Being “fellow sufferer”

by Moritz Nestor, psychologist

Regarding the urgent social problems, education policy is doing well to occasionally reassess its preferences – a claim that has somewhat been reactivated for quite some time. For example, Erika Vögeli, in her editorial of 15 March 2010, rightly demanded a fundamental return to a pedagogical approach understanding the emerging human being as a personal being. In the same sense, psychology and psychotherapy would also do well to fundamentally return to the developing human person.

In some of our today’s excellently qualified institutions for people who are mentally suffering, the therapist is available once a week for 10 minutes. Cost consciousness is supposed to guarantee the institution’s quality. The mentally suffering person, already sinking into solitude, has to wait for ten minutes during six days, and then wait again.
But we need (again) therapeutic procedures which do not understand the psychologically suffering as a “case of something”, as a disturbed brain function or “partial performance disorder”, but as a mentally suffering fellow human being. We need (again) more therapists who do not want to be “technicians” for body or soul “parts”, but who understand the suffering of the soul as an expression of an entire personality suffering in its culture and its historical period. Being a psychologist, must mean again being able to considerately think, feel, and act.

A mother resists her child’s psychiatrising

11-year-old Jenny came to me as “nervous fidgeter”. During the previous year at school she had done poorer and poorer, and in the preliminary clarifications was diagnosed concentration disorder with a low intellectual ability against the background of a POS in question. The mother was advised to consult a psychiatrist. “There she will only get pills. From that, she will not be more intelligent. I do not give up on my child, “ she rebelled. Through the intervention of her adviser, Jenny came to me.
Jenny, at the heart of her personality, was deeply convinced that she was not able to memorise because she was “stupid”. She put aside tasks that she was not able to solve immediately, and found a thousand-and-one rationalisation as an excuse for it. She was emotionally not able to tolerate (real or imaginative) inability: The material was stupid, one would not need such stuff for life and similar more. She lacked courage, her self-esteem wavered. On the other hand, she had developed a remarkable neurotic compensation for her supposed weakness. She could moan heartbreakingly and belittle herself as if she was 2 or 3, but not 11, until the mother, seized by compassion, took the task off her hands. But often the mother did not succeed either, because she too felt deeply stupid. When it was about the things of daily life, she took them off her daughter’s hands, but in school matters she soon was at an end.
Her three children (Jenny was the second after Klaus, after her came Fabian) had spent four years in approved homes. The mother, heavily circulating around herself, had been completely overburdened with the educational task, and had not been able to give the children the human support which would have been important for the formation of a stable nucleus of the personality. Now the mother had become mentally more stable, and her children lived with her again. And for her it was out of question to give up on her child and to feed it with pills.

At first everything went well ...

In the first conversation, Jenny, a lively, keen girl, cheerfully and openly looking at you, riggled about on the still too big chair, and declared earnestly and without request: Her problem was that she was not able to memorise. She therefore needed therapy. When I want to know why it does not go well in school with learning, she explains in a highly differentiated, open and upright way what she was lacking: She was a bright child with quick thinking when she entered the first class of the elementary school. No trace of stupidity. She understood the subject well, as she followed the lessons attentively. She did the homework during the lessons, when the others were still thinking about something. Unintentionally, and without problems at first, she became accustomed to the learning style: Once taking a look and–knowing! But she had no perseverance and little courage.
At home, there were no tasks for Jenny that required perseverance and courage, for the mother did everything for the children and in that way saved them efforts. She wanted to be a “good” mother. She and her husband wanted to offer their children something for being socially equated: a house, electronics, at least once a month a visit to the “Europapark” etc. Already in the middle of the month, the paternal income often was decimated in a way, that one had to tighten one’s belt. But then the next salary came soon.

…but when a little more was needed, a delusion took root and acted

Jenny’s difficulties began when the amount of Jenny’s homework increased, matters became more difficult and harder to memorise. Her lack of stamina, courage and confidence became obvious. It was her idea to be able to do everything at first sight. When she was reading, her mind had rushed to the end of a paragraph while she had not yet understood the meaning of the first sentence. Soon she gave up: I am stupid, my head does not have the same power to grab things like the others; I cannot learn anything by heart.
Sitting in front of me was a girl whose whole personality was characterised by the delusion that she was “stupid”. Her failures at school in the past years were sufficient “proof” for her parents, teachers, psychiatrists and also for herself. But: What a contradiction between Jenny’s private logic “I am stupid” and her appearance in my parlour! In dialogue with me, she opened her soul and the psychodramatic background of her difficulties with great emotional and intellectual ease – a great intellectual achievement which I do not hold every 11-year-old capable of! It was obvious that this child was bright.
The first session had offered sufficient opportunities to gain a first insight into Jenny’s style of learning and living. Starting from this unconscious mental axiom I wanted to solve her problem. This is why I thought I should surprise her somehow next time! She should be able to feel, sense and experience this contradiction, which was obvious to all outsiders, deeply inside herself: that she was thinking that she was stupid while being able to explain very brightly why she was stupid. I wanted to prevent her from falling into the same trap as so many whose “learned stupidity” merely was that they were unsure and unable to believe in themselves.

Concealing weaknesses – an obstructive but very human “ability”

This is why it was clear that I should avoid touching her tender spot, her feeling of stupidity. This emotional wound was to be protected. Hence, neither an analysis of her “problem” nor any kind of “special treatment” like easing the burden, special schooling etc. She needed to be strengthened from the inside by starting from the healthy parts of her soul, reinforcing them until she would overcome her weakness.
I knew: Jenny was expecting “therapy”, some kind of “treatment” of her “stupidity”. In the next session she would expect me to make her do her homework. After all, I had asked her to bring her books. And then this silly feeling of stupidity would return and she would fail to understand the text.
Since this utmost emotional horror was imminent in the parlour, she hardly would let her mother go in the waiting room, clinging to her, whining miserably. She was demonstrating her “solution” in Hollywood style: humbling herself, wailing until mummy would relieve her from the horror and this darn feeling of stupidity, which she could not endure, would again be far away. mummy also had to bring her to my office although Jenny was very well able to find her way through traffic!
This is why I laughed friendly, saying: “So this is the clever young lady I have met. I say, you have surprised me, last time, with your quickness!” She had to laugh herself and gave me her hand, beaming. For a second she had dropped all toddler manners. “But why are you now clinging like a little baby, pretending you couldn’t say boo?” Now Jenny remembered and started clinging again (albeit with a laughing eye towards me) to her mother: “Mummy, mummy, stay with me”. Her pointed lips were looking for her mother’s lips. Her mother was pushing Jenny towards me only half-heartedly. Jenny was a champion in triggering feelings of compassion and her wish to be a “good mother”, such that Jenny got what she wanted: protection from the monster called stupidity. Her mother’s unsureness was Jenny’s chance to avoid the horror.

Jenny comes along and has a corrective emotional experience

I was laughing at her with a mixture of indignation and humour: “Jenny, you bring me to tears. Stop playing the wailing girlie. Does not suit you. You are behaving like a silly. Come, let’s do something reasonable. You will survive it.” And Jenny came along! “And next time you will not need your mummy’s hand to hold on in order to come here. You are big enough. See, in a few years you will marry and have children. Then you cannot pretend to be a little baby.” – Her mother had told me that Jenny loved to help her little nephew. My white Hungarian Shepard dog, Emil, contributed by playfully luring Jenny into my parlour: saying “bye mummy” she jumped after Emil, forgetting over her enthusiasm about the vivid dog that she had intended to little herself in order to survive what was coming. But the stupidity spectre did not come. I was taking care of that.
“I have had an idea, Jenny: You are going to school every day, don’t you?” – “Sure” – “How do you get there?” – “But that is clear” – “But I don’t know it and I would like you to explain it to me such that I understand it. In the end I will tell you why I am asking.” – She started off, uninhibitedly; I asked for clarifications when something was not quite clear to me, while making a detailed sketch of what she told me on a piece of paper. Not thinking of topics like learning, she went ahead effervescently. This was exactly what I wanted. In the end we had produced, out of her mind, a colourful plan of her way to school with all the details. (All learnt “by heart”!)
“Look, now we have created a great map of your way to school. You have explained it all in detail. So precise that I have been able to sketch it even though I have never been there. Now please tell me: Why have you been able to explain all this so precisely?” – “Because I have it in my head. I have a picture of it there.” – “Exactly, what you do every day, you can see it in your head, don’t you?” – She is laughing: “Exactly” – “Well, and how did this picture get into your head?” – “Because I have walked there again and again and because I was alert. I need to arrive. It is necessary to watch and be alert.” – “Then you have learnt the walk by heart!” This I say slowly and quietly, looking at her earnestly. She stops short, moved deeply. She has realised the contradiction with her heart and mind. “Have you ever done homework on ‘I am learning my way to school by heart’?” – This absurd idea makes her laugh: “No.” – “But you have learnt it by heart!” – She is looking at me with big eyes: “Yes. I have.” – “Then you can learn by heart! I have seen it with my own eyes!” Oh would it be possible to describe the deep emotion moving this girl!
“How often have you walked there?” – “Very often.” She is calculating. – “And how often do you look at what you have to learn for school?” – She stops short again, looking at me quietly for a long time, obviously in thoughts. I am waiting. And then, suddenly, the insight: “Once, but then I put it aside! But of course this is not enough!” – “Yes, Jenny, it is not. But now it is quite simple: What was your thought when learning by heart for school – and not on your way to school?” – I always thought I was silly and stopped practising!” – “Yes, exactly, and what is it now that it takes to learn by heart for school?” – “I should not stop until I am finished.” “Yes, just remember our exercise today as soon as the castle ghost called ‘stupidity’ is back, calling for your attention.”
She is looking at me, taller by a head: “What time is it?” Time – both of us hadn’t realised it – had passed in a flash! She gets up, beaming at me: “I did not know that therapy can be so nice!” – “You know, Jenny, you are not stupid. Your head is perfectly in order. You only think you were stupid. And when you think you were stupid, you just stop. And this idea that you were stupid, you have learnt it by heart, perfectly! You have used your intelligence for the wrong purpose.” – Now we both are laughing.
“And on your way to school, you had no idea that you could be stupid. This is why it stuck to your head.” – “Sure, otherwise I would never have arrived at school or at home,” she blurts. Then she thinks again: “I can”, she exults. – “Exactly, and we will practise this together so that you don’t stop too early and lose your way anymore, but move on instead. Then you will have the same fun learning like just now.” A happy girl returns home with an emotional experience that nobody can take from her.

Jenny goes her own way

After more than a year, Jenny became a student who knows how to learn. Unlike in earlier times she did her work independently. The former problem child had become a little young lady. Instead of complaining to be relieved of her problems by mummy she took the way into life. So one day she explained that now she was trying to find out if she could live without therapy.
Besides the first session there were many other experiences, but it was this first session that enabled an access which opened a new way to the girl.
Jenny’s school education and the opportunity to choose a profession in the future were profoundly endangered. Their entire personality was weakened. This had an impact on all other spheres of life. If Jenny had been given drugs and if she had been abandoned to her fate, she would have failed at school, and a working life possibly would have remained closed to her. Even if she had downplayed her failure, she would have suffered from it all her life. And it could have been much worse. We don’t know it for sure, but in everyday therapeutic work we see how many tragedies can arise from school failure when other unfavourable factors are added.

Some remarks on the therapeutic process

It was the impact of personality, a psychic-mental process between her and me, that helped Jenny. An essential factor is the therapist’s attitude. A person suffering emotionally often develops a high sensitivity – possibly because of uncertainty, discouragement or feeling offended. This high sensitivity makes him explore very sensitively whether the person before him encounters him in an equal way and tries to understand him in his world – a world where no one is admitted to take a look into – maybe except for the one who stands before him. Of course, this is not always as easy as in this example. Sometimes it needs a longer period of developing trust in the cooperation between the one seeking advice and the therapist.
Jenny overcame her weakness and she matured. No “part” of her was “repaired”, no “competence” was developed, no metabolism was influenced, no “mental organ” was operated, no pill was administered.
At the beginning of this personality development there was a corrective emotional experience (Franz G. Alexander, 1951), which I had planned and brought about. However, I was just the obstetrician of her insights. Jenny experienced this corrective emotional experience actively. Her mental energy and my conviction that it was due to an emotional error that this bright child did not learn helped her to overcome the feeling that she was stupid. If she had not fulfilled her part actively, my work would have remained ineffective.
Therefore, it is necessary to emphasise again and again: psychologists, educators and doctors should not tie children to the “chemical leash”, just because the whole society does not know how to cope with these products of wrong theories of men and of education and instead aims to hand out our children over to free pharma market. Let us recall the basic substance of personal psychology and pedagogy in family and school: the child is supposed to acquire self-responsibility and humanity under versed guidance – and this means also that it learns how to overcome its behavioural disorders and to grow mentally. This is the core of the human person. This is the only purpose of helping and healing professions. As I said, it is not always possible as directly as with Jenny. A great help in this example was the attitude of the parents, who from the beginning had a positive attitude towards my efforts. Sometimes it takes longer to get closer to the core of the problem. However, it is possible and what it can mean for the life of a young person – for this, Jenny is an example.    •