This weekend I had a rare gift two days of doing just as I pleased. It so happened that on arriving back from delivering training in Malta friends and family had plans other than to hear my undoubtably fascinating tales of travel, and so I was answerable to nobody. How I spent my time, my money, whether or not I did the washing up was of no consequence because there was going to be nobody there to witness my existence. Other than my terrier, Oscar, and he happens to be pretty easy going about how I spend my time just as long as his walk has been scheduled. So I was mistress of my own destiny, had total autonomy and at first I loved the free flow of time with no agenda or pressing deadline to aim for. But would I want that to be so all the time…? Apparently not, as after one day of self indulgence I then found myself in a frenzy of spring cleaning. Trying to bring some structure and order to that which was beginning to feel like a chaotic nothingness. I needed to do something in order to create a container in which then to enjoy the doing nothing.
In my practice I meet many people who come into therapy with issues with control. They come often because they feel controlled by others and are therefore reduced versions of their former or potential selves. Often describing themselves similar to a firework packed full of anger, resentment, sadness and frustration, ready for a messy explosion of suppressed emotion the next moment someone or something sends a spark flying their way. These are people who are often overwhelmed by responsibilities, deadlines, and demanding voices from others both in their external world and from invisible tape recorders playing inside their minds. Recordings from parents, teachers, authority figures saying “Work Hard” “Be Strong” “Please Others” which are drowning out their own authentic voice saying “but this is truly who I am, what I need…”
Conversely I meet people who have nobody to put any demands or restrictions on their time, their behaviour. No here and now directing or guiding voices to interfere with their fulfilling their own immediate desires. Are we any happier when this is our situation? Experience has told me we are not. From people in such situations I hear longing for a witness to life. For frame work and boundaries, to matter enough to someone else, for them to care enough, to sometimes say “You worry me” “I am jealous”.” I miss you”. Again and again in Women’s Groups I hear the joy and relief at being finally seen and heard, at having witnesses to lives.That it matters to someone if we do not arrive, or if we are in pain or even if we are overflowing with joy, that we have someone to delight with us in the natural sparkle and the bubbles fizzing up from life’s wonderful moments. After all a celebratory bottle of champagne is never quite as much fun, or tastes quite as delicious, if drunk alone.
Both in the case of feeling completely controlled by another and of having no other to limit our behaviour there can be the same consequence; that we feel we cease to exist in our fullest, most powerful, most full of life self. Either because we are so suppressed and reduced that we have lost sight of ourselves or that without the presence of a meaningful other to see us we feel as though we exist only as a shadow self.
I have recently had two conversations with people I am fortunate to be close with,both of whom are strong in their faith, one Catholic and one Muslim. Both have spoken of the value to them of religion as creating a frame work and boundary for life. Of mattering to a community, of sometimes having a book as a guide to life, when sometimes our own moral compass might send us a little of course into a tempest. In my work as a therapist I have found that the stronger the frame work and boundaries to the therapeutic space, the safer both client and therapist feel to be in true creative flow in the space created in the centre. Just like the child playing in the park will feel happier to engage in free flowing creative play knowing that the parent is there to keep a watchful eye on how far they go, as adults we too feel happier with boundaries and frame work and structure. We too as adults often long to feel that we are seen and cherished enough that sometimes someone will say we have overstepped the boundaries.