Posted: Friday 10th July 2020
Although as rookies, we can enjoy some lovely beginner’s luck, to really master the art of something, we usually need to develop an intimate understanding of how it works. A mechanic knows how an engine works. A cook knows how a spaghetti bolognaise works. A parent knows how a family Christmas works. Whilst a knowledge of some things can be developed by studying them from the outside, knowledge of other things, by their nature, can only really be mastered by also studying them from the inside. Clearly, the skilled mechanic doesn’t need to experience being a sprocket to fully understand an engine. Whereas, the excellent cook must taste her food, and the happy parent must have experienced all of the festivals and celebrations of their childhood to really know what they’re dealing with when it comes to Christmas.
In this way, the psychological practitioner needs to know how minds work. And after studying this academically and in clinical training, where best to go next but becoming intimate with our own minds? In psychological theory, there is of course the concept of empathy; how we humans can really appreciate what one another are going through without having gone through the exact same thing in the same way ourselves. But empathy isn’t just a good guess at someone else’s experience. It is the product of knowing our own experience intimately.
To know our own or anyone else’s experience, we first need to attune to whatever is going on for ourselves and the other person, parking our pre-existing ideas and paying close attention to what is actually happening.
When it comes to empathy about what another person experiences, we must draw upon our own experiences that bear some kind of resemblance or thematic echo. For instance, I haven’t experienced being removed from my parents’ care, but I have longed for another person, felt powerless, and been alien amongst a new group. I can’t know that that this is how a child in foster care feels, but these experiences are available to me in seeking to understand that child.
And then there is an empathic understanding of how our minds operate. When we study our own minds very closely, we start to see our cogs and sprockets whirring.
In a conversation with a colleague recently, we touched upon the operations of her mind. We spoke together about how, early on in life, she hadn’t felt like other ordinary people. Back then, her family seemed to her to be going through something extraordinary. So her mind did what minds can do; it separated the world into categories. In her case, categories of ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’. And after that, everything seemed to fall into either one category or the other, but never again both or neither of them. On this foundation a civilisation grew. She became someone who preferred being extraordinary and looked down a bit on ordinary people and things. This was wonderful for her in many ways as she excelled into the beauty of the avant garde. However, there were also some downsides: She found it hard to get close to people who seemed to her to be ordinary. And she occasionally longed to be allowed to be ordinary herself. To join in. To have a break from the pressure of being extraordinary.
‘Is that how minds work?’ my colleague asked herself, looking up from contemplating her own particular story. ‘That’s so useful to know. It’s making me think of a child that I work with. She tells me doesn’t feel normal. Previously I’d been encouraging her to accept that and value that she isn’t ‘just normal’. But now I’m thinking that isn’t quite right. Now I want to help her to see that not feeling normal is a really normal experience. I also want to help her see that she can choose not to worry about whether she’s normal or not, she can just be herself.’.
In psychological therapy practice, studying ourselves isn’t some self-indulgent luxury. In the memories and workings of ‘me’ we may well discover something important about the workings of all of us. And with this, we may well be able to be really useful to other people.
Jen & Jael