Existential psychotherapist and blogger Emma Wilkinson recently very kindly asked me to be part of her ‘people of integrity’ project. She’s interviewing people whose work she regards as having integrity and I was deeply flattered to be thought of that way!
You might also be interested in the other interview she’s conducted so far with Prof. Emmy Van Deurzen, foremost existential psychotherapist in Europe.
Briefly tell me your story (who are you? Where do you come from? Where are you going?)
I’m Meg-John Barker (MJ for short). I grew up in Bradford in the 1970s and 80s. I studied psychology at university, did a PhD in that area, and stumbled into working as a lecturer. But my passion for exploring and writing about people’s relationships with themselves and others didn’t really develop until I was around 30. It’s been a gradual process of allowing myself – more and more – to study what really fascinates me, drawing on the ideas and approaches that make most sense to me, and writing in the ways that I feel I’m best at and find most fulfilling.
In the last few years I’ve been writing more about more self-help style books – and other materials – for general audiences rather than for academics. I see myself going increasingly in that direction, weaving together my therapeutic work with my writing, and producing the kind of creative and critical self-help that I think would be useful for people. I’m particularly excited about projects involving comics and animations, for example, or mashing up self-help with other genres such as ghost stories, or memoir.
What do you see as your true purpose in life?
I see my purpose as being somebody who brings together and synthesises a lot of information and ideas about the topics that I’m passionate about, and then finds ways of putting that across which will be accessible and engaging for folks. It’s all about connection for me: connecting with the people who I learn from through reading, conversations with colleagues, and my therapy work; and connecting with the people I’m talking to through my writing, workshops, mentoring and counselling.
Another important element for me is that my work locates individual experiences in wider culture, and encourages people to engage critically with the messages around them, rather than getting caught in a spiral of blaming themselves – as individuals – for their struggles.
How did you discover this purpose?
I’m sure that a major element has been my ongoing reflection on my own life, and what has been helpful to me: wanting to put stuff out there into the world that might be useful to others who are struggling in ways that I’ve struggled.
Also there’s been a process of gradually allowing myself to pursue what I see myself as being best at. We receive so many messages about what we should do in life, or what a ‘proper’ person in our line of work should be doing. I try to hold those messages lightly and focus more on the question of what seems most useful and valuable. I know that it’s when I pursue those projects that I feel most alive, and that what I produce is of the highest quality.
What are the key qualities in yourself or others that you value and why?
The key qualities for me would be walking the walk, balancing criticality and kindness, and engaging with others in accessible and inclusive ways.
I value people who put their ideas into practice in their own lives as much as possible and who reflect on their own experiences to inform their work so that it’s grounded in what actually works in practice. I think that kindness is probably the most vital human quality: it counters the self-criticism that lies at the heart of most mental health problems and emotional suffering; and it counters the judgement of others that is the root of so much human conflict. So I value people who treat themselves and others with kindness, and manage to balance that with a critical approach towards the wider structures, systems, and dynamics that often exacerbate suffering. Finally, I value highly people who are able to put forward their ideas in ways that are engaging to others, and include everybody, so that people can take away practical and helpful suggestions, and feel embraced rather than alienated by what is being said.
Did you always have such a clear and honest voice? If not, what changed? How did you develop your voice?
I think as a kid I did have a tendency to point out things that I found baffling in the world in something of an ‘emperor’s new clothes’ manner! However, the strong messages I received at school about how you had to be in order to fit in managed to stifle that for a long while. At the same time the experience of being bullied also gave me a much better insight into how other people might be struggling and how to engage with people more compassionately.
I think my voice is still developing, and it comes best when I manage to get out of my own way. By that I mean dropping all of the ideas I have about who I should be and what I should be doing, and allowing myself to go with my gut and write and talk about what feels most important to me, in the way that feels right, and drawing on the ideas that I find most useful.
Are there times, places or people where you find it harder to maintain the integrity of your voice?
Definitely. It is when I find myself caring a lot what other people think of me so I start trying to speak in a way that I think they will approve of, or saying what I think they want me to say: trying to be ‘cool’ or ‘nice’ for example, so that other people will think well of me. That’s a real ongoing struggle for me, and for many of us I think. I try to remind myself of the following things:
- That doing that generally makes what I’m saying or writing lower quality
- That even if I get the approval I’m looking for it will be precarious because it’s not based on who I really am, and the other person or people may feel let down when they get to know me better!
- That I can’t be all things to all people and it is totally fine if some people really connect with what I produce, and other people don’t like it – how could it be otherwise?
- That everyone makes mistakes and has limitations – and if somebody does criticise what I’ve done in ways that are spot on it is fine – and important – to own up to that.
What advice would you give to someone seeking a more authentic life?
I think the most important thing is developing kindness for yourself, and that is incredibly hard and a lifelong journey. When we can treat ourselves kindly we can manage to get out of our own way more and speak more authentically. We’re also less concerned with putting on a front for other people, or justifying ourselves, so we’re more able to hear what other people are saying, to connect with their experience, and to act in the most compassionate manner in any given situation. Practically I find Buddhist mindfulness and journalling to be helpful daily/weekly things to do in order to develop more kindness towards myself and openness to others.