Tales from the therapist's couch

'We all learn to doubt our own desires. As we grow older, it may be harder to know what we really want'
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Indy Lifestyle Online

A man in his late thirties lies slouched in the chair opposite me. He looks perplexed. "I just don't know," he says in a rueful tone. "I don't want to lose her. But I don't know that I want to commit myself to anything more serious. At the moment, anyway. Who knows? The right woman may be waiting round the corner." Far from being limited either to a specific woman or his romantic life in general, this mood of uncertainty has become the hallmark of who he is, the lens through which he peers at all life decisions. And the agony of never knowing what he really wants in life is what brought him to therapy in the first place.

A man in his late thirties lies slouched in the chair opposite me. He looks perplexed. "I just don't know," he says in a rueful tone. "I don't want to lose her. But I don't know that I want to commit myself to anything more serious. At the moment, anyway. Who knows? The right woman may be waiting round the corner." Far from being limited either to a specific woman or his romantic life in general, this mood of uncertainty has become the hallmark of who he is, the lens through which he peers at all life decisions. And the agony of never knowing what he really wants in life is what brought him to therapy in the first place.

His story is, of course, a fictional scenario, but the agony of indecisiveness is a problem that is all too alive and kicking in the consulting room. Psychoanalysts and philosophers alike have cited chronic indecisiveness as one of the symptomatic signs of madness. This is not the madness restricted to locked wards, asylums or Shakespeare's Hamlet, but a form of madness that can easily be found in the minds of the normative and successful. There's a wonderful section in Kierkegaard's The Sickness Unto Death, in which he explores the agony of this state of mind. He describes the seductive but essentially dangerous appeal of living in a world of endless and indecisive possibility: "Possibility appears to the self ever greater and greater, more and more things become possible, because nothing becomes actual. At last it is as if everything were possible - but this is precisely when the abyss has swallowed up the self. What is really lacking," he writes, "is the power to submit to the necessary in oneself."

"The necessary in oneself." What does he mean by that? For me, the term calls to mind Jung's notion of the Self, Winnicott's concept of the "True Self" and the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins in his exquisite poem "When Kingfishers catch Fire": "...myself it speaks and spells, crying what I do is me, for that I came."

Whatever one associates with the term, it is the immediate, often floundering lack of the "necessary in oneself" that is behind many people's ventures into therapy. Like the fictional young man above, they have lost their inner bearing. They describe how they move through their lives full of self-doubt, uncertain about their capacity to make the right choices or commitments. Sometimes, their chronic indecisiveness is masked by a very busy lifestyle. Yet although busy - even frenetically busy - they are steered by external currents, and frequently describe moods of emptiness, numbness. Everything exists on the same plane of feeling, and there is a noticeable lack of spontaneity or desire behind the whirlwind of activity.

Although seemingly poles apart from such restless activity, chronic indecisiveness also frequently reveals itself through inertia. A young woman with whom I once worked had slumped into a terrible state of lethargy. She found it impossible to make her mind up about the simplest of things. Nothing awoke her because nothing seemed to contain any meaning or desire. Fortunately, she began after a while to remember and become interested in her dreams. Railway stations figured frequently in the imagery, and she would invariably wake up to the frustration of having missed her train. The meaning was as clear as day: she needed to get on board, catch her own train. Luckily, she got hooked by the challenge of her own dream life and began to wake up the "necessary" in herself. Beneath her lethargy was an extremely strong will. She had become afraid, in a way, of her own power and purpose. About a year after we finished working together I received a postcard. "...thought you might be amused to know that in last night's dream I finally caught that train!"

It's impossible to generalise about why someone suffers from chronic indecision. Everyone's childhood is inevitably trammelled by rules and regulations. We are all taught to have feelings that are not our own, and so fairly early on we probably all learn to hide and doubt our own desires. As we grow older it may become less and less easy to know what we really want. For some people, locating what feels right has become too difficult. Their indecisiveness is about a profound loss of faith in their own capacity to be connected to a meaningful life. Thankfully, human nature has an extraordinary capacity to recover what has become hidden, thaw what has been frozen over. With time, patience and the right attention we seem to have within us a tremendous capacity to reconnect with "the necessary" in ourselves.

elizabeth.meakins@blueyonder.co.uk

Elizabeth Meakins is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice. None of the clinical material above refers to specific cases

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