Posted: Wednesday 9th June 2021
A little while ago at MyST, the parent of one of the young people that we were working with had an emotional crisis of his own. Already feeling fragile and unsafe in the world at times due to his historical life experiences, on this particular day, this Dad and his partner had ended their relationship. As a result, he was feeling especially raw. In the height of his distress, for a short while this Dad wasn’t sure he could go on with life. We were of course worried for him and his children. Having stayed with the family for a few hours to help them feel calmer and safer, we faced a decision about how we might best help them to get safely through the night ahead. Trying to decide what sort of care would be best, someone in the team happened to say ‘I usually trust people to know themselves what they need, let’s allow this Dad to lead us in how the night should look.’.
Looking back now, this statement could have been misinterpreted by someone hearing it, perhaps in at least two ways. The first potential misinterpretation is as a statement of being naive or laissez faire about serious risks. The second potential misinterpretation is as a statement of the obvious – people know what they need, they are experts in their own lives; well yes, of course.
In order to avoid the first misunderstanding of this statement, it is important to appreciate the solid foundation upon which it rested. It sat on the basis of a longstanding relationship and understanding of the particular family; there was a thorough assessment and formulation in place. It also sat within our service context which includes a 24/7 on call; we are able to respond quickly if needs escalate. These conditions provide a robust basis upon which to assess and manage risks. With these in place, we are freer to find the therapeutic opportunities within the risky situations; opportunities for something different to grow in place of the established patterns and habits. This development might be a new coping skill, a new relationship, a new sense of confidence, a new experience of being trusted, capable or responsible.
In order to avoid the second misinterpretation, it is important to appreciate how this wasn’t simply a statement of the obvious. Many of us can sign up to a belief that people are experts in their own experience and capable of generating their own solutions, and yet, can we hold true to this even in moments of practice which are towards the outer edges of our comfort zones? How far can we hold this belief, and do we notice when and why we lose touch with it?
We recently remembered this family and this particular episode during one of our meetings together. We reflected together on what it was that had enabled our colleagues to develop such a strong trust in people, even people with frailties and vulnerabilities, even people in an especially distressed state, even people who have made mistakes in the past. From where do any of us gain our faith in ordinary people’s wisdom and potential to deal with challenges in their lives?
As we pondered this question, a number of ideas came up. One was a theoretical idea that people move naturally to a place that is a helpful step for them – this has been called a self-actualising tendency (Rogers and Maslow). Another was the influence of lived experience of practice; for instance, in therapeutic communities who decide together what to do about every matter facing their members; experience of people who were able to overcome very serious mental health problems and harmful behavioural issues by living as a self-determining, self-organising system of care. A third was the personal experience of having been trusted ourselves to be enough to work things out ourselves, and the gift of time and support to do this.
Happily, there are many and varied sources of inspiration moving us to trust in the capacity of people themselves. Perhaps we might all explore our trust in others. Its foundations, its limits, its potential to grow in a safe and robust way, the contexts and conditions that nurture this trust. If we could do this, what benefits it might bring and what harms might it avoid?
Jen & Jael