My client once told me about a childhood summer holiday where, under the heat of the Mediterranean sun, she hotly refused to eat her squid supper. She had been introduced to calamari by her mum as the ‘circular sister’ of the straight and familiar fish finger, which she dearly loved. As a child, fish fingers gave order not only to her plate, where she would line them up like long breaded dominos, but to her week – she knew what to expect every Friday in the school canteen. Familiarity was the dish of the day, as it was of her entire childhood, and now her adult life. And it had taken its toll – she felt her life was going round and round in circles, particularly her relationships. She knew these repetitions well, but they were far from new. And they were making her unhappy.
It’s very rare that I would challenge the kitchen wisdom of Nigella Lawson, but sometimes the new isn’t exuberant. Sometimes it’s excruciating. We aren’t really built for novelty, and food is one of the ways this shows most. We’re wired to avoid novel food – what’s known as food neophobia. It has evolutionary roots, and helps to protect us if we’re ever in a potentially hostile food environment. Some recent research found that if we cook with mealworms this activates bodily responses associated with anxiety and curiosity – but this doesn’t happen when we cook with faithful familiar chicken.
And it’s the same when it comes to feelings. As humans, we like sameness and familiarity, even if this means living our lives in ways that don’t necessarily make us happy. So often, people make choices and behave in ways where they end up asking themselves ‘why did I do that?’ But this fight for familiarity is very much going on at an unconscious level, and we repeat painful situations and feelings even though, consciously, we do not want to. This is the flavour of what Freud called the repetition compulsion. Repetition provides refuge. It helps us to feel safe but that sometimes comes at a price. Misery loves company, but it loves repetition even more. And sometimes we’re so caught up in the act of rinsing and repeating that we might not feel anything at all. And that’s no way to live.
Changing repetitions that have become baked into our lives over years, however miserable they make us, can feel like the hardest and most impossible thing in the world. As WH Auden said: ‘We would rather be ruined than changed.’ This is because change involves taking a risk – and that means new, unknown and uncertain ground. It means ‘going there’. It means feeling the feelings that the repetition has served to cover up all this time. But what helps is having someone to go there with, and that’s why the relationship is so significant in therapy – you’re not on your own with those feelings. But the relationship between the two people in the room is not the only one at play. Therapy helps to develop your relationship with risk, and this is when you really get to know yourself. You’ll find out about what you like and dislike, what you want and what matters to you – and that’s exuberant. And it’s a risk worth taking.
My recipe for ouzo calamari was inspired by this life lesson.