Oxford, Oxfordshire OX2 7DA
The basic idea we get from complexity is that we do not have to rely on effort, pushing, force and discipline to create and maintain change. A lot of counselling and psychotherapy gets stuck in a battle against the client's negative patterns, e.g. addictions, eating disorders, self-harm, obsessions, destructive relationship patterns etc. The client and therapist can be seen to be working hard to confront and overcome ingrained patterns that do not seem to want to shift.
We then start thinking about the client's resistance, and their investments in maintaining the pattern, and the payoffs they get from remaining stuck in it. Client and therapist then re-double their efforts and start resorting to all kinds of techniques and tricks and methods to bring bigger guns onto the battlefield. But apart from temporary victories, the apparent cooperation between client and therapist does not seem to create lasting results.
Now, in many situations the pattern may be very ingrained and may not shift, whatever we do. However, the kinds of models and ideas which have been passed down the generations of psychotherapy over the last 100 years are largely rooted in late 19th century ideas of change - we could say in a Newtonian model of force and counterforce, or a linear model of change. In a world of discrete inanimate billiard balls, that model seems to work quite well: the harder you push, the bigger change you get.
However, in a world of complex human systems - both inwardly in terms of the psyche and outwardly in terms of relationships - that linear paradigm of change is often counter-productive. As therapists operating within that kind of paradigm, we are then exacerbating the stuckness in the system, adding to whatever resistance there already is and reinforcing it by pushing blindly against it.
This is where complexity theory can help us: by thinking of therapy and the client's inner world as a finely balanced, dynamic system of complex forces, it does not necessarily need a huge exertion of influence for the system to re-balance itself differently. On a balanced seesaw, one only needs to add a small weight on one side for it to tip.
This weekend will help you to not only think about, but to experience people and their interaction - i.e. yourself, others, the whole group, the leader - as such a dynamic system, and to attend to the processes that always already are present that want to happen within it. In complexity theory terms we are thinking about emergent processes versus established structures, intra-psychically, interpersonally and socially.
It is in the nature of this proposition that the weekend and its format are unpredictable - just like therapy itself: it has uncertainty and risk, but - at the edge of the window of tolerance - also profound transformational potential.
Here is the kind of thing that people say about previous weekends:
"A quick line to say thank you for hosting the 'Working at the Edge of Chaos' weekend. It was an experience that created room for greater awareness of myself in ways that I would never have expected..[...] The weekend surpassed all of my expectations." S.H.
“Thank you so much for leading another tremendously valuable and thought provoking weekend. And thanks also for sending the hand-outs so promptly. I really do feel that I benefit from looking at and experiencing chaos, and its edge, in the group that you so wonderfully facilitate. This is why this is my third year of attending. The experiential group process is so valuable to me. I have already seen my first client of the week and have more clearly been able to attune to the 'edge' between us and I feel that we have had a deeper session as a result. Thank you." V.J.
For a more detailed exploration of how complexity theory can be useful, read on ...
How are chaos and complexity relevant to our work as therapists?
Chaos and complexity theory are recently developed disciplines that give us new perspectives on how systems evolve and change. Therefore, the more we think about therapy in terms of systems, the more these theories apply to our work: to each individual bodymind-psyche as a system, or the therapeutic relationship, or the social networks both client and therapist are embedded in.
Process in complex systems - from galaxies to human beings to microbes - is understood to operate in a dynamic tension between stable equilibrium and evolving change, between established structures and emerging process: at the edge of chaos.
The well-known idea is that it only takes a butterfly flapping its wings to tip the meteorological balance towards engendering a hurricane on the other side of the planet. It’s not that simple, of course, but there are similar dynamics at work in the psyche, where unconscious forces can accumulate invisibly, and lead to apparently sudden, big outer changes.
The traditional ‘linear’ paradigm of change in therapy
That is not how we traditionally approach change in therapy where it is usually assumed that it takes lots of concerted effort – by both client and therapist - to make big and lasting changes. The bigger the effort and force we apply, the bigger the change. In such a Newtonian universe - rather than attending to systemic configurations - we get focussed on what we want to achieve, i.e. on insight, sustained discipline and conscious choices; this usually involves overcoming resistances. The very idea of therapy being effective is then defined in quite linear terms as achieving progress, i.e. moving the client on, closer towards some idea of psychological health; and frequently the client is expected to fully get behind the change project.
Within that mindset, much of therapy subscribes to some idea of what’s wrong and needs to be improved, i.e. ideas of pathology, borrowed from medicine - we therefore then need a ‘treatment plan’ and a therapy that is goal-oriented, symptom-focussed and directive, operating through an exclusively ‘linear’ paradigm of change. Even humanistic therapies can imply ‘linear’ agendas (e.g. self-actualisation). The idea of change as something we envision, plan and make happen is based on such ‘linearity’, like climbing up a mountain of steady progress.
Not all change is ‘linear’ – in fact ‘linear’ is the exception
Complexity theory reminds us that most change in reality does not follow those linear ideas (which are virtual abstractions and at best approximations, like a sequence of straight lines approximating an organic curve). In reality, many interdependent variables as well as feedback loops affect every part of a system - on the one hand keeping things stable in the status quo and on the other pushing for new structures, ‘attractors’ and integrations. This can lead to apparently sudden ruptures and new possibilities (which - we understand with hindsight - have been brewing for a long time, waiting for favourable conditions).
This kind of dynamic change has been called ‘non-linear’ (as the effect is not in proportion to the force invested in making it happen). And it is in the nature of the beast that this kind of change is unpredictable and uncontrollable.
So rather than relying on conscious intention, deliberation and discipline, change is seen as always already emerging, always already underway. Therefore, rather than forcing change - to get rid of something negative, or to create something positive - we can be interested in what is already happening, what wants to happen, and what is opposing it. This resonates with Gestalt’s paradoxical theory: “Change happens when we accept ‘what is’.” We then take as our starting point that we are in conflict already - pushing for change, resisting emergence, fighting against ‘what is’ – those force fields always already exist, and we ignore or override them at our peril.
A spectrum of non-linear systemic forces and tendencies
Thus, complexity gives us a more comprehensive and embracing notion that there are many different types of change: linear and non-linear, regressive or progressive, sudden or incremental, overwhelming or organic, chaotic or planned; and it gives us the idea that systemic change might only need a therapist flapping their wings in a facilitative way, rather than pushing a boulder – or a donkey – up the hill.
At the boundary between established state and emerging process is the edge of chaos, where things are complex and in flux, the full picture unknown and outcomes unpredictable - like the shapes formed by the turbulences of rising smoke or flowing water, sensitive to the slightest environmental variations. The therapeutic process is similar, and it depends on the subtlety of our perception whether we are able to notice where that edge of chaos is from moment to moment.
Rather than imagining that we are directing the boat of therapy across a calm lake in a straight deliberate line, facilitating any kind of dynamic process in any complex system is more like white water rafting - giving an occasional intentional steer at a crucial moment, but knowing that the situation is fundamentally unpredictable. The illusion of being able to control the process is one of the greatest hindrances in the helping professions, and complexity puts that impulse into perspective.
Stability and risk - the paradox at the edge of chaos
Traditional science, and traditional therapy, find it hard to tolerate and operate beyond control, in that fertile area at the edge of chaos. Complexity theory, however, gives us the tools to thrive there, helping us to understand non-linear change and to surrender to its participative, unpredictable nature. Inevitably, this confronts us with our own comfort zones and habits as therapists, e.g. our own bias towards stability or change, our own tendency to court, avoid or accept risk. This kind of enquiry opens up a rich field of therapeutic spontaneity and creativity: rather than fighting for change or against the staus quo, we attend to subtle messages of emergent phenomena in the field which are already happening.
Why call it ‘paradoxical’?
Because the more we include our spontaneous embodied, emotional, imaginal and mental processes in our moment-to-moment awareness, the more elusive the clear distinction between ‘risk’ and ‘stability’ becomes – we realise that these apparent polarities co-create each other, deconstruct each other, until each subtly turns into the other. At the edge of chaos, risk and stability imply each other …
Chaos implies ‘embodiment’ and bodymind process
Following the therapeutic process at this level of paradox requires attention to bodymind and systemic micro-detail, both internally and interpersonally, and a therapeutic presence that is equally fluid and solid: anchored and stable as well as nimble and mercurial. We then recognise that on pre-reflexive levels of the interaction in the therapeutic relationship, the attachment – and the working alliance – is indeed a shifting, oscillating complex dance - there are many butterflies flapping their wings all the time, and it needs our own differentiated embodiment and flesh-and-blood presence to notice and pursue them.
Learning together at the edge of chaos
In this territory, timing, responsiveness and spontaneity are crucial – learning about therapy at the edge of chaos cannot happen via a manual, not even a video: you need to be present, embodied in the room in the group and participate. Left-brain reflection – as important as it is in the therapeutic position – usually happens after the event, maybe in preparation for the next one … For this event, we will turn that requirement into a feature: just as we do not have control over the process in therapy, we cannot and will not set a curriculum for this weekend, and you will become co-responsible for the unfolding of your own and the group’s learning process.
The weekend is an opportunity to dance at your own growing edge as a person and a therapist, to deepen your own idiosyncratic therapeutic style and find your own way to inhabit the paradox of risk and stability.