Thursday, May 19, 2011

Royal Road Detour

Emerging—at least I hope I’m emerging—from a period of sleeplessness, I am replete with dream images, and viscerally shocked at how much I’ve missed them. Dreams are the emotional feast of sleep even as rest is the physical.  Dreaming gives us a second chance to process and make sense of information that we could not consciously take in during our waking life.  Dreamless periods—whether due to sleeplessness or blocked access to dream recall—have an alarming vacuous feeling to them, an anesthetized blank poverty, like white walls before they are hung with paintings.  The physical aspects of sleeplessness I can somehow power through, even recover from, but the absence of remembered dreams is to me like functioning without one of the senses: an information void.

As adults, aside from the odd psychotherapist, no one really teaches us that dreams are a way of knowing something.  Dreams have become the proverbial orphans of our society, the stuff of fairy tales and fantasies, banished with a “just” to the realm of the unreal and therefore worthless.  A storybook character might take a decision or a risk based on a dream image, but real-life folks most often do not, and if they do they are often criticized for not considering more logical options.

Logic and dreams are not however as inseparable as they might seem, in fact I believe they are best used conjunctly.  Dreams complement logic because they tell us what we can’t know via logic, and help bring to awareness feelings we did not consciously know we had.  While logic can help us arrive at a “best choice” that any rational person would make, dreams help us make choices that are right for us individually. While logic may give us answers in words, dreams offer visual images that are metaphors for how we are feeling in the moment as well as snapshots of encouragement, caution, reassurance and guidance from deep within ourselves.  From these metaphoric images, we begin to know things from the dream world.

Knowing something via a dream is a deeply personal way of receiving and processing information. While there are some archetypal (cross cultural) symbols that arise in dreams and have universal meaning, most dream images cannot be interpreted via means of a handy all-purpose dream interpretation manual.  Though we speak of “dream analysis,” dream knowing is a combination of emotional as well as intellectual components that cannot be touched by logic or group consensus. Knowing something based on dream material is a deeply personal process even if facilitated by an outsider.  Such dream knowledge requires a kind of trust in the process: a sort-of-knowing that arises and later gets confirmed as knowing through evidence accrual in waking life and further dreams. 

Waking from sleeplessness, I am realizing just how disconnected we can get from our insides when we are sleep-deprived.  During these times there are few signposts back to the dream world, except perhaps our sense of depression or exhaustion.  No signposts because between the lack of access to dreams and lack of faith in dreams as a way of knowing, our global society does not accord much importance or respect to dream knowledge.   In the absence of social support, dream knowing involves us being individual heroes in the quest for our whole selves, including parts of ourselves that we do not express, do not yet know or do not want to know.  Vital because our dreams need us: dream images depend upon us as dreamers to translate them into ways of knowing. Without the conscious effort of the dreamer, dreams remain in the realm of the unconscious, forgotten or ignored messages in a bottle.

Photo © Tristan Savatier - - Used by Permission

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The shape of locked up disappointment

“He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore”—Freud

Last post, Haritha asked me to clarify what the impact is on overall well-being when disappointment—or suchlike emotionsare pushed away time after time. Does it work its own not so healthy magic from deep down inside the body? 

Since I suspect that in asking this, Haritha already knows, in some way, her own  answer, I'll take the opportunity to elaborate on what locked up disappointment locks like, rather than simply say yes or no.  In previous posts I’ve been pretty emphatic that disappointment ought to be integrated, that our pain makes us whole as much as our joy does.  But, aside from not having the full picture, is there a price to pay for not acknowledging our disappointment? 

Unacknowledged disappointment has a voice: it speaks.  Buried disappointment can certainly unfold from inside out in the language of symptoms.  The pathways from the disappointment to the symptoms are typically not linear.  The exiled emotion may speak through the body or  the personality in the form of overeating, under-eating, obsessive thoughts, righteous indignation upon discussion of vulnerable subjects--the list of pathologies is endless and varies drastically from person to person.  

Rather than thinking of the symptoms associated with unacknowledged emotions as a price, I think of them as a communication.  Disappointment is never really successfully exiled.  As Freud sums it up in the quote above, disowned emotions have a way of making their presence felt: they leak.  And perhaps we are lucky they leak, because in doing so they draw our awareness back to them rather then allowing themselves to be buried completely.  Leaks are interesting because they speak of our inner world.  When I see clients in psychotherapy, rather than assume that someone has not been disappointed, I generally assume that they have. I wonder what they have done with their disappointments, where and how they have reconciled or shut out their unfulfilled dreams. I look at these places in their body-psyche-soul not with pity but with interest and sometimes with fascination.  Part of the work of psychotherapy is to uncover hard exiled places in the geography of our being, to understand the texture of their hardness—why could this person not acknowledge this then when it happened, why are they ready (or not) to see it now?  

Eventually a good therapy will soften and bring breath to exiled places, enliven them with two pairs of eyes, and hopefully at least one pair that is kind and curious.  But before this, the hardness, the exile itself, is not judged but kindly comprehended: it is important to recall that sometimes we humans have no choice but to bottle up rather than acknowledge our disappointment. Each of us has a threshold for emotion beyond which we must warehouse the balance, hopefully to be examined and understood at a later date.  The "not-so-healthy magic" that Haritha refers to, the possible symptoms that I describe above, are not simply signs of illness, but a call to a door in the inner world that was once closed but will not remain so forever.

Photo © Tristan Savatier - - Used by Permission

Monday, March 21, 2011

You'll never be able to, because I don't believe you will

As the flurry of expat Indians arrive and depart India, I have been hearing incessantly from both sides about the impossible limitations of the other.  Can’t help noticing though, that even as the expats noisily complain how their local cousins will never understand how hard it is to live abroad, the locals double their efforts to point out what an easy life these expats have relative to their own, reinforcing the expats' conviction that the locals will never understand.  Watching this dance, I am reminded of other dyads--mother and child, husband and wife, lover and lover--where this same process takes place: one person extricates an emotion from another, convinced that the other will never give them the reaction they desire--and in doing so, loses the opportunity for that desired reaction.

Extricated emotions are feelings that we prevent other people from having by verbally and emotionally denying their ability to have it.  Yung-Hi uses this example to explain what extricated emotions are: when a mother says to a child who has accidentally broken something “you’re not sorry at all,” she extricates the capacity for remorse from the child, thus reducing slightly his ability to feel and express it.  The child in turn may respond (despite feeling sorry) “you’re right and I’m glad I did it”.

I think we extricate most often when we have a continued need to hold onto a belief despite the possibility of something else.  Hard as it may seem to believe, there are times when we need to stay angry or depressed or believe that our expat cousins have an easier life than we do.  Holding on to moods or beliefs helps us to justify our own choices or to avoid complexity (for example the thought that expats have their own difficulties versus just having a better life is a complex one).

There is of course the reality that sometimes people are impossible or not sorry at all.  Yet, pausing to consider the possibility that we are extricating an emotion from others allows them (and ourselves) the possibility of change.  When we project our feelings we miss the opportunity to know ourselves emotionally, it’s a personal loss.  When we extricate emotions we miss the opportunity to know another—a relational loss.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Where did the disappointment go? Part 2: Button your blouse girlfriend

I am talking to a doctor at a Kodaikanal (India) hospital and the head-nurse enters to ask the doctor a question.  There is a pause while the doctor considers her response, and in this moment, the nurse looks over at me, clicks her tongue disapprovingly and rebukes: “you have not buttoned the top button on your kurta, please button it”.  I am incredulous, amused and irritated all at once as I respond genuinely: "there is no top button".  Now it is she who is incredulous, and she stares at me furiously for a whole minute then looks away.

Ten years ago I might have felt ashamed or incensed, but this time I was curious: what reaction was this supposed to elicit? What purpose does censuring a stranger serve?

My quick analysis: the nurse was discharging her anxiety by telling me what to do.  The sight of my exposed skin had made her feel out of control, by bringing up various feelings within her.  She was likely not aware what these underlying feelings were, but simply felt anxious and needed to re-assert a sense of control.  When the sort of passing the parcel of emotion as it were, failed, she become enraged, perhaps because my response further increased her sense of feeling out of control.

In considering where unacknowledged emotions go, one idea is that they are shut down and go to the warehouse of the individual’s unconsciousness for storage. Another is that they go from their owner to someone else, like the nurse, pushing away her emotions and flooding me with a flurry of thoughts.  Of course that the nurse was likely quite unaware of the underlying feelings that were causing her anxiety.  Rather she most likely attributed her comment to “doing her duty” or possibly some kind of sisterly consideration, moralistic defenses that allow the owner to escape further inquiry.

It's a small example to illustrate that unacknowledged emotions cause us anxiety and put us at risk of displacing the unacknowledged emotions onto others.  During a breakdown, our defenses toward our own emotions fall away and we are flooded with authentic feeling.  Painful as this may be, therein lies great beauty—in the truth of who were are.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Where did the disappointment go? Part 1: The Unconscious

I’m still (since last post) thinking about the end of Wilde’s The Nightingale and the Rose, in particular the appearance of cynicism in the love-disappointed student. Faced with a rejection of his love the student is quickly convinced that love is a useless entity and resolves to re-dedicate to logic and practical matters.  In doing so (my analysis) he sidesteps the experience of acute disappointment that is the natural aftermath of injury in love.

Disappointment is an emotion we don’t always allow ourselves to feel or name out loud. Mature adults aren’t supposed to easily admit to feeling disappointed—it is considered weak or child-like.  In India, philosophical and social values suggest we cultivate the quality of non-attachment to our desires, i.e. fewer hopes and expectations and consequently fewer disappointments.    

From my observation disappointment is less transcended than it is rationalized away.  There is often a general agreement that a disappointment didn’t happen so that the parties involved can “move on”.  The effect of outlawing disappointment—except among young children who may be lucky enough to get a wider berth—has, in my opinion, a parallel in the prohibition laws against alcohol that we still see in the “dry” states in India: the experience does not go away, it goes underground.  People are embarrassed to admit to feeling disappointed and reluctant to let themselves fully feel the emotion but like the desire to enjoy a cold beer in the summer it doesn’t quite magically go away.  So what happens to the feeling of disappointment when we don’t want to or refuse to feel it?

Psychoanalysis suggests that the emotions that arise in us that we do not feel or directly acknowledge get warehoused.  The black market of the emotional world as it were, the place emotions go when they are under prohibition, is termed the Unconscious. 
When a desire or an emotion goes into the unconscious instead of the conscious part of the self it has been repressed or rationalized away, it is in exile. Next post I want to deconstruct a few psychoanalytic ideas of what we do with these exiles, but for now, I’m still sitting with the problem of prohibition. I see the student’s plunging into his studies of logic and crying down love altogether as a feint, a distraction of sorts from the loss that he has experienced when the girl he adores rejects him. I think many of us are so scared of disappointment’s possible power over us to the extent that we don’t allow ourselves to endure its sensation. Your taboo may not be disappointment of course, but what I’m wondering is: what happens to unexpressed, unacknowledged emotions? Can they be counted on to eventually disappear? Or if we don’t feel them can we recorded on an emotional balance sheet that they have been transcended?

Personally I don’t think we only experience what we can name.  Feelings and desires that we deny get housed somewhere in our psyches or bodies. If there are enough of them in the same vein, the prohibited bedfellows find each other, taking up space and weight in an internal emotional Pandora’s box.  The project of a good psychotherapy might be to take out some of these items from the box and examine them together in safety and confidence.  A beautiful breakdown on the other hand occurs when for one reason or another the box bursts open shedding its contents inside and outside.  Painful though that is, I see beauty in the freeing of caged or maimed birds, the coming to light of all of that particular human’s desires, bruises and sensations that have been living thus long in captivity and in the process, the creation of a certain sense of encompassing wholeness.