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Change, Uncertainty & Relationships

By Laurence Barrett




Human beings have evolved to prefer a stable and predictable world. Our survival as a species has in part been dependent on our ability to scan our environment rapidly and intuitively, noticing often subtle signs of danger. We need to feel integrated knowing that our world is familiar and that we have the capacity to deal with its challenges. When we are faced with a conflict between reality and our models of reality, that conflict is experienced by the brain in regions like the cingulate cortex as pain, and like pain, we prefer to avoid it. Some of us may feel at home in uncertainty, and are familiar with its discomfort, perhaps to the point where the pain of change is itself comforting. We may even seek out change, enjoying the thrill and possibility that it brings. Others, like the fools of the fairy tales, may simply remain unaware and ignorant of their environment and the risks hidden there. For most of us however, staring into the unknown provokes a degree of anxiety, and perhaps even existential terror. We are reminded that in the unknown there may be threats and challenges that we will not survive. We may be overwhelmed by the limitless expanse of possibility before us and feel that we are disintegrating; no longer clear about who we are and who we may become. As the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott suggested (1974) we may face the possibility of “falling forever”. While the edge has an aura of romance in popular culture, for those of us who have actually been there, the edge has no glamour. Actually, being at the edge is clinging to the lip of the known and staring into the unknowable. It’s realising that the beliefs, love, possessions, physical stamina and whatever else keeps us safe has abandoned us. The edge is not a holiday destination or an exciting distraction from our mundane lives. On the edge we are isolated and alone with no map. We have no confidence that we have the tools to survive and the less predictable the path, the greater the fear. However, on the edge we are also faced with a paradox. While we may find comfort in the known, it will also suffocate us and destroy the possibility of growth. If we are to learn we must leave the known behind and face the unknowable. It is in the revitalising energies of the edge and its strange alchemy of hope and fear that we are able to find the sparks of new creation and become something more.


“For most of us however, staring into the unknown provokes a degree of anxiety, and perhaps even existential terror. We are reminded that in the unknown there may be threats and challenges that we will not survive”

 

In the words of Edgar H. Schein, “There is no way to promote learning without all the blood, sweat, and tears because there’s an inherent paradox surrounding learning: Anxiety inhibits learning, but anxiety is also necessary if learning is going to happen at all” (Coutu, 2002). This paradox is best faced in relationship. It is in relationship that we can endure the fear of change and uncertainty, make sense of the world around us and then build the self-confidence we need to move forwards. This lifelong process of meaning making was termed “containment” by the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, and it provides the foundation upon which our lives are built. It is a process that will shape our relationships as parents, friends, coaches, or leaders. In being contained ourselves, we learn to contain others. Containment begins with the realisation that we are not alone and that we are held in mind by another person. The experience of being unseen is profoundly disturbing and anxiety-provoking, and can result in a detrimental, and sometimes in the long term greatly impact our psychological wellbeing. Once we are noticed by another, we know we exist, that we matter and that our experience of the world is real. The way in which the other then responds sets the tone for what follows. They must be able to acknowledge and bear our feelings without becoming overwhelmed themselves, and in doing so they detoxify those feelings, allowing us the possibility that we too can bear them. If we are afraid, the fact that another knows we are afraid, but is not afraid of our fear is the first step in being able to process and make meaning from that fear. If they look away, literally or symbolically, we know that our fears are justified, and we have no hope. Not only do we have to face our fears alone, we know that the monsters in the darkness are very real indeed.


Once we know we are seen, and know that our fears are bearable, we can begin to make meaning of our experiences. We may enter what is termed a reverie (Bion 1962), a free-floating mutual exchange of ideas and associations with no goals or objectives, where we can begin to make sense of our feelings and can begin to make sense of our them and of the world around us. In reverie we can begin to give them form and place them into context, allowing them to take on a size and shape that we can begin to work with. Some fears of course are still terrifying, but as they become concrete, we can at least plan our next steps. Others shrink away, and we may find that the terrifying dragon quickly becomes an angry rabbit, or perhaps not a monster at all, but something more friendly. In time the reverie becomes less chaotic, and we start to build more consistent shared narratives to explain the emerging world around us. Like all good stories, these narratives provide us with the inspiration and resources we need to face that world. The writer GK Chesterton has suggested that fairy tales do not tell children dragons exist. Children already know the dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed. The same may be said of the narratives with which we populate the adult world, whether they are found in popular culture or management literature. Most importantly however, these narratives are not given to us but are formed as a co-creation, and as they emerge the feeling of relationships is strengthened. Research has shown that this strengthening is not simply a psychological experience, but through the process of neural entrainment, our brains themselves become aligned (Stephens et al., 2010). The feeling of relatedness becomes a physical reality, and we literally begin to think the same thoughts. Reverie then is not a teaching or an explanation from one person to another, but a playful and mutual dialogue in which we are active participants. We discover more than we could have found alone but more importantly we know that discovery is ours, at least in part. Our discovery means more to us because we have actively participated in it, not been give it by another. This mutual participation then provides the necessary precondition for the development of agency and confidence. Through the reverie we experience in relationship we learn that we have made meaning ourselves in and through our relationships. Here’s an illustration; Imagine a young child playing with a jigsaw on your kitchen table. There is one piece left to place, but the child has it upside down and cannot seem to make it fit. They are stressed and frustrated, feelings you share as you are in a hurry to clear the table for dinner. You could perhaps show the child how to fit the missing piece. This would be a satisfactory outcome for you, but for the child, it is a reminder that they

cannot solve problems alone. They are helpless and inadequate. Alternatively, you could encourage them to turn the piece around in their hands, until she has found the solution themselves. Here they have learned that, alongside the comforting and supportive presence of another, they can face a confusing world and through play and persistence will find a good outcome.


“Fairy tales do not tell children dragons exist. Children already know the dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed”

 


In reverie both parties may then benefit from this experience, as both parties may discover new insights and possibilities (sometimes equally) and the bond of relationship is deepened. Through the reverie we experience in relationship we learn that we have made meaning ourselves through those relationships and that the meaning binds us together. Even if we cannot overcome our new reality, we can at least begin to formulate strategies allowing us to cope with it and we know that others share our perspectives. We know that we are not alone, and that we can trust others, and begin to share a world view. If we can figure it out once, we can do it again. We have learned that hope is possible. The French military theorist Ardant Du Picq

(2005) summed this up perfectly: “Four brave men who do not know one another will not dare attack a lion. Four less brave, but knowing each other well, sure of their reliability and consequently of mutual aid, will

attack resolutely”.




"Reverie then is not a teaching or an explanation from one person to another, but a playful and mutual dialogue in which we are active participants"


Relationship is not then simply a leisure activity, no matter how pleasurable, but is a prerequisite for wellbeing and development. As we emerge blinking from the pandemic into a rapidly changing world, the quality of our relationships will be the platform on which our ability to learn and adapt will be grounded. We cannot face the future alone. It is therefore important for us to reflect on the connections and reconnections that we make in this new world, and to consider how we are creating opportunities for containment for ourselves and others, and in that lies the opportunities for shared meaning and deeper relationships. In the short film “Ten Meter Tower”( NY Times, 2018), people were filmed as, for the first time, they faced the jump from a high diving board into a swimming pool. The anxiety of most of them, as they stare at the pool below, is contagious. We may find ourselves on the edge of our seats, feeling the same butterflies, as the participants stare at the water below, desperately trying to make sense of the void in front of them and to imagine themselves jumping. Many people refuse, some cursing and others silently walking away. Only one young girl jumps immediately, without hesitation. One young couple however are particularly interesting. The girl stands slightly behind the boy as they look down, deciding whether to jump or not. In a perfect example of reverie, they exchange fantasies and ideas, allowing their fears to surface, often hidden, or detoxified by a humorous exaggeration. They discuss what will happen if a leg flies off and promise to meet again in heaven. With each comment seem to become a little less afraid. They try to make meaning of each other’s fears and by talking about previous jumps from a lower height, seem to set them in context. They talk about their feelings, and they mirror each other’s body language, revealing an unconscious connection. Most of the reverie is initiated by the girl, and as she talks, the boy suggests that he is not listening but then quickly encourages her to keep going. He suggests that her voice and presence is soothing to him. The experience of connection clearly matters more to him than the conversation itself. The relationship between the pair feels sensitive, compassionate, and aligned and together they seem to be making meaning of the challenge ahead. They agree that they are both afraid but that they will also both jump, and eventually, in quick succession, both do.


As we emerge blinking from the pandemic into a rapidly changing world, the quality of our relationships will be the platform on which our ability to learn and adapt will be grounded.


 

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