As the twig is bent…

bent branch

“Psychoanalysis cannot be considered a method of education if by education we mean the topiary art of clipping a tree into a beautiful artificial shape. But those who have a higher conception of education will prize most the method of cultivating a tree so that it fulfils to perfection its own natural conditions of growth.”Jung CW, vol. 4, para. 442

People come to therapy expecting cure or healing from their problems. I don’t think of therapy as healing in the usual sense. To heal means to make whole or healthy, to recover or restore and comes from the root kailo meaning whole or uninjured. In order to think of what I do as healing, I would need to see the people I work with, and indeed myself, as broken, ill and I don’t, not in the sense of illness. Barbara Stevens Sullivan has a wonderful way of putting this:

“In some sense, a person is her wounds. A sapling, planted beside a supportive stake that the gardener neglects to remove, will grow around the stake. The stake’s presence will injure the growing tree; the tree will adapt by distorting its “natural” shape to accommodate the stake. But the mature tree will be the shape it has taken; it cannot be “cured” of the injury, the injury is an intrinsic aspect of its nature.” (The Mystery of Analytical Work, p. 175)

I do believe that all humans are wounded, varying in degree and type of wound, but we are all wounded. My first professor in abnormal psychology put it this way — from the moment of conception we are bombarded by influences of all kinds, both noxious and helpful and as adults we are who we are at least in part due to the effects of these influences. Some of us will be more scarred than others, but none of us will be unmarked by the experiences of our lives. So wounded per se is the normal state, not a state of ill-health. 

Now, the extent to which our wounds make our lives complicated and/or difficult is where therapy enters in. Problems in living are what bring most people that I have seen into therapy — the desire to experience life in a different way is the motivator. There is no procedure or pill or technique I can apply that will close the wound. Whether or not healing is the appropriate description for becoming conscious of something that is an integral part of us, an unerasable part of our history, is something I balk at a bit. I can become more conscious of the ways I have internalized people and issues in my life. Becoming more conscious of them increases the array of possible responses I have available to me, so I can choose differently and thus find myself not in the old familiar ruts but in very different relationship to myself and those around me. That is what I believe therapy does for people and indeed is what I have experienced in my own therapy. I cannot be what I might have been had I not had the mother I had or the experiences in life I have had — I am indelibly marked by them. But I can be freer in how I live my life and perceive my possibilities through the process of examining my thoughts, behaviors, history, dreams, reactions. That is what talk therapy as I know and do it is about.

This past Saturday I had lunch with someone who was one of my first friends in Maine. We met when both of us were in our late 20s. We and our respective husbands were very close for close to 10 years. Then life intruded and the chaos of divorce, first hers then mine, and we drifted apart. She who knew me when I was 27 and seeing me now would not notice too very many things different about me except that my hair is grey and I am wearing glasses rather than contacts — all external manifestations of age and the life I have lived. I look at her and I see her grey hair and a few wrinkles. Superficially we are both quite the same.

Yet having known her very well, I can feel she is different — softer, sadder, more open. I imagine she noticed that I am calmer, less prone to sarcasm, more contemplative, warmer, maybe more confident. I still delight in words and have a dry sense of humor. Still I am a bit shy, though a bit less reserved. But on the whole, like her, I feel softer and more open.

The changes I have experienced in my life as the result of a long and successful analysis are interior, and though they shape what others see, are most likely unknown to others. Those inner changes were hard won. The forces against them from my early life were fierce and did not go down without a ferocious fight. Through those hours of talk with my analyst, I began to be able to see the destructive bits and then to be able to not act on them, to let them go by, like bubbles rising in champagne. I still have moments of feeling like I used to feel, but I see it, I feel it when it happens and I now have the freedom to make choices that do not feed those moments and so they do not grow into hours or days as once they did.

I see therapy  as opening the door to new possibilities. I cannot undo my history, make myself as if my childhood or any part of my life had been ideal, but I can become more conscious of the ways that history and my interpretations of it have operated in my life and in that way allow me to choose from a wider array of possible behaviors as I go forward. I think we are all wounded to greater and lesser degrees. The wounds do not disappear, though they do become less dominant in our lives. But healing, in the sense that we usually think of it, seems to me to not be operative in the dealing with these wounds. 

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