Psychotherapy & Home


                               ‘The words we speak become the house we live in’

                                                                                                                 Hafiz (2003)

Within the field of Psychotherapy, there is surprisingly little literature, that seeks to describe multiple perceptions of Home and it’s potential meaning. In its peppered and difficult to find scattering the mainstream Psychotherapy community is considering the undeniable need for healthy attachments, companionship and our need to create and maintain healthy relationships, and this for me is where we are truly beginning to look beyond the materialism of Home.

Abraham Maslow (1954), a pioneer of transpersonal theory was one of the first psychologists to cover the necessity for shelter and safety, when he produced his hierarchy of needs model.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow suggested a hierarchy of human needs, represented above as a pyramid with the more basic human needs at the bottom. He placed the need for shelter in the first level of the physiological, suggesting that if the most basic level of needs are not met then the individual will fail to desire, or be able to focus impulse upon the higher levels of need.

‘Physiological needs are the physical requirements for human survival. If these requirements are not met, the human body cannot function properly… shelter then provides the necessary protection from the elements’ .

Maslow (1954)

Maslow’s theory was vital for making the basic requirements for human survival explicit, and whilst this work is important for understanding how psychology was beginning to view human needs as the requirement for relative psychic stability, I find it it limited for the kind of inquiry I have in mind regarding Home. This blog will have a focus on the higher level of needs, including a later sixth level of need introduced by Maslow (1996) looking at Self-transcendence, and a desire to unite with that which is beyond the personal focus of deficiency.

So to open up the question of Home more broadly, let’s return to psychotherapy. Psychotherapy pre and post Maslow brought to the fore the more object-relational and attachment theories from the likes of Freud (1919), Bowlby (1973) and Ainsworth (1978).

Attachment theory highlights the importance of primary carers providing us with the appropriate living environments which attachment theorists call the secure base. Psycotherapy sugegsts that our attachments provide a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space. And it is this thinking around the secure base that leads me to think about ‘Home’.

Attachment is not always reciprocal of course.  One person may have an attachment to an individual which is not always shared.  Attachment can also be characterised by specific behaviors in children, such as seeking proximity to the attachment figure when upset or threatened. This should arouse behavior in adults towards their children including responding sensitively and appropriately to the child’s needs. These behaviors appear universal across cultures and therefore provides a robust set of behavioural principles for human science to rely upon. Usin attachement theory we can begin to explain how the parent-child relationship emerges and can influence a human being’s development.

Mary Ainsworth (1978) first used the expression ‘secure base’ to describe the environment created by the attachment figure for the attached person. Jeremy Holmes (1997), describes

‘the essence of the secure base…provides a springboard for curiosity and explorationwhen danger threatens we cling to our attachment figures…their presence enables us to work, relax and play – but only if we are sure that the attachment figures will be there if we need them again’

Jeremy Holmes (1997)

Why this feels significant is that it begins to bring understanding to what were previously non-tangible but, vital parts to the importance of a secure Home. It makes explicit the need for a Home to be more than a physical construct of walls and materials, John Bowlby went on to agree that ‘the Home environment needs to be a safe and secure place from which human beings can begin to explore the world from’ . This relational focus suggests that a secure base is provided through a relationship with a sensitive and responsive caregiver who can meet the child’s needs, and to whom the child can turn to as a safe haven.

These relationships serve the same function for adults as for children; and provide Homes which can offer comfort and reassurance, and allow us to operate in the world with confidence. In the words of Bowlby;

 ‘All of us, from the cradle to the grave, are happiest when life is organised as a series of excursions from the secure base provided by our attachment figures

This now leads us to the aspect of Mother. Most of us can connect to the idea that ‘Mother’ is a universally accepted symbol and archetype of the primary caregiver. In Jewish culture, Mother is also widely referred to as an exemplary symbol of the secure base, therefore, becoming a place of vital comfort for a nation in diaspora. This endorses Home being something beyond its walls, and in line with Jungian analysis, highlights a symbolic desire to return to Mother as Home, and her archetypal aspects of nurturer and container (Jung, 1991).

A return to Mother as Home becomes interesting because it has been discussed lots in psychoanalytic theory. ‘Womb phantasies’ were of particular interest to Freud (1919) who  makes a rather fascinating leap that the most ‘Uncanny’ experience a man can have is one relating to the female and the womb, because of its power to create and comfort. This idea is extended to include what Freud describes as the ‘wish fulfilment’ of returning to the womb as Home (Freud, 1919).

This unheimlich place…is the entrance to the former Heim [Home] of all human beings…the place where each one of us lived once upon a time…‘Love is Home-sickness’…whenever a man dreams of a place…and says ‘this place is familiar to me, I’ve been here before’, we may interpret the place as being his mother’s womb or her body’

And so the Mother is a place many people crave a return to, and I too have often thought about returning to this place of deep comfort and absolute dependence. Freud interprets this fascination as humanity’s sense of Home and has certainly paved the way for something symbolic to be explored here. I am inclined to agree that this urge to return to our ‘former heim’ could be viewed as a particularly difficult type of displacement from the womb; however, it could also be symbolic of a spiritual diaspora.

Psychotherapy is now adding to the prism of perspective, and conveying a sense of Home which is far beyond basic shelter, with further discourse bringing the qualities of relationship, and companionship, as well as a longing to be somewhere which is not always tangible.

The literature seems to echo the themes of safety, identity and well-being and when the literature moves beyond the environmental factors the most common discussion is about ‘belonging’.  If what is being said across the board is that a sense of Home requires a sense of identity in relation to others, then it goes without saying that only through a respect for boundaries can we begin to relate in a way that is mutually beneficial.

An amalgamation of the traditional and the physiological influences begin to construct a sense of Home as a basic need being met, and then satisfying further needs within the comfort of belonging and the relational aspect of attachment to the people we share our Homes with.

John Byng-Hall (1998) discusses the relational aspect of family within the context of the spatial Home by illuminating the ‘too near-too far dilemmas experienced by family members sharing a Home’. He goes on to quote Schopenhauer’s (1851) porcupine metaphor.

‘A number of porcupines are huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter… they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However, the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining a little distance from one another’ (p.247).

Schopenhauer’s observation is a valuable and succinct metaphor because it begins to name the tension experienced through contact, hence the importance of object-relations theory in psychotherapy (Winnicott, 1965).

When weaving together the essential arguments made through some of the key areas in mainstream psychotherapy we have to consider the importance, of not only securing a shelter that will protect us from the environment, but how we co-exist with other human beings. Maslow was pointing out the need to protect ourselves from Mother Nature, but what psychotherapy has stressed is the significance of creating a Home environment with a chain of stable relationships. Home without successful relationships becomes a place in space and time that can bring environmental disruption with chronic consequences.

What this post has illustrated is that beyond the aspect of shelter there is the further need of well-being, love and belonging which can provide the basis of relative emotional security. Our Home therefore, is not simply a space or a place; it is not merely an object in the world, but a more profound way of knowing, seeing and understanding each other.

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