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Family narratives, self-enquiry and unconscious resistance

This month, Lyn French (A Space Director) re-visits some of the themes included in our publication the A-Z of Emotions, exploring concepts such as family narratives, self-enquiry and unconscious resistance. Ideas on how to creatively explore some of themes Lyn covers are included in the first project to be showcased within the Art Lab section of this website. A Place for Conversation schools project was co-designed by A Space and Iniva for Newport School. The project was based on themes highlighted in our publication Who are you? Where are you Going? with artist Aya Haidar taking family stories as its starting point.

The search for meaning is one of the core aims of therapy.  Artists too, are motivated to create by a wish to make sense of their experiences. In his book ‘Exploring Security’, Jeremy Holmes says, ‘meaning-making is intrinsic to all therapy from folk remedies and Shamanic rituals to psychoanalysis itself’. Putting our ‘felt histories’ into words can be a complex process. This is because our experiences resonate on unconscious levels and may trigger feelings and thoughts that cause anxiety or shame.  Throughout life we use repression as a defence, banishing wishes and fears that would otherwise overwhelm us or be deeply troubling.  Both groups and individuals bury parts of the past or even aspects of the present that are disturbing, confusing or shame inducing.  Even if we resist using repression to guard against the unwanted, it might be difficult to articulate or express what we are thinking or feeling.

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Image illustrating QUESTIONING ONESELF © 2013 Matthew Krishanu Golly (detail), Oil on canvas

Matthew Krishanu’s painting illustrating the letter ‘Q’ within our A-Z of Emotions, depicts a young child lost in contemplation, looking down at a doll that seems to share some of his features. This could be understood as a literal representation of the  way in which we commonly describe self-reflection as ‘stepping outside of ourselves’ to look at who we are from an external perspective, often questioning what makes us who we are. Self-perception is based on getting to know ourselves, giving meaning to our past and present lives and thinking about our future.   One of the ways we find out who we are is by exploring our family stories asking ourselves questions such as, ‘What are my family’s favourite stories about me?  Do these stories suggest that I have been given a particular role in my family?  Does this role support my sense of self or is it undermining? If I want to change how I’m seen to better match who I imagine I am – how do I do this?’  We might also enquire into what has shaped us, perhaps reflecting on questions including, ‘Who or what has been written out of my family history? Why has this person or experience been erased?  What does this tell me? How have past attitudes towards this person or event affected how I view myself or the world?’

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Image illustrating JUST NOT GOOD ENOUGH © 2014 Phoebe Boswell Just not Good Enough, Illustration – Pencil on Paper

Every family has a wish to be seen as loving and kind. However, relationships are complicated and no family is without its troubles.  If we imagine that our family is just not good enough, we might feel full of self-doubt, tortured by the sense that we are in some way inferior.  Phoebe Boswell has made a drawing for the letter ‘J’ which aims to capture how this can feel.  All families have stories they tell themselves and each other about their current identity and the past.  Sometimes this narrative is more or less accurate even if everyone has a slightly different take on it. At others, our stories may rely heavily on fictitious versions of shared events, carefully edited or even unconsciously changed so that we can justify how we’ve behaved and who we are.  However, this leaves behind an emotional residue which feeds low self-esteem. Also the further we move away from uncomfortable parts of our past the more we distance ourselves from being in touch with our real feelings.


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Image illustrating MESSY OR MIXED UP FEELINGS © 2014 Chila Burman Mad About You, Mixed Media

Often we are seeking approval and appreciation from others in order to boost our worth as a family and as individuals. This leads to constructing a picture to show the world which leaves out the messy parts of life.  Chila Burman’s illustration for the letter ‘M’ is a collage composed of cut-out patterns, images, words and textures all jumbled together, conveying how our relationships go through phases when communication gets tangled up, misunderstandings proliferate and conflicts can break out. Instead of reacting from a place of anger or fear or reacting impulsively when our relationships show signs of wear and tear, we can take time out to reflect on our role and enquire into the deeper sources of the problems we’re encountering, asking ourselves, ‘What is being affected? Is it my sense of pride or security? How do I communicate in a way that can be understood?’  We all know that our tone of voice and body language conveys as much, or more, than the words we use but changing this is challenging as these qualities were ones we learned as children through watching the adults around us especially our parents or primary carers. Even when we know we need to change, there can be an unconscious resistance as it means loosening the links which bind us to those we love.   It’s also very frightening to change as we lose something of ourselves in the process and we don’t quite know who we will become. Even letting go of negative thinking can be a challenge as it protects us from looking at what we’re left out of or may never have the opportunity to be or achieve.

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Image illustrating NEGATIVE THINKING © 2014 Larry Achiampong No Hope / Optimistic, The inter-parallel Adventures of Cloud 9, Digital Montage

Larry Achiampong’s digital montage depicting the letter ‘N’ shows us the opposite of negative thinking which is to embrace every day and make the most of it.  When we catch ourselves thinking negatively, we can pause and explore, posing questions such as, ‘What purpose does this kind of thinking serve?  Am I secretly blaming someone (such as a parent or someone close) for how things are? What is this negative thinking telling me about what I really want? Is it more love, security or affirmation?  Realistically, how much can others offer – am I looking outside of myself to boost my self-love and self-acceptance?  Am I avoiding doing the emotional work required to love and accept myself? Am I stubbornly resisting changing my circumstances or my way of thinking? What does this avoidance protect me from?’ and so on.

‘Seizing the day’ means just that – making as much as we can of every opportunity presented to us. Being curious is probably the most open attitude to have.  We can learn to ask ourselves questions including ‘Where do I want to get to in my life? Is my current thinking helping me or keeping me stuck?‘ The Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) is known as one of the most lyrical German-language poets and writers.  He said ‘Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.’

Our Emotional Learning Cards, including the A-Z of Emotions featured here, are currently on sale in our store throughout June. 

Written by Jenny Starr