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Blogs - short snappy pieces, often topical, sometimes informal

Tree Staunton explores therapists' dilemmas between action and non action, Doing and Being. 

TreeincoloradoI came to the work of Psychotherapy 30 years ago following a decade of grassroots political activity. Through my political work I pursued a Degree by Independent study in 'Conflict Resolution' and this naturally led onto a conclusion that the way people resolve conflict is not at the level of their belief systems and values, but at the underlying level of what Donna Orange calls our 'emotional convictions' and therefore any approach to deep change needs to include emotional change. Political action needs to be informed by a level of emotional integration. I had discovered whilst leafletting people in the street that if I spent time listening rather than talking about why I felt an issue was important, a much more fruitful conversation was possible, and I know Ro Randall has pursued this to great effect in her 'Carbon Conversations'

After a decade of immersion and introspection in psychotherapy training, my social conscience was stirring again and I became active in Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility (PCSR)  - the questions always present for me were:

  • What is special about psychotherapists' discussion of social and political issues?
  • What is our unique contribution?

In more recent discussion within UKCP I was involved in preparing an Environmental Sustainability and Climate Change policy, and this frequently met with responses such as:

  • What does this have to do with us as psychotherapists?
  • We can express our political views via campaigning groups.

It may have been that what was operating was simply the denial that we encounter in the rest of the population (why should psychotherapists be any different when it comes to existential threat?) but I suspect it also has something to do with an under developed narrative within the community of therapists who are actively involved with issues of climate change. I suggest that we have not yet brought into our community a sufficiently coherent narrative which embeds the issue within a psychological framework and offers clear indications of where we 'sit' and how our position is more than humanitarian, and is consistent with our knowledge base and expertise.

The impetus for this piece of writing came about partly because I had a sense that, oddly, the personal is missing in groupings such as CPA, and that it is the issue that hangs us loosely together as 'concerned' practitioners and thinkers, yet it remains somewhat impersonal, at a distance. We know very little about each others 'drive' and impetus and - I might even suggest - this kind of personal sharing is not welcomed. Yet we are all by nature of our chosen profession, deeply interested in people and their stories. Through the individual we come to understand the Universal.

In the psychotherapy training where I am currently Director, we take a 'psychobiographical approach' to teaching theory, and to helping students develop as practitioners. That is to say we consider that theory arises out of a theorist's subjective worldview, and in keeping with the development of pluralistic thinking we encourage students to 'hold theory lightly' and where possible to avoid reification - or at least to notice where they have a tendency to do this in an unquestioning way. In keeping with this approach we offer a seminar on 'Psychotherapy & Politics' to our Foundation students where we invite them to consider how their political views have been formed by their early influences. Naturally there is no suggestion that their views should be any different - it is a reflective exercise which begins to consider 'why do I think what I think?' and 'how are my views rooted in emotional convictions?'

So I return again to the question which has remained present for me as a psychotherapist:

  • what is particular about my contribution as a therapist?
  • how is my social change activity different now than before I trained?
  • what additional powers does the psychotherapeutic community possess in order to be effective in creating social and political changes in consciousness?

Perhaps it is the addition of the word consciousness which holds the key. If it is the recognition that a shift in consciousness is what brings about change, we are in a good position to both recognise and encourage such shifts.

Jungian and Imaginal psychologist Robert Romanyshyn says 'Political Action is necessary but not enough. Today we desperately need a transformation of soul, a spiritual revolution.....we need to be awakened in order to be saved....' (Romanyshyn 2002:41) and he quotes John Milton's famous line 'They also serve who only stand and wait'. For him this represents a psychotherapeutic stance -' Psychotherapy is, among other things, the act of waiting and the practice of taking a stand, as a witness, for what asks to be heard.'(ibid)

Hillman on the other hand, spoke to us of Real Life outside the therapy room, in a language of experience and action, climatemarchas well as myth and legend, and his challenges to the therapy world were as you know, vigorous and at times harsh. In 'We've had a hundred years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse' he urges us to action. He says 'If personal growth did lead into the world wouldn't our political situation be different today?' (Hillman 1993:6) and he tells us 'First protest!.....Take your outrage seriously'

For me this question of the balance between doing and being has been a lifetime one, and although I know this changes through the life stages, I know I will be called to action until my last breath!

I would be interested to hear how other people view this in terms of their psychotherapeutic approach to facing climate change.