When and whether to give up

This post has taken a long time coming. I’ve been pulled in different directions, between the continuing struggle with portraits, and the challenge of line drawing without any shading. But In my heart there is a clear favourite. I have been working with oil paints for the first time, trying to paint a child’s portrait from an old family photograph. I have worked on it for months, rubbing out, repainting, going over and over it to try to correct the faults and bring it to life. It has consumed hours of my time but was only a partial success, as you can see.photo Then one afternoon I just gave up on it and rubbed the face out completely.

At what point do you decide to stop working at something? This is an important question, both personally, and professionally. How do I decide whether or not I am banging my head against a brick wall, or knowing the importance of  hope, just rolling with the frustrations? I have a lot of experience in working for years with particular people, and I know that genuine change is piecemeal and takes far longer than our culture thinks it should. At the same time, I work with a service that offers very brief, time limited counselling,  and  I recognise that even in this micro format, psychotherapy can make a positive impact. In this context, it is necessary to make quick judgements about which clients will benefit from the limited resources available; despite the misgivings and failures, I see this as a valuable skill for therapists to have.

In my own group I am free from the external pressure, but am still trying to make judgements about what works best for the group and its members. Years ago, there was a group member who had sat in the group for a very long time, and despite sporadic periods of talking, was largely a silent participant – or passenger. The language is important.  He showed no signs of movement within the group, or in his life outside, despite all our efforts. I reached a point where I put him under a lot of pressure to interact differently in the group …. and he never came back. This was someone who had been a part of the group for years and years, and it had a huge impact, especially on me. I had talked it through with supervisors and colleagues, had tried a range of alternatives before reaching this point – but even though I could justify my actions, I never felt good about what happened. It has stayed with me throughout my professional career. Giving up is not a comfortable choice.

So what about the painting?

The problem, I thought, must lie in the original drawing. I didn’t understand the face well enough, so needed literally to go back to the drawing board. I’m more familiar with drawing, unlike oil painting, and I can play around with the marks more readily. So I produced this, which isn’t going to get ripped up and put in the bin. photo-1

The same approach works in the group. If we can’t get to where we think we want to go by one route, then let’s rethink. Is there another way? Or are we heading in the wrong direction? And just as in the drawing, often we have to go back to the beginning. Where are the roots of the distortion, the discomfort? Let’s see if we can move forwards by understanding more about the basic structures that have shaped someone’s life, the bones that the flesh sits upon.

This sort of understanding does not come easily. There is no psychodynamic formulation that can simply be applied. All of it is hard won, just as in the portrait, for even though I might have grasped something, will it enable me to paint it again without repeating all the same mistakes? We will see!

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