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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

AM23-PP28: Be careful what you wish for: when the collectivist spirit collides with capitalism

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Parallel Papers Session 6

Sunday 2 July 10.00am-11.00 SAST - Online
Paper Code: PP28
Be careful what you wish for: when the collectivist spirit collides with capitalism

Presenter: Dr. Kate Dempsey


Using a professional association of mental health clinicians as a unit of study, this presentation will investigate the dilemma represented by the desire to have recognition, pay and kudos which is given to professional, government-regulated clinicians, whilst at the same time, fearing what must be given up of oneself, one’s spirit, one’s values and humanity in order to gain these goods.

I tell the story of a merger of two associations into one larger association with the expectation that the new, larger entity would bring the power and recognition so fervently sought by members.

This story connects with the theme of the conference because these association members are art therapists and espouse connectivity, collaboration, spirit in the ways they work with clients. They believe themselves to be outside the mainstream system as creatives, but in truth they are inside the capitalist enterprise and crave the things that the system can provide. The presentation offers a cautionary tale of the dangers of romanticising a collectivist, person-centred, connected philosophy and viewing it as a binary opposite of the individualist, self-centred nature of the capitalist enterprise. Failing to hold the creative tension of these two extremes (Vilikati et al 2013) can lead to an organisation and its leadership becoming the site of unspoken, un-owned, expelled fear and aggression.

Five years on from the merger, recognition is still lacking, fear and projection are commonplace within the membership. The association is a container (Bion 1967) in which to project /evacuate the intolerable anxieties that members have introjected from the wider system, their own mentally ill clients, as well as their own sense of their inadequacies as mental health clinicians.

Is there a solution? The complexity of the situation must be brought to the surface and worked through if growth is to occur and without this growth the damage to the association and its leadership is profound.

I use the work of Jessica Benjamin (2016) to examine the possibility of creating relational repair in the transformational space of ‘thirdness’, where subjects in the drama of the group are recognised as having a position of worth with a focus on mutuality, not domination/destruction. The complexity with surfacing these difficult issues is the fear of exposure that members are in fact not good enough, working with the shame of espousing a worldview merely in the hope that it protects from the pain of voicelessness, and working towards a goal that may in fact never be reached and is actually not wanted. I have no neat solution to the problem but I seek to explore possibilities, open the space and encourage conversation partners both at the conference and within the association itself, to engage in a collaborative space of thinking with me.


Benjamin, J (2016) ‘The Concept of the Third’ Taken from "Advances in Relational Psychotherapy" Online Module by Relational Psychotherapy accessed 12.12.2022.

Bion WR (1967) Second Thoughts: Selected Papers on Psychoanalysis. London. Routledge. DOI

Vilikati, MV, Shcurink, W & Viljoen, R (2103) ‘Exploring the concept of African Spiritual Consciousness’ Academy of Management Proceedings vol 2013, No. 1