Crossing the border

As we observe in the current discussion around immigration reform, recognizing and including foreigners may elicit strong emotional reaction and ongoing disagreement. A sense of oddness and disturbance is elicited by what is different, both in others and in ourselves. Foreigners, in their unusual behaviors and habits, tend to be experienced as an unknown threat, inhabiting an uncertain reality that we are unsure about digging into. In this era of globalization, I still wonder about what, beyond the easiness of traveling and the adversities that foreignness may impose, propels one to search for a place in another land. How does one choose to become a foreigner?

Obviously, there are the ones who are fleeing from war and poverty, looking for asylum due to despair, fear and exposure to violence. It is easy to think about them as not having a choice. Beyond that, I am left wondering about the brave ones who leave, and in which ways they are different from the ones who stayed. Along with Kristeva (1991), I wonder if the ones who left have always been foreigners from within, carrying throughout life a sense of not-belonging that has been left unheard for generations.

Immigrants have been flooding our consulting offices, in search for a place to create a narrative of their own experience of otherness. Louise came to see me when feeling stuck in her creative life, not able to find a voice in a foreign land. She wondered if she became a migrant to deal with what was unspoken in her immigrant family history. Being a foreigner has become a way to join her ancestors, travelers for whom travel itself became a familiar place. Being misplaced, dislocated, uprooted, and nomadic made Louise feel at home. Her grandparents fled, only to establish themselves in a country where they have never been included. The marks and masks of her past were so completely present in her immigrant status and, in an uncanny way, made her ancestor's history real and extremely disorienting.  As Bowles (1949) poetically describes, travel itself may bring about an 'illusion ofimmobility'. Moving around became the one and only possible solution to Louise's dilemma in an attempt to make sense of inter-generational experiences of inner homelessness. Like Louise, immigrant displaced souls wander, trying to find what they may have once lost in a very distant past, claiming to fight ambiguity and exclusion. In their brave act of leaving, they force us to encounter the otherness that has also been silently haunting us from within throughout generations.   

Bowles, P. (1949). The sheltering sky. New York: Ecco Press.

Kristeva. J. (1991). Strangers to Ourselves. New York: Columbia University Press

Transitions for young children: how to not loose your cool!

Everyday we all deal with transitions. From the moment we wake up and the night changes into day, we have to 'transition' from being asleep to being awake, and prepare for the day. This small transition that we all take for granted and usually not think about, may be challenging for some kids. As parents, we may all know about the difficult days, when our kids do not want to get out of bed, and are not willing to get dressed, or do not want to have breakfast, while we feel pressured by time and have to leave. Why is it that our kids are just not collaborating? We then feel pressured about handling the difficult moment without enough time to pay attention to what is going on for our kids or for us. 

 

Every time we have to begin something new, like getting up and facing the day, we necessarily have to give up, let go, leave behind aspects of the previous experiences we were having. For example, your child may have been enjoying her bed and dreams, and she then has to get up and get ready. She may wonder why she needs to get ready. She may just want stay a little longer. You know there is no time, but as a matter of fact, children don't even think in terms of hours, days, weeks, and so forth. This is when you both may get frustrated, and you start dreading the possible melt down that you will have to deal with when you are starting to get late for work.

 

What we are actually asking from our kids in the beginning of a transition is to let go, to accept that they will not be in bed any longer. They have to move on. There is an immediate experience of loss in order to receive what is new and different. This is the first phase of any transition - dealing with the loss of what we leave behind. 

 

What follows is then a moment of 'in-between', chaotic moment in which we may not still be ready for the day, but we may not actually be sleeping anymore. These may be difficult moments for some kids. They may then resist, not wanting to get dressed, or to eat their breakfast, while going back to sleep is not an option any longer. When they finally accept that sleeping is over, and realize that there is sun outside and that they may want to play, they may be more willing to put their clothes and get ready. This is third phase of a transition, when the new is finally invited in, and we allow it to stay. At this point we may be more willing to change our old ways.

 

It may be helpful to try to observe transitions through this framework, unpacking the three phases, and thinking about what you and your child may need in each phase in order to move forward. It may be quite helpful to recognize each phase of the process while it is happening.  You may also want to try to reflect the losses and gains back to your child in order to make space for the full expression of her feelings. Create rituals, both for you and her, may also allow a gradual easying into what is coming next, being a useful tool to maintain predictability while making big feelings more manageable.

As you slow down, allow more space for the full range of feelings erupted during transitions, and take one step at a time, you may gradually be more able to keep your cool while transitioning into your day.

Mother's imagination during pregnancy

Being pregnant is portrayed as a joyful and happy experience all over the media. However, not a lot is said about the uncertainties and worries that also haunt new moms. Well, maybe some is said, mostly related to the concrete ways in which doctors and parents try to find out more about the unborn baby, like gender, illnesses, and so on. But how about the baby that the mother dreams about, and has dreamt about even before her pregnancy happened?

 

Having a baby is fulfilling an ancient promise, one that mothers may not be completely aware of. In this promise, there is always something about what she got and what she did not get from her parents, ways that she hopes to fix old wounds, ways in which she worries about what she may be given. Every baby is a gift from previous generations, an undreamt dream of ancestors that takes form throughout the mother's pregnancy. As the baby develops, the mother gradually finds vocabulary to interact, play and engage with it. The dream-baby gains a name, a form, a face in mom's imagination, and becomes more real as the pregnancy evolves.

 

What dreams moms have about their babies? This is the beauty and mystery of pregnancy. Those dreams are composites of emotional experiences, including the ones the mother lived as a baby herself. Ways in which she was cared for (or not), ways in which she was held and understood, and ways in which she was also dreamt about in her parents' minds. Baby-dreams reveal unique qualities of experience, and it is not uncommon for mothers to realize that being pregnant is as joyful as it is vulnerable. And yet, the precariousness of this experience is what allows mothers to prepare their minds and hearts to receive their newborn and invite them to stay.

Being disrupted is a blessing

When one begins psychotherapy, she is invited to an incredible journey. A journey in which the reality of what happens in the therapist's office becomes relevant in unpredictable ways. During our contemporary era of quick fixes and short-term solutions, little attention is given to the relationship between therapist and patient. Obviously held by clear and defined boundaries, the therapeutic relationship unfolds to a somewhat surprising territory of old fears, desires and losses.

Amazing is to realize that once they start a therapeutic process, patients are invariably faced with dilemmas of how they relate to others, including how they relate to the therapist - in the office, outside the office, in their dreams and throughout their conversations. Through this almost fake-created reality, they start to realize that their reality lands over, and they starts to just interact with the characters of their dreams in the therapist office in a similar and yet painful repetition of some of most deep dilemmas of their interpersonal life.

The therapeutic relationship actually matters. As the therapy enfolds, patients realize that they have thoughts, ideas, feelings and reactions towards their therapists. Any psychotherapy will necessarily lead to that - the difference relies on how the therapist decides to approach such phenomena. It is actually extremely interesting to realize how those reactions became a meaningful and unique way in which communication between therapist and patient may happen. If therapist is open to explore those, patients come to realize that there are powerful similarities between how patient experiences the therapist and how patient experiences her interpersonal relationships outside the therapy. As this happens, patients gain increased awareness on their emotional life, including becoming more able to negotiate relationships in general.

On another note, patients are also necessarily faced with a myriad ways in which they expect the therapist to just always be - the same, there, without interruption, without intrusion, without exclusion. And then, how dare therapist introduce something new? a new element, a thought, some change, some yet unexpected presence in the patient's play, creating an unbalance that looks for further understanding?

Disruption is what moves life and also what moves the therapeutic process. It is because we are disrupted in our repeated ways of relating that we realize there must be something new, something waiting to be created or simply found. Psychotherapy is about being disrupted, being shaken and awaken, being in touch with pregnant silences of the mind only to find new ways to connect with others. Only then, the therapeutic relationship becomes the meaningful space of imprinting old brushstrokes in the hope of finding the uniqueness of a new painting.

Being possessed and letting go

I have been working with haunted people for quite a while. They are haunted by ghosts of their past experiences, ghosts that insist on coming back in indirect ways. They may show up in dreams (or nightmares); in ways that people feel stuck in old patterns; in fears that cannot be described; in waves of repetition that people feel entangled in. Being haunted by ghosts is something that we may all know at some level - ghosts of our past that keep intruding in our current life through our dreams, thoughts or sometimes in the way we just attend to our emotional life. I see people who have different ways to try to keep them quiet; different ways to not engage. They fear the moment when ghosts may come back, only to find them every day as memories that cannot be remembered. 

Past ghosts haunt people they have the countless somatic symptoms that medical doctors cannot find the cause for. Our body becomes the house of our inner ghosts, which speak in a silent voice. How to exorcise those ghosts, let them rest in peace, without agonizing further? How to engage, to invite them in, to face them in order to let them pass by?

We are taught to just ignore them, to not think about emotional pain not only because it means weakness but also because we fear it could be potentially dangerous. We fear their ghost-like quality, the haunting sounds through which the past infuses the present. My patients worry that they would be engulfed; or loose themselves in their struggles, or not recover from the isolation, fear, and depression. They walk around pretending not feeling anything, faking smiles when life feels complicated. Ghosts feed on their attempt to not pay attention, becoming stronger and more powerful. They start haunting, leading to powerlessness, confusion and fear.

I see haunted people constantly in my clinical practice. They are haunted by things they don't usually understand, or things that are too overwhelming to be known. Past trauma, loss, violence, neglect.. psychotherapy is an invitation for ghosts. We create a scene in which they inevitably show up. Gently, we engage with them in a curious way. We approach them with humility. As we learn more about them, we can finally have enough courage to ask: what are you here for?

As a psychotherapist, I invite ghosts in and stay present while they show up. And then, as their endless complain is heard, they gradually don't need to haunt anymore. When we find words to address the pain that my patients silently believed they were not feeling, ghosts can let go in order to become memories. They can finally be forgotten. They find a home and come to terms with the past, resting in peace.

Sibling relationships or how to unfreeze a Frozen heart

As I hear kids singing the Oscar winning song of the 2014 Disney movie, I wonder about what one needs to let go in order to manage and deal with the cold ghosts that haunt when one relates to one's siblings. Frozen is a story about sisters, but not only about the desired portrays of love, cooperation and support. It actually goes deeper. It is about the ways in which one has to face and come to terms with the ambivalence, pain, and possibly hate in order to have access and build a compassionate and collaborative relationship with a sibling. Sibling relationships are complex, and Elsa's character shows us how. As she struggles to manage her own magic, she ends up hurting her younger sister, which leads to her heart being frozen by fear. Fear of her own destructive powers, the ones she can't control and that get triggered when she is overwhelmed by anger and disappointment. She withdraws to protect herself and her sister from her rage, only to have to face it anyways later in her life. As for Anna, she is left with her longing and feeling of exclusion, growing up with a sense of being left out.

 

It makes me think about when a new baby arrives and the now 'big' sibling has to adapt, adjust, transition into sharing the space and the parents. Both exciting and extremely irritating, this new presence may gradually be experienced as an impingement. A lot is said about sibling rivalry and jealousy, and usually parents get stuck in how to promote and nurture a healthy relationship among their kids. It is somewhat disruptive to the family structure to contain and make sense of the kids' struggles with their own mixed feelings. Sometimes, parents can only acknowledge the loving and exciting experience of siblinghood, and have a difficult time recognizing and talking about its darkest sides. Denied of the possibility of integrating her ambivalent feelings, the big children, as Elsa, struggle to control their dark magic, which grows inside and becomes stronger. Kept behind doors, a secret grudge leads to uncontrollable spells of cold weather. Our Elsa-kids retreat and hide, as they are afraid of the power of their unspeakable feelings.

 

As the film evolves, we realize that only an act of true love can save Anna's life, after Elsa's frozen heart freezes also her sister's. Anna saves Elsa, who saves Anna with her tears of regret, and they come to realize there is space to Summer when the cold and dark winter of secret grudges can be seeing. The film ends when Elsa realizes that her frozen heart could be cured with love, which makes her magic under control. Is it then that love is the answer?

 

It seems like love is only possible when the mixed feelings and ambivalence of their relationship is finally faced. As Anna tries to deal with feeling disconnected, she reaches out and finally finds Elsa, without actually realizing that their broken relationship is what could cure her. As for Elsa, it is in her encountering her fears as she leaves the castle and let the cold take over. As she faces it, she is able to gradually find warmth. This is how Anna is not a threat anymore, and they can finally re-connect. Grudges and secrets are the real threats to healthy relationships, and all the ways in which we try to avoid our dark feelings makes us feel disconnected and lonely. They only become stronger, more powerful and out of control.

 

A lot for parents to think about in how to promote and facilitate good-enough sibling relationships. As Elsa can't hold it in anymore, she gets in touch with her own truth and begins a process of opening doors for a new world, in which she finds love in her sorrow and is able to keep a snowman alive in the Summer. Nice lesson for us, parents, on how to allow the space for our kids to let it go and come to terms with their own fears and struggles in order to find a way to feel connected with each other.