Woke or awake: Choosing openness and curiosity over certainty and rigidity

by Jun 18, 2023Uncategorised0 comments

Approx. Reading Time: 6 minutes

a close up of a pole with some stickers on itI

I have found myself more fearful than usual about putting things out there recently. Although I do quite a lot in the public sphere, talks, papers, books, some social media, I have always felt pretty anxious about how my thinking and opinions would be received as, like many thin-skinned characters, I fear judgement and criticism. Yet something strange is happening at the moment that has, for me and others, exacerbated such fears.

I do not want to fall into cliché here, but there is definitely a culture of cancelling people, with more people feeling they have the right, or even the obligation, to point out moral or political faults; this sometimes seems to be a form of virtue signalling, sometimes a desperate need to be on the right side, and sometimes simply bullying. What worries me especially is how little room there is for uncertainty, debate and genuine curiosity, how little tolerance of ‘mistakes’ and more fear of being shot-down in flames or stepping on hidden mine-fields. This of course has been made worse by the use of social media, where it is easier to be brusque, overly certain, and critical of others without having to see people’s faces, feel their visceral responses and really know their humanity. 

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I have always considered myself on the more radical and progressive end of the political spectrum, campaigning for social justice, radical political change, more political equality as well, I think, on the right side of issues of the day such as race, gender and neurodiversity, subjects I have long been passionate about. Yet recently I have had a few experiences which have filled me with trepidation and kept me up at night. A few examples:

·      Gender: In rewriting the 3rd edition of Nurturing Natures I felt in continuous danger of saying the wrong thing. How much can one talk of biological sex as opposed to gender and can one safely differentiate them? Can one even use the word mother as opposed to, say, birthing person, and how do those who identify as mothers feel about not being named as such, while clearly transgender men who give birth now need acknowledging. I just know I will offend someone along the line, try as I might, but my biggest worry is how many ‘trigger points’ there seem to be, which give rise to accusations, rather than curiosity, debate and discussion.

two oranges with faces drawn on them sitting next to each other

·      I recently got into trouble for posting research which suggested in its title that people on the autistic spectrum had ‘lost their symptoms’ after a treatment for Lyme disease. I do not see ASD as a disease with symptoms, but I do know that many on the spectrum who I have worked with are suffering, and much of that suffering is linked to, for example, a hypersensitivity to sensory overwhelm which is really tough to endure. I fear that it could now be dangerous to talk about alleviating suffering (and defences against suffering such as preservative movements or rocking) and that some people would consider this as almost akin to the horrors of conversion therapy.

·      Another uncomfortable recent experience was when a group I consulted suggested it was inappropriate to use words like ‘perpetrator’ to describe a young person who committed harmful sexual acts . I have long held dear the idea that when we work with people who have committed such offences, they are all inevitably victims too and we have to know when to work with both the perpetrator and victim part of the personality. We need to be able to challenge as well as support, show care but also, as Anne Alvarez says. ‘stare evil in the eye’ (our Portman clinic book From Trauma to Harming Others is all about deeply analysing these issues)


red neon lighted offenders signage

·      There is much more to say of course about issues of race, culture, prejudice racism and unconscious bias, issues I have been trying to think about for over 40 years. The danger I feel in the current climate is that everyone fears ‘slipping up’ and being ‘accused’ of being a racist/transphobe or whatever. If that’s the case then how can we be compassionately open, to, for example, our own unconscious bias and, indeed racism if we are so busy pretending to others that we never have thoughts or feelings which might not be deemed acceptable. Prejudice, fear of the ‘other’ and indeed racism seems to be a part of our evolutionary heritage (see blog from 2020), but get worse when we feel under threat or in danger. We can confront such prejudice but only when we own up to it, not hide it away. 

I hope that most psychotherapists approach each session and every encounter in the spirit Bion suggested, with openness, curiosity, uncertainty and plenty of Keat’s Negative Capability. The move to certainty in any of us tends to be a defensive one (see a blog I wrote in 202!), and we know that when under threat and stressed our brains revert to more rigid thinking with less room for uncertainty. Indeed the research I know about suggests that stress and fear leads people to become more conservative politically,  and this can be demonstrated even experimentally (some of this research is discussed in this blog from  a few years back).

man holding card with seeking human kindness text

We know that actually it is compassion, kindness, curiosity and honesty which is likely to help make things better, not being trigger happy (see another blog on racism and BLM). We know that entrenched positions become more entrenched when we are under threat, which includes serious economic and social challenges. I do fear being placed on the wrong side of the political fence and being judged, but I am always up for debate, discussion and honest communication. Tribalism, whether in politics, religions, football, nationalism or indeed between psychotherapeutic factions, is indeed what Bion called minus K, a lack of thought. This is definitely exacerbated by stress, fear and tension, as well as the contemporary onslaught of social media and screens.

We do of course need to stand up against injustice when people are being harmed and hurt, whether racism, workplace bullying, domestic violence or child abuse, to name but a few. This requires strength and courage. However we also need compassion and a climate of safeness for curiosity and openness to flourish.  Self-compassion, feeling safe and cared for is a softening process, in the psyche, nervous system, musculature and even bodily tubes. This gives rise to an ease, an interestedness, more capaciousness as Bion might say, space and roominess to think, ponder and be open, and certainly more safety and less fear of being shot-down. That anyway is the world I want to live in.

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