Oedipus is not about a young man who wants to sleep with his mother and kill his father. It’s about someone whose parents’ secrets are always there to threaten him. In the end his blindness destroys him. Oedipus is to blame yourself for your parents’ crimes.
I’m realising, more than ever, that there are things my mother taught me, and left for me to discover, which were not for the time I found them, or she gave them to me. That was confusing. They’re for now, I believe she meant it that way.
I love reading but I find it very hard to read most psychotherapy journals, especially the ones circulated by accrediting bodies such as UKCP. What could be an opportunity for me to engage with other people wondering what it is that constrains them, or affects them and exploring how they proceed from there … often ends up with me feeling like I’ve arrived at Checkpoint Charlie with the wrong papers.
If I’m going to think about the limits of psychotherapy I have to begin by looking at the limiting effects of psychotherapists, whenever they get together. It doesn’t have to be that way, but generally that’s how I have found it. Psychotherapy seems to be a refuge for numbers of people who might have imagined themselves, in another life, as an artist, a doctor, a philosopher, a scientist or perhaps (if they’ve had enough therapy) a prison guard or a better parent.
But reading, for example, the latest edition of the UKCP gazette I remain unsure how aware its writers are of the negative effect of their … professionalism. There’s so much attempted mastery: attempts to inflict expertise on the reader that remind me of a scene from Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea in which gulls pick over the dead floating on the ocean surface after a horrible incident with depth charges.
Mastery is a force to be resisted. If I want philosophy I will turn to someone who can at least tell me deconstruction isn’t about taking things apart; or that the preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit might be a good thing to read before putting pen to paper for the UKCP gazette. If I want to know about creativity I’d like to speak with someone who’s made something that a lot of people find exciting. If I want to understand neuroscience I’d like to meet with someone who has more than a fleeting acquaintance with Niels Bohr.
If I feel I am in the domain of psychotherapy I’d like to look outward and see these expert categories approaching to greet me. They might have arrived here, in psychotherapyland, but they came from somewhere else. And I might go and pay them a visit at home some time, too … even if I end up realising we live in the same place … but that’s getting a little more complicated than I intended here, when I just wanted to write something about what seems to be happening to a profession I love being part of, but forever seems in search of a soul.
Psychotherapists can be experts in the unknown, but we need to understand that some people have spent most of their time thinking about the things this particular category of expertise is likely to conjure up. And I’d like an introduction to those things: never to be a told a psychotherapist knows best.
What happens at the end of a fantasy? What does a fantasy do apart from try to keep things as you want them to be? Kellyanne Conway, all your secrets exposed … what will you do to prevent that?
That phrase: high maintenance. You don’t want to be caught up in something with a high maintenance person, do you? That’s an impossible person. Where are you in that? Difficult people, though, they’re different. They don’t make demands like impossible people do. Difficult people can be very kind … and difficult. Their love, because they do love something in life, and something in themselves that they’ve let in from the big unknown, complicates things. So what’s difficult about a difficult person? Life becomes more complicated, maybe more real. Don’t mistake someone difficult for someone impossible. Big mistake.
As a psychotherapist, formerly as a teacher, and sometimes still as a writer, I have met so many people who have found reading difficult. At points in my life, in spite of my love of reading and of books, I have found it almost impossible.
It seems fashionable now to try and look for neurological or other, possibly related, organic reasons for why people find reading difficult – such as allergies. It’s easier to medicate something that seems to have a material cause.
Does this kind of diagnosis ever really help? I’ve met people who can read again, or perhaps for the first time, properly. But the ones I have know, although they feel somehow more free, also seem to have reached a point where something still seems blocked. They can absorb words from a page, but they can’t do things with them that they have an idea they might.
I can suggest here, very briefly, some things that may be blocking your relationship with written words. All of them are things which can be addressed without medication and outside of a classroom.
I should add that nobody I have known finds reading easy. Even the most avid reader has to connect with a book and that reader is sometimes the most lucid in being able to describe what can get in the way. For the sake of simplicity I have numbered these thoughts about reading difficulties. I am aware that if you are reading this you may be experiencing some of them.
- Dissociation. Reading can be made difficult by the process of dissociation. The feeling of losing one’s place, not taking words in, or not absorbing information is so common it is rarely talked about. The effect of these things happening when you are a student, especially in a classroom, as a very young child, is that she or he will be treated in ways that will leave them feeling ashamed. Shame acts a horrible censor, making it harder than ever for someone to say what they are finding difficult. Dissociation can arise for many reasons. It is highly treatable. There are reading techniques I can recommend for people who find it hard to read more than a few sentences without getting lost.
- Getting stuck. To read you need to be able to make connections – associations – that help the text come to life. Some of this can be to do with dissociation; some comes from an unfamiliarity with words that might be rooted in a difficulty to read. Talking and reading out loud to interested people can help. Theres so much more I could say about this, and may in another place.
- The audience. Effects of the imagined or real expectations of an audience. Although this it is something of a dissociative process, it’s less directly so. The dissociation occurs not when a book is already open in front of someone, but before the book ever gets opened. It takes a wonderful teacher, or a very enlightened parent to realise that the reasons why a someone, child or adult, procrastinates, reads the wrong thing, or gets involved in a volatile situation which prevents something getting done is most likely to be connected with a barely acknowledged set of assumptions relating to what will happen if nothing gets in the way. Emotions govern what we do. Thoughts arise out of emotions that are sometimes spectacularly misguided attempts to do a version of the right thing: the right thing by that individual. The thing which will lead to the best path through life for them.
- Enlightened resistance. Some children, and some adults, become aware very early on that what they are reading is not what’s good for them, and unlike in the kind of situation I have described in point three, they are correct.
I was depressed, recently, to see some of the material currently being read as part of an A level syllabus and on an undergraduate English Literature programme. The texts were sentimental, simplistic and brutal. Perhaps in the name of openness, or as a reaction to long-lost censoriousness of emotional honesty, some teachers seem to have lost their protective sense. Reading can be re-traumatising. People who choose not to read something that merely repeats horrors of which they are already well aware need to be rewarded, not punished. Unfortunately terrible things are often written about in ways that remain attached, even if it is barely consciously, to the dynamics that repeat them. Witness the effect, for example, of the millions of journalist’s words devoted to describing why Donald Trump should never be president of the USA. Much of the writing feels frightening and seems part of how the Trump takeover keeps happening.
- Poor teaching. I used to teach English undergraduates and was horrified by the number of mediocre students (in addition to a very few excellent ones) who decided to become English teachers.
- Our schools. Until relatively recently I was involved in helping children from difficult backgrounds try to receive a good education. What I would recognise as a good education is currently unlikely to occur in an English school.
I love psychoanalytic thinking. It’s imaginative, it can take me and other people to surprising places, and it’s somehow at one with the world in ways that other kinds of thinking don’t seem to be. Psychoanalysis seems on the side of poetry and mystery, ever the best ways of trying to get a feel for life, whereas other forms seem, at least to me, catastrophically limiting.
Unfortunately it’s also a ready defence for half-wits and clowns. It’s easy to mistake psychoanalysts for intellectuals. Some intellectuals enjoy psychoanalysis, but very few of them are psychoanalysts. Psychoanalytic thinking offers a kind of quick-sand for the insecure, sucking them in to a world where nothing is at it seems and there’s always an opportunity to state the obverse rather than the obvious.
Psychoanalysis can offer security as long as you don’t need it.
Possibly the problem is in the word ‘thinking’. Psychoanalytic practice involves being in a ways that don’t dissociate thinking from feeling. They become something else.