I am entranced by this video
The song is about the singers relationship with her father, but it elegantly describes some of the processes that some people – by no means a particularly damaged or miniscule proportion – go through in order to discover more about their problems.
Michael * came to therapy with acute symptoms of stress. His workplace was stultifying, his boss out of his depth and another member of the team was a bully. The workload was too heavy for everyone and Michael had become the earthing rod for the offices collective unhappiness. We worked together to identify the shock and shame of being stressed, addressed the office dynamics and considered why Michael might have become a scapegoat. Michael felt much better prepared to deal with the complexities of his toxic work environment and decided to remain in therapy to explore the other matters that had begun to unfold during our time together.
Most of us have lost the innate power of our imaginations by our mid teens. Our heads are stuffed with factoids that will help us become hard working taxpayers and tremendous machine parts. You don’t have to write poetry or wear a rainbow jumper to be something other than a component: part of being a whole human being is about knowing what you feel and why you feel it, and therapy is a good way of kick-starting that process.
Michael found it straightforward to remember his past but realised that he couldn’t recall how he felt about events. His memory had become almost entirely cognitive. I wondered what his younger self looked like and we began thinking about Michael as a child of around 9 – how did he dress, what did he eat, did he have a nickname, what he liked and disliked, and so on. In a short period of time this younger Michael regained his own voice and began speaking with older Michael reminding him how he felt in some detail.
Like most people who come to therapy there was nothing poisonous or horrific in Michael's past. Part of growing up is, as well has having good times, experiencing disappointments, shocks, fears, loss, unhappiness, the usual stuff of an ordinary childhood and dealing with them. For all of us there are events that stand out usually because the adults around us behaved in ways that were unhelpful.
In therapy this work is never about blame. Circumstances make people behave in certain ways, no one is perfect, and it’s useful just to consider how things happened so that we, as adults, can make better sense of them.
Remembering the difficult feelings – betrayal, abandonment, shock, bereavement, resentment, terror – can be much more difficult and so we tend to say, “Well, that happened, it’s over. Let’s move on.” In fact, those feelings remain, unacknowledged and hidden away.
But they’re alive. And if we ignore them they begin to run us.
I'll be writing more on this subject in my next post.
Every year around December 23rd Kate begins to feel unwell. By Christmas Day she’s got diarrhoea and can’t spend time with family or friends. John gets a wretched cold, every year around Christmas Day. Sally gets a disabling stomach condition. Francis suffers a crippling headache. Paul’s back goes. Emma’s joints flair up. Martin’s knees become painful. By Boxing Day everyone feels very much better and their families joke that being ill is a great way to avoid cooking Christmas dinner.
Kate, John, Sally and everyone else who experiences illness like clockwork around Christmas are genuinely unwell – their pain and other physical symptoms are real – but the timing is a clue to the underlying cause.
Bethany is a successful middle aged woman with a happy family life who looks forward to Christmas, to giving and receiving presents, planning meals and so on but got ill every year around the 24th and had begun to wonder about the timing. Bethany had been to counselling before to explore her sad childhood and had come to terms with it but this time focused particularly on childhood Christmases. She knew that those early Christmases had been cold, dark and miserable, filled with crushed hope and disappointments and were very, very dreary: now Bethany was feeling how that was for her younger self, from first memories until early adulthood when she was able to take control of her experience. That little girl, aged 4 to 15, continued to suffer and to inform Bethany’s current experience.
Peter was brought up in a loving home where birthdays and Christmases were celebrated with joy. When Peter was 9 his grandfather died in the family home, ambulance staff attending but not doing anything to prevent the death. Peter’s family didn’t speak about this death and Christmases were more subdued from then on. 40 years on, 9-year-old Peter was still begging for help.
You don’t need to have suffered abuse or trauma over Christmas to be negatively affected by it. Look at the advertising: magic, glitter, tables groaning with glowing food, kaleidoscopes of presents wrapped in expensive papers, beautifully dressed people having excessively perfect times with smiling friends and families . . . impossible. Just as the fashion industry is responsible for negative body image and a large proportion of eating disorders so these impossible images of perfection and contentment only offer unrealistic expectations and disappointment. Very few of us have enough disposable income to buy the presents we want for others, let alone the food and comfort we’ve been told we should be able to offer. Apparently, that now includes a new sofa.
Take a little time to talk with your younger self, the 5 year old who was genuinely devastated when he got Lego instead of Meccano; the 8 year old who shouted at her exhausted mum and then felt crushing shame; the 10 year old whose mother passed out in front of the Sound of Music; the 7 year old who was forced to kiss her abuser by parents who had no idea; the 12 year old who got all the presents in the world and very little affection.
Speak very kindly with them, listen to what they have to tell you, take excellent, tender care of them. It can feel incredibly sad to do this because it becomes starkly clear that you-as-a-child is never going to get what you needed at that time. There’s nothing anyone can do about it. What you can do now is offer reassurance, solace and love to that younger self, aiming to simply be aware of and observe whatever feelings occur. If that sounds weird or frightening you may want to talk it over with a counsellor.
New Year apparently relies on new clothes and shoes, impeccable presentation, a wonderful celebration with another lavish spread of expensive food and drink, and someone – anyone! - to kiss at midnight. Sometimes, a bowl of profiteroles and Hootenanny on the telly can be less stressful. You could even use the time to practice listening to the part of you that, a long time ago, was fundamentally shaken by a gruelling celebration and is still trying very hard to get your attention.
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