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  • Writer's pictureDr John Breadon

'it's never too late to have a happy childhood': The holding space of therapy

Updated: Jul 2, 2023

This is the first ever CCS blog. So welcome, whoever and wherever you are! Over time I hope to add many more blogs to my site. I envisage these blogs touching upon all aspects of therapy and counselling and much more besides. As a humanistic counsellor I see my fundamental task as helping my clients to live better, more fully, more closely in tune with their best, deepest, and realest selves. Yes, that's a pretty wide and high aspiration, but for me authentic therapy should never shy away from bringing all of life into the therapy room, integrating into present experience all the many and interlinked dimensions of life - the physical, the social and cultural, the intellectual, the spiritual and, of course, the emotional. Such a vision can and perhaps should make therapy a deeply challenging experience for client and therapist alike, but the rewards for both are often no less than transformative.

In this blog I want to spend a little while trying to get underneath one of the most asked, and in some ways, most fundamental of all questions relating to therapy: what sort of a space is therapy? Before attempting to answer that question we need to go back to our earliest experience of living: the experience of being held, nurtured, and loved by our primary caregivers (or not, as the case may be for many). As infants and small children we are bundles of energy, need, desire and potential. Right from the moment of birth we are in touch with deep and disruptive emotions we struggle to make sense of on our own. Good parenting, even good enough parenting (and that's phrase you'll come across many times in these blogs), aids the child in making sense of reality and its awesome potential to baffle, confuse and threaten. As the therapist and writer Adam Phillips puts it, the onus is on the parent to 'present the world to the infant in manageable doses.' (Winnicott, 1988, p.2). Mothers and fathers give shape, a language, to the child's emotional tumults, his or her near-overwhelming encounters with that big, wild world slowly emerging into view. 'Yes my love, that feeling ripping through you is love and desire, rage and sadness. But don't give up, don't fear this shame, this rage, this sadness, can't be endured; it can, through the support of those closest to you. So feel it, and let it move through you. For feelings are transient, they pass, if we let them, but moods are where we live and we need to understand their cycles and spirals .' OK, so few parents speak to their small child in this way, but they convey something like it through body language, tone of voice, and simple, reassuring words and phrases repeated time and time again over the early vulnerable years of life. But what if we don't get this sort of nurture? What then for us?

The great teacher on the developmental see-saw that is childhood was the British psychologist Donald Winnicott (and much more about him over the course of these blogs; I'm only just beginning to get to know him and his work myself).

Towards the end of his life Winnicott wrote a revealing and personal poem about his mother. He recalled in it one of his favourite childhood places: a tree in the family garden. He would often go there for escape, and to do his homework. Below on the ground the adult world was working to its own logic and passing moods. Here's an extract from that poem:

Mother below is weeping



Thus I knew her

Once, stretched out on her lap

as now on dead tree

I learned to make her smile

to stem her tears

to undo her guilt

to cure her inward death

To enliven her was my living.

(Quoted in The Trauma of Everyday Life, by Dr Mark Epstein, p.210)

The role he felt obliged to adopt is sometimes called the Caretaker or Parenting self. The painful and emotionally resonant point about all this switching of roles and responsibilities? It's never the child's job to carry the parent, to become responsible for soothing the mother: that's the parent's task, always. A great line from a recent TV programme (the final episode of Transparent, on Amazon, and don't miss it, btw), puts this very neatly when a mother, examining her life, says to her now adult child: 'I held on to you where I should have held you.' A childhood filled with worry, anxiety, watchfullness over a lost or withdrawn parent, leaves its mark on a child, a mark they will carry into adulthood. A mark defined by unmet needs, and a mistrustful sense of others. For them the world often feels unsafe, that others cannot be relied upon. This can have a devastating impact upon adult relationships in particular.

Finally, to come back to my opening question. The therapeutic relationship (or TR) can help bring some light - and yes, though it's always fragile and tentative, some healing - into the child-adult constellation. It can't change the past, nor can the therapist ever be more for the client than an echo of the less-than-consistently present and loving parent. But even an echo, a taste of what was missing, even in an adult's life with all its compacted and sedimented years of habit, can make all the difference to the quality of living in the present, and of having a little more hope for the future too. Hence the title of this blog - which is written with just a drop of irony and humour: it's never too late to have a happy childhood.



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