There is a great deal of pain in life and perhaps the only pain that can be avoided is the pain that comes from trying to avoid pain. – R. D. Laing
A woman in her thirties, despite being in excellent health, worries endlessly about death. A middle aged woman, placid in her personal life, gets enraged at passers-by who crowd her in the street. A young man obsesses about his life after a zombie apocalypse.*
These are examples of things that people confess to in counselling. Although they know cognitively, to some degree, that they are being ‘irrational’, the issue won’t go away. And there is shame in that. We believe that we ought to be ‘masters in our own house’, yet these odd tics and symptoms undermine self-belief.
Psychology, or at least popular psychology, hasn’t helped with this. Terms like ‘neurosis’ become absorbed into the shame and blame that we heap upon ourselves. Some therapeutic approaches, such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) try to combat the irrational thinking, to replace wrong beliefs with better ones.
But people are usually well aware of their own irrationality. It doesn’t help to be corrected with logic.
I want to suggest a different approach to such problems, which I call fantasies. The thought is, “If only I could exterminate this idea from my mind, or eradicate this behaviour, or stop thinking about that thing, I’d be normal.” The belief is that the fantasy is a curse.
But what if we reversed that, and regarded a fantasy as a blessing? To find the blessing we ask what purpose the fantasy is serving. What is worse than the fantasy? What does it protect us from?
Let’s take the example of the zombie apocalypse. What could be worse than living in a world that is over-run with flesh-eating undead monsters? I would say that, for this person (let’s call him Dave), what’s worse is the world as it is now. Preparing for the apocalypse is time-consuming, prevents him from forming relationships or succeeding professionally, but more importantly, it’s a distraction from some unbearable pain in the here and now.
Over several sessions, we explore Dave’s fantasy. Dave finds every social contact intensely painful and shameful. He finds it hard to connect with others, to hold down a job or to maintain a relationship. He had a cold, distant father and a depressed mother who had little energy to love him. Dave’s living in a world of creatures that don’t understand him, threaten him and treat him with cruelty. It would be a relief, somehow, for the real world to fall apart and for his hidden pain to become everyone’s pain.
Seen through this lens, we begin to see why the fantasy is so persistent and so resistant to logic. It’s there for a reason. If we let the fantasy speak to us, it takes us somewhere else, deeper and more troubling.
It’s wrong to tear away people’s fantasies. Gabor Maté quotes his teacher AH Almaas: “it is only when compassion is present that people will allow themselves to see the truth”. Counselling works compassionately to support people to let go of their protective fantasies.
Beneath all fantasy is the suffering that comes with existence. Fantasy is changeable, reality isn’t. Death is a reality for all of us, whether for our parents, our children, our friends or ourselves. If our childhood was traumatic, that’s also unchangeable. It’s over and done with. Many people believe that they had a perfectly happy childhood, but that collapses under examination.
We can’t protect ourselves from reality. We can’t protect ourselves with material possessions, fame or power. We can’t do it with medicine. We can’t do it with therapy. And no amount of positive thinking, affirmations, ‘cosmic ordering’, prayer, ritual, distraction, will protect us. We are going to get ill. We are going to be heartbroken. We will have loss. We are going to hurt others. We will feel grief, fear and despair. We are going to die. We are vulnerable. We do not have boundaries that can protect us.
We couldn’t protect ourselves on the day we were born. We couldn’t protect ourselves as children. Or as adolescents. Or even, now, as adults. And certainly not when we’re old and feeble. There is no hope of escaping what’s coming down the pike.
The only thing we can do, in the face of this existential suffering, is to find ways to accept it, a little at a time, until we’re ready to live with it.Psychotherapy, when it works, is not about providing soothing fantasies, but about supporting people to live with realities.
Consolation cannot be found through fantasy. It can only be through a full engagement with reality, with existential pain. Certain people, who have survived incredible suffering, have brought back with them a new perspective that comes from “beyond” the place they went. While thankfully few of us will be tested in these ways, we can learn valuable lessons from these stories.
Victor Frankl survived Auschwitz, and saw countless others die, by execution, injury, illness or starvation. Frankl saw that in the camp, some were able to keep going and others would, one day, apparently give up and soon after die. His observation was that when an individual could no longer see meaning, they would not go on living. From this, he developed “logotherapy” following the war, helping others to find their own meaning that could transcend the unavoidable and inescapable pains of life.
Miriam Greenspan was the child of Holocaust survivors and suffered her own personal Hell when her first son Aaron was born premature and died after sixty-six days of life. Her book Healing Through the Dark Emotions bears a message totally unlike and in many ways opposed to what popular wisdom tells us:
Attending to a dying child without protection, I discovered a new land, one that was perhaps always there but that I had somehow never noticed: a magical land inhabited by spirits; a world in which life expands out of death, parallel with this constricted world we know, in which death is merciless: a world that offers up the blessing of an unexpected and unforgettable consolation.
It would be heartless to suggest that any mother of a dead child can find her way to such consolation. But reports such as this suggest that suffering, though unavoidable, can nonetheless be overcome.
Speaking for myself, I don’t think it’s enough for therapists to offer rational explanations for irrational problems. Far better to honour the fantasy and to discover its function and meaning, which is to mask the pain of a certain reality. From there, we can support people to set aside the protective fantasy, and thus prepare the way for healing.
* fictional examples.