Stuck at the red lights


It feels rather momentous returning to this blog after a period of illness that forced me to take a complete break from work for two months and only make a gradual return during the last month. Yet, my weekly commitment to writing it is still under question, as I have a number of other writing projects to work at, one with an imminent deadline. I also need to watch how many hours I work every week to try and keep the infamous work-life balance that always seems so hard to achieve especially in the context of urban life. So, for now, I can just enjoy being back on temporarily, but also cherish the opportunity to say goodbye to the readers of the blog, if it turns out that I need to interrupt again.

It feels like though ordinary life has resumed once again for me, a number of major decisions about what is the right way forward are still pending. In that sense, I can identify with an observation I made repeatedly since my return to clinical practice. The effectiveness of therapy seems to work in concentric circles in terms of the main concern or conflict people seek therapy for. So, for people who have put themselves in the process of therapy it may seem like everything improves slowly in their life other than the core dilemma they are grappling with. So, while life quietly happens and development takes place, albeit sometimes slowly, one can feel like they are eternally stuck at the red lights in terms of what they want to achieve.

But what is it that we can legitimately call achievement and what form does it or should it take in adult life? I think this is one of the areas that may need major deconstruction. The so-called high achievers often find their way to therapy with a sense of deep unhappiness or emotional loneliness. This is because their achievements are often internally an attempt to satisfy a narcissistically wounded parent who places on their child the huge task of filling their own void and validating their own lack of self-worth through the child’s apparent successes. What remains hidden are the gaps in the child’s psychological development which are invariably to do with a secure sense of being loved for who they are and not because of their achievements. This brings to mind the lyrics below by Alanis Morissette, a singer who has been in long term therapy and is very good in putting her ongoing conflicts and psychic pain into words:

That I would be good, even if I did nothing
That I would be good, even if I got the thumbs down
That I would be good if I got and stayed sick
That I would be good even if I gained ten pounds

That I would be fine even if I went bankrupt
That I would be good if I lost my hair and my youth
That I would be great if I was no longer queen
That I would be grand if I was not all knowing

That I would be loved even when I numb myself
That I would be good even when I am overwhelmed
That I would be loved even when I was fuming
That I would be good even if I was clingy

That I would be good even if I lost sanity
That I would be good
Whether with or without you


When people feel stuck at the red lights, so to speak in terms of what they want or need to achieve, I think there is invariably a dilemma about feeling securely loved. Is what they want to achieve, whether career satisfaction or intimacy or recognition, to do with their own authentic engagement with the world or with an inner critical voice that says they need to be a certain way? Or is sometimes not achieving a quest for eternal unconditional love such as implied in the lyrics above, another perhaps unrealistic premise for adult life? And how can we find the balance in between, not staying in a comfortable cocoon forever, but not harming oneself through overachieving either. So, effectively, the quest is about a journey of self-love and acceptance. It seems to me this is the only inner achievement that bears the hope of turning the lights from red to green.

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