By Richard Devine, Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset (22.01.2021).
Modern Man in Search of a Soul is apparently a great introduction to Carl Jung’s theories of analytical psychology. The book is broken down into eleven essays dealing with topics of dream analysis, Freudian psychology, spirituality, religion, and the unconscious. I don’t claim to have understood it all, but that which I did understand, I found captivating. I have pulled out some quotes that stood out for me, and for each one, I will share some thoughts about it.
1. The unconscious
There is many aspects of ourselves for which we have very little control over. Evidence from neuroscience (Damasio, 1994: Eagleman: 2011) has since proved this. We have all had the experience of deliberating over a course of action (cake or no cake, run or no run, alcohol or no alcohol, seek comfort or avoid comfort), and then deciding one other the over. Crittenden (2016: 11), who has expanded Damasio’s term ‘dispositional representations’ (1994: 104), refers to this as ‘competing dispositional representations’ and Eagleman (2011: 101), in his brilliant and accessible book, Incognito refers to it as a ‘team of rivals’, as our brain has competing factions, each wanted to influence the behavioural output. Sometimes we are aware of this internal debate, but in many instances the debate is played out without our awareness. Eagleman (2011) also points to evidence that demonstrates that we develop a narrative or a story for our actions after we have enacted the act, yet we believe that the post-hoc explanation is what motivated the behaviour in the first place. These are the everyday ways that our behaviour is unconsciously influenced, but there are also more profound ways.
Psychological trauma or loss fits with Jung’s idea of “autonomous complex”. Psychological trauma means ‘failing to understand what happened’ and ‘being unable to regulate strong, motivating feelings that are elicited by associated stimuli in the present’ (Crittenden, 2016: 44). For example, when my dad died when I was 16, I was unable to acknowledge let alone process any negative emotions about the experience and dismissed away the significance of his death (In DMM terms, unresolved loss in a dismissed form). This happened 8 days before my 17th birthday, and although I wasn’t aware at the time, it clouded my experience, and altered my behaviour. Every year afterwards, I would always experience a sadness, and deterioration in my well being that would significantly increase my desire to escape, mainly through alcohol use. I had no awareness this was occurring – I just experienced a dip in mood and an increased desire to engage in self destructive, emotionally avoiding behaviour. I never sought to make meaning of it. When I was in my lates 20’s I realised that every year, around my birthday, I would experience this change. I was sharing this realisation with a friend and I told them that I had no idea why this was the case; it was inexplicable to me. I still had not linked it with my fathers death. I was subsequently asked if anything had happened around my birthday in the past, and my initial response was ‘no, nothing at all’ and then I remembered ‘oh my dad died actually’. The unresolved loss of my father acted as an unconscious independent complex. That is, I experienced thoughts, feelings associated with the loss of my dad in response to stimuli (time of year, birthday) and responded to them behaviourally without any awareness that those thoughts and feelings effected me.
Most of the parents I work with have un-acknowledged psychological trauma, and this places them ‘at risk for behaving in unexpected, irrational, and sometimes dangerous ways’ (Crittenden, 2016: 112). Having an appreciation for how powerfully the unconscious can effect behaviour should lead us to be extremely cautious from assuming that when a parent acts harmfully to themselves, or their children that they acted with ‘ deliberate intent’ or that they will know why they did what they did.
2. A universal desire to avoid confronting the unconscious
To grapple with our unconscious is to confront our biggest fears, insecurities, doubts, unresolved loss or traumas, and past experiences that are psychologically unbearable to re-visit. No wonder we would want to avoid this!
Once I realised that my yearly deterioration in well being was tied to my dad’s death, I then had to confront the deep sadness and feelings of rejection that derived from his loss as well as the sense of shame and inadequacy this invoked. When your a child, it’s extremely hard, if not impossible not to take the death of a parent personally (and thus, a form of rejection). As an adult, retrospectively analysing the death of a parent it is easy to overlook that because it’s irrational – but that doesn’t change the fact that your childhood self experienced it that way. I have since been able to process the feelings about the loss of my dad, but over a few years and with considerable psychotherapeutic help.
3. It’s impersonal
We often think that our flaws, inadequacies, mental illness, feelings of despair are unique to us – this can isolate us from others and cause shame because we think that no one else is as dysfunctional and morbid as we are. It is often a great relief to find out that your experience has been shared by others. It can also be liberating to realise that any ‘pathology’ is often an adaptation that your childhood self developed to maximise feelings of safety in the context for which you were brought up in. No one chooses their parents, their genes, their environment, the era in which they were born, and no one chooses the adaptations that they develop in the face of adversity. We simply adapt. These adaptations can become maladaptive when they become unconscious, because they get carried forward into adulthood, even when the context that demanded the adaptations has changed (Crittenden, 2016). Human’s have a limited range of self protective capacities, and thus it is highly probable that whatever adaptation was required from you, someone would have needed to develop a similar adaptation. These adaptations are applied to your unique personality and life circumstances, but that doesn’t mean that the adaptations themselves don’t share characteristics.
Suffering can be amplified by a lack of clarity about the reason and nature of psychological distress and we can easily be deceived into believing that it constitutes a personal failing or flaw. This is why a diagnostic mental health system can be helpful. Your symptoms clustered together constitute an illness, which is well known, relatively understood, shared by many people and for which multiple treatments can be recommended. Of course, the mental health diagnostic system is flawed (see PTMF for example), and can create further problems, but I don’t think we should overlook the psychological utility of being able to name and treat various forms of distress.
4. A reciprocal relationship
In my experience, this can be extremely hard to achieve in child protection because parents understandable anxiety and fearfulness of our statutory role can cause tension, friction, and a hostile territory for building relationships. Nevertheless, it must be an endeavour we strive for.
Carl Rogers (1967) emphasised the need for positive regard characterised by warmth, care, interest and respect. However, Rogers identified that we often struggle to allow ourselves to be vulnerable for fear of being hurt, let down, or disappointed and consequently, as ‘a reaction we tend to build up distance between ourselves and others – aloofness, a “professional” attitude, an impersonal relationship’ (1967: 52). Whilst this may serve self protectively, it seriously undermines the capacity of our relationship to be therapeutically effective. Furthermore, I don’t think we can shield ourselves from being affected, rather our thoughts and feelings towards the parent are unacknowledged, unconscious and thus played out in ways that we don’t fully account for. In a recent (and fascinating) paper by Ferguson et al (2020: 15) an organisational investment in not fully acknowledging negative feelings invoked in child protection practice was found: ‘feelings were suppressed and ‘suspended self-preservation’ practiced due to the need to keep going to ensure the work got done; and it was psychological, unconscious and defensive arising from the need for organisations as well as individuals to defend the self from unbearable feelings’. However, the unacknowledged and ‘suspended feelings’, ‘remain repressed…[and] can easily be unconsciously acted out against service users in retaliatory ways and that ultimately traumatise workers and burn them out (Ferguson et al 2020: 16).
A key challenge in statutory social work and perhaps an insurmountable one, is to separate the response from parents resulting from our interpersonal approach with the response from parents directed towards us because of our role as a representative of a statutory organisation. Failure to do this means that we will interpret strong negative feelings towards us as statutory agents personally. That is, we will mistakenly believe that the parents anger is directed towards us personally, when in fact, it would be directed at whoever was stood in front of them as a representative of the agency at that point. With that said, we should not confuse their anger and frustration directed towards our personal flaws, poor communication, or lack of empathy, with anger towards us as a representative of a statutory organisation. In other words, it may have nothing to do with the fact we are a representative of child protection services and everything to do with our interpersonal approach, in which case we need to take responsibility and adopt a more conducive way of building a relationship.
In response to this, I have always worked from the presupposition that parents behaviour, including their dissatisfaction and negative feelings towards me are justified and reasonable from the context from which they are situated in. Therefore, whether a parent is frustrated/angry with me because of my role as a statutory social worker or because of my interpersonal inadequacies, then I attempt to not react defensively, rather recognise that their reaction is understandable from their perspective. Secondly, I convey empathy for their frustration, which usually abates it, and then I attempt to develop a further understanding of their dissatisfaction. Attempting to understand how they formed their view is just as important as what their view is.
5. Do unto others as you do unto yourself
I have wrote elsewhere about the self protective strategy that I developed in childhood and the challenges in adjusting: ‘Learning about my self-protective strategy was an incredibly agonising process because I had to acknowledge all the painful feelings that I had heretofore denied and inhibited… being rejected by my parents was psychologically intolerable; feelings of shame, unworthiness, and being unloveable were invoked and too much to bear…such a process [learning about my strategy] has facilitated psychological adjustment but has also given me insight into the challenges for parents achieving change, even when the benefits outweigh the negatives’.
A personal enquiry into the the unconscious has provided insight into how difficult such a journey can be, and how much support I have needed to make such a journey. Consequently, I have much greater sympathy towards parents, who are being asked to change involuntary, at a speed for which is often psychological un-manageable, and without a supportive infrastructure. Furthermore, much of the methods we employ to instigate change appear to be rooted in Skinner’s influential ideas on behaviourism, which claimed that behaviour that is punished will be reduced and behaviour that is not, or positively reinforced will increase. For example, we ask parents to sign written agreements asking them to stop a whole host of behaviours, such as substance misuse, interpersonal violence, etc without always acknowledging how those behaviours may have an important self protective function. In other words, the behaviours that we consider a problem, may in fact be the parents attempt at solving another problem (i.e. drug use solves psychological distress and/or loneliness). As Dr. Karen Treisman puts it, you ‘shouldn’t take down any fences until you know why they were put up’, especially when they lack (and we are unable to offer) the psychological, relational, and/or material resources to cultivate and embed a healthier substitute.
In statutory social work, we have to be clear about behaviour that is causing children harm and advocate for a reduction in that behaviour. We should also recognise that change is extremely hard, even when the behaviour is causing harm to the self or others, and that simply asking someone not to do a behaviour, or punishing them for it, is unlikely to effect change. Bringing awareness of our own experience of change may not drastically change our practice in child protection, but it might substantially increase our empathy and compassion for parents who are being asked to change, or who are in the process of changing and enable us to be realistic about the support and time required to instigate change.
By Richard Devine (22.01.2021)
In the next blog, I will share part 2 of lessons learned from Carl Jung. If you have found this interesting/useful, you may wish to consider scrolling down further, and join a growing community of 200+ others in signing up for free blogs to be sent directly to your inbox (no advertisements/requests/selling). I intend to write every fortnight about matters related to child protection, children and families, attachment, and trauma. Or you can read previous blogs here