Photo by Valentino Funghi
Have you ever learned to play a piece of music? When we first see a sheet of music, without prior knowledge, it makes little sense. The notes and symbols are indecipherable. It takes practise and repetition to read and interpret the symbols and begin to play. We have to learn to feel our way through the music, to feel the rhythm and tone.
And there are tedious scales to be learned. I remember, learning to play the piano and wanting to skip practising scales. They seemed superfluous. I yearned to play the music, without the hard work. But it took time and commitment.
Something about this experience reminds me of the process of therapy.
As babies, we are born with a whole rainbow of emotions. Like musical notes to the beginner, they make no sense. Our first caregiver, usually our mother, is instrumental in bringing meaning to our emotional selves.
But what happens when a mother* has not been able to feel her own feelings? If she is herself in the grip of psychological trauma, perhaps affected unconsciously by traumas of past generations, she may struggle to contain and make sense of the maelstrom of emotions her infant experiences.
Feelings, for the infant, that might otherwise be given meaning by his* mother’s mindful presence, threaten to overwhelm. Without meaning, his powerful feelings confuse and frighten him. In order to keep his soul, his true core, safe, his psyche must find ways to protect him at all cost.
One way to protect against feeling is to disconnect. Mind and body become misaligned. If anger was a problem in our family, for instance, anger may be suppressed and expressed through our bodies. We may succumb to unexplained illnesses.
Another way we avoid feeling is by projecting those feelings into others. We may become the ‘bully,’ making others have the feelings of shame and inadequacy that cannot be tolerated. Or we may become the ‘helper,’ always rescuing others who hold and reflect our deeper feelings of vulnerability and distress.
Alternatively, we may have learned to become the repository for all the intolerable emotions within our family. Distinguishing our feelings from those that belong elsewhere, when we have come to represent the emotional depository for others, is exhausting.
Coming to therapy can help us begin to reconnect with our own feelings. We can begin to find meaning where emptiness lay. We can begin to reintegrate those feelings that belong to us. We can begin to separate under the pressure to absorb the emotional soup of the groups we live within.
But as we begin to understand the ways that we have come to cope in our world, we may expect to quickly feel better. If we don’t, we feel disappointed and despondent. We wonder why the therapy is not working.
It is helpful to remember that we learn our particular ways of coping over our whole lifetimes. Ways of coping, learned over a lifetime, cannot be unlearned in a day. Learning to feel again, learning to find new ways of coping, learning to be true to ourselves, does not come easily.
Our psyche, when we enter therapy, needs a little nurturing. It needs a little time.
We need to be able to sustain coping well enough to continue our every day lives, week by week exploring our inner world, unpacking and repacking, without feeling that we are unraveling at speed. We need to find our rhythm.
Like learning a piece of music, we must be patient, feeling our way through, bearing the frustrations and the uncertainty, trusting that, with time and commitment, we will be rewarded with something meaningful. Perhaps, even, newly in touch with our soul selves, something beautiful.
*A few notes:
- The biological mother, while not always the first primary caregiver, forms the initial bond with her baby in the womb. Mothers care for their babies within the wider context of their families, cultural groups and societies, and she and her baby are affected by the bonds and support systems surrounding them. Thus, while I refer to 'mother,' this is not intended to place blame or sole responsibility on birth mothers.
- I refer to the infant with the male pronoun purely for ease of reading.