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.’ ”