24th November, 2018
By Silvia Baba Neal
“I am just about done with using the term ‘transference’”. These are striking words when coming from a psychoanalyst, Dr Anton Hart, the keynote speaker at this year’s IARTA Conference. He was pointing out that the concept can be used by therapists as a protective fortress. When confronted with the client’s anger and criticism, calling out on transference to explain sticky points in therapy, may be a way to close down exploration and curiosity about the therapist’s own contribution to the impasse.
Anton Hart’s work is about commitment to taking the heat so to speak, to accept criticism without running for cover, thus adopting a stance of “radical openness”. He asked us to consider whether we can bear to turn our attention to those who are ‘other’. To place a person in a category – black/white; straight/gay; young/old; able/disable; rich/poor – is to ultimately fail to know that person as a human being, to eliminate her complexities. It may be safer to presume that one knows the ‘other’ by locating them in a category, but Anton invited us to resist doing so, and to allow ourselves to feel the jagged edges of “otherness” by opening ourselves up and relinquishing foreknowledge.
Collectively we have trouble talking about diversity, perhaps being too frightened of our lack of cultural competence. Is competence acquired through diversity training real competence– or just an attempt to mechanise the delicate process of knowing the other? We often distrust ourselves to formulate our awareness in the moment, dialogically, because to speak is to risk offense and conflict. We dissociate from discomfort – a mechanism of disrupting attention when an interpersonal situation becomes too difficult to navigate - and therefore we often fail to notice our absence of curiosity. In this sense, radical openness (which is more about being receptive rather than disclosing) is a commitment to placing curiosity at the heart of the psychotherapeutic project. Can we tolerate the client’s curiosity without settling prematurely for an answer? Can we radically considering all possibilities, even those that hurt our egos – that we may not be as good and disinterested as we think ourselves, for instance?
As a speaker, Anton embodied both inclusivity and generosity of spirit – and something else – deep care and carefulness. He sacrificed large chunks of his carefully edited 44-page manuscript to engage with us directly.
Psychotherapists Carole Shadbolt, Karen Minikin and Judy Yellin joined Anton Hart with a call to broaden the scope of psychotherapy, to care about social issues and broader ethical commitments to justice and inclusivity. Dr Helena Hargaden had also prepared a response to the keynote paper, but she could not join the conference due to an accident. Her chair was made available to anyone who wished to speak as a delegate. One of the most moving moments of the day was when a mobility-restricted delegate wheeled herself to the front of the auditorium and reminded us that physical disability is “the one group you can wake up belonging to”. She reminded us that we may come to see the disabled person as a persecutor, and that there can be “competition of trauma” between minority and disadvantaged groups.
When we had broken up into smaller groups, we were able to reflect on our individual sense of ‘otherness’ and how we carry it. Some of us can plausibly blend and avoid being ‘outed’ as different. We may be ‘almost’ white or ‘almost’ middle class. Some of us carry deep shame and guilt for a whole nation and have had to apply ourselves diligently to self-education about the other. Some of us have become more acutely aware of our identity and what we represent as we have lost loved ones. We collectively pondered questions such as: “Why are generous thoughts towards the other not always followed by generous action?” and “How do we balance self-interest and compassionate concern?”.
Dr Hart’s paper will be available to IARTA members through the Resources page.