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.

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