• Therapist Sandra Hilton reflects on how this time both provides space for and somewhat forces us to reach inwards and look inside ourselves

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Psychologist, Dr. Ruella Frank writes of the six fundamental human movements of reaching, yielding, grasping, pushing, pulling, releasing. These movements convey our intentions, desires and feelings from early on and become our way of influencing and engaging our parents. In this time of isolation, I am curious about the reaching movement.

As babies, we learn to reach out to secure the support we need for our survival. We do this in many ways. Crying. Smiling. Gurgling. Physically, with our arms outstretched. If we’re lucky, our carers respond. They learn to interpret the need hidden in the cry – to be fed, to be clean (comfortable), to be held. They smile back eagerly. They repeat the goo ga goo so that we know we are seen, we are known, we are understood. They hold us firmly in their arms and rock us to soothe; to comfort; to affirm our bodies in the world. We become real through the responses of our carers initially. Affirmed that we matter; that we belong, in their arms; in their gaze; in their heart.

As we grow, we find ways to satisfy our own needs; to discover ourselves and to self-soothe as well as relying on others to do that for us. There is a reaching inwards that happens as we grow up as we learn to tend to our own emerging needs. Except that sometimes, this doesn’t happen. We stay dependent. We stay looking for the other to satisfy even those needs that we don’t quite know or understand, frustrating our relationships and ourselves.

Reaching inward today

In these extraordinary times, I feel the reach of many and find myself reaching out to my community, as a way of connecting and affirming my value. I want to feel useful and helpful during this time, as do many of us. A way of feeling some control amidst the uncontrollable.

At the same time, it seems to me that the reach inwards is required more than ever before. Yet, in spite of the global pause, it remains elusive. I have been saying to myself for weeks/months/years that I will get to certain creative, writing projects, if only I have the time/space. Yet here I am, pretty much locked away all day, every day and still resisting the call to sit with myself in the space furnished. David Whyte writes, in his exquisite book of Consolations, that “The first step in spending time alone is to admit how afraid of it we are……the first portal of aloneness is often experienced as a gateway to alienation, grief and abandonment.” This will resonate for many right now, I’m sure. I found myself describing to my supervisor last week, how I sit on a ledge inside myself, terrified to drop down into the depths of myself, risking losing my contact with others. I want to see the light in which everyone else exists. I want to reach out to them much more than I want to reach into myself and I’m curious as to why that habit is so persistent, in spite of my deep longing.

Recently, I ran my Storytelling Workshop on what turned out to be the last day of normal life as I’ve known it. Eight glorious women gathered in the sanctuary of the Bedouin Tent of St Ethelberga’s Church in central London. We told our stories to each other. We listened attentively to the life strands that arrived to be weaved into our shared story on that day. We reached out to each other and allowed a reaching into ourselves in that sacred company. It’s no coincidence that the story we were exploring together was The Handless Maiden, a lesser known Grimm’s fairytale. We laid our own lives alongside this tale, and used each stage of the story as a way of understanding ourselves and our choices and our life paths, guided by Dr Estes and her symbolic and archetypal approach to interpreting stories.

In the tale, the maiden’s father makes a poor bargain with a man who turns out to be the devil. As a result, he chops off his daughter’s hands and she finds herself wandering the forest lost and impoverished (like so many fairytale characters). The dismemberment serves as a powerful metaphor for the end of life as she has known it, and feels particularly apt as an image for our present time. Her reach is compromised. Our reach is compromised. When she goes wandering in the forest, she meets a spirit guide who allows her into a forest of pear trees. In there, the boughs bend and the pears drop to her lips so that she may feed and be nourished. Even though she has no hands, the maiden trusts that she will be taken care of, and so it is all through the story.

Staying connected in separation

As I reflect on that story right now, I feel my own dismemberment in this world, and a descent into another unknown and uncertain world. I have been cut off, as most of us, from my friends and family, from my usual routine and places to visit, from a familiar social order, from many freedoms. And I feel how easy it would be to be cut off from myself as a way of coping with the loss and the anguish and the anxiety. Instead, I am working to stay connected to myself and all of those uncomfortable feelings, as a way of scaling the ledge, and dropping down to a new underworld in me, as yet unexplored, but I feel sure, full of nourishment, should I care to head into the forest. This takes discipline. It needs me to identify the practices that facilitate the reaching. It asks that I notice my leaning into the million and one distractions available in the reach to my phone, and that I also notice a muffled longing to desist. Just this once. That I stay with the road less travelled inwards and discover what lies along that path this time. That I begin to lay those trails down so that they’re easier to find next time. That I drop the pebbles from Hansel and Gretel’s storyline, so that I might find my way back to this place, when the world is less quiet again.

Reaching out is a healthy survival habit. Reaching in is one of the invitations of this present moment and feels like a new fundamental movement. One that I’d like to practise in the coming weeks and months, for the opportunity to do so, feels both tempting and terrifying.


Is a word that stands by itself, carrying the austere, solitary beauty of its own meaning even as it is spoken to another. It is a word that can be felt at the same time as an invitation to depth and as an imminent threat, as in “all alone”, with its returned echo of abandonment.”

So writes, David Whyte in his first essay of that title in the above book. Right now, we stand alone and we stand together. Separate and connected. The personal stories and the social stories overlapping. Therapy is a wonderful place where we can begin to untangle the stories and understand what is mine, what is my family’s, what has been overlaid by society. Through this gentle curious process, we begin to craft the story that feels more surely true to the self within.

My thoughts are with you all.

Sandra Hilton is a verified welldoing.org therapist in London and online

Further reading

The value of gratitude in times of crisis

How has life changed under lockdown?

5 ways to hold without touch

How to write your family history

Identity and character work in therapy