‘Wrestling in the Mud’
He began crying without notice, it took me by surprise. We were in our late teens and just finished cricket practice. Following our usual routine, we stuck around for an extra ½ hour, just the two of us, as best mates do. As soon as we finished he broke down. I had no clue what to do, I’d never experienced it before.
I do remember that I simply wanted his pain to go away, it felt uncomfortable and awkward for both of us. However, at the same time it also felt comforting. We were only there for a short time, not a lot was said and he soon ‘came good’. There was nothing that I did to mysteriously change things, but somehow after 20 minutes of two mates sitting side by side, as one expressed his despair and anxiety, and the other allowed these things to sit between them, things got better.
I wonder if I somehow lost this adeptness as I progressed in a career in Safety and HR or, maybe it was taken from me?
Mental health is often a tricky topic to tackle, particularly in modern organisations where the convention is that such ‘problems’, just like any other problem (or hazard), ought to be eliminated, or at least fixed where possible. The challenge is that some problems (if that’s how we want to think of them – that’s a whole other topic) can’t, perhaps even shouldn’t, be fixed; at least not easily or efficiently.
This is one thing that I have learnt during the 5 years I’ve worked with Lifeline. Counter intuitively for some, often the best approaches to supporting others is to simply be ‘with them’ as they experience pain; as uncomfortable an idea that this may be. This can help people heal and learn for themselves.
Of course, it may not help people and they may spiral into further pain and discomfort. However, this is the very nature of human beings, we are fallible and we will all suffer from time to time; it can’t be avoided. Things aren’t and cannot always be positive or cheerful, it’s our approach for how we deal with these situations that I would like to reflect on in this piece.
Let’s begin by exploring why Lifeline is so important in our community. It is an organisation that provides a place, and the space, for people to be heard, this has been the case since it began.
Lifeline was founded in 1963 by the late Reverend Dr. Sir Alan Walker, when he took a call from a distressed man who later took his own life. Determined not to let isolation and lack of support be the cause of more deaths, Sir Alan launched a 24-hour crisis support line. This service (13 11 14) now answers around 1,800 calls each day, with around 50 calls from people at high risk of suicide.
There are over 11,000 people who volunteer their time at Lifeline and on the surface, it may sound like a simple approach to what they do; that is just listening to people, as I did with my mate. While this is true in one sense, and the skill of listening is critical for the role of Counsellor, what is more important than the methods though is the methodology behind the vocation of Counselling. Exploring this methodology is at the center of what I would like to do in this piece.
So, what can other organisations learn from the methodology that motivates the profession of Counselling and organisations like Lifeline? Perhaps ‘wrestling in the mud’ provides some clues?
“Allowing people to ‘wrestle in the mud’ is one of the keys to helping others. As tempting as you may find it, if you try to pull them out, while you may think you are helping, the mud may not go away.”
These were welcomed words of advice, received when I commenced my studies in Counselling; a vocation that purposes to support others through ‘attending’ and ‘meeting’. Counselling is a profession grounded in an ‘unconditional positive regard’ for others (see below) and as McLeod (2013, p.8) notes in; An Introduction to Counselling:
“Counselling is fundamentally based on conversation, on the capacity of people to ‘talk things through’ and the generation of new possibilities for action through dialogue.”
The idea of ‘wrestling in the mud’ is a metaphor to suggest that the person who is seeking counselling must be allowed to, and be supported in, ‘wrestling with their pain’ (or concern, or anxiety). The methodology of Counselling engenders this. The key to a person ‘generating new possibilities’ for themselves, is that they must be allowed to feel tension as this may support ‘generation’. It is the role of the counsellor to support this by allowing the person to ‘feel heard’; rather than feeling ‘fixed’.
I submit that such a methodology, that requires (and permits) methods such as ‘wrestling in the mud’, is more humanising than those that insist on the methods of policing behaviors or those that are captivated by the measurement of them. These are methods that come from a methodology that cannot cope with pain and harm, and sees them as demons that must be eradicated. Paradoxically, in doing this, you would also eradicate much of what it means to be human. This is not an easy proposition to wrestle with.
The methodology of Counselling is not consistent with much of how our (western) society, especially organisations, operate. Sadly, people are often seen as commodities and the focus is on their utility. Anything that gets in the way of this is a problem that ought to be fixed or eliminated, including challenges with mental health. Organisations seem naïve that a by-product of this is isolation, seclusion and loneliness, and while the rhetoric you hear may be of a ‘care for wellness and wellbeing’, this is tested when it comes to tolerance of people who experience challenges with mental health. So why do organisations struggle to deal with and accept people who experience such challenges and pain?
The current predominately reductionist methods adopted in organisations may provide some clues. They are consistent with the way in which health, safety and wellbeing is generally perceived and treated. That is, the interest is largely on identifying and ‘making good’ the symptoms and ‘parts’. Elimination of pain and suffering trumps tolerance when the goal is efficiency.
What is needed is not an understanding people for their utility or their ‘part in the system’, but a more holistic notion, one that views people socially and as part of community. The field of Counselling that Lifeline is built on, knows too well the value of community and its importance for ‘good’ mental health.
As our CEO of Lifeline Australia Pete Shmigel noted during the organisations AGM in November 2016; “addressing the challenge of suicide in Australia is a social concern, not a medical one”. The key to supporting those who face challenges with mental health is embracing them as part of our community, which also means permitting them to do this while feeling their pain. We ought not ostracize and isolate people, but sit alongside them as they ‘wrestle’ with their challenges.
Counselling recognises people as social beings and that also ‘good’ mental health necessitates ‘belonging’ and being part of community. Organisations can hardly claim to support this if their approach is instill processes that seek to isolate, rather than bring together. In many organisations, very little attention is paid to mental health beyond what is often a superficial and short-lived interest. In many cases, it is simply a ‘problem’ to be outsourced (https://safetyrisk.net/do-you-treat-eaps-like-a-smash-repairer/). Who are the people in organisations who are required to deal with mental health most commonly?
Those working in Safety and HR are often at the front line when people experience such challenges. This may be when someone has been injured or a person is feeling anxious or distressed. In such situations, it can feel counter intuitive and uncomfortable to resist the urge to fix and control, however Counselling does this well. So, what can be done by those at the coal face when faced with such challenging situations?
Firstly, we need to resist the notion that it’s much better if the problem ‘just goes away’. The key is accepting and supporting rather than dismissing. However, this may take time and be grey and messy; so too is ‘wrestling in the mud’. When Counsellors ‘meet’ people, their priority is ‘presence’ and listening without agenda (attending), not ‘absence’ (eliminating) or fixing (crusading). Sadly, there is no space for ‘meeting’ in organisations that are deeply rooted in efficiency, standardization and regularization.
The methodology that models ‘wrestling in the mud’ on the other hand, accepts that problems will co-exist with people going about their lives and it allows people to tackle them while experiencing pain. ‘Wrestling in the mud’ means that we do not need to be expert in others, rather they are the experts in their own life. As noted earlier, one of the keys to successful counseling is ‘unconditional positive regard’ a phrase coined by Carl Rogers who notes that:
The central hypothesis of this approach can be briefly stated. It is that the individual has within him or herself vast resources for self-understanding, for altering her or his self-concept, attitudes, and self-directed behavior—and that these resources can be tapped if only a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided.
So how did our society end up in a place where adopting this approach is often the exception rather than the norm? Perhaps a short understanding of the history of counselling might be helpful?
Counseling can be traced back to the beginning of the eighteenth century when the industrial revolution brought about large scale changes in society. Before this, people generally lived in small, local communities where the head of the church, or community elders would usually support people who were experiencing personal challenges. Further, people who appeared to have more serious medical (or mental health) problems were also generally tolerated more than you would see today. Gone are the days where people would be considered ‘down on their luck’ or just different; nowadays, they must be labelled and sorted.
The introduction of the industrial revolution also meant more fragmented communities, a greater focus on efficiency and with this a shift toward placing people with mental illnesses into asylums. As French Philosopher and Social Theorist Michael Foucault explains in his book Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason;
…. the modern experience began at the end of the eighteenth century with the creation of places devoted solely to the confinement of the mad under the supervision of medical doctors, and these new institutions were the product of a blending of two motives: the new goal of curing the mad away from their family who could not afford the necessary care at home, and the old purpose of confining undesirables for the protection of society. These distinct purposes were lost sight of, and the institution soon came to be the only place where therapeutic treatment can be administered. He sees the nominally more enlightened and compassionate treatment of the mad in these modern medical institutions as just as cruel and controlling as their treatment in the earlier, rational institutions had been.
During this period also grew the field of psychotherapy. Counselling shares some of the philosophies of psychotherapy, however it has stronger connections to social reform and a strong presence in the voluntary sector. You can see this in the way that Lifeline operates.
Perhaps there is a lot we can learn from our past about how we deal with people who experience challenges with mental health? Attending and tolerating are surely more humanising than isolating and rejecting.
What can modern-day organisations and those in Safety and HR learn from all this?
If we see ourselves as valued and trusted ‘Advisors’ in our organisations, and if mental health is and will continue to be one of an organisations greatest challenges, then don’t we need to better learn the skills, and more importantly reflect on the methodology offered by Counselling? That is, to support others to ‘wrestle with’ and find answers for themselves, rather than aim to control them.
I wonder if these questions may help us to further reflect and continue a conversation?
- How do we feel when others appear to be ‘wrestling in the mud’?
- How do we respond when others appear to be ‘wrestling in the mud’?
- What societal factors may influence how we feel and respond?
- What do others learn if we continually ‘pull them from the mud’?
Perhaps working in Safety and HR creates your own feeling of ‘wrestling in the mud’, how is that for you?
How do you cope when people are ‘wrestling in the mud’?
*Acknowledgement: a special thank you to the friends who critiqued my initial version of this blog and provided some great questions to help me further reflect on the ideas shared here.