I am full of words that leave me hungry

I haven’t got a story, only a way of talking. This could be the start of a good story. But I’m fed up with stories.

It seems human beings have been story-tellers since the beginning of art and language. The telling and hearing of stories is all we do, all the time, in all kinds of ways. Stories are how we make sense of ourselves, how we relate to others, how we create and share meaning, over and over again. We are chronically, helplessly pathological story-tellers. Don’t we ever shut up?

Tell me something I don’t know but please don’t tell me another bloody story.

The universe hasn’t got a story, only a way of existing.

How many stories do you want? In journalism news items are called stories. Holy books are nothing but stories. Science is a story about what seems to be the case for now. A lie is a story about what’s not the case. A novel is a very long story, a joke a very short one. A blues song always tells a story. Telling you how my day went is a mundane story. My dream last night was a fantastical anti-story. Talking with a client in therapy is a story about therapeutic stories.

I wonder how it would be to drop all these stories and live without them. Could we live well in truth, beauty and goodness, and yet be utterly unstoried?

How we fill the dreadful void of our terrifying incomprehensibility with an infinite number of stories is the only story.

Because stories are everywhere and can take me anywhere, I could end up nowhere.

A trashy story, like junk food, delivers real pleasure – for a while. Another story can seem nutritious and turn out to be bad in some way, like a very healthy meal that fails to satiate. The type of story I most desire might not be doing me much good. People talk of being ‘addicted’ to crime dramas and ‘bingeing’ on box sets. Perhaps it’s possible to overdose on stories, fatally.

We’re freakishly clever apes with heads crammed with stories. We don’t know why we’re here or what we’re supposed to do with all this. How then can we not continuously storify our absurdly plotless existence? Who would we be if our lives were still and quiet and constantly untold?

An insect hasn’t got a story, only a way of … insecting?

Perhaps other animals are the answer because for them there are no questions. For other species there is no story and not even an absence of story – as far as we know.

Talking animals appear frequently in myths and legends. Do we yearn for them to tell us a story of who we are, a tale of what it means to be human, as if the stories we’ve been telling ourselves are not enough, as if it’s unbearable to be the only story-making creature?

A therapeutic thought experiment: imagine being someone who takes no story from the world and offers no story back to the world – and imagine that person as great company. What would be their character? What would animate their spirit? I imagine them as someone who had transmuted storylessness into a fullness of being that was unassailable. To have no need of stories would be a profound kind of freedom. To know stories and be unattached to any of them would be liberating. Therapy is a bit like this: it invites you to tell your story and undo it, to set yourself free from it.

Writing these notes I realise I would be hopelessly lost without any form of story at all – even the story of no-story-at-all gives me some direction, something to move towards or away from.

Stories invent us. When we’re not talking about our direct experience, we tell each other something about what we can’t see and don’t feel and don’t know, and we call it a story. Out of all that is happening or has ever happened or could happen in the world, we know almost nothing. The rest of it is imagined at every turn.

Everywhere you look, the world disappears from view.

What’s your story? There are millions of human beings just around the corner, living lives we can only wonder about. The story goes that you and I now are very precisely two of those other unknown millions. Our ordinary nosiness might evoke our compassionate curiosity about everyone else, but we will never know who they are. We stare blankly, chewing on the knowledge that human reality is inedible.

I am full of words that leave me hungry.

Therapy is storyland. All kinds of stories and fictions and dreams and fables are deposited there. Therapists, we might say, act as librarians for this phenomenal archive. As a therapist I can’t help but hear and tell loads of stories every day – I barely know what I forget and what I recall and what I make up. I could tell a story about all these hundreds of stories, and that might tell you something about therapy. But I’m not an obvious choice for the position of archivist.

Jim recommends …

Story-fasting: to spend a day without hearing or telling a story.

All rights reserved © Copyright Jim Holloway 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

‘I’m a Red Skin’

The man in front of me at the supermarket checkout looks up and says, ‘I like your mask; I’m all for a joke at this time – good man!’

He’d read my mask as a humorous comment on the current UK restrictions around lockdown and personal safety.

I smile, though he can’t see my smile. I’d expected some people to enjoy the mask’s irony, and yet his lightness left me with its other, heavier significance.

‘It’s not a joke,’ I pause, before adding, ‘They were George Floyd’s last words.’

‘Oh!’ he replies looking directly at me while simultaneously stepping further back. ‘He’s not a very good hero, though. He wasn’t a terribly nice man. But he didn’t deserve to die like that.’

How bizarre. Does he think George Floyd is my hero? And is he qualifying Floyd’s not deserving to die with the manner of his death?

‘He didn’t die,’ I interject. ‘He was killed.’ Even though he heard me, it was clear he’d stopped listening. It was as if I’d just pulled out a concealed weapon from which he couldn’t escape.

The mask had turned me into a walking placard: a solitary protest, an epitaph, a comment or joke. The genius of having ‘I can’t breathe’ printed on a facemask is that it works at many levels. It’s not a slogan, nor is it not an argument; it is a clear and unequivocal statement. It’s also immediately relatable: who hasn’t ever felt restricted or suffocated?

I thought again about my motivations for wearing the mask. As a white man, the onus is on me to confront my more or less invisible white privilege; this conflict is mine – it has nothing to do with the man at the checkout. This is reason enough, although I think there’s something more personal involved.

I remember my mother saying that when I was five or six years old I wanted to be an ‘Indian’, and would always side with them when I watched cowboy films. They were badly treated and, despite their integrity, were often demonised and portrayed as savages. Even at that age I could see the injustice and the projection (though I didn’t formulate it this way at the time). These were ‘Red Indians’ and I identified with them: I too was (and sometimes still am) a ‘Red Skin’ on account of having chronic eczema.

I remember, aged nine, being stopped by an attendant as I ran towards the edge of our local swimming pool. He shouted after me that I couldn’t go in the water. As I stood there I could feel the cold damp of the tiles creeping upwards through the soles of my feet.

‘Why not?’ I asked.

‘It might be catching.’

‘I have eczema – you can’t catch it!’

‘I’ve got to think of the other swimmers; you’ll need to go back and change – you can’t go in.’

There were many such occasions like this that made it difficult for me to feel at home in my skin. I longed for it to change, and though I didn’t realise it at the time, it was the desire for change that proved to be the real conflict.

The difficulty in any such challenging or painful situation is that it’s all too easy to assume knowledge of the other, whether that’s the other person or indeed the ‘other’ in ourselves. We can’t know the other and yet we get drawn into trying to change them.

Listening carefully to the other may elicit empathy; it’s sometimes possible to say, ‘I understand myself’ or ‘I understand you’, and yet we often go too far and say, ‘I know myself’ or ‘I know you’. While self-awareness is valuable, the Socratic imperative to ‘know thyself’ is an anxiety-provoking myth: it is overpromising something to someone you’re very close to. Not only does it engender the belief that it’s possible to know yourself, but also it claims a good life is dependent on it.

While these anecdotes (and this piece of writing) reveal something about my interests, commitments, prejudices and so on, they do not let me know who I am. They might help me recognise myself in a crowd. However, I am no more any of these things than I am a white ‘Red Skin’.

Despite our few shared moments of connection I knew almost nothing about the supermarket man or the swimming pool attendant. I now realise that I don’t want to change them or me: wanting them to change would be a mask for changing myself, which only feeds an ever-greater desire for change.

There must have been a part of the police officer desperate to change himself and the stranger under his knee; in their last few incredibly intimate moments together he changed both himself and George Floyd forever.

Glenn quotes:

‘If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together’ (Lilla Watson).

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

Judgment to be made?

The thought is in my head: I’m a cheat, a liar. No, worse than that, I’m a phoney and a fraud 

The thoughts come fast because, in the moment, I know the conflict between my human self and my professional role is in play. I’m also in trouble because I’m quite sure congruence has deserted me.

Although the thoughts are challenging ones to be throwing at myself, if you knew what I was thinking about the person sat looking at me through the screen you might agree with my self-assessment. The difficulty is not just that I’m suffering a lack of congruence but that I’m deeply caught in negative countertransference and so my empathic response has taken absence without leave. 

Without being able to reach for empathy, the therapist’s chair feels a lonely and dangerous place.

It’s difficult to hear things from him that make me consider him in a new, negative light. My inner human self is ranting at him: What did you expect to happen? Could you not see your own stupidity, your own selfishness?

My supervisee isn’t giving me time to gather my professional thoughts; a set of words about how responsible he feels has just collided with his own self-loathing about the choices he made. But his split doesn’t mirror my own internal human/professional dust-up.

The space that the two of us have relied on in all our years of working together feels closed off. I’m still wrestling with these thoughts as he starts to emote deeply. He looks disorientated and his face has become red and mottled as if he were an alcoholic sitting on a park bench, complete with bottle of Bucky wrapped in a brown paper bag. As I hear his intake of breath and moan of grief, the tears and snot that were hanging off the end of his nose drip out of the lense’s gaze.

Unlike many of my colleagues who, perhaps erroneously, only think of in-room work as ‘face to face’, the 371 miles between Alastair and myself has never seemed a vast distance. Indeed, how much more face to face can you be than the 40 centimetres between face and screen on each side. I can see the threads of blood in the whites of his eyes.

Over the years we’ve worked collaboratively, I’ve watched him deal with some dire moments as a therapist and a human being. When his sister was killed in a road traffic collision we worked so carefully and trustingly together on his departure from, and return to, his case load. The loss of a long-term patient to motor-neurone disease was another moment when my admiration for his care and thoughtful practice grew. His attention to that patient seemed to make so much difference to the end of her life. He felt pain and I shared some of it with him in the supervision space.

I’m working really hard for the supervisory couple. I’m fighting for us. I feel the need to converse with my own therapist. He may have died years ago but he’s often with me in the room as an internal supervisor. We talk in the shadow, considering how, in the collective unconscious, there are some serious waves of communication going on between Alistair and me. And then my old clinical supervisor is sitting on my shoulder, asking me – no, interrogating me – about my lack of tolerance in the room.

I’m monitoring my breathing pattern. My body is just engaging with the kinesthetic memory of deep relaxation. And I’m back. I’m in my professional-self.

This is better. Feel the space! The walls have moved far away. Some of my other consultants over the years flow to the space – from therapeutic and supervision engagements. It’s quite a team to have on my side.

Spaces in the therapeutic profession are very considered and complex things. There are the outer ones, the room, the being together in a space and then there are myriad ever-changing inner ones. I know what I have to say, with congruence reintegrated; I know it will feel risky but we have always worked with honesty and I will have to let him judge me as I might still be judging him.

I begin to talk, my professional risking forward what I hope will be considered a balanced tone – something my inner human had temporarily been without. ‘I’m hearing in all this that you feel, somehow, it was definitively you who brought Covid into the family. That you contracted the coronavirus from your in-room work and that made you responsible. Now, you’re heartbroken. It’s not only the loss in your family – it’s also because you aren’t in a place where you can support your patients with the trouble they’re experiencing in life while you are stuck in your own guilt and grief. Perhaps, given that you know I’m only working online during the pandemic, you’re also wondering if I’m looking down on you from a point of judgment?’

There is a pause.

He breathes deeply …

Duncan cogitates …

The above raises what can be a deeply uncomfortable reality: the binary split between human-self and professional-self in an encounter. 

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

All character-based realisations contained in this post are either of a fictional nature or have been derived from heavily disguised, consensually given information. 

The Zen of Frank

As a student in the 1980s I had a Critical Analysis teacher who rarely turned up on time for lectures …

In fact, he often didn’t turn up until the very last moments of a session but always managed to hush his students’ chorus of criticism by turning the negative comments back on his accusers. 

In his first term of teaching me, I was as indignant as any other student. But as the months went by I observed his behaviour. With his educational conjuring, this quiet and charismatic man began to gain more and more of my attention. It seemed to me that Frank wasn’t skiving or avoiding teaching; he was watching us individually and as a class – sometimes from a vantage point elsewhere in the college. He enquired of us why it was we wasted the time he was ‘giving us’. Why did we ‘generally loaf around, smoke in doorways or hang out of windows’, especially as there was obviously so much still to learn?

It was the final term of the first year before Frank began to attend as many classes as we, his students, did. Several of us were still some way off working with the set texts our course was supposed to be about. And yet those same classmates were now engaged in infantile battles with Frank over whether he really did know the meaning of every word in the Oxford English Dictionary (from memory, he was never foiled). 

Youth and naivety potentially led us to waste a lot of our time along with projecting onto others the blame for our individual lack of performance.

The last time I saw Frank was, appropriately, a few moments before I left college for the final time. It was a hot summer’s day – the sort many small boys enjoy because of the huge numbers of flying ants building up to their nuptial flight. As I walked through the gates and headed for my motorbike, I caught a glimpse of Frank kneeling on the ground observing insects with more of an amused look of a young boy than a 60 year-old man.

I ambled over to him and we began to converse. A few sentences in, I delighted in telling him that I thought I’d probably learned more from his non-lessons than I had from all my other subjects combined. He smiled, and I continued: ‘And I think I understand what you were trying to do for us. It was all about taking responsibility for our own actions, doing our own work, seeing things how we see them and making use of that knowledge.’

I stopped and smiled back at him. He put out his hand, I accepted it, and we shook with vigour. ‘Keep thinking; keep watching; keep looking,’ he said. He turned away and got back down on his knees to continue his insect observation.

Almost 40 years on from the lessons of Frank, I suppose he will certainly have passed on from this mortal coil. However, his facilitating approach hasn’t. The unconventional methods deployed during those Critical Analysis lessons would be impossible to use in a teaching role this century – and yet from a therapeutic chair they still look deeply valuable. Frank’s style was rooted in creating informed, personal growth. For some of us at least, the approach lay good grounds for the development of complex grey thinking in a world of blacks and whites, but there was much more in it than that. 

These days, when Frank crosses my mind during a session I can be pretty certain that the work of growth is deeply in play – the focus in those moments will so often have turned towards becoming truly, richly, deeply the person they were looking to become before everything else got in their way. Frank didn’t appear to care for the ego of attribution of knowledge, only that you learn and find the things you need for your journey. But once in a while I like to mention his name, to tell others of a great teacher who has stayed with me – as relevant in therapy as he was in the arts. 

Duncan acknowledges …

… with thanks, a recent session where he saw the growth of another and was reminded through this the roots of his own continuing development.

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

Death is like …

Death is unlike a fear of death: fear of death can end …

Death is like nothing, so your relationship to it is everything.

***

Death is unlike an end in sight; the mind creates death to give it a horizon. For those who lack multiperspectivity, horizons appear fixed and finite – death might seem little more than a fear of missing out.

Death is like the disintegration of a body; it’s truly expansive. As discreet bundles of energy we become less discreet, eventually transforming into cloud and ash, or food for worms and weeds. We become the dispersed, not the deceased. There is, as it were, always somewhere else to be, or not to be.

***

Death is unlike anything that’ll ever happen to you: death is not an event.

Death is like a re-evaluation of all values, making it possible to see how and why the idea of death came into being. With new perspectives, we give ourselves – and death – a new lease of life.

***

Death is unlike an unrealised future: death only exists in the present. Everything is in constant flux; death is but one drop in the River of Flux.

Death is like the split second before a profound loss dawns on you. There’s an eternity in that moment – it’s timeless – and yet gone in an instant. The greatest loss is not of the moment itself, but of who you are in that moment.

***

Death is unlike salvific prayer; there’s nothing to save since nothing can’t die. If redemption were needed, it might deliver us from the misguided vanity that insists on having a soul.

Death is like a black hole: a beautiful idea that can swallow you up. It’s not easily refuted – its existence is inferred.

***

Death is unlike getting touched up by a mortician as she applies a final bit of make-up. The mourners blush at their vanity; their loved one all made up with nowhere to go.

Death is like dreaming of a recently dispersed relative; death is simply not in their orbit. Unlike their loved ones, they’ve already moved on – showing no interest in current affairs; they’re now peacefully busy in the afterlife of your dream.

***

Death is unlike the psychedelic experience of losing your mind, unless of course you’ve stopped identifying with mind.

Death is like a psychedelic confrontation with death; as the shaman guides you into the underworld, you begin to realise it’s not an experience since there’s no one there to experience it.

***

Death is unlike the end of time: time doesn’t exist – death is timelessness. Time-bound perspectives result in a dislocated life; they lead to a belief in the false dichotomy of life and death.

Death is like Shrödinger’s Cat – a most perplexing paradox, and yet we all relate to its central question: is a life lived inside a box really living? To answer this you must first recognise the box you’ve created for yourself.

***

Death is unlike the biblical verse, ‘the wages of sin is death’, which is better read as, ‘the wages of a belief in sin are an unlived life’. Those who believe in sin secretly yearn for death, not because they long for paradise; rather, they’ve so devalued life that an end to it would be a relief.

Death is like the ego and the soul; they are the Emperor’s new clothes: beautiful ideas to adorn ourselves with. People believe they see them, and then behave as though they exist. With careful attention it’s possible to see there’s nothing there.

***

Death is unlike the pantomime of confession; the penitent and the priest exchange imaginary gifts with the same meaning and predictability as a dog returning to its vomit.

Death is like saying, ‘I’ve had enough, I can’t go on’; it’s only once you stop cleaving to the escapism of hope that you can learn to live in the present.

***

Death is unlike right and wrong, or good and evil; it is the end of dualistic thinking.

Death is like a dream: you’re convinced it’s real and that it’ll end when you wake up. Once you see that dreaming neither begins nor ends, you realise death is just another dream image you’ve dreamt up.

***

Death is unlike the road to hell paved with good intentions. Since good intent is a symptom of dis-ease, it’s better to favour ambivalence and kindness over good intention.

Death is like the exquisite moment of giving up a sacred belief; the mind tries to process it as loss since it can’t yet process it any other way.

***

Death is unlike the drama of life. Eternal life begins when you die to emotionality and drama, and yet despite your heart not being in it anymore, you nonetheless return to them. It’s no wonder so many continue seeking – they don’t realise eternal life has already begun.

Death is like it never happened; it is that tree falling in the forest when there’s no one there to witness it.

Glenn observes …

Death is a complete surrender to life – it is the end of an argument; it has nothing to do with winning, losing or agreeing to disagree.

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

BACP and the ethics of self-deception

‘I remember my training supervisor asking me if I’d read Melanie Klein. I said I hadn’t …

‘… And she said, “Really, seriously? You’ve never read Klein!” I felt ashamed,’ Paola explains as her eyes inspect the rug.

‘Why didn’t you lie?’ I ask.

‘I couldn’t do that!’ Paola exclaims incredulously.

‘Why not? You could’ve said, “I’ve read Klein and wasn’t impressed”.’

Paola blurts out a laugh, ‘No!’

‘Why not?’

‘Well, therapists don’t lie … it’s unethical, it’s incongruent.’

‘Anything else?’ I ask.

As though scanning the rug for an answer Paola adds, ‘I might’ve got caught.’ We simultaneously let out a laugh.

‘Ah, so you don’t think you’re a good enough liar?’ I query as impishly as I can.

‘No, it actually didn’t occur to me to lie; as I said, “Therapists don’t lie”.’

‘But that’s not true,’ I object.

‘How so?’

‘Well, part of our training – of having extensive therapy – involves looking at the beliefs we’re brought up with. Some are lies we’re told that we’ve come to believe, and some are lies we’ve told ourselves in order to believe. A large part of becoming a psychotherapist is recognising self-deception and then seeing if we can bear to live with it and without it.

‘Parents teach their children to lie – they tell them they shouldn’t, but even that’s a lie. Children have to learn to recognise their parents’ lies; they discover their parents’ hypocrisy and in time appreciate it for what it is. It’s the child’s task to decode “You shouldn’t lie” as “Be a good liar, and don’t get caught”.’

‘Hm, that’s true. But surely lying’s unethical,’ Paola insists.

‘What does your Ethical Framework say about lying?’ I ask.

‘I’m not sure, but it does talk about honesty.’

‘I don’t know either – I’m not with BACP, although I don’t recall any code of ethics I’ve ever read saying anything about lying. Honesty is a bit more tricky.’

‘In what way?’

‘Well, you were honest when you gave your reasons for not lying – it didn’t mean you weren’t lying. You’ve made your reasons, your beliefs fit the narrative of how you think therapists should be.’

‘Okay so I was worried about getting caught, but lying’s not congruent.’

‘As well as feeling shame, did you feel anything else?’

‘Well yes – I was really angry.’

‘So what else could you have done with your anger?’

‘I couldn’t’ve challenged her, she had power over me: she was writing my Supervisor’s Report.’

‘Hm, yeah you were in a vulnerable position.’

‘It would’ve felt good though – challenging her directly I mean,’ Paola licks her lips as though she could taste it.

‘Well, giving yourself permission to lie is empowering. The more permission you give yourself, the more likely you’d feel able to challenge her directly,’ I suggest.

‘I can see that, but I’m just not comfortable: therapists should be moral.’

‘Even when morality is born out of fear and lies?’

‘Hm, you’re not letting me off the hook,’ Paola smiles.

‘It’s your hook.’

Her smile disappears.

‘I’m advocating the rarest of lies – the lie you didn’t tell: the intentional one. Intentional lies take awareness, calculation and skill. The lie you told is very common: the one where you lie to yourself and then present it as truth or honesty. This type of lying has little or no awareness.’

‘Okay, I acknowledge I was deceiving myself. I should do better, but surely that’s the point; I mean, as therapists aren’t we meant to do better?’

‘Are we? Going back to BACP, did you know they accredit therapists who’ve had no personal therapy at all?’

‘Yes I did, and of course it’s absurd, but does that make them unethical or immoral?’

‘Maybe. But I agree, BACP justify an absurd position; it’d be like learning to dive with someone who’s never dived before.’

‘Sure I get that: I’m a diver.’

‘So you know it’d be crazy to go into the depths with someone who’s not spent a large amount of time there. You’d want a Dive Master; you wouldn’t trust someone who says, “I’ve read a lot of books on diving, but I’ve never actually done it”, or “I’ve been a number of times, I’m a confident swimmer, and, oh yeah, I’m quite good at holding my breath under water”.’

Paola beams with recognition, ‘Wow, I’d never thought about it like that. Yes to get the most from therapy you want a therapist who’s experienced full immersion in a therapeutic relationship, someone who knows how to explore relational depth and be able to get you both back safely to the surface. Being able to float on the surface is not good enough.’

‘Exactly. BACP say they promote ethics and professional standards but actually they’ve devalued them. I hope they’re lying to themselves because if not, well, then they’ve got serious problems.’

‘Hm,’ Paola murmurs.

‘What?’

‘They are the hypocritical parent,’ she replies.

‘Yes … “The eye cannot see itself”,’ I add.

Glenn quotes:

‘Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.’ (Friedrich Nietzsche)

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.