Last week I had the pleasure of seeing Jeanette Winterson speak on the subject of feminism and the #metoo movement. This became a broader discussion about the fact that we seem to be living in a more split and divided world than ever before with, as Winterson put it, opposing forces of light and darkness struggling against each other.
I share Winterson’s view. We are living in polarised times in which people have become increasingly vehement and unshakeable in their beliefs and furious with those who do not share them. This is understandable of course; the stakes are high with so many of these issues; think Donald Trump, Brexit, climate change. These issues all potentially have a massive impact on us and of course we feel passionately about them.
Sharpening your soundbites
There’s also no doubt that the way we communicate these days makes our differences appear even more stark. As an avid Tweeter myself, I’m often surprised by the hatred and vitriol expressed on Twitter, most recently with half of my Twitter feed laying into Sir Philip Green for his alleged bullying and harassment and use of NDAs and the other Lord Hain for what some believe was his misplaced use of parliamentary privilege in naming Green.
What’s dangerous about this state of affairs is that somewhere along the way the ability to debate and any room for nuance and the possibility of changing your mind seems to be disappearing.
I think that this was demonstrated by the reaction to those (female) public figures who attempted to enter the #Metoo debate by presenting some alternative views from the perspective of some men, only to be forced to withdraw in the face of furious responses.
Splitting up and splitting off
I think what we’re seeing is an age in which the psychological phenomenon of ‘splitting’ has come to the fore. This concept was introduced by psychotherapist Melanie Klein to describe how, when we are babies we ‘split’ or categorise things and people in the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as a simpler way of seeing the world. We ‘project’ or split off our negative personality traits and put them onto the ‘other’. Klein called this way of thinking the paranoid schizoid position.
As a divorce lawyer and mediator myself, I’ve observed many clients over the years spending quite a lot of time in this position. It’s totally understandable of course – when we’re really stressed, we do have a tendency to get into all or nothing and black and white thinking. It then becomes very difficult to see where we have played a part in creating any problems and very hard to see the positive in anything the other person does.
The other position that Klein talked about was the depressive position; a state in which we are able to see the good and bad in both others and in ourselves; a more nuanced view. For example, if we think of Donald Trump as the ultimate ‘paranoid schizoid’ politician then perhaps Barack Obama is an example of the ‘depressive’ kind.
But is it even possible to go through a relationship breakdown without spending most of your time in the paranoid schizoid position? I’ve seen some clients go through it but come out of the other side, often with the help of therapeutic support to help them to identify when they’re getting into that way of thinking. These are the clients who tend to be able to negotiate or mediate, as they’re able to maintain some flexibility of thought and remain open to discussions with their ex, even though it can still be really tough.
Anger and its uses
But It’s not quite as simple as the paranoid schizoid position being the ‘bad’ and childish position. That would be like saying all anger is ‘bad’, which is of course not true. The anger inherent within this position can propel a person into action, which can be a good thing especially in a divorce where you need some ‘ooomph’ to get you through a process that can be frustrating and long-winded. It’s like that feeling when you’re really angry about something and the anger spurs you on to achieving a goal, even if that goal is just to (finally) clean the kitchen floor. The depressive position, on the other hand, can often be characterised by apathy, inability to make decisions and inactivity.
A bit of paranoid schizoid-inspired action is often needed for positive change to occur. The Suffragettes made real progress once they started to take action that caused widespread disruption rather than just debate. Similarly Nelson Mandela. The #Metoo movement also seems to be borne out of a realisation that the diplomatic route to achieving equality for women has achieved far far less than we would have hoped.
How do we use all of this?
What’s the upshot of all of this for those of us who work with conflict day to day? I think that we can use the current climate to spur us on to greater empathy for our clients. As a Remainer myself, when I feel a client of mine is being inflexible in their beliefs in a mediation for example I try to call to mind the feelings that arise in me when discussing Brexit with Leavers, not least the stubbornness and resistance to considering different sides to the story that I see arising in me. This helps me to appreciate the mindset my client may be in and to understand that I too can get into that sort of fixed position quite regularly.
My job as a mediator is to create the right conditions to gently encourage flexibility of thought, without shaming that client and I can do that so much better when I can hold in mind that I can be just as resistant to adjusting my world view.
I try to encourage my clients to engage in ‘mentalisation’, which is the ability to understand the mental state of others and what underlies their thinking. We all need to be encouraged and helped to be curious about what others are thinking and to try to step into the internal worlds of those we disagree with. When we do that, we can identify misunderstandings and help people to work them through. In mediation, mentalisation can also include bringing the child/children into the minds of parents and encouraging them to think about what may be going on in their children’s minds.
Do we want to be ‘right’ or do we want to be happy?
Working with conflict, whether in a domestic context or on a broader scale, is so far from easy and it’s common to get demoralised in the face of strong resistance from clients. After all, we all like to cling to what we think is right.
For me, my goal is to practice what I preach in my own life so that I can help clients to do the same. If that means being willing to take on board alternative opinions on Brexit and the like, then so be it!