Contradictions and unlearning

Sometimes the process of therapy, whichever chair you are sitting in, is about unlearning, unpicking and deconstructing those habits and ideas which often grow from our earliest moments. An abuse survivor unlearns the flight, fight or freeze responses which attempted to keep them safe. A perfectionist unlearns that their worth is not conditional on getting straight A’s. A man who hid his gentle side unlearns that he will be threatened, or on the receiving end of violence, for challenging toxic norms.

This process of letting go of behaviours which may have been vital for surviving can be painful, but it also frees the soul to explore, to be what it can be without the straight jacket of these rules and patterns. Therapists have to unlearn too, often those ideas we begin with are vital for keeping ourselves, and clients safe, but they are a structure that needs to be constantly revised, reflected on and adapted as we grow and developed.

One of the biggest areas of unlearning for me has been around the idea there are answers, or to put it another way, that therapy is a progression towards a single end point. That I learned this is no surprise, from Maslows Heirarchy of Needs, to the natual human urge to say “Aha – I have the answer” we therapists are merely mortal (or so they tell me). When I began as a therapist I saw my role as being resolving contradictions, seeing a path through the thorny forest, like the Prince in Sleeping Beauty. Sometimes this is indeed what is required, however more and more I am realising that it is being able to hold the contradictions, and be comfortable with that, which is needed.

Consider Mary, as her eldest child prepares for university. I have written of the difficulties of changes of life before, especially when there are unresolved regrets. For Mary however there is no envy, or unfinished business, she is content with her own life. Therefore it is with some confusion that she brings to therapy her deep sorrow as she contemplates her child leaving for university. Like a montage from the film of the month she remembers the first time she held them in her arms, the feel of their cheek against hers, the first night she stayed awake all night, cradling a sick child in her arms.

Yet, even as she weeps, she knows that she wants her child to go to university, to immerse themselves in the experience, to fly, as she always hoped they would.

How can both be true?

We must unlearn that all contradictions are to be resolved, some simply need to be held and processed. Finding the space where it is possible to hold the contradiction, and to say, this is OK is not always easy.

sunset person love people
Photo by Josh Willink on Pexels.com

Consider David, his divorce was messy, he avoids any possibility of meeting with his ex, and regrets that they every married, seeing the choices he made then as ones the man he is now would never make. Yet, he loves the children from the marriage with all of his being, he remembers being handed the small pink and white bundle, screaming with its first breaths, his heart almost exploding with love.

Sometimes these contradictions can seem too much, we run from them, or pretend they do not exist, and sometimes therapists can collude with this, in our desire for the singularity which explains all. Resolution is often mistaken for singularity, in the sense of only feeling one way, seeing one choice as right, and all others as wrong, believing in there being only one path to wholeness

I am reminded of this zine by Meg John Barker on multiple selves. The better we know our own internal contradictions, the various parts which make up the whole, the easier it is to reconcile the contradictions. I would really recommend working through the zine, considering which parts make up you, and how they can be given space rather than rejected.

As we unlearn we create space for who we are now, a space which can be both daunting and exhilarating and perhaps in accepting that contradiction we are able to ensure the process is one which brings us joy and contentment

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