A question of experience
‘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.
Hard lessons in love
Serbia, sabre, cold steel. The word still strikes a cold chill. It’s not the country, the people. It’s the symbolic idea, the ultranationalist vision, the das Reich of the Balkans. It’s the pernicious ideology that drove a nation to commit unspeakable crimes.
It’s the Bosnian girl I spoke with, cried with, whose father was murdered by a vicious Serbian militia, whose best friend was shot dead by a Serbian sniper in front of her eyes, a young girl, shot in the leg and had to crawl away to save her own life.
It’s the refugees I saw in Albania, pouring over the border from Kosova, filled with terror as the Serbian troops advanced. It’s the smirking Serbian soldiers on the TV screen, arrogant, powerful and heartless in their pursuit of a ‘greater Serbia’, an ‘ethnically cleansed’ land.
Mladic. I was delighted to hear of his arrest this week. It was the same delight when I heard of Karadzic’s arrest. The same delight when I saw NATO aircraft pounding Serbian military positions – too late, but at last. It was an intense feeling of relief, payback, hope.
Mladic. I know the face but I don’t know the man. Mladic the icon, the human face of heartless murder. The leader, the decision-maker, the perpetrator, the personification of evil. I feel anger, despising, an urgent desire that he should suffer and face justice.
Then God turned the spotlight to own spirit, my hard-heartedness towards a fellow human being, my self-righteousness in the face of another’s deep failings, the unforgiving projection of my own sin, my joy in the face of another’s anguish, this baying desire for revenge.
And I’m reminded of the call to forgive, to remember forgiveness, to plead for God’s help to forgive, to see the person beyond the projection, to show mercy where he has shown none, hard as it is - to trust in God’s redeeming justice and grace. I’m reminded to learn to love.
Courage under fire
I’m both impressed and a bit disconcerted by courageous people, especially if they're doing something heroic in the cause of that which is good, right and worthwhile, doing something beyond themselves in the service of others. Perhaps it’s partly because I’m not a particularly courageous person myself. Yes, I’ve taken risks when the benefits (fun, excitement, reward etc) have outweighed the potential costs. I’ve also taken steps in faith that felt inspired at the time and where outcomes were far from certain.
But the challenge I guess is how to really push myself into spaces and experiences that genuinely terrify me. How to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. How to do the right thing, the new thing, the courageous thing in the face of my own deeply held, paralysing anxieties. How to overcome the internal barriers that almost physically hold me back from stepping out. Courage after all is acting in the face of fear, not acting without fear. That’s the part I find most difficult to imagine and to do.
Charles DeFoucault once said, ‘The one thing we owe absolutely to God is never to be afraid of anything.’ It’s something about absolute faith in God’s providential plan and care. It’s believing that some things are more important than our own lives, comfort, security etc. Jesus said, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled, trust in God, trust also in me.’ It’s about seeing and grasping the bigger picture, the greater cause, the more important relationship. Lord, help me to see, to trust and to do.
Who are we?
If someone were to ask you the question, ‘Who are you?’ what would you say in reply? It’s a strangely difficult question. Ask me about my family, what I do for a job, my hopes and aspirations, what I like and dislike etc, no problem. But ask me who I am and I struggle to know what to say.
Is it that I don’t know who I am, or I’m not sure how to answer the question without a broader frame of reference? I’m tempted to respond, ‘It all depends on what you mean by the question’ but that still doesn’t answer it. The only satisfactory response I can find is, ‘I’m a child of God.’
Social psychologists often propose that we know who we are, or what we are like as a person, by observing our own behaviour in a variety of situations. We notice how we behave then attribute personal values, attitudes, motivation etc. to it. Over a lifetime of experiences, we discover who we really are.
There’s something about this theory that resonates for me. After all, I’ve sometimes been surprised by how I’ve reacted in situations, as if my reactions and behaviours have been different to how I had imagined myself. Over time, I develop a picture of myself that feels more whole, more reliable.
An example comes to mind of taking part in a disaster relief team effort in Albania during the Kosova crisis. Having watched harrowing images on TV, I had expected to feel an overwhelming sense of sadness. I was surprised, therefore, by my own sense of intrigue and excitement as the trip unfolded.
This theory gets tricky, however, when it comes to making decisions, making conscious choices. I face a dilemma and must choose a course of action. If I take the safe option, it reveals something about the kind of person I am. Conversely, if I take the risky option, that too reveals something about me.
The problem is that this hypothesis feels too deterministic, as if the kind of person I am is already set in stone, as if exposure to different experiences simply reveals what’s already there. But could it be that I have free choice and that my choices actually shape who I am and become?
An example comes to mind from the TV sci-fi series, Space Above and Beyond. The colonel faces an agonising decision over whether to accept a mission that will result in almost certain death. He takes the high risk option, having decided that’s the kind of person he wants and therefore chooses to be.
We experience tension when we fail to live up to the kind of person we believe we are, how we perceive ourselves to be. This tension could be driven by e.g. the demands of conscience, cultural norms, the expectations of significant others, our own aspirations or a need to preserve our self esteem.
So, who am I? I am the unique me, the genetic-physical-spiritual person that only I am, the socially-constructed me, that is, a person shaped by language, culture and interactions with others, and the chosen me, the person I have become as a result of my own free decisions and actions. So...who are you?
It only takes a moment
I find the notion of shifting ego states very compelling. It certainly resonates with my own personal experience. I’ve often thought, it only takes a moment to change the whole world. Here I am one moment feeling low, fragile, anxious, under-confident then, unexpectedly, someone smiles warmly and reassuringly and – hey – the whole world instantly brightens. It’s like the blazing sunshine appearing suddenly from behind a dark cloud.
We have a postcard on the kitchen wall at home with an expression in German, 'Jeder Moment ist ein neuer Anfang', every moment is a new beginning. Sometimes new beginnings are of our own making, we make a new decision, take a new course of action, choose to see things differently. Other times it feels like new beginnings happen to us, as if caught unawares and finding ourselves propelled by inner feelings or outer circumstances.
A social worker friend of mine in Germany would sometimes say, ‘Es ist eine Frage der Wahrnehmung’, it’s a question of perception. Our perspective changes as we shift between ego states. It’s a phrase borrowed from transactional analysis – how one minute we can feel clear, adult, in the present but in another moment can feel and behave more like parental figures from our past, or how we felt and behaved as a child.
I remember one occasion when I was feeling very tired and stressed at work, but trying to push on ahead anyway. I met with a senior leader and could see a look of surprise and concern on his face as we spoke. It took me by surprise too. I hadn’t been aware of how I was feeling, how defensively I was responding, until I saw his expression. It felt like looking into a mirror, seeing an inverted reflection of myself, a moment of raised awareness.
We can regress into experiences and patterns of responding from our past. We find ourselves feeling off-balance, acting out of character, sometimes surprised by our own reactions. I’m curious about how this happens, what triggers it, how to be aware of it happening in the moment, how to shift back consciously into adult state when it does happen. It’s an ongoing challenge and yet a great opportunity for personal growth.
See, hear and feel
It was an amazing experience to stay in a log cabin on beautiful Saturna island, Canada, and to spend bright sunshine-filled days with change management experts from across the globe. At one point, we wondered how best to explore our own vision, passion and impact. I drew an eye, an ear and a heart on a flipchart pad and invited the team to split into small groups to consider 3 questions:
First, if we were the high performing team we aspired to be, what would others see us doing? What would they notice about our actions, our behaviours, our ways of doing things? Secondly, if we overheard someone we had worked with talking about us to a friend in a pub or cafe, what kind of things would we hear them saying? Thirdly, how would others feel as a result of encountering us?
I then invited the small groups to think creatively about how to portray their responses to these questions to the wider group, e.g. using drama or role play. The energy in the room was electric, filled with energy, laughter and creative ideas. We paused after each depiction to reflect: what did we notice, what seemed to make the biggest positive difference, what feelings did it evoke for us?
The team was able easily to identify the qualities and characteristics it would like to nurture, sustain and be known for. There was something about exploring our aspirations and potential impacts from others’ perspectives, putting ourselves into others’ shoes, using creative imagination and expression, that enabled us to think about added value in a way that felt genuinely illuminating and engaging.
I’ve used this type of approach on a number of occasions since, with similar positive effects. I’ve learned that engendering and sharing vision, that motivating, focusing and mobilising action, can best be achieved through an interactive process that enables emotional, spiritual, physical and relational engagement as well as more conventional cognitive reflection and participation.
Do you have similar experiences or ideas? If so, do share – I would love to hear from you!
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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