This being human is a guest house
& the opportunity and potential of psychotherapy

THE GUEST HOUSE

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Rumi

In this poem…

Rumi compares the essence of being human to the idea of a guest house, meaning that we are vessels for innumerable experiences and emotions throughout our lives: the depression, the joy, the dark thought, the shame, the malice and a crowd of sorrows.

I have thought about the metaphor of the guest house with its ‘new arrivals’ and ‘unexpected visitors’ and associated it with the capacity to contain and be present to a broad range of human experiences that life brings to us – invited and uninvited, wanted and unwanted. Rumi’s guest house represents an inner holding capacity, an internal strength and continuity which, if well developed, allows us to be with the emotional heights and depths of our lives.

In line with Rumi’s poem, I have come to understand that life’s experiences and challenges are un/manageable and overwhelming to the degree that we are un/able to tolerate the feelings they stir up within us. The potential range of experiencing stretches from being open to the beauty of nature, the compassion and love for another to an awareness of our own limitations and brokenness, the pains and joys of love and life, conflict, isolation, disintegration as well as integration and harmony.

What most often brings people to therapy…

is a real difficulty to be emotionally alive to some of life’s more painful experiences. For example, feelings of loss, grief, disappointment, loneliness, anger, rage and vulnerability – just to name a few of the wide and nuanced spectrum of human emotions. Instead, we often resort to ‘defence mechanisms’, ways and manners developed in childhood and elaborated throughout our lives, to protect and distance ourselves from a full awareness of unpleasant, vulnerable and painful thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Most defence mechanisms are fairly unconscious which means most of us don’t realise we’re using them in the moment.

For example, denial is a common defence involving a refusal to accept reality, acting as if a painful event, thought or feeling did not exist. Many people use denial in their everyday lives to avoid dealing with uncomfortable feelings or areas of their life they don’t wish to admit. For instance, a person with an alcohol problem will often deny their difficulty, pointing to how well they function in their job and relationships. This is likely to cause difficulties, as this stance denies the destructive impact of the drinking on their body and mind, not to mention the feelings of people close to them.

Regression is another defence characterised by a reversion to an earlier stage of development in the face of thoughts or impulses that the persons deems unacceptable. For example a teenager who is overwhelmed with fear, anger and growing sexual impulses might become clingy and start exhibiting earlier childhood behaviours he has long since overcome, such as bed-wetting. Also, an adult may regress when under a great deal of stress, not feeling able to leave their bed and engage in normal, everyday activities. We all regress at times, yet when it becomes a sustained way of being, it is likely to cause problems.

Long-standing, embedded, elaborate and unconscious defence structures and ‘inner walls’ are often associated with psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, relationship issues, sleeping difficulties, eating disorders, addictions, underlying problematic personality traits and personality disorders.

Working therapeutically…

my starting point is the recognition that we all need defences to protect us from anxiety and pain. The aim of psychotherapy is not to remove defences but to understand them and through such understanding to gradually help the person in therapy recognise new possibilities and potentials in relating to themselves and others.

An important dimension of the therapeutic process is to stimulate an increasing understanding of why we have developed defences in the first place. Many of us grew up in families and cultures in which the powerful myth that vulnerability is a weakness and a flaw permeated people’s thinking. As a result, we have come to reject and defend against our own vulnerability which we often associate with emotions like anxiety, fear, shame, grief, sadness, anger and disappointment – feelings we often don’t feel comfortable with and don’t easily talk about, even when they profoundly affect our well-being and our relationships.

Bearing this in mind, our capacity to accept and contain our ‘mad, sad and bad’ feelings (anger, pain, anxiety) is often associated with the nature of our main attachment relationships we have had in life. We tend to identify with and internalise experiences from our relationships with parents and family. For example, if we grew up in a predominately critical and judgemental family culture, we are likely to develop into adults who tend to be rejecting and dismissive of our own vulnerability and struggles. This inner harsh judge and critical stance often is a major component in long-standing and reoccurring depression and anxiety disorders. Or, if our sadness, anger, helplessness, jealousy and disappointments couldn’t be responded to helpfully by parental figures, these feelings go ‘underground’ undermining our capacity to be fully alive which inevitably impacts on our ability to form secure and mutually fulfilling relationships.

Counteracting the disappointment of what was and could not have been in our earlier family lives, individual and group psychotherapy are very hopeful endeavours which can potentially lead to profound change. They offer a place where one can be ‘re-familied’ or ‘re-socialised’ meaning that a healthy therapeutic relationship and/ or group culture can help us to learn and grow in ways that we were not able to in our family of origin. For instance, most people struggle with how to deal with conflicts which inevitably arise in relationships, families and groups. Also, many people have a deep and unfulfilled longing for intimacy and authenticity which are core to our experiences in life, yet find it difficult to develop ways that enable them to be close with others and true to themselves. Individual and group therapy offer a real opportunity to better understand ourselves, to reflect on and maybe develop new ways of relating and interacting with others. It provides a valuable space in which we can develop more effective and enjoyable ways to love, argue and negotiate differences. Psychotherapy has long been understood as an opportunity to become more aware of and correct unhelpful family dynamics and patterns of communication which for many of us originate in our earlier years.

In my experience, therapy is about…

bringing relief to psychological symptoms by gradually developing a shared understanding of the origins of psychological defences (‘inner walls’) and associated unhelpful patterns of communication which form an integral part of the psychological problem. The main therapeutic aim is to facilitate the gradual unfolding of our life-giving ability of making friends with our feelings. This journey will allow us to move more deeply into our inner emotional landscapes and may take us to places of deep sadness, grief, anger, empty and barren lands as well as enjoyable and emotionally rich new territory. Also, this kind of therapeutic work offers an opportunity to cultivate and strengthen an inner self-soothing capacity akin to Rumi’s guest house which will allow us to welcome and accept wanted and unwanted life experiences and feelings that life brings to us.

Individual and group therapy…

and sometimes a combination of both offer an arena for vital corrective emotional experiences which can enable us to learn to better pay attention to ourselves and our feelings, to become more aware of others and their feelings, to better deal with conflict and the balancing of our own needs with those of others. Learning to change in this way requires a strong and sustained commitment to self-development and cannot be a ‘quick fix’. However, it can be deeply rewarding and engender a new sense of vitality and belonging in our life which we can carry into our relationships, families, work and other areas of life.

Kirsten Heynisch