Was our original creative project the wish to love and be loved by our mothers?

What happens if that creative project failed and your mother wasn’t able to acknowledge, respond to, and reciprocate your love?

I like Harold Searles’ writing. One of his papers, ‘The Patient as Therapist to His Analyst’ from Countertransference and Related Subjects (1979), deals specifically with Searles’ idea that the patient is unwell in relation to how their original therapeutic strivings (In Searles’ view, the wish to love our mothers) failed.

Searles’ paper came to mind recently in my work with trauma survivors.

In my private practice, I have worked with a number of people who have suffered early and sustained trauma. The psychotherapy often succeeds in helping these clients build up more of an understanding of what happened to them in their early life. It enables reflection and the construction of ideas and thinking that goes some way to explain what happened to them. It frequently throws light upon why they have been attached to self-destructive behaviours throughout their life.

In the psychotherapy, periods of self-limiting and self-destructive behaviour are explored and the client often becomes more relaxed and confident. They become better able to think and reflect on themselves and to collaborate constructively in the work. But when the session ends, they retreat, withdraw and often fail to build on what they have been doing in the therapy.

When we meet for the next session, they explain that they have not wanted to think between sessions about the work we were doing in case the work did not have its intended or hoped-for positive effects. Instead, they retreat or shut down.

One client, a particularly creative woman I will call Mo, had wide-ranging ideas and a number of projects that interested her that she would have liked to develop and work on. But, the pattern Mo was attached to was that she would go no further than to think briefly about her projects and then shelve them. Mo’s attitude toward her creativity contained a powerful repressive dynamic.

I came to think about this repressive dynamic, this limiting attitude to herself and her ideas as reflective of the failure of her first creative project—Mo’s wish to love and be loved by her mother. Mo’s relationship with her mother never developed into a loving reciprocal one. Her sense was that her mother may have been in a state of undiagnosed post-natal depression. It seems there were particular problems in Mo’s early home life. Partly as a result of this she was often left neglected and abandoned for long periods. Mo’s wish to love was met with anger, rejection, and resistance.

I came to understand this as part of the transference to the therapy and then began to see that it might be understood as describing the relationship Mo had with her own creativity. Though Mo could have very interesting ideas that captured her imagination in her sessions, she would later abandon them and leave them ignored, only to hesitantly pick them up again in the next session.

This led me to think about the way our creativity, not just our capacity to have an idea, but more particularly the possibility of following our ideas through, might be bound up with our original maternal relationships.

In psychotherapy, a client starts to develop a greater understanding of themselves and what they went through early in life. They become better able to reflect and to develop more benevolent and caring attitudes to themselves and others in the sessions. But outside of the therapy, they do not manage to sustain these attitudes. They return to a position in which they put themselves down at the expense of others and remain fixed to limited expression of creativity. The attitude they express to their own creative ideas contains thwarted, complicated and destructive impulses.

Have they transferred to their own creative selves, expressions of the sense of failure and disappointment they experienced in their original maternal relationship? Do they treat their creativity as an inferior object to abandon at will? My work with Mo has led me to think that a consequence of early trauma and abandonment may be reflected in the way people struggle to pursue their creative projects in later life.

Could this apply to your patients? Has their creativity become caught up in the pattern of their original creative failure(s)? Instead of writing their novels or memoirs or even other less lofty creative projects, do they continue to struggle with failed beginnings? Is the repressive early relational world that they experienced what they become destined to locate and repeat in their attitudes to you and their therapy?

Is it possible that through the shared creative therapeutic venture that you can both come to see the problems they experienced in their relationship with creativity as reflective of problems in their earliest relationships? Could you use that information or insight to help them change and improve their relationship with their creativity? 

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections