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New Year 2020 ISST President’s message

15 Jan 2020 9:26 AM | David Edwards

I begin this New Year message with some sad news about our deeply respected and much loved Honorary President and founder of schema therapy, Jeffrey Young.  Jeff had a heart attack in late September. Fortunately, was treated quickly and this prevented serious damage to his heart. Now, his heart is recuperating well, but his overall recovery has been very slow, and he is profoundly weak and fatigued.  Till now, he has preferred to be quiet and see and communicate with only a few close friends and family members. He hopes to join us in Copenhagen but is unsure yet whether that will be possible.   I am sure you will all join me in wishing him well in the progress of his recovery.

However, please do not try to email him as he is not monitoring his emails.  Wendy Behary has generously offered to convey messages, so you can contact her if you would like to give a personal to message for Jeff. You can send her a message to her here -  but please also also consider Wendy’s time before you do this!  Thank you.

I have just been on my summer holiday and enjoying long warm days, swimming and walking on the beach or in the mountain reserves.   Those of you in the Southern Hemisphere will have been doing the same while our colleagues in the Northern Hemisphere hunker down in the darkest time of year, adapting to cold and snow (or perhaps heading closer to the equator to get a warmer break).  Meanwhile the heat is contributing to catastrophic disasters like the terrible fires in Eastern Australia that I know have affected some of you very directly, and a severe drought in the African countries north of where I live (Zimbabwe, Zambia, Republic of Congo) with news reports warning that millions are likely to be starving there soon.  Although in Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari (2015) assures us that the scourges of “famine, plague and war” are nothing like the threats they were in the past,  many of our members are currently affected by natural disasters, wars and their aftermath, political conflicts, and fascist, racist and totalitarian political regimes and movements. There is sabre rattling between the USA and Iran and ongoing tension between Ukraine and Russia, for example – all countries in which there are active ISST members, and these are not the only countries where our members are affected by military conflict.  Starvation, epidemics and violence still take their toll on thousands and sometimes millions, and natural disasters, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, typhoons and floods, sometimes of devastating proportions, are in the news often enough for us not to be able to forget them.  Every day we are reminded in news feeds how such threats are being exacerbated by global warming.  Then, there is financial corruption which is a direct threat to the stability of my own country, South Africa, and which significantly impacts quality of life in many countries all over the planet, particularly in (but by no means limited to) Africa and South and Central America.   It is still a very unstable and uncertain world. 

Yet this is the world in which, we, as schema therapists, seek to promote a sense of safety and stability – for our clients and for ourselves.  When I attended our 2016 conference in Vienna, I visited Freud’s house and consulting rooms.  An exhibition on the early history of women in psychoanalysis struck me deeply.  There was a quote from a letter of Anna Freud written in 1937 to Lou Salome, one of the first women to become an active psychoanalyst: “It seems to me such a beautiful goal, to make the child free of fear and at home in everything.” This is the same vision we ourselves have and seek to promote in schema therapy and this quote reminded me that it is a vision that has been inspiring psychotherapists for a very long time.  But these women, Lou Salome, Anna Freud, Helene Deutsch, Maria Bonaparte, Emma Eckstein and Sabina Spielrein, faced a very uncertain world and most would be deeply impacted by prejudice, antisemitism and war.  Helene Deutsch, who was Polish, would flee Germany in 1935 for the USA, Anna Freud was interrogated by the Nazis in 1938 and hurriedly left her home to escape to London with her father. The Russian, Sabina Spielrein, was shot by the Nazis when the Germans captured Rostov in 1942.  Lou Salome, born in Russia of a German family, died of illness in 1937 in Germany but because of her association with Freud and his “Jewish Science” her extensive library was seized and destroyed by the Nazis at the time of her death.

This glimpse into history confronted me with the tension we live between the harsh uncertainties of life on planet earth and the goal of finding stability, peace, love and fulfilment – and helping others to find it too.  As psychotherapists it is not a tension we can escape from.  In the face of these harsh realities, as we grow as therapists, we have to dig deep within ourselves.  Facing and identifying and bringing healing to our own early schema patterns is part of the life journey of a schema therapist – it certainly has been and continues to be for me.  And I look for inspiration from those who have faced and triumphed over great hardship.  I found this most recently in Edith Eger’s The Choice.  She did not have an easy start in life. Born in 1927, a Hungarian speaking Jew in the Slovak part of the then Czechoslovakia, she had a mother who never hesitated to show her disappointment in her husband or to tell little Edith her faults, and there was ongoing intense rivalry with her two sisters  -  plenty of maladaptive schema formation there. But that was the easy part. Their city was integrated into Hungary and Edith was soon training as an Olympic gymnast. But Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany and soon she was told she could not compete because she was Jewish.  What followed very soon after was much, much worse. The family was dispossessed and transported to Auschwitz where her parents would die and she, aged 16, would have to fight for her own survival under the sadistic charge of the notorious Dr Mengele.   She would survive and go on to become a gifted psychotherapist and would be 91 years old when she published The Choice (2018).  It’s humbling to read her mature reflections on the terrible traumas she lived through and survived and her expression of a deep human courage when she writes, “We can choose what the horror teaches us. To become bitter in our grief and fear. Hostile. Paralyzed.  Or to hold on to the childlike part of us, the lively and curious part, the part that is innocent” (p. 43).

We can choose  -  or can we?  For many people, I don’t think it is a choice because our deepest schematic patterns kick in so automatically that we are not aware of what has happened.  I believe it can become a choice and that helping people find that they can make a choice is part of what schema therapy is about. This involves cultivating a deeper and wider self-awareness from where we can engage with the deepest fear and grief and rage and paralysis that prevents us from finding and making the choice to stay in touch with and live from “the childlike part of us  … that is innocent.”  And we have to keep finding this for ourselves if we are to be able to show it to others.

May 2020 bring you opportunities to continue your own journey of growth and development. I hope that the insights of the schema therapy approach, and the inspiration of our many creative colleagues in the schema therapy community will contribute to that for you. To promote this, you can enjoy the many platforms the ISST offers for this:

Finally, a quick thank you to the large numbers of our members who have made and continue to make these platforms available, and all those work for the ISST on our committees or as National Certification Coordinators or in other roles.  The smooth and effective functioning of the ISST depends on you and I express our deep gratitude to you for your valuable contributions.

David Edwards, ISST President

13th January 2020

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