Counselling and psychotherapy, Creativity

‘They tried to paint me into a corner, where I didn’t belong’

Our editor Jon Sutton meets existential therapist Emmy van Deurzen.

14 June 2018

I met Emmy at her house in the outskirts of Sheffield. Our conversation covered therapy, politics, and her art [see also this month's special feature].

Do you think we’ve lost academic debate?
Certainly in the media. When I think back to 30 or 40 years ago, there were programmes on television where intellectuals, professionals, had discussions and debates and dialogues with each other, on really interesting topical issues. Where do you see that these days? What we’ve got is Question Time, which is completely not a real debate. It’s gone.

Why has it gone?
People are controlling the discussion in this country, there isn’t that openness to actually exploring with another person, and for people to be able to participate in it. People are scared.

Whenever we’ve tried to set up debates in The Psychologist, I’ve had that sense… they fairly quickly fizzle out, with people seemingly unwilling to take a firm stance. People seem to think that to properly debate is to be aggressive and confrontational, but it doesn’t have to be like that.
Not at all. It can be very respectful. It’s only in dialogue that you can learn something new. You don’t see that at all. The only way we learn something new is by doing research and arguing about it in a very factual way, but what we don’t see is in-depth philosophical debate about things we have discovered.

About ideas…
And what it means to society, and what we can do with it, and how we can interpret it in different ways. We’re hiding at the surface of things, all the time.

You think that’s changed in the last 20, 30 years?
I think in the last 10 years it has become really bad.

How does it affect your practice?
That’s an interesting question… a lot of people come to me because they want to have that kind of discussion about their own life, and they don’t feel they can do that with the people they know. If they try out an idea about what they think has happened to them, what they think they might want to do, other people will immediately judge them or make them ‘fit in’ with the norm… settle into something predictable, when they might want to experiment with something different.

And your approach is to explore…
…to go down any avenue, see where we get, and if that isn’t where we want to go we backtrack and we go down a different one.

But not in a passive, ‘what do you think you should do?’ kind of way?
Oh no, I will challenge. ‘So if you do that, you think that this will happen? But what about that, what about what happens to your family, your future?’ I make them think about issues they may not have thought of. Then they go down that path and they discover something completely new again.

Cognitive behavioural therapy is the prevailing framework, do you think that involves challenge in the same way?
It depends who does it and how it is done. A therapy is as good as the practitioner is, and as good as the client is. They make something of it together. A lot of CBT is done at a very superficial level, but I also know people who are more experienced and who use that instrument to do something much more interesting.

Certainly some of the ‘third wave’ therapies seem to be more willing to give an opinion on what’s going on… I’ve always thought that if I was in therapy, that’s what would drive me mad, you go and see a professional and they pretty much say, ‘What do you think you should do?’… ‘I don’t know, that’s why I’m here!’
You have expertise, and that doesn’t mean imposing your views, it means helping people see the horizon that you’re capable of seeing and that they might not, and then for them to do the exploration and make the decisions.

How quickly are you capable of seeing that horizon after you meet a client?
I’ve done this for 45 years. By now I get a very good overview quite quickly. I know what questions to ask and I make observations about how a person is in the room, how they are in relation to me, how they hold themselves, how they are dressed, their facial expressions… there are so many things I’m used to picking up on. But I slow myself down, I don’t jump to conclusions, so it will take me several weeks to really begin to feel that I know how that person is in the world, and what things matter to them. What are the contradictions, the conflicts, their purpose, values, beliefs, fears, hopes… all these sorts of things, that takes a bit of sorting out. It’s like the painting I do.

Exactly that. I get an immediate impression, and sketch something out, and then I start checking it out, and gradually the picture fills in.

And do you think you’re about as good at that as you have ever been and ever will be?
Much better. At my absolute best. No doubt about that. But I have lost certain things. When I started when I was 19… I’ve actually done it for 47 years, I’m 66 now… I was naive, and I was open, and I was willing to share myself straight away. I was willing to plunge in really deep and be passionate and enthusiastic. I couldn’t do that now. I’m still passionate about the work, but I wouldn’t engage with somebody in that fresh, deliberately open way. I’m far more cautious.

You see that as a loss, even though you say it was born out of naivety?
There are clients who I think just need that, they need to find somebody who makes them revitalised, believe that life is possible. I don’t think I can do that quite in that way. I think I can help them understand life, and see the complexities and the possibilities and the fascination with it, all of that, but that takes more time. In two sessions, engage somebody out of suicide and make them inspired, to think ‘Ah! That’s how I want to be. I want to be like her!’

You talk about time, and I guess the drift towards the ‘manualised’ version of therapy, to ‘austerity’ measures, your approach is obviously more intensive over a longer period. Is it a therapeutic approach based on luxury, and only a certain kind of client can benefit from it?
Not at all. We run a low-cost clinic at the Existential Academy in London, with people coming from all kinds of social backgrounds. They can work with us for maybe just 10 sessions, or 20 sessions, but they can also do longer-term work. Of course I’ve also seen many people who write to me who live in Japan, or India, South America, and they say ‘I’m coming on holiday, can I have one session with you?’

Just to revitalise, recharge?
Just to get a different view on things, to re-experience themselves. I don’t want to boast, but…

I think you should! I like the fact that you boast.
…they very often say, ‘Wow, that’s really changed everything’, and then maybe they come back four years later and say they want to do that just one more time. I think, ‘How did that happen, I didn’t do that!’ It’s something that happens between us, in the room, in a very short period of time. They put so much energy into it, they have high expectations. They have been stuck, troubled, and they think, ‘Maybe she could help.’ When they come into the room it’s already highly charged. Somehow, I know how to bring that out, put order into it and put light through it. Again, like painting! With the right organisation, perspective, the sense of solidity and lightness, purpose and direction, suddenly the fire takes again.

You say it involves a lot of energy on their part; do you get people that you hear about further down the line who didn’t benefit from that approach, or where you immediately think ‘This isn’t going to work with you, you haven’t got the spark’?
I never think that, but there are people where it takes many years. I have had clients in Sheffield I have seen for 12 or 15 years, and there is still a darkness and a struggle. They’re getting the hang of it, but some people work with great troubles.

That is also part of the essential core of anybody though… I think the ‘light versus dark’ struggle is a vital part of everybody. We all need to retain some of that darkness inside, don’t we?
Totally. I completely agree. Some people are too light! But there are also people who have been trapped into the morass of life, they’re not just in the darkness but they are stricken by fear, terror, paralysis. That can take a very long time.

What’s the basis of that, do you go naturally to childhood, or fear of mortality, or just the state of the world as it is at the moment?
Everything. Existential work has got to do the whole range. It’s about the long distant past, the immediate past, the present, the near future, the faraway future, temporality in general, eternity, you name it. All of it matters. To figure out where that person has a problem, you need to broach all of it. You can’t select something, you have to see where that person is stranded, unhinged, unwoven, stuck.

Do you think you’ll be doing this into the faraway future?
It’s a way of life. That’s how I live for myself, how I try to be with my employees at work, and how we are in our couple together. Working like that with people is just part of what nurtures me and keeps that alive, so I think I’ll always do a bit of it.

We’re sitting next to the study you share with your husband, Digby Tantam, who is both a Professor of Psychiatry at Sheffield and a Visiting Professor of Psychology at Middlesex. You collaborate with him?
We work together, have meetings together, write together, travel to conferences… we haven’t spent a night apart for 24 years. But we’re completely different characters, totally different. This constant dialogue, of unravelling the issues and straightening them out, finding something that works, is just the learning process every day.

In what core ways are you totally different?
So many ways… for example, Digby is very good at managing structural things and seeing to it that things operate well. I’m much more interested in being inspirational or having new ideas, pushing things in a new direction. That steadiness along with that volatility or exploration, sometimes rub each other up the wrong way, but overall that is a wonderful strength you can work together. Each of us is better for it.

But also character-wise, we want different things, we have different ways of doing things all the time. Digby is much more British, I’m much more Dutch. So Digby will work with negatives very well, he’s fantastic in conflict. He’s a group analyst, so he will push people to express their negatives, their conflicts. I’m much more of a peacemaker, I’m more interested in seeing how to harmonise things. But I’ve learned from that, as you say – the more you can face the dark, the better it is. So I help him harmonise, be more appeasing sometimes, and he helps me to be more confrontational in a way I didn’t dare be 20 or 30 years ago. Or stand up to people who might bully me, which he is absolutely amazing at. He’s confident and strong, and I’m careful and gentle. But I’ve learned to be strong and solid, robust, and I think he’s learned some things from me too. That takes a long time, and to dare to admit what you might bring.

You’re not in any great rush.
You’ve got to trust that if you pay attention to what goes where, and how you can settle it in, it works out. Like in the garden, we’ve put loads of plants in, but when you look out there you can’t see that any more… they’ve kind of worked it out with each other. Some plants have died, some have thrived, and they’ve all settled in without having to do much to it. You can’t really see why you planted them like you did, because they’ve rearranged themselves somehow.

In terms of our society at the moment, I know you’re a keen Remainer…
I am an activist I’m afraid [read more in Emmy's blog for the British Psychological Society].

Do you think there’s too much meddling, for want of a better phrase? That people should be left to rearrange themselves?
I think we don’t know the half of it. There’s a lot more going on behind the scenes, and it’s very dangerous. It’s by no means all about remaining or leaving, it’s much bigger than that.

More existential than that?
More political than that, more ideological than that. There are ideologies driving politics that we should be very worried about. They remind me very much of the things I could never understand as a child in the Netherlands. I was born in 1951 and my parents had very difficult war experiences, people in the family shot and in concentration camps, my grandparents becoming refugees when their house in Arnhem was bombed. My father hidden away from the Germans for an entire winter, losing everything. I grew up in the shadow of that war, with all those stories and all the fear of it. They took us around Europe and made us play with children in all the different countries and learn the languages, because they were very keen for us to understand that you have to work together and you have to accept difference. You have to learn to be flexible about that.

The one thing I never understood – I remember asking my parents about it over and over again – ‘How could this happen in Germany, how did people allow it?’ My mother used to ask people that question, in front of me, when we went to Germany. I remember very well what they would say, always the same thing. ‘We didn’t know.’ How was that possible? My mother tried to explain it, saying, ‘Well, it was slow, people thought the situation is difficult, maybe this guy will make it better, you have to take a bit of rough with the smooth, it can’t be quite that bad, maybe it’s a good thing to separate people out…’ Very gradually, the standards slipped and changed and people accepted it. I thought, ‘I don’t know, I don’t think that could happen now’, and I felt superior about it. Now I understand. I know how it works. I know how it happens. Yet it is so difficult to get people to take notice of what is going on.

Because it’s slow.
Yes. They think, ‘Maybe it wasn’t that great, we’ll be OK anyway’… it’s frightening, because I recognise it. Same in the United States, one of our sons lives out there, and we’re very aware of what’s going on there too. Utterly terrifying.

Can psychology do anything about this?
It bloody well should. Because we know how that works, we know how people are manipulated. All of this has been done with psychology. I realise with hindsight that I was being manipulated. I became activated just six months before the referendum, because I applied for British citizenship. I wanted to work and I was confused by the Home Office. I didn’t have the right residence card, I had ‘indefinite leave to remain’, instead of ‘permanent residency’, which was the newfangled thing they had brought in. I thought, ‘This is crazy, I got that certificate from the Home Office in 1984, they can’t refuse me.’ So I tried again, and I was refused again. I got my MP Nick Clegg to help me. Then I discovered the AIRE Centre in London, and they helped me put a letter together, which Nick sent to the Home Office. They phoned me up on a Friday night, saying, ‘We have refused you twice, but would you consider applying again because maybe it will be different this time?’ I got it in the end, but this was post-referendum, it took a year. So by that time I was very cross. I was on social media a lot. I realised that when I was trying to explain to people what was happening, I was getting trolled all the time. I didn’t know it. There were people who would say to me that they were psychologists, or counsellors, or psychotherapists, and they were scandalised that I should talk about these things: ‘What would your clients think?’ These weren’t psychologists, they were people putting pressure on me.

They’re wasting their time there aren’t they?
No, it had a huge impact on me. I was silenced. And then I decided that was nonsense, that I didn’t care any more what people thought of me, that it was more important to speak up and not let it happen. So when people started on me, I accumulated lots of factual things, or I would just block or mute them. But these were things I had to learn.

I find it interesting that you were silenced… I’ve only met you today, but I would imagine you’re relatively hard to silence!
I was so worried about my ideas not being welcome in the country. Before I got British nationality I was actually beginning to get really scared that after 40 years in the country I would have to leave.

Did it add an element to your fears that you thought they were your peers? That takes us back to the start of the interview, the idea that people in psychology are perhaps scared to seem outspoken?
It was exactly the same thing. That peer pressure stops us, it mutes us, it makes us bland. We’re so cautious that we don’t explore things any more. We have to take that risk, we have to venture out with our ideas, then maybe other people show us a different side and we change. What we shouldn’t do is just block ourselves.

We’re increasingly getting emails, online comments and so on, saying, ‘What is all this post-modernist, left-wing, liberal agenda-pushing nonsense, I wish you’d just go back to being a psychology magazine.’ The way I explain that is that there are actually a fair few people doing what you’re saying, pushing back… but it seems to me that is leading to a splitting of the discipline, between people who are saying ‘This is the very stuff of humanity, we should have plenty to say and the confidence to say it’, and others who think that psychologists don’t even have the right to address these types of issues.
Absolutely. And these people pursued me for it. They used words like ‘neo-liberalist’, and ‘privileged’, and said philosophy is irrelevant… to which I could say I work in Yorkshire with ex-miners. They couldn’t quite locate me. They tried to paint me into a corner, where I didn’t belong.

I’ll admit, I didn’t know much about you before I came today, and I had formed the impression that existential therapy would be a luxury of the privileged. How does a Yorkshire miner decide that what he needs is an existential approach?
Because he doesn’t want to be psychopathologised. He says, ‘I don’t want some psychologist or counsellor who’s going to tell me what’s wrong with me, I just want to talk about my life… I want you to help me understand it.’ People aren’t daft… they just need somebody who can help them do these things and come to some conclusion about themselves. It isn’t about where you were born, how much money you have, how intelligent you are… all human beings can do that.

That links in with the anti-diagnosis movement, and perhaps the recent Power, Threat and Meaning framework… that’s talking in those terms of people not necessarily benefiting from saying ‘I have got depression’. It’s more about what’s happening to me in my life, the sources of power and threat…
Yes, and also the limitations that people have encountered in their life. An existential approach is always political, and it is always socially and culturally informed. If you haven’t had certain opportunities, you just don’t know about certain things, that it is possible to get out of a place and discover difference.

This is why I came to this country. I was invited by Laing and Berke to come to London and work in the therapeutic community. We didn’t use medication, or categories, people would explore their madness. It was a very disillusioning experience to live in a therapeutic community and discover that people just end up self-medicating when they don’t take anti-psychotics… drinking, smoking dope, stuff like that. But nevertheless, that tough exploration, sitting with people for hours, living with them, that really changed the way I work. It made me aware that it’s about enabling people to find the strength and courage to face their problems and live in a different way. It doesn’t matter where they come from and it doesn’t help to say, ‘Oh, you have schizophrenia’, but it helps to have that background and to recognise that they may be suffering from biological things too.

So they may well ‘have schizophrenia’, it just doesn’t necessarily help them to see it in that framework?
Yes, and they may well be autistic, it’s important to recognise that may well be the case and it’s not all in the mind, but you can still have a dialogue with them and help them explore in a different way.

And do you think you’re going to carry on getting better at this exploration?
I hope so. I have no doubt that I’ll also get worse in some ways. At this age things start changing… I’ll get more tired more quickly

That’s started for me already. The Japanese see 61 as heralding an entire new phase of life…
Well, Carl Jung used to say you can’t be a therapist before you’re 60. You have to have been through all those phases to get to that stage where you can reappraise and re-evaluate. If you haven’t done that for yourself, you can’t really properly do it for other people. There is some truth in that, I think… that mature way of being with people is important.

A relaxed way that is based on knowing yourself first.
It’s about wisdom. We need to dare to use that word. It’s about moving from knowledge to wisdom, and from doing things to people to being with them.

One of the most interesting aspects, to me, of what you’re saying, is that you’re brave enough to say that you’re wise and you’re at the top of your game.
I’ve worked at it long enough. I’ve got two master’s degrees and a doctorate, I’m a philosopher and a psychologist, I practise psychotherapy, I’m a business manager, a Principal, a political activist, an artist… it’s taken me a lot of time to do all those things and pull them together, to understand how it all connects.

I need to get better at that.
Well, you just took my photo, and you say you’re not a photographer, but I see what you were doing. There’s a search in that, you were looking for a new angle, you brought something out. That’s like doing therapy.

We haven’t been having a therapy session, but I feel much better about myself already. You are good.
That’s the general idea. You start looking at the different aspects, you begin to see that each of them is a facet of life. Bring it to life and it all starts sparking again, and then you actually want to do things differently. You feel more passionate, more vital.

Photo: Jon Sutton