I read something interesting this morning. It hooked me into reading it by asking a question along the lines of:
‘How is arguing with people how hold extreme views going for you?’
As anyone who knows me well personally or professionally I am prone to the occasional ‘rant’. I dont think I am ‘ranting’, to me it is just an expression of opinion about something happening in the world I don’t like or agree with. ‘Rant’, probably sums it up though! I am never aggressive or threatening when in this mode, but I do find myself in personal life sometimes despairing of the beliefs, actions and opinions of other people.
Within the article I read the author used as an example of their experience, Megan Phelps Roper. If you have not heard of her, she grew up in a ‘Church’ called the Westboro Baptist Church in America. Louis Theroux has done a few programmes about this church in the past and Megan grew up with her family inside the church which easily fits the dictionary definition of a cult. The church has a very rigid and blinkered interpretation of the bible and uses this to justify what I think most people would class as extreme views of gender, sexuality and race as a result. For an example they picketed a gay persons funeral with signs that read ‘God hates Fags’ and other equally inappropriate and hurtful statements.
Megan left the cult a number of years ago and has written about her experiences of living in and then leaving the Westboro church which has left her largely ostracised by her biological family.
Megan left after she engaged in an online dialogue with Jewish person, someone the Westboro Church would be extremely negative towards. What surprised Megan most was that this person did not judge her or her family for their beliefs. This person engaged with and conversed with Megan not as a ‘cult member’ or ‘extremist’, but as just another human being who reached out and wanted to know her better. Over time the other person’s non judgement and kindness toward her began to deeply impact on her and it gave her the opportunity to step back and look in at herself more objectively. This then gave her the opportunity to ask herself who am I and what are my actual core beliefs about self and the world.
Megan slowly realised that she did not hate gay people, black people or people with different religious beliefs. She had taken on other peoples anger, frustration, insecurity, fear and confusion and internalised it. At this point Megan had a really difficult decision to make, whether to be true to self or to continue to over adapt to her families beliefs and view of the world. Megan chose to leave.
This had a serious and negative impact on her in some ways, as she lost a large number of her family and friends instantly. She still loves and misses the people who chose to ostracise her for her change and growth and my sense is that Megan does not regret her choice. She now writes and speaks wonderfully around her experiences in the church and how things have been for her since she left. She has written an autobiography called ‘Unfollow’ which I would recommend to anyone.
One of the things that struck me as I read Megans story is that how closely her experience with the Jewish person who befriended her closely mimicked the process of psychotherapy.
One of the core tenets of any good therapist or counsellor is to be non judgemental around whatever it is the client brings into the room. To be able to offer the other person a space where they can trust that they will not be criticised, told off, ridiculed or belittled for their experience is absolutely vital.
Often it will be the first time someone has experienced such a non judgemental person or environment and it is often uncomfortable for people when they first enter into it. However, it is this lack of judgement that leads the person to be able to trust the therapy space and begin to work on their issues in a safe way, often taking on the objective view of themselves offered by the therapist, rather than the negative internalised view of self they took on from people around them in childhood or early adult life.
Then, as Megan found, that person has a choice to either continue to hold onto the negative internal views of self, or they can over adapt and accept that these views might be based more on past experience than who they are now, in the present.
The vast majority of people in my experience choose to take the risk and do the really scary thing and look at themselves differently. They believe and trust that they are not the person they were told they were as a child and the finally separate away from the negative past view of self and start to own a more realistic and positive view of self, based on who they actually are, now, in the present.
This is all that lovely, kind person that engaged with Megan did. They said to her that she was not her family, her past, she was who she wants to be in the present. Megan finally had that choice as a young adult and he became the person she really is, intelligent, kind and accepting of self and others.
What a gift!
It made me think about the way I can be sometimes outside of my therapy room in my personal life. It made me wonder if I am still too judgemental of those around me who believe extreme things that to the vast majority of us are obviously wrong and dangerous.
Maybe I need to offer the people I read about and walk among more non judgmental empathy and care. Who knows, if we all did that, then maybe the people who hold onto any extreme views on race, gender, sexuality or anything else, might be able to see that their beliefs have much more to do with their early experiences in life, their stressed unhappy parents, the traumas and struggles they have experienced in their lives, rather than anything that is happening right here, right now.
One thing I will not be doing is putting myself in a position where I am saying I am right and the other person is wrong. No-one wins if we do that, as the opportunity to talk and discuss our differences will be lost and we will just start arguing and probably shouting at each other, better surely to be interested in the other person as an individual and get to know who they are and why they think and feel as they do.