Tales From The Therapist's Couch: 'We split our lives into right and wrong'

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It's often assumed that people undergo therapy in order to rid themselves of uncertainty. Whether the uncertainty is about oneself or the relationships one is entwined with, analysis is perceived as a clarifier, a way of making transparent what feels unendurably murky and opaque.

It's often assumed that people undergo therapy in order to rid themselves of uncertainty. Whether the uncertainty is about oneself or the relationships one is entwined with, analysis is perceived as a clarifier, a way of making transparent what feels unendurably murky and opaque.

In actual fact, the opposite is frequently true. For many people, the experience of therapy turns their worlds upside down, replacing fixed ideas and certainties with muddle and confusion. If the therapeutic process works well, there will, by the end of it, be a return of certainty, but this is invariably different from the type of sureness often present at the start.

I think Jung used the Latin phrase flexibilium rigoris: to make flexible what is rigid, to describe the analytic process. It comes to mind as it neatly encapsulates why there is frequently a need to challenge ways of seeing that have become all too rigidly certain. Often, too often, we get stuck in faulty, defensive judgments about each other which are long passed their sell-by date. Someone we like says something that jars or hurts, and they become ousted from our affections. The cold-shouldering becomes a habit and we forget to ask ourselves why we continue to feel hard-hearted. Gradually it becomes set in stone, and we cut ourselves off from what had been a well-spring of affection.

I say "we" because, although this pattern is most clearly visible in the childhood world of goodies and baddies, it seeps into the adult world in more covert forms. Much of early analytic work is about listening to grudges, angers and resentments that people have collected along the way and, like a child clutching its bit of security blanket, are refusing to let go of. Let me give an example.

A man arrives for a session almost foaming at the mouth in fury. The cause of this outrage is his boss, who had called this patient to task at a public meeting over a badly done piece of work. Although the reprimand was in fact justified, and although this man had previously been full of praise for his boss, the public nature of the incident cut him to the quick. The blow to ego was considerable and for many months afterwards his boss continued to be demonised. Then one day, my patient received praise from this same boss for some work he had done, and hey presto: all at once he was waxing lyrical about him again.

Far from being an isolated incident, this way of relating was a regular pattern in this man's life. Depending upon whether they had validated or criticised him, friends, lovers and colleagues were all, like the troops in "The Grand Old Duke of York", either up or down. Gradually, over time and much self analysis, it became possible for him to respond to frustration and uncomfortable criticism differently. He became increasingly aware of how it was his volatile moods that determined how he felt about someone else, rather than any objective fact. He learned to pause for thought awhile rather clam up with hurt or anger. Learning to challenge his habitual way of responding was an unsettling experience. But there was, he discovered, a silver lining to behaving less reactively and rashly: relationships became less volatile and far more rewarding.

The theory of Melanie Klein closely explores these two ways of responding to uncomfortable feelings. She describes the defensive way of dealing with difficult emotions as "splitting": we split our worlds into right and wrong, good and bad, because we can't cope with the snowstorm of emotions that accompanies frustration and misunderstanding. In steadier moments, when we are able to tolerate a welter of confusing feelings without bolting to an over-hasty defense, we achieve what Klein calls rather drably the "depressive position". I prefer Winnicott's term for this as the "capacity for concern". Better than any psychoanalytic terminology is the poet Keats's description of this same emotional state: "What quality there is," he writes in a letter to his brothers, "when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and fiction."

For most of us, there is probably some degree of vacillation between splitting and concern in our everyday lives. Most of us probably know the uncomfortable aftermath of feeling out of kilter with ourselves and our world when we have been too rashly defensive, compared to the mood of well-being that a more reflective response leaves in its wake. What is more difficult is being able to determine which to live by, and to tip the balance from one to the other. It is precisely this shift which the process of psychotherapy continually works towards: encouraging our ability to be in uncertainties without defensively resorting to fact or fiction.

elizabeth.meakins@blueyonder.co.uk

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

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