It’s common for someone to enter my practice with long-standing distress ranging from minor to extreme, and yet have absolutely no idea why, or even much of a coherent understanding of what they are feeling. As therapy progresses the client’s life will unfold and invariably clear themes will emerge. As a life narrative takes shape we can see that of course he feels a, b, c, but also (seemingly paradoxically) x, y, and z, since they are all reasonable and fundamentally healthy responses to all the stuff that happened to this person born of his particular temperament.
We might consider this place of deeper self-understanding, or self-location, a new way of being with oneself; in fact it’s often the first time anyone at all has ever truly been with the distressed parts of one’s personhood, since those parts have (strangely, remarkably) been simultaneously deeply experienced and yet largely invisible, both to others and to the self.
The website of the psychologist David Baldwin contains this illustration of the phenomenon known as dissociation:
When focusing on the motion of the blue dots most people can experience a form of blindness to the yellow ones, as obvious and “impossible to miss” as they may be. The psyche operates in much the same way. Deeply held emotional states and thought patterns that seem “impossible to miss” are in fact missed all the time, as years of defenses and indoctrination into particular family and cultural systems render us psychically blind. We stop seeing, or never learn to see, that which makes perfect sense.
What a terrible thing to be blind to oneself, to lack an understanding of what one is experiencing, and why. It’s confusing, of course, but it’s also rather frightening, as we can feel out of control, or broken, or deeply alone without the tools to build a bridge to others, since we don’t even know ourselves where we are.
At its best, therapy is a way (though hardly the only way) of locating the fullness of oneself, of seeing the yellow dots. And it is once we are self-located that we are best positioned to build and sustain the features of a satisfying life: relationships that offer true contact; roles in the world that reflect authentic expressions of the deepest parts of ourselves; an open-heartedness that allows for an orientation to others characterized by generosity and integrity.