May 25, 2024


Wwhen i was a little girl i cried a lot. I peacefully wished I wasn’t such a crybaby. I remember the shame so well. Sitting on my bed on a Sunday night, hot-cheeked and angry with my tears, clinging to the thought that when I grow up, I would never cry. I will be a strong, confident and capable woman, and I will never again feel like a sobbing little girl who doesn’t want to go to school tomorrow and just wants to stay with her mom. I hated that part of myself and I desperately wanted to get rid of it. That’s what a better life meant to me back then.

Since becoming a psychotherapist, I have seen this kind of wish in patient after patient – ​​and I have also seen it in myself as a patient in therapy. It seems to be a pretty ubiquitous desire, although we’re not always aware of it: this wish and even belief that if we just try hard enough, if we can find the magic self-help book or therapist or personal trainer or Instagram filter, we will really be able to get rid of the parts of ourselves that we feel ashamed of, or hate, or don’t want to admit.

If you don’t recognize this in yourself, you might think about what really annoys you in your friends and family and colleagues: what is it about the way they are and the things they do that really gets under your skin? It probably annoys you so much because it subconsciously reminds you of yourself.

It can be a vulnerability that a person thinks of as a weakness of being outgrown, like me and my crying. It could be a traumatic experience or experiences, such as a car accident or abuse, that they wish had never happened and unconsciously believe they can make a mistake, so they can go back to the person they were before. Or it could be a sense of need that they want to deny completely, perhaps by becoming completely self-sufficient, or by making sure that they are always the one who cares for everyone else in their lives, and never let anyone else care . they.

A patient can bring any one of these – but often it’s all three, and there is an expectation that I, as their therapist, will help them somehow cut out these bad parts and banish them forever. This wish often sits outside their conscious awareness, and will not be shared directly with me, but communicated through, say, a dream, in which I may appear, for example, as a surgeon with a scalpel.

It is a powerful fantasy, that we can cut out all our vulnerability, trauma, need and dependency, that we will then be completely healed, stronger than before. It is also a very dangerous one. If we take the fantasy at face value, in all its concreteness, and follow it through, we end up with lobotomies. In the first half of the 20th century, many neurologists believed that surgically removing part of the brain, or using a sharp instrument to cut the connections within it, could cure their patients.

What I have learned from my patients and from my own therapy is that this cruel rejection of vulnerability is the opposite of strength. It is the opposite of recovery and growth, and it leaves us impoverished, neglected. My patients have shown me time and time again that a better life is not one in which a person feels that they have successfully channeled their sensitivity, that they are completely self-sufficient, and that they have never had any difficult or painful experiences.

If therapy was meaningful, if it was helpful, a patient leaves more deeply attached to these parts of himself. They began to mourn the terrible losses they had tried to avoid, to understand why they were the way they were and why they did the things they did. They feel able to bear their painful experiences and feelings both lighter and firmer, as a more integrated person who can feel genuine care – sometimes, at least – for the parts of themselves they once wanted to get rid of. Better mental health is about repairing internal connections, not cutting them.

This is what it means to grow, says Gianna Williams, a child, adolescent and adult psychoanalyst. “We are like trees,” she once told me. In the cross-section of a trunk, she explained, you find all the rings that indicate the history of that tree, from the smallest ring from its earliest days in its core to the largest most recent ring under the bark. We all still contain a baby part, a child part, an adolescent part – we can’t get rid of it. If we try, I believe it leaves us as empty as a hollowed-out tree trunk. In therapy, she said: “I think we always find the baby, the young child, the adolescent in the patient. Like the circles in a tree, they are all there.”

More than 30 years have passed since I sat on my bed and wished my tears away. But the memory came back to me recently. It was the Sunday evening before my daughter’s first day at preschool. I felt so raw and vulnerable, quite desperate, and I fought back tears. And the thought occurred to me: where is my mother to take us both to kindergarten tomorrow? That little girl isn’t going anywhere, as much as I sometimes wish she would.



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