by Pat Comerford
The title for this article drew inspiration from Maurice O’Sullivan’s book Twenty Years A-Growing (1998), an account of growing up on the Great Blasket island. I am beginning my 40th year growing as a Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapist. An essential part of my journey has been about becoming increasingly me, in ways that have been shaped by my colleagues and through my personal relationships.
This year is the 100th anniversary of women successfully achieving franchise equality, at a time when it was considered heretical for women to want to vote. I want to acknowledge the influence of women in my life and how, on this historical anniversary, I am inspired to reflect on my own experience of being heretical and embracing equality.
The journey in heresy
I was in my late 20s before I discovered the original meaning of the word ‘heresy’:
“Belief different from the accepted belief of a church, sect, etc.”
(Barnhart, 1988: 478)
Discovering this particular meaning validated my experience of being a heretic. I further found out that ‘heretic’ comes from:
“The Greek ‘hairetikos’, able to choose…”
An essential part of my being is being ‘able to choose’. Through childhood conditioning, I came to perceive my power of choice as a ‘heretical’ activity. During my professional trainings and in my personal therapy, I learned to welcome my choosing and not to pathologise it. As Edith Eger (2017) demonstrated in her harrowing inspirational autobiography The Choice, I have come to believe that we all have the potential to exercise choice. I believe all my choosing has context and history as their direct drivers. The most influential context has been my family.
The journey in family
In my journey it was essential that I entered personal therapy to understand the role of my family in how I chose to live my life, and to examine the role I played in this family. I then engaged in the adventure of the ‘examined life’ (Grosz, 2013).
In my family of origin, “community feeling” (Griffith & Powers, 2007: 11) was nurtured and this largely directed the choices I made about how to live my life. A major “family value” (ibid, 36) was ‘there are others worse off than us and we must help them’. The parental injunction of ‘must’ was a legacy from their upbringing. Fortunately, for me, it was a happy task to reach out to others. All of my siblings engaged in some form of conventional ‘social interest’ activity. However I increasingly exercised a ‘community feeling’ in ways that my family disapproved of. I chose to participate in secular and fringe community groups. This was my earliest act of ‘heresy’ in the family. I then lived in London for a period, forsaking offers of ‘secure and pensionable jobs’. My family told me: ‘you always do your own thing’. I accept that I have been a ‘heretic’ from an early age.
While ‘community feeling’ was a significantly positive and “useful” (ibid: 85) expression in my family, I also became attuned to my parents’ “script messages” (Feltham & Dryden, 2004: 206). These were restrictive messages about emotions, religion, spirituality, politics, gender, and sexuality. Thrown into the mix for good measure, there was the rule that you must not ‘raise your head above the parapet’. This latter injunction, through shame, contaminated the difference between ‘secrecy’ and ‘privacy’.
While wanting to make a difference for the better I also needed to examine how my family had direct influences in the way I experienced and understood emotions.
The journey in emotions
There is an early childhood recollection I have about the funeral of an aunt. After the removal, I said to my mother ‘this is very sad’. She immediately responded to me in an angry tone, ‘don’t say things like that’. At seven years of age, I learnt that it was not acceptable to name how I felt. Later, at 24 years old, when my father died, I cried at his graveside. A sibling whispered to me in an angry tone, to ‘pull yourself together’. I became painfully aware that there had been another ‘family rule’: men do not publicly express how they feel. I have no recollection of ever seeing my father cry.
I have spent years exploring and understanding my own experience of emotions. The majority of these explorations have been ‘exciting’ (Perls, Hefferline & Goodman, 1951). This journey led me to learn about my feelings; to name them, to express them and grow to accept them. I still needed to understand, moreover, the purpose of emotion or feeling in my life.
Though I studied different theories of emotion, none fitted for me. I arrived at the personal insight and conviction that emotions are about ‘wants’ in the here-and-now, and that they are a form of ‘personal feedback’. I began formulating these beliefs in a coherent manner, and deciding whether or not to share my beliefs. I was confronting the family ‘script’ about not raising my head above the parapet. To go public was to be ‘heretical’ in my family. In sharing these beliefs, I wondered if I was also committing professional ‘heresy’ in respect of the implicit credo of my colleagues. I did submit my viewpoints for publication and I was not ‘burnt at the stake’ (Comerford, 2015a).
Fear, fearing and gender
In my family, fear was not permissible for men to feel or admit to, but it was acceptable for women. Several years ago, unusually, I felt fear somatically while working with a client. I tentatively brought this experience to my psychotherapist and to group supervision. In doing so I felt mild embarrassment. I reflected on the psychodynamic understandings generously offered but I had difficulty integrating them. My family’s imprint about men not feeling fear was interrupting this integration.
Later, I came across the television drama ‘The Abominable Bride’ when Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick Watson confessed to feeling fear. Holmes responded to Watson: “Fear is wisdom in the face of danger; it is nothing to be ashamed of” (BBC, 2016). This quote helped me to make sense of my own feeling of fear alongside my phenomenological experience. My fear had substance; there was no need for me to feel embarrassed about it. It was a welcomed resource for protection rather than an unresolved issue about being a man.
The above vignette is an example of what Lisa Feldman Barrett called “emotional stereotyping”, when men and women are assigned certain emotions as being appropriate to their gender (2017: 226-228). It is easy to sow seeds of gender bias about the experience of emotions because of society’s notions and peoples’ family beliefs.
Sally O’Reilly (2018) has written, “Teach boys that boys and girls experience the same emotions”. This is an important lesson to teach, since it will combat the ‘emotional stereotyping’ so embedded across all life strands. O’Reilly (2016) asserted earlier: “Feelings have no gender”. How I express my humanity may be ‘different’, but we are all bonded and essentially equal, from the outset, because of our ability to experience emotion and in being creative.
The next bastion of my family to examine was religion and spirituality.
The journey in spirituality
My parents raised me in one of the Abrahamic religions. In my secondary religious class, I asked many questions in order to increase my understanding of existence. One teacher told me to shut up and stop asking questions. Another teacher did eventually silence me by telling me that ‘faith is not synonymous with understanding’. I interpreted this response as coming from an ‘ancien régime’ where I had an implicit “…duty to obey… rather than the freedom to understand” (Bragg, 2017: 29, bold type added). I stopped asking questions until I went to university.
Faith came to mean a ‘blind acceptance’, which I attempted to live by but successfully failed. This particular form of family and Abrahamic “faithing” (Glasser, 1989: 3-8) required me to suspend the use of my own critical faculties and, more importantly, the full power of my ability to choose. I chose instead to live the Kantian counsel, to “have courage to use my own understanding” (Anderson, 2017: 52, bold type added).
In 1987, I attended an open talk given by the late Dr. William Glasser, the father of Reality Therapy (1965). I liked Dr. Glasser’s focus on the present reality of people’s lives. I valued so much the ideas he delivered that I enrolled in a training course in his model. After completing my training, a senior faculty member of the William Glasser Institute invited me to train further to become a ‘Basic Practicum Supervisor’. I accepted the invitation because of her encouragement and support.
Dr. Glasser’s lucid work, originally named Control Theory (1984) and then renamed Choice Theory (1998), enabled me to free myself from the erroneous teaching doled out during my childhood, the ‘sin of thought’. Essentially this view, a “tyranny of thought and subservience”, implies that because I have a negative-type thought, I am, consequently, a ‘sinner’ (Bragg, 2017: 96).
In Reality Therapy, however, what you think is not who you are. This insight was profoundly liberating for me. It fostered unconditional regard for my thoughts and the thinking of others. I understood that what you do and say is more significant and influential. I chose to reject this deeply flawed and autocratic idea that I am what I think. It became necessary for me to examine if it was possible to be spiritual and yet free from established religious constructs, a spirituality that was instead secular.
In conversations with colleagues, theists and atheists, I observed that they did not have a framed spirituality that I could connect with meaningfully. I was at another crossroads in terms of what to choose to believe. I no longer found a religious theory useful as a satisfactory explanation on the nature of existence or being human. I was reading the existential psychotherapy of Irvin Yalom, his wonderful ‘teaching’ novels, and the existential philosophy of Sartre. During this time of questioning, I was experiencing Holotropic Therapy. My journey became more reflective and introspective!
Some years later, I made the seminal choice, albeit ‘heretical’ in the historical religious sense, to forgo affiliations to any religious group. I actively concretised this disaffection by having my name removed from any records of my religious membership. While this brought a more vibrant sense of inner freedom, I was also aware of a feeling of mild loneliness for what was familiar from my childhood.
Through my bonding with my family and being exposed to a religion and type of spirituality that did not believe in equality, I began to take stock. My various trainings, personal therapy, and my work in counselling and psychotherapy was challenging me to understand and develop a personal sense of what it means to be truly equal in all of my relationships.
It was time to give expression to a humanistic view of spirituality. A view devoid of any framing of a deity in my life but replaced with a total belief in our humanity and equality (Comerford, 2015b). This was another ‘heretical’ statement about publicly choosing not to abide by the accepted belief of a church.
The journey in equality: The pernicious use of ‘difference’
When I was training to be an addiction counsellor, I was told by a client that because I was not an addict I would not be able to understand him. I understood from this feedback that I was different to him. In my work with male and female addicts, however, I came to observe and believe that all addictions are ‘feeling addictions’. I recognised that our communality is based on the fact that we are all feeling human beings.
I became aware how using ‘difference’, whether it be gender, culture, class or otherwise, generates separation in personal relationships, and, in turn, fosters inequality in the community. I have previously written about the professional dangers to client-therapist relationships, and in how we define ourselves as humanistic and integrative psychotherapists, when we become dependent upon labels and categories to define those we work with, and as our way to address ‘difference’ (Comerford, 2016).
Other women teachers on equality
Later in my career a colleague reintroduced me to the works of Alfred Adler and I found her enthusiasm for his understanding of being human contagious. I very much liked Adler’s ideas on the “Psychology of possession”, our temperament, and the “Psychology of use”, our use of our various capacities and opportunities (Griffith & Powers, 2007: 85). I was particularly interested in his views on equality (Manaster & Corsini, 1982: 50-51). I was also impressed with the Adlerian therapists’ commitment to the value of equality between the sexes and among all human beings. What Adler wrote about marriage partnerships has relevance for all types of partnerships and relationships:
Partners must be equal, and when people are equal, they will always find a way to settle their difficulties.
(Adler, 1998: 222)
As I read more of Adler’s work and discovered his emphatic humanistic orientation, I decided to train as an Adlerian Therapist.
While I was embracing my own power of choice, I was also growing to acknowledge and value women’s power. It was at this time that I professionally and personally had an unforgettable lesson in equality and feminism. I was a supervisor to a group of probation service social workers. During the coffee break, I passed a comment and a group member authentically responded to me that she felt uncomfortable with what I said. In my attempts to clarify (more accurately, defend) what I meant, I was digging a bigger hole for myself. She again stated that she still felt uncomfortable with my efforts to explain myself. In an insightful moment, I realised I had made a sexist comment. I immediately apologised, thanked her for this exceptional lesson and the respectful way she delivered it to me.
From that moment, I became more conscious of any sexism in my language and thinking. I worked on developing a deeper sense of equality. This powerful and nurturing lesson also assisted me in becoming a better student of Adlerian Psychology. I grew in my understanding of the core underpinnings of a humanistic approach to working with clients. I experientially discovered how inextricably linked humanism is with feminism.
This was an important lesson about embracing humanistic values in my work practice. It was also about the necessity for me to embrace fully a feminist framework grounded in equality. It was only then that I could sensitively hold and respect ‘difference’ in my contact with others.
The ongoing journey in equality and heresy
The Abrahamic religions do not embrace a specific ethos of equality. Humanistic psychotherapists respect peoples’ right to practise religious beliefs but they also understand that:
The standard secularist position is:…that religions and religious attitudes…are entitled to exist and be expressed in the public square, but with no greater privilege than any other voice in the public square.
(Grayling, 2013: 134)
Equality, inclusion and being ‘able to choose’ are the hallmarks of a humanistic and feminist ethos. To work in a humanistic and integrative manner, however, requires recognising the difference between a religious ethos and the humanistic and feminist ethos. Holding this difference sensitively and respectfully is essential in the work with the diverse range of clients we meet in the psychotherapeutic ‘square’.
Exercising franchise is to employ the power of choice and Mary Robinson (2012) has commented:
Women’s empowerment will progress only through their involvement in political processes and in shaping constitutions that guarantee the equal rights of all citizens.
While I fulsomely applaud Mary Robinson’s comment, the preamble of the most recent publication of the Constitution of Ireland (2015), nonetheless, opens with two exclusive and sexist statements:
In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as
our final end, all actions of both men and States must be referred.
We, the people of Eire,
Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who
sustained our fathers through centuries of trial.
(Government Publications, 2015: 2, bold type added)
Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, the “Ruler of Catholic Ireland”, was the “co-maker of the Constitution” (Cooney, 2003: 94-106). The opening sentences hence, are not receptive to the ethos of humanists and feminists! Today, International Women’s Day, as I rewrite the current article, another former Irish president has courageously said: “it is time to bring down the walls of misogyny in the Catholic Church” (McAleese, 2018). More needs to be done on equality and inclusion.
However, I draw encouragement from what we have done in Ireland. We have had the right to divorce since 1996 (DII, 2018), to marriage equality (Irish Times, 2015), and we voted to amend our Constitution (Independent, 2018). The psychotherapeutic ‘square’ is the space where women and men can give expression, to men’s power to ‘give and take’, to man-made authority, to all forms of capitalism and dictatorship, which permit and promote gender inequality. We need to be willing to “howl” at all forms of inequality (Ginsberg, 2001: line 81). The European Association for Psychotherapy (EAP), as part of their statement on the Ukrainian Crisis, had this to say:
Psychotherapy is aimed to help people to regain psychological wellbeing and restore mental health. Our work is guided by strong ethical guidelines, that are based on human rights and not subdued to political ideology or belief systems.
Women and men in a collaborative and cooperative Kantian ‘understanding’ with each other will achieve increased democratisation between genders.
Conclusion: The last lap
For my part, if I can help at least one person, irrespective of their age, gender, politics, religion, economic circumstances, ethnicity, orientation, or physical limitations, to feel and believe in their power to choose, I have then made a difference for the better. Now as I start ‘the last lap’ as a heretical humanistic and integrative psychotherapist, howling for equality, inclusion and choice (Bragg, 2017: ix), I am confident that I have achieved this with at least one person.
Author’s note: With thanks to J. Murphy MIACP and G. Staunton MIAHIP for their generous feedback.
Pat Comerford is a humanistic and integrative psychotherapist working in private practice in psychotherapy and supervision in Cork.
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