Thursday, 12 March 2015

Everything Feels Possible

I really like the phrase 'learning from what works' (as Michael has called this blog). It's an idea I've heard kicking around explicitly or implicitly through the last year or so that Michael and I have been working together. Too often in psychology and psychiatry the focus is on what is not working - what is already broken - and it seems hard to learn that way. By exploring processes that work, in my case relational successes, we can see more clearly the potential for intervention and support.

When we met at Wellcome Collection last week, the phrase "striving and thriving" came to me. The striving quality is particularly interesting to me personally. My first training was as a dancer and striving was a big part of that experience. We were always pushing ourselves to be better, stronger; to jump higher but more gracefully, to spin faster but with more control and better execution, to be more responsive to the music, to be more artistic in our expressiveness, to be more sensitive in our finger tips. We strived (and strived and strived) to be aesthetically pleasing. (It feels as though there is a paradox here...?) Yet how did we know when we had succeeded in this aim? Ironically, the time I was most 'successful' as a dancer was the time I gave up striving - my very last class. Knowing that I wasn't going to be a performer, I danced completely liberated from the need to 'try'. And I flew, the teacher praised me, I felt wonderful - I had really achieved something. In my current early stages of psychotherapy training the idea of  not striving, not putting so much effort towards achievement, is proving extremely difficult. Yet it seems you achieve more by being present in the moment, rather than orienting yourself toward an achievement-laden future. Another paradox.

It seems to me that success has an interesting experiential structure. As a notion it shapes existential projects by orienting them forwards in time and towards an ultimate point. It is a notion that suggests finality and termination. It suggests endings. So what happens when things don't end? Can they still be successful? Relationships that are normatively seen as successful have the quality of duration. How, experientially, is success understood in this context? When do you feel that a relationship is successful? Does it have to achieve success - does there need to be a process of striving? If so, what does that look like? It's interesting that to 'succeed' has two meanings - to achieve success, but also to take over from - to come after. One is about termination, the other about continuation. My thoughts are very unformed at present, but there's something interesting for me in the idea of what success might look like when it's not about termination of a project, but the ongoing process of development or 'simple' duration. For artists, for people in many kinds of relationship, for people in recovery who are taking things 'one day at a time' for various reasons, the notion of achievement may be anathema. Yet success may still be possible.

From hearing from Matteo with regard to his ideas around power, I started to think about success in terms of relational dynamics, between a couple, within a family, and within an organisation. Can one person succeed (win?) without others failing/losing out? Can success really be shared, or even come into existence as a genuinely intersubjective experience? Or is it tied up with notions of independence and autonomy? What about when one person's success isn't an achievement for the whole system, but is actually damaging to the system? How do the emotional experiences associated with success and failure play out in relational dynamics - the jealousy, the pride, the resentment, the guilt? As well as joy, loss, contentment and so on. My current work on experiences of happiness is telling here - expectations about emotional experience are heavily policed by normative ideas of how we should feel and when, but actual experiences rarely seem to live up to these expectations. We don't feel happy when we think we should do. These complex socially-oriented emotional experiences (jealousy, shame, guilt, pride) shape individual and group notions of what it means to do well, to succeed. When we look at the context of adversity (mental ill health, substance abuse, deprivation, marginalisation, stigma), then the tension and strain on relationships is increased and experiences may be saturated with negative emotion, yet some relationships still endure - or even blossom. What is it that happens on the interpersonal, intrapersonal and group level that allows this to happen? And what does it feel like when it does?

I have many questions at this point. Talking with Michael, Matteo and Lisa was fantastic, if also overwhelming, and so I look forward to future discussions with our whole working group. The good thing about working towards this project is that nothing feels like it's off limits right now - everything is possible.

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