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!