Note: This is an edited version of an article first published in the SADAG Mental Health Journal, October 2016
There is no doubt that we live in a highly competitive world and, while competition may be necessary and inevitable, the level of competition in society and the associated pressures drive so many of the illnesses that health professionals are dealing with on a daily basis. And so the antidote to competition and its effects must surely be a healthier form of human encounter and interaction, namely: collaboration.
As a counselling psychologist in private practice, I believe that healthcare professionals have an opportunity and obligation to engage with our clients/patients in predominantly collaborative ways as a front line offensive to the deleterious effects of competition.
Human beings are robust creatures with well-developed defence mechanisms designed to not only keep us alive, but maximise on our potential in order to thrive. However, when the environment we live in becomes essentially toxic, our ability to function optimally slowly becomes undermined.
Whilst medical science has done wonders in advancing the quality and longevity of our lives, the number of pollutants and free-radicals that confront us every day is surely on the rise. And so the human race finds itself under increasing environmental pressure to just keep up.
So many illnesses, particularly diseases of the mind, have their origins in fear based experiences characterised by a threat to personal safety. These often originate in childhood, be it as a result of heavy handed discipline, absent parents, divorce and the breakdown of a family system, or the effects of poverty and unemployment, to name a few of the risk factors.
Whatever the cause, the effect is generally an experience of broken trust, and the development of various defence mechanisms and belief systems based upon the world (and those in the world around us) being dangerous and threatening. We then become survivors of these primary wounds or traumas, which can affect our thinking, feeling and behaviour patterns towards our environment, so setting us up for a pattern of self-fulfilling prophecies of doom, gloom and destruction.
Unfortunately, history has a remarkable ability to repeat itself. We tend to get stuck in the very same dysfunctional interpersonal dynamics later in life, which are largely competitive and destructive, passing them on to the next generation. Hence the vital role and immense responsibility we as health professionals have for encouraging healing, and restoring wholeness to peoples’ lives.
There are three key requirements for collaboration to take place.
- SAFETY – our clients/patients need to experience us in ways that make them feel fundamentally safe.
Carl rogers, one of the great psychologists of the 20th century who founded ‘client-centred-therapy’, spoke about the concept of unconditional positive regard for the client. It is vital that health care practitioners remember that it takes courage to be vulnerable and admit to having a problem, thus we need to honour our client’s efforts and attempts in finding healing by extending to them our unconditional positive regard. This means showing utmost consideration and respect for our clients and avoiding (and personally confronting) any preconceived judgements or prejudices we have.
- EQUALITY – The power balance needs to be understood, and is largely weighted against the client and in favour of the so called ‘expert’. I believe there are two experts in the room, each with a profound ability to understand their own human condition.
What we are looking for is not another unnecessary and counter-productive power imbalance which so often drives our competitive, paternalistic world, namely: a parent-child relationship. Rather, we as Health Care Professionals should strive for a relationship based on equality, known as an adult-adult relationship. This kind of relationship encourages autonomy and responsibility, based on mutual consideration and respect. The communication principle of “seek first to understand, then to be understood” is of great value here (Steven Covey, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People).
- EMPOWERMENT – We need to encourage our clients to take ownership of their lives and the condition or situation they are dealing with by empowering them to do so. This may involve educating them with the best explanation we can concerning their condition, sharing our theoretical understandings, and giving them the opportunity to ask questions.
Knowledge is power, and it is our responsibility to share the knowledge we have gained with our clients, in order to assist them in making the best choices regarding their health.
‘Ubuntu’ means “I am because you are”. Nowhere in society can and should ubuntu be more fully experienced on a daily basis than in the way we care for the sick, lost, lonely, hurting and hungry in our world.