I just want to address another unspoken secret – that each individual understands precisely what makes him or her do what they do! This runs contrary to what many people believe – including some psychoanalysts and psychotherapists. The belief is that people lack awareness or lack insight or need to understand what underlies their behaviour – anxiety, depression, illness, delusion, illusion, violence, whatever. The experts believe that their job is to provide the person with insights into their behaviour or to bring them to awareness of what made them act in ways that are threatening to themselves or to others. There are also many parents and teaches who feel they know what is best for children and young people and, accordingly, provide advice, whether or not requested. The difficulty with such superiority – ‘that I know what’s best for you’ or ‘I can understand you better than you can understand yourself’ – is that it shows no belief in the person addressed and fails to mirror the understanding that is present within that person. Advice-giving and providing awareness also blocks the person examining their own interiority and finding their own answers. Furthermore, the answers provided by others may be totally off the mark of what is really going on for the other person. In any case, solutions provided by any expert are all about the expert and his or her present level of maturity. It is far more mature to proved the unconditional loving and safe environment for the person to access their own understanding and determine their own solutions
A pertinent question here is: how can you say somebody always know what’s going on for him (or her)? Surely, for example, a male partner that is violent towards his female partner can hardly be seen to understand what drives him to such a violent means of control! The answer is that understanding lies at an unconscious level. The man who is being aggressive creates his defensive responses in order to protect himself from abandonment; the purpose of his violence is to ensure his partner does not leave him or reject him. His experience as a child would have been that his individual presence did not spontaneously gain unconditional love and approval. In the face of such abandonment he cleverly creates an alternative and substitute means of having his wholeness held – aggression – a forcing of another to be there for him. All of these defensive responses are created by him – albeit unconsciously – but, nevertheless he knows at that unconscious level that he had to develop these responses in order to survive the experiences of abandonment. Surely, it makes sense that when the person unconsciously creates the defence, he knows exactly why he is doing it. However, he needs to keep that knowing and understanding below consciousness, because it would be far too painful to live with the every moment consciousness of harsh abandonment.
In helping a person in distress, the realisation that the person understands is paramount. The intention of helping the person would be to create the unconditional loving environment and physical, emotional, intellectual and social safety for the understanding that is below the surface to rise up into consciousness. I recall working with a man who, in his own words, treated his son ‘like shit.’ When safety was established I asked him ‘what do you feel leads you to be so harsh with your son?’ The answer was spontaneous: ‘because I see myself as a lump of shit.’
It is very powerful and liberating when individuals in turmoil realise and understand the sources of their threatening behaviours. It is both an act of unconditional love and belief in them when we communicate that ‘I have no doubt that you have a deep inner understanding of what makes you act in the ways you do.’ When this understanding rises to consciousness the person feels strongly motivated to change the nature of his relationship with self and with others. Great patience is required because when an individual has been deeply hurt he is very slow to take again the risk of reaching out and responding in an authentic, real and spontaneous way. Sometimes, it can take years of patience and the provision of unconditional love before the person is willing to trust again. There is a wonderful anonymous saying that encourages patience: ‘I will wait patiently, even for an eternity, for you to become present to your precious life.’
Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist and is author of several books on practical psychology, including Whose Life Are You Living?