Outgoing President’s farewell letter
David Edwards. January 18th 2021
As 2021 begins, with all the deep uncertainties occasioned by the second wave of COVID, which is seriously impacting us here in South Africa as it is throughout the world, it is particularly gratifying for me to see the ISST in such good hands with a new Executive Board. Its capable and committed members are well equipped to take the organization forward with respect to the challenges the ISST faces. When my wife and I visited Istanbul in September 2018 as part of a holiday, we spent an enjoyable evening there with Alp Karaosmanoglu, our new President, and his wife. I have now been enjoying interacting with Alp further in the process of supporting him and the new Board members as they get oriented to the complexities of the ISST and the tasks they face. Alp was Vice-President on the ISST’s third Executive Board which served from the end of 2012 to the end of 2014, so he has experience in the running of the organization and, of course, was central to the planning and hosting of our conference in Istanbul in June 2014. Since then, of course, three more Executive Boards have come and gone, and a lot has changed. The change is due in part to our ever-growing membership, and also to the march of technological changes in our increasingly digitally connected world.
You will be familiar with the metaphor of standing on the shoulders of giants, an image that reflects the recognition of, and gratitude for, those that have contributed over the years to the founding and development of the ISST and laid the foundations of what it is today. Those interested in the history of the ISST might like to look at the members of all seven of the Executive Boards that have served and built our society since it was founded in 2008: you can see this at https://schematherapysociety.org/Past-Executive-Boards .
Some of these founders and builders have been awarded the status of Honorary Life Members, an honor that the ISST bestows on some of those who have contributed to the ISST itself and to the development and dissemination of schema therapy. You can find a gallery of these at https://schematherapysociety.org/Honorary-Life-Members and, in looking through it, find out more about the history of the ISST. As President I was particularly aware of the foundations laid by others and want to acknowledge the many members who do not appear on our current list of Honorary Life Members who have also made significant contributions. I hope this gallery will expand in the future to honor more of them.
Our former President Wendy Behary recently sent out an email recognizing the enormous contribution made by Eckhard Roediger, the outgoing Treasurer – who is rightly now among the ranks of our Honorary Life Members. I join her in this appreciation of what he has done for the ISST and here acknowledge what a pleasure it was to work closely with him over the past 4 years. The other outgoing Executive Board member who I would like to similarly acknowledge for his huge contribution is Travis Atkinson. During his three terms on the Board as Media Coordinator (during the first two of these terms it was still called “Public Affairs Coordinator”), he contributed time and energy and a highly professional level of technical knowledge and expertise to the development of the website, to the organization and promotion of conferences, and to advising us on such important issues as data protection and related legal issues. Probably most of you will have encountered him directly or indirectly during this time and benefitted from his contributions, and from his friendly and helpful manner when you interacted with him personally. So the outgoing Executive Board had no hesitation in proposing him for Honorary life membership and you can read more about what he has done for the ISST on the Honorary Life Members page or go directly to https://schematherapysociety.org/Travis-Atkinson-Honorary-Life-Member .
Schema Therapy and the ISST are attracting increasing interest and involvement of members from more and more countries – our members currently come from some 60 different countries (across all the continents except Antarctica) - making the ISST a truly international society. So, it is good to see such a diversity of regions represented on the new board, with a President from Turkey, and members from Australia, Austria, Brazil, Germany, Romania, and the USA (one from the West Coast and one from the East Coast).
With such an international membership, questions will be asked about just how culturally universal the central tenets of schema therapy are. I believe that what draws us together as ISST members from diverse backgrounds is the recognition that the schema therapy model articulates general principles and processes that are universal across all cultures. Whatever our cultural background, we are all the same homo sapiens species with the same complex brains that are derived from an extended evolutionary process, with aspects that are reptilian, mammalian, hominid and, eventually, the sapiens component too. Because our brains have to grow a lot after we are born, in order to get big enough to serve all the complex functions that a homo sapiens brain needs to be capable of, we all have the same attachment system, whose healthy development depends on an environment in which the core needs of a human child are met as his or her brain grows and matures. The fundamental developmental needs of an infant, of a toddler, of a young child, of an older child, of a teenager, and of a young adult are universal, as is the impact of those needs not being met at any developmental period. I always find it helpful to recall how Mary Ainsworth’s first research on attachment patterns, that led to her fruitful collaboration with John Bowlby, was carried out in rural Uganda. You can see one her photographs from the 1950s here.
To survive and function, individuals can adapt to the pain of unmet needs in remarkable ways. But there are hidden costs to these coping adaptations. These costs, however, may not be recognized at all, and the affected individual is merely stereotyped and derided by those who don’t understand what has happened. Or, the costs may only be recognized much later, and, even then, it may be difficult for someone to find a new, more flexible and reality-based way, of adapting. It is in the structuring of coping modes that culture plays a significant role. Many coping modes are shaped by cultural learning and this gives rise to recognizable coping patterns within particular cultures (or subcultures), patterns of overcompensation, surrender and avoidance that are culturally sanctioned and encouraged. Then, when triggering happens, we see what Kleinman has aptly called “idioms of distress,” specific culturally adapted patterns of expression that are seen in some cultures but not in others. But whatever the culture, it is the task of psychotherapists to promote the understanding of three things: 1) that problematic behaviors are the result of coping, 2) that the coping is in response to important needs not being met, and 3) that such coping adaptations come with a cost.
The framework of schema therapy is a particularly valuable guide in this, because of its emphasis on identifying coping modes and understanding how they perpetuate problems. It is also a valuable guide to promoting a healing process with its understanding of the painful experiences of unmet needs that the coping is there to shut down, and with its recognition of how, through emotion-focused work and reparenting, the underlying pain can be reduced and resolved, and healing can occur.
Cultural perspectives and values shape the way coping is played out and may interfere with the process of implementing what is needed to effect schema healing. Culturally sanctioned overcompensations embody rationalizations and minimizations and other distortions just as all overcompensators do. As schema therapists we inevitably find ourselves dealing with cultural obstacles of this sort. We have a dilemma: how do I respect the client’s “culture” when it is an obvious obstacle to meaningful change? So it is good to remind ourselves that since its beginning in Europe, psychotherapy has always been culturally subversive. It has always had to challenge cultural positions that reinforce failures of empathy and support dysfunctional coping patterns that legitimize maltreatment and abuse of power. The schema therapy framework, by contrast, is not just an arbitrary cultural product. It is based on the firm foundations of an evolving science, that continues to build our understanding of attachment theory and its implications into an impressive body of empirically grounded consensual knowledge. This knowledge is not just abstract. It provides a basis for the schema therapist’s approach to case conceptualization and how we use that conceptualization to promote corrective experiences. It is exciting for me to be part of an organization in which so many individuals from such diverse backgrounds are promoting and furthering this across such a wide spectrum of cultural contexts, and I look forward to continuing to learn more about how to do this and working with you all in this shared adventure.
©2021 International Society of Schema Therapy e.V.
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