Therapy

Forward Motion Is The Most Honest Choice

I recently started a new job at a music and dance university, and was going through their library catalogue when I came across a book title which really caught my attention. It was about the dangers of therapeutic approaches in education. As a therapist working in education I felt immediately challenged, but I thought I’d give it a try, so as to become aware of contrary beliefs to the work that I do. I only lasted a couple of pages into the book’s Preface, and never even made it to the first chapter. A few things that I noticed straight away were the authors’ disdain for therapy and anything related to it. They also referred explicitly to the fact that therapeutic education is very much a liberal, and left-leaning agenda, which indicated to me that they are certainly on the other end of the political spectrum. Finally, they also referred to inclusion and diversity in quotation marks, which told me everything I needed to know about their own racial and social privileges.

There are many things to unpack in that first paragraph alone, but I wanted to refer to the larger narrative at hand, as it also reminded me of a conversation I had with my mother many months ago, about my work in schools. For many years, I’ve been noticing her slight resistance or ambivalence towards my work, even going as far as saying that she never expected me to choose such a profession. It made me wonder how much she actually knows me if she never expected this, but that’s for another time. She was more or less on board with it when I worked with addicts, as she could rationalise that these were people who needed help, but when I moved to work in schools, she was a bit puzzled by it. My mother often said “We didn’t have any of that sort of thing in my day!”, which is something I tend to hear from older generations. Younger generations, including my own, will say “Oh wow, it would have been so great if I’d had that at my school growing up!”.

Generational gaps are also evolutionary gaps. Some of the old always stays and lingers, and sometimes takes generations to die out – I mean, just look at the resurgence of fascism! As I felt quite patient that day, I began to explain to my mother that it’s not that old generations didn’t need help or support, but that the overall consciousness – spiritual, cultural, etc – hadn’t evolved enough to consider such concepts. In comparison to many other sciences, psychology is still quite young these days, let alone a whole generation ago. The context was also quite different. My parents’ generation is one of survival, and therefore one that sought stability. At least in Portugal. It’s crazy to consider this sometimes, but that whole generation was born during a fascist and authoritarian regime, and I never had to look that far back into the past to see the aftermath of a dictatorship. The ethics of hard-work, comfort, family, stability are all related to basic physiological needs of food, water, rest, warmth, and safety. The previous generation covered the basics very well. And then they added on to these needs, but I feel they did so from a place of acquiring more of the same, rather than different things. Ideas of potential, creativity, experiences, being present, are all fairly alien concepts to older generations.

The book I mentioned above reminded me of this chasm between basic needs and what Maslow called self-actualisation: the idea of achieving one’s full potential, including creative endeavours. I feel that the previous generation didn’t question much, whereas younger generations question everything. We don’t want to settle for anything less than what we deserve, and so we spend some time finding out who we are, so we can understand what we deserve, and therefore reach for that. This dynamic of questioning, of wondering, didn’t necessarily exist before. Obviously, there are many exceptions to this in previous generations, but I find them to be just that: exceptions. They were not the rule. For example, I often discuss with my mother how my generation prefers experiences to material things. Experiences symbolise potential whereas material things symbolise stability. She runs a clothing business – a business that fulfils a basic need of comfort and warmth. My work is about healing and experiences, and human potential. We are at opposite ends of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and therefore see the world from each of those perspectives.

Therapy is not a new age, or modern thing that everyone talks about now – it is simply a need that humanity has woken up to in recent decades, due to its own evolutionary processes. I know it may sound biased because I am a therapist, but therapy is important. Therapy allows us to know ourselves. It helps us to connect the dots between the past and the present, and it helps us to welcome the future. Emotional wounding happens everywhere: at home, at school, at work, with family, with friends, with strangers. Therapeutic spaces exist to help you heal those wounds. But therapists are also human, and we make mistakes, and we have off days, and we also struggle with emotional and mental wounding. However, we have our training, we have our own therapy, and we have our own clinical supervision. Those three things help us to stay afloat, and to thrive. But we are also always learning, and we will never have all the answers. There’s something quite humbling in that, at least for me. Sometimes, I’ll tell a client: “I don’t know, but perhaps we can figure it out together?” You may not bond with a particular therapist – we’re just people at the end of the day – but the practice of therapy is always helpful in encouraging self-reflection, healing, and yes, personal evolution.

One of the paradoxes of life is that the only constant thing is change. And most people dislike change. It’s also difficult to process change, because we often only see it when it’s done. It’s hard to know when you’re changing, because it can happen very slowly, over a long period of time. That’s why in therapy, we often point out the small evolutionary steps our clients are making in their lives. It often surprises people when I point out their evolution, but it’s ultimately part of the healing process. I often say that sometimes, progress is simply being self-destructive less often. Do you only binge-drink once a month, rather than four times? That’s progress, well done! The evolution of life is a series of small steps, with the odd big step thrown in. And even within the big steps, like a divorce or health diagnosis, there are small steps we can take.

Right now, we’re all changing. In big ways, and in small ways. But we’re all changing. I was watching an episode of Star Trek: Discovery the other day and one of the characters said something that really moved me: “Forward motion is the most honest choice”. We’re moving forward, whether people like it or not. Whether it relates to race, gender, sexual orientation, climate change, belief systems, or anything else…. Everything is in forward motion. Everything is evolving and changing, including language. Embrace this and life will feel like a much more honest and freeing experience.