Life, life is a verb, life is a doing word

Know Yourself-Love Being Yourself-Don't Lose Yourself-Make the World Better

Life, life is a verb, life is a doing word

Psychology 0

I have a friend who did the clinical masters with me, Margaret. After seeing a client for therapy she would very happily trot out of the room nodding her head slowly, reassuringly saying, “There’s movement, as long as there is movement, its good”. Years on she specialises in ‘stuck’ complex issues.

Tear drop lyrics – Massive Attack

Margaret Henning – Systemic Narrative Therapist and Consultant Clinical Psychologist

mover truck

In order to fulfil our lives we are required to live our lives, actively engage and do what we have to do (each of us) in the world to activate our potential, to become the ‘flower’ that we are; our own distinctive coming out.

In engaging with life we have to be open, we have to learn, we have to grow and leave simpler explanations behind. We have to get used to complex explanations, ones that are less black and white. We have to accept responsibility, we have to cope and endure in a world that at the most is benignly indifferent to us. We have to make decisions and commit to them.

Co-mingled with all of the above tasks we have the opportunity to live, love and perhaps experience fulfilment and happiness as a by-product of our efforts. If we don’t do the things that we have to do the mathematical possibility and likelihood of experiencing fulfilment and happiness are diminished. Happiness is a derivative of our efforts, it is epiphenomenal, a secondary phenomenon resulting from another, in this case the activated and engaged living and achieving of developmental and other tasks.

For some of us this seemingly straightforward process is a substantial challenge.  All the things we have to do not only tender us the possibility of fulfilment and perhaps happiness but they simultaneously potentially put us in harm’s way. We are beings who struggle with the experience and regulation of elemental emotional distress and pain. If this were not so, therapeutic change in a person would constitute a simple reprogramming of our cognitions and behaviours; changing the on and off binary command processes.

Perhaps our greatest ingenuity is epitomised by the things we do to not experience pain, to protect our soft (creamy orange) chocolate centres. sweets

Life and the experience of life is not the same for all people, as I say recurrently. Yet in practice we each have to do fairly much the same general things. It’s in the detail that we each find our personal quest; our individual coming out. I suppose the challenge is to ascertain what it is we each have to do (over and above the common tasks we share with everybody) and then find ‘my’ way to do what ‘I’ have to do.

Sounds straightforward and for some perhaps it is. It might be helpful if each of us had the courage, imagination, and wisdom to create a list, a list that outlined those things that put us at risk and those things that protect us in the journey of life. This list might help us prepare ourselves for the tasks and challenges ahead, almost like a user’s guide to oneself. Let me give an example of what I am suggesting.

Bobby (someone I used to talk with) still lived at home with her parents as she closed in on her thirtieth birthday.

Her life was about two emotions; shame at her situation, her lack of movement and advancement and envious anger at the way she saw other people engaged with the world, living and growing; shame directed at herself anger directed to them and to herself.

She watched as she saw other people living as she wished she could live; to have a love partner, to go out and socialise, to have a job, earn a living and have a sense of ordinary belonging.


Bobby was not without self-understanding, she had a grasp on what she needed to do; find a way to support herself financially, leave her parents’ home, connect with people and handle each day as it came, being just another ordinary person living her life.


She had struggled at school with learning and other difficulties that made achievement very hard. This left her self-esteem a bit battered with a sense of shame. As much as she wanted to socialise; and she had more than enough opportunities, she shied away from being with ‘successful people’ as this made her face red and hot and her body sweaty, she was already self-conscious enough.She had always been a highly sensitive person; it seemed to be her nature. Now this made it harder for her as she avoided situations that she knew would leave her possibly feeling hurt or rejected. It also made it better for her; with her sensitivity and natural empathic ability she could easily connect with another person (whom she felt safe with) in a one on one encounter.

Because of her school experiences she was pessimistic, not believing that she could succeed or master the challenges she had to face like studying or training further.

She felt that her parents were distant, quite irritated with her and were just keen for her to leave home. She struggled to trust people but she knew that her grandmother adored her, knew her inside and out and believed in her even when she didn’t believe in herself.

Over the years spending lots of time alone she had pursued a number of interests that did not derive income. She had a well-developed eye and an aesthetic sense that made photography quite easy for her. She loved and knew a great deal about choral music. She so wanted to join a choir, any choir.

Up to now she had found ingenious ways to not do the stuff she had to do to at least have a chance of getting what she desired. She had perfected her capacity for wishful thinking. She had concluded that the pain of trying to do was harder to bear than the pain of feeling shame and anger. She gave her fear full dominion in her personal realm. She patiently waited for divine intervention and she held steadfastly onto her faith in spiritual transcendence.

Some might say that she was spiritually bypassing. Interesting terminology, sounds like a highway flyover that cuts around having to pass through a really busy congested but superbly interesting city; would you want to bypass New York and go to Buffalo instead?  Buffalo is great and worth visiting but New York is a life experience of immense proportions!

Spiritual bypassing

New York New York, Gerard Kenny


Click on the seal to go to Buffalo!

She needed her faith and her hope but remembered that even if you have the gift of God in your life; you still have to live your life, do your life day to day.

Having said this she had never used drugs or alcohol to drown her sorrows, no-one in the family did that. Bobby had discipline, she had learned hard every day to master her camera; she was so skilled that she could easily teach a beginners course; strangely that prospect didn’t scare her at all.

With so much time on her hands she volunteered a lot at the old-age home. It was really tough seeing people unable to look after themselves alone, whose children had moved away and hardly ever saw their elderly parents. This left Bobby quite morally furious but determined to spend as much time as she could helping the elderly people enjoy their lives; she sometimes sang for them; they loved it when she sang bits of Handel’s’ Hallelujah chorus; she felt supported and valued by them.

Hallelujah Chorus

It was her thirtieth birthday soon, her frustration was growing. Almost not noticing it she experienced a growing realisation and acceptance that she couldn’t be like other people; there were certain things she couldn’t do and certain things she didn’t want to do; those things weren’t her. She came to accept that she couldn’t trust some people and that was just what it was, no more no less.

Her parents told her that they were planning on selling the house and moving into a smaller flat; that there would be no room for her. She panicked; but only for a short while. Against all the odds she felt a slither of humour, a smile in her mind but not yet on her lips. Perhaps she was ready to try and do what she had to do even if she went scarlet and sweated in gallons; she was beginning to imagine that she might survive after all.

There were things that put her at risk; made doing life harder for her and there were things that protected her; made doing life easier for her.

Interestingly it is not immediately obvious which the risk factors are and which the protective factors are. Is being angry, sensitive or a wishful thinker a risk factor or a protective factor?

So what did she do? Sorry no recipes, just cooks.

How do we do what we have to do? With as much self-knowledge as we can muster, with courage and humility usually not knowing what the outcome is likely to be, one step at a time as Martin Buber suggests.

“The question is raised of what is the way that a person can follow in seeking truth and unity (with God). The answer is given that this way is indeed like a road, but not a road that one walks upon. It is a road that one is in the act of constructing. Laboriously you roll the stones into place. You press them down. With much effort you roll the next one into place. You press it down and with great difficulty you smooth the tops, fill in the spaces in between and level it off so that it can be walked upon. You do it one stone at a time and after a while you find that you have moved several yards forward. Working, you have been on the way. The road has come into being beneath your feet, for reality is not a symbol separate from you to be reverenced and interpreted. Reality like man’s relation to truth grows as the tissue of his life”.

Martin Buber, For the Sake of Heaven, New York: Meridian, 1958.

Bobby emailed me recently saying; “I’ve worked really hard on myself to get to this point; I’m not going to give that up now. I spent years acquiescing in case I should be rejected so I tolerated and put up with things that were not good for me. I spent a long time working to understand who I am; now I do and the only rejection that scares me is, me turning away from me. I’m not saying it is any easier but I feel less powerless inside”.

A brick wall can be a gate if we see it. Psychologically, that is a miracle, that what you think is one thing can in fact be a different thing.

gate wall

Risk Factors and Protective Factors | National Institute on Drug Abuse

Risk & Protective Factors

Risk and Protective Factors for Youth

Increasing protective factors

Building coping resources: resilience