BCPC Psychobiography Essay08 December 2012
Explore your current understanding of the ways in which early and subsequent life experiences may have shaped your sense of self in conjunction with your patterns of relating.
“What we see depends mainly on what we look for.”
— John Lubbock, British Anthropologist, 1834-1913
What does it say about me that I need to begin by calling into question the title set for this essay? Immediately I’m drawn to reflect on the hardship of my single-parent upbringing and the diligently forged independence I have since toiled for. I learnt from an early age that I could not always rely on my needs being met, unless by my own efforts. Is my need to re-contextualise this essay a continuation of that same independent streak ingrained years ago?
As I will attend to later, an important chapter from my life is meditation, which I practice as a form of self-therapy. Meditation consciously eschews the analysis of past events, instead promoting the primacy of present experience. This leads to the curious situation where one of my most, if not the most, significant past experiences is the realisation that I am not defined by my past experiences. However, the shift of a temporal centre of gravity away from the past and towards the present is not the sole domain of meditation. In fact contemporary psychotherapy can not, in any meaningful sense, be defined by, or restricted to, theories that expound the centrality of past events. Think of the humanistic, inter-subjective and mindfulness-based schools of thought that enjoy widespread appeal.
What now of this innocent essay’s direction, caught in the crossfire between competing temporal priorities, like a child bystander watching helplessly as his parents argue? Firstly, it seems prudent to acknowledge that there is a tangible sense in which it has been compromised; if I am not responding to the original setting, then what am I responding to? For the sake of practicality I will set the bearing thusly; what events from my early and subsequent life experiences have contributed towards a sense of self and ways of relating that are sceptical of the relevance of early and subsequent life experiences? This is perhaps an awkwardly recursive way to proceed, but at least an honest and useful one, that honours both the original requirement and my own need for broader contextualisation.
I am at once the best and worst person to speak of my past. I may have first-hand experience but I’m also the enthusiastic director of my life’s story; embellishing and censoring to my own, at best lackadaisical and at worst deceitful, ends. For instance, I have already set out my stall regarding my thoughts on the relevance of past life experiences, so it would be convenient if the events I choose and the manner I employ to describe them reinforce my bias. Regardless, I must start somewhere, with sufficient disclosures and a sincere attitude, any attempt is infinitely preferable to silence.
I was born in Britain in the early 1980s to a family that traces its histories, as far as they are recorded, to these same British Isles. I grew up in rural Wales and received a standard Western education. My parents separated when I was about four years old. I have one younger brother. My father was a liberal-leaning, well-educated thinker who programmed computers for a living. He died of alcoholism in 2006. I think of my mother mostly as a strong-willed and independent single mother. Her outlook was very much shaped by the progressive movements and countercultures of the Sixties such as feminism, anti-war ideologies and civil rights. Of any person she has had by far the greatest influence on my life.
When I entered my teenage years I began to increasingly suffer from social anxiety and depression. Although I achieved at school my personal life was withdrawn and underdeveloped. I lasted just three months at university and spent the next five years unemployed and deeply troubled. In 2001 I had began a daily meditation practice that was having noticeably positive effects on my well being. Eventually I became strong enough to go back to university and complete a degree in Religious Studies. However, towards the end of my undergraduate years a series of events precipitated, what I can only describe as, a nervous breakdown, it lasted almost a year. I separated from a partner, my relationship with my mother broke down, my father died, I was heavily in debt and jobless. However, the breakdown had occurred amongst a profound deepening of my meditation practice. In fact I’ve never felt the two narratives as separate. As desperately traumatic as the loss, despair and grief were, I was able, with the help of the stability of non-judgemental patient awareness and a supportive community of meditators, to completely and unreservedly open to my suffering. The ramifications of this have been far beyond anything I could have ever imagined. Not only has my relationship to suffering been radically overturned, but I have recovered an inexhaustible gratitude for the fact of my birth.
From such a portrayal of my past it’s clear there are many points of departure from which we can explore the effects on my current sense of self and patterns of relating. For example; how my parents early and dramatic parting influences my intimate relationships. Or, how my father’s slow and heartbreaking demise plays into my patterns of guilt and worthlessness. But why begin with the negative influences? Surely the positive aspects have just as much impact on my sense of self and patterns of relating? Consider my education which has given me the tools to think critically, absorb new ideas and offer independent opinions. Or my existentially liberating insights from a daily meditation practice, that have allowed me to fearlessly open up to the suffering of others. I will try and give both positive and negative influences equal attention.
First, the negative. If I am to be a successful therapist it is paramount that I am intensely familiar with my own patterns of behaviour — to be forewarned is to be forearmed. As such it is my negative tendencies that possess the greater potential to derail a therapeutic practice. Unacknowledged positive tendencies may inhibit the process but at least they do not have the potential to jeopardise it. Ultimately a client can no more discover themselves than the therapist has. We must practice what we preach, theory is not a substitute.
I tend to be a relatively reserved person, perhaps following on from the independence I’ve built for myself since childhood. I find myself burdened with loneliness more than I would like. I’m aware that I continue to consciously choose it. I prefer to live on my own, I spend more time on the Internet than with other people. Although there are positive benefits to this, I wonder whether my hermit tendency has in some way been fueled by my earliest relationships; therefore, perhaps it is easier for me to not relate because I associate relating with stressful turbulence. How might this play out in long term work with a client? Perhaps I could subconsciously find reasons to claim the therapy was successfully coming to an end when in fact I was just struggling with it? Or perhaps I might place too much emphasis on the client becoming an independent person like me, because I believe that to be the optimal mode of being?
A current and developing issue that I am keeping a close eye on is an often intense, perhaps even righteous, expression of opinion which is sometimes received as judgemental and critical. I suspect this may have something to do with the combination of my earlier troubles in life and the contrasting freedom I have since come to enjoy. There is something of the evangelical convert in this, I’m someone who has struggled deeply and resolved that struggle. Naturally I want to share this, but I wonder what portion of this motivation is altruistic? Perhaps a component is the longing to be ‘on top’, to not be the underdog anymore? As a therapist, in a privileged position of power, could my enthusiasm all too easily slip into a righteousness that is more about coercing the client into bolstering my sense of achievement?
I am overall an optimist. I believe that existence is, on balance, a good thing and that humans have evolved to pass on positive organising principles. For instance, my overriding experience of other humans is that they are at least approachable, almost all of the ones I have met did not want to kill or harm me. At a very fundamental level I trust people. I am also profoundly influenced by the Western culture in which I’ve grown and been educated. Although politics largely jades me, I know that I have human and civil rights, that my voice is important and that my vote counts towards steering the larger community to which I belong. These may be things that most of us take for granted, but they are not givens, not everyone enjoys them. I am incredibly fortunate that these principles are deeply embedded in my sense of self and patterns of relating. As a therapist, the repercussions here may seem obvious, but that is no reason to overlook them. It means I am at least approachable, that I respect fundamental human and civil rights in all other humans. I may not agree with your worldview or moral values, but I will not reduce you to an object or our relationship to verbal or physical abuse.
Changing gears into an altogether different realm, meditation has had a radical impact on my sense of self, so much so that I often think it is only trumped in influence by the event of my birth. The awareness cultivated from over a decade of daily sitting and regular silent retreats has shown me that, contrary to my most ingrained assumptions, I am not the self that I readily articulate in everyday conversation. It is not that I am some other self, rather it is that I can not point to any one particular manifestation and say, “yes, that is me, that is who I most fundamentally am”. To use the parlance of spirituality, it is liberation. I am not beyond suffering or neurosis, this is not at all what I experience, I simply know, in a deep sense, that I am not defined by, and therefore not imprisoned by, my neuroses. It is in not being defined by that I am able to fully experience suffering, because it presents no threat to my sense of self.
As a sincere party in a close relationship, such as therapist/client, having little investment in any one sense of self can be of immeasurable value. I know from the times that I have been on the receiving end of someone exercising the humility to forgo their cherished sense of self in order to promote transparency and intimacy, it has dramatically opened my heart and allowed me to see beyond emotions that have long burdened me. Therapy that lasts many years makes it harder and harder for the therapist to hide behind theory, inevitably and as it should, they will need to demonstrate in their actions the ideals that they express in words. Looseness around my sense of self allows me to not fix upon ideas of being a good or bad person, or a useful or useless therapist. Perhaps most importantly it even allows me to be cautious about investing in the sense of self that thinks I am not defined by my sense of self.
My relationship to this essay itself probably speaks volumes about my sense of self and patterns of relating. What am I trying to hide by bringing the setting more into my territory? Is there something in the original title that I am scared of exploring? What does my innate mistrust of being told what to do say about my relationship to authority? At worst I have demonstrated a sincere and active engagement with the particular edges of my character. At best I hope my confidence to take charge has provided the opportunity for me to articulate more of who I really am. The more transparent and honest I can be the more available I am to be scrutinised and thus trusted.
As much as I champion the priority of the present I make no hesitation in acknowledging that my past, a notably tumultuous one at that, forms the raw materials that build the structure of my everyday self. However, whereas I am solely and absolutely influenced by them I am not defined by them.