Wheeler (2005) reminds us of the powerlessness we feel at times as therapists and as human beings when faced with circumstances out of our control, when becoming aware of the desperate plight of others and when clients who could benefit from therapy refuse to attend sessions. I would like to dialogue with some of her thoughts with particular reference to the role of self-reflection.
Sinason (1992) discusses the concept of stupidity. She explores stupidity in relation to claiming to know what in fact we do not know as well as mentioning that the word stupid initially meant "numbed with grief" (as in the word "stupefy"). I suggest that aspects of "knowing" and "not knowing" as well as being numbed with grief relate at least in part to the idea of powerlessness.
As Wheeler spoke of feeling powerless when clients would not attend sessions I was reminded of a time when I felt powerless and compelled to discontinue sessions with a particular client group. I was working in a paediatric oncology ward immediately after graduating as a music therapist and was, during the same period of time, trying unsuccessfully to have a child. I was attempting to create life while the children in the ward around me were dying. At times it felt as if their deaths were penetrating me. I felt powerless to effect change and powerless to withstand the emotional demands of the environment I found myself in.
As music therapists we are well aware that self-reflection is one of our most potent tools. I felt the compulsion to leave my work at the oncology ward because I had not reflected sufficiently upon my feelings of powerlessness. I was working at giving myself and others the impression that I knew what I was doing and what I was feeling, that I knew how to contain the suffering of these children when in fact I did not know. I was quite literally numbed with grief... "stupid".
Attempting to convince ourselves and others that we know (the answer, the problem, the plight of another, the exact mechanisms of a therapeutic interaction at any particular moment, the precise meaning of a musical expression) blocks us from discovering authentic meaning – hence the connection with stupidity. Only when we embrace the fact that we do not know can we be open to journeying towards that authentic meaning. Similarly, being numbed with grief blocks us off from journeying in and through our own suffering and the suffering of others. We are in fact left powerless. However, in many cases, by acknowledging our powerlessness we are immediately granted choices. By reflecting on my feelings of working in the paediatric oncology ward I was no longer subject to the dread of driving to sessions and the numbness of "going through the motions" with my clients. I was no longer feeling the irresistible compulsion to discontinue my work there. Instead I was empowered to make decisions based on the understanding of the true processes at work beneath the surface. I could choose to engage in more intense supervision to process my own problematic feelings and continue my work there with the power of insight into my own emotions or I could choose to end my work there for a season, able to be honest with myself and others. Admitting that I did not know and travelling through my grief instead of dissociating from it, through self-reflection, reinstated my power.
Obviously, this sense of power is obtained on various levels and each situation is unique. Wheeler mentioned missing a connecting flight due to a delay and having to wait at an airport. No amount of self-reflection or recognition of powerlessness will make an aeroplane wait for one. However, our frustration in waiting often stems from our belief that we are in fact in control. We are compelled therefore to be annoyed and impatient at having to wait. By realizing our powerlessness in this situation we are freed to make a choice of attitude. Realizing our powerlessness when observing natural disasters can empower us greatly in the attitudes and actions we assume in our daily lives. Recognizing that I am powerless to make a client come to therapy forces me to acknowledge that he or she makes ultimate decisions over his / her life – as do I. I have choices always and hence I am powerful.
Perhaps for our clients in therapy, a sense of becoming empowered develops in the safety of a relationship where the depth of suffering can be expressed and experienced instead of dissociated from and where powerlessness and lack of control can be acknowledged and not feared. There is then the opportunity to know oneself and to shake off "stupidity." It is then that we discover we have choices and in the face of our powerlessness we discover true power.
Sinason, V. (1992). The sense in "stupidity." Mental Handicap and the Human Condition: New Approaches from the Tavistock (Chpt 1, pp 17-38). London: Free Association Books.
Wheeler, B. (2005). On Powerlessness. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved February 20, 2006, from http://www.voices.no/columnist/colwheeler051205.html
Dos Santos, Andeline (2006). Celebrating Self-Reflection: Continuing a Commentary on Powerlessness. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved May 15, 2013, from http://testvoices.uib.no/?q=colsantos130306