Want to win? Then consider surrender

26 May, 2021

Clinical supervision with a colleague the other day began with me asking her what she would like to focus on for the session.  ‘Sarah’ replied: ‘Well, I’ve had such a great week off on leave last week, and I feel so calm and peaceful, I’m in a really good place to do my work. So I want to think about how I can make sure I’m not pushed off balance again by other people’s stress and anxiety now I’m back at work.’ We could indeed have spent our supervision session thinking about how she circumnavigates others’ emotional states, and there may well have been some value to this kind of conversation. But on this occasion, we decided to approach our supervision in a different way so instead of answering her aim we looked instead at where the aim itself was coming from.

We looked at what was implicit in Sarah’s stated aim. It seemed that she held ideas that avoiding being perturbed by others’ difficult emotions is possible and also a good idea. In this way of thinking other people’s emotions are seen as the problem, and if we can keep ourselves out of range of them, then we would be free to do our best work. Sarah confirmed these underlying thoughts : ‘I don’t like feeling other people’s anxiety’ she said ‘it makes me want to escape’. A common response as we would all probably like to live without contact with unpleasant feelings. Yet given that such feelings are around, might there be a value to reviewing our desire to escape them? Instead could we to move towards them, explore how to be with them and what they’ve got to tell us? This approach of ‘stepping toward the difficult’ is a foundation on which our therapeutic work with children and families in MyST is based. And if it works with our clients then why not explore how this approach might also help staff members do good work with our clients?

Sarah and I dug deeper together to test this out. We explored what she really wants to escape from when others’ anxiety is around. She explained that being affected by other people’s feelings makes her realise that she is interdependent with others; a realisation that makes her feel vulnerable. ‘I can’t stand that I’m not in control of myself, someone else’s feelings are in control of me. I don’t really trust that it’ll be ok.’ As well as trying to avoid it, Sarah found that she sometimes defended herself from this experience of interdependence and vulnerability by ‘taking charge’ and ‘being in control’, and to some extent this worked for her. However, she also noticed that there were downsides to this strategy. She found these acts of resistance led to her feeling very tired, made only worse by the energy she expended in planning how she might avoid those people and situations which put her in vulnerability’s way. She always knew that being tired didn’t enable her to do her best work with our clients.

So might there be an alternative, a more effective response? If we resist our urge to escape our feelings what are our other options? We continued on our voyage of discovery… Well, instead of fighting or running away, how about surrender? Not the surrender of being beaten into submission, but a voluntary, empowered surrender in which we choose to stop fighting with what is frightening us. Strangely enough, good things can come of this kind of surrender. Sometimes, we can see that the thing we are experiencing as a threat isn’t a threat. It isn’t a solid thing able to harm us, and we can begin to see it as much more of a simple process which washes over us and moves on like ‘water off a duck’s back’.  Perhaps, we wondered, the very resistance to something is what makes it seem like a dangerous threatening thing in the first place. For us all when facing a threat, our choices aren’t limited only to fighting, running away or being beaten. We have another choice, counter-intuitive though it is, we can decide to give ourselves over to the experience, we can let it wash over us, we can surrender to it.

In a systemic approach, it is always worth considering that what affects our clients may also affect our workers, what helps our clients may also help our workers, and of course, what helps our workers to learn and become aware, resourced and unafraid is very likely to help our clients in the end.

Jen & Jael

A Gwent Partnership Board Service