Reflexions… On Loving Thyself

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I have been proactively studying and practising spirituality for 7 years. It has rarely conflicted with my Dramatherapy practice and studies, and I find that it actually complements my professional training.

One of the main teachers of my spiritual practice used to say this about the teachings of any religion or spiritual practice: “Love thy neighbour as thyself; and the rest is commentary.”

Meaning that, everything that everyone ever needs to know, and do, is in that little sentence. Simple? Yes. Easy? Not so much.

I have been observing for many years, that whilst most people understand the premise of that teaching and reality, they often leave out the last part of it. In fact, how many times do you just see “Love thy neighbour”? We are all trying to love and accept the “other”, but we often fail to love and accept the “self”. We forget the “thyself” part of the equation, and then we wonder why there is so much hate and misunderstanding in the world around us. We can only love and accept others in relation to how much we love and accept ourselves. If we don’t see enough love and acceptance towards others around us, is because there isn’t enough love and acceptance towards self.

I think most people know this, but not everyone feels this. Someone once told me that the most arduous path there is, is the one that connects the mind to the heart. And I’m not even adding the soul to that equation. Connecting the mind and the heart is a big enough task to start with.

Why am I writing about this today? Firstly, recent events and the ways in which we perceive the “other”, hate, and love. Secondly, a dear friend was questioning his spiritual/sexual identity recently, and I found myself using this teaching to make the point of acceptance clear. Thirdly, every point/topic/theme/concern/issue/etc. in the therapy room boils down to this: being able to love thyself. And yes, I can hear people scorning about this and its corniness/naivety, but I stand by this statement.

At one point or another, due to a myriad of circumstances, everyone’s development is affected by someone else’s words and/or actions, which then becomes internalised as a belief that “there’s something wrong with me” or “I’m not good enough”. Logically, it might be simple to state that there is nothing wrong with anyone and that everyone is good enough, because that information comes from elsewhere. It doesn’t come from the individual. No one internalises the belief that they are wrong, without an external influence giving them that information. But emotionally? Well, understanding this emotionally can take years, even decades!

Why? Because at the same time we might be receiving the message that we’re wrong, we’re also learning about right and wrong. Is anyone taught to love and accept what’s wrong? I feel and observe so many of us growing up under the conditioning that there is something wrong with us, having great difficulty accepting certain parts of who we are and of our history, hiding and hoping no one will notice. Even if no one else notices, do you know who will always notice? The other parts of you.

One of my favourite theories/techniques is that of Subpersonalities, by John Rowan. In it, there is the idea that we all possess distinct subpersonalities in our psyche, with different functions, motivations, origins, beliefs. No other aspect of my training has been more influential to me than this. The core principles of Integrative Dramatherapy – Self-Compassion, Relationships, and Integration – all stem from this. It is a technique I always return to, because it offers amazingly profound insights into someone’s behaviour, emotions, and traumas. Within someone’s subpersonalities, there is usually a very neglected, and a very over-compensating one. They are usually very dependent of and reactive to each other. They tend to disrupt the functions of other subpersonalities. Moreover, sometimes the very neglected and very over-compensating one, become one and the same. Their functions, motivations, and beliefs merge, and their origins disappear. The neglected becomes a bully and takes over the entire psyche, as it loses track of what it was there for in the first place.

Subpersonalities are very powerful (and surprisingly real) metaphors for our unconsciously-motivated behavioural and emotional patterns. The optimal goal is to have them all working together, interdependently, in an integrated manner. Integration, therefore, is not simply about having the “right” subpersonalities running the psyche, but to have all of them doing so, according to their own function and strength. Fear is a great example, for instance. Fear appears in our lives for a reason, often primitive and instinctive, but what happens to fear, and many other emotions, is that it overstays its mission, and its function becomes corrupted. It is there, but it is no longer serving the psyche, and becomes a block.

Thus, when a part of us begins to accept the conditioning that there is something wrong with us, according and in relation to others, a respective subpersonality emerges in the psyche to make sense of that new information. Depending on subsequent life experiences, that subpersonality will then live out its function and integrate, or it might overstay and change its function, which then permeates the entirety of the psyche. The individual is no longer able to recognise it, but it is still developing ways in which to express itself.

Subpersonalities tend to overstay their mission when they are neglected. We think we are taking care of something by ignoring it, but we are only forcing it to find new ways to express itself. This often appears in “random” events, behaviours, or emotional outbursts. We say “I was not myself when I did/said that!”. And we’re probably right. The subpersonality was ignored in its authentic expression, and so it found a new way to catch our attention, by changing itself completely and being someone/something else.

In short, this subpersonality was not shown any love or acceptance. It was deemed wrong, and forcibly ignored, and put to the side, or the back of the psyche. So, over time, the neglect turns into something else: resentment, anger, shame, disgust, hate, sadness, destruction. All of this, because it wants to be listened to, seen, cared for, validated… loved. The psyche, in the form of behaviours, emotions, and physical sensations, is constantly reminding us to focus on the “thyself” part of the equation. Love your neighbour as THYSELF! This is the paradox: the most important part of the teaching, comes last. It is a test in itself. Can we get past the obvious and notice what the core message is?

We believe we must always love others first, but the opposite is true. Without self-compassion, it is hard to create and maintain healthy and authentic relationships. Without helping our subpersonalities relate to and love each other, we cannot expect to treat others in ways which are balanced, authentic, and loving.

A client told me the other day, that they were not willing to change until the rest of the world changed too. Perhaps exacerbated, I challenged that position by asserting that the world was not sitting across the room from me, and that I was not being the world’s therapist, but an individual’s. And this is the trap: because we place the emphasis on others, we believe that others are responsible for loving, accepting, and validating us, and yet, we are often incapable of doing that for ourselves, and even go so far as rejecting that responsibility for the self.

LOVE THYSELF! The rest is commentary.

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Reflexions…On Questioning

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It’s been a prolonged silence since my last post. I have been sitting with this resistance, trying to make sense of what exactly was going on inside me, and realised that, ultimately, I have been questioning myself, my role, and my profession.

I found myself in clinical supervision the other week, questioning whether I would like to be a therapist for a long time, or not. A great gift I’ve received in my life is an ability to learn lessons quickly. This ability goes hand in hand with my other key ability of being able to empathise deeply and sensitively with almost everyone. By feeling deeply, I have often arrived at insights and personal resolutions, quicker than other people in my life going through similar trials and tribulations. But this may often also feel like a curse. The deep and intense feelings, followed by insight and resolution, followed by a continuous “what’s next?”. Sometimes, this is extremely tiring. And I feel that this is where I have been recently.

I am a therapist who believes that whilst a therapeutic training and education can indeed be used to help anyone in any kind of circumstance, the therapeutic relationship can also be much deeper and purposeful when I work with clients going through the lessons that I’ve been through. I often say that my areas of expertise are not an accident.

And maybe it’s a phase that every therapist goes through – but no one really talks about – or maybe I’m particularly tired this month, but I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that this question popped up in my mind this month, startling my sense of identity and purpose: “Is this really all I want to do and be?” The answer was a very strong NO, which is still echoing in my heart.

I feel that I have come to this standpoint after a continuous and quiet questioning of the therapeutic process itself. What is its purpose? How do I understand healing, personally?

I used to think that therapy was supposed to help people overcome internal obstacles, and by default, external ones as well. And that healing would come from that process of transformation. But I guess what I have been really questioning is this idea of overcoming. I’m not necessarily basing this on any specific theory or methodology, simply on my own experiences and understanding.

Because what I continue to witness in my therapy rooms and sessions is a revolving door of the same presentations, conflicts, histories, narratives, in different people, with slightly different nuances, but the same. Even with the same person, when I think something has been processed, there’s another layer. And I wrote about this in a past blog entry. This idea that, yes, we can always keep digging, there are always more layers, more nuances to explore, more depth, more intensity, more pain, more trauma, more, more, more. But at what point do we stop looking backwards, into the past?

These questions are for me, really. I don’t intend to imply that every therapist might be questioning this, and maybe for some professionals these matters are very black and white. I just feel that I spend a lot of time in the grey areas, wondering what the balance is between past and future. And wondering whether we actually overcome anything? Does an experience such as a trauma ever disappear? How does overcoming and healing apply to trauma? Does it ever go away? What is my job in relation to these questions?

For instance, the complexities of gay men’s mental health. And when I say complexities, I mean that, based not just on clients’ experiences, but also my own. All these studies and articles of how gay men are more susceptible to more ill mental health, substance misuse, addiction, compulsive behaviour, suicidal ideation, bullying, abuse, etc. Sometimes, I’m reading academic or clinical articles, and I’m thinking “No kidding!”. I could write an article about my life and use that as a template.

Many other client groups have this experience – I’m calling it the intersectionality of pain. Pain does not discriminate, and it often doesn’t just stay on the one lane. It’s a complex web of experiences, which by moving something here, will trigger something there, and then by going there, will trigger something else further away or down, and on, and on. This is just my own process. And if I go through this, I am certain many others experience the same. All of us could spend the rest of our lives in therapy. But is that the point? Is it possible to move forward, simply by moving forward?

And I bring this particular example up, because its constant presence in clinical presentations makes me question whether the therapy may also focus on other aspects of a person’s life. I have created this session for groups which I lovingly call “The Gift Session”. It’s a session where I help individuals become aware of their inner qualities, their inner light. Just because. No other reason, no agenda. Just that. And someone usually asks “How is this relevant? I thought we were here to deal with our pain?” So, in every “Gift Session”, I usually need to explore why people tend to reject the gift of becoming aware of their inner light, and why/how that awareness could actually be the key to the end of their suffering.

Could therapeutic work focusing on qualities and inner light literally and figuratively illuminate the way through the suffering and chaos? How much healing and peace can we find through continuous exploration and analysis of pain and trauma?