In 1995, Alanis Morissette released the album, Jagged Little Pill. The first single released from the album was You Oughta Know.
One way to think about a psychotherapy is as an exploration of how a person reacts to disturbing events in their lives. Does their emotional response help them through difficult times? Or, do their feelings escalate the situation, making things more difficult to bear? Can a person work through a distressing event and integrate the tragedy into their psychological make-up? Do they become stronger and more resilient? Or, do they get stuck, the incident continuing to dominate their inner and outer lives?
Of course, the level of the tragedy will impact heavily on a person’s ability to respond. Terrible things happen that are almost beyond anyone’s ability to process. However, how a person reacts is also affected by their inner life. For example, if Alanis Morissette’s narrator carries an inner experience of being loved and cared for (see Grandma, Superstar blog), she will have a different reaction to her ex-partner’s betrayal than if she believes her fate is to be used and discarded.
Psychotherapists cannot make the world safer. However, we can help a person respond to challenges in a healthier way. We can help them make the internal changes that decrease the chances of things happening over and over again. Hopefully, Alanis Morissette’s narrator would be less likely to find herself in the same situation.
Ideally, the therapeutic relationship will encourage the patient to bring the vulnerable aspects of themselves into the work. Once in the room, these parts of the person can be worked with, enabling them to become freer and more resilient.
A psychotherapy patient can be seen as a person engaged in constant risk assessment. That is, they live in the question, “How much will I let the therapy disturb me, and how much will I stay the same?”
For example, a very driven person may have relied on sheer force of will to create a workable life from a bad beginning. However, despite their success, they can feel anxious, alone, or that their life is meaningless. This is not an unusual situation and generally stems from the person having to override the vulnerable aspects of their personality in order to create their lives. Ironically, they are anxious because they have always tried to deny their anxiety; they are alone because they refuse to allow their need for others; they feel their life is meaningless because they have had to strip themselves back to bare essentials.
Generally when a driven person understands the cost of their singlemindedness, they don’t immediately become less driven and give psychological space to the vulnerable aspects of themselves. Rather, the internal negotiation changes with this new information. Should I allow these vulnerable aspects to live within me? Will that cost me my drive and effectiveness? This risk-management is in the unconscious, but never stops.
The trade-off will be effected by how successful the person is in the world, and how much pain they feel in their life. The more they have to lose, the greater the risk.
When something painful happens in a person’s life, the shape of this internal negotiation becomes very different. The patient’s usual ways of managing no longer works. Their life is suddenly not as successful or liveable.
Usually, they have little option but to bring the vulnerable aspects of themselves into the room. Years could be spent in a therapy trying to get to the rage Alanis Morissette’s narrator expresses in the song. She is betrayed, and suddenly there it is.
Over the years, I have wondered about the relationship between psychotherapeutic work and what happens outside the consulting room. For example, if Alanis Morissette’s narrator feels empowered by her rage, she will literally be a new woman. This will change how she relates to the world. How the world responds will then affect the therapeutic process.
As a psychotherapist, I’ve come to realise that we are dealing with powerful forces that are not always easy to understand or explain. We are participants in things that are bigger than we are.
In the next blog, I’ll be considering what Alanis Morissette’s narrator shows us in her anger.