Maria Luca: The story behind my success

Maria Luca

Your life is full of academic achievements through a long journey. How would you describe your journey?

At the age of 16 I arrived in the UK as a married migrant woman and began my life here as a seamstress, working in a clothes factory in Pratt Street, Camden. It was here that I received my first taste of company bullying. The company director, a bitter and lonely man, enjoyed asserting his power by ridiculing the workers. Being ridiculed and humiliated was the price for mistakes. My survival instinct sharpened up and in no time I was praised for being fast and meticulous. I had saved myself. By the age of 17 I gave birth to my first son, a lovely, tiny baby who was my closest relative in the UK. I left behind my entire family to join my husband and his parents in the UK. We lived in a flat over a Jewish bakery, in a tree lined street in Stamford Hill. Everything looked, felt and was strange to me, having grown up on a Mediterranean island. I was surprised that people here did not greet or speak to each other; how could people co-exist, I thought, by avoiding eye contact? It must be polite, was the answer to myself and to do this, so I tried my utmost unsuccessfully to do the same. That was my first exposure to big city relating.


I remember going to sleep at night and having a recurring dream of being in classroom learning. I would wake up in the morning with a spark and simultaneously a disconcerting sadness. I knew that somewhere in the depths of my psyche held an unrealised desire. I was twenty six, married and a mother of two boys, a nine and a five year old, when I started my undergraduate degree. In those days I was seen as a mature student and for me it was a heavenly opportunity. The ecstasy of being a university student kept me awake at night. This had been the start of my emancipation as a woman and a journey to personal development.


In my country of origin it was unheard of and certainly frowned upon for a married woman and mother to be studying. Women’s roles were first and foremost in domesticity and fulfilment, for ‘real’, ‘chaste’ women could only be found in being a wife and mother, both of which I enjoyed, but in themselves were not sufficient to define and fulfil me. Hence my career as an academic came later in life, after ten years of raising children whilst working as a seamstress from home in the UK. This sensitised me to understanding mature students returning to higher education and ensuring that in my academic career later on, I encouraged and nurtured mature students’ potential. Upon completion of my undergraduate degree in social sciences I found a job in local government, initially as a day care officer, then a specialist social worker and later as a manager of a Social Services training section.


My career as an academic lay within the tapestry of my life. The earliest incentive came from my maternal grandmother, who effectively encouraged me to follow this path from the age of six. She would remind me of my Uncle Nicolas’s achievement. He was my grandmother’s eldest son who had been educated in a monastery, the only option for bright boys at the time of British colonialism of the island. Uncle Nicolas spoke 7 languages and had a position as personal advisor to the president on the island. It was many years subsequent to my grandmother’s death that my desire for education, which she nurtured and uncle Nicolas encouraged, surfaced.


Although fulfilling as a career, local government work was not entirely satisfactory for me; deep down I knew how drawn I had always been towards psychology and psychotherapy, both in becoming a clinician, as well as teaching the profession. I took the decision in 1991 to train as a psychotherapist and combine clinical work with teaching and sharing my knowledge with others.


As a woman born in a culture where men speak and women listen, men are the essential and women the inessential, the other, as Simone De Beauvoir poignantly put it, developing a sense of a right to exist as a woman and be valued as such, was a long and psychologically tortuous journey. I found my voice and I never looked back.


My Masters training and later my PhD formed the nucleus of solidifying my academic career.

Anyone who has experienced the journey of training in psychotherapy would recognise that it is a challenging and ambitious project, partly because it involves letting go of pre-existing beliefs, attitudes and theories and partly due to the necessity to apply intentionality in selecting and bringing together diverse and often paradoxical experience and knowledge. This nonetheless is a potentially rewarding endeavour. I describe this process as one of deconstruction, likened to cracking open a nutshell and disturbing its tranquillity, and as an analogy to the trainee’s process of letting go of the preciousness of what is known, in order to reflexively shape that which is known and allow new knowledge in. The skills I developed through deconstructing my existing self-identity such as self-questioning, reflexive analysis and critique, are like gems in a sea of knowledge and have influenced my approach to continuous learning as well as teaching.


My journey as an academic was made possible by my new motherland, the UK, who opened her arms, embracing me and nurturing my potential. I know of no other country with such tolerance and diplomacy for otherness. I made a promise to her to make her proud; not to betray or waste her trust in me.

What has been the key to your success? Working hard, being lucky (in the right time and right place) or both?

I strongly believe that the key to success generally is faith in oneself, determination, resilience, self-discipline, openness to learning, vision and ambition and hard work. Most importantly I believe in the following: ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going’. This has been my motto in life generally and my work ethic in particular. I’m not one who believes in luck. I believe in coincidence, in random events that greet us every now and then like the stranger who greets us with a smile on the train platform, or the stormy rainfall causing delays during our journey. Without these weather conditions, I wouldn’t have been stroked by the stranger’s smile, nor the feeling of well-being that nurtured my positive energy. I call this openness and optimism. My approach has been to become the seer of coincidence and treat this as a door opening, as an opportunity or an invitation to grow, to widen my psychological territory, that I like to treat with curiosity, not fear.

My attitude to pain, disappointment, failure and mistakes has always been to embrace them as part of being human, not to let them become my enemies and make me bitter or mistrustful of life. I have been blessed to have met beautiful people in my life who showed me the way. Only I didn’t know it then. Once I came to realise it, I stopped and told myself that I’ve been lucky, despite not believing in luck.

Books have been not only companions throughout my life, but wise teachers. They touched me and fed me the wisdom of centuries of brilliant minds. One such mind is Thomas Edison’s. A taste of his wisdom is found in the following:
“None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to (Genius) is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.”
How do you remember the beginning of this journey as a migrant in a new country?

The man who came to later be my husband travelled to my country of origin to search for his future bride. He was 21 and I was 16 when his uncle and he arrived at my parental home to arrange my marriage. My mother asked me to come and serve our guests cold drinks to crunch the thirst of the Mediterranean summer heat wave. My hands trembled, the blood rushed to my head to the point of feeling giddy and ready to faint. A voice in me said I had to hold myself together and did my duty. I was married within two weeks and emigrated to the UK within 4 weeks. We lived with my in-laws. Instead of further education, as had been promised, my new family insisted I learn to be a seamstress and contribute economically to the family. I learned fast and embraced this as a challenge to earn enough, save enough and educate myself someday. I worked during the day and cried alone at nights. If I was allowed out it was to fetch something from the corner shop or the local pharmacy for my in-laws. These brief encounters with freedom are lodged in my memory. I would jump and hop and sing all the way to the shop. I felt so free to be the child that I was during these trips, something I had to suppress in the face of my new family’s expectations to be the responsible, mature, committed wife. I worked a 16-hour day and listened to BBC Radio 4, at the recommendation of an acquaintance who later became my best friend. I was amazed at the rate of improvement of my English. My notebook recorded pages and pages of new words each day that it suffered from indigestion! My perspective on life, especially having choices was changing rapidly. Exposure to this new country and a brain ready to absorb a whole new world, kept me alive. Ten years later and with two children, my heart and soul were ready for a big leap; one that would radicalise my life forever. I divorced my husband, was ex-communicated by my parents, enrolled on an undergraduate degree and opened myself to be nurtured by my new motherland.

What is the best value that you have conveyed from your home country?

To treat others as I’d like to be treated myself. Some values had been drummed into me from childhood, especially my family. Loyalty, respect for others, friendship and hard work had primary importance. To know how to love was transmitted to me from my maternal grandmother. I was the apple of her eyes. She was a strong, intelligent and wise woman who came from a family of 18 children. She had been married at 12 and had 6 sons and a daughter (my mother). I see her warm smile in the stranger at the train platform, I see it reflected back in people’s faces when I smile. She has always been unquestionably my inspiration in life, the light that shines brightly night and day. She died when I was 6. But I carry her within the deepest recesses of my heart, my soul and my mind.

What is the most important thing in your life: career, family, and friends or?

Please don’t make me choose. Starting from the order in which you listed these I would say that my career inspires me, drives me, fulfils me, nurtures my ambition, poses important challenges and rewards me. Without this experience of feeling nurtured, I wouldn’t be the mother I became, I wouldn’t be the daughter, sister, aunt and godmother that I am. I love my family dearly, as much as they often incense me, misconstrue me, distort me, support me and love me back. I didn’t choose them but this is not to say that one cannot make the most of one’s givens in life. Friends on the other hand, I choose. They are the witnesses of my life, the constant companions, the ones who share my joys and my pain with few conditions. Friendship for me is the pinnacle of loyalty, trust, openness, reciprocity and abundance. I call friends, those who are not afraid to be intimate, not afraid to disagree, not afraid to celebrate my successes and most importantly, those who allow me to give them something back.

How has psychotherapy helped you in becoming the person you are today?

I cannot imagine any other career that could offer me the privilege of being an intimate witness to people’s most intimate self. I have discovered and encountered so many souls through being a psychotherapist that it made me the ‘old’, ‘almost wise’ soul that I am today. My willingness to understand others, feel others’ pain, soothe and tolerate unbearable painful states in others, has stretched me to challenge my dogmas, embrace my qualities, realise and accept my limitations and constantly grow. It was a path of choice and one I will never regret. My patients have helped me see unchartered territories in people and in myself. I have learned the value of tolerating unbearable emotions in others and in myself, until they settle, until equilibrium is reached.

What makes you feel proud of yourself?

Firstly I am proud that my passion for life never withers. Second my tendency to face my failures with dignity and my successes with wisdom are attributes I cultivated over time and feel proud of. Being there for others is one of the biggest rewards in my life. I embrace it with joyous, satisfaction. My resilience and commitment to live my life to the full and to feel fortunate for existing, not taking every breath for granted, militate against pessimism and withdrawal from the life I have been fortunate to have been offered. I believe that if I don’t cheat life, life will not cheat me. And if it does, I will not allow bitterness to cast a shadow on all the times life has been faithful to me. My proudest moments are when I share affection with others and let my spirit flow unselfishly. Moments of laughing with others; sharing a meal with stimulating or mischievous conversation; moments alone, cooking, gardening, listening to music, thinking and relating to myself. Together, these moments form rays of sunshine that show me the way in moments of darkness.

You work with students from different nationalities. What is the main concern they show when they start a new life here?

Foreign students in my experience want to be seen for who they are, embraced for who they are, trusted in who they want to become and nurtured in their ambition to be touched by the British Education system. Importantly though, many of these students have a hunger for giving something of themselves to the country that opened its door to them. They have a need to belong in what binds them with the host country and what separates them. If I can have, even the most minute positive impact on their lives, my own existence feels worthwhile and poignant. It is not an altruistic exchange, but driven by the selfish gene!

How do you support them to feel accepted and more confident?

I try to treat everyone with respect and hold them accountable for their journey. By being open and direct with them, I believe it helps them take responsibility for creating their own tapestry in the education system. I give generously of myself to my students but also know where to draw the line and give them space to draw from their own resources. I always remind myself of the importance of praise and validation of my students’ talents. The question of how accepted they feel or how confident lies within their own internal world, within their psychological template. The world, and the environment, will be more accepting to someone who accepts himself/herself, than to someone who self-loathes. When I falter from my principles I try harder next time.

What is the wisdom you would share with the readers of Migrant Woman?

Apart from the wisdom I already shared in the earlier passages, perhaps the following could be added: Life is a labyrinth, full of complexity, challenge, joy, disappointment, opportunity and a myriad of other things. Its unpredictability is its very essence. If you want the host country to embrace you, you may need to show it the way with a smile. Don’t shy away from life, don’t hide from its perils, learn to accept every test you endure as a step towards the long climb. Invest your energy and pathos in worthwhile causes. Only you can truly know what these are. Trust yourself to be the woman you can be. Allow others to show you what they’ve learned. People from all walks of life have a lesson to teach, a book to write, a story to tell. Let them in. Then life will be more rewarding. Learn to know your friends and your enemies well. Open yourself to those that can really matter and keep those who are not worthy of your cause at a safe distance. Cultivate your instinct so that it can guide you. But don’t ever forget to receive love with gratitude and give love generously.


Who is Maria Luca

Dr Maria Luca lives in Hackney, London. Her career as an academic has spanned over 15 years. She was Head of the School of Psychotherapy & Psychology for 5 years until she took up a position in 2009 as a Senior Research Fellow at Regent’s University London. Maria is the author of two books and several published articles. The title of her recent book published in March 2014 is: Sexual Attraction in Therapy, Clinical Perspectives on Moving Beyond the Taboo – A Guide for Training and Practice. London: Wiley/Blackwell