I have lost count of the number of times recently that clients, as they have begun to talk about the personal difficulties that are currently occupying them, have paused and said something along the lines of ‘I feel bad/guilty/selfish for talking about my problems when people’s lives are under threat in Ukraine/the climate is in crisis/people are starving in Afghanistan etc’. There’s something about a global pandemic, an illegal war, an escalating and no-longer plausibly deniable climate crisis that briefly cause us all to take stock of our lives and place our suffering into perspective.
What to do then when clients express such misgivings? Do we acknowledge their empathy for the critical situation others and our home planet are in, but put that to one side and bring them back to the state of their inner world? Do we address the ‘bad’ feelings, the guilt and selfishness they’ve named? Do we shift focus from the personal to the political and explore their thoughts, feelings, beliefs and possible prejudices about whichever political catastrophe we are collectively facing? Do we risk naming our own concerns if we engage in such a discussion? Doubtless, our response might include any combination of these, and multiple other reactions I’ve not thought to include. How we respond will, I imagine, depend in part on the modality we have been trained in, our own political biases, interests and agendas, and probably how we feel in any given moment and with any specific client when such a circumstance arises.
I have noticed that, when the collective comes into the therapy room – as it has done with increasing frequency across the last decade of Brexit, Trump, COVID-19, the rise of right-wing populism, Tory austerity, global warming, Afghanistan, Syria… – my immediate response is to want to bring the focus back to the client. But who am I to hold that what’s going on inside might have more relevance and importance than the ways in which events far out on the outside are impacting – even when those events might be happening thousands of miles away? Perhaps when topical political issues and global crises come into the room, we are tested on how much about ourselves – our own positionality – we are willing or feel it appropriate to reveal. And what to do if we’re faced with opinions that are opposite to our own?
Of course, events in the outside world do not only enter the therapy room explicitly, they also come through in unconscious communications and enactments. I have noticed an increased frequency in clients talking about dreams with themes of invasion, intrusion, pursuit by a visible or invisible enemy. Dreams full of rage, hate, terror, in which things are falling apart, breaking down, crumbling, dying. Perhaps our internal psyche is assembled in a way that is not dissimilar to how the anima mundi, or ‘world soul’ – the connection between all living things, which relates to the world in much the same way as the soul is connected to the human body – is organised. Where the tension between conflicting parts of the whole manifest in splitting (projecting the parts deemed as ‘bad’ and unwanted outwardly onto the other), obsessive compulsions, hatred (including hatred turned in oneself, because of internalised misogyny, misandry, homophobia, transphobia, racism, etc) such that our internal climate can become as fragile and prone to collapse and destruction as the world ecosystem on which we depend for survival.
We are living in an age of perpetual crisis. Is it any wonder that our souls are suffering?
John Daniel, Editor