would like to present our first guest blogger. Below you will find Noel McDermott’s article in full without edits. We hope it facilitates thought and discussion. Enjoy!

Holding the human: the contradictions of helping

I am going to approach supervision from the perspective of what I have found helpful as a supervisee and also what seems to have worked when I have provided supervision.

If what you want is a closely argued theoretical discourse on supervision in this paper then stop now.

Additionally if what you would want from a supervisor is an extension of your formal training in therapy or any of the helping roles one might find one in, then this is not the place for you.

Acquiring new knowledge is definitely part of the deal in supervision but for me a much more important task is present.

It’s a task that cuts through to the heart of being in a helping role, in my humble opinion, and the task is: how did I just help that client in that moment, (which inevitably means me as well), become more fully human?

In a sense I’d like to stop writing at this point and say that is it…

But there are maybe a few more things to say that could be useful.

Being a human in the fullest way one can be involves looking at the evasions we engage with in a relatively routine and mundane way.

The first mundane evasion is in this thing called job role and job description. I am aware I’ve probably lost a few people above who decided they want nothing to do with helping folk become more human, and certainly not themselves.

Because of course in the supervision I am suggesting you are going to have to do it yourself. Become more human that is. And so am I.

The helping world had been made complex by the development of for example regulatory frameworks, professional bodies, schools of thought and training, competing models of practice.

Nothing that is really more complex than power, prestige, money and so on.

I am going to suggest a helping and supervision way that gets a focus on the human.

I am going to call this human rights supervision: supervision and practice that is focussed on fundamental rights and obligations that are largely non-negotiable.

The most fundamental of those rights is simply this: the right to be respected and dealt with in a humane and compassionate manner.

Coming back to the evasions we engage with personally and professionally. It is now difficult in the extreme in most helping situations to feel that we are helping.

There are many reasons, which often have some validity in phenomenological reality.

Someone is not doing their job in the mixed or multi-disciplinary team, the paperwork gets in the way, there aren’t appropriate facilities like a private interview room, elements of say health and safety legislation get in the way and push us into defensive practice.

All of these are phenomena that can be observed and accorded the status of truth. They happen and have consequences.

And the other levels of truths that exist, that it is not my job? I am a social worker and don’t do therapy, I am a therapist and don’t do social work, I am a housing officer..

I propose we cut through that and accept the proposition that ‘I am a person that works with other people in need’. Additionally we accept, ‘I am a person in need equally, if often in different ways’.

We then add, ‘my central task is to value that other person in need and support them in their life task of becoming more fully human. That then supports me in my life task of becoming more fully human’.

Coming to supervision ‘in need’ allows one the possibility to engage with what might be the universal in my experience with my client of being in need.

I am guessing by now that some folk are beginning to wonder which idealistic cloud I live on?

Does it help to know I spent years managing services to thousands of destitute and outcast refugees in the UK, does it help to know I spent many years working with kids and families living effectively street existences with huge levels of poverty, exclusion, abuse, trauma, violence drug addiction?

Does it help to know I have done years of psychiatric work on locked wards with offenders etc.?

Does it help to know I have sat with victims of torture from the Balkan rape camps whilst helping them complete beurocratic application forms for financial help and counsel them through a flash backs with the progeny of the rapes sitting beside them?

Or does that horrify you and have you running to your boundaries?

If the later I would counsel you against seeking support from a supervisor in my mould.

So is support about stripping things bare and developing a reductionist approach? No.

Becoming more fully human is in my experience about growth and development. That growth can be blocked by early events, later life events or simply by a lack of knowledge.

There can often a focus on the past to the detriment of what we have learned today. By that I mean the professionals, not the client. We can be slow to embrace change as people who are advocates of change.

It’s not a useful contradiction.

In fact I might be as bold as to suggest it not a contradiction at all, but it’s a defence, a maladaptive one at that.

So let’s drill down a little and find what is the universal and general in our practice as helpers (therapists, doctors, social workers, advice workers…)

The task is to look at our relationship to our clients and ask ourselves how we have improved that relationship.

This is the space we all share and is the place we can effect most change.

Probably one of the most effective ways of engaging in that space is in the here and now, because generally the there and then is present as well. But the converse is not true.

In the present is often the universal material that if we can engage with then both our client and us is touched and enriched by.

So let’s go back to the client traumatised by their life experience and yet having to complete a form or they loose their home and their child who happens to be a product of the trauma.

It is relatively meaningless to engage in that exchange with only a thought to the form to be completed for financial support. But it is also impossible to engage with the full enormity of that situation using empathic methods, as you will burn out.

The question is then, is there another way between becoming emotionally cut off or emotionally overwhelmed?

Well of course there is, as I’m writing about it am I not?

The work of helping has become increasingly fractured and complex, largely due to more and more specialisation.

It’s difficult to hold on to what connects us as we narcissistically discover more and more ways in which we are disconnected.

The rush to publish the latest theory of a hyper specialised illness for the latest version of any of the many dictionaries of disorder and disease.

There is a contradiction in this of learning, growth and change but remaining connected to universal and trans-historical truths.

But there is in myth and story for example, containers of global and historical wisdom, passed through the centuries. Their use relatively easily does both, enables change and growth and re-affirms connection.

The clients who needed practical and emotional help above are not the first or indeed the last victims of atrocity in human history.

Many myths contain these experiences and can provide a stable container for even the most traumatic of human situations, and further enable our continued connection with being human.

Spelling it out, in dropping to this universal we help deal with the particular and specific. It is in the universal that the truths of human experience persist and hold us all.

That is the task for the client, to stay in the human sphere of being connected to others. Dialectically linked: utilising the contradiction of hurt and withdrawal and need for solace, comfort and human support.

Healing change only comes from connection, but hurt teaches us to disconnect.

Something in between needs to happen for the change to take places and growth to begin happening again.

The task of supervision is to find the connections between the client and us, between the supervisor and the supervisee. The ‘some things in between’…

The task of helping is also to do that.

Part of that is to utilise theory and practice in a dialectic manner, as things that seem in contradiction but are in fact in mutual dependence.

The contradictions between what seem like our helping ideals and our real life working conditions are the places we must explore and find the fit. So somewhere in between the contradiction is the path through. That is the synthesis.

Inevitably this will involve us as helpers in personal growth, for how could it not. So in the helping journey a key task is to identify our own personal blind spots, our own need for support and opportunities to become more fully human.

Having respect to our own human rights as helpers; that seems to me to be a place to start.

(copyright Noel McDermott 2011)




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *