I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them. Quote from The Picture of Dorian Grey, by Oscar Wilde, 1890.
In the quote above, Dorian Grey, the protagonist in Oscar Wilde’s novel, attempts to use, enjoy and gain some mastery over his feelings by splitting the less acceptable parts of himself off into his portrait, which he then hides away in a locked room. This enables Dorian to preserve what he sees as his finer qualities and then present these more palatable, satanised parts of himself into polite Victorian society. Unfortunately though, Dorian can never be truly known in this half self state, knowing that the other more disturbing parts of the self still exist somewhere out of sight. As the story unfolds, we discover that just like the forced rhubarb crops of the 1800’s, these ugly split off parts of the self grow much more rapidly in the dark .
The fictional character Dorian Grey, is orphaned at an early age leaving him in the care of his grandfather who despises him, his grandfather Lord Kelso, has a schoolroom built for Dorian so he doesn’t have to ‘endure his presence’. Interestingly in later life Dorian splits of what he sees as the unsavoury parts of himself into his picture, similar to his grandfather Dorian seems to manage his feelings in an extreme way, leaving them unprocessed. Obviously, this fictional story is written by the author with a riveting, slightly disturbing storyline for the purpose of engaging the the reader , sometimes however, albeit in a less fictitious way, people in real life also split off from their core feelings when they struggle to process them.
In general, people much prefer to be in control of their feelings than not, the latter can feel slightly disorientating at best and terrifying at worse. What happens though, when we feel overwhelmed by our emotions? How do we cope when something shifts externally or internally to disrupt our emotional equilibrium? Psychodynamic psychotherapy aims to explore and understand the unconscious motives and drives that fuel our behaviour during these times of uncertainty, so that we can gain a compassionate and responsible view of ourselves, regain a stable self identity and interact confidently with others, widening our opportunity for additional support.
Individuals manage their feelings in different ways depending on their early life experiences, if for example a small child feels sad he or she might cry alerting a primary caregiver or other responsible adult to their distress, if there is a compassionate and empathic response then the child can feel comforted and the sadness reduces, this promotes a sense of trust that needs will be met and relief can be felt. If on the other hand the sad feelings are not responded to with understanding, if they are dismissed or the child is made to feel ashamed for having them then sadness will be processed in a different less straightforward way. This is usually when an alternative defence or a complicated cluster of defences might begin because now there is a secondary feeling attached to sadness, that of shame.
Throughout the different stages of emotional development we invite a response to need through our behaviour, we have all heard of the term the terrible 2’s and the troublesome 3’s when infants and toddlers explore their internal and external world, learn to use the word ‘No’ and refuse to put on their coats! At these trying times it’s helpful if parents can gently guide their children towards managing their frustrations with patience and understanding whilst also accepting help themselves, everyone can benefit from support! Parenting through the teenage years can bring with it a new set of challenges, as both parent and child navigate the confusing transition from adolescence towards maturity. Life in general is an emotional journey, if as children we have been helped to process our feelings in a helpful productive way it can benefit us hugely when life gets difficult. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible for various reasons and so as adults we can find ourselves feeling overwhelmed alone and struggling to cope.
Psychodynamic psychotherapy encourages an investigation into our early life experiences around emotion and tries to understand how we have processed them, then using this as a guide in the ‘here and now’, current feelings can be explored from a slightly different more compassionate perspective, giving us a wider understanding of our needs. In the example of sadness with shame, sadness might hide away or mask itself with exuberance which in turn prevents us from gaining an empathic response, resulting in short term relief but lacking any real lasting comfort.
Taking a collaborate approach towards exploring difficult emotions in therapy can help to neutralise feelings of shame, guilt and envy etc… and allows the integration of what is often considered to be negative emotions. Psychodynamic therapy however, values these important feelings and views them as windows to understanding, using them towards healing the self. This in-turn helps us to understand ourselves better and feel less fragmented, enabling us to connect up with others in a way that feels authentic – strengthening not only our external relationships but far more importantly strengthening the relationship to the self – we are after all the sum of all our parts, in order to feel love and value within ourselves and to be known and accepted by others it is so important that we can unlike Dorian Grey in the opening quote, process our feelings in a way that leaves us feeling whole.