It can appear patronising to say this, but it is true that I encounter some of the bravest and most sincere people I have ever met each day in my consulting room, singly and in groups. They are bewildered, fearful, angry, lost souls who feel something missing in their lives, who have been humiliated or hurt, but can no longer bear to live as they did yesterday. They daily live the experience of privation, of absence, of lack and disconnection and they know that they cannot settle until they find some way or path through the longing to become who they are. And so they make their faltering way to the therapist’s couch to tell their personal version of an ancient story:
In the midway of this our mortal life, I found me in a gloomy wood, astray Gone from the path direct.
Like Dante Allighieri before him, the patient is lost and alienated and in dire need of a guide who can accompany him through the terrors of his private hell and bring him to the comparative paradise of a more loving and meaningful life.
It seems to be an inexorable psychological law – that to be found and to find value and meaning one must lose what is valuable and meaningful and become lost – and always within the context of a journey or search. One must be an explorer like Bunyan’s pilgrim or join with Dorothy and her companions to seek out the Wizard. Parsifal searches for the Grail and Jason for the Golden Fleece, Odysseus struggles for years to return home to Ithaca, and for Milton Paradise is Lost, but ultimately Regained.
Wagner’s great quartet of operas, the Ring Cycle, resonates with these archetypal themes of loss, wandering and gain, and one is reminded of the poignant story of Psyche’s quest for her lost lover, Eros. The human spirit seems to understand only too well that loss and gain are inseparable partners and that they are the primal forces in a journey which leads to Self consciousness and awareness of who one really is.
I want to take up this idea of what is valued, its loss and the longing for its return, and consider how modern adults respond to the invitation to journey and wise guidance through the opportunity of psychotherapy. I want to suggest to you that from the beginning of psychological life, our experiences of connection and disconnection, relationship and loss, longing and desire and the strategies we each generate to manage or avoid the pain and inevitability of disappointment and grief, have a profound impact on the sort of individual we grow up to be. I want further to suggest that at the heart of the practice of psychotherapy lies the possibility of redemption and transformation through engaging with another in a loving education in the paradox of loss.
The basis for making such a bold assertion arises from my daily work as a group analyst and psychotherapist working with a broad range of adult suffering and longing. I have been in private practice for over 15 years and for a decade before that my work as a social worker involved similar activity with disturbed children and adolescents. After 25 years of such engagement, it is my observation and deep conviction that whether I work with children or adults, individually or in groups and regardless of the presenting problem, the core issue remains the same. Put simply, the people I work with have problems to do with a terrible conflict which centres around longing to love and be loved while being afraid to love and dreading being unlovable.
It seems to me that from the beginning of psychological life, the deepest motivation in the human soul is for meaningful and satisfying contact and relationship with others, and that our most basic fear and anxiety is loss of that contact or rejection by the valued one. Actual and perceived indifference, neglect, and a variety of early abandonments occur frequently and inevitably in our closest relationships from infancy onwards, and depending on factors which we shall soon consider, may constitute a traumatic predisposition and conflict in us all. On the one hand, as I have asserted, there is a fundamental motivation to enthusiastically connect and attach to significant others. On the other hand, early experiences impel the being to withdraw from whole-hearted connection, and may predispose an evolving personality to anxious and mistrustful pseudo-relationships and a lifetime of self-fulfilling predictions about the vagaries of getting close to others or letting them close.
If you feel that I overstate my case, consider that many of the myths and teaching stories which inform and illustrate the world of childhood are tales of abandonment, expulsion and neglect, in which the child is thrust, unprepared, out of the nursery culture and into impossible situations as a consequence of adult helplessness, hostility or rejection. Hansel and Gretel, the Babes in the Wood and lots of other children are deserted, and expected to exhibit prodigious skill and precocious cunning to save themselves and their world.
Just ask yourself why it is that Little Red Riding Hood’s mother allows her to go alone into a forest when it is widely known that a vicious wolf roams there? Where are the parents of Goldilocks and why haven’t they warned her of the dangers of entering strange houses and sleeping in unfamiliar beds? On the other hand. Rapunzel and the Lady of Shalott find themselves locked up in impenetrable towers by phobic and snobbish parents, and in extreme cases can be found Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Brunhilde – maidens whose experience of relationship has catastrophically resulted in withdrawal from the world. Peter Pan apparently finds it preferable to turn away from Wendy’s invitation to join her and her siblings in reality-based relationships, and rather than growing up, he remains in his fantastic and solipsistic world of imagination.
My point is that childhood is made up of some quite wounding experiences around love and relationship. Much of the deep suffering and sense of inadequacy that so many adults feel comes from the initial and often inevitable abandonment of love and loss of certainty experienced or perceived in early childhood, and creates a template for subsequent modes of relating. In a “good enough” family care system, of course, where there is a surplus of positive and predictable emotional contacts, children grow up more or less disposed to relate and connect – however ambivalently. Where the environment fails or constitutional factors hold sway, the wounds of neglect and abandonment stunt the development of the psyche. The actual or perceived violation of the natural weakness, innocence and simplicity of the young child not yet ready for autonomy, can turn into a protective infantilism that lasts through one’s life but can shatter in a crisis, such as bereavement, divorce, unemployment or illness, engendering inappropriate reactions and disordered variants like prolonged depression or pathological mourning.
At such a point, when the habitual and familiar ways of coping fail, it can seem to a person that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Crisis and emergency may thus propel the individual into psychotherapy and longed-for change. But just as the therapy takes hold, things can become very strange indeed as the patient and his guide enter the Alice-in-Wonderland realm of encounter and experience, where everything is paradoxical and seems to turn into its opposite. Crisis becomes opportunity and opportunity is threatening; emergency is a condition for a new emergent being, but feels overwhelming; loss is gain, and what we most long for but dread is present continually in the session.
“Our only health is the disease If we obey the dying nurse Whose constant care is not to please But to remind of our, and Adam’s, curse, And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse. “
(T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets)
Eliot’s lines remind us of the human and paradoxical nature of psychotherapy. The patient gets better as they suffer more of what made them unwell in the first place, under the care of one who is himself wounded and joyously conscious of it. The patient must embrace what previously was absurd or eccentric in order to become sane, for what previously was absurd was to be soft and tender. Openness and vulnerability make the patient anxious and he clings to the anxieties he dreads for security and so as not to fall into the void.
I said earlier that there is a fundamental urge in the human to enthusiastically join and connect with others. As a consequence of early experiences more or less traumatic a person may withdraw from relationship, but at some point the defensive and reactive self formed to manage the dread and longing for connection, is no longer sustainable. The resulting collapse and presenting symptomatology is simply a dumb and inarticulate communication about the pain of genuinely relating to oneself and one’s world. Thus the patient enters therapy only to find out that the wise but wounded therapist insists on authentic and existential encounter between them if the treatment is to progress. Inevitably the psychotherapy becomes charged with regressive and habitual modes of relating, which it is the training and requirement of the psychotherapist to demonstrate but always he works to affirm the quiet and secret hope of the patient that this time it might be different from how it has been in the past. The process of psychotherapy is thus a process of purification and all is done in fidelity to the core of one’s being.
This process of purification is traditionally known in the analytic and dynamic therapies as working through the transference issues and conflicts of the patient. Transference is an interpersonal perceptual distortion, and involves intense emotional experiences for the patient and therapist. Indeed, Freud at various stages in his career described the transference as a cross, as a battlefield and as a playground. Ideally it was the meeting place for creative and dynamic conflict, and offered the possibility for encounter, discussion and exploration, but there is heroism as well as violence on the battlefield, laughter and bullying in the playground, sacrifice and death on the cross. So the oscillations of the therapeutic encounter offer possibilities for the transformation of opposing experiences in the patient and create the ground for a mature appreciation of the value and increase made available by inevitable loss and disappointment.
Psychotherapy as a total experience provides something that was not available in the person’s earlier state of development. The therapist endeavours to be a genuinely concerned person who is tolerant and patient – someone who accepts and confirms his patient’s feelings, who is willing to act as a safe base for exploration so that the patient can discover new facts about himself and others. These new facts concern the inevitability of loss and disappointment and emerge out of the subjective experience of the therapy itself.
The very decision to enter therapy involves a loss – a giving-up of the illusion of total independence or its polar opposite, infantile dependence. To seek therapy involves beginning to accept responsibility for one’s own difficulties and their resolution, whilst at the same time accepting that another person is needed to achieve this. It means agreeing to grow up. This will require one patient gradually letting go of excessive and rigid self-reliance, and demand of another that they relinquish the yearning for instant alleviation of distress and immediate cure and enter a relationship wholeheartedly in the knowledge that it must inevitably end. The gain here is interdependence and realising that we need each other in order to become who we are.
Once in the therapy, the loss of privacy is an essential part of the process . Revealing primitive, shameful and unacceptable parts of oneself is not an easy business for people who have spent a lifetime repressing them and mastering and controlling their outward presentations. Learning to renounce and relinquish out of date values and attitudes is painful and anxiety-making, but can be worth the greater sense of authenticity and personal freedom thereby acquired. The gain here is an increase in self-acceptance and learning to live a compassionate life with one’s self and one’s neighbours. There may also be a transformation of one’s values and ideals from compulsive and perfectionistic into realistic and meaningful possibilities for leading a purposeful life.
Finally there are losses to be experienced in the relationship with the therapist. For many people this will be their first experience of a warm and caring relationship in which they are centrally and unconditionally held. To give up a relationship with a wise, reflective and tender therapist in order to actualise the fruit of the joint work, in attachments and work outside the consulting room, is a courageous and mature recognition of and engagement with the finiteness and mortality of one’s own life. The gain here is the loss of destructive narcissism and the realisation of one’s own integrity and rightful and natural part in the whole. Above all is the conversion of the heart and the growing capacity to love and be loved – the willingness to enter relationship joyously, mutually and reciprocally – knowing that this can happen again and again, and is not just once for always with one’s parent or one’s therapist.
What makes all of this possible in the therapeutic encounter is the therapist’s love and experience of himself having been loved before and his willingness to be visible with his struggles to understand the patient’s difficulties and his sharing of the many obstacles in the path of authentic relationship. As the patient comes to accept the imperfections and limitations of the therapist and the therapeutic relationship, this experience becomes increasingly the template by which future relationships can be measured and enjoyed. In the psychotherapy journey, loss is not avoided but welcomed in and given a place, because loss is an opportunity for emerging and awakening. There is a maturational impulse in the human being which even though stunted or frozen by traumatising experiences of childhood, will utilise the most unlikely and unpropitious circumstances to quicken and rearrange itself for possibilities of loving and being loved. As T.S. Eliot reminds us in the close of his great poem:
”We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. Through the unknown, remembered gate When the last of earth left to discover Is that which was the beginning; At the source of the longest river The voice of the hidden waterfall And the children in the apple-tree Not known, because not looked for But heard, half-heard, in the stillness Between two waves of the sea.”
[Jarlath Benson is a Group Analyst and Psychotherapist working in private practice in Belfast. He is also the Academic Director of the Institute of Psychosynthesis in London and Director of the Northern Ireland Institute of Human Relations.]