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  • Writer's picturesarahfishburnrober

Dissolving our petrified opinions

Artist Emma Middleton and a group of care leavers created this art installation currently on display at the Foundling Museum in London.

The young people’s school shirts are hung on pegs in a row, and inside each collar is sewn a label, in the manner of a name tag, which repeats a damaging phrase said to the child by a teacher.

All of us receive implicit and explicit messages in childhood about who we are. Some of these labels seem complimentary. “You’re the clever one!” Yet so often, the child, and later the adult client, experiences them as burdensome and confusing.

Then there are the messages that the client, as a child, believed were being conveyed. For example, the child whose father is depressed and absent during his youth might engage in some magical thinking to explain this unhappy situation. The child cannot make sense of his father’s behaviour, and because the child depends on him for his survival, cannot allow himself to believe that his father is at fault. So if his father’s behaviour is not his father’s fault, it must be his, the child’s. So the child concludes: I must have done something terribly wrong. My father is not interested in me. Therefore, I am unlovable. If I was lovable, my father would not behave in this way.

Thus an adult comes to counselling carrying the belief, of which he may be completely unaware, that he is unworthy and inadequate. In fact, he may have exerted considerable energy constructing an outward ‘self’ that is noticeably egocentric, perfectionist or capable. But as Goethe put it, “loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain, or freed a human soul.” One of the jobs of therapy is to dissolve our “petrified opinions.” It is a mysterious, painstaking process, as therapist and client unpick the different narratives and memories with all their affective warp and weft, discarding the outdated labels, so that there is space for new words. Rabindranath Tagore puts it like this, “when old words die out on the tongue, new melodies break forth from the heart.” How we long to live from the truth of our own hearts, and not according to the careless, wounding words of others.

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