Liminality and the stuff of life

Our editor Jon Sutton reports from the British Psychological Society’s Psychology4Students event in Sheffield.

Liminality, said Dr Vincent Deary in the first talk of the day, can be described as a state of ‘no longer/not yet’. It’s a space in our lives where the old self-narrative does not fit any longer, and the new narrative has not yet emerged. Liminality may arise from life transitions, and challenge our sense of who we are. Such transitions bring people into therapy. They can also provide conditions for transformation and growth. I was struck by how Deary’s descriptions could be applied to the patients in his NHS Fatigue Clinic, to the assembled audience of sixth formers, and – as the day unfolded - perhaps even to the discipline of psychology itself.

Before Deary, Society President Professor Peter Kinderman had drawn on his excellent blog to argue that the ‘separation of falsehood from truth is very important for our society’, perhaps more now than ever. ‘We have our own distinctive responsibilities in helping analyse and understand these collective social hiccups.’ This is the stuff of life, he said: Psychology is quintessentially a subject about us.

Back to Deary, who showed what happens when our own ‘hiccups’ really take hold. The people he sees have been bounced from pillar to post, in a system not too kind to those experiencing profound physical and emotional exhaustion: ‘the kind of tiredness which is just your body saying ‘enough’’. Deary draws on elements of ‘story’ to make sense of what has happened to such people – narratives of restitution, quest, chaos. Borrowing an analogy from sound engineering, Deary spoke of ‘corner cases’ and ‘edge cases’: ‘a meltdown isn’t when one thing goes wrong, it’s when 12 things go wrong’.

What helped Anne, Deary’s 20-year-old case study? Re-evaluation, seeking closeness/help from those she had until now devoted her life to helping, allowing herself some pleasure/comfort. Anne’s employers hadn't helped: ‘she was just a broken fuse in the company system, they wanted to know when they could replace it. Interestingly, Deary had described Anne as a ‘stoic coper’, but now said her anger was useful: ‘I think we underrate anger.’

And such anger is certainly understandable. We live, argued Deary, in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. Resilience training is everywhere, but as Deary pointed out, this idea that you need armour for modern life is basically an admission that it’s war. We need to understand the lives of the ‘Precariat’, and Deary clearly feels that ‘as psychologists we can be too quick to place the locus of the issue in the individual’.

Case studies and stories also featured in the next talk, from Caroline Vermes (pictured above), a counselling psychologist in training who also manages a not-for-profit psychology enterprise. Vermes is an art history graduate, and says that the subject has enriched her life, work and thinking enormously. Volunteering at an eating disorders charity in the US (a seed perhaps sown by a childhood friend with bulimia) paved the way for her own quest, to help people who want to make changes in their life.

Vermes told different versions of a ‘riches to rags’ moral tale, to illustrate the circumstances that surround a person’s ability to make change, or not. A lump of gold became creative potential, and the quest turned towards self-acceptance in work and relationships. To the client Vermes described,  her value lay in her ability to control – appearance, weight, diet. She was able to tell Vermes that her relationship with her Dad was marked by angry standoffs… through four sessions with the pair of them, the Dad came to express admiration and respect, and this had a huge impact on Vermes’ client’s self-acceptance. Make the most of your lump of gold, Vermes advised, and cherish the ways you do not fit. If you have an idea where you’re going, you will find a way.

Professor Rebecca Lawthom, a community psychologist at Manchester Metropolitan University, had a slightly different take on this. Yes, people often have the solution to their own problems, but often they just haven’t got the resources to enact those solutions. The community might be their lump of gold. ‘The time is right’ for community psychology, Lawthom argued: ‘Inequality hurts’.

This isn’t going to be easy, Lawthom cautioned the aspiring psychologists. ‘Working with humans is like trying to do chemistry with dirty test tubes. We’ve all got grime… let the messiness begin!’ Psychologists should be ‘nailing their flag to the mast’, she said, ‘saying we believe in justice, that it should be more fairly distributed.’ This requires a focus on the micro, meso and macro systems we take for granted in order to understand and transform them. Central concepts are justice, stewardship, empowerment.

Personally, I am totally on board with this, and we have featured a lot of community psychology in The Psychologist over the years. But here’s what I think is interesting. Has the discipline truly embraced such approaches? Are we in a liminal state, ‘no longer/not yet’? So much of course depends on the next generation of psychologists, and the signs are not encouraging. Throughout the day I mingled, and more than once heard comments along the lines of ‘there was, like, loads of words and that… it’s not really psychology though is it, it’s just talking and stuff.’

If such thoughts are at all representative, then that’s a great shame. Because as more than one speaker emphasised, the need for an approach to psychology that takes a practical approach to root causes of injustice, in natural settings, is obvious. ‘The work is doing’, Lawthom said, ‘and then we reflect on that activity.’ Her projects with forced labour in the Chinese community, and disabled older people, were powerful examples. ‘The funder wanted us to look at work,’ she admitted. ‘The people wanted to talk about relationships. Family, connectedness.’

I’m sure the next speaker, Dr Julian Boon (University of Leicester), won’t mind me describing him as rather more old school. Sure, relationships and the context are central to his thinking on offender profiling – ‘I tried like hell with the Blair government to make kindergarten education compulsory,’ he said, ‘an oasis where children from chaotic backgrounds can learn consistency.’ But really his environment is behind the eyes: ‘welcome to my world,’ he warned, ‘the dark side of the personality.’

For more than 30 years, Boon’s approach to helping the police with their enquiries has been a mix of all the stereotypes: Sherlock Holmes / Miss Marple / Father Brown / Poirot / Cracker / Silence of the Lambs. Given how ‘hopelessly overwhelmed’ the police are, anything from a non-police side is ‘goldust’ – but equally, ‘if someone is talking bullshit it’s not just useless, it’s worse than useless.’ And to ensure you’re not talking bullshit, Boon says you must have a framework, and one that leads to testable hypotheses.

Boon’s framework is one of psychological growth, and how it can be thwarted. Caringness, open lovingness, empathy, balance in relationships, respect, consistency, goal setting: all are determinants of growth, the building blocks of trust in relationships, and without them people build a protective wall. Also key is uncertainty: ‘don’t seek it out, that’s psychopathic; don’t try to live without it, that’s sadism. Just learn to live with it.’

Also encouraging us to live with life’s grime and perfect imperfection was Dr Mark Coulson (Middlesex University), the day’s final speaker. Fresh from his work on TV’s ‘Married at first sight’ (yes, just how it sounds), he drew on decades of experimental evidence to show how to find the perfect partner (and keep them).

Despite the abundance of red hearts on his Powerpoint, I wouldn't say Coulson’s approach is the most romantic. Treat pair bonding like choosing a jam, he suggests. More choice is not always good: if you’re holding out for that ‘Tinderbolt’ (neat) from the blue, that ‘soulmate’, you’re likely to have a long wait. Don’t expect perfection; try out a few varieties to get a feel for things; work out what you like; identify criteria which matter; and then settle for whoever best satisfies all your criteria. If you’re not that attracted to them, don’t sweat it; the ‘mere exposure effect’ will kick in. Although talking of sweat, have a good sniff… the Major Histocompatibility Complex, a collection of proteins created by genes which play an important role in immunity, may be key to attraction and long-term compatibility. ‘You cannot escape the fact that biology has a profound effect on everything we do’, Coulson concluded.

If that seems quite a contrast to some of the earlier talks, Coulson did leave the door open for wider influences. Forget opposites attract, similarity – pretty much however you measure it – is way more important. That can include values and interests, socioeconomic group, approaches to everyday life. And once you’ve decided that ‘this is my jam’, testosterone and oestrogen may see you through ‘lust’; dopamine and serotonin through ‘romance’; oxytocin might help with the ‘commitment’. But if you’re not wary of the ‘four horsemen of the communication apocalypse’ – ignoring, contempt, criticism, defensiveness – then all the biology in the world won’t help you.

In bigging up the biology, Coulson had said that psychology is ‘not just about people and cuddly ideas’. As the next generation of psychologists filtered out of the Mercure hotel, I wondered what they thought psychology is about. I often wonder whether our discipline remains in a liminal state, in a space searching for a narrative that fits, at a time when transformation and growth are needed more than ever. Or perhaps it has always been so. As Professor Kinderman had said in his introduction, quoting Martin Luther King Jr’s 1967 address to the American Psychological Association – ‘There comes a time when one must take a stand that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular. But one must take it because it is right.’

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