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Them and Us - For Counsellors

Them and Us

Mark Hartshorn

“There is no 'them' and 'us.' There is only us”

Greg Boyle

I often think of the idea of them and us. When I do I ponder the history of the ‘them and us’ concept and imagine a time from long ago when a ‘them and us’ mentality was likely to be essential for our survival. To explain what I mean, let me take you back to a time when we lived in tribes, much smaller communities than we do today. Where we knew who was who and there was a common connection between members of the tribe or clan. I fantasise about a time when everyone looked out for each other within this tribe as we all needed each other, we all played our part in the successful running of the community.

Imagine now, that a neighbouring tribe approaches our village or settlement. Their approach and entry to our community could be fraught with danger. They may take our supplies, harm our tribe members in the battle to take what is ours and naturally, we may have had to fight to protect our community and supplies. I wonder if this might be the origin of the ‘them and us’ way of thinking. Basically, we had to be suspicious of the other, we had to defend our ways and people against the others and I expect that careful negotiation around this was not on the agenda for our ancestors from this long ago scene.

Bringing this concept more into the here and now, Greg Boyle, whose quote is at the top of this piece, has witnessed gang violence within his own community and went on to work with gang members. It is possible that the gang culture of the modern age is a playing out of our ancestor’s tribe culture that may have required violence to protect.

As I write these words I am aware of the number of gang related stabbings taking place across the country in the headlines as well as the way that Brexit has divided the nation, both situations creating a ‘them and us’ situation; Those in the gang and those who are not; Those who voted to leave and those who did not; those who are UK nationals and those who are European. If my pondering has any truth in them, we might be witnessing an age old drama being played out in these scenarios, sometimes with devastating outcomes. Greg Boyle, who is a Jesuit Priest, suggests that “there is no them and us, only us” A sentiment that we as a people may be well advised to adopt.

I was asked by the editor to link all of this with the therapeutic relationship and the idea of rupture and repair within it. The concept of rupture and repair is defined clearly by Jeremy D. Safran Ph.D in Psychology Today (Ph.D., 2018). They explain it as “Alliance ruptures are moments or periods in therapy when there is a strain or breakdown in the therapeutic alliance. These ruptures can range in quality and intensity from dramatic episodes during which clients lose trust in their therapists and may drop out of treatment, to more subtle ruptures during which they have a vague sense that something is not right, but ignore”

I wonder whether rupture within the therapeutic relationship might be a playing out of the ‘them and us’ way of thinking. The client imagines that we do not understand, misinterprets something that we say, do or indeed do not say and do and then becomes upset with us. As the counsellor we may move, in their perception, from being one of their tribe, on their side, to being one of the bad guys, a potential threat. I am dramatising here for effect, but I do think there could be an element of ‘them and us’ playing out within the therapeutic alliance when this takes place.

So, this raises the question of how might we repair the alliance when it is ruptured. Sometimes it is very difficult and even impossible if the rupture has been too great. However, there are times when we may be able to move beyond the rupture and re-establish the alliance. This is where we differ from our ancient ancestors who may not have mastered the art of negotiation and reasoning, empathy and acceptance. We could own our part in the rupture and acknowledge this with the client. We could communicate clearly about what went wrong and invite the client to share their side of the story and their experience of it. Readers may be interested to employ the techniques of Non Violent Communication, a way of communicating need in a non aggressive or confrontational way in their attempts to repair the alliance.

We need to be up for the dialogue and be careful not to take a ‘them and us’ approach in supervision, where it would be easy to dismiss the rupture as being down to the client’s stuff or their lack of readiness and in so doing create a them and us divide. We could instead invite our supervisors to help us to explore how in the relationship there is only us and ways in which we can support the client and come together once again as members of the same tribe.

Repairing rupture, I think, takes great bravery on our part as for many of us counsellors; we will have experienced ruptures in our history that were painful or devastating. To confront this in our practice requires honesty and ownership and the ability to present our work in supervision in a way that enables us to authentically explore, rather than in a way that gets our supervisors on side so that they collude and comfort us as we sit comfortably with our ‘them and us’ standpoint. We need then to return to the client and explain our side of the rupture and invite them to do the same, non-defensively and with a spirit of peace and reconciliation. In my experience, where this work is possible, it deepens the therapeutic relationship in a very powerful way and perhaps in a way that enables us to reach a new depth of relating with one another.

In my fantasy, all of humanity would enter into dialogue with ‘them’ in a way that creates unity rather than division and that seeks to find commonality rather than difference. We may have a way to go yet though.

Mark Hartshorn is a counsellor and supervisor in private practice and runs training and workshops on a wide range of therapy and spirtuality related topics.


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