History as a diagnostic aid

An account of how I learned to be a helping professional – not an instruction manual, but a prompt for you to explore your own story .

Somewhat later, I began to read Bowlby’s work on attachment theory, and some of the studies that built on that work. Here I found a theoretical account of this issue of history that made immediate sense to me. What researchers into attachment theory observed was that people developed a more describable history as their attachments became more secure. It would be difficult to be sure how far this was a question of more secure attachments producing more trust which in turn would allow people to share what they recalled of their own history; or how far memories that had not previously been available to them, now could be recalled. Probably a mixture of both processes is at work but either way, this observation puts personal history as a diagnostic symptom of the state of a person’s emotional health, and its recovery as a reinforcement of a recovery in emotional health.

This seemed a much more valuable way of considering the issue of history and it fitted with my experience in those early professional days. It was quickly obvious in preparing social inquiry reports, that some people could give much more detailed and articulate accounts of their earlier lives than could others. At first, I saw this as a matter of relative trust but that seemed over-simplistic as some less articulate clients showed signs of trust and more articulate clients might show evasions or manipulations. Particularly common for a probation officer were clients who could give little account of themselves at all – who showed the characteristics of what attachment theorists described as ‘insecure – avoidant’ attachment patterns. I will come back to this later on, but at this stage, the inability apparently to recall anything of significance in their childhood was often a characteristic of these individuals.

Oliver Sacks writes interestingly about memory. He tells the moving story of Mrs O’C, who was orphaned by the age of 5 years and had now reached advanced old age. She had no memory of her life before the age of 5 and had always felt this as an absence in the centre of her being, as a painful sadness.

One night, Mrs O’C dreamt vividly of her childhood and particularly of the songs they danced to and sang. When she awoke, the music continued. It was so loud and vivid that she imagined a radio had been left on. Eventually, it was diagnosed as a consequence of a stroke, as temporal lobe seizures.

Associated with these songs were profound feelings of being back in her childhood, and an overwhelming emotion of nostalgic content. Sacks describes it as “a trembling, profound and poignant joy”. As she recovered from the stroke, the music gradually faded but she was left with a new sense of completeness and serenity.

Instead of looking at memories for what they reveal about the past and any explanatory role in relation to current behaviour, Sacks is interested in the impact of memory on current experience, and he sees serenity as dependant on possession of a ‘true past’, irrespective of the nature of that past.  This fits well with the findings from attachment studies.

We can be sure that one feature of the lives of offenders is a lack of ‘serenity of spirit’. The agency of change for Mrs O’C was the stroke, the physical disturbance in the temporal lobe, not the memory itself. In attachment studies, the change agency is the experience of a relationship(s) characterised by secure attachment. Increased access to memories is then a symptom of change, and a reinforcer of a greater degree of content.

Whatever the factors that drive criminal behaviour, we can also be sure that there is a profound striving or struggling. We also observe what are termed ‘cognitive deficits’, or decision making based on incomplete grasp of the world they inhabit. For many, relationships are typically insecure, substantially limiting the resources available to them that would help survive sadness, failure, inadequacy and disappointment, and similar challenges of normal real life.

Concentrating on the present

An account of how I learned to be a helping professional – not an instruction manual, but a prompt for you to explore your own story .

I was also learning however that psycho-dynamic social work was not properly understood in the popularised versions. There was a different approach to history at stake, where the history did not cause the present behaviours and problems, but rather was being expressed and acted out in the present behaviour. For example, the fact that a person experienced a hostile and violent father as a child was merely history, whilst the tendency to approach all authority figures as if they were hostile and violent was something that could be observed in the here and now.

More importantly, it became clear that understanding a connection, or repeated pattern of behaviour between childhood and the present day, seemed to make little difference to the individual concerned. People seemed to work the other way around; seeing the connection seemed to be a consequence of personal change, not a cause of that change.

The history then stopped being a detective story in which we all searched for the key to change in the past. Rather, it became a source of understanding for me as the worker that helped me respond more appropriately in the ‘here and now’. Once I realised that the person with whom I was working for example saw me as or assumed that I may be like his feared father, that insight helped me to continue focusing on how to help the individual think about how to deal with his problems as they were today.

This concentration on the ‘here and now’ was articulated in the Institute of Marital Studies at the Tavistock clinic, where Janet Mattinson pointed out the interpretations of what people were saying should not end by taking them into a past that cannot be changed, but should always, if referring to connections with past experience, bring people to think about how they are feeling and behaving now. So you would not say – ‘you seem not to be able to trust me. Do you think this may be because of your experience with your father?’ What can anyone do with a question like that other than to feel stuck with a past that cannot be changed?

But you might say, ‘Given your experience of your father, it must be hard to trust an authority figure like me’ This has two advantages – first of all a statement whether right or wrong is more likely to elicit a useful and engaged response than a question. Secondly, it directs the attention of the individual being helped to how they are behaving and feeling now.

The ‘here and now’

An account of how I learned to be a helping professional – not an instruction manual, but a prompt for you to explore your own story .

The other feature of my early learning was about the ‘here and now’.

The social work course began with observation of mother and baby, and it was also my introduction to the intense world of non-directed group experiences – groups whose task was to examine the here and now of group behaviour. This was an experience that derived from the observations of Bion who identified in the midst of the complexity of personalities in a group, some underlying shared assumptions and behaviours. These patterns were:

  • Dependency – group members idealised the leader
  • Pairing – group members sought counter leaders or support from intimacy with another group member
  • Fight/flight – group members either withdraw into silence or engaged in arguments with the group leader

These unconscious patterns of behaviour were revealed as the group leader interpreted what he observed and prompted the group to look closely at how people behaved and spoke as well as at what they said, and also suggested different ways of understanding what people said through looking at layers of possible meaning.

The group would for example start with the leader defining the group task as seeking to understand group behaviour through observation of the group itself. There would then be a shocked pause as the group – in dependency mode – waited for the leader to start some kind of lecture. As it sank in that this was not going to happen, some group member would gamely start to  raise the question of how this task was to be approached and in the absence of comment from the leader, would look to other group members for support – the pairing mode. Most of the group would sit in silence – flight mode – whilst some would get angry that the leader was not doing their job – fight mode. The leader’s comments, such as they were, would direct us to these patterns. So they might say in the dependency mode – ‘the group seems to be expecting me to say something more’.

This kind of observation experience also drew me to pay attention to how my emotional response to people provided  as rich a source of observational material as what we see and hear. This all had a more immediate and convincing vitality than the rather speculative interpretations of how people’s early experience may be causing current behaviours.

The past as explanation?

An account of how I learned to be a helping professional – not an instruction manual, but a prompt for you to explore your own story .

History perhaps inevitably does simplify and distort – it alters the complexity and muddle of things and imposes logic or order that, whilst not exactly wrong, is derived from the benefit of hindsight. This is familiar territory amongst historians and it therefore jars with me to see the kind of historical journalism that characterises so much TV history, in which modesty in the face of the past’s mysteries and complexity has to be replaced by the dramatic stardom of the presenter’s personality. But the same tendency to distort by imposing a kind of dramatic simplicity is obviously present when trying to understand someone’s personal history. In a medium such as a two page social inquiry report, this sentimental oversimplification is a constant threat and when crudely handled, leads to cynicism and disbelief in the reader.

The usual form for this cynical disbelief is the scorn reserved for explanations of current offending through some kind of childhood trauma. Freud of course, and his psycho-analytic followers has attracted just this scorn, magnified because of the discomfort and fear that surrounds sexuality. So the laughter when someone says that an offender committed the crime because he was suckled on the wrong breast!

The seduction and the scorn belong together, each feeding the other. The seduction is powerful. It is such common sense to believe that the roots, the history cause the present. How could we argue otherwise? We instinctively want to look for explanations of major events or dramatic individual behaviours in the past.

Most people, if asked why they have certain characteristics will immediately start to reflect on their past whether a genetic past or environmentally impacting one. What I came to see quite early on in my working life however was that the detective story approach to the troubles people face, in which a search for clues in the person’s past life would be instigated, would not do.


An account of how I learned to be a helping professional – not an instruction manual, but a prompt for you to explore your own story .

Stepping away from the life of a student, my first professional years involved coming up against all kinds of individuals, usually in the probation service – presented individually. At that time, the key first experience was the Social Inquiry Report, a document that aimed to distill the life of an offender into a couple of sides of A4, in which that life was to provide a kind of explanation for the criminal behaviour and to offer the possibility of an intervention that might turn the offender away from future crimes.

There are of course, a range of reasons why this is a problematic approach to tackling offending. Nonetheless, this was the structure of the mid 1970’s and there were things to be said for it. First of all, it meant that close attention had to be given to offending as a personal experience, part of the make up and impacting on the future of a person’s whole life, their family, identity, sense of self respect and standing in a community. It allowed the sordid, petty minded or plain destructive part of someone’s life to be contextualised into something richer and potentially healing. A thug was not just a thug.

This notion of starting with a personal history made intuitive sense to someone like myself who had studied history at university, and it is this intuitive sense that draws people into looking for explanations of the now, in the past. It is such a seductive intuition that it is sometimes very hard to get people to think differently, other than to react to a polar opposite position which dismisses any interest in history as sentimental and irrelevant.

Despair…… and the Story so far

An account of how I learned to be a helping professional – not an instruction manual, but a prompt for you to explore your own story .

The counter balance to this search for creativity and a vision of health was despair and hopelessness. This seemed at the time a truly adolescent theme, and was in truth too difficult a side of life for me. Indeed as I look back, the choice of creativity as a dissertation theme is such an obvious choice for a young man whose best friend at university had, 18 months previously, committed suicide. I don’t know whether I told my tutors about this event whilst I was on the social work course. I do recall a sort of sudden shock in one tutorial with Bill Jordan when he suggested that perhaps despair could be real and appropriate for some people at some time. I think he told me that I had taken the edge off the reality of hopeless depression, that I had sugared it in some way or dismissed it as pathology.

It would be too much to say that this emergent person engaged with the despair, depression and destructive impulses that would be the focus of my chosen career. Seeds were sown however.

I have been trying however to show how ideas, concepts, psychological truths that do inform helping professions, have their expression not just in theoretical formulations but in life stories. I have chosen some themes that seem to me as I look back, to be especially to the fore at the setting out of my career:

  • The formation of a separate identity, and how we live whilst it emerges
  • The nature of relationships and the space between them in which reflection and discovery can take place
  • The nature of influence in relationships – transactions
  • Being someone with something to offer, and being able to say ‘no’
  • Creativity and a vision of health

I want to explore each of these more fully in the context of work and professional helping. I should explain what I include in this work context. My own training was a social work one that led me to be a probation officer, family social worker, probation manager and drug service senior manager. Obviously a great deal of my material will come out of this professional experience. I think however that what I have to say applies to all sorts of helping settings.

The Need for a Creative Vision

An account of how I learned to be a helping professional – not an instruction manual, but a prompt for you to explore your own story .

I remember being called back to these feelings when some 20 years later on a management conference with my team of senior probation officers I asked them what people had influenced them in becoming managers. I found that most of the group came into management because they were dissatisfied with the quality of management that they had received. Very few had been drawn in to emulate or take further what they had seen in positive models of management.

This I thought then and think now, was a significant problem for them and those that they managed. Just as I think that without some vision of health and value, we would be a problem to those we are trying to help. A colleague of mine once pointed out that we don’t improve people’s lives through the helping professions by doing things to people, but rather by offering something of ourselves. It is a great advantage therefore if what we can offer is some kind of truly creative vision of what people can be.

This idea is vulnerable to romantic sentimentality, but there have been some moving illustrations of it – Billy Elliott in fiction for example.  When I was a new senior manager, I inherited responsibility for a ‘Cultural Centre’ – an arts project funded by the Probation Service, so I had chance to explore this theme again. I will therefore come back to this experience, but whilst I was in the setting out phase of my life, the combination of a search for creativity and a profession that tackles the destructiveness of human kind was a compelling conjunction.