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Sunday morning in Freud's house

I did not expect to be crying at his home videos!

So, what I am doing on a Sunday morning in February at 19 Berggasse? Well, Vienna had been on my destination Wishlist for a while, so when my friend and colleague Tom Smithson announced a CPD trip to the city to visit the museums and institutes of Adler, Frankl and Freud, I jumped at the chance. Not only did this mean I'd get to explore a beautiful city whilst learning about psychotherapy pioneers in the place they lived and worked, it was an opportunity to be in a group of peers. For a therapist in private practice, opportunities for connection need to be jumped at (for more about my experience of loneliness and how to overcome it, click here), especially in the grey, dragging days of mid winter.

I roped in a therapist friend, Sarah, who frankly didn't need a lot of convincing, packed my bag (always the cause of a minor existential crisis - for packing anxiety info see this Instagram post) and headed gleefully to the airport.

Connecting to our roots

9am Saturday morning on 3rd February sees me walking, camera app open, from my hotel through Sigmund Freud park to meet 11 other therapists at Rathausplatz, the main square in Vienna. The sky is blue, the air is cold and I am giddy with the excitement of travel and the prospect of a weekend of learning and connection.

At this point I should point out that non of us are actually psychoanalysts or especially Freudian in our work, but we're not just here to visit Sigmund's gaff, there's Adler and Frankl too. And despite our various theoretical approaches and ways of working essentially we're all here because Freud and colleagues created 'The Talking Cure' right here, in this city. So we've gathered to celebrate that fact and to learn more about our professional forefathers in the very place they lived and worked.

But first, breakfast!

Cafe Landtmann, one of Freud's favourites

Adler: inferiority, individual psychology and birth order

Full of pastry and caffeine we made our way to the Adler Institute where we received a fantastic private lecture on the life and work of Alfred Adler, a man who's name I'm ashamed to say I only vaguely recognised from my training. The talk was so inspiring and his ideas made so much sense I wanted to go back through time to high five him for walking away from Freud's rigid ideas, because he was onto something important about the impact of society on the individual. Adler's approach was more holistic than Freud's and he focused on central concepts of inferiority and compensation, social interest and birth order. He was the first to theorise about the latter and we can see these ideas alive and kicking today in concepts such as 'Eldest Daughter Syndrome',

With Sarah Lee (left) and the group at the Adler Institute

What I learned from Adler

  • At first, Adler assumed his problem (ill health as a child) was everyone's problem and came up with the concept of 'organ inferiority' but he later expanded his idea to acknowledge that people's insecurities could be about a range of things and not just physical frailties. I like that he didn't force his theory or give up on it, he adapted and grew.

  • He went from being one of Freud's protegees to walking away from the Vienna Psychological Society because he disagreed with the focus on sexual impulses and theories such as the Oedipus complex. It must have taken courage to do this.

  • He argued that it is vital to consider a person's family and wider social context, something we can agree with today.

  • His ideas are often nuanced and flexible...being nuanced doesn't make you famous it seems! But it did make him....right!

"The only normal people are the ones you don't know very well" - Adler

After absorbing all this wisdom it was time for a break, including some incredible cake and sightseeing.

Frankl - an afternoon of existentialism

After my second patisserie fix of the day (a beautiful pistachio dacquoise) and all the stunning architecture my eyeballs could take I was ready to ponder the meaning of life, and where better to do this than the former home, now museum, of Viktor Frankl.

Frankl's work and specifically his book, Man's Search For Meaning, have influenced my work since before I even started my counselling training. As a teenager I was interested in psychology and philosophy and found Frankl and the existentialists through these interests. Asking big questions like "what's it all about?" has always come naturally to me (this is why I am not a lot of fun at parties!) and so Frankl's suggestions made a lot of sense to me. He says that we need to create our own meaning for our lives; discover our values and live akin to them to find purpose. And when we have this sense of meaning we can overcome difficulties. If this all sounds a bit too optimistic or light-hearted then perhaps the knowledge that he came up with his theories (having already trained in medicine and psychology) during and after surviving the concentration camps of World War II. Incredibly, despite his suffering - including the loss of his wife and family in the holocaust - he had a positive view of humanity and wrote extensively about his brand of existentialsim, Logotherapy, which centres around free will and finding meaning.

"Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible." - Viktor E Frankl

At the Frankl Museum

Dinner with therapists

After absorbing so much knowledge and inspiration (and walking what felt like a hundred miles) it was time to sneak in a quick nap before our gang reassembled for a traditional Viennese meal together.

One of the things I enjoyed the most about this trip was travelling with other therapists; this meant there was an automatic understanding and respect for everyone's need to take care of themselves and communicate about this. Tom had organised everything beautifully so we had plenty of time together as a group as well as free time to do our own thing. Balancing the need for connection and the need for processing time was a theme for me of this trip.

Dinner with therapists involves conversations both at emotional depth (the best kind!) and humour and light-heartedness. We discussed life plans and theoretical approaches as well as celebrity crushes (I think we all agreed about Andrew Scott) and where the best charity shops are. It was honestly heaven to me and I pledge to have more dinners like this!

With Tom, Lesley, Sarah, Pete and the whole group.

Freud's house

Sunday morning in Vienna. I am wearing my Therapy Is Cool t-shirt with nerdy pride as I walk from my hotel through the beautiful streets to the Freud Museum, where we will first be treated to a private tour before having time to explore the exhibits at our own pace.

After Adler and Frankl, I'm arriving with curiosity and interest but not exactly warm fuzzies about Freud and his theories. I'm about to be totally blindsided.

No 19 Berggasse, Wien. The house was full of original features, including (more) beautiful tiles and the very doors that Freud, his family and patients walked through.

It began with the empty rooms. Empty, as our fantastic tour guide explained to us, because of the Freud's move to England to escape the Nazi's in 1938. I was expecting the lack of furniture, having seen THE couch and his collection of antiques at the London house a few years previously. However I wasn't expecting the lack of these items to feel so poignant; I think because the house is preserved with all it's original features with just a few items they either left behind or have been returned posthumously, it feels like they just left a few days ago (if you ignore the displays of course!). The reason for their leaving is palpable in the space where their belongings used to be.

Duly sobered, we are guided through the house as our guide tells the story of the Freuds - Sigmund, his wife Martha, his sister in law Minna and their six children - and it's so vivid for me I can almost hear the children running around downstairs as he writes at his desk, cigar smoke wafting with the coming and going of family members and patients. 19 Berggasse was a family home just as much, if not more than, a place of study and treatment. This blurring of personal and professional jars with my image of the detached, 'blank slate' therapist.

Original features of the house, his glasses and our group enjoying the tour.

My impression of old Siggi shifts multiple times as I hear about how he experimented with cocaine (before it was known to be harmful), was separated from his fiancée for four years (they wrote to each other constantly), loved to travel (though he wasn't impressed with America and even called it "a mistake". He preferred Italy and the tour guide said "well, who doesn't!"), analysed his friends, collected antiques, loved gardens and flowers and adored his pet dogs.

Now I had a clear sense of Freud the human being - a friend, a father, a husband, avid reader, dreamer, letter writer, cigar smoker and ultimately a cancer victim. A little room with padded benches offered the opportunity to watch some footage - home videos, really - of Freud at garden parties with his grandchildren, talking with friends and fussing his dogs. I realised that the stern old man image we're used to seeing is because, as his daughter Anna explains in the video, he doesn't like having his photo taken. The moving, candid images of him enjoying the company of loved ones show a different side to him, and it was a shot of him cuddling a grandchild followed by a clip of him reading in the garden that had a tear rolling down my cheek.

With his dogs, a diagram of the tripartite model, the waiting room.

As we gathered for a group photo in the spot where his couch used to be, my overwhelming feelings were of gratitude and awe; despite the fact we all practice quite differently now, we are, in a way, his descendants. He was a pioneer, and because of that he of course got some things wrong and times have moved on, but be gave us the 'talking cure' and so many of his ideas are alive in our work today. Sunday morning in Freud's house, standing where he stood with a group of peers... this was a special moment that I won't forget.

The New Wednesday Psychological Society

Processing in the Palm House

After the Freud museum we enjoyed a final meal together at yet another stunning cafe, where we shared our thoughts on what we'd experienced and the theme of our trip; connection. We'd connected deeply with our profession, the ideas of the pioneers we'd visited and most importantly with each other. I particularly enjoyed spending more time with my friend Sarah, who is smart and insightful and funny. It was also an absolute joy to finally meet Tom, who organised this amazing trip, who I'd connected with through Instagram originally. I could say lovely things about every person I spoke with on the trip, it felt like we were all destined to be there together and it was a very bonding experience.

I also connected with my values and love of travel, as well as my identity as a European. It was all wonderful...and it's was all a lot. As a deeply feeling person I need a lot of processing time and so on my last day in Vienna I took myself off in search of nature and ventured out to Schönbrunn Palace where there's a stunning palm house. There, in the fragrant humid air, surrounded by birdsong and flora I felt my nervous system regulating and a feeling of being at home in myself settled over me. I found a perfectly positioned seat nestled in some ferns, opened my journal and let me thoughts flow through my (new from the Freud museum gift shop) pen.

Post pastry blues

Back under the grey skies of Manchester I experience my usual slump after time in Europe. I allow myself a brief period of mourning over the affordable and functioning public transport, the clean streets, the better weather, the better pastries... and then I ask myself what I'm reeeeally grumpy about underneath all those (valid) complaints.

What I'm experiencing is the anti-climax of living a dream. The comedown after the high of 'living your best life' just to come home and do endless laundry, a ton of admin and remembering to put the bins out. The inevitable loneliness of private practice.

That's the danger of dreaming - it might become a reality! And if it does, you get to have the amazing experience of your wishes coming true... followed by the disappointing reality and mundanity of everyday life. Post holiday blues is, rather aptly, a mini existential crisis.

Luckily I know all about those and how to cope with them. Here's my handy guide:

  • Gratitude practice - it's easy to focus on what you're missing or what's rubbish about your life but that's an unhelpfully negative view and ignores all the positive. The reality is that I have a lot of things in my life that make me very happy, so I went around noticing those and enjoying them as much as possible.

  • Feeling it all - whilst I did invite in the positive with gratitude, I also let myself feel sadness about the trip ending, frustration with the endless winter, overwhelm, tiredness and whatever else needed to move through me. I used my mindfulness skills to observe, accept, express and release it all.

  • Writing - journaling and this blog helped me enormously to process my experience. Thank you so much for reading it!

  • Yoga - stretching out my tired legs and grounding myself in my body and the present moment.

  • Connection - pizza, wine and live music with a friend was just the medicine I needed.

  • Purpose - I was excited to see my clients and brought my enthusiasm for my work and the therapy profession to my sessions.

I share these thoughts because I want to capture my memories before they fade, I want to encourage fellow therapists to explore and connect together and I want to show my humanness to my clients and colleagues. The wall of the Frankl museum proclaimed him "a creating, experiencing, suffering person" and whilst I haven't had to endure what he did, thank goodness, I can relate to that description of being human. I think we all can.

Some Therapists Visit Vienna (a poem)

This is not just a pastry

It's a dream realised

The first crumbs of connection

Shared excitement in our eyes

This is not just a beautiful tiled floor

It's the footprints of pioneers

Their work has drawn us all here

It's called to us through the years

This is not just an ornate door

It's the portal to where it all began

The thinkers, the writers, the dreamers

Where they stood, we now stand

This is not just (another) pastry

It's loneliness of private practice rejected

Unlike Freud's original boys club

Despite differences, we're better connected

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