Whilst writing the preamble to the first chapter in his book ‘Relational Patterns, Therapeutic Stance’, Dr Richard Erskine talked about [clients] integrating, through therapy unresolved aspects of their egos and self. This was in order to enable people to “… have the courage to face each moment openly and freshly, without the protection of a preformed opinion, position, attitude or expectation.”
This sentence caused to me reflect upon many of my own past encounters with clients and friends (and some not so friendly), and wonder exactly why we need this as a protection. I immediately saw the truth in his words, and see people responding in this prescribed fashion all the time… in particular with politicians in this current time of pre-election hustings. They have carefully worded scripts and have been taught techniques to stop interviewers interrupting them. This often works as many interviewers are fearful of being seen as overly pushy or rude when they do try to get a clear answer. When they do manage to ask a question of the MP that they clearly don’t know the answer to / don’t want to answer, they are then trained to answer with another question whilst giving the impression that they are actually answering.
Of course many of us, not just politicians use this protection too. But protection from what? We use protection (think armour, castle walls etc.,) to keep us safe – but safe from what? Why is seeming to have a ready response / valid opinion to hand deemed so important? Why is ‘knowing’ how we should act or respond in not just any but seemingly every moment so vital for so many people? Why does their sense of being okay seem to rely on this ability? I hope to attempt some answers to these questions below.
Firstly I will look at what actually happens following a question being posed, an opinion sought or a response requested. In many different scenarios, I have witnessed people wallowing in a self-constructed internal maze, as they seek to mitigate the ‘surprise’ of the request with an immediate response. Or seek to find if they do in actual fact have an opinion about whatever the subject may be… and if they do not, attempt to formulate one quickly. This strikes me as a recipe for the inevitable disaster that follows, often accompanied by a stuttering, spluttering attempt at coherence. (Of course there will be plenty of times when an answer is known, or an opinion already formed and tested… but those times are not what this blog is about…)
Whether in the training room, therapy room or down my local with friends after work, I observed what appeared to be a familiar sequence of events; when someone, let’s call them the inquisitor asks a question of someone else, let’s call them the responder, and an answer is not easily or immediately forthcoming the exchange would follow a familiar format:
- The inquisitor poses a question or asks for an opinion
- A (usually) immediate initiation of starting to formulate a response on behalf of the responder – often starting with the word ‘so’… (of which more later)
- The responder stumbles about in their self-built maze as they try to answer, or formulate a viable opinion
- Resulting in confusion, as they realise the sought after response might be outside of their ken
- The responder starts to exhibit signs of shame as they struggle helplessly in a sticky web of words of their own making. Shame is usually indicated by a reddening of their features, head down, down-cast eyes (or a frantic looking to the left and right as if seeking for an escape route) or an abrupt attempt to change the subject.
- The responder starts to display signs of anger and defensiveness, usually indicated by a more belligerent tone; “Yeah, well if you’re so bloody clever, why don’t you enlighten us smart arse?” or an explosion of expletives… occasionally a more [physically] violent outbreak might ensue.
One simple answer is to identify and own this behaviour for yourself, then explore with a good therapist the aetiology of why you do it – and how you can change your (automatic) response. Often people seeking to find an answer in the here-and-now, paradoxically look for their answer in the there-and-then. In other words, falling back onto tried and trusted options that have worked before, or adopting known positions of defence. Even more paradoxically, I believe that staying in the here-and-now is an antidote to this situation. This, though is what politicians (and others) are desperate to avoid, and why they are ‘rehearsed’ tirelessly by their ‘minders’ prior to a TV appearance for example, to trot out pre-formed answers, seemingly in this run-up to a General Election mixed nowadays with lies, or out-and-out avoidance of providing an answer.
But back to staying in the here-and-now, whilst this approach has its dangers (inasmuch as we can never know the result of any intervention we may make) precisely because we don’t have the protection of that ‘pre-formed opinion, position, attitude or expectation’ that Richard Erskine was talking about I mentioned at the start of this blog. That brings the attendant possibilities of shame and /or anxiety into the equation, and has been noted by many other authors elsewhere (Ken Evans, Gershen Kaufman, John Bradshaw et al) shame is the one emotion we put more energy into avoiding feeling than any other; Ken called it ‘the master emotion’. However, the here-and-now can also provide us with the ability to think creatively, form hypotheses, risk thinking something new and chewing over this newness whilst maintaining contact with others, ourselves and the newness.
Preformed opinions risk dogma, we trot out the same old safe and tried-and-trusted responses we know work for us. If we don’t take risks we will never grow, change and become more of who we are / can be.
If you are interested in learning more about staying in the here-and-now, you might find the two day workshop detailed below of some interest...
Embodied, Relational Dialogue within Group Process
This two-day weekend workshop will be facilitated by Pete Lavender and Lydia Noor.
To be held at Scarborough Counselling & Psychotherapy Training Institute
29 February and 1 March 2020
10am to 5.00pm on each day
Book before 30 January for early bird fee of £135
Pete and Lydia have been co-facilitating group process, for over ten years. Throughout this time, we have become more and more interested in our here-and-now embodied relational response, both to each other and towards group members. We are committed to creating a safe, holding and shame-free space within which we invite you to explore aspects of your own process.
Following an exciting and rich workshop which we co-facilitated at the recent MIP conference, the weekend will contain experiential exercises on the themes of compassion and heartlessness, hope and despair, love and hatred, if other polarities arise, these may be explored as well. We will discover what arises in the between of relationship as well as providing opportunity for individual work as it arises. Although embodied relational dialogue can be challenging, it is also extremely supportive of health, growth and change.
For a place on this workshop, please contact Lydia on 07841 133426 or Pete on 07930 371369 or by e-mail on firstname.lastname@example.org