Strange though it may seem, we are heading into a most unsettling period. The official approach to the epidemic is that we are sort of returning to normality but probably that is not so safe. Families are confused as the world opens for some ages but not for others, leaving parents unclear from day to day when home will be free of children.
This is a time to listen to confusion. Unfortunately, no therapist nor any one I know seems to be able to predict with any certainty. What we can offer is to walk through the uncertainty and think through how individuals and families make decisions.
This may recall the term “mentalization.” That is the term that Peter Fonagy of London gave to the process of thinking not only about what is but also about what could be. It is a unique term because it attempts to be clear about the difference between the process of performing a mental act and the result of the act performed. Mentalization is the performance of the act, not its result.
If we are treating an individual, we can help give privilege to the process of thinking. A client may want to know “what” to do. We can help them realize that more important than the “what” is the “how” of their approach. We can weigh with them “how” one path or another affects their inner world and the world of their relationships. This may recall the concept of “multiple function” (Robert Waelder), and subjective AND pragmatic meanings that came up in Sunday’s class [ click here to watch ] in the first year theory course. We are helping our clients to move through their own complexity and to make decisions after taking many factors into account. We are relieving them of the “right” answer – as if they were in grade school and every question had a “right” answer. We are helping them to be the “adults” who assume responsibility for their decisions, and therefore try to go about complex decisions in a responsibly complex manner. A client who has walked through HER complexity of the meanings in HER life of various possible decisions has engaged in mentalization – could be this and could be that – and grows in this process.
And I hope that if more than one person is making the decision, that this reminds you of differentiation. The foggy reality is an opportunity for a couple to engage in communication that starts from “I-positions” and strives for the intersubjective co-creation that works well enough because it was “cooked” well enough between the partners. Since there is no “right” answer, the couple can be helped to come up with “what is right for us,” a major step towards increased differentiation.
But we must not forget that some of the individuals and families in our treatment become so anxious in an unclear reality that their “regulation” is upset. Here we may reverse the order of our intervention. “Tell us what to do,” they may plead. In such situations we may place regulation first, but as a step towards the intersubjective. How? Rather than testing possibilities, we may choose one direction, but as a tentative one. We may offer, ‘“Let’s try this direction out.” We test it out with our clients, we squarely place this “answer” on the table, but then we are mentalizing about it, seeing if it suits the client or the family. We want to be careful that if it does not suit them, then they are now leapfrogging over our suggestion to something better for them – they have mentalized better than the therapist, and of course our goal is their process , not our answer. And if they accept our “suggestion” it is because we mentalize with them about it until it becomes their own process.
Our Sages taught us to bless the good as well as the seemingly bad. We take upon ourselves to make therapeutic use of foggy weather no less than the bright light of day.