On being “Good Enough’

We might consider that at the core of therapy is the idea of self-awareness. At times of vulnerability – whether that be heartbreak, stress at home or work or generally feeling unable to cope we may find ourselves suffering from unbearable feelings and want to block these out. However, avoiding the sensations we feel can increase our vulnerability to being overwhelmed by them.

Becoming aware of the ebb and flow of emotions within our bodies can put us in touch with our inner world. In noticing our feelings of anger, irritation, nervousness or desperation we become able to shift our perspective and open up new options other than our automatic, habitual reactions. Mindfulness puts us in touch with the transitory nature of our feelings and perceptions. When we pay focused attention to our bodily sensations we can recognise that our emotions are not set in stone and hopefully increase control of them.

The paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, observation of mothers and children focused amongst other things on how the mothers held their babies. He proposed that these physical interactions lay the groundwork for a baby’s sense of self, and with that their capacity for self-regulation. ‘The ability to feel the body as the place where the psyche lives.’ In the majority of cases Winicott believed that mothers were able to be ‘good enough’, but in cases where the mother cannot meet her babies needs and impulses ‘the baby learns to become the mother’s idea of what the baby is’. Children who lack physical attunement are vulnerable to shutting down the direct feedback from their bodies.

As adults in order to learn how to become available to our bodies feedback we need to change how we deal with difficult feelings and increase our awareness of inner experiences. Allowing our minds to focus on sensations and notice how in contrast to feelings that might feel overwhelming our physical sensations are transient and respond to slight shifts in bodies, such as how we hold ourselves, our breathing and even our thinking.

The next step might be to label our physical sensations. Practising mindfulness calms down our sympathetic nervous system, so we are less likely to be thrown into a flight or flight response. Learning to observe and tolerate what we are feeling in the moment, is a prerequisite for safely being able to revisit the past. It is possible to tolerate a great deal of discomfort if we are able to remain conscious that our bodies’ reactions are constantly shifting. Mindfulness has been shown to have a positive effect on a number of psychosomatic and psychological issues. It has also been shown to activate the brain regions involved in emotional regulation and lead to changes in the regions related to body awareness and fear.

On Anger.

My white therapist calls it my edge, I hear
Angry Black Women. She says, Strength
of Wilful Negative Focus. She says, Acerbic
Intellectual Temperament. I copy her words
onto an index card. She wants
an origin story, a stranger with his hand
inside me, or worse. I’m without
linear narrative and cannot sate her. We
perform rituals on her living room floor. I burn
letters brimming with resentments, watch
the paper ember in the fireplace, admit
I don’t want to let this go. What if anger,
my armour, is embedded in the marrow of who I am.
Who can I learn to be without it? Wherever you go,
there you are. She asks what i lose
if I surrender, I imagined a gutted fish,
silvery skin gleaming, emptied of itself-

Rage Hezekiah

Book review – The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath. By Leslie Jamison.

Jamison describes addiction and particularly the dynamic of the female addict, bouncing between her own story and the tales of others who have battled alcohol and mental illness.

The mythic male drunk manages a thrilling abandon —the reckless, self-destructive pursuit of truth —his female counterpart is more often understood as guilty of abandonment, the crime of failing at care. Her drinking has violated the central commandment of her gender, Thou shalt care for others, and revealed itself as an intrinsically selfish abnegation of that duty. Her self-pity compounds the crime by directing her concern away from an implicit other —real or imagined, child or spouse —and funnelling that concern back toward herself.”
― from “The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath”

She highlights and questions when an ordinary craving become pathological…suggesting perhaps this is when it becomes tyrannical enough to summon shame. When it stops constituting the self and begins to define its lack.

“For shame is its own veil,’ Denis Johnson wrote, “and veils the world as much as the face.”

When it comes to alcohol, women lose the battle of the sexes on almost every front. More and more women are struggling with heavy drinking and alcoholism, a disorder that was once believed to be primarily a man’s issue. The disease is in many ways more physically detrimental to women, who, for example get cirrhosis of the liver at twice the rate of men. Even so, they seek treatment less often. The female addict sits in a tremendous amount of guilt and shame, and is afraid to tell even those closest to her the truth about herself. She views herself as a “bad” person needing to become “good,” not as a sick person needing to become well. Many others will view her this way too and it will keep her from seeking treatment.

Addiction is a very patient disease; it lies in waiting, is stealthy and manipulative. Jamison is able to convey the struggles of being in recovery, someone haunted by her past, yet also in some way nostalgic for it.

Our sense of self is never really fixed, yet we tell ourselves one historical narrative, constantly rewritten to make sense of the changes in our lives. It can be all too easy to look back on the person that we “used to be”, with a fondness and regret that are often misplaced

The book highlights the simple truth; that stability is indeed a humble, and messy process which can feel like an immense struggle within a culture that craves simple narratives about addiction and sobriety, genius and madness.