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10 December 2020

“Unless we adapt and change, we are brittle”: Julia Samuel on healing from trauma

The British psychotherapist discusses her person-centred approach to therapy and facing grief in an age of crisis. 

By Leo Robson

Shortly before I was due to meet the psychotherapist Julia Samuel at her home in west London, she sent me an email naming the time and place, and then wrote: “Not sure why I need to reconfirm the confirmation!” I replied that this would be the first thing I would ask her about. Then I instantly retracted my half-joking remark and emphasised that my questions would be confined to her new book, This Too Shall Pass.

It turned out that my anxiety had been misplaced. Samuel is a follower of the American psychologist Carl Rogers, who in the 1960s pioneered the tradition of humanistic psychology. As a result, Samuel believes that we are able truly to know ourselves and trust each other. She hadn’t found my suggestion aggressive or invasive – she raised the subject again herself – and the situation wasn’t mired in unconscious complexities. I’d been feeling curious. She’d been feeling nervous.

“I find this reverse role – you interviewing me – extremely uncomfortable,” she explained. We were sitting in her therapy room, a few months before Covid-19 locked the world down, in a pair of Ikea armchairs. She pointed to an empty third Poäng. “My favourite position in the room is over there.”

Samuel, who turned 60 in 2019, acknowledged a “battling relationship” between being “not that interested in myself” and “wanting to be known”. It was a victory for the second impulse that led to her career as a writer, and her appearance, five years ago, on Desert Island Discs. “I was so flattered!” she admitted. “I’d been practising my list for decades.”

The producer of the Radio 4 show had told her that nothing was out of bounds. Samuel was required to talk not only about her upbringing as a member of the Guinness family (which founded the Irish merchant bank Guinness Mahon in 1836), and her work as the first grief counsellor at St Mary’s Hospital in London – a post she held for 23 years – but also her close friendship with Princess Diana and her responsibilities as godmother to Prince George.

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[see also: The year of the Great Humbling]

After the episode aired in 2015 she was approached by a literary agent. At first she resisted the idea of writing a book (“it would be like homework for ever”), then one morning she woke up and dashed off a proposal. The result was Grief Works (2017), a meditation on what had long been her specialist area of working with bereaved families. Now she has published a follow-up – a collection of case studies on the theme of crisis and transition, or what she calls “living losses”.

Samuel is adamant that people shouldn’t seek to be stoical. “Unless we adapt and change, we are brittle,” she said. “And when we’re brittle, we crack.” She argues that if you deny pain and discomfort, you also “incrementally block your capacity for joy, so your bandwidth for experience is narrowed”. She recommends that people keep a journal.

But she is also wary of “promiscuous honesty”–“constantly telling everyone how you feel”. Apart from anything else, it isn’t sustainable. “We need a stiff upper lip, we need defences, we need our functioning self, to feel we know our way around and have agency and competency, particularly if we’re engaging in the world.”

Samuel argued that heightened emotional sensitivity can really be a form of repression. “Reading a book can never be ‘triggering’,” she said. “It may bring up difficult feelings for you and maybe you’ll have to learn what they’re telling you. But if you shut them down and blame the professor, you’re narrowing your capacity to engage with life. And that is not going to work for you long term.”

While some people are granted their desire not to experience distress, others have been denied the right to suffer. Samuel referred to the description, in a 2019 Guardian editorial, of the “privileged pain” that David Cameron felt at the death of his son Ivan, and regrets the way that labels of all kinds are used “to disconnect from the humanity of individual people”.

[see also: Journal of a plague year]

Samuel embraces the person-centred approach to therapy because it isn’t, as she put it, “judgey”. Unless a client’s account of themselves “absolutely doesn’t match” what she deduces or observes, she is happy for them to tell their own stories. “If I can create an environment where I’m not looking for what’s unconscious or digging out the dark stuff – one where they begin to feel my empathy and that I’m unconditional – that frees them to open up more and they expand.”

She has more faith in the simple than in the cerebral. She claims that the phrase, “Feel the fear and do it anyway”– the title of Susan Jeffers’s 1987 bestseller – is a concept that has “changed people’s lives” but says that she found Stephen Grosz’s more psychoanalytic The Examined Life – a recent classic in the case-study genre – elusive and cold.

“I like minutiae, knowing what people wear, the smells – the stuff.” In life, Samuel’s observations tend to be intimate and instinctive – a person seeming “flat,” or the sound made by someone’s laugh – and she hopes that her book will go some way to clarify the therapeutic process. “I don’t want people to think it’s some mysterious, magical room where things get resolved or that the therapist is some special person. I want everyone to know that it’s just a relationship – being listened to, and having an opportunity, in this cut-off time, to focus on yourself. It’s not really much more complicated than that.”

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special