Santa Barbara Therapist and Author
Dr. Rachel B. Aarons LCSW
Dr. Rachel B. Aarons LCSW
You can get a glimpse of the book by looking at the following excerpts:
Table of Contents
PART ONE SELF AND OTHER
The Logic of the Therapeutic Journey
PART TWO EMOTIONAL ABUSE
Breaking the Spell
PART THREE SILENCING THE SUPEREGO
PART FOUR WRESTLING WITH THE SHADOW
Round One: Anger
PART FIVE MORE WRESTLING WITH THE SHADOW
Round Two: Neediness
PART SIX LOVING SELF, LOVING RELATIONSHIPS
PART SEVEN BEYOND PSYCHOTHERAPY
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Introduction to Journey to Home
This is a book about a journey. It is a journey that is intensely personal and at the same time universal. If I didn't believe that it was universal, or at least widely applicable, I wouldn't have written about it. That voice in my head - the one that keeps rattling on: “Who cares what you think?” “Who cares even less what you went through?” “Who do you think you are??” - that voice might have drowned out my resolve. It might have convinced me to retreat in silence, tucking my pretensions out of view.
After all, to write a book, I imagined, one would have to be stunningly creative, courageous, or smart. Or at least, one would have to have accomplished some world-shattering, momentous feat that awaited history's notice. None of this applies to me.
At times it still seems remarkable to me that people do relate to what I have written and do find meaning in my story. For I am nobody of extraordinary or special importance. And this is exactly the point. It dawned on me that it is my commonality with others, my humanness that I have to offer. And my willingness to share it with you.
Who reads a book on the therapeutic journey? Who am I to picture out there?
Presumably you are people who have an interest in human development and are perhaps clients of therapy or therapists yourselves. (Hopefully, these are not mutually exclusive categories.) If you are reading this book, you may be looking for some understanding of your own process of healing. You may be seeking a structure to give meaning to your life and perhaps to provide a direction for change.
A structure of this sort would have to be theoretical in the sense that it would provide an intellectually valid way of interpreting a whole range of life experience reaching beyond individual autobiography to a general human level. To be viable, this theoretical structure would have to be intimately connected to the issues we struggle with in our daily lives, in our most important relationships, and in our work.
I believe the hope for connection lies in the presentation of lived truth. The theory I present is, by its nature, very abstract. The truth, however, is very concrete. In the bridge between these two, hopefully, you will find a meaningful connection.
As a therapist, I have a deep and compelling interest in people and their lives. My daily commitment to therapy is the reality behind every page. I've spent many, many hours closeted in a tiny room, sharing with one person after another their profoundly moving stories. These were people who had come to heal, moved by some anxiety, frustration or pain in their lives. They came to me assuming that I knew something about how they could heal. They told me about their pain and often they did heal. But how did it happen? Perhaps I would sound knowledgeable and they would be grateful but what had really happened? It was, at bottom, a mystery.
In my evolution as a therapist, each theoretical framework I embraced gave its own answer to this question, but I noticed that people kept healing even though I went from one theory to another. Each methodology I employed claimed that it was the way that worked but, again, it appeared that people were progressing equally well no matter what the methodology.
Was it some magic I possessed? Was there some great wisdom in me that opened the way? If so, I had to admit I did not know how to define it. Nor could I use it to hasten my own healing. There were times when I would look with an admiration bordering on envy at the way my clients would resolve issues that I remained stuck with. If I could help them, why couldn't I help myself? Or did it have anything to do with my helping? Could it be that I was essentially a witness to a process they were undergoing that had little, if anything, to do with me?
If there was such a process, I wanted to know more about it so that I could get on with my own work, both as a therapist and in my own healing. It is my belief that we who are therapists are often doing this work because of a need for healing in our own lives. Yet isn't it curious that we hardly ever talk about our own work, our need for healing, or how we heal?
In our consulting rooms and in the therapeutic literature, we rarely offer more than a few passing remarks about our own struggles. We always talk about other people. We focus on the client. We offer case studies and case examples. We are ashamed to acknowledge that we are engaged in a process of healing ourselves. We think we would lose credibility.
It is a sad comment on the field of psychotherapy that we believe we need to hide behind a mask of invulnerability, that it has become a daring venture to use frankly autobiographical material in a book about therapy and that, rather than personal experience being a confirmation of one's intimate knowledge of human struggle, it could be seen as a potential basis for discreditation.
It is my intention to challenge this belief. This book, in its presentation of deeply personal material rather than anonymous case material, constitutes that challenge.
I would urge that this new level of disclosure by a therapist be regarded as a necessary step in the direction of greater honesty in psychotherapy, a direction that I believe is long overdue. Many may, certainly the orthodox will, disagree with me - likely in unflattering terms. But, fortunately, there is no better training for the challenge of standing one's ground in the face of discreditation than growing up in a dysfunctional family. This book will show in depth why this is so.
I invite you, then, to join me in this journey. It will take place on two parallel tracks - one theoretical, the other personal. It will be clear from the change of typeface when I have switched tracks. As I develop the logical structure of the therapeutic process, I will interweave personal anecdotes which are intended to illustrate and clarify the points in the theory. As these points are connected in one coherent whole, so the anecdotes are connected in one story, which is a single life.
This journey could be characterized as a “victim’s” journey. I am not unaware that in using the term "victim" rather than the more popular term "survivor", I may ruffle some sensibilities. While this particular ruffling is not my objective, nonetheless I take this risk because I believe it is imperative to explore in depth the process of victimization and, to do so, we need to have a term for the correlate of the abuser in the dynamic of an abusive relationship. If, as I will maintain, the roles of victim and abuser are both inevitable and inevitably reciprocal, then we all, on some level, need to come to terms with the victim in ourselves.
But we do not need to stay there. This book does not advocate resignation. It is, on the contrary, a call to arms. The goal is to find a way to transcend the victim position, to overcome both abuse of ourselves and of others in order to learn how to love. If this is a victim's journey, it is every bit as much a journey out of victimization. We will be most empowered to move out of the victim position when we can name it and recognize it for what it is.
Nothing in my life story has been invented or altered to prove a point. My constant consideration has been to represent, as closely as possible, the truth as I experienced it, while realizing that it is always my viewpoint, my truth.
It is not my intention to blame, castigate, or condemn anyone. Quite the opposite: the learning of this entire endeavor is the appreciation of our humanness. Ultimately, the goal of writing this book and the goal of therapy are the same - the development of a sympathetic witness who can both see and love the self.
* * *
From Part One: Self and Other
To begin the journey, I want to talk about a process. It is the process of therapy: that is, it is the process that is engaged whenever transformation or healing takes place, no matter what the methodology.
I believe that there is an underlying process that is common to diverse therapeutic systems - the elephant that is being touched by our blind hands - and that this underlying process is logical.
To say that it is logical means that if you look at its structure, you will see that it has certain essential features which I call "principles", some of which are definitional and some explanatory, and that it follows a pattern through time in what may be termed cycles or even a spiral.
If I am right, this process should appear strikingly familiar to you and you should recognize these principles as true and maybe even obvious. Otherwise, I am wrong in my formulation. Therefore, I would expect to elicit responses like: "yes, of course;" "I knew that;" or "that's what happened to me." My objective is to articulate that which is known and common, not to offer something new and different.
Consequently, it would not be a significant criticism of this point of view to argue that it lacks novelty or originality. In fact, the contrary would be the case. What I am offering claims to be a phenomenology of our human experience, a form of universal or archetypal journey, one that we can all, on some level, recognize.
I maintain that although there are different languages of therapy, and perhaps different routes to get to the same goal, the fundamental process is the same and is what makes therapy "work", when it does.
Psychotherapy is not the only form of thought that is concerned with this process. It is depicted in mythology and religion, in literature and art, in fairy tales and folk songs. But psychotherapy is most distinctively concerned with this process in that it is our modern style of journey-making. It is, as Jung suggested, modern man's search for a soul.
The fundamental process of therapy is, I believe, a process of becoming oneself - that old cliché which, I believe, is true and accurate as to what occurs. But how can we understand the meaning of this process? How is it possible to "become oneself?"
In order to make sense of the notion of becoming oneself, we have to make sense of the notion of not being oneself which lies behind it. How can I become myself unless I am, in some sense, not myself? But if I am not myself, then who am I?
On this point, John Welwood says:
"Process-oriented psychotherapy, as I practice it, has a larger purpose than just coping, controlling, or feeling better. It's about connecting with the truth of who we really are. To understand how therapeutic inquiry can help us connect more deeply with ourselves, we need to recognize the nature of the basic distress or "dis-ease" that lies at the root of all our psychological problems. We have all turned away from certain areas of our experience that caused us pain as we were growing up - such as our anger, our need for love our vulnerability, our will, our sexuality - and have withdrawn our awareness from them."
It is in the recovery of these lost areas that the process of therapy can serve, according to Welwood, as a bridge to the reintegration of the self.
Clearly, therapy would not need to reintegrate the self were it not already fragmented and damaged. Recovery of self implies a prior loss of self. Integration presupposes disintegration.
Most of us acknowledge the possibility of not being ourselves. We say: "I was not myself today.” “I can't be myself with you (my husband, my boss, my father, my mother).” “That person is not who s/he appears to be."
Yet if we stop to think about it, how can we make sense of this notion of not being who we are?
We have in our language a concept of denial in terms of which it makes sense to say that someone is “in denial” about themselves or denies a truth about themselves. It is not simply that they do not know the truth. It is that they know it but at the same time deny that they know it.
For example, one of my mother's frequent statements took the form "I'm not [fill in verb] ___ing but ... " For example: I'm not criticizing but. . . ,” or “ I'm not complaining but. . . “ In such a statement my mother succeeded in accurately describing what she was about to do in the very process of denying that description.
If I pointed out that she was, in fact, [fill in verb] ____ing (e.g. criticizing, complaining), I would be soundly reprimanded for my perpetual misinterpretation of her. This misjudgment was proven definitively by the statement she had just made saying that she was NOT!
The posture of self-righteousness that inevitably accompanied such pronouncements should not be dismissed as mere pretense on her part or as an unfortunately all-too-obvious attempt at deception. She was not being dishonest. She genuinely meant what she said. And she was utterly convinced of her own rightness.
It would be necessary to say, then, that the person in denial is simultaneously deceiving (or attempting to deceive) themselves.
The possibility of self-deception is, as the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre noted, a remarkably curious phenomenon. It is easy to see how one person could deceive another person by keeping information secret or hidden. But it is not so easy to understand how information could be kept secret or hidden from oneself. Are there walls in the mind? Secret rooms? Compartments where information could be kept by oneself and yet away from oneself?
To be not oneself, to be in denial, and to deceive oneself all imply that it is possible for the self to be split and divided against itself.
Our principles have to begin, then, with the formation of the self and how the self can get split or damaged in the first place so that it later needs to be healed.
* * *
When I had just turned six years old, I was sent to an overnight summer camp for two months. My sister insists I was five but, five or six, it amounts to much the same thing: I was very little. Camp Kawagama (pronounced Ka w agama with the emphasis on the second syllable) was situated seven hours’ train ride from my home. As if the prospect of seven hours in a train wasn’t daunting enough to stretch the imaginative capacity of a little girl who had never been away from home, the camp was on an island! It took another three-quarters of an hour by motor boat to get there. No matter how well I could swim at age five or six, it was clear there was no way to get home.
Not surprisingly, I was dreadfully homesick. I don’t recall if any of the other children suffered as I did, but I know that I was in agony. I went to my sister’s cabin and curled up in her bed, clinging to the scent of something familiar.
My sister was seven years older and, at first, she cradled me like the mother I wanted her to be. Everyone was sympathetic for a while but I was not about to let go. I still remember vividly how I clung to her and I hung on – for dear life.
They pulled me screaming and thrashing away from her bed and carried me crying and kicking away from her cabin. I was barred from going there again. I still remember standing at a distance staring at it wistfully. How inaccessible it seemed to me. Cabin 11 – the only one on stilts
* * *
From Part Two: Emotional Abuse, Breaking the Spell
All abuse is soul-shattering, but emotional abuse has its own peculiar treachery in that it is all-pervasive and yet so subtle and difficult to detect. Consequently, as victims, we may suffer the paralyzing effects of abuse while being unable to identify that abuse has occurred.
Physical abuse creates bruises and broken bones which can be seen, X-rayed, and treated by medical technology. Thus we have no difficulty in recognizing physical abuse. Yet all physical abuse has emotional abuse as a component.
Sexual abuse has been more difficult to acknowledge than physical abuse although we are now waking up to the extent and trauma of sexual abuse. Yet all sexual abuse has emotional abuse as a component.
Beyond both of these exists the huge domain of emotional abuse involving neither physical nor sexual abuse. Its impact, though invisible, is no less widespread and pernicious.
Why something so universal can nevertheless escape our notice is that emotional abuse has largely been treated as "the way life is" and not seen as abuse at all. Among everyday examples of abuse, I include:
belittling, teasing, put-downs, bullying, mocking, ridiculing, nagging, name-calling, scapegoating, lying about someone or to someone, misrepresenting, deceiving, invalidating, constant criticism, character assassination, verbal assault, threatening, intimidating, emotional blackmail, ignoring, neglecting, excluding, rejecting, withholding, objectifying, abandoning, deserting, betraying, and undermining another's sense of self.
Anything familiar here? The list could go on. This is ordinary life, the domain of the normal family: garden-variety domestic squabbles, sibling rivalry, and marital strife. This is the world of "The Simpsons," of “Married with Children”, and of “Southpark.” It’s funny, isn’t it?
To characterize these all-too-common and homey examples of everyday life as emotional abuse will most likely be regarded as hystrionic and grossly exaggerated. At the very least, it will be viewed as an overreaction. This minimizing type of response to the identification of emotional abuse is, regrettably, the most frequent and predictable one. Because we have grown accustomed to emotional abuse as a constant presence in our lives, it is virtually invisible to us. It is as obvious as the air around us and as difficult to see.
Symptoms arise in every dimension of our being – the physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioral and interpersonal.
First, on the physical level: we often get sick, not in a life-threatening way, but in a subclinical constellation of nagging signs indicating that our bodies are making a protest. Symptoms such as headaches, sinus infections, stomach aches, diarrhea, gas pains, constipation, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, flu–like symptoms – in other words, the most common complaints seen by the medical profession – may all be physical manifestations of an underlying malaise.
The damage wrought by emotional abuse will be experienced primarily in the region from the chest to the face. In my experience, it most frequently centers in the throat. Survivors of emotional abuse typically experience sore throats, frequent dryness, hoarse or high squeaky voices, chronic coughing, wheezing, and throat infections. The throat is choked off. This is an expression of our deep-seated difficulty in speaking out.
* * *
When I was little, I used to awaken with what I call a “cramp” in my throat. I couldn’t breathe and as I went to scream “Mama”, no sound would come out. It was as though there was a hand around my neck choking me and I had no voice.
It is true that I accepted my fate without much protest.Why did I acquiesce so easily? Where was my voice back then? I wonder to myself looking back: why didn’t I stubbornly persist in phoning my mother night after night until she heard me? Or refuse to participate in camp activities? Or repeat over and over like a recording that would not stop that I wanted to go home; I just wanted to go home. What if I had called her bluff and flatly refused to go to camp each and every summer? What if I had told her just how wretchedly unhappy I was? Why was it never an option to do or say anything like that?
I remember a talk I had with my sister that first summer at camp – or, more aptly, it was a talk she had with me. She was twelve and I was five. We were standing at the “Y” where the two paths to our cabins diverged and went off in opposite directions. This conversation was memorable because she had not talked to me for several weeks since I was blackballed from going to her cabin. She warned me menacingly that I was not under any circumstances to complain or say anything negative about camp to our parents on Visitors’ Day. The details of her threat are lost but the message was loud and clear. I held it in my throat for years. I had to shut up and take it. For most of my childhood there was a hand clamped over my mouth that silenced me.
* * *
From Part Three: Silencing the Superego
You can think of the Superego as a part inside that is not your friend. It is a long-time resident in your psyche who is always busy ordering you around. To give credit where credit is due, it needs to be acknowledged that its guidance has been instrumental in ensuring your survival up to this point. But, ultimately, it will be necessary to wage war on or, at least, to dethrone this part of the personality if we are to transcend the old stuck place and move beyond survival to growth. It is only by learning to silence the Superego that we can open the door to the shadow and to its integration into the self.
Becoming aware of the persistent nagging presence of the Superego is a decidedly unpleasant but necessary task. We will notice immediately how remarkably adept we are at remaining oblivious to the constant negative chatter going on in our heads. It will require a special effort to tune in and turn the volume up.
One of my clients used a traffic counter to keep track of the ongoing barrage of criticisms she experienced in an average day. Another allotted herself a maximum of five minutes per day to voice into the mirror any complaints she had about herself and then she would write them down afterward in her journal. Others recorded all the negative statements they heard in their heads in a fifteen minute period three times a day for a week. You may well be astounded, as they were, at the sheer magnitude of instances of self-rebuke.
An unfailingly powerful exercise I have used in workshops is to invite participants to mill around making non-verbal contact while playing a stream of self-doubting and self-deprecating tapes in their heads. Then I ask them to contrast this experience with the contact they make while playing self-nurturing and self-affirming tapes in their heads. Without exception, people have reported a radical shift directly reflective of their negative or positive self-statements in their perceptions of others as well as of themselves. The principle of the self-fulfilling prophecy holds sway here. How we see others is, for better and for worse, largely a reflection of how we see ourselves.
The Superego is more than just an inner and private tormentor affecting our self-perceptions. It is also a potent shaper of the reality we encounter outside ourselves. No wonder, then, that the times we most desperately need the world to respond to us with support and beneficence, it seems to mock and jab at us in the heinous face of our worst fears. The only way to regain mastery of both our external world and our inner selves is to challenge the entrenched power of the Superego.
A simple (but not easy) method of working with the Superego is to follow these three steps which I call the ABC''s. This method has been distilled from a Diamond Heart workshop, presented by Michael Torreson, and liberally interpreted by me.
Step A is to identify the primary Superego messages for each one of us individually. Fortunately, there are only a few, maybe four or five for each person, and all the rest are merely variations on each theme. To discover these primary messages, it is necessary to listen closely to the background prattle that is going on all the time, much like elevator music but not so pleasant to the ears. We can then extrapolate from the multiplicity of daily criticisms and harangues the major points of vulnerability that form the basis of attack. Or, alternatively, we can target specific situations that produced defensive reactions in us and draw out these same points of vulnerability contextually.
Each negative message will be encoded in very idiosyncratic language derived from our individual histories. Thus, the exact wording will be very much our own and unique. Some messages are directed more at our physical appearance, others at our character, our accomplishments, or at our overall value. At times we may actually hear our parent's words, their turn of phrase, or tone of voice. For instance, it is not surprising that one of my persistent Superego messages is: “Nobody wants you. You're a pain in the butt!” It is unnerving to acknowledge how much we are haunted by unfriendly ghosts from the past.
Some examples that may call up your own ghosts are offered below.
1. For god's sakes, don't be like your mother! [i.e. depressed, a wimp, a nag, or ...]
2. There you go! You blew it! That's just like you to screw up again!
3. Don't let people see you're hurt [scared, angry]. They won't like you anymore.
4. You're so selfish! [lazy, stupid, weak...]
5. Grow up! Get on with it! Who cares how you feel?
6. You are such a loser! No one loves you and no one ever will.
7. See! I knew it all along! You're just being used and exploited again.
8. You deserve what you get. You've never been any good. You'll never amount
9. You're hopeless. No matter how you try, you'll never get out of here
10. People will find out sooner or later what a terrible person you really are.
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Excerpts from Journey to Home