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  • Simon Lau

Where do you call home?

I recently wrote about an inquiry into "who am I?" When reflecting more about this question with a few friends we got into a conversation about "where do you call home?"

For me having moved about a bit living in 3 different countries, and 13 different houses and flats it feels a bit complicated depending on where I am or who I am with. Although I identify with being British and Chinese I have never really felt at home in either locations. I love the buzz of Hong Kong. The smell of the streets, the neon lights and the noise of a bustling city. I miss the taste of wonton soup and fish ball noodles and the crashing sound of plates and tea cups in dim-sum restaurants. The amazing scenery, walking the mountain trails and the beautiful beaches. But there was just something that did not feel right. It didn't feel like home and then I moved to Singapore for work. A place where I have no heritage or family. Although it is an amazing city with every convenience known to man, it felt some how foreign.

20 years later I chose to move to the UK with my family to somehow get closer to home. We live in the small town where I grew up and I finally own a house. I have been renting ever since I left home for university so this sort of feels like I have a home at least physically with bricks and mortar. It does have a sense of home because I am here with my wife and two sons and it is also where my parents still live in my childhood home. Home therefore has an element of having family around which I missed so much as an expat. Being closer to ageing parents and having intergenerational dinners and laughter somehow feels like part of the answer.

What I have not stated or started to explore by describing home as a location or physical building is what all our hearts are deeply longing for. A longing which is so beautifully described by Maya Angelou in her fifth book of her autobiography, "All God's Children Need Travelling Shoes".

" The ache for home lives in all of us; the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned."

Her dilemma of ancestry, and assimilation resonates with me and the notion of finding a "safe place". I recall staying at my parents house when we used to visit with the kids whilst we were still living in Singapore. I would always mention to my wife how rested I felt after a night's sleep in their home. There was something deep in my unconscious giving me the sense of safety I felt in that home growing up and not needing to worry about anything. The belief I was protected and provided for by my parents and they were waiting for me to return home. When we begin to think about home as a "psychologically" safe place our inquiry starts to become more profound.

Kent Hoffman a psychiatrist and theologian describes a "Circle of Security" where our construct of home is created through early childhood attachment and serves two main purposes. Firstly it is a "secure base" for us to go out into the world to explore. Here we need others to provide us with support to watch over, delight, help and experience joy with us. Secondly it is a "safe haven" for us to be welcomed and return to when we need others to protect, comfort, see us and help to make sense of our feelings. Home is a place we are psychologically held, predominantly by parental figures. His research together with his colleagues has been instrumental in helping a multitude of parents and caregivers become more attuned and responsive to their young children's emotional needs.

Understanding the dual roles caregivers play in establishing psychological safety enables us to develop into more emotionally adjusted and less reactive adults. The work of Murray Bowen's Family System Theory supposes that an emotional system is the core operating system that governs our human relationship systems. It provides a foundation for how we can understand what causes us anxiety and how we may project this onto others. Relationships we are in connection with, both in families and organisations, as leaders and team members can be a place we find sanctuary or danger. We need to learn to be well-differentiated whilst being emotionally connected. The importance of learning how we regulate our emotional reactivity is essential in our current global crisis where the underlying level of societal anxiety has arguably never been higher. If we are to be effective as leaders and parents in providing a "safe home"for those we care most about, we must first work on our inner game.

"The success of an intervention depends on the interior conditions of the intervenor."

Bill O'Brien CEO of Hanover Insurance

When I am working with clients the starting point is always the same. It starts with self regulation. If I don't feel at home in a safe place within myself and psychologically then I am not going to be able to provide a still non-anxious presence for my clients to do their work. I will not be able to provide the necessary holding and containing I am helping leaders to develop and to offer others. Edwin Friedman describes this as a "Failure of Nerve"in his seminal work of the same title. It is not easy to remain calm as a leader driving change when everyone is seeking to sabotage you and give you all of their frustration, anger and anxiety.

I hope the question of "where do you call home?" continues to bear the fruit of deeper reflection as it has for me. I am greatly encouraged how mainstream it has become in the leadership literature to talk about the need to feel safe. In my early undergraduate studies over 25 years ago I would never have thought I would hear the term "psychological safety" used by Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, to describe the climate effective leaders create for innovation, high performance and patient safety. It gives me hope to think we might choose to describe the feeling when we know we are accepted for who we are, and have a place where we can be the best we can be, a home, not just in our families but also in our workplace.

Reflect and Respond:

Where do you feel at home? Who makes you feel safe? What places or spaces give you a safe haven when the seas are stormy? How do you make others feel safe?

Go Deeper...

Angelou, M. All God's Children Need Travelling Shoes. New York: Random 1991

Bowen, M. Learn about Bowen Theory,

Friedman, E., A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. New York: Seabury, 1997

Hoffman, K., Marvin, R., Cooper, G. & Powell, B. (2006). Changing toddlers' and preschoolers' attachment classifications: The Circle of Security Intervention. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74, 1017-1026.

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