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The Question of Freud

How are we to account for Freud the thinker alongside Freud the human being?

The place of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) in relation to contemporary psychotherapy is, to say the least, interesting.

Freud and Josef Breuer (1842-1925) trained in medicine and became interested in the phenomena of the human mind. Together they developed psychoanalysis as a method for treating mental illness based on their studies of human behaviour. Though Breuer’s interest waned, others joined Freud in developing a psychological model of mental illness. In this way the psychological, as opposed to the medical, means of treating mental illness came to be called ‘psychotherapy’.

For Freud the events of our childhood continue to influence our behaviours as adults. For example, traumatic childhood experiences cause and may be used to understand anxiety in our adult lives. Though we may no longer be aware of these childhood events they may nevertheless be causing difficulties in our adult life. In such cases the role of the psychotherapist is to bring these events to our awareness. This will allow us to resolve the trauma and be released from the anxiety it is causing.

In this way Freud may be viewed as a practical-minded scientist who used all he had available to explore the operations of the human mind. To do this he collaborated with others to develop new theories and to improve contemporary practice. This ‘Good Freud’ shared his findings among the research community, while practicing his latest methods in order to help resolve the anxieties of his patients.

However, Freud’s behaviour has been described at various times and by various people as secretive, possessive, dishonest, sexist, patronising, and abusive. This ‘Bad Freud’ hid important developments from those he regarded as competitors. He withheld and ignored results that contradicted his own thinking. He took the ideas of others for himself. Worse still he regarded women as objects for his own use and he abused those who dared to disagree with him.

This leaves us both with a Freud who is a genius of modern science and a Freud who is a despicable cheat.

All of which may be so but is this any more than a historical debate? Well, certain aspects and techniques developed by Freud are still considered to be important and are still in use. Elements such as a client talking confidentially one-to-one to a therapist who listens attentively come directly from Freud. The idea that there are things about our lives of which we are unaware and which influence our present thoughts, feelings and behaviours is something explained and developed by Freud. The belief that these things may be brought to our awareness and in this way our issues may be resolved comes to us (at least in the West) from Freud.

Indeed Freud’s ideas have spread and grown, though not without much debate and disagreement.

Some analysts such as Melanie Klein (1882-1960) adopted Freud’s approach and developed his ideas, making them their own. Whereas others have rejected Freud’s ideas as false, misleading and damaging. So, in the time since Freud first set out his ideas there have been several schools of psychotherapy directly related to his thought and some significantly different. And importantly Freud’s ideas continue to be discussed and debated often using Freud’s own frames of reference.

For myself I find that Freud is neither all good nor all bad. Uncomfortable it may be but while I acknowledge Freud’s remarkable contribution to psychological understanding and therapeutic method, I cannot – indeed must not – excuse his inexcusable behaviours.

And Never Brought to Mind

The run up to the New Year is often seen as a time for recollection, for looking back on the previous year and on past events that have impacted your more recent life. Spending time with these memories brings up a range of emotions attached to a range of events.

Some of these positive emotions are attached to events and experiences that can make you feel happy and enriched in the present moment. Recalling them is good for you and is something you enjoy doing. You may enjoy sharing this happiness with your family and your friends.

Some of these negative emotions are attached to events and experiences that may still be stressful for you to recall. To remember what happened may even be traumatic for you. With such memories and recollections you may find yourself reliving the past stress and having the painful feelings this brings up.

The sad fact is that you may experience these past events as traumatic in the present and you may come to understand that the pain felt in the past is still with you as the pain you are feeling now, in the present.

So what can you do? Clearly you have a choice to make. You can try to ignore what happened and reject these hurtful emotions. This may push your feelings down and leave them for another day. Or you can recognise them and have them in the present. You can acknowledge the trauma you have suffered and the post-traumatic stress that you are now suffering.

You may decide to talk to your partner, your relatives, or to close friends about the stress that you are having. This may lead you to live your life differently. For example, you may decide to do more exercise, to go to bed earlier, to stop smoking, to drink less – or stop drinking – alcohol.

You may decide that your new understanding requires an appointment with your doctor who will offer advice, support and who may decide that medication is appropriate.

As you pursue your chosen path, your concerns and yes your worries about your future may lead you to decide to talk to a professional psychotherapist. Your psychotherapist will help you to be open about your experiences of trauma, to express your worries about and around this, to examine your current situation and your unfolding desires and plans for your life.

In this way your psychotherapist will help you to form a realistic view of where you are that will allow you to decide on a plan that will enable you to lead a future life free from the stress of past trauma and previous hurt.

It’s up to you. Talk to someone and give yourself the opportunity to live life in the present or stay silent and go on trying not to think about these things.

All I want for Christmas

Happy Christmas – How do you feel when you hear these words? Let’s face it, they are everywhere, all around us at this time of year. And then there’s: Have you done your Christmas shopping? Have you wrapped your gifts? Are all your Covid arrangements in place? And so on and so forth … so no pressure there then!

Christmas is a job, a task that you must do so that you can be happy over the holidays. Or is it? Is Christmas just one huge pressure, an impossible task and – yes – a right royal pain in the backside? And how do you feel about this? Maybe you’ll put up with this yet again because it’ll all be worth it. Maybe you feel you’re bound to fail and it’s just a question of how far you fall short of perfection? Or maybe you just feel sad or frustrated or angry or plain depressed about it all.

If this is how it’s going for you then what are you going to do about it? Nothing? Talk to a friend who feels the same? Find other people who hate Christmas just as much as you do? Well, if Christmas is nothing more than a corporate exercise in extracting as much money as possible from as many people as possible then why not? Be realistic. Pull yourself together and have a damn good moan together.

Then again maybe this isn’t you. Maybe you want to feel better about Christmas and maybe you want to feel better about yourself. Maybe then you feel you could enjoy the festive fun. If this is you then maybe you need to understand what is going on with your desire to set yourself an impossible task while insisting both that you want this hell and that this hell is fun.

Well, we all want to feel good about ourselves and we all want to have fun at Christmas, don’t we? And if we don’t then surely we should do something about this. Sure, friends can help and maybe that’ll do the trick. Have a good moan about how Christmas gets more and more expensive, expectations go up and up, and people are less appreciative year upon year upon year. Then, this year, add on top the tragedy of Covid and the incompetence of those in charge. And finally, share a glass of something and wish each other the merriest of festive seasons.

Or maybe not. Maybe there are deeper needs here. Maybe Christmas brings up things you’d rather not think about and emotions you’d rather not feel. Maybe these things have little to do with Christmas itself. Maybe it’s just that Christmas brings these damn things up year after year and nothing you do can make them go away.

If this is you then you have a further choice. You can do nothing and sit with these awful feelings. You can suffer in silence. Or you can choose to seek help and find support. And the good news is that there is lots of help out there. There are books, internet resources, courses, and self-help groups all available to help you.

And there is psychotherapy; one-to-one personal support, designed to help you get from where you are to where you’d like to be. And there are all sorts of psychotherapists out there waiting to help you. Most will set out what they do and how they work. Some may offer a low or no cost introduction where you can talk to them about what you want from your psychotherapy. And there’s a psychotherapist for everyone. If you don’t like the sound of one psychotherapist then simply try another.

Happy Christmas? The choice is yours.

“Psychotherapy is too risky”

Myths about psychotherapy: Number 3

Why doesn’t everyone have psychotherapy? Is it because some people are suspicious of, or even hostile to, psychotherapy? I think the answers to these questions are based on misunderstandings.

I sometimes hear people say that psychotherapists “mess with your mind”. Well ok, it is true that psychotherapists seek to bring about changes to harmful thoughts, hurtful feelings and damaging behaviours. But in every case the person doing the changing is the client not the psychotherapist.

Another concern is that psychotherapists follow ‘crackpot’ theories that at best do nothing and at worst cause harm to the very people they are supposed to be helping. In their training psychotherapists learn to evaluate a range of approaches. In doing this they find out what is useful in these approaches, and to recognise and avoid potential pitfalls. At the end of their training psychotherapists tend to adopt one or two of the approaches studied following certain figures and practicing particular psychotherapeutic techniques.

Related to this is the fear that psychotherapy is a waste of time. This is sometimes expressed in the form “All that time and all that money to just talk about my problems” or “I’ve given away all my secrets for nothing”. At the surface level this may seem to be true. You will spend a lot of time talking about very personal things. Yet psychotherapy is not simply talking. Psychotherapists are trained with people like you in mind. They are trained to know what they can and what they cannot do. Their knowledge expands and deepens with experience.

And they are aware of the risks. Your psychotherapist will begin with an assessment session to judge whether they are the right person to offer you psychotherapy. You will then spend some time discussing the issues you are bringing to your psychotherapy. From this, you will together agree a plan for your sessions.

You will always be in charge and should always feel in charge of your psychotherapy. To make sure this happens your psychotherapist will check-in with you at the start of each session. They will also check-out with you at the end of the session to see how you are feeling and to ask if you want to say anything further.

Where your psychotherapist thinks there could be beneficial changes to your sessions they will suggest these changes in advance. They will ask whether you agree to the proposed changes and if you don’t agree to adopt these changes then they will not be adopted. Your psychotherapist will remain open to your views throughout your time together. They will hear you and keep your psychotherapy safe.

Claude Steiner

How to live free from script

Claude Steiner (1935 – 2017) developed Transactional Analysis (TA) to include more of the social aspects of our experience and the ways in which how our life history affects the way we interact with others.

In “A Warm Fuzzy Tale” (1969) he used a fairytale format to explore the impact of different human interactions. When people give each other “warm fuzzies” (Berne’s positive strokes) they flourish. When fuzzies are withheld, rationed, or replaced with plastic fuzzies (e.g. giving a child sweets instead of attention) or “cold pricklies” (negative interactions) people, and the societies they live in, are damaged.

In “Scripts People Live” (1974) Steiner explored how the messages we give ourselves (or are given by others) in childhood (such as “I am boring” or “I am more intelligent than other people”) can be carried through the years and become part of their “life script” forming important parts of their self-image and affecting their personality.

These script messages may no longer be true – if they ever were – yet people may go on believing them and behaving in accordance with them. This can damage relationships. For example, the message that “strangers are dangerous” may help keep you safe when you are young but can be unhelpful when you are an adult forming mature relationships.

Recognising when we are following a script and learning how to stop following the outdated messages enables us to move into the present. In this way Steiner’s approach helps us understand how we may have become anchored to the past, how we can learn to move into the present, and how we can make a future for ourselves that is happy and fulfilling.

Steiner’s last words were “Love is the answer”.

“My friends can give me all the help I need”

Myths about psychotherapy: Number 2

Nurturing social support from loved ones and friends is an important part of maintaining our mental health. Our needs, however, sometimes go beyond these relationships. When they do, we can benefit from professional assistance.

Psychotherapy may seem similar to friendship. There are however some important differences. Like your friends, your psychotherapist will listen to your feelings about your current concerns. Unlike your friends, psychotherapists are trained to talk with you in ways that will help you to acknowledge your true feelings and to find positive ways forward. In doing this your psychotherapist will be empathetic and non-judgmental. They will not tell you what to do or offer to do it for you.

In friendship your friends’ needs and interests are as important as yours whereas your psychotherapy is all about you. Everything your psychotherapist does is directed towards helping you.

Friendship does not need a plan or purpose beyond enjoyment. So, with your friends, you can relax, have fun, play sport or visit different places. In contrast, psychotherapy is planned and purposeful, moving towards one or more mutually agreed ends. And with your psychotherapist, you can only do psychotherapy. Your psychotherapist may be friendly, but they are not your friend.

Some of your private thoughts or feelings might appear hurtful or shocking if they were said to a friend. A psychotherapist is a trained professional who understands that we all have unpleasant thoughts and feelings. They know that talking about them in a safe space is important and helpful. They will not judge you.

Sometimes you may not know what you truly think about someone or something. Your friends may assume they know your thoughts already and rush to find quick fixes. Your psychotherapist will sit with you, listen and help you to clarify your thoughts so you can come up with the right solution for you.

Eric Berne

An introduction to the founder of Transactional Analysis (TA)

Eric Berne (1910 – 1970) trained as a psychiatrist. He became interested in the Freudian tradition and went on to train as a psychoanalyst. Berne had psychotherapy with Paul Federn. Though Federn was a close colleague of Sigmund Freud he had a different understanding of the ego and believed that people could consciously engage with it.

Berne developed these ideas and ended up rejecting Freud’s notion of unconscious processes. He believed that people could learn to recognise what was happening and change the way they responded. He wrote a series of articles on this topic which led to the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute refusing him full membership.

Berne decided to pursue his own path in psychotherapy, focusing on the importance of social interactions in nurturing or damaging our mental health. Berne referred to this way of working as ‘Transactional Analysis’ or ‘TA’.

With Transactional Analysis Berne replaced Freud’s Id, Ego and Superego with Child, Parent and Adult ego states. The Child ego state expresses our feelings and emotions. The Parent ego state represents the orders and rules we have been given or have given ourselves. The Adult ego state represents how we are and what we are learning.

When we are in the Adult ego state we can modify our feelings and question our desires. In this way we may come to feel differently about ourselves and behave in a more psychologically healthy way.

In my work as a psychotherapist I find Transactional Analysis to have certain limitations such as the sometimes confusing use of the terms ‘child’, ‘parent’ and ‘adult’. Nevertheless, I find Transactional Analysis to be a very useful way to understand and to explore our psychological lives.

“Psychotherapy is only for crazy people”

Myths about psychotherapy: Number 1

As much as I’d prefer not to use words such as ‘crazy’ or ‘mad’ they keep on coming up time and again in phrases such as “Psychotherapy is only for crazy people” and ‘You have to be mad to see a psychotherapist”. In fact, I’d say that such words speak to the most common misconception there is about psychotherapy. So, allow me to tell you how I see this.

Just as everyone has physical health, so everyone has mental health. Just as you can work on your physical health so you can work on your mental health. When you face challenges with your physical health you seek appropriate professional support. Similarly, when you face challenges with your mental health you should seek appropriate professional support.

No one is perfect. Your capacity to function varies from area to area. You may be very practical and not so sympathetic. You may be very sympathetic and not so practical. This means there are many reasons for you to come into psychotherapy. Perhaps you want to form a lasting relationship or start a family. Perhaps you are wondering about a career change or retirement. Maybe you are coming to the end of your life or maybe a love one has recently passed away. Psychotherapy is not just about anxiety or depression or for people who are in crisis.

Psychotherapy offers you the opportunity to understand yourself better. In coming to this understanding, you will come to appreciate certain things about yourself both positive and negative. With this understanding comes the ability for you to address longstanding and unnoticed unhelpful beliefs and damaging behaviours. This in turn will offer you the opportunity to move towards a happier and more fulfilling life. In psychotherapy, everyone can grow.