Our empathy with the natural world: Ecopsychology
I have often wondered about the importance of the natural world in my own life. I need some exposure to the world of nature, to keep, well, happy, content even. Nature has a powerful calming and restorative effect. I feel good when some random dog decides to make a brief acquaintance on a walk, or a cat, looking for pavement affection, purrs contentedly when I scratch its ears. The busyness of the birds, insects and squirrels as the year comes to life still captivates me as a profound connection to the Earth.
Myself and other animals - the wild psyche
I started on my journey to psychotherapy at first from my interest in philosophy and then I studied Zoology at university. I selected evolution, ecology and behaviour as my distinct research interests, with a cross over to the Psychology department to have a background in Neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. I dissented a lot from the scientific model of objectivity, the pretence that I was not involved in some way with the animals I was observing.
I remember being in a marine biology laboratory and the chief researcher introduced me to his favourite octopus.
In retrospect I should have asked a question; how does one develop a relationship (favouritism) with a cephalopod?
What was the link between this man and a vastly different alien being (related closely to snails and slugs)?
Others that spring to mind are Dianne Fosse and Jane Goodall; their initial studies of gorillas and chimpanzees, instead of being carried out with scientific objective rigour, became a personal, almost family endeavour. No relational distance there; it was personal.
I also studied primates (in captivity) for a while in a team. By the end, they all had names and personalities.
Psychotherapy, a place at which I arrived on my journey 20 years later, in many ways looked like I had simply swapped species. Now I was interested in the relational world - the questions was no longer 'how?' but 'why?'. What did this mean?
Families and other animals
I think we all, at least in the UK, understand the familiar role that domestic pets play in our lives. (Farm animals are mostly cute in the fields, or wrapped prepared in the supermarket reduced to pieces of meat).
Pets though, now that is quite different. Different cultures - even across a vast timescape - have relationships with pets. They are buried with solemnity and remembered as a tiny person, connecting seamlessly with our emotional lives.
I will attempt a brief, rather cartoonish version of this journey with pets and the wild:
Firstly, let us start with settled couples. In preparing for the large step into the move from coupledom to family, a dog or cat mostly will be introduced into the household. This is preparatory responsibility and caring. A test of nurturing (kittens and puppies, not older rescue animals) and a shared task. The intricacies of how a couple will interact with a needy, helpless in many ways 'third', are played out here. On occasion this practice run turns into something far more serious, the pet/baby/parent interaction gets played for real. There is extraordinarily little difference between the practice and the reality of parenting children.
Next, with younger children, rather curiously short-lived pets become introduced into the family home. I have heard it suggested that this is the first introduction to death, and the solemn rituals of burial and even the emotional pain of loss. A primitive rite of passage, inbuilt into our collective unconscious. A dead goldfish is a manageable situation, but still, dead is dead.
As we move through our life stages, children become firstly taught about the outside world, friendly and cute creatures are in storybooks, dinosaurs (very commonly) exist as the old mythic monsters, backed up by ‘science’, exhibitions, television documentaries and fiction.
To be scared by the mythic monster is another rite of passage in the world. Some storybooks, fairy tales, myths, even cartoons hold our fascination with the dark shadow uncontrollable wildness of our fellow-creature travellers.
Anima and animus and childhood
We let this wildness into our homes, domesticated and playful of course. The curious bond between dogs and boys and cats and horses with girls suggest a difference of relational expectations, even at this early age.
This is an over-generalisation, I realise, but it still holds true, represented in storybooks, movies and parental biases. Bowing to pet pressure there remains a gendered choice, that has stood firm despite fashion changes over the years.
Cats are given female (or anima) characteristics, dogs male qualities (animus).
Horses and ponies have a different quality. Equine therapy is now widely used around special educational needs (SEN), and curiously dependency recovery treatment. This is because you need to build an essential, trust-based relationship with horses, you cannot force them. This relational aspect again is much more a part of our own anima tendencies, the relational self.
When we interact with non-humans, we are revealing some parts of ourselves, often hidden from others, due to the constraints of our own gendered consciousness.
And so, it goes.
We carry this code into our adult lives, sometimes expanding to care about the plight of the non-domesticated wild world, over the last few decades the ethical or non-ethical treatment of our farmed animals has risen to become a new ethical battlefront.
In short, we care about our fellow creatures and respond emotionally when they are mistreated.
I know the above is very general, I have also passed over how we enjoy plants and tending to gardens or wildflower patches. The connection we have with nature, even though our techno-savvy 21st-century eyes are blinkered, our relational based psyche responds in a way that suggests a deeper bond with our planet and life in general.
Our mental well being is part of this life ecology. We enjoy the outside, freed from brick and metal boxes, the fresh air, and horizon clears our mind, whilst we remain enthralled by the ecological world that surrounds us.
Relationships. Easy and complicated?
Over many years in practice, I have seen clients who have ‘better’ relationships with their companion animals than with other people. This is a rather curious phenomenon.
The most obvious answer (well they don’t answer back) is not actually the case. Our favourite animal companions (dogs, cats, ferrets, birds and horses) are remarkably good at responding to our presence, voice and moods. They also do not pretend with false reactions.
The muted nature of this response may make life a little easier, however, it opens up a relationship side of our ‘selves’, which no longer needs to be hidden. An American psychotherapist suggests that when two people first meet, there is only one task that needs to be performed. Initially, we 'promote' ourselves to and 'protect' ourselves from the ‘gaze’ of the other. If this persona is not needed, we can reveal our relationship needs and fears. Companion animals let us do this without comment or critique.
The nurturing side (and its corresponding shadow, bullying control) is given full rein here.
This sounds a bit too simple to me. Other factors now come into play. In some process, we identify with these creatures. How many clients have I encountered that will tell me about their adverse childhood experience?
And I have seen them find some solace in rescuing an animal, the smallest, perhaps injured animal at the adoption centre. This supports the proposal that when we care for the needs of others, we also are taking care of our own (unmet?) needs emotionally.
Animals allow us to care for our hurt childhood selves, the relationship is real and constructive.
This is the reason that we will grieve their loss. They are a part of us for the short while they are here.
*Recently it has struck me as interesting that whilst, under the COVID-19 lockdown, some relationships struggled (it has been a huge ask to live with another 24/7/90 days ++) that we do not mind having a similar relationship with our pets, who can be a constant companion. This may be to do with the asymmetrical power dynamic of course.
Lastly, our psyche has parts that we are ‘ashamed’ of; anger, fear, lust, etc. (these are considered part of our shadow psyche, the necessary duality of opposites (C. Jung).
On occasion, we cannot contain them within ourselves and either judge others or find a way to hide them in plain sight. (If you have worked in an office, I am sure you will understand.)
Once again there is the curious case of our companion animals. We translate them into language, (much as we do with babies):
- In many cases this is unbalanced, we see what we want to see in their ‘personality’.
- Their character traits (see how the language changes) have become ‘humanised’.
- I have met snarly yapping dogs, described by their owner (carer) as “really sweet-natured”!
- Or alternatively, I have seen clients with anger issues describe their dog (always dogs) as vicious and then later show me a photo of a rather dopey looking mutt.
Our pets contain our own emotional map, projected onto them. The vehicle for this projection is the invisible glue of the relationship.
I wrote this to examine our relationships through a different prism. If I am asked about the purpose of therapy, I have found the best answer to be just one word. Relationship. Here we find ourselves and we find others. We can see them in us and ourselves in them. It could be other people; it could be a pet cat.
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