Inside and outside

When we divide what’s ‘inside’ us from what’s ‘outside’ as if they were separate from one another we cause ourselves all kinds of difficulty.

In much of our culture we treat working with what’s ‘inside’ as if it’s irrelevant, an indulgence, soft, a waste of time when compared with the hands on world of making, doing, deciding and acting. And we can become equally convinced by the opposite position – that we can’t act until we’ve completely resolved some feeling or inner difficulty, or until we’ve studied and understood a subject from end to end.

But inside and outside are a continuum, different aspects or angles on the same world. It might be most helpful to think of ‘inside’ primarily as that corner of things of which each of us has a particularly special, privileged view – and part of the world nevertheless.

And so it is the case that the way I relate to others is very often the way I’m already relating to parts of myself. And that the way I struggle within myself is the self-same way I struggle with other people.

And it’s often the case that powerful ‘inner’ work is done ‘outside’ – for example by developing skill in relating to others I also develop skill in relating to myself. And that there are many riches to discover about the ‘outside’ world by the much undervalued art of listening attentively and with deep curiosity to the inner experience of others.

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Why write about the critic?

Why write so much about the inner critic, as I have done here so often over the past three years?

  1. Because we all have one, whether we’ve caught onto it or not
  2. Because so many of us think we’re the only ones
  3. Because it’s a source of so much suffering for each of us – the world as brought to us by the critic is riddled with harshness, judgement, and fear
  4. Because when we react to the self-wounding of our own critics we very often cause suffering for others
  5. Because the critic has each of us living in a very small space, a tightly-bound world in which actions that would help us, and help those around us, are denied to us
  6. Because the critic is more interested in maintaining our safety than in our creativity, compassion and contribution
  7. Because the troubles of the world desperately need us – and every ounce of creativity, compassion and contribution we can muster
  8. And because there is no time to waste

Photography by Justin Wise

By doing

We’ve been taught to wait, to amass knowledge, and to know for sure what it is we’re doing before we leap in.

We’ve been taught that the only time to do something genuinely skilful, risky and creative – in other words anything that can make a contribution to the state of things – is when we know how to do it already.

It’s ample fuel for the inner critic, the part of us that would have us hold back until everything is just right

And it has us hold others back too.

But, as Aristotle reminds us, when it comes to mastery the paradox is that

“the things we have to learn before we can do, we learn by doing“.

In other words, we have to jump right in, long before we have any skill, make many mistakes, and hang on in the face of our own demons, other people’s criticism, and the many occasions we’ll mess it up.

Does your work, your organisation, your leadership, your life allow any space for this?

Or are you keeping yourself and everyone around you in a tight circle of safe, predictable reliability?

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Atrophy

It’s one thing to have good intentions about your relationships with others.

You also need good practices to bring them about, repeated actions by which you

listen
pay attention
stay open or defend yourself
share your cares and commitments
choose what to say and what not say
respond to emotions
interpret events as they happen.

When the practices that connect you to one another are neglected, relationships atrophy. At first slowly. And then quickly. Before long nobody can point to the moment when the trouble started nor to what it is that is missing. It’s just that something necessary isn’t there, something that once brought this team, this family, this organisation alive.

And then it becomes easy to judge others and blame them for making things so hard. And to forget that it’s how you’re acting right now that’s keeping things the way they are.

Restoring relationships calls for more than wishful thinking, and certainly for more than blaming others. It requires waking up to the actions that genuinely connect people.

And it requires remembering, a central act of all leadership: recovering the very ways of speaking and listening that once supported you, and bringing them purposefully back into being all over again.

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Not acting is acting

Not acting is a kind of action, with its own consequences.

Not choosing is itself a choice, a path followed that closes off other paths.

Not risking has risks all of its own.

It may look like disengagement from the world keeps you safe, but it’s not so.

Disengagement is its own kind of engagement.

Photography by Justin Wise

The view from here isn’t the only view

The story you tell about this time in your life isn’t the only story. And the vantage point from which you’re looking is not the only vantage point.

Looking forwards, it might seem clear that you’re on the way to a great success, or an inevitable defeat. Maybe it looks like life is all sorted: you’ve arrived and there is not much more for you to do. Or perhaps, from the depths of your confusion, it appears that you’re lost and can never find your way back.

Life is so much bigger than each of us, and so much more mysterious, that any story you have is at best partial. Looking back, what feels now like inevitable defeat may turn out to be a time of building strength: the strength you’ll need to break out of the constraints that have been holding you back. What feels like being crushed by life could be the birth pangs of a new beginning. Maybe the solidity of your success so far turns out to be everything that will be taken from you.

As Cheryl Strayed writes to her despairing younger self in Tiny Beautiful Things, it can turn out that “the useless days will add up to something”, that “these things are your becoming.”

Everything changes. Nothing is ever just what it seems. And though you may feel sure you’ve understood your life, remember that it’s very difficult to see which are the important parts, and quite why they’re important, while you’re still in them.

Photograph by Justin Wise

On Difficulty and Understanding

As we encounter each of life’s difficulties, we get to choose:

Consider ourselves cursed or mistreated, as if we are owed freedom from hurt, pain or confusion. As if life owes us happiness. As if we are meant to be in control of everything. This is, essentially, a fight against life as it is.

Or draw on difficulty as part of life’s path, an opportunity to turn more deeply into life rather than away from it.

And while, with each successive difficulty or joy, we find that we understand life’s movement less and less, perhaps this way we learn to live it more and more.

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[after Jules Renard – “As I grow to understand life less and less, I learn to live it more and more”]

On Frustration

Frustration: a yearning for something that seems always just out of reach. It’s one part desire, and another part despair.

Intense, maddening, and in turns deflating, frustration brings the object of your desire to the centre of your attention. It shapes thoughts, tightens body. It has you thrash and complain. And it narrows your focus so that while it’s in full swing, the rest of life is registered only dimly.

Most surprising about frustration is its capacity to have you destroy the very thing you want so much:

The relationship in which you’re longing for respect and trust, undone by your judgments, accusations and harsh words.

The project you want to bring to the world derailed by your insistence and unreasonableness.

The art you’re creating undone by distraction and procrastination.

… which might not be as illogical as it sounds, at least at the moment of action, when destruction looks preferable to the despair of continual failure.

But, like all moods, frustration is an angle on the world, not the world itself. It conceals much, even as it reveals powerfully what you care about.

If you’re able to tell that you’re in it, you may be able to open yourself to the insight that it brings, and also to its narrowness. And from there, the possibility of seeing things from a wider perspective arises – the perspective that other moods such as gratitude, kindness, simple anger or hope could bring to the self-same situation.

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On stillness


It doesn’t take much being still and quiet for the part of me that compares, judges and criticises to make itself known. 

Most often it’s the tightness in my chest that I notice first, a clenched fist, a knot, a grasping and gasping for something to be done. Because this is the central judgement – that there is something I have neglected, some way in which I have not taken care, a sense in which I am never enough to have done what’s called for. 

If I sit still for a little longer, a stream of judgements come into view. I’ve made poor decisions – look at the outcome of that! I’ve not been attentive enough, successful enough, thoughtful enough. I don’t know what I’m doing. I am lost in the world, because of all the ways I fall short, and I’m not doing enough to address it. Even my sitting here quietly for a few minutes is proof of my inadequacy. ‘Why am I not moving?’ it screams, ‘Why am I not doing something?’

In the face of this it’s no wonder busyness has such an appeal. When I’m busy I can mostly ignore the tugging wrench of the critic, and in some small way it is appeased, quitening a little, even if what I am doing is inconsequential, busy-work. 

But when I am busying myself in this distracted way I miss the possibility of contact with a much deeper, more spacious aspect of myself – an aspect which I might even call ‘Self’. Self is prepared to look where the critic is not looking. Self sees with wonder this miraculous body that breathes and moves and loves and creates. It’s prepared to look with gratitude at the turns of fortune, too many to count, that lead me to be alive, in this time, on this planet. It’s willing to hold all of me – be all of me – with such gentleness and kindness, holding even the critic in its arms. And it’s committed to a much more truthful accounting of my life, celebrating my many successes and contributions, and knowing that there is still much to be done. It also knows, in a way the critic is never prepared to acknowledge, how much capacity and skill I possess, as well as how much support from life and from the many people who love me. 

Where ‘critic’ would propel me into the world in a frantic cycle of shame-fuelled activity, ‘Self’ knows me as an expression of life itself and would have me live in that way. And while critic does its best to make slowing feel enormously difficult, it’s in the centre of the quietest stillness that Self is most willing to come forward and make itself known. 

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Under Attack

It is, it seems, an unavoidable part of the human condition to have a super-ego or inner critic, a part of you that is directed towards keeping you within certain bounds of appropriateness at all times.

Long ago, when you were very small, you needed the adults around you to do this for you but now you’ve internalised those voices, or at least a distorted version of them, and they’re quite able to keep you in line even when there’s nobody else around.

And now, that harsh inner voice, the voice that can wound you at the slightest opportunity, is vigilantly on the look-out for the signs of disapproval from others that it takes as evidence of your shortcomings. Before you’ve even thought about it, it has inserted its judgements into your stream of thoughts, scolding you, judging others. That raised eyebrow? It’s because you irritate her, obviously. That offhand comment? You’re clearly an idiot. When she didn’t congratulate you on your work? Because you’re not up to much. He didn’t return your call? Because you’ve let him down.

None of these, I hope you can see, are necessarily the case.

The inner critic can turn even the most innocuous of comments into a perceived attack, and amplify a genuine attack so that it’s much more wounding than the attacker intended. And then, you’ll collapse and deflate, or rise in rage and indignation, and the strength of your reaction will surprise both you and your interlocutor.

And, in many cases, you’ll be reacting not to them at all but to this phenomenon that’s going on inside you.

Being under attack from others is made so much more difficult by the relentless attack you’re under from yourself.

Photograph by Justin Wise

What it takes to listen

It’s when we actually listen to another human being that they get to be human too. Listening allows a shift from I-It relating in which the other is essentially an object to us (an irritation, a way to get what I want, a way to feel good about myself) to I-You relating, in which the other gets to be a person.

As Martin Buber points out, I-It relating is essentially a form of It-It relating, since it’s impossible for us to show up as full human beings, even to ourselves, when we are in the midst of making another, or a group of others, into a thing. To relate to another in an I-You way, to listen to them in their fullness, bestows dignity on everyone and opens wide horizons for understanding, compassion, truthfulness, and relationship.

Listening ought to be the easiest thing to do. After all, it requires no complex framework, no technique, no technology. And yet it can be so, so hard.

Most of us have a lot of practicing to do in order to drop our need to be right, to be ‘the one’, to be liked, and to hear only what we want to hear. In order to listen we have to relax our defensiveness, be skilful with the inner attacks of our own inner critic (which is ready to judge us even when there’s no judgement coming from the speaker), get over our wish to control everything, and be willing to welcome whatever we experience. We have to be able to question our own stories and accounts, be open to seeing things in a whole new way, and quiet our inner world sufficiently that what is being said can reach us. And we have to learn how to be in contact with ourselves, a fundamental prerequisite for being in contact with others.

Perhaps all of this is why real listening is so absent in our fearful, impatient culture. And why we could all benefit from doing some inner work if we want to do the vital outer work of listening well to the people around us.

Photography by Justin Wise

Imagining or listening?

imagining

Our capacity to imagine allows us to convince ourselves that we know other people – their intentions, their wishes, their inner worlds – when we hardly know them at all. But what we are sure we know can so easily turn out to be simply what we’ve invented. And once we’re sure, we quickly discount evidence to the contrary, reinforcing what we’ve imagined by the selective way in which we look and listen.

We can imagine grudges and resentments, frustrations and slights, judgements and failings, hurts and distances, all without even once checking that they are true. And we can go for years, thinking we know others, when what we know is our story about them.

We do this with lovers and enemies, children and parents, siblings and friends, colleagues and acquaintances. We do this with people whose culture is different from our own, people who live or speak differently from us, people who vote differently.

And all of it feels so real.

There is one simple, and difficult, and necessary way to address the suffering, distance and estrangement that comes from our imaginings, and that is to listen.

Simple, because all of us are able to ask another ‘please, tell me about yourself, tell me what I need to know in order to understand you more fully’. We can do this with loved ones, with work colleagues, and across seemingly unresolvable divides. And we can start today, even if we have never had such a conversation before. All it takes is a willingness to be present and to hear, fully, what the other has to say.

Difficult, because listening in this way means we have to drop our defensiveness, our wish to hear things only on our terms, our fear that we won’t like what is said. We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, available, open. This is not the same as giving up our own way of seeing the world or simply doing what another person asks, but it does require allowing ourselves to be changed by the encounter. And this calls on us to summon up reserves of courage and grace and compassion, and to give up being in control all the time.

And necessary because our imaginings so easily act as a wedge between us, prolonging our difficulties, denying us the creative and nourishing possibilities of relationship, and blinding us to suffering as well as to the light and goodness that is in us and all around us if we’ll only look.

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Small steps

It’s tempting to think the change you’re longing for will come about through a single revolutionary step.

… somebody (usually not you) realising the error of their ways
… a new vision or mission statement for your company
… a new to-do list that will solve all problems, ease all ills

This is the kind of magical thinking that leads to the often-practiced and rarely effective tradition of team ‘away days’. Yes, a day of talking can take you a long way. And yes, a list of freshly-minted things-to-do can give you all a feeling of relief, perhaps even hope, for a few minutes at least.

But it should be no surprise that on return to the everyday world of your office or workplace, nothing seems to change as quickly or as radically as you had hoped.

From the ashes of magical thinking cynicism is easily born.

You might more helpfully think of most change – particularly change in relationships, trust or understanding – as a kind of titration. Drip followed by drip followed by drip.

Radical overnight revolutionary change of the kind that you’re hoping for, or promising, is the work of messiahs and magicians (and, sometimes, charlatans).

For the rest of us, the dedicated, consistent, purposeful, patient work of repeated speaking and listening, promising and requesting, messing up and correcting, talking and learning, practicing and practicing.

Small steps, now.

Small steps.

The next step

What if the way your life is, and the way you are now, are not how things turned out, but training in the preliminaries? Or, said another way, if your life so far was but the education and practice you needed in order to be able to take the very next step?

Thought about like this, your life is now is not some curse, the punishment for some crime, or a consequence of your many failings and transgressions. No, it’s been fertile soil which has nourished just the qualities and skills you need to take the step that only you now can take.

And given the extraordinary unlikelihood of you being here in the first place – the very fact of your life has the odds stacked billions to one against…

… and given that it will be gone in a blink of an eye, even if you live to a ripe age, and given that nobody but you could have lived the exact life you’ve lived so far

… given all of this, the step that only you can take, the step for which your whole life until this moment has been a preparation, that single step is given to you now – however ordinary, however modest – as a gift yours for the taking, if you will but take it.

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Love made visible

Below, nine narratives, nine stories, about what work could be for.

Whether we choose one of these, or one of the infinity of others that are possible for us, there’s no doubt that our narratives have a powerful role in shaping our identity, what we notice, what we think is possible and important, and our relationship with others.

Change the narrative and we change what work is for and much about how we experience it. Change the narrative and we change our relationship with our difficulties and possibilities, with the sense we make of the past and of the future.

Do any of these offer a new way of seeing what you’ve been doing so far…

… and what you might take on next?

Work as…

.. a way of setting the world straight – fixing what’s wrong, making good, bringing integrity, standards, and justice into the world

.. love made visible – an opportunity to dedicate ourselves to our deepest commitments with our minds, hearts and bodies, and in relationship with others

.. a way to cultivate excellence – finding ways to do things better, with greater impact and with ever-increasing quality of attention and skill

.. an expression of artistry – work for its own sake, for the depth and expression and creativity that is unique to human beings

.. an opportunity to learn and discover – work as the pursuit of understanding, learning a field from end to end and using that learning to solve problems that would otherwise continue to challenge us

.. a way to lay down secure foundations – work as what makes it possible to have somewhere safe, dry and warm to live in, a shelter for ourselves and those we love, and the resources that will help us respond to unknown future challenges and possibilities

.. an exercise in freedom and hope – work as what enables us to break the confines of otherwise predictable lives – to play, to experiment, to meet people, to try out new things, to bring into our lives and into the world that which has not been so far

.. a challenge to the status quo – work as a way of upending things that need upending, revolutionising what needs revolution, using our power to shift cultures, expectations and the way things are done.

.. the practice of peace – work as a way of bringing people together, forging community and connection, relationship and shared purpose, a way of having our many differences serve us and each other rather than separate us

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The limits of happiness

This being human is a guesthouse, writes Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, the 13th century Persian poet. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

I think Rumi’s right. To be human is to be visited by a stream of experiences, each arising and fading away after the other in a mysterious succession. We know only a little about how to influence the stream. Sometimes we find ourselves able to direct its course by being with certain people, or taking up certain activities, or by being in a place resonant with beauty or with memory. And we can sometimes influence the stream by trying to block it – holding on to sadness, or resentment, or anger through the stories we tell ourselves about life.

But, mostly, to be human is to have a stream coursing through us that arises of its own accord, without our volition. And when we seek to constrain the movement of the stream so that it consistently feels a particular way we also end up having to constrain some portion of our aliveness and freedom. Our fullest humanity comes when, as Rumi recommends, we learn to meet all our experiences at the door laughing, and invite them in. 

Each year, as I experience ongoing rivers of sadness, joy, tenderness, rage, sorrow, fear, longing, love, satisfaction, frustration, deep confusion and hopefulness that flow through me, Rumi’s advice seems more necessary, and more true. And it seems no more passing mood gets me in more trouble than the expectation of happiness. When happiness is the standard, almost anything else falls short. When I imagine that happy is the way I should most often feel, I can twist myself into all kinds of knots trying to bring it about, and invest myself in all kinds of comparisons, and standards, and unforgiving judgements about the life I’m already living. I can imagine that others have found the key to happiness – that they have it in a way that I don’t. And I have found out how easily I can end up narrowing my life in its pursuit, pushing away or disapproving of many other kinds of experience that arise, quite naturally, in day to day living.

Let me be clear – I think happiness is wonderful, and I love to feel it. And I’m also saying that I think there is a trap in making it life’s primary purpose, and in thinking that it’s even possible to cling onto it without in one way or another narrowing ourselves. Because happiness is just one of Rumi’s visitors, destined to be followed by all kinds of other experiences in any life that is allowed to breathe. And also because we ourselves are changing all the time, so that many of our attempts to generate future happiness are deeply flawed. The person we’ll be when the time comes for the happiness we’ve longed for to arrive will be different in so many ways, and may feel happy about different things, than the person who is making future happiness plans today.

So if happiness is transient, and if chasing it can so easily diminish us, what is worth pursuing? I think the answer almost certainly lies not in trying to feel a certain way but in the purposeful cultivation of what the ancient Greeks called the virtues – those capacities and qualities that allow us human beings to live in meaningful, vibrant, engaged ways, whatever our circumstances. There’s a wide freedom and much possibility in cultivating integrity, goodness, kindness, creativity, connectedness, flexibility, forgiveness, devotion, gratitude, resoluteness, intimacy, patience, truthfulness, warmth or wisdom, to name just a few.

Each of these virtues can be nurtured in an ongoing way through our everyday practices of speaking, listening, working, making, resting and expressing. Each may bring us happiness, yes, some of the time. And each may sometimes bring disappointment or frustration, or any other of Rumi’s guests. But it’s also the case that each of the virtues, if we’ll be disciplined enough to work on them and to attend to them, can also bring us deep opportunities for meaningful engagement with life, for belonging, and for contribution, whether we’re feeling happy, or sad, or despairing, or whatever else comes our way.

Photograph by Justin Wise

Secret superpower

Many of the most courageous people I know are also the most afraid.

Living with such an intense inner experience of fear – and surviving it – cultivates within them extraordinary capacities to keep going, to face things as they are, to take action when it’s called for, and to be present with others who are afraid.

I know how much I value having such a person by my side when there’s something genuinely terrifying to face. Someone who knows fear intimately. Someone who has found ways to work with it. Someone who already knows what to do.

Many of the most courageous people I know hardly see themselves as courageous at all.

They relate to their fear as a defect, a failing, a reason to judge themselves, as fuel for the harshest inner criticism. That they are afraid obscures the view, so that they’re blinded to the gifts they bring.

They do not see that the part of themselves they most wish to banish is the very source of blessings, the source of their secret superpower.

So it is in the best superhero origin stories, and so it is with all of us.

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Your family, your team

Here’s a powerful method for working with, and talking about, the unconscious projection of family relationships onto other situations (your team, for example).

1 Map your own family

Start by drawing your own family system – the one in which you grew up. Include everyone who seemed a significant presence to you during your childhood, for better or for worse – parents and siblings in particular, and perhaps aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents.

Map it out on a piece of paper. Draw a circle for each person, with the distance from you showing the amount of contact, and the thickness of line showing the quality of relationship you had (thicker = stronger). For example:

If you wish you can give more detail to your map by noting the mood of each relationship you’re mapping (supportive, caring, threatening, confusing etc).

2 Map your team

Now think about your current work team as if it were a family.

Who do you think takes up what roles? Can you see parents, siblings, cousins, outsiders? What is the age order in this system (it may not be the same as your actual age order)? Who is close in, who is further out? Include yourself in this exploration – specifically, who are other people in the team to you (older brother, younger sister, cousin, parent etc)?

Draw out your team ‘family’ in the same way you did when you mapped your own family.

Do you notice any connections? Similarities? Resonances between the family map and the team map? Can you see any way in which the relationships you take up in your team echo the relationships in your family? Does any of this suggest new actions you wish to take, new possibilities you wish to pursue, or things you’d like to stop doing?

3 Talk about it

Here is where the magic begins. Host a conversation with your team in which you share your family map, your team map, and the insights that have arisen as you compared the two.

If your colleagues are ready, invite them to do the same. Remember that what you’re sharing is each person’s experience – so be curious, gentle, generous, welcoming and as open as you can. This is an exercise in understanding one another, in knowing your shared humanity, not in convincing one another or proving a point.

If you’re willing to be kind enough, and interested enough, and truthful enough, you may just start to give yourself new language that you can all use to observe yourselves in action – and a way of catching the underground patterns that have you relating to one another as if you were people from there and then rather than the people you’re working with here and now.

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Seeing through it

Given how often our naturally associative minds fill in the gaps in our experience with the ghosts of memories, projections, and transference, what are we to do?

Let’s start with understanding that all these processes are entirely natural and – in many circumstances – entirely necessary. Faced with something new and unknown, it’s quite reasonable and very helpful that we have the kind of minds that enable us to predict what might happen and take action on the basis of our predictions.

But let’s also understand that in many situations our associative understanding of the world causes enormous trouble: when I try to gain your approval as if you’re a parent because of the way you have positional authority over me; when I treat you as I do my younger brother because you’re a peer on my team; when I project onto you those aspects of myself I don’t like or can’t tolerate, and judge you or criticise you because of them.

As I have written here in recent days, each of these can lead us into all kinds of difficulty because we are no longer relating to the people around us as they are. So how can we work with colleagues, lead an organisation, parent or be a friend in a more truthful way, a way which is responsive to what’s happening now and here rather than what was happening then or over there?

Perhaps a powerful and insightful place to start is to take up the discipline of regular self-reflection. Buy yourself a journal – something you’ll be pleased to write in. And a pen that you’ll enjoy writing with. And then write, daily. You can uncover wonders with just a few minutes of attention each day (some hints on how you could do this are here).

Write about what you see in yourself – your thoughts, what you experience in different situations, and the actions you find yourself taking. In particular, write about what it feels like to be with others. Where do you feel small, diminished, like a child? Where do you feel grandiose, puffed up beyond your normal stature? With whom do you feel judgemental, angry, resentful? Whose company are you drawn to?

And then, most importantly, write about what each of those feelings remind you of. It’s here that there’s the most uncovering to do – that the watchful, vigilant state you find yourself in with Paul reminds you of the feel of being with your father when you were small; that Dana irritates you the way you feel irritated with your sister; that you long for signs of Karen’s appreciation for you like you did with your mother.

Often it’s just the seeing of our transferences, projections and memories that allows their grip on us to start to loosen – that allows them to move from having us so that instead we can have them. And such self-reflection is vital work for all of us to do, if we want to take responsibility for the systems, communities, organisations and families in which we live our lives.

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