The human infant is well endowed to struggle with the vicissitudes of his internal and environmental stresses. What is important for us is to be able to identify in the clinical process what effects this struggle has left and how it has shaped the adult character – M. Masud R. Khan
What do trees, the above quotation, and psychotherapy have in common? I’m thinking of pine trees, in particular the Torrey pines found in San Diego. Located along the coast, they are battered by the winds and take on a certain shape as sculpted by the elements. They are often truncated and do not grow to full size because of the winds. These beautiful trees serve as an apt metaphor for the shaping that takes place in human life. Sometimes battered by overwhelming, traumatic forces, and sometimes shaped by the everyday small forces of life, both positive and negative, we grow and take a shape, influenced by our environment and hereditary scripts. That shape is often a result of the reactions and the defenses a person utilizes to ward off the elements. Those reactions might be beliefs and assumptions, the view of the world and of oneself a person holds. Sometimes the shape may be defined by anxiety or depression. A person comes for psychotherapy and psychoanalysis because his or her shape has its limitations. Just as the Torrey pines can’t bend in other directions, so too a human life becomes rigid, lacks flexibility and agility. A person comes into treatment to understand his shape, the influences that have helped sculpt him, and how to gain a greater range and flexibility of expression and of the sense of who he or she really is.
Psychotherapy and psychoanalysis are processes in which therapist and client together endeavor to understand the “effects” of the struggle in a person’s life and how that struggle “has shaped the adult character.” I appreciate how in the above quotation by a prominent psychoanalyst writing in the 1960s, there is an acknowledgment of the inherent resiliency of human life (“endowed to struggle with the vicissitudes of his internal and environment stress”). Of course there are individual differences: Some seem to possess more endowment for handling the influences than others and the struggle is different for all. In psychotherapy, we not only endeavor to understand what winds have blown and to more clearly she what shape, but we also think about how to stimulate future growth in all directions. We often talk about going deeper in psychotherapy, developing greater understanding and contact with the unseen, unconscious forces. But we have to appreciate other directions as well. We go deeper, but we also go wider, and up and down. Our goal is to reshape the psyche, especially the adult psyche that has taken on this shape over many years, and help the person grow into a fuller, more flexible and bigger entity, one capable of greater satisfaction, appreciation and love. Because growth happens through relationships throughout one’s life, the relationship developed between client and therapist also is a force of nature to promote growth and change.
Sometimes this process of reshaping takes time (the Torrey pines did not take their shape overnight, but rather from the constant influence of the elements over time). In our manic society, with its emphasis on speed, this process can sometimes seem daunting or slow. I think, however, when a person begins to feel flexibility in their limbs, in their body and mind, the effort and the time seem well worth it and quite natural.