Gwen Adshead begins her recent book, The Devil You Know: Stories of Human Cruelty and Compassion, with an epigraph from Carl Jung: “The reason for evil in the world is that people are not able to tell their stories.” As a forensic psychologist and psychotherapist she’s heard some unimaginable ones — from decades of listening to people in prisons and secure hospitals. Her clients have been murderers and child abusers, arsonists and the mentally ill convicted of violent crimes. And indeed her sensitive recounting of how she listens to people who are otherwise categorized as psychotic is nothing less than absorbingly beautiful, if sometimes also frightening or sad. “The work we do,” she tells us about herself at the book’s beginning, “requires people to take responsibility for their life story, which can be a difficult and lengthy process.”
What does this have to do with leading and leadership? You might well ask that question and if you are asking it I recommend you read the eleven stories of clients she presents. I think you will find your own answers in the way she discovers and mirrors the humanity of each person back to them. I think you will also find it in the notion that psychosis is related to the inability of her clients to sustain their own intolerable emotions, whether feelings of loss or humiliation, self-disappointment or fears from traumatic and terrorizing experiences of the past. I personally came away understanding much more about the difficulties any of us face in owning our own stories.
For sure, I was reminded of clients and colleagues who have trouble telling their stories and taking responsibility for their relationships. They are definitely not psychotic, just somehow troubled or in trouble, people who may struggle with making emotional connections with others. That distance may be covered up through any number of classic defensives and deflections but always leaves the feeling that the true person is hidden in some way or too difficult or too complex to really know. We are not let in past a certain point. My mind goes back to an executive managing a billion dollar project through a maze of high-level reports. He’d learned to operate in highly political environments but the cost to his closest work relationships was high. Colleagues described him as a “locked door” that never opened and so the managerial relationships he depended on never gained much interpersonal depth. One day at a staff meeting he announced flatly, “I understand some of you have a hard time reading me” and after a pause continued, “and the rest of you don’t know me at all.” After another few seconds, people broke into laughter. He was, after all, making a joke.
But that is a minor example. More seriously, I recall a time when I happened to attend a workshop with a colleague, someone very accomplished in her trade and someone I had worked with closely. As participants, there came a point in the workshop where trios of people had a chance to disclose to one another some of their insecurities about themselves and their leadership. When it was her turn to speak my colleague was silent. “I have nothing to add,” she said, with a clipped tone of voice that marked a firmly placed boundary. “I don’t have that kind of experience.” I and another participant in this trio were surprised, asked sympathetic questions, and got exactly nowhere. There was no further option to share much of anything at all, no “I made a mistake once…” or “This is where I have doubts…” or “I hurt because of this…” We were just done.
I recall the impact of that guarded moment and it was confusing, as if common ground and a taken-for-granted sense of connection had all but evaporated. An awkward silence followed, as you can imagine.
I’ll bet you’ve experienced something like this sometime in your life; this process of another person shutting down and shutting out others. In that particular moment, it felt like something sharp had suddenly been unsheathed with the clear message: “Oh no you won’t. You can’t make me be vulnerable. I won’t let you.”
And right there, it was as if the person were acting out a little play called, “I will hurt you if you put me in that corner.” If I learned one thing from Gwen Adshead’s book it is that there are reasons behind this, human reasons that have to do with those “intolerable emotions.”
There are certainly circumstances where a person, any of us, can feel invaded and unsafe for any number of reasons and it’s entirely fair (and wise) to set boundaries. But in the case of my colleague at the workshop — and this is why I’ve never forgotten this incident — the force of the boundary setting also had a sense of superiority and dominance to it. It seemed wholly unlike her, inconsistent with the fine human relations work she did, as if the context and the intent of the sharing were an abomination, a violation of her stature or some kind of power-play. All that seemed out of place and somehow wrong, as if there were more, maybe a lot more to that secret chamber — and she had been triggered. I accept that my reactions could reflect some of my own projections, but not altogether. I know this: it changed forever the relationship we had.
It’s worth thinking about these experiences for ourselves. What secret chambers and locked doors are there in us? And from the perspective of reflective leadership, it begs a possible inquiry for any leader: What are those more difficult or intolerable emotions for me? What do I do to protect myself from feeling them and what’s the resulting impact on others? Someone who has a psychotic break may act out in physically violent and destructive ways; the rest of us may enact a far more subtle version of the same thing.
In some ways this is the simplest of all emotional dynamics. We strike out to prevent an experience we cannot handle. It makes me think back to all those times when I didn’t want to feel wrong or ignorant or exposed in any way and then what I did to prevent myself in the moment from drowning socially or otherwise feeling hurt. That’s where the devil I don’t know lives; the story of my life I can’t or won’t tell yet.
It is often said that leaders should be vulnerable; that their strength is in their openness. In our self-deluded way we may believe we are already too vulnerable or, from another perspective, that we’ve already mastered the skill. Either way I hear Adshead responding as she often does in her book by quoting Shakespeare. There, on page 2, she paraphrases “the beautiful words of Lear’s daughter, ‘We ever but slenderly know ourselves.’ ”
I used to be an expert in defensiveness and deflecting. Fearful of my shadow self.
Many years ago I joined a spiritual group…based on Eastern traditions and Western principles of psychodynamics. It wasn’t until three (extremely challenging, frightening, and very uncomfortable-mental, physical, emotional, spiritual and psychological) years of faking it and being a fraud) that I was able to let down my guard, take responsible for my past and present and share the messes I made in my past. It was like I was sitting next to my former self ‑really, my child self-frightened, scared, embarrassed…- with my arm around that little boy that I was able to set myself free.
My own interpretation of “â€œThe reason for evil in the world is that people are not able to tell their stories,” is (I used to believe) no one ever made me feel safe enough to do so. That’s partially true and the other half is I became addicted to, and an expert at, telling my stores…but never was interested in or curious about the root causes of my dysfunctions. Better late than never.
My work as a coach, manager, and leader has vastly improved as a result of my becoming comfortable in my own skin…
Peter, this is a very powerful story. I think you would like Gwen Adshead’s book and find unexpected resonances. At one point she describes the gradual process she and her colleagues observed as people took ownership of their stories:
Referring to their violent acts, the sequence might be:
“I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“It wasn’t me.”
“It was me, but I was mentally ill at the time.”
“I did it when I was mentally ill.”
“I did it.”
The doctors referred to this sequence as the “scala integrata,” a pathway of coming to terms with one’s actions. The author notes that every mental footstep is painful and sometimes all a therapist can do is be a companion on a journey along the “via dolorosa.”
Thank you so much for sharing a little of your own journey here!
All the best, Dan
A fabulous post. I had to read it twice, a week apart, and sit with it for a while before responding.
I love the phrase intolerable emotions .. though I certainly don’t love experiencing them. In my experience, there is no way to suppress these emotions over the long haul. They will eventually be expressed in one way or another .. and possibly many ways .. mostly destructive.
While some people may channel these emotions outwardly — such as the people in Gwen Adshead’s book — others channel them inwardly, often wreaking havoc on their bodies, as documented by Bessel van der Kolk (among others) in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.
Among the many related insights that came to mind while reading this post, I was reminded of a few slogans I first encountered in 12-step programs, such as “We’re only as sick as our secrets” and “Hurt people hurt people”. One of the many benefits of participating in such programs is the safe containers provided by [some] meetings in which participants can be honest and vulnerable in expressing intolerable emotions without fear of judgment. And, of course, good coaches and therapists can also provide safe containers for accessing and channeling intolerable emotions.
I will end with one of my favorite quotes about empathy and compassion, by Henry Wordsworth Longfellow:
Thanks, as always, for sharing your valuable insights and experiences!
Thank you so much for these insightful reflections, especially your observations that intolerable emotions will find their means of expression, as much inwardly as externally in the world. I totally agree.
One of things in Adshead’s stories that I find most remarkable is the incredible level of patience it takes to create the level of safety needed for full disclosure and ownership. In one of her client accounts, for example, it takes literally years of listening before the client was able to remove a hat he had constantly pulled down over his head, a hat that covered the white scars on his head he couldn’t endure others seeing.
Indeed, and what hat am I wearing still?
All the best to you, Joe!