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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Psychotherapy Blog: Making Changes: What to Keep and What to Let Go of in Your Life - Part 2

In the first part of this discussion, Making Changes: What to Keep and What to Let Go of in Your Life,  I began a discussion about Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan trilogy and the various themes in her books about change, courage, self identity, loss, friendship, family, trauma and triumph over adversity.

Making Changes:  What to Keep and What to Let Go of in Your Life

In this article, I'm expanding on this topic by discussing the challenges involved with making changes, even when these changes are positive, by continuing to use Ms. Ferrante's stories to illustrate my points.

In Ms. Ferrante's books, starting with My Brilliant Friend, the protagonist, Elena, has an opportunity to continue her education beyond elementary school to high school and even to college.  Coming from a poor community on the outskirts of Naples, Italy in the 1950s where most people are just struggling to survive, this is highly unusual, especially for a girl.

Although there is no doubt that this opportunity is a change for the better, higher education, especially for girls, isn't valued by Elena's parents or most of the people in her small town.

From a practical point of view, her parents are just scraping by, so the cost of a higher education is a luxury that they can't afford, especially in a society that sees women as eventually getting married, having children, and being subservient to her husband.

Determination to Change in the Face of Adversity
How does someone like Elena, who in her wildest dreams, never even imagined that she could attend high school--let alone college, deal with the internal and external conflicts that arise in this situation?

Once the financial obstacles are removed, Elena is determined to succeed even though there are still many practical and psychological obstacles.  She stays focused on what she wants--even though there is still a lot of uncertainty and she knows it will be difficult.

Step by step, she perseveres.  She studies hard.  In situations where she has no experience and she feels socially inadequate, she is a keen observer of others and learns by example.  She also struggles with her internal demons that tell her she's "not good enough."

Feelings of inadequacy and doubt weigh on her throughout much of the story, but her determination, intelligence and ability to adapt help her to keep going.

Making Changes and, as a Result, Feeling Like an Outsider
Elena also struggles with feeling like an outsider among her peers in college, many of whom had opportunities and social experiences throughout their lives that she never had.

Although she earned her right to attend college, she must still confront class and social prejudice among students who are much more privileged than she is.  But she learns to win over these students with her good nature and patience.

Nevertheless, throughout it all, she's aware of not only what she has gained, but also what she has lost while she is in college. This includes the security of the world she has known her all of her life. It also includes the certainty of the role she would have taken as a woman in the 1950s in a small provincial town.

Although, given her dreams, she might not have been suited for this limited role, it seems pretty certain what it would have been:  wife, mother, daughter, sister, someone whose needs would have been subordinated to others' needs.

Even though this limited role might have been unappealing, the certainty of it and her place in her community would have been assured, especially as compared to the uncertainty as she forges a new path, which is unchartered territory for women in that place and time.

Going against the tide in her community, she must also contend with feeling somewhat like an outsider at home because she's now a college student, an intellectual (in a poor community where intellect is often devalued compared to having more concrete skills), and someone who has learned to speak Italian in an eloquent way, as opposed to speaking in the dialect of her community.

So, initially, she feels like an outsider in both worlds.

She has many doubts:  Which world does she belong to once she leaves her home town and goes to college in Milan?  She no longer completely fits in, as she did before, in her home town.  She is also aware that her family and old friends sense this and they are also confused and disturbed by it.  They're ambivalent.  Some people from her home town who admire her also mock her at the same time.  She's different now and, for many of them, her advances highlight their shortcomings.

Anyone who has ever made a major change where it involves going against tradition knows what this feels like.  Certainly, it can feel very lonely, and it takes a lot of courage to persevere (see my article:  Feeling Like an Outsider in an Insider's World).  Even then, it might feel like something old and familiar is irrevocably lost.

This is especially true for Elena because during that time there was no clear path for women to excel in the region where she lived, even women with a college degree.  Times were changing in Italy, but the changes were just beginning to occur in the larger metropolitan cities.

Major Life Transitions and Changes in a Sense of Self
Feeling like an outsider also brings up a related issue, which is how this affects one's sense of self.

As Elena is transitioning from her sense of self from her early days in Naples to her new sense of self as a college educated woman, the change feels daunting.

Even after she receives recognition and praise by her professors and peers, she is constantly afraid of saying or doing "the wrong thing."  She fears that she will be "found out," shown to be an imposture and a fraud to her new acquaintances as well as to herself.

This is a common experience among people who are making big changes during that transitional phase.  For Elena and others in similar situations, they no longer feel completely comfortable in their old world, but they're also not completely comfortable in their new world.

During that initial phase of the change, their sense of self hasn't been integrated and consolidated yet.  This often comes gradually over time.  And the inner critical voice, which says, "Just who do you think you are!?!" can be even more disturbing than the external critical voices.

Integrating Change With the Many Aspects of Self
When you're making major changes, it takes time to integrate these changes to develop a new sense of self.

Over time, your perception of yourself will include the former aspects of yourself before the change as well as the newer aspects.  This is somewhat of an oversimplification, but is generally true.

Often, it's only with the benefit of hindsight and self reflection that you realize how you've changed.

For Elena, this psychological process means that, along with the new aspects of herself that are developing, she also maintains the older aspects of self, her integrity, courage, empathy, and love for the people who are significant in her life--even if they don't feel they really understand her now that she's taken a step away from them by going to college with all the changes that this brings.

Moving Away Psychologically as Part of Changing
Moving away as part of changing doesn't only involve a geographic move.  Often, a psychological move is involved that can be much more subtle than physically moving away.

In Elena's case, her move away from what's familiar starts on a psychological basis as she allows herself to see the possibilities beyond the boundaries of her home town.  This might not sound so extraordinary these days to people living in the modern Western world.  But during the 1950s in her community, where Elena's story begins, the ability to see beyond her current circumstance is amazing at the same time that it's profoundly scary.

The initial phase of this psychological process, taking the psychic space that she needs to become the person that she eventually becomes, is necessary before she can make the geographic move.  Even with all of her initial doubts, she takes a psychological leap of faith that she could have a better life by going to college, even though the road ahead isn't clear.

I think the protagonist's psychological struggles and triumph over adversity is one of the many reasons why Elena Ferrante's novels are so inspiring.

In a future article, I'll continue to expand upon these themes.

Getting Help in Therapy
Change can be challenging.  Rather going through a major life transition alone, you could work with a licensed mental health professional in a supportive therapeutic environment who can help you to feel empowered as you accomplish your goals.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

See my article:  Making Changes: Developing a Sense of Belonging.