I was talking recently to my colleague Marcel Steenkist, who is an excellent Advanced Nurse Practitioner and psychotherapist. I always enjoy meeting Marcel, as he has great passions in his life from contributing to Irish society via his role in the civil Civil Defence, and bird watching etc. Today turned into a conversation about meaning and change in psychotherapy.
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Marcel reflected on an individual who came to see him without really knowing what she wanted from psychotherapy.
She wasn’t exactly sure what issue was, except that there was “something not right”in her life.
She then thought it would be helpful to just check in with me and reflect on a few things. As we got working, I discovered how she had been floating through life thinking and worrying, without feeling too much.
She certainly had mastered the skill of repressing her emotions, assuming this was a good thing.
My client, growing up, came to believe that emotions were not allowed. If she got upset about anything, she was confronted by her parents who expected her to be well-behaved all the time, get good grades in school, play GAA and help to take care of her siblings. Even though she got used to disconnecting from her emotions, she did consider herself to be a loving and caring person and explained that she was always there for her family’s and friends’ needs.
She admitted that there wasn’t much feeling behind her actions; it was just a habit, the way she “was supposed to be”. As therapy progressed, she became increasingly aware about her lack of emotions, especially when her last boyfriend broke up with her, telling her that it was hard to get to know her and get close to her. He noticed how she seemed to lack enthusiasm for life, and that he didn’t feel she really cared about him.
As a young child, my client learned to suppress and control her emotions. Children can only experience their true feelings when they have an attachment to someone who accepts them unconditionally with no strings attached.
My client didn’t have anyone like that in her life. In fact, she felt she would lose her parents’ love and affection, especially if she was not as well behaved as her parents wanted her to be, showing her feelings, so she learned to get rid of feelings, usually by thinking and worrying.
She continued to live her life ‘in her head’ and as a result had difficulty connecting with others on an emotional level.
The real self
To become our real (true) selves, we must try (through an often lengthy process) to discover our own personal truth — a truth that may create an uncomfortableness within, before giving us a new sense of freedom.
My client would have continued on her life journey in the same way she had been doing, unless she started to learn that acknowledging old feelings isn’t something to be afraid of, but instead very liberating and healing. Paying attention to her own self and her own needs wasn’t a bad thing, but something that could bring her to life.
Accommodating the needs of others often leads us to “playing a part on a stage”, far removed from our true self. Living our lives this way leads to a sense of “unrealness”.
My client came to the understanding that, in order to get love and acceptance from her family, she had to repress who she was — but there was a price to pay; a compromised emotional development.
When one is expected to be there for others, there isn’t any room for oneself. My client was regulating herself for others, and she realised it was no longer working anymore for her life and her relationships.
If you want to know who you truly are, don’t ignore your feelings; instead, accept them and connect with them. When we do not pay attention to ourselves and our true intentions, we are unkind to ourselves and that part of us that craves love, affection and acknowledgement.
To live a fulfilling life, you must first know who you truly are; and this is something that takes some searching to discover.
It never happens when you’re stuck in negative thinking and anxiety, and it certainly doesn’t happen when you’re numb and disconnected from yourself by using strategies that are unhelpful like alcohol or drugs.
Once disconnected from your real self, it is hard to know who your real self is and what you want. When one feels overwhelmed by emotions or believes one’s feelings don’t matter to the ones you love, it is almost automatic to try to numb and disconnect from how you truly feel.
Instead, try to allow and sit with those emotions, understanding that, like clouds in the sky, they will pass, and afterwards you will be able to make decisions and choices for yourself based on your values, principles, and beliefs, rather than being based on the beliefs of others.
Dr Eddie Murphy runs a psychological and counselling service in Portarlington, Co Laois. If you are organising a speaker or training for school, community, voluntary, sporting or work groups, call Dr Eddie on 087 1302899 or go to www.facebook.com/ dr.eddie.murphy.psychologist