Currier, N. and Merritt Ives, J. (1892). The Tree of Life
Now that we’re well into September, there’s a subtle chill in the air – autumn arriving. I’m noticing it a bit more I think given I’m currently meeting clients outside. In its novelty it’s quite nice – it suggests at times to come: hunkering down, keeping warm. The chill in the air takes me back to this same seasonal point in the previous years I’ve lived through it. Back through my twenties, teens and into my childhood. Fragments: living in a student house in London; walking up to a cinema with friends; tramping through woodland with nature and growing things, as everything turns autumnal; the sun shining through leaves turning brown.
I want to say something about this long view but I’m struggling to find the words. I’m trying to find a way of describing these fragments. It’s a vision of us passing through our lifecycles together – like the salmon making their great migrations in the rivers and the seas; of us swinging around these seasons together, year on year; the evidence etched into our faces. We were all children once and now we’ve grown. We may - though it is far from guaranteed - expect to reach old age, like fruits ripening on the vine. As a counsellor I have the tremendous privilege to accompany and walk with people in the different life stages they find themselves within; life stages I myself might have lived through, or may anticipate living through yet. I therefore want to offer a psychological story – my attempt to articulate this common journey we find ourselves on.
The story is, at least at its biological or ecological core, underpinned by a universal drive towards creation. Creation is taking place all around us in the human and non-human world. Those first signs of spring, breaking through the frost of winter: snowdrops and daffodils. Followed by the blossoms on the trees – gorgeous whites and pinks – and the birdsong. Creation is evident in every budding flower and shrub, and when the time is right, in the wheat harvest as the farmers return from the fields.
I became a Dad, and so in my own way took part in a miracle: of pregnancy and childbirth – new life emerging into our world. We also strive to raise our children well – this time of year is renowned for those ‘back to school’ pictures that do the rounds on social media. Their little milestones mean so much.
But creation isn’t just about having babies and raising children. In the human world creation manifests as creativity. Carving out a unique identity for ourselves, getting ‘the job’, making a home. Our creativity is evident in these. We discover that the vocations we take each in their way require our creativity: teachers, nurses, police, and soldiers; hairdressers, retailers, estate agents, and driving instructors. Chefs redesigning their menus. Architects and engineers drawing up their blueprints. Newly published books appearing on the shelves. But also by taking up our roles and doing these well we uphold a social architecture so that the blossoming can take place within it.
We are, in this way, completely immersed within this biological and ecological scene. So what has any of this to do with psychology?
It begins with self-esteem. By this I mean an internalised sense of our own positioning within the family, within our social groups, and within the wider ecological scene we inhabit. How valued and valuable do we feel? Do we feel that the world is a better place for having us in it, do we feel we make or have made a valuable contribution, do we feel that others enjoy our company? I place emphasis on the repeating motif: ‘do we feel’. From a psychological point of view, what is important is not the ‘true’ value we have – however such a thing could be measured – but rather our internal sense of our value. Many of us will relate to having (or have had) a difficulty, deep down, in believing that the world is a better place for having us in it, or that others appreciate and benefit from our company.
There are many yardsticks upon which as adults we might measure that sense of value. Consider the characteristics of those people who are considered attractive: they are confident, optimistic, good talkers, good at telling jokes, they have a vibrant social life, they are physically healthy, fit and active. Perhaps they’re climbing in their career; perhaps they’re travelled or cultured; and at work they do what they do with energy, skill and talent. In reality these are the relatively superficial signs that first make someone attractive. But the suggestion is that the yardsticks around which we might measure self-esteem are the yardsticks around which we might otherwise measure our capacity to take part in creation: whether that’s in the Darwinian sense of fitness to reproduce and pass on genes, or in the more transcendent sense of being able to realise our own innate creativity in myriad forms.
But if we’re not talking about the ‘true’ value of a person, this all begs the question as to why some of us struggle to derive a ‘healthy’ self-esteem or self-worth. Here, I think often, typically, we should be looking further back through our life history. The family life and other environments we inhabited (such as at school) served as a microcosm for the wider ecological life we would enter into as adults. Were we valued in those original environments? Was love conditional? What did we need to do in order to be valued? What qualities were considered valuable? What role did we need to perform in order to be valued? Were we in competition with significant others to have value conferred upon us? These are questions we could all explore within personal therapy.
We emerge from that family nucleus with a deeply internalised psychological story about our own self-worth, where it comes from, and where it is lacking.
What you may have also experienced is the way self-esteem and self-worth may rise and fall, from one day to another, and especially in one situation to another. This was true in childhood, and it is true in adulthood. The way I understand this is that we are constantly seeking new pathways or maps in order to navigate through the situations presented to us. If we find a way through then self-esteem rises. If we can’t find a way through we remain lowly. The term I seem to have landed on for this is ‘subjective competence’ although it is also referred to in psychology as ‘efficacy’ (really I don’t think the terminology matters so much).
A few examples of this. As children this can mean being a good boy or girl and doing what you’re told, not making a fuss; it could alternatively mean aggression or cruelty; or otherwise exaggerated expressions of need or distress to get esteem (care) directed back upon you from others. From a social perspective this might involve things like an intrinsic sense of your identity and identifying like-minded people, discovering a role you can play in a group, or mastery over certain activities or sports. Emerging into adulthood subjective competence can be derived through the basics of life that we have control over: eating well, living healthily, cooking, laundry, managing finances, passing your exams, being good at your job. But it can also include having a plan, a passion, a dream.
Other forms of subjective competence may give us a sense of mastery but can alienate - and in some cases harm - ourselves and others. Narcissism and other magical beliefs about ourselves or the world. Self-harm. Addictions such as workaholism or alcoholism. Eating disorders. Obsessive compulsions. When we meet with challenges in life that we otherwise feel we can’t face, we can derive some sense of being able to do something through these alternative pathways.
Whilst ever we have a sense of a pathway or a map we feel like we can climb the mountain and elevate our self-worth. Without these, or when the map we thought we had has failed us, we flounder and our sense of self-worth can fall again.
I think much of the work of personal therapy is in uncovering these different means we have developed throughout our lives to navigate through the situations presented to us, and in many cases work towards discovering new pathways, new maps, through which we might better elevate our internal self-esteem and self-worth.
However it is necessary to check this focus on the self, upon what we do as individuals. We are in a sense like a billion seeds scattered out over the Earth, and the soil that we land upon will heavily determine the extent to which we blossom. Personal therapy can help the person to play the hand that they are dealt, but we also have a great responsibility to make the social and ecological worlds that we inhabit supportive and nurturing to all lives in their diversity.
Which brings me to the final piece of this psychological story I wanted to tell. We are not of course just living for ourselves, and one of the criticisms of personal therapy is that it can reinforce an individualistic and self-centred view of life. This I think is where existential anxiety comes in. We all live with the knowledge – however conscious we make this – that we will eventually go into physical decline and die.
For me the progression through the lifespan may also be reflected in a progression from a state of relative egocentrism – the baby at the centre of the universe – to egolessness – the way we transfer our will to live, as indeed our esteem, out into those we love, those that have sprung from us, and that that we have given forth to. We breathe life into them as we fall back. This to me is in the same way as trees give forth seeds, as they themselves die back, or the way frogs or butterflies leave their eggs, securing the future, as they themselves die back.
It become perhaps most visible in life events such as marriage and parenthood: no longer is our life a ‘self’ project. But some of us will not follow these designs and will realise states of egolessness in subtler ways. Teachers and mentors, aunties and uncles, voluntary workers, and those who plant trees in whose shade they shall never get to sit. A kind of grandparent role whether or not we literally become grandparents. Tending to libraries and gardens. Creating opportunities for the coming generations. Aesthetic practices such as meditation and yoga. Devotional practices such as in religion. Having something worth dying for.
So goes the expression ‘leave no trace’. Our footprints on the beach will be washed away by a single high tide. One day not only will we be gone but everybody that personally knew us. In just a few generations our destiny is anonymity. When all is said and done, we blossom in the spring of youth, we bear summer fruits, and then as autumn leaves we fall away. Somewhat mystically I wonder what part is played in winter.