Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Importance and Value of ‘Being’

(Bill Watterson)

For many of us, this time of year (holiday season) is a time for ‘being’ with each other and a temporary stop in our often frenetic lives of doing. It can be a special time of being with those to whom we are closely bonded by family and friendship. However, as this potential opportunity is often at odds with our regular day-to-day life and work experience, we might just replace one kind of frenetic activity with another, such as excessive consumption!

The advent of a new year can be a time of reflection, which again can also be obliterated by hyper-activity under the name of celebration. It seems an appropriate time to write a blog on the subject of the value of being, as opposed to doing. The capacity to reflect has been shown to be hugely beneficial to our health, especially when it is built into daily life. I even read recently that a study claims the regular habit of writing in a reflective way can improve the speed of recovery from some illnesses and injuries. Reflection can reduce stress, which improves the immune system, etc.

Increasingly, we hear about the value of reflection and concepts such as mindfulness are becoming familiar. The principles involved are not new and can be traced back thousands of years and are embraced in many fields, such as Buddhism.  In terms of child development and of healthy adult capacities, the ability to reflect, to think about oneself, and to consider what others might be thinking about oneself is an essential part of being able to relate to others. Some researchers have argued that the ability to reflect on one’s experiences is a greater indicator of health than how much adversity one has experienced. As Kezelman and Stavropoulos (2012) who have created excellent guidelines for trauma-informed services, state,

“It isn’t just what happened to you that determines your future – it’s how you’ve come to make sense of your life that matters most.”

Digesting and making sense of experience requires a degree of allowing ourselves to be, to ‘sit with’ and to feel.  Whereas, busily doing can be a distraction and a way of avoiding feelings and thinking. As a result, the avoided feelings and experiences associated with them, remain unprocessed and therefore unintegrated into our personality.  The feelings are inaccessible as any kind of useful guide or resource for the future. Learning from experience comes to a halt and therefore so does development.

Interestingly, I started a discussion on this subject on my LinkedIn group in January two years ago. I wonder whether the timing of the New Year is coincidental.  The quality of discussion was excellent and I think partly because the theme is so universal and not just relevant to our work with traumatized children. Some of the comments made by members of the group show how much this subject resonated with them,

“Imagine that, listening to understand rather than to just respond (teach/tell/direct) - incredible!” (Ian Nussey - Australia)

“….my role was just to be there listening.” (Lorna Miles - UK)

Ian responded – “The special ingredient Lorna - genuinely being with…..”

“The opportunity for free play, space and being with each other and adults was hugely important.” (Judy Furnival - Scotland)

“……..being new to therapeutic care in a residential environment my strategies are at times very basic in the way that I go in and just be me in a relaxed manner as opposed to some that just need to be completely planned throughout each minute of the day which in my opinion leaves no time for proper self-reflection.” (Aaron Hamill - Australia)

“In today's society, every minute of every hour is organized which leaves very little time for children to be creative. …….Always organizing their free time is not the best thing for helping children develop creativity, self-regulation and imagination.  (Sylvie Demers - Canada)

“I agree that children need time to be rather than do. The problem, as I see it is that some children don't know how to be except within a trauma framework. Their frenetic activity might be a way of avoiding thinking and being.” (Christine Gordon - Scotland)

With a group of young people I worked with, we used to plan our evening activities in a meeting after tea. The usual things offered, would be soccer, cricket, bike rides, walks, card games, crafts, swimming, etc. I decided to offer that I would spend a half hour or so ‘being’ in the living room and those who were interested could ‘be’ with me. Naturally, this aroused curiosity as to what ‘being’ involved. I explained something like, just being together, chatting, playing if people wanted to, maybe listening to music, etc. It was less structured than usual, though still with some boundaries. After a while, being became a popular thing to do – if that isn’t a contradiction! A general feeling of safety is necessary for this kind of possibility to develop. I enjoyed these times and over the years have found that girls are better at this than boys – though I might be generalizing from a little experience.

Being rather than doing can be difficult as it allows time to think and feel. For people who are traumatized thinking and feeling is often frightening. Thoughts and feelings must be kept at bay and one way of doing this is through frenetic activity as Christine described above. The world of these children can become a desolate place without emotion. Being rather than doing, conjures up possibilities. There is a sense of uncertainty and not knowing, a lack of control. To a healthy person this might be challenging but also potentially exciting - to a traumatized person it might be terrifying.  Anyone who is close to a traumatized person is likely to pick up this fear and coupled with their own, can easily be swept into a whirlwind of activity as a form of avoidance. In the world of ‘therapy’, especially psychoanalysis it is stated how important it is for the therapist to tolerate a sense of 'not knowing'.

The concept of Negative Capability coined by the poet John Keats back in 1817 is often referred to. Keats described negative capability as the art of remaining in doubt “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” and “the willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity”.

The British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion elaborated on this, describing negative capability as the ability to put aside preconceptions and certainties, and tolerate the pain and confusion of not knowing. More recently the child psychotherapist and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in discussing parenting has said,

".....that the parents, the authorities, are at their most dangerous when they believe too militantly that they know what they are doing."

Why is this subject of ‘being’, which allows the space for something unknown to unfold, so important? I think the key reason is that it is central to the process of our development, as individuals, groups, and societies. How we are able to be with ourselves individually and collectively is fundamental to our health. An infant is born into the world with a distinct lack of ability to be with and tolerate different emotional states. Anything that causes distress requires someone else to be with them, and to emotionally contain the distress. As Donald Winnicott said, there is no such thing as a baby, there is a baby and someone.

The critical issue is what that other person does with the difficulties involved. Is she/he able to tolerate the feelings involved and to think about the infant or does he/she also find the distress intolerable and feel the need to only take it away?

The difference for the infant may be between a helpful/thoughtful response, a relieving/thoughtless response and an unrelieving/thoughtless response. The first changes the infant’s experience in a way that might also encourage him to develop his own capacity to think about his feelings and hence find thoughtful solutions to difficulties. The second might relieve the infant of his distressing feelings, but in a way that discourages thinking and encourages dependency on a quick fix. This is about taking away the distress rather than developing the capacity to sit with it and find constructive solutions. The third just makes matters worse for the infant and is likely to lead to the need for defensive protective measures, such as switching off from emotions.

An important question is whether distress or ‘psychic pain’ is perceived as something to be got rid of and/or relieved, or whether it is something primarily to be understood in a way that makes it tolerable. This question is often highlighted as the difference between parents, who are motivated by the desire to relieve their children of pain and those who are more on the side of helping their child learn to manage painful experiences. The same applies in other aspects of life, professional and personal. Do we want to rescue another from pain and difficulty, or be alongside them as they find their own way? These dynamics are well known in our profession in the form of victim/perpetrator/rescuer. The media also portrays Images of leaders as heroic figures coming to the rescue, with the answers to fix a problem rather than as people who work alongside others to find solutions (Ward, 2014). We can all wish for a ‘magic wand’. Sometimes a solution might not be possible and it is more about finding the best way to live with the ‘problem’.

There may also be a cultural tendency to view all depressive feelings as a problem to be got rid of or solved. As one child who had suffered many difficulties that he had the need to feel sad about, said to me, ‘I need cheering down, not cheering up’. Facing real and painful issues rather than avoiding them is how experience can be integrated into our identities in a way that furthers our learning, understanding and development. Difficulty in being able to tolerate any pain or frustration is likely to hinder development.

Whether we are working directly with a child, or in a management or leadership role, resisting the temptation to become the problem solver can be difficult.  Our need to get out of the difficulty and to relieve our own anxiety can be the primary motivating factor, rather than the development of the person(s) we are with. Generally, working something out oneself with the support of another is a more useful outcome than another working it out for one. It is hard to be alongside someone who is struggling, needing time and making mistakes. The external environment where others may hold us responsible for the outcome can add another layer of anxiety. It might be felt that it is too risky to allow a mistake to happen, so the possibility is pre-empted.

The child and adolescent psychotherapist Margot Waddell (1985) has referred to the different ways of responding to human difficulties as one between ‘serving’ and ‘servicing’,

“The difference between the two modes might be made by the mother who serves, by being available by 'thinking' emotionally, as opposed to the mother who services by doing instead of thinking.”

Waddell elaborates that “servicing nearly always implies action, with very particular overtones” whereas serving “may constitute not doing anything”. However as she explains, “not doing anything does not constitute doing nothing”, and, “There is a 'world' of difference between 'standing by' and 'being a bystander'”. 

It can be misguided to consider doing as active and not doing as passive, when often it is not doing that is the harder and most useful option. For example, how long can we or should we tolerate watching and encouraging a child who is struggling to do something? How much satisfaction does the child get when he or she achieves the task and thinks ‘I did that myself!’?

Waddell explains how these same dynamics can be transferred to organizations and societies.  Where on a collective scale becoming ‘mindlessly busy’ is a way of avoiding the real difficulties we are faced with.  Sadly, this also deprives us of the opportunity to understand those difficulties in a way that leads to growth. This tendency has been clearly outlined by social scientists, going back to the 1950s, such as Elliot Jaques and Isabel Menzies Lyth.  These social scientists explained how organizations unconsciously develop defensive systems to protect themselves against the emotional pain involved in the task. For example, as Menzies Lyth so powerfully described, the task of caring for patients in hospitals includes primitive anxieties related to the themes of illness, loss and death. One way of responding to these anxieties, is to avoid them by depersonalizing the patient, and creating systems which don’t allow ‘professionals’ to get emotionally close to the patient.

We may be familiar with the scene of a Doctor talking to his students about the patient in front of him, who is referred to as a number, or such and such case! While this might help reduce emotional pain (for the Doctor and students), unfortunately it does not aid the patient’s recovery. Emotional connection between doctor and patient has even been shown to improve recovery from the common cold (Rakel et al., 2009).  Therefore a helpful solution would seem to be one that enables human connection between Doctor/Nurse and patient. However, an approach that recognizes the pain involved also needs to provide appropriate professional support.

It is often stated that modern lifestyle militates against the capacity to be in a moment without distraction. This is caricatured by the now familiar image of two people sitting supposedly together having a meal, whilst gazing at their mobile phone. I was in a restaurant recently and noticed a mother feeding her baby, moving her focus between a television and 'smart' phone.  A few and increasingly rare owners of bars and restaurants refrain from the introduction of TVs, etc. and promote the idea that a place just to be together might be of value.

A comment made by a boy in the therapeutic community of Finchden Manor (1930-1974) captured the essence of ‘being’.  When asked by a visitor, ‘what do you do all day’ – he replied, ‘I don’t know what we do, but it’s a fine place to be in’ (Harvey, 2006).

Tom Robinson the British musician-singer-songwriter who spent a number of years at Finchden Manor, claimed that it saved his life. Talking about life at Finchden, he said,

“As to what we did all day…. there was everything and nothing to do……you could just lie in the grass on the field staring at the sun reading a book……time seemed infinite……what Finchden offered you above all, ….it offered you respite, and there was a complete respite from all forms of nagging and pressure.”

Some visitors to Finchden were critical, saying that the staff seemed to do little but ‘watch the boys’. Finchden’s founder, George Lyward responded that watching is one of the hardest things to do in life. He explained that the staff look for when the boys come alive, nurture the boys’ talents and help them shape their future life.

Maybe it would be helpful for us to reflect upon why as Lyward said, this is so difficult – what gets in the way of allowing ourselves and the children we work with, to be? Comments most welcome – in the meantime – Happy New Year


Harvey, J. (2006) Valuing and Educating Young People: Stern Love the Lyward Way London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Dr. Kezelman, C. and Dr. Stavropoulos, P. (2012) The Last Frontier: Practice Guidelines for Treatment of Complex Trauma and Trauma Informed Care and Service Delivery, Australia: Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA),

Link to the discussion on Therapeutic Residential and Foster Care for Traumatized Children, January 2013,

Link to the interview with Tom Robinson about George Lyward and Finchden Manor, on the BBC Radio 4 ‘Great Lives’ series,

Menzies Lyth, I. (1959, 1961, 1970) The Functioning of Social Systems as a Defence Against Anxiety, in Containing Anxiety in Institutions: Selected Essays (1988) Vol. 1, London: Free Association Books

Menzies Lyth, I. (1979) Staff support systems: task and anti-task in adolescent institutions, in Containing Anxiety in InstitutionsSelected Essays Vol. 1. London: Free Association Books (1988),

Rakel, D.P., Hoeft, T.L., Barrett, B.P., et al. (2009) Practitioner Empathy and the Duration of the Common Cold, in Fam Med, 41, p.494-501 

Waddell, M. (1985) Living in Two Worlds : Psychodynamic Theory and Social Work Practice, Free Associations Vol 10,

Ward, A. (2014) Leadership in Residential Child Care: A Relationship-Based Approach, Norwich: Smokehouse Press

Further reading

Blog by the Child Psychotherapist, Graham Music Blog - 'The Lost Joys of Playing and Just Being',

An interesting blog on the benefit and difficulty of being still,

3 Blogs by Maria Popova, 

"Young Delacroix on the Importance of Solitude in Creative Work and How to Resist Social Distractions",

"Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on Our Capacity for “Fertile Solitude”,

"Kierkegaard on Boredom, Why Cat Listicles Fail to Answer the Soul’s Cry, and the Only True Cure for Existential Emptiness",