The heart of the personal 1

When I was training as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist I was very taken by the writings of Harry Guntrip a psychoanalyst (though never formally trained) who died in 1975. One of the tutors on the training course I was on, Jeremy Hazell, had his training analysis with Guntrip in the 1960s and subsequently wrote a psychoanalytical biography based largely on the archive of Guntrip’s dreams that Guntrip had recorded over forty years and also the accounts of Guntrip’s sessions over two analyses – the first with W.R.D. Fairbairn and the second with D. W. Winnicott. Jeremy Hazell also published a collection of Harry Guntrip’s papers.

Guntrip himself published a number of books and articles on his particular understanding of what he called personal relations therapy, including his work Psychotherapy and Religion. He came from a non-conformist background initially joining the Salvation Army as a way to escape home and before working as a psychotherapist he was a Congregational minister. He had an unhappy childhood with a harsh and critical mother and a central trauma was the death of Guntrip’s brother (Percy) at the age of 16 months when Guntrip was 3 and a half – a true understanding of which he finally achieved in his seventies and after the death of his analyst Winnicott. Guntrip broke through what was the amnesia surrounding Percy’s death and re-experienced the loveless atmosphere in the home and his depressed and depersonalised mother.

This enabled him to write:

A problem created in childhood is ‘never too late to mend’, and if we know how to let our unconscious speak to us, a lifelong tension can be relieved even in the seventies. Age does not necessarily bring loss of capacity for emotional change and relief of longstanding tension.

Guntrip also understood that real religion is a form of coming home and is essentially about a search for truth, and that inevitably psychotherapy and psychoanalysis is a way of shedding the false self and associated hypocrisy that can be connected with seeing oneself as ‘religious’. If we are religious (whatever that means) our task is then to expose and strip away any sentimentality or froth that we think might be God and see beyond our projected images of God into an authentic experience.

As Winnicott explored in his work, the image of God is formed in the earliest of relationships between newly-born infant and mother when the infant is under the illusion that they had created the breast which suddenly appears to satisfy a need. The shift happens as the infant begins to realise through the help of a transitional object that there is a separate person to whom they are relating. In the same way we imagine and create God on what we have experienced in our early life, but this too can develop in mature religion into something beyond a God who merely bolsters or agrees with us or who is a punishing and critical parent. The move is to experience through deep belief and trust the beauty of holiness in what has been called the Ultimate Other.

In the next post I shall explore Guntrip’s thinking on how the relationship with God can developed through transference to the therapist.