemen. These are:

  • Criticism – which is often expressed by saying ‘you always…’ or ‘you never…’
  • Contempt – insulting or putting someone down in a way that shows you think they are inferior.
  • Defensiveness – not taking responsibility for your behaviour and instead criticizing the other or finding excuses.
  • Stonewalling – refusing to talk about something or withdrawing from the relationship to avoid conflict. In reality, the partner who stonewalls is withdrawing as a means of punishing the other because they are communicating separation and disapproval.

In gender terms, women are more likely to criticize and men to stonewall. So, a woman may crticise her partner, who then stonewalls by ignoring her comments or withdrawing and this makes the woman angrier and so she criticizes even more.

Of these four behaviours, the most important in determining whether a relationship will survive or not is contempt. Where there is contempt expressed by one or both partners there is far less chance of them staying together.

It’s important to realise that contempt does not just mean insulting the other person but can also include sarcastic comments or even rolling your eyes to other people when your partner says something you don’t like.

The reason contempt is so poisonous to a relationship is because it is not just criticizing the other person, it is putting yourself in a superior position. It is a rejection of the other person.

Criticism vs complaint

It is better to complain, rather than criticize. By complain, I mean expressing your feeling, such as annoyance or hurt, about a specific behaviour of your partner.

Criticism is often more generalised and blaming. It often includes phrases like ‘you always…’ ‘you never…’ ‘you’re the sort of person who…’. It is hard for someone to respond constructively to this kind of criticism and they are more likely to become defensive.

A complaint would be: ‘When you forgot to get me a present for our anniversary I felt hurt and angry.’ A criticism would be: ‘You never show your appreciation for me – you just don’t care.’

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Couples

Handling conflict in relationships

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When we are annoyed or hurt by something our partner has said or done, how can we express our feelings in a way that they will really hear what we are saying?

A common approach in couple conflicts is to accuse our partner of ‘making’ us feel angry, upset or sad by their behaviour. While at times it might be ok to use this approach – sometimes we need to blow off steam – it often fails, as it tends to put the other person on the defensive.  It also allows us to avoid taking responsibility for our feelings.

This kind of criticism is often accompanied by words like ‘always’ and ‘never’, such as, ‘You always take the kids’ side against me’ or ‘You never listen to me’. Again, this kind of blaming language is unlikely to get the other person to genuinely talk about the grievance you have.

While there needs to be a place for argument and conflict in any relationship, if a couple is in the habit of dealing with conflict in an accusatory and blaming way it is unlikely to help resolve problems.

Compassionate communication

One approach to avoiding this kind of blaming is called ‘compassionate communication’, also known as ‘nonviolent communication’. This approach, developed by American Marshall Rosenberg,  can be used with our partners or anyone else we may find ourselves in conflict with. It has four components:

  • Observation – we tell the other person what they are doing that we don’t like. But we do this without judging the behaviour.
  • Feelings – we say how we feel when they behave like this: afraid? Sad? Hurt? Irritated?
  • Needs – we say what needs of ours are being affected by their behaviour. For example, our need to be respected.
  • Requests – this is when we tell the other person what we want from them that will improve the situation.

An example: Sue is feeling more and more frustrated by how little emotional contact Michael is willing to offer. Many women would say, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why are you so closed off? It drives me up the wall!’ While understandable, this kind of response is likely to make Michael even more closed off.

Shifting the energy

But when the complainant can be specific about exactly what behaviour she is unhappy with and what her feelings and needs are it can shift the energy away from blame.

So Sue could say: ‘When I get home and you don’t ask me about how my day was I feel lonely inside and distanced from you.’

She may add that this means her need for emotional closeness with her partner is not being met. She may then make a request. This could be that they agree to spend some time, perhaps over a glass of wine or while cooking the meal, re-connecting with each other by talking.

In his book Nonviolent Communication, Rosenberg says that when we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion.

He says:  ‘Through its emphasis on deep listening – to ourselves as well as to others – nonviolent communication fosters respect, attentiveness and empathy and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart.’

 

 

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Discussion

Finding meaning in depression

 

Depression is, understandably, usually regarded as an extremely negative experience. After all, it is painful to feel and can rob us of our enthusiasm, energy and enjoyment of relationships.

Many people come to counselling and therapy because they feel dissatisfied with life, have unhappy relationships or are stressed in some way. Underneath these symptoms there is often a depression.

In our culture we tend to try and get rid of depression when it appears, using pills or pragmatic advice such as ‘take more exercise’ or ‘count your blessings’. While for some there may be a role for anti-depressants or practical tips, sometimes we need to go a bit deeper and look at what the depression may be trying to say.

Being curious

A therapist working in a soulful way, while acknowledging the pain a depressed client is feeling, does not automatically try to ‘fix’ the client by trying to take the painful feelings away. Instead, he or she is curious about what may underlie the depressed feelings.

For example, in some cases it could be a buried anger that has never been acknowledged by the client but has now been turned inward in the form of depression.  Or it could be related to extremely painful experiences in childhood that have never been truly mourned.

Depression may also be a symptom that we are pushing down – literally ‘depressing’ – a part of ourselves that needs to be heard or honoured. For example, if we are living a life that is really in line with what our parents approvd of rather than what we ourselves longed for, those unmet needs may result in depression.

Suppression of life force

James Hollis, author of Swamplands of the Soul, believes that depression is often a suppression of a person’s life force and that everyone experiences depression at some point. He says: “The psyche uses depression to get our attention, to show that something is profoundly wrong. Once we understand its therapeutic value…then depression can even seem a friend of sorts.”

While it may be possible to understand some of what may be causing a depression, that does not mean it will necessarily lift quickly. A therapist working in a soulful way must be prepared to be with his or her client as they struggle with depressed feelings, resisting the temptation to “rescue” the client with false reassurances.

At times we do not know what is beneath the depression and we simply need to accept and sit with it in a compassionate way, trusting that it is there for a reason. This compassion can help heal, over time, even if our ego is desperate for the pain to disappear more quickly.

 

 

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Couples

What’s your attachment style and how does it affect your relationships?

2165411154_7058f0ae06It may seem strange to believe, but the way we grow up relating to our parents – our ‘attachment style’ – has a big impact on how we get on with romantic partners as adults.

When we realise our particular attachment style, and that of our partner, we can more easily understand the cause of arguments and disharmony

British psychologist John Bowlby pioneered attachment theory, arguing that the bonds formed between infant and mother/caregiver had a lasting impact on a person’s life and relationships.

There are three main attachment styles:

  • Secure – these children develop trust in their caregivers and know that their needs will be met. As adults they are able to form trusting relationships and value intimacy.
  • Anxious/ambivalent – these children get the message that they cannot always rely on their caregiver to meet their needs. As adults they are worried that they cannot trust their partner and they may appear ‘needy’ or obsessed.
  • Avoidant – these children also got the message they could not depend on their caregiver.  In response they become self-reliant and independent. As adults they may devalue the importance of intimate relationships and fear getting too close to their partner.

Often in romantic relationships one finds people with secure attachment styles end up together and are able to form generally harmonious and trusting relationships.

The people that come to couple therapy tend to be from the third of the population that have anxious or avoidant styles. Often someone with an anxious attachment style, frequently but not always female, will get together with an avoidantly attached partner, frequently but not always male.

This is a recipe for unhappiness. The anxiously attached partner will often be possessive or jealous, seeking reassurance and comfort. The avoidantly attached partner, who values their independence and devalues ‘emotionality’, will feel boxed in and under pressure and react by seeking even more emotional distance. This, in turn, leaves the anxiously attached person feeling abandoned.

It is this vicious circle that can be so damaging and the fact that each partner is not aware of their attachment style and how it is affecting the relationship. Part of couple therapy is to bring these unconscious ways of relating to the surface so that they can be acknowledged and worked on.

By talking about attachment styles the therapist can more easily help the individuals look at their behaviour in a non-defensive way and not to see it as necessarily ‘wrong’. The avoidantly attached partner can be encouraged to gradually open up and connect more, while the anxiously attached partner is encouraged to back off a little bit in their demands.

These small changes can free up some valuable space for the couple to look at how they relate to each other. Recognising each other’s attachment style can help them make these changes because they take the other’s behaviour less personally and are more willing to question their own habits of relating.

Photo from Moriza at Flickr creative commons, http://www.flickr.com/photos/moriza/

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Discussion

This being human is a guest house

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A  joy, a depression, a meanness, 

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows…

The poetry fragment above is by the 13th century Persian poet Rumi, who was a Sufi (Islamic mystic).

What I like about it is the message that all our feelings have a place, not just the ‘positive’ ones like joy or contentment.

Rumi compares the spectrum of our emotions to visitors at a guest house. We never know for sure which feeling will be the next to visit.

In the poem Rumi goes on to urge the reader to treat each ‘guest’ honourably, i.e. to welcome then in and not turn them away. In the same way, can we make a place for our anger, our sadness, our shame?

By making a place for our less comfortable feelings we also free up space for the more pleasant feelings. Often we try and escape uncomfortable feelings by denial, distraction or covering them over with drugs, alcohol, sex or TV.

But this doesn’t really get rid of those feelings, it just pushes them underground, into the unconscious where they continue to have power in less direct ways.

However, it can very difficult to allow the less pleasant feelings simply to ‘be’, without trying to change them or escape them. We live in a quick-fix culture where we are encouraged to immediately try and eradicate pain or discomfort – take a pill, think positive, count your blessings and cheer up.

There is often nothing wrong, of course, with taking medicine, thinking positive or counting our blessings. But when they become a habitual way of trying to deny deeper feelings our emotional ecosystem can become unbalanced. Paradoxically, suppressing ‘negative’ feelings can also make it harder for us to feel joy, excitement and enthusiasm.

One way of handling these feelings is neither to suppress them nor to necessarily express them, but simply to try and feel them without judgment. We may be able to come into a different kind of relationship with these feelings, in which we are not running scared but simply acknowledging to ourselves what we are feeling without getting into a battle with the emotion.

After all, we don’t always know why we are feeling the way we are and what role such a feeling might have in our life at that time.

As Rumi concludes his poem,

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent as a guide

from beyond.

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Discussion

Therapy with soul

“Any therapy which does not address the issues of soul must remain superficial in the end.”

James Hollis

Although the word “soul” has religious connotations, when I talk about bringing soul into therapy I am talking about taking a deeper view, which embraces the mystery of a person’s life and the problems they may be struggling with.

This means is that, as a soulful therapist, I try and resist the temptation to ‘fix’ the problem in a superficial way. Often attempts to resolve problems quickly do not last as the symptom returns in the same, or a different, manifestation.

Instead of seeing a client’s struggle with, say, addiction, depression or sexual problems as a symptom to cured I am interested in what this particular symptom may be saying about the person’s life and their unconscious longings and fears.

That does not mean ignoring the symptom. We need to, and the client will insist, that we attend to the problem he or she is bringing. But it does mean that we also look beneath the presenting issue to what else may be going on in that person’s life journey.

A major part of working soulfully is engaging with the shadow, which is what Jung called that part of ourselves that we reject because it does not match our self-image. The shadow often contains anger, jealousy, selfishness, lust and other ‘negative’ feelings.

Jungian therapist and author James Hollis describes working with soul in his book Swamplands of the Soul. He argues that it is the difficulties in our life – the compulsions, the  depressions, the anxieties – that mould us and create meaning. But we need to look beneath these symptoms, he says, and feel the feelings that are being covered.

He says; “Without the suffering, which seems to be the…requisite for psychological and spiritual maturation, one would remain unconscious, infantile and dependent. Yet many of our addictions, ideological attachments and neuroses are flights from suffering.”

If we are able to explore what feelings are being covered over by addiction, depression and anxiety we often discover anger (or even rage), sadness and grief. These feelings can seem so raw and frightening that we are afraid to touch them.

But, as therapist John Bradshaw says, “You can’t heal, what you can’t feel.”

A soulful approach takes us down, down into these feelings, down into the shadow. It asks what what meaning or purpose, if any, there may be in these feelings and related experiences. What it does not try and do is superficially ‘cure’ the symptom.

One way of giving painful experiences, such as abandonment or abuse, some meaning beyond our personal experience is through stories, myths and archetypes (universal symbols or patterns of behaviour).

In his book We’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy and the world’s getting worse, archetypal psychologist James Hillman gives the example of a man who, as a child. was abused by his father. Hillman opens up the possibility that this experience could be seen as a kind of initiatory experience, a way of understanding archetypal/universal themes concerning rage between fathers and sons, vengeance and submission.

By re-framing the experience in this way, “I’ve moved the memory, somehow, from just being a child victim of a mean father. I’ve entered fairy tales and I’ve entered myths, literature, movies. With my suffering I’ve entered an imaginal, not just a traumatic, world.”

While I agree, up to a point, with Hillman my concern is that this approach is not used to bypass the legitimate rage and sadness that the victim may feel. It may be necessary to first experience the victim feelings before being in a place to explore the mythical or archetypal elements.

But what I think Hillman is pointing at is our tendency to rigidly judge our experience as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Yes, being treated abusively is clearly ‘bad’. It affects our self-esteem, our ability to form trusting relationships and so on. But there may also something in that experience that forms our character, that perhaps gives us an extra sensitivity to other people’s suffering or that encourages us to seek an outlet in creativity.

As Hillman says: “Wounds and scars are the stuff of character. The word ‘character’ means at root ‘marked or etched with sharp lines,’ like initiation cuts.”

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Discussion Individuals

Paying attention to our calling

.Acclaimed ceramicist (and author of The Hare with Amber Eyes) Edmund de Waal’s ceramics are very pure and minimalist in their design. He recalled how, at age five, he made his first pot and the teacher asked him why he didn’t decorate it with some colours.

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De Waal’s ceramics

He declared to the teacher that it was finished. “Even at that age, I must have known what I wanted to do with my life,” he says.

Reading this reminded me of how a person’s “calling” can be present from a very young age but that many of us don’t pay attention to the little clues and hints that may be pointing us towards our destiny.

This theme is relevant to therapy because many people find themselves feeling unhappy or dissatisfied without quite being able to put a finger on it. They may just have a feeling that they are not fulfilling their potential in some way.

Depth psychologist James Hillman argues that from infancy we all have a definite character and calling but that we often come under pressure to behave in psychologically “healthy” and conformist ways that can rob us of our uniqueness – a bit like the pottery teacher who wanted de Waal to add colours to his pot.

In his provocative book The Soul’s Code Hillman presents his acorn theory, which is about “reading a life backwards”. This means seeing early passions and obsessions not as problems to be corrected but as possible indications of a person’s future calling.

More mystically, Hillman draws on Plato’s idea that each of us is given a kind of guardian angel, or daimon, at birth, who guides us. This can also be seen as an inner spirit or guide., the little voice in our heads that often gets drowned out.

It is very important to pay attention to our childhood, and subsequent life, to catch early glimpses of the daimon in action, says Hillman.

“A calling may be postponed, avoided, intermittently missed. It may also possess you completely. Whatever; eventually it will out. It makes its claim. The daimon does not go away.”

What usually distracts us from following our calling are the social and family pressures to do what is expected, to make money, to marry the ‘right’ person, raise the ‘right’ kind of family and do the ‘right’ things. But then we may find ourselves strangely unfulfilled.

Psychologist and story teller Michael Meade says: “The real work in this world is not simply to succeed and ‘become somebody’, the real issue is to become one’s intended self.” He adds that the challenge for us all is to live with passion and purpose, and he quotes the poet E.E. Cummings, who said: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

In therapy clients have the chance to explore what really excites them, what they are passionate about but are not honouring in their life. This could be an artistic or musical gift, a desire to study or travel, or some other kind of passion.

He highlights numerous cases of famous people whose gifts or destinies were hinted at in their childhoods. For example, Eleanor Roosevelt, civil rights campaigner and wife of the famous US president Franklin Roosevelt, came from a very difficult family background in which both parents and a brother died before she was 11. She became antisocial, threw tantrums and retreated into day dreams about being the mistress to her father’s large household and accompanying him on his travels.

A conventional therapist would find no intrinsic value in her daydreams, suggests Hillman, in fact they would probably label them as delusion. For Hillman, however, they are not a pathology but rather a manifestation of her future calling as one of the most influential  First Ladies in US history

While most of us are not going to become famous artists or public figures, we can still look at our lives, our longings and dreams from a different perspective – one that is curious about which is our unique path and how we can honour it.

Photo by escdotdot, http://tinyurl.com/osn48b2

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Discussion Individuals

Heinz Kohut and why we still need empathy for ‘childish’ feelings

There’s a common idea that when we become adults we must be independent and ‘rational’. We must not behave ‘childishly’ by needing others too much or not being able to easily handle our feelings.

But how nice it would be, as adults, if we were able to receive the empathy that many children get!

For example, if a child is very anxious about something, such as making friends at school, his parents will probably try and comfort or reassure him.

They may empathise with his anxiety, perhaps telling him that they too sometimes felt anxious about school when they were small. Then they might give him some practical tips on making friends or handling his feelings.

As a result, the child feels understood and supported – more able to take on the challenge of school.

But we do not usually extend this kind of empathy and understanding to other adults in our lives, such as partners. If our partner is very anxious about something that we don’t understand we may judge them (openly or to ourselves) as being ‘childishi’ or ‘irrational’.

We may even go further, suggesting they ‘get a grip’ or ‘don’t make such a big deal about it’.

But just because we are adults does not mean we no longer need the empathy and support we got as children.

Pioneering psychotherapist Heinz Kohut was the first to argue strongly that the needs we have as children do not suddenly disappear when we become adults. He was challenging the view that well-adjusted adults should be independent, self-reliant and get along without others if they need to.

Kohut defined the needs that children have, and which we continue to have as adults:

  • the need to be mirrored: children need to be shown by adults that they are worthwhile and valued. This happens not through what adults say but throught subtle cues, such as facial expression, tone of voice and attention. When the child feels this positive attention he or she grows up feeling secure and loved.
  • the need to idealise: if the child experiences at least one parent as calm, confident and powerful then he or she has someone to turn to when the world feels overwhelming. Over time the child absorbs or ‘internalises’ this influence and so is able to soothe themselves when things are difficult.
  • the need to be like others: children need to know that they belong and are not too different from others or that they don’t fit in.

Kohut’s argument was that these needs continue throughout life and that, at various times, we need to feel support and empathy from those closest to us.

Therapist Michael Kahn says in his book Between Therapist and Client: “Kohut’s theory is a useful counterweight to the quite common belief that as mature adults we are supposed to do it all on our own, that only the weak need other people.”

While all adults continue to have these needs for mirroring and empathy, those whose needs were not adquately met in childhood will have more severe needs. These people are still looking, as adults, for these childish needs to be met. In therapy these “immature” feelings can be welcomed and explored, not criticised and judged.

In therapy the individual is able to get in touch with the unmet needs of the child, and the probable anger and sadness that flowed from that situation. By experiencing an empathic response from the therapist the adult can begin to release some of the difficult feelings and, over time, to become more able to comfort themselves and take responsibility for their lives.