Saturday, 1 May 2010

Miss Combes

Organising seminars and conferences is no big deal for me. I have a bunch of very competent Primary Selves who are totally up to the task. They know well how to plan, organise, and structure. They make sure that no detail is left to chance and that everything is under my control. So when I assumed responsibility for hosting an international gathering of therapists, these powerful selves immediately swung into action. They helped me assemble a local team of volunteers, find an appropriate venue, set up banking and payment systems, and create a newsletter that kept everyone up to date on developments.

As the event drew nearer, my focus turned to the programme. I felt a strong desire to fix the content as precisely as possible, and so with my highly competent team of selves behind me, I took the initiative and started to line up a series of presentations, workshops and other activities. I wanted everyone to get the most out of their four days together.

Plans were going well and I was feeling totally on top of things - until I received an email from a previous organiser of these events. She was very upset. She made clear her feelings about the programme I was putting in place in no uncertain terms. She wrote that she had a ‘huge charge’ around what I was doing. She pointed out that the intention of such gatherings was that participants co-create the programme day by day, allowing for spontaneity and the free flow of both personal and group energy. She insisted that it should be a collaborative activity and not something predetermined by me. She informed me that she had already written to members of last year’s organising committee about this. Together they would decide how best to deal with me.

It was as if I had been punched in the stomach. I crumpled inside. I felt like a little kid who had upset his teacher and been scolded for bad behaviour. Moreover, she had shared my misdeed with others who would now be collectively passing judgement on me. I felt guilty, exposed and vulnerable. I wanted to flee, to hide…

These were very uncomfortable feelings, and it was not long before a protective voice kicked in to rescue me. “How dare she!!” it screamed in my head. “After all the hard work I’ve done, this is the thanks I get! I’m the one organising this event, not her. How can an event like this have no structure? Spontaneity will just lead to chaos. I can’t just leave things to chance like that. I’m not going to be intimidated by her. I’ll bloody well do what I want!”

With this defensive energy coursing through my body I felt powerful and ready to stand my ground and fight. However, as soon as this belligerent voice subsided, the guilty feelings re-surfaced, accompanied by sweaty palms and a churning stomach.

Over the next couple of days I flip-flopped between anxiety and anger. It felt like I was on a ship in a storm, being thrown first one way then the other. I was out of balance and needed to stabilise.

I took a deep breath. What was going on here? Clearly my Organiser, Planner, Pusher and High Structure selves had been in charge of preparing the event. Unconsciously communicating from these selves, I risked being perceived as a Controlling Parent. This polarised people - either they acquiesced like obedient children or they went the other way and resisted. In this case, they had provoked a Disapproving and Judgemental Mother who had shown me up in front of the previous committee and had let me know exactly where I had erred. Her slap had stopped me in my tracks and woken me up to the fact that I was very identified with this particular set of primary selves.

With this awareness came the opportunity to notice the parts of me that I was disowning - my Spontaneous, Go-With-The-Flow, Trustful and Collaborative selves. Of course, these were the very selves that many in this particular community of practitioners held as primary! If I could embrace these selves as I continued to create this event I would have more balance, understanding and integrity in my interactions with everyone. The storm passed and I felt my ship steady, rocking gently and confidently in calmer waters.

But there was more for me to learn from this incident. It was not enough for me just to use the reaction of this person as feedback about my primary and disowned selves. To complete the lesson I also needed to feel into, acknowledge and take care of my underlying vulnerability. Why had I felt so devastated by the criticism? What had triggered my belligerent voice and caused it to step in and defend me so vehemently? What was it trying to protect?

As I sat with these questions a memory came to me from my childhood. I was a five year old in my first year at elementary school and we were learning “proper writing” - how to form each letter of the alphabet correctly. The class teacher was Miss Coombes - a rather austere, matriarchal figure. We had a special book in which we practiced writing the individual letters again and again as perfectly as possible. This was easy for me. I had already done it at home with my mother. So I took the initiative and started to join all the letters up just as I had seen my parents do when they wrote whole words.

When she saw what I was doing Miss Coombes flew into a rage. How dare I flout her instructions and start to join the letters up without permission! She grabbed my book, held it up for the whole class to see and publicly shamed me. “Look what this stupid, disobedient boy has done!” she exclaimed. The pain of that moment has never left me.

When I received the email ostracising me for taking the initiative in organising the details of the programme it tapped right into this old wound. To be seen to have screwed up in the eyes of all the participants was excruciating.

There is an expression “The wound you cannot feel you cannot heal.” Having reconnected with this old vulnerability my task was to approach the management of the event more consciously. I still relied on the wonderful skills of my primary selves to create a safe environment for everyone. At the same time I needed to make use of the collaborative and spontaneous energies of my disowned selves to allow for the free flow of thoughts, feelings and ideas between participants. And all the while I put one arm around the shy and fearful part of me, taking good care of him and listening to his needs.

So, finally I was thankful for the email. What I first perceived as an attack had turned into an unexpected learning and a wonderful gift!

Friday, 15 January 2010

A Fraud and a Fake

Whilst revelations about Tiger Woods’ extra-marital affairs came as something of a shock, the disparity between the image of him as the professional, clean living, sporting hero and the sordid reality was not altogether a surprise. After all, he follows in a long line of upstanding “role models” who have fallen from grace. What was more surprising to me was the degree of righteous indignation that I felt. “His public humiliation serves him right for pretending to be something that he was not,” I heard myself say.

I had felt the same on hearing that some of our “honourable” Members of Parliament had abused the public purse with their inflated expense claims, and again when our supposedly fiscally prudent bankers were shown to be reckless and greedy. In each case, there was the sense that these people were frauds and had acted in a duplicitous, devious and unethical way. They had failed to live up to their own professed standards of behaviour.

I was not alone in my condemnation of Tiger Woods, but I knew from the strength of my personal judgements that there must be some buried material that my primary selves did not want me to acknowledge. I sensed that it must have something to do with presenting a professional image that was in some way deceptive. So I decided to do a bit of self-scrutiny.

I had been a management trainer for many years and had made a career out of being “the expert”, the one who “knows”, who can “explain”, who has “the answers”. To do this I had developed and honed an amazing Seminar Leader self who commanded respect and earned me a good living. He exuded honesty and integrity. For support he drew on the resources of a wonderful set of primary selves - my Organiser, my Planner, my Rational Mind, my Perfectionist, my Performer and my Nice Guy. With them helping to run the show I felt competent, in charge and in control. Any vulnerability I had was safely hidden from view.

However, beneath my professional persona lurked a gnawing anxiety. A voice in my head whispered, “You’re a fraud and a fake, and some day you’ll be found out.” I had recurring dreams in which I arrived late for a workshop or was standing in front of a group teaching a subject about which I knew nothing or for which I had done no preparation. Sometimes I found myself giving a presentation to an audience totally naked, or having sex in font of everyone and feeling ashamed and embarrassed. In other dreams, the workshop participants were rowdy and would not respect me or even pay me any attention. Often the class contained manipulative and menacing characters I feared were going to attack me. The atmosphere was always chaotic and I felt anxious, alone and very vulnerable.

As I reflected on these dreams I could see that the threatening characters represented aspects of my personality - the unruly parts of me that were lax and ignorant, could dissemble, didn’t care about integrity and didn’t give a damn what others thought - that I had had to disown in order to identify with my competent and capable Seminar Leader. My primary selves’ worst fear was that these opposite energies would take me over and that my carefully constructed professional world would then fall apart. They fretted that, just as in the dream, I would be publicly exposed and vulnerable.

But was there any basis for this in reality? As I searched my mind for an answer I could feel the resistance of my primary selves. There was something in my past that mirrored Tiger Woods situation that they clearly didn’t want me to look at. Every time I felt I was getting close to what it might be, the judgements about Tiger Woods welled up, blocking out the memory. It was easier to point the finger at someone else than to shine the spotlight within. Nevertheless I persevered and suddenly I got it! I knew what the buried material was.

Being a slow reader, books were never a particular passion of mine. The thicker they were and the smaller the print, the less likely I was to plough my way through them. You may therefore be surprised to learn that I left university with a degree in English literature. My best marks were for essays on tomes I had barely scanned. My trick was to read synopses, short critiques and reviews of the set books, canvas the thoughts and opinions of fellow students, and out of this construct my own “original” analysis. I felt a bit of a fraud, but I got my degree!

After university I decided I wanted to get out of the UK and travel. I applied to the British Council and, on the basis of my degree, was hired to work as an English teacher for a kind of anglophile club in Finland. It was run rather haphazardly by local volunteers and I immediately saw an opportunity to restructure the club’s activities, improve revenues and increase my income. My Organiser and Planner selves created a graded programme of classes, a comprehensive weekly schedule and a local advertising campaign. People flocked to enrol.

The only problem was that I really didn’t know anything about teaching English. Grammar was a mystery to me and I had no idea how to use the phonetic alphabet and teach pronunciation. Someone had recommended a course book, so before each lesson I would frantically read through the teacher’s manual then stand in front of the class and wing it. Once again I felt like a fraud, but no one noticed and my salary doubled!

I became a big fish in a small pond and this gave me a certain self-assurance and bravado. From behind my image as the respectable, fresh-faced Englishman - the professional teacher whose integrity, character and knowledge could be trusted and relied upon - an altogether wilder side kicked in. I initiated an affair with a married woman who was a member of the committee who employed me. Had people known, I would have lost my job and quite likely been assailed by an enraged and jealous husband. But there was more. At the same time, I was having another secret liaison with an English teacher working in a nearby town.

As with Tiger Woods, there was an enormous disparity between the appearance and the reality. The only difference between him and me was that I got away with it. I was not found out!

As I acknowledged my own duplicitous, devious and unethical behaviour as a young man, my judgements about Tiger Woods waned. Looking honestly at my own buried selves gave me an appreciation of what he had had to disown in order to present himself as a squeaky clean, super sportsman. How would I have felt if people had realised what I was up to and accused me of being “arrogant”, a “fraud” and a “fake”? Although it would have been extremely painful for me, it would not have been an international news story. The lurid details of Tiger Woods’ liaisons made media headlines around the world. I empathised with how vulnerable he must be feeling.

Often professionals such as sportsmen, teachers, politicians, bankers, priests, doctors, lawyers and therapists have to hide their vulnerability and bury “unacceptable” parts of their personality in order to maintain their image and status. This earns them kudos and/or cash and keeps them secure. However, sometimes the hold of the primary selves slips and the disowned material breaks through in highly charged and negative ways.

The theory of the Psychology of Selves tells us that if we identify with certain selves and allow them to unconsciously run our lives, of necessity we will disown their opposites. And there is a price to pay. The longer and more deeply we bury them, the more likely they will cause us grief when they show up in our lives. This is especially so with our instinctual energies. Our task is to understand and honour every aspect of what makes us human and to find a conscious balance between all the many competing parts of our psyche.

The Ancient Greeks understood this very well and described it in their mythology. They knew that an offering had to be placed at the altar of every god and goddess. You could have your favourites - for example Apollo, the god of the mind. But if you left the opposite god out - in this case Dionysius, the god of wine and revelry - it was he that attacked you. It is the disowned energy that kills us - as Tiger Woods has discovered to his cost.

Whilst I don’t condone Tiger Woods’ behaviour, I am grateful to him. Exploring my initial judgements has allowed me to uncover and integrate some of my own shadow material. As I do this I no longer feel the need to condemn him in such a visceral, holier-than-thou way. As the saying has it, “There but for the grace of God go I.”