The Interview
Helena Hargaden

An interview by Silvia Baba Neal

I caught up with Dr Helena Hargaden shortly after she launched her book “The Art of Relational Supervision”, which had been described as an inspiring, original and practical addition to the literature on supervision. Dr Hargaden is a well-known figure in the contemporary TA world.

She is a psychotherapist, supervisor, writer and international speaker and one of the early voices within TA to focus specifically on the relational dimension of therapy. She won the Eric Berne award for her book Transactional Analysis: a Relational Perspective, written with Prof. Charlotte Sills.

I read “The Art of Relational Supervision” at a time when I was myself starting out as a supervisor. It has been a formative lecture, opening up the creative and research possibilities of supervision for me. It is a vibrant book, framed by a sound theoretical frame, but full of stories, and showcasing different voices, supervisees who speak reflexively about the process of being in supervision.

Silvia: I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk to you about your book “The Art of Relational Supervision”. I read it like a novel - I couldn’t put it down! The subjective experience of supervision of the different contributors makes the book deeply immersive. I was very curious about the format and the fact that you invited your colleagues and supervisees to be part of this project. Tell me a little bit about the inception of this book and the idea of having a multitude of voices.

Helena: Thank you Silvia. I too hope that the book finds its way into our colleagues’ heads and hearts as an interesting way to think about relational supervision. The project started slowly. Jane Todd [who authors Chapter 6] suggested it initially. I said to the group “Let’s do it!” and then quite a few members [of the supervision group] didn’t want to do it for various reasons. So the idea seemed to collapse as soon as it had started.

So then I approached other people who had been in previous groups. The six people who contributed chapters for the book had to find a way of integrating personal experience, drawing on their subjectivity, making it real for the reader, and, at the same time, provide a theoretical narrative so it was quite a challenge.

Silvia: What I have noticed about your writing is that you are willing to put yourself out there, be very honest and open about your struggles as a therapist and supervisor. Does it come easy? Do you get scared?

Helena: Yes! (We both laugh) My basic premise is that if you don’t use your ‘self’, then you can’t really do psychological work of any depth. Of course the ‘self ‘ is not a static entity; I think of the ‘self’ as a ‘multi-dimensional work in progress’. It’s very easy to say certain things about yourself; harder to say others.  The authors in the book also expressed themselves honestly. I think this is why it was such a challenging task, revealing us in our humanness, showing the paradoxical and contradictory nature of being human.  All of the writers attempt to move out of the intellect and get into the heart, blood and guts of the matter: the Unconscious! My objective for the book was  for the writers to convey the experience of supervision when engaging with unconscious processes, so the reader gets a sense of that experience. We tried to write in such a way as to convey the messiness, and unpredictability of the experience, rather than provide theoretical certainty and/or the ‘finished product’ of ‘good’ supervision. I wanted the writing to show, as far as is possible, how relational supervision happens, how the process of change occurs.  We were all trying to demonstrate how the unconscious material brought into the group would alter and change, not only the psychotherapist presenting the case, but also all the participants in the group. This idea is reflected in the alchemical metaphor of transformation from the nigredo - the black, to the highest ideal – the gold, which is a symbol of the highest ideal of the ‘self’ - a metaphor which I refer to in the book as a guiding principal to hold in mind when working with unconscious process. This is particularly helpful when in the midst of a tricky and demanding group process and is reflected in all of the chapters, when the writer says how they have often been changed in minor or major ways, as I have myself.

Silvia: The idea is that things that we might see as ballast, things that we might want to throw away are actually very precious.

Helena: Yes, I think that one of the reasons we try to avoid certain feelings in ourselves and in others is because of shame, which I examine in [Chapter 8]. The nugget of gold in that chapter is that: shame is transformed by love. That could sound quite trite but it does involve a descent into the underworld to get to such a place. Shame is ubiquitous. Because all emotional pain feels shameful on some level, it is inevitable that it emerges in the supervision setting. It is essential that group members become accustomed to working with shame and learn within their own therapy the levels of shame to which they have been exposed so they can stay robust in the work.

Silvia: It has taken us, the TA community, a while to start talking about mistakes, failure and shame. I have a sense that you have contributed a lot towards exploring that territory so to speak. Did you have a sense when you were writing that you were opening something up for all of us?

Helena: You are possibly referring to the article I wrote on the shadow in TA about eighteen years ago, or at least that is what I am thinking about when you talk about ‘opening’ something up within TA. When I began Jungian analysis twenty-five years ago it created an opening for me to think more independently, and creatively. From that vantage point I began to evaluate some of what I had been taught. One of the first things I wrote about was the shadow cast by Eric Berne. He called himself Berne, but his original name was Bernstein. I proposed that ‘stein’ was a symbol of the Feminine (a Jungian principal) symbolising the vulnerable, and the unconscious, and that it was this vulnerability that Berne wished to move away from, deny in himself. The recovery of the Feminine and the vulnerable, the ‘stein’, was essentially my thesis for developing the relational approach within TA. I think Berne’s desire to be invulnerable is reflected in classical TA theory, which engages conscious thinking rather than opening up pathways to the unconscious. I think we need both the Masculine (the Conscious - described within TA by wonderful and elegant schemas) and the Feminine (the Unconscious), to be effective as psychotherapists and as relational supervisors.

Silvia: Also perhaps we need to understand Berne in the context of his being a man in the 1950’s – 1960’s, and being expected to know, to be effective whilst trying to set up a new brand of psychotherapy.

Helena: Yes of course context matters enormously. Berne had suffered appalling anti-semitism as a child, growing up in Canada. Then there was the Holocaust. So it is quite understandable why he would become chauvinistic as a form of self-protection in his approach to life, to theory. In my article I proposed that within TA we inherited aspects of his attitude, unwittingly, through the theory. His view seems to have been that all emotions, life experiences and subjectivities, can be understood, that we can control our lives by understanding them. My perspective was attacked by some, because they thought I was making Berne ‘not OK’.

In this book I refer to Ken Woods article,  “Primary and secondary gains from games”, in which he describes the philosophy of (I’m OK, You’re OK), as a manic defense.  It is my experience that this philosophical position is anti-intellectual, because it can be used as a prohibition against thinking and reflection; it acts as an apparently moral instruction that keeps us often on the surface of things and avoids the messiness of a greater depth of feeling and a truer sense of interconnectedness. Perhaps it even keeps us feeling young in some way, supposedly innocent (of any unsavoury feelings and thoughts), and possibly naive as though everyone can be kept OK no matter what, which, when you think about it, as in - look around the world for five minutes - is illusory.  Such a view encourages a denial of unconscious malice, envy, destructiveness and hatred. Horrid nasties!, but also transformable, once acknowledged.  If not allowed to surface then they fester and are acted out and we are forever kept as strangers to ourselves.

Silvia: Sometimes I think that part of that manic defence is always coming up with new models and diagrams.

Helena: Yes, although I think there is great creativity, fun and learning to be had by playing with diagrams.  For me though the unconscious is excluded by the idea that we can ‘understand’ everything. As I referred to earlier the essence of my relational approach is that the conscious mind is symbolised by the Masculine, and the unconscious mind is symbolised by the Feminine.  (By the way when I refer to Masculine and Feminine, it is more about a qualitative principal rather than gender.) We need both. The language of the Masculine, is the language of Logos, where everything is resolvable, and can be understood.  An insistence on this can obstruct us from finding out about the language of the unconscious. The unconscious follows a different route - not schemas - not elegant articulations of ‘perfect understanding’  - but instead involves a psychological journey where there are no rules of how to think, feel; it is only by engaging with this uncertain terrain can we make a deeper discovery about who we are, become familiar with our deepest desires, fantasies, repressed experiences and unknown potential. It is a place in which we let  the experience speak to us rather than describe the experience. These schemas and models, and particularly the injunction to keep ‘everyone OK’ can take us away from listening to ourselves, our clients, our supervisees, and the clients presented for supervision.  The questions this book addresses in supervision are: “What is this person really trying to tell me? What is it that I can’t really hear? What is in my unconscious? What am I feeling and what meanings does this feeling have?  What is happening in my body? How do we share the unconscious? Where is the shadow-side?”

Silvia:  How do we share that which we know but cannot be thought or put in to words? I have a sense that when you embarked on this journey of discovering how to be a relational supervisor, there was a lot of experimentation involved. That really excites me but I can also imagine that it is a very scary place to be in. The image that comes to mind is hacking a path through a jungle, where there was none before. What is it like working at that edge where you are discovering a way forward but you are, not quite sure whether it’s right or whether it’s ethical. You are just working it out.

Helena: Hacking! That sounds quite violent doesn’t it?  It maybe picks up on the disturbance inherent in working with unconscious processes.  In the last chapter [Chapter 9] I talk a bit more about my experience, because it was challenging, disturbing, demanding - and it still is!  One of the things I learned through analysis - and keep on having to learn! - is how to hold the dialectic between different ways of thinking and the significance of paradox as a route to some sort of truth.

Having a theoretical underpinning for relational supervision is of course important.  Since 2004, I have been a student of relational psychoanalysis. I have found their work inspirational in offering a type of theoretical support which at its best integrates theory, feelings, political and scientific subjectivities into writing which is often the most superb I have ever read. Writers such as Jody Messler-Davies, Jessica Benjamin, Sue Grand, Muriel Dimen, Irwin Hoffman, Glen Gabbard, Tony Bass, Su Nuberg, Stephen Mitchell, Bromberg, and Lew Aaron are only some of the authors who have kept me company over the years, either through reading their books, articles, or engaging with their colloquia, and sometimes attending their conferences. Members of the groups also began to tune into this great body of work making their own connections as you will in the references made throughout the chapters. In particular I drew on the theory of the ‘third’ as a valuable theoretical tool in which to usher in a reflective process, in the midst of turmoil, confusion, and conflict. The roots of the ‘third’ are in the ‘Oedipus complex’ theory which has been modernised by several relational psychoanalysts, expanded, and developed in such a way as to open our minds to a plurality of understanding and meanings. This theory is also referred to in its various forms in most of the chapters in the book.

Silvia: And there’s a richness that comes when there is more than way of looking at things and making meaning. I can see how sometimes that may feel threatening – dealing with too many possibilities and wondering which one [explanation] is the right one.

Reading the book I just wanted to be a fly on the wall [we both laugh] and be part of one of these groups and really observe the interaction between you [and the group of supervisees]. I imagine that building trust with your supervisees is paramount.

Helena: Trust of course is not a finite thing, and can easily be disturbed.  It is true that plurality of meaning, using the theory of the third, can support the supervisor in building a trusting environment.

Silvia: It’s an emergent process. You cannot reduce this process – this mind of the group, this third – you cannot reduce it to its individual parts. It is richer and bigger... you also talk about surrender, about how you have to surrender yourself to that as opposed to fighting it or feeling defeated by it, or feeling masochistic.

Helena: You put it very well, as a goal, it is desirable but sadly, not always achievable.

Silvia: So I imagine you had to build trust in yourself to do it.

Helena: Well again, it is a work in progress isn’t it?  I still see my analyst of twenty-five years although not as frequently. I trust him to challenge me if and when he or I think something is going ‘wonky’ in my thinking or interpretation of things. And he does. At the same time self-doubt is so much a part of our experience isn’t it in this work, so we have to also learn how to stand steady, be resilient, and robust when there is conflict.  The feeling of things is what feels to me to be important, but not for their own sake.

Silvia: Feelings as markers as Antonio Damasio would say.

Helena: Yes, Damasio. Michael Egan is another one. He wrote a whole book on “Feelings matter”.

Silvia: What a discovery! (We both laugh)

Helena: Well we both laugh but you know we are intelligent women Silvia, and we both know how easy it is to get into our heads, to intellectualise, to rationalise.  What I learned from Damasio and Egan, and my own analyst is the reason feelings matter.  Firstly they make a distinction between emotions and feelings.  This is important because sometimes emotions pass for feelings when they are, in reality, more theatrical expressions rather than deeply held feelings.  The second important thing is that feelings have to pre-date any reflection - that reflection has to be linked to the feeling - which then combines to bring about meanings.  This is a distinctly different process from thinking.

It has been my experience that if a supervisee has not had a deeply containing transferential relationship with a therapist, in which they can work in depth, then their defenses are evoked in this type of group. Unexamined and unresolved conflicts then seep into the group process in a way which cannot be worked with.  In this book one of the important contribution most of the authors make is to describe their process so honestly, and tell us how they dealt with their transferences onto me, often by going to a psychotherapist with whom they could also project the bad object; in other words not just a ‘supportive’ therapy, but a therapy which enabled them to get to the nitty-gritty of their internalised object relational worlds, discover the roots of their anger and hurt, engage with the reality of their painful experiences.  This is what made it possible for the group to work.

Silvia: This would bring to the therapist’s attention feelings that lie beyond rote, socially accepted responses.

Helena: Yes, therapy can easily lend itself to clichéd thoughts and feeling, which so often pass for congruence, but mask the underlying real feeling. Recently I did a writing workshop with a well-published Irish writer and she said that to write meaningfully, you have to go below the eyebrows!  I think that is a useful metaphor for a good therapist or supervisor - follow the feel, go into the bellybutton, follow the feet! Move away from the clichés.

Silvia: Our metaphors can become ossified. I have one last question. How would you like your book to be used and how would you not like it to be used?

Helena: I know how I don’t want it to be used. As some sort of dogma – “This is how you do it!” I think I end by saying: “I hope that you use this to be who you are and the best that you are as a supervisor and therapist” and whoever that is, it will be different from me because you are not me or indeed any of the others in the book. So I think the main message of the book is to get people to think “Who am I? What influenced me? What did I do? Where have I come from? What is it that guides my style and principles and my integrity? Have I really gone through the pain inside of me?  Am I able and willing to use my ‘self’ to be the best that I can be”