I have an early childhood memory that is providing me with insight for this month’s newsletter. I grew up in the city of Kampala, which, in those days, was still a small town. One of our favourite family outings was to the cinema – I think there was only one!
On the occasion of this memory we went – all five of us – to see a comedy called It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, starring Spencer Tracey, Micky Rooney, Buddy Hackett and the Three Stooges amongst others. The film was nominated for 6 academy awards in 1963, and allowing for the length of time it took to get to the cinema in Kampala, it may well have been 1964. That means I was three years old.
“On a winding desert highway, eight vacation-bound motorists share an experience that alters their plans and their lives! After a mysterious stranger divulges the location of a stolen fortune, they each speed off in a mind-bending, car-bashing race for the loot and the most side-splitting laughfest in history.”
My memory is this: at some point in the movie, one person, who has had an inordinate number of set backs, and is wielding a bicycle rendered useless through all the mishaps that have befallen it and its rider, is trying to hitch a ride from passing motorists. Two other characters stop to offer him a lift, but keep sending him back to do one more thing before they allow him in the car.
Eventually he has fulfilled all the requirements and is about to get in the car when they drive off without him. Slapstick at its best! The whole cinema packed up laughing apart from little me. I started crying. And I was so inconsolable about how mean the men had been to the hapless cyclist, that my Dad and I had to leave the cinema whilst Mum and my brother and sister finished watching. Dad and I walked up and down Kampala’s high street looking in shop windows, me gulping down big sobs, and trying to stop worrying about the poor man who was stuck in the desert with no lift.
Much of my coaching work at the moment is to support people in staying intelligent and sane in a world gone mad.
Why am I remembering this now? I’m not distraught about it now, like I was at 3 years of age, but there is still a part of me that wonders why we, human beings, can end up making life so difficult for one another.
In particular I am amazed that there are people who have had the intelligence and determination to rise to senior positions in organisations who then create a climate for their staff that renders it nigh on impossible for those people to progress towards results for which the leaders have asked, or more likely, demanded from them.
I am working with people whose energy is primarily gobbled up by summoning strategies to survive the human environment in which they are working. And I am surrounded by good people who all know how ineffective, inefficient and costly (in both emotional and monetary terms) it is to expect productivity, innovation and initiative from people buried behind the defence mechanisms they have spent a lifetime perfecting to protect themselves from the petrifying freeze of their anxiety. These self-same good people, however, continue to behave towards each other in ways that perpetuate conditions in which human brains cannot respond intelligently.
I walk away from interactions spellbound by the ability of one adult to turn another one into a trembling child, grown people wrought silly by fear of disapproval from another.
Alice Miller, the controversial Swiss psychoanalyst said:
“we can never do the right thing as long as we are out to please someone else.”
She was a voracious advocate for the rights of children to be treated with dignity and respect as fully- fledged humans from the get go. She risked her own reputation and her membership of the prestigious International Psychoanalytic Association rather than be assumed to concur with many psychoanalysts, Freud included, who fudged the issue of sanctioned child abuse in parenting practices in the Europe of her day.
She held the view that the only way out of the cycle of abuse created by punitive, verbally and physically abusive parents was for each of us to strip away the illusion of “happy childhoods”, which we manufacture in order to excuse our parents, whose love and approval we cling to the hope of.
“This ability to mourn, i.e, to give up the illusion of a happy childhood, can restore vitality and creativity if a person is able to experience that he was never loved as a child for what he was, but for his achievements, success and good qualities. And that he sacrificed his childhood for this love, this will shake him very deeply.”
As I listen to so many clients struggle through their thinking around how to manage workplace relationships that are toxic with unmet needs and unfulfilled expectations, I try to be the “empathic witness” Miller wrote about. Sue Cowan-Jenssen wrote in her obituary for Miller in the Guardian Newspaper that Miller believed that:
“Long-term suffering could be avoided only if the child had an adult in his or her life who could acknowledge the reality of their experience. She called these adults “empathic witnesses” and this acknowledgment, she said, not interpretation, should be the role of psychotherapists (here, I read “thinking partners”) with their clients.”
It is this very issue of interpretation that I am so struck by in the dysfunctional relating that is the source of so much workplace suffering. It seems to me that we need to learn, or re-discover, our ability to be present to and interested in one another’s experience, and be able to authentically share our own, rather than continuously descending into assessment of one another that leads to rigid interpretations of and behaviour towards each other that reactivates the childhood wounding of needing to conform and perform in order to be approved of.