Updated: Oct 19, 2020
Have you ever had an experience where you feel alien to yourself - like a part of you that you don’t recognise is in the driving seat? Who is this inner alien? Where did she come from?
Last week I had a small group supervision for some of my therapy work. It’s a group I know well; we’ve all worked together for a year now, and I’ve benefited so much from the support and laughter we’ve shared in that time. It’s usually a group in which I feel safe, secure and free to express myself.
As I sat in that familiar room it gradually dawned on me, to my dismay, that I did not feel comfortable. I felt strange, out of place, and I wasn’t experiencing my usual warm reactions to my colleagues. When someone gently suggested some feedback on my work with a client, I could not receive it in the way I generally can - with reflection and consideration. Instead I felt persecuted, rejected, small. I pushed back, said no, my work was fine. It was at that point that I realised something was up. I knew I felt a bit out-of-sorts, a bit low with a cold. I’ve been going through some big life changes, with emotional and practical implications.
I’m a therapy student so I have a grasp of the theory about parts of the self, and I believe it - that we are all made up of a range of different parts, that different selves will emerge at different times. But the scary thing was, in that moment I felt like a part of me I don’t know at all had suddenly reared her head - alongside some other parts that felt like they’ve barely made my acquaintance.
Without losing all the gravitas of this piece, it’s like that scene in Avengers: Endgame where all the characters who had been dusted suddenly re-emerge through portals to fight the final battle. Except instead of Dr Strange or Spiderman, my perfectionist and persecutory part had suddenly taken the driving seat. (Come to think of it, it is all a bit Dr Strange.)
So I realised that I was not ok, and I guess the most ok thing I could do at that point was admit that to myself. I could stop pretending I was holding everything together, that I was in control. I could acknowledge that I felt really unsure at that moment about exactly how, or who, I was.
Like many people, control is an important project for me. Feeling in control is a helpful illusion in the face of the huge uncertainties of life. As therapist Nick Totton describes it:
‘Every organism seeks its own preservation, and that of its offspring; this is both a biological necessity, and an experience of deep emotional significance. Humans are physically vulnerable creatures...By bringing our environment as close to mental models as we can, we soothe our deep anxiety.’ (Wild Therapy, p. 42)
To sit in a familiar supervision room with people I know well, and to not know myself, to feel alien from my very self, that is the antithesis of control. And, as a result, I felt all of that vulnerability and deep anxiety that Totton suggests.
Things fall apart; but in that frightening moment lie dormant the seeds of change. It helps a little to have some understanding in the midst of that alienation and anxiety. Because it is very frightening to realise that you don’t feel in control, to only have a vague sense that you don’t know who you are right now.
How useful is that sense of control that I’ve protected so carefully in my life? Totton argues that our culture prohibits a lot of our spontaneous expression:
‘The ego, as it exists in Western culture at least, is functionally identical with a state of muscular tension which aims to control our bodily states and impulses. In fact, we can’t control our states and impulses, since in many ways we are our states and impulses; instead, we control their expression. And we identify ourselves with that state of expressive control, so that to relax and open up to spontaneity appears as a loss of selfhood.’ (Wild Therapy, p. 43)
The tension inherent in any process of getting to know oneself better is perhaps here, in the place where one starts to feel those impulses, those parts that have been cut off from awareness by the pressures of relationships, sense of self and culture. In that moment of recognition is the loss of control, which can be so terrifying. The sense of self that has served until that point has been dependent on the maintenance of this illusion of control. And suddenly, it is gone.
I went home and had a cup of tea. Slowly I began to feel more stable, and so I decided to write, to try to make sense of what was happening to me. To regain some control, yes, but also hopefully to find creative expression for the confusing processes going on within me. I wrote about the confusion, I visualised it as a mess on the carpet in front of me, and it transformed into the constituents of a garden: the chaos of soil, seeds, saplings, and old and withered plants and trees mixed with the worms and other creatures of the outdoors.
That metaphor allowed me to name it, to give concepts to my confusion, to think about what might grow and what might die, but in the contained space of the garden. The metaphor brought me immense relief, as I suppose metaphors, stories and fables have helped humans through all time.
Perhaps there is power in the in-between state of the metaphor: I’m not pretending to know, or to understand completely or be able to control what is going on. But I am halfway there; I can make some sense of it, use language to corral it into some order for my brain to latch onto. Enough control to help me get through the day, and on with life, while knowing that what happens next in that garden is still a mystery.