A proportion of those who seek CBT treatment can trace their problems back to childhood, yet there’s no very practical definition of a normal childhood, and no clear dividing line between the unusual and the abusive. Equally, there’s no definition of a normal adulthood, and no clear line that recovering patients cross in order to be able to say that they are now well.
In an interview that you can watch online, a psychologist reflects on her own emotionally abusive childhood and at the same time illustrates what it is to be mentally well, though that was far from the original purpose of the interview.
Jill Mytton is a psychologist and psychotherapist who teaches at London Metropolitan University. Brought up in an extreme religious sect (the Exclusive Brethren) until the age of 16, she now has a special interest in helping people to adjust after leaving sects and cults.
She took part in an interview with Richard Dawkins for a 2006 TV documentary (The Root of All Evil?) that set out to expose religious faith as a form of non-thinking. Although much of the interview is concerned with religion and its effects on children, those are not the interesting parts from my point of view.
What’s interesting is that while Jill Mytton makes the damaging aspects of her childhood very clear, at the same time there is a sense of warmth and freedom about her that is impossible to make sense of simply in the context of such a childhood. She has moved on.
Although she doesn’t use the word, that moving on is what recovery means.
Deprivation and fear
The life Jill led as a child was one of very specific deprivation and fear (4:35):
If I think back to my childhood, it’s one that’s kind of dominated by fear. And it was a fear of disapproval while in the present, but also of eternal damnation.
She was not allowed to have normal friendships, and this affects her to this day (18:20):
When you use the word friend, I actually don’t know what you mean. No, still. I really don’t know what you mean. And I’ll be heard to say suddenly when I’m talking with somebody, “Oh, is that what being a friend means?” And they’ll say, “Well, yes.” I’ll say, “Oh, OK.” So for a little while I’ve got that concept and I can hold on to it, but then I lose it again. It’s as if…it’s as if there’s something kind of missing there.
She thinks of the way she was brought up as being comparable in some ways to sexual abuse (6:08):
I think there are a lot of similarities actually, because it is about abuse of trust. It is about denying the child the right to feel free and open and able to relate to the world in a normal way. It’s a form of denigration. It’s a form of a denial of the true self in both cases.
Yet she doesn’t blame her parents (15:55):
A lot of people will criticise their parents for the way they brought them up. I don’t criticise mine, because I know that they were trapped in the same systm that I was trapped in. And in fact it was because they deided to leave when I was sixteen that I’m sitting here today…or I might still be in that group.
And now she sees herself in a completely different way from the girl she was then (23:10):
Looking back, it felt like it was a kind of proxy self. It wasn’t really me, and I look back on my childhood sometimes and think, “Did I really exist?” That wasn’t me. It felt like I was asleep.
It’s difficult to identify just what it is that makes Jill seem so obviously mentally well, but it’s very easy to identify some things that it’s not, and this is useful and interesting because of various misconceptions about CBT that are around.
I don’t mean to suggest that Jill ever had CBT (and she is not herself an accredited CBT therapist). I only want to use her interview for examples of the kinds of goal that CBT therapists have in mind when they consider how their patients can recover.
The first thing she’s not is in denial about what happened to her. On the contrary, she’s very open about it all.
There’s a misconception that CBT does not address the past, that it’s about shutting a door on the past and obliterating it. It’s not.
Everybody has a past, and everybody’s past contains both good things and bad things. Therapy aims to integrate your past with your present, so that the things that happened to you make sense and do not hold you back in a catastrophic or dangerous way.
In a cult
Another misconception is that CBT is itself a cult, a way of life that you have to believe in and force yourself to comply with. It’s not.
CBT is a brief intervention in which you are able to make sense of things about yourself before moving on. It has no claim on you after you finish therapy.
There is an element of learning in CBT, and you might choose to make use of some of the things you have learned in future, but CBT is not a lifestyle or a belief system in itself.
A recent development is the misconception is that therapy is about controlling your own thoughts or feelings. It’s not.
Modes of therapy have been developed in which you make judgements about which of your thoughts and feelings are ‘good’ and which ‘bad’, so that you can take action to suppress the bad parts of yourself. These therapies are not CBT, even though they sometimes claim to be.
The aim of therapy is that you become, or remain, a whole person, so that you can be really who you are.
In perfect peace
No one lives in perfect peace with their past, and CBT does not aim for that. The aim is for your past not to have catastrophic or dangerous effects on your present and future. The aim is not to take your past away from you.
Jill Mytton’s past still has some force for her, though it is not a destructive or disabling force (49:30):
…I used to get flashbacks — I still do occasionally — and nightmares and hypervigilance and so on, all these kind of symptoms that people who are traumatised by car accidents, bombings, whatever, also experience.
And it still evokes strong feelings (19:50):
It’s as if something hasn’t developed, and I feel angry about that sometimes, I really feel angry about it.
In perfect harmony
CBT is not about making you conform to other people’s expectations. It’s about freeing you to be just who you are. Jill Mytton certainly doesn’t conform to everyone’s expectations of her (46:17):
My brother, who’s still in the Exclusive Brethren has described me as the embodiment of evil, and I’m now doing Satan’s work. So if he hears about this television programme he will see this as yet another example of Jill doing the work of Satan.
As adults we are shaped in many ways by our childhoods, as much as or more than by things that happen later. Yet we have choices about the extent to which we are shaped and in what ways.
CBT helps to illuminate the choices that patients have, often revealing choices that they did not know existed. And it helps patients to implement their choices, to find in themselves what Jill Mytton was deprived of as a child (22:33):
…actually valuing the strengths that I had, the good things about me, my true self.