Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Let's Hear It for Freedom of Speech

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Dublin, Ireland.

One of the questions that people who are thinking of doing therapy ask is, ‘What will I talk about?’ Everyone who comes to it has a different answer to the question.
A lucky few know exactly what it is they want to say. For the rest of us there is a lot of striving and struggling and searching for what it is we want to get out. It depends on what idea you have of therapy beforehand.
Some people have seen movies and TV shows where the therapist acts like a wise interviewer. They expect to be asked questions all the time to which they can respond in a more or less passive way.
There are other clients who believe they should focus on the particular set of circumstances that brings them to therapy, to the exclusion of other valuable areas of their lives. The focus might be an oppressive person in their lives, an unshakeable fear, a collapsed relationship, or a pattern of living that they cannot break.
There is another group who do not like talking at all. They began by thinking they wanted to try therapy but didn’t realise that it would involve work. They come and speak freely for the first one or two sessions but then suddenly they don’t come anymore.
The only conclusion you can come to is that the business of speaking about themselves wasn’t comfortable for them at all. In therapy-speak, they fell victim to the natural ‘resistance’ that we all experience.
So what is it that people should be talking about in therapy, particularly in analysis? The answer is everything and nothing in particular.
Freud’s fundamental rule, which is still applied to this day, is to talk about whatever comes to mind without criticizing or censoring what you say.
Freud said it should be like the experience of sitting in a moving train, looking out the window and describing the changing landscape to the person who is with you, in this case the therapist. This is a powerful analogy because not only does it get across the notion of speaking about the first thing that one ‘sees’, i.e. whatever comes to mind. But it also gets across the equally powerful notion that the client must be free to speak about the next thing that follows on from this. So it is a stream of pictures or ideas that are being described, in no particular order, with no particular agenda.
This form of therapeutic approach is known as free association. It shifts people away from feeling obliged to talk simply about the symptom that they are trying to get cured. It allows them a freedom to range over whatever ideas come to mind. In that way, insight is gained from viewing many aspects of a person’s life. You will often hear clients say they are amazed at new aspects to their own experiences, ones they had simply never considered, that spring to mind during this process and sometimes in the days following it.
It frees the person up from the often unhealthy grip they have on the issues that are causing them problems - causes are not to be found in the symptoms anyway - and in a very simple way it allows the person the freedom to drop one idea and move to the next, as it arises. For anyone who has been ‘stuck’ on particular issues in their lives, this in itself can be a liberating experience.
It also moves the client away from the unhelpful belief that there is a right and wrong way of undergoing analysis. There is no right or wrong way. As long as you are speaking about yourself, your life, your view of the world you inhabit, your imaginings, dreams, fantasies, fears, hopes, memories, ideas and ambitions then you are doing it correctly.
Clients can often feel they have to work on an idea until it is sucked dry in order to understand it and draw out everything from it that will bring them insight. But this is not the case because not every idea has a discernible nugget of truth in it. Free association allows the search to go on in a natural, more unhindered way until an idea that does contain some form of meaning for the client presents itself. If it has meaning in it, it will provide a rich seam of further ideas. If not, it won’t and so we move on.
Allowing oneself to speak without self-censorship and allowing oneself to tap into the never-ending possibilities that language offers is a kind of freedom that most of us don’t get the chance to experience in our daily lives. You could say it's freedom of speech but not as we know it.

•The next blog will be posted on Tuesday, January 13, 2009.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Good Friends are a Healthy Sign

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Dublin, Ireland.

Having good friends on whom we can rely is central in most people’s lives. Friends are the people, other than our families, who care for us, accept us for who and what we are, who share the same ideas, tastes, beliefs and who are there to support us in our times of need.
A friend in need is a true friend indeed, as the saying goes. Hollywood movies thrive on this concept, TV sitcoms would be lost without it and novels would be particularly empty of plot points if it wasn’t for the existence of trusty friends.
Not only do they offer support and companionship and warmth and humour throughout our lives, they also offer points of identification for us that make up the very fabric of who we are.
In the same way that we borrow bits of them, they borrow bits of us. That’s why you can tell good friends by the way they seem so content in each other’s company and how they can communicate with each other without needing to say very much. They have, if you like, swapped and shared so much in common that they are almost like siblings except there is no blood connection.
And that other old phrase, ‘you can tell a man by the company he keeps’, lets us know that we are equally reflected in those we choose as friends. Some people believe that body language is a key indicator of the true nature of a person but you can tell as much as you need to know about someone, and often in a fraction of the time, by the friends they have.
You can often see this clearly in children and teenagers. Their behaviour and value systems are shaped by the wider peer group and the smaller circle of close friends they have around them. If a child or a teenager is displaying troublesome behaviour then you can often find similar behavioural patterns within their group.
Children who begin drinking alcohol early or engaging in premature sexual behaviour or smoking or drug taking or engaging in anti-social behaviour are usually learning it from or having it reinforced by their peer group.
Equally, we often measure the healthy development of children and teenagers, and even adults, by the very existence of friends. Those without friends cause just as much concern to their families as those who have the wrong types of friends.
I began thinking about this when someone described to me recently an experience they had with a group of their friends. These friends were very quick to pick up on a number of this person’s failings and to talk about them openly and not always kindly.
What struck me was that when this person described some of these hurtful comments there would always be a reference to the people who made them as ‘friends’. This naturally prompted me to ask the question: ‘What kind of friends are these?’
This was an adult who up to recently thought they had enjoyed the company of these people but the subtle effect they were having was a negative one. It had been going on for some time and it always left the person feeling negative about themselves, doubting themselves, feeling inadequate and unworthy and confused.
This was not a healthy situation but the idea of having friends was so important that this person was prepared to accept what was happening, dismiss it as an over-active imagination, in order to feel they belonged to the group. The lure of belonging is a very powerful one.
Coincidentally, this same person met a new group of friends and it was through this that the behaviour of the first group became clearer. The second group of friends were inclusive, interested and interesting and there was a marked absence of negative, personally-directed comment.
We often hear it said that it is wise to steer away from negative people. But we can often choose a person or persons as a friend before we know their true nature. Equally we can often be at a place in our lives where we desperately need someone to call a friend. And, in fairness, most people appear interesting and fun when we first meet them. But once a bond of friendship has been established there are some whose true colours shine through, and not always in a good way.
That is why it is so important to maintain a strong sense of who we are and who our friends are. Are they having a negative effect on our sense of confidence and esteem? Do they criticize and undermine our qualities? Are we on an equal footing with them or do they see us as somehow inferior? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you need to examine the relationship a little more closely.
Mutually empowering friendships are vital for a fully rounded approach to life. They are a positive indicator of our mental health. But friendships that seek to dominate us, demean us, exploit or control us, are not true friendships. If you see it happening, it is time to redress the balance or move on. And if you can’t change it or move on, then it is time to ask questions of yourself.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Puzzle of Sex

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Dublin, Ireland.

When people talk about sex it is fascinating how many times alcohol comes into the conversation. Now you could say there is nothing surprising in that. After all, alcohol has been spurring sexual desire for as long as records began. The Greeks found it particularly useful.
Plato’s philosophical dialogue ‘The Symposium’, written after 385 BC, takes the form of a group of speeches, some light, some heavy, given by a group of men including Socrates at a ‘symposium’ or a wine drinking gathering (the Greek verb ‘sympotein’ means "to drink together") at a house in Athens.
The theme of the drinking party was to talk about the nature of human love and it was so well done that historians centuries afterwards used the text to learn about sexual behaviour in ancient Greece. And in the middle of it all, the wine was flowing freely.
You could say we have been following their lead ever since. Sex and alcohol go together like, well, bread and butter. In the normal course of events there is nothing wrong with that.
Take two consenting adults who have a few drinks, engage in sex, fulfil each other’s bodily needs in a mutually respectful way and you have something that is both a good and positive thing. But while alcohol will fuel desire even in the most inauspicious of situations, not all sexual encounters are mutually fulfilling.
What about a person who gets drunk regularly and has sex with a different stranger each time? Now that might seem like the height of liberal living. But what if the person in question always feels dirty and guilty afterwards?
Now we are into the area of repetitive behaviour, low self esteem and the potential for depressive symptoms. The only way the person can have sex is when they are blind drunk, a state in which they are an emotional cocktail: equal parts vulnerability, insulation from the physical experience, and little discrimination as to who they are having sex with.
And what about the person who, already in a relationship, becomes a sex nuisance after a few drinks, who demands of their partner that they satisfy their sexual need right here, right now, in a dizzingly varied selection of positions and role plays? It might sound like a fantasist’s dream but the demands are such that the person in question does not see that the relationship is crumbling before their eyes.
Or what about the person who is out for an evening and attracts a dream partner but who cannot perform sexually because they over-do it on alcohol? Or, alternatively, the person in an established relationship who needs a few drinks in order to have sex because they find the experience daunting? Or the person who finds sex, regardless of their gender, a submissive experience in which their desires are not met?
Sex, as defined by our culture, is one of the peaks of human experience; the one act that offers complete satisfaction; the one that supposedly never disappoints, no matter how bad it is; the one human way of relating to another that by-passes all the words necessary to communicate feelings.
And yet, the therapy room tells another story. Yes, for some sex can be fun, or exciting, or completely satisfying, or all of these things. But for others it can be so intimidating that they need a stiff drink before even contemplating it. Or it can involve such a degree of exposure, in the emotional as well as the physical sense, that it can be overwhelming. Or, if circumstances are not right, it can bring feelings of insecurity, violation or exploitation, potentially causing emotional wounds that take a long time to heal. Or it can confront some with their own sense of disempowerment or personal inadequacy. Some even find that no matter how often or in whatever variety of ways they do it they are still left with a sense of not being satisfied.
This is because sex is a conundrum in the sense of an intricate and complicated puzzle. It not only has the potential to satisfy but the potential to confuse. It not only has the potential to confirm our identity but to undermine it also. And it can not only make us feel confident in terms of our sexual gender but at times doubt it too.
Sex is a human act that, despite what TV or magazines will say, is an amazing experience for some but not for everyone. It is one that brings us to a very fundamental place in human experience in which we can find either greatness or guilt or very little feeling at all.
Unless we are pretty confident about whom we are and who the person is we are engaging bodily with, we tend to get around these uncertainties with a drink or two. Yes, alcohol undoubtedly fans the flames of our desire. But it quietens our fears also.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Road to Desire

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Dublin, Ireland.

I was at a lecture given by a colleague last week. She was talking on the subject of female hysteria. In particular she was talking about the notion of women’s sexuality and how, in part, it is constructed around the idea of identification. To identify with someone is, in pure linguistic terms, to be the same as. So in order to position oneself as a desired and desirable woman, a woman can identify with the images in the world around her, real or virtual, that exemplify this characteristic most.
There is a comfort in identification – it satisfies a tangible desire to have an ideal, to have a goal worth striving for, and it presents us with a formula for success that actually exists. It is a tried and tested route to achieving desirability. And desire, human desire, is a profound and unrelenting driver of our lives.
It was an interesting idea but it was something else my colleague said that intrigued me.
In the process of this identification, of becoming ‘like’ or ‘the same as’ someone else, there is another feature that is sometimes overlooked. The downside of identification is that we stop being ourselves, or rather never even become ourselves in the first place. We ‘construct’ ourselves according to a blueprint that has been designed by someone else, who in turn got it from someone else, who in turn… and so on. And, indeed, this can happen in men as well as women.
But my colleague gave an anonymous example of a female client who was seeking to escape a troublesome identification with an ‘other’ in order to ‘find the real her inside’. In becoming identified with someone else, she had lost sight of who the real ‘her’ was inside. I found this intriguing because one can see so many signs of identification today that can have troubling consequences. When women give themselves over to an ideal of womanhood that belongs, not to them, but to another or others, where does that leave the real person inside?
Well, for starters, one can spend one’s life looking for a partner who validates the ideal that one is striving to be. This gives us an entirely new perspective when it comes to the relationships that the person enters into. The notion of loving someone and being loved by someone now moves to the arena of loving someone who loves us back in a way we want to see ourselves being loved. Being loved is not enough now, one has to be loved in a way that fully validates the identificatory persona that has been adopted. And so a seemingly simple process now has a few added twists and turns to it.
Equally, it brings with it the possibility that, if we bury the real person behind a façade based on identification with another, how then are ‘our’ needs to be satisfied? Especially if ‘our’ needs never really come into it in the first place?
It is interesting when it comes to the therapy room how many women, particularly young women, describe the feeling of not being successful in relationships despite doing everything in their power to give those same relationships their best shot. In their view, the lack of equal effort from their partners is a puzzle. And yet when you consider it in the light of this notion of identification, it becomes a little clearer.
Entering into a relationship with the desire to be desired involves taking on the persona of another whom we imagine is perfectly desirable. This is the identification that I spoke about earlier. It is not a consciously planned thing but goes on almost automatically for most people. In this way, the person will dress, laugh, talk, walk, think, speak and love in a way that has been prescribed by the invisible hand of another or others. And by ‘other’ I mean real people, or media projections, or culturally accepted forms of womanhood.
So when it comes to 'the relationship' we have to ask ‘who is it that is entering into this relationship’? Is it the real person or the acceptable façade? And if the love relationship is not working is this question of authenticity at the root of it or not?
These are tough questions for anyone to ask of themselves. Some find it easier than others. And some women, particularly those whose identifications work best for them, whose outer persona and inner self are more closely aligned, know when they are not the problem. But for those whose identifications are not serving them well, who are trying to be something they are not, then this conflict can be a major factor secretly undermining their attempts at successive, and successful, relationships.