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Finding our Place in the World

Lyn French (A Space Director) explores some of the more primitive urges driving the inherent contradiction we all live with: the wish to be a member of a group vs. the desire to be an individual. Examples given feature images from our new set of Emotional Learning Cards ‘How do we live well with others?’ now available to in the store.

Most of us can relate to the feeling of desperately wanting to get in with an ‘in’ crowd. This urge is especially powerful in adolescence when young people are negotiating a gradual separation from an emotional and practical dependency on parents or carers towards more autonomy.  Friendships become increasingly important as a source of intimacy, understanding and shared exploration.  At this stage, the peer group is sometimes experienced as a surrogate family where strong bonds are forged which can become lifelong.  Alternatively, more temporary relationships may be formed which allow for the possibility of trying out different identities.

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Doris Salcedo, Noviembre 6 y 7, Installation, Bogota (2002)

Emotionally potent themes play out just below the surface which can be captured in such questions such as ‘Who will want me as their friend? Which group or groups will ‘let me in’?  What parts of myself can I comfortably reveal and what do I have to hide? What will I do, or who will I become, in order to fit in?’ Belonging or its opposite – not being accepted –  is made more complex in our contemporary age of social media where ‘image management’ seems essential for social survival.

Doris Salcedo’s sequence of photographs (see above) portrays chairs seemingly ‘climbing’ a building and increasing in number from one in the first image to ‘swarms’ of chairs in the last. Her photographs call to mind the way in which we are all susceptible to following the lead of the person deemed to have the most social currency no matter where they are taking us or how dangerous the situation. Salcedo’s final image of multiple chairs clustered precariously on the external wall of a building, positioned as if trying to find a way in, can be seen as a salutary reminder of this.

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Franics Alys, When Faith Moves Mountains, Lima (2002)

The pull to run with the tribe is a primal one. Francis Alys’ photograph (see above) of a jagged line of individuals stretched out as far as the eye can see, all digging in the desert dunes, can also be understood to convey how easy it is to fall under the influence of others and follow the most confident even if what they are doing or where they are taking us is ill-judged, or worse, damaging.  Perhaps the wish to blindly ‘follow the leader’ is rooted in an unconscious desire to return to childhood where parents took responsibility for all aspects of life. Some ‘leaders’ whether in the personal or public arena, are self-appointed while others are elected but each can have an overriding unconscious wish to be ‘the powerful parent’ of childhood rather than the empowering facilitator.  As a society, we may need to re-visit the language we use to describe those who take, or are given, the lead as well as re-write the stories we tell ourselves about the roles of leaders and followers in general.

In common with a child’s development, we all have to pass through stages of disillusionment again and again where we come to terms with the reality that there is no all-knowing, all-capable, all-protecting parent figure out there who can relieve us of the challenges and complexities of life.  One can read Francis Alys’ photograph from this perspective too – perhaps the image is telling us that we are all in this together and only with collective effort  can we ‘move mountains’ as the title of  this image plays with.  We need individuals with vision and integrity to give guidance and direction but we also need balance, collective action and the willingness to assume joint responsibility for self and other.

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Ai Wei Wei Sunflower Seeds (2010)

The regressed wish to exist in cosy ‘one-ness’ like the pile of seeds in  Ai Wei Wei’s photograph (see above) with a parent-like leader looking over us  is just that –  a fantasy rooted in the desire to return to infant-hood.  We know that being in a group is often anything but comfortable and comforting.  Consciously and unconsciously comparing ourselves to others and ranking ourselves and those around us as ‘better than’ or ‘less than’ is a common feature of groups.  Included in the mix will be jealousy, envy, anxiety and guilt springing from the potential for rejecting others or being rejected ourselves. As we’ve all experienced, rejection takes a myriad of different forms, overt and covert. Any one of us can feel marginalised, left out, betrayed or scape-goated or act out in these ways against others.

At times, groups exert an almost irresistible pull.  However, much as we want to belong, we can also feel anxious about merging with the crowd and losing our unique identity. Gauging the degree to which we join in and the extent to which we keep ourselves apart is an on-going complexity with which many of us grapple.   There is no ‘one position’ to occupy; instead, we move in and out of being ‘a part of’ and being separate. We cannot eradicate differences or expect to feel some identification with everyone. The aim is not to create a homogenized ‘whole’ but to tolerate difference and ‘otherness’. These words are reassuring to articulate but much harder to live by. The temptation to project unwanted or disowned parts of ourselves onto other individuals or groups who are not associated with ‘our tribe’ is a powerful one. To project less forcefully and less frequently requires emotional and psychological work. Acknowledging our hated and hateful parts and learning to manage them rather than project them into others is difficult but rewarding as it leads to a more authentic perception of self and other.  Equally, we need to build our emotional resilience so that we can bear the hurt of being projected onto in negative ways and resist the excitement or elevation of being seen as the all-powerful parent.

At the same time, we learn how to avoid acting out the projection by not taking on the role or the qualities unconsciously assigned to us.  Catching ourselves projecting something onto to someone else, or stopping ourselves from taking on a projection, means being conscious of the ways in which we function as human beings. Living well with others takes internal work. The results, although significant, are subtle and likely to be felt below the surface.  However, managing the urge to project –  or avoiding taking on the projections of others –  can literally be life changing on both  individual and collective levels.

The images referenced above are part of our new set of Emotional Learning Cards ‘How do we live well with others?’ now available for worldwide delivery in our store. Join one of our workshops on either Thursday 12th June 6-7.30 pm or Saturday 21stJune 1.30-3 pm at Iniva to learn about different approaches to using our Emotional Learning Cards. See more information here and book via Eventbrite.


Written by Jenny Starr