anger: it's better out, than in!

The etymological root of the word anger means “to constrict”. We might say that when we have been constricted in our natural spontaneity as children, we experience anger, anxiety or some kind of somatic issue. However, for many anger wasn’t tolerated in their family of origin. As such, when the child felt the wounding effects of this “psychic constriction”, they had no other option but to channel their unacceptable emotional response into acting out, or repression, which in turn became its own form of depression, and in the process widened the split between what was considered acceptable and unacceptable within.

Many of us have an underlying experience of anger in our lives. Since the honest expression of anger was unacceptable within our families, we carry these split off parts of ourselves unconsciously. These parts of us can remain repressed, and be experienced as a sense of underlying depression, which we are often unable to clearly name; sometimes these parts can remain less hidden, closer to the surface and erupt in aggressive outbursts or violence, resulting in damaging effects on oneself and others. Sometimes the wounding experienced in our developmental years has been so painful, that our lives have become dominated by anger, as this seems like the only adequate means of protecting ourselves.

As a result of this wounding, we often misread messages from the world around us; sometimes believing we are under attack from others, when maybe there is no clear threat, or through the fear of being rejected, not having clear boundaries in our interactions and subsequently finding ourselves feeling mistreated. These responses are often attempts to manage intolerable anxiety or fear. Although these “coping strategies” maybe the only means we learnt in order to survive, they also had the effect of constricting our natural spontaneous selves. This constriction can often be traced to the child’s unwitting collusion in their own self-estrangement; where they learnt to mistrust voicing their own inherent sense of self-worth. As such, many are left feeling anger from this dynamic, which is often unacknowledged, remaining hidden within the unconscious.

This unacknowledged anger can then be turned inward. In this sense, we often attack the only person we feel we have permission to attack, which is ourselves. Many of us create a persona, which is deemed as being inoffensive to the world. We become the “good boy” or the “nice girl”; often taking this into our adult lives and seeing this as our real selves. The split off anger then has no other means of communicating with us, except through somatic difficulties, such as migraines and ulcers.

Within psychotherapy, a safe space is created, whereby what has become lost within this internal split is given a voice. Where our anger is understood as often having been a legitimate response to our wounding and the environment we grew up in. I am not condoning anger which is unconsciously acted out as a form of aggression or violence, as this is just another reactive response to the child’s wounding. I am however, making a case that maybe our anger can be the source of energy required to make the necessary changes needed to change our lives and begin healing ourselves. Anger, in this sense can be seen as the means by which we can begin to reclaim our true selves.

       

 

the anxiety of being alive

Being in the world is often accompanied by an underlying sense of anxiety. From our births, we are required to come to terms with a continuing journey of separation. As none of us can literally return to the womb, we seek to find a sense of this unconditional safety and connection in the world around us.

The anxiety of separation was, at one time supported by a rites of passage; which enabled the movement into adulthood and greater independence. The entire community took part in this, providing the clear message to the initiate that he or she were being collectively held on their path of separating out into the world. The fact that the entire community took part in this, made clear that this is no easy task to accomplish. 

Today, without those cultural structures in place, we are left to make this break on our own, as best we can. This loss, can bring with it a sense of isolation. We are left with not only facing this separation alone, but with also having lost the fundamental message that facing this anxiety is also at the heart of being alive in the world.

The sense of anxiety we experience may vary depending on our respective personal histories. The more troubled our environment, family of origin and cultural setting, the greater difficulty in facing into ourselves and finding a sense of our own ground. In this way, the loss of a loving, nurturing mother can be seen as a wounding introduction to the world, and as adults we are left to inherit the child’s terror of being abandoned into an uncaring universe.

At these times, anxiety can become displaced into addictions, or obsessive/compulsive thinking and behaviours. In this sense, we might say that what obsesses us provides its own means of managing anxiety. For example, someone suffering from anorexia or bulimia focuses on body image as a means of exerting some means of control in a life that feels uncontrollable. What gets worried about then; becomes a defence against what is perceived as being potentially annihilating to our sense of self. However, as painful as our addictions or compulsive behaviour may be, it is always preferable to us, than what is considered as unbearable.

The work within psychotherapy therefore; is to be given the support to face what is unbearable in ourselves. Anxiety is a normal and natural part of life. It is part of the process of moving into the unknown. This place of unknowness is an integral part of coming to understand who we really are, rather than who we have come to believe ourselves to be.

Courage is also needed for this journey. Courage in this sense isn’t the absence of fear, but the acknowledgement that we, in all our glory, are at the end of the day more important than our fears.

     

addiction: the opposition to opposites

We might see psychotherapy as the process, whereby we are supported in coming to terms with the opposites of many of the things we want in our life. For example, we meet the love of our life, and over time discover she or he isn’t the god or goddess we had dreamed of and have irritating habits, or weaknesses of character. Or, we land the dream job and find we have been sat next to a work colleague who takes an instant dislike to us.

We place all our expectant belief that somehow, with this new relationship, or with this new job that this time it will all be different. However, sometimes it isn't. Psychotherapy can be a means of helping us come to terms with many of these areas of experience.

We can view addictions as being an amplification of this process. Nobody becomes an addict to become addicted, ruin their life and become profoundly miserable. People fall into the trap of addiction; as they are looking to find something better in their lives; to find happiness and meaning for themselves. However, this comes at a price. As a life that is lived without the inclusion of opposites (e.g. the annoying work colleague that dislikes you), leads to an existence that goes in search of anything that can provide some kind of distraction or relief in the face of a crushing reality that doesn’t want to conform to our wishes.

This process goes a lot deeper though. For example, when we consider an individual who carries the burden of childhood abuse, at the hands of care givers whose responsibility was to show love and compassion. This person may have no other means of dealing with this level of wounding except to get drunk every night; take lines of cocaine or habitually find themselves in relationships which feel compulsive and uncontrollable.

Whatever structure we have created in order to bolster our fragile sense of sense, our addictive patterns end up becoming defences against the underlying angst of our past hurts, and can be viewed in some sense as failed anxiety management techniques. These wounding’s may lay dormant, out of conscious for many years, yet their legacy still rings in our ears through our addictive patterns of behaviours.

My experience of working with clients with addiction issues, has been in supporting them to break this cycle of addiction, through bearing the unbearable, in consciously delving into the obsession; in allowing a space for the unassimilated parts of themselves that have remained buried for so long. It is through this process that these parts of ourselves that have brought such chaos and destruction to our lives, become the means by which we find healing. It is only then that we can find a reconciliation of opposites in our life and a real sense of wholeness. Paradoxically, we might say that addictions, in this sense can be seen as an attempt to find this sense of wholeness for ourselves.

Depression: to medicate, or not to medicate?

Depression seems to have become a go to diagnosis for all our ills within modern society. We see it as some kind of anomaly, a monolithic entity that needs to be gotten rid of and as such requires treatment in returning us to a place of unalloyed happiness.

However, depression can be seen as having several different facets; these being “reactive or environmental”; “inherited” and “historical”. We might experience one, or all of them simultaneously. They are however, often undifferentiated, though have different root causes, as well as asking differing questions of us.

 

- Reactive or Environmental Depression:

A reactive depression is a normal response to a loss or disappointment. It is understandable to feel a period of depression, following a bereavement or ending of a marriage. The extent to which we are emotionally invested in the world we live in; will determine the pain we experience. With the right support reactive depression will resolve itself. It only becomes a longer-term difficulty if it begins to profoundly affect the normal day to day functioning of the individual.

- Inherited Depression:

Inherited depression derives from biological causes. This kind of depression can be carried genetically through the family. Individuals experiencing this, find a real difficulty in performing the day to day tasks that many of us take for granted. As though they are constantly walking up a steep hill, carrying a heavy weight. This kind of depression can respond particularly well to medication, as this helps to re-balance the chemical make-up of the brain.

-  Historical Depression:    

Depression can sometimes feel like a well with no bottom. However, from a therapeutic perspective, historical depression is a well with a bottom; even if we may need to dive deeply to find it!  We might see this form of depression as a kind of collusion against ourselves. Where we have suffered an early trauma in our lives, such as an emotional abandonment by a care giver. We come to see ourselves as not being worthy of love and care from others in later life. Therapeutically, the task here is to attempt to become conscious of the difference between what happened to us in the past and who we are in the present.   

(Hollis, J., 1996. Swamplands of the Soul. Toronto: Inner City Books)

Depression in mid-life often carries with it a crisis that embodies the conflict between what we have created through this false self of our early conditioning; (the belief we are unworthy of love) and the spontaneity and energy of our true selves. We could say at these times that depression is the individual experience of the discrepancy felt between our false selves and the call of our true self.

Unfortunately, at these times, what can become de-pressed is the space that allows us to reflect on “what is the meaning of this depression”. We might say that the therapeutic process is one whereby we are offered the means, at these times to take a breath and allow ourselves to sit with what is being asked of us.

As such, I am not implying that medication doesn’t have a place in treating some forms of depression; especially if there has been a chemical imbalance in the functioning of the brain. However, depression might also be asking us to reconcile who we think we are, with who we actually are. At these times; in using medication as a one size fits all “cure”, we may be missing an opportunity in coming to know the real self within us.

 

Is happiness all it's cracked to be?

The search for happiness seems to be the ultimate goal within our contemporary culture. The media and advertising industries continually tell us that being happy is all we need in our lives, and they are here to enable us in achieving it. From this perspective, happiness often seems commodified and packaged up. We just click a button on our computer and purchase happiness in one easy manoeuvre!

However, this process of "buying" happiness bypasses an existential dichotomy; which is that our longings for happiness are continually pitched against what we suffer as our inherent limitations. Another way of viewing this; is the difference between what we hope for and what our actual experience of the world is.

Psychotherapy, in this sense doesn’t promote the goal of therapy as being one of gaining happiness, but rather to embrace meaning instead. It is true, that we will experience moments of happiness. However, they are ephemeral and can neither be willed into existence or purchased.

So, what does it mean to embrace meaning in our lives? Having worked with clients over a 10-year period I have seen how the pursuit of happiness is often in reaction to suffering. It’s as though happiness is seen as the eternal panacea that will cure all of us our ills and allow us to finally rest in peace. However, the reality of this position is that it often becomes its own form of purgatory, as the anxiety and pressure to find a “way out” through this pursuit brings its own form of unhappiness.

Living a life that gives a place to meaning, also means healing the gap between what we long for and the limitations we face in ourselves and the world we live in. It means learning to live with our suffering. It is fair to say that on the whole suffering gets a bad press these days. However, if suffering didn’t exist we would remain unconscious, dependant and fearful. It is a truism that we only begin to ask the important questions about ourselves and our lives when we are in pain. It is only from these choices to embrace and wrestle with these questions that we can begin to create a life filled with meaning for ourselves.

The purpose of psychotherapy is then, not to remove suffering, but to move through it towards a mind capable of holding the polarity of painful opposites. This isn’t an easy journey for anyone to make, but I have worked with many clients in making this journey, and allowing them to embrace not only a deeper, more meaningful experience of the world, but also to embrace who they truly are, without the need to continue hiding from themselves.

Understanding Shame

We might define shame, as opposed to other emotions such as guilt, embarrassment, shyness and humiliation. The etymological meaning of the word is “to hide” or “cover up”. The experience of shame isn’t an isolated event, but often becomes tied to a set of destructive emotions. This is because shame is often a difficult emotion to communicate, and masquerades as other feelings. To put this in context, the experience of guilt can often be resolved through some form of practical intervention, which may include confession and making amends. However, the experience of shame is in large part tied to the individual’s experience of self and identity. As such shame is linked to an individual’s self-esteem. This situation can in turn lead to chronic shame, which can begin to take over the individual’s life leaving them with a pervasive sense of fear and terror and the inability to live meaningful lives, and the experience of ongoing feelings of depression and anxiety. 

Shame can often play a dysfunctional role in men’s lives. Evidence in this respect shows that men are often more ready in displaying behaviours to conceal their vulnerability and shame about attachment and caring, with these behaviours more likely to lead to violence. In this respect, the differing varieties of shame can be distinguished between being humiliated and shamed by someone else and those incidents in which the person themselves becomes the major source of criticism and assault on their self-esteem. However, what is clear is that shame is often accompanied by the experience of incompetence and feeling less than; with the associated experience of the individual having no responsibility or control over the circumstances they face. This in turn leaves many feeling they have lost connection with what they consider to be familiar and safe in their lives.

5 sources of shame, including:

  1. Genetic and biochemical

  2. Family of origin

  3. Self-shaming thoughts and feelings orchestrated by one’s own narrative

  4. Current humiliating relationships

  5. Contemporary culture

(GOLDBERG, C., 1991. Understanding Shame. London: Jason Aronson.)


Shame can occur at every stage of development, and we might say that this is an inevitable consequence of being alive; in that as children we are almost entirely dependent upon the exact correspondence of our needs and the attentive nurturing care of our caretaker 24/7, the reality of which unfortunately is impossible to maintain. This process can in turn lead to self-blame and self-loathing, which can lead the individual to seek psychological help. The experience of therapy can be shaming in itself for the client too; as they are often confronted, maybe for the first time in their lives with the realization that they have lost any meaningful control in making changes for themselves. I have found in my therapeutic work that being aware of these factors is an important part of understanding the client’s experience of shame and associated issues around depression and anxiety.

Can Grief Help us to Live our Lives More Fully?

“Grief dares us to love once more.”

Terry Tempest Williams


What does grief mean for each of us? Are we talking about loss, when we think of grief? Is the loss of a relationship comparable to the grief that comes with the loss of a loved one for instance?

There is no denying the intense pain experienced when a loved one dies. However, the loss incurred through the breakup of a long-term relationship may be experienced as just as traumatic for the individual experiencing it. As such, it is difficult to draw any generic demarcation lines for where these terms begin and end.

However, deeply felt grief and loss does have the ability to strip bear who we think we are and take us to a place that exposes us to our innate humanness. Our sense of fragility, that we too are mortal. It reminds us that despite all our goals and ambitions, we will have to let all of it go in the end.

In this sense grief has the ability to pull up from our depths, that which is most authentic in us, that which often asks us the most difficult questions in terms of who we are, how we have lived our lives and what is most important to us. It is through the experience of grief that we risk stepping into a place of facing who we think we are and acknowledging that this person may not be who we actually are. Without this awareness and willingness to be shaped by a larger truth in ourselves, we remain caught in patterns of avoidance and heroic striving.

Grief therefore, can open us to unexpected surprises in our lives. It can reconnect us to something larger than the mundane experience of our ego’s. This greater openness can also allow us to connect with a heartfelt quality of compassion for ourselves and the world we live in. Grief therefore can be seen as a threshold, that delivers us to the fundamental basis of what it means to be alive, a question that has the potential to connect us to the world in a fundamentally different way. In this sense, grief might be seen as the dark colour that helps to add depth to the canvas of our lives, providing contrast and texture. Without these differing tones and hues, our lives would feel dull and uninteresting (Wheller, 2015).

I am not suggesting here, that our lives should be lived being preoccupied with grief or sorrow, but rather to allow ourselves the means of facing these moments with presence and consciousness. In this way; to feel able to face everything that challenges us is the secret of being fully alive.

(Weller, F., 2015. The Wild Edge of Sorrow. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.)