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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/

Categories
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.’

 

 

Categories
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.

 

 

Categories
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.

Categories
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.”

Categories
Discussion Individuals

The need to sometimes disappoint our parents

A common reason people come to therapy is that they are unhappy about living a life that doesn’t feel authentic or meaningful at some profound level. Part of the reason for this is that they have taken on – consciously or unconsciously – their parents’ expectations of what they “should” do and how they “should” be.

The therapist’s role is to help the client get in touch with their deeper needs and wants, even if those conflict with parental expectations.

This process can take time because the messages we get from parents – about the kind of person we should be – may be extremely subtle. Nevertheless, we usually know deep down what will please them, or disappoint them.

The danger is that we either let our lives be lived according to parental expectations and thus devalue our own deeper wishes, or we can go to the other extreme of doing the opposite to what our parents want, in order to punish them.

While rebelling may make us feel we are being independent, it can also be a sign that we are simply defining ourselves in opposition to our parents and are stuck in a kind of adolescence. In this case we are no closer to living an authentic life than the son or daughter who dutifully complies with the family expectations.

There is also the possibility, as Jung pointed out, that we end up living out our parents’ unlived lives. Jungian author James Hollis argues that many women, whose own lives have been frustrated by gender limitations, have sought to live out their squashed ambitions through their sons, which explains the prevalence of the ‘My son, the doctor’ jokes.

But how to find out what we really want and need, as opposed to following parental expectations? One way is to become more aware of the parental voices in our heads. For example, most of us carry around an inner voice that tells us what is ok and not ok to do, and which can be very critical of us if we fail to meet these standards. This  “inner critic” is often derived from one or both parents.

There are other, less critical but usually much softer voices that we can tune into when we make a sustained effort and a soulful approach to therapy involves tapping into that part of ourselves that is compassionate and has genuine wisdom. This part of ourselves often shows itself in what people call intuition. For instance, we may not know why but we just have a strong sense that our parents’ religion, occupation or many of their values are not for us.

For example, we may have been brought up by parents who were uncomfortable with, and judgmental about, anger or sexuality. This can mean that whenever, as adults, we feel angry or sexual it can be accompanied by feelings of guilt. Or our parents may have been left-wing politically and judging of any career that didn’t reflect these values, making our desire of being an entrepreneur feel like a kind of betrayal.

As small children we absorb our parents’ values and expectations. What is not approved of is often disowned and this process continues, as we get older, with the expectations of schoolteachers and peers. As author Robert Bly says in A Little Book on the Human Shadow, a small child is like a running ball of energy: “But one day we noticed that our parents didn’t like certain parts of that ball. They said things like, ‘Can’t you be still?’ or, ‘It isn’t nice to try and kill your brother.’ Behind us we have an invisible bag and, the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag.”

Not disappointing our parents, however, can become a betrayal of ourselves and sometimes that may be the choice – to be true to ourselves and disappoint others or to please others but fail to honour our own journey. It may also be that, if we have the courage to disappoint our parents by finding our own path, we are actually able to develop a more authentic relationship with them in the longer term.

Further reading

A Little Book on the Human Shadow, Robert  Bly

Under Saturn’s Shadow, James Hollis

Categories
Discussion

The importance of sadness

‘Only love can break your heart’
– Neil Young

I will often hear a client say, ‘I’m afraid that if I start crying, I’ll never stop.’ The sadness they are holding in feels so overwhelming that they try to keep it all pushed down.

Another client will say: ‘I don’t feel I’m making much progress – I’ve felt so sad all week.’

But recognising, and experiencing, our sad feelings something new can be freed up, a space can be made for other feelings.

In contrast, by consciously holding it all in, or unconsciously repressing the sadness, we can end up in a worse situation in the long term.

To feel sadness, to feel grief, is to be at odds with the dominant values of our society. We are told to ‘think positive’ and to get on with things. Or to distract ourselves from such uncomfortable feelings with TV, work, drink, cleaning the house or anti-depressants.

And yet, when we suppress these feelings they do not disappear or melt away. Instead, they flow below the surface of our consciousness like an underground river. They make themselves felt through illness, tiredness, anxiety, depression or addiction.

This is what Carl Jung meant when he said, ‘The gods have become diseases’, that when we do not attend to all parts of ourselves, like the ancients honoured their gods, the result is neurotic symptoms.

When we feel sad about something it can be very tempting to push the feeling away, to distract ourselves or ‘count our blessings’. This is especially likely if we grew up in a family in which sadness was not really seen as an acceptable emotion and instead was judged as ‘self pity’.

Psychotherapist and author Robin Skynner, in Families and How to Survive Them, distinguishes sadness from depression. He points out that sadness is a rich, deep emotion even though it hurts. It can make us feel more alive and connected to others.

Depression, on the other hand, which often results from suppressed sadness or anger, can leave the individual feeling empty, ‘dead’, and disconnected from others.

This is because if we try to squash one important emotion, such as sadness, we end up squashing, or ‘depressing’, all our feelings including ‘positive’ ones like joy and enthusiasm.

It is important to recognise that sadness plays an essential role in our development because it helps us deal with loss. From early childhood onwards we experience losses, large and small, in our lives. These can range from the gradual losses involved in the process of a child separating from mother, to the loss of a job or the death of a loved one.

Feeling sad about these losses, grieving them, enables us to honour what has been lost and, ultimately, move on.

Being told to put the event in the past too quickly, before the loss has been grieved and the sadness expressed, can result in a false feeling of moving on.

In therapy it is an important moment when a person is able to get in touch with sadness that has been pushed down, rejected or forgotten about. Frequently this sadness relates to the unmourned losses of childhood, such as how parents were not able to be there for the child in the way the child needed them to be.

Providing a supportive space for these feelings to be expressed can help the individual come to terms with the losses and disappointments of childhood. That, in turn, can enable the individual to take more responsibility for their life and not continue in the vain hope to find parental substitutes to give them what they didn’t get as children.

Categories
Discussion

How much should you know about your therapist?

ImageIn the novel Lying on the Coach a therapist makes a dramatic decision – he will try a completely different approach with his next client and be as honest as possible.

Uncomfortable with the gap between his professional persona and personal life, the therapist, Ernest, decides to be much more open with clients.

“Is it so impossible for therapists to be genuine, to be authentic in all encounters?” he asks himself.

Ernest finds himself getting tangled up as he realises how difficult it is to be genuinely open while also maintaining appropriate boundaries.  The matter is made more complicated by the fact that his client turns out to be a woman he finds himself highly attracted to and who wants to seduce him for her own ends.

Nevertheless, Ernest’s struggle to be open does bring benefits to the therapeutic relationship, even with a duplicitous client!

Clients who have been frustrated by their therapist’s with-holding of personal information may applaud Ernest’s attempt to be more open.  After all, there is a grain of truth in the cliché of the therapist who replies to every question with another question.

Controversy over how much therapists should disclose about their personal lives goes back to the days of Freud, who argued that therapists should be a ‘blank screen’. But much depends on the theoretical approach of the individual therapist. Those from the ‘psychodynamic’ school, who work more with clients’ projections, are likely to be less self-disclosing than ‘humanistic’ therapists.

One of the main objections to self-disclosure has been that it can be used for the therapist’s gratification. For example, certain disclosures could lead to the client feeling they need to care for the therapist.

Whether there has been any increase in self-disclosure is unclear but the growth in therapists’ websites and social networking sites has clearly made it much easier for information to be made available and shared.

To what degree therapists should take advantage of these channels is debatable and will depend a lot on the individual personality.

Irvin Yalom, existential therapist and author of Lying on the Couch, is at the more open end of the spectrum, possibly because of his background in group therapy where there is more pressure on the therapist to self-disclose.

Yalom argues that therapist disclosure encourages client disclosure.  He is happy to say whether he is married, whether he liked a particular film, etc. Disclosing this kind of information does not mean the reason for the question – the process – cannot also be explored, says Yalom.

But there are caveats, he insists, such as being aware that any information given to a client may be passed on to their next therapist! So don’t disclose anything you genuinely want to remain private.

This suggests that there are three levels of information therapists work with – public, personal and private. A therapist may choose to disclose some personal information, in the interests of the client, but will not disclose private information.

Jungian analyst Jane Haynes says in her memoir that she is willing to share aspects of her personal life selectively with clients. She says there are some aspects of one’s personal life that are private, even secret, and other areas that it may be beneficial to share.

She says: ‘Any therapeutic disclosure requires careful thought and personal scrutiny. Possibly, it is in those creative tensions that distinguish spontaneity from impulsiveness that wisdom resides.’

It seems likely that the more experience a therapist has the more likely they are to self-disclose. In a study of leading therapists’’ approaches, author Michael Kahn says that most became more self-disclosing the course of their careers: ‘[They came] more and more to trust their spontaneity and express their human warmth.’

Nevertheless, Kahn believes that caution is the watchword when it comes to disclosure, as ‘it can reduce the opportunity for the client’s valuable exploration of fantasy.’

References

Between Therapist and Client, by Michael Kahn

The Gift of Therapy, by Irvin Yalom

Lying on the Couch, by Irvin Yalom

Who is it that can tell me who I am?, by Jane Haynes.