40th Anniversary Graduation Speech by Kate Uher
Normally, when I give a talk, I don’t plan it out, because planning makes me nervous. My usual way of approaching this sort of situation is to get on stage, allow myself to disassociate and whatever happens happens. I like this because people come up to me afterwards and tell me how great I was, and I have no idea what on earth I just said. But Compliments are nice. That’s always worked for me in the past. As least as far as I can remember. But this is the Northern Guild for Psychotherapy, and the Guild has a particular importance to me. So, for this talk, I have made a plan. I’m going to talk about three things that happened in 1983.
The first thing I’m going to talk about which happened in 1983 is that the term ‘cosplay’ was introduced into the world by a Japanese reporter covering comicons. Cosplay, for people who don’t know, is a bit of a complicated concept. It is essentially the combination of the words: ‘Costume’ and ‘Play.’ For those of you who haven’t read about it or aren’t familiar with it, cosplay is an act where people dress up like their favourite characters from comic books or movies. These characters often have admirable traits, such as being cool or witty or heroic; but they also have traits that make them more complex like anxiety, depression or identity uncertainty. There are aspects of the character that are often widely admired and there are aspect of the character that people might feel insecure about within themselves. Dressing up like a particular character is an opportunity to put armour around our humanity. To have a representation of that which makes us human and that which we might be scared of in ourselves. It’s also an opportunity to try on different personas so that we might discover who we are.
The second thing which happened in 1983 that I wanted to talk about was that I was offered a diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Condition. Back then my mother thought it was probably going to do more harm than good, and I think she was likely right, so she didn’t tell anyone, including me. This meant that growing up I felt like there was something different about me, but I lacked a name for what it was.
In my teenage years I got interested in psychology, I was really wanting to make sense of the world around me and my own experience. I started reading some of my mum’s, psychology textbooks from university. I got interested in one book in particular which had a list of different disorders people might have. I liked the simplicity of how the book was structured. I would read about things and I would think… That could be me…. That could be me…. That could be me….
I liked having a language that might describe some of my experiences. For me that felt like having the magic keys. After discovering that book I very excitedly told my mum, ‘I think I’m interested in psychology.’ She responded, ‘Well, that would be wonderful for you because often people who go into psychology struggle, a lot in their childhood.’ She meant that to be genuinely encouraging. But at 13 what I understood from that was that my interest in psychology was a telltale sign that something was wrong with me. As a resul I became very embarrassed about this part of myself. I started hiding my psychology books under my bed. And for the next 20 years of my life that is where my psychology texts would live.
It was in my 30s after my son was diagnosed with autistic spectrum condition that I was finally told about my own early diagnosis. After a few years of self-reflection, I thought I would like to train as a psychotherapist. Finding the Northern Guild was not the product of a lot of in-depth research. I googled ‘psychotherapy training near me.’
I found the Guild.
It looked kind of small, and I wasn’t sure if it would be any good. I had no idea what transactional analysis was. I had I’m okay. You’re okay, under my bed. But I couldn’t have told you who wrote it. And I would not have known that guy had anything to do with transactional analysis even if I could have.
I went to an open evening.
In my 36 years of life, I had not felt like I could sustainably fit in anywhere, so I was a little bit nervous as I looked around the room wondering. Where these my people? Should I invest in this emotionally, financially, temporally? Could I hold this job? Signing up and starting the training was a real leap of faith. I spent the first year feeling scared. I remember when I started my first placement, how insecure I was about what I was doing. To prepare I went on Counselling Directory.com and studied the faces of practising therapists. I wanted to identify what attributes made someone a good therapist.
I realized that a good therapist is someone who has: strong eyebrows, a Greek nose if at all possible, an eclectic fashion sense, and chunky jewellery. I started to identify tropes within the therapist community. I could see there was the earth, mother type, the schoolteacher type, the nurturing parent. The every- man, the every- woman type. I was staring at faces of people who represented who I wanted to be and who I was scared of being. My early days as a therapist were me trying to dress the part as I sought to learn what sort of therapist am I?
Mark Twain wrote, ‘The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.’
My first client and I worked together for a year and a half. The evening after we ended, I sat in my living room writing up my notes. I had a feeling of satisfaction that I hadn’t felt about anything before. I had helped someone in a way that felt authentic to me. That aligned with my ethics. My need to be equal rather than the expert. My need to be human rather than robotic. We had I-thou moments. I was still new to this, but I believed I had done a good enough job. And I felt proud of that.
As my mind wondered, my eyes stared straight ahead, until I became aware that I was staring at my bookshelf. I grabbed an empty laundry basket and cleared one of the shelves of my husband’s science fiction fantasy books. It’s okay. He has many more. He’s someone who thinks if you need bookends you don’t have enough books. So, I lugged the books upstairs and dumped them on my bed. I then got on my hands and knees and pulled out all of my psychology texts. I went back downstairs and filled the shelf with these books. I didn’t have to be afraid of this part of me. I was a Psychotherapist.
The third thing I wanted to talk about which happened in 1983 was Christine Lister Ford and Jennie McNamara started the Northern Guild for Psychotherapy. In her talk Jennie gave credit to us for making the Guild what it is, but the reality is that none of us would be here if it weren’t for them creating this school. The school is small compared to large universities, but its smallness is a gift. The smallness allows the Guild to teach something which is hard to teach in anonymous lecture halls in large institutions. It teaches us humanism. Which is to respect humanity and autonomy, starting with ourselves. It makes sense that this is taught well in a more intimate setting. We go as therapists and counsellors into a room with one or sometimes two other people and the magic is the I-thou moments. We can’t learn that in a large and impersonal space.
When I was asked to speak here today, I wanted to create a talk that was worthy of the Guild. I started listening to graduation speeches given by famous people like Neil Gaiman, Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah and others. One of the themes I noticed which came up in every talk I listened to was the theme of failure. I was curious about why that was such a common theme. Then I realised, it was because the graduation speeches I was listening to were directed at an audience of people in their early 20s, many going out into the adult world for the first time. For them failure is a sensible thing to talk about. To let them know that it’s okay to fail, to let them know that failure is inevitable. But when I thought about the speech I would give today, I thought most of the people I’ve met who’ve gone into training at the Guild have already experienced some failures and hurt and roadblocks. A lot of them have gone into this training because of such experiences.
Most of the people, I’ve met don’t need to be told it’s okay to fail. Instead, many of us have needed to be told it’s okay to self-actualize and take up space and be potent. It’s okay to look at and embody the scary bits of ourselves, to face our insecurities. The insecurities are not a one-off. We are constantly graduating from one place to another in our lives. Acquiring new skills, acquiring new qualifications, starting new careers, or new levels in our careers. Allowing ourselves to be okay with the scary bits, to learn, to self-actualize is a privilege because we increasingly live in a world that does not permit such behaviour. But I think not only is it okay to have this privilege, we need to insist on it.
We need to be told it’s okay to love what you do, and get paid for what you love, because you can tell when someone you go to for help has stopped loving what they do. Because when that happens, what they do becomes a means to an end. And you become the object (rather than the person) they are working with. And that is scary.
It’s okay to shine in the presence of others, because in doing that we help others to do it too. That is where the healing is. When you are close to someone who shines you heal a little bit. When you learn how to shine yourself you heal completely.
I expect to be graduating from my PhD next July, and I won’t miss it, but I already know it won’t compare to a Guild Graduation. My experience here was very much about self-actualization and I can’t think of a better more important graduation in life than to find a deeper more meaningful and truer version of yourself.
As we go forward from here, we go into different places. Some of you will go into private work, some maybe go into work for different institutions or different charities. Some of you will find that you step immediately into a place where the humanistic ethos is embodied and respected and upheld. And others may find that the people they work with don’t quite get it. It takes effort to maintain what we’ve been trained to do. It takes ethical bravery to question, challenge and educate others around us, particularly when the Critical Parents start running the show. But we must continue to challenge and educate because our privilege of living authentically cannot be a passive one. So, I hope as you embark on this relationship with yourself and your career that you give yourself permission, not just to be happy, but to protect that happiness and cultivate it in others.