Eve da Silva Msc, PgDip
Piece by Piece
Bringing It All Together: A Reflection on Emotions, Relationships and Survival
Earlier I had all these thoughts swirling around in my head… thoughts about relationships and thoughts about what makes us who we are.. and thoughts about fragments.
Fragments. Wrecks. Shards. Slivers. Ruins. Aspects. Pieces. Treasures.
As I assemble the pieces, I am reminded of the Japanese art of Kintsugi. Therapy is much like this art. We take the fragments and piece them together with gold. We look for the pieces that link the past to the present and we make meaning of those pieces. It is a puzzle but so much more complex, so much more jagged and often things don't quite come together without the gold to fill in the gaps. I find that accessing the minds, empathic imagination and knowledge of others provides that gold. This is what I want to share with you as I create my own whole out of the parts of me that so long to reconcile.
There is a novel coming out next year, in April 2023, called Go As a River. This passage inspired me to go deeper and reflect on my own memories.
"Imagine a town silent, forgotten, decomposing at the bottom of a lake that once was a river. If this makes you wonder whether the joys and pain of a place wash away as the floodwaters rise and swallow, I can tell you they do not. The landscapes of our youths create us, and we carry them within us, storied by all they gave and stole, in who we become."
Landscapes of our youth. That’s the first fragment. The first piece of the puzzle that I hope to put together by writing this down piece by piece.
What are the landscapes of your youth?
The landscapes of mine are varied. More varied than many people I have met, aside from the children of diplomats (who I haven’t met but imagine) and the children of armed forces personnel (who I have met and felt immediately close to because we recognised in each other the specific form of attachment that comes with a nomadic upbringing in a world that is generally stationary).
The landscapes of my youth are small idyllic coastal towns, rural dirt-road, bush surrounded villages, spired ancient university cities. Metropolitan crime and life filled capital cities and sleepy early noughties suburbia with an undercurrent of post-apartheid South African complexity. A run down mining town outside of Johannesburg and a historic village in the Cambridgeshire countryside.
The joys and pain of the places present in the crystal sharp memories that live in my mind like a photograph of a moment and they present in the blurry, uncertainty of emotions I feel with no clear memory to add context.
What they gave… what they stole.. well that isn’t something I have even finished storying or processing yet. What we share and what we keep for ourselves is an ever complex decision making process in the world today.
I’d like to share something with you, that bit of me that connects with that bit of you that wonders why you feel the way you feel. Why you do the things you do.
So perhaps I’ll share this: when I got to one of the later moves, one of the biggest, the immigration from South Africa to the United Kingdom, I started consciously making these ‘snapshot’ memories. In one, I am walking down a very quiet road. There is no one around, just me. I am 15. It is autumn in Cape Town, I am dreading this move. So I want to take stock of the smallest things. It is grief in slow motion. The grief for place, the grief for time. Later in my life I find I am struck by what feels like the old fashioned ailment of nostalgia. I occasionally become nostalgic for moments as they happen, mourning their loss while I still live them.
As I write this I wonder, was it that long form grief that planted the seeds of nostalgia in my heart? Or is it perhaps that those of us who are sensitive to life’s joys and beauties are also sensitive to our losses? Maybe both. It is in the end the nature/nurture alchemy of fragments that makes us who we are.
There is a book I love a lot called The Therapeutic Relationship in the Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapies. I love it because it describes the minutiae of relationship in a way that appeals to me hugely as a therapist. It’s a strangely wonderful thing being a therapist… it requires a form of deconstruction of self and processes that is infinitely rewarding and psychically challenging. The challenge comes in the endless stuff that is stirred up by walking alongside our clients on their journeys as a stretch of our own. The challenge is in teasing apart what is shared experience, what is ours, what is yours and what is neither of ours but in fact the material passed down to carry by previous generations. This book helps me make sense of that by giving language to the process of relationship.
The piece of the puzzle that is swirling around in my head is a passage from this book. The passage reads
That is, parents who believe that their child's painful emotions provide an opportunity to get closer, to know and to help are more likely to validate and show compassion, whereas parents holding the view that the child's emotions are overwhelming, threatening or self-indulgent are less likely to validate (Gottman et al., 1996; Leahy, 2002). As a result of these different emotional-coaching strategies, the child may come to learn that their emotions are a reason for embarrassment or that their emotions do not ``make sense''.
This passage breaks down that remnant of the past playing out in the present in such an accessible way and I love that.
I love how comprehensible that is. It intuitively makes a lot of sense and I see it in my clients, the long term impact that repeated lack of validation and compassion has had on their sense of ownership of their own emotions.
It also makes sense of some of my own journey with emotions, which is a confusing mix of acceptance and rejection. Perhaps the experience of at times being validated and at times being experienced as overwhelming is common to many of us. It is this contradiction that can mean that it’s a both and situation. I understand and am compassionate toward my emotions, I appreciate compassion from others along with being surprised and uncomfortable with it.
It just depends.
How were you coached to manage your emotions? If you can’t remember, what do you think might have happened given what you believe and how you experience them now? How is this landscape of your youth carried within you?
Another piece of this puzzle comes from the plotline of The Quiet Tenant, another new novel coming out in 2023. What stuck with me from this story was how in a bid to survive her brutal kidnapper, one of the protagonists buries herself deep beneath a mask of submissiveness. She buries her softness, her compassion and her empathy for her own suffering and focuses on putting one foot in front of the next, in order to survive the worst kind of predator. It’s a common psychological strategy, the mind dissociates or cuts off from emotions in order to survive. Dissociation helps to numb the pain and to make it easier to deal with difficult emotions. You could describe the feeling as numbing out.
Survival is an interesting concept. It’s one we can throw around a lot. There are shades to experience, things that become murkier in the extreme. Survivors come in many forms. We are survivors of the experiences that subjectively feel like existential threats to us. There are some threats universally recognisable as existential. Nightmarish scenarios such as death, injury and violation. Then there are threats to the self, threats to authenticity, threats to the person we are allowed to be and be accepted. Identity threats. Oftentimes, identity threats are closely aligned to violence threats. This is when the crueler side of humanity plays out.
What Jungians call the shadow. When reflecting on the shadow, on the This Jungian Life podcast, a host reflects on how as therapists we demand of ourselves the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of people with starkly different experiences to our own. In her reflections she notes
I have sat with clients who have killed other human beings.
And my thought was, oh how strange that must be, I wonder if I could…
And then I thought oh. Oh. OH. Of course I have too. I have cared for and treated people who have killed other human beings. Why did that elude me? Just in that moment that aspect was unknown to me. And then I remembered. But I find it hard to hold onto, because it’s complicated. It’s a complex thing finding empathy for someone who has done something so opposite to what I hold dear as a sensitive person.
In Joanna Burke’s book An Intimate History of Killing, we learn that people generally don’t kill easily, even in wartime. This stuck with me, the idea that on balance, killing runs contrary to so many of our instincts. It matters because, it allows me to have deep compassion for the wounds that are rendered on the souls of those who do kill, whether they have dissociated from those wounds or whether they recognise their own pain.
The experience of fragments coming and going, is not that surprising or uncommon. We have many aspects of self. Some aspects stay hidden. Some stay hidden in our lifetime and some stay hidden in the past.
Here is another piece that keeps eluding me, it almost eluded me as I wrote this.
I learned something about my family history, a secret that was buried by my great grandparents and kept by my grandparents and excavated by my aunt and mother and by me. The content of the secret is nothing to be ashamed of but the keeping of it is complicated. What is clear is that the decision to start the secret and keep it, in those older generations, was due to identity threat. They denied an important part of their identity in order to fit in with, be protected and ultimately benefit from the privilege of white supremacist Apartheid. I expect that it eludes me because it feels so fresh, so raw and complicated to process this long held family secret. I unpick the shame of my forebears at the same time that I start to reclaim small aspects of my own identity, without seeking to claim experiences that I did not have. It's complicated so I am taking it slowly.
Learning to pace ourselves is part of the art of therapy.
My family dissociated from so much. I am only beginning to work out how to hold the complexity of it all. What I come back to is we do what we need to do in order to survive.
What I know for sure, is that each generation is left with the fragments, both the ruins and the treasures, to reassemble and make sense of.
What fragments are you aware of? What still remains hidden? What have you hidden of yourself, from yourself or from others, in order to survive?
Just like pottery, our lives are made up of many fragments. Our emotions, relationships and survival instincts are all pieces of the puzzle that make us who we are. No matter what, the process of bringing these pieces together is always worth it. It's through our relationships that we learn to love and be loved. It's through our emotions that we experience the full range of what life has to offer. And it's through our survival instincts that we learn to persevere through the tough times. There is room to gain better self understanding and compassion in all of these aspects of our experience. I wonder if, as you have read this, it has opened the door for you to reflect on your own life? I hope you will take some time to appreciate all of the pieces that make you who you are. And don't be afraid to put them all together in new and creative ways.