Medium 9781782200529

Beyond the Frustrated Self: Overcoming Avoidant Patterns and Opening to Life

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This book foregrounds the life struggles of an individual, Brenda, in such a way that argument and theoretical exploration arise organically out of experience. The "frustration" of the title is traced to avoidant attachment - pretending not to need others. In Brenda this is associated with a body-energy pattern that is both over-charged and over-contained, generating a self-frustrating process. Such a repressive defence works against her, so that she experiences her life as dry, soulless, and uncreative. A variety of existential diffi culties are traced to how such core developmental issues interact with our socio-cultural environment. A way forward is outlined: play and finding meaning are identified as transformational hubs that bring wellbeing into Brenda's life and restore her capacity for experiencing.

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CHAPTER ON EHow attachment styles are mirrored in energy regulation patterns

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CHAPTER ONE

How attachment styles are mirrored in energy regulation patterns

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t the beginning of a long period of therapy, Brenda’s therapist experiences her as very polite, distant, self-analytical, and unemotional—apart from her eviscerating embarrassment about self-revelation and her crippling guilt about being in therapy at all when “there are so many people out there with real problems”. She distrusts warmth or compassion—what she spittingly labels as pity but is exquisitely sensitive to a therapist’s attunement and understanding.

The slightest hint of not being heard or seen accurately or of unempathic analysis or rigidity sends her into retreat. Her presenting issue was lack of meaning in her life, and it was clear that she believed that she could analyse herself out of the problem if she—or her therapist— thought hard enough. The fact that she had been trying to figure out the point of life since her teens and still hadn’t by the age of thirty-eight caused her despair. But it has never occurred to her that there was any other approach to the problem than through thinking. She worked in IT and was quite good at it but found it soul-destroying and didn’t know how long she could continue to make herself do it; she wanted to return to college to study philosophy, anthropology, or English literature.

 

CHAPTER TWO The roots of boredom and addiction

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CHAPTER TWO

The roots of boredom and addiction

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n the last chapter, we saw how the hostility and humiliation Brenda experienced in her family, particularly in her teenage years, led to her being highly charged with anxiety, anger, and shame. But the distant and unattuned parenting she received in childhood ensured that the energy remained—however strongly felt—unexpressed and trapped within. Nevertheless, Brenda was also exposed to beauty and soul in nature, old houses, and literature, and she does know what it is to love the world around her. What effect did her energy regulation have on the expression of her loving feelings? Was she again blocked and frustrated in self-expression? And how does expression of charge affect the feelings themselves? Was her love for the non-human world just a compensation for the inadequacies of her human relationships?

This chapter will explore the theme of cathexis.

Cathexis and transitional objects

What enables us to charge objects and experiences with excitation and value? Infants in their first or second year bond to an inanimate object which they can control. These transitional objects—as Winnicott called them—are magically charged, and on them depends our early safety;

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CHAPTER THREE Attention and the soul: the scientist versus the poet

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CHAPTER THREE

Attention and the soul: the scientist versus the poet

Who can calculate the orbit of his own soul?

—Oscar Wilde, 1905, De Profundis

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.

If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

—The Gospel according to Thomas

It is creative apperception more than anything else that makes the individual feel that life is worth living.

—Winnicott, 1991, p. 65

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nce she was a child and never imagined that the magic could end. But, the science project began aged fifteen as a bull-like effort of will, forcing herself to engage with the rebarbative, abstract, impersonal detail of chemistry, physics, and maths. Brenda was slapping herself awake out of the misty gaze of childhood, the romantic dreamer in a treetop, in ecstatic merger with the natural environment.

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CHAPTER FOUR Boundaries and contact: outer and inner distortions

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CHAPTER FOUR

Boundaries and contact: outer and inner distortions

So far as the anxieties of the outer life penetrate into it, and the inconsistently-minded, unknown, unloved or hostile society is allowed … to cross the threshold, it ceases to be home; it is then only a part of that outer world which you have roofed over and lighted fire in.

—John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies, 1865

In Seville, Brenda sees behind the student tapas bars and tourist sites the fires of the Inquisition. Looking at Italian Renaissance art, she cannot avoid the blood, terror, and torture amid which it was painted. She is in confluence with suffering. Mary Oliver, like many poets, has thin boundaries against the world. She describes giving to a child beggar in

Jakarta: the look of cunning she received back she carries “like a bead of acid”—in my mind, the acid used in etching to carve lines into metal

(“Acid”, 1992). In another shocking poem (“Rage”, 1992), she evokes the sex abuser at the moment when, in his dreams, his armouring against empathy collapses. Even he, Oliver imagines, is tormented by what he has done to the child who, stunted, “will never come to leaf”. In these examples, we see how open boundaries permit us to feel the pain of

 

CHAPTER FIVE Time, space, and silence: regaining our capacity to experience

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CHAPTER FIVE

Time, space, and silence: regaining our capacity to experience

The time–space–silence continuum

In childhood, at her grandmother’s house, there was an infinity of time, space, and silence. The hours and the days stretched expansively ahead, not empty but without the impingements of struggling, clashing egos. The men on the farm seemed to work without an inner battle between what they wanted and what they should or had to do. It was midsummer, so the hay was cut, dried, and stacked in the barn or in hay cocks or ricks in the fields. It was late summer, so the combine harvester appeared and the barley was cut and threshed and the baled straw was brought in. It was morning, so the hens and pigs, dogs and cats were fed and the hens were let out into the comparatively fox-free safety of the daylight hours. It was midday, so the cattle were counted and the men came in for dinner. It was evening, so the animals were fed again and the hens locked up for the night. The rhythms of the day and the season determined what one did so that few existential decisions had to be made. Furthermore, in her memory, there was no jostling for dominance: every man had his place and all were valued and accepted in their differences. Just as the time and space were not empty but felt infinite, so the silence was not absolute but felt abundant. In reality, the

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CHAPTER SIX Competitiveness as the struggle for recognition and respect

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CHAPTER SIX

Competitiveness as the struggle for recognition and respect

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

—Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”, 1867

Out there, under the shining vault of heaven,

Men tell each other: ‘Man, be thyself!’

But in here, among us trolls, we say: ‘Man, be thyself—and to Hell with the rest of the world!’

—Ibsen, Peer Gynt, trans. M. Meyer, 1994, p. 65

The political and the personal—Brenda’s story

In all of us, the personal and the political are intertwined: individual and social change may support or may undermine each other. In

Brenda’s case, her self-esteem was, in her youth, crippled because of the denigration of women in her family and the wider Irish society; later, the success of the feminist movement was vital in supporting her personal work towards developing self-worth. Our current climate of

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CHAPTER SEVEN Activism versus integrity: resolving the dilemma?

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CHAPTER SEVEN

Activism versus integrity: resolving the dilemma?

First they came for the communists,

And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,

And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,

And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me,

And there was no one left to speak out for me.

—Attributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller

The time is out of joint;

O cursèd spite,

That ever I was born to set it right.

—Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5, ca 1601

Activism and the demand for action

Shortly before she finally decided to jump ship, the IT company where

Brenda used to work was transformed into a pressure-cooker of stress

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and resentment resulting from newly-implemented and abusive management practices. Subsequent to the company having been taken over, a new culture was instituted of bullying and summary dismissals, reinforced by contracts that established slave-owners rights over the staff. Swingeing cuts in her department led to depression, burnout, and a plummeting in the quality of the work. After futile protests to her immediate superiors and a colleague even being driven to a suicide attempt, she was left wondering about complaining at higher levels, blowing the whistle to the Labour Court or even speaking to the press. But Brenda doesn’t have the stomach for activism. The simplest solution would have been to ignore what was happening, yet her conscience would not leave her alone, nagging her with Simon

 

CHAPTER EIGHT Reflecting and creating the self: the uses of narrative

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CHAPTER EIGHT

Reflecting and creating the self: the uses of narrative

Narrative and the self

Stories are important to Brenda. Yet when she looks back at her life, she can find neither narrative themes nor emotionally-suffused and detailed memories, what Siegel (2012, p. 125) calls “mental time travel”.

Her perception of her life story is “just one damned thing after another” in a disconnected jumble. Her memory is poor and undifferentiated: when she talks to former classmates at school reunions, their anecdotes awaken no buried memories, just an empty despair that she wasn’t really there. Her attempt to “begin to live” by giving up her work in IT has led to further frustration: she gave up a good salary, but the reward, the goal of “having a life”, has so far evaded her. She recently joined a life-writing class to see if she can at least put some order and shape on her life, and pin down the occasional sensory and emotional memories that hover like a mist when she is surprised by the pregnant scents of musty rooms, sacks of flour, the cut grass or sweet pea of summer, the dead leaves and open fires of autumn. As a compensation for her own inner emptiness, Brenda has read fiction voraciously all her life, starting with Beatrix Potter, Enid Blyton, Susan Coolidge and L. M.

 

CHAPTER NINE Integration: perspectives from complexity theory and neuroscience

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CHAPTER NINE

Integration: perspectives from complexity theory and neuroscience

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o far, we have gained some insight into Brenda’s attachment style and how this manifests in the way in which she manages her energy, so that her inner charge is constantly fighting with her muscular armouring. The blockage in her energy flow impacts on her capacity to cathect—or alternatively, to be bored. Her over-focused attention and energy affects her receptiveness to experience, which leads to her craving more soulful living, along with more time, space, and silence. Brenda’s anxious attachment also generates poor selfesteem, which causes her to obsess about competitiveness and power and her place in the pecking order. Her avoidant style means that she is understandably resistant to feeling her hurt and humiliation. She keeps the world at bay and takes in little. Consequently, Brenda has a poor “memory”—though in reality she hasn’t taken in things in the first place—and her life narrative is patchy and lacks cohesion. When she experiences judgement or disrespect from another, she simply cuts them out of her life, while she keeps people she loves at arm’s length to protect her fragile boundaries. She is resistant to digesting her past, but is driven by dreams of a better future. As a result, she changes career, partner, and home at regular intervals, and refuses—indeed panics in the face of—commitment to anyone or anything. All of this change and

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CHAPTER TEN Achieving well-being: play and spiritual practice as transformational hubs

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CHAPTER TEN

Achieving well-being: play and spiritual practice as transformational hubs

Empty are the words of that philosopher who offers no therapy for human suffering.

—Epicurus, in Long & Sedley, 1987

Primary needs and transformation

Brenda is frustrated in her quest for happiness and well-being largely because, as a consequence of her avoidant/dismissing attachment, she lives too much in the narrow, arid, impersonal, unnourished, and sticky left hemisphere of the brain. In the last chapter we saw how complex systems are non-linear: a small input leads to a disproportionate effect.

In Brenda’s case, what kind of input could help her emerge from her rigid and frustrating states of mind? What we are looking for is, as it were, Brenda’s psychic hub—more specifically, for what Bollas called a transformational object that would trigger this hub. According to him, mother is first experienced as a source of alteration in self states.

This experience is retained unconsciously in the adult, “who relives it through his adamant quest for a transformational object: a new partner,

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