The challenge of change…
“So, now that you are aware of it, you can change it”. These words were said to me recently about my posture, which in recent times has left me with persistent neck and shoulder pain. Constructive advice, for sure, but I’ve known it for a very long time. I have the awareness; I just don’t know how to change the habit of a lifetime.
It made me think about a question that comes up a lot in therapy sessions “Why do I always…” In these instances, a person has often identified a persistent behaviour or a recurrent relationship pattern which is not serving them well. There can be an awareness that change is required, and a desire to change, but also a sense of helplessness in putting that change into practise.
Why is change so hard, and why do we often continue to repeat our past? For most people, what is familiar is comfortable. The unknown can be anxiety provoking and difficult to endure. We seek solace in the things we know, in what we can predict and anticipate. Even, paradoxically, if those things are not serving us well.
Psychodynamic theory suggests that people are affected by childhood relationships and events. Even if past feelings are not remembered, they can remain active and continue to impact on our daily lives. And at times, unknown to ourselves, we can attempt to recreate past circumstances in an effort to resolve unconscious conflict.
In psychotherapy, we can examine how something is unconsciously creating a disturbance for a person and continuing to exert an influence over their life. And, in time, facilitate change as appropriate.
The “perfect” stick to beat ourselves with…
I often work with women who feel under enormous pressure – there is a sense that we must be attentive mothers, devoted wives, dedicated employees, supportive friends, accomplished chefs and regular gym goers. Ideally, we should be creative and entrepreneurial too. We should be taut, tanned, lengthened, extended, plucked, tweezed and groomed to within an inch of our lives. If we choose to be pale, then we, at least, should be interesting. We should care, deeply, about our neighbours, our environment, our country, world politics, what we look like and what others think about us.
We are stretched. The more we feel we need to do, the more we try to expand to meet those demands, but at what cost? We strive for perfection and then berate ourselves when we fall short. “I should have… I could have… I would have…”
There is a belief that if we could just get these things “right”, then the niggling feelings of inadequacy might abate, but perhaps it is the futile seeking of perfection itself which is perpetuating the feelings of not being good enough.
The concept of the “good enough mother” was developed by the British paediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott in his book Playing and Reality. He proposed the idea that when a baby is very young, the good enough mother is entirely devoted to their needs, often at her own expense in terms of rest etc. However, as the child develops, the mother, whilst remaining empathetic and caring, allows the child to experience some frustration, rather than rushing immediately to solve their distress. This allows the baby to develop a healthy understanding of reality and their external world.
Children need to experience a mother that is not “perfect” but “good enough” so they can learn to live in our perfectly imperfect world. It is through the good enough mother that they learn to cope with boredom, disappointment, injustice and a whole plethora of other challenges that life will send their way.
Being “good enough” is not the same as being “not enough”. Perhaps it is about finding a way to say, mainly to ourselves “I’m doing the best I can, and it’s going to have to do”. Anything else is setting ourselves, and those coming after us, on a perpetual quest for something that doesn’t exist in the first place.
Nevermind, forget about it, I’m grand, it’s fine…
We have a wide repertoire of phrases and sayings which we use on a daily basis to stifle our true responses to others. At times we employ these same words to deny how we are feeling even to ourselves.
We do it for lots of reasons. Perhaps we feel some things are “better left unsaid”. We want to “keep the peace” and avoid “rocking the boat”. Perhaps we do it because on some level we don’t believe we have a right to protest. Perhaps our experience has shown us that it’s not a good idea to speak up. Perhaps we are simply uncomfortable with making other people uncomfortable.
Denial is a very strong cultural phenomenon in Ireland – we are encouraged to have a cup of tea rather than explore a problem. The idea of the “silent treatment” is very common in our relationships. The silence notes that a hurt has taken place, but the idea of exploring the hurt is avoided, or defended against. It is too painful to be explored, so it becomes denied.
In psychological thinking, denial is understood as a defence mechanism. Contrary to popular belief, defences are not necessarily negative, but rather are an integral part of a person’s psyche and emotional well-being. Our defences typically protect us from emotional pain, but when used inappropriately they can break down, resulting in conflict and anxiety.
Psychotherapy offers people an opportunity to explore such defence mechanisms, in a respectful and supportive environment. It offers a space for people to examine what it might be like to listen to their internal self; to pay attention to their responses, their feelings, their beliefs. To Evermind…