Posts Tagged ‘field theory’

This post has been moved to my new website, and can be found here: Simple questions, complex therapy.


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One of my interests is the interplay between group culture and individual experience. In gestalt terms, this would be field theory. It isn’t just that there is a relationship between group culture and individual experience. Group culture actively organises individual behaviour, and this organisation of the individual by the group can be experienced in a wide variety of ways, ranging from a sense of communion to a sense of dominion.

Christmas is a good (and topical, have you noticed?) example of this process in action. I don’t think it’s possible to not be organised by Christmas in Britain or in the West generally. It is possible to make decisions about how one responds to Christmas, but the existential position of having no choice but to choose still remains.

This year, I would like to use the twelve days of Christmas as an exercise in exploring twelve different perspectives on, and experiences of, Christmas. I’m going to outline an awareness experiment below, and my invitation is for you to send me the result (simon@silvercatpsychotherapy.co.uk). I’ll then publish submissions as blog posts on each of the twelve days of Christmas.

And of course, if you don’t want to blog your experience, you can still give the experiment a try. Though by way of a self-care warning, if this exercise takes you towards trauma memories, I advise not revisiting them unless you know that you’ll be able to soothe yourself afterwards.

Christmas experiment:

Sit and be still for a few moments. Take a few deep breaths, let your thoughts settle. Let the idea of Christmas emerge. Notice what thoughts and feelings arise in response. Notice what memories and anticipations arise. What sensations do you most strongly associate with Christmas? What bodily sensations are you experiencing now? Sit with all these responses for a few moments, then consider what Christmas means to you now.

That’s it! It’s a fairly simple experiment, though it can seem a bizarre thing to do for people who don’t already have some experience of therapy/meditation/mindfulness. It also contains most of the glue that holds my therapy practice together: asking people what they are thinking, experiencing, remembering, anticipating. Asking people what something means to them now (the now is important, as meanings change over time). In a word, reflexivity.

Now, if you’re interested in sharing your experience as a blog post, then my request is that you write it in the first person, present tense to maintain the sense of now-ness. Other than that, any length of post is fine. I’m happy to post submissions anonymously, or with a link to your blog, twitter, or whatever.

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My name is Simon Stafford-Townsend. I am a gestalt psychotherapist in private practice in Bristol and Cardiff. My private practice website is Silver Cat Psychotherapy.

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A while back, I registered my private practice with the Bristol Pound. So Bristolians can now get support for themselves at the same time as supporting independent local trade by paying for therapy in Bristol Pounds. And by text message (how txt2pay works) no less.

I would like to see Bristol’s counsellors and psychotherapists adopt the Bristol Pound, as I think we generate an interesting economic microcosm. Every therapist has a supervisor; that supervisor has a supervisor; who in turn has a supervisor, ad infinitum. In fact, there’s a great therapy film waiting to happen about a therapist seeing a supervisor whose therapist is her supervisee’s client (Shakespeare would soil his/their pants).

Furthermore, the main counselling and psychotherapy professional bodies (BACP & UKCP respectively) require their members to attend to their Continuing Professional Development. Which is a bit like requiring cats to lick themselves, because CPD basically means attending trainings, workshops, writing articles, etc in all the interesting things to which counsellors and psychotherapists are already naturally drawn.

Consequently, if a client pays me in Bristol Pounds, it is highly likely that between my room hire, supervision, personal therapy, and CPD, I could probably hand over all that money to other therapists. Who will hand that money over to other therapists. And so on. And so on. Until someone finally buys a latte or a person centred scarf (sorry) from someone outside of Therapy World.

My point being, of course, that therapists end up handing over a significant proportion of their client fees to other therapists.

And the gestalt therapy angle on this is field theory. Gestalt therapy models a person as an organism in an environment. One dimension of my environment is the economic environment.

I’m thinking now of money as water, the economy as the water cycle, and the Bristol Pound as a dye trail showing how money flows around the local economic system.

Where does the money flow? Businesses that spend a high proportion of their income within Bristol are keeping money flowing around the local system. This is in contrast to businesses like, say, Starbucks and Vodafone, that spend a low proportion of their income within Bristol. If money is water, then the long-term prospects for a Bristol that loses more water than it takes in is economic dehydration.

Which is kind of the raison d’etre of the Bristol Pound: to increase local water retention. It has the potential to highlight who moves money around Bristol most effectively, and adds substance to an important discussion about what local economies are, and how they relate to regional, national, and international economies.

Perhaps most importantly, it connects the individual with the collective in a tangible way. And that’s the essence of field theory in gestalt: an individual is an organism, and an organism is both an expression and shaper of the environment from which it continuously emerges. A change in individual behaviour as simple as buying coffee (with Bristol pounds!) from an independent local coffee shop instead of Starbucks, scales up to a dramatic shift in how the local economy works.

Check out the directory of businesses accepting Bristol pounds to investigate how relevant to you this might be. And remember, the more a trader hears the question, “do you accept Bristol pounds?”, the more likely they are to get involved.

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Image scavenged from Positive Money’s “The Telegraph: Bristol Pound to Launch in September”.

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My name is Simon Stafford-Townsend. I am a gestalt psychotherapist in private practice in Bristol and Cardiff. My private practice website is Silver Cat Psychotherapy.

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A post over on Mind Hacks (Back to the Old Skool) has drawn my attention to a New York Magazine article (Why You Truly Never Leave High School, Jennifer Senior) that explores the psychological impact of high school. Whilst the experience of secondary school here in the UK will be very different, the psychological territory will be similar.

As Mind Hacks says:

It’s a fascinating subject because so much of developmental psychology has focused on childhood and yet our adolescent school years are probably the most formative for our view of the social world.

There is a tension in gestalt therapy between those who think gestalt needs a model of child development, and those who don’t. Personally, I think this is the wrong focus entirely. I think a much more valuable question to ask is something like: what would a cradle to grave model of human development look like?

The here and now focus of gestalt is underpinned by field theory, and any developmental model needs to be field theoretical if it is to be recognisable as gestalt. There is a crucial difference between this kind of outlook and models that emphasise childhood development. Namely, field theory in gestalt defines behaviour as a function of the current situation.

What this means in practice is that a human being is seen as a dynamic, ever-changing entity. Yes, childhood experiences might play an important part in, say, difficulties at work. But difficulties at work are not determined by childhood experiences. If I have beef with my manager and see him as a cold hearted tyrant, am I caught in a transference where I project my cold hearted tyrant father onto my manager? Or is my manager actually just a cold hearted tyrant?

Gestalt therapists don’t work primarily with transference, but with contact. The shift in focus is from a history-oriented approach (historical situations determine present experiences), to a present-oriented approach (present situations determine present experiences).

This doesn’t mean that childhood experiences are invalid or unimportant. Instead, the focus is on situations that are incomplete in some significant way. Good experiences do not haunt us, they fall away and become part of our background sense of goodness. A gestalt definition of confidence could be the performing of some task considered as figure against a supportive ground of successful-enough previously performed tasks. That is, the more I do well at something, the more confident I feel at doing that same thing again; provided I am able to assimilate my experience of doing that thing well that is!

Incomplete situations do haunt us. We review them. If only I’d said x. If only I’d done y. Incomplete situations, by definition, remain active in the present. By putting energy into imagining how I could have handled a situation differently, or replaying an unsatisfactory situation, I am keeping that situation alive as an active part of my present reality. Regret is the photo album I fill with snapshots of what I didn’t do but wish I had. A person can spend a lifetime pouring over that album.

In a way, then, gestalt therapy already has a proto-model of human development (a theme Bruce Kenofer explores in his British Gestalt Journal article Paradoxical themes of development: the case of developmental theory in Gestalt therapy). A human being develops by discovering new situations, and becoming increasingly sophisticated at navigating familiar situations.

One of my objections to developmental models is that they tend to lack cultural flexibility and are overly influenced by the psychoanalytic obsession with “the mother-infant dyad”. Potentially, a field theoretical model of development that focuses on situational development could offer that cultural flexibility. Work for another day.

Back to New York Magazine, and what I enjoy about Jennifer’s article is her emphasis on just how formative adolescence is, and some of the research going on in this area. There is much here for therapists to take note of, in particular the development of shame:

When I asked one of the very first men I ever interviewed, ‘What does shame mean to you?'”, she [Brené Brown] recalled, “he answered, ‘Being shoved up against the lockers.’ High school is the metaphor for shame.

What disappoints me about Jennifer’s article is that it simply shifts the focus from childhood to adolescence. Worse, it reinforces the same determinism, one example being the highlighting of research exploring the correlation between male earning potential and height:

It wasn’t adult height that seemed to affect their subjects’ wages; it was their height at 16. (In other words, two white men measuring five-foot-eleven can have very different earning potential in the same profession, all other demographic markers being equal, just because one of them was shorter at 16).

So there is a big exploration of the impact of high school, and an implicit argument that high school experiences are more formative for adult personality than childhood. However, there is no exploration of the potential for therapy. The article’s title becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, with no consideration given to how we might be able to finally leave high school.

The hope, for me, lies in something Laurence Steinberg (“a developmental psychologist at Temple University and perhaps the country’s foremost researcher on adolescence”) has to say about some of the neuroscience seeming to explain why adolescence is such a formative period for personality formation:

“During times when your identity is in transition,” says Steinberg, “it’s possible you store memories better than you do in times of stability.”

To me, this points to the real value of long-term, in-depth psychotherapy: the creation of a period of transition, during which we get the opportunity to de- and then re-construct our sense of who we are.

I would say yes you can leave high school; it just takes a lot of work!

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My name is Simon Stafford-Townsend. I am a gestalt psychotherapist in private practice in Bristol and Cardiff. My private practice website is Silver Cat Psychotherapy.

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I’m reading Jean-Marie Robine‘s “On the Occasion of an Other” at the moment, and enjoying immensely getting to grips with his attempt to develop gestalt in an explicitly post-modern direction.

A by-product of chewing over his thoughts has led to something clicking into place for me. I have made the shocking realisation that…

… no one really understands what gestalt is!

*shocked face*

I already knew this of course, in that intellectual way of knowing that such and such is A Thing. After all, every ‘how to do gestalt therapy’ book in existence dedicates a portion of text to emphasising just how hard it is to explain what gestalt therapy is. It is a given for me that gestalt therapy is both a radically different approach to doing therapy, and one that is hard to explain.

And therein lies the problem; it is a given for me that this is the case. However, unlike therapists with an integrative training who might touch briefly on gestalt, my training is pure gestalt. That’s years of gestalt training; a developmental journey in which my peers all grew their own gestalt styles; gestalt personal therapy; gestalt supervision; ALL THE GESTALT BOOKS! In short, my professional identity as a psychotherapist is constructed entirely out of gestalt.

Consequently, when I meet people from the dark and hazy places that lie beyond the borders of Gestalt World, I am frequently shocked when their knowledge of gestalt is based on Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. Now, I’m not a fan of the Perls-bashing many gestaltists feel the need to engage in, but Gestalt Therapy Verbatim is essentially Fritz Perls at the height of his days as a popular figure in American counter-culture. Gestalt Therapy Verbatim could easily be re-named “Fritz Perls Kicks Ass, Saves World”. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad book or bad gestalt, it’s just not particularly representative of the possibilities.

Essentially, to pick up on my earlier metaphor of the forest in the distance, I’ve been in the forest so long, I’ve forgotten that the city doesn’t have trees. Or something.

One of Robine’s missions in On Occasion of an Other seems to be a rehabilitation of gestalt’s field theory that places gestalt therapy in a post-modern context. This is your basic metaphorical Copernican Revolution, and it goes like this:

Gestalt therapy involves a paradigm shift in which human experience is no longer seen as the product of a concrete individual, but as an expression of a situation.

Those are my words rather than Robine’s, so may not be an accurate account of what Robine is actually trying to do. However, they are an accurate account of what I have been intuiting about gestalt in an annoyingly hand-wavy non-verbal kind of way. I am deeply grateful to Robine for providing the occasion by which my thoughts can be clarified.

This is a Copernican Revolution in a very real sense. The historical Copernican Revolution shifted the centre of the heavens from the Earth to the Sun. Gestalt Therapy’s Copernican Revolution shifted the centre of human experience from the individual to the organism/environment field.

I experience Robine as attempting to complete this shift by switching focus from the organism/environment field (an incredibly opaque term that is difficult to write about in an accessibly meaningful way) to the situation. In fact, ‘situation’ might be a better way of saying ‘organism/environment field’ simply because the very idea of a situation demands that I consider a thing and the context by which it is recognisable as a thing.

The shift is subtle but the consequences are profound. Consider a meat and potatoes clinical issue like social anxiety. In the individualist paradigm, there is basically a fault in the individual that must be corrected. Even person centred therapy with its actualising principle and core conditions presupposes that the appropriate focus for work is internal to the individual. The shift here is simply in attitude; instead of correcting a fault in an individual, therapy is about giving an individual the support they need to grow.

In the situational paradigm (I think Robine would say post-modern here, whereas Gordon Wheeler would say constructivist), what we call social anxiety is an expression of the situation. It’s not even necessarily that we identify historical experiences that have caused someone to experience social anxiety in certain contexts. Rather, the specific symptamology that gets packaged conceptually as “social anxiety” is simply a part of the situation.

Example: have you ever felt nervous on someone else’s behalf? I sometimes experience stage fright in theatres as a member of the audience. One possible situational perspective would be to completely destructure all the possible experiences of the situation (this is why Robine calls for gestalt to enter a post-modern way; post-modernism involves a destructuring of familiar forms followed by a restructuring of new forms). Let’s take the anxiety an actor feels about performing and, in order to support that actor in being able to function on stage, find members of the audience to express it instead.

That is to say, someone has to feel the anxiety, or the situation breaks down. Maybe theatres could pay people who are sensitive to (effective expressors of?) acute anxiety to sit in the audience so that the actors can chill the hell out. That sounds odd, but then again no stand up comedian, however good we consider them to be (individualist paradigm perspective), will crash and burn if the audience stonewalls them. Comedian and audience are enmeshed in a situation in which The Funny is co-created; no audience will laugh without the comedian, but no comedian is funny without an audience. “Comedian” and “audience” are situational perspectives.

“Therapist” and “client” are also situational perspectives. I experience the therapeutic situation very differently depending on whether I am therapist or client.

What really differentiates gestalt from other therapies isn’t methodology but perspective. Gestalt is unique in considering psychological concepts such as self, personality, id, and ego as situational processes, not fixed structures.

Ego, for example, is the process of identification with and alienation from available possibilities. Not a timeless “I am this, not that” but a situated “I am this now, I am not that now” that is dynamic and in constant flux. That is, ego is the means by which a situation differentiates itself into perspectives. Hence, I have different experiences depending on the situation of which I am a part; it is the situation that organises experience.

I expect I will have lots more to write in this direction. For now, I am bubbling with excitement as I renew my sense of gestalt’s radical approach.

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My name is Simon Stafford-Townsend. I am a gestalt psychotherapist in private practice in Bristol and Cardiff. My private practice website is Silver Cat Psychotherapy.

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I look around the room at the couple of dozen people making a rough circle; some sitting, some getting coffee or tea, a couple of groups chatting. It’s coming up for the scheduled 2pm start, so I decide I’ll use the toilet then come back and call everyone together to get started. Off I go.

Returning about five minutes later, the circle has expanded and a steady flow of people is coming into the room. Before I know it, a couple of dozen people has become more like sixty or seventy, and I’m wondering what the hell I’ve got myself into. As it happens, I don’t have enough time to give that question full consideration; there’s an Open Space meeting to start…

That’s pretty much how the first event of The People’s Bristol 2050 got going. This is a response to another Bristol 2050, a business vision of what Bristol should look like in 2050. Co-ordinated by Business West, it “provides a clear statement about jobs, housing and infrastructure requirements to meet the needs of the area and to continue to develop and grow as the economic powerhouse of the South West”. As usual, these are the needs of the area according to business leaders; after all, business leaders have been doing so well in addressing society’s needs lately.

Whether historical coincidence or zeitgeist we may never know, but at about this time, Occupy Bristol had developed into two branches; one that wanted to move on from College Green, and one that wanted to resist eviction. The question of what happens to Occupy Bristol as a movement is one that will be addressed in a public meeting on Saturday 4th February, 2pm to 4pm, location to be announced (the facebook page for this is here).

Among the people who wanted to move on, the idea of developing a People’s Bristol 2050 to rival the business vision offered a new direction in which to aim some of the raw energy of Occupy. What these events demonstrate is that the Occupy Movement as a whole is a crucible from which many different things have the potential to emerge; it all depends on who directs their energy into the mix.

In more gestalt terms, the open space event on Saturday created a fertile ground with the potential to mobilise a wide variety of social actions. There is a buzz that I’ve noticed in every open space event I’ve been involved with, and I can only describe it as being plugged into a circuit of human power, rich with potential.

The downside to many open space events is that, as stand alone events, that buzz inevitably fades, leaving people with a sense of potential unachieved. This makes the People’s Bristol 2050 extra fascinating to me because the next event is already being planned for roughly four weeks time, with the intention being for a series of these meetings to take that buzz and develop it.

Except that there is no one centrally to develop it into anything; the idea is to support a process that challenges the people who turn up to take action for themselves. The idea is to move from a sense of “someone should really…”, to “I am going to…”. Instead of handing over power to someone else, the spirit of open space is to take a group of people and give them the minimum structure necessary to support self-regulation.

And to me, that sounds like gestalt therapy in action as a progressive social force.

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I’ve been wanting to write a lot more about the overlap between politics and psychotherapy these last few weeks. Recent world events have got me thinking more about the impact of transpersonal processes on the emotional wellbeing of the individual. This was brought home to me by a number of traumatic images of police brutality coming out of the Occupy protests. Here I am, able to make contact with a situation unfolding on the other side of the world, immediately in contact also with a sense of powerlessness. I think that the advent of web 2.0 has the power to support individual contact with forces that, even ten years ago, were far more indirect and background than the dominating figures they are capable of becoming today.

This has huge implications for doing therapy. Gestalt in particular, with its here-and-now focus, and a field theoretical outlook that specifically demands we address the context within which the individual exists, has a role to play in supporting individuals in withstanding exposure to otherwise quite overwhelming social forces. I have a post (to write!) on different levels of self that will be a useful map for exploring this.

In the meantime, I’m reminded of what Fritz and Laura Perls had to say about this area:

“As you know, there is a rebellion on in the United States. We discover that producing things, and living for things, and the exchange of things, is not the ultimate meaning of life. We discover that the meaning of life is that it is to be lived, and it is not to be traded and conceptualized and squeezed into a pattern of systems. We realize that manipulation and control are not the ultimate joy of life.”

Fritz Perls, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, p3.

“You know, I think the work that I am doing is political work. If you work with people to get them to the point where they can think on their own and sort themselves out from the majority confluences, it’s political work and it radiates even if we can work only with a very limited number of people. We choose the kind of people to work with, who again have influence on others. That is political work.”

Laura Perls, Living at the Boundary, p17.

Fritz and Laura Perls both left Germany as Hitler rose to power. After some years in South Africa (where Fritz wrote Ego, Hunger and Aggression, one of the tributaries that later flowed into Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and growth in the human personality), they came to America. I think Laura captures the fundamentally political nature of their work more elegantly than Fritz, though Fritz communicates the vibrancy of that stance with greater energy.

My overall sense is this: gestalt therapy is about becoming your self, an individual in community with other individuals. That doesn’t mean the corporate reflection of individuality espoused by adverts that seek to sell various brands of individuality to mass markets without any sense of irony. It means something more like Jung’s individuation process, in which each of us becomes increasingly unique with each assimilated experience and moment. Interestingly, this growing idiosyncracity leads not to isolation but to contact: there is no contact with others in a group that has merged into a single entity.

I really like Laura’s phrase ‘the majority confluences’. When Laura refers to ‘majority confluences’, she means the social and cultural choices and actions that we go along with through either automatic agreement or non-choice. Following the crowd in a kind of hypnotic unquestioning state is our automatic agreement to the majority will. Allowing a situation to unfold that one in theory opposes yet to which one chooses not to choose to object is non-choice. The existential commitment of gestalt therapy is this: you have no choice but to choose; not-choosing is itself a choice.

Confluence is a modification to contact that involves erasing the contact boundary and merging with the other. There must be a boundary separating you and me in order for us to be in contact. If I can merge with you, we can exist as a single entity, no boundary between us, no contact. Clearly I can’t merge with you in any literal, physical sense. However, we can merge our ego boundaries, our sense of ourselves, and slip into a strange us-world in which we maintain a boundary around us and all contact with others is ‘us’ in contact with ‘them’. Re-read this paragraph with an aliveness to how you feel as you read all those ‘we’, ‘us’, and ‘our’ statements. It gets me feeling kind of trippy.

This is at once the triumph of safety in numbers and the horror of the herd mentality. It is also an instrument of control that ensures the individual is subsumed into the group.

Gestalt therapy was formed by people who had fled Nazism. In the wake of World War II, ‘majority confluences’ held connotations of fascism, communism, nationalism and other isms against which Ferris Bueller would advise. However, these isms did not and do not form in a vacuum; they are latent in all cultures, emerging as they do out of the interplay between individual and group, personal and collective.

Psychotherapy is an innately political force all the time it encourages an active questioning of that which is socially accepted as being the way things are or should be. This questioning isn’t the blind rejection of rebellion for its own sake but the critical questioning that equates to chewing one’s food before swallowing; or indeed, at least looking at what’s on the fork before putting it in one’s mouth.

If there are two modifications to contact that are the traditional villains of gestalt therapy, then they must be confluence and introjection. Fritz in particular had a visceral intolerance for confluence and an almost pathological insistence on contact. That’s understandable considering how mass confluence in Nazi Germany supported the atrocities of the holocaust.

Introjection is different. This is the uncritical swallowing of the attitudes, beliefs, and ideas of others; usually society at large, parents, teachers, and authority figures generally. Confluence makes a nice safety blanket for introjects, and this is visible whenever someone speaks out against a majority confluence. When feminists, for example, point out that there’s no reason why a woman should perform this or that expected social role, they question introjects that hold powerful social confluences in place; confluences that ensure that men retain a position of privilege and power in society, and that the women who support those men gain a complementary social privilege.

The woman who has accepted such a social role, not out of genuine choice but as an adaptation to patriarchy, is suddenly brought into contact with her situation. Now she must fight to silence the feminist so she can return to the comfort of confluence, or question and extract herself from her situation and risk losing the advantages that have come with adaptation.

As for the man; well, as a man I come up against this struggle regularly and can acknowledge that it is one of the most singularly uncomfortable experiences to realise that I enjoy a social position of privilege (however under-privileged I might otherwise feel!) over another simply on the basis of my gender (and that’s before I consider the privileges that come with also being white, able-bodied, and well-educated).

And worse, that I can’t see that privilege, on account of how basic it is to my place in society. So my position becomes similar to the adapted woman’s position: I can fight the feminist and protect the patriarchal confluence that affords me the privileges I either deny or claim as natural right. Or, I can come into contact with my situation, and also risk losing the advantages that come with playing along.

The potential political power of psychotherapy is vast when I consider that political discourse emerges from exactly the subjective interpersonal themes that are the substance of therapy. So your parents force-fed you a work ethic, the yoke of which you now struggle to throw off. Yet that work ethic is reinforced as a transpersonal force by a society and Government that values the individual only as an economic unit of productivity. Question that work ethic, and you question society itself; and society doesn’t much like being questioned.

Field theory allows the gestalt therapist to ask: to what extent is this or that feeling or action or behaviour a way of embodying or tolerating or otherwise creatively adjusting to the individual’s wider context? Is that young person’s eating disorder the family’s way of manifesting a systemic or transgenerational problem? Is that other person’s psychosis society’s way of finding someone to carry the madness the rest of us can’t accept as our own? Is it any wonder that the survivor of sexual assault blames herself by saying she should have done something to stop it when that is exactly the defence her attacker will use if she goes to court?

In this respect, the two most political words in the English language are probably ‘no’ and ‘why’. Against confluence: ‘no, I will not be part of this’. Against introjection: ‘why must this be so?’. If psychotherapy does nothing else, it empowers people to say both; and that is both simply and profoundly political.

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