Windows on our inner and outer worlds
Therapy is both art and science. We draw upon research as we practise naturally, but our craft is not so clear cut and limited as to be simply such-and-such an intervention to this degree and in that way. Humans are too messy. There are deeper waters in the human mind and being than the cold ones and zeros such brute rationalism tries to expose. Fecund, verdant, feculent in our messy complexity and humanity we dirty cold rationality. These things conspire to gesture to older truths; dances by fire at Beltane under stars that draw with them in their turn the fates of those fighting and fucking and laughing down below.
We may appear civilised of course. We may sit on sofas, or on plastic chairs, and talk for a living. But nonetheless these deeply human currents move us. When we practise as therapists, we must therefore strive to reach to and through the ephemeral space between our self and the other person in the room. That reaching flows from the self, and out towards the other; And so, to be good therapists, we must be able to know ourselves by reaching in unbounded – sometimes paradoxically unknowable – ways. We must be able to express ourselves somewhat to the other person, and they to us. And express ourselves to us, as they do to them.
All this calls for a different way of being in the world than Likert ratings and performance reviews. When we seek to know ourselves and our world, those are not the tools we reach for! Instead (dare I say it?) if we are wise, we look to art for expression and meaning. To find our evolving selves and to situate them within the world. Whether though photography, painting, crochet, comics, gardening, sculpture or other means; we seek something through art that can’t be measured, but that is central to what it means to be human. This collection is a part of that endeavour, the sometimes hidden worlds of therapists – those of us who can all too easily fall into only seeing the other, and then only by a certain specific degree; and so miss the hidden intertwining that interweaves us with the world. The work here is a reflection of therapists, our worlds, and the connection between the ‘two’.
Waiting, watching, and wondering…
Martin Milton on wildlife photography
What an interesting question: how does my art relate to, reflect or impact on my work as a therapist? I know that for some the answer would be ‘it doesn’t’ or ‘it can’t’. Other than suggesting a predilection for pastimes beginning with P, the practices of psychotherapy and photography are different. One is a profession and the other a hobby; one about people and the other, not necessarily. One is led by a responsibility to the ‘Other’, the other… not necessarily. My work is a constant, whereas photography, again… it’s not necessarily.
But that doesn’t capture the relationship for me at all. It is true that there are differences in kind between the two, but it seems to me that both rely on the personhood of the practitioner. It is true that I have seldom walked away from a photography project and thought ‘Oh that’s what Freud (or Heidegger, Beck, the HCPC, etc.) meant’, but both challenge me and have led to me seeing things anew, having a different perspective, an altered composition if you like. Both are creative processes that constantly challenge and enhance my grasp of the world, of others, and of the ways in which relationships are played out. These, I would suggest, are ways in which both of these practices enrich each other, profoundly.
Wildlife photography, it seems to me, is a process very much like the psychotherapeutic project. In both I have to be patient, waiting for the other to arrive. Then there is a period, sometimes short and sometimes long, of orienting oneself to the other, watching, listening, wondering whether the first thing you see is the main phenomenon or whether other urges and behaviours will emerge as you observe them, or as you observe one another. To me photography and psychotherapy both require attention – not so much technical, but free-floating and attuned. They require readiness and patience, a willingness to wait and to act. Sometimes one has to do something, at other times one is called to simply observe, put the urge ‘to do’ aside, and to take your cue from the ‘subject’.
One’s own presence and attributes are also part of the experience. As with my talents and shortcomings as a therapist, as a photographer I can be too keen to act, scaring off the subject, or limiting them to a more distant relationship; at other times clients and wildlife alike can sense quiet confidence and gradually make their way towards me. Our willingness to wait and watch and be accepted is part of the discipline of those that excel in both fields and that I aspire to.
I find that an awareness of nature and ecology, that is richly fed by spending time with my camera in the wilds, powerfully enhances my understanding of the human condition, something beneficial to my work as a therapist. When caught up in a human-centric worldview it is easy to assume that our distress and its manifestations are ‘illogical’, problems in thinking and so forth. And being a human means that I can get caught up in this all too easily. Spending time with our mammal cousins reminds me of the meaning of our distress and its embeddedness in the world, the challenges of the environmental niche that each species has. The body shaking so characteristic of panic makes sense once you’ve seen an impala survive a chase by a predator; prey species tremble after that run, they need to process the physiological results of what we call the ‘fight or flight reaction’ to threat. And so it is with us… panic is seldom a stand-alone experience. We may not always be clear on what scary eventuality we are responding to, but it can only be understood in context, and the body is a meaningful part of that experience. Similarly with depression: remove an animal from its natural habitat, limit its contact with others of its own species, stop it from being able to hunt or to protect itself, and you will see the low mood, lethargy, refusal to join in pointless activities; and this is the same with us. When life is against us, when we are bereft and isolated, thwarted in our ambitions and reduced to going through the motions, life can feel pointless.
Nature and wildlife have always been important to me, both as aspects of the world in their own right but also as some of the most magical experiences I have ever had. I have lost myself while sharing a sunset with cheetahs atop a Botswanan koppie, experienced ecstasy as I drifted on the waves with wild swimming dolphins off the coast of Kenya, felt privilege beyond belief on my birthday when surrounded by chimpanzees in the rainforest, and felt every fibre in my body shake while walking near lions as they fed. I feel alive in natural spaces whether that be snow-topped mountains, the heat of the desert, or traipsing through Richmond Park, one of the wild spots close to where I live. These experiences have connected me to the world and to myself. I feel more present, more alive and more… me. Moments that I often hope my clients will come to experience (once again) somewhere in their lives. Moments that nourish me during those hard, sometimes lengthy, periods of despair that we navigate; in that way the landscape of my art contains and strengthens me as I attempt to do something similar for the clients I work with.
Photography is an interesting field, in some ways like applied psychology, sometimes seen as an art, sometimes as a science… or both. Some of it is definitely art, clearly the product of a creative mind with images begging for interpretation. On the other end of the spectrum, photography can be highly technical – requiring skill but the results intended to be a factual transmission of information, more report than story. Increasingly we are asked to practise in this manner too.
For me, wildlife photography falls in the middle. Of course, technical skill is important… but even more so is an ability to tune into the animal and its world, to discern what its life is about and to find ways to tell a story, often of life and death, love and hate, hunting and gathering. As it often is with clients, questions explored of how to survive and how to thrive.
When photographing wildlife, I tend to do a bit of both types of photography. A furious few moments where I want to gather images of the animal that is blessing me with its presence, my camera offers me proof that this meeting did indeed happen; and this creates anchors for those precious memories of a special encounter, a bit like notes written after a session. These initial images also allow me to test my camera settings. After that initial burst, I can be calmer, sit and watch, marvel at the animal and its preoccupations, and start to imagine its life and the story I am witnessing. Choosing whether to take more photographs, from what angle, of what behaviours…
I have chosen a photograph I took of a bloody jawed polar bear mother leading her cubs across the pack ice, bellies filled and energy restored. It was taken in the high Arctic in the summer of 2012. The notes in my journal read:
It is about 2am and the sun has still not gone down, it won’t set tonight, the most it will do is dip towards the horizon giving this eerie feel to the experience; the cold is also a part of this, casting a heavy stillness across the world. The sparkling white ice and cream coloured bears contrast with, yet also complement, the murky blue that masquerades as ‘darkness’.
We had to travel for 8 hours further North than is normal at this time of year. It seems the pack ice really is melting a lot more than it used to, making it harder for these bears to survive and more difficult for us intrepid amateur naturalists to see such a wonderful sight. Harder for our privilege, harder for their survival.
The image tells several stories. One is a universal story of family: I see care, maternal pride and childhood delight. The cubs linger a little, having tasted freedom and being tempted by the vast spaces around them. Mom has to look back, check that they are indeed following and not, as they tend to do, playing in the ponds and puddles that mark this landscape. Mom is the focused one, her back to the camera she is on a mission, one meal down, but it’s time to hunt again, with three of them to feed, she cannot be too relaxed about that. She has multiple jobs here, not only does she need to nourish her cubs, but she needs to provide them with the skills necessary to survive alone in this vast wilderness in the not too distant future.
Alternatively, this is an image of authenticity and the sublime fit between animal and surrounding, this is being-in-the-world. These bears are perfectly adapted to this environment. They do what they do, and their world provides for them – not too much, but just enough. Or it has done, who knows how well they will fare now that the ecosystem is so affected. I veer between awe and anxiety when thinking about these meanings. There is a tension between the heartwarming experience of respect and a more guilt-ridden sense of responsibility for an ever-increasing struggle.
This interpretation sets my mind wandering, as I not only know about the additional eight hours we had to travel; but also, I have felt hardship every time I set foot on the deck. The freezing winds, the vast spaces and the calls of the whales were all part of the process of getting this photograph. As we got to the pack ice, the squeaking and screams of the ice against the hull have awakened my sense of hearing, unlike anything else. So whether it is the photograph or the memory, I also see fragility in this image.
Overall, this is a bittersweet image, full of opposites – cruel beauty, beautiful fragility, solid water, liquid ice, neither light nor dark, but something in the middle. It captures a painful dilemma, the tension between destruction and conservation, something else that I think is at the very heart of psychotherapy.
- Martin Milton is Professor of Counselling Psychology at Regent’s University London
Under the therapy tree
Emmy van Deurzen on painting
I have painted in oils for nearly 50 years. I was never a great artist, but have always practised my art in a devoted and dedicated, quasi-religious fashion. My art and my therapeutic work are interwoven, because to me they are about the same vocation and involve a similarly deep and meaningful engagement.
My first wooden box of oil paints arrived by surface mail on the morning of my 16th birthday, on that dark and cold 13 December in the year 1967. I can still feel the sharp jolt of joy that burst forth from my chest, as I unwrapped this very special parcel, this unexpected and most beautiful present. My mother said guardedly: ‘That is an expensive gift, use it wisely.’ She was shocked to see that the postage had been equally dear and she thought none of this was very sensible.
And she was right, for it wasn’t sensible. It was madness. I spiralled into new aspirations and new ways of seeing the world and myself immediately after. This was my most special gift, sent from France to the Netherlands, by my 21-year-old French boyfriend Bernard, whom I had only just met that summer in Portugal, where we both were on camping holidays. He had seen me doing some sketches during those heady days of sunshine in the Algarve, when I fell head over heels in love. He thought I would make a great artist. He wanted me to practise. He too was deeply in love and sent me his own poems and daily letters, in French, which I translated carefully, thus improving my French dramatically.
I knew I had started a new life and that I would never be that frightened, lonely girl again. Now I was loved and I had found my art. I was determined to drink in all the beauty and pleasure that was promised. I asked my art teacher in school to reveal the secrets of oil painting to me and soon painted my first tree: a melancholy sunset.
Perhaps I already sensed what was to happen. Bernard and I met regularly during the next two years, in holidays, but by the time I was doing my final exams he had deserted me, leaving me without my poems and letters, but with all my capacity for feeling deeply, my guitar, my songs and my oil paintings.
It was a life-and-death struggle for a while, as I tried to find the courage to live my life alone with the help of the arts I was left with. I painted desperately and invented all my own methods, never having any further lessons. My art became a steady force for the better. It was a form of meditation, an exploration of the places I had learnt to recognise as special and sacred.
I moved to France after my exams and studied philosophy, continuing to write songs, sing and paint, with ever-greater dedication. There were many periods where my arts lay fallow. They always coincided with busyness and alienation.
When I came to the UK in 1977 to work and live in an Arbours therapeutic community, I started to sing and paint more seriously again. I recognised that ‘Arbours’ was a significant term for me, as it referred to the way in which a migrant people had lived when they were without a safe place to be: they had lived under the arbours of the trees. Similarly I had come to see trees, woods and forests as safe places to hide in and renew myself, whenever things were hard and trying. Sitting under trees became a metaphor for me for doing psychotherapy.
I started picturing myself not just as sitting under a safe tree with my clients, I began to experience myself slowly but surely as the tree itself. I felt that the more peaceful I became and the more steadfast my breathing and my sense of trust in the wider landscape of life, the better I became as a therapist.
Over the years my own life tested me many times, and I always found my balance and equanimity by walking in nature… by taking my sorrows and troubles to the shores of seas and rivers, or my heaviness of heart to the branches and canopies of the wild woods and forests.
I tried to paint many themes and have dabbled in painting people and faces, enjoying grappling with the complex emotional expressions, and badly failing. I learnt that I need to paint landscapes to fully allow myself to become absorbed by the painting and lose myself in it.
When I sit down at my easel and I lay out my colours on my palette and smell the familiar fragrances of my oil paints, something shifts in my inner landscape. I know instinctively where I want to go, and I find a picture that I have taken on one of my walks to remind me of the place I want to retain and take myself into.
I seek the perspective of that landscape and penetrate into it as deeply as it will take me. I easily lose myself on the path that I follow and I hide in the hollow of the trees, hills and meadows that I am painting. It is transformative and I lose all sense of time in the process.
It is almost as if I stretch my consciousness beyond my boundaries, as if I round myself up to fit with the ground and skies, the branches, leaves and clouds. I am no longer just myself, not the person I am when I am living my daily life. I am in a state of special arrest. Time stands still and I am at rest, easing myself into the earth that extends itself in front of me, expanding me to go beyond me. It is a sense of personal transcendence, of spirituality. I am inspired to breathe restfully, though I catch myself suspending my breathing all together at other moments.
Most importantly it is about phenomenology: I make myself one with the phenomenon in front of me. As I trace the lines of the tree, I also trace the lines of a person’s life. As I make myself small and easy under the tree, I make myself humble and at ease while listening to the other. Silently soaking up the soft air, the sun and the sky above, I melt into the universe. It is a kind of dying of my own personality, which swoons in front of the overwhelming reality of the landscape.
The discipline of my art in mastering the medium, learning about proportion, movement, perspective and depth, is not unlike the discipline of learning about life and understanding how to observe another person’s position, situation and direction in the world. The one helps with the other and each complements the other.
This particular painting, of a tree I photographed in the New Forest some years ago, is highly symbolic of the feeling of painting and the feeling of therapy that are so very similar and so much about placing myself in harmony with my surroundings. I can feel the way I made myself melt into the whole landscape, creating a bit of the sky behind the painting, an awareness of infinity and the universe. There is a reminder of human society in the background with the lightly drawn fence which speaks of frontiers and boundaries of safety and passageways towards other areas. The tree itself is softly expansive, not obstructed by anything, able to extend its branches as far as it fancies. Its roots are quietly steady underneath, and the shadows it casts are contained at its feet. The tree looks both strong and vulnerable, just as I feel when I am doing art or therapy. It fills the space, while interacting organically with its environment: a powerful metaphor for courageous being and affirmative living, with a sense of glorying in the pleasure of just being. Then in front there is the grass and the flowers, powerfully growing in their spring impulse of revival. The yellow light in the field is what overwhelmingly appealed to my search for sunshine and light: that striving to find the positive power of that which creates us without us having to do anything about it. I need to remind myself of the way in which my activities are always cushioned and upheld and lit up by that light. I find it restful to know that I will never have to sow the field, or cut it down, that it just grows there for all to enjoy.
Emmy van Deurzen is Principal at the Existential Academy, London
emmyvan [email protected]
See also our interview with Emmy.
Martin Adams on stone work
ll meaningful work, and that means all creative work, for they are one and the same, starts from a position of full attention. Phenomenological practice of any sort, whether it is therapy or not, begins with and is sustained by attention. I begin by attending to, looking at, thinking about, imagining the object, in this case a piece of limestone.
While I may have some vague ideas of the form I want to make, this is just an idea; and before I start I have no idea how the piece of stone will respond to the ideas. It may be that the ideas just cannot be done with this medium. This will be discovered as I go along, and stone is an unforgiving material. It has to be respected. It may be that imperfections in the stone, shells, fossils, hidden fault lines, for it is a natural imperfect material, will not allow the idea to be carried out.
Therefore as in therapy I may have some rough ideas about the final ‘shape’, and I have to bear these in mind but suspend them because I am guided principally by the nature of the stone. I know that the finished piece will not be like my idea at the beginning.
I do not believe in the idea of finding the shape that has already been decided on somehow inside the stone. If this happens, then it is an example of a technical approach to production and nothing to do with art, creativity or anything valuable. It is a repetitive activity that does not need full attention. It is the equivalent to a manualised approach to therapy. It is present-at-hand, rather than ready-to-hand.
Everything we do is done at a particular time and a particular place for a particular purpose. This includes both therapy and the making of art works. The piece is therefore site-specific. If anything, this was the primary influence on my initial thoughts about what I wanted to make. Not so much what I wanted it to be but where I wanted it to be. This is analogous to Heidegger’s being-in-the-world. It is not a piece of work on its own, it is a piece in a context for a purpose. This includes its scale. It has to enhance, respect and echo its surroundings. It has to create enough tension by its placing and its nature that it does not merge in or dominate. The piece does not stand or fall on its own merits, for it has none, as such.
For it be in-the-world and of-the-world, while it is obviously three-dimensional it is also important to me that it has no front or back, no left or right. These are post-hoc cultural constraints, based on two-dimensional literal thinking and a need to reduce ambiguity. All it has is a bottom. It is grounded, it is bounded by gravity and its material nature. Its connection to the ground is analogous with our connection with the givens of existence and our material nature. This is all we have. It is our thrownness.
It is also important that it has no title. Even ‘Untitled’ is a title. To give it a title is to separate it from its context and to make it in to an object that has a meaning. Art works should be able to stand on their own without an explanation of what it ‘really means’ or how to look at it. It is what it is, and what it is changes. Like people.
- Martin Adams is an existential psychotherapist and writer, and also a sculptor
Picturing different understandings
Meg-John Barker on comics, zines and therapy
My love for comics and zines (short for magazine or fanzine) has always been entwined with my mental health. Growing up, comics were a safe place to escape when times were hard. However, they also provided me as an adolescent with damaging messages about how to be, and how to relate to others.
In the 1970s and 80s girls’ comics – like the teen magazines that have superseded them – contained strong messages about gender and relationships that reflected and reinforced those circulating in wider culture. There were common stories of self-sacrificing, nurturing femininity being rewarded. Another frequent theme was the vital importance of finding one true ‘best friend’, as a kind of preparation for later finding ‘Mr Right’. The repetition of such messages left a strong mark on me as somebody who was being bullied at school, and struggling to belong anywhere. I internalised the idea that I should be what other people wanted me to be, and that finding ‘The One’ person who would love and accept me would be the way out of my suffering.
These linked assumptions resulted in the creation of the ‘painful triangle’, as one of my clients describes it: a psyche dominated by a three-way relationship between a powerful inner critic, a desperate pleaser, and a descent into depression when attempts to please seem to fail, or are revealed as impossible. As with so many people who develop along these lines, mental health difficulties were exacerbated by the suffering and loss caused by this triangle. The unsustainable attempt to be constantly approved of, and the pressure on one person to meet all my needs, inevitably led to relationship breakdowns.
However, reading comics and zines has also been extremely helpful in relation to my mental health. In college, queer-themed comics like Strangers in Paradise, Dykes to Watch Out For, and Leonard and Larry offered different models of relationships and gender to gently challenge my assumptions. In later years, it has been deeply powerful for me to see an experience of distress or suffering similar to my own illustrated in graphic memoirs like Fun Home, Marbles, and Lighter Than My Shadow, in webcomics like Hyperbole and a Half, I’m Crazy, and better, drawn, and in long-term perzines like Telegram or Clark 8. Something about the combination of pictures, spoken/thought words and narrative seems to enable a connection that’s more powerful than written memoirs or other media.
Mental health comics and zines have also helped me to explain emotional struggles to other people in my life who don’t share the experience. Collaborative mental health zines like Do What You Want, Collide and Pathologize this! are particularly helpful in emphasising the diversity of experiences, rather than supporting the popular assumption that a difficulty like depression or addiction will always look and feel the same.
After many conversations with my friends Joseph de Lappe and Caroline Walters about how helpful such mental health comics and zines had been in our own lives, in 2014 we edited a series of special issues of Asylum mental health magazine on this theme, which brings comic creators and readers together to reflect. Many people wrote about the value that making comics and zines had on their own mental health, and this is where my picture comes in. For the past decade or so, as well as reading them I’ve also been creating comics and zines about my own mental health and about therapy more widely. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with professional illustrators on some of these projects, culminating in the book Queer: A Graphic History, with Julia Scheele, which addresses the impact of cultural messages about gender, relationships, sex and self that were so profound in my own struggles. However, comic and zine creation is something that anybody can do, whatever their artistic ability. My own created zines have much less professional drawing accompanying the text, and the online comics XKCD and Hyperbole and a Half are great examples of how very simple images can powerfully capture the experience of mental health struggles.
I first started drawing my experiences in comic form simply as a way of expressing emotion. Something that I explore in my zine on Staying with Feelings is the way that the expression – or even experience – of certain emotions is discouraged in our culture. This was certainly the case for me as a child, and therefore drawing became an important way of putting the pain, anger or sadness I was feeling down on paper. My picture about depression, here, was a way of recording, for myself, the experience when I was in it. Given that the ability to sit with difficult emotions seems to be highly valued across therapeutic approaches, I think that comic/zine depictions can be a useful practice to add to our toolkit, especially when alternatives like meditation or journaling aren’t working for us.
Something I’ve found particularly helpful for self-understanding is to draw big comic maps or timelines of my life, sketching particular moments from childhood that resulted in the triangle that I described before developing, for example. Another important comic for self-compassion was one where I drew – in parallel rows of panels – an experience from childhood and a similar one from adulthood that brought up the memory: going to a party and not fitting in. I ended the comic with the adult me breaking out of their panel and into the child’s panel in order to comfort them.
One problem I’ve had with the mental health memoir comics that I’ve read is that they tend to take a fairly individualistic approach to mental health, similar to that taken in wider culture. Often they locate mental health difficulties in a person’s physiological make-up and/or in their psychological development. There is generally less of a sense of the ways in which the social and cultural forces – which seem central to my experience – might be involved. Mental health zines tend to be more critical and take a more social perspectives, perhaps due to the radical roots of zining (they were associated with punk in the 1970s and 80s, and then became part of the ‘riot grrrl’ movement as a means of sharing feminist content). My own comics and zines were driven by a commitment to communicate different understandings of mental health to mainstream audiences. Early comics included in my (anti) self-help book Rewriting the Rules tried to capture the way in which neoliberal capitalism operates by engaging people in self-monitoring and comparison with (imagined) others to reveal our flaws.
This leads us on to comics and zines as a way of disseminating helpful ideas and practices to other people. In my book Mindful Therapy I used comics that I drew on a Buddhist retreat to illustrate various mindfulness practices, and how challenging they are: something that often gets missed in the current emphasis on mindfulness as the answer to everything! This led on to my Social Mindfulness zine where I tried to bring together mindfulness practice and social justice understandings of privilege and oppression. In the area of relationships I’m now creating a range of ‘make your own’ workbook zines with my collaborator Justin Hancock, which help people to think through the ways in which they do relationships, so perhaps they – like me – can explore their patterns and take a more conscious or intentional approach, relieving some of their suffering in this area.
- Meg-John Barker is at the Open University
Gardening with Heidegger
Rupert King on creating a haven for healing
I trained as an existential psychotherapist, and the writings of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) play a formative role in my professional life. After several years of practising I experienced a period of burnout and depression, and Heidegger’s later works provided the solace I needed. These is a series of essays and lectures replete with poetic imagery of wooded paths (Holzwege), clearings (die Lichtung) and shadows (concealment). One essay in particular struck a chord – ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’, in which Heidegger talks about the importance of learning to dwell: ‘Dwelling, however, is the basic character of Being’ (Heidegger, 1993, p.362). What does Heidegger mean by dwelling? In my busy life I had certainly lost all sense of dwelling. Why are the simplest things so easily overlooked? As I pondered how to dwell, the answer came in an unexpected form.
It was around this time I moved house, the garden I acquired with my new home was in a sorry state, a threadbare lawn dominated by a Leylandii hedge under which nothing grew. The garden was surrounded by a beautiful red brick wall most of which was covered by a suffocating mass of ivy. Mindful of Confucius’ saying ‘Life begins when you plant a garden’, and the renowned psychoanalyst Nina Coltart writing ‘in an ideal world, all psychotherapists would have a garden’, my plan was to create a water garden – a haven where I could heal.
I wanted to evoke the same kind of sanctuary as my great-grandmother’s garden, where I recalled stepping through the gate, from the ordinary into a magical world, a mature, well-cared-for English garden with no shortage of hiding places, old trees, beautifully kept lawns, and garden ‘rooms’ in which I could create fantasy worlds. With no formal design training I followed my imagination combining it with a love of Japanese gardens and an interest in exotic, sculptural plants. In doing so, I built a space where I could reconnect with the world and myself – a space for dwelling.
In another of Heidegger’s later essays, ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, there is a line that I have always found apt: ‘In the midst of beings as a whole an open place occurs. There is a clearing’ (Heidegger, 1993, p.178). Heidegger’s clearing communicates the essence of his later philosophy, namely that the nature of Being is openness. This is our need to create space and dwell in openness whether it’s physical or psychological: ‘Such standing in the clearing of Being I call the ek-sistence of man’ (Heidegger, 1993, p.228).
The image of the clearing certainly resonates with my work as a therapist. Sitting with clients echoes the dappled sunlight of the clearing; where patterns emerge, things come to light and insights are uncovered – Heidegger’s aletheia. At the same time the clearing is an inherently ambiguous space with blurred edges. In the clearing certain things remain for ever in shadow. The clearing teaches us to accept these every present mysteries, it inspires both therapist and client to ‘let things be’, to tolerate uncertainty and become present to the unfolding of life.
Gardening is more than merely an escape or distraction. Feeling the earth in my hands and the dirt under my fingernails is a grounding experience. Planting bulbs, pruning climbers and sweeping autumnal leaves remind me of the passing seasons – very existential. Gardening is a form of dwelling, it is about creating and nurturing. I see myself as an artist, sculpting space and creating forms through planting, building layers of texture with my choice of plants. When I garden, I become ‘one with the process’, time stops and I am in flow. These are the moments that any artist cherishes, that sense of getting lost in the creative process. My garden is a space where my psyche finds expression and responds to the world – it is my ‘soulwork’ (Romanyshyn, 2007).
When Heidegger talks about the dwelling he refers to it as ‘gathering’: the fourfold elements coming together – Sky, Earth, Gods and Mortals, each representing a different aspect of Being-in-the-world. My garden, in Heidegger’s phrase, ‘holds open a world’ – where the wildlife, visitors and I, the gardener, become present (Mortals); all this that happens under heaven – ‘the vaulting path of the sun’ (Heidegger, 1993, p.351), which is captured and reflected in the pond (Sky); the garden arises out of the London clay soil (Earth). And what of the gods? A visitor to my garden furnished me with the best answer to this question. While discussing the ceramic sculpture at the centre of the pond she referred to it as ‘very Jungian’. The gods then are the numinous aspects of life. They are the spiritual made present yet not fully understood. I like Heidegger’s idea of the gods because they remind me of the importance of not-knowing, a quality similar to Keats’s Negative Capability, which is an uncomfortable, yet familiar, place in therapy. Where we sit awaiting the gods as ‘the beckoning messengers’ (Heidegger, 1993 p.351) and for the psyche to manifest itself. In short, my garden represents all aspects of the fourfold – it also a symbol of Being and nothingness: ‘The clearing is the open region for everything that becomes present and absent’ (Heidegger, 1993, p.442).
I once worked with a young client who suffered from terrible social anxiety. As a result his world was all about constriction and limitation – his physical presence, the way he curled up in the chair, the shallowness of his breathing and his reduced group of friends. He feared the world and so literally shrunk it to the point where there was no more space until he felt totally trapped. Much of our work was about exploring his worldview, but in equal measure it was about increasing his awareness of the physicality of space and the need for openness. We did this through relaxation, breathing and just sitting (which at times he found excruciating). Gradually he began to tolerate difficult feelings and learnt to dwell, in doing so the constricting tentacles of anxiety loosened their grip. Indeed, Heidegger wrote: ‘dwelling itself is always a staying with things’ (Heidegger, 1993, p.353).
The years spent gardening have taught me vital lessons: the need to create space, to let things be, to surrender to not-knowing and to dwell in openness. I started my journey in the belief that gardening was a creative outlet and an essential antidote to therapy; over time I discovered that gardening and therapy have much in common.
Christina Richards on the restorative power of the natural world. Her photo is the main one at the top of this article.
When I consider my therapeutic practice I am in tension. There is tension in my shoulders and back from stress certainly – stress from folding the human into the inhuman. From meeting people as people in the machine of the NHS. From being positioned as a person with power, but understanding that if it is not I who wields that power the machine will simply replace me with a more willing part to turn on, to not stick and cause a moment’s pause in the relentless grind.
Hard surfaces surround me, purchased for their ease of cleaning (to keep costs down of course) tacky, reflective, cold. Drops of humanity sprinkled like rainwater on oil – a picture there, a favoured mug here. I try to reach for the other, but the machine, what Pirsig called the Giant, grabs me and holds me. The other tells me I must choose while berating me for doing so. They are in the machine also, grinding in its gears.
At the end of the working week I am spat out. To wander the hills. My shoulders relax as the clear air flows through me, into me and out again. In and out. In and out. I become one with the place around me. There is a smell of green and earth and living things. The skies open and the crows circle and call. I open out. The rough rock I press my face against has a covering of damp lichen which is familiar to my fingers; spiderwebs hold dew and then give it up to the morning sun as beech leaves slowly deliquesce into a mulch for new life to draw on, to burrow into, to grow. Clouds blow across the open moor shadowing brown to green to purple as the seasons turn. A nesting grouse explodes upwards at my approach, out across the heather towards the sweep of bracken spiked with foxglove with rock islands across the valley. It flaps and chatters as the curlew had called under a limpid watercolour sky time before, and after, and before,
Home again, I rest my hand on a glass before the fire. The flames curl and coruscate holding me gently; calling something ancient, some fragment of attention and peace planted by a Palaeolithic ancestor. I am rested. My head lolls, my dog sighs in her sleep and starts to run, dreaming of bouncing like an otter through damp heather no doubt. Of stretching muscles across an endless moor under an endless sky.
Some days we walk in the cultivated land. Mules and Texels on close cropped grass. Over stiles and down footpaths once ancient highways. Past ruins of the reformation, and by farms changing, always changing to draw the most out of the land while locked into it – more than had been thought it seems now. We need the butterflies and birds, the wildflowers and the beetles our grandparents saw without end. Up the hill though the wooden gate and then through the narrow sheepstones to a field of green barley. The wind blowing, and swirling, a susurration more complex and more perfect. Just there. Just there. The copse on the horizon swaying, shadowed. The barley all around me, growing under the sun. The wind across my skin. Standing, I am part of the world. I can feel the world turn.
Then I am back among the wipe-clean plastic. In the system. This now, because – well because it’s policy. It may be ineffectual, it may be harmful. But it is Policy. I cannot see anything green. I must make decisions with Policy and money in mind. I must sit on the painful chair with the fake covering. I must try to reach another person here. I try to remember, try to reach the open spaces I keep in my heart. But the system tries to grab me and crush me to its synthetic will.
It is not easy to stay human here, not easy at all.
But I must because I, and the people I see, are. And we come, ultimately, not from the plastic but from the earth and the sky.
- Christina Richards is a counselling psychologist
[email protected] richards.co.uk
Coltart, N. (1993). How to survive as a psychotherapist. London: Sheldon Press.
Heidegger, M. (1993). Basic writings (D. Farrell Krell, Ed.). San Francisco: HarperCollins.
Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time. (trans. Macquarrie & Robinson). Oxford: Blackwell. (Original work published 1927)
Kurtz, S. (1989). The art of unknowing. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.
Naydler, J. (2011). Gardening as a sacred art. Edinburgh: Floris Books.
Romanyshyn, R. (2007). The wounded researcher. New Orleans: Spring Journal.
Connecting with the inner child
Dr Birgit Innerhofer and Dr Rauter Kathrin
The inner child is a concept that consistently evolves within psychology and psychotherapy: there are books and articles about how to heal the inner child (Bradshaw, 2013), how to recover it (Capacchione, 1991), and how to nourish and grow with it (Worsley, 2002). But how do we access that part of ourselves? How do we connect with our inner child in times of stress, rigidity and planning?
As adults, we often have to deal with complex situations – we need to organise, structure and plan our daily lives in order to meet requirements from both work and our private lives. We confine our lives into boxes. In this house we are still free in our thoughts and yet we are afraid or even scared of the boundaries that restrict us. A closer look at this house shows that it is often high up on a hill, surrounded by wonderful colours. These colours represent friends, family, pets and other loved ones. They also belong to us and symbolise aspects of ourselves: externalised as well as internalised factors of oneself.
However, as everything in life needs a balance, there is not only a light and vibrant form but also a dark side to the picture. For a long time we are able to live on this hill, yet there are times when we realise that something is missing. It is the connection between the dark side in us and the colourful aspects.
In times when Kathrin and I are particularly stressed and caught up in our thoughts, we often lose the connection with ourselves. The dull and dark side of the picture then takes over. We start to function and feel more like a machine that just works non-stop. While anxiety sneaks in, there is also a whispering voice deep down inside us that reminds us that there is more. It gently suggests that these walls that we notice are often manufactured barriers and that we can break free from them. It is the voice of a part of us that shows us that running down the hill is also an option, to see everything from a different perspective. It is the voice of the inner child. In order to be able of connecting with our very own inner child, Kathrin and I had to get to know it first.
Our inner child is a part that is pure, innocent and genuine. While it is a strong part of ourselves, it is also impersonal. It does not appear in form of a person or a little child but rather in a spiritual form. It is the factor that trusts and believes. It is comparable to the Urvertrauen, which is located in the core of ourselves and allows us to look at situations without fear but with hope and faith. This feeling is linked to strength and confidence. Thoughts like ‘I can do this’ or ‘I will be fine’ come into mind and suddenly anxiety disappears. This energy allows us to be completely in the here-and-now and to be mindful. It grounds us and reminds of an attitude we had in our early childhood: discovering. This contains the ability to explore everything with curiousity. To ask questions and to look beyond the limits we set ourselves. To take a risk and jump without knowing the outcome. Taking that leap of faith that is often hidden behind our rigorous planning. It is the ability to wonder about little things, particularly nature. All these traits of the inner child enable us to feel free, impartial, and authentic in our emotions and actions. Sadly, as we grew older and encountered different challenging situations we dismissed this part of us and therefore struggled with various problems.
In times, when stress or anxiety took over, we felt disconnected with our inner wisdom. This led us to appear often as if we were even more vulnerable and fragile, because we struggled to step back and breathe. We were too occupied with a construct of our identity: the Ego. We gave it too much space to unfold. In that space we are driven by the desire of wanting more and being better. This yearning is linked to expectations and appraisal. The imagination of the anticipated results often contains pain, sorrow or even emotional agony. The focus was too one-sided, and in all of this we endeavour to accept being human. This realisation, though, allows us to enjoy life while not despairing over the setbacks and hurdles. So it is important for us to identify when we do not feel whole but rather separated.
This division can be compared to the valley that separates the colourful aspect from the dark side. When one aspect is predominant, the whole person is incomplete. Hence it is crucial to allow both sides to be seen, heard and felt. It is the idea of thoughts being like little children. When they are not supervised, they are running around, and merely observing them brings calmness to their chaos. The inner child is that link, as it counterbalances the dull side and the bright sight. It provides space for one’s self to step back and see both sides. It is that extra beat of time where we can breathe and ground ourselves. It enables us to slow down the ongoing process and to change position, so that we are able to observe the situation from another perspective. Our inner wisdom brings us back into the here-and-now when our minds wandered off. It is Atman, the concept of the complete Self.
The better Kathrin and I got to know ourselves, the more aware we became of certain patterns. We had to find out what our triggers for stress or anxiety were, and when we realised that we then were able to also step back and look out for the golden bridge between the dark and the colourful side. There are times when it is still difficult to access this spiritual part. Sometimes we struggle to listen to that voice and many times we dismiss it. We ignore the fact that it would be more beneficial to look after ourselves rather than caring about others. One consequence of rejecting that connection is the overwhelming feeling of anxiety, stress, disconnection, separation, helplessness and, most of all, loneliness. We are not at the core of ourselves but rather torn into different pieces. This hinders us from getting in touch with ourselves but also from having a connection with others. The inner child is indeed not only a part Kathrin and I have discovered for ourselves, but it is rather a spiritual connection within others as well. It might look or feel slightly different, but the character of the inner wisdom which is common for everyone is that it allows us to be connected with each other. It enables us all to understand and relate to each other. It is the awareness that it is the birthplace of change, tolerance and patience. With these skills we are able to be more empathic and understanding of the pain of others.
In our work as psychological therapists we encounter other people who are in emotional pain or struggle with life’s challenges. Many of these people are also too enmeshed in only one side of the whole picture. Most of the time it is the dark side that causes people to be in despair, anxiety or stress. The consequences are shown in various problems – depression, burnout, anxiety disorders, low self-esteem – but most of all, people struggle with self-identity. They come to us because of the realisation that there is a division within themselves. They struggle to step out of the dark side and look out for the colours. In having experienced similar situations in life, Kathrin and I often find ourselves in deep connection with our clients. The inner child, bridge and link between the ominous and the vibrant aspects, enables us to relate to others in a deep and meaningful way. Moreover, it allows us to sit down calmly and appraise that gap, while at the same time gently heal it. When we are in a session, we are able to step back from our own Ego and give that inner wisdom the space it needs. It enables us to remain neutral and to remind ourselves of the bigger picture: there is more to it than what is happening in this session. It is often not necessarily the technique that starts the process of a deep connecting relationship, but the inclusion of the inner child. If, for example, a client comes in and expresses their distress, it allows us to engage with the shown emotions, to react in an empathic manner but also to look further, while holding the client’s discomfort. So the inner child operates as a medium that connects us with each other, and on the other hand it provides the distance that is necessary to not get caught up in concerns of others. This in turn supports the client to challenge their thoughts and to recognise their patterns. Ideally this implies that the client themselves reaches out to their own connection between the dark and the bright side. By using this inner wisdom in therapy we also model ourselves to the client.
Often this is not easy, and we have to remind ourselves to do these things. Just like our clients, Kathrin and I sometimes find it difficult to simply trust that spiritual energy to float around. It is a question of security and fully believing in oneself and in the other. The inner child facilitates us as therapists to trust in the process, which in turn gives the client hope that they are capable of change. It is an assumption that there is more than pain and sorrow. The inner wisdom is a resource for both, therapist and client to pursue the bigger picture. To trust that there are many colours that complete it, to know that there is another side to the one that is currently shown. To believe in a connection that is wiser and bigger than our mind and to be aware that it unites us in a deep and meaningful way. For this to happen, we can allow ourselves to listen to that voice and to include it in our lives. When we finally are capable of doing exactly that, the magic begins.
Bradshaw, J. (2013). Homecoming: Reclaiming and healing your inner child. New York: Bantam.
Capacchione, L. (1991). Recovery of your inner child: The highly acclaimed method for liberating your inner self. New York: Simon & Schuster/Fireside.
Worsley, H. (2002). The inner child as a resource for adult faith development. British Journal of Religious Education, 24(3), 196–207.
The fairy tales and battlegrounds of becoming a counselling psychologist
Dr Jessica Parmar
These images are reminiscent of my internal and external world as a counselling psychologist. My first role was on a specialist tier 4 Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) unit which felt like a huge hole in a new dress I’d bought. It looked OK in the shop and so excited to bring it home and wear it; I realised the real world was not the same as the cocoon I was safely embedded in whilst in training. It has so far been a journey of great challenge, pride and development – not only as an individual but also as a professional.
Working on an inpatient unit has brought many challenges, often finding myself sitting face to face with service users who have had more life experience than you and show the greatest resilience and strength compared with anyone else you have met. It is a role that had knocked me down a peg or two and has taught me great humility and the power of being human. I have been battling with internal and external pressures to ‘fix’ service users. When in training you easily think about what your future as a counselling psychologist will look like: beautiful rooms, grand seating, pictures and abstract art figures. This picture seems understandably apprehensive yet also somewhat exciting that things were starting to fall into place. Placements easily shattered this illusion, and I’d found myself offering therapeutic interventions to someone in a hospital bed. I felt torn – this was not what therapy was supposed to be, what I had spent three years training for. Endlessly messaging training buddies I realised their experiences were somewhat similar. It took a while to adjust to this new position and question why it is that I was being so regimented and concrete about how it is supposed to go. It all felt suddenly isolating, like I was in my own bubble, questioning my competence and my ability to put theory into practice. With all the preparation prior to this, nothing could really prepare me for being out there in the field.
Personal development, therapy, and supervision were a godsend. They helped me to look within, strip back from all the layers of trainee, student, professional – and supported me to let go of the restraints of textbook rules. Reflecting back on the ethos of counselling psychology as self-reflexive professionals and respecting and valuing clients as ‘beings’, I realised it was the power of being human that pulled me through. I was in my own sense of confusion which then settled into a calming acceptance that the fluffy cushions did not matter. The golden thread of therapy was how we connected as therapist and client, what I could bring to link with them and create a trusting and warming relationship. Therapy was not about the smoke and mirrors of the lovely room, it was so much more than that, the rawness of the therapeutic relationship and how we connected.
I was doing the job for real and also had professional indemnity in place, which confirmed the fear of being responsible. Going on to the wards felt like a surreal experience, and being introduced to the young patients felt like being the new one at school again. I felt that the teens were more judging and ruthless than the adults I had come across on the placements, so first impressions meant a lot! Walking through like eager fresh meat felt daunting; however, my fears were soon relieved when meeting the teams and the young people. I soon realised that I’d have to gain their trust and it was going to take time like any therapeutic relationship. I was being judged from all directions, and I needed to show a level head and trusting vibe so that the young people would accept me. Not only was this for my own benefit to fit in, but also for their benefit as, after all, I was the one who would challenge to explore their vulnerable worlds.
Being a psychologist at this time felt like a lonely world, even when with the most supportive teams and great supervisors it felt like a scary time. There are times where you feel confident and know exactly which way to explore therapy and other times you feel completely out of your depth. However, it does not feel like an all-consuming ‘out of your depth’ feeling. It feels like a journey working through the ‘road bumps’ as they come. It is an oddly satisfying time to work through the challenges in therapy and to continue the journey towards self-awareness. The most challenging ongoing piece of work is understanding the self. Another branch of this world is the journey of personal development; getting to know the real you. Knowing who you are, what makes you tick about yourself and others? A great journey to embark on but possibly the most challenging – getting to know your own demons and the way you work and why.
I have come to the realisation that I have probably felt alone for years, just aimlessly wondering about in life and getting caught up in repetitive patterns and at loggerheads with people. The jewels of understanding myself and how I tick have become gold dust to me. This journey of self-realisation is a gruesome one and also eye-opening. I am still muddling through this journey; however, it has helped me to know who I am. I feel settled in my own company most of the time and content to just ‘be’. In those moments I don’t worry about who to impress or get caught up in societal do’s and don’ts, I can just be me and feel comfortable in my own bubble. The anxieties and pressures can still be there but I have learned to create time for myself where these issues can rest aside.
It has been, and still is, a fascinating journey to formulate my life and understand how to perceive myself, others and the world. By no means has it made me a better or happier person, but it has provided me with so much more awareness of how to deal with life situations. It has provided me with an insight into how to relate to service users and how therapy can be adapted in the most functional way possible. The images illustrate this, which shows a being cocooned in its own world of awareness, you need to know yourself, own every part of you and what makes up the person you are, knowing where you end and others and the rest of the world begin. The acknowledgement that it is not always a defining separation between yourself and the world but that there is a connectedness within that. The jewels are found within the connectedness with you and others and the world. That we are separate entities with our own beautiful facets of a diamond with different strengths and expertise, yet we are one, we are human all on our life journeys together. We travel together along this time-limited expedition towards self-awareness. Finding our connectedness within the world can help us to work through therapeutic challenges and understanding the space between therapist and client.
My journey so far is one of developing and increasing confidence in myself and the transition from trainee to professional. A journey of owning who I am, my insecurities and the powerfulness of personal development. I’ve experienced some unwanted changes as I’ve further delved into my own world. I’ve felt a sense of dissonance between myself and others close to me throughout the training period. Learning more about myself in personal therapy and experiences on the course, I had worked to come to terms with my own hang-ups. Life paths where I thought we are travelling together with loved ones soon seemed to separate more. I’ve heard on the grapevine in training that couples are likely to break up and families have stretched bonds as you take on this journey. At the time I thought how this can be, are these just horror stories? Being on the course and coming through the other side, I can now see how this could be. The pictures are symbolic of this where the increased awareness of my own boundaries are the very ones that have at times kept me so far away from the people I care about. I have become aware of how far our paths are at times, the moments where I want to just ‘be’, enjoy ‘stillness’ and use mindfulness as the bridge to within are the times where I feel the distance from others. Is it that they just do not understand? Living in such a fast-paced world, who has time to be still? At the time it was not the ‘done’ thing and everything needed to be ‘all systems go’. This profession has widened my scope in life and set a sparkle on yet another facet on the diamond. Has this training opened another door me… I see it as we all have this in us but have been bogged down by the layers of media and technology that teaches society that who needs this when we can be over involved in each other’s dreamt-up world on social media.
I’ve lived through the training, and maintained my close relationships, but boy was it a challenge! I think I have worked through these challenges by adding perspective and spreading my inner joy and stillness to those around me. At times I felt I was more conscious than others, but I felt I was becoming more secure in my insecurities, which I believe filtered out like roots spreading from under a tree: not visible to the eye but what is seen is the sturdiness and stillness of the trunk.
This has been and still is an amazing, challenging, gory and special journey… I am still yet to find my calling in this profession… CAMHS… Adults… Health… who knows… but I am going to live every moment.
A process of unwinding – my journey into crochet
Tolstoy (1904) described art as being ‘a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress towards well-being of individuals and humanity’ (p.50). My ‘art’ is crochet. A large component of therapy is facilitating clients to care for themselves and attend to their own needs. Crochet is a vital form of self-care that sustains me personally and professionally – it is something that I always look forward to at the end of a long day of lecturing and seeing clients (Dattilio, 2015). Crochet is enjoyable and relaxing, and I use it in different ways depending on my mood. For example, if life is very busy and hectic, then the crochet pattern I am following needs to be relatively simple and repetitive. If I am feeling angry and upset, complex patterns actually serve as a useful distraction due to the high level of concentration required. Crochet’s role in my life provides me with a strong sense of connection and relatedness (‘union’) with others; it has undoubtedly enhanced my wellbeing in ways I could never have imagined when I first taught myself how to crochet in 2012.
I had just submitted my doctorate in counselling psychology and prior to that had completed an advanced diploma in counselling – in total, nine years of non-stop studying, including my undergraduate degree. I felt exhausted and burnt out, in need of a long break. Kovach Clark et al. (2009) have noted that students in training may be vulnerable to burnout, arguing that counselling psychology trainees might not realise that postgraduate training – combining academic, clinical and research elements – can be such a stressful endeavour. The thought of working therapeutically filled me with dread and I questioned whether this was a profession I wanted to remain in. I decided not to see any clients for at least a year… ultimately it was two and half years before I returned to clinical practice.
Like many self-funded counselling psychology graduates I was broke and could not afford to go on an extended holiday as I would have ideally liked to do. My ‘break’ would be spent relaxing at home. This would be a good time to try something new and learn a ‘craft’. So what would it be? It had to be inexpensive, something that would not take up much space in my small flat and something that involved using my hands. In a way, deciding what craft to engage in was much like deciding which university to attend – a detailed process of reflection and consideration. Knitting seemed too complicated, but what about crochet? A crochet hook cost £2 and a ball of wool cost £1 from the charity shop – costs and space kept to a minimum.
During my third-year doctoral placement, I had formed a close relationship with my clinical supervisor. She was compassionate, caring and supportive. Supervision was collaborative and enriching. I was very sad when the placement ended, but even sadder that I was no longer going to be working with her. On my last day, my supervisor gave me a gift voucher; I was so pleased and touched, since I was not expecting a gift. I had been saving the voucher for something that would remind me of this placement and my supervisor, so I purchased two crochet instruction books.
I did not realise at the time that this was something that would change my life to the degree that it has. I started learning how to hold the crochet hook – although I am left-handed it felt more natural to use my right hand. Then I tried fastening the yarn around the hook using a slip knot and making chains. Then single crochet stitches. Then double crochet stitches. Then treble crochet stitches. This was challenging. This was difficult. This was addictive. Hours would fly by; my partner would leave home early for work. He would return in the evening, alarmed to find me, sitting on the sofa still in my pyjamas, hook and yarn in hand. I realise now that I was experiencing what Csikszentmihalyi (1990) referred to as flow: ‘the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter’ (p.4). Yes, I was definitely, excuse the pun, hooked.
Crochet is based on a sequence of stitches, all with unique names and abbreviations. Patterns can either be written or alternatively represented as a diagram with symbols to indicate each specific stitch. To complicate matters, there are British and North American crochet terms. So for example, a UK treble crochet is actually a US double crochet – I learnt this the hard way after following patterns that were written in UK stitches but I was following US ones. This led to producing somewhat oddly shaped items. I needed to understand this new crochet terminology – much like when I started my UK-based doctorate and struggled to process therapeutic and research jargon (often in the form of confusing abbreviations) that felt like a new language – IAPTS, NICE Guidelines, HCPC, BPD, DBT, IPT, IPA, MBCT. Now, as I brandished my hook, I was trying to figure out the meaning of ‘Ch2, 1dc in the 1st slst frm previous row, * 1dc in next dc, 1dc in slst * rpt frm * til end’ (Winifred Baby Blanket, Little Doolally Crochet Patterns). I began to understand terms like ‘stash’ (how much yarn one is storing), DK (double knitting), WIP (work-in-progress – what you are currently working on) and tension. Tension here refers not to something anxiety-related but whether the item you are making matches the required size of the pattern, depending on how tightly or loosely you crochet. I felt daunted by this craft but refused to give up, and within the space of four months and crocheting for up to six hours a day, I was able to crochet and follow patterns without much difficulty.
Crochet is a tactile activity. You can use metal hooks, clay hooks, plastic hooks, wooden hooks… A new hook feels awkward in your hands but after some time it becomes a comfortable tool through which your yarn easily slips over. There are so many different yarns to use – prickly acrylics, hardy cottons, cloud-soft alpacas – each yarn presents a new sensation in your hands and the item you are making. Research indicates that the physical touch of something ‘comforting’ can enhance mood (Corkhill et al., 2015, p.41). Crochet provides a much-needed contrast to therapy, where touch is generally avoided or approached with much caution (Alyn, 1988; Harrison et al, 2012; Mazure, 2009). When I am with clients, my hands are usually resting in my lap, occasionally used to gesticulate or write a note. At the end of the working day, my hands almost literally crave a hook and yarn. I am reminded of infants fingering their baby blankets or muslin cloths when they are tired and how this soothes them. Crochet soothes me through my hands as they touch the yarn and whatever item I am making with it.
Crochet is also a visual activity. Patterns must be read and followed carefully; colours need to be matched and thoughtfully considered. Clients do not generally come to therapy when their lives are going well. They often bring with them stories of despair, anguish, trauma and sadness. In my crochet, I am drawn to light or bright colours, never using dark colours. Crochet allows me to inject some much-needed colour in my life, especially after spending hours listening to clients’ dark and grim narratives. I am also intrigued by the range of names given to different shades, names like ‘Matador’, ‘Emperor’ and ‘Lipstick’ (Stylecraft Special DK range). Thanks to the internet, I access many blogs written by crocheters who generously share their free patterns and designs. They take stunning photographs of their crochet. These crochet blogs serve as a ‘feast for the eyes’; as a result I feel that I have become more aware and mindful of the sights around me. Scudding clouds, teal-coloured sea, different shades of yellow on a sun-baked rock – previously these would have gone over my head. I am more observant of my clients’ faces – taut skin in an anxious client, the grey pallor of an over-worked client, the shining eyes of a client who is finally ‘feeling better’ after months of crippling depression.
As a crocheter, my items of choice are blankets – single, double, king-size, square, rectangular and even circular. I prefer longer projects (much as I prefer working with clients long-term), as this allows me to really learn a new technique, especially if I am using a complicated pattern. Blankets take approximately four months to complete, although this depends on their size. A blanket can last a lifetime. When I make a blanket for someone, they will have it for the rest of their lives. In therapy, I tailor my practice to suit the particular needs of each unique client sitting in front of me, taking into account the client’s distress, past history and ways of relating to others. What would help this client, at this point in time, based on what I know about the client and my countertransference responses, together with the client’s own preferences?
When I am crocheting a gift for someone, I start thinking about the person in the planning stages (almost like an ‘assessment’, if you will) of the project. My best friend feels very cold and she complains about the grey English weather. For her then, a blanket made of wool to keep her warm in bright colours; my soon-to-be-sister-in-law, vegetarian, hippy-ish and into camping; for her a mandala blanket in earth-coloured recycled cottons. A little baby who struggled to be conceived – a star-shaped blanket for ecstatic parents to wrap their own little ‘star’ in. In total I have made seven baby blankets for babies born all over the world, as far afield as New Zealand.
The clinical hour is usually 50 minutes in duration. However, my relationship with my clients does not end there, to be resumed when I meet them again the following week. I think about them during the day, wondering how they are, recalling a painful disclosure they shared with me; I process my practice in supervision and I engage in additional reading and continuing professional development. In the time that I am making a blanket for someone I care about, even an unborn baby, I am keeping them in mind every day for weeks and even months on end as I crochet their blanket. I wonder what they are doing, how they are feeling, if they will like this pattern, if they will like the yarn I have chosen. When I give them the blanket, I am essentially giving a physical representation of myself for them to hopefully treasure and enjoy – but also to remember me by. In my therapeutic practice, I wonder whether my clients ever think of me and remember me after our sessions have ended. Have left a psychic trace or piece of myself in their minds and has this journey that they have shared with me been helpful?
Orbach (2016) has written about ‘the trace of family stories’ that couples bring to therapy (p.20). Although I see clients individually, I recognise that clients do not come ‘alone’, as they share narratives that involve the important people in their lives – parents, children, partners, lovers, friends. I have never met these people, yet occasionally they feel like ghosts hovering in the room. Reflecting back to my own family and crochet, I subsequently discovered that my maternal great-grandmother, whom I never met, was an avid crocheter and my uncle still has one of her blankets. Although she died in the 1970s, here in the 21st century I could admire her neat stitches and the colours she used. My own mother was a fantastic knitter, designing her own patterns. Unlike me, her preference was to make knitted garments rather than blankets. Sadly, she stopped knitting after she was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis and had three separate accidents to her shoulders, but I still have all the baby clothes she made for me and my dolls.
Corkhill et al. (2015) observed that knitting leads to the ‘creation of an end product’ (p.36). The same applies to crochet once a project comes to an end and an item is finally ‘ready’. Therapy too usually reaches an ending, although some clients leave when the work is half-finished. I have many blankets that still remain unfinished four years after I first started crocheting them. They are WIPs (works-in-progress), to be returned to every now and again, like those clients who are in and out of therapy but who can never commit fully to a length of uninterrupted sessions. When they return, after weeks of absence, I try to remember where we left off, much as I struggle to remember the stitch sequence of a blanket I have abandoned.
Gelso (2011) defined the real relationship in therapy as one where therapist and client ‘communicate genuinely with one another, are willing to let themselves be known deeply, and perceive and experience the other realistically, to an important extent’ (p.58). My doctoral research focused on the psychodynamic supervisory relationship and the real relationship that exists between supervisor and supervisee (Sant & Milton, 2015). My supervisor embodied this real relationship, teaching me how to be a human professional, providing clients with the care and respect that they undoubtedly deserve. She supported me in becoming a psychologist but also unknowingly strongly contributed to my development as a crocheter through her kind gift. For this I will always be grateful. The first baby blanket I ever made was for my supervisor’s first baby, over a year after I had left the placement.
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A note on the photograph: it was taken by my partner, Neville Borg. The top blanket is adapted from the pattern ‘Smitten Blanket’ By Haafner http://byhaafner.blogspot.com.mt/2015/01/smitten-pattern.html
The pattern for the middle blanket is by Lucy at Attic24 ‘Ripple Blanket Know-how’ http://attic24.typepad.com/weblog/ripple-blanket-know-how.html
The blanket at the bottom of the pile is an enlarged traditional granny-square with a scalloped edging.
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