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Starting over

By Lyn French, Director, A Space

January marks the start of a new calendar year. In this month’s blog, Lyn illustrates the kind of unconscious blocks which might prevent us from sustaining changes that we have every intention of committing to.  Examples given feature images from our  Emotional Learning Cards

Most of us associate January with a fresh start and many of us habitually set ourselves goals for the months to come. It’s soothing and reassuring to plan ahead and to imagine ourselves as taking control of our lives or being more empowered in our relationships.  However, change is not easy to bring about or to sustain. Consciously we have the best of intentions and convince ourselves that we are committed to making changes but unconsciously we may be driven by different agendas altogether.

We probably sense that any change, however small, will involve losses. Losing what’s most familiar to us is often the biggest stumbling block. We become attached to our everyday rituals and to the lifestyle choices we’ve made as well as to our ways of relating and engaging with others. We may be aware that aspects of our life or our relationships are not ideal or somewhat dysfunctional but it’s what we’re used to. Even our way of relating to others will be grounded in the familiar as relationship patterns are established early on in life and then repeated in different forms.

Changing our way of thinking is usually an important feature of any lifestyle or personal change.  For example, if we want to try to sustain our commitment to change, we will probably need to work on our ‘inner voice’ or what some therapists call ‘self-talk’ especially if we’re the type who easily resorts to criticising ourselves or to negative thinking in general.  The easiest part of making a change is deciding to do so –  the hardest is believing in ourselves especially when we slip up and revert to our old ways.  If we do find it difficult to stick to our resolutions we may catch ourselves thinking ‘I’m just too weak-willed. I’ve let myself down again. I’ll never be able to keep this up so I may as well stop now’ or something along these lines.

Using positive reinforcement and affirmations to challenge this kind of defeatist self-talk may not be enough.  We might need to delve deeper to find the origin of our critical inner voice and work on processing the underlying psychic residue before we can move on.  Those of us who were sensitive to criticism as children – or perhaps were criticised too frequently – may well have internalised a parent’s voice and might now use it against ourselves.  This not only repeats a familiar pattern but allows us to maintain a link, however painful, with the parent who spoke to us in this way.   We all have ‘internal representations’ of our real parents which are complex and layered, based on a combination of how we experienced them as small children (including our own misreading or distortions of their intentions, actions, behaviour and thoughts); what we wanted to believe about them perhaps against all evidence; our conscious and unconscious fantasies of what went on in their minds;  and the ways in which these many and diverse impressions intensified or were modified over time. These ‘representations’ take many forms such as ‘the comforting parent, the disapproving parent, the supportive parent, the critical parent’ and so on. We hold onto these representations as they come to be associated with security, just as the small child depends on parents in real life to feel safe or at the very least to have their basic needs met even if the parent is not able to look after them emotionally or psychologically. Giving up our critical inner voice means we no longer ‘hear mother’ (or ‘hear father’) and therefore we lose a part of them.  Rationally, it might make sense to cut this particular tie but in reality, it may mean letting go of a defining feature of an important attachment relationship from the past and might be painful to do so.

The basis of self- criticism in young people or adults may have other sources. Some children feel intense unconscious guilt about their rivalry towards their siblings and to escape from this, they withdraw altogether from any form of competition. This might be accompanied by a harsh superego which is expressed in negative self-talk such as ‘I’m just not smart enough (or attractive or popular or outgoing enough, etc’. Ambition is squashed just as the over-sized foot in Do-Ho Suh’s sculpture Karma from ‘What do you feel?’ gives the impression of being about to come down hard, stamping out whatever lies beneath.

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The black, shiny-shoed foot protruding from a leg clothed in uniform-style or suit trousers in Do-Ho Suh’s piece could be seen to symbolize a harsh, judgmental, authoritarian internal voice hovering above, ready to crush any attempt to escape its powerful rule.

Children can feel excessive guilt about their competitive feelings especially if these feelings are unconsciously rooted in destructive envy towards a rival whom they wish to triumph over. A self-critical inner voice in adulthood can be a kind of self-punishment for unconscious hostility directed towards just such a rival in the past, or indeed, in current life.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, children with a sibling who has a learning difficulty or is vulnerable in some way, may feel intense unconscious guilt about having got ‘the best genetic inheritance’.  The irrational but very powerful unconscious fear of having already ‘damaged’ a rival may stop a child from being able to compete in a healthy way and could continue throughout adult life often leading to low self-esteem and the kind of negative self-talk that blocks healthy ambition and makes sustaining changes difficult. Or the opposite tendency could prevail and a child with a less fortunate sibling could feel compelled to aim high, succumbing to the parents’ unconscious wish for compensation. Even though a new year resolution for the adult still carrying the weight of this kind of expectation may be to strive less and enjoy more, it could be difficult to follow through on as the unconscious guilt coupled with the need for parental approval may block it.

Just as the shoes in Aya Haidar’s Peregrinations are each embroidered with a map on the inner sole which would be hidden from sight if worn, we all have a relational and emotional ‘map’ laid down in childhood which is often invisible to us.

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As we’ve noted already, if we change any aspect of our internal world, we risk weakening our connection with our original attachment figures. Navigating internal separation from our ‘parents in mind’ can be painful. Many of us understandably try to avoid it, unconsciously fearing the feelings of loneliness or the sense of a void which we imagine might be the result.  However, to conduct our own lives, rather than live in reaction to, or in the footsteps of, our parent figures (and those who remind us of them), we need to be able to manage separation and loss, both integral to the change process.    Often, one of the unspoken tasks of therapy is to let go of unhealthy internal attachments and to be more able to experience ourselves as independent, sentient beings, with a fully developed capacity for self-agency. Creating art can also be a powerful way of working through early experiences, even indirectly. All art making involves conscious and unconscious processes, making it the ideal vehicle for expression, exploration, enquiry and critical thinking about ourselves and the world around us.

Written by Paddy Chatterton