Why psychotherapy?

August 16, 2018

This short video clip from the London-based School of Life is really excellent. I’ve never actually heard of the School of Life until I click on the link and am enlightened that they are a “global organisation dedicated to developing emotional intelligence”. I see that they have a whole complex (is that the collective noun for therapists? how about a whole interpretation) of therapists and teachers etc. Very professional-looking.

But that is all by the way. What psychotherapy videos do you like?



The mind of Donald Trump

May 25, 2016

The mind of Donald Trump

Interesting article. Dan McAdams, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, has crafted a detailed psychological portrait of Donald Trump, the reality-TV star and real-estate mogul who would be US President.

 He looks at Trump in terms of the Big Five of Personality Variables:

Extroversion: gregariousness, social dominance, enthusiasm, reward-seeking behavior

Neuroticism: anxiety, emotional instability, depressive tendencies, negative emotions

Conscientiousness: industriousness, discipline, rule abidance, organization

Agreeableness: warmth, care for others, altruism, compassion, modesty

Openness: curiosity, unconventionality, imagination, receptivity to new ideas


How does Trump stack up? High extraversion plus “off-the-chart low agreeableness”.

“People low in agreeableness are described as callous, rude, arrogant, and lacking in empathy.”

“Anger can fuel malice, but it can also motivate social dominance, stoking a desire to win the adoration of others. Combined with a considerable gift for humor (which may also be aggressive), anger lies at the heart of Trump’s charisma. And anger permeates his political rhetoric.”

A tendency to lie and distort.

Fascinating comparison with Andrew Jackson (who was the source of the donkey as the symbol of the Democratic Party). Similar populist appeal and driving personality. Brashness and anger.

Authoritarianism (associated with prejudice towards minorities or outgroups)


A textbook case of narcissism

Archetypal warrior

But what is the purpose of fighting to win? Make America Great Again, says the Trump slogan. But what does that mean?

Great conclusion: “It is always Donald Trump playing Donald Trump, fighting to win, but never knowing why.”


The Chymical Wedding

March 31, 2014

chymical weddingAlex Darken is a poet, father of two, lecturer at the Poly, and he’s in crisis. His marriage has fallen apart and he’s retreated to a cottage in Norfolk to lick his wounds and gain perspective. There he falls under the influence of an alcoholic, elderly poet (Edward) and a beautiful, troubled psychic, Laura. Together they “pursue the alchemical and personal secrets of the spirited Louisa Agnew”, a woman who is the centre of a parallel story from 140 years before. In this second narrative, Louisa follows her father’s obsession by devoting herself to the Hermetic arts, which in turn forces her to “confront her own dark side and her feelings for a tormented minister”.

I really enjoyed this novel. The modern-day story of Alex, Edward and Laura on the one hand and the intricate Victorian-era tale of Louisa, her father and the tormented reverend Edwin on the other. What made it particularly interesting from a psychology point of view was the way Lindsay Clarke draws on Carl Jung’s work on psychology and alchemy, which made me want to explore this area again.

I’ve always admired Jung’s emphasis on integration and his instruction that in order to be psychologically whole, we need to come to terms with our shadows or darker sides. In Psychology and Alchemy, Jung makes an analogy between the great task of the alchemists and the process of reintegration and individuation of the psyche in the modern psychotherapy patient.

On one level, alchemy is about turning base metals into noble ones (silver and gold) while at a psychological level it describes a more symbolic process of transformation. When we engage in psychotherapy, Jung says, we are engaged in a process of transforming ourselves. The difficult experiences of our daily lives are changed through the act of working on them and more significantly, like the alchemists, we ourselves are transformed.

If you’re interested in reading more about Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy, a good place to start would be the Wikipedia entry. In the novel there is also a lovely description of the process of firing up a kiln, which draws on the language of alchemy to describe the transformation through fire of moulded clay into a beautifully glazed work of art.

But to return to the novel, at one level it is a coming-of-age story and both Alex Darken and Louisa Agnew need to grow up and take responsibility for the different aspects of who they are. But while Alex emerges from the novel seemingly refreshed and ready to take up the challenges once again, Louisa is much more restricted by her circumstances. There’s an interesting aside here in that Clarke based his story on the real-life story of Mary-Ann Atwood. Like Louisa Agnew, Atwood published an alchemical book which she then withdrew at the request of her father. But unlike Louisa, Mary-Ann Atwood was able to marry and live a more fulfilled life.

A couple of gripes here. Firstly, some of the descriptions of alchemy and the hermetic arts were too wordy and detailed for my liking. Secondly, it struck me how much the novel both draws on psychology while also ignoring it. There’s the issue of psychotherapy for a start – none of the characters even contemplate it in the face of pretty serious ‘life events’. And while therapy would (hopefully) offer a calm, containing environment to sort through any number of disturbing thoughts and feelings, that doesn’t of course make for a thrilling novel. Much more exciting to have wild unconscious forces at work than to talk them through on the couch.

There is one passage though, which I thought beautifully captured for me what therapy can be about. Edwin Frere, the troubled Victorian priest, seeks out Louisa Agnew’s advice late at night:

And someone was there who listened. She listened without judgement, with concern and a tender regard for every difficulty in which he struggled. There were moments when he dared to look up into the searching blue of her eyes and he might have believed it possible to say anything — anything and everything of his shame and rage, his fears and his fathomless dread. Never had he felt himself in the presence of so receptive a spirit. She was more truly priest than he was himself. She would silence nothing, forbid nothing. She would exhort nothing but such measure of honesty as he felt able to share.

I’d love to hear your opinions if you’ve read this novel. I was thinking that it qualifies as a psychological thriller (although not in the conventional sense) and it may well turn out to be one of the more interesting novels I read this year.

Tempted by audio

February 28, 2013

examined life2

1. I’m seriously tempted to buy some more audiobooks. I know that I often don’t have the time or the energy to read so it might be easier just to listen instead.

Wolf Hall or The Examined Life? I’m really interested in Stephen Grosz’s account of 50,000 hours of being a psychotherapist. This is just the kind of book that I like. Purrr.

2. I enjoyed Netherland by Joseph O’ Neill but I also found it a bit boring in parts. However, since I finished it and read an interview with the author I’ve been thinking about it a lot more. There was the whole comparison with The Great Gatsby which completely passed me by but which now makes perfect sense. Chuck Ramkissoon and Jay Gatsby. Both self-made men embodying the American Dream. Both idealists who are brought down by their own greed. And the voice of Hans van de Broek has also stayed with me (and the comparison with Nick from the The Great Gatsby). I found the descriptions of cricket in the US charming. And I’ve warmed to the book a lot more now that I know that Joseph O’ Neill lived in the Netherlands and the UK himself. I presumed (quite wrongly) that he had decided to make his lead character Dutch on a whim.

Friday Bullets

February 1, 2013

The Interpretation of Dreams by Freud promised much but it’s proving a slow read. Freud can be wonderfully chatty and interesting but he also takes ages to support his arguments. I’m also reading it on a Kindle which I find is better suited to reading fiction. For one thing, I don’t get the chance to flick backwards and forwards, gaze at the cover, read the blurb, and gauge my progress. My Kindle just tells me that I’m at 38% of the way through.

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan is about Serena Frome, a young Cambridge graduate who gets groomed to work in the British Intelligence services (MI6) in the early 1970s. The sweet tooth of the title is a project to finance promising writers who have the right (that is, not pro-Communist) attitudes. Serena soon becomes romantically involved with her writer and I’m guessing that this sparks off all kinds of problems. McEwan is a masterful storyteller and there’s just enough intrigue to keep me engaged. The only snag at the moment is that her writer is not terribly good (although he does have a lot of promise).

• Susan Cain’s Quiet is brilliant. The blurb says it’s about ‘the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’. Cain has done extensive research into extroversion and introversion and she explains it all so well, and with so many relevant examples, that it is a pleasure to read. I’m quite taken with being an introvert at the moment and Cain reassures us that introverts are important and need to be nurtured. She also debunks the extrovert ideal without devaluing the values of being sociable. At the moment she’s discussing the genetics of high reactives versus low reactives and I’m guessing that it’s the high reactives (or the introverts) who will take great comfort in knowing that there’s nothing wrong with them, they just get over-stimulated quite easily by all the sensory input around them.

• Two years ago L and I got married and had a child. It’s been a wonderful two years in some ways and a really exhausting and frustrating two years in others. “No-one tells you about the tiredness” would be one theme from a post like that. And even if they did tell us, we probably didn’t believe them. Early parenting is not the best environment for nurturing a relationship. And a youngish relationship is probably not the best environment for nurturing a child either. Ah well, we muddle along.

• Leah has started playschool and is enjoying it. Yesterday she didn’t cry when her granny dropped her off, which was a bonus. She seems to have grasped the idea that after three hours someone will come and fetch her. The group is small, the people are kind and she has made a friend. 🙂

• I’ve been neglecting the psychology side of this blog. There are interesting books to discuss, interesting articles to explore and, as always, new psychology-related blogs to find. But I’ve been ignoring my own psychology journey and I’m not sure that this is the right place for me to talk about that. Should I stay or should I go? Perhaps the year will bring greater clarity on that.

The Dance of Anger

July 11, 2012

‘Stand like a mountain, bend like grass. It’s at the heart of having both a marriage and a self.’ I love this quote from Harriet Lerner’s Huffington Post blog because it sums up much of what I think psychology is all about — the relationship between self and other.

Harriet Lerner is a clinical psychologist, one of the US’s foremost relationship experts and an author who has ‘dedicated her writing life to translating complex theory into accessible and useful prose’. Her 1985 classic The Dance of Anger is one of those books that I wish I had read years and years ago. As someone who has had my fair share of ‘anger issues’ over the years, I could really have used her calm advice on how to use anger in a productive way to improve my relationships.

This is the opening paragraph:

‘Anger is a signal and one worth listening to. Our anger may be a message that we are being hurt, that our rights are being violated, that our needs or wants are not being adequately met, or simply that something is not right. Our anger may tell us that we are not addressing an important emotional issue in our lives, or that too much of the self – our beliefs, values, desires or ambitions – is being compromised in a relationship. Our anger may be a signal that we are doing more and giving more than we can comfortably do or give. Or our anger may warn us that others are doing too much for us, at the expense of our own competence and growth.’ — Dance of Anger, p.1

Great opening I thought. Any reservations that this book is just for women (the subtitle is A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Pattern of Intimate Relationships) were quickly dispelled. After all, men have just as much difficulty defining themselves and how to balance those selves in relationships as women do.

One of the things that Lerner does here is to use practical examples from her own life and those of her patients to explain typical relationship pitfalls. For example, she and her husband Steve (also a clinical psychologist) used to get into major arguments when their first son was six months old. Harriet was worried that their son was developmentally delayed while Steve refused to acknowledge the possibility. The two of them would get into a repetitive pattern in which she would get more and more worried and he would distance and minimise:

The more I expressed worry and concern, the more Steve distanced and minimised; the more he distanced and minimised, the more I exaggerated my position. This sequence would escalate until it finally became intolerable, at which point each of us would angrily point the finger at the other for ‘starting it’.

As it turns out, their son wasn’t delayed but their arguments about it became particularly unhelpful. As Lerner explains, venting anger in the form of complaining at your partner usually doesn’t solve the problem.

If feeling angry signals a problem, then venting anger does not solve it. Venting anger may serve to maintain, and even rigidify, the old rules and patterns in a relationship, thus ensuring that change does not occur. When emotional intensity is high, many of us engage in non-productive efforts to change the other person, and in so doing, fail to exercise our power to clarify and change our own selves.

She then makes a helpful distinction between two typical female styles of anger: ‘nice lady’ and ‘bitchy woman’. Nice ladies keep anger to themselves and avoid making clear statements about what they think and feel ‘when we suspect that such clarity would make another person uncomfortable and expose the differences between us’. Society rewards them for their ‘niceness’ but the personal costs in terms of emotional and mental well-being are high.

In contrast, the ‘bitchy woman’ often gets into a ‘pattern of ineffective fighting, complaining and blaming that only preserves the status quo’. As Lerner says: “When we voice our anger ineffectively – without clarity, direction and control – it may in the end be reassuring to others. We allow ourselves to be written off and we provide others with an excuse not to take us seriously and hear what we are saying.”

The answer here is deceptively simple. Use anger as a tool for clarifying your own position and for changing relationships rather than blaming people:

1. Tune in to the true sources of our anger and clarify where we stand
2. Learn better communication skills
3. Learn to observe and interrupt non-productive patterns of interaction
4. Learn to anticipate and deal with countermoves and “change back” reactions from others.

Lerner does explain that it’s not as easy as it sounds and that families (and partners) will often do their best to try and resist that change. She provides example from all aspects of family life — one of the chapters is titled “Anger at our impossible mothers” while others deal with children, ageing parents and family triangles. Obviously patterns that have taken decades to develop require a lot of work to change but I found the scripted dialogues very helpful (if a trifle formulaic at times). I was surprised to see that the process of change could be summarised (at its most basic) to the rather bland-sounding steps of observation, clarifying the pattern and gathering data (as part of disrupting the pattern).

Interestingly, an important part of that data-gathering appeared to be going back to how previous generations dealt with similar issues. For example, a 50-year old woman struggling with an ageing father who is increasingly dependent on her, looks to previous generations to see how similar problems were solved in the past (and how people felt about those solutions). She is then able to choose an option which works best for her (while still being caring towards her father).

Lerner talks about “emotional hanging-in” and this was a particularly good point I thought. Applying her theories to our present situation in which our little one has meltdowns when she doesn’t get to watch “winna-pooh” has been helpful. Clarifying the boundary (e.g. once a day) and still being attuned to her emotionally seems to be the way to go here. In some ways the problem is hers in that she is having the tantrum but the problem is also ours in that we are the ones who don’t like her behaviour. Clarifying our position and remaining calm in the face of the meltdown seems to be a good way to keep that elusive balance between self and other. But I’ll let you know how we get along with that strategy!

All in all, an excellent read and one I’ll come back to in years to come (in addition to checking out The Dance of Connection, The Dance of Anxiety and her latest one, Marriage Rules).

Distractibility and all that

March 27, 2012

Ah, holidays! I’ve been looking forward to this two-week break for a while now but now that it’s actually here I’m struggling to get anything constructive done. I have a talk to prepare on “Managing ADHD in the classroom” for when we get back and it’s taking away the fun of my free time (that is, the time that’s not taken up with child-minding). What’s particularly un-fun about this talk is that it’s my first chance to address the whole staff in a detailed way, and it’s also scheduled for my birthday.

In order to prepare I’ve been reading up on the topic, surfing the net and watching YouTube videos. There is so much material out there on the subject that I would need several solid weeks in order to prepare properly. The main book on the subject seems to be Driven to Distraction by Ned Hallowell. Hallowell is a well-known child and adolescent psychiatrist in the U.S. and he suffers from ADHD and dyslexia himself. He starts off by describing the epiphany he had during his psychiatry training when he heard about ADHD and realised with one of those “Aha!” moments that it fitted him perfectly. I’m a little sceptical of those religious-conversion type experiences because I know from experience that they obscure as much as they reveal.

ADHD, in Hallowell’ book, becomes both a biological imperative and an identity. Emotions are secondary to biology, as are relationships. As I read further and further, I started feeling more and more uneasy. For millions of people (children and adults) apparently, they were being misunderstood and misdiagnosed and then along came the diagnosis of ADHD, and more importantly, the magic drug to treat it, methylphenidate, and their lives were turned around.

Anyway, I’ve found it helpful to read it with a critical eye. I’m not a great fan of the diagnosis. I can see how it can be very helpful, life-changing even, to parents and teachers who struggle to contain the distractibility, impulsivity and high activity which characterise children with this condition. But I’m also quite resistant to fashionable diagnoses. Ned Hallowell is careful to point out that ADHD is not a catch-all diagnosis and shouldn’t be over-diagnosed. But then he does exactly that. He sees ADHD everywhere — in narcissistic men, in couples, in alcoholics and people addicted to risky behaviour, in people with Borderline symptoms, in people suffering from depression and anxiety, and especially in children with behavioural problems. And a lot of this is actually pretty convincing. I started thinking that maybe ADHD is the answer after all.

But then I returned to my healthy scepticism and I’m also reassured in this position by the scepticism of people like Ken Robinson, the education consultant with those inspiring TED talks. Robinson points to a map of the east coast of the United States and shows how the prescription rate for Ritalin increases dramatically as you move eastwards towards Washington D.C. He calls ADHD a ‘fictitious epidemic” and likens it to the fad to take out children’s tonsils a few decades ago. He says that Ritalin anaesthetises children and turns them into zombies. Our job as educators, he says, should be to wake kids up and get them to focus on their emotions. All very well, I hear the teachers say, but it’s not waking these kids up that’s the problem. It’s getting them to calm down and focus.

I’ve heard Robinson describe a case where the mother takes her daughter to the doctor complaining that the girl won’t sit still and that she doesn’t focus. The doctor leaves the daughter in the waiting room with the radio playing and then takes the mom into his consulting room and listens to her story. After a few minutes they take a look to see what the daughter is doing. Sure enough, she’s moving around the room to the music and the doctor says to the mom, “Your daughter doesn’t have ADHD, she’s a dancer.” It’s a good story, especially for those teachers in the Arts who have to struggle to see their subjects taken as seriously as Mathematics and Science. But it’s precisely the subjects such as Maths which are the problem for these kids. They can’t focus well without a lot of help, and the teachers and parents just don’t have the time to sit with them individually and guide them every step of the way.

I’m also interested to see that Hallowell says very little about the miracle drug itself. I’d be interested in reading more about Ritalin, but a balanced account. These debates get very polarised.

Enough about ADHD. I thought I’d post a pic of our little one taking delight in her lego. (Taken at Betty’s Bay a couple of months ago.)


She is a real joy, that is when she isn’t giving us near heart-attacks at 4.30 in the morning by setting off the apnea alarm by rolling to the corner of her cot. L and I were both pretty fast asleep when we heard the loud beeping noises of the alarm and L made it to Leah’s bedroom in about two seconds with me close behind. As soon as I heard that Baby F was breathing I slowed down. That adrenaline surge is horrible. I understand the need for it but it pretty much ruined our morning. Well, the first part of it anyway.

L’s car is being fixed so all three of us made the trip to the hospital where L works and then it was off to the granny for tea and porridge and a walk with the dog.

Me: “That’s the whole point of the walk, in order for her to fall asleep.”

Granny: “No, we go for a walk for some fresh air and to see the birds and flowers.”

Me: “Well, we go for a walk so that she can fall asleep. Which is why we need bunny.”

And then to Leah, “silly old granny. I don’t know why she has to be so difficult”.

Granny had to laugh at that. But of course we did it her way.