A Social Worker’s Identity Journey: from Obedient Poodle to Compassionate Wiseman
Updated: Nov 28, 2020
Peter Cluse, 64, knew how to blend in and please others, but he did not know how to be himself. As a social worker Peter helped abused and neglected children but he could not be a father himself. For 30 years, he believed he had a loving marriage, but one day his wife left him.
The unexpectedly found freedom led him on a self-discovery journey: from being an invisible “people pleaser” to a writer and advanced spiritual seeker.
Picture perfect life
Peter grew up in a small sea-side town of Poole in the south of England. Relaxed and idle life pace seeped into his parents’ home where daily routines have not changed for decades. Even today, when Peter visits his parents, he stays in his childhood room and has meals at the same time when he was a schoolboy.
Reflecting on his childhood he concluded: “I think my parents were well intentioned, but there were limitations in their parenting. To some extent, we all are failed parents.” Peter believes that as children we have to learn how to deal with growing up problems. Some children deal with it by being rebellious, others by flight, and others by being invisible: disappearing in their bedrooms.
“I chose to cope by being compliant. I became someone who wanted to please my parents: I was a good son, I was a good schoolboy, a good husband, a good dad, and a good social worker,” Peter said.
For many years Peter had a clearly defined life trajectory that met his parent’s expectations: school, graduation, job, and marriage. He has studied psychology at Swansea University and later continued his professional education at Birmingham University where he acquired qualifications to become a social worker.
One summer day, when Peter was on vacation, his mother spotted an advert for a social worker's trainee position at Dorset County Council. Since his father also worked for the local council, it seemed natural for Peter to follow in his father’s footsteps. “My parents were pleased: in those days it was a job for life. Although I always wanted to help others and would have chosen the same vocation, taking a job found by my mother was a form of compliance,” Peter said.
Although it might seem that Peter’s life was taking a clear and stable rout, he himself carried a memory of an experience that made him question his daily reality.
In search of identity through a mystical experience
It was not an idealistic wish “to help others” that motivated Peter to study psychology: he aspired to understand himself. His teenage years were filled with self-doubt, insecurities, and isolation. “I was not suicidal, but I had very gloomy thoughts about life: I did not have any sense of meaning or purpose. I was very miserable,” said Peter.
Searching for the way out of his anguish, Peter found a Christian sect that impressed him with its communal living and purposeful life. “Once I was walking by the house owned by the sect, and I had an overwhelming experience. I could hardly describe what I felt, but it was a life-changing experience,” he said. This moment of bliss, peace, and love became a guiding force for Peter in search of his identity and wisdom.
Inspired by Christian teachings on love, he became involved with evangelical groups and even did some evangelisation work in London. Peter was preaching on the crowded city streets and walking from door to door spreading Jesus' message. He met his future wife at the London City Mission and their Christian faith laid a solid foundation for their future.
In 1979 the couple got married and decided to start a family. Peter was also getting more established in his demanding vocation: he was responsible for helping neglected and abused children. “The work was much more stressful than I though. I just had to put the head down and get on with it,” he said.
The irony of life: infertility for a children loving couple
While Peter was caring for the children of the strangers, he and his wife found out that they cannot have children.
The couple attended numerous appointments at hospitals and infertility clinics, but none of the treatments were effective. At the same time, Peter continuously witnessed parents’ inability to care for their children, documented neglect, and abuse cases. “It is very painful to see parents treating their children badly,
while you at the same time desperately trying to have a child. However, the main pain was not comparing my situation to the clients, but lack of fulfilment and a sense of emptiness. We are programmed to have children, otherwise, you feel like dropped down from the mainstream society,” he said.
Peter and his wife never found out entirely why they were not able to have children, but the couple has not given up on their dream and started the adoption process.
The situation got reversed: now Peter anxiously had to wait for social workers’ visits and filled out multiple forms and questionnaires. “It is highly intrusive. You feel quite naked emotionally,” he said. Within five years the family adopted a boy and a girl. His son Chris, aged 31, now lives with his partner in New Zealand, and his daughter Sarah, aged 25, lives with her partner in London.
With God or without God, you still can be kind
During these emotionally demanding times, it seemed that Peter’s faith had to be the source of hope and strength. But his religious fervour started wearing off and doubt seeped into his heart. “It seemed that no matter what you do in life, it was always a believer’s fault,” he said. Peter admitted that he felt uncomfortable with the hierarchical and intellectualised faith: it seemed wrong that those who had more theological knowledge were considered better believers.
He renounced his Christian faith. Surprisingly to Peter himself, the process was more painful than he imagined: faith was giving him life direction, day structure, and a social circle. All was lost.
“The only thing, I could hang on to, was my belief in kindness. If God exists or does not, if there is meaning to life or none, I still can be kind,” Peter said.
Prolonged stress at work, infertility treatments, and adoption processes started seriously affecting his body. At the age of 45, he was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. As the years went by, the condition has deteriorated, and Peter had to move from social work frontlines to working as an adoption support officer.
There were times when illness kept Peter for months at home exhausted. While his physical body was suffering, Peter used his mind to search for the way back to the “place of transcendental experience.” Books were piling next to Peter’s bed and he kept reading texts on spirituality, psychology, and Eastern Philosophy. When his body and eyes were too tired of reading, he would resort to silence and self-reflection. He was determined to find his way back to the place of ultimate fulfilment.
He did not know, that life was preparing a very different path for him.
Shelling out of obedient “Poodle’s” identity
For over thirty years, Peter drew strength and motivation from his marriage. After a day of witnessing dysfunctional family relations, bureaucracy, children suffering, he went home to find peace and joy in raising his two adoptive children. Until one Sunday afternoon.
After 30 years of marriage, his wife came back home from the Mass and expressed a wish to live separate from Peter. It was like thunder out of the blue sky. “We had a good marriage, we were deeply in love, but throughout the years we have drifted apart,” Peter said. It took two years for Peter to get over the sense of loss and pain. “I was like a headless chicken,” he said.
Peter confessed, that he followed his father’s model of a good husband. “He taught me that being a good husband is to make your wife happy,” Peter said. It meant being always available, always accommodating, and prioritising your spouse's needs above your own.
“In one way it might be nice, but from another point, it makes you deeply unattractive. You become a little bit like a Poodle: always available and always fitting in. You begin to disappear as a person because you always think what another person wants,” he reflected.
Peter moved out of his family home and found himself alone with plenty of time. This newly discovered freedom not only has shifted his daily routine but also gave more liberty for his spiritual aspirations and his identity search.
“Early in my adulthood, when I started asking myself what do I want and who I am, I found it hard to find the answers.
I have shrunken as a person. I disappeared. I had to learn that what I want and do has value.
When people want you to behave the way that fulfils their needs that is selfishness; but being authentic and following your heart is self-love. We should all be loving ourselves,” Peter said.
He started attending classes and lectures on personal growth and spirituality. “Now I was my own man. I had the freedom to go anywhere and do what I wanted to do,” he said.
After taking a deeper look into his inner world, Peter realised that he neither was very relaxed or happy and had fears and insecurities. In 2008, he started meditating and since then, with a few exceptions, he meditated every single day.
After long months of diligent self-work, Peter started noticing a slow change in his personality: he found more peace and became less angry.
“Mind is like a noisy market and through meditation, you can come to a place of peace and silence. Going to that place is fulfilling and beautiful. You realise that there is nothing wrong with you and you fall in love with yourself again,” Peter said.
“This division is artificial. If you divide the world into “I” and “others” then you need God. If you do not divide the world, then everything becomes the expression of God. Everyone is divine,” Peter said.
On a plane in 28 years: Heathrow is a scary place
Once Peter attended a talk by Jamaican spiritual teacher Mooji in London and inspired by his philosophy, fun, and relaxed teaching style, Peter decided to follow him to India. After 28 years of not flying, for the first time Peter boarded a plane and embarked on a long international trip. “Heathrow airport was frightening. I have never been in a place like this,” Peter confessed.
In India he spent two weeks in the Ashram listening to Mooji’s talks, practicing meditation, and deepening his spiritual knowledge. Two weeks went by, and Peter realised that as a new retiree he had no responsibilities thus no need to rush back home to England. He ripped off his return ticked and stayed to explore India for a few months. He visited multiple ashrams and learned from yogis.
Peter also got interested in alternative wellbeing therapy and eventually acquired a Tantric Masseur certificate in 2018.
“I always was searching for the meaning in life and I touched on it with my transcendental experience. I realised that change happens not by reading new books, but through new experiences,” Peter said.
Self-reaslizaton inspired creative work
For most of his life Peter believed that he has “no creative bone in my person,” but he has published a self-help book and a children's book in the last few years. Under the pseudonym Hanos, he has written a play, poems, and numerous aphorisms. All his creative thoughts are collected on his blog. Now he keeps a pen and a notebook next to his bed to write down a thought or an idea that wakes him up from his
"When you realise that you are part of something bigger and allow that wisdom and creativity to flow through you, then bigger things start to happen: not through your participation, but your withdrawal. I don't think those creative ideas are mine, I just allow them to flow through me.”
He has sold just a few copies of his books, but that does not disappoint him. Retreating to his learned life wisdom, he explains:
“We have a freedom to act, but what will happen is out of our control.”
Trust is the only must
Although Peter was able to find inner peace, his physical body suffers from multiple illnesses. Deteriorating Parkinson’s disease affected his vision and ability to write and chronic fatigue syndrome steals hours of productivity from his days.
A sceptic might wonder why bad things happened to a man who always tried to help others and entire life worked on better himself.“The only problem is that you think you have a problem. If I waited long enough I found out that every challenged I had turned out to be a gift. I just did not see it at that time,” Peter said.
Reflecting on his past, Peter connected different parts of his life puzzle and realised that his infertility problems brought two wonderful children into his life, divorce gave him the courage to break through his compliant “Poodle” identity and delve into self-realisation, and Chronic fatigue syndrome forced Peter to put aside books and look into his heart in search for his authentic identity.
Now Peter is at peace with all challenges brought on by physical ailments and daily life: "The only thing you need to do is trust. Trust is the only must.”
I have met Peter at Poole's bus station: we both were waiting for the bus Nr.4. Being relatively new in the UK, I violated local unwritten bus line rules. I do not remember what exactly I did wrong or if I did, but Peter approached me and inquired if I am standing in the line. This question opened doors for a conversation on Peter's life experience and his search for answers to major life questions. While the bus was making its way through the winding road, Peter talked about spirituality, his understanding of the universe and its laws. A few of his insights are included in this story.