Stories 1: The Myths that sustain us

We are always guided by some myths, whether we are aware of it or not. From an early age we gather the elements which will come together as our personal myth. In our first relationships of love we get the attitudes and information which will determine the story we tell ourselves about the trustfulness of others. In this way,  our basic sense of self is consolidated in the first two or three years of life.

Dan McAdams*, Professor of Psychology and Professor of Human Development and Social Policy at Northwestern University, has studied the stories which we tell ourselves as we make our way through life. He says that we have already by age three established a narrative tone, which lasts with us into adulthood. This narrative tone can be optimistic, stating that the world is trustworthy, predictable, knowable and good, or it can be pessimistic, believing that the world is unpredictable and unsafe, and that stories will end up with unhappy endings. Thus, as yesterdays post said, deep down we see life as fundamentally friendly or as frightening. This narrative tone is the most pervasive element underlying  the personal myth which we use to guide us throughout our adult years, and gives our life a unity. For some people this unity can take the shape of an ongoing worry or fear, for others a belief that hope will prevail.

*Dan P. McAdams, The Stories we live by: Personal myths and the making of the self

What is good about disappointment

I frequently say to people I work with that one of the key things is how we deal with disappointment. It is a necessary skill,  because it is a frequent and inevitable occurance in an imperfect world. Each one of us has our own way of working with the  discomfort coming from disappointments in our plans or in other people. These ways are often based on how well our parents helped us deal with early shocks and disappointments, or whether they tried to shield us from the ups and downs of reality. Sometimes a parent can think that the best way to raise their child is to shower them with protection and insulate them from moments when they or the world are less than perfectly loving. However, the child has to learn to live in the real world, and the real world isn’t perfect. In other words, it is right –  and leads to the development of a healthy psyche – that the child is gently disappointed and comes to understand that it is not always possible to have people around them who understand and respond perfectly to their every wish. Even from an early age we have to learn to share, take our turn in games, postpone our own gratification and  acknowledge that other people have needs, moods and different agendas.

Rather than a parent having to being perfect  all the time, English Psychotherapist Winnicott said that they just had to be “good enough”.  This means that the parent provides enough support –  or “holding”  – to support the child without going to the extremes of  stifling it or of abandoning it.  The skill of the “good-enough parent” is to give the child a sense of loosening when faced with new situations rather than the shock and subsequent fear of being ‘dropped’. This allows the child develop resources, maintain a sense of control and  stops them from feeling that the world is unsafe all the time.

If this happens successfully,  the challanges of life do not frighten because the child builds up interior resources. It means that relationships does not threaten because, paradoxically, a smothering early closeness can trigger fears of engulfment in later life. And it means that the adult has a healthier structure for dealing with disappointment because as a child he or she has learned that life and people can not be perfect all the time. Often our disappointments do not arise so much from what actually happened, but more from how we compare what happened to our expectations, our inner patterns or our fixed version of reality. Disappointment show us that life –  like the good enough parent –  is not always available to us in the fixed way we want or whenever we demand it, but is still good despite that.

For this reason disappointments are good teachers. They allow us to see that there is more to us than our conscious thoughts and desires. They reveal how we can be attached to a specific version of how things should be, or of what life owes us. This does not mean they are easy because trying to avoid what disappoints is deeply ingrained in the human psyche. However, we grow more quickly if we are open to working with disappointments rather than avoiding them. Rather than being negative, they can become positive moments of growth,  leading us away from the suffering which is based on our lack of understanding of the deep reality of change.

Our culture has evolved into one that is pleasure-based and ego-identified, and that emphasizes immediate gratification. It also began to define success as your ability to control outcomes. Today, we teach our children that if you are an effective person, you can control your life. You can get and do what you want. If you do, you win in life. This modern image portrays “winners” as people who have it all together. You are not supposed to have internal conflicts, stress, or anxiety—that means you are incompetent. …… But this perspective flattens life. It denies the possibility of finding a deeper meaning to your experience. If you measure your self-worth and effectiveness according to these superficial cultural standards, then each time you suffer you are forced to interpret suffering as humiliation. Why would you choose to acknowledge suffering if it only stands for failure?

Phillip Moffitt, How Suffering got a Bad Name

How early fear still influences

As said in yesterdays post, sometimes events, words or phrases can trigger unconscious patterns which were laid down in childhood. Thus we react to the current event with the fear that was associated with the situation from our past. Our brains, as has been said, are like velcro for negative experiences – they stick and are stored for quick recognition – but are teflon for positive experiences. Thus we have to work to counteract these strong patterns by firstly noticing them. One way is by encouraging positive experiences in order to balance the unconscious instinctive reactions which are stored deep in the cells of our brains.

Early fear was felt cellularly and was indeed real. Defensive postures were necessary, but defenses generalize cellularly in adulthood and do not expire. It takes conscious work to undo them. Ironically, as long as we keep using defenses, we actually maintain the original force of the fear.

David Richo

When Procrastination Strikes

My son, every day work on only as much ground as your body takes up in space lying down, and your work will progress gradually, and you will not lose heart”

When he heard this, the young man acted accordingly, and within a short time the field was cleared and cultivated. Do the same, work step by step and you will not lose heart.

Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

These 4th Century sayings have a lot of wisdom in them for our life today. In this one the young man gets discouraged because the field is hard to plough. He does not have the strength and feels unmotivated, paralysed. He does not know where to start and as a consequence leaves everything just lying around. We are like this when we have to face a difficult or long task, or indeed a difficult person.

The old man gives the best advice. Do not consider the whole field, just do as much ground as you would sleep on in the night. That can be done easily. And so the young man begins, slowly, but soon the whole field gets done.

Each day we can  have a mountain of tasks ahead of us. And if we get tired or stressed they seem even greater. The advice is to start at one place and work slowly, not considering the whole of the task. If we look at the whole day and the extent of work to be done, we can get discouraged and make no progress. Just do one thing after another, step by step….we can all do that without being overwhelmed.

It is the same with our inner life. If we get frightened by our faults or difficulties and think that we will never change, we will never get started. We give up on ourselves. It is enough to do a little piece of work each day, such as a short session of meditation, and not concern ourselves with the whole field. This way progress happens, without us even noticing it.

Confusion

My work often reminds me that a lot of people have, to a greater or lesser degree, some amount of confusion within with regard to their identity. And often the roots of that confusion are to be found in the messages received from parents when they were children. For the most part these parents did their best to love and provide for their children. However, having unresolved emotional issues themelves they inevitably conveyed mixed signals, saying or doing one thing, but unconsciously expressing in their energy or mood something else. In my experience, this sends the signal that the child’s emotional independence and autonomy are subtly not accepted. As a result the child grows into an adult with a clear internal message of not being fully lovable. This can then manifest itself in persistent anxiety that seems to be present without reason, in depression, self-doubt, repeated failed relationships or the belief that one has to push hard to achieve any sense of worth.

Jung reminds us that whatever we do not pay attention to, or is lacking within ourselves, we compulsively seek in the outer world instead. So when we encounter something or someone that corresponds to our archetypal inner schema, we can often rush to compulsive solutions for the inner lack. He went on to say, in his seminar on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, The self is relatedness. Only when the self mirrors itself in so many mirrors does it really exist. . . You can never come to your self by building a meditation hut on top of Mount Everest; you will only be visited by your own ghosts and that is not individuation. . . .Not what you are, but what you do is the self. The self appears in your deeds, and deeds always mean relationships.

Putting these thoughts together, he seems to suggest that the lacks we inherit inside ourselves from our relationships with our parents can become manifest in the relationships we choose to have as adults. We can only travel with another person as far as we have travelled by ourselves. The stronger the dynamic is from childhood, the more likely it is that we will see it being played out in later relationships.

Alone

Sometimes it is healthier to be alone. There are times in life when it is right to choose it – to move from the fear of being alone, to the ability to savour it. Mastering this ability is all about living a life in which we can feel whole and happy inside ourselves, and can take care of ourselves emotionally.

This capacity to be alone is one of the most important signs of maturity in emotional development. In Winnicott’s theory of the development of the self, our ability to be alone is formed through the awareness of a stable loving presence. When we are secure in the knowledge of being cared for, we develop the capacity to be by ourselves. If that knowledge was not formed fully when we were little, we can sometimes throw ourselves into relationships and activities in later life because we do not like being with ourselves. Being able to be alone is the best preparation for healthy relationships because it is founded on a security deep inside and we are not using the relationship to run away from our insecurities.

Therefore, the best model for later life is the child playing contently by itself. Maybe this is why sitting practice is so effective; through it we learn to sit with ourselves, allowing our fears and anxiety arise and pass away without giving them undue space. We can develop strong roots, content in ourselves, at home in the silence, not running, planted firmly.

Therapy is completed when a child can play alone
Winnicott