Becoming Ethical: Excavations of the self

Waking up and becoming more concious  is a never ending task. Let's try and keep talking. I cannot know what is right for you but I do believe if we connect through conversation we can find our personal truths.

By libbynugent, Feb 7 2020 12:26PM

I’d like to acknowledge Dulcie Cormack and her contribution to this blog when sharing her thoughts, ideas and personal experiences with me in the February Wrexham Anti Racist Book Club meeting. I have her permission to share them here.



I recently asked psychologists, on various social media groups I belong to, to share with me their favourite childhood stories, as I’m interested if there are any commonalities. This mini survey is an ongoing interest, so please feel free to share your favourites with me. Someone mentioned The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams and I took the opportunity to revisit it. In the story a toy rabbit wishes to become a Real rabbit - to become Real the rabbit must allow itself to be at the mercy of its fate provided for by his little boy owner: he becomes damaged, worn down, with busted seams, tattered fur and threadbare paws. The faerie tale, to me, holds a metaphor of how vulnerability can create change; that radical self acceptance breaks open our understanding of humanity, so that we can truly live life rather than remain a toy or object.


The story begins this way:


There was once a velveteen rabbit, and in the beginning he was really splendid. He was fat and bunchy, as a rabbit should be; his coat was spotted brown and white, he had real thread whiskers, and his ears were lined with pink sateen. On Christmas morning, when he sat wedged in the top of the Boy's stocking, with a sprig of holly between his paws, the effect was charming.…


For at least two hours the Boy loved him, and then Aunts and Uncles came to dinner, and there was a great rustling of tissue paper and unwrapping of parcels, and in the excitement of looking at all the new presents the Velveteen Rabbit was forgotten.


For a long time he lived in the toy cupboard or on the nursery floor, and no one thought very much about him. He was naturally shy, and being only made of velveteen, some of the more expensive toys quite snubbed him. The mechanical toys were very superior, and looked down upon everyone else; they were full of modern ideas, and pretended they were real. …


Between them all the poor little Rabbit was made to feel himself very insignificant and commonplace, and the only person who was kind to him at all was the Skin Horse. ...


“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nanna came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”


“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”



“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.


“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”


“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”


“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” ’


The Velveteen Rabbit OR How Toys Become Real by Margery Williams



Now on first reading this could be a metaphor for embracing masochism, to charge towards painful experiences and humiliating relationships. However that’s not quite how I perceive it. I see it more as a call to radical self acceptance. To be open to honest communication and risk taking in our intimacies. To let people in. The rabbit must let go of it’s vanity, it’s belief about what must be avoided to keep him desired for and therefore loveable. He must trust in the process of love, but this is a love of life as it is, not the romantic hopeful version. When the final task of initiation is complete the rabbit painfully grieves; his hope to be eternally loved by the boy is held together with his acceptance of the real life limits of the boy’s ability to provide this. It is only when this acceptance occurs that the velveteen rabbit is turned into a plain everyday rabbit, his specialness is truly lost and he hops away into the woods unrecognisable to the little boy who previously owned him. At last he becomes Real.


When I think about this for myself - what are the parts of me that I might need to stop avoiding - is it my greed, my entitlement, my whiteness, my neediness? If I accept these parts, will I not be outed as broken, damaged and bad - who would love me then? What does radical self-acceptance look like? I also wonder about the idea of a little boy being in charge of my life.



Psychoanalyst Fairbairn, described a pattern of relating called the “Exciting Object”. Besides my liking the name I find it a really helpful way to think about some relationship and cultural problems. In his description of the pattern of the “exciting Object” Fairbairn states that this pattern of relating develops in childhood, typically when a child’s emotional needs are taken care of by an intermittently neglectful/absent parent. So sometimes the parent is present and caring and sometimes they are not. To make sense of these changeable ways the child develops two very different stories about the relationship. One is that of idolisation - my parents are wonderful and meet my needs, the future looks full of hope. The second is that of despair and hopelessness - my parents are useless and nothing will ever change. When these interact, rather than being held together to get a good enough view, they flip flop and cancel each other out to create an Exciting object narrative. In this Exciting object narrative the child is always hopeful and longing for a great future, they can see the potential of what could be if only they could work out how to keep the good times going but at the same time the child knows things will fail. So like buying a lottery ticket and hoping you will win, whilst at the same time knowing the chances are extremely low. The excitement of wondering if you can beat the odds, the comfort in being right in knowing you can not.




What this looks like in adulthood is the experience of continuing to emotionally invest in a partner, work environment or social structure when you know it is toxic; however the hope that it might transform into something new is compelling. Whenever the bad behaviour becomes apparent, we recover fast hoping for a bright future full of change, sweeping the negative experience under the carpet, quickly forgetting pain in the name of hope; at the same time striking another internal scorecard against the abuser with a sense of satisfaction that I knew they would do this to me. It’s like our internal world is at the mercy of a child’s changeability. The way to develop a new narrative is to try and hold on consciously and compassionately to both parts rather than flip flop between the two. If we can persist eventually we are able to become a bit more clear eyed. We can feel the yearning for more, the grief, anger and hurt at real life limits - we can become a bit more grown up or Real with our understanding. We might then make different choices. Maybe.



The story shows how as the rabbit starts to understand what it is to be human - and to let in intimacy, we also begin to recognize that all thoughts and ideas the rabbit had about the other toys were projections - he was seeing the other toys the way he viewed the world himself. In real life as we mature we also start to recognise that aspects of others we encounter in life, that create an emotional response, are often a mirror. The superior and inferior toys all reflected the rabbit’s own world view. In psychoanalysis it is thought that nobody truly knows anyone else until they recognize that everyone is them.





You may have seen the actor British Laurence Fox and his recent appearance on question time; his response to an audience member Rachel Boyle, was an example of white privilege in action. Boyle, a researcher on race and ethnicity at Edge Hill University, had raised the issue of the racist treatment of the Duchess of Sussex. Fox responded by describing Britain as the “most tolerant, lovely country in Europe”, adding his opinion that “it’s so easy to throw the card of racism at everybody and it’s really starting to get boring now”.


My initial reaction was one of repulsion and horror as Fox’s nonchalant aggression was casually hurled out: his lack of humility in his attitude and his sense of entitlement to equal footing on the subject racism with a woman, who is both a scholar of racism and a person with lived experience of racism in the uk, was clear; his assumption that his boredom mattered and that this was therefore relevant to the conversation was cringeworthy. Whilst I had previously quite liked him in ‘Lewis', I could feel myself distancing from this mental connection quickly and rescripting my appraisal of him: yes we are both white, but he is clearly being so male, so upper class, so southern. His ill informed, lazy, entitled and boorish manner has nothing to do with me. Lewis is rubbish anyway: My taste in programs can often be terrible. He is so rude; I am nice. He is such a typical man; I am a woman. I am middle class, but not that posh. I am not him. I am a proper progressive; I am thoughtful. I run an anti racist book club - I bet he doesn’t read those books. He is not part of my identity. He is other.


Laurence Fox came up in our discussion at the Wrexham Anti Racist Bookclub. As usual it was a small gathering, only this time it was just two of us: Dulcie and I. We have just read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and it was fascinating to use it as an example of a step by step guide to reactions that occur when white people become defensive talking about race. We then tried to apply this to ourselves and our own paths into trying to be more conscious of these narratives. Dulcie noted how surprisingly new and uncomfortable it has felt being on the back foot with this subject of examining whiteness. Her experience growing up was one of always being a fast learner, the one who gets it, she would lead on the ‘challenging the status quo’ conversations and launch herself into difficult conversations about feminism, classism etc. This resonated deeply with me. It has felt extremely humbling to experience myself in this way - of honouring the position of not knowing, and maybe being the person who needs to catch up, rather than being the one leading the way or, at very least, in the middle of the pack. Dulcie shared with me the idea of a window of tolerance: That somehow thinking about whiteness required finding that spot where the discomfort can be felt and stayed with rather swept away into despair and immobility or flip flopped over into idealisation of white culture and denial.


As a self identified liberal white woman, I often know something has been racist and unfair but all too easily I can quickly sweep it under the carpet going back to my lovely, playroom life. Like the rabbit maybe I can become Real through experiencing the full range of myself reflected in others, and recognising that it is a reflection of my own state? With practice I’m learning to accept what I see whilst holding on to compassion for myself, inviting in an adult accountability. If psychoanalysis is right, only then can I truly be relating to ‘the other’. All the wear and tear is sometimes uncomfortable but equally isn’t this just the human condition and always will be. In adult reality there are no easy answers or pain free options but I imagine how much more alive and potent I and our profession might feel if we could let our threads show knowing it is what makes each of us Real.




References:


Fairbairn and the Origins of Object Relations, ed. James Grotstein and Donald Rinsley (Free Association, 1994).


Pines, Malcolm. “ON MIRRORING IN GROUP PSYCHOTHERAPY.” Group, vol. 7, no. 2, 1983, pp. 3–17. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41718185. Accessed 7 Feb. 2020.


By libbynugent, Jan 4 2020 10:30AM

For a short time I had a daydream about running a coffee shop. I thought I could make it a community psychology project. It would be a kind of cake and therapy combination. I took this project up with various degrees of earnestness: at one point I bought a book “setting up your own coffee bar”. I kept it by my bedside table unopened whilst I engaged in trialling various coffee making paraphernalia and eating a lot of cake. It took a good few months for me to realise I had little to no interest in the realities of running any kind of shop and that what I actually wanted to do was spend my time relaxing, drinking coffee, eating baked goods whilst feeling valued. I wanted the feeling of community and the hustle and bustle of everyday life in a cosy and safe environment. However I couldn't just go to my local cafe for this and be a customer. That felt too uncomfortable and small. I wanted an experience that felt socially important and somehow more meaningful and less mundane than me feeling lonely, tired and hungry.


The desire to attend a community coffee shop only would come to life if I was running the show: facilitating and not just being a regular customer. I wanted to belong, to indulge in cake eating and rest, but only feeling able to access these desires through the symbol of leading - not just joining in. Somewhere I had learnt that my being an average person who is wanting to belong and has basic human needs was not acceptable or sufficient reason to do this regularly. So whilst part of me longed to join in, I resisted the idea of this occurring through anything other than high achieving. I interpreted my average, human self as a defeat and evidence of my lack of creativity and uniqueness. In my therapy we wondered what this was about. I also noticed running a coffee shop is a remarkably common fantasy in the psychology community. It made me wonder about both my personal and professional scripts about vulnerability, community and belonging.


It is also about this time I heard about the story of Edward Mordrake:


Edward Mordrake (originally spelled Mordake) was a young, intelligent, and good-looking English nobleman, as well as a “musician of rare ability.” But with all of his great blessings came a terrible curse. In addition to his handsome, normal face, Mordrake possessed a terrifying disfigurement: another face on the back of his head.

This horrifying second face was that of a “beautiful girl” — “lovely as a dream, hideous as a devil.” The strange visage possessed an intelligence “of a malignant sort.” Whenever Mordrake cried, the second face would “smile and sneer.”

Mordrake was constantly plagued by his “devil twin,” which kept him up all night whispering “such things as they only speak of in hell.” The young lord was eventually driven mad and took his own life at the age of 22, leaving behind a note ordering the evil face be destroyed after his death, “lest it continues its dreadful whispering in my grave.”


Gina Dimuro, Published May 29, 2018

https://allthatsinteresting.com/edward-mordrake


When thinking about this story and my coffee shop daydreams I began to see some links. I reflected on the following interpretations:


The coffee shop owner is the face at the front - my persona. The part of me that defines who I would like to be and how I wish to be seen by the world. The word “persona” is derived from a Latin word that literally means “mask,” however in this instance, the word can be applied metaphorically, representing all of the different social masks that we wear among different groups of people and situations.


At the back is the Shadow Self, the bit of me that I have learned, (rightly and wrongly) that is bad or unacceptable: the part of me that is the coffee shop customer, who I will not allow to just join in and eat cake unless I do something deserving.


I cannot see what is at the back of my head - These needs and my reactions are hidden from my own conscious view, yet they are there and often visible to others with different scripts and can I ever truly see this part even with assistance.


If I am Edward Drake, do I want to “know” there is another hidden part of me?


I cannot entirely ignore this part as I hear the whispering at night, yet to fully acknowledge that it exists feels extraordinarily challenging. How could anyone want all of that? My instinct is repulsion. But given this is the reality is it better to at least try and know and acknowledge what is there or better to chose to live in denial?


According to Jungian psychology good/bad splits occur in all of us, in many places in our psyche. It is easier to see these divisions in others rather than ourselves. These splits can be encouraged in the scripts we learn from our families and cultures. If we think about cultural scripts from different parts of the world we can see how arbitrary some of these “good/bad” divisions are that create these Shadowed selves. In Europe, for example, making eye contact is often perceived as confident and engaging, whereas in Japan it might be perceived as arrogant and rude. And in America, TV shows depicting violent murders are considered more acceptable than showing nudity or sexual acts, whereas in Europe it’s the opposite. These are just two examples. If we are not aware of our personal and cultural scripts that inform us about what is acceptable or not, we can very quickly end up making decisions based on misinterpretations and misunderstandings.

https://www.thesap.org.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/shadow.pdf


The difficulty recognising shutt out narratives or hidden parts can be a huge barrier in any person or community’s journey towards learning, integration and emotional health. If these unwanted parts are left unexamined it will lead to our understanding of situations and then subsequent actions being made through a one sided vision of the world which results in unconscious bias. Whilst we may never be able to fully see what is at the back of our heads, if we know there is something there out of our range of visibility we can implement strategies to collect information and so that we can make more informed decisions. Knowing we have a personal and cultural shadow can actually transform how we approach information gathering and decision making processes.

https://www.thesap.org.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/shadow.pdf




So how might this apply to the clinical psychology community?

From our ‘work for free’ discourse for the budding aspiring psychologist, to the initiation into the competitive world of becoming an assistant and trainee and finally working as qualified clinicians within high demand services, we grow into a very particular narratives and ways of being: typically those narratives that allow us to engage in fierce competition, in a non-threatening way, and that will help us make very few demands on others whilst been given an overwhelming amount of work.


We grow into these identities over time, cohort by cohort. During the process of becoming a clinical or counselling psychologist we acquire the formulating gaze and we learn a scientific vocabulary for feelings. Clinical psychologists typically work in close proximity to trauma and despair and so we pay attention to our ‘new’ senses of transference and countertransference and learn phrases such as ‘sit with it’, ‘ be mindful’, ‘provide a space for uncertainty’ and ‘tolerating not knowing’. We are trained to always have an evidence base, and to jump through hoops, juggling essays, NICE guidelines, research and clinical work. There is little room for life to happen along the way.


What is our own reality of having our personal shame examined and pain contained? How much of these experiences of tolerating safe uncertainty are authentically experienced from within before we offer them to others? How available are our supervision spaces to deal with the inevitable fall out of with working up close and intimately with the naartives of violence, denigration, self loathing, sex, hate, envy and humiliation.



We are required to have both a need to tolerate not knowing and a necessity for evidence base in our work. Both narratives, when not allowed to be processed at depth, foster an approach of ‘getting on with it’ and being seen to be ‘coping’ often leading to an avoidance of the limits of ourselves and what is happening in our personal lives. Most courses discuss numbers of plus 99% pass rates and and rarely offer discourse regarding the people that don’t make it through. Only recently have some training courses begun to offer part time training and I don't think any have module systems of career progression or indeed staff with fingertip knowledge of alternate paths for trainees to take when they fall out of step with the general flow of the group.


The national non-completion rate for NHS trainees for the academic year 2017/2018 was only 0.6%, which includes both people who withdrew from a course and people who failed. This is in line with the rate for the previous 5 years which was between 0.5% and 1% each year.

Leeds Clearing House


Given the intensity of the training and the fact that life continues to go on regardless this to me feels bizarrely high. Of the approximately 600 people per cohort only 3- 6 people didn’t make it through. How do people cope and what narrative is given to people who don't make it? Presumably people manage by doubling down on their defences. From my own clinical observations a toxic combination of doubt, guilt, and an exaggerated sense of responsibility is a common finding among psychologists.


From these scripts and in my clinical work with psychologists, I have noticed to survive these conditions certain cultural attitudes seem to occur which have an emphasis on:

self-reliance

high ethical values

pride in endurance

discomfort in asking for help

An inclination to learn through teaching rather than learn by joining in

denial of pain/stress

overachiever but may underestimate self

If these attitudes are left unexamined and the hidden scripts within them are unacknowledged it is clear how they can lead to the development of a trickster culture: One which speaks of self care and compassion but shames asking for help and dependency. Ideally we would rely on our training course, or our psychology team members to provide caring minds to let us know when we are reaching our limits. However, how much are we able to connect with others who are also living these silent scripts. It can feel like the blind leading the blind.


A strong theme permeating through my conversations with psychologists is the belief they are the only one who feels like this - that they are alone. I think for many psychologists, the social group primarily relied upon for providing self-esteem and a sense of belonging is their professional group. In my experience, the reflective groups I have been a part of and have facilitated enable psychologists to become vulnerable in a safe environment where they can drop their professional masks. It has been helpful to cultivate a sense of unconditional friendliness and self-compassion as without this it is difficult to look at our darker parts.


If psychologists are serious about cultural change and addressing our problems of structural racism and systemic stuckness in supremacy narratives, then as a group we probably need to begin this work by accepting our own humanness and embrace curiosity for our limits and hidden parts. These excavations are where our striving and collective pride in being seen as ‘good’ people are actively unhelpful - As if we are too judgemental, it will be difficult to tolerate ourselves and we will need to avoid. As a collective I think we are too accustomed to avoidance of direct communication that is also caring. Instead we are polite and politically correct whilst silently nudging - conditioning each other to hide all our humanness, and our being average. We need to transcend these emotions with honest conversation, friendliness, self-acceptance, and self-compassion. As a group we have a profound amount to offer and I think understanding our hidden scripts and parts of ourselves we do not see will allow our collective to exist with more depth and realness in our professional identities and maybe finally allow us to embrace the changes towards authentic inclusivity that are so long overdue.



By libbynugent, Oct 26 2019 08:32AM

An internal critical voice is an incessant stream of destructive self talk. Common critical conversations with the self can include scripts such as: “You’re ugly,” “You need to try harder” “You are too loud shut up” and “You’re stupid” “Nobody likes you,” “You are fat and useless”, “You are too much for people”, “Don’t be diffiuclt”, “You are better off on your own”, “You are a mess”...


Sadly this stream of uncontained internalised aggression forms a powerful anti-self that might provide an instant motivation, but will then often discourage a person from acting in their own interest over the long term - Instead fostering self-hate and a retreat from an honest interaction with the world. As such it can corrode every part of life, including self-esteem and confidence, personal and intimate relationships, and performance and accomplishments at school and work.


From some psychology narratives it is tempting to believe that these inner voices come solely from redundant unhelpful thinking styles. They suggest that if you test them out aloud in adult reality you will see that no one really cares how you look, treats you differently or thinks you “need improvement”. But what do you do when the critical voice is not only from the past, but very real and present in the world? When you are explicitly told you have to play by different rules because you are the wrong: social class, colour, ethnicity, religion, gender, weight … just not quite socially acceptable enough to be a recipient of what is fair.


Typically, you learn to make do with what you can get. To swallow the inevitable shame you experience in this process of being in a world where everyday you are different, you are less than. This shame can also come with a self-preserving rage - but you learn to swallow that too. The angry AND fat/ black/poor/female/gay person will only be punished further. You learn to avoid these experiences of shame and rage at all costs. You are told they are pathology and toxic in and of themselves. Better to be placid and likeable. Better to leave those feelings alone. Rise above it. Just do better. Be better.


I still have, at times, a reflex to smother my rage and shame when my shameful parts are provoked even though now I have learned better.


So what does it mean to now know better? It means that I have learnt that whilst there is truth that shame, internalised, is toxic and that rage uncared for is massively destructive, there are also lies. It is not always unhelpful to be in touch with my rage or toxic to pay attention to my shame. Through dreams and storytelling imagery I have come to associate both experiences with the symbol of fire: The white heat of shame, the burning of anger. Like fire, uncontained, shame and rage can storm through life destroying indiscriminately. However shame and rage when held with compassion and their sources examined can open up new world views. When these experiences are harnessed with a view of the self as equal to others and that self is worthy of love, the same fire that was so destructive offers the possibility of cooking up a transformation. Anger and the examination of shame can be used as fuel to cook up the other elements in our psyche that then provide nourishment, cleansing, protection and even prepare the ground for new life. It takes the forces of the steady flame of a self-caring rage to maintain a refusal to keep shame hidden that in turn can break through that which is trapping us.



For a long time I didn’t want to know about my wounds, or rather I knew but didn’t want to think they were big a deal. My inner critical voice firmly in place helped me keep my head down. I wanted people to see me as easy going, friendly and helpful. Likeable. I have enough privilege in my life to harness the denial required to achieve much of this persona. Whilst I knew other people suffered I believed my critical voice and survival strategy of enforced niceness was a sign of my resilience rather than my hidden shame and uncontained aggression. I would tell myself that compared to other people I had nothing to complain about. Anger without self love has a strange way of minimising and dismissing our lived experience so that we see our experiences as so lacking worth or value, that distress can only be located in other people; that is to say it has a way of leaking out and displacing itself as a projection onto others. So at the same time as me being ‘fine’ i could become wildly impassioned on behalf of others. Incensed at their injustices, their oppressions, their hurt. Furious with their aggressors. Or equally, I could also aggressively accuse anyone who wasn’t going to collude with how nice I was. Always the rage, the badness, the disgust was in the other. I was just helpful and nice.


Much of my awakening could best be described in the story of the Frog Prince:


In the tale, a young and protected (or defended) princess reluctantly befriends the Frog Prince, whom she met after dropping a golden ball into a pond. He retrieves it for her in exchange for her friendship. However she did not really want to be friends with the frog. She didn’t know how to voice her disgust of him, and so she pretends to be nice; she then tries to run away and leave him behind. The king hears of this and holds her to account for the promise, insisting the frog be invited into their home. She is too ashamed of her feeling of disgust and so again pretends to be ok with it. The pretense goes on and on until the frog ends up in her bed. Finally the tension of holding both rage and shame break through. The princess gives in and throws the frog against a wall in anger. ‘I can’t do this anymore. Think of me what you will but i’m not going along with it. This ends now.”

In this surrendering into aggression by the princess, the Frog Prince magically transforms into a handsome prince or rather a perfect partner for the princess.

In modern versions, the transformation process has been sanitised: triggered when the princess kisses the frog. I find this sanitised version does not resonate with me in the same way.

Here are some present day examples of such transformations:

In the anti racist book club for psychologists we recently read ‘Why I’m No longer talking to white people About Race’ by Reni Eddo Lodge. This is an incredible example of the individual liberation that comes from a mixture of anger, self-care and an examination of the shame she was being forced to hold. Likewise the Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby in her work “Nanette” owns her anger and outs her shame - refusing to humiliate herself ever again by making jokes about homophobic violence directed towards her. Additionally the singer Lizzo, embracing her plus size black body singing ‘Truth Hurts’ whilst dancing in unapologetically revealing clothing for the BET awards ceremony is a joyous moment. For these people turning towards their own pain, anger and shame provided extraordinary space for creativity and connection with others. In all these cases it appears to be born from making a commitment to see the self as equal, and being honest about what they are experiencing in their internal world: self-love, despair, anger, rage and shame. Producing life changing shifts not only for themselves but so many around them.

What would happen if clinical psychology as a culture took up this call? Where would it take us? How might our professional world be different if there was a place to go where you are nurtured to become yourself. Letting go of the need to cover up or defend and instead accept all of your idiosyncrasies, fears, wounds, false belief systems, flaws, difficult moods, body size, skin colour, gender, sexuality etc and be supported as unique and imperfect instead of hiding, rejecting and wishing that we were different or like somebody else.

Ironically, when a person or culture claims and accepts their shadow, that which is rejected and suppressed about themselves, transforms from being a source of shame to being strength of character - the unwanted frog becomes a perfect partner. The pain and shame offer soul. Such people and systems give others permission to accept themselves as they are, their freedom becomes contagious. There is so much potential in our professional world. Imagine if as a profession we could embrace this. This is the profession to which I want to belong to.


As a final attempt to convey my point I will turn to The West Indian poet Derek Walcott . He describes this process incredibly in his poem Love After Love:


The time will come

when, with elation

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror

and each will smile at the other's welcome,


and say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you


all your life, whom you ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,


the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life.




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.




By libbynugent, Aug 15 2019 08:59AM

“It is through the alignment of the body that I discovered the alignment of my mind, self, and intelligence.” B.K.S. Iyengar


“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness of other people.” Carl Jung



Like many other white, middle class, women, I am a fan and intermittent practitioner of yoga. There is so much structural racism in this phenomena to unpack, but if you can bear with me, I will put that part of this conversation on hold for this piece.


My relationship with yoga is multilayered and as such my ambivalence is high: wanting to practice /not wanting to practice, loving and avoiding, attraction and apathy, talking about rather than doing, wanting the reward without the effort etc etc It is very similar, in fact possibly identical to my relationship to being in an analysis.

I find it is when I am practicing both yoga and being an analysand that my ability to hold compassion for myself and have a real view of the world is at its greatest capacity. Helpful personal understandings emerge between the two spaces, some of which I want to share here.


My observations so far show me that yoga and analysis both provide me with the structured environment needed to gain insight and understanding of what it is like being me. Both invite an examination of my limits and how to negotiate them. How do I approach and define my lived averageness, my unwanted parts, my imperfections, my being human? How do I aspire for change without engaging in self attack? Can I bring awareness to parts of myself I am blind to, that shape my existence and yet I feel no connection to? Thinking about yoga and doing yoga are two very different experiences. Likewise the true impact is an embodied experience that can only be known through the doing. Feeling fit and flexible is not as I imagined. Sessions are always effortful and uncomfortable regardless of my experience in my practice and it does not offer a peaceful utopia although life is absolutely qualitatively different when I practice and for me life is also improved. For all of this, the same is true of my experience of analysis.


One of the initial curiosities I had with yoga was my instructor’s supreme confidence and ambition in the possibilities of the shapes my body can make. Without giving too much detail about my body I hope you are more or less comfortable with knowing that my feet are big and mostly unresponsive. I would attend yoga classes and whilst mid-downward dog (this is white lady yoga), have this fascistly enthusiastic women shouting ”lift your arches, spread your toes” - to me seemingly impossible and trivial tasks. My toes do not spread or arches lift and what difference would it make if they did anyway. They are still, fixed even, and it has been like this for as long as I can remember - I get about my business just fine. I have never ever considered my lack of toe stretch an impediment. Yes of course it could be improved but my feet do the job they are supposed to, they get me places. I am able bodied. It surely was a pointless, irrelevant alignment and she was wasting my time ignoring the bigger more impactful aspects of my woeful physical landscape that needs attending to.


As the weeks and months rolled on I became aware that despite my best efforts to ignore her, the foot task had become firmly fixed on an agenda for me. With her continued insistence I began to pay attention to my feet, I also began moving through a range of reactions to this attention - hilarity, awkwardness, play along, shame, hopelessness and occasional panic. Finally curiosity. Why did she remain so insistent? What might she know? If she is right and there should be a connection between her suggesting I spread my toes, me thinking about it and then it occurring, why wasn’t it happening? Was her just telling me repeatedly whilst I mentally willed an impossible physical action enough to really make it occur? If there is no felt connection how do you do things differently, how do you bring alive connections you can’t see or feel? Even if I did, what difference could it possibly make? My feet are really not that important, are they?



The short version of this anecdote is: I don't know how or why things changed, I just know they did. Whilst my toes are in no way in toddler reach territory, they definitely do now offer significant and effective stretch. My arches lift, a bit. This has in fact gently but profoundly impacted my alignment across my entire practice and made so much more possible. I am more stable and grounded in a way I was not previously and that I had not known was lacking. Who knew? My yoga instructor apparently.


I also now have an awareness of the importance of trusting the entire process: I do not know what I do not know and sometimes it requires a guide to help switch the light on and show me the way out of the dark. This change however, requires humility. My resistance to being open to her guidance and my refusal to acknowledge the possibility of her knowing something I did not, was exhausting and, I think, caused the majority of my slowness to change.


My analyst was doing a very similar job at the same time. He was sat with me giving me repeated instruction, coaxing my attention towards my underused and inert resources. He would repeatedly draw my attention to particular aspects of my relationships - more often than not my beliefs about, and my experience of, the other. He appeared compulsively to bring into our conversation compassionate reflections of the other’s part in my interactions. It seemed entirely unnecessary. I did not need to be reminded of the politics of sexism, or that black people having feelings, people being different from each other, or that there is the role of privilege to consider. I did not need to have this drawn to my attention because I knew this stuff. Really well. I had left the Mormon church decades ago, I wasn’t in that system anymore. Yes there is always a bit more work to be done, but not there surely. How guilty was I supposed to feel? It sometimes felt like a waste of time - we had my childhood to talk about. Surely we should be focussed on that? Eventually, over time I realised this was firmly on the agenda for me. I used humour regularly to try and bring the conversation back to what I considered the real issue. Occasionally I would feel some awkwardness at his comments, sometimes play along, then shame, hopelessness and occasional panic. Finally curiosity arrived and the light dawned. He was bringing my reality into grounded alignment. Allowing my emotional reactions to connect with their true cause. Helping me see that in alignment the world looks and is experienced very differently.

Another part of my yoga learning was the shock I felt discovering this exhausting downward dog pose I was working so hard at, was actually a “resting position” ! A space for me to collect myself in between more dynamic poses. In analysis this was equated to the shock I discovered in realising that my acknowledgment of my whiteness, my class, my education, my body, my privilege, are merely alignments to help with my resting pose in the dynamics of relationships. Just like my feet provide the foundation of physical poses, these aspects of my social self form the foundation of every interaction I have with the other. The work of actively engaging in a more conscious and ethical relationship with the dynamic real world is what we were preparing for.


A final thought: I have learnt from both yoga and analysis that my defences are guides towards reality and so there is huge value in noticing, attending to and caring for my anger, shame and guilt. As a result of these two endeavours I can hold myself in discomfort for longer, knowing that discomfort, danger and pain are not the same experiences and that long as I resist any experience of discomfort, no growth can occur. In allowing myself to see who I really am I can also see how things might be and pathways forward.








RSS Feed