The vulnerability of helping professionals in the face of a single story

In her lecture on the danger of a single story, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie reminisces Fide. When she was young, he had worked as a live-in domestic help in her family of origin. Her mom had told her that Fide’s family was very poor. When Adichie didn’t finish her dinner her mother would say: “Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.” Adichie felt enormous pity. When they once went to Fide’s village to visit, she saw a beautiful basket made by Fide’s brother …

When she was young, he had worked as a live-in domestic help in her family of origin. Her mom had told her that Fide’s family was very poor. When Adichie didn’t finish her dinner her mother would say: “Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.” Adichie felt enormous pity. When they once went to Fide’s village to visit, she saw a beautiful basket made by Fide’s brother …

When Adichie didn’t finish her dinner her mother would say: “Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.” Adichie felt enormous pity. When they once went to Fide’s village to visit, she saw a beautiful basket made by Fide’s brother …

Adichie felt enormous pity. When they once went to Fide’s village to visit, she saw a beautiful basket made by Fide’s brother …

When they once went to Fide’s village to visit, she saw a beautiful basket made by Fide’s brother …

basket dyed raffia
She was startled. It had never occurred to her that anyone in that family could actually create something.
The poverty-story had made it impossible for to see them as anything else but poor.

Years later.
Adichie is in the US now. She will go to university now and she meets her roommate.
This roommate is shocked when she discovers that this African woman:

  • Speaks English,
  • is a fan of Mariah Carey, and
  • knows how to use a stove.

How come?
Throughout her life, she had been exposed – as an American – to versions of the same story about Africa: pictures, tales, facts about beautiful landscapes and animals, but also about poverty, cruelty, and backwardness.

The Africa-as-catastrophe story.

africa mooiafrica violence
Again and again.
Effects?
The American student had not been able to imagine that African people could be a lot like her.
Feelings? Pity.

More years later.
Adichie travels through Mexico.
She realizes – to her shame – what the years in the US have done to her perspective on “the Mexicans.”

trump mexicans
Mexicans in US media:

endless stories of Mexicans as people who were fleecing the healthcare system, sneaking across the border, being arrested at the border
Versions of one story: “the despicable Mexican immigrant.”

 

Adichie gives example after example of the impact – for everyone – when the same story keeps circulating. A single story about people. A single story about a place.
How a single story infiltrates our perspective.

So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that’s what they become.

Exposed to a single story about people, we become limited in what we can feel.
It impacts the dignity of the people the story is about.
It impacts our experience of fellow humanity.
Our ability to connect with each other.

The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

Power…

And another thing. The link between stories and power:

How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.

‘The’ story. How things are. The truth.

 

The story vulnerability of professionals

Adichie quotes

How impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children.

I ask myself that.
Not that we are impressionable and vulnerable when we are exposed to a story.
But ‘particularly as children’?
Am I, a 53 years old psychologist, any less impressionable and vulnerable in the face of a story?
Are we, helping professionals, not affected and vulnerable when we are exposed to stories about people who take a client or patient position?

“Paul is a psychotic man … ’

What % of Paul seems ‘psychotic’ in that phrase?

A human being.

Glass full of water with ink color drop

Like a glass of water.
A drop of psychosis.
The entire glass turns psychotic.

“Paul is a psychotic man … ’

How impressionable and vulnerable are we in the face of such a story?

hersenen en neurotransmitters

I‘d say, pretty vulnerable.
We, professionals, have been exposed to stories of psychosis.
Not the comics where someone shows up with a hat of Napoleon. Then we smile.
But what with stories from the professional culture with a pretense of scientific and authority?

Stories with words in it like ‘brains’, ‘neurotransmitters’, ‘chronic’, ‘disability’, ‘cognitive’, ‘psycho-education’, ‘research’ …
Stories claiming to be the story that is no story anymore.
Claiming to speak the truth. What’s going on? What’s wrong?
They want to be the only story.

The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

My guess is: in the face of these stories we are vulnerable.
They infiltrate us without us even noticing.

“Paul is a psychotic man … ’

In my experience, such a story can have a big impact on

  • our experience of Paul,
  • how different we experience Paul from ourselves,
  • the conversations we are (not) going to have with Paul,
  • the things we can (not) be curious about,
  • what we can (not) feel for Paul,
  • what we can (not) imagine about future possibilities for Paul.

And this has an impact on Paul’s life.

The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

We are vulnerable and at the same time we are in a position of (relative) power in relation to Paul.

How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.

So our single-story-vulnerability increases Paul’s vulnerability.

If we take an expert position, we not only have the ability to tell the story of another person but to make this the definitive story about that person.

And:

The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

Disorders, diagnosis, treatment

As helping professionals, we want some recognition of the value that we bring.
One way to do that is drawing parallels between our work and that of medical doctors.

diagnosis
That’s why we call some of our stories “diagnoses.”
What we do and try, we sometimes call “treatment.”
Or “therapy.”

Medical doctors owe their existence and recognition to the existence of diseases and symptoms and syndromes and physical damage.
We do psychosocial diseases, disorders, symptoms, syndromes, injuries, disabilities.

Because judgments of doctors enjoy a higher regard than that of laymen, inequality is at play.
Their story has an authority that the story of the layman does not have.
One way this authority works is through the use of a language that is different from the spoken language.
Reports often show a high density of jargon.
Letters are written * about * the person concerned, and sent * to * the fellow doctor.
Helping professionals do this too.dossier mental-screenshot-2
It is one of the ways to achieve our professional identity.
But this writing tradition does in stories-that-claim-to-be-the-only-story.
And then these stories and writings end up in a collection of high authority, called ‘dossier’.
Dossier: for and by people who are vulnerable to this kind of stories (however much we know the power of the ’confirmation bias).
For people that occupy a position of relative power in relation to the people the writings are about.

Confirmation bias: we’d better not underestimate its force.
How often do I hear: “Is this not typical of people with X?”

( “This” is an experience or initiative, and X is one of those words that we helping professionals are vulnerable to single-story-and-claims-of-truth-and-professionality-words )

That confirmation bias is a catalyst for the production of versions-of-the-same-story: “Yes, indeed …”

Thus, we contribute to the creation and confirmation of stereotypes:

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

The stories circulating in the professional culture.

Stories with a pretense of scholarship and authority.
We are vulnerable in the face of such stories.

Not to stories like:

Paul has worked for 25 years in a garage.
Or:
Paul adores his son Jon and his daughter Trish.

When someone is introduced to us with these stories, it remains easy for us to be curious about a variety of things.
Easy also to engage in the most diverse conversations.
Easy to experience Paul as a human being much as we are.
Easy to keep realizing that there is so much we do not know about Paul.

Ella is chronically depressed …

Oops. Our vulnerability is hit.
A glass of Ella. Full of chronic depression.
Stories from the professional culture with ingredients as “mood disorder, ‘’ neurotransmitters’, ‘chronic’, ‘therapy-resistant’, …

How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.
Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of bedsheets.

Protection

Can we protect ourselves from the danger of the single story?

The risk that we contribute to dignity degradation?
Can we protect ourselves in our vulnerability to stories that have “diagnosis” as a theme?
Can we protect ourselves against the impact of jargon-pretense?

This is what Adichie says:

I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person.

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me.

So how can we talk to people (in client and colleague positions) so that a diversity of stories can arise and circulate?
How can we respect the distinction between problem and person?
How can we talk to each other so that we limit the influence of pretentious words and language for all those involved?
What we’re going to ask Paul? And Paul’s partner?
How can introduce Paul to each other?
What are we going to write? How? To whom?

How can we write so that our readers do not get caught up in a single story?

I find these important questions.
I think these questions as such can and must play a role.
And I’m curious about your ideas.

If you want, you can download the crowbar exercise. This practice liberates professionals who find themselves stuck in a negative story about a client (when you notice that you’re always saying the same (negative) things about the person).

The crowbar exercise

Kind regards,
Johan Van de Putte

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PPS Want to watch the entire talk of Chimamanda Adichie: click The Danger of a Single Story | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie | TED Talks.

 

Therapy, a Two–Way Street: 8 anti-burnout questions for care-givers

Occasionally, you experience something that makes you realize that your life will never be exactly the same again.

Sometimes you realize that you have changed:

  • You see something in a different way.
  • You react in a different way.
  • You think in a different way.
  • You do something which is unusual for you.

When that happens to me, I wonder how that came about.

The way I look at PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), mourning and depression has changed through conversations with a dad and a mom. One of their children had taken his own life. Too much injustice at school, for too long. Thanks to the things they shared with me, I came to realize certain things. Such as …

That assigning a diagnosis like PTSD, complicated mourning, depression … does not necessarily contribute to acknowledgement and hope. Words like these had been experienced by them as a mockery of the value of their child and their relationship with him, as a disregard of the (not widely acknowledged) injustices that drove their child to let go of this life, as a trivializing of the impact it had on their lives.

That those words (‘PTSD’, ‘complicated mourning’, ‘depression’) contain a call to action: to ‘process it’, to ‘mourn successfully’, to ‘recover from depression’.

That something in this call to action added to their suffering because the words, concepts, and the preconceptions that come with it lead care-givers to engage in conversations and proposals which worked to isolate them even more.

For about 25 years now, I have been trying to make a difference for people at a time their lives are overshadowed by sometimes great difficulty, worries, issues.

Those conversations have their effects on me, on my job, and on my life.

In 2005, I attended a workshop by Michael White. The very first hour I knew it: My work would never be the same again. My life: never the same again.

Two years later: I – behavioural therapist, educator and supervisor – find myself in Australia for a year long training in narrative therapy.

The conversations change, in many ways.

A bigger and more clear and rich focus on what is valuable to people.

The life stories people tell me become richer, and because of that, more potent.

It makes me a witness of much that touches me on a personal level, and it touches me more deeply than it used to.

For example:

  • Someone has not abandoned the hope for a better life, despite many things discouraging that hope;
  • Someone has remained faithful to certain values, even with very little support.
  • The richness and depth of the connection someone has with someone else (even if that person might not be around any more);
  • The significance of a (at first sight banal) gesture, such as an expression of recognition, of support, of appreciation, of solidarity.

When a driver brakes to allow me to cross on a pedestrian crossing, I always give him a little thank you. There is pedestrian crossingalways that association with that ethically sensitive gentleman, with whom I had helping conversations. He once told me something about these kinds of crossing-the-street situations. He mused out loud: might this be the ultimate thing we can do to try and make the world a little better? Thanking someone for suspending – just for a moment – his own self-interest, allowing him to experience a bit of joy in the moment: and that he might do it again?

 

The one way view

How is the (correct) relationship between care-giver and the person in the client position often portrayed?

Care-giver => client.

The care-giver employs ability/knowledge/engagement => a positive influence on the life of the client.

One-way street.

A therapist who would let it be known that: ‘My life really changed because of my meetings with client X!’…

… might be regarded with suspicion as: ‘Having a problem maintaining appropriate professional boundaries?’

Years ago, a young woman told me about the meaningful relationship she had had with her grandfather. The remarkable thing was that her grandfather had died before she was born. His partner – i.e. her grandmother – had remained faithful to her beloved throughout her life, and introduced all the people she came across to her husband. Including, of course, her granddaughter. Which meant that from a very young age she had known that her grandfather would have loved to have seen her, and this was a reality for her that she had lived through. A reality that helped her when her life was recently turned upside down.

Was it shortly after this conversation that I told my little boy that I thought my dad (whom he had never known personally) would have liked about him? And about the kind of grandfather he would have been?

This one-way-street kind of presentation, what effects does it have?

One effect is that care-givers do not feel encouraged to consider questions such as:

  • What is the influence that these conversations with this person have (had) on me and my life?
  • How has this conversation enriched my life?
  • In what way am I not quite the same person after this conversation?
  • What have I learned? I.e. about life, about what matters, about what courage is, about …

This way, we miss out on much that is valuable, as we do not consider the ripples left in our lives by these meetings as significant. This way, we miss out on chances to make worthwhile discoveries, chances to develop both as a human being and as a care-giver.

And there is something else that comes into play with this one-way view: Sometimes the people who consult us are represented as mostly a cause for burnout, with all their issues and crises and vulnerabilities and needs. You get the advice: ‘Guard yourself! Set boundaries!’

Michael White raised some question marks about the whole one-way view. He questioned whether it might not contribute to the vulnerability of therapists for burnout.

As it makes them myopic.myopic

As it does not encourage them to notice how the meetings enrich and nourish their lives.

As it makes it more difficult for them to assign meaning to these experiences, to talk about it, to develop them in a more full and nuanced manner.

Also because it denies that we are not just ‘intervening’, but were are also witnesses.

 

How has my life become different due to the fact that people open their heart to me?

Those question marks have opened a door for me to ‘something else’.

What are some of the valuable things (of the people and of life) that I have learned thanks to the sincerity and trust that people who are in the client position have offered me?

That someone opens his heart to me, that someone takes me into her trust. What does this mean to me, as a human being? What are its effects on me, later that day? Later that week?

People who consult us introduce us to some of the important figures in their lives, and this way, we get to meet them as well. What are some of the ripples of those meeting in our work and our lives?

I will never forget how one mom – on my invitation – introduced me to her recently deceased little son. She illustrated in colour the kind of boy he had been, what he used to like to do, what others found special about him. And she explained to me the kind of mom she had tried to be for him, and the relationship they had had with one another. When and how she felt that he was close to her. What place she wanted to give him in her and their live. And much more moving stuff. At the end of the conversation, when I started to thank her for what I had experienced, as not ‘as a matter of course’, but as ‘a present’, I realized that my life had become enriched thanks to this meeting with this little boy whom I would never meet in person, and I expressed this.

How has this conversation enabled me to speak to a group of parents, some years later, who had all lost a child as a result of cancer? And to find a different way to listen to two parents who introduced me to their baby afterwards, with its little head tattooed on their lower arms?

Is it conceivable that ripples of this conversation have spilled into my life? In how I have related to the mortality of my own children?

The more people you meet, the more people you can ‘call on’ as a care-giver.

Your therapeutic repertoire becomes more polyphonic and your presence becomes plural, with the voices and the presence of people you have met in the past.

If someone told you that in his occupation, he has to travel quite a lot, with different people, into areas which are new for him and them. He never knows beforehand what is going to happen.

You ask him whether those adventures and experiences have some kind of influence on his life?

Answer: ‘Yes, of course, meeting people, the welcome as well as the not so welcome surprises, what you learn … all of that (and more) has a major influence on my life’.

Would this answer surprise you?

Is the job of a care-giver who tries to have helpful conversations any different?

catNever say “cat” to a cat. A woman – a single mom of a son – committed to provide her son with a home where he would always feel welcome. We started exploring where she had picked this up, and the skills she employed to realize this. At first we bumped into her overriding experience of the opposite when she was a child herself. When she looked a little deeper, she remembered her cat, and how it welcomed her as a child and gave her a warm feeling by rubbing against her legs and lying on her lap.

Could I have appreciated the contribution made by our cats to our lives in the same way without this conversation?

For 6 years, I worked on a psychiatric wing for people whose lives were overshadowed with anxiety and/or depression. During this time, I met many people who suffered a lot. Robbed of their ability to think creatively, to experience hope, to take initiatives. Often, I wondered whether I would be able to – under similar circumstances – keep myself from going under, to keep myself alive, to try out things, to dare to cherish a sliver of hope.

That is one of the things you learn when you have the privilege that people consult you about life questions: you start to realize that life can go into all directions, and that you cannot predict how you will fare when things get tough.

I do not know. Maybe that the memories of some – if it ever comes to that – will give me strength and inspiration: memories of them as a person, memories of the steps they took. Some of them, I also told them this at the end of our series of conversations. During this period, I have also encouraged people to defy their fears. Fears that had taken over virtually all their living space. Ideas and practices from behavioural therapy supported me to navigate them back to some more freedom of living.

Often, I asked myself – also out loud – ‘Johan, would you be able to muster the courage to conquer a fear like this?’

One effect of this question was that it raised my curiosity:

  • How is this person capable of doing this?
  • Where does she find the courage, the strength of will, the willingness … to take these steps?
  • Why is this so important to him/her?

Sometimes, this led to a conversation that helped her further along. And me too.

 

Transparent?

Of late, I ask myself: How kosher is it to keep these effects on your life 100 % to yourself? So that the people who consult us remain under the illusion that they are 100 % in the receiving position?

Of course, the people who consult us should be central a therapeutic meeting, as well as the people who are important to them.

And not the therapist.

But is it as blameless to act, ethically speaking – for ourselves and for the people who consult us – as if all influence travels in only one direction?

A woman tells me: ‘I want to learn. I want inspiration.’ And there is something in the way she says it. She convinces me. It resounds within my head. It haunts me for days after.

I realize that this is something I find important as well, and that I want to give it more space in my life – within a short space of time.

In the next conversation, I tell her something about this.

Is it possible to keep the person central, and to also be transparent about the fact that our work and our lives are touched by these meetings?

That you thought about something said by the person.

That you have done something because you have started to realize something, thanks to the person.

That you have learned something.

We are talking about a moment of considering suicide. She expresses how critically she was looking at things in her live she otherwise finds valuable. But it is no nonsense, this critical looking. No bullshit. Cut the crap. And she tells me about that side of her, and also about its value.

A day later, I remember and something tickles me. Now that is something: a force of will and acuity which makes short work of any illusions. I suddenly decide to trash a pile of papers that has been piling up for years. A week later, I get down to my inbox. It is empty in no time. Once again, I think about what happened in that conversation.

Should I tell her something about this, next time?

Does it add something? For her? For me?

A therapeutic practice which I have grown fond of: occasionally creating a document for the person, such as a letter describing the important developments in the person’s life, as well as about some of the new conclusions about who he (also) is and what his life is about. In the hope that this will contribute to an experience of realness, as well as the importance and the authenticity of these developments and insights.

Occasionally, I have added something to it about the effects of the conversations on my life.

‘It has been a joy to me to to witness your honesty, your quick, common sense, the way you interact with people and what people get out of that, your respect for children, your openness, your healthy stubbornness, your desire for happiness, your will to get all you can out of life, your vitality, your wisdom. That someone who is 25 years old, with so much pain in the history of their life, can demonstrate so much wisdom, has touched me and taught me that wisdom has nothing to do with age.’

 

Some helping questions

Over the years, I have come to experience these effects more frequently and more richly.

Amongst other things, this has also to do with a few questions I ask myself. Questions I have not invented myself. I have learned about them through a therapeutic practice where you work with outsider witnesses. And yes, that is what we care-givers are: Witnesses.

I have created a PDF with 8 of these questions.

You might want to try them out after a conversation. Or now and again.

They might help you to ‘capture’ some of the valuable effects of you being a witness, and they might assist you to give meaning to those effects. This might add to their potency.

They could support your development as a human being and as a professional, and they could also protect you against burnout.

(Click here if you want a pdf with 8 anti-burnout questions for care-givers: 8_antiburnout_questions_forcaregivers.doc.)

How do you experience this?

Do you experience any nice effects from your meetings with the people who consult you? On your life and your job?

What do you do with it?

Do you ever share this with the people who consult you?

How do they respond to that? How does that impact on you?

 

Johan Van de Putte