One question I am asked is why, when I finished at the top of my law school and had some lucrative options, have I chosen to practice psychotherapy and mediation rather than law?
The main reasons have been drawn from my life-long exploration of conflict. From this I’ve identified four steps moving from a competitive conflict management paradigm of winning and losing into self-responsibility. I will explain later why I chose not to practice law, but first here are the steps.
1. Avoidance of conflict: ‘I’m pretty chill. I hardly ever get angry, but when I do, I blow like a volcano!'
What tends to happen here is people swallow their opinions and feelings.
Unfortunately, sweeping things under the rug doesn’t solve anything, it just creates a lumpy floor…
The eruption of temper is basically the person saying ‘You've pissed me off many times and I've said nothing, but this is too much. Now you’re going to cop it... with interest!’
At this stage is the view that other people ‘make' us angry, and flipping from swallowing our feelings and being a ‘victim’ to exploding in anger and becoming a ‘perpetrator’.
Some people express that anger externally, whilst some become passive aggressive or even self-harming. The expression can change, but the mechanism is similar when at this stage - dam the flow of conflict-centric emotions until the dam wall leaks or outright collapses.
2. Recognition that conflict is a fundamental aspect of life.
At a physical level humans kill everything we eat, regardless whether we are omnivorous or vegan there is a conflict between our fuel of life and other beings’ existence.
There is a conflict between what we express in the world and what we feel inside. There is a conflict between old and new (e.g. the archetypes of Senex and Puer); what ideas, beliefs, relationships and judgements are worth keeping, and which deserve to be replaced?
Even the moment must die so another can be born…
So long story short, I think it’s fair to say that there is some form of conflict everywhere.
With this understanding comes a choice because there is no inherent problem with conflict, it's a natural part of life. The choice is how to move with it.
3. Collaboration and Compromise: ‘Win/ win.’
This stage is where mediation lives. It involves being open to communicating deeply and authentically. People here are looking for win/win approaches to conflict. This step is focussed on the subject matter of the conflict and both parties compromise to resolve it.
4. Self-responsibility: ‘I am the creator of my reality.’
At this stage the subject matter of the conflict becomes less important. The questions are directed inward; 'Why am I getting annoyed?' 'Why do I want the things I want?' 'What am I not prepared to compromise and why is it so important to me?' Psychotherapeutic tools and inquiry rule here.
The answers to these questions reframe the conflict as they unfold choice around how to approach differences of opinion.
My Experience of the Four-Stages.
I started with stage 1 as a child. I suppressed my inner voice to fit my parent’s values some of which were brought about from a deeply held family shadow about the nature of the world; people are dishonest and looking to take advantage wherever it could be found. I was taught to believe that family was the only safe place. During this time, I had a long fuse and a nasty temper...
For me stage 2 was learning to become articulate with myself by exploring my relationship between fear, anger and conflict. With my understanding at that time the most efficient way I could confront these parts of myself was to learn a combat sport, and so I began to box.
I learned about ‘winning’ and ‘losing’, and came to understand the blurred lines between these two seemingly opposite polarities. Sometimes when people ‘win’, they lose, sometimes winners become complacent, self-righteous and/or possibly arrogant. And sometimes when people ‘lose’, they are humbled and learn something by exploring the way by which they lost. My boxing mentor used to say, ‘You either win or you learn something.'
My stage 2 journey also led me to read law, at which I excelled. In legal disputes there are ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. There is no physical violence involved but rather there is a clash of intellects. Highlighting the relationship between conflict, combat, competition and law, our Common Law system of trials evolved from the Roman concept of ‘trial by combat’ (e.g. two people who have nothing to do with the dispute battling to decide the outcome of the conflict presided over by an independent judge, now it’s in a courtroom with words rather than in the Coliseum with swords).
I explored stage 3 in 2015, when I became a trained mediator because I was becoming aware that the heiracy imposed by declaring a ‘winner’ and ‘loser’ is over represented in society.
Mediation is at essence collaborative rather than combative and for this reason side-steps the competitive paradigm of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. It’s a step forward for sure, but wasn’t wholly satisfying for me because I felt it still missed something.
I stepped into stage 4 when I understood that deeper than a collaborative approach to conflict is self-responsibility. From a place of self-responsibility conflict is completely reframed as I realised that I am the creator of my lived experience. This realisation struck me so deeply that I chose not practice law because I believe that there are better ways to approach conflict than the win/lose paradigm.
Becoming a practising psychotherapist is the way I have embodied my understanding of stage 4, and is the way I feel I am able to offer people a chance to refine their own understanding of conflict (among other things), both within and without.
So what began with suppression of my inner voice as a child and teen, led me into an exploration of physical conflict in my mid-twenties, then into excellence in law and mediation and finally to post-Jungian psychotherapy – from physical violence, into adversarial conflict with a ‘winner’ and ‘loser’, then to collaboration and finally to self-responsibility.
An ever increasing sense of inner spaciousness has followed in-step with my journey through the four stages which has led me to a sense of fulfilment that ripples through-out my life. This spaciousness expresses itself in better relationships, greater joy, more laughter and an ability to weather the ups and downs of life with an ease and grace that I simply didn’t have when I was younger. I am also able to be more present and available to my family, friends and even to each moment.