The edge of chaos

The last few days in Pakistan were nothing short of traumatic for every Pakistani, as we witnessed a single event triggering violence on the streets and unprecedented unrest. In my opinion, it wasn’t the passion of Imran Khan that instigated this severe reaction but the reaction of a traumatized nation that has been feeling hopeless and helpless with each passing day with what’s unfolding in the country. I fear this is the beginning of an uncontainable change in how this nation intends to protest the status quo in times to come. What happened at the national level is quite similar to the therapeutic process. I could draw a parallel to what happens in nuclear family systems when an individual wants to challenge the intergenerational patterns that he no longer feels safe in or intends to continue adapting to. The Pakistani nation represents that individual client with the will to change who refuses to subscribe to the conventional family system. An individual client signs up for therapy from a rigid habitual position in life but intends to change and learn how to facilitate that change. A small part of him instinctively wants to challenge his internal defences and the system he resides in, which are the family system and the broader system of society as significant. His presenting issue can be anything; anxiety, depression, loss, or failure triggered by a life where he learned to cope with whatever life threw his way. Now he wants to live an authentic life without coping skills but a choice to respond differently to life. Therapy supports this long-awaited change, and he starts to use his newfound awareness and therapeutic support to change himself and hopes that change will have enough energy to put a dent in the rigid family and societal system he has coped with for years.
But it’s not as simple as I have described. The client is conflicted between what he is familiar with, be it silence as a coping skill to an abusive father or workaholism to escape his inner turmoil and the will to change and no longer cope but claim his rightful share in the world where silence isn’t the answer to someone hurling abuses at him. As a therapist, I am constantly navigating between putting my foot on the accelerator or the break, which means I do not want to challenge his habitual stance beyond his window of tolerance as that habit made him feel safe in the face of adversity but also not collude with those defences that the charge of the change he wants to die down. Eventually, he takes his newfound awareness back to the system. Sometimes the transformation has the power to change his interpersonal dynamics. Sometimes the family and society can pull him back, and he loses the energy and returns to his habitual ways of being.
Therapy occurs at the boundary between long-standing familiar patterns and the new emerging process—an intimate edge of chaos operating in the dynamic tension between homeostasis and emergent change.
Pakistan seemed to be standing at the edge of chaos between established structure and the evolving change for a long time, and it seems we have tipped over. Just like a client whose fantasy of change is resisted by control, we are witnessing the same for example, internet services shut down, and freedom of speech was taken away by shutting down all social media platforms that provided a space for free expression.
We have tipped over to the other side, and the control will no longer work on us. The video of the young girl throwing her scarf at the many rangers who drag her by her hair in the crowd of men shows where we are and where we are heading. We were at this edge of chaos for years as a society conflicted between adaptability and a fantasy of change, and now that story has gathered enough energy triggered by socioeconomic factors like poverty, injustice, the alarmingly wide gap between have and have not, and never experienced before control by the state to turn into a reality. As a society, we are resisting anarchy. When working with clients and their relational issues, a question often comes to mind: Who gets heard in the system? Who has the power? This nation has awakened from deep slumber and, more importantly, realized they have more control than it gave itself credit for. I hope that this chaos will lead to stability and that we can rebuild as a country where democracy is not an illusion but a ground reality.

The writer is a BACP (British Association For Counselling and Psychotherapy) accredited individual and couple psychotherapist based in Islamabad. She can be reached at or her official website.

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