It stands around the corner from an authentic Thai restaurant in central London. On the face of it, it’s an elegant building. As you walk past, however, you realise with surprise that the frontage is a façade, an elaborate shield concealing a plain office building that lies behind it. It’s a striking metaphor, a symbol of sorts for an inauthentic life. It challenged me powerfully yet silently to consider the masks I wear, the images I project to disguise my real self.
Some years ago, John Powell published a popular, short self help book, ‘Why am I afraid to tell you who I am?’ He explored how we attempt to protect our fragile egos and avoid our fear rejection by acting out roles or playing games. These are defensive routines aimed at minimising social anxiety or negative evaluation. By putting on a front that we believe will impress others, we attempt to feel better about ourselves and to win others’ approval.
At one level, these strategies can prove successful in life and work. It’s one reason why we pay attention to our physical appearance, the way we behave and conduct ourselves in public, the way we present ourselves at job interviews etc. From our earliest childhood experiences, we learn what wins love and affirmation from others within our key relationships, social environments and culture. We learn how to play the game.
At another level, however, keeping up appearances can prove self-defeating. Over time we may feel alienated from ourselves, not sure how we really are, and alienated from others, not sure if we are really loved and accepted. We can feel lonely, frustrated and tired. It’s as if, paradoxically, the façades we create to develop and maintain relationships can have the opposite effect, preventing authentic and intimate contact with others.
This presents us with a dilemma, an anxiety-provoking risk. What if I remove the mask, tell you what I’m really thinking, show you how I’m really feeling? Would you love and accept me for who I am or would you look at me with disappointment in your eyes? Will making myself vulnerable release you to be vulnerable too? Can we find a new way of connecting that feels more real, more authentic, less defended, less like a façade?
It can feel like a breathtaking step. The possibility feels exciting and yet the potential feels daunting. I’m reminded of Jesus’ call in the gospels: ‘remove the mask and come into the light’. There is further New Testament teaching too: ‘perfect love casts out fear’. If God can love and accept me as I am, perhaps I can learn to love and accept myself and to love and accept others too. Perhaps that’s where it starts, feeling truly safe with God.
So therein lies the challenge. As a leader and a coach, am I willing to make myself vulnerable so that others can be vulnerable too? Can I demonstrate unconditional love with such honesty that others feel safe to remove their masks, to take down their façades? Can I find new ways to relate to others with an increasing sense of trust and authenticity, creating ever-deeper levels of contact? It’s certainly a goal worth praying and striving for.
I had strange dreams about mirrors and reflections last night and woke early in the darkness. I lay there for a while, semi-conscious, daydreaming about the brightness of the moon and how it reflects the light of the sun. I prayed silently, instinctively, ‘Just as the moon reflects the light of the sun, may my life reflect the light of God’. Then I woke up.
I do think there’s something profound about mirrors and reflection as psychological, cultural and spiritual phenomena. The recent fantasy film, Snow White and the Huntsman created a vivid portrayal of a tormented queen returning repeatedly to seek reassurance in the mirror of legend: ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’
The queen’s sense of self, security and value were based on the response from the mirror. It’s as if she didn’t really know who she was, how she was, without reference to its external perspective. According to psychodynamic and social psychological theories, our sense of self is affected by the responses we evoke and encounter in others.
Take, for instance, a young child who gazes into its mother’s face. If it sees consistent expressions of warmth, attentiveness, affection and happiness, it may well develop the sense that ‘I am loved’ and, thereby, ‘I am loveable.’ If on the other hand the child consistently sees looks of disapproval, it may develop a negative sense of self.
Psychodynamic theorists (e.g. Winnicott) call this process ‘mirroring’.Just as a person knows what they look like by glancing in a mirror, a child sees something of itself, learns something about itself, its relationships and its place in the world, by observing what is mirrored in the face of others. It’s a process that continues throughout our lives.
This phenomenon has deep existential implications. Corinne Taylor in her paper, You are the fairest of them all, comments on what may happen if a mother lacks connection with the child and fails to offer mirroring: ‘Perhaps a mother with a rigid face gives the baby the sense of never having being at all.’* Its very existence may feel negated.
Richard Rohr in his book, The Naked Now draws spiritual parallels, inviting us to consider what we see in God’s face, his gaze, as we gaze at him in prayer. It’s as if God is the ultimate, absolute parent figure in whose face we are able to gain a true sense of who we actually are. A distorted image of God will create a distorted image of self.
Projection is a related psychological process whereby we project aspects of ourselves (often aspects we feel uncomfortable with) onto other people or even onto God. I may be aware of and focus on characteristics of others that I’m not aware of or deny in myself, even though others may recognise them as typical of me.
If I grow in awareness of my projections, I can grow in awareness of myself by noticing what I notice in others. It’s another form of mirroring. As a leader and coach, I can draw important lessons too: what do others see in my face; do my responses help others develop a truer and more-loved sense of self; do I reflect the light of God?
Christmas time. A special time to enjoy family, friends and festivities. For many of us, it’s a time off work, chance to relax, eat, drink and party. There is, however, a deeper meaning to the event, a meaning embedded in its very name: Christ-mas. For Christians, it represents a celebration of a unique and critical moment in history, the birth of Jesus Christ. This distant event has important implications for my work in leadership, OD, coaching and training.
The idea of God as a human child should shock, confuse and amaze us. After all, if God exists and if he really is everything the Bible says he is, e.g. all powerful, all knowing, an invisible being, it makes no sense to imagine all those qualities in a vulnerable, dependent, human baby. The arrival of Jesus, the transcendent become immanent, is a profoundly paradoxical event. Little wonder so many people today find it difficult to imagine, understand or believe.
I find it stimulating and humbling to reflect on this. It calls me to ask serious questions of myself, my life and my work. Whatever I’m doing, whatever role I’m playing, my work is essentially about people, developing people, releasing potential, building a better organisation, a better world. So I will share five short thoughts and meditations this Christmas kairos evokes for me. Please share your reflections and responses with me too. I’m keen to hear.
1. God as human. The appearance of God in human form (Gestalt) reminds me of the notion of contact in Gestalt psychology, a deep sense of presence and connection with people. It’s about intimacy, empathy, touch, being-with in the here and now. In my work, I sometimes become so focused on the task that I can lose touch with myself, with others, with God. Incarnation is about coming close. How can I develop and sustain a better quality of contact?
2. God as child. The Christ child reveals God at his most vulnerable, a willingness to take risks and to depend on others. It reminds me of notions of attachment in psychodynamic psychology. It sounds inconceivable to imagine God placing his life, his wellbeing, in human hands. Yet it challenges notions of arrogant, egotistical, macho leadership. It models humility, trust, a working with others to achieve a purpose. How can I become more humble and inclusive?
3. God as love. In becoming human, God enters human experience. Jesus’ loving, empathetic way of relating to people reminds me of notions of relationship, positive regard and authenticity in humanistic and person-centred psychology. He balances ‘grace’ with ‘truth’ in a way that I find very difficult. He demonstrates altruistic self-sacrifice, critical friendship and tough love. How can I be better and more consistent at putting others’ best interests first?
4. God as truth. The arrival of God in human history in such a dramatic, physical way challenges previous notions of God and of humanity. God challenges all presuppositions, cultural perspectives and traditions. This reminds me of addressing limiting beliefs in cognitive psychology, fixed Gestalts in Gestalt psychology and personal-social constructs in social constructionism. How can I work with others to explore and create fresh possibilities, fresh paradigms?
5. God as saviour. The Bible depicts Jesus Christ entering the world to save a humanity that is lost. This notion of lost-ness reminds me of ‘angst’ in existential and psychodynamic psychology, a deep feeling of alienation from oneself and others and from any sense of ultimate meaning and purpose. It’s as if Jesus resolves our alienation from God and the world to bring new hope. How can I ensure my work brings fresh meaning and hope to others?
I wish you a merry Christmas and a very happy new year!
Donald Winnicott had a theory which goes something like this. When a baby is born, it’s unable to distinguish its own self from its environment. It identifies its own existence inextricably with the existence of its primary caregiver, most often its mother. Over time, as the child develops a clearer and distinctive sense of self, it naturally grows in independence. As the child makes this transition, it typically latches onto an object (often something like a toy or a blanket) which provides an interim sense of relational presence, security and continuity, including when the caregiver is absent.
Winnicott referred to such objects as ‘transitional objects’, that is, objects that enable the child’s healthy psychological transition from merged identity to separate identity. According to this theory, the child invests its security in the object, identifies closely with it thereby it serves as a defence against anxiety. Because the child hasn’t yet developed a full and secure sense of self-identity, if the transitional object is removed, changed or appears to be threatened (e.g. if the caregiver takes the toy away to wash it) during this phase, the child can feel as if its own security is threatened.
Over time, however, most children learn to let go of the transitional object without feeling a sense of anxiety or loss. It’s as if the object has functioned as a kind of psychological bridge for the child during the transition process and, once crossed, the child no longer needs it. The question occurs of what happens for a child if the transitional experience is absent, inconsistent or disrupted. How does this influence the child’s sense of self and security in the world and in future relationships? Could the child-as-adult subconsciously grasp at other objects to enable the still unfulfilled transition?
It’s difficult, of course, to know with any degree of clarity and certainty how a baby actually experiences itself, its environment and its relationship to it. Theories such as Winnicott’s above serve as a working hypothesis. There are resonances with how adults respond to change, however, that I find fascinating and compelling. I’ve observed intriguing examples of this transitional principle manifest itself in practice. In one such case, an organisation I worked with as consultant was facing considerable change and its members were facing an uncertain future.
In the midst of these changes, one of the members decided to remove a wooden lectern from the podium from which the leader normally spoke. To his great surprise, this simple action almost provoked rebellion. It’s as if the lectern had been imbued with special symbolic significance, a transitional object that provided members with a sense of continuity with the past and thereby security in the present in the midst of considerable anxiety. Psychodynamically, the uncertainty of the current transition may have reverberated subconsciously with earlier transitions in childhood.
In a similar vein, William Bridges wrote a now famous book, Managing Transitions that explores how people in organisations deal with shifting between realities during times of organisational change. He speaks in particular of how to lead people though the interim phase, the ‘neutral zone’ where the past is left behind but the future is not yet reached. Rosabeth Moss Kanter writes on similar lines in her article, Managing the Human Side of Change on how to avoid inadvertently evoking psychodynamic defensive routines. Interestingly, Bridges draws on parallels from Exodus in the Bible.
The biblical narrative posits a radically theocentric worldview in which God takes his people on a journey, a ‘transition’, from places of relative security through wilderness and insecurity towards a promised future. The Israelites and later Christians are called upon to hold onto God, to trust him above all else. This demands profound and at times nail-biting, nerve-stretching faith in the midst of all kinds of confusing and challenging circumstances. It's a tough call to step from known into unknown, from safety into risk. In light of Winnicott’s theory, I find this spiritual metaphysic curious and intriguing.
It depicts life and human history as a macro transition process, mirrored like fractals in our earliest childhood and in different aspects of personal and social experience. We encounter, invest in and draw from ‘transitional objects’ on route, those critical relationships, experiences and resources that hold the potential to define, make sense of and fulfil our deepest identity and purpose. Some believe that faith in God is a projection of psychological need onto an imaginary being. Could it be possible, however, that God hardwired this pattern for transition into our psychological DNA?
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.