In this month’s blog, Lyn French (A Space, Director) highlights some of the feeling states featured in the recently published A to Z of Emotions and reflects on our relationship with ‘the new’ and ‘the old’. Our new worksheets linked to this set of cards will be uploaded on this website over the months to come. ‘Understanding Anger and its Opposite’ and ‘Exploring Betrayal and its Opposite’ are the first two resources to be made available and can now be downloaded for free from the ‘resources section‘.
Celebrating the start of the New Year is a tradition followed by many. But how meaningful is it to place down a marker which separates ‘the old’ from ‘the new’ in what can seem a somewhat arbitrary way? The last day of December isn’t, after all, any different from the first day of January. Is it really useful for us to draw an imaginary line like this between the past and the present?
There are, as always, different ways to think about it. On the one hand, entering another calendar year often symbolises turning over a new page. Perhaps the year just gone has been particularly difficult or stressful. Beginning afresh can revive our hopes by providing the opportunity to put what has been painful in the past 12 months behind us. We might be further boosted when we revisit the resolutions of the previous year and note our various achievements – personal, work-focused, familial, collective and so on. As well, the New Year could kick start us into taking action on decisions previously made but not followed through on or applying ourselves to changes we have been considering.
But how much time do we give ourselves to learn from the recent past by looking back on the year just gone with the express purpose of reviewing our part in situations that had a less than satisfactory outcome or instances when emotional hot spots were activated in our relationships and we handled ourselves badly? Although the very idea of making resolutions implicitly suggests that change is necessary, most of us prefer to be architects of the future rather than surveyors of the past.
Rushing into ‘the new’ means that we leapfrog over the more difficult task of exploring some of our more complex relationship dynamics as well as times when we have let ourselves down by relying too heavily on common defences such as avoidance, denial, manic activity, compliancy or moral superiority to sidestep something that we haven’t wanted to deal with. We need to stay with what makes us uncomfortable long enough to be able to learn from it so that we can build our resolutions on a foundation of self-knowledge based on reality rather than on wishful thinking rooted in an idealised picture of who we are and what we’re capable of.
Shiraz Bayjoo’s image on the front of the card featuring the letter U depicts a woman of African descent split into two parts. This picture captures an aspect of feeling uncomfortable. While it can be read in as a reference to a period in the past – the slave trade – which we all might prefer to split off and ‘forget about’, it can also be seen within a more generalised relational and emotional frame. Just like the woman in Shiraz Bayjoo’s image, we may be tempted to separate out our past selves from our present identity or split off the parts of ourselves we are uncomfortable with and project them onto others.
We all carry some conscious and unconscious shame relating to our collective histories as well as to who we have been – or are – as individuals or as a family or nation. When, for example, have we used others in obvious or nuanced ways either to improve our self-image or to carry responsibilities we do not want to take on? Are there times when we have unconsciously marginalised someone because of who or what they represent? To what extent are we prepared to engage with ‘otherness’?
Maybe our unconscious shame or split off parts relate to envy. Perhaps we are distancing ourselves from those within our family or our social circle who are doing very well, leaving us feeling less successful in comparison. Or it could be the opposite – we might be setting ourselves up as the object of envy. It is human nature to unconsciously or openly rank each other, a trait that needs monitoring as, like all psychological functions, it can be employed for the good, allowing us to identify the more vulnerable in society, or misused, providing a context for triumphing over others and inflating our own ego.
When someone we’ve unconsciously ranked as ‘less than’ surprises us by doing very well in some aspect of their life, or is seen to be favoured in some way, we can feel betrayed. This is not an easy experience to admit to as it reveals an ungracious side, one that we all have whether we allow ourselves to see it or not. Everyone possesses this trait as we were all children once. Children do not have the intellectual capacity to think about feelings and can only experience them in their raw form. The child we once were stays within us throughout our life no matter what our age. We all have instances when childlike feelings of shock and betrayal rooted in rivalry and envy break through the surface even if we quickly translate these feelings into a more adult-like response.
Larry Achiampong’s digital montage illustrating the card with the letter B gives the classic line uttered by Brutus – ‘Et tu, Brute?‘ which translates into ‘Even you, Brutus?‘ a contemporary feel. This famous line by Shakespeare is one of the last uttered by Caesar in the play Julius Caesar to his close friend and supporter. The expression is still used to convey the shock of betrayal, an emotion felt most strongly when it is entirely unexpected. Once the shock wears off, we can be filled with anger before the hurt and sadness takes over. Chila Burman’s image gives us a sense of the power of anger through her use of layered collage materials, strong colours and bold marks. The closer we are to someone, the more intense the anger and the deeper the pain of betrayal.
We can all fall into betraying others and even ourselves either knowingly or unwittingly, often in subtle ways. When reviewing the year just gone, we might, for example, note times when we’ve spoken about a friend or family member and in doing so, put ourselves in a more flattering light. This may include gaining in self-esteem or in the eyes of others by describing someone in such a way that we are bound to ‘look good’ in comparison, a behaviour that is sometimes called ‘contrast gaining’.
How we perceive ourselves, and how we represent ourselves to the outside world, can be a betrayal of our culture, our social identity or who we really want to be but are afraid to admit to. We all have different selves – a social self, professional self, family self, more intimate/ sexual self and so on. However, if we go too far in constructing our identity along the lines of what we think we should be, we betray our true self and are at risk of developing what psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott defined as a ‘false self’. His concept describes a complex psychological dynamic that starts very early in life when the baby becomes the infant the mother consciously or unconsciously wants it to be. This is in stark contrast to the baby’s identity being co-discovered and co-created over time within and through the mother/ baby relationship. Whenever we excessively comply in ways that are ‘not us’, we lose touch with more fundamental parts of our identity and erode our moral integrity.
Z is the last letter of the alphabet and a reminder, just like 31 December, that all things must end. Perhaps looking ahead to ‘the new’ on 1st January, celebrating what is to come, protects us from being too closely in touch with ‘the old’ and everything that is ending or has ended. Achieving a balance between living in the present, looking back to learn and looking ahead to plan what is in our control is a hard one to strike. When we manage not to rely too heavily on our defences such as escaping through manic socialising or getting stuck in negativity by unhelpfully ruminating but instead occupy the middle ground, we are more centred. Our zest for life is increased when we experience the kind of mental space that feels like freedom, just as the bird soaring in Matthew Krishanu’s painting on the card illustrating Z represents.
Written by Jenny Starr