Once someone shows us care, the idea of being ‘worthless’ is automatically challenged.Maja Andersen
The following interview forms part of a series where I invite psychotherapists to each reflect on their personal history, meaning, and philosophy, and how those are embedded throughout their therapeutic practice.
This week I talk to Maja Andersen, a psychotherapist based in Brighton, UK whose work is influenced by psychodynamic, relational, and Jungian concepts.
You write that your practice is mainly psychodynamic and relational. What drew you to those modalities in particular?
Before training as a professional therapist, I did a lot of volunteer work with survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and substance misuse. I became increasingly curious about the psychological aspects of trauma and coping mechanisms; drug abuse was rarely about the substance itself, but rather it was usually a way of coping with distress. Likewise, I witnessed some people move past a traumatic event relatively quickly with the right support, while others somehow seemed stuck in difficult past experiences.
I wanted to make sense of this; how is the human psyche structured and how is that connected to our experiences of the external world. The rational and logical thoughts might be that once a person has survived abuse and trauma they would take a stance of ‘never again’ and go on to live a free and fulfilling life, encountering the opposite was heart-breaking and at times mind-puzzling.
Freud’s theory of the mind became a go-to for me in trying to understand the ‘unconscious’ parts of the mind; the powerful drives at play which the conscious part of our minds are unaware of. Of course we all have blind spots, this might take the form of repeatedly pursue a certain type of behaviour or relationship that doesn’t serve us well. I wondered about nature and nurture; what makes a strong emotion bearable for some, and not for others? How does the past influence the present; as in, if the world treats someone cruelly, might they on some level believe that they deserve it, and as a result begin to treat themselves in a cruel way?
All of those questions wouldn’t leave my mind, and I decided to leave a corporate career behind to become a therapist, I wanted to do my bit towards easing psychic pain, but I also wanted a comprehensive understanding of the human psyche, so that a client would be able to help themselves by gaining a deep understanding of how they view and experience life.
Having studied Jungian Analysis, how does this influence your practice today?
Carl Jung ‘trained’ under and worked alongside Freud. But he was unsatisfied with Freud’s theory of the mind alone, and he began to explore symbolism, spirituality, and individuation. Those aspects of being and living are as relevant today as they were back then.
As a therapist, I am trained to listen on many levels, I hear what is being said, how it’s said, and I notice too what isn’t being said, bodily sensations may also tell me vital information about a clients lived experience. Symbolism is very alive and present in my therapeutic work, in that, I often get a powerful image pop into my mind as I work with a client; the image relates to the client and as I share this – I guess you could say that I share my mind, a client will hopefully gain a better understanding of themselves and feel understood on a very deep human level too. It is a beautiful meeting of minds, a shared experience that words can barely describe, and it is one of the many reasons why I love my job.
Feeling stuck, lost and without meaning are experiences we all face as human beings. Why do you think that is?
Yin and yang. I guess we cannot have one without the other; light without darkness, good without bad, or even life without death. Life can be testing, difficult and worrisome, that is all perfectly normal. I often remind clients that experiencing anxiety is a normal part of being human, suffering with anxiety, however, is not, and this is where I and other therapists can help.
Words, emotions and meaning are connected. Take for example the word ‘victim’ and contrast it with the word ‘survivor’, they are very different and yet they both signal significant adversity. What makes them different is the meaning we give them. We need purpose and meaning in life, otherwise life runs the risk of becoming a bit pointless.
Most people are familiar with the concept of post-traumatic stress or distress. We may even think of this as meaningless suffering. However, the flip-side of this is post-traumatic growth. This means that overcoming adverse life experiences can make us grow, develop and even flourish, the suffering now has meaning. It doesn’t undo the pain, but rather it adds to it; pride, confidence, contentment and calmness to name a few.
How might you approach those feelings in your work?
We are all different, what gives you meaning may not apply to me and so on. Therapy isn’t about me telling someone how they should think, feel or be, but rather it is about each person finding their own voice and autonomy. Some people initially come to therapy hoping that their therapist will have all the answers, and they may even be disappointed when the therapist is asking more questions rather than providing answers.
Of course, when we are lost, we want somebody to show us the way. A significant part of psychodynamic therapy is to challenge a client’s perspective. For example, a person may be absolutely convinced that they are worthless, unlovable or fundamentally flawed in some way, this view can only come unstuck when that belief is challenged. This is naturally done in a gentle and respectful way; in other words, it is done with kindness and care. Once someone shows us care, the idea of being ‘worthless’ is automatically challenged.
Are there any experiences you can share which you found particularly striking in your work?
Because of confidentiality, I obviously won’t be able to talk about any clients in particular, but in general, I can say that I am constantly surprised and in awe of the many amazing clients that I have worked with over the years. I can honestly say that I have not gotten anywhere near the point of ‘seen and heard it all before’.
Each person is unique and so too are their lived experiences. With each client I learn something new, and it continues to inspire and humble me. The human mind is incredibly adaptive, defence mechanisms are automatically formed, all in the name of survival.
I might be forgiven for thinking that after years of training and working as a therapist, I would have reached a point of ‘ok, I now know all about the human psyche’, but nothing could be further from the truth, the more I know, the more I realise how much more there is to know. This is one of the wonderful aspects of therapy, you never stop learning.
Who or what inspires you the most in the world of psychotherapy today?
So many things, once a therapist, always a therapist. I cannot watch a movie or read a book without considering the psychological aspects at play.
Besides clients who continue to inspire me to learn more, the understanding of trauma treatment has also come a long way and it is an area which is rightfully being given a lot of consideration and attention.
There is a significant body of research relating to effective trauma treatment emerging in psychotherapy today, as a result of that relatively new body of evidence I have expanded my training and practice to include EMDR.
EMDR theory takes the stance that the mind, like the body tries to heal itself. As in, the body has an immune system which tries to rid our body of toxins, our brain is likewise wired towards mental health and healing. In the case of EMDR, this natural healing process takes place using bilateral stimulation. It sounds a tad strange, but it is an incredibly powerful and effective form of therapeutic treatment. This is very exciting and life affirming to me as a therapist.
Learn more about Maja Andersen’s work at her website: https://www.counselling-therapy.com/