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Psychotherapy: a journey to liberation

Psychotherapy seeks to heal mental distress by uncovering the roots of a condition and counselling the client on strategies to deal with them. Aine Tubridy and Michael Corry believe it is a means towards personal liberation and the journey back from the brink of psychosis


 

Psychotherapy derives from the Greek psyche meaning 'soul' and therapeia meaning 'attendance'. It's a science of personal liberation. One that holds the belief that we can be more than bundles of conditioned reflexes, capable of transcending the very worst that life can fire at us. It offers the prospect of inner peace, self love, spiritual awareness and interconnectedness.

 

Peter, a thirty-five-year-old businessman, was passed over for promotion in a computer company. Since he had been working towards the position for years, he became deeply depressed, disappointed that he would now not have his opportunity to prove himself. Although his job was still secure the news made him feel like leaving, because of his sense of embarrassment and wounded pride. It opened up past wounds — a relationship with his father fraught with criticism and verbal abuse, and a teacher who had bullied and humiliated him in front of his other classmates. Self-criticism was always a mental habit with Peter, fed by the constant need to prove himself, and leading to him setting excessively high perfectionist standards for himself, his staff and even his children. He felt misunderstood and alone, made all the more difficult by the fact that his wife criticised him for over-reacting, and rebuked him about not ‘getting over it' and ‘wallowing', as it was affecting the entire family

 

Sarah, age forty-three, a mother of three teenagers, wasn't altogether surprised when she discovered that her husband John was having an affair. It had happened before and, as with the previous ones, Sarah waited for this one to blow over. What shocked her was the fact that this time he had fallen in love with his new girlfriend and wanted to move out of the home, which he did. They had been childhood sweethearts and her heart was broken. She withdrew from the world, weeping for hours, spending all her time alone and, because she wasn't sleeping, drinking heavily towards evening. Her mother advised her to see her family doctor, who prescribed antidepressants which gave her some more energy to re-engage with others, but didn't help the pervasive sense of emptiness and hopelessness that she'd ever feel happy again. The happier she saw others being, the angrier she became at her new situation.

 

Patricia, a fifty-one-year-old single woman working as an executive in a ministerial department of the government, after a recent promotion found herself the target of bullying by her new boss. This highly qualified, confident woman had always had a track record of excelling at her job. Her area of expertise was in conflict resolution and labour law and, aided by her prior experience as a trade union official, she had through the years negotiated many successful outcomes in challenging situations. She was stunned to find that her boss related to her as a threat, and had set about mounting a campaign to undermine her authority. He used every opportunity to question and devalue her work, even using group meetings to humiliate her. Every effort to defend herself was met with silence from their superiors, and an increased effort on his part to crush her. Constantly feeling frustrated, vigilant and alienated, after eighteen months her health wore down, with frequent infections, migraine headaches, a rise in blood pressure and chronic insomnia becoming the norm. She could think of nothing else but him, playing over and over in her mind conversations they had had and situations of reprimand and humiliation. Nightmares followed high levels of anxiety, and she was ultimately diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress, her cardinal symptom of that being depression.

 

Martin, a twenty-two-year-old college student, got his first panic attack at a party following a rock concert, as a result of taking over a hundred magic mushrooms. He was overtaken by a wave of intense fear, feelings of dizziness and unreality, and worry that his heart would explode it was beating so strongly; he couldn't breathe properly, and hurriedly left the party. In the following days and weeks he remained in a state of constant vigilance, convinced he had done some permanent damage to his brain, so paralysed and paranoid was his thinking. At college, and in crowded places he continued to have panic attacks, and found himself having to run out of pubs and lectures, finally avoiding them altogether. He saw his future as being altered forever, shunned as a ‘weirdo', friendless and dependent. This bleak scenario deeply depressed him, and he began contemplating suicide. He had decided that one day when the house was empty he would hang himself.

 

Know thyself: wisdom chips

From ancient to modern times, human beings have intuitively sensed that inner disquiet and distress could be transcended by the acquisition of certain wisdoms and behaviours. The awareness that inner turmoil affected interpersonal relationships and ultimately the cohesion and co-operation within communities, spurred on the search for ‘the' answer to this perennial problem. Gurus, high priests, shamans, prophets, philosophers, religions, and spiritual practices, facilitated the search for a solution, making inner wisdom their goal.

The ancient Greeks probably came the closest to offering an answer. Over the entrance to the temple at Delphi, where intellectuals and leaders consulted with the Oracle, the voice of the Gods, was the inscription: Know Thyself!

This is not an invitation to bask in the sun of our own ego, marvelling at our special talents and attributes but, more importantly to acquire a knowledge of our entire personality, including our prejudices, inadequacies and shortfalls. Obviously we are better equipped for life if we know our strengths as well as our weaknesses — what impels us forward and what holds us back. Knowledge of the workings of our inner life is ultimately the rock on which we build our self. It leads to the growth of inner wisdom, personal control and a power base on which to rely as we work the external world, in a sense providing psychological airbags to buffer us against setbacks. These are the core building blocks of healing.

The cases above are typical of many distressed people who make their way to our consulting rooms seeking help with a predicament or life issue. By that time, all of them have crossed a line in their life, after which they became aware of being no longer able to handle the roadblock in front of them. From that moment on, either their previous ways of engaging the world seemed inadequate, or the impact of the trauma simply became so overwhelming that it left them in a state of paralysis and hopelessness. Either way, in order to engage with the future again, they need help in finding some new avenues of movement, and some even to create a new identity completely different from their old one. In this sense, psychotherapy truly is ‘soul attending'.

 

Psychotherapy has the objective of assisting individuals such as these in the following key ways.

  • By creating a safe, compassionate, non-judgemental listening space where they can unburden themselves and work through a grief, a loss, a disappointment etc.
  • By helping them develop the coping skills necessary to develop more effective coping skills to deal with difficult situationsor people which they may be interfacing with, such as a bully at work, a violent husband, an unsuitable school.
  • By enabling them to find contentment and peace of mind through fostering a healthy, non-judgemental, loving relationship with themselves.

 

By the time Peter presented himself for psychotherapy, plagued with self-loathing and shame for having failed, he was haunted by his father's words: ‘You will never amount to anything'. He was spending his days visiting the various exhibits in the museum in his mind. Past failures and setbacks — the time he was humiliated in front of his class by a teacher for making a mistake, when he didn't make it onto the football team, when a girlfriend left him for his best friend, and when he got a beating from his father for having his bicycle stolen. He was obsessing over what he'd done wrong to have missed the promotion, and all the qualities that the new guy had that he felt he lacked. He simply saw himself as a bad provider, a bad husband, and a bad father.

All reassurance from his wife to the contrary fell on deaf ears. Peter had just about managed over the years to hang on to some version of himself as capable and competent, but the new development had changed all that, exposing him as someone whose self-esteem and sense of his own worth was fragile, and far too dependent on his performance in the various roles.

The task he and his psychotherapist have to undertake together is to peel back the layers of hurt which have put in place some of his thinking habits, and which have resulted in him relating to himself as a worthless human being, undeserving of compassion or forgiveness. In order to do this, he must first be helped to understand some of the dynamics of how the mind operates.

 

Mind works

Self-consciousness: how I see myself
I hated myself for letting them down'
‘I was so ashamed of myself for screwing up'
‘I'll never forgive myself for being so stupid'

 

Peter is all too familiar with such inner judgements. Yet if he stopped to examine what was happening he would see that there are two parts of him talking to each other — ‘I' and ‘myself'. Which is the real me? Both are.

What sets us apart from any other form of life is our ability to symbolise, to think in words, to reflect, to compare ourselves to others, in other words to be self-conscious (from the Latin conscious, meaning ‘knowing within oneself'). This implies the faculty of seeing oneself, and of being self-aware as though we were standing back observing another part of ourselves. As we've seen above, each human being has effectively two aspects to this self-consciousness, namely that of the observer and that part which is being observed, which we will call the performer or actor. All of our inner dialogue occurs between these two. This is known as the intra-personal relationship.

These two partners in our mind can get along or be constantly at war. If this relationship is tranquil, then inner peace and self-love prevails. In other words, there is harmony and non-judgement. If on the other hand, they're at each others throats all the time, how dramatically different life is for the poor performer. Now every action is scathingly judged, compared unfavourably to others, and ridiculed, with respect and approval withheld by the tormentor. This mental situation was observed by Milton: ‘The mind is a place which of itself can make a heaven of hell, or a hell of heaven'.

 

The critic: the observer with a bad attitude

When we are born, we are, in a sense, parachuted onto the stage of life and handed a script of how we should act. As if any of us had the opportunity to sit down with God and chose whether to be born, our time of arrival, gender, looks, nationality, family, religion, level of intelligence and so on. Leaving aside the notion of karma and pre-birth choice, many of us feel we are living a life which we have not chosen, but paradoxically are held responsible by our observer for being the way we are, blamed as if we had a choice in the matter.

According to our scripted role, the observer will imply that one of our first duties is to make our parents happy. This is a hideous expectation, given that all the resources are on the parental side in terms of power, control and know-how. Not only are we expected to be pleasing to our parents, but also our siblings, our relatives, our peers and later our teachers, employers, partners and so on. To ensure that we fit into this formula, society subtly moulds our observer through an unconscious conditioning process, a brainwashing. Our observer emerges from this convinced that it can only love and approve of us as long as we meet society's conditions. If we don't, loving care and attention, so vital for any young person, will be withheld.

Over the entrance to every home, school, and workplace should be inscribed the prophetic words: ‘As you are perceived by others, so shall you perceive yourself'. Put simply, if as a child you are repeatedly told ‘you're no good, you're no good, you're no good' then eventually you will believe it, internalise it as the voice of your observer , and find yourself automatically thinking ‘I'm no good, I'm no good, I'm no good'. In other words, our observer takes up the stick with which we've been beaten and beats us in equal measure. In this way the critic is born. This is the kind of observer which Peter has developed, one who is hostile, judgemental and who makes his life a misery. In extreme circumstances, such an onslaught might encourage some to take their own lives. This is the state of self-loathing at its most destructive.

Saying it another way — let's return to the analogy of the stage of life and the drama of being a child. Instead of our observer being in the front row applauding our performance as an admiring friend, many experience a heckler who throws abuse and rotten eggs. It seems as though their observer had been taken to the back of the theatre, and brainwashed by agents who represent different societal schools of thinking and conditioning, then returned to the front row, instructed in how to give you, on the stage, a hard time. This heckling makes the performer begin to doubt himself, forget he is doing his best with the resources available to him, and he takes the criticism to be true. Within this model, for those whose observer has been trained to be such a critic, it means that a part of them is pitched against them, much like having a hand which is unceasingly trying to choke them. They are sleeping with the enemy, but it's inside them. It beggars belief that we can actually end up with a mind that is assaulting us.

Contrast this with a child who has been cherished by loving parents, their efforts praised, and failures and difficulties understood and allowances made. This paves the way for the development of a loving, peaceful, intra-personal relationship between his observer and performer, and ultimately the notion of unity where both are on the same side.

It is self-evident that the quality of our relationship with ourself dictates in like measure the quality of our relationship with others. If I don't like myself I can't genuinely like others, if I don't love myself I can't genuinely love others, if I don't know how to care for myself I can't take care of others, and so on. No track record of generosity of spirit.

 

Rate the severity of your own critic on a scale of 0 -10.

 

The witness: you can't change what you're not aware of

Before we can liberate ourselves from the tyranny of the critic, we must first become aware of its presence, and the stranglehold it has over our life. We can have no doubts that it enslaves us to a life of misery and mental turmoil, and that ultimately it prevents us from reaching our true potential, finding our life purpose and connecting to our higher self.

In the very act of standing back, as you would when watching yourself in a video, objectively and from a distance, your witness or higher self is born. It is only with the witness in place that the critical observer can be dismantled systematically in order to allow the development of the supportive and loving friend we deserve.

Within the stage analogy, the witness can be seen as the director, that part of us that sits in the gallery, watching the self-conscious performer from a distant viewing point. The witness can make a clear distinction between the performer and the observer. It can appreciate that the performer is ‘dancing as fast as they can'. It can understand that the harshness of the critic comes from having internalised the voices around it, perhaps through the whole of their childhood and teenage years, voices which were judgmental, perfectionist, impossible to please, unloving and unsupportive.

Unfortunately for many, such is the fusion and enmeshment of the critic and the performer, with its inherent turmoil, that neither the space nor the time is available for the witness to emerge. This tragic situation obliterates any possible awareness that the words of the critic are untruths, resembling the propaganda used by any tyrant to keep their subjects ignorant, fearful and powerless. This state ensures that access to the higher self is denied and that personal evolution is totally eclipsed.

The witness position is the gateway to personal freedom. By cutting us loose from the critical observer, it frees us to make realistic assessments around relationships, the contexts in which we function, life purpose and quality of life. The burning questions our witness may then encourage us to ask can include: ‘Is my life style and belief system growth-promoting, and in the direction of compassion and inner peace?'

 

Peter, Sarah, Patricia and Martin all need to acquire the ability to witness before they can be free to evaluate what has happened to them. When Peter has developed the ability to witness, he will be able to say to himself, ‘Don't be so hard on yourself, you're doing your best' and ‘Can you not see that it's OK to choose your own standards, even if your father wouldn't approve?'.

In Martin's case, the witnessing needed to be from a position informed with the true facts about panic, instead of the inaccurate, catastrophic predictions he was making, and which were actually escalating his fear levels. He needed to realise that panic is not a mental illness, is not the result of some damage the mushrooms did to his brain, and that he could in fact be shown the skills to control and eliminate them by a psychotherapist familiar with this specialised territory. By learning to apply the brakes to his overly aroused nervous system, with specific breathing techniques and thought disciplines, an alternative future scenario emerged, one in which he no longer needed to fear the attacks, nor avoid them. With the seemingly inescapable fear no longer looming so big, his suicidal thoughts abated.

 

Public or private opinion: who runs your life?

The pressure to conform is growing in our society. The expectations which are placed upon us to be a certain way, to play a certain role, begin early. If you don't play the game, approval is withdrawn. Climbing the ladder of success, whether it's in the family, at school, college, or in the world of work, is a programme in our mind, pushing us to achieve a status that is held to be right and true by the dominant consensus opinion. Rightly or wrongly, our parents are the initial and primary agents of this process. It's continued by our teachers, our peers, our social group and by the media. We find ourselves shaped and sculpted to reproduce in our own lives cloned versions of the examples held up to us as ‘ideal'. This becomes the context in which we develop our attitudes, values and expectations, which in turn conditions us to move in certain directions and away from others, approval being the bait. It is, therefore, a fear-based process, playing on our vulnerabilities, and our unmet needs.

The two main players are our observer, us looking at ourselves, and the ‘Public Gaze', the eye of the other, looking at us. This, the viewpoint of others, is a creation of our culture, and is the main propaganda tool of the socialisation process, how to be and how not to be. It is omnipresent, and always prepared to judge, criticise and draw comparisons between you and others: ‘Why can't be like everybody else? Why do you always have to be different?' In time, the weight of these criticisms, with their implications to let go your individual nature and conform like everyone else, is internalised and becomes the voice of your observer.

At a micro-level the public gaze will enquire: ‘Do you have the right look, partner, clothes, friends, car, job, apartment, and so on?' It tracks us to the grave. The essence of psychotherapy is to make us aware of how moulded we are by this conditioning process, and to put in place the tools with which to liberate ourselves. So, rather than blindly and compulsively always ‘having to' prove ourselves as the perfect daughter or son, the best mother or father, the most successful provider, we would feel freer to make them ‘want-tos' and to ask ‘Can I trust these ‘have-tos' and ‘shoulds' if they're not making me happy?' (At a macro-level, the public gaze shapes our sense of nationalism, religious convictions, political views, opinions on racial issues, gay rights, abortion, stem cell research, etc. We now know that the invasion of Iraq was supported by a powerful worldwide propaganda effort).

How many people give over their entire lives to satisfying the demands of the public gaze, killing themselves to do well, and at the end of the day have lost all connection with who they are, or why they're here? They have become empty shells with nothing inside. Peter, Sarah and Patricia have, to varying degrees been held hostage to their roles, Patricia all the more so because, as a single career woman, her job became her sole identity, and without it she has little to fall back on to make her fulfilled. Sarah, too, has invested heavily in her role as wife, and is finding it hard to redefine herself as a single woman.

They've been reading someone else's script, rather than being their own author, and understand what it is to be truly authentic. Such people have led a life where their reference point for how to think, what to say, how to behave, and even what to wear is outside themselves, measures against some arbitrary scale devised by others for them. They live in fear of failing to reach these fictional targets, and their critic keeps them perpetually vigilant of any shortfall through constant bulletins as to the likely consequence; the unquestioned disapproval of the public gaze. Daily they are beset by doubts, recriminations, and mental assaults — the territory of the depressed. Peter is a classic example of this.

Panickers like Martin are susceptible to the burden of the stigma surrounding any form of mental illness, which he worried he might have. His fear levels were escalating whenever he thought he might be seen having an attack, and his feeling of powerlessness lessened once he could move from ‘What if they see me?' to ‘So what?'

 

The triangle of being: your evolving personality

The concept of personality can best be seen as the interplay between three aspects, namely, thinking, feeling and behaving. How you think influences how you subsequently feel and behave. How you feel in turn affects how you behave and think. Likewise, how you behave determines how you feel and think.

An everyday example might be a person who holds the general belief (thinking) that being late for a meeting of any kind is inexcusable given the consequences for others: ‘one should always be on time'. One day, on their way to a meeting they encounter a long tailback on the motorway which is going to delay them. Such a person will begin to experience feelings of guilt, frustration, anxiety and possibly anger. The physiological counterparts follow: they feel hot, sweaty, tense and possibly panicky. Behaviours such as honking the horn, cutting in on other drivers, drumming fingers on the steering wheel, and the frantic use of the mobile phone go with this state.

If one does not have such rigid thinking around punctuality, feelings such as these will not be aroused and behaviours will be more in the direction of ‘making the best of it'. This might mean listening to the radio or a favourite CD, and the feeling of calmness which follows might allow them to make a relaxed explanatory phone-call.

Within the triangle of being it is easy to understand how escalation can occur, creating an intense downward spiral which gathers momentum as it moves through all three points of the triangle, each feeding into and fueling the others. The reverse is also true: by the conscious introduction of a creative change in either your thinking patterns, feeling state or behavioural tendancies, a desired positive result can be brought about.

Depression is an emotional state in which one is overwhelmed by feelings ranging from hopelessness to despair and desolation. In such a state the belief that ‘nothing I do makes any difference' has strongly taken root, one which sabotages change. Once an emotion is backed up by the mind's logic ‘After all the terrible things that have happened to you, you have every right to be depressed', a very potent ally has now been brought on board, empowering the right of the emotion to exist, and the notion that it should go on and on without interruption. Now the fixation becomes self-perpetuating, enough is never enough, you will always want more of the emotion. Social withdrawal and dependent behaviours cement the symptom logic in place. Without an awareness of the relationships within the triangle, a downward spiral is inevitable.

By contrast, by focusing less on their feelings and consciously putting in place behaviours which cause an opposite feeling, they will demonstrate to themselves that ‘I can do things which make a difference', and a gradual erosion of the sabotaging belief occurs.

Behaviours such as taking exercise, having a massage, or learning yoga can, albeit temporarily, show them that they have been instrumental in causing a shift in their inner world. Over time, with repetition of such effective behaviours, the original powerless mindset is dissolved, and replaced by a more empowering one — ‘I can help myself'. This inevitably leads to a feeling of hope, control and self-mastery. (This is the basic premise on which our Black Swan approach to suicide rests.)

 

For Sarah and Patricia, moving away from the constant preference for hurt feelings and ruminating thoughts about the past is a vital step, by seeing these as practices which are destructive and can only increase their distress. By interrupting them with behaviours which are incompatible with both, an alternative avenue of movement is created. Martin also learned that certain behaviours made his attacks worse, such as his restless pacing around and excessive drinking, and others helped it, like breathing slowly and diverting his mind to other things.

 

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