When people are in pain, it’s natural for us to want to get rid of their pain. Sometimes though, trying to get rid of something helps us avoid what is causing it. This avoidance does not really help anyone...
A client began a coaching session with me by saying, “I want to get over feeling resentment about my manager.” I asked, in response, “What has she done to deserve you giving this up?” My question flummoxed him. At one level, getting over resentment feels like a good thing, but the question subtly invites us in to a worldview that suggests that resentment is a bad thing. Yet this is not so. Resentment is often an understandable and healthy reaction to something. I believe we need critical awareness about buying in to premature attempts to get rid of unwanted ‘symptoms’ like resentment, before understanding what their function is in relationships. Sometimes, resentment is anger put on ice, and we can melt ice by heating it up - by supporting our clients to feel and experience more of the things that they want to be rid of, rather than desensitising to them. Ignoring resentment, or any difficult feelings and experiences, does not make them go away. Better that we engage with the complexity of what is going on, by exploring the function of resentment in the relationship. How is it useful?
My client’s question asked me to help solve something. I’m always suspicious of this! First, if I accept the invitation at face value, I could be playing in to a dynamic which is disempowering of him. It is as though he is small and I am big; he is a victim and I am a rescuer. In this dynamic, who is the perpetrator? Presumably my client’s boss? If I form an alliance with my client’s ‘victim’ mindset, I collude with a framing of the situation that keeps him helpless. Better to find the perpetrator energy in my client - his part in co-creating and maintaining the situation with his boss. There’s agency and power here (perpetrators always have more fun). How can this be channeled constructively?
Second, while sometimes it looks like we want a solution (like the thawing of resentment), if we look closely enough we’ll see that we are often avoiding solutions. Because we have hidden loyalties to others - in our families, communities, and organisations - a solution can feel like a betrayal and we feel guilty, moving towards it.. Solutions always lead us in to new territory, and therefore we always feel a little lonely. As long as we stay close to the problem, we stay in good company. Giving up our loyalties means giving up a closeness to someone or something that matters to us, so we are chary of foregoing something. Better to enquire with my client to whom he owes a hidden loyalty? Which person, in which group of reference (family, community, professional association or other group) would be betrayed if my client remained resentful? Such a question is not easy to answer, of course - it often requires a process such as a Constellation to reveal these kinds of hidden loyalties.
For example, another client once asked me to constellate a working relationship in which she felt ‘stuck’. In my experience, stuckness is always a loyalty issue - we experience the magnetic pull backwards towards ways of relating that formed us, in spite of our earnest desire to move forwards in the direction of our dreams. We feel stuck because we do not understand the nature of the hidden loyalty. In this client’s constellation, we set up representatives for her and her close colleague, with whom she had just been given joint responsibility for an important new project. She felt unaccountably and unreasonably cold, detached and dismissive to her colleague. The constellation gave a clue about the pattern of relationship in her family of origin, between her parents. She had an ‘aha!’ moment, when she saw that the blind love she had for her estranged parents was being replicated in significant current relationships, including this one at work.
Loyalty is a kind of love - albeit sometimes a blind love. And it does not serve our clients to get rid of such loyalties, but to bring a more mature, transformational awareness to them, so that the pattern relaxes - the ’old story’ can be understood and a new narrative can be chosen. This requires of us, as coaches and consultants, that we stay with what is, rather than move too soon to a desired state; that we acknowledge ‘reality’ rather than ignore it in our attempts to enable change. Acknowledgement means not diminishing, deny or hiding any aspect of the truth of a situation. Acknowledgement is a fundamental pre-requisite for change. Things do not go away until they are acknowledged. Without this awareness, our solution-seeking tendencies might backfire.