I have recently contributed a chapter to a new book on suicidal experience: Phenomenology of Suicide: Unlocking the suicidal mind (edited by Prof Maurizio Pompili, Springer). The book is due out in October this year.
In my chapter I drew on my reflections of interviewing a man – Roddy (not his real name) – about his near-lethal suicide attempt. This was part of a larger piece of research, which you can read about here. Writing this chapter gave me the opportunity to think about how difficult it can be to really understand our participants’ experiences, especially when those experiences are deeply troubling. I’ve previously argued that as qualitative researchers we should be attempting to understand the Other’s experience as fully as we can, and that to do so, we must understand at an embodied, felt level. I’ve suggested that creative, embodied, and metaphorical ways of doing qualitative research can help us to get closer to the phenomenon of interest – especially when that is a felt, emotional or affective aspect of human experience. I’ve also argued that interviewing people about suicidal experience requires us to acknowledge our intersubjective and emotional relationship with that person – and to be ethically sensitive to the nuances of our interactions.
But… my experience interviewing Roddy, reminded me of the limits of empathic, felt-understanding and about my own limits as a qualitative researcher. Sadly, Roddy’s experiences were very painful. In particular he described feelings of “abject terror” prior to his attempt, and a scene of horror in recounting what happened. However, Roddy was persistent in expressing his desire and need for others, including me, to understand what he had been through. He felt that my/our understanding was not only necessary to potentially help others, but that telling his story was necessary to help him make sense of his own experiences. Spontaneously, he drew on vivid metaphorical language, and recruited me directly into his story, in order to help me understand. In my chapter, I explore what happened to me, when he did this. Ultimately, I did understand, and I understood in a way I never had before, despite all my research and previous interviews. But this came at some cost. Sometimes, I argue, that in that moment, real deep, embodied and emotional understanding can feel too difficult, too frightening, too much. Of course, therapists know this and develop their practice to avoid burning out or becoming overwhelmed, but I feel as qualitative emotion researchers, this is an area we can explore further.
This has led me to revisit my thinking around reflexivity, and I will be hosting a second workshop event, on May 4th 2018 to encourage further dialogue about this. More details will follow, but the event is provisionally titled: ‘Revisiting reflexivity in theory, research and praxis: Situated, relational, emotional, embodied’. I have some fantastic speakers lined up, who will draw on pragmatic, feminist, phemomenological and psychoanalytic ideas from several disciplinary perspectives. They will think about reflexivity from a conceptual and practical perspective, including in research, psychotherapy, teaching and community work. I will also be sharing some of my thinking around frightening feelings and the limits of our understanding.
Please feel free to contact me for copies of any papers, or to join the QuAFE mailing list and hear more about the conference event: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are feeling suicidal: In the UK you can call the Samaritans free on 116 123. For a list of crisis helplines worldwide see here. Consider telling someone, contacting your family doctor, or going directly to hospital.