All posts by The psyche geographer

Reveries of London based mum on the psychoanalytic couch

Swamped: Attention to metaphor is way better than being mindful of the feeling

A memory of riding my horse through the rainforest has been bugging me for a week or so. When we first moved to Costa Rica, I would do day -long rides and roam the mountains going to some pretty remote places alone. On one ride, I glimpsed an eerie green swamp: still, thick with some sort of day-glo green algae floating on the surface, utterly silent apart from the sound of my horse’s breath. I was creeped out and kicked into a canter and got the hell out of there. Too murky, too still, too lonely. I shuddered at the thought of falling in, I was sure it would swallow me and suck both of us down like quicksand and no one would have any idea where we’d gone.

When those mindfulness people say, pay attention to the feeling, I always think, gah, I’m the loser who has to pay attention to the metaphor. Feeling-words can be so abstract, and when I’m in the thick of a strong current of emotion, I never have any idea if I’m stressed or angry or sad or whatever. I just know I feel like shit. I’m often at a loss when kind friends say ‘how are you feeling?’ Often I can’t answer them in a straightforward sort of way. I imagine myself doing the conversational equivalent of a crab-scuttle sideways into metaphor or anecdote- I often worry I’m coming across as long winded and evasive but the usual categories for feeling are such empty ciphers in comparison. Emotional literacy, at least for me, is parcelled up in the dream-work of fantasy and daydream and poetry. I often don’t know how to name the feeling until I’ve paid attention to the imagery knocking around in my mind. And recently as I wash the dishes or cycle home from work, the phrase is, I feel swamped. Although in real, objective time, I’ve gained some hours- my evenings are free now that therapy has ended and I have a lunch break at work- something I didn’t have when looking after R all day- I feel panic about not being able to fit everything in. I feel swamped, a little claustrophobic, a little lonely, like I might be sucked into the goo. And I think this more a reflection of my internal reality than external circumstances. I am full of ending with my therapist. It’s a well-worn trope, but loss is not emptiness. I experience it as a filling-up, a welling up, a bringing-to-mind and missing. I’m full of him and my own story and I feel very little internal space, very little room to manoeuvre. I feel swamped.

But maybe I’m not the only one who reaches for a power ballad or a book of poetry or memory when I am grappling with a feeling. Play therapists such as Lawrence J. Cohen often talk about how when kids have had a difficult day they don’t ask to talk about it, they ask you to get down on the floor and play with them. Maybe most of us need to scuttle sideways into fantasy and dream in order to produce self-knowledge when we are upset. Maybe its a disservice to ourselves and others when we demand an answer to ‘how are you feeling?’ Maybe a more evocative question would be, what lyrics have been knocking around in your head and what have you been daydreaming?And the beauty of paying attention to metaphor when cultivating emotional literacy is how rich the practice is. If I just stopped at ‘oh I’m a bit stressed’ or ‘well I feel overwhelmed,’ it wouldn’t describe the quality of that psychic state. It wouldn’t convey the texture of the feeling, all the stuff that makes feeling the feels so interesting.

So if I ever ask you, hey how’re you feeling? Ignore me and tell me about the dream you had last week or the line of poetry stuck in your head. I bet we’ll have a much more interesting conversation.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

Lawrence J. Cohen’s book ‘Playful Parenting’ is a fabulous book and I’ve learned allot about play therapy from his writing

The darkness of baptism

On Sunday our kid was baptised into the Catholic Church. My husband and I have debated the pros and cons since the kid was born- I have largely been against (‘I don’t want to baptise him into my baggage,’ was my tired line) and he has largely been in favour. His reasons are beautiful and elusive- I am bemused but adoring of his intellect, his solidly Catholic upbringing, his ethical contasalltion. He is so different from me. He loves Pascal’s wager. He loves the aesthetic experience of the church, the smells and bells. He loves the ritual and the tradition and medieval theology. He rates Thomas Aquinas and is baffled by televangelists because they were not ordained and therefore are not valid links in ‘the chain of apostolic succession.’ I got him to admit this whole baptism thing was for him, for his benefit, because it means something to him. I didn’t expect to find the ceremony meaningful. I thought maybe it would be a nice father son thing to have between them. Like football and rough and tumble and steak pies. Although my husband vibes with the likes of Schopenhauer and can hold forth about the romance of German Pessimism, my felt experience of his faith is one of liberation. He thinks the tradition has some wings, still has something to say. He thinks it’ll be of use to the kid and wants him to at least have the option of joining the club. I sort of washed my hands of the whole affair, telling him I’d turn up on the day, say the right words and enjoy the post-ceremonial cake as long as someone else took responsibility for baking it.

And I’m not sure ‘meaningful’ would be the right word to describe what I got out of it. Whenever I step into any church the lines of Phillip Larkin’s poem Church Going knock around in my head. Like Larkin, I find myself, ‘tending this cross of ground,’ and I too find, ‘it pleases me to stand in silence here,’ though I also ‘end much at a loss like this,’ as I ‘wonder what to look for.’

And yet perhaps here was another opportunity to wonder. And not in a heavy handed sort of way. Not much calculated marvelling happened. My soul did not proclaim greatness nor did my spirit exalt in my saviour. But. But once or twice I glanced at my service sheet and was surprised. I felt a flutter in my chest when my son obediently held his head over the stone font and the priest poured the water over his beautiful blonde head. He didn’t cry as I’d resigned myself to, he didn’t scream, at the most holy part of the ceremony he remained in a state of silent curiosity. Perhaps he sensed our solemnity and maybe it was moving to watch a three year old tap into a corpus of sentiment. He felt it, was a part of what we all felt, fell into step with it. I felt bemused but appreciative when the father read the blessing for ‘the mother.’ (ME! Me? THE MOTHER.) But maybe it was another call to surrender, to say, well, perhaps my understanding is not perfect- perhaps there is something in this after all, though I may never work out what that is. Someone would know: I don’t, says Larkin. Exactly.

And yet, here I am the night after it all happened, re-reading Rebecca Solnit’s gorgeous essay on negative capability called ‘Woolf’s Darkness.’ Although it is a critique of art criticism, it is a joyous grappling with the role of the unknown in interpretation. The necessity of cultivating hope and non certainty in the process of meaning making. I get shivers every time I read it. She values in writing what I value in religious experience, ‘the liberation’ of ‘full freedom to roam, geographically and imaginatively.’ She passionately argues for a logic of ‘darkness’ – writing which ‘respects the essential mystery of a work of art.’ Although I am turned off and I tune out of dogmatic conversations about infant baptism, I saw a glimmer of value in what we did yesterday. Maybe I could set a place for the stranger at the table, make room for the essential mystery. It is far too soon and the spark was far too delicate to bear any kind of meaning-making right now. It was a glimmer, a glimpse, a little twist of potential that might catch, or might not. Maybe. But perhaps there is value just in that, just in the practice of sitting open-hearted in the pew, waiting, watching the ritual, not knowing quite what to expect.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

Phillip Larkin’s poem Church Going can be found here

Rebecca Solnit’s essay, Woolf’s Darkness is part of her 2015 collection of Essays, Men Explain Things To Me

Tomorrow I’m ending therapy with the man who gave me a soul

Cindy Lauper’s ‘Time after time’ has just come on in the café I’m writing in- its the song I’ve sung to my therapist recently as our nine year analysis draws to an end. I’m bawling into my hot chocolate and wiping the tears as I write, thinking yes. He looked and he found me time after time. And I’ve fallen and he’s caught me time after time. A suitcase of memories… I’m a soppy, sentimental foolish girl but also the power ballad speaks to how I have experienced my therapist’s relentless search to find me. I was buried alive when I first entered his consulting room, crushed under the weight of my solipsistic self-recriminations, suffocated in apologies, mummified by inhibition. There was no way I was going to bust open the coffin by myself and scoop the earth out one fistful at a time till I reached the surface. When I first arrived on his couch all I could do was lay there, supine, helpless, entombed in embryonic silence without any hope he even knew I was down there. I think if I had died, they wouldn’t have found scratch marks on the lid of the coffin- I’d given up on anyone reaching me, any chance at human connection. I didn’t even know I was slowly asphyxiating. I’d gotten used to my shallow breaths that barely took in what I so desperately craved: attention, presence, kindness, compassion, the company of others.

Well folks, he found this zombie. Dead-then-undead. Here I am. Over three evenings a week, over and over again, time after time, he kept digging till he reached me. The reason I can weep in my therapy sessions over the last month is because he kept going till he made contact, till he clasped my hand and pulled me out: I emerged, shallow breaths, wobbly legs, blinded by the sun, stunned at the rhythm of my pulse, astonished at my capacity for heart.

I don’t know if everyone experiences therapy as sacred. I have grappled with how much he has meant to me, how much I owe him, how deeply I have loved him. I’m aware I pay him by the hour and he has been professionally trained- this is a weird paradox that I can’t untangle. For those of us who needed more than just a kind ear and a bit of compassion to heal our childhood wounds- for those of us who were left for dead psychically speaking- those of us who were hopelessly damaged in ways that would make even the most experienced therapist balk- enlivening us is a heroic act. I have used him in ways I could never use a friend or a partner. Partners and friends require reciprocity, some giving in addition to taking. I needed a deeply unequal relationship. The kind where one person was doing most of the heavy lifting for a long while, the way parents do for babies. I urgently needed someone to run and grab a shovel and start digging. I needed an intensely consistent, attuned relationship- the kind that, if you’re lucky, you get offered once as an infant and then never again- one far beyond the scope of what could be sanely asked for from the usual channels of relating. Sometimes I think it is even more than what I could ask of a therapist: it would have been very reasonable of him to throw up his hands and say, too hard. I can’t reach you, you are too wounded. Especially in those first few years when I didn’t turn up to my sessions or turned up drunk or turned up silently absorbed in my own internal thrashings, unable to ask for help. He spent allot of time waiting for me to turn up in every sense- and when Cindy sings ‘I will be waiting,’ I erupt into more sobbing. It gets me in the gut. What an extraordinary thing to do for another human.

I have never trusted anyone as much as I have this man, I have never leaned on anyone with all my weight in the way I have relied on him. No one has ever seen me so skinless. He holds my whole history, and by taking all of me in he has made it possible for me to claim my story. I am more alive with him than I am anyone else: I crackle with humour and intelligence in front of him. He was the first person to call me into being, to invite me to exist as I am. He was the first person to see who I am when I am unashamed and ‘unleashed’ as he calls it, the way I am now most of the time, the way I move through the world now.

I feel so tender at the moment. In the sense of being both a little bit sore and also with a staggering capacity to be affected by cheesy pop on the radio or something beautiful someone says. I am weepy and grateful and a little shambolic but alive. So alive. And I’ll say goodbye to him on Friday.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

Self portrait of a Trojan horse

A few weeks ago, during an argument I said something rather garbled that was probably really taxing for my husband to listen to. I didn’t communicate my needs or desires clearly and assertively: I was in a muddle. I was arguing shambolically. If he had been so inclined he could have taken offence at what I’d said. And I’m grateful that he didn’t. I saw him get angry, and then I saw his face soften- in a moment he gave me the benefit of the doubt. In a split second flicker of his expression, I saw he trusted me. He didn’t use words to convey this shift, but somehow I knew that he knew I wasn’t out to get him, that I wasn’t trying to be an arsehole, that I wasn’t trying to control him or gaslight him or win the argument for the sake of winning. He assumed the best about my motives, and he kindly invited me to explain what I’d been trying to say- he read my intentions as confused rather than malicious. I still feel astonished when I think about his act of generosity. I felt seen, but I felt he chose to see the best bits of me in that moment, and to soft-focus on my faults. He could have pointed the lens at my weaknesses but he chose to focus on my virtues instead.

One of the kindest things I think I can do for my kid is not attribute motives to his behaviour. If he hits another kid I don’t treat his behaviour as if he’s being malicious or unkind or rude or hateful. I set limits not by shaming him for thought-crimes, which would be unfair, but by stopping the behaviour. I take his hands in mine and tell him I can’t let him hit another child. I try so hard to bracket off my projections, to protect him from the snares of my suspicious mind that would otherwise accuse him of heinous crimes he has not yet committed. Fear does prick me- is he being deliberately spiteful, is he is a bloodthirsty brute who gleefully enjoys the inflicting pain on others? I try to make room for these fears of mine, to acknowledge their existence in my own psychic life but also my task as his mother is to parse apart my fear of who he might be from the real child in front of me. I try to trust him, to generously assume the best, to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Some years ago, my therapist suggested that the Trojan Horse I experienced my mother as was also how I experienced myself. This floored me- how on earth did he know about my hunch that I was no good? He seemed to sense my terror of breaching the walls of my loved ones, masquerading as a gift but bringing destruction. I feared in my suffering and desperation I would lash out, accidentally be intrusive or overbearing, leach my badness into the other. I drew him a self-portrait, complete with a dripping sarcastic red bow. Open me at your peril. I’ll destroy you if you let me in. I think this self-portrait of the Trojan horse speaks to implicit memory. I’m sure as a kid, my imagined sinfulness was transmitted to me, coded in glances, gestures, tones of voice. The way my mother caught my hand in the supermarket when I tried to reach for something, the way my dad told me he was disappointed in me before he punished me, the way I was scrutinised across the room. There are myriad ways to tell someone you think they are a depraved monster on the brink of causing serious harm. You don’t even need words, the message hangs in the air. Suspicion breeds suspects.

I know suspicion will always be a part of my wiring. Choosing to be generous and compassionate towards myself and others will always compete with my Trojan horse self, the part of me that worries I will weaponise my darker feelings, or that the other is teeming with a malicious legion of hateful motives. I think I have a lifetime of practice ahead of me. The practice of assuming the best, the way my husband has done with me, the practice of trusting myself and others.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

The phrase ‘I can’t let you’ comes from respectful parenting guru Janet Lansbury. I’m deeply indebted to her thinking on attachment and discipline

Many thanks to my deeply private husband for letting me write about him again

On making some space for hatred in marriage

One of the weird joys of my marriage is that both my husband and I share a very dark sense of humour. On our 5th wedding anniversary we cooked up a little joke together: wouldn’t it be hilarious to create a Book of Grudges where we could list all of our petty grievances against one another in florid prose? Our book of grudges lives on the mantelpiece- it is a heavy tome and there is a column for vengeance, at my husband’s insistence. With melodramatic aplomb, I write ‘may god have mercy on his soul,’ in the column while he breezily informs me he will fill it retrospectively, as and when divine vengeance is levied on me in punishment for whatever atrocity I have committed. (Leaving a post-dinner party mountain of dishes is one of my peccadillos) Living with another human being, as gorgeous as they are and as much as we passionately love one another, is in turns as infuriating as it is nourishing. Living with another human being, blazing gloriously in all of their difference and idiosyncrasies is hard work no matter how well suited to one another we are, how skilled we are at all the intimacy stuff, how emotionally intelligent we are. Rupture is inevitable and so are the taboo feelings we aren’t supposed to feel when we love someone: hatred, rage, frustration, aggression, fear. The more human I become, the more my heart melts and the more tenderness I feel, the more capacity I have for feeling the good, the bad and the ugly. And I don’t want to get rid of those feelings. They’re part of my humanity, they’re my soul, they’re my guts, they tell me who I am in the world.

This is an odd thing to feel proud of but I’m grateful we’ve made room for ambivalence and even hatred between us. I know no one would dream of telling newlyweds, ‘the key to a happy marriage is making space for hatred,’ but weirdly I think that is true. We’ve found a playful way of digesting some rambunctious feelings that perhaps might otherwise need to be expressed passively aggressively, or feelings that I’d have to spend allot of time and emotional energy batting away. Weirdly, allocating space for hatred clips its wingspan and takes up far less internal space than obsessively holding a grievence would. This sounds strange, but it makes fighting fun. Fighting, my marriage has shown me, doesn’t have to be earnest or disconnected or tearful. It can be banter. Finding a way to play through a difficult feeling allows for some objectivity to peep through- I am not mired in my own woundedness. Play takes the sting out, it makes the feeling into an object we can throw back and forth, it makes it possible to turn it over in our hands and look at it together. Contrary to what many of us were taught as kids, our emotions are not in themselves destructive, even the most abject, such as hatred. And by turning the feeling into a toy, we refuse to weaponise it. It is there, it is allowed to exist and even be charged with meaning- and arguably, as authors like Susan David or Clarissa Pinkola Estes point out, our feelings like anger ARE ‘data’ for us and its incredibly useful for us to mine our emotions for meaning- but feeling a feeling is different from hurting the other. As far as possible, these feelings will never be weaponised, deployed to hurt or control the other. Allowing for them means we can hold them quite lightly, we are not cowering in fear from them, worried they will control us.

And there are some obvious caveats. It wouldn’t be a game if one of us wasn’t playing- that would just be bullying. It’s something we schemed together. I think like all play the primary purpose has to be play for its own sake, and its fun because there is an element of profanity-things you’re not supposed to say to each other on your fith wedding anniversary – it was primarily some banter between us, not a po-faced attempt to metabolise negative affect in our marriage. That would be deadly dull and rip the rug right out from underneath our dark little game. The fun is the conspiracy, the slightly taboo hilarity of it all. Obviously neither of us are easily bruised or fragile or take personally the others grudges- it kind of only works because we have both gotten a little more skilled over the years at owning our own projections. Sometimes we remember not to blame the other person for our delusions and fears. When we see our suitcase coming round and round and round on the carousel, we reach for it ourselves, we don’t let the other partner pick up our baggage. I know that it is not objectively a sin to leave three rashers of bacon in a packet in the fridge instead of cooking the whole pack, that is 100% my shit, it speaks to my issues and pettiness and says nothing about my husband’s character or motives. And lastly, it requires some emotional intelligence and intimacy- I know what I would never write, the the buttons I wouldn’t push, the thing that would be crossing the line. And probably the most obvious thing of all- it works because I respect him deeply and make it clear to him in myriad ways daily that I am passionate about him. Our Book of Grudges has taught me allot – one of the main lessons is that paradoxically, creating a release valve to let loose our hatred frees up more space for love.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

Susan A David is author of ‘Emotional Agility’ and has a fabulous TED talk on the subject

Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes has taught me much about the importance of paying attention to my anger rather than denying it or in her book ‘Women who run with wolves.’

And thanks to my deeply private husband for letting me write about our marriage

I’m taking down my blue ribbons and surrendering to love

I was one of those kids who figured out early on that love was something you had to work pretty hard for. When I was about twelve I remember hanging out all my county fair ribbons- for horse riding and horse judging and crafts and jam- on the wall next to the breakfast bar. I cannot think of a more desperate, ostentatious gesture. Nothing screams LOOK AT ME like colonising an entire wall to display your achievements. Despite going to all that effort to be noticed, my memory is that my home-interior intervention was displayed for months without comment or critique from my parents. Maybe they thought if they ignored me I would get over myself.

I guess somewhat paradoxically, I was not able to be less selfish until I had received an abundance of attention.

I’m not starving anymore. I have some choice now. And I have made a choice to cultivate faith that love exists and if I fear scarcity, that is my cue to drop to my knees, psychically speaking, and surrender. I know, now, that I don’t need to do anything to solicit, extract or seduce love from another. Being secure and full means I can taste all the flavours and textures of love. I’m free to notice (and invite and instigate!) the fleeting glance, the wry comment, the halting touch, the shy invitation, the guilty concern behind the late birthday card. All of these gestures and more smack of love. There is so much love in the world, it is varied and abundant and it is so obvious to me now that I’m not doubled over, engrossed in my own agony and emptiness. Its a weird truth that the people who most need love are the most blind to its existence.

A phrase that has recently been re-charged with meaning is god is love. I get it now. It is there. It turns out I’m a soppy, earnest mystic raving about how its there, humming quietly at the centre of the universe. It’s a faith trick. If I believe it’s there, then it is. If I’m looking for warmth and connection I know I will find it. It might not look how I expected, it might be in a smaller quantity than I would have hoped for, but it will be there, no doubt, if I pour my creative energy looking for evidence of it, naming it, cultivating my palette for it. Surrender doesn’t mean I won’t suffer from frustration or heartache or longing or fear. In fact quite the opposite is true, but maybe I’ve learned to metabolise those feelings better. Surrender also doesn’t mean I love everyone equally or that I only experience love and not hatred or other so-called ‘negative’ feelings.

Surrender means that I’m not controlled by fear- the uneasy belief that love will slip through my fingers or elude me if I don’t lunge for it. Surrender means faith that love is the glue that keeps the universe together, that it is everywhere, that it is god-outside-me, not something I exhume by hanging up some awards. I just have to lie back, tune in and wait for it. And I can’t help but give it- I feel it pulsing through my own veins, emanating out of me as I enjoy how gorgeous other human beings I know are- I can’t help but admire them and take pleasure in their company and be utterly thrilled by them. They don’t even have to show me their blue ribbons to elicit that response from me.

Copyright 2018 Diana Smith

I’m deeply indebted to the graphic memoirs of Alison Bechdel – she has given me a visual language for drawing my memories and both Fun Home and Are You My Mother? are hands down some of my favourite books to spend time in

I wanna give him roots and wings

I want my kid to be securely attached. And not because I’m one of those moralising reprobates, pouncing on parents who don’t wear their kids in slings- the glittering vistas of moral high grounds do not appeal to me- but because I have suffered the knots in my stomach and numb, cocooned, duty-driven relating that characterises insecure attachment. I know what it feels like to second guess every social interaction and not want to try anything new for fear of disturbing the universe. I much prefer the place of ‘earned security’ I move from now.

I think my kid is securely attached, and it gives me enormous pleasure to see him enjoying the fruits of this security. This fruit is myriad but the one I have been admiring recently is his capacity for curiosity and exploration- even in the face of fear. There is a particular incident this summer that I think about often, that illustrates his capacity to metabolise new, potentially ‘too much’ experiences.

There were these fountains on a new playground we hadn’t explored before. They were huge, unpredictable, shoot-up-and-spray style jets of water in some sort of pre-school bio dome landscaped micro climate. It was incredible. I thought I’d bought myself a solid forty minutes of deep, connected chat on the bench with my friend while R splashed in the water.

He pottered over to the spray but as water shot up, he emitted a squeak. Then the squeaking turned to excited squealing and looking back at me (he normally checks in at some point but not usually so often) His voice got more and excited as the water shot up and sprayed him in the face. His expression teetered on the edge of thrilled and terrified. His terror and his eagerness were cheek by jowl, his joy stretching out its neck and winning only by a nose. He ran to me and gave me a huge, trembling hug. And then ran back to the fountain. His excitement and fear would build as the fountain sprayed and then he’d run, scramming, returning again for a dripping wet cling. And then back again. He would explain what just happened, ‘mummy the fountain just went up and up bigger and bigger,’ and after I’d said, yup, that regulated him enough to go and explore some more.

And I love this because it illustrates one of my favourite sentences from Stanley Greenspan, a child psychologist and autism specialist. ‘Resilience is a state of relationship, not a state of mind.’ R could enjoy playing on the edge of thrill/terror- he could flexibly tolerate some pretty big doses of feeling- because he had someone sitting on the bench waiting to receive his words and his wet hugs. When we have parents who are willing to witness our adventuring, who we can return to and then go out again from, courage is possible. We can again approach the chasm or pinnacle that frightened us while we were out on our adventures if there is someone who can contain – make sense of-the risk we just took. We are then free to venture to the edge of what we are capable of, we can push ourselves to the limits of what we can tolerate, we can seek out new, challenging horizons. Connection and risk -taking are intimately intertwined. They’re the stuff of flourishing.

Esther Perel, a psychotherapist, points out that in myth there is often the dynamic of Penelope-at-the-loom to sea-faring, adventuring Odysseus. That in human flourishing, we have a profound need for both roots and wings, and that there is an interplay between these two needs. I am able to go out and explore to the extent that I’m secure in the knowledge there will be a place for me to land when I get home. And so when my wet, squealing three year old runs into my arms, I hold him and kiss his head and listen to his words about the big fountain before I let him wriggle away to explore it’s terrifying allure again. I want him to be secure in the knowledge that his roots run deep. They’re there to ground him when he needs some comfort and the familiar. All so he can stretch his broad wings and fly away to explore.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

I love Esther Perel but this is the interview she talks about attachment in

Stanley Greenspan, a child psychologist, is author of ‘The Secure Child.’

On giving the gift of privacy

Growing up, privacy was not a gift I was given much of. ‘Your face is an open book,’ my mom used to say to me. ‘I can read everything that passes through your mind by your expressions.’ As a teenage girl, this was a little bit terrifying to hear, and I lived with a fear of being exposed, worrying everyone could and would call me out on my sinful motives and my ridiculous desires. I knew the hounds would sniff out my fears and instinctively tear into my jugular, or as my mom would often say, they would, ‘read me like a book.’

Of all the significant ways my therapist has relieved my suffering, one of the most healing has been the way he cloaks me in privacy. He asks me to elaborate, to explain my thinking. He makes it clear, in myriad ways, that he doesn’t have instant access to my psyche, that he has to be invited in before he can know me, see me. These gestures have felt like someone putting clothes on me. I was allowed to have an inside and an outside, a boundary that keeps what is mine out of sight until I choose to share it, with whom I choose to share. That ultimately, it is I who get to say what something means to me, no one else gets access to my internal world unless I grant it to them. The drawings I have made of this feeling speak of the dignity that privacy affords.

And I want to give this to my kid and I strive to offer this in my other close relationships. To me, it is a sacred act. Privacy is such a kind gesture, an act of generosity and faith. Privacy is the ascent up the sacred mountain to shroud the other in a cloud of un-knowing. Privacy says, you are your own person. You have your needs and desires that have nothing to do with me. Its giving someone a room of their own to have their own thoughts in. This belies a certain amount of respect, love and trust in the other person.

I think my mom was scared that privacy would lead to my absence. That if she let me think my own thoughts that had nothing to do with her, that she didn’t have access to, I would leave her. And so I think for me, giving those I love privacy, is an act of surrender, another way to relinquish my tendency to claim to be the messianic centre. It is a daily practice of acknowledging that although I might be important to those I love and we might intersect in a glorious moment of mutuality or we might come together for a bit, ultimately, I am not the centre of their universe. When, a few months in to our relationship my now-husband- then-boyfriend agreed we wouldn’t text or call or email one another during my visit to see my sisters in Canada, I knew he was a keeper. His gift of privacy- of leaving me to enter my coven of sisters without him, signalled to me that he valued my privacy, that he didn’t need to own me or demand access to every part of my existence in order to feel connected.

Copyright 2018 Diana Smith

I’m deeply indebted to Esther Perel for her writing and talking on privacy versus secrecy in relationships

On feelings that have been ‘programmed out’ of me

A few weeks ago I fell into step with another parent – a stranger- on a sunny Saturday. We were both out with our three year olds, walking along the river near my home, our kids scooting in front of us. Suddenly his daughter tumbled off her scooter and landed on the ground, ‘you’re ok, you’re ok, up you get,’ he said to her as he pulled her to her feet, and then gave me a knowing grin and said, ‘I’m just trying to programme out the automated crying response.’

I wept again in a therapy session recently. About ending with my therapist. And this is always a relief when I manage to find the sore spot, when I have had a little rummage through my feelings and hold up the thing that’s troubling me. But this takes ages, sometimes months. I envy my friends for whom tears come easily, the friends who seem so instantly, instinctively in touch with their troubles. The ones who don’t yank themselves to their feet after falling and tell themselves they’re ok before having a chance to examine their wounds. They have their whole soul to spread out into.

Years ago I dreamed of a fetus falling out of me when I couldn’t hang on to a bit of sadness. I felt anxious after the dream. The sense of having lost something haunted my waking life, even though I couldn’t quite put my finger on what I felt I was missing. It took my therapist pointing out the link between my dream and some external, sad events before I understood I was grieving the loss of a feeling. A desperately sad fate had befallen a student I was very fond of and had worked quite closely with, and I had recovered too quickly from the shock. I’d expelled the feeling and I felt bereft. ‘Maybe sometimes you find it hard to hold on to difficult feelings,’ suggested my therapist. That was pretty early on in therapy, about two years in, and it became clear that one of my lifelong tasks would be to cultivate the capacity to cling to feelings I would otherwise dismiss.

Susan David, an author, speaks in a TED talk entitled ‘Emotional Courage,’ about her own journey toward feeling difficult emotions. She points out we live in a culture that values relentless positivity. We aspire to being happy and zen and chill all the time rather than seeking to integrate all of our feeling states.

And for me, that kind of drive towards relentless positivity is a loss. When I yank myself to my feet too quickly after a fall, when I can’t find my way into frustration or grief or hurt, I experience a deep, existential unease. If I were to translate the feeling into imagery, it would be like a scene from a b-grade horror film. Like all my teeth have fallen out. Or half my face is missing. Or I’m wandering through an icy maze in a deserted ski resort, unable to find my way, danger looming. I feel incomplete and bewildered- this kind of psychic disorientation and anxiety is much more disturbing than the original feeling itself. And it is my default. To yank myself to my feet and tell myself I’m ok before finding out what the damage was. And it is a long, expensive road back to the ‘automated crying response,’ that has been culturally and familially ‘programmed out’ of me. This is not to blame that parent I fell into step with along the river path – its a pretty standard cultural trope, he is well within the bounds of normality, banishing his daughter’s negative feelings. I know from verbal history that my own mother wanted me to (in her slightly Nietzschean! phrasing) ‘gain mastery’ over my crying when she talks about how she extinguished my capacity to feel and express negative affect. When we don’t value negative feelings culturally, we produce lots of frightened parents who don’t know what to do when their kid is in the throes of feeling the feels, who yank their kids to their feet and stop them from knowing themselves.

And I think sadly, I will always find it a struggle to feel my troubles: it takes time and hard -core, disciplined, intentional practice to regain that response, to welcome a prodigal feeling back home, to make space for it to take up residence. But when I do manage to embrace it, I feel whole again. Counter-intuitively, the capacity to feel bad and cry and grieve makes me feel alive.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

Susan David’s meaty, insightful TED talk can be found here

I’m too selfish to enlist in the mummy wars

Rather like hearing about other peoples sex lives (What? You do THAT? Oh wow, I didn’t even know what was a THING) watching how other mums do mothering can be bemusing, bewitching, breathtaking, eye-watering, torturous and astonishing. I get how weird it is to watch someone do something you’d never do, whether its putting their kid into a disposable nappy or shouting or giving processed sugar to a newborn. When I need a little cheering up as a stay-at-home-mum, I just head to my local playground and while my kid is on equipment, I’m on safari. I’m the gawping brunette who has put down her tin of M&S Mojito to pull on her judgey pants while you micro manage your five year old down the slide. And this is not to dismiss this shock of difference. I do experience it, like everydayallthetime. Because, it turns out, unless you literally actually join a cult, and I am not – repeat NOT- obliquely referencing baby led weaning, parents are all different and they transmit their own idiosyncratic logic and values and ideals and fears into their kid. It is obvious that everyone has got their own idea of what human flourishing and the Good Life looks like, and the job of every parent out there is to show their kid their particular brand of it. Every choice we make as parents – conscious and unconscious- is an attempt on all of our parts to teach the next gen the survival skills they need to flourish in their own different social milieu.

I take enormous pride in the fact that my mum-friends often make radically different choices than I do- in regards to childcare, discipline, play, education and nutrition. Everything. I feel that somehow, in the battlefields of the muummywars, somehow I managed to find a quiet spot just out of earshot of the screams about organic broccoli purée and use of screen time, where the fighting has ceased. The broadswords have been wiped clean of the blood and guts, and here we sit, plaiting one another’s hair and conspiratorially tucking Katherine Mansfield novellas into one another’s satchels as our children join hands and circle us singing.

And maybe this speaks to my own ruthlessness as a mother. I know I’m not very interested in defending turfs or creeds or tribes. What I am interested in is looting motherhood for personal growth. And my friends- who have all made such different choices and live such different lives than I do- have ushered me into epiphanies. Some epiphanies about mothering, but the most valuable ones have been about me. They have challenged me and expanded my intellectual and emotional horizons. I am often dazzled by their capacities- I admire her resilience or her clear headedness. They literally do tuck books into my satchel. And sometimes we go dancing together, the way only mothers of three year old boys can party. She introduced me to Mezcal and decent Mexican food in London. And I screwed up the courage to put my kid in a cot after the first year because another mum- who is kind and compassionate and so tender with her kid- challenged me with her different sleep-practices. Watching her gave me permission to claim more for myself, to emerge from that first year of parenting and ask for a little more of my own soul back.

I learned so much from other mums through admiring their difference. I am so lucky to know mums who have decided to send their kid to nursery, to get a nanny, to stay at home. Parents are under so much pressure to be perfect, as if there was one right way to parent, and it is a relief to exist in the middle of such diverse practices- I feel more confident in making the right choice for me and my family when I see how differently other families are constituted and how different their logic is from mine. It (maybe counter-intuitively) gives me permission to be my own person and to admire the mum friends who are very much their own people.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018