'Anxiety is an epidemic amongst youngsters today'
Relationship expert Carolyn Cowan talks about the ever-evolving nature of modern-day connections and why society really needs to learn to "be still"
Carolyn Cowan is a relationship therapist, but she doesn't see herself as a mediator. "I'm more like a witness. a non-judgmental one," she asserts. It is a sense I get throughout the course of our conversation, as we discuss the pop music industry she was once part of that led her down the destructive road to substance abuse, how relationships differ within cultural contexts, and how she helps clients navigate all kinds of rocky, emotional terrain.
At nearly 60, the London-based expert - who was in town for a series of workshops organised by wellness centre Life 'n One - is currently living out her fourth professional avatar, and believes everything she's seen and done up until this point - from makeup artist for celebrities like David Bowie and Duran Duran to yoga teacher - has all "lined up" to make her a good therapist. With specialisations that include addiction, anxiety, trauma and intimacy issues, she considers it a "privilege" to be able to help people get to where they want to be in their relationships.
Her observations about how we're continually inviting everything to offend us, and not taught to manage the overwhelm of information we expose ourselves to each day, are reflective of the changing nature of relationships in our increasingly individualistic societies. Above all, however, she believes our greatest struggle may be with ourselves. Everything is much easier if you can bear yourself, she says.
Excerpts from the interview:
From celebrity makeup artist to photographer to relationship therapist, you've been constantly reinventing yourself. Was that out of necessity or choice?
Well, first of all, I have to say I'm nearly 60. For a long time, I worked in the film industry, right from when I was 22 and a body painter and makeup artist. It was an industry that was very good for having addiction issues and, in my early 30s, I hit rock bottom with drugs and alcohol. I hit a point where I couldn't use either anymore. So, I stopped and got sober in 12-step recovery when I was 31. The film industry didn't really work for me after that, because I used to work with a lot of people who did those things. I lost everything when I got sober, because nobody would work with me.
So, I became a photographer. I travelled to India, photographing nomads for many years and made a very successful career as a portrait photographer... But eventually, I didn't really enjoy that. So, I trained to be a yoga teacher, and spent 10 years being a clothes designer. Finally, after filing for divorce in my early 50s, I retrained to become a therapist. To me, though, everything is related. As a body painter, I was people's secret. People wouldn't tell others who was doing their makeup and body painting. Same thing when I was a photographer and clothes designer. Now as a therapist, I'm still people's secret.
I don't believe, at this point in history, that we choose a career and stay with it throughout our lives. But I have been working since I was 16. So, that's quite a lot of time to have moved through four different 'incarnations' of myself.
You've now been a therapist for about 10 years. Have you found the way people approach relationships to have changed over the years?
Yes, completely. What has changed is that there's a lot more anxiety and stress... and much more invitation to abandon the present moment. I work with age ranges from 19 to 70. I think, for younger people, they predominantly bring a very large amount of anxiety into the relational space. Not really understanding intimacy or able to manage their expectations of the other person causes a lot of problems.
I think people also find themselves very difficult to bear. I've just finished a book that said most people touch their phones about 2,000 times a day. We're always thinking about things that are bigger - or that we think are bigger - than this moment. A lot of us are living a projected reality that doesn't exist in this reality. But when it comes to intimate relationships, what's it like to be still? Can you be still for an hour, without looking at your phone or being on the Internet, or picking something up, or eating something? Because if that's an impossibility - and, for most people, it is - what's happening in your actual relationship? That's an exploration I'm interested in.
Are you finding this spike in anxiety levels across the board or only in youngsters?
I'm finding it across the board, but I think it's an epidemic in youngsters. I often work with people whose relationship to themselves is extremely difficult and emotionally very fractured. Somebody might initially come in and say they want to talk about anxiety, but in the course of exploring that, it may be that they're not only very anxious, but suicidal. It takes time to trust somebody enough to tell them that.
I have a young client who spends her life with computer games. She's only happy in the altered reality of a computer game. If she has to come back to the real world, she finds it very traumatising because her relationship to 'here' [the real world] is very difficult, as she has both spectrum disorders and anxiety. So, I work with what's safe for her, even exploring how she could work towards a potential future in computer games, instead of removing her from them altogether.
Are you able to trace the root of all relationship problems down to one or two key things?
No, not really. If you think about a relationship between two people, each one has their individual, genetic, generational, experienced stories and expectations (cultural, religious, historical and parental). So, when those two people come together, what's going on behind them is very important to what's happening within them.
Everyone is talking about love. The world wants to run on love, but there seems to be a lot less of it to go around these days. What's tripping us up?
I think we're having very fantastic visions of love played to us all the time. We're shown relational spaces based on movies, social media and advertising that are not real. And then, because we're human and not meeting these perfect people who've been retouched and Photoshopped, we find that we're lacking. We're confused. We're taught through the movies that we see that the other person is meant to rescue us and make us feel complete somehow but, actually, that's not right. That's not the basis of relationships. And when it doesn't work, well, we say, chuck it, I'll just go on a dating app and get someone else.
There's no loyalty - which is interesting. Relationships are a long-term thing, and they all go through moments when you question why you're in it, and if you still want to work on it. Do you want to be kind and compassionate and patient, or do you just want to throw it away? I think the expectations of a long game aren't there anymore.
So, what would you say makes healthy relationships tick?
Generally, I think respect, intimacy (making time for each other), commitment (to the relationship and to working on yourself) and consent (of who you are and who you're allowed to be). Those would be the pillars.
Everyone has traits they may struggle with till the end of their days. But when people are unwilling to change their ways, their relationships take a hit. Do you have any advice for how people can work around such issues?
If one person isn't prepared to change, then yes, those behaviours are emotional weapons with the potential to destroy intimacy. You can't change anyone else though - only yourself. When you do that, the other person will usually change in response to you. They may either change toward you or away from you, but that's not anything you can control. You can only change yourself.
What would you say to people who believe their personal demons are too strong to beat?
I'd say that's an interesting position to take. What, you're too messed up? That's a power position. And it gives permission to all kinds of appalling behaviour. I've had clients who believed that they were bad, broken, cursed. The sense of shame and brokenness is stronger than the possibility that they could do more with their lives. So, I'm really interested in that persecutory side, which is constantly persecuting their parents or history or what happened, and doesn't allow them to move on.
Of course, some people really are narcissists and psychopaths and sociopaths - and we're breeding a society with a lot more of them. But we're also constantly watching so much violent media that we believe everyone is a sociopath, and that makes us even more anxious today. So, it's quite an interesting time.
If there was one thing you think we could all use today, what would it be?
To be able to be still. To really take time each day to not be with a screen, but just sit and watch and feel and learn. Start with five minutes, then 10, then 15. because, initially, it will be really horrible. Just to be able to bear yourself. But if you can bear yourself, everything is much easier. It's true.