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  • Writer's pictureHannah E Greenwood

Know thyself: our fascination with the psyche

‘To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom’ Socrates

I am often asked about Counselling/Psychotherapy: where to find a recommended therapist and also how to become one. This questioning isn’t new, but what is very different is how many are asking. There are obvious reasons for this, notably the pandemic which has highlighted the focus on mental health, but the pandemic hasn’t caused this quest. It has been building over the last few years.

The therapeutic/personal development field has been integral to my world for most of my life. For me, it’s normal to dig deep into the psyche, to live an examined life and to make connections between our internal and external worlds. I wanted fresh perspectives, so I asked the following for their thoughts on this increasing fascination with the psyche:

‘I feel like my generation has such an interest in psychology because there’s been a lot more transparency in recent years about mental health. This means there’s been a lot more awareness raised about it, so more and more people are interested in finding ways to tackle the issues others go through. A lot of people my age who enjoy psychology want to learn about it because they have their own mental health struggles: they want to try and learn why they are the way they are and use that knowledge to try and find ways to overcome their challenges.’ Jasmine Ludlow, 17

‘I think within the current climate, resulting from the pressures placed upon us all by the pandemic, there seems to be some form of collective global misalignment. (Very Carl Jungian!) Perhaps there has been a growing fascination in psychotherapy because what we are all experiencing is unprecedented and so many of us don’t really know how to handle these internal emotions that we are experiencing. From a personal perspective, although I don’t see a therapist per se, I recognise the benefits of talking to an impartial observer that can provide advice and offer guidance on the best way to self-reflect and ultimately change as we approach this new way of living.’ Leighton Sharpe

‘Mental health issues have become more talked about in recent years …before the pandemic and then very much so during. There’s far less stigma around the topic and a general appreciation of the link between emotional and physical wellbeing – mind, feelings, body. There’s also greater appreciation that some individuals need professional help to get back in balance. The huge increase in participation in mindfulness practices reflects I think a desire that individuals have to reconnect with themselves and bring in more kindness and compassion. The levels of stress and exhaustion seem to be more prevalent in our fast-paced world and the toll on mental health was becoming evident even before the pandemic arrived.

The pandemic has also accelerated the trend towards an ever-increasing virtual world where we’re not communicating in person but instead across a screen. Loneliness is no longer confined to a relatively small percentage of the population. Without those casual chats ‘by the coffee machine’, we’re less able to get perspective, to unload ‘stuff’ that’s on our mind, to share a joke and laugh…to lighten our mood and energy.

There is also an awakening happening. People are re-assessing what’s important, be it issues such as climate change or getting clarity on 'What’s my purpose?'. Like me, many realise how transformational psychotherapy can be and are drawn to getting qualified to help others.’ A former Leadership Coaching client in the corporate world, now retraining as a Psychosynthesis Counsellor

‘2020 gave me the opportunity to get off the hamster wheel and stop and connect with who I am and what I’d lost in self-abandonment to a corporate job. I’ve often felt that I would like to help people, even more so in the last 12 months where people have been expressing the challenges that they’ve been facing and the feelings that they are trying to navigate.

There has been a generational shift in attitude with people talking more openly about mental health. There have also been more publicised suicides and mental health has been much more present in the media. The combination of the pandemic and the rise in social media and the Internet, and what people are now exposed to, has unfortunately created a culture where we strive for perfection. People who thought that they had it all worked out are finding that there are challenges.

For me personally, re-visiting therapy in 2021 reaffirmed how important it is for us to be able to relate to somebody who has the ability to not just listen but also help us overcome challenges. A lot of my decision to take on Counselling as a new vocation is as a result of my work situation changing and my redundancy. In all honesty if that hadn’t happened, I don’t believe that I would have left the job that I was very unhappy in. I would probably be continuing to go along with it but doing a lot of complaining! Perhaps the fact that people have been forced into change through the pandemic has meant that they have realised that there are other avenues and other options when it comes to starting a new chapter. That we can change direction. My main driver is a profound feeling that training in Counselling is the right path for me.’ Emma

‘Organisation has become mainstream. People are Marie Kondo-ing their lives. We are at peak ‘stuff’, so it makes sense people now want to go inwards. One of the last things people realise needs re organising is their mind but people are waking up to it now. Our data driven world means people are even more interested in specifying, cleaning up, pin pointing pressure points in their lives. Apps track us all day and every day. Everything is measured - now people are inspired to do the same with their minds.

A more disposable income means people are inspired to spend it improving themselves over just material things. (Note Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). A big trend is well-being - it’s huge!’

I wonder if it’s connected to generational trauma? It takes generations (unsurprisingly) to come to terms with it all so maybe it’s exploding now? Andy, 30

So, what triggered my own journey into this realm of the psyche? I come from a family and culture that was highly intelligent and educated but it was also very suspicious of any psychological exploration. Psychiatry, the medical branch of psychology, was acceptable because it treats those with severe mental illnesses, but it was for the ‘other’. Emotional Intelligence…i.e., trying to understand and make sense of feelings…was an unknown concept and the inner world of the psyche was seen as a self-indulgent irrelevance. What mattered was the external world.

I was 9 years old and going through a very dark time, emotionally and psychologically, and the adults around me didn’t have the knowledge or understanding to know how to help. It was a book that saved my life. ‘Marianne Dreams’ was written by Catherine Storr who was, before she became a novelist, a Senior Medical Officer in the Department of Psychological Medicine at Middlesex Hospital, London. It is an extraordinary book about a girl, Marianne, who is bedridden with a long-term illness. She finds a magic pencil and draws a picture of a big house in a bleak landscape. That night she dreams she is in the picture she has drawn. As time goes by, she becomes sicker in the ‘real’ world and spends more and more time trapped within the nightmarish, fantasy world. Her only companion in her dream world is a boy who is also a long-term invalid in the ‘real’ world. Marianne learns that she can only save them both by facing her fears hidden in her unconscious…by literally drawing them out!... and finding the courage to overcome them. It is a dark book but one ultimately about hope and embracing life. And it ends with a rescue in a lighthouse! It was reading this, as a 9-year-old, that made me choose life and a different way of seeing the world. As simple as that. I learned that however dark life is, there is always hope…light …and always someone out there who will help.

And so began my trajectory into this new world of the psyche. At 28, I was an English teacher in inner city Manchester trying to teach literature to 11–18 year olds. Many of their basic needs were not met and I was really struggling to teach these students. What I could do and loved was connect and listen…really listen… to them, so I retrained as a Counselling Psychotherapist. My initial training, and subsequent teaching, was in the methodology of Carl Rogers, the founder of Client-Centred Psychotherapy, fundamental to Coach training and practice now.

The word Psyche comes from the Greek psukhē meaning ‘breath, life, soul’. And Psychotherapy means ‘Listening to our soul’. Look at what Carl Rogers says about listening:

The third facilitative aspect of the relationship is empathic understanding. This means that the therapist senses accurately the feelings and personal meanings that the client is experiencing and communicates this understanding to the client. When functioning best, the therapist is so much inside the private world of the other that he or she can clarify not only the meanings of which the client is aware but even those just below the level of awareness. This kind of sensitive, active listening is exceedingly rare in our lives.

We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.’

Carl Rogers: An Unappreciated Way of Being

Andy’s comment on generational trauma earlier in this Post is integral to the current focus on men and their mental health. Male suicide is shockingly high and one of the positive outcomes of this pandemic is the raised awareness of the dreadful dangers of not showing vulnerability and reaching out for help. I talked in a recent Post about the magnificent Ted Lasso who, after a very public panic attack and much resistance, went to see a therapist. He had been brought to his knees, (see the Transformational Curve above) and was feeling deeply ashamed, very vulnerable and with no hope of a way through:

The therapist that Ted went to had another one of my life-changing books on her table: ‘The Middle Passage: from misery to meaning in midlife’:

'The experience of the Middle Passage is not unlike awakening to find that one is alone on a pitching ship, with no port in sight. One can only go back to sleep, jump ship, or grab the wheel and sail on. . . . Changing one's job or relationship does not change one's sense of oneself over the long run. When increasing pressure from within becomes less and less containable by the old strategies, a crisis of selfhood erupts. We do not know who we are, really, apart from social roles and psychic reflexes. And we do not know what to do to lessen the pressure.' James Hollis

I was giving a leadership workshop in Paris a few years ago and kept referring to the middle passage in our lives. This is a psychological term and had originally been placed as a stage between the ages of 37-45. It was what I was going through personally and my research and teaching was a way of figuring out what was happening to me! One of the group, a 29-year-old Mexican, challenged me beautifully. He said what I was talking about applied to him too and this was not about age but about life-experiencing and needing to find meaning out of the chaos. How right he was. Through the last two years, with the world turned upside down and so many of us felled to our knees, age is irrelevant. As Leighton Sharpe says: ‘Perhaps there has been a growing fascination in psychotherapy because what we are all experiencing is unprecedented and so many of us don’t really know how to handle these internal emotions that we are experiencing.’

My intention in setting out to write this Post was not to write a passionate apologia for the talking therapies. I’ve surprised myself by how much I l still love this world of the psyche! Not everyone needs formal therapy of course, but I do think we all have times in our lives when talking with a professional, whether it be a therapist, a Coach, a doctor etc will help us gain perspective and find a way through.

And beyond the healing and help with our challenges, our exploration of our psyche brings increasing resilience, wisdom and healthier and more loving relationships. At its best, a great therapist or Coach holds a mirror up for us to own our highest potential Self:

‘If there is light in the soul, there will be beauty in the person; if there is beauty in the person, there will be harmony in the home; if there is harmony in the home, there will be order in the nation; if there is order in the nation, there will be peace in the world.’ Chinese Proverb

Hannah Elizabeth Greenwood


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