Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Autonomy and Ecstacy

by Tory Butterworth

When I work with clients in psychotherapy, I try to help them find themes for their work. By repeating these back to them, it helps make sense of their daily struggles as dealing with a particular set of issues, rather than a series of random events. It can help them see how they are coping with the same issues more effectively as they progress in their work.

As a writer, I try to find a core theme in my work, allowing the plots and subplots to develop different aspects of that theme. My hope is this will give the work an integrated feel, as the collection of people and events fits together into a greater whole, moving towards a satisfying resolution.

One of the themes that comes up a lot with my clients is the search for autonomy. Autonomy is about developing a sense of oneself as separate from others and complete in oneself. Healthy autonomy allows people to follow their own interests and meet their own needs. A person with healthy autonomy can answer the question, "Who am I?"

One of my favorite stories of a quest for autonomy is from The House At Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne, "In Which Tigger Comes to the Forest and Has Breakfast." Pooh asks Tigger, "Do Tiggers like honey?" Tigger responds, "They like everything." However, after actually tasting honey, he realizes Tiggers like, "Everything except honey."

Tigger then tries haycorns, thistles, and many things in Kanga's cupboard, and realizes he doesn't like any of them. Finally, he tries extract of malt and realizes, "So, that's what Tiggers like."

The reason I like this story so much, and quote it often to my clients, is that while people are working through their autonomy issues, they may only be seeing all the many things that they don't like and losing track that they will ever find something they do like. I try to help them realize that they're turning down dates, jobs, or projects in the pursuit of finding something that truly fits with who they are.

Autonomy themes appear frequently in literature, not just in Winnie-the-Pooh. Classic tales of men choosing between their love and the sea (in which, as my high school English teacher once quipped, the sea always wins.) Love triangles, like Scarlet O'Hara choosing between Ashley and Rhett. Protagonists making choices that define who they are (and not just what they like to eat.)

When you look at the books you like, do any particular themes stand out? Is there a way those relate to your life?


Anonymous said...

Thought-provoking ideas, Tory! When I wrote romance novels, most of the books dealt with autonomy---the woman's quest for it as well as the man's fight to give up some. (The male part of this theme is often referred to as "taming" the alpha male.)

And I just finished reading Alison Lurie's TRUTH AND CONSEQUENCES, a literary novel, I guess you could say, about marriage. It's about regaining autonomy as two people break up a stifling partnership.

For the writer in me, it always comes back to thinking about the protagonist and asking myself, "What does s/he want?" The themes emerge from that question. Just---I assume---as it happens in therapy.

Anonymous said...

Intriguing thought, Nancy. I hadn't thought about, "What do you want?" as the central question in therapy, but it could arguably be considered the focus for almost every session.

Well, I guess there are some sessions that are more about, "Now I know what I want, how do I go about getting it?" Those are the skill-building ones.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, those are the sessions I need, Tory! The practical application!

Anonymous said...

The books I tend to read (and write) deal with past secrets and moving on. I wonder what that says about my own life. Hm.

Anonymous said...

Kristine: Maybe that you're moving on?

Cathy said...

I write and tend to read stories about women who make a big change in their lives and become who they are despite what the world and their mothers think.