I don’t usually bring politics to my therapy blog but waking up on Friday June 24th 2016 to such a sense of shock and the subsequent sequence of clients through my consulting room all of whom had been triggered in different ways by this referendum result has given me pause for thought.
The easiest response is to blame the 17 million people who voted ‘Leave’, to judge them as racist imbeciles who want a return to a long lost fantasy of a bucolic little England. But that, in psychological terms, is splitting and projection. You know, I rid myself of any shadowy bits of my unconscious (my own internalised xenophobia ?) and place them firmly within ‘the other’. But do I really believe that over half of my fellow voters are complete idiots ? That doesn’t sound like a very humanistic position - ‘I’m OK, they’re NOT OK’ ! I still disagree with their opinions and feel angry and dismayed by what the consequences of this decision may be in years to come. Yet how do I understand what has happened without diminishing myself or my neighbours ?
When young adults self-harm (often by cutting themselves but in lots of other ways too) they are often treated harshly by medical staff who judge them as stupid, attention seeking and unworthy of of compassion as they have deliberately inflicted their own wounds. Yet in counselling rooms we understand this quite differently. Self-harm is seen as one way to manage intolerable feelings, a physical expression of emotional pain. Some ‘self-harmers’ gain a sense of relief that may prevent them sliding into a suicidal hopelessness, Others, already numbed to their psychic pain, use the cutting to feel something, anything, to know that they are still alive. Interestingly Anorexia has been seen as a particular form of self harm that, rather than letting blood out, restricts what gets in, so seizing back control of the sufferer’s physical boundary. The underlying themes herein are a sense of being invaded, of feelings that cannot be managed or understood, and no opportunity for legitimate expression. Sound familiar ?
The experience of many people in this country has been one of a loss of control. They report feeling that familiar boundaries and securities have been taken away. That somehow their ability to determine their own cultural identity has become subsumed under rules and regulations that are made somewhere else. The ‘other’ - be it Westminster, Brussels or Immigrants - is blamed for causing unemployment, low wages, long NHS waiting times, etc.. And ‘the other’ is most easily identifiable when they look, sound and smell different. Now you may reject the jingoistic rhetoric as representative of a lower order of social evolution. But if you use that perspective to invalidate peoples feelings, to legislate against their expression or deny the legitimacy of their anxieties, then you will repress an unwelcome but nonetheless genuinely communicated experience. And as we know repression pushes stuff underground but it does not go away. Intolerable feelings of anxiety denied a functional outlet….sound familiar ?
The liberal metropolitan consensus that opposition to unwanted change most readily symbolised by different ethnic groups must be racist and reactionary is an attempt to impose a kind of ‘cultural hegemony’ upon communities who do not share that post-modern outlook. To outlaw and demonise those who express such concern is to further repress a component of the national psyche that, however uncomfortable, exists. And as a wise man said ‘what we resist, persists’’.
The result is that DESPITE knowing that a ‘Leave’ vote harms the body it is intended to save, and DESPITE a recognition that such an outcome does not actually solve the issues, the overwhelming need is for the relief of expression. Having felt so disenfranchised and robbed of promises of the great consumerist utopia the body politic has risen up to scream inchoately of their discomfort. And so 17 million people inflicted a wound upon the country that will be sore for a very long time, and may scar forever, simply because their feelings were not properly listened to. Which should be a lesson, if not already learned from bitter histories, that we can no longer ignore. Therapists know that listening accurately to current feelings precedes any possibility of change - and that’s why we need psychological thinkers on every committee.