Psychotherapy in the Cave

The prisoners have lived in the cave their whole lives. Shackled to rough stone, they are forced to stare at dancing shadows projected onto the wall ahead from shapes held before a fire. There is nothing else to see. For them this cruel puppet show is life itself. Since shadows are all that they have ever seen, shadows are what they take for the world: they mistake the projections for the reality which they represent. Like the Lady of Shallot in her tower, they are doomed to see a simulacrum of a world, which lacks the depth and complexity of reality.

Suddenly one day, one of them (somehow) realises that he can escape. After breaking from his chains, he dwells for a time by the fire, staring into the flames, and witnessing how the illusion of a world had been created for him and his fellow prisoners. Eventually, he leaves the cave. We can picture him inhaling a breeze sharp with vegetable scent, feeling wet grass between his toes, squinting in confusion in the sunlight. Initially blinded by the intensity of the light, he slowly comes to see the world as it is: the delicious colours and twisted stems of plants, the ethereal motion of the butterfly, the complex weatherworn faces of other people, the joyful dance of sunlit waves, and all the glorious objects of creation, illuminated by a sun that makes this vision possible. As time passes, he even finds that he can look at the sun itself.

He returns to the cave full of excitement, keen to enlighten his comrades so that they can secure their own liberation, but he finds that he is as blind in the darkness as he previously was when entering the light. His eyes are clouded with swirling phosphenes, and he can see nothing of the cave or its inhabitants. The remaining cave-dwellers, noting his blindness, conclude that the world beyond the cave has impaired his vision, and decide that they are better off where they are.

This is the famous allegory of the cave from Plato’s Republic. The shadow-play stands for the flat distorted ideas of a mind that is unenlightened. When we do not really look at what is around us, we mistake projections for reality itself, and really looking is a difficult business. The process of escaping from the cave is the journey to become a lover of wisdom: one who can see the world as it really is. The allegory is intended as an illustration of what philosophy can do: through becoming wise and applying reason, we gain a clear and undistorted view that is free from projections.

This is a (very flattering) portrait of philosophers: how many working philosophers today imagine themselves involved in a process of this kind? My suspicion is that as philosophy has become increasingly segmented and specialised, we may have moved away from visions of this kind.

Since October last year, I have been training to become a therapeutic counsellor alongside running my fledgling philosophy business. Over the past few months, it has occurred to me that the image of the escape from the cave is strikingly similar to many descriptions of the process of therapy: proponents of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) talk about overcoming cognitive distortions to gain a more realistic view of things; the Adult ego state in Transactional Analysis is described as allowing a person to make an accurate appraisal of reality; and Freud talks about the triumph of the reality principle over the pleasure principle. In all these approaches, at least part of the aim of the therapeutic process is to gain a clearer conception of reality as it is, and in all cases this involves overcoming distortions and projections that come from within the human mind. Many therapists are in the business, one way or another, of helping people out of the cave.

This is not always the stated aim of therapy. Besides clear realistic vision, there are a host of other goals, often overlapping, and sometimes competing. To take a few examples, therapists speak of achieving self-actualisation; living authentically; gaining autonomy; overcoming ‘mental blockages’; developing talents; integrating the personality; becoming resilient; attaining happiness, well-being or inner peace; or finding or creating sources of meaning in life. How does escaping from the cave fit with these goals? What, for example, does clear vision have to do with happiness or well-being, or getting our thinking unblocked? If therapy is in the business of helping people to live authentically and create meaning in a meaningless universe, to what extent can this be compatible with the idea of a clear objective vision of things unclouded by our own projections? Where do human values fit in this picture, and to what extent should a therapist even take a stance on these questions?

These are huge questions, touching on the fundamental questions of both philosophy and psychotherapy. Since the early days of psychotherapy, it has always been in a complex dance with philosophy. At times, especially when the focus in Anglo-American philosophy turned away from questions of significance and the well-lived life, it sometimes seemed as though psychotherapists were more philosophical than the philosophers. At the same time, it sometimes seems as though there have been important philosophical developments that therapy has missed. There is great scope, for example, for a conversation between philosophically-minded therapists and philosophers working within the virtue-ethical tradition. My psychotherapy textbooks contain numerous references to Sartre, Buber, and Kierkegaard, but I have not yet seen a single mention of Iris Murdoch, Mary Midgley, or Alasdair MacIntyre, all of them fascinating scholars of human flourishing.

This post is terribly vague, and has mostly posed questions rather than suggesting any answers, but I’m very excited about bringing these two sides of my life together and seeing where it can go.

“You just have to realise that dirt doesn’t matter.”

How I learned to (sort of) manage housework

At 37 years young, I developed a routine for housework and managed to stick with it. This might not seem like a big deal for many of you, but it has always been a big struggle for me: the clothes piling up unwashed, heaps of stuff in every corner gathering a film of dust, the whole thing just building up into something so huge that I couldn’t face it. Many times I tried to deal with the mess, got everything clean and tidy, and vowed that it wouldn’t get bad again, but somehow it always did. Part of the issue was that I didn’t even notice the mess until I started tripping over things or finding it hard to find stuff that I needed: I was so caught up in whatever else was going on in my life that I didn’t really see it. Seeing is a lot of the battle.

I’ve now been managing with my routine for nearly two years, so it seems to have stuck this time. My house will never be a pristine show home – there’s a certain amount of mess, and sometimes things build up a little, but I now don’t reach the point where it all feels out of control and I feel ashamed of it.

I don’t normally share this kind of stuff, because of the gender stereotypes associated with sharing household cleaning tips on social media. It’s also a weird kind of thing to put on a philosophical tutoring/proofreading blog, but I thought I’d make an exception this time, since I know that I have friends who have the same problems that I do.

Below I will share what worked for me, but your experience might be different.

  1. Dirt Doesn’t Matter

The first, and most important, part of the battle was dealing with my own self-defeating and self-critical feelings about mess and dirt. The thing to remember is that despite the messages that you get from all over the place, BEING MESSY DOES NOT MAKE YOU A BAD PERSON. For some people this might be an ethical issue in the broadest sense-that having your crap in order can be part of a flourishing life-but it is certainly not a moral issue (there is very little out there on Aristotelian virtue ethics and household cleaning. Perhaps that should be remedied).

Messy people are not lazy, uncaring or dissolute: they are very often quite the opposite. I thought I knew this – I had recognised it intellectually, but the more progress I made with developing a housework routine, the more I discovered that what had held me back was the mean voice in my head that parroted stuff I didn’t really believe about what a terrible person I was. I’ll say a little more about that voice later.

There is shame involved in this, and shame is one of the most demotivating things there is: shame keeps people stuck in cycles of self-damaging behaviour of all kinds. Not everyone feels like this: the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe was asked how she managed to hold together her astonishing academic career while caring for a vast brood of children (I wonder if any male philosophers have ever been asked about this). She replied “You just have to realise that dirt doesn’t matter.” Her home was famously filthy, and she had a constant stream of student and academic guests round without batting an eye. In a sense, she was right: dirt doesn’t sully your soul – it isn’t the thing that determines whether your life was a success.

Still, for some of us it makes us anxious, and makes our lives generally more miserable and inconvenient. If you, like me, feel this way, you can develop strategies for dealing with it, but in the end those strategies are more likely to succeed if you remember Anscombe’s attitude. Dirt doesn’t matter.

2. Create a routine, but be flexible

If there’s one thing that you can learn from Aristotle, it’s that habits of thinking, feeling and acting only become graceful and natural after putting in a bit of groundwork, and this groundwork can sometimes feel irritating and clunky.

I made a list, well, actually several lists: things that I needed to do every day (e.g. emptying the compost bin, wiping kitchen surfaces), things that I needed to do once a week (properly clean a particular room), things that I needed to do once a month (dusting ceilings for cobwebs, clearing out and cleaning the fridge, etc.), and things that I needed to do every year (clear out the understair cupboard, clean or replace light fixtures, shampoo carpets, etc.)

Once I had those lists, I assigned days to the weekly tasks (with Wednesday free for the monthly task) and weeks of the month (1-3) for the monthly tasks, with the fourth Wednesday free for an annual task, some other random thing that needed doing, or just giving myself a break. Weekends were left without any tasks assigned.

I have daily to-do lists with work tasks that I keep in a notebook. I make all the lists for the whole of the next week on a Friday. That allows me to close the notebook on a Friday afternoon and let chaos reign for the weekend. If you’re like me, disciplined routines can be hard work, so it’s important to give yourself some time to be your ungoverned spontaneous self.

Once we had decided which tasks I would do, and which would be jobs for my husband, I started adding all my housework tasks for each day to the daily to-do list. Ticking them off gives me a nice little buzz. It’s important to include some tasks that take very minimal time or effort, so that you have something to congratulate yourself for even on the hardest days.

If something comes up on a particular day, you can shift things about – just move them to a different day, or cross them off if you decide they don’t matter all that much. Dealing with the whole list is much more important than completing it – dealing with it can mean rescheduling items, abandoning them because they aren’t important, or doing them. If you keep rescheduling something, this might be something you’re a bit anxious about, so ask yourself why and think about what changes you can make. If something gets crossed off almost every time, maybe it doesn’t actually matter and shouldn’t go on your lists anymore.

The important thing for me is to make the lists and keep looking at them, so that I am consciously addressing what I need to do, rather than putting it out of my mind and letting the anxiety fester in the background. Even if an entire list is either crossed out or rescheduled for other (specific) days, that is an achievement, because I am facing stuff and have thought about it. Even with this, you can give yourself a pass and not look at it if you are ill or overcome by major life circumstances, but make sure you always come back to the system and pick up where you left off.

The main points here are (1) that this is about developing habits, which takes a long time. It can feel awkward and annoying at first, but the more you do it, and return to the routine if you fall off the wagon, the more it gets built into your general way of living, and (2) it’s as much about a way of looking as it is about what you actively do. If you make it a habit to see your space in an attentive way, action will often follow pretty naturally. Sometimes now I even clean and tidy stuff without looking at a list!

3. Rome wasn’t cleaned in a day

One mistake I always used to make was having a huge spring clean that would burn me out, so that I didn’t want to do any other housework for at least a week. I found that things got better when I realised that the task ‘clean living room’ didn’t necessarily mean that I would have a pristine living room at the end of it. To begin with I just set the aim of getting it a little more clean and ordered than it was the last time that I did it, and gradually things improved.

I set time limits on it so that I didn’t waste too much of my life on something as inconsequential as wandering around with a microfibre cloth.

4. Audiobooks

A kitchen gets cleaned much more easily if Oliver Sacks is saying interesting things to you about the peculiar functioning of the human brain while you are doing it.

5. A job can be worth doing without being worth doing well

Today is Thursday. Thursday is kitchen cleaning day, but I really wasn’t feeling it. I spent 5-10 minutes doing superficial tidying and then ran a cloth over the surfaces. While doing that, I saw various things that would take a bit more time and effort to clean properly. I have seen them and I am aware of them – those will get done on a different, more energetic, Thursday.

Some days completing the task can be pretty much a symbolic gesture. If you do a really crap job of one of your scheduled tasks, you have still done it – tick!

6. Be your own judge and legislator, but sometimes you can make-believe that you aren’t

We have a robot vacuum cleaner. He is stupid but keen to please. He needs to get his exercise by vacuuming once a day (alternating upstairs and downstairs). I need to clear the floor to stop him getting tangled in things and eating stuff he shouldn’t. Obviously my duty to this machine is purely imaginary, but pretending that I have this stupid but endearing pet is helpful and fun.

One of my daily tasks is a ’10 minute tidy’. I set a timer on my phone and run around like the clappers getting everything looking more or less straight. You know that accusing moralistic critical voice that I mentioned? I’ve turned her into an imaginary judgmental relative who has announced that she will be coming to visit in 10 minutes time: I don’t really care what she thinks, but I want a share of the inheritance. I get to mock that critical inner voice, but still put it to a useful purpose.

Both of these externalised characters – the stupid but friendly assistant and the picky relative – allow me to view my space from a different perspective. Have you had the experience where you are about to have a visitor at short notice and suddenly you start seeing things that you haven’t seen before? It’s that kind of shift in perception that does the work here.

7. Conclusion

There are plenty more things that I could share here: specific stuff about how to get that ring of grime off the inside of the bath, or how to sort and put away laundry with minimal time and effort, but there are a million YouTube videos on all that stuff. These are the things that helped me get into a space where doing all those little specific things even became possible. I hope some of it might be helpful to you too.