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
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.
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
Absence of adoration
Loss of Power
Loss of community & faith
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.
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.
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.
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.
examples above have to do with physical attunement. Here are 2 components:
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.
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 stillseeking
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
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.
The tricky matter of
emotions: Attunement as “mind-mindedness”
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
 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.
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
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
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
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
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.
To read: “Depression as a Social Disease”, by Michael Bader in Psychology
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)
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
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.
“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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Here are my best parental guidelines, gleaned from my own failures and
successes and from reading research:
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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, 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.
“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.
 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.
 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.