Re-Membering My Forgotten Knowledges and Skills
It's is hard to know where to begin writing about the impact that Dr. Ncazelo Ncube-Mlilo’s recent workshop for NTI had on me. She titled her workshop, “Narrative Therapy and Cultural Sensitivity: Responding to People Who Have Suffered Hardships and Trauma.” Dr. Ncube-Mlilo lives and works in Johannesburg, South Africa. She is well known for developing the Tree of Life counseling methodology, and I actually harbored a secret wish the Tree of Life would make an appearance in the workshop.
Many reasons led me to enthusiastically register for this workshop, including the opportunity to meet a fellow African clinician who is practicing narrative therapy in an African country. I hoped it might help me with my dream of one day practicing narrative therapy in Nigeria. I also hoped to get practical ideas that could make a difference for people who consult with me around the effects of trauma in their lives.
I had no expectation the workshop would leave an indelible mark on me or help me step away from issues I have struggled with for most of my mental health career. I am most grateful for the workshop because it helped me separate myself from Anxiety's intractable presence overshadowing my role as a mental health clinician. Anxiety was particularly powerful whenever I was reflecting on and/or documenting my work with clients. Prior to this workshop, writing progress notes was the worst. Voices of past professors and supervisors as well as other potential evaluators, such as insurance auditors, would take up space in my head when I was reflecting on and documenting my sessions with clients. Anxiety was so long-standing I could not remember any time before its presence. I was convinced Anxiety had always been there. This blog is an opportunity for me to acknowledge the workshop’s effects on my life, including a precious Re-Membering that has helped to finally put Anxiety at bay.
The workshop began with Dr. Ncube-Mlilo sharing with us her story of how the COURRAGE program came about. COURRAGE is a narrative therapy methodology that honors the knowledges and skills that women show and use in the face of violence, abuse, grief, and other hardships. Dr. Ncube-Mlilo discussed the theories that support the methodology, and she shared moving stories of the first group of South African women who developed COURRAGE with her.
It did not take long before I noticed the remarkable pacing of the workshop, especially the first day. Even though Dr. Ncube-Mlilo could have given us many more statistics and detailed theories, she chose to give us just enough to understand the principles and ideas that underpin the program. She didn't overload us with information. We had time to sit with the ideas she presented to us, time to talk about them with one another, and time to listen to her responses to questions that came up. She made sure we had time to get up and stretch our legs, and enjoy the snacks and beverages provided.
These breaks had the same pace and feel throughout workshop, which communicated to me that the breaks we took, to refresh and connect with others, were no less important than the transmission of the content of the workshop. The privileging of the breaks as much as the content might have seemed unusual to some workshop participants because of the dominant professional development story that claims what is most important is pushing through to get the work (in this case, “content”) done. However, at the end of the first day, I felt that we, the workshop attendees, had actually experienced a 4- to 5-hour COURRAGE session, where tea breaks are a big part of the program. I liked how I was learning about the program and that my well-being and self-care werevas important as the content being presented.
The pacing of the workshop made me feel that we, as participants, were being valued and not dictated to by time constraints. As a Nigerian-American, this feeling connected me with an important knowledge I was exposed to while growing up in Nigeria—that people should be given priority over time. This is the value behind the often-stated stereotype of “African time/Colored People time (CPT).” I was taught this value and witnessed it while growing up in Nigeria. If someone needed attention, their need would dictate the time given to the person and people would not worry so much about other tasks. This does not mean, however, that being timely and caring for the well-being of self and others are mutually exclusive.
The privileging of the workshop breaks alongside the content delivery and small-group discussions felt right to me. Now, I cannot say for sure that was Dr. Ncube-Mlilo’s intention. She did not explain or indicate her intention but rather lived it through her reverence for the breaks. In so doing, I felt different, which contributed to my experience of the didactive segments. It was as if I could feel what participants of COURRAGE groups are meant to feel. This served as much as a lesson/teaching of the program as the didactic portions of the workshop. In reflecting later on the COURRAGE program, I deeply understood why and how the privileging of people over time is integral to the program.
All the things I appreciated about the first day of the workshop were present on the second day as well. On this day, the smaller group of attendees were placed into groups of three or four, where we had conversations in which each group member took a turn to facilitate one of the segments of the COURRAGE program. I experienced beautifully intimate conversations with my fellow group members. I was amazed by how deeply we got into each person’s stories of what we had overcome, the skills and knowledges that helped us survive, and the history and relational aspects of these skills and knowledges. Prior to this experience, I had struggled with confidence in facilitating a group in a therapy format. I had devalued my multiple experiences of co-facilitating groups in the past and held onto a strong belief that I needed “extensive training” in group therapy before I could ever think of running a group by myself.
However, as the day went on, I had an epiphany during my turn to facilitate the conversation. I realized my role was to support people to engage with the questions being posed to them and move through the paths that their responses take them. It dawned on me that I have had hundreds of such group conversations in my life, often initiating and leading them. In Nigeria, the smallest unit is not “I” (self) but rather “we” (family). Most families are comprised of the nuclear family and an ever-expanding and inclusive extended family. In my family, my nuclear family was not just my parents and my siblings but also my grandparents, my parents’ siblings (uncles and aunts) and many first, second, and third cousins. In fact, the same word—“nwanne mu”—in my Igbo language describes both a sibling and a cousin. If I ever spoke in English and referred to a cousin as a cousin rather than a sibling, they would be justifiably offended. Extended family in my world growing up included my clan and village because each person in a clan or village can be traced to the same ancestors. I was born to live, exist, and move in groups.
During the experiential part of the workshop, I realized that I have led group conversations that could be described as “therapeutic” in many situations. Facilitating group conversations is as familiar to me as breathing. Why this fact had become invisible to me before this workshop was because I'd had these experiences in my personal realm and not in my professional one. My graduate studies in psychology had taught me to discount, dismiss, and devalue skills and knowledges I had acquired before I started my training in psychology. However, experiencing the second day of the workshop helped me Re-Member what I inherently knew. It freed me from the discourse that I need more “expertise” to help guide and support people’s journeys through intimate conversations in group settings.
This breaking of the wall between personal and professional knowledges and skills helped me recall a similar epiphany I had when I was in my doctoral program. At the start of my program in clinical psychology, my cohort and I kept hearing about the importance of conveying respect to clients, which was linked to being successful in our practicums and later in our mental health careers. However, this idea that we needed to understand the importance of respect and learn how to convey respect in particular ways took up a big and oppressive position in my head via negative thoughts and feelings. Often, it would take my attention away from what clients were saying in sessions by making me wonder how I might say something with adequate ”respect.” This led me to question myself inside and outside the therapy room, wondering whether I was adequately respectful. When I seemed lacking in that arena, I would condemn myself vigorously.
Things kept getting worse until a professor who identified herself as a narrative therapist came to my rescue. We were casually talking about my internalized belief that I needed to learn how to convey respect to clients. She challenged the notion that graduate students were coming into the doctoral program with nothing, needing to learn everything from scratch, including how to be respectful. She explored my relationship with respect and, in that conversation, help me get in touch with my upbringing in Nigeria, where we respect our elders to the max. In my own tribe—the Ibos of Nigeria—someone older than you by even just one year could be considered an elder who deserves respect. This Re-Membering of my relationship with respect was everything. It freed me because I knew with every fiber in my bones that no school or professor could teach me respect or respectful practices better than the respectful practices towards my elders that I had learned, loved, and practiced since I became aware of the world around me. From then on, I made a commitment that for every client I meet, no matter how old they are, I will show them the respect I was taught to show my elders. With that I was freed of the worry of not knowing how to show respect to others.
The second day of the NTI workshop provided me a similar sense of freedom and peace in terms of my relationship with facilitating group conversations. I reconnected with my personal knowledges and skills about having and leading group conversations. I am no longer under the oppressive idea that I am lacking in group facilitation skills, have nothing to offer, and should wait until I get some ”expertise.”
The workshop gave me more than just that freedom, however. It also helped me realize that many of my relationships with Anxiety came from formalizing practices that typically had someone evaluating me on how well they thought I was doing. The evaluation was often based on comparisons to some ideal standard or other people. The evaluation was often linked to the idea that the evaluator is teaching you how to do certain practices “correctly.” The downside of this formalization is that it supports and maintains the stance that an individual is “lacking,” not enough, and continually needing to acquire more and more expertise. This for me was where Anxiety, Fears, Self-doubt, and their friends snuck in and made a home in my life. This is why Anxiety would torment me when I would try to document my work with clients.
Currently, I remind myself that many people, including myself, do not evaluate ourselves on how we brush our teeth, take baths, chew food, or swallow beverages. Yet many of the skills and knowledges of interacting and communicating with others are as familiar to me as my daily self-care practices. Consequently, I now intend to step away from evaluating my skills and knowledges in supporting individuals and groups, be it in personal or professional settings. This has brought me a liberating freedom from Anxiety, Fear, and their friends. It was fortunate that a few days after the workshop I visited Nigeria and was immersed in an environment that generally lives the way I want to, where professional, personal, spiritual, and secular aspects of one’s life freely flow into one another. This workshop has started me on this exquisite journey that has opened me to living my preferred life, and I am filled with gratitude.