"It struck me that having a safe mind to turn to is what psychotherapy is about"by Anna Blundy / October 16, 2014 / Leave a comment
We all study faces for potential hostility. In normal life we smile at each other, raise or take a hand and do our best to seem benign and avert aggression. “Don’t worry,” we try to say, “you’re safe with me.” A baby inevitably scrutinises mother’s face all the time and, ideally, equates that face, the touch and smell of her skin, the sound of her voice and her capacity to feed him or her, with safety. If the mother (or primary caregiver) is, to use post-Freudian psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s phrase, “good enough,” then baby goes out into life with a fundamental sense of security.
I was talking to a very unwell woman last week. She has a history of abuse, serious addiction (drugs, anorexia, alcohol) and mental illness. She is affluent and therefore perhaps protected from the rock bottom state that might ensure treatment. When she does choose to be treated, she often rejects that treatment in favour of dangerous self-medication, dismissing therapists and psychiatrists on any available grounds (social status, gender, personality). She is very worried, she told me, about her children. Her daughter, 14, has been self-harming and has told teachers she is suicidal. She is plagued by phobias and sometimes can’t leave the house for weeks at a time. Both children have learning disabilities but her son, eight, is increasingly unable to cope at school and she is considering removing him from mainstream education altogether. She is frantically overwhelmed by their mass of issues and chaotic states of mind and she worries that her disintegrating marriage is to blame.
At great speed she described grotesque and disturbing scenes—her son bringing in the corpse of a dead cat, an endless vomiting fit her daughter had, how both children cling to her. Later, recovered from what felt like a kind of mental assault, it struck me that if the safest mind you knew was hers, then the world would be a petrifying place. If hers is the face you look into, hers is the mind that must help you process thoughts, feelings and information, how could you not have chronic fears, difficulty learning and a constant sense of dread?
Obviously, the ideal and the catastrophe are extremes, and in very early life most of us turned to the face and mind of someone on the spectrum between these two. The majority of us had Good Enough mothers who gave us some sense of safety. (Yes, mothers, not fathers. The baby’s first bond is with the mother and, like it or not, it matters).
It struck me that having a safe mind to turn to is what psychotherapy is about. It is the reason why therapists have to be in therapy and why the room where therapy happens, the relative neutrality of the therapist’s clothes and the therapist’s regular silence is so important. A safe mind must be able to receive and think about whatever the patient (baby) brings. Anything that leads the patient’s thoughts—a social greeting, a question, a loud outfit, a changed room layout (mother’s face is different today!)—might reinforce or even create a sense of danger and unreliability.
Someone whose mother’s mind was not a safe place is likely to be someone who would benefit from therapy, but that person’s journey towards safety in another’s thoughts is equally likely to be difficult and painful. If the first face you knew was all chaos and fear it would be hard to perceive any safety at all in the world, let alone in your therapist’s office or mind.