Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Peeling Away The Layers 2

In Therapy:

Okay I have attended a counsellor for some twenty sessions.  I am also used to attending a psychiatrist every three months mainly for medication, but I also insist of personalising the whole thing and delving deep into my psyche as best I can with my consultant.  Added to that, I have done a two year course in counselling skills and plan to embark on a course to qualify me after three or four years as a psychotherapist, fully registered and all.  So I know what it's like to go into a room and begin talking to a friendly other who will listen and ask some well considered questions.  He or she is about to help me reflect on how I am now in myself.  As I said this experience I have always found rewarding and affirming.  More people could do with it.  However, I have found the process to be like that of exploration or mining or indeed rather similar to an archaeological dig.  These are metaphors of course.  Another metaphor would be that of diving down into the psyche.  Hence we have the description of of certain types of psychology as depth psychology.  Okay then, there are many images we can use for the process.  I've described my own theory of the personality or psyche as being like that of an onion with each of the preceding layers being built upon by a successive layer.

Careful and Reflective Digging: 

In reading Freud recently I was fascinated to see that his topographical model of the psyche was very much influenced by the work of the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann who could painstakingly re-construct or put together clues of ancient civilizations from traces of old buried cities and come up with a fairly accurate model of not alone what that particular city might look like but also of the habits of the people and the beliefs of that society.  So Freud's topographical model saw the psyche as made up of the conscious mind, the preconscious mind and unconscious mind.  I have already discussed this in detail before - see the following link Topographical Model

A client can go to a counsellor or therapist for a number of reasons.  Maybe he has been referred by a doctor or is experiencing some trauma or he or she is bereft after a major loss be that death or separation or recent illness or being made unemployed.  For me, I took the twenty counselling sessions as as effort to see where I was going as I approached mid-life and felt somewhat lost.  For me it was a marvellous opportunity to grow.   Therapy is all about healing and growth and in fact the word literally means the first of these two words.

The process for me, then, was rewarding.  I felt myself literally pealing down through the layers or if you like digging down.  Now one never sloughs off any of the layers - one can go back and forth between layers, but oftentimes there can be a sense that one can have "blocks" or a feeling of being stuck in one or another layer.  (I know some white-haired adolescent men - apparently happily married, but still playing the field sexually and making adolescent jokes with the lack of concern of testosterone-ridden teenagers.  This is sad to see in a fifty year old man.  In short his sexual development or appetite is somehow stuck in the adolescent layer.  I am using this example by way of illustration here).

Some people even maintain they can get a sense of recollection of what it was like to be in their mother's womb.  I have myself been a very intense anxious boy during my childhood and adolescence.  Indeed, I also suffer from hypertension and am on medication for the same.  How was my mother at my birth?  Well, years later I found out that she had lost one child to a cot death, perhaps one to a miscarriage and her first still living child was born slightly handicapped.  I never got to talk to her about this, but am merely putting the facts together.  Therefore, I should imagine that she was particularly anxious before and during my birth.  This anxiety was certainly communicated to me.  My younger brother is very relaxed, way more laid back than I. 

As a small child I loved my father's Aunt a lot.  My father's own mother was long dead before I was born as so Aunt Annie, whom we called Granny Saunders  became a surrogate "nanny" (Dublin slang for grandmother) for us.  I was always fond of her as she was more affectionate to us than our own mother.  As a little child I remember once rushing over to my mother - I could have been no more than 3 years old - and kissing her.  She was blackening the grate of the fire and she pushed me away.  Here's a memory that was stored in my unconscious for years until say during the last 20 years I unearthed it.  It had often coloured my unconscious attitudes towards mothers and some women.  Unearthing little suppressed memories like these is healing.  Once they are remembered they are dealt with in as best a way as possible.  Obviously, incidences or instances of trauma will not be dealt with as easily as this.  As the memories of the trauma are brought to the surface healing comes gradually.  It can take many many sessions of therapy in dealing with very deeply-buried trauma like child abuse in all its forms. Sometimes it can seem that a problem can re-emerge again and again when we think we have dealt with it.  Well, in this case, we are being told in no uncertain terms that we really have not dealt with it at all.

Teachers should be careful what they say to the children in their care.  I remember one teacher shouting at me when I was playing football as a very small boy - probably about nine years old - that I was "a jelly bean."  I have never forgot this insult.  To be insulted by a teacher is far worse than being insulted by a peer, because teachers are people with authority in the child's mind.  Later, when I was about 16 I remember our Honours Maths teacher shouting "fool" at me when I failed to volunteer the correct substitution that should be made in some integration problem or other.  I was in shock and hurt to the very root of my being - as I loved the subject and respected the teacher.

And so each succeeding layer is laid upon the previous one.  Old hurts are often not healed.  Therapy helps in healing them.  I remember one lovely woman who was in my group doing counselling skills saying that her mother had never shown any affection for her at all.  I remember sharing in the group about my one dreadful experience of depression when I was so low that someone could have come and said to me "your mother is dead" and that I would not have been able to register concern at all because I was so low.  This sharing helped this lovely woman who replied that indeed her mother had suffered from schizophrenia and been often confined to bed while her grandmother or aunt did the caring.  All therapy training is done in groups which, of their nature, will be intense but rewarding and personally enhancing and supporting. 

I have found myself going up and down and in and out through these successive layers in the onion or in the archaeological dig as it were.

Self-Worth Versus Self-Esteem: 

I love the distinction which Dr Tony Humphreys makes between these two terms in his book Examining Our Times. 

Self-worth is a given, unchangeable; it is what you are from the moment of conception: sacred, worthy of giving and receiving love, unique, individual, possessing vast intellectual potential and giftedness...Self-esteem is a screen self, a crust you form around your real self in order to survive in the social system of which you are a member, or in particular relationships.  The greater the threats to your expression of your self-worth, the lower is your self-esteem and the higher are your protectors.  Basically self-esteem is the amount of your real self that you dare show to people. (Op. cit., 127)

As a teacher I am highly aware from the impact of my own negative experience outlined above and from my professional training that the affirmation of the self-worth of each child or student is of paramount importance.  Personally, if I have ever been in the wrong in blaming a child, or in losing control through an outburst of anger, I have always been quick to apologise.  This is something any adult and certainly all teachers should do.  There is no loss of power involved here at all.  Quite the contrary, it enhances what I would term real or true power which comes from following what is the truth of the soul.

Little children are spontaneously giving and loving just as I have illustrated about with my story of my kissing my mother.  In other words, they are spontaneously and innately aware of their self-worth but bit by bit as they run up against society with its harshness they learn to cover up by various self-images which are marked by low self-esteem.  A person with low self-esteem may either be very aggressive, violent, blaming, workaholic, alcohol dependent, possessive, or, on the other hand be extremely passive, withdrawn, apathetic, drug-addicted, shy, timid, fearful and depressed.  I have come across all these types in my own experience of life and of these types in the making as a teacher with nearly thirty years experience.

I will return to Dr Tony Humphreys in a moment, but now I wish to refer back to the marvellous memoir Music and Madness which I dealt with over a series of some eleven posts in this blog: - M and M .  In that book he talks about his early low self-esteem.  He remembers his father referring to the fact that "Ivor was a mistake."  In other words, parents do huge damage to their children, mostly unintentionally and unconsciously, and all this hurt has to be undone by the children as they grow older.  We all have to do that.  Unfortunately, none of us is trained to be a parent.  Mostly everyone does their best, often within difficult circumstances.  As a teacher and in general from my experience in life with friends and acquaintances I am at one here with Tony Humphreys:

The more characteristics of your true self that are not affirmed, or, on appearance, are severely punished and violated, the greater the defensive screen created by the person.  There are individuals who describe themselves, for example as "stupid," "evil," "vile," ugly," "unlovable," "hateful," "bad".  These persons created these self-esteem defences as a means of survival, and not surprisingly, it takes considerable patience on the part of others to help these individuals to let go of their shadow selves. (op.cit. supra, 168)

I have said in these pages before that none of us is perfect.  We are all personalities in the making.  None of us is wholly realised or integrated - just some of us are further on the road to integration than others.   We all belong to dysfunctional families but some are more dysfunctional than others.  Some are more enmeshed than others.  A friend of mine describes his first marriage as tantamount to "marrying a family, not a woman."  She had never ever really split from her family of origin.  The ties were too strong - she was enmeshed.  One relationship I had with a schizophrenic woman was similar.  She could not split away at all from her family of origin.  She was and still is a little girl totally dependent on her mother and her family.  Ivor Browne has interesting things to say about this lack of separation from family of origin as regards mental illness.  However, we all have work to do in separating ourselves out from our families of origin; in learning to be independent; in learning to put aside the over-dependence crutch; in learning to integrate all aspects of our personality into our psyche.  This is hard going indeed, but well worth the effort.  Hence the above images I started with are somewhat skilful and painstaking and time-consuming:- archaeological dig, mining, diving or peeling away the layers.  I'll finish with the famous poem on parents and families by Philip Larkin  - "This be the Verse":

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.


But they were fucked up in their turn

By fools in old-style hats and coats,

Who half the time were soppy-stern

And half at one another's throats


Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as early as you can,

And don't have any kids yourself.

Down memory lane. Above is a picture of me at a friend's debs. This was taken in 1977. I was 19 years of age!

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