Being Observed

In the phase of setting out into a helping profession, there is so much to discover through observation, analysis, reading, listening that it is possible to forget that you are already becoming experienced at working with people. There are occasional landmarks that make you aware of this; when you stop being the least experienced person in the office; when you have your first student etc. It is also easy to lose sight of some of the realities of getting involved in other people’s lives. There is a kind of inevitable innocence at work.

One of my first clients as a student was an elderly man who unfortunately knew the criminal justice system inside out. I had no real idea I think what I was doing with him, and no way of making any real sense of a 60 year old persistent petty offender’s life. I sometimes in retrospect flinch at my naivety and ignorance, but actually experience and knowledge can easily be over-rated. Near the end of my time ‘working’ with him, [I say working uncertainly. I certainly made appointments with him, saw him regularly and asked him things about his life.] this old lag said to me that he thought I would go far in my career. As they say, he probably said that to all the young students that supervised him, but I do think there was some sincerity in the comment and it surprised me. It made me think that it was not just me looking at his life that was going on, but he was looking at what he could see of mine.

He was in fact breaking one of the assumed rules of the helping professions i.e. that the focus of attention should be entirely on the client. Attempts to engage with the worker as a private person were to be seen as a defensive (unconscious) or even evasive (deliberate). They challenged the given power structure and allowed the client to wrest control of the agenda from the worker. In student circles of course these very factors were an attraction, captured in two notions. One was that the worker / client relationship should be collaborative with power equally shared. The second was that the client should be able to see the worker as a ‘real person’.



Returning to the experience of encountering the mentally ill, I said I would return to the theme of the incomprehensible nature of mental illness. Having absorbed the notion that the utterances of the psychotically ill, if approached differently, could be found to yield meaning, this did not stop it being obvious that there was not so much a boundary between the ill person and the rest of the world, as a gulf. This gulf sometimes was in place because the client or patient completely lacked the normal boundaries by which we live our lives. They seemed at times unable to distinguish their inner world from ‘real life’, from the objective physical world. If they had an emotion, it was not their feeling; rather it was an object in the external world. If they were anxious, the sky was falling; if they were afraid, they were being poisoned by the television or by their spouse. For others, the inner emotional world was just too frightening to share with another person. They may therefore be frozen in a catatonic trance or may talk any sort of nonsense whose main quality was that it literally could not be understood, as though the only purpose was to prevent understanding. It is not an original thought but it seemed that the inability to understand how the client felt could sometimes be a clue to the psychotic nature of the condition that they were facing.

Personal Boundaries as a Cultural Phenomenon

As I thought for the first time about emotional boundaries, I also thought about them as a cultural phenomenon – in other words, I realised that my own assumptive world and sense of personal comfort did not just reflect an individual psychic and emotional structure operating to a set of rules that could be seen as general to humanity, but were in part learned in a particular cultural context. My own clue to this was in thinking about my father, whose work as a Methodist minister meant that he had to live in an environment of little distinction between his work and non work times, and for whom this lack of boundary seemed to fit with the way in which he was particularly private with little hint of what emotional inner world was operating. He lost his father when he was a teenager, leaving a family to face poverty and dependence on charity, but I can remember no occasion when he spoke about his father, nor about how he coped with his loss. He had also chosen to go into the ministry which separated him from his wider family in a very significant way. Whilst his brothers and sisters, many of them, lived close to where they were brought up and remained in and out of each others’ houses, we moved away, lived apart, only saw this wider family on ‘occasions’ – weddings, christenings, funerals etc.

Our world was therefore one in which we grew up to achieve a separate individuality; an individuality of personal achievement, individual creativity – ‘terribly house and garden’. But it became obvious that others had a different view of the world, in which being part of a wider ‘community’ identity was more important than individuality, in which conversations were less physically fastidious and more focussed on cementing a shared perspective than with demonstrating an individual personal insight.

So began the sense that to learn more was to expand the realm of the unknown and uncertain.

Facing your own demons

Of course we are not ‘tabula rasa’ when listening to the intimate stories of our clients – it may comfort us to imagine that we are safely protected by our professional role and the tasks that go with it, but this is an illusion. You cannot listen intently and try to understand another person’s world without finding personal issues are touched, opened up by the encounter. At the time I was listening to last mentioned disturbed and violent man, I was myself going through some personal turmoil about my own marriage, my sexual desires and fantasies. Of course, if your view of the world is based on an assumption about individual identities that can view each other objectively or at least potentially so, then the experience of being stirred up by listening to such emotionally potent material may seem a sign that one is either constitutionally or temporarily unsuited to the job. That road in my view leads to denial, self deception and potentially damaging consequences for all concerned.

However, my own growing belief, supported by those who taught me, was that to be affected by the people with whom I worked was entirely to be expected if one was listening actively and imaginatively. By ‘affected’ I do not mean to be moved by or have sympathy for the client. I mean that the encounter with the client arouses feelings about or within oneself that reflect in some way the inner world of the client. This is properly, necessarily confusing and even disturbing especially when the experience is unfamiliar. It is particularly confusing because it challenges the security of the normal personal boundaries by which we live. It sometimes becomes hard to be sure what one is dealing with. Was it the problem of the client, or is it my own problem that I am reading into the client’s experience? The latter is a very common feature of human relationships, captured often in response to a confidence – ‘oh, I know just how you feel’!


Being Stirred Up

In the case of this Grendon client’s story, his account of these somewhat erotic night wanderings chimed in with a tendency I then had to go on solitary walks. They were not at night usually, though I would sometimes walk in the town where I lived in the late evening. The day time walks however took me by a river through an area where willow bushes had grown to make over the path a shaded area. I would reach this point and hover in the shade, wishing I could almost curl up and go to sleep in the gentle green light. The sensation of the shaded light in the shelter of the willows was physical, caressing. But the walks were troubled, haunted by a kind of guilt and failure about my wish to escape from home, marriage, family life into these private moments.

So I wondered whether I was getting my own experience confused with those of the offender; was I feeling things that represented some unacknowledged quality in the dangerous night prowling? The Grendon client did not speak of any emotional quality of his night walks in any direct way, as though he did not know or would not face any erotic element to his experience – the sexual attacks he would describe as impulsive violent acts, but was it the softer sexual feelings he could not tolerate, that were threatening to his sense of security and that fuelled an anti erotic exercise of brute power?

My purpose here is not so much to answer such questions but to illustrate how certain disturbed clients prompted such queries – they seemed to create confusion about boundaries, to raise uncertainty about whether our feelings said more about ourselves or are a way to access the inner world in the client that the client either resisted or was unconscious of altogether. I came to recognise this phenomenon most clearly amongst a group of clients that were seen as personality disordered individuals.

Probably we are most aware of this in adolescence, where all kinds of new and potentially disturbing feelings are arising, new and unrecognisable to the young person. Adolescents have a characteristic tendency to stir up parents/carers and to combine this with a sort of emotional inarticulacy. Talking seems to achieve little; being understanding easily annoys them or they resist being turned back into children. Somehow, it seems they can only feel that their rage or confusion has been recognised and understood if they actually generate rage and confusion in their parents. This is of course exhausting!

Boundaries and Personality Disorders

The experience of working with the normal development of boundaries informed my work with more deeply troubled people. People suffering from personality disorders seemed especially to display similar patterns of emotional transaction with their workers as was characteristic of some maddening experiences with adolescents. Where helping services are not yet equipped to handle such behaviours, rejection of the client can seem the only option, and such rejection often seemed to be courted by the troubled individual.

So every probation office from time to time has to deal with individuals who seem to operate by deliberately intimidating the staff. The intimidation is not quite planned – it is different from the kind of intimidation you might associate with a professional and dangerous criminal. The level of fear and urgency generated can be about a relatively trivial matter – enough money to buy a cup of tea (or a beer or two) – but the emotional intensity generated is disproportionate. Sometimes what is transferred is a kind of chaos. I recall a particularly disordered probationer who was dropped at the office in her pyjamas to see her probation officer. A taxi driver delivered her and left without ado, no doubt afraid that he would be asked to take the lady on a return trip. Her arrival prompted a kind of frightened excitement in the office, and generated in the probation officer a sense of helplessness, all no doubt reflecting the woman’s inner experience that she could only express through this behaviour. Certainly, she could not talk about how she felt, and could only cry and ask for impossible things.

I came to think that this combination of intense feelings about which there was no insight or possibility of sensible discussion, with primitive anger, distress and fear that welled up in me as the worker, was especially characteristic of some disordered cases – it was a diagnostic observation about the nature of personality disorder. Sometimes it was observable as an extreme case but at other times it could be a more subtle component of one’s experience of a client.

I interviewed a man in Grendon prison that seemed to me to illustrate this less extreme phenomenon. He was relatively articulate and seemed reflective in describing his crimes. He was serving a sentence for a series of rapes, committed when breaking into people’s homes. He was frank and detailed in his description of how they took place, or at least apparently so. They always took place at night and he described how he would walk the streets in the quietness of the night. He painted a vivid picture of the sense of peace and security that he would find in these solitary wanderings. During those walks, he would see an opportunity to get into a home and commit the offences.

I came away from the interview in a strange state of mind, almost haunted by the image he had conjured up of streets, domestic housing and the night time sounds, and of this solitary man wrapped in the comfort of his isolation. I realised that this experience of night time solitude had an erotic charge for the man, but the behaviour he described was brutal and aggressive almost as if he had to fight against his softer feelings and counter them by predatory actions.

Adolescent problems with boundaries

Boundaries are of course more obvious when they are crossed – adolescents spend a lot of effort in discovering this. If all goes well, they gradually discover the limits without serious damage being done. The process of discovery has a particular quality which is especially important for the helping profession, not just in work with adolescents. Unhappy young people are often not content with talking about their miseries, especially when it comes to communication with parent figures. In some way, before they can be sure that they have any chance of being understood, they need to make you feel what they feel. Actually, the more they are confused about their feelings, the more they need to experience them within those caring for them. This is why caring for a young person is so exhausting – and exasperating. Reasoning misses the point – indeed some young people seem to like an argument in which they can passionately attack the inconsistencies and failures of the middle aged. The argument becomes a way of keeping you under control and at a distance whilst filling you up with all their rage and self disgust.

This characteristic pattern of behaviour in which unmanageable feelings are somehow transferred to another person is apparent throughout childhood. The infant’s cry touches some programming in each of us that arouses feelings that we cannot ignore. For some infants sadly, this primitive cry arouses such similar primitive fear and rage in their carers that they act out the violence against the child. The ‘terrible two’s’ of temper tantrums can similarly arouse uncontrollable rage in the parents, as dramatic scenes in any supermarket can remind us!

At key points of emotional development therefore, children seem to need to take advantage of the yet to be formed boundaries between themselves and their parents, by transmitting their most disturbing feelings into those they must believe can cope with them better.