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Difference makes a Difference

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Trevor Silvester

Summer 2016

Difference makes a Difference


A bunch of Manchester United fans are brought together to complete a questionnaire on how they identify as football fans. Then they’re asked to walk across campus to watch a film. Along the way a runner falls in front of them and is injured. You’d help, right? What this Lancaster University study showed was that these fans were less likely to do so if the runner was wearing a Liverpool FC shirt.

Such prejudice runs deep within us, and no wonder. Opposing teams have been a danger to each other ever since mankind formed into groups. Archaeologists recently made the grisly discovery of 28 members of a stone age tribe in Kenya who were brutally murdered ten thousand years ago. Almost certainly it was a rival tribe.

No wonder we see difference as dangerous.

I see this as the root of so much of the conflict in the world, and why we are so susceptible to unscrupulous people demonising particular groups like Jews, immigrants and the LGBT community. We’re primed to be suspicious of people who do not share our ways, and that can begin at the level of family, and extend all the way up to the level of country.

Recently there was a furore over the difference in press coverage between the Paris terrorist attacks and a similar atrocity in Turkey. I see this same propensity at work. The further away or the more different the people involved, the less empathy we feel. It’s not nice to think, but it’s evolution.

Not that this makes it acceptable. I think that prejudice is unavoidable, and science has pretty much proven it, but discrimination – the actions that stem from prejudice – is. Discrimination is something we can have choice over, and we can all do more to overcome our primal programming.

But what does this sensitivity to people who are different have to do with our work as therapists? A lot.

Fear is the single biggest emotion we’re asked to help with, and much of that fear stems from our interactions with others. We’re scared of other people’s opinions and judgements of us, and this can lead us to conform to a norm, from how we should behave, to what job we should be doing, to what house we should be aspiring to live in. The trouble is, when most people are talking about ‘normal’ they mean ‘average’. We’re being forced into leading average lives by our urge to conform.

It takes tremendous strength to steer a course away from this mainstream of averageness, because people like what is like them, and the less you identify with their aspirations and their lifestyle choices, the less they’ll identify with you. By being true to yourself, rather than the prevailing culture, you risk being expelled from it. You no longer fit, and it’s a short journey from that to being labelled negatively. The prospect of that is scary.

That’s what I often see in my clients, and the people who become students of The Quest Institute. They want to change their lives, but they face rejection from those around them because they’re taking the road less travelled. The more they move toward a life that is congruent for them, the less they’ll find they have in common with the culture that surrounds them, and the choices their friends and family are making. This can create tensions, and even lead to relationship breakdowns. When I left the police to become a therapist, within a year I’d lost most of my friends. We simply didn’t have a connection once we no longer shared a uniform.

It’s one of the reasons why Quest is such a powerful and popular organisation to belong to, because it has such a supportive network of students and graduates. Overwhelmingly they’re people who might be travelling in different directions but who share the same aspiration for themselves – to live a life of meaning. No wonder the word ‘family’ is used so often within it.

It’s one of the paradoxes of our time that, thanks to technology, we have never been so connected, and yet so many feel alone. And I think it’s at least in part to what I’m writing about. We have a strong need to attach to others, to feel that we belong, but there are so many different attachment points now that we’re left not truly belonging to anything. In the recent past our allegiances were simple. We had a family, a job, a church, a village and a country. Now, I belong to more groups than that just on Facebook. And some people in one group would completely disagree with the views expressed in another. So to whom do I give my loyalty? Who do I identify with? I also have a football team, although a lot of other Chelsea fans are idiots (I know because I’ve policed them), so sharing a shirt doesn’t equal kinship. I’m British, but also English, but also European. I also belong to the West. Where do I belong? Whose face paint can I please smear on me so I can relax and know where I fit?

In the modern age we belong anywhere, everywhere, and nowhere.

Which is good news if you let it be. You have a choice, withdraw to more easily determined group memberships – it seems to work for the Amish and Arsenal supporters, or throw yourself into the freedom of not belonging.

It’s time we overcame this primitive labelling of difference and realised that it’s difference that unites us. We’re all different, and that’s to be celebrated. The big question in life is how to use your difference to live a happy life being yourself, rather than seek to squeeze your difference into a particular box in the hope you’ll fit. You won’t, and it will make you miserable. Leave the boxes, belong where you choose, and surround yourself with people who you agree and disagree with, but who support and love you.

You see, therapy isn’t all ‘close your eyes and tell me about your childhood.’ For me, it’s about exploring our place in the world and understanding that feeling you don’t fit in is pretty much a default position for humans – it’s why we created uniforms in the first place, from feather headdresses to football shirts to WI badges. It’s about accepting that it’s ok to be inconsistent in your pursuit of what you’re looking for in life. Because what you’re looking for will probably be inconsistent too. At least it will be if you’re growing. And that, beyond all else, is what therapy is about: growing you and your life into something that fits.