On the naughty step


May has been called ‘the suicide month’, as statistics show that it is the time when suicide rates are at their highest. This seems like an interesting paradox; At the time nature begins to bloom again and social interaction and connection seem more enticing, some of us will feel the most acute despair, which for a few will lead to thoughts of ending their life. Perhaps, despair in that sense is a more likely feeling to emerge at a time that many others seem to be engaged with life and life itself is in abundance through nature’s rebirth after winter. The person in despair may feel more than ever then that such loving and bubbling connections can never be part of their own experience.

In my practice as a therapist, there are certain weeks in the year where a trend towards hopelessness is hard to miss. I have noticed repeatedly over the years that May seems to be the month, when such pessimism about life invariably gets at its most pronounced. What is that place of despair, that place of ‘cannot be’, ‘cannot have’, ‘cannot reach’ about? In my experience, it is invariably about a strong inner conviction of being unlovable, a conviction of an inner badness and undesirability which can never be rectified.

While working particularly long hours this week, the image that came repeatedly to my mind was that of ‘the naughty step’, the child sitting alone on the step for a wrongdoing, a wrongdoing she needs to reflect on, but which sometimes in family life turns into a more sober message of ‘wrongbeing’, i.e., it is not the act of the child which has been ‘naughty’, but the child herself is ‘bad’ and ‘wrong’. Admittedly, it is not always easy to have empathy for bad behaviour, and there is also something to be said about the necessity of setting boundaries and limits, especially in situations of potential high tension such as in family life, but there is a reason that the naughty step has now come to be regarded as a rather old fashioned and emotionally unintelligent method of penalising bad behaviour. The problem with the image of the naughty step is that the little person sitting on it may find it almost impossible not to identify with the alleged naughtiness. And it is this ‘naughtiness’ which is invariably a projection of badness from the side of the parent.

Human beings are born with a strong drive to connect and to communicate. Unlike for other animal species, for humans, survival is dependent on the above. If a child’s crying is ignored or misinterpreted repeatedly, this will eventually pause a threat to that child’s survival, as the distress, especially at the beginning of life, is the only means of making some deep and primitive needs known to the carer.

When a child’s articulation of feelings and emotional needs is not being responded to, then distress can become a lifelong means of communication. The child-adult has come to believe that the only way to get the necessary attention is to be distressed. In adult life, distress takes the form of self-destructive or aggressive behaviour, but as a society we are quick to dismiss both, as unacceptable, infantile or attention seeking. The child-adult with the deeply held belief that they are ‘bad’ and ‘naughty’ will have their inner conviction reconfirmed by society and the cycle of despair ends us repeating itself. In other words, if I believe that I am bad and your respond to me in a way that confirms my belief, this also gives me an explanation for why I can never feel loved or accepted.

Hearing voices is a worrying symptom, which we tend to associate with psychosis. Yet, for many of us, parental voices, which effectively put us back on to that naughty step are effectively so strongly embedded in us that we don’t tend to recognise them as a familiar place we resort to when feeling distressed and insecure. We tend to believe that the voices are an accurate reflection of who we are, when, in fact, they should be questioned. Could despair be at least partly alleviated through moving away from that naughty step to a place of dialogue which entails the possibility of empathy and self-reflection?

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