The value of being eaten and other ‘dark arts’

I recall, during my initial psychotherapy training at the Whittington Hospital in North London, the day I had to choose a supervisor. My tutor read out the names of several candidates, many of whom sounded exotic to me. He gave us little detail unless a group member enquired further. One person, in particular, stood out.

‘What about her?’ I asked.

He gave me an impish smile, laughed and cautioned: ‘She’ll eat you for breakfast!’

Something inside me said: ‘That’s the one!’ I didn’t know why, except I knew I did not want a supervisor who wasn’t able to eat me. I wanted someone who took no prisoners; I did not want to be spared. I thought only giants eat people and, if she’s a giant, I want her as my supervisor.

***

When I arrived for my first supervision session I pressed the doorbell of a beautifully coloured glass entrance to a large Victorian house. Only then, waiting to be met, did I think: ‘What if she’s an ogre?!’ The door opened to reveal a tiny woman. I felt a mixture of relief and disappointment; I thought, ‘She’s not a giant.’

‘Oh God, you’re so young!’ she said. It was no compliment. Wow! It felt as though she had taken a big bite even before I entered her house. I was both breakfast and delivery man. Her greeting took me by surprise. I stood rooted to the doormat not knowing how to respond.

‘Come in,’ she said, taking the lead. It sounded more like an instruction than an invitation. Her manner seemed abrupt; I hoped it was just her accent. Inside her consulting room we sat opposite each other. I stroked the hair on my chin; goatees were fashionable at the time and I had grown it in the hope of looking older. It had not worked, at least not on her. It felt as though she had seen straight through me and discerned my fear: the fear that I looked too young to be taken seriously as a psychotherapist. Not only that, but she named it even before we’d sat down. Now my stroking felt more like self-soothing. I imagined she was sizing up both me and her appetite at the same time. I wondered what would come next. My tutor had warned me.

The memory of a green lizard I had once seen in a glass tank flashed before my mind’s eye. Next to the lizard lay two flesh-pink, blind baby mice huddled together on a tea-plate, their short breaths in unison anticipating their fate. At the time, this scene unsettled me. Now, however, the image is empty of drama and emotion; with calm clarity I see only two mice, a lizard and its lunch.

‘Did you notice you scanned me at the door?’ Her question woke me from my daydream, bringing me abruptly back into the room. I was more curious about the sudden softness of her voice than her question. It then struck me that I did not understand the question.

‘No,’ I replied.

‘You quickly looked me up and down; you were scanning me. It’s good, it’s a good skill for a psychotherapist.’

Something lifted from my chest; she had referred to me as a psychotherapist, with this she seemed to be saying: ‘I will work with you’. I let out a deep breath as this began to sink in. I do not remember much else of our first meeting, suffice to say she must have seen something in me she could work with.

***

I later discovered that supervisees can be eaten more than once.

Perhaps the most memorable occasion came in our second year. I had inadvertently been involved in something of a dilemma in an organisation where I was working. My supervisor happened to supervise the heads of the counselling department for the same organisation. We had talked it through, I felt relieved; my supervisor would support me. At the end of the session, as I stepped outside she said, ‘I hate you, goodbye.’ With that the door closed and I stood glued to the doormat unable to leave or re-enter. Wow, what congruence! It turns out that two of my most memorable supervision experiences took place while standing on a doormat, the same doormat.

I imagined I was a cat that had been put out for leaving an unwanted gift on the carpet. I told myself: ‘It’ll be okay, it is okay’; no one gets rid of a cat when it leaves an unwelcome present, do they? 

I knew my supervisor well enough to know she had meant what she said, I thought she would be unlikely to disown a cat, but possibly a supervisee, and yet something in me was able to trust.

Walking back to the underground I began to conceptualise her intervention. I thought of the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott who would say that for fifty minutes you love your client and at the end of the session you hate them by showing them the door. Though I do not think this is what was happening, it did seem to me that she and I were becoming love and hate objects. I was experiencing what Object Relations theorists call object constancy with a powerful benevolent other.

Object constancy is when a child or adult learns that they can love and hate the same person, such that the hate does not kill off the love, and the love does not need to kill off the hate.

Whatever had just happened, I could tell something important was knitting together inside me.

***

When I began as a psychotherapist I thought I would learn, amongst other things, about love: how to love and be loved. With a background in theology I had thought love was the pinnacle, and that hate should be replaced with forgiveness. Through psychotherapy and reading Nietzsche I managed to disabuse myself of these ideas. Even so, I had not fully anticipated the necessity and value of the many so-called ‘dark arts’ in this process.

We must learn to love, learn to be kind, and this from earliest youth… Likewise, hatred must be learned and nurtured, if one wishes to become a proficient hater.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Hate is generally conflated with the vengeful and violent acts that can accompany it. Although hate often collapses into these, collapse has more to do with having lost the art of hate. It is as though ‘we’ suffer under a collective failure to hate with proficiency and confidence.

He who does not know how to put his will into things at least puts a meaning into them: that is, he believes there is a will in them already.

Friedrich Nietzsche

With over a millennium of Christian inculturation, ‘good and bad’ became ‘good and evil’. To go from bad to evil, is to go from qualitative to moral, a significant shift that now tells us how we should be, because it believes it knows who we really are.

With love and hate having become moral categories, the moral imperative to ‘love not hate’ devalues both. Rather than seeing them as complementary, Christianity set them apart and in opposition to one another. The obligation to ‘love not hate’ is an internalised conflict that hinders self becoming, and more importantly, prevents getting beyond love and hate.

There are no moral phenomena at all, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Those who have no confidence in their ability to hate revert to morality. A person that does not know how to hate projects their failure outward, directing it at the world as criticism, in the form of moral judgement. A moral view of the world masks a failure to come to terms with the internal conflict between love and hate. 

If we do not learn how to love and hate we become enmeshed in the ongoing drama and emotionality of ‘love not hate’, and ‘love versus hate’. Not only do we remain entangled in the fabricated and interminable struggle of good versus evil, but also and more importantly, we never see what lies beyond the drama.

Love and hate are important perspectives within, and on the way to something far greater; however, they are neither the best nor the worst of what humans are capable of.

If you love God, you are seven incarnations away from being with him, and if you hate God you are four incarnations away.

Anonymous

***

Although I had correctly intuited my supervisor to be a giant, I could not have anticipated the richness of our collaboration, nor could I have foreseen how our relationship would sustain itself over the next twenty-four years. Now, with her retirement in sight, I find myself reflecting on our work together and how the dynamic between us has changed. I also find myself wondering how I’ll begin looking for a new supervisor.

During my time spent with giants I’ve learnt many things. I discovered that being eaten can make you bigger not smaller; that giants live outside morality; and I’ve also learnt how to eat people, and the importance of shitting it all out afterwards.

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

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