Work and how to survive it: Lesson 3. Encourage the whole self

Much of my practice is informed by counselling and psychotherapy as well as humanistic psychology more generally. One of my problems with these fields, however, is that insights and discussions are largely kept within the world of psychotherapy. What a waste! The vast majority of people are not engaged in psychotherapy and for the most part, psychotherapy pays little attention to applying itself to the mundane issues of everyday life, outside of counselling rooms. This is the third in a series reflecting on excerpts from Life and How To Survive It, by the psychotherapist Robin Skynner and the comedian John Cleese, with some reflections on work and organisations. 


Posts in the series:


Systems thinking and humanistic psychology have something important in common: holism. In Lesson 2, I noted that we need to look at the whole of work when it comes to understanding safety, and not just the relatively small fragments of failure. This has been a theme of other posts. In the whole picture, I reflected on the need for multiple perspectives in order to move toward a more holistic understanding of a given situation or system. In organisations and the ghosts of failures past, present and yet to come, I reflected on how failure is a partial and ineffective form of feedback, when used in isolation of the work as a whole. But there is a third aspect to this, which is our whole selves.

In Life and How To Survive It, Robin and John talk about very healthy people, and families:

Robin … The better I’ve come to understand these findings, the more I’ve come to think that healthy people live more fully because they’re able to use more of themselves. They seem able to handle comfortably parts of their personality that more ordinary, mid-range people are scared of, and therefore suppress, keep under tight control, keep the brakes on. I once suggested to the Timberlawn researchers that perhaps one big difference in very healthy people is that they can be more comfortable with their ‘madness’ than the rest of us. But of course, for them it isn’t ‘madness’, but just the wilder, more spontaneous reactions that we keep under tight control in case they get out of hand. They can handle it all, and put it all to use. (p. 29)
John … my experience of therapy is that the bits of myself I thought were ‘slightly strange’, and therefore better kept nailed down and out of sight, turned out to be just those qualities I needed and always thought I lacked.

John asks Robin about how this might relate to upbringing.

Robin It’s presumably because there’s been so much trust and confidence and mutual support. When you’re given a lot of freedom and encouragement, yet also feel contained and supported, you learn to express your energy outwardly, fully and freely, without fearing the consequences.

In this post, I look at the issue of the whole self through three lenses.

Gifts, skills and passions

As a child and teen I was a writer, an observer, a listener, a thinker, and an artist. If my mother were alive today, she would say that these were my ‘gifts’. Over time, I became interested in people, relationships, and experience, and decided to study psychology instead of art and design. After graduation, I became interested in work in particular, and began work in human factors and ergonomics.

What I found, working in very technical safety-critical contexts, was that the work was not very ‘human’. Most of my work, and that of my colleagues, was very analytical – reducing humans to components (factors of humans) and analysing their micro-interactions via cognitivism and engineering. The ‘person’ was not really relevant. In effect, some of the five postulates of humanistic psychology were sacrificed.

I spent many years analysing (breaking down) failure (see Lesson 1) and analysing micro-interactions with other people, and (especially) technology and procedures. I became skilled at this, and turned this work into a PhD.

But didn’t get much joy or meaning from it. It was a skill, but not a gift or passion. Over the years, as a practitioner and academic, I became dissatisfied with human factors and safety, and decided instead to train as a counsellor. During the training, I found that, really, I was distressed at discarding so much of my whole self at work for the sake of a skill. It is only in the last few years that my natural gifts and passions have been fully brought to my work in human factors and safety.

I know that many people feel or have felt similarly restricted at work, lacking the opportunity to express anything other than narrow aspects of their selves. Many people have gifts and passions but no opportunity to exercise them, perhaps because they are not known, or not valued enough to create space for them to flourish.

What are your first memories as a child when you remember yourself feeling joy? What were you doing? The chances are you were engaged in a passion, using and perhaps giving your natural gifts. There would have been sheer pleasure in the doing. Left to our own devices, as children we would often do the things that came naturally to us. Looking back on our lives in this way can give us insight into our natural strengths, interests and abilities.

Image: clement127 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/dN3rkc

Norms and subpersonalities

In work, as in families and in other social contexts life, we tend to split ourselves off into different ‘selves’, comparable in some ways to sub-personalities (see Rowan, 1990). Subpersonalities are found in many approaches to psychotherapy and can be seen as patterns in the way we perceive, feel, behave, see ourselves and bring aspects of ourselves into particular situations.

We may experience ourselves, and others may experience us, quite differently in different contexts: work, partnership, family, friendship, alone, etc. Of course there are some ways of behaving that are more appropriate for certain contexts, and we understand these norms. Walking on a beach in a bikini or swimming trunks is completely unremarkable. Walking down the high street in the same clothing is highly irregular!

But in our desire to keep our many selves separate, we can form rigid boundaries around expression and experiencing, restrict our way of being in accordance with expectations, norms, roles and stereotypes, to the detriment of performance, well-being, and joy.

In a study cited by Skynner, senior nurses (matrons) adopted a strict and fearsome demeanor. This had a function of preventing mistakes and ensuring things were done properly. Student nurses, on the other hand, were more in touch with the playful sides of themselves, while restricted from exercising responsibility. We can become trapped in particular roles and ways of being, suffering dissatisfaction because we can only express parts of our selves.

This has a parallel, I think, for many in that their ‘professional self’ crowds out other aspects of their self. This phenomenon seems to be increasing, especially with technology and social media, to the point that, for some, the professional self is at the forefront of much of one’s experience. 

Congruence and full functioning

In some ways, this resonates with Carl Rogers’ notion of realness, congruence, genuineness or authenticity. Rogers – a pioneer in the person-centred approach to counselling – emphasised the need for congruence in the therapeutic relationship, and more generally. “By this I mean that when my experiencing of this moment is present in my awareness and when what is present in my awareness is present in my communication, then each of these three levels matches or is congruent. At such moments I am integrated or whole, I am completely in one piece” (Rogers, 1980, p. 15), “without front or façade” (1961, p. 61).

Rogers made many remarks about wholeness in On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy (1961) and A Way of Being (1980). He said that congruence “is a fundamental basis for the best of communication” (1980, p. 15) and is “a basis for living together in a climate of realness” (1980, p. 160). Rogers encouraged more open expression of feelings, and not acting “as though I were something that I am not” (1961, p. 16).

Also related to the whole self, Rogers wrote about the ‘fully functioning person’. He listed seven characteristics. which we might consider in a work context. To what degree do we feel we can exercise these in a work context, which is, after all, much of our lived experience?

  1. A growing openness to experience
  2. An increasingly existential lifestyle
  3. Increasing organismic trust
  4. Freedom of choice
  5. Creativity
  6. Reliability and constructiveness
  7. A rich full life

We are often not very congruent at work and there can be many barriers to full functioning within professions and organisations. This is especially true in tight knit groups and command-and-control style management regimes. In both of these, there tend to be tight constraints on expression, mostly of the soft, unwritten, unspoken variety. They are observed and often communicated indirectly or unconsciously, or self-imposed based on acculturation. We do need to exercise some sensible limits to our expression. But perhaps we can also have a little more courage to be truer to our whole selves, instead of wearing only the ‘professional’ cloak.

When it comes to my own way of being and my own practice, I feel called to bring more of my whole self and my individuality to my working life. I find that being open and authentic has more advantages than disadvantages. More to the point, it simply feels right, and restricting my expression and self feels unnatural, artificial, and ultimately intolerable. Over time, expressing my true self at work has become less of a choice and more of an imperative. Perhaps being truer to our whole selves at work can allow us to give, and receive, gifts of joy, meaning, connection, and responsibility

Look out on humanisticsystems.com for my conversation with David Murphy on learning form psychotherapy and psychology in a forthcoming post and in HindSight Magazine Issue 28, to be published in February 2019.

About stevenshorrock

This blog is written by Steven Shorrock. I am interdisciplinary humanistic, systems and design practitioner interested in human work from multiple perspectives. My main interest is human and system behaviour, mostly in the context of safety-related organisations. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also Adjunct Associate Professor at University of the Sunshine Coast, Centre for Human Factors & Sociotechnical Systems, and Honorary Clinical Tutor at the University of Edinburgh. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock or email contact[at]humanisticsystems[dot]com.
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