Parents, children and acceptance

Why do we want better relationships?  What kind of a world do we want to live in, and have for our friends and family?

I’m out of town, working as an interpreter today, and one of the lawyers approaches me and tells me that we must have had shared experience.  My hair is red and his used to be.  He endured terrible bullying at school because of it.  I tell him that mine is red by choice and he still feels that kinship – that sense of belonging that we all seek.  He insists that we’ve met before and I haven’t been to this area in over ten years, but it’s possible that it happened before that.

Since I was very young, I’ve been attracted to people who are marginalized.  I had a father who usually cheered for the underdog and was before his time on women’s rights and abilities, equality, self-defence, other cultures, anti-colonization and education – at least philosophically.  He took every opportunity to teach us about injustice in this world.

…. and yet, I don’t remember hearing much about bullying, or unconditional acceptance.

I work as an American Sign Language Interpreter in the Deaf community and as a psychotherapist with deaf and hearing people.  I am privileged to be invited into private places in people’s lives.  I am continually bombarded with examples of bullying and non-acceptance by families because their child has a difference.  This is the very place where we should be safest and able to “be ourselves”.

Having raised two children of my own, and running group and foster homes for several years, I have realized that parents have an extremely difficult task: they are to love and support their child for who the child is, not in spite of their differences, but because of them.  We really struggle with this concept of embracing diversity, especially within our homes.  Many of us haven’t had our own opportunity to experience this level of acceptance, and are living out our dreams vicariously through our children, as our parents did with us – not what children were intended to do and be.

This is exacerbated when we discover a noticeable difference in our child that differentiates them from us.  For some parents, that will be a child who has different dreams and perspectives on life.  For others, that will be a child who has a different kind of ability.  For others, it will involve sexual orientation.  It may be something else entirely.  Our inability to release our own dreams for our children and embrace their dreams for themselves, is very damaging for them.  This work is, perhaps, our most significant contribution to their growth into whole, contented, loved and loving human beings.  Doing it well is a struggle.

It’s my personal experience that when you decide to bring another life into the world, there is a lot of imagining, excitement and promise in this act.  We make plans and prepare, and engage this new life, while our dreams and hopes take on a life of their own.  We believe in them too much.

When your child comes to you and says, “I’m gay” or “I want to be an artist” or the doctor says, “your child is deaf”, how you respond immediately and over the long-term will have a huge impact.  Grieving our lost dreams is work we should do as parents. For some children, who have been aware of their distinctiveness early in life, they have never felt like they “fit” their family.  They have lived on the outside, looking in.  Many have been provided for in practical ways, but have always felt the disconnect or the disappointment that plays in the background.

As I’m writing this, a lesbian friend is out of town at her mother’s funeral.  Her partner isn’t welcome there.  Her whole family is homophobic and although her mother died from cancer, she’s been told by family that she’s responsible for her mother’s death, because her disclosure of her sexual orientation was stressful.  You shouldn’t have to work out a safety plan to go to your mom’s funeral.

I have a dear friend, who’s been staying with me, who’s in a new relationship with someone who’s learned to be guarded with his family.  He’s sneaking him into the house while parents are out or away, and has finally worked up the courage to tell his mom about this new relationship.  Her response was tight-lipped, “Where did you meet?” and, “Be careful”.  I wonder if her other, straight son hears the same words from her when he chooses to share that he’s in love.  When your child tells you they’re in love, this should be a moment of joy for the family.  I feel he struggles with this lack of acceptance, and see how this ripples into my friend’s life, reactivating similar experiences of lost hope, while he strives to be present with his new partner in his situation.

I’m told of a couple, together over 20 years, who is struggling with an upcoming family reunion.  The son wants to go, but his partner is resistant.  They are told regularly that they are being prayed for, daily, to break them up.  The partner is blamed for “turning” the son gay.  They have the longest relationship of all the siblings.  You should not have to steel yourself to go and be with family.

In the late 1990s, I heard Jack Layton talk about the love he witnessed and experienced at funerals during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and early 1990s.  He said that you couldn’t call that love and acceptance wrong.  It was a wonderful affirmation to hear this message.  We hear this all too seldom.

Life is full of challenges and obstacles.  If there weren’t any, we would never grow.  What would the world be like if we had a lot less people self-medicating for depression that stems from lack of acceptance, and the inability to find a place to belong?  Suppose we start doing our own work as parents, of healing our hurts so that we can be the kind of parents who embrace the differences in our children, allowing them to grow and be who they were intended to be, in all their glory.  How much richness we would gain!

That’s the kind of world where I want to live and that I dream of for my friends, children, family, clients, and in fact all of humanity.

Wendy Kirk is a psychotherapist practising in Toronto, Canada. For more information visit http://www.therapytoronto.ca/wendy_kirk.phtml.

 

Imago awakening

In early 2001, I had the opportunity to attend a weekend workshop for “Getting the Love You Want” in Toronto. It was a couples’ weekend workshop for people with deaf partners, and was funded by the Ministry of Health. My relationship at the time was on its way out, and didn’t survive the next few years, but in the process, I fell in love with Imago.

The education to become an Imago therapist, at that time, was mostly available in the United States, and I was a single parent with two children, who were too young to leave on their own. I just wouldn’t be able to afford to go and do the training, and I contented myself with that, but I incorporated some of the features of Imago into my ongoing therapeutic practice. Fortunately for me, a few years ago, I was able to take the training locally, and I’ve found it so helpful in various parts of my life, as well as in my practice, and in understanding my past. Somehow I had always known that my past experience deeply affected my present responses to life, and in the 1990’s, I had been in a quite short-term relationship that had brought amazing healing into my life during that time. It felt like all the pieces had come together in my life, at the right time.

So, I should probably explain a bit about Imago, although, this only barely touches the surface. The basic premise of Imago is that in our childhood, when we are growing up, our caregivers cannot possibly give us everything that we need, and out of those losses that we experience during that time, we form an image in our subconscious mind of who we are looking for in life to help heal that pain. That image is the Imago.

Later in life, we subconsciously seek out partners that fit our Imago. At the beginning of every relationship, after we have subconsciously used these criteria to pick someone to be with, we project ourselves onto our partners, and fall in love. There are lots of lovely bonding drugs that are released in the body during this phase, and people are very euphoric. It can last a very short time, or up to three years. It usually lasts until the commitment level is increased, and then the couple move into the power struggle. The good news is, that’s exactly where they should be. The bad news is, it’s work to get through the power struggle to the other side, where you enter a period of deeper, enduring love.

Imago helps you understand how you contribute to your part in the power struggle, and teaches you how to connect your relational patterns with events that happened earlier in life, and assists you in making different choices. The process teaches you how to talk to your partner so you can be heard, and to hear what they are saying as well, through a series of dialogues that involve active listening and mirroring. These skills can be used in intimate relationships, and in other relationships in your life. The process of dialogue helps people stay in their rational mind, instead of moving into a reactive fight/flight place, and work through issues as they arise. There are a number of relationship deepening activities that can be done as well. There are also a series of activities for people that wish to investigate why they relate the way they do, whether they’re in a relationship or not. I have found the process very helpful personally, and professionally.

Building empathy for one another is a hard, but a necessary part of the process. Many people are afraid that if there is space in their own lives for “otherness” they will somehow become lost themselves. This is not the case. The truth is that creating space and acceptance for others allows you to be more truly yourself, and allows you to reclaim parts of yourself that you have disowned or lost earlier in life. Learning to be who you were meant to be allows you to rest into being yourself, and being able to forgive yourself for not being perfect, and then accept others with their own faults and foibles.

Relationships are wonderful journeys with the possibility of great healing and wholeness. Sometimes people leave the relationship as it enters the power struggle. Many people live the rest of their lives in the power struggle. Both of these situations cause a great deal of pain and suffering for everyone involved. I don’t want to give the impression that there is never a time to leave a relationship – there is – but with some work, many relationships could work out that are currently being abandoned. Working through the difficult times to get to a deeper place is challenging, and very rewarding. This is what I would hope for you.

“For one human being to love another human being, that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.” – Rainer Maria Rilke.

Wendy Kirk is a psychotherapist practising in Toronto, Canada. For more information visit http://www.therapytoronto.ca/wendy_kirk.phtml.

Psychotherapy: Cultivating a poetics of life

A cherished companion in my musings about art and therapy is Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters on Cézanne.* They were written to Rilke’s wife while the poet was in Paris in summer and fall of 1907 for the memorial exhibition of paintings by Cézanne, who had died the previous year. This quote is from a section I return to often:

“Works of art are always the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further. … So surely we have no choice but to test and try ourselves against … that singularity in us which no one would or even should understand, and which must enter into the work as such, as our personal madness, so to speak, in order to find its justification in the work and show the law in it, like an inborn design that is invisible until it emerges in the transparency of the artistic” (pp. 4-5).

Although Rilke is speaking of what is necessary for an artist to give birth to a work of art, the subject could just as well be a person seeking therapy. After all, chances are that what brings him or her to that point is an inner sense of being in danger. Literal, physical danger is relatively rare, I suspect; the threat being registered is actually to the inner being, to the psyche or soul-life, and this threat manifests as an unconscious, existential fear. In our techno-industrial and materialist culture, soul-life – even the idea of it – is under considerable pressure and more or less unavoidably compromised, for this way of thinking is suspicious of invisible psyche and distracts us from experiencing it for ourselves. The soul’s refreshing but tender ecosystem, with its singular rhythms and uncommon desires, is easily outshone by the external world’s messages about success and what to value, which it opposes. It is in an agony of longing for its own true tones, with their strange star-dust rills and untamed utterances, and to rest, centred, in this beauty. It is the soul, that persistent traveller, who finds the narrow lane, shows up at the gate and pulls the bell cord for therapy.

Techno-industrialist culture, while immersing us in a steady stream of “prescriptive” technologies, which Ursula Franklin* tells us are “designs for compliance,” works hard to suppress our personal madness, and to make it seem as if everything, if it is of this world, is inherently understandable. That is the logic of the machine and of things out of relationship. Desolation, anxiety, anger, grief … these become, in the contemporary lexicon of mental health, ‘disorders’ attributed to ‘chemical imbalances,’ despite the sketchy evidence for such a view.

In reality, there is little chance of transformation unless each day we strive to meet our danger and pain as far as we can, unless we receive our madness like a guest and discern its unexpected, ecosystemic rightness – a distinctive and necessary thread in the living work that is our own consciousness, our own becoming. For the task is to become what one is. When we labour to eradicate our difference, to prune the non-compliant tangles, the part in us that chagrins and we cannot stand, then we are at odds with the singularity of our inner being. Therapy worth the name must dare to approach what Rilke referred to as the inborn design that longs to be made visible, experienced and embodied. The therapeutic way is to meet inner conflicts on their own terms. Any pruning and untangling that then occur will seem almost effortless. In time, something like a new substance, a quality of being, emerges quietly from our inner ecosystem, the way everything new in nature appears: whole, resilient, often surprising. Conflict and madness mature into a capacity to be with ourselves, to weave our singularity into the fabric of the world.

As long as humans have existed, our tribe have given shape to soul’s journey. It is not accidental that today’s surge in serious mental disturbances is correlated with the Industrial Revolution (see Iain McGilchrist*): the more the techno-industrial mindset gains on us, the more radical becomes our separation from nature, and simultaneously the more acute the need to attack the singularity of a genuine soul-life. What we get is a kind of collective numbing: the song & dance we know as efficiency, sanctioned normalcy. The age-old expressive arts, such as painting, music and stories, can still initiate into a soul-life. Traditionally, therapy as healing ceremony never strayed far from them. Art and ceremony reveal what perceptive scientists learn too, that we dwell within a great mystery, which is not reducible to bits and bytes nor quite knowable.

Sooner or later a person in therapy may be astonished to find that, as the original goals – for example, a relationship that works, confidence or liking oneself – come into tantalizing reach, there appears to be more to them than the hoped-for improvement in quality of life. It can seem then that our distress was an instigator and a guide, as if it was motivated by a goal of its own: to situate us once again in the wider web of life, beyond the personal. The odd sense of becoming linked into a greater reality can be frightening: the ego protests, it is not accustomed to the possibility of such an inner presence. It seems this is our true terra incognita, the unknown terrain of the soul, hinting at the totality of being which Jungians call the Self. It usually takes repeated experience of it before its truth can anchor us sufficiently to bring about that sense of belonging that leads to peace and healing. In women’s dreams, the interior presence may show itself as a beautiful, loving stranger. He represents the Self’s inexhaustible mystery and demonstrates how to participate in the treasure rather than try to possess it.

To lose one’s soul-life is to lose everything. As therapists we stand up for that life, if we mean that it should have depth and resonance. What is birthed will not be art in Rilke’s sense, but a work all the same. Critics frequently mock the idea of becoming oneself, yet the profound changes in self-understanding and conscious relatedness that ideally result from therapy can readily be described with that phrase. Becoming oneself announces a strange mix of new and old, something that, as Rilke said of the artistic process, cannot be grasped. Explanation might kill it. What a person in therapy creates is an instrument for a poetics of life, a rich exchange between inner and outer worlds at the threshold of paradox.

* Rainer M. Rilke (1952/2002). Letters on Cézanne. Translated by Noel Agee. New York: North Point Press.

* Ursula M. Franklin (1999). The Real World of Technology. CBC Massey Lectures. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.

* Iain McGilchrist (2009). The master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the Western world. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Here is my suggested reading list:

Iain McGilchrist (2009). The master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the Western world. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Jerry Mander (1991). In the absence of the sacred: The failure of technology and the survival of the Indian nations. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Joanna Moncrieff (2009). The myth of the chemical cure: A critique of psychiatric drug treatment. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Russell A. Lockhart (1983). Words as eggs: Psyche in language and clinic. Dallas: Spring.

Rainer M. Rilke (1952/2002). Letters on Cézanne. Translated by Noel Agee. New York: North Point Press.

Gary Geddes (Editor) (1975). Skookum Wawa: Writings of the Canadian Northwest. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Ursula M. Franklin (1999). The Real World of Technology. CBC Massey Lectures. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.

Anthony Lawlor (1994). The temple in the house: Finding the sacred in everyday architecture. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

David Suzuki (2010). The legacy: An elder’s vision for our sustainable future. Vancouver: Greystone Books and the David Suzuki Foundation.

May Sarton (1983). Plant dreaming deep. New York: W.W. Norton.

Sally Dingo (1998). Dingo: The story of our mob. Sydney: Random House Australia.

James Fitzgerald (2010). What disturbs our blood: A son’s quest to redeem the past. Toronto: Random House Canada.

Tomas Tranströmer. Poems (various collections).

Ce qu’il faut pour vivre/The necessities of life (2008). Benoît Pilon, Director. Telefilm Canada.

Johanna Beyers is a psychotherapist practising in Toronto, Canada. For more information visit http://www.therapytoronto.ca/johanna_beyers.phtml.

Parenting well through connection

I recently became a certified Parenting by Connection instructor through Hand in Hand Parenting (http://www.handinhandparenting.org/). I decided to take this training both because I wanted to continue to improve my parenting skills, and because I wanted to help make the lives of parents and children easier.

My own parenting story is that, like many parents, I found that parenting was much more difficult than I imagined before I had kids. Equipped with many tools that I learned implicitly from my parents that I didn’t want to use, I found myself floundering as a mother with young children. I had a vision of how I wanted to be, but didn’t really know how to put it in place. Reading parenting books and talking to other parents helped some, but I needed to learn some ways that would work, fit with my values of non-violence and attachment, as well as address my needs as a parent. In addition to the usual challenges of parenting, my son showed signs of anxiety very early in life, which turned into not speaking at school during most of junior kindergarden. We tried all the usual routes – hospitals, a children’s mental health centre, as well as a child therapist. None were that helpful, and some were downright judgmental and disrespectful to me as a parent. When my son was 7 and my daughter 4, I found out about Hand in Hand Parenting through Lawrence Cohen’s book, Playful Parenting, and found something that felt really right to me.

Hand in Hand Parenting is the organization that teaches parenting by connection, and was begun by Patty Wipfler over 20 years ago. I found that there was a lot of overlap with attachment parenting in the focus on connection, but there was a new element that fit intuitively for me as a therapist, a parent, and a former child. Along with the focus on the essential need of children to feel securely attached to their parents and caregivers, the parenting by connection approach also emphasizes the need of children to be able to offload the stress of the inevitable experiences of disconnection and of daily life in the messy, emotional ways that children know intuitively how to go about. That means not stopping children from crying through the common ways of threats or distraction, containing children through their fear and anger in respectful, warm ways, and both challenging and supporting children through life’s vicissitudes. There is also a lot of respect for parents in this approach, which felt like a welcome and warm relief. They advocate a realistic view that parents can only offer respectful attention and high quality care to children when they themselves have the opportunity on a regular basis to be listened to and to express all their own messy feelings with other adults. The cornerstone of their approach is listening, both to children and parents. Parent to parent listening is done through listening partnerships between peers, and listening to children takes place through one of four listening tools. These are special time, setting limits, staylistening, and playlistening. I’ll give a short description of each of these below.

  • Special time: This is a short, defined period of time, during which there will be no interruptions – no telephone, door, or siblings to be tended. You can use a timer if you like. The parent chooses a time where they are as free of worries and fatigue as possible, and focuses their warm attention on their child. During special time, the child is in charge of what you do. The parent follows the child’s lead, within safe limits, reversing the usual balance of power between parent and child. The parent lets their affection, interest, and approval radiate. Through this process over time, your child’s trust in you will grow and they will start to show you the areas in which they are struggling. They may start showing you how they feel scared of you when you’re angry, or think they’re not smart, or they may start to get upset over slight things, like a small hurt or the ending of special time. This is good! These are feelings coming to the surface that have been there all along, which just needed some trust to be able to come out.
  • Staylistening: This is what a parent does when a child is upset, whether the child is crying, having a tantrum, or feeling afraid. The parent stays in close contact with the child, offering their warm attention and presence. They don’t try to fix the feelings, but instead stay with the child, offering a few words of caring, until the feelings subside. The child then often feels much better, and goes back to being their more flexible, sunny selves, able to cooperate and to think well.
  •  Playlistening: This is a form of listening which helps children to bond with their parents through laughter, and to offload some of their hesitancies, fears, and worries. The parent’s role is to give the child the upper hand, allowing them to be safely in charge, while you look for ways in play to let them laugh extensively. In our culture, play often turns into competitive contests. In this kind of play, the parent ensures that the child will win out through their superior strength and cleverness. This gives children some relief from the challenges of being a child – always being smaller, less skilled, less respected, and less free to determine how things go. This looks like things such as a child pushing her dad over with her foot while he’s pushing her on the swing, over and over again, while she laughs heartily and he falls over in mock dismay and surprise. Or a parent becoming the “shy one” too afraid to go into his new school, while the child reassures his parent, and encourages him in. This allows the child to have some power over difficult experiences. If you know of issues that are worrying your child, you can try initiating playlistening around these – issues such as separation worries, fears of failing at school, sibling battles, and many others. The parent becomes the one with the trouble, and the child the one causing it, or the one with the solution.
  • Setting Limits: This is something that all parents do on a regular basis. Limits such as bedtime, TV watching, cookie eating, hitting, biting, or not doing homework. Most of us experienced these limits ourselves as children accompanied by some degree of harshness. Instead, they can be accompanied by warmth, or playfulness, and a willingness to listen to all the feelings that children have about the limits in their lives. Children naturally want to be cooperative, and when their need for connection is feeling full, they can accept limits much more easily. When they don’t feel connected, though, their brains aren’t able to think well, and they become unreasonable. This unreasonableness has often been interpreted by parents as manipulation, or some kind of “badness” that needs to be punished, whether through isolation, harsh words, or even physical punishment. Instead, we can meet this “off-track” behaviour with an approach where you limit the behaviour, but listen with caring to the feelings underneath it. An example of this is where a child is hitting another child. The parent needs to physically intervene, hold the child, gently preventing any further harm while saying, “I can’t let you do that”. The child can then struggle, cry, and rage until they feel better. Children need their parents’ or caregivers’ warm limits when they are feeling “off-track”, and will even purposely look for situations where they can get a limit to bring relief.

I will be co-leading a free teleseminar through Hand in Hand Parenting on September 12th, and leading an online Building Emotional Understanding class starting October 2nd. Information about these courses will be available on the Hand in Hand website soon, along with many other courses here: http://www.handinhandparenting.org/schedule.

Sandra Flear is a psychotherapist practising in Toronto, Canada. For more information visit http://www.therapytoronto.ca/sandra_flear.phtml.

On Curiosity

As you are reading this blog you are very likely the kind of person who wants to get the most out of your life. To optimize your physical and mental health, to extend your realm of pleasure and productivity, and to come to understand the whole human experience to its utmost limits.

You probably are already concerned about eating well, strengthening your body, thinking positive thoughts, avoiding negativity, interacting consciously, kindly and lovingly with others, and spending your energies in the best way possible.

Have you ever wondered how your capacity for curiosity affects your ability to achieve these wonderful goals? Curiosity, best described as the willingness to pursue wondrous fascination with all aspects of experience, is highly underused in this era of information overload.

Curiosity may be one of the least explored human abilities despite our living in a world of ever-increasing change. We have as a planet seen billions of our fellow world-citizens begin to make triumphant forward steps out of desperate poverty and oppression while at the same time, in the highly-developed world, there is a marked trend towards dogmatic belief in utterly irrational concepts that deny the primacy of human rationality as the pinnacle of possibility.

There are at least three strong reasons to develop your ‘curiosity muscles’. Both quality of life and length of life are affected by curiosity. For example, those who have the habit of reading long complex works of fiction requiring a sustained interest in plot details and characters developing over time have significantly longer and better quality life-span compared to readers of less complex works or addicted television watchers spending comparable amounts of seated time. This is attributed to the increased mental activity required when exercising curiosity through reading actively rather than being a passive receiver of short-term plots and storylines. There is a discernible difference in obesity as well.

Curiosity is important for a second reason, the struggle against routine and depressive monotony. Many of the patients interviewed in therapy complain of the sameness of their daily lives. Those who have a hobby of some kind experience less depression. Those who make an effort to take up a new interest, be it a new job, social cause, hobby, friendship or course of study – especially one done simply for the joy of learning – report a lessening of depressive symptoms. Depressive personalities are generally less likely to believe that trying something new can help them. This suggests that this profound absence of curiosity leads to an inability to believe in the possibility of new potentials.

Facticity is the third major reason that curiosity is important for a fruitful life. Facticity refers of the things that belong to us without the possibility of choice.

Most of us are so sure that we are the captains of our ship and masters of our fates, that we are the ultimately responsible choosers of our destiny. This is very far from being the objective truth. Think for a minute about this: did you elect your parents, your siblings, the place and time of your birth, your physical form, size, sex, eye and hair color and so on and on? Did you consciously select your mode of belief, your politics, and your taste in music, sexual orientation, foodstuffs, favourite subjects, talents and so forth?

While it has been trendy to believe “The Secret”’s promise that we are what we wish for, the chances of becoming a jockey (weighing in at 45 kilos max) are slim indeed when one’s family reliably produces generations of giants.

These self-evident realities being true, our freedom really consists in the realm of conscious choosing. Here we are talking of rational mental processes, not fantasy. Once again curiosity is the vital force. It inspires innovation, seeking, the march of rational science, and is the enemy of lazy belief and status quo thinking. All who wish to improve their existence must in the end concentrate their efforts on what is possible to know, what is possible to alter, and what is not.

This is another way of extolling consciousness above dull acquiescence, of a larger vocabulary of mind and spirit oven the stunted thoughts that derive from slumping back into the day-to-day banalities that only strengthen sheepish crowd behaviour.

To provide a prescription for how to be more curious seems pointless. Let a thousand flowers of spontaneous interest and experimentation blossom in your imagination! For example, you may perhaps think you are not a singer, but it would be worth it to test that theory by joining a choir or taking voice lessons, actively challenging your preconceptions of who and what you are. Surprise yourself.

Let your inner guide be your recognition that at best we can only know that we know little about all of our possibilities.  At the least, bear always in mind that society is based on the notion that the average person, not the rare genius, is its true citizen.

Photo:  Stephen van Beek, BA (Hons.), MA (Tripos), Dip.CTP, Member CAPTStephen van Beek is an analytically-trained psychotherapist in private practice and the creator of the Therapy Toronto Network. For more information visit www.therapytoronto.ca/stephen_van_beek.phtml.

Educational Journeys: What Analyst’s Memoirs Tell Us About Psychoanalytic Learning

Educators think a lot about how to create conducive conditions for learning, how to provide facilities for learning, how to use technology in the learning process, how to measure learning, how to address the diversity of human learning styles and more.  But few of them describe what learning feels like. For an educator not to describe the experience of learning is like a chef not describing the experiencing of eating .  Some chefs will say a chicken is roasted when the thermometer reaches a certain temperature.  Others say the skin crackles, juices flow clear,  the legs jiggle in their sockets, and the aroma makes your mouth water.

The sensual involvement of the cook is essential to learning, and creates skill. Likewise,  the  satisfactions, frustrations and gratifications of the learner indicate that something has been cognitively mastered and intellectually attained.  Learning takes place in every fibre of our being, and cannot be properly described  or understood without the sensation of that experience being acknowledged.

If this is the case for learning in general, it is even more the case for learning  to be a psychoanalyst, which draws on a person’s emotional and intellectual substance.  For this reason, any study of psychoanalytic learning and training should include personal accounts of the experience of becoming an analyst.

Psychoanalysis has produced an excessively vast amount of literature on theory, practice and even on training.  But few analysts have described their training in print.  There are a number of fascinating memoirs by such figures as Helene Deutsch,  Margaret Mahler,  Richard Sterba and Abram Kardiner.  These pre-war, early analysts cannot say much about their training because in a certain sense, it did not exist.  Helene Deutsch describes approaching Freud for a didactic analysis, which he ended after a year.

“Freud told me,’You do not need any more; you are not neurotic.’ I reacted by having the first depression of my life.  It was a good lesson for a future analyst”  The didactic value of her analysis, it seems, was in coping with her analyst’s error.   Deutsch may have been the first to express this theme, but she was far from the last.   Deutsch also describes her control case with Freud, who used to tell her:  “You know more about the patient than I do.  I can’t tell you very much, but then you don’t need it anyway.”

Analytic candidates today may look back at these simpler times with envy, but the histories of the pre-war European analysts show how corruptible the system was.   In her  posthumously published memoirs, Margaret Mahler describes how completely vulnerable  she was to Deutsch’s opinion of her.  “Psychoanalytic training at the time was essentially tantamount to a satisfactory training analysis; the judgment of the training analyst was decisive.  If a training analyst testified that a certain candidate had not been, and perhaps could not be successfully analyzed, then the committee had no recourse but  to adjudge that individual unsuitable for psychoanalytic work and to dismiss him or her from the institute.

This  is precisely what transpired in my case.  Following Mrs. Deutsch’s  unfavorable report, my fate was sealed.”  In Mahler’s version, Deutsch’s verdict was distorted by the fact that she was coerced into analyzing  Mahler at a reduced fee which she felt was unfair.  Photographs add another element to the story.  Both these women were remarkably beautiful, and Deutsch may not have found it pleasant to bring a second brilliant, independently minded, beautiful young Jewish woman into Freud’s circle.  Whatever the reason, it is unlikely that Mahler was completely unanalyzable, as Deutsch reported.

Although Deutsch was a key contributor to the design of analytic training, she lived to regret the system she developed. “I regret the great dependence of future analysts on control analyses, for I find that the best way to learn is through independent experience.  This overdependence on controls makes psychoanalysis into something it is not and should not be: a method that can be learned like any other scientific discipline.  Sometimes I have the feeling that analysis in general now includes too much organization and obligatory teaching and learning.  More and more, I feel like someone who has been working in an artist’s studio and suddenly finds himself in a factory.”  (p.208)
A literature search for the years 1991 to 1998 indicates that although most articles on analytic education continue to be written from the perspective of educators or academics, the candidate’s perspective is occasionally   expressed.  In  “Finding an Ear:  Reflections on an Analytic Journey” , Gerald J Gargiulo reflects on his combined experience of learning and teaching psychoanalysis.   In a description of what Gargiulo calls his “psychoanalytic pilgrimage”, he repeatedly refers to the importance of reading and reflecting on the words of authors concerned with the human condition.  It as if reading an author’s words on paper  was as powerful an experience as listening to a teacher or supervisor in person.
“It was in my last years of training..that I was introduced to Winnicott, “ writes Gargiulo, chosing a phrase that makes it sound as if he and Winnicott actually shook hands.  “What more I needed to learn…was taught to me by Winnicott.” Garguilo brought his style of deeply engaged reading to his  training at the Training Institute of the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis, from his previous career as a student and teacher of theology and religious studies.  But it is more than an academic skill, he realizes as he turns his attention to psychoanalysis.  Learning to read and learning to listen are significant humanistic capacities which analytic candidates must cultivate.  “I would bring in many …works of poets in an attempt to help the student analysts feel comfortable and competent in their own hearing, a prerequisite for their evenly suspended listening to patients.  When this is not done, what I frequently encounter are students who have mastered the words only to miss the meaning.”

Papers such as Garguilo’s are gems of self scrutiny which help educators understand the deeper processes that must take place in order for candidates to learn how to become analysts.  The best of these educational autobiographies is a slim volume by Gerald Alper, entitled “The Dark Side of the Analytic Moon:  A Memoir of Life in a Training Institute”.   Drawing on Winnicott’s concept of the true and false self, Alper sets out to show that the “progressive self-deception, alienation from reality and splitting of the mind that can occur in frightened patients,” can also occur in the analytic candidate, and that “howsoever benignly intentioned or humanistically inclined, there are powerful factors intrinsic to the organizational and hierarchical structure of teaching and training institutes…that inadvertently serve to divide the prospective…analyst from himself.” Alper’s description of the indignities of analytic training include everything from demeaning entry interviews to irresponsible and manipulative encounter marathons to sadistic supervisors.  Along the way he adds anecdotes about the high crimes and misdemeanours of boundary-violating Institute luminaries, plus their collusive cover-ups by colleagues, and the corrupt and nepotistic promotions of unqualified therapists to positions of significant control over other Institute members.   Cynics might say he is only describing the way of all flesh, and that analysts cannot be expected to be better than any other professional group, but Alper also offers portraits of admirable and competent therapists and colleagues who prove that decency can be attained and therefore should be expected.

Alper examines the faulty logic and psychological distortions that lie beneath many of the policies and attitudes upheld by analytic institutes and  educators.  In a nutshell, his contention is that any unreflective allegiance to technique which is  forced upon the candidate dehumanizes the candidate and impoverishes the therapy.  A candidate forced to adopt techniques which feel artificial soon begins to feel robotic.    To give but one example, there is no convincing evidence that calling a patient by his or her first name enhances or diminishes therapeutic efficacy, but many therapists have strong opinions on the subject and instruct their supervisees to follow their practice.  Alper argues that the beginning therapist must grapple with such technical matters through personal practice, trial and error, and a living interaction with the impact on therapist and patient.

Furthermore, the supervisee can only engage in this process with the nurturing support of a “good enough” supervisor.  The ability to nurture is the primary capacity of a great supervisor.

Chastened and battle-bruised candidates are likely to sigh with yearning over the prospect of such a supervisor, but Alper’s point requires further clarification in my view.  Each candidate comes with his or her own set of psychic quirks, and one man’s nurturing is another woman’s condescension.  As with parenting, the goodness of fit is a crucial factor.  Nurturance may be a bi-product of effective teaching, rather than a contributing factor.  When a student feels that his or her learning has been encouraged, whether by moral support, bracing debate, paradoxical challenges, or theoretical discussion, the result is enrichment and a feeling of growth.  Research in education shows that learning thrives in a context of mutual respect, a condition less parental than the term nurturance suggests.

It is a coincidence that both these analysts have the first name Gerald, but it is less coincidental that both are lay analysts.  Garguilo is affiliated with the Institute that Theodor Reik was forced to establish in order to train candidates that did not have a medical degree.  Alper has a Masters of Science degree and trained with the American Institute of Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis after a number of  discouraging episodes at other institutes.

The fact that neither author is an M.D. does not mean that physicians cannot write sensitive articles about their training.  But laymen who have not devoted the ego, endurance, concentration and energy to surviving medical school may be more free to explore their educational options and think about how they are developing than medical students.  This in itself is reason enough to include individuals from many non-medical specialties in the mix of psychoanalytic candidates.

Photo: Robin RogerRobin Roger is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, writer and Founding Editor of Ars Medica: A Journal of Medicine, the Arts, and Humanities who wrote her Master’s Thesis on Psychoanalytic Training. Learn more about her here http://www.therapytoronto.ca/robin_roger.phtml