The Longest Journey

by Alice Miller

The Longest Journey
Friday May 20, 2005

The Longest Journey – or What Can We Expect from Psychotherapy?

The longest journey of my life was the journey to my own self. I do not know whether I am an exception in this matter, or whether there are other people who have experienced the same thing. It is certainly not a universal experience: fortunately, there are people who from the moment of their birth were lucky enough to be accepted by their parents for what they were, with all their feelings and needs. Right from the outset these people had unrestricted access to those feelings and needs. They did not have to deny them, nor did they have to embark on long journeys to find something withheld from them when they needed it most.

My experience was different. It has taken me all my life to allow myself to be what I am and to listen to what my inner self is telling me, more and more directly, without waiting for permission from others or currying approval from people symbolizing my parents.

I am frequently asked what I understand by successful therapy. I have in fact answered this question indirectly in many of my books. But after this brief introduction perhaps I can put it more simply: Successful therapy should shorten this long journey. It should liberate us from our ingrained adaptation strategies and help us learn to trust our own feelings – something our parents have made difficult, if not impossible. Because it was prohibited, and hence feared, right from the beginning, many people find it impossible to embark on such a journey. Later, the role played initially by our parents is taken over by teachers, priests, society, and morality, all of them conspiring to cement this fear. And cement, as we know, is very difficult to soften.

The wide range of self-help books on non-violent communication, including the valuable and wise advice given by Thomas Gordon and Marshall Rosenberg, are undoubtedly effective if they are consulted by people who, in their childhood, were able to display their feelings without fear of rebuke and grew up in the company of adults who served them as a model for being at one with themselves. But at a later stage children with serious impairments to their identity do not know what they feel and what they really need. They have to find this out in therapy, repeatedly applying what they have learned to new experiences and thus achieving the security that tells them they are not mistaken. As children of emotionally immature or confused parents they were forced to believe that their feelings and needs were wrong. If they had been right, so they believe, then their parents would not have refused to communicate with them.

My belief is that no therapy can fulfill the wish that many people probably harbor: the wish to be able, at long last, to solve all the problems they have been painfully confronted with so far. This is impossible because life repeatedly confronts us with new problems that can reawaken the painful memories stored up in our bodies. But therapy should open up access to our own feelings: the wounded child must be allowed to speak, and the adult must learn to understand and engage with what that child is trying to say. If the therapist is a genuine Enlightened Witness, as opposed to AN educator, then the client will have learned to admit his/her emotions, to understand their intensity, and to transform them into conscious feelings leaving new traces of memory. Of course, like any other individual, the former client will need friends with whom to share worries, problems, and questions. But here communication will take on a more mature form, free of any kind of exploitation, because both sides have seen through the exploitation experienced in childhood.

The emotional understanding of the child I once was gives me a clearer conception of the biography of that child. Accordingly, it will give me a different kind of access to my own self. It will also give me the strength to deal with present-day problems more rationally and effectively than before. We can hardly expect to be spared any kind of encounter with pain or distressing experience. That is something that only happens in fairy tales. But if I am no longer a mystery to myself, then I can act and reflect consciously, I can give my feelings the room they need to develop. This is because I understand them. And once I understand them, they will no longer cause so much fear as they once did. This sets things in motion, it gives us a kind of resource that we can draw upon if and when depression or physical symptoms reassert themselves. We know that these physical or mental states are an announcement of something, that they are perhaps trying to bring a suppressed feeling to the surface. And then we can try to admit to that feeling.

As the journey to ourselves is a life-long journey, its end will not coincide with the end of therapy. But successful therapy should have helped us to discover and perceive our own genuine needs and to learn to satisfy them. This is precisely what individuals wounded in early childhood have never been able to do. So after therapy the point at issue is still that of satisfying needs, needs that now assert themselves much more strongly and clearly than they did before. The satisfaction of those needs can then take place in a way that accords with the individual in question and does no one else any harm.

We may not always be able to obliterate the traces left by our early upbringing. But once they have been consciously perceived for what they are, they can be used constructively, actively, and creatively, instead of being merely suffered in a passive and self-destructive manner. For example, people only able to survive the early years of life by serving their parents can, as conscious adults, desist from sacrificing their needs in the service of others, as they were forced to do in childhood. They can look for ways of applying the skills they acquired at this early stage to understanding and helping others in such a way that their own needs are not neglected in the process. They may perhaps become therapists themselves and thus satisfy their own curiosity. If they do SO, they will not practice that profession in order to prove their own power. Once they have consciously experienced the impotence of their childhood they will no longer need such proofs.

These people can then become Enlightened Witnesses, assisting their clients by taking their part and siding with them. This needs to take place in a space that is free of moral pressure, a space where the clients (often for the first time in their lives) can experience what it is like to be aware of their own selves. The therapist will be readily able to place such a space at the clients’ disposal if he/she has been through the same experience. The time will have come to cast aside the crutches of morality or professional training (forgiveness, “positive thinking,” etc.). These are now superfluous because therapists of this kind will know that both they and their clients have healthy legs they can stand on. Once they are prepared to look their childhood in the face, neither of them will need those crutches any longer.