“We may define therapy as a search for value.”
  —Abraham Maslow
Category: psychology blog

Growth and Grieving

Imagine for a second that you and I are replaying an early moment in the history of Psychotherapy.  Let’s use the original wording from that period and say that one of us is the analyst and the other is the patient.  Our method for this pretend session will be word association: the analyst states a series of seemingly random words and the patient responds to each one by stating the first thing that comes up, sincerely if possible.  Although we might engage this way for hours, the following pairing still stands out for us as one of the more haunting ones: when one of us says “growth”, the other solemnly responds “grieving.”

That pairing is jarring because of how we customarily regard these two ideas.  We think of growth as something positive, implying gains, while grieving, because it is painful and involves major loss, more often figures as something negative.  Except for that possible link between them as characteristic antonyms, why associate one with the other?  Why juxtapose growth and grieving?  Their apparent incongruity makes a good case against uniting them at all.  The case in favor of uniting them rests on its possible higher alignment with common experience.

When people grow, they often grieve.  I see it all the time in my psychotherapy practice.  For me that timing for grieving gives a stamp of authenticity to the growth, as if sealing it in place.  One explanation might be that a process we all understand and accept when we see it in one direction is simply happening in the other direction, but no less sensibly.  That is, we expect grief to come first.  When we lose something, we grieve our loss.  Then when the grieving finishes, the inner space becomes available for expansion and growth to refill us.  Does this process have to take place in that order?  No, not really.  When people start new relationships to get over a prior one or whenever they unexpectedly break down in tears while things are going very well, the process expresses in reverse.

But I think there’s more to it than sequence.  I think growth brings out grieving because once we have grown in some way, we have moved to a new vantage point from which our past becomes clearer.  When we then look back on who we were before the growth took place, we see how that former self painfully lacked what the new self now contains.  For instance, when one of my clients gains greater capacity for setting personal boundaries, that new habit further clarifies for the client how he or she has been living without sufficient boundaries until now, and the costs.  There is terrible pain to reckon with in that accounting of the past.  There is typically a sense that a lot of time has been lost, that opportunities for deeper living have been missed or misused. Sometimes trauma surfaces, as if for the first time.   Grieving such losses, actual or imagined, is one way we claim our new growth as something highly significant.

Take a moment to reflect on times when you have grown in some way.  Maybe you graduated from a challenging course of study.  Maybe you made a bold move to take your life to the next level.  Maybe your heart opened more deeply to relationship and love.  Maybe your spiritual path became more compelling in quality.  In every case, one aspect of your expanded capacity will be its power newly to illuminate how you did not access that capacity before, and how painful it may seem in retrospect to have lived out of touch with it.  The grief from that reflection need not be a problem or a strike against success.  Rather, it usefully corroborates that personal evolution has taken place for you.  It is simply part of being human that rich expressions of emotion usually punctuate our most expansive experiences.

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Teenage Seat Snatchers

Some of my therapy work with teenagers takes places at a clinic devoted to serving a younger population.  That setting offers multiple offices for conducting sessions and I have used them all, owing to scheduling needs.  This inevitable shuffle of rooms has put an unexpected characteristic of my teenage clients into high reliefhigh enough that I feel like writing about it for both its humor potential and its possible meaning as a noteworthy trend.  I never anticipated it as one.

With more than negligible frequency, as I guide teenage clients from the waiting area to our assigned room and open the door to let them go in, no matter which room it is, they walk directly to the chair for the therapist and plop down into it without any compunction about relegating me to one of the couches or armchairs.  They choose the big leather swivel chair in the most central location in the room and make themselves ingenuously at home in it without a pause or remark.  Then they watch me sit down in the customary location for clients.

There’s a lot to enjoy about this behavior.  I always appreciate unconventional moments, and I’d like to think my ego is strong enough to tolerate and savor an inadvertent affront to it now and then—especially professionally.  The experience is actually healthy for me if only for shaking me out of possible counterproductive ruts about being in charge or having special status as represented by which seat I inhabit.  Plus, my delight in the mix up is genuine enough, not something I’m contriving for the sake of making myself feel better.  I feel fine.  I want all my clients to express themselves comprehensively.  I want to know their every extemporaneous flourish.

Meanwhile, it’s also my job to reflect on how that expression takes place.  I therefore pause to ask myself what is it about this repeating action of seat snatching that gives it such statistical over-representation among my teenage clients?  Don’t get me wrong.  If the most banal explanation passes the truth test, I’m all for it.  I have no special wish to make an excessive big deal of something trivial.   Do the teens keep commandeering my chair because it has the most sophisticated construction?  Are they drawn to it on the principle that an office recliner simply makes for the most comfortable sitting?

I have come to suspect otherwise.  When Erik Erikson outlined his eight famous stages of psychosocial development, thereby mapping the major epochs of the human lifespan, he determined that adolescence mainly involves the inner task of developing an identity or else lapsing into perpetual role confusion.   This mounting tension in teenagers is why they have a reputation for experimenting, often rapidly, with so many different versions of who they are.  They need to try on enough self-templates to find out what fits adequately for an initial transition into adulthood.  Is that why they sit in my chair?  Consciously or not, are they trying my role as data?

Or what about a psychodynamic explanation?  Following in Freud’s feisty footsteps, what we’re looking for here is some compelling indication that intolerable instinctive drives are emerging in secondary expression instead.  Teenagers are notorious for defying authority, so maybe their nonchalant displacement of the therapist from the traditional location of power is a form of indirect aggression.  If so, who can blame them?  At the same time that they want some support from me, needing it must be incredibly vulnerable for them.  On first installment it would therefore make sense to unseat me, letting me know with that action that power goes both ways, but making that statement in an underhanded fashion, as if getting the point across without any liability about doing anything confrontational.

From a social constructionist lens, their behavior also suggests there are discourses at work within our culture that influence how we act.  In this case, the discourse would have something to do with entitlement and who really has any.  Once upon a time an automatic respect for one’s elders may have been a social norm, but nowadays might the opposite be true?  Might not the behavior of my younger clients demonstrate that the cultural expectation now is the dominance of youth as a coded value?  It will come as no secret that our culture favors staying young and being young.   Magazines and social media pump that message like crude oil.  When my teenage clients claim the customary location of the therapist, perhaps they are simply expressing collective conformity to the underlying message that youth rules the day.

I like to consider all these possibilities before I take the rash action of telling my clients they are in my chair and ought to sit in another one.  Sensitivity about shaming the people I work with is one important guideline in my work.  Nothing good comes from correcting someone unnecessarily, while tremendous good often follows from curiosity and tolerance about the unexpected.  Only then is it occasionally valid to settle into a traditional parental disposition of setting firm boundaries.  In those cases, I play the role of a missing fatherly presence, establishing a moral compass for my teenage clients to experience and eventually internalize.  I often find out in those moments that my client’s history with fathering has been exceedingly poor.

The profound influence of one’s upbringing is a cornerstone of much psychotherapy.  Building on it is sensitive work.  The therapist must perform the proper due diligence before any substitution of present adult for past adult in the client’s psychic situation is useful and integrative.  I tend to feel I can wait.  I can sit in the client’s position for as long as it takes to reveal the real point of it.  Paradoxically, that access to patience will often help my teenage clients regress internally to wherever the real obstacles to their development took place.  Once that happens, they typically choose the proper seat on their own.   It becomes a soothing refuge as the next phase of healing begins and the ability to depend on someone risks a real return.

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Can I Get a Witness?

One of the many functions of a therapist is to bear witness to you as a client.  This function is, on the one hand, very obvious in that the therapist is clearly an audience to your self-expression, while on the other hand, the witness function is quite subtle.  The subtle aspects pertain to the deeper purpose of having a witness in one’s life.  Ideally, what influence can it have for a client in therapy to receive consistent and receptive witnessing from a therapist over time?

The answer I would like to suggest will benefit from a short description of one major development in the field of Clinical Psychology.  In the years after World War II, a psychoanalyst named Heinz Kohut began to question his Freudian training, mostly because it wasn’t working very well with his clients.  He looked for a more effective way to regard his relationships with them and eventually came up with a new model that took the name Self Psychology.

One of its key ideas is that our earliest years are naturally a time of deep narcissism and our development into mature mutual relationship with the world and others requires that our early narcissism receives a good reception from our caregivers.  The best reception is for our caregivers regularly to meet our need for recognition and celebration by them.  According to Kohut, when our natural narcissism receives that kind of favorable response, it later transforms into adult ambitions and ideals that align with the world.  Otherwise, our development suffers.

On first blush, it is therefore often a corrective measure for a therapist to witness a client warmly and consistently.  That seemingly simple action by the therapist recreates a long lost opportunity for many clients to receive the kind of good reception that inner growth originally required, but did not properly receive.  Receiving it now, although belatedly, many clients will successfully reconnect to the original thread of their stunted development and move it forward into the present as rediscovered goals, dreams, and abilities.  They will reclaim their aliveness.

That benefit of witnessing by the therapist would, in itself, be enough to sell me on the service, which is not actually as simple as it seems to the onlooker.  It requires a deep ability from the therapist fully to be there for someone else.  Therapists must have their inner world sufficiently in order such that none of the therapist’s personal baggage or bias overly interferes in the witnessing function to obscure or misdirect it.  If it were easy to provide that kind of reception, original caregivers would not drop the ball so often in the first place.  Nor would there be so many poor therapists.

Meanwhile, in those wonderful cases where the witnessing shines, its deeper purpose has its first fighting chance to enter the relationship also.  The deepest benefit of consistent, favorable witnessing is that clients may eventually internalize that treatment as a way to treat themselves.  They may take the witnessing that was originally outside them in the therapist and move it inward as a new and reliable aspect of the personal self.  According to Kohut, many key advances in supporting oneself derive from this natural process of internalizing support originally provided by someone else.  I am simply bumping this idea forward to include witnessing as its most refined application.

How might you benefit from an increased ability to witness your own experience with greatly reduced or even zero reactivity at times?  What might you see about yourself and your life that otherwise eludes you whenever you react too strongly to connect the chief dots, not to mention the more subtle ones?  Might you find out more readily how you get in your own way, especially under stress?  Might you learn there are clear and consistent patterns of behavior and emotion that conspire to regular experiences of suffering in your life?  The witness comes to see these connections, offering first freedom from them based on greater awareness.  The witness gains choice by the very act of witnessing well and witnessing clearly.  Yes, you can get a witness, and thereby become one as well.

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