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Psychologically we have equipped people well to manage isolation and uncertainty through obsessions and compulsions. However, to get through this pandemic, is this sufficient? Or will we need a more authentic way? Can we connect because of emotion or will it divide us into bottles with more tightly screwed tops? I am interested in ways of making space for the dissociated and subsequent safe expression of anger, shame, fear and grief - the foundations of emotional life - because a house built on shaky foundations is, for good reason, shaky.

The risk of failing to make space for deep emotional expression is that humans remain locked in a ‘repetition compulsion’. The operation of this compulsion is visible in many social situations: loads of frustration are ‘acted out’ with displays of aggression. The risk of the repetition compulsion is that it creates further frustration in a cycle that reinforces the obsession no more resolved than before the display of aggression.

To move beyond this cycle, a way of processing emotions must be found that does not create additional guilt because guilt is the feeling found to drive our dependency on compulsions to relieve obsessions. Guilt is the slippery slope of addiction and putting needs out there in front of your own. The obsession could become that you do not deserve help and the compulsion finding evidence that you have made mistakes.

While it is too early to tell, it is possible that obsessions and compulsions are helping people manage the isolation of lockdowns and the uncertainty of future variants – two psychological properties of this pandemic that are key to understanding the risk of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Purely Obsessional (Pure O) developing through every winter of physical infection.

Lockdowns, while necessary, require people to store up thoughts without access to psychologically safe spaces. Psychologically safe spaces are relationships that can hear thoughts without it needing to be simple that a thought is true or that a thought is false. Only then can reality be seen by the person for the person. From this perspective, the job of the person-centred person is nothing but the non-disruption of the human inclination to see.

Many conversations, including the conversations held in the head, are set up to establish truth. The problem is that this pressing 'need to know' misses the emotion that may fall out before reality can be glimpsed. Psychological safety lies in a conversation that will not squeeze for the truth but accept you have suffered a thought, true or false. Once people are allowed to say their thoughts out loud - a rare experience -, it becomes apparent that blame was the main obstacle to safety. Blame prevents understanding.

I am interested in ways to process distress that are less likely to build a toppling tower of blame. This tower is built higher every time we act out distress through displays of aggression driven by frustration rather than process distress through safe expressions of the original wound. Such aggression creates guilt because it is a displaced form of the original source of suffering; it is expressed in the wrong direction - towards a substitute - because the original is taken.

Yet this suffering must be directed somewhere; so where? It can be directed into a space that hears without judgement. Known as a core condition of the therapeutic relationship, non-judgementality is not the suppression of reactions; it is talking without the need to find an answer right here and now because that way, a truer answer might arrive anyway. The therapeutic relationship makes positive use of the original wound through long-term understanding. Grief, in particular, may protect the individual from the self-critical consequences of acting out the frustration that people are likely to contact in conditions of isolation and uncertainty.

I am writing with the aim of creating a general map for the alternating experience of dissociation and emotion that could be used by people to move in their own way. It may appear that client and therapist are wandering around the therapy room without the rush that is typically associated with solving problems, but all that wandering is not undirected; it is steered by a coat stuffed of shared winters. 

In the classroom, I apply theories to understand specific moments (turning points) in social interactions, as captured by TV series, documentaries, films, memoirs and novels. I point to the artistic potential in clinical descriptions of disorder because an invitation to create may unfold from the diagnosis. That invitation is frightening, though on the other side, may be the way to surface the emotions looking to be heard. This artistic processing may be explored as it goes dark outside; while the sun is still glaring, more practical frameworks are necessary for understanding the underground movement of emotion in social situations. These frameworks include:

  • Mentalisation-Based Treatment (MBT)
  • Transference-Focused Psychotherapy (TFP)
  • Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy
  • Somatic Experiencing (SE)
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
  • Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT)
  • Dialectal Behavioural Therapy (DBT)
  • Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Hypnotherapy, such as Rapid Transformational Therapy (RTT)
  • Person-centred counselling, such as the personal approach taken by the Metanoia Institute
  • Transpersonal psychotherapy, such as the spiritual approach taken by Re-Vision


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