Wisdom and reflection

Every now and again I stumble across something that makes me think “yep, that’s true, that explains something really profound”. I want to record that bit of wisdom, and hang on to it, and pass it on to others. So this blog is partly to fulfil that desire, as well as to meander through some of my own experiences and ideas, which are less well-formed and still open to the process of being improved through constructive challenge. There is a certain vulnerability when expressing ideas that are not yet thought through from every perspective, but I think that reflection and feedback is an important component of personal growth. I believe that beliefs can and do change according to your knowledge and experiences. If you look at life as a journey towards wisdom, then each interaction and experience is an opportunity for reflection and learning.

One example of a simple piece of wisdom I like comes courtesy of Michael Specter’s TED talk about the danger of science denial. He says “everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but they are not entitled to their own facts”. It is a helpful thing to remember, because people believe all kinds of disagreeable things that make them prejudiced, intolerant, selfish and lead them to act against their own best interests. As therapists, we are taught to give our clients unconditional positive regard, but what do we do when people have harmful behaviour and offensive beliefs? Do we just ignore them and try to work as normal? Do we pass the client on to another therapist? Do we try to find (or fake) respect for them despite the parts that are uncomfortable? Or do we challenge their beliefs? And what if we as therapists have our own prejudices, or see them in colleagues?

The first step is to recognise and acknowledge the underlying beliefs that are at play. We can then formulate to understand where such beliefs might come from. That will increase our empathy for the individual, but it isn’t an excuse. It doesn’t make the beliefs or behaviours acceptable, just as we can understand why a person might learn to use violence or abuse substances, without endorsing that choice. Sometimes our job as a psychologist is to go back to the facts, and then explore how they fit with the opinion, and what the costs and benefits of maintaining that opinion are. This can true be from the typical inward-facing cognitive distortions of depression or anxiety, to the outward facing generalisations behind racism, misogyny or homophobia, or the poor choices that lead to substance misuse, offending or aggression.

When a colleague of mine declared some of the narrative techniques I was using with a child to be “one step away from tarot cards and the work of the devil” and a non-judgemental discussion about a young person’s self-identified sexuality and gender to be “encouraging an abomination”, it was somewhat mind-boggling to try to understand where those beliefs came from and whether or how to challenge them. Had I known Specter’s quote then, I think it would have given me some guidance. She was entitled to her beliefs, but the service needed to operate on the basis of facts. The facts were that the therapeutic technique I was using had been used thousands of times before causing outcomes ranging from neutral to positive, and had published studies of efficacy. And it is evident that large numbers of people identify as LGBTQ, and that this occurs across the animal kingdom, suggesting it is an innate drive (although the evidence suggests that early experiences do have some influence). It is not a choice. There are enormous risk factors in not accepting that and responding with empathy and compassion (including appalling levels of self-harm and suicide where such identities are rejected/devalued, or there is pressure to act like they are heterosexual and cis-gendered).

I found the beliefs that colleague expressed repugnant, whilst I was also trying to respect her culture and choices, which included the right to participate in a charismatic Christian church that held these beliefs (and no doubt many others) as doctrine. Thankfully I had a wiser supervisor I could take the issue to. Fifteen years down the line, it might be that I would be the person who had to address such a concern about an employee in my company or line management. I think that where beliefs get in the way of facts sufficiently that they interfere with your work, this raises issues about competency to fulfil the role. This should be dealt with much the same as if the person was failing to do their paperwork, or wasn’t dressing appropriately for the job – with feedback about the requirements of the role, an offer of support to develop new skills, and a timescale in which change is required. This might lead to recognition by either or both parties that the person is not suited to the role.

A past supervisor once told me another wise thing: “It is easier to grow the things you like than it is to shrink the things you don’t like”. Whether that is in terms of the balance of fun and frustration in your job, or the way your children behave, a focus on growing the good can lead to more positivity, progress and creativity.

Another piece of wisdom that I have found helpful is the serenity prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”. This is helpful as we lose a lot of energy trying to change things that are immutable (or at least moaning about them), when we would often make more progress by focusing on the things we can do, even if they seem much smaller. We only have finite time and emotional/physical resources, so we have to prioritise. As Dave Allen said, “you can do anything, but not everything”.

On the other hand, Emma Watson’s powerful questions “if not you, who? If not now, when?”, Ghandi’s instruction to “be the change you want to see in the world” and Nelson Mandela’s observation that “it always seems impossible until it is done” are reminders that we each have responsibility for progress and the power to make change. We shouldn’t be overwhelmed by big challenges and can’t rely on other people to get things done, so we need to stop procrastinating and take action to step up to the plate for things that we care about.

I’ve ended up making a website and forum that get 10 million page views per year because it seemed like a good idea and I was in the right place at the right time for that to be a possibility. I am active with my professional body and contributing feedback to national policy, because someone needs to do it and I can just about eke out the capacity. I’ve supervised Assistants and Trainees, and done personal and professional development coaching for early career stage psychologists for many years, because it feels like a helpful thing for me to do. I’ve left the NHS and set up a company and a social enterprise that have survived through a recession. I sometimes get to hear how little things I have done have rippled out and influenced people or events in ways I didn’t expect, and there are people who cite me as influential on their lives personally or professionally. Yet when people ask how I manage to do all these things, it seems like a strange question, as I feel like they are all things any of my peers could equally have done.

Duncan Law, a Clinical Psychologist who has been instrumental in setting up CYP IAPT, said recently (in the context of successful bids for service development) that it is only looking backward that things look like a straight line, because when you are doing them it seems like you are just trying lots of options in the hope of finding a path forward. I feel that about my career. Looking backwards it seems that every component of my experience has culminated to prepare me for the things I am doing now, as if I planned my career methodically. However, at the time I was just taking the most interesting available option, in ways that often seemed to deviate from what I really wanted.

I’ll give the last word to Steve Jobs, who said “the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it”. For all its periodic frustrations, I feel very privileged to be able to earn my living doing something that is interesting, worthwhile and rewarding. I wish that everybody had the same experience in their working lives.

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