“A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
There is a view of the nature of philosophy that claims that it is not about discovering philosophical knowledge or finding solutions to philosophical problems; but that it is a battle against the bewitchment of intelligence by means of language. “There is not a single philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, different therapies, as it were”. In that view, philosophy, like psychotherapy, is a ‘talking cure’ – one in which it is not knowledge but understanding that is the key to living freely, as a whole person. “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about’” – in life, one might say, as well as in thought. In this model, the task of both philosophy and therapy is to try and use different frameworks to view what is already there, and in order to do that it’s vital to understand how the language that we use – including pictorial language – can lead us astray.
Pictures, analogies, metaphors – can be incredibly powerful. They give us a way of talking about our experiences that shows what those experiences are like. But because we are human, with language and imagination, those pictures and analogies suggest other pictures, metaphors and analogies to us. We get carried along by a train of thought and very soon, we have turned a helpful way of seeing things and of showing what we see, into a landscape of pseudo-scientific facts and causal mechanisms. We all need ways of talking about things – but the danger lies in believing that our way of talking tells us something factual about the things that we are talking about.
A concept is not an object – and yet the confusion between the two is frequent in psychoanalysis. Talking about an ‘inner’ versus an ‘outer’ world may be a handy shortcut for referring to ‘goings on of the mind’, but the very language of ‘inner versus outer’ has furnished psychotherapy with a landscape littered with internal objects, mental processes, and psychic causal mechanisms, despite the fact that when I am doing psychotherapy or philosophy I am not engaged in the same sort of activity as when I am doing science. That is not to deny that there can be scientific, physical or genetic causes to psychological difficulties – it is simply to say that applying the language and framework of science to doing and participating in psychotherapy is like applying the rules of football to a game of chess.
Picture, analogies, metaphors – can be incredibly powerful, and can influence how we think and feel, and how we behave. But I’m not just talking about the difference between being a ‘glass-half-empty’ or a ‘glass-half-full’ kind of person. I’m talking about the difference between thinking of life as a glass, as compared to a river, or a tree, or an onion. Each analogy is not just a snapshot, it is a route-map, a train of thought, and subsequently of action. If I think of life as a glass, it is something that needs to be filled; it becomes about accumulation, whether that is of possessions, people, or happiness. My cup may be full to overflowing, and I may drink to the dregs and have my fill. I will be content, in other words, if the volume has been satisfactory, and I will act to increase that volume. If life is a river I may worry less about what I do, and may be more content to be carried along with the experience; I may be drawn inexorably to the sea, to my final purpose, gathering leaves and twigs and gaining tributaries and companions along the way. If life is a tree I may focus on personal growth; if it is an onion I may focus on trying to peel back the layers either of myself or of the world around me, to discover ‘what lies beneath’.
We take the first step – thinking of life as a glass –because it appeals, because it ‘makes sense to us’. But from that first step the subsequent ones flow in a way which seems independent of us and causally determined; in a way which seems factual. And so we forget that this was, in the first instance, simply a picture that appealed to us. But by that stage, the picture is holding us captive because its language has a hold on us, and keeps repeating itself to us, over and over.
There is a picture that holds me captive – it is a picture of a ‘pit of need’ inside me. This picture, this language, is the way I describe to myself a certain set of feelings. Feelings of longing and desperation; of wanting warmth and closeness, acceptance and connection. Over the last few months, those feelings have been associated with numerous instances of what my therapist has called my ‘subconscious breaking through the cracks’. Instances of impulsive action, regretted; of doing, without thinking; of boundaries pushed or broken. Instances leading to shame and self-loathing.
The thing about a ‘pit’ is this – it cries out to be filled. The very language I use to describe my feelings seems to imply that I need to do something – I need to seek that connection, in the hope that there will be an outpouring of love that will fill that pit, and make those feelings of longing go away. The pit cries out to be filled – it aims at action and future resolution, not at thought and reflection. It gives the illusion of control – because it’s easy to envisage a pit that, with help, can be made a little less empty. And so the pit attaches itself to a person – it becomes about the person with whom a connection is sought, and who can help to fill it. It becomes almost impossible to imagine that the pit may have nothing to do with that person at all – that the need may be not for something in the future or the here and now, but for a connection and an acceptance that should have taken place in the past.
My therapist has often told me that therapy cannot make up for the past, or replace what I did not have. My therapist may ‘stand for’ the mother I may have needed, or represent her in some way – but she cannot be that mother, or simply give me the experience I was missing. And by constantly wanting therapy, and her, to be something they are not, and by constantly fighting against the boundaries of therapy, I am not making the most of what it has to offer and I am not fully able to enjoy and appreciate it. It is never enough.
I have often read that one must grieve what was lost or was missing – but I have no idea how to grieve something that wasn’t there; something that is nebulous and unremembered. Save that, as my therapist has pointed out, it is remembered by virtue of the transference that is experienced during sessions. Even so, I have only recently learned how to grieve a person rather than bury feelings of loss – and I have no idea how to apply those lessons to grieving a lack of unconditional acceptance and connection in my past.
But what I have learned about grief, is this – that you have to sit tight, and weather the storm. That you have to be open to it and be pummeled by it and let it have its way with you. Grief comes in waves and you have no control over it; you have to let it wash over you, knowing that it will do so, but that more waves will come. And eventually, the waves will hit less often, and when they do you will feel less and less as though you are drowning. Eventually, it will be the good memories that will help you keep your head above water rather than weighing you down with a sense of loss. And then one day you will be able to smile at the memories, and enjoy them, and there will be an aching, and only the distant bodily remembering of the bruising and the storm.
What if when I felt those feelings of longing and desperation, of desire for connection and acceptance – I could think of them as a type of grief, and not as a pit of need? What if I could think of them as a wave hitting me, and washing over me, rather than an empty hole inside me, needing to be filled? What if I could just sit and wait, rather than be impelled to act? What if I could recognise that the feelings were not about something that needed to happen now, but about something that never did? And therefore that though the person who shares my space (mental or physical) while I am experiencing those things may be someone wonderful and important and maybe even someone that I love – they may still be completely distinct from that sense of fierce need and hunger?
What if I can change the language that I use to talk about these feelings, so that the picture of a pit of need no longer holds me captive? If I can instead use the language of a wave of grief, will I be able to break out of this cycle of acting when I should wait, and of acting leading to shame and regret? It’s worth a try, purely on those grounds. But it’s also worth a try because of the potential end-game – if the grief analogy is followed all the way through. It’s worth a try if, eventually, that fierce longing and desperation can be replaced by an appreciation, enjoyment and a true valuing of what I do have – whether in therapy or elsewhere. The people I am connected to may not be able to pour themselves out in the way that I might think I need them to – but they can be there for me none-the-less, and perhaps they can be my equivalent of ‘good memories’ to enjoy, once the waves of grief over the past, have done their work.