On the Couch: Notes from a psychotherapist on how to stay sane during a building project

—3rd June 2020

Aubyn de Lisle, Psychotherapist and Counsellor, conducts a self-examination on the challenges of building projects and how to avoid your inner critic becoming your worst enemy

I have undertaken quite a bit of home building and renovation over the years. Despite—or perhaps because of the experience—I find myself quaking in my boots again in the face of a major renovation project on our latest and, hopefully, last home. After 33 years of marriage, 13 years of them in a Grade I-listed Jacobean historic house, we have bought an unlisted 1970’s built house. It is in a nice location with low maintenance demands: light, warmth of the literal kind, and the promise of freedom of choice about what we can do with it. The double glazing looks horrible but the pleasure I gained from seeing the total immobility of a candle flame on the dining table is intense. Look, no draught!

‘This will be a doddle,’ we said blithely. Such is the triumph of optimism over experience. Just as we ordered our site survey scan and briefed our first architect on concept drawings, we were locked down for the Coronavirus crisis.

There is a lot that is good that has come out of this delay. Above all, the delay is not my husband’s fault or mine so we remain on good terms which, as we’ve been stuck at close quarters for the duration, is a good thing. Secondly, we have had lots more time in lock-down to contemplate what we appreciate about our house and the finer points of our plan without having to commit. You can never spend too long on the preparatory stages. There’s something about building or renovating a home that brings up the most overreaching ambition or profound anxiety—or both. Despite what you think you know about your partner, it is likely to reveal areas of mistaken assumptions and misconception.

‘Above all, the delay is not my husband’s fault or mine so we remain on good terms which, as we’ve been stuck at close quarters for the duration, is a good thing.’

So press the ‘action’ button and batten down the hatches. Home and a sense of place is our base for security, rooted in our earliest experiences of attachment in infancy and some of us have a greater need of this in adulthood than others. While some of us launch ourselves into the world and see home as a party pad, others prioritise home as a place to withdraw, replenish and reconnect to ourselves. If we’re lucky enough to be able to have choice and control over our home by taking on a build or renovation project, it is also the way we express our personality. Even the most compatible two people are going to have differences in how they want to express that and will care about what feels important to them, yet these may be under-estimated by their partner.

This was exposed in our project recently when we met with a potential architect. I had left making the initial contact to my husband and it was only when the nice man started by presenting nothing but glossy pictures of libraries that I realised that something was not quite right in the architect’s sense of our priorities. While my husband and the architect were transported into ecstasies by pictures of smart carpentry shelving, I wondered what had happened to the rest of the brief: the driveway and entrance, living room/kitchen, bedrooms, bathrooms, landscaping. These things only made it into the conversation when I—self-assertively or aggressively—mentioned them.

It’s not just your relationship with your partner that will be tested. You will also be discovering things about yourself that you thought were not an issue, but which now really seem to matter. Do you avoid confrontation and sell that to yourself as ‘Easy-going’? Suddenly ‘Easy-going’ is responsible for living the rest of your life with light switches 10cm higher than you like them. Or maybe it results in listening to every sound from the kitchen as you lie in bed upstairs because the builder assured you that the sound insulation you wanted surely wasn’t necessary? No wonder that the placid and calm person you thought you were has turned into a raving banshee as the build has progressed. Perhaps your self-assertive qualities suddenly get described as aggressive and you are accused of being the reason the builders haven’t turned up for two days. So no wonder you want to turn your ‘active’ dial-down to ‘resign’ and withdraw to the Western Isles for the duration.

Perhaps the key character in the whole project is our internal critic. It’s our internal project manager, the voice that sits on our shoulder to keep us in line, just in case we slip up and incur total humiliation and embarrassment. A healthy relationship with that internal voice involves firmly keeping it in line, preferably out of the way, enabling us to act freely and from our best creative self. However a building project stimulates the internal critic no end and will prompt it to shout: ‘Are you sure about that? What will other people think?!’ or ‘Don’t be a weakling—go for it!’, or above all ‘Is this house/room going to be good enough? Is it going to reflect well on me’.

‘Perhaps the key character in the whole project is our internal critic. It’s our internal project manager, the voice that sits on our shoulder to keep us in line, just in case we slip up and incur total humiliation and embarrassment.’

We need to be able to distinguish between the unhelpful inner critic and the internal wisdom of discernment. That part of us which is able to judge when to push for what we want, and when to judge if divorce is really the price we’re prepared to pay for what we think we need. And most usefully of all, engage a real project manager.

The most alluring and potentially dangerous factor in your project is the siren call of the dream home. The notion that it will be possible to capture your ideal home and make it real. In this case, unless you have a limitless budget you might be helped by this aphorism: ‘Great is the enemy of the Good.’ Lower your expectations. When my husband and I looked at our present house our dominant shared response was that we could simply be happy there, though we agreed we didn’t like the look of the place much. I hope we made the right decision. It’s a test of courage and we’re constantly having to fight down our instinct to ‘up the ante’ and strive for a statement house during these strange times of Coronavirus when we stay so much at home; me pondering about the landscaping, he measuring his books. Next we’ll be interviewing the project manager.

RedBook is a specialist consultancy that helps clients and their advisers select the perfect creative and technical team for significant property projects.

For further information, please contact us on 0207 060 6222. Or email: enquiries@redbookagency.com