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Pathways to depression & why images are necessary for healing

Pathways to depression

 In the following days I will write about Psychological factors that are pathways towards depression, as well as consequences of them. Finally I write why I believe that using only words in therapy is not sufficient for healing.

  1. Absence of adoration
  2. Misattunement
  3. Loss of Power
  4. False Living
  5. Unresolved Grief
  6. Loss of community & faith
  7. Words are not enough: Healing through images

The Absence of Adoration

A baby is born, and there you have it – the expectation of love.  To be cherished, protected and adored. To be wanted. We all have that need, we know it. Take your own measure: How was it for you? I am talking here of up to the age of twelve, with every year up to that magical age, counting. A child who is loved and adored, who is protected and wanted – a child whose parents look at it with pleasure – receives a magical ingredient that protects against a variety of life-long problems. Being loved by parents is the primary vaccine that boosts mental health, providing a protective factor for life. A necessary, yet not sufficient condition, for it has to be combined with power & meaning.

The absence of it has the opposite effect – an inner grief and loneliness that seems to run in our veins. A longing that lies beyond words.

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A note on siblings: Siblings can love you and hate you. That can be ok, depending on the balance. It can even be good for you, if the balance is on the side of love. If the balance is on the side of hate & resentment, the scales can begin to tip, often towards guilt, but not necessarily depression, except if it happens in the absence of parental protection. 

Misattunement

Lack of rapport between infant and parent or caregiver such that the infant’s efforts at communication and expression are not responded to in a way that allows the infant to feel understood.

https://dictionary.apa.org/misattunement

Misattunement can happen under both conditions: love and the absence of it. Attunement means, of course, being in tune. A child squirming in a parent’s arms is, of course, a child wanting to be put down. This is clear, and being attuned (of course), means putting the child down and not holding the child even firmer. There are many variations on this theme.  An infant turning its head away when having a face-to-face interaction, means that the infant needs a break, and does not need to be tickled on the cheeks to make its head turn back again.A simple pause to see what the baby does next, is all that is required. Following a child’s lead and interpreting their needs appropriately, is what it means. A toddler being frequently interrupted in its endeavours, a child being constantly interacted with or being ignored or distracted when it seeks interaction, that is misattunement.

The examples above have to do with physical attunement. Here are 2 components:

  1. Letting a child be when they are busy doing something that comes spontanously. It is the opposite of interference. Too much interference is at the root of much ‘bad’ behaviours in a child. It is a source of great frustration. Some children rebel. Worse off are those who give up on exploration. Spontaneous exploration is the root of curiosity and it’s highly important off-shoot: Inner Motivation.
  2. Responding appropriately when a child expresses a physical need. A baby who cries is calling for a humane response, a child who lifts up its arms is asking to be picked up, a frightened toddler requires a calm intervention to restore equilibrium, an energetic child needs a physical outlet, etc. Not having basic needs such as these met, having them ignored or even being punished for having such normal needs, results in an adult who is out of sync with its own needs as well as those of others. An adult who struggles to restore their own equilibrium.

We see this in depression as an inclination towards regression. As if the person is still seeking for someone to look after them physically. As if their unmet needs in childhood are still yearning for that experience. It is an interesting psychological (genetic?) expression, well-known to therapists, that if appropriate developmental/biological needs are not met, they find expression in ‘abnormal’ ways.  For example, a toddler whose need for exploration is consistently curtailed, either collapses (becomes passive and unmotivated) or rebels, becoming aggressive. An adolescent with no constructive outlets for an innate need for adventure & group belonging, will find destructive ways to have these needs met. Denying and punishing your own body, whether through overuse, abuse or neglect, have repercussions much wider than the purely physical. A body, as much as a mind,  requires interaction (which is why group sport is way more fun than gym).

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Every stage of life has its own developmental needs. After many decades, the psychosocial stages (he named them “crises) of Erik Erikson still have value. I have posted them below.

You can read more about them at https://www.simplypsychology.org/Erik-Erikson.html At every age, it is valuable to notice where your ‘natural’ movements are, and where you may be attempting to block them.

The tricky matter of emotions: Attunement as “mind-mindedness”

Mind-mindedness is a concept in developmental psychology. It refers to a caregiver’s tendency to view their child as an individual with a mind, rather than merely an entity with needs that must be satisfied. Mind-mindedness involves adopting the intentional stance towards another person. Individual differences in mind-mindedness have been observed in the first year of life, and have been observed to have important developmental consequences.

Wikipedia

Meaning making and emotion regulation

“Seeing ourselves form the outside and others from the inside”.

  How do we make sense of our own feelings and the behaviours of others? How do we learn to soothe others and ourselves?  Our understanding of an event and our capacity to deal with it are two sides of the same coin. Much personal distress and relational difficulties are the result of distorted meaning making.

Through the experiences that we had of being understood and being soothed in our earliest care-giving relationships, we learn to mentalize (to have in mind, to make meaning of) our own reactions as well as those of others. The ways in which we experienced this “having in mind”, will comfort us, or scare us, or make us anxious, or make us want to run away from it. How we respond today is very much imbedded in the early reactions of our caregivers.[1]

Authentic experiences of being are undermined when parents and partners lose sight of us, when we have to appease them or when we – or they- are idealised. It is the psychological essence of feeling lonely. Of feeling uncared for.

When a parent says to a baby, “Hey, I am sorry that I am irritated with you. It is not your fault. I am worried about work, and now I take it out on you; you are just a baby”, the baby gets to understand that feelings have reasons – even if they are sometimes unreasonable. The child learns that the emotional world, and its problems, has its own meanings, and that these can exist separately from the self. Combined with humour and compassion, powerful tools of distress management are thus being developed, as humans learn that people have separate minds and can use meaning making as tools to use when we need to cope with our own problems and the difficult behaviours of others.

Adults, who were not sufficiently kept in mind as children, can fail to keep others in mind as separate, meaningful beings. They do not check in with the other, but respond in terms of their own overwhelming feelings, and tend to negate the realities of the other.  In depressed persons, a history of the negation or oversight of their feelings (not necessarily with ill-intent), can lead to the cognition that ‘I do not really matter’, with a type of existential nihilism settling in. In an ironic reversal, they may tend to overvalue the feelings of others, whilst undervaluing their own.

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This is not only a personal development; whole societies can act like this. Having your mind in my mind has as much to do with how we think of others, as about ourselves. It plays itself out when we meet people who are different from us, and wherever we find expressions of power. 

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Having your mind in my mind

A little girl of six, two neat brown plaits standing away from her head is brought to my practice because of her bed-wetting.  Her mother is having an affair. The parents are whispering behind their bedroom door, clearly in distress. When the little girl asks about this, they reply that she should not worry, this is a grown-up problem, and they will sort it out. The little girl continues to worry.  I understand her bed-wetting to be her inability to cope with the tension that lives behind the closed bedroom door.

“Little girls worry when their parents argue behind closed doors, “ I say.

“Yes”, she replies. “But what does it mean? Does it mean murder?”

The capacity to see things from the child’s perspective is an essential ingredient of sensitive caregiving. This means that the child can be safely held in the parent’s mind. For a child to experience ‘thinking about’ as a safe and inherently useful experience, the parent has to sufficiently often name the child’s experience appropriately without criticism or judgment; just accepting and naming the child’s mind, as it is. Parents who react in ways that a child cannot make sense of, or cannot have in mind, or are unsuited to the child’s developmental stage, creates unknown anxiety and an avoidance to keep things in mind. In extreme cases, a state of “mindlessness” is created.

A few years ago I visited a woman who worked in our house when I was a child. I was curious about why I had felt so safe and free with her, and had cried such bitter tears when she left. We were having tea in her lounge, when her granddaughter, aged about six, and whom she looks after during the day, was called in from outside where she had been playing with others. She stood at the entrance to the door of the lounge, sulking. “What is the matter?” asked her grandmother, with a note of slight concern in her voice. Then promptly remarked, “Oh you are upset because you have to come in already.”  The little girl’s posture relaxed (grandmother was right, and had read her mind correctly, and accepted this without fuss, and without blame or the need for a sermon). “Come”, said her grandmother in a soothing voice, “let me fetch you a yoghurt, and then I will tell you who this lady is who is having tea with us.” They left for the kitchen, hand in hand. When they returned the granddaughter joined us, sitting on the carpet, closer to me now, eating her yoghurt, curious about the stranger.

I understood that this woman has the wonderful ability to see a child, and to care about what she sees, and to name what she sees in such a manner that it contains the child, and to take ordinary practical steps to ‘make things better’.

The little girl in the first example, the one whose parents were experiencing problems, has parents who love her, and who care about her. But they did not feel safe to name her fears. Unnamed they lived inside her. She tried to make meaning by thinking of the worst thing she could think of – did they commit an act of murder? Would this mean they would have to go to jail? What would happen to her? Not coping, she wets her bed.

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I have seen two extremes: Not talking about  and bizarre, sadistic manipulation.

The most extreme case of not talking about that I ever saw was of a 17 year old girl who had to have a mastectomy because of breast cancer, and nobody in the family was allowed to talk about it. Not even one conversation between mother and daughter. Unsurprisingly, the girl became mute and refused to leave her bedroom. This is extreme, I know. In my experience ‘ not talking about’ makes its appearance in some form or another in most (possibly all) families, but for sure it plays a substantial role in the lives of all persons with depression, and must be taken into consideration as part of a road to recovery.

Mind-mindedness is easiest understood as reflecting the other person’s experience back to them, and them agreeing that is how it is. In this way the person feels real and validated. Experiences of being understood grounds us, and has the world make sense. Having our feelings or our realities regularly denied, leads to mistrust and confusion – in ourselves and in the other.  I once saw a young woman who grew up with this double-bind: “Don’t be shy, say what you think”, she was admonished. The moment that she spoke up she was criticised, followed by “don’t be so sensitive.” What was she to think of herself and her opinions? How was she to make sense of her own mind and the minds of others?

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Let met make clear that attunement does not have to happen 100% of the time. This is not necessary, at all. It is not even recommended. Too much attunement is intrusive. Normality is what we are striving for.  80- 70% Of the time would be great, 60% of the time would be fine. Less than that, and you will be picking up some trouble.


[1] There exists a vast field of research on the long-term influence of early caregiving experiences.  You can search “Attachment theory” and look for names like John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth.

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What is happening to therapy?

This is the post excerpt.

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I have been trying, this past ten years or so, to do therapy without using any jargon. No words such as depression or bipolar,  nothing like inner child or soul or inner critic or sentences like, “You can be anything you like”,  or  ” Do whatever feels right for you.” To be frank, I disliked all of that anyway. It sounded like brainwashing combined with  wishful thinking, and who knows,  is any of that “true” at all?

So, I try to stick to ordinary verbs – doing words – and adjectives. If you push “Depression” out of the room, longing and sadness will usually take its place. Tell me about your longing and your grief. We can talk about that. And tell me about your loss of power too.

Yesterday I was at a creative workshop. A lovely older woman, a teacher of English, spoke about her agony when having to take big decisions as she does not trust herself, and she is sad about a life that is lacking in joy.  “It is because of the lack of love in your life” , a successful therapist replied. “Yes”, the teacher responded, agony on her face, “that is exactly what I don’t have.”

Here is my take on it: When you are a small child,  you will explore. You will do your best to discover things and to have joy.  You will only be stopped for three main reasons: 1) Absence of opportunity (a barren environment) 2) Rigid rules and boundaries (don’t make a mess, be clean, be tidy, be dutiful) and/or 3) Overprotection.

When you are an adult, you cannot wait for trust and love to be there before you begin to explore and to experience joy.  You cannot waste more time mourning for what you do  and did not have. You may have to wait for ever and then more if you want to have  before you begin living. You begin by risking, by taking chances, by taking a walk on the wild side. You will learn to trust and to love once you are out there –

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3.Loss of Power & Depression

By definition, depression is about the loss of power. Somehow power has seeped out of your veins. Which is why you just want to lie down. Go to sleep. Give up. Die. It is all too much. You no longer have the energy or the will to take it on. It is psychological defeat. You are the vanquished. What is this battle that you have lost?

I dare say that it is the battle for your own power, your own will, your own efficacy to have life flow with your deepest desires.

A strange paralysis of feeling, or a deep insecurity that can lead almost to a sense of nullity, may sometimes be the result of an unconscious opinion. In the depths of our being, the voice whispers: “You are hopeless. What’s the use of trying? There is no point in doing anything. Life will never change for the better.

Adapted from C.G. Jung. Man and his Symbols. 1964.

How did this happen?

When he enters my room, he is wearing a white t-shirt with a print of black skulls and bones.  The mood of the t-shirt is reflected in his posture as he slides onto the armchair, only barely managing to remain seated. I have a sense that he could easily slide off the chair, and land on the floor in a slumped heap, where he would stay. This young man, in his final year of school, has thoughts of death, including the magical idea that he could kill others with his thoughts. 

His story is marked by disempowerment. He remembers being bullied in primary school, and his hippy pacifist parents advising him to “do nothing”. He also remembers wanting to call his parents “mom” and “dad”, but them insisting that he calls them by their names. And that when he started taking drugs at age 13 they, knowingly, did nothing. A child who had the double-whammy of not experiencing parental power on his behalf (it is not a long way for the mind to go from “do nothing” to “I am nothing”), and being powerless to have his pressing needs met (for advocacy in the face of adversity, for the need for parents to be parents, not buddies – so much can be in a name). The young man had not only lost the link between I desire and therefore I am able to achieve what I deeply desire, it had become distorted into a negative impossible (“I can kill people with my thoughts”). In my final paper in this series, I write about how we have to engage with imagery to heal. I will then write more extensively about how this young man was rescued.

A woman comes to see me. She comes because of high anxiety that is threatening her daily existence. No longer able to make even the simplest choices, e.g. what to make for supper, her anxiety about her own anxiety is now putting a stop to any attempts to live a ‘normal’ life.  I have previously written that anxiety and depression are twins. Here we can see the connection clearly: The father was physically and verbally abusive. An unstable man, whose moods could not be predicted. Unpredictability in a parent causes high levels of anxiety in children. It converts into a set point of hypervigilance. Such a child is always on the lookout for telltale signs of a potential threat. Children of alcoholic parents have this same hypervigilance. Going home from school, they are already tense. What is it that they will find? Or when a parent comes home from work: How will it be today? Such children often go into fawning, to appeasing the other.  Natural reactions go underground, as they are perceived to be too dangerous to be an option. Over time they may no longer ‘know’ what their natural reactions in a situation would be. Such a child grows up compromising their own needs, and when faced with adversity, will either overcompensate in favour of the other, or at times ‘lose it’, and react like the feared parent.

Depression is inevitable under such cases. The connections to one’s own natural reactions and a positive form of assertiveness have to be learnt anew.

In my blog on suicide, I wrote about the successful man who came to see me because he was gay and could not come out. He was a man who was loved and revered, both by his family and his colleagues, so it was not as if he could rebel against negativity. Coming out would mean such hurt to his wife and children as well as his parents, that he could not do it. His family was deeply religious,  and believed that homosexuality was against God’s will, his wife was a good woman who loved him dearly. His children looked up to him, he was his parents’ pride and joy. The impossibility of it all led to deep despair. Here we have a person who had to deny a deep longing in himself.  Depression always has this component.

Depression at heart, I believe, is the dampening down of early spontaneity, whether through cultural or familial factors, especially with regards to our liveliness, our power, our identity, and our natural drive for exploration. This loss of spontaneity of being and of the power to affect our deepest longings, is a substantial loss. If the inherent human responses to threat are flight, fight, freeze and submission, depression has them all. Siblings and peers can play a scandalously underestimated role. They can prevent us from being ‘ourselves’ as much as parents can. Siblings can block your natural path, even before you take your first steps out into this world.

Peers can deny connection, or demand such a high a price of falsification, that it mocks your very being.  

The dampening down of the ability to affect change in your own best interests, whether through cultural and/or familial factors, are the precursors of the shutdown in spontaneity that marks depression. 

Depression I. Uncomfortable facts:


A. Medication & Genetics

I have procrastinated writing about depression. It is such a monumental field: How do I cover this vast field in a few short essays? Here is a short piece about the most often heard untruth as well as the most honest route to ‘cure’.

The most frequently overheard misunderstanding:

1. It is a genetically transferred illness.  My father had it; my grandmother had it, so now I have it. We have to take pills for the rest of our lives, and that is all there is to it. It is an illness, just like diabetes. You don’t feel ashamed if you have diabetes, so why should you feel bad about having depression? You can’t help it.

This type of reasoning is understandable. It takes the personal out of the particular, and makes it easy to engage with: We all understand about a clearly defined illness (diabetes, high blood pressure, epilepsy). Medication is simple to administer (if not that simple to adhere to). This helps family members to take themselves out of the equation (it is inside the person after all) – providing a protective shield that quarantines against personal, familial and social liability.

I suffer from depression myself. Many of my family members do. It is not a crippling depression; we function fairly well in spite of it, some even becoming high achievers, despite the chronic dysthymia that runs through our family line (dysthymia is the old-fashioned term for low-grade depression. It stems from by Hippocrates, meaning despondency /or a tendency to be despondent/despair – literally, bad soul. In current medical terms it is known as Persistent depressive disorder).

Well then, it must be genetic. Yes and No. Yes, but No.

So is it genetic? Probably. Somewhat. This one is tricky to pinpoint, as we know that genes respond to an environment. We know, for example, that rat mothers who are trained to be anxious (by consistently evoking anxiety in them), not only have anxious pups, but that their pups also have anxious pups. So here we have something that did not exist before, being trained into the genes. But it is not as simple as that either, because anxious mothers react differently to their offspring than non-anxious mothers do, so that their reactions are also transferred through learning, and learning gets wired into our brain. Thus it is not that easy to discern genetics and learning, given genes also get triggered in specific environments. Taking this argument into consideration, unlearning and not triggering a gene could therefore also happen. In other words, we could reverse the anxiety in the rat pups – and in their pups.

The most truthful answer is that depression is most probably genetic and environmental: In other words, a gene to be triggered needed to pre-exist, but it also required an environment to trigger it. As the trigger usually happens early, the environment is most usually familial as well as societal.

A. Typical familial triggers: A loss that cannot be properly grieved, nor restored.

This can be a real loss (death, stable & secure environment, disability, etc) or a psychological one: power, spontaneity, emotional stability, love.

B. A wider loss: It can also be the loss of something more abstract, but equally vital: meaning, true connectedness, authenticity, truth, depth, spirituality, creativity, and engagement.

C. And more modern/societal: The loss of childhood, the loss of security, of certainty, of community, and of time spent in nature.

2. The most ineffective way to treat it: With medicine.

No, this is not my personal opinion because I am anti-medicine. I do not tell people with diabetes or high blood pressure not to take their pills. But, as any medical practitioner will tell you  – with exasperation, or resignation, depending on how long they have been in practice – the problem is that many people with diabetes continue with their unhealthy lifestyles, even when they become blind, or a foot has to be amputated. That persons will high blood pressure will not exercise, or keep their weight down, despite being told to do so repeatedly.

Research has conclusively shown by now that a) anti-depressants on their own will not –cannot – cure you of depression, and that b) at least one third of people do not respond to anti-depressants positively, and a significant percentage will respond negatively, that is, become more depressed. The long and the short of it: Anti-depressants can help in the short term, and may even be vital for that initial kick-start that you need, but if you do not make the necessary lifestyle changes, you will remain depressed.  This I can guarantee you. The same goes with anxiolytics (anti-anxiety meds). Depression and anxiety, by the way, are twins.

3. The best cure is the hardest one. Its name is truth.

To be objective about ourselves is probably thé most difficult task that we can undertake. I had a wonderful friend who died prematurely of cancer. I still miss him. One day he said, “All life is based on a white lie. Without it we could not function.”  This may be true, but for a person with depression, the only way out, is through the gates of honesty.  If we are not honest about own lives, we will not overcome it. In our family for example, we have generations of unloving stepmothers. How could this not have impacted on us? (Small wonder that is such a prominent feature in fairy tales). But, important as this is, and it is, it is still only á backdrop.  There are many more: You have to go through the entire ABC above, and unpack them one by one.

The most efficient way to begin: Ask your best friends, your family, and then your colleagues. Ask them to be honest. Grin and bear it.

Much of depression is rooted in an overcompensation that had you compromise the very essence of your being. It is disempowerment combined with grief. The greatest grief: The loss of your vital, authentic self. The loss of the connection to that which is vital. No amount of pills or the distraction of your choice will extinguish the longing for something more vital. 

You have to put up a fight to get yourself back. Don’t give it up.

Available online:

To read: “Depression as a Social Disease”, by Michael Bader in Psychology Today  

To watch: John Hari on you tube: “Why disconnection is at the center of depression and anxiety today”

To research: The research on medication consists of a host of contradictory findings, opposing each other. Even reliable websites can contain directly contradictory research papers.

Here is a cautious reaction from the World Health Organization (WHO)

There are effective treatments for moderate and severe depression. Health-care providers may offer psychological treatments (such as behavioural activation, cognitive behavioural therapy [CBT], and interpersonal psychotherapy [IPT]) or antidepressant medication (such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors [SSRIs] and tricyclic antidepressants [TCAs]). Health-care providers should keep in mind the possible adverse effects associated with antidepressant medication, the ability to deliver either intervention (in terms of expertise, and/or treatment availability), and individual preferences. Different psychological treatment formats for consideration include individual and/or group face-to-face psychological treatments delivered by professionals and supervised lay therapists.

Psychosocial treatments are also effective for mild depression. Antidepressants can be an effective form of treatment for moderate-severe depression but are not the first line of treatment for cases of mild depression. They should not be used for treating depression in children and are not the first line of treatment in adolescents, among whom they should be used with extra caution.

https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression (19/03/2019)

Thriving 2

I send out a whats app:

“I am doing a small informal survey: Would you mind giving me 2 examples as a child when you felt like “thriving”. Mine, for example are, doing my homework on my own, and riding my bike from athletics back home.”

I have some ideas about thriving, but like to keep an open mind.  It is enjoyable to find patterns in people’s responses, especially when they are completely unaware of each other. The return messages fall into two categories.

Examples from Category One

I wanted to sing in the choir, but was told that I sing off-key. So I practiced and practiced, sometimes my mother would play the piano for me to sing, until I made it. I loved every moment of that choir.

From someone else

I was ten years old, and joined a gymnastic club. I was scared, as I was the only Coloured child there, and what if I could not do it? The trainer was kind, and to my relief I could do it.  Wednesday afternoons became the highlight of my week, and when I received my certificate at the end of the year, I felt really proud.

And another

I had some difficulty with Physics, until Mr M. came along and showed me logic; I felt completely in control and developed a new sense of independence.

From a woman

When my dad helped us to make bows and arrows, and we went swimming with him in the forest, although he could push us too hard to jump from a high ledge into the pool that has no bottom or slide down a slimy slope.

Category two

As cousins we enjoyed riding our bikes, even if it meant getting into trouble for not being home on time.

Saturdays in Mr M’s garage, playing table tennis. That’s where our table tennis club was.

Playing in the veld with kids from the neighbourhood.

Where we lived it was very hot. My cousin, my brother and I spent hours playing in the pool, with our dog for company. There was no adult supervision. Afterwards, ravenous with hunger, we would lie on our stomachs, eating watermelon with pieces of cheese.

What do we see here? Experiences of challenges overcome and of camaraderie, of gaining independence and of support & encouragement. It strikes me how physical and sensorial the majority of the examples are (Another person wrote about baking cakes on Sundays whilst her parents are sleeping).

A final example

I always dreamed of having a horse. Never thought it would be possible. My father made it realise. Saddling and riding and caring for my own horse gave me a great sense of independence and competency.

Here we see a great example of thriving: Where an individual with the right type of support, experiences independence and competency.  Physicality and the outdoors perfect the picture. The only thing missing, maybe, is the camaraderie.

So what do we have here?

Camaraderie, adventure, freedom, independence on the one side  – Overcoming fear, achieving incremental goals and pride in our accomplishments on the other.

One thing is for sure: supportive others that help you to reach your own goals are often (but not always) necessary, as long as they do not undermine your independence and your freedom.

Sounds like excellent parenting advice!

And a fine challenge to our own lives.

All this reminds me of Internal Motivation. This is how internal motivation is nourished. As we saw in a previous blog, internal motivation in essence depends on three capacities (these are innate to all children, if parents, teachers and siblings don’t interfere too much): Self-determination, perseverance to achieve own goals (self-discipline), and pleasure in the doing so.     

“Self’ 

“ I do it myself”.                 

Thriving vs. Surviving

It is a common human experience this; surviving rather than thriving. Many of us live like that: We are grateful for small islands of thriving amidst an ocean of surviving.

Living with satisfaction is an encompassing topic that covers a range of possibilities from “The Power of Positive Thinking” to “Man’s search for Meaning”, as well as a bookshop full of titles from “How to win Friends and Influence People” to  “Rich Dad Poor Dad”. I do not mean to bash these books; they are the result of a collective need for pointers in the right direction. The abundance of self-help slogans also attest to this, forming handrails to the shaky bridges that we have to cross daily over increasing divides.   With escalations in diversity, with ever-expanding uncertainties and divisions, combined with the invasion of compelling Internet posts, we have the inevitable decrease in communal wisdom and certainty, so that we have become increasingly distrustful, and at the same time needy.  What is to guide us in the land of Babel?

Who I am then? Another squeak in a world of tweets, so to speak. One more person trying to make sense of the Babylonian confusion. For adults, I have little advice – Find out what you like and do lots of it, is still the best advice I ever got. 

For parents I have two sources: My own experiences as a parent and my professional life working with children and their parents. I have made many mistakes over the years.  In my professional life I had the advantage of getting second chances, and of learning from experience so that I could get better over time. With my own children alas, by the time that I had realised my biggest mistakes, it was too late.

Secondly I read research. I confess that I like reading research.  When longitudinal research over different cultures bring out same research findings (in other words, if research about happiness in children in China reports similar variables to research done in Ethiopia, I begin to trust it a little. I am fortunate in that I am able to understand research designs, so that I can cast a critical eye on the processes that have been used).

Here are my best parental guidelines, gleaned from my own failures and successes and from reading research:

  1. Have Fun. Do fun things. Create adventures. Plan adventures. Save money for exploits in nature.  Go OUT THERE.  The more often the better. In the case of children: At least once a day be outside for at least one hour. That is the minimum!
  2. Let your children be. LET them BE. Do not continuously monitor, organize, admonish, help or cuddle your child. For at least one hour per day: Let them do whatever it is that they are busy doing, and do not interrupt, interfere, guide – just keep yourself in check! Intrusion is the curse of our time, and a major cause of irritable children. Not spending enough time outside is another. They often go together.
  3. You are the boss. Yip. This is true. NO, you are not Hitler nor Mrs. Rottenmeier  (“You do so because I say so”), but you are the “calm, assertive leader” to quote another television character. It means you earn respect.  This clearly means that you have to demonstrate the exact behaviours that you are expecting from your children (here is where the self-help books come in really handy). Your child has little motivation, no self-control? How does yours look? Shows little respect?  I learnt this one the hard way: the strongest influence of all, overriding even all the best how-to practices, is how you are yourself. How you behave.   Check it out: Take one behavioural problem that a child of yours has. Now ask yourself: How do I fare on this dimension?

4. Which brings me to:Humor and compassion. Wherever you take these two, they add value and improvement. Want to insist on a rule being kept?  Want to make sure they do their homework/eat healthy meals?  Wherever you add humor and compassion, and combine this with calm assertive leadership, and practice what you preach, you will have far greater success, and believe me, far fewer future regrets. 

5. Make work pleasurable. No, I do not mean fun, I mean inherently satisfying. Without work our lives would be empty and meaningless. (Yes, plenty of research has shown this to be true). So make work time such an experience: Clear the table, make a pot of tea with some rusks, have an attractive holder with coloured pens, and sit down and work with your child. Ignore their sighs and moans (children can be just like dogs: even unconstructive behaviours can become reinforced if they are given sufficient attention). Emphasize that work is a privilege, that without it we would not only be destitute, we would also feel worthless and inferior. That, when all is said and done, work is what gives us purpose, and what makes of us constructive members of society. This takes us back to rule no 3: That you work on your own attitude!

This is as true for very clever children (who can rush off their work) as it is for children with learning difficulties: The former has to learn to savior their work (Ok not all of it, some work is simply tedious)- that depth brings satisfaction. The child who struggles has to experience that the setting of small incremental goals, and the achievement of these, can be truly satisfying. Let me reinforce this idea: When work is satisfying, it can compensate for a lot of what is missing in our lives. When work is unsatisfying, the rest of our lives can barely compensate. Which brings me to the next point:

6. Set the bar higher (or lower). We are all born with some level of inherent aptitude. Within our aptitudes there exists a range: a bottom level and a top level. Do not accept performance at the bottom level. It brings no cheer. Of course, some parents are wildly optimistic. Because primary school can be relatively easy, some parents believe their children to be way more talented than they really are. I am not sure how to help you get an accurate measure without having an official IQ test done. If your child goes to a good-enough school, you can usually get a fair measure by your child’s placement in class as well as how hard s/he has to work to get top results. A primary school child, who has to work really hard to get good results, is not a very clever child. A clever-enough child, for sure, but for such a child you want to play down disappointment in results: It is the pleasure that they get out of working that matters.  Which means that it is not the pleasure that you get out of doing their homework for them that brings them any satisfaction. This downgrades their experiences of autonomy, their feelings of competency, and last but certainly not least: releases them from accountability. If there is a golden thread running through children in various forms of trouble, it is: too little accountability. (This has been well researched too.)

7. All families have Meta themes. Unwritten rules. There are positives and negatives. The negative unspoken rules are the most feared aspects in a family. We don’t talk about negative things. We pretend we are happy. We avoid conflict. We all toe the line around X. We blame outside forces. We have a scapegoat whom we blame for everything. We all pretend we don’t know. These are the topics that we talk about in therapy that bring great relief. Simply airing them can help. At least talk about them to a good friend. And practice talking about them a little with your family. It will bring relief to you, and often releases tension in the family home. If you would like your children to talk to you about their troubles, then you must demonstrate to them that talking about troubles is something that happens in your family, and that it is fine and normal to do so.

These can become especially pernicious where real abuse and stepparents are involved. In essence they come down to pretending for the perceived stability of the group. Teenagers are usually excellent at pointing them out. Stirring the communal pot is an effective function of adolescents. It is a pity that they are often criticized for doing so. The most lively and warm families are able to have open conversations where even the Meta themes are open to gentle mockery and compassionate discussions.

8. We find pleasure and comfort in the company of our peers. This is human nature. Children most definitely do too. Not having close peer friendships must be one of saddest fates to befall any person, big or small. So we must aid our children in the best ways that we know how. This is often the main reason that children participate in group activities: to feel part of a group is an instinctual need. Art lessons, chess club, it does not really matter: Most important is to share regular interaction with peers.

 9. Rules: Rules regulate societies. Without any rules there would be overwhelming uncertainties. I have written in a previous blog about the immature and stressful expressions of power that emerge when children are in charge. Rules are there to help us have less stressful and more harmonious lives. Example: Children who go to bed at a set, reasonable time are more rested in the morning, resulting in less stressful early morning routines. Limiting unhealthy foods on a rule basis (no sweets during the week, for example), results not only in fewer illnesses (which are stressful in themselves), but also to less mood swings and better concentration.  RULES THAT CAUSE CONFLICT are the bad ones. These are usually the ones that are set in concrete, and where the aim is not harmony, better relationships and well being, but obedience and subservience. These are really toxic as they lead to either rebellion or depression (or both). They are smothering and take away joy and freedom: and either a fear or a hatred of authority.  If you Google authoritative vs. authoritarian parenting research, you will find great research on the benefits of authoritative parenting.

 10. Thriving is about daily experiences of joy and freedom and at the same time developing self-discipline and tenacity. If you can get this combination right, you will have won the jackpot. It is the Olympic gold medal of getting life right.

How can I interpret my own dreams? Five guidelines that are generally applicable to most of our dreams.

Dreams speak in metaphor. This means that the events taking place in a dream should not be interpreted as reality.  Instead they offer sideways (and sometimes very obscure) reflections on something else that is happening in our lives and lifetimes. Somewhat like an idiom or a figure of speech would.  “A penny for your thoughts” and “at the drop of a hat”, clearly do not mean that you will be paid when you speak out, nor that a hat is to be dropped before an action is to occur.  Dream images work in the same way.  A person dying, water rising, a wondrous sexual encounter, a baby being born – these are metaphoric enactments – they are not real.  It is as if a short dramatised impersonation is taking place, where people and objects and activities are selected to represent themes from your life.  Your very own home theater, so to speak.

Five basic guidelines that will help you to benefit from your dreams:

  1. Dreams exaggerate.  Wildly. Dreams are experienced as alarmingly real. Take these facts into consideration when you engage with a dream. You will need to take a little distance from the emotionality of it all. It all feels so very real. Remember: It is not.
  2. Take note of the ways that you are behaving in your dreams. Most usually you will find that this is similar to how you respond in everyday life.   Dreams are really useful in that they can help you to identify your own nonproductive and self-limiting, and often habitual, responses to the challenges and opportunities that you face in real life. Dreams can be enormously helpful in this way. Take this as good advice, and to identify what would be better ways of responding in everyday life.
  3. The event (the “drama”) in the dream. For example: Water rising: This is an image that typically comes up at times of rising sadness/depression/anxiety. It is the combination of water (tears, grief/strong emotions) plus the fear of ‘drowning’, and the danger of being overwhelmed by it all. It is a double or triple metaphor: Your own emotions rising, drowning  (that is, not coping), and the fear of becoming overwhelmed. Note how I have taken the elements apart to make them work: If it happens in your own home, you can add a fourth possibility: that of your own home is being invaded – being ‘taken over’.   A new baby being born  often refers to the potential for new opportunity, new life, whereas death in a dream can refer to a big change. “death of the existing/the old”). Real death more often come in various disguises, from transformation to more ominous messages that I will deal with later. 

Do beware: There is no such thing as a complete dream dictionary. Your dream is tailor-made for you: You have tomake that little bit of an effort to form your own associations to whatever is being presented. Look for the theme, and then unpack it bit by bit, until you understand what is being presented.

4.Old injuries. Much like cold weather can activate old injuries, situations in the present can activate old wounds.  Felt unloved as a child? Watch how a snub in your current life awakens old feelings.  Watch out for these in your dreams. Many a nightmare can be defused by making the link between past and present.

5. Dreams comment on your present situation and offer better ways forward. This is the tricky part. What could/should I have done differently? What would be a solution to the problem in the dream? Driving too fast in a dream? Well, clearly in real life you have to slow down, to be more cautious.  If the solution does not represent something that you knew deep down anyway, I would recommend that you rather leave it. Dreams repeat themes anyway. The danger of misinterpretation is real. Any solution that requires drastic change should evoke great caution. It is here where people forget that dreams exaggerate and that the dream stories are metaphorical.  However, if you are able to bring a sane and rational mind to a dream, you will be able to pick up the life-giving advice that stand in opposition to a stubbornly persistent, habitual mind.

Do dreams play a part in the continuation of maladaptive human behaviours?

Why do eighty year olds still feel pain for having been inadequately parented,  and this despite having been not-so-good parents themselves? Why does human nature not improve over generations? It seems to me that human nature, unlike science and technology, is repeating itself. This led me to wonder – do dreams play a part in this? Let me hasten to add that I fully appreciate the healing and spiritual dimensions that dreams can express[1], but this is about a different question. I will write about the positive aspects in a follow-up piece.

A six-year old girl was brought to me by her parents. The mother was having a relationship with another, and was considering divorce. The parents whispered arguments behind their bedroom door.When their daughter asked them about this, they replied that it was adult business; she must not worry; they will sort things out. When I mentioned the whisperings to the six-year old, she looked at me with wide-eyed fear, and asked,But what does it mean? Does it mean murder?

I am reminded of this incident when a client brings a nightmare to a session, and asks, with trepidation:  But what does it mean?

What does it do to the human psyche to regularly experience anxiety and fear during dreaming? Similarly, what does it mean to be exposed, night after night, to our own fears and failures?  Content analysis of dreams shows that a significantly high percentage of dreams express negative experiences (failures, misfortunes,threats, self-negativity, and aggressive acts) (Domhoff, 2002).  Darwinian aetiology has dominated our thinking, including our search for meaning, over the past century. Because we have such a firm belief that, for behaviours to continue to exist, they must have a (positive) adaptive function, the search for the meaning of dreams has been consistently characterised by the search for the constructive intent and/or adaptive function of dreaming.  Dreams have, for example, been explained as compensatory or potential healing messages from the unconscious (Jung, 1964), sleep preserving or wish-fulfillment (Freud), guiding messages from God or the ancestors (for the function of religion see Bulkeley, for an overview of ancestral dream interpretation see my book (Frank, 2004), a biological necessity as yet to be clarified (Hadfield, Holmes, Jouvet), memory preservation (and more recently, as a somewhat contrived function between Freudian concepts and neurology (Solms).

In this article I would like to highlight a different feature of dreaming – one which does not appear to be benign, nor positively adaptive, but instead seems to reinforce negative memory, non-constructive coping styles and the continuation of  negative associations.

The three dreams below highlight different responses to anxiety-provoking events, and reflect the possibility that our coping styles in our dreams will be consistent with our habitual ways of coping in real life.  This would be consistent with the finding that the actions that occur in dreams are usually not bizarre, but could occur in real life.  It is also consistent with the hypothesis that the actions of the I-figure in the dream are consistent with the dreamer’s actions in real life. At the end of the article I ask the question whether our dreams can serve the function of keeping our anxieties, and by implication, our existing maladaptive responses, in place.

When I began working with dreams I tried my best to have an open mind. Looking at my own dreams I was surprised to recognize all my own faults. Night after night, it seemed, there I was in my full incompetence, shame and fear – and with my typical style of coping.  The actions of the I in the dream responded, albeit often in an exaggerated form, in ways that were clearly recognizable in my everyday life. So I took my cues from my dreams and began to act more constructively, less neurotically in real life. How did my dreams respond? To my surprise my dreams continued for an extended period of time to reflect the old (more) neurotic self. This made me wonder – do our dreams tend to be resistant to change, to confirm neuroticism, to have a tendency for repetition compulsion, and in this way work against constructive change?

Dream one: The dream of a woman in her mid-fifties who comes to see me because of recurrent panic attacks. As she recounts the dream she looks terrified, and it seems to me that it feels very real to her, as if it represents a living nightmare.

 I am in a car with some people, they seem faintly familiar.  I think they are distant relations. The people at the back seem to be making out; when I look I realize to my horror that they are eating each other and somehow enjoying it.  Then someone starts chewing on my arm. I wake up severely shaken. I cannot fall asleep again. After about an hour I take a tranquilizer. In the morning when I have to get up for work I am groggy and still disturbed by the dream. What does it mean?

            The woman recounts a history of severe physical abuse during a marriage of twenty-two years. At the age of 45 she fled to a town 2000 miles away.  She appears to be suffering from post-traumatic stress, and it becomes increasingly clear that her nightly dreams are not helping to alleviate her distress, but instead are keeping her traumatic state of mind alert. The dreams also contribute to keep hyper-activating strategies in place.  We have to tell the dream consciousness that it is OK; that the danger is over. Some time on we have to take an assertive stance towards her dream-mind, and during a similar nightmare the woman manages to become conscious during the nightmare and to take a stand in the midst of a dream.  Slowly but surely, the nightmares become more benign, and she, in real life, can begin to relax her petrified state of mind. 

Dream two: A middle-aged professional man, who emigrated to England from South Africa eight years ago, still experiences difficulties with adapting to his new country. He tells me that he is still struggling to find his place, to feel familiar and to make good friends in England.  He recounts this recurring dream:

I have been sent back to boarding-school. Everything is strange and I do not recognise  anybody. I feel panicky. I cannot find my room and am lost in the corridors, which all seem strangely unfamiliar to me. Surely I should be able to find my way? I can not understand why there are no familiar faces or recognisable scenery.

The dream reinforces the dreamer’s sense of alienation. By doing so, his feelings of distress are reinforced. This acts to keep negative associations (of having been “sent back to boarding school”), and his pervading sense of “unfamiliarity”  in place.  The dreams also points to another ‘truth’: “I have been sent back to boarding school.  This had clearly been a negative experience of being out of control in his own life, a time when he was not consulted and was forced to stay in a place where he was miserable. He is in the UK however, out of his own volition. The fact that he is responding as if he is back in boarding school, needs to be challenged and his overwhelming sense of powerlessness then, has to be addressed in the here and now.

Dream three: The dream of a 17-year old adolescent who lived in a children’s home. She was part of a small group that I ran at the home. Group members were encouraged to bring dreams.

I find myself in a zone where there are many skeletons. The skeletons want to kill me. They want to turn me into a skeleton. I fight the skeletons as hard as I can. It is an enormous battle.  One skeleton manages to get me into a coffin, where he lies on top of me to prevent me from getting out. The dream shifts and I have managed, somehow, to magically get out. I stand outside the coffin. The dream ends there.

This girl is known for her fighting stance. She tends to respond to any sign of rejection or injury with a fighting response. When a new social worker failed to return her greeting, she verbalized aggression towards her, stating, “I don’t care, I will fuck her over, you will see.” When her younger sister was sent to a home for troubled youth (they are all aware that this is usually a dead-end solution), she denied feeling sad or troubled, but stated defiantly, “She deserves this, she was looking for it (meaning trouble), this will teach her.”  Her dreams confirm her view of the world as an adversarial, life-threatening space, where one has to fight and deny vulnerability to survive. The solution is magical, and has the effect of supporting her fantasies of magical rescue as opposed to constructive self-determined action.

Could it be that in our frequent and repetitive dreams, we link past and current concerns, re-experience past fears,  and reinforce maladaptive responses? Do dreams in this way keep our habituated cognitions, our coping styles – as well as our psychological complexes – in place? To speculate rather wildly; could this be the reason why childhood injuries follow us into old age? Why humans find change so difficult? If I have inherited distrust from my childhood, and my dreams keep reinforcing this at night, why would I believe differently? I find this way of thinking startling, but also helpful: Once we keep in mind that our regular anxiety dreams can also serve the function of reinforcing past injuries and fear-based response patterns[2],we can move to a position of alternative consciousness towards the dream. We can take into consideration that our dreams, as much as they can heal, can also keep old wounds festering. And boy, can they exaggerate!

“Thanks to you I had the most horrific nightmare last night”.

This is the remark of my friend Jan. I had been staying with them to write a book on dreams. Jan had declared on my arrival that, “I never dream.” Our daily discussions on the nature of dreams had, I surmise, lead to the breaking through of the dream contents into his consciousness.

Why did I laugh? Because it was no surprize that it was a nightmare.


[1] Dreams appear to be truthful, and to be experienced as independently generated: features that allow for trust where distrust has become the norm. This is especially true in work with high-risk adolescents and traumatized individuals. Dreams can be of great value at times of grief, when known reality is not sufficient to provide relief.   

[2] Recently I asked  a class of grade 9 learners (14-15 year old girls) to write down a most recent dream. 52.4% of the dreams depict assault or the threat of assault   28.6% Depicted ‘ominous’ content (e.g. “bubbling green stuff ”   that explodes in the science room, starts to flow down the corridor, and threatens the whole school). South Africa has one of the highest crime rates in the world. The majority of the girls seemed to carry fear, which was illustrated vividly at night. This would serve to keep their fears alive, and maybe even to embed them. 

REFERENCES

Bulkeley, K. http://www.kellybulkeley.org

Domhoff, G.W. (2003) The Scientific Study of Dreams. Washington: APA

Frank, E. (2004) The book of dreams. Cape Town: Human & Rousseau

Freud, S.  (1953) The Interpretation Of Dreams. London: Penguin Books

Jung, C.G. (1963) Memories,Dreams, Reflections. London: Random House

Payne, J. D & Nadel, L. “Sleep, dreams, and memory consolidation: The role of the stress hormone cortisol”. In Learning & Memory. 2004 Nov; 11(6): 671–678. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC534695/

Solms, M. http://psychoanalysis.org.uk/articles/the-interpretation-of-dreams-and-the-neurosciences-mark-solms