‘The more I think about what it means to experience something, the less I understand it.’ Mark, a psychotherapist, was sharing his reflections towards the end of a course on supervision and consultation. We had met week after week for a year, a group of counsellors in which I was the only community worker, spending time to see what emerged between us, then to reflect on its potential meaning and significance for our practice.
It felt excruciating at times, looking to each other, ourselves or the wooden floor, sometimes in desperation, for any glimpse of inspiration and insight. On one occasion, Mark was sharing some complex theory from psychoanalysis when I blurted out angrily, ‘I can’t see why we’re spending so much time on this, wasting our time on abstractions!’ Mark responded calmly and thoughtfully, ‘This isn’t the first time you’ve been here, is it?’
His insight detonated within me and I felt speechless. I had previously spent 3 years in theological college where I had felt very similar frustrations. It drove me crazy studying God, faith, spirituality as a theoretical topic, often focusing on questions that had very little practical value as far as I could see. Mark’s observation drew my attention to how I had imported that experience into the current situation, amplifying my feeling of frustration in the present moment.
In psychodynamic theory, this phenomenon is known as transference, the transferring of assumptions and feelings associated with previous experiences into a new experience, thereby distorting our experience of the current moment, the current relationship, the current situation. It’s as if we experience each new experience through the filter formed by previous experiences, which makes it hard if not impossible to see things as they ‘really are’.
I’m interested in how our experiences are also influenced by other factors, e.g. expectations. My friends rave about a film being shown in the cinema, my expectations are heightened, I go to see it and feel disappointed. My colleagues complain about a leader’s qualities and behaviour at work and I find myself bemused – I’m impressed by the same leader because she or he is so much better than others I’ve experienced previously.
How we experience something, someone is far from fixed. Our experience is influenced by so many factors, past experiences, future hopes, what we believe the implications are, what significant others value. It’s influenced by how we are feeling physically, mentally and emotionally, whether or not we got out of the right side of the proverbial bed, whether the sun is shining or it’s raining, who we are with at the time. The experience question? It's complicated stuff.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.