Lyn French reflects on some of the conscious and unconscious drives, motivations and early life experiences that play a role in our relationships with self and others. Examples given feature images from our new set of Emotional Learning Cards ‘How do we live well with others?’ now available to in the store.
How do we live well with others? is one of the unspoken questions that has inspired great thinkers through the ages. The cultural theorist Stuart Hall, is just one theorist who considered the roles we adopt or resist, how we interact with each other in our personal, social, and professional lives and what historical or contextual influences play a part. Hall was an influential figure in early campaigns for social and racial justice and a central figure in the founding of Iniva.
These preoccupations also contributed to the work of Wilfred Bion who developed group analysis in the UK out of his work with WW2 veterans suffering from what came to be known as post-traumatic stress disorder. Bion recognised the ways in which unconscious dynamics mould relations in groups and also between them. As both psychodynamic theory and our own experience illustrates, we all have a primal need to belong; the easiest route to achieving this is to create ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups, a process which relies on splitting-off unwanted or hateful parts of the self and projecting them into others, an unconscious and often extremely subtle phenomenon that is at the root of cultural tensions.
Such mental processes are complicated as they are shaped by in how we define ourselves and the personal myths we have constructed about our past and present lives. Questions which capture aspects of these processes include, ‘What kinds of inter-generational trauma or historical shame are we struggling with, sometimes unknown to ourselves, which might nudge us towards taking up a particular role in our relationships or in the groups which we are part of? How does our family’s perception of us influence how we relate to other people? Why might we identify with the outsider or the victim?’
Bion and Hall remain seminal figures in their own ways whose ideas continue to inform our understanding of how we make sense of our worlds both within and without. Each was interested not just in how we engage in social groups but, importantly, how we describe our current and historical experiences to ourselves and to each other. We know that memories themselves are not factual records of the recent or distant past but are narratives forged out the residue of emotionally potent experiences, some too disturbing or painful to leave unedited or even to hold in mind.
Margareta Kern’s cheerily decorated cake entitled Kolačnikov from our new set of emotional learning cards, references social or family celebrations however its outline – that of a menacing gun – suggests darker truths, more layered dynamics. What does this art piece conjure up? One way of reading it is to see it as a reminder of how we all inevitably damage, and are damaged by, others in big and small ways throughout the course of life, sometimes intentionally, other times unavoidably or even unwittingly. We’re all familiar with the barbed compliment which carries a deeper, unconscious message, even, at times, a lethal one designed to ‘kill off’ the one we are envious of or have hateful or conflicted feelings towards. Reading this image within a relational context, we might well see it as a reminder of the uncomfortable reality that the more primal our emotional bonds, the deeper the hurts both inflicted and felt.
No child goes through their early years without feeling the pain of loneliness, exclusion, rejection or intense jealousies. We all carry residual childhood hurts which can influence subsequent choices or aspirations. For example, some of us only became conscious of being seen as ‘different’ by others when we were teased in the playground because of our skin colour, our accent or social class. Or perhaps we’ve internalised the felt experience of being perceived as ‘not the same as’ in our own family, just as Stuart Hall, a slightly darker skinned child than his sibling, so poignantly described in the film The Stuart Hall Project (2013). Hall was motivated and inspired by his difference, determined to use his personal history as a platform from which to thoughtfully, intelligently and tirelessly spark debate about, and campaign for, social and political change.
In contrast to taking up a position of integrity around differences, we can all use our internal representations of ourselves towards more self-centred ends. We can convince ourselves that something about us – our politics, our creativity or intellectual talents to name a few – single us out as ‘better than’. We can easily elevate ourselves in our own minds by projecting the notion that we are in some way ‘superior’, laying down social markers which are immediately recognisable to others to aid this process. By stage-managing our image, we present an edited version of who we are.
Lu Chunsheng’s photograph entitled I want to be gentleman, also in our new set of cards, captures something of this. His depiction of individuals standing stiffly atop of very high pedestals set against a dark and foreboding sky reminds us of the isolation we can suffer if we place ourselves ‘above’. Creating hierarchies of individual value and ranking them is commonplace; living well with others requires a letting go of this kind of competitiveness.
As nations, social groups, families and individuals, being ‘one amongst many’, ‘alongside’ rather than ‘above’ or ‘below’ is the ultimate aim. To achieve this requires attention to perception. The on-going need to recalibrate how we see ourselves and the image we project as well as how we perceive others is paramount. Reconsidering culture and identity, and the impact of race, gender and class, is a ‘live’ project, one to which we can all contribute, building on the legacy left by those who have come before including Stuart Hall and Wilfred Bion.
Written by Jenny Starr