Becoming Ethical

Waking up and becoming more conscious, as indiviudals and as a collective is a never ending task.  We can each only do our bit.


No one person has all the persepectives, or all the answers.  There are so many paths that need to be followed and explored.


My hope is that the more we connect through conversation we can understand ourselves and each other, then maybe we can chose more clear eyed and wisely the world we live in and the paths we take.  

By DrLibbyNugent, Aug 12 2021 01:26PM

Recently, I have been thinking a great deal about the tale of Rumpelstiltskin. It is a story I was told regularly when I was in a Jungian analysis and I return to it often.

The story of Rumpelstiltskin – albeit under a different name – is thought to be about 4,000 years old and is one of the earliest known stories in Western literature. Something about this story has stuck in our collective conscious and it is not letting go. The name Rumpelstiltskin means ‘little rattle stilt’, from rumpelstilt, a goblin that was rumoured to make noises by rattling posts (or stilts), like a sort of ghost.

In Jungian analysis each character in a story is a part of the self/ community. Rumplestiltskin can be thought of as our shadow part in the story. In the tale the queen discovered his name in time. When she informs Rumpelstiltskin of his true name, he angrily disappears into the earth. My initial point is taken from a James Hillman’s interpretation: we are all visited by shadows from our family and community’s past. It may be the rattling, unnamed ghosts of greed, deprivation, abuse, exploitation, addictions, you “name it!” The story promises that when we face these rattling ghosts and are able to name them, we can loosen some of their powerful grip on our lives. Furthermore, that means new life and growth can stay with us! (Gadjos, 2013). This is true for both individuals and communities.

As for the theme of spinning: Being a spinster, long before the word became an insult of low social status and relationship failure, is an ancient and honoured craft. It is a job that links many aspects of female identity - a way to clothe family, make a living and express creativity. In Greek mythology, each human life is a thread that the three Moirae, or Fates, spin, measure, and cut. With Rumpelstiltskin's help, the girl spins straw into gold, however even without this aspect of the tale, the ability to take a mass of fiber and transform it into yarn, thread and rope is work of huge value (Windling, 2020).

It’s no accident that spinning is associated with language, that we may be said to 'spin' a tale or tell a 'yarn', … Spinning brings a cosmic 'twist' into the raw materials of nature, giving them strength and continuity. When we look at events with a higher awareness, we can perceive the links between them and weave them into an ongoing story, coming to an understanding of their true essence. The spinning of straw into gold can be transformed from a mechanical search for material gain into a quest for meaning and knowledge.” (Hess, 2011).

To extend the metaphor to the world of clinical psychology: in our work in formulation we maintain this tradition of taking the raw materials of our patient’s stories, drawing out threads and finding rich narratives that transform into powerful resources.

I have been clinician and supervisor to clinical psychologists: pre, post and during training for over a decade; witnessing first hand the unintended consequences of our community culture. I have listened to the rage and frustration of trainees who are giving everything and feel unseen, hurt and exploited. I have listened to confused, frustrated and sometimes bewildered course trainers and supervisors who “gave them everything” only to have it thrown in their faces. I have often wondered why it can feel so difficult to navigate relationships, power and authority in our system. It seems we are all trapped in the same problem, one that cannot quite be named.

The plot of the fairy tale can be summarised easily enough:

In order to appear superior, a miller lies to the king, telling him that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The king calls for the miller’s daughter, locks her up in a tower room filled with straw and a spinning wheel, and demands she spin the straw into gold by morning or he will cut off her head.

When she has given up all hope, an imp-like creature appears in the room and spins the straw into gold in return for her necklace (since he only comes to people who are seeking a deal or a trade).

When next morning the king takes the miller’s daughter to a larger room filled with straw to repeat the feat, the imp once again spins, in return for the miller’s daughter’s ring.

On the third day, when the miller’s daughter has been taken to an even larger room filled with straw and told by the king that he will marry her if she can fill this room with gold or execute her if she cannot, the miller’s daughter has nothing left with which she can pay the strange creature. He extracts from her a promise that she will give him her firstborn child, and so he spins the straw into gold a final time.

The king keeps his promise to marry the miller's daughter, and she no longer gave a thought to the imp. But when their first child is born, the imp returns to claim his payment: "Now give me what you promised." She offers him all the wealth she has to keep the child, but the imp has no interest in her riches.

He finally consents to give up his claim to the child if she can guess his name within three days.

Her many guesses fail, but before the final night, she wanders into the woods searching for him and comes across his remote mountain cottage and watches, unseen, as he hops about his fire and sings. In his song's lyrics—"tonight tonight, my plans I make, tomorrow tomorrow, the baby I take. The queen will never win the game, for Rumpelstiltskin is my name"—he reveals his name.

When the imp comes to the queen on the third day, after first feigning ignorance, she reveals his name, Rumpelstiltskin, and he loses his temper and their bargain.Rumpelstiltskin driving his right foot so far into the ground that he creates a chasm and falls into it, never to be seen again.

So where do we begin in this fairytale analysis of clinical psychology culture? Hopefully some threads have already begun to twist into shape. In my research around Rumplestiltskin I came across Diane Roshelle’s work and her blog in 2015. She provides a wonderful interpretation of the tale around the necessity of learning how to say no. Her interpretation, transposed and woven into the clinical psychology context is one I have taken up here …

For much of the tale the protagonist is known only in her relationship to her father, she is the miller’s daughter. Her tasks of weaving straw to gold are given to her because of a combination of her father’s lies and the king’s ambition. We do not know what the king wants the gold for. He is greedy, yes. But is this for his kingdom or for him? Is he desperate and trying to provide resources for his people or is he hoarding his own wealth?

In our early careers, before we qualify as a clinical psychologist there is a part of us that is greedy for a particular knowledge and wants to achieve in the world in this particular way. The task we give ourselves can feel like a fantastical goal that requires magical assistance - we have no real idea of how people accomplish it. As such we all start out being the miller’s daughter needing to spin our identities in clinical psychology. But whether it be a specific post, professional relationship, accessing the clinical psychology training, or maintaining a feeling of competent clinician (rather than under a constant threat of being caught as an imposter) we always seem to encounter a situation which is insurmountable and frankly out of our skill set.

Clinical Psychology is not a community that initiates us into the skill of saying “no” to unreasonable demands or allows for personal limitations. Nor are we really a group that values those who do (Roshelle,2015). Very few training courses offer part-time options and the discourse around people who leave the NHS or reduce hours to allow for a different way of life can get aggressive very quickly. Conversely, we often want free access to an abundance of information and support at minimal rates. Training courses are castles of high expectation; like the miller’s daughter, trainees and course staff can feel left alone and locked in, striving to meet the other’s expectations; we also internalize these standards so they inevitably become our own (Roshelle,2015).

In the tale, the miller’s daughter is threatened with her head being chopped off if she fails at her tasks. However, the miller's daughter does not tell the king she is incapable of weaving straw into gold. Maybe she believes the king will not listen? Maybe she doesn't want to destroy her father’s reputation? Maybe secretly she thinks she might? Either way, the king believes she can and that she just needs sufficient incentive to perform.

In our early careers people are encouraged to work for free, or little money and a lot of over time. This personal cost/investment can start to make us feel desperate, if we are not able to make good on our promise to get on to training. Likewise on clinical psychology training, when the employer exhibits the same greedy attitude as the king - such as demanding high percentage passes in limited years or funding will be withdrawn - jobs and livelihoods are at stake, as well as professional membership for the trainee. If we fail, we might lose our ability to provide for ourselves, have our desired career options, or for the training course access to sufficient future funding for future placements. How will nhs targets be met and our society receive appropriate psychological care if we don’t get enough trainees through? In short, the future is riding on it (Roshelle,2015). This pressure and cost is most strong for those in our community who are from marginalised groups.

Rumpelstiltskin shows up on cue and helps the miller’s daughter - but at a cost and she must pay with her necklace, a small sacrifice in comparison to the reward? “How many of us get sucked into a similar deal? It might be sleep, time with friends, a principle, a boundary, but it’s something that seems small at the time. Sacrificing it gets us through. Makes us successful. Puts off that dreaded something that we would lose.

But it’s a setup.” Roshelle, 2015.

In the morning, when the king returns and sees all that has been accomplished, he wants more. Of course he does. Why wouldn't he? So now there is more straw to spin into gold and she is still locked in the chamber under threat of death. Of course Rumpelstiltskin shows up again, offering to help, and the miller’s daughter again is quick to pay his price. For many of us this scenario, of pulling the hat out of the bag, only to wake the next morning and be given another even bigger task, might feel extraordinarily familiar. The attitude of personal sacrifice of the professional caregiver being necessary and ‘worth it’ for the greater good is ingrained into both clinical psychology and nhs culture: it is always thought worth services at least trying to meet demands to do more with less resources.

Predictably after the second success, the King wants more again and the miller’s daughter is set up for a third rotation. The number three often just means numerous in fairytales and in real life, these Rumplestiltskin exchanges can go on any number of times (Roshelle, 2015). However, as a collective the number of times isn’t as important as the fact that this way of working becomes expected —so habitual that there is no acknowledgement of any exchange. “It’s just what you do.” (Roshelle, 2015).

On the third encounter, Rumplestilstsin greatly increases the stakes . Whilst the threat of death is still there, if the miller’s daughter delivers the gold she will become the queen. She will receive both an identity of her own and also social power! (Roshelle, 2015). Even if that power might be in service to the king that had been threatening to kill her and making unreasonable demands. (Roshelle, 2015). The sacrifice this time is also different. Rumpelstiltskin now wants her first-born child, he wants to control her future life. Similar to the exchange her father made for her, and now fully habituated to self-sacrifice and dependence on Rumpelstiltskin, she agrees (Roshelle, 2015).

In training, both trainees and course staff have the same ‘King’. When everyone is being paid to be there by the same powers, it is quite difficult to have a clear exchange of money for accountability. Who actually is wanting (rather than needing) to be there, who is really making the demands and who has the authority to speak or hear a ’No’ . Where is the person not under both the King’s rule and dependent on Rumplstiltskin that can say “Are you out of your *&^% mind ?” - when the cost gets too high?

My experience is that most people say they chose clinical psychology training because self-funding was an impossible task and if they wanted any future as a clinical psychologist then they needed to be salaried to train. However, what is the relational cost of this? I am not suggesting trainees should pay, but rather I am asking that we have a conscious engagement with the impact of these exchanges. Money, its direction of flow and what we offer in its exchange (or absence) matters.

After the third night, the miller’s daughter becomes a Queen. She now has both power and a social identity. But is this a loving marriage? (Roshelle, 2015). Is it a marriage of mutual desire? Can either ever feel secure and trust, when she was coerced? Can she ever truly feel confident of his desire if she knows it wasn’t really her that accomplished the cherished tasks? The Queen is not able to own those accomplishments. She was never allowed to fail. Nor was she ever allowed to own her choice. She can always say she was made to do it, or that Rumpelstiltskin did it for her. She is an imposter.

The Queen tries to go back on her deal with Rumplestilskin. She offers him all her wealth. In Jungian interpretation of fairy tales children are often symbols of creativity. ‘Rumpelstiltskin helped her “fake it ‘til she made it.”’ so she could become the Queen (Roshelle, 2015). A child—is an act of creation that has nothing to do with Rumpelstiltskin, she has created with her own body’s magic. The child is a validation of her own ability and power . Also nobody accuses the birth mother of the heir to the throne that she is holding an unrightful position of authority. The child symbolises certainty of the Queen’s right to be there. But Rumplsestiltskin now wants that. He wants her ability to hold self-confidence.

The final part of the tale, the naming is hugely important. It’s only when the queen is able to name Rumpelstiltskin for what he is that she truly comes into her own power, the power to keep hold of her ‘children’, the power to feel confident in her position and hold personal sovereignty. Likewise in psychoanalytic thinking when we put things into words and are able to bring them into consciousness we see them more clearly for what they are. In doing so Rumpelstiltskin disappears and our options can begin to look quite different along with our ability to take ownership of our choices.

However whilst the naming is the end of the fairytale (and in life coming into consciousness of a dynamic) - what then happens to the queen? Naming does not undo what has been done, nor is it a one-off experience. We often have to live our stories many times over - naming them over and over again. We could speculate the queen has been traumatised by her experiences and even if not, she still has a narcissistic father, an abusive partner and patriarchy to contend with. All whilst being a first time mum and holding down a new powerful job. I suspect she is in for a difficult time. So maybe the happy ending is more of a hope that this particular rattling ghost will be laid to rest and the potential for a new future is kept open a little longer. Maybe that’s more than enough .

If you would like to join me for more discussions on fairytales, myths and psychology please do got to the events section at my website:


Mind Matters — Remember Rumpelstiltskin? (

By DrLibbyNugent, May 29 2021 08:26AM

One of the stories from my childhood that used to particularly fascinate and frighten me was "The Pied Piper of Hamelin", in which a rat-catcher leads away an infestation of rats with enchanted music. The piper is later refused payment, so he in turn leads away the town's children. Depending on the version, at most three children remained behind: one had a walking impediment and could not follow quickly enough, the second was deaf and therefore could not hear the music, and the last was blind and therefore unable to see where he was going. These three informed the villagers of what had happened when they came out from church. This image of irresponsible parents and both lost children/left behind children terrified me and to this day I still have an irrational dislike of rats.

I am not alone in my irrational dislike of rats, they have long appeared in popular European culture as symbols of dirt, disease and the realities of survival. The rat is feared as it is tenacious and has an enormous ability to survive in a vast range of conditions, oddly linked to humans by our shared evolutionary successes. Rats have go wherever humans have go, living alongside us in our basements and sewers, occasionally we see them scurrying around bins, or in alleys reminding us of our waste, inequality, and deadliness as they nocturnally feast on our rubbish.

As with all fairy tales and myths we can hear the story and its symbols on a literal level and think about what might have really happened in the town of Hamelin-maybe experiences of the plague etc We can also hear the story more symbolically - What happens when our psyche and social conscious suffer from a symbolic plague of rats? What do rats represent to us? Do we try and get rid of them? What happens when we refuse to pay the fee for their removal?

I am aware I am writing this at the end of May 2021 when in Australia there is a plague of rats.

So what associations do we have with rats?

• Rats are connected to dirt.

• Rats are considered to bring infections.

• Freud believed rats to be phallic symbols.

• Freud also felt that rats represented dirty children: screaming, crying, and biting vermin. As vermin, rats symbolize unwanted children or unwanted siblings.

• Rats can also represent unwanted or dirty thoughts.

• Rats are hoarders and they stock up on grains for the winters. They can cause large scale destruction to farmers. As a result, rats are not welcome anywhere.

• In the Bible, they are deemed as animals too lowly to be eaten.

• Superstitions and myths surround rats in many parts of the world. Many of these depict the rat as a trickster.

• China, the rat is associated with money; when you hear a rat scrabbling around for food at night, it is said to be ‘counting money’. ‘Money-rat’ is a disparaging way of referring to a miser.

• The rat’s wedding is a big event in China. There are paintings of rat bridal processions showing rat bride and rat people.

• To look like a drowned rat.

• To smell a rat.

• To rat on someone.

• Like a rat up a drainpipe.

• Rat race.

• King rat

• Like rats leaving/abandoning a sinking ship

• Lab rat

• Love rat

• Rat in the kitchen

• Rug rat

• Rat pack

• You dirty rat

• Don’t give a rat’s ass

• To get rat arsed/pissed as a rat

• Rats nest of problems

• Rats may be symbols of poverty, decay and disease, but they also signify a certain abundance of waste, or at least that there’s some extra food lying around.

• Rats have been used to invoke a fantasy of a predatory relationships of rats on humans which in turn is used as a symbol to evoke a predatory relationship of the homeless, refugees, unemployed on society.

• In 1895, Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, established a population of domestic albino brown rats to study the effects of diet and for other physiological studies. Over the years, rats have been used in many experimental studies, adding to our understanding of genetics, diseases, the effects of drugs, and other topics that have provided a great benefit for the health and wellbeing of humankind.

• Rats have a keen sense of smell and are easy to train. These characteristics have been employed, for example, by the Belgian non-governmental organization APOPO, which trains rats (specifically African giant pouched rats) to detect landmines and diagnose tuberculosis through smell.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts?

By DrLibbyNugent, May 25 2021 02:29PM

In Cinderella there is an important symbol of feet (and shoes). It is Cinderella’s uniquely shaped, small feet that make her a perfect fit for the glass or golden slippers. In the original Grimm brother’s version, by instruction from the mother, the ugly sisters' feet are cut up to fit Cinderella's shoes. The first sister has her big toe cut off, the second sister has her heel removed. They are told to hide their pain and that it will be worth it, because if they marry the prince, they won’t need to walk, they can just be carried everywhere. It is all rather gruesome and disturbing.

However, despite the gruesomeness, I am cuirous about feet as a symbol or metaphor - what associations might people have with feet …

Direct contact with the earth.

Being grounded.

Standing on your own two feet.

Is phallic with the shoe as the vulva and the foot itself as a euphemism for genitals.

Can connote dying, passing on as well as slow wandering.

Bare feet are a sign of mourning and respect.

Fairies have no footprints.

Can also bring luck and prosperity.

Footprints and worn-out shoes can provide evidence of someone's presence.

Global footprint


Foot is the furthest part of the body from the head/mind/thought/intellectualisation.

Get your feet wet

Take a load off your feet.

Dead on my feet

Cold feet

Find your feet

Have itchy feet

Sweep someone off their feet

Thinking on your feet

Having feet of clay

Binding of Feet

Voting with your Feet

How we shape our feet can be for some a symbol of social oppression - foot binding, high heels etc For others it can represent something powerful about femininity.

The foot was a unit of measurement throughout Europe. It often differed in length not only from country to country but from city to city. Because the length of a foot changed between person to person, measurements were not even consistent between two people, often requiring an average. Henry I of England was attributed to passing the law that the foot was to be as long as a person's own foot. This was one of the first times a standard unit of measurement was put into place.

Feet as a symbol clearly has some fascinatting narratives attached.

If we refer back to the Cinderella stroy, in both Group and Jungian interpretation each aspect of a story is thought to represent a part of the self. With this in mind, in the fairy tale and therapy reflective practice space I hold, the Ugly Sisters' Feet have been the source of much discussion.

When do wesubmit to our feet being cut - maybe from the instruction of an authority who promises we wont need them, and encourages us to hide our pain? Surely we need our toes and heels for balance and/ or independence in our life. Or are we told our reward will mean we wont need that in the same way? Just as long as we have others to carry us? It makes me wonder about the mother/authority structures in our lives/ communites/institutions?

Do we embody the stepmother and command ourselves to cut off part of our feet with the hope of a reward?

What does it mean to have feet that are too big for the shoes we feel entitled to wear?

What do we need our feet for - what would living with a severed big toe or heel be like? I imagine there would be daily reminders but maybe also adaptations, whilst a feeling of being different that might often be able to be hidden from view?

What is lost in trying to make our feet smaller than they are?

How do we embrace a small footed life - without cutting off parts of ourselves?

There are many more questions and paths of thought this symbol inspires. I would be curious to hear others thoughts and associatons.

By DrLibbyNugent, Apr 15 2021 03:34PM

"We don't have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that's what I want in life."


“It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together.”

These are lines from an essay written by Marina Keegan, a 22-year-old Yale graduate on her experiences at Yale university. She died in a car accident not long after it was published.

To me the opposite of loneliness is the rather elusive feeling of belonging: the experience of connection to or solidarity with a particular group, identity or collective (Halse, 2018). There is something innate about our need to belong and the feeling of yearning, or to ‘be- in- longing for’, that takes hold of us so strongly when the need to belong is not met.

I have felt the yearning to belong at many points in my life - however I think it was somewhat at a febrile peak when applying for training to become a clinical psychologist. There was a consuming pull to get on to/ to belong to a clinical psychology training, any clinical psychology training. As an aspiring psychologist, I felt I had mined into some kind of secret social seam filled with diamonds and gems of people, people who were wise, kind and thoughtful - who seemed to know what was important, and knew what was normal. As someone who had no idea about what was normal, this felt extraordinary.

After several years of trying, thanks be to the gods and a reserve list, I got on. Similar to as Keegan describes, my experience of clinical psychology training was one full of ‘tiny circles’ that were “pulled” around me: Training cohorts, work teams, specialism faculties, social media groups, reflective circles, supervision spaces and ranting friends. These tiny groups that made me feel I could be part of something bigger - if only I could keep my act together. It wasn’t love and it wasn’t community - it was a sharing of experience and a feeling that this group we were joining was somehow defining and doing something important in the world. Whilst I doubt anyone felt an explicit sense of individual identification and belonging to training there was a sense that as a group we represented something meaningful, the group was part of something bigger, the group belonged. The lack of individual belonging whilst being part of a special group - a group that we think does deserve its success - can inflate a feeling of imposter syndrome. So that even when we have evidence of our accomplishments, individual group members remain convinced that they need to keep trying harder to follow group rules to fit in.

During training the feeling of the specialness of clinical psychology, its necessity and belonging in society, felt everywhere and I loved being around it. I didn’t quite know how to grab hold of it and make me part of it too, but I had a sense that if I could just stay close to it for long enough (and in the presence of these people) it might rub off onto me and stick. When I reflect on my experiences of training I recall repeatedly in lectures being told, if something is too difficult you can leave the room - now I suspect this might also include ‘you can turn off your camera’. We were encouraged to be mindful of ourselves, and to hold in mind the feelings of others before we speak. These statements at the time felt wise and generous, maybe because they were so familiar to me. Sometimes it was expressed that we need to be able to manage difficult conversations and practice not getting overwhelmed: clinical psychology training is not therapy and if you need this then you should seek this out privately. I’m not sure if it was ever said please try and stay, bring yourself and your bodies responses, we will all help each other get through this.

The cultural message was hidden but clear if you are in distress then that is private and what is necessary for the acceptance into this professional identity is to keep personal reactions and feelings away in order to keep your professional mask on. This I think was done with the intention of offering both compassion and privacy to the trainee and also in service of instruction on how to behave when acting as the container for others; no-one wants to encourage a therapist that prioritises their own feelings over the patient. Which is important except the pace of learning and changing contexts was so intense and relentless when was there time for processing?

There is a difference between acting or performing emotional containment and actually being a container for others. Importantly, how can anyone know the difference and discern between the two if they have never experienced it? When you don’t know the difference between performance of containment and actually being a container, then there can be a blurring of narratives: a thinking that boundaries are equivalent to rules. This can then lead to a lack of meaning making when events (such as overwhelm or distress) occur at the borders of professional versus personal identities: there can be a lack of discernment between encouraging self-respect through privacy and a passing on/colluding with shame. Instead there is a pressure for the group to be seen to know the right rule to follow and inevitably scapegoat someone when they prove we do not.

"Loneliness does not come from having no people around, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible." - Carl Jung

When thinking about belonging I returned to a favourite film I first saw as a teenager: Breakfast at Tiffany’s with Audrey Hepburn. This story is based on a novella written by Capote. As an awkward teenager I resonated with the yearning expressed by the main character Holly Golightly, in her search for a place to belong; for a sense of kinship and love and also how this search is constantly tempered by Holly's difficulty to trust and her need for independence. She navigates her situation in the world by offering herself as what Capote describes as an ‘American Geisha’ in her social group. Geisha have long embodied the height of refinement and they are undoubtedly custodians of Japanese culture and traditions.

Culture is “like the air we breathe, it is both in us and all around us” (Hofstede, 1991).

In the Breakfast at Tiffany’s story we see a culture of wealth, social status, and a striving to belong. Holly is consumed by the idea of wealth and status, as evidenced by the fact that she goes to Tiffany’s—a jewellery shop famous for its diamonds—when she’s feeling down, finding that the shop gives her a feeling of calm. I wanted to be Holly, she made the feeling of loneliness look so glamorous and desirable. The film elicited in me the same pattern of striving to belong through special status and wealth - that somehow if only I could be more like Audrey Hepburn. Whilst I had little interest in real diamonds, I certainly felt that if I could just get close to people who shared my values and truly knew what’s important in life (like helping others) that I might be able to find a place to belong and I too could be transformed into something sparkly and valuable.

When I think about the story some more, what is tragic about Holly’s preoccupation with Tiffany’s is that she feels as if her actual life is not good enough when she compares it to what Tiffany's shop represents. As such she doesn’t bother to properly furnish her home or name her cat - she doesn’t feel as if her current life contains the happiness she’s looking for, so she doesn’t want to claim it as her reality. She says she would finally do this if she could find “a real-life place” that made her feel like she feels when she’s at Tiffany’s. This suggests that Holly’s attraction to Tiffany’s is directly linked to her unhappiness, though she never quite admits that she’s dissatisfied with her life. All the same, it’s obvious that her trips to Tiffany’s are attempts to feel something that she thinks is sorely missing from her actual existence.

Interestingly, the type of wealth that Tiffanys symbolizes and Holly idolises is in sync with the life Holly already leads, since she has successfully become a popular and respected “girl-about-New York” who is an integral part of the city’s high society. Holly significantly contributes and curates the group culture that she simultaneously does not quite feel that she belongs in. Accordingly, viewers can see that Holly yearns for something deeper than the supposed happiness that comes along with superficial wealth and status.

Indeed, what Tiffany’s represents to Holly isn’t just status and wealth, but a sense of belonging. Although she socialises with the city’s elite, she herself doesn’t come from a wealthy background. Ironically the more she denies and hides her past, acting in a way that reinforces and tragically validates her feeling of shame, the less she feels able to be a part of the group she so desperately aspires to be in. If Holly could be a customer at Tiffany’s in her own right, it seems, she might feel like she actually belongs in her life.

All we have to do now

Is take these lies and make them true somehow

All we have to see

Is that I don't belong to you

And you don't belong to me

George Michael - Freedom

Abraham Maslow famously defined a hierarchy of needs. The hierarchy is often portrayed as a pyramid, with what is described as the basic needs of food, house etc at the base and more complex needs such as spirituality near the peak. The need for love and belonging lie at the center of the pyramid as part of a social needs description. While Maslow suggested that these needs were less important than physical safety, he believed that the need for belonging helps people to experience companionship and acceptance through family, friends, and other relationships. Experiencing not belonging through isolation, loneliness and low social status can harm a person's subjective sense of well-being, as well as his or her intellectual achievement, immune function and health. Research shows that even a single instance of exclusion can undermine well-being, academic performance and self-control.

With adult eyes I can see how Maslow studied what he called the master race of people such as Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt as he felt "the study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy." Maslow studied what he described as the healthiest 1% of the population. The healthiest also happened to be the most privileged and celebrated in society. The subtext of this is that the hierarchy might be better understood as the hierarchy of motivations for the privileged, than exactly a hierarchy of need. Maslow’s hierarchy to me has always felt almost intuitively accurate, of course we need physiological needs met before we can attend to matters of belonging, self-esteem and self-actualisation. Yet if I pause and wonder what the implications of this are, it starts to make a little less sense as a hierarchy. Even in my limited understanding I know people's sense of belonging and safety hugely influences whether someone feels able to take in physiological care; and many people (adults and children) will sacrifice physical safety, food and shelter - such is our drive to belong to a desired group. From a group analytic perspective our need to attach and belong to our groups is the primary task for survival, both physically and psychologically.

It is also essential to speak about how racist the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s is. The only character in the film who is not white is played by Mickey Rooney, a white man in yellow face - his story arc there to provide comic relief for the white audience. The punch line being as a white audience we all know who can never belong, who will never pass as elite. My wanting to have Breakfast at Tiffany’s held as something only good and beautiful as part of my cultural identity, makes it tempting for me to split off all the active abuse in the film. What does it then mean about me if I keep the racism in mind and still am drawn to the film? Is it as simple as throwing everything racist in the bin and never looking back? Is there a way to hold it differently - to hold all of it? What is created if I do? Or is this simply just my ego refusing to give something up? I don’t have the right answers to these questions. I don’t think any one person can - this is a social problem and as such we need social methodology - we need group conversations and multiple understandings to hold all the parts.

With adult eyes I can see how there is much for me to learn from the story of Holly’s white woman position in her social group. Her white femininity, elitist conversation and socially sanctioned beauty are the things she can trade on to help her access the social elite group. She hides the reality of her external and internal poverty, as well as the existence of her traumatic past, in order to put conditional belonging first.

When trying to discuss the antiracist book club for psychologists one of the concerns that gets raised amongst white peers is that as a white psychologist wanting to discuss racism, I am coming from a place of shame and self harm. There can be a fear that by naming and exploring something so ugly within our collective identity, I might be trying to encourage a collective experience of self-flagellation, or, self-hate amongst my white colleagues. There have been several times verbalised a fear the bookclub is a way of promoting ‘struggle sessions’ - that is to say ritualised public shaming to elicit conformity. Other questions that get asked are why would anyone with privilege give it up - what is in it for them?

Whilst I am sure these self hating/masochistic aggressions exist as motives as part of the unconscious group experience , my practice of anti racism has little to do with self attack and I have no interest in harnessing this in the space. In a community with so little experience of collective containment from a secure base, it is easy to understand why a request for self-examination of aggression, trauma and pain might be experienced as potentially abusive, disturbing and shaming. When the feeling of belonging is so elusive and our social script is built on damaging belief that belonging is achieved through denial of painful realities and of believing boundaries are rules, it makes sense that this is a concern. However, to my mind integrating something painful so that I can be less self-destructive is not quite the same as simply ‘giving something up’.

To speak directly, my hope is that in continuing to try and have conversations about racism and white supremacy we might create a better understanding of ourselves, own contexts, our own psyches and therefore the psyche of groups we belong to. My desire is to belong and I know my ability to belong is woven into the fabric of our community's ability to be conscious of its need to heal.

“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

― Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

By DrLibbyNugent, Feb 5 2021 07:45AM

"If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me." Alice Roosevelt


This quote always makes me both laugh and feel alarmed. I am the fourth of seven siblings and

as such envy and Schadenfreude are inescapably deeply familiar territory: the inward groan

when a sibling triumphs, the relief or smirk when a sibling fails and the delight mixed with fear of

sharing my own glory. In childhood these feelings were relentless- anything and everything

could be a competition. You learn quickly there is no such thing as fair and that all is fair in love

and war. How quickly can you eat your food? Who gets the longest in the bathroom? Who is

taller? Who is thinner? Who has the best grades? Who has more friends? Who can run

fastest? Who can punch hardest? Who can cry loudest? Often it didn’t really matter who won,

rather we just wanted to make sure someone absolutely came last. A lethal tactic was to get

the majority to claim there was actually no competition going on and only later, when everyone

else had accomplished the task, to let the appointed target know they were indeed the loser.

These competitions were never about just winning - they were about who deserves to exist and

who doesn’t.

There is a particular story from childhood when in a fit of envy and rage I pinned a little sister to

the ground and gnawed her ponytail off with a pair of red Fisher price scissors. My own hair

refused to grow beyond a tufty few inches whereas she had long, thick lovely hair. I couldn’t

bear that she could grow hers and I could not. She was younger than me, it just wasn’t right.

Every time she plaited it or put it up into a ponytail it was like she was flaunting her superiority

and success in my face whilst exposing my inferiority. She needed to learn a lesson and so

when the moment came I seized my opportunity. Sadly, cutting my sister’s hair, as triumphant

as I felt, was never going to help mine grow. The momentary excitement and relief in realising

my aggression and the initial thrill of seeing the grief on her face, was quickly replaced with the

shame of having behaved such and thus further evidence of my inferiority. The problem was

not solved. Though the solution to just double down and try to cut even more of her hair off

lingered with me for quite some time.

Now we are all adults, most of the time, these feelings are contained and held in what might be

described as ‘rough play’ amongst my siblings with only the occasional bloodthirsty battle: we

each of us know and can name envy and in its collective naming we are all given relief. It

seems to me that when we were finally able to recognise and speak of the envy and the many

different feelings we can have in the face of each other’s existence, we grew bigger in size (we

matured) and the envy became just one part of the whole. Our bond is found in valuing all the

parts of our relationships that exist together, rather than emphasizing what should have been -

based on fantasies of fairness or entitlement. In this way the envy softened and transformed,

albeit sometimes painfully, into a humorous, aggressive and creative part of the intimacy of our


Envy is sometimes described as a social myopia. - when someone else’s success activates a

sense of injustice, one cannot see the bigger picture of that person as real - someone who is

many different things: complex and wounded, When envious we see only their triumph and our

lack, and we can become sensitised and ruminative, obsessing over interactions with these

self-appointed rivals; comparing ourselves to them and over analyzing the situation. Allowed to

fester we become judge, juror and executioner.

When we are envied we are being pushed to focus and isolate our attention onto a particular

aspect of our own identity or behaviour, seeing it through the aggressive gaze of someone else.

It typically provokes a forceful negative reaction. Many of us, when envied, want to retaliate.

When feeling this hate, we wish to hurt the other as we have been hurt. Alternatively when

envied we might want to collapse into despair at the injustice, or filled with self doubt, we run

and hide; avoiding the envier at all costs.

I have been in training as a group analytic analyst for over three and a half years, moving from

foundation course, to diploma and beginning the qualifying course - now needing to press pause

on parts of the training to deal with juggling life and COVID living. The group analytic training

space is a joy and a torment as it is full of deep and real connection. One of the many things

that has made an impression on me, is how the group has and does navigate envy. The

inevitable relentless comparison with others, the relief to not be the only one to not be sailing

through life, the fear of hurting people and being envied if we do succeed. From these group

discussions it has become clearer to me that the experiences of the envied and the envier are

greatly alike. Both parties can feel violated, invalidated and turned into someone else’s play

thing. Both can feel helpless to fix the problem and a sense of dependence on the other to

repair it. Both feel put into a position where their identities can be obliterated. They seem so

much the same and yet they are very different realities.

Given the powerful feelings involved and our potential for highly destructive behaviour, it is no

surprise that if not contained sufficiently we typically answer encounters with envy with

avoidance. We suppress or deny feelings and behaviours, keep away from those who both

inspire envy in us and who we feel envied by. However, as the Ethiopian proverb states: “he

who conceals his disease cannot expect to be cured” and envy bottled up, hidden or denied,

shapeshifts into individual and collective scapegoating and encourages self-sabotage. As such

containing and navigating envy is an essential task in becoming ethical (that is to say becoming

conscious) and it is certainly essential to emotionally and psychically surviving any psychology

related training - where typically the dynamics of sibling rivalry are fiercely activated.

So how do we talk about envy in our psychology community? The bottom line is I don’t think we

do very often, or very well. The culture and the values of clinical psychology might well be

summed up with the phrase “If you don't have anything nice to say then don’t say anything” or

alternatively “If you have something aggressive to say, find a way to make yourself sound gentle

or thoughtful when you are saying it so you don’t get caught out.” This cultural value is taken

deeply to heart and people will bend over backwards to avoid being seen to be aggressive or in

any way consciously hurting someone else’s feelings through speaking directly.

So where do these aggressive feelings go if they cannot be verbalised honestly and are indeed

actively encouraged to be storied up into what is often described as caring communication or

more destructive still “psychological mindedness”? There is a concept in psychoanalytic

thinking of Reaction formation. Typically when we use this defense mechanism sometimes we

might be able to recognise the aggression we feel, but then choose to behave in the opposite

manner of our feelings. Sometimes in this dynamic I might not even be aware of the feeling of

aggression but I will be aware of a need to somehow act in a way that is compensating for

something. Essentially it is about trying too hard to cover up a feeling: bringing biscuits to the

meeting I don’t want to go to; buying a gift for the supervisor that couldn’t remember my name;

or inviting a colleague I have been gossiping about out to coffee. It is seen in someone who is

gay who has a number of conspicuous heterosexual affairs and openly criticizes people who are

out as gay. Collectively this might look like publically encouraging people from marginalised

groups and communities to join the clinical psychology profession, whilst doing nothing to

address the psychology culture of supremacy narratives, so people might have improved

access to join, but they may not be able to stay safely.

In effect we are enforcing a false congeniality and a dehumanising rhetoric of “We all just need

to be nice to each other!” This way of being leads us into a labyrinth of difficulties as our

aggressive feelings become buried and denied both to ourselves and our collective gaze. What

we are engaged in is ultimately an overly socialised way of communicating. (That is to say it is a

middle class, straight, whitelady social script of privilege.) A social script so easily endorsed by

the one who is attacking and not quite so easily for the one being pinned to the ground whilst

their hair is being sawn off with craft scissors.

I think most of us can connect with the gut wrenching feeling of a friend or colleague gaining a

training place interview when we don’t get one, or the dread in telling a group of peers that you

have one yourself. The disbelief that such and such got ‘that’ placement on training or the rush

to reassure someone that they will get their 8a soon. How quickly do we split ourselves-on one

hand being the person who smiles and says nice things and then also the person who thinks in

terms of who deserves to get their next step on the career ladder and who does not. How much

do we say Black Lives Matter then worry about limited funding being used up by “these sorts of


So what do we do about it? For me a helpful place to begin bringing these personal and social

scripts into consciousness is to turn to archetypal stories from myth, folklore and fairytale.

These stories, from the oral tradition of sharing knowledge, speak to permanent truths about

what it is to be human. With regard to thinking about envy, there are two stories in particular

that come to my mind. The stories are different but both speak to envy as exhibited in

individuals and collectively: the Surinamese story of How Dew tricked Anansi and European

version of Cinderella.

The first story is How Dew tricked Anansi:

It came about that Anansi became friends with Dew, and that they both helped each other develop their own crops. One day, Anansi saw his friend Dew's crop and noticed the corn Dew grew was much finer than his own. Anansi became very jealous of Dew and craved the corn that Dew had grown more than his own, so he decided he would trick Dew.Anansi approached Dew and bragged, saying that his corn was better than Dew's, and suggested that Dew cut his corn so it would be as fine as his. Anansi promised Dew that if he cut his own crop, his corn would grow back and be the same quality as Anansi's corn was. Anansi however, was lying.

Nonetheless, Dew fell for the Spider's schemes and agreed to cut his corn crop in the mistaken belief that his corn would grow again. Later that evening, neighbors in their village saw Dew's corn had been cut down and wondered why he did so, noting that the corn he had was very fine once. They asked Dew who'd convinced him to cut down his corn crop, and he replied that Anansi had convinced him to do so, in the hopes that his corn crop would be better than it was before. The neighbors sighed and told Dew that he'd been tricked, for his corn would not grow again. This upset Dew, but he promised them that he would trick Anansi just as he had tricked him. Dew, however, would trick Anansi with his

mother instead of with corn like Anansi had him.

As time passed, Dew worked especially hard and tirelessly to build up a large amount of wealth. He bought a scythe, hoe, axe, new clothes, and other equipment. Dew then told his mother his plan: he would tell Anansi that she had died and would then make a mock coffin in which to bury her. In the meanwhile, Dew wished for his mother to hide in their home upstairs while he prepared, so she did. Dew then made a coffin and announced her death to the village, inviting them to come see her burial. Once they had arrived, he snuck his mother from upstairs and had her hide underneath the

floor where the mock coffin lay, as well as the many things he'd purchased, as he knew Anansi's greed would spurn him to steal from Dew if he saw them laying around. Now that the plan was in order, it was time for the mock burial to begin.

Dew began to cry and lament that his mother had died so suddenly and left him nothing to remember her by, not even a single tool. On-cue, Dew's mother extended the scythe and other tools he'd purchased through the plank in the floor. Anansi saw what was happening and grew jealous of Dew, wishing his very own mother was dead so he could get what Dew was getting from his own mother as well. Dew continued to mourn, and lamented that he longed for a blessing from her in the form of money, so Dew's mother took the money he had also given her alongside the equipment and threw it through the floor at him also. Thus his display was successful, the burial they'd staged went well, and those who had come to mourn his mother's passing went back to their homes.

Anansi's jealousy of Dew caused him to bicker with his own mother for days, on all matter of issues. Then, one day, they were arguing and the Spider asked his mother why she herself couldn't have died just like Dew's mother did. Soon,the arguments reached a climactic point and Anansi smote his own mother with a stick in a fit of rage. Anansi's mother then died and he soon set about preparing for her burial just as Dew had before him. Then came time for the funeral, and Anansi cried just as Dew had, and told her all the things Dew had told his mother while grieving. Yet, nothing that he told his mother, no matter how much he cried, caused her to do the things that Dew's mother had done for her son. The funeral was a failure, so Anansi went ahead with his mother's burial.

About a week passed, and Dew had his mother come visit him while he worked outside in the fields. Anansi noticed Dew's mother had come and asked if the woman he saw was in fact her. Dew replied that it was his own mother, and that it was payback for Anansi deceiving Dew about his corn crops. Dew then bragged that he instead had tricked Anansi about his mother, rather than his corn, and such was true: Dew's mother was still alive, but Anansi's mother was now dead because of his own jealousy.


The second story is Aschenputtel (The tale of Cinderella):

A plague infests a village, and a wealthy gentleman's wife lies on her deathbed. She calls for her only daughter, and tells her to remain good and kind, as God would protect her. She then dies and is buried. The child visits her mother's grave every day to grieve and a year goes by. The gentleman marries another woman with two older daughters from a previous marriage. They have beautiful faces and fair skin, but their hearts are cruel and wicked. The stepsisters steal the girl's fine clothes and jewels and

force her to wear rags. They banish her into the kitchen, and give her the nickname "Aschenputtel" ("Ashfool"). She is forced to do all kinds of hard work from dawn to dusk for the sisters. The cruel sisters do nothing but mock her and make her chores harder by creating messes. However, despite all of it, the girl remains good and kind, and will always go to her mother's grave to cry and pray to God that she will see her circumstances improve.

One day the gentleman visits a fair, promising his stepdaughters gifts of luxury. The eldest asks for beautiful dresses, while the younger for pearls and diamonds. His own daughter merely begs for the first twig to knock his hat off on the way. The gentleman goes on his way, and acquires presents for his stepdaughters. While passing a forest he gets a hazel twig, and gives it to his daughter. She plants the twig over her mother's grave, waters it with her tears and over the years, it grows into a glowing hazel

tree. The girl prays under it three times a day, and a white bird always comes to her as she prays. She tells her wishes to thebird, and every time the bird throws down to her what she has wished for.

The king decides to proclaim a festival that will last for three days and invites all the beautiful maidens in that country to attend so that the prince can select one of them for his bride. The two sisters are also invited, but when Aschenputtel begs them to allow her to go with them into the celebration, the stepmother refuses because she has no decent dress nor shoes to wear. When the girl insists, the woman throws a dish of lentils into the ashes for her to pick up, guaranteeing her permission to attend the festival, if she can clean up the lentils in two hours. When the girl accomplished the task in less than an hour with the help of a flock of white doves that came when she sang a certain chant, the stepmother only redoubles the task and throws down even a greater quantity of lentils. When Aschenputtel is able to accomplish it in a greater speed, not wanting to spoil her daughters' chances, the stepmother hastens away with her husband and daughters to the celebration and leaves the crying stepdaughter behind.

The girl retreats to the graveyard and asks to be clothed in silver and gold. The white bird drops a gold and silver gown and silk shoes. She goes to the feast. The prince dances with her all the time, claiming her as his dance partner whenever a gentleman asks for her hand, and when sunset comes she asks to leave. The prince escorts her home, but she eludes him and jumps inside the estate's pigeon coop. The father came home ahead of time and the prince asks him to chop the pigeon coop down, but Aschenputtel has already escaped from the back, to the graveyard to the hazel tree to return her fine clothes. The father finds her asleep in the kitchen hearth, and suspects nothing. The next day, the girl appears in grander apparel. The prince again dances with her the whole day, and when dark came, the prince accompany her home. However, she climbs a pear tree in the back garden to escape him. The prince calls her father who chops down the tree, wondering if it could be Aschenputtel, but Aschenputtel was already in the kitchen when the father arrives home. The third day, she appears dressed in grand finery, with slippers of gold. Now the prince is determined to keep her, and has the entire stairway smeared with pitch. Aschenputtel, in her haste to elude the prince, loses one of her golden slippers on that pitch. The prince picks the slipper and proclaims that he will marry the maiden whose foot fits the golden slipper.

The next morning, the prince goes to Aschenputtel's house and tries the slipper on the eldest stepsister. Since she will have no more need to go on foot when she will be queen, the sister was advised by her mother to cut off her toes in order to fit the slipper.

While riding with the stepsister, the two magic doves from heaven tell the prince that blood drips from her foot. Appalled by her treachery, he goes back again and tries the slipper on the other stepsister. She cut off part of her heel in order to get her foot in the slipper, and again the prince is fooled. While riding with her to the king's castle, the doves alert him again about the blood on her foot. He comes back to inquire about another girl. The gentleman tells him that his dead wife left a "dirty little Cinderella" in the house, omitting to mention that she is his own daughter, and that she is too filthy to be seen, but the prince asks him to let her try on the slipper. Aschenputtel appears after washing clean her face and hands, and when she puts on the slipper, the prince recognizes her as the stranger with whom he has danced at the festival. The stepmother and the two limping sisters were thunderstruck, and grew pale with anger. They wanted to kill Aschenputtel, but the prince put her before him on his horse and

rode off.

During Aschenputtel's royal wedding, the false stepsisters had hoped to worm their way into her favour as the future queen, but this time they don't escape their princess' rage. As she walks down the aisle with her stepsisters as her bridesmaids, Aschenputtel gets her revenge not killing them but summoning the doves to fly down and strike the two stepsisters' eyes, one in the left and the other in the right. It was their last chance of redemption, but since they don't give up, when the wedding comes to an end, and Aschenputtel and her beloved prince march out of the church, her minions fly again, promptly striking the remaining eyes of the two evil sisters horribly blind, a truly awful comeuppance they had to endure as beggars for the rest of their lives.


When I try and connect with a story I think about the tale in a number of ways; one of which is to

imagine each character representing a different part of the group or social world. Another way I

think about a story is to consider each character to be an aspect of just one person and in

doing so exposes how we relate to ourselves. It is also interesting to think about these stories

and the influence of world histories and socialisation on the storytellers; who the version of the

story was being told to and what the symbols and imagery at the time might have spoken to …

I will not offer a specific interpretation of either story, I think many could and do apply; this is a

collective problem and as such requires collective conversations with multiple narratives and

multiple seeds to be sown and tended to. However I will offer a few thoughts that might begin

some conversations.

For me, the story of Anansi and Dew shows how envy and competitiveness can go to deeply

aggressive places in human nature where we can envy people for their suffering. How we can

pretend to triumph over emotional pain as a form of competition that misleads people into

believing we may have mastered suffering, and in doing so are superior. Do we envy our

patients and perform our own wellness? Do we envy people from marginalised groups,

disregarding their suffering and seeing only the reward of empathy, soul or spirituality they might

get, without really considering their pain? This story also makes me think of the pressure

aspiring psychologists are put under to share personal parts of themselves to get onto training

courses that do not require personal therapy. Or when practitioners make recommendations

such as mindfulness when they themselves do not practice it. I begin to associate this story

with conversations of social justice when rather than staying with a particular narrative such as

addressing anti blackness, the conversation is derailed by bringing in another form of injustice,

to compare and put in competition with (rather than intersectional relationship to), thus instead

of working together it becomes a conversation of one up manship.

The Cinderella story feels somewhat different to me and shows us envy in several different

relationships: envy between the mother/or a figure of authority and a child/someone of lower

status; envy between siblings/peers; envy between the sexes; envy as a collective

phenomenon. In the earliest Greek version of Cinderella, she is enslaved. Are the ugly sisters

akin to white psychologists envying our black and brown bodied Cinderella peers. Does the

envious gaze of the ugly sisters require a pecking out by birds, a slow, painful but thorough

blinding - before we can stop looking outward to compete and instead focus on the internal

world so that introspection can occur? Might each character represent a different part of

ourselves - the part that is more socially celebrated is in fact quite ugly, the part that suffers, we

will not let go of the ball?

In reflecting on envy I think it is important to hold onto the concept that envy is not solely bad:

envy is a sister of ambition. Both strive equally for development. Envy is a normal and important

function for the development of individual and collective consciousness, and that it only

becomes destructive when its creative function is not sufficiently contained. My hope is that we

will be able to create the container in our community. That similar to my experience with my

siblings, we will collectively mature and become more conscious of our envy; that we can grow

bigger than our envy; and that it can take a place as a part of the whole in our collective

experience. In doing so facilitating a sense of belonging in our profession that so often feels

lacking a secure base. Maybe we can put down the scissors, leave the hair of marginalised

siblings alone and use our words instead to seek the containment we crave?

Giotto di Bondone The Seven Vices: "Envy"
Giotto di Bondone The Seven Vices: "Envy"

By DrLibbyNugent, Nov 28 2020 11:59AM


I'm weary, I hear myself say

My eyes closing as I walk on my way

The day just beginning when all I wish it to do is go away

Weary of the day ahead, what's gone and what's yet to come

This weariness draining my heart through my noisy head

The chill of the breeze my weary heart wanting to cease

And then the loving sun shinning her rays upon me, come closer I beg of thee

Take me to another place

Do not disappear near that cloud I say

wash away my weariness today

By Anon Apr 2016

Weariness Oxford Dictionary:

extreme tiredness; fatigue.

reluctance to see or experience any more of something.

Lately I have been feeling weary. I imagine many of us are having these feelings; as though there is insufficient time, insufficient energy, insufficient patience, and insufficient resources. To feel tired and the feeling that all the hard work and effort put into life is taking me precisely nowhere. Meeting the insufficiency in ourselves and others breeds a deep longing, and terrible pain that, left unattended, turns into bitterness and loathing of either the self or others. Traditionally my defense against meeting my limits is to create ambitious goals for myself and then charge towards them whilst abandoning self-care; often my causes look ‘healthy’ yet require rather more resources than I have available at the time. For example: during clinical psychology training I took up competing in half marathons and when I became pregnant I developed a need to eat food that was only home grown. Both very wonderful, neither wise given my responsibilities. I like to be in both fight and flight, to avoid connecting with my overwhelm and sense of helplessness.

Within the context of the last year and noticing myself yet again taking on rather a lot, I have found myself engaging in increasingly angry social media conversations regarding social justice and antiracism. Following a particular Facebook “discussion” on freedom of speech and racism I became actively upset. I was disappointed with myself for my foolishness in opening up to such a predictably racist dialogue and disappointed at the collective lack of personal reflection that was going on. My fantasy of having influence and being in conversation with colleagues interested in introspection was being shattered. I felt shame at my lack of ability to connect, disgust at what was being exposed in my absurd attempts and the futility at the task of trying to encourage people to care about something beyond a defensive intellectual philosophising. In my turmoil I deleted my post, thus also erasing everyone else's contributions. I had wanted the whole thing away from me and if people were not going to engage the way I wanted them to then no one was going to!

After a few days' space I recovered from my tantrum and apologised for my deletion in a second post. In doing so I stumbled across some unsolicited feedback from an angry source suggesting if I found conversations too triggering I might be wise to leave the facebook group and that our profession really is about having difficult conversations.

After a degree of reactivity, rather than be defended and continue to engage in childish fights, I decided to try something different and explore if the comments might hold some wisdom for me - albeit delivered in a rather sharp package. Maybe I did need to have a think about what I am doing. As much as I believe there is truth in my observations about the facebook group, I was also projecting: my lack of reflection about where the group is really at, my refusal to feel deeply alongside them and then ultimately my engaging in drama on Facebook rather than being in the mud of my daily chaos.

Not really knowing what to do, but needing to acknowledge my limits was my beginning point. But then what? As I often do, I turned to stories and discovered a book ‘World Weary Woman – her wound and transformation’ by Cara Barker.

Happily only about 150 pages or so long, Barker’s book explores the fairytale of Frau Holle and the concept of world weariness and what Barker refers to as Type A women. Barker describes the defining feature of being a Type A woman as being the woman who charges towards productivity and problem solving when in emotional crisis rather than staying with their vulnerability:

“Barely breathing. They pause infrequently. Too busy trying hard to never miss a thing, leaving no stone unturned. Hyper vigilant in endless search – searching and searching and searching. When will it stop? All floodlights scanning for their fatal flaw. That one thing … that one perfect answer; that simple explanation which will, at last, redeem … let them rest. Take in, digest that promise of peace that eludes the clutch and grasp. Anything but casual, their quest has been relentless. Looking, ever looking, for the answer. So that then, finally weary of strong-arming themselves against the world, from a pain that comes from too deep and dark a well, they can at last, weary of the battle, sink into those Arms. Rest. Renewal. A place in which to contain what has been neglected for far too long…. They have made it a full-time job… to change, alter, cut away, suck-out, like liposuction, anything which seems imperfect, too human, too ordinary, too plain, too small.”

Hmmm. This felt alarmingly close to home. Not just for myself but for many of my friends and colleagues. Particularly in the context of the pandemic when I have looked bewilderingly at those who were taking time to explore hobbies and DIY, gushing about the gift of time to reflect. This has not been my pandemic.

The fairy tale of Frau Holle also resonated deeply in a way I had not attended to before.

This is an abbreviated Brothers Grimm version of Frau Holle:

A rich widow lived with her daughter and her stepdaughter. The widow favored her younger biological daughter, allowing her to become spoiled and idle while her older stepdaughter was left to do all the work. Every day the stepdaughter would sit outside the cottage and spin beside the well.

One day, she pricked her finger on the point of the spindle. As she leaned over the well to wash the blood away, the spindle fell from her hand and sank out of sight. The stepdaughter feared that she would be punished for losing the spindle, and in panic she leapt into the well after it.

The girl found herself in a meadow, where she came upon an oven full of bread. The bread asked to be taken out before it burned. With a baker's peel, she took all the loaves out and then walked on. Then she came to an apple tree that asked that its apples be harvested. So she did so and gathered them into a pile before continuing on her way. Finally, she came to a small house of an old woman, who offered to allow the girl to stay if she would help with the housework.

The woman identified herself as Frau Holle, and cautioned the girl to shake the featherbed pillows and coverlet well when she made the bed, as that would make it snow in the girl's world. The girl agreed to take service with Frau Holle, and took care to always shake the featherbed until the feathers flew about like snowflakes.

After a time, the girl became homesick and told Frau Holle that it was time for her to return home. Frau Holle had been impressed by the girl's kindness and hard work so much that, when she escorted the girl to the gate, a shower of gold fell upon the girl. She also gave her the spindle which had fallen into the well. With that the gate was closed, and the girl found herself back, not far from her mother's house.

Her mother wished the same good fortune for her biological daughter. She also set her to sit by the well and spin, but the girl rather than work bloodied her hand in a hedge and then deliberately threw the spindle into the well before jumping in herself. She too came to the oven, but would not assist the bread; nor would she help the apple tree. When she came to Frau Holle's house, she likewise took service there, but before long fell into her lazy, careless ways. Frau Holle soon dismissed her. As the lazy girl stood at the gate, a kettle of pitch spilled over her. "That is what you have earned," said Frau Holle, and closed the gate.

Other versions describe the first girl having a piece of gold fall from her lips every time she speaks, whilst the second has a toad fall from her lips every time she speaks.

Carl Jung theorized that all elements of a dream or a story are parts of the Self. In the path to adulthood, we seek to integrate the different parts of our identity into conscious reality. This includes bringing light and awareness to our shadow or hidden side. In the story of Frau Holle we might imagine how the two sisters could be the light and shadow sides of the same person. Likewise the two maternal figures of the critical step mother and also the compassionate but limit setting Mother Holle might also reflect the two sides of an inner voice.

In the fairytale the girl seeks to find a spindle, an object at the time essential both to access an aspect of her creativity and also for economic sustenance. It is also a symbol I associate with psychology and the task of weaving life stories and theory in formulation. The girl lives in a world that is discordant: a highly critical step-mother and a preferred step-sister who is both stupid and lazy. Her loneliness is palpable, a familiar theme in fairy tales, as is her struggle to find a loving atmosphere in times of cruel inhospitality. The intensity of her pain and suffering is poignantly represented by an image of the girl spinning until her fingers bleed. Inevitably her blood stains the shuttle and, in an attempt to wash it off, she drops it into the well.

At the end of the tale she, somewhat surprisingly, returns to her homeland and her stepmother. Was she still hoping for some form of kindness from her stepmother, a projection of the good mother? Now resourced independently, maybe she feels able to face them in a different capacity? I wonder if this speaks to how the call to connect with family and community is something that never goes away. How many times have I returned to a space I know has no capacity for care, with the hope that this time it will be different? Then finally, when I had changed, I was able to return with it being the space being the same but with a new found capacity to hold myself much more safely.

The girl’s voluntary submission opens up a new world and a new way of experiencing life. She awakens in a world filled with symbolism. In this world, the tasks confronting her are experienced as serving a more benign mother. Thus picking the ripe apples and taking the bread out of the oven are pleasurable tasks done gladly, and not with a sense of burden. Fulfilling her daily chores for Frau Holle, she is submitting in a very different way from the rigid, cruel constraints imposed by her stepmother. These seemingly trivial daily tasks are the necessary substrate that create order, the very nuts and bolts of life, that we denigrate at our peril.

After her return, she is changed and seeks to tell others in her community of her experience . The girl attempts to do so when she shares her story with her step-mother and step-sister.

The story however also presents the potential for a far darker outcome. The ugly sister emerges from Frau Holle's realm cursed till the end of her days. Her refusal and failure to fulfil Frau Holle's tasks has had long term consequences: when she returns home in some versions she is covered in tar and others she is belching out frogs. Both symbols offer intriguing associations. Tar or `pitch is obtained from a wide variety of organic materials through destructive distillation, it was traditionally used in boat making to waterproof wood and sails. The idea of destructive distillation makes me think of a negative gaze when the self is filled with self loathing and hatred. The symbol of the frog is also potent as it is often a symbol in fairytales of a state of pre-transformation (the frog prince is one example).

In some Scandinavian traditions, Frau Holle is known as the feminine spirit of the woods and plants, and was honored as the sacred embodiment of the earth and land itself. She is associated with many of the evergreen plants that appear during the Yule season, especially mistletoe and holly, and is sometimes seen as an aspect of Frigga, wife of Odin. She is associated with fertility and rebirth. Her feast day is December 25, and typically, she is seen as a goddess of hearth and home, although in different areas she has clearly different purposes. Like so many winter rituals celebrating her and this story is about finding the light in the darkness.

In her book Barker also explores the antidote/ path to wholeness for the World Weary Woman:

“From my first meetings with World Weary Woman, it was clear that she could work. She could analyze, psychologize. But she had not learned how to play… It is in pausing to connect with her own inner wisdom that World Weary Woman learns to create…to cultivate what brings joy, to savour her connection with cosmos. Thus she transforms her suffering through a sacred return to creative living…Little by little, World Weary Woman discovers that living vibrantly is a creative process, an intimate experience whereby she becomes fully known.”

As both a psychologist and mother I know that play is the natural way that children discharge the tensions of their daily life. When children are teased at school, they come home at the end of the day and enlist siblings, friends, or toys to play out a drama in which the child transforms into the teacher and gets to tell off the bully and send him or her to detention.

But when children are too anxious, afraid, or traumatized to play, they can't make use of this natural resource. Instead, they must use their energy to compartmentalise their experiences, keeping them out of direct awareness. Because play is both releasing and disarming, it may be too threatening for the child to give up control sufficiently to enter into it.

The events of this year have been and continue to be overwhelming: the painful worldwide witnessing of murder and violence on black bodies; the birthing into consciousness of white supremacy narratives through the Black Lives Matter movement; people beginning to grasp the urgent need to bring about collective change; the collective losses due to COVID; the endurance of isolation and loss of our physical connectedness and daily routines and community rituals. Dazed and exhausted, rest and replenishment feels so needed - but how?

This is where I think we need each other to support us - we need our professional siblings to act as people to play with and containers of our suffering and weariness.

There is an old Hasidic story of a rabbi who had a conversation with the Lord about Heaven and Hell. “I will show you Hell,” said the Lord, and led the rabbi into a room containing a group of famished, desperate people sitting around a large, circular table. In the center of the table rested an enormous pot of stew, more than enough for everyone. The smell of the stew was delicious and made the rabbi’s mouth water. Yet no one ate. Each diner at the table held a very long-handled spoon—long enough to reach the pot and scoop up a spoonful of stew, but too long to get the food into one’s mouth. The rabbi saw that their suffering was indeed terrible and bowed his head in compassion.

“Now I will show you Heaven,” said the Lord, and they entered another room, identical to the first—same large, round table, same enormous pot of stew, same long-handled spoons. Yet there was gaiety in the air; everyone appeared well nourished, plump, and exuberant.

The rabbi could not understand and looked to the Lord. “It is simple,” said the Lord, “but it requires a certain skill. You see, the people in this room have learned to feed each other!”

For me personally I have begun to create spaces for myself to play professionally - holding reflective practice spaces with a creative focus such as Stories as Medicine (a space to discuss fairytales) and also Greek Myths and Therapy. These are extraordinary spaces where I have frequently been left thrumming with inspiration and a sense of connection and growth. I invite anyone to attend them. I also would invite people to explore in their teams and groups their own ways of creating soulful connections and opportunities for play. Now more than ever we need creative, symbolic selves. We need art, music, dance and creative life. We need to explore what is meaningful in life.

From being in these spaces there feels to me now a faint hope of dawn, of light returning at the end of a long tunnel. I’m feeling a huge loss at the endings and changes to my life I am experiencing but also a peace that in engaging in my limits I might be able to make wiser choices about how best to live both personally and professionally.

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