Imaginative Space

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 .

As I think about  ‘setting out’ in my career, I am struck  by the sense of discovering my own capacity to be in the world at all – to be an important individual for those with whom I was starting to work.

This combination of being the observer, separate from the world and putting oneself to one side to focus on the ‘observed’, and the need to be someone who could survive the stresses of engaging with people in trouble, seems to be a key theme of emergence. I felt the connection between these two states was crucial from the beginning of my career. Two sets of writing captured this for me and I can recall the sense of excitement and discovery as I read.

One concept was that of Donald Winnicott – the ‘transitional object’. Here was a way of describing the imaginative space between a person and the world around him/her, a space that was not apart from the person but that was something that could be experienced as if it were apart. The classic transitional object, the teddy bear, makes this imaginative space into a physical object, but all the important characteristics of the object are created in the child’s imagination, as it seeks to make sense of the external world that it experiences. This concept I found utterly engaging and it seemed to me to be just the right way to understand how relationships between helpers and helped worked.

It seemed that when the social worker created a safe imaginative space in which to experience the individual in trouble, a space in which they could play with ideas about the individual, reflect on how they presented themselves and what they said about themselves, and be affected by that individual whilst keeping the essential self in a secure place, they were able to start responding emotionally to the needs of the client. Where that imaginative space was not available, the worker would be buffeted about by the client, be unable to maintain the space to think but just be preoccupied by defending oneself or reacting at face value to the issue being presented for reaction.

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