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, 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.

By libbynugent, Jul 11 2019 02:55PM

I think most Clinical Psychologists are drawn to this profession for restorative reasons: our individual, family and community wounds have taught us the impact of unattended pain. Part of my private practice I have made available to provide therapy to trainee clinical psychologists during this life-changing chapter. I have witnessed the stepping into this professional identity from a behind the scenes view. In addition to this, I have also at different times provided group reflective practice to assistant and aspiring clinical psychologists, supervision to trainee clinical psychologists, therapy to qualified clinicians as well as individual and group supervision. My therapeutic approach is systemic and narrative and I am currently in the training process to become a group analyst.

The trainees that have come to me for therapy have typically wanted to make sense of different parts of their identity whilst in the context of training. The hidden or marginalised parts that do not fit the assimilated white, female, straight, young, able-bodied, identity of the clinical psychologist caricature. Non assimilated identities have included: being black; being brown; having a religious faith; uncertainty around sexuality; being working class; carrying a mental health diagnosis/ lived experience of the mental health service; fertility problems; loneliness; being a rape survior and survivor of complex childhood trauma.

I am sharing these details to make the point that I am in a relatively potent position regarding observation of the psyche and culture of clinical psychology training. I hope sharing my reflections on our culture is taken as an additional part of this work and provides a degree of advocacy regarding some things that need to change for the better in our profession.

In this therapeutic work what often gets discussed is the tension between the different parts of the self. What I have come to think of as the good girl versus rebel dilemma. The good girl identity wants to be seen as reasonable, a scientist-practitioner, who is kind and thoughtful and fits in to CP culture. She wants to keep her head down and make the most of opportunities with minimal friction. She has a propensity for avoidance. The rebel is full of feeling, heart ache, pain, anger and aggression; she wants to tell everyone how her life really is and who cares if everyone thinks she’s too much; she has a propensity for self-righteousness. My witnessing of CP culture is that it is likely to encourage a compromise be made between the two positions: a bit knocked off from each part and ideally the worst bits: have a voice, speak your truth just as long as no-one is made to feel too uncomfortable. ”The culture will not learn if people are shamed” is what we are told. “So how do I find the right balance?” is so often the question posed by trainees.

My Mormon childhood (white supremacist and misogynistic) also gave me the narrative that I must compromise to belong: I could have my ideas and my frustrations with the community but being kind and thoughtful were highly valued characteristics and as such I needed to find a middle road. So I could be opinionated and give feedback about the misogyny but not so much to cause another too much discomfort and certainly not shame. Or rather not to cause the superior white male shame. It likewise would not have occurred to me to think that a person of colour would be anything other than pleased for me to be prioritised over them. Their servitude was my reward for being nice. Should a person of colour have tried to give me feedback regarding how they were experiencing any of my entitled behaviours. I would have assumed they were truly overreacting - that would have implied I was somehow a racist and I was far too good and nice to ever be that.

I left the Mormon community as I wanted to be seen as a whole person. This turned out to be quite different from what I was anticipating. Through having a psychoanalysis I have found how important it is to honour all the different parts of my life fully and the danger of cultures that do not contain anger but instead demand compromise and assimilation. Through experiencing this analytic relationship I learned the difference between containment as an expression of a need to control and containment as an opportunity to engage and allow for change.

I have a love of dreams and faerie tales and I thought I would bring two here as a way to continue my conversation with whoever is reading this.

Here is a dream I had following my own qualifying as a clinical psychologist and a faerie tale that I’ve spent considerable time contemplating:

The Dream:

I am in a campervan being driven by a clinical psychologist supervisor. We are driving in a neglected part of our community. On the side of the road I notice a beautiful woman. She is smiling at people and busy doing tasks to tidy up the area. The woman is dressed as a Geisha. People in the road observe her from a distance. As the vehicle moves closer to her I realise the Geisha dress is a very shoddy costume and is in fact disguising a white man who is filled with pain and rage and behaving violently sometimes to himself and sometimes at others. For every tidying up action “she” does, “he” undoes. People around are pretending they don’t see him and I am reminded of the story of the emperor who had no clothes.

The Faerie Tale:

An insecure emperor, who cares too much about how he appears to others, hires two weavers. The weavers claim to make the most beautiful clothes in the whole world. In actuality, the weavers are tricksters who convince the emperor they are using a special magic fabric that appears invisible to anyone who is either incompetent at their role or hopelessly stupid. Of course no one can see the alleged fabric but everyone who is invited in to view the weavers work pretends that they can for fear of appearing unfit for their role. Finally, the weavers report that the suit is finished and they mime dressing the emperor who then marches in procession before his subjects. The townsfolk uncomfortably go along with the pretence, not wanting to appear unfit for their positions or stupid. Finally, a child in the crowd blurts out that the emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is then taken up by others. The emperor realises the assertion is true and continues the procession - still naked. (Wikipedia,2019)

I have come to invest importance in these images to both my personal and professional identity. I will leave it to you to have your own associations but hopefully it is apparent why the symbolism might be relevant.

I think if we genuinely want the system to change we need to take head on this dominant culture as a collective. We must not continue to leave people in marginalised subgroups with the tasks of self care and the burden of rescuing this culture that is too insecure to listen. To do this I think we need to take seriously the intersectional complexity of our relationships; and embrace nuanced feelings, experiences and conversation where we can all see ourselves as both oppressed and oppressors.

If the profession really wants to engender equitable change my experience shows this is not an academic task. This is where I am in agreement with those that suggest CP culture would benefit hugely from providing compulsory analytic reflective space, for training staff and individual or group therapy for trainees. In this way we can begin to grapple with the hidden parts of ourselves and each other. I appreciate that may seem a strong position but how else do we start to see the unseen?

By libbynugent, Apr 9 2019 08:35AM

I am part of a Facebook group for Clinical Psychologists in private practice. I find it a profoundly helpful group that offers support and reflective space when working in the world without the NHS structure.

A few weeks ago, a discussion was being had about resources for women experiencing vaginismus. This discussion was particularly holding in mind women from the Muslim faith. There was described an experience of being able to successfully work towards achieving sexual penetration, but not being able to achieve having the pain stop. At one point someone mentioned that they found working with this group could be challenging, as there seemed to be a push to be goal oriented; they often experienced this group of women as not very psychologically minded. These seemingly gentle observations sent off a panic in my chest. I went to reply, but have since decided to write this letter instead:

In some ways I should be the last person to be standing up as a voice on this subject of structural racism. I grew up in a mormon community which has explicitly a vivid white supremacist history. A history I am deeply ashamed of, but it only makes it worse if I deny its existence - seemingly absolving it through silence. However, if I acknowledge my own experience, then perhaps I can ask people of whiteness to think about our own part in perpetuating racist and traumatising cultural narratives.

The culture I grew up in was not only racist it was also misogynistic: teenage brides and polygamy being very much a part of the narrative. As a white woman, I learned to be obedient, particularly to white men (of any age post puberty) and to never expose any “not knowing” by them. If I did, it would have been my mistake, and therefore me to be thought accountable. You could be clever and outspoken, but only in service of the white male authority: the neck that turns the head so to speak. To achieve my obedience in a way that didn’t expose the aggression of this, I performed liking my role and displaying gratitude.

To be not only a woman, but a woman of colour, was the lowest status of all. It would have been unlikely you would have been chosen as a wife and therefore mother and as such could not be seen as useful or of value. I couldn’t acknowledge or think about this, and so didn’t. At that point I was in denial of my whiteness, my being inherently racist and having any white privilege. I justified my inaction by believing that this was someone else’s fight and that my silence was neutral. I wanted to see myself as just a good person that wanted to be picked.

My brothers had a different narrative in our culture. From a young age they were told they were very special and their role was to spiritually care and financially be responsible for the well-being of others who were less capable - namely lower status people. My brothers’ prayers, we were told, had direct communication with god; as such they needed to take this responsibility seriously and invest in their own spiritual development: the closer they were to god the more useful they would be. To maintain their status they needed to be seen to be righteous and not contaminated by wrongdoing - past or present. They also wanted to believe that racism was someone else’s fight and that their silence was neutral. They just wanted to meet their responsibilities.

In my late teens I left this community. Part of my leaving was that I knew I needed more from life and I wanted to use my brain and celebrate it. At some point I found clinical psychology - it seemed like a career that I could maybe have it all. I could stretch my academic self and really grow. I ditched god and men and found rationale science and feminism; I had swapped prayers for reflective practice.

I thought my psychologist role was solely for good and was about being a responsible caring person, helping other people less fortunate than me with their emotional pain - and in the NHS, where they didn’t need to pay. I was aware not many people of colour were chosen to be in the profession, but I couldn’t bear the thought of thinking about this and so I didn’t. I decided the lack of diversity was probably best dealt with by someone else, as I was aware if I started to speak I might well expose my own racist heritage and I couldn’t afford to be exposed as broken or bad. I just wanted to meet my responsibilities in the least troublesome way possible.

Oh dear.

You can take the girl out of the Mormon but it’s much harder to take the Mormon out of the girl.

My career progressed and I became aware I needed some help to be a better therapist for my clients. I had the answer: go to therapy! You know, for work. In some ways I wasn’t wrong.

When I started psychoanalytic therapy I had a shock:

I struggled with my therapist that he would not tell me what to do.

I struggled that he would not acknowledge how good I am, how nice I am.

I was offended when he suggested I might be full of anger and pain.

I struggled to notice and connect with my internal world.

I struggled to be psychologically minded.

Why? Because asking me about my shame was like asking a fish how the water is and their reply is: “What water?”.

“Psychological mindedness refers to a person's capacity for self-examination, self-reflection, introspection and personal insight. It includes an ability to recognize meanings that underlie overt words and actions, to appreciate emotional nuance and complexity, to recognize the links between past and present, and insight into one's own and others' motives and intentions.” wikipedia, 03/04/2019

I didn’t ‘know’ when I was drawn to clinical psychology I was replicating a pattern from my traumatic childhood. That I was looking for a new ‘right answer’ on how to live life that didn’t challenge my learned self-image. Now I do, and it has been both a painful and enriching awakening.

My lack of insight into my unconscious motivations (my lack of psychological mindedness) to be a clinical psychologist is not unusual. I suppose what is less usual in professions that work at least in part as psychotherapist, is that as a culture psychology has relatively little interest in having these motivations drawn out into the open. Personal or group therapy is not essential to complete training and only a small number of people chose to attend, even fewer are categorised as having ‘lived experience’.

Although personal narratives are intellectually regularly acknowledged there is a curious silence surrounding the felt pain of our collective histories and possible subsequent enactments.

Intellectually, we know that silence is a form of avoidance and acts to deny pain. We also know that social and cultural groups can hold collective trauma and cultural wounds; they become the building blocks of the social unconscious. When this pain is kept out of consciousness we project our anguish onto others, typically sub groups, and they become the traumatised bad object; the scapegoat who we accordingly determine are just not psychologically minded enough.

When I read the Facebook discussion it reminded me of my own and my brothers’ behaviours in the face of the Mormon culture: racism silently active in denial of its context and living with the conviction that there are only kind intentions being exchanged. I suspect anyone in the Facebook discussion group who did have conscious concerns did not express them, for fear of being “ too harsh” and then the abusive gaze being turned back on to them.

The profession of clinical psychology is actively both avoiding addressing, and also in its silence perpetuating, structural racism. The Facebook discussion was perpetuating the belief there is an “us and them” and that the models used were not effective because the Muslim women were somehow lacking an ability to “get it”. I am suggesting that the lack of psychological mindedness, (due to unacknowledged trauma) belongs in our culture and does not belong to those subgroups who do not ‘get’ our models. We are just like the Garfield cartoon character who wants to lose weight quickly and so surrounds himself with fat friends.

This scapegoat way of thinking does not just extend to the ‘hard to engage clients’. Clinical Psychology is one of the least diverse health care professions in the NHS. As a group, we know this is not an accident; I don’t think many of us view this as acceptable. What do we ask our members with colour to carry in service of the white privilege narrative?

We know we need to stop perpetuating the cycle - but how?

I believe we need to own our own traumas. We know British culture has a violent history of slavery and that the profession of psychology has acted abusively: IQ testing, Human Nazi experiments and the Aversion Project to name three hideous examples. We need to understand ourselves as a profession trying to survive in treacherous times and bring into consciousness our pain and shame so that we can heal and thrive.

We need to make space for people collectively to explore these dynamics, allowing a range of perspectives, not only to acknowledge the cultural abuses and wounds, but also the pain of each group member and for them to be held and attended to. Maybe if as a culture we start to take into account all of our wounds - and not continue to avoid them, we can stop requiring subgroups to be scapegoats for our pain.

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