Cultural Change – Abbott out, Turnbull in!

Tilly for P M  Election promise - oxytocin for everyone
Tilly for P M
Election promise – oxytocin for everyone

Is it my imagination or are we experiencing a cultural shift in Australia? Even though Malcolm Turnbull has only been Prime Minister for a few weeks it feels like something has shifted in the country’s emotional reactions. The mean spiritness I wrote about in an earlier blog seems to have loosened its hold.

Family Therapy theory helps us understand change – whether it be with an individual, family, workplace or culture. This blog, through utilising some aspects of Family Therapy theory, will be a bit of a refresher for past students, and an introduction for newcomers to a complex destructive dynamic that in its extreme affects our mental health.

Our emotions underpin how we contruct our view of the world, so for change to occur we need a shift in our fundamental emotions.  In Australia, I think we’ve been witnessing this at a cultural level. So far we see a PM who can co-operate and listen and has respect for difference whilst still holding his own view.  Murray Bowen’s theory of differentiation helps explain what we are witnessing. I think we are seeing a man who is more solid in his sense of self. He doesn’t feel under threat if people don’t agree with him.  So far Turnbull, it would seem, is able to regulate (more or less) his own emotional state. There is no evidence of the ‘run away’ phenomenon that Tony Abbott regularly demonstrated.

Watching Abbott, on the other hand, always felt like he was just holding himself under control – in fact he often didn’t. The ‘Captains Picks’ are lovely examples of an inability to hold others in mind. ‘Captains Pricks’ would have more accurately captured the rage and fear embedded in these Abbott style leadership decisions. Basically it’s, “F..k the lot of you!” This aspect of the message was always ‘innocently’ denied and is what makes this way of interacting so dangerous.

Abbott provides a wonderful example of Gregory Bateson’s double bind theory.  At one level he feigns co-operation with the new government whilst simultaneously undermining it. He actually believes he’s being helpful and honest – his underlying rage is denied. As listeners we just end up confused – even the interviewers, so far, seem unable to comment on the confusions between content and tone, and then all the twists and turns within the actual message. It’s a great example of ‘double binding’ leaving the person on the receiving end immobilised. Now he’s ex prime minister, we can have a bit of fun with it, but when he was in power the result was a frightened and divided population.

The most frustrating aspect of Abbott’s way of managing his rage, fear and need for power is the denial, and then the denial is denied.  He actually really doesn’t know it’s there.  It is an ‘honest’ emotional blindness. This explains how he can be genuinely surprised when he does something inappropriate and despite thinking he has changed he actually hasn’t.

Now that we are almost free of him it’s great to have a bit of a play with the sort of parenting team Abbott and Hockey made. Back to Murray Bowen who many years ago observed a parental dynamic in families in which there was serious mental illness.  This theory has become unpopular because of the implicit blame of the parents; who of course, usually have their own problematic histories. But nonetheless for those of us who work with families of the seriously mentally ill it still often rings true.

Sticking to a simplification of the theory, what Abbott and Hockey demonstrated was a team emotionally underpinned by denied rage and fear – everyone else could see it – but they were literally blind to it. Abbott could be seen as the emotionally intense mother who tried to convince Australians he was a loving, trust worthy leader and was Hockey the disconnected, but committed father, driven by the same denied emotions. The result – a country feeling fragmented and hopless.

An incredibly frustrating dynamic to work with in families, and interesting to see that in a political form, how a change in the leadership to someone who has the ability to emotionally regulate themselves – does make a difference.