Reflecting on Not Knowing Myself
Dr Libby Nugent, Clinical Psychologist and Group Practitioner
For a short time I had a daydream about running a coffee shop. I thought I could make it a community psychology project. It would be a kind of cake and therapy combination. I took this project up with various degrees of earnestness: at one point I bought a book “setting up your own coffee bar”. I kept it by my bedside table unopened whilst I engaged in trialling various coffee making paraphernalia and eating a lot of cake.
It took a good few months for me to realise I had little to no interest in the realities of running any kind of shop and that what I actually wanted to do was spend my time relaxing, drinking coffee, eating baked goods whilst feeling valued. I wanted the feeling of community and the hustle and bustle of everyday life in a cosy and safe environment. However I couldn’t just go to my local cafe for this and be a customer. That felt too uncomfortable and small. I wanted an experience that felt socially important and somehow more meaningful and less mundane than me feeling lonely, tired and hungry.
The desire to attend a community coffee shop only would come to life if I was running the show: facilitating and not just being a regular customer. I wanted to belong, to indulge in cake eating and rest, but only feeling able to access these desires through the symbol of leading – not just joining in. Somewhere I had learnt that my being an average person who is wanting to belong and has basic human needs was not acceptable or sufficient reason to do this regularly. So whilst part of me longed to join in, I resisted the idea of this occurring through anything other than high achieving. I interpreted my average, human self as a defeat and evidence of my lack of creativity and uniqueness. In my therapy we wondered what this was about. I also noticed running a coffee shop is a remarkably common fantasy in the psychology community. It made me wonder about both my personal and professional scripts about vulnerability, community and belonging.
It is also about this time I heard about the story of Edward Mordrake:
Edward Mordrake (originally spelled Mordake) was a young, intelligent, and good-looking English nobleman, as well as a “musician of rare ability.” But with all of his great blessings came a terrible curse. In addition to his handsome, normal face, Mordrake possessed a terrifying disfigurement: another face on the back of his head.
This horrifying second face was that of a “beautiful girl” — “lovely as a dream, hideous as a devil.” The strange visage possessed an intelligence “of a malignant sort.” Whenever Mordrake cried, the second face would “smile and sneer.”
Mordrake was constantly plagued by his “devil twin,” which kept him up all night whispering “such things as they only speak of in hell.” The young lord was eventually driven mad and took his own life at the age of 22, leaving behind a note ordering the evil face be destroyed after his death, “lest it continues its dreadful whispering in my grave.”
Gina Dimuro, Published May 29, 2018 https://allthatsinteresting.com/edward-mordrake
When thinking about this story and my coffee shop daydreams I began to see some links. I reflected on the following interpretations:
The coffee shop owner is the face at the front – my persona. The part of me that defines who I would like to be and how I wish to be seen by the world. The word “persona” is derived from a Latin word that literally means “mask,” however in this instance, the word can be applied metaphorically, representing all of the different social masks that we wear among different groups of people and situations.
At the back is the Shadow Self, the bit of me that I have learned, (rightly and wrongly) that is bad or unacceptable: the part of me that is the coffee shop customer, who I will not allow to just join in and eat cake unless I do something deserving.
I cannot see what is at the back of my head – These needs and my reactions are hidden from my own conscious view, yet they are there and often visible to others with different scripts and can I ever truly see this part even with assistance.
If I am Edward Drake, do I want to “know” there is another hidden part of me?
I cannot entirely ignore this part as I hear the whispering at night, yet to fully acknowledge that it exists feels extraordinarily challenging. How could anyone want all of that? My instinct is repulsion. But given this is the reality is it better to at least try and know and acknowledge what is there or better to chose to live in denial?
According to Jungian psychology good/bad splits occur in all of us, in many places in our psyche. It is easier to see these divisions in others rather than ourselves. These splits can be encouraged in the scripts we learn from our families and cultures. If we think about cultural scripts from different parts of the world we can see how arbitrary some of these “good/bad” divisions are that create these Shadowed selves. In Europe, for example, making eye contact is often perceived as confident and engaging, whereas in Japan it might be perceived as arrogant and rude. And in America, TV shows depicting violent murders are considered more acceptable than showing nudity or sexual acts, whereas in Europe it’s the opposite. These are just two examples. If we are not aware of our personal and cultural scripts that inform us about what is acceptable or not, we can very quickly end up making decisions based on misinterpretations and misunderstandings. https://www.thesap.org.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/shadow.pdf
The difficulty recognising shutt out narratives or hidden parts can be a huge barrier in any person or community’s journey towards learning, integration and emotional health. If these unwanted parts are left unexamined it will lead to our understanding of situations and then subsequent actions being made through a one sided vision of the world which results in unconscious bias. Whilst we may never be able to fully see what is at the back of our heads, if we know there is something there out of our range of visibility we can implement strategies to collect information and so that we can make more informed decisions. Knowing we have a personal and cultural shadow can actually transform how we approach information gathering and decision making processes. https://www.thesap.org.uk/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/shadow.pdf
So how might this apply to the clinical psychology community? From our ‘work for free’ discourse for the budding aspiring psychologist, to the initiation into the competitive world of becoming an assistant and trainee and finally working as qualified clinicians within high demand services, we grow into a very particular narratives and ways of being: typically those narratives that allow us to engage in fierce competition, in a non-threatening way, and that will help us make very few demands on others whilst been given an overwhelming amount of work.
We grow into these identities over time, cohort by cohort. During the process of becoming a clinical or counselling psychologist we acquire the formulating gaze and we learn a scientific vocabulary for feelings. Clinical psychologists typically work in close proximity to trauma and despair and so we pay attention to our ‘new’ senses of transference and countertransference and learn phrases such as ‘sit with it’, ‘ be mindful’, ‘provide a space for uncertainty’ and ‘tolerating not knowing’. We are trained to always have an evidence base, and to jump through hoops, juggling essays, NICE guidelines, research and clinical work. There is little room for life to happen along the way.
What is our own reality of having our personal shame examined and pain contained? How much of these experiences of tolerating safe uncertainty are authentically experienced from within before we offer them to others? How available are our supervision spaces to deal with the inevitable fall out of with working up close and intimately with the narratives of violence, denigration, self loathing, sex, hate, envy and humiliation.
We are required to have both a need to tolerate not knowing and a necessity for evidence base in our work. Both narratives, when not allowed to be processed at depth, foster an approach of ‘getting on with it’ and being seen to be ‘coping’ often leading to an avoidance of the limits of ourselves and what is happening in our personal lives. Most courses discuss numbers of plus 99% pass rates and and rarely offer discourse regarding the people that don’t make it through. Only recently have some training courses begun to offer part time training and I don’t think any have module systems of career progression or indeed staff with fingertip knowledge of alternate paths for trainees to take when they fall out of step with the general flow of the group.
The national non-completion rate for NHS trainees for the academic year 2017/2018 was only 0.6%, which includes both people who withdrew from a course and people who failed. This is in line with the rate for the previous 5 years which was between 0.5% and 1% each year. Leeds Clearing House
Given the intensity of the training and the fact that life continues to go on regardless this to me feels bizarrely high. Of the approximately 600 people per cohort only 3- 6 people didn’t make it through. How do people cope and what narrative is given to people who don’t make it? Presumably people manage by doubling down on their defences. From my own clinical observations a toxic combination of doubt, guilt, and an exaggerated sense of responsibility is a common finding among psychologists.
From these scripts and in my clinical work with psychologists, I have noticed to survive these conditions certain cultural attitudes seem to occur which have an emphasis on:
high ethical values
pride in endurance
discomfort in asking for help
an inclination to learn through teaching rather than learn by joining in
denial of pain/stress
overachiever but may underestimate self
If these attitudes are left unexamined and the hidden scripts within them are unacknowledged it is clear how they can lead to the development of a trickster culture: One which speaks of self care and compassion but shames asking for help and dependency. Ideally we would rely on our training course, or our psychology team members to provide caring minds to let us know when we are reaching our limits. However, how much are we able to connect with others who are also living these silent scripts. It can feel like the blind leading the blind.
A strong theme permeating through my conversations with psychologists is the belief they are the only one who feels like this – that they are alone. I think for many psychologists, the social group primarily relied upon for providing self-esteem and a sense of belonging is their professional group. In my experience, the reflective groups I have been a part of and have facilitated enable psychologists to become vulnerable in a safe environment where they can drop their professional masks. It has been helpful to cultivate a sense of unconditional friendliness and self-compassion as without this it is difficult to look at our darker parts.
If psychologists are serious about cultural change and addressing our problems of structural racism and systemic stuckness in supremacy narratives, then as a group we probably need to begin this work by accepting our own humanness and embrace curiosity for our limits and hidden parts. These excavations are where our striving and collective pride in being seen as ‘good’ people are actively unhelpful – As if we are too judgemental, it will be difficult to tolerate ourselves and we will need to avoid. As a collective I think we are too accustomed to avoidance of direct communication that is also caring. Instead we are polite and politically correct whilst silently nudging – conditioning each other to hide all our humanness, and our being average. We need to transcend these emotions with honest conversation, friendliness, self-acceptance, and self-compassion. As a group we have a profound amount to offer and I think understanding our hidden scripts and parts of ourselves we do not see will allow our collective to exist with more depth and realness in our professional identities and maybe finally allow us to embrace the changes towards authentic inclusivity that are so long overdue.
Dr Libby Nugent is a clinical psychologist and group practitioner providing a choice of teaching spaces, seminars and groups where people can reflect on life. Please contact her directly via her website: https://www.libbynugent.co.uk/
Blog post originally posted on Dr Libby Nugent’s website on 15 November 2021, and reposted with permission from Dr Libby Nugent.