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What's getting in the way?

Much of my work as a therapist is concerned with the ways aspects of experience, feeling and self are shut off, shut down, cut off, split off.  Exiled.  Many of the emotional and mental health difficulties I encounter in my work, myself and that I witness playing out in the world around me can be explored with a curious attitude towards what we might be trying to avoid or suppress.


When we hold on to an image of who we think we are, or should be, or are required to be, aspects of self that don’t fit into that can be shut off, dismissed and ignored.  In the case of big feelings like anger, fear, and grief this can lead to a lot of energy being blocked off and a sense of lacking vitality or depression that’s hard to shift, or agitated anxiety that is hard to soothe.


This shutting off or closing down may have become so habitual that it is a primary way of being and experiencing the world.  ‘Oh, I don’t get angry’.  Or, ‘I’m just an anxious person, its just who I am’.  Or, ‘I’m more rational, I don’t really get emotional’.  This way of being becomes fused with our sense of self and who we are.


As a gestalt therapist I hold a stance that a fixed self doesn’t exist, more that we are a self-in-process, constantly emerging, changing, impacted and impacting.  There will be aspects of character that may be abiding, preferences, tastes etc, and I believe we are not hermetically sealed units, uninfluenced by the situations we find ourselves in.  A dynamic process of continual interrelationship that we both influence and are influenced by.  


From this position, experiences like depression and anxiety become processes to be explored, not fixed problems to be eradicated or managed.  I appreciate the potential for greater choice and agency that can be found in this worldview.  For example, in the case of an ongoing experience of feeling depressed, a client and I could wonder together about what feeling or experience is being flattened ‘depressed’ whilst in a period of depression.  Depression becomes more like an adjective, describing an experience, or a verb, naming an active process under way.


Before I go much further though, I will emphasise that these processes are generally happening completely out of awareness, or unconsciously.  Its in the developing of awareness around the process that the potential for choice and change emerges.


It can sometimes be difficult to get beyond the language of medical diagnosis and the cause and effect, symptom and cure implied in that.  Much of the language of mental health in our culture is influenced by a medical model of disease and cure.  ‘Depression’ or ‘Anxiety’ often being viewed in this way.  My belief is that this way of thinking and approaching these emotional and psychological difficulties misses the point and neglects to listen to what these experiences might be trying to communicate.  And, gets in the way of coming to understand how these ways of being might have emerged in response to a set of circumstances.   


When we come into relationship with our feelings and experience with curiosity about the needs and longings they might be pointing to, as well developing an appreciation for the circumstances that shaped how we have come to relate to our feeling there is great potential for change.


Often this image of who we think we are, or should be has emerged in response to our earliest relationships  with parents or other significant caregivers and authority figures.  When we were children survival depended on the love and security in these relationships.  In this deeply formative time children come to know about themselves in relation to the responses of their caregivers.  It is in the quality of the response to the child’s feeling, needs and expressions that the message is communicated about the aspects of self that are acceptable, wanted, valued, and those that are not.  


The world of the child is very simple; what gets a response, what doesn’t, they get angry with me when I….., I’m left alone if I….., when I x they seem to y.  In the world of the infant and toddler, before there are words, this all happens implicitly, at the level of feeling and sensation.  This relational atmosphere becomes the background for the developing sense of self, and what that self comes to believe about the world around them and how they will be received. Over a life time, these messages and internalised beliefs can become so embedded it can be hard to imagine what a different way might be.


I feel a deep tenderness as I write this, about the complexities of parenting and the delicacy of the emerging sense of self.  I also recognise that this is a predicament that sits within a context of a long history of emotional avoidance, particularly in the UK, and the ‘stiff upper lip’ being positively encouraged for several generations.  The way emotion and feeling is regarded and supported or not, is as much a culture issue as it is a personal experience within the four walls of family homes and our most intimate relationships.


So, feeling depressed?  Anxious?  How come?  What feelings or parts of yourself have you learned, probably without realising, to shut down?  

In therapy there is an opportunity to use our experienced in the present as a door way to how it might have been in the past.  Maybe we can go back there and learn something about how that was for you, what you wanted and needed, what you want and need now, what you have come to expect in response to your needs, wants and feelings.  The therapeutic relationship presents a unique opportunity to explore, experiment and experience aspects of self that have long remained hidden and build a new foundation for living into these in the world.

In getting to know this landscape of your emotional world and the assumptions and beliefs you have to come to hold about it, yourself and others, there is the potential to relate differently in the present.  To relate differently with your self and those in your life.  There might be new ways to meet those needs and let yourself be more of who you really are. Hiding less.  Living more.


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