The background story to my way of practice

Conventional therapy is rooted in spoken language. Beginning with Freud on the couch, it was a monologue, analysed by an analyst according to pre-ordained themes. From there it developed to where it is today, with conversation focused on the biographies and on the thought processes of the speaker, and on patterns of relationships – also as it is expressed between the therapist and the person in the room. This process, even the modern more wide-angled one, I experienced to be exhausting. It felt as if the combination of one sense – that of listening, and one activity – that of thinking, plus that one focus – that of relationship, required such concentration, that it drained me. Everything had to happen inside my head. At the end of four sessions in one day, what with listening intently and thinking and relating at the same time, I was drained. How did others manage to see up to eight people a day?

Language has this inclination to express itself in metaphors. This helps us to make sense of and to share our experiences, especially when life itself becomes objectionable.

Thus I began asking the people in my room about images that came to mind.  Sometimes, I reflected on the images that came to my mind as I listened to their stories, albeit tentatively. From here it was not a long stretch to ask them to sculpt their images. Or to draw images from their dreams. Dream imagery was a ‘natural’ home for me. Most exciting were preferred spontaneous images that arose within a session. Now we could sit together quietly (being mindful already then, I suppose), and have the images do the work for us.

In addition to not faring well when I only had words to work with, I have the inclination to become bored. Repetition and recipes are not easy for me (after decades in practice, how many stories are still new? Plus, I am not efficient when I follow prescribed methodologies). Spontaneous images that arise continue to be a surprise. Rarely, can they be anticipated. This is enlivening for me and the person sitting opposite me: We are both surprised. Hence raw truths are told, and new ideas emerge that help to energize healing in unexpected ways (people often fear change, despite desperately wanting it. Imagery helps for this too).

A client’s image of me, the therapist, trying to break down his defenses.

I did my graduate studies in the 70s and my postgraduate studies after a stint of teaching, in the 80s. For my graduate studies, Freud, C.G. Jung, and Behaviourism formed the bedrock of our understanding of the human psyche. I could see the genius of Freud (many of his concepts remain relevant), but on the whole, he was too pathological for me, and some of his concepts were simply, “off”. As for the Child Psychology of this era, especially the concepts of Freud’s daughter Anna and the analyst Melanie Klein, I found them to be dark and destructive and filled with unfounded conjectures. In the 80’s Transactional Analysis (TA) and Systems Theory was added to the mix. TA I found too artificial, but thankfully Systems Theory (the bedrock of Family Therapy, even today), made sense to me. Because it was more of a way of looking at things, rather than a highly defended set of ideas, I could easily blend Systems Theory and Jungian analysis, to step on a path that I am still on to this day: How to create a therapy that feels more natural, more normal, less contrived and artificial, more inclusive and honoring of all people – no more shaming of families, especially mothers.

I have always felt uncomfortable about the use of beliefs and theories like cookie cutters: Forcing the material that fit the belief into a ready-made shape, and discarding the rest of the evidence. I have also lived long enough to know that beliefs change: What is dogma today can be fake news tomorrow. Parenting practices change roughly every 7 years: How are we to know what advice we can really rely on? For this reason, I continue to read longitudinal cross-cultural research. How do people respond naturally – what makes some people cope and others not, and how come some are resilient and others not? What types of parenting practices have withstood the test of time? What would be normal and life-enhancing for a person of this age in this position? What is the next necessary step that this person needs to take towards a more resilient and joyous life?

This blog is written from my own life experience as well as my perspective after more than three decades of working as a psychologist. Image, experience, and scientific research are combined to create a narrative of what it means to be human. Our knowledge is constantly evolving, so it is a story that will change as we change, as the world changes, and as science evolves. I have tried to convey the influence of cultural and socio-political factors. It is a shortcoming of psychological practice in general, this clumsiness around the fact that the personal is always embedded in and reactive to a cultural and socio-political context. The energy of the Zeitgeist is a powerful current coursing through the lives of all of us.

A friend says, “To believe that you can think outside of your times is mere arrogance.”  He means that we are all products of our times and our cultures, that we think from within a fish tank, and that freedom of thought is always bound to context. Yet, when you are in trouble you have to extricate yourself from the times that you live in if you are serious about healing. As much as you have to become conscious of the influence of your own biography on your ways of being, you have to become clear about the ramifications of the cultural context on the ways that you are living your life. 

Bit by bit, we work together in the room, together we try to construct a therapy that feels timeless and true and devoid of as many trends and “-isms” as feasible.

Here is something that I wrote on how I work from a few years ago.

On Imagery and Therapy

By profession, I listen to the inner stories of lives. The longing for something alive, that is inured, even to the deepest despair, can often be heard only behind the words.   What helps me to make sense of and to survive all these stories, which by their very human nature weave their fibers through my autobiography? It is my taste for imagery. An image that speaks of that which lies beyond words allows us to find sustenance and to survive even the harshest realities. The systemic biologist Gregory Bateson wrote that metaphor is the pattern which connects[1].  As I have the inclination to think in images anyway, this way of thinking suits me and rescues me in many situations where I do not know what to say or do. Once we can conjure up an image (or the image conjures up itself), I have a tool; “a bridge over troubled waters”, and we are able to cross over – onto firmer ground, often to a different country.

        The Witching Hour

I read about an exhibition in a Sunday newspaper. It is a review of an art exhibition and represents the hope and despair of a ceramic artist, who lives with Bipolar 2 Disorder. A photograph shows the pallid face of a woman with tousled hair, her head tilted to one side as if she is both tired and listening, her mouth closed in a straight line. She has a faraway look in her eyes. In the interview, the artist tells the story of her own rocky road. Her father had committed suicide, and she has followed the familiar trajectory of so many people who undergo a Life of PI journey in search of an escape route away from their own despair. From psychiatrist to psychologist they go, on the way trying out drugs, alcohol, self-mutilation, mandalas, labyrinths[2], makeovers, spas, natural supplements, creative writing workshops, and with increasing desperation, whatever good-intentioned people close to them beseechingly offer. The artist has finally found a psychiatrist who can keep her on a smoother path, if not a lively one. In the photograph, her eyes have the familiar look of someone who has suffered long and hard. It is the gaze that one sees in the eyes when suffering has settled into the soul of a person, and hardship seems to have left a permanent mark. A well-known example is the eyes of the mother in the photograph of the Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange. Elton John (who owns the original) described it thus[3]:  “To me it’s like the Mona Lisa, but with great suffering.” (Princess Charlene, the current Princess of Monaco, has something of that look in her eyes. It is bound by neither time nor status.)

The artist had decided to throw one pot every day for the duration of one year. I think she was trying not only to express something, but to put herself back into the world one day at a time, saying, “Here I am” in a slightly different way, each day. And that she was trying to discover a variation that will bring renewal. Yet, at the end, with all the pots thrown, there is still the quiet grief in her face, and I suspect in her voice. She is a warrior this woman and a good reason why public statues should rather be erected to commemorate the daily acts of bravery that are required to live everyday life.

What is the difference between acts of creativity outside and inside of the therapy room? It is tricky to explain without sounding shamanic, but there is no other way that I know of to describe the difference. Sitting with someone, the atmosphere charged with what I can only try to define as a trance-like feeling, something slightly otherworldly enters the atmosphere. This is a feeling I get wandering through a magnificent museum like the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver or a beautiful building like the Royal Library in Copenhagen. It was also there during an African mass in the Regina Mundi church in Soweto, outside Johannesburg. Sure, everyone will not get that same feeling in the same place. My task is to try to create that feeling within the therapy hour for a client who is in deep distress. This is why I know that it is not I who heal, but the atmosphere that is created between us. Images that arise from within this atmosphere are the images that bring renewal, the ‘thing’ that is able to bring back the sparkle to the grief in the eyes.

Migrant Mother. Dorothea Lange

[1] Steps to An Ecology of Mind (1972). 

[2] Labyrinths and mandalas are symbols that arise from within under the right conditions. Popping in and out of them like a new-age tourist is a fruitless exercise.

[3] “This is the power of photography, the dichotomy between tragedy and beauty. It makes you think about the thin line between death and life.”

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