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Remembering R D Laing- the importance of listening to people


R D Laing, psychiatrist and author of The Divided Self and many other books, was one of the first people in mental health to suggest that we should really listen to each other and be respectful of each other’s experience of the world.


It is easy to forget that, at that time, this was revolutionary - the psychiatric system at that time simply locked people away who did not fit in with society.


He suggested that people who end up seeking psychiatric or psychotherapeutic help can be understood as experiencing a ’rent in his relation with his world’ and ‘a disruption of his relation with himself” (R D Laing The Divided Self 1966).  He also suggested that we should ‘listen more carefully and take some of their personal ’stories’ into account’ (RD Laing 50 years since the Divided Self.  Eds T Itten & C Young 2012).


This idea of being listened to and taken seriously was one of the most important aspects of my own experience of psychotherapy and is the basis of what I strive to offer to the people I work with.  I know that for many people it can be the first time that someone has really paid attention to them, listened to what they want to say and how they are feeling about things.


This can be an astonishing and liberating experience of being seen for who I am, rather than what I can do, or the role I am playing.


The suggestion that some people ‘are living within a family embedded in a society, which teaches us to play roles and fulfil functions, which cut us off  ... from our deepest feelings and needs: it alienates us from ourselves (Berman ,M.(1970),Review of The Divided Self in The New York Times)  rings very true for several of the people I work with.  Their sense of self is somehow not located in themselves and not easily accessible to them. This sense of being cut off from others is one I frequently resonate with in the therapy room.


 I think the experience of psychotherapy can be really effective for people who have this kind of history when we are able to create a new relationship in the therapy room, when they feel some sense of being connected with me and therefore may be able to make some new kind of connection with themselves and then others in their lives. This regained sense of self and existing in the world has to be taken out of the therapy room into the world you live in, but it can be initiated in the safe space provided for a while by psychotherapy.


Inspired by reading

R D Laing 50 years since The Divided self. Eds Itten, T and Young, C. PCCS Books.  2012