By libbynugent, Sep 1 2019 12:42PM
In my therapeutic work as a clinical psychologist I have regular supervision. In fact it is a professional requirement. It is essential to my work and keeps me focussed on what is going on as well as providing me with great insight and support. One of the most valuable lessons I have been offered, over and over is this: it is not about me.
This sounds obvious. I’m there to support people. It's the client who is the center of attention, and everyone knows it. But learning to decenter the self, in order to place someone else at the center, is always harder than it sounds. It is obvious. But it's not easy. Often our drive to help, be useful and take care are really about centering our own needs to be seen as useful or caring and not about what is going on for the person sitting opposite me. It is so tricky that I now consider learning to decenter myself as an ongoing task - a bit like a form of emotional personal hygiene.
For me, there are two distinct tasks required to achieve this. First, it means working to deliberately put to one side my doubt about being good enough and let go of any impulsive reaction to this thought of wanting to show how hard I am trying to do a good job. I think this is a human default phenomenon - imposter syndrome. But I have to tolerate this feeling of not knowing rather than act it out. Providing therapy and working as a qualified clinician isn't about proving myself, to anyone. Not to the individuals or services that might employ me; not to the doctors, social workers or nurses around me; not to myself, even. It's about being there. It's about paying attention to what's happening with someone else, closely, so that I can witness as much as possible what is going on, maybe gain some understanding and maybe even anticipate needs as they arise, so that maybe, just maybe, I might offer an intervention. In theory this should occur without my needing any acknowledgment from the client of my internal world because it's not about me, what I know, what I don't know, or even some of the more noble reasons I’m there. It is about the other.
Second, it means identifying, owning, sorting through my personal and social baggage around culture, life and relationships both good and bad. We don't get to leave these bags behind: I can't hide my gender, my white skin, my northern accent, my body shape and functioning, my clothing/hair choices etc so there is an importance placed on decentering them. But I can't decenter it if I don't know the personal value of these parts, their social currency and what these factors do to my relationships. For this I need curiosity, exploration and feedback. This task is uncomfortable and challenging at times but vitally important if I want to do this work.
I recently noticed some collective feedback to clinical psychologists. It was offered in reference to the ancient Greek myth of Procrustes who claimed he had a bed that could accommodate anyone perfectly of any height. I hadn’t heard of this myth before; it’s a powerful metaphor and cautionary tale:
It warns of the dangers of imposing our own ideas of what is helpful and necessary to do, in the name of caretaking and kindness to others;
It exposes how: what is storied up as kindness can often be thinly veiled aggression with entitlements enforced with tyranny.
The feedback came via social media. I occasionally had been involving myself in a Twitter debate regarding equitable access to clinical psychology training courses. Then I noticed these twitter posts:
“Really disappointed with *some* of the conversations on twitter regarding the low numbers of people from ‘BAME’ backgrounds on the DClinPsy. The conversations completely lack the voices of ‘BAME’ applicants & trainees”.
“Its impossible to sum up such complex conversations on twitter and it’s also quite bizarre for non-‘BAME’ people to discount real experiences of racism and discrimination in the profession.”
“Non-Bame people dominating these conversations reminds me of aggression disguised as hospitality. The greek myth of Procustes captures this behaviour very well.”
Not being familiar with the myth I went to Google ...
In the Greek myth, Procrustes was a son of Poseidon. Poseidon is the god of the sea, earthquakes, storms, and horses and is considered one of the most bad-tempered, moody and greedy Olympian Gods. You can only imagine what his son would have experienced from him and what he had to learn to do to avoid his wrath and get his needs met. Procrustes lived in a stronghold on Mount Korydallos at Erineus. This resting place was along a sacred route between Athens and Eleusis and has many passers by. At this resting place he had a bed, in which he invited every passer-by to spend the night. He would tell them he had a bed that fitted all sizes perfectly. Everyone was welcome to stay. His kindness and hospitality was plentiful, yet things soon took a dark turn as when night falls he sets to work on them to either stretch them to fit the bed or amputate their excess length; in fact nobody ever fitted the bed exactly, everybody had to be adjusted. Procrustes continued his reign of terror until he was captured by Theseus, travelling to Athens along the sacred way, who "fitted" Procrustes to his own bed.
Theseus became known as the unifying king. He battled and overcame foes that were identified with an allegiance to an archaic religious and social order. His role has been called the “agent of major cultural transition”.
The term “Procrustean” has now been appropriated in English and used to refer to situations where different shapes, sizes or properties are force fitted to an arbitrary standard. This is what can happen when our ideas, attitudes and generalised societal norms are left in the centre of our thinking and we attempt to impose them. They stretch apart or cut off the unique aspects of the self or group that doesn’t fit in, and forces these parts to hide. Instead we wear masks.
Clinical Psychology culture often has an excellent critical eye. This is a good thing in so many ways as it allows us to identify need and be truly hospitable care takers in terms of our formulations and research endeavours; but this critical eye also has a shadow. Particularly when turned internally or on to othered aspects of the group or the self. As a culture we are able to use this critical function and provide relentless adjustment in the name of support: We can have opinions on everything. This constant need to tweak narrative - to find the flaw and offer improvement can be destructive. I think it comes from a place of our culture aspiring to provide perfect caregiving,
Most psychologists are familiar with the concept of the ‘good enough’ mother. However whilst never explicitly said, giving imperfect but ‘good enough’ care is often understood as being something that has to be tolerated like a ‘just passed’ grade: a shameful defeat that has been salvaged by compromise or a sad ‘settling for and making do” because of life’s limitations. Good enough is rarely discussed as the thing that is desirable of itself. That “good enough” is what is essential to provide optimal opportunities for relationship and exchange between carer and caregiver. We all need a little wiggle room in bed, and some more than others.
As for the twitter debate: whiteness is a collective effort and not really about any one person’s individual contribution. No one person could be called Procrustes, but a group of us working together creates the same effect. Each white worldview jumping in to be ‘helpful’ is like another chisel cut, or twist to stretch the bed. Our collective helpfulness in saying to the other, “we will do this for you”. We know what you need, and we will help you, is really an instrument for dominance being used to assimilate the other into the shape we want.
This noticing is not an endorsement for negligence, rather an encouragement to find our internal and collective Theseus. The travellers on the mythic journey did need rest and care. It is not a case of ignoring and dismissing those that walk past our door on their quest. It is cruel and uncaring to not address wounds and tend to fatigue from the journey when we have resources. However, just as the myth ended, we need to kill off our Prosecutes culture, by being mindful of who is dominating our conversations, whose voices are centred and inviting them to decentralised. There are other ways. We need to learn to unify and integrate the different voices in community: to take individual and collective responsibility for the self awareness required to achieve this. We need to practice the discipline of tolerating our fears and learning what social and cultural baggage we bring to the conversations we are trying to have so that we can work at decentering them and creating space for care.