Posted: Tuesday 29th September 2020
I was reflecting with a colleague the other day. Let’s call him Billy. Billy told me about how he was struggling in a relationship with someone in his team. Upset and annoyed at something, this person had charged Billy with causing them distress and then with being too thoughtless or inept to put it right. Billy hung his head… what an awful possibility he faced about himself.
We explored more about how this difficult interaction had affected Billy. He described feeling vulnerable and ashamed. Not only had his colleague’s feedback to him been hard, but receiving a charge of these particular crimes had landed right upon a tender spot for Billy; it was his worst fear to be harmful and insensitive to others. He had experienced the impacts of these kinds of interactions himself as a young person, and so he had vowed to never be this way. And yet, his colleague now told him this was who they thought him to be.
Whilst being devastated and ashamed, Billy told me that he had noticed a process that had gone on within him after the interaction. A process by which Billy had attempted to avoid his feelings of vulnerability. And as he told me about this process, Freud’s ideas about ego defences came to my mind. Billy seemed to have journeyed through a fair few of them.
- He had withdrawn – cold and numb to any feeling.
- He had tried to appease his colleague – ‘Please like me, I’m a lovely guy.’.
- He had retreated into his intellectual mind – ‘We’ve all got better things to do than this nonsense.’.
- He had bigged himself up – ‘Actually I’m great at my job, shame you don’t realise it.’
- He had dreamed of running away – ‘Sod this job!’
The carousel of defences circled on and on, and Billy described feeling exhausted by it all. ‘I still feel terrible’ he said ‘and I don’t know what to do to make it better.’. Climbing down from the ego defence carousel, we agreed to talk more about what Billy was in fact defending himself against. It was the awful fear that he was a bad person who hurts others and doesn’t even care to notice. His eyes welled up. He let go of a big breath. We held the dreaded possibility together in silence. I regarded him with the gaze of someone who knows for sure he isn’t this fearful image of a person. And then it lifted… fearful emotion dissolved in the experience of being met, being aired in a relationship, being survived. Giving up his defences, and allowing authentic connection with his emotions, Billy released himself from the grip of fear and found his feet, and with a tentative step, returned to walking his path in his team.
Billy’s experience reminded me of how hard it can be for all of us humans to face our worst fears about ourselves and the emotions that accompany them. Many of us go to great lengths to avoid these tough encounters. And yet defending ourselves against our feared feelings can become such a monumental task in itself, and can create a world of other problems. How important it is then for us all to have relationships and opportunities to process the emotions and ideas which accompany the things that hurt us.
And so it is in our work at MyST, encouraging children to look their dreaded feelings in the face rather than defend against them. Dreaded feelings like:
‘I dread the hurt of being rejected by another carer.’
‘I dread the humiliation of failing in the classroom.’
‘I dread the shame that I’m to blame for being abused.’
‘I dread the despair that life is never going to get better for me now.’
‘I dread that I am vulnerable and that no-one can be trusted to stay with me and help me through.’
These are certainly mighty dreads for children to face, and yet with the strength of a good therapeutic relationship, face them they do. And whilst this can be painful for all concerned, we try not to allow ourselves to be led by a desire to protect children from their feelings. Instead we try to give children the experience that they can bear their emotions, and held by us both together, their emotions will not only be survived but will gradually release their dreadful grip. In doing this, just like my colleague Billy’s story reminded me, there is a freedom and a way forward.
Jen & Jael