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Normal

“You’re … quite normal though, aren’t you?”

Who was asking me this? My mother, believe it or not. Despite the interrogation mark, it was no question. She was trying to steer the conversation away from any possible discomfort.

I shook my head in exasperation.

She took a sip of wine, turned to my sister and said, “He may seem peculiar to us, but he’s not really crazy … is he? My sister joined in the laughter, making it quite clear that this didn’t need to be taken seriously.

I’d just told Mum that I was seeing a psychologist.

She’d been a loving mother; if not for her I’d probably lack what empathy I have. That day, however, she was definitely more concerned about her reputation as a good parent than my emotional stability.

Mum’s generation saw mental therapy very differently from dental, chiropodical or optical doctoring. It wasn’t the least bit unrespectable to have rotten teeth, flat feet or bad eyesight, but emotional issues were just not on. I’d grown up with a short fuse — on that everyone agreed; however, why I’d turned out that way was my problem; I had to deal with it on my own — and I’d better be discreet about it too. Suggesting that it had anything to do with family dynamics was both indelicate and further proof of my belligerence.

Attitudes have moved forward a bit a since those days – but only so far. Outright avoidance of the issue has been replaced by the ubiquitous ‘shrink’ joke, and even those who’ve devoted their lives to self-improvement are often seen to squirm: “I don’t need a therapist — my spouse/partner/soulmate and I talk about everything.”

That’s hardly the point. People who charge a fee to see you may or may not have their own issues, but their relationship with you simply isn’t as emotionally charged as a friend’s — let alone a soulmate’s. Of course, the trial and error of finding a suitable, compatible and competent therapist is no joke. Several therapists did me harm before I settled down with one.

That’s not to say that sitting with a therapist is necessarily comfortable. Assuming that he/she has insight into human behaviour, the job is to get under your defences and deliver awkward truths in a way that you can actually digest. It’s not pleasant, but then neither is dentistry.

Last week my trusted therapist confronted me with something that, in my middle-age, I really didn’t want to hear. The ghost of my father — actually, the ghost of my relationship with my father — still has the power to lead me down destructive pathways. Jeez! I thought we’d been through all that.

I sat in the comfy chair and felt my resistance grow. He didn’t back down, but every word was delivered with unmistakable friendship. My defences were primed to spring into action — itching at the trigger — but they didn’t.

“Hah!” you might say. “He got ya good!” But no — put away that cynicism and consider. Paying for his caring attitude doesn’t make it phony; it takes the personal stakes out of the conversation so it’s lightweight enough to get through. By the time I walked out of his office, something that had been subconsciously buried for far too long was now in the forefront of my mind, where it could be dealt with. Of course, it’s not magic; the work remains to be done.

This is where I’m grateful for my training in mindful reflection. I’ve learned to watch my mind during everyday interactions. Bringing this skill to bear on my newfound old issue benefits me and those who have to put up with me. If I’m diligent, it will bring insight — not flattering or flowery, but healing, and that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

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6 responses to “Normal”

  1. Femke

    Dear Stephen,

    Thank you for this very interesting and insightful perspective.

    I wanted to comment on the fact that many people today see a loving relationship as one where you should discuss anything and everything with your spouse/partner/soulmate and therefore there’s no need for therapists.

    For various reasons, I think that it is very important to take the burden of emotional issues outside personal relationships, and therefore there is a screaming need for good therapists.

    First of all, it is really hard on a loving friend or partner to ask them to help you fix emotional problems; just because they love you and want you to be happy doesn’t mean that they have the training that is required to help you heal.

    I wouldn’t dream of asking my husband to extract a tooth ;-), and I learned from experience that it was also better to look at my emotional pain with a specialist (big relief for me AND hubby).
    I was still able to talk about it with my husband, but he didn’t have to worry about fixing me anymore.

    Secondly, when loved ones feel unable to help, it may actually create problems for them as well.
    Therefore, finding a good therapist makes all the sense in the world.

    Thirdly, my therapist created a safe space that allowed me to look at my pain, and learn from it. She also challenged me, but again in a way that I could handle.
    Every week I would go knowing that she welcomed my “baggage” and I could leave it there, go away and come back to it. It was safe there.
    That’s how the healing began… and I agree that’s what it’s all about.
    I was very lucky to find a therapist who really “got” me. (I also had a few who didn’t really help – waste of time).
    That’s the other thing, it’s really important to find the right fit.

    It’s a pity that even today, people still find it very awkward to be with emotional pain or admit to needing help when things become too confusing. I’m convinced that this leads to a lot of unnecessary suffering.
    Once we realise that pain and confusion are in a sense …. quite normal, we can stop beating ourselves and others up.

    Looking at our own pain, or even seeking help is an act of courage and kindness. When we no longer choose to circumvent what’s uncomfortable, we can slowly let the anger or sadness make way for understanding and forgiveness and thus become more compassionate with ourselves and others.

    Femke

  2. Robert S.

    I have many mixed feelings on this subject, and as you mentioned, the search for a merely competent therapist can be draining and even create more confusion enroute. On top of competent, there is the notion of the ‘right’ therapist, perhaps a mixture of style and personality type, gender and spiritual outlook. I think the last factor in particular comes into play more heavily than suspected or realized nowadays. This is because for our time and culture, the grey area with indefinite boundary markers between psyche issues and spiritual issues is a hotbed of searching for more and more people.

    I see it a little like this: just as you accurately portrayed boundary issues between body and psyche in the story about our parent’s generational take concerning the need for ‘mind work’ (I had a similar experience with my Mother), so too now there is a kind of time-sensitive or generational region of confusion between psyche and spirit realms when it comes to the desire for healing. It shows up alot in the widespread disrespect within more orthodox psychotheraputic circles regarding spiritual issues or inquiries in general, and also in people’s undeveloped abilities to distinguish between the two.

    About 15 years ago I attended a very insightful workshop given by an 84-year-old post-Jungian, and actual pupil of Jung at one point, who had also delved deeply in later life into areas like homeopathy, astrology, and dream imagery. He had a very clear way of seeing the boundary between these regions of inner health and potential inner work, and was of the opinion that at present very few can yet work in the 3rd region (spirit) in a helpful fashion. There is such a thing, I realized, as ‘healing from above’, meaning inner work taken at the spiritual level having an integrating and healing effect upon issues within the psyche level. I think this area is prone to problems from two directions: skeptical attacks from professionals at the psychological level and a deep general prejudice against any idea or undertaking which can be labelled ‘mysticism’ or ‘supernatural’, current codewords for ideas which violate the de facto unexamined religious stance operating in our society, namely rationalism/materialism.

    Thanks for this absorbing and honest blog.

  3. Robert S.

    Yes, I noticed, about the ‘nonplussed’. 🙂 And all you say in the 2nd paragraph is true and can be agreed upon, with the possible exception of the bit about only seeing one’s own intention.

    But I do not think all things psychological can be reduced to personal searching for clarity, certainly not for happiness, at least not without omitting a key dimension. Also I would point out that there is entirely no conflict between taking deeper responsibility for our own actions (and thoughts) resulting in a greater chance for freedom, and inner spiritual work. In fact these are almost synonymous. ‘Spiritual’ is another word which is under attack in modern discourse, part of the problem I spoke about initially. We are, mostly, unable to dissociate the idea of spiritual activity from earlier encounters with religions and conceptualizations about God, or new-age superficialities. This makes us unfree, or maybe better said, less free, to recognize a new dimension of our being above the level of psyche once we make progress in quieting the noise of the psyche.

    But you are right about the concord-fest argument-fest duality plaguing this kind of conversation and I do not want to land there with you. I know from experience there is a middle way between these two poles.

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