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  • Writer's picturesarahfishburnrober

The dance of life

Matisse’s dancers seem at odds with the year 2020. Their exuberance, self-expression and harmony do not match these days of lockdown and dark nights, which can make us feel that our lives are beset by scarcity and enforced self-denial. We are painfully conscious of what we can’t have: contact with loved ones, job security, liberties of various kinds. For those clients with a history of emotional neglect, this year is particularly difficult because it amplifies their chronic sense of loneliness and deficit.

Most clients turn up to therapy without a definitive sense that they have been emotionally neglected. This is usually because they regard their parents as reasonable people, who fed, clothed and housed them. The mystery, for such clients, is why they feel so anxious and unconfident; so unimportant and flawed. Emotional neglect feels obscure to the client because all their basic needs were met. As Elizabeth Strout writes, “this must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true.”

Further exploration in counselling reveals, however, that these clients’ emotions were denied or dismissed, and that this happened over an extended period. Their parents did not validate their feelings or respond to them. They denied their own feelings, and were uncomfortable or critical when the client expressed theirs. They ended up feeling shamed for having emotional needs.

One goal of therapy is revive the exhausted and confused client’s emotional life, and encourage its blossoming into a living, breathing reality that enriches and informs the client’s life going forward. Replenishment and acceptance are both healing balm and enlivening impetus for a client who has been denied any emotional experience. If you find it hard to recognise your feelings, if you feel guilty for having them, if you suppress them or fear them, then therapy is for you. Such therapeutic work is vital, because being emotionally neglected excludes us from Matisse’s dance of life. Therapy can help us take our place in the dance, where the joy of abundance and belonging await us.

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