Whenever anything difficult happened in my mother’s life, she would say “I’ll put that on the back burner.” This meant she didn’t want to talk about it, think about it, and she definitely didn’t want to feel it. The message was that it was best not to dwell on difficulties.
I have noticed that many people have similar strategies for emotional management. They have often been trying for years to push their problems away so that they won’t be visible or troublesome. They’ll have packed their difficulties into a metaphorical container of some sort, stashing upsetting memories into suitcases or drawers, stuffing painful feelings into boxes under the bed.
People tend to come to therapy when these storage solutions break down, when their problems or emotions have begun spilling out.
The start of therapy involves trying to persuade people that looking inside these heaving boxes and drawers is a good idea. They may look at me as though I’m mad. They’ll fight against this idea, a bit like my mother used to. They might say, ‘it’s an indulgence to dwell on problems’, or, ‘I was brought up not to brood or mope’.
I will explain that a controlled unpacking of these containers is preferable to the prospect of things bursting open. Sometimes I use the image of a champagne bottle. In my experience, blocked emotions in the psyche act a bit like bubbles in a champagne bottle. When emotions are compressed into a tiny space, the pressure only builds, the force with which the feelings will want to re-emerge grows stronger.
They might counter with an image of their own. Let sleeping dogs lie, or, don’t disturb old bones. They’ll insist they would prefer to look ahead to the future and leave the past undisturbed. “That’s happened,” they will say. “We can’t change that.” I will explain that we can’t change the past, but we can change the way we think and feel about it, we can change the way we live with it.