I’ve been thinking about the Rotherham abuse scandal: all those girls suffering for so long, so visibly and yet so many people (care workers, police, teachers, relatives) seemingly turning a blind eye. What was it about those girls that they didn’t want to see? Something about them made them invisible, or at least easy to rationalise away. Those people may well have told themselves, ‘She was asking for it, dressed like that’ or something else on those lines. And the girls themselves may well have been hard to reach. Already excluded from their families, their suffering may well have been masked by anger, aggression, detachment and even violence. People who are hurting emotionally aren’t fun to be around. Of course, none of this makes ignoring what was happening ok or justified. It does remind us how it can often feel easier to blame the victim. That way we avoid getting in touch with their pain, anger and torment – and when we get in touch, really in touch, with their pain we can’t help but feel some of our own, even if it’s very different in its origin. Perhaps that is why it can be so hard for us to tolerate others’ pain; and to take responsibility for whatever it is we can do to try to help them with it.
Sometimes I get asked if my job as a counsellor brings me down. ‘Isn’t it depressing listening to people talk about their problems all day long?’ And, in a more general way, we are often told, explicitly or implicitly, not to talk about our emotional ills. We’re encouraged by society to be positive, in control, happy – and if we’re not, at the very least, pretend to be! No, my job doesn’t depress me. I want to know about how people really feel; the bad and the good, not the sanitised version. If we can be who we really are we have a much better chance of getting to where we want to be. We need to stop shaming people about how they feel and trying instead to understand them, and ourselves: to shed light on topics that have been shrouded in darkness for centuries.
Speak up. Use your voice. Tell your story.
I’ve been thinking about postnatal depression and how it is often called the baby blues. That makes it sound like an interlude of melancholy between bouts of normal parenting. Postnatal depression is so far from this: it can be terrifying, bleak and overwhelming, and all the more so for it being such a hard thing to talk to others about.
I read the blog of a young women suffering from postnatal depression who described how she’s terrified to talk about it, but at the same time, she wants others to know what she’s going through. For her postnatal depression isn’t about the bond someone has with their baby and their ability to parent, or the inability to cope with a huge life change. For her it’s about her fear that she’s a terrible mother. She worries that her baby doesn’t like her, and these thoughts keep her up at night. She feels detached from the world; that she’s failing her child. At her absolute worst, she thinks about harming her baby, and then about taking her own life.
Being able to talk to others about feelings like that is enormously daunting, particularly when facing the fear that you might be seen as an risk to your own child or even have your baby taken away. When postnatal depression is discussed, people’s ignorance and judgemental attitudes sometimes come out. This young woman had friends tell her that post natal depression ‘is just tiredness’, that those suffering ‘just need to snap out of it’, ‘need to realise how lucky they are’, and, the absolute worst, ‘some people don’t deserve to be parents’.
I’m reminded again of how much we can fear other people’s mental anguish. When it’s hard to understand it’s so much easier to just condemn or dismiss. We need to always remember that no one with post natal depression is suffering through choice, no one wants post natal depression. And that those suffering can be helped through their suffering: what they will need is the compassion, acceptance and kindness of those they love and the help and understanding of professionals.
Recently I stumbled across an article on a meditation flashmob. I’m intrigued by the idea of all these very different people gathering in public places to join together in what is usually a private, solitary pursuit.
You might be wondering, what is a meditation flashmob? A meditation flashmob is a gathering of people that sit in meditation in a public location, usually no longer than an hour. They are organised a month before via social media: Meetup.com and the Wake Up London weekly newsletter.
The intention is to raise awareness of meditation in public, unite people from all backgrounds, cultures and faiths together and send positive intentions out to the world. These individuals come together to celebrate their very real capacity to generate peace here and now: this being the peace of meditation that they can offer to our cities and to the world.
What has the response been like so far? What was the first one like? The first one surprisingly had a big turn-out. It was in the middle of Trafalgar Square on a hot Thursday evening in June 2011. Not long after the event invitation was set up, it seemed like it went viral; hundreds of people signed up to attend week after week.
One of the participants described, when it was time to start, sitting down in the middle of Trafalgar Square. A bell was sounded. When she opened her eyes to join in the sound bath (which is when everyone can chant sounds together towards the end), to her amazement, there were hundreds of people sitting in concentric circles around her. She had never imagined that being in the middle of Trafalgar Square could feel this peaceful.
The flash mob finished with three sounds of the bell, and she opened her eyes again and looked around, feeling so much gratitude to the people sitting so beautifully around her.
What a simple, powerful, unusual way to celebrate our capacity to create peace within ourselves!
It’s not what you are eating, but what’s eating you. For me, and I suspect it is the same for most people, our attitude to food is as much about emotion as it is about satisfying hunger.
Instead of allowing a rush of emotion to drive you towards comfort food, try to stop and judge instead what your body, or more particularly your brain, needs. It deserves better: if you are bored or angry or sad then those emotions are telling you something you need to listen to. It might be as simple as getting a boost from somewhere else rather than from a pudding.
I was interested to read about the experience of the tennis player Monica Seles, who battled with binge-eating for ten years but was cured when she began to focus on food properly for the first time. ‘Every time I sat down to a meal, I could make a decision,’ Seles writes. ‘Was I going to treat myself with love and respect, or was I going to sabotage my own happiness and health for a short-term rush? The decision was an easy one: I chose nourishment over destruction every time. Eating wholesome food left me satisfied much more quickly than mounds of processed fake food ever did.’
The other psychological shift is to move from feeling deprived to feeling you are gaining something extra. It is not about suppressing all pleasure in food. Instead of focusing on what you can’t eat, focus on all the delicious dishes you can enjoy and that benefit your health.
Seles writes of how important it was for her not to feel she was on a ‘diet’. As she rightly says, that implies there is a danger you could fail to keep to your diet. And nothing is more tempting than something that is forbidden.
It can often be easiest to adapt slowly, rather than to enforce wholesale change overnight. Have a cooked breakfast, but have tomatoes alongside the bacon. Don’t abandon salad dressings, but use different oils: wheat germ or flax, sesame or sunflower oil, as well as the more usual olive oil; and add almonds, pecans, cashews, walnuts and pine nuts to salads.
Once you start to eat well, the process gets easier. You begin to feel better. By taking charge of your life, you enter a virtuous circle of looking after yourself. One of the most terrifying feelings about being depressed is the utter lack of control; you can feel like a piece of flotsam, blown by icy winds to terrifying places.
Gradually become more attuned to the connections between mood and food. What is that craving really telling you? How do you feel after eating certain foods? What fills you up that you enjoy and that powers you through your day? You deserve to be properly nourished, in both mind and body.
When we’re confronted by someone who is self-harming it brings up all sorts of difficult feelings: fear, anger, guilt, condemnation. When the self-harming results in a suicide attempt these feelings are magnified. What we can lose track of is what it is like for the individual whose suffering is being expressed in this way. The best way to understand what they are going through is to listen to them, and particularly to listen out for how they experience others’ reactions to their self-harming.
The subject of taking an overdose is particularly fraught with stigmatizing attitudes; if you do this and regret it afterwards you know that you need to tell someone, but doing so can be terrifying because of the knowledge that you may be judged. Self-harming and then seeking help can look on the outside like some kind of ‘attention-seeking’: one young woman described how the first time she had to seek medical help after an overdose the attitudes of the A&E staff reflected this. She felt judged and misunderstood and was frightened about seeking help in the future because of this experience. The next time she took an overdose the last thing on her mind was seeking attention – she did it impulsively because at that moment she wanted to die, or at least harm herself as punishment (as she herself to be a ‘bad person’).
When she had to go to A&E she was very nervous in case she experienced judgemental attitudes again. However this time, and throughout her stay in hospital, the care was fantastic. There were no snarky comments from nurses, the A&E doctor held her hand and said she’d endeavour to make sure that she would get the help she needed so she wouldn’t be in this position again, and further doctors listened and let her talk about what had happened without jumping in with pre-conceived ideas of what her motivations were.
This experience of people listening from the very beginning, and being able to talk things through, enabled her to come up with plans to stop it happening again, and to start to get better much quicker. And now she feels safer about seeking help if it were to happen again.
I think the lesson that we can all learn from this is recognise the person behind the behaviour. To remember that we don’t know the intentions of that person, and that person may not be entirely sure of them either. Self-harming may have seemed the only (or the least worst) option available to them at the time. Above all, we need to remember that this person is someone who deserves dignity and respect, just like anyone else.
People who bend over backward to accommodate others’ requests find themselves committed to bolstering the well-being of others even at the expense of their own. Many of us are self-admitted ‘people-pleasers’ and face the prospect of feeling too busy, too stressed and that our attention is divided. Responding to the needs of others, of course, is a crucial part of normal social functioning. But people-pleasers are so invested in outside approval that they set their own wants and needs aside. They find it almost impossible to say no.
What makes someone so anxious to fulfill other people’s expectations that they end up sabotaging themselves? The seeds of people-pleasing are usually planted in childhood. Often, parents will simply tell their children what to do and never encourage them to assert themselves. Such an environment sends the message that the only way to feel valuable is to comply with others’ demands, give others what they need. The pattern only solidifies as children grow up, fearing that if they do not strive to please, people will not love them. They respond to this perceived threat by becoming obsessed with meeting others’ needs. Because girls are typically trained from an early age to accommodate and defer to others, a disproportionate number of people-pleasers are women.
Once established, such behaviors become self-reinforcing which makes them difficult to uproot. They get rewarded by bosses, colleagues and friends just as they do by parents, prompting pleasers to assume doormat postures over and over again in hopes of receiving more kudos.
But despite the fleeting high of adulation, relentless praise-seeking exacts a heavy toll. People-pleasers expend so much energy meeting others’ needs that they lose sight of what they want from life. They’re often seized by the disorienting feeling that they’re not in control of their own lives, which leads them to lash out. If you’ve been a pleaser for a long time, you’re going to get more and more resentful of the person you’re pleasing, and that can lead to passive-aggressive behaviour.
The key to changing this ingrained behaviour is a well-thought-out policy of temperance. Retain positive people-pleasing traits like friendliness and sensitivity, but clarify your own needs and assert them more. If someone asks you for something, ask yourself if it’s feasible and consider your own needs, too. Take a close look at what situations trigger your pleasing behavior and why. Ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this? Is it because I really care about this person, or because I’m afraid I’m going to lose them?’ This kind of questioning can help you uncover the source of the fears underlying your people-pleasing bent. Did your parents’ conditional love lead you to dread abandonment?
Here are some simple steps to controling your tendancy to be people-pleasing.
Be receptive to others’ concerns, but don’t leave your own by the wayside. To make sure you’re the one feeling in control:
- Stall for time. If someone puts you on the spot, politely defer: ‘I’ll check my calendar and get back to you.’ Then you can assess whether the request fits in with your schedule and goals.
- Examine your motivations. People-pleasing seems like the epitome of niceness, but pleasers may assume their submissive postures because of what they expect in return. If you grant someone a favour, do it because it fulfills you and not to get something back.
- Role-play to practice asserting your needs. Get a friend to play a pushy boss, parent or acquaintance: whoever triggers your people-pleasing. Then practice saying no to unreasonable requests until it starts to feel natural.
I read a blog by a young woman describing her experience of ‘depersonalisation’. She wrote about this deeply unsettling feeling and how hard it is to explain to people who have never before experienced it. She found that even medical professionals are often either completely baffled by it, totally dismissive of it, or just didn’t seem to understand, or believe, what on earth she was trying to tell them. What she wants is for people to understand it, and recognise that this ‘phenomenon’ does exist, and that it is extremely distressing to live with. She feels exhausted by trying to explain it to people, only to have them say, ‘Well, you’re clearly just having another one of your “off” days. I’m sure it’ll go away soon’.
It’s true that we are slowly becoming more comfortable with talking about more commonly known symptoms of emotional distress, like intense sadness and anxiousness, but depersonalisation? What on earth is that?
She stresses the importance of distinguishing between depersonalisation and an identity crisis. An identity crisis implies that you have a sense of self, but you’re just not sure who that self is yet, or who you want that self to be. Depersonalisation, on the other hand, is the total lack of any sense of self at all. Wikipedia defines it as ‘unreality in one’s sense of self’. She describes it as being like watching yourself performing actions, and feeling that you have absolutely no control over what you’re doing, even though you know what you’re doing, and can see yourself doing it. You aren’t really there. Speaking is especially strange, because your voice doesn’t sound like it belongs to you. You know what you’re saying, but you aren’t connected to it. They’re your words, but it feels like some other voice is speaking them. On top of this, depersonalisation very often causes one to feel disconnected from others. You might be looking at someone you know very well and you recognise them and know the memories attached to them, but it’s like they’ve lost their meaning. You know who they are, but they no longer feel the same to you.
It’s clear why this is very difficult to explain. As she describes it you’re both there but not there: you exist but you don’t; you know who people are, but you don’t. And trying to explain it to others can be ‘the worst thing’.
So, why does depersonalisation occur?
Depersonalisation, as awful as it may be, is actually a defence mechanism, which protects the most important part of you: your ‘self’. By dislocating the ‘self’ from the physical body and its actions, your body is actually protecting your core being from further harm. Although it can occur as a disorder (depersonalisation disorder, or a dissociative disorder) in its own right, depersonalisation is most commonly the result of very high anxiety levels. When anxiety levels reach such a high point, the mind basically decides to ‘depersonalise’ in order to prevent the ‘self’ from being damaged by even higher anxiety levels. In theory, that’s rather clever, but in reality, depersonalisation is so distressing that all it does is cause more anxiety, which in turn makes the depersonalisation worse, which in turn makes the anxiety worse. It’s a vicious cycle.
I imagine that the key to coping or easing depersonalisation is to reducie anxiety levels, since it’s most commonly caused by heightened anxiety and stress. And what others can do is to try to imagine how it might feel to suffer in this way. It is all too easy to feel incredulous, to ask ‘How can you feel like that?’ and dismiss or deny the painful reality of what occurs. Even if we can’t really imagine what it is like to feel depersonalisation, we can work on being accepting of, and empathic towards, other’s experience and not make them feel worse by expressing doubt and incredulity.
I went to a very interesting workshop last week: An Introduction to Transactional Anaysis. It made me think about how different parts of our emotional landscape are activated by our interactions with others and how useful it can be to have a simple, understandable language to explain what happens both within us and between us. Transactional Analysis provides this with its concepts of ego states: coherent systems of thought and feeling, manifested by a corresponding pattern of behaviour. The three ego states are Adult (that part that feels in touch with present reality, flexibly responsive in the moment to current unique experiences and draws constructively and creatively from past experience), Child (reliving thoughts, feelings and behaviour dervied from our own direct past experience) and Parent (ego states we have internalised as our own from parents/parental figures). So when a partner or friend tells us ‘Don’t do that! Do it this way!’ they are in their Parent ego state and will probably evoke our Child ego state of either feeling told off or rebellious and determined to do it our own way! That is, of course, a very simple example and I’m sure you can imagine how complicated and complex different kinds of interpersonal transactions can become.
What is really helpful in all this is the ability to recognise your own ego states – what evokes Child in you, what are your Parent messages – and to be able to work on accessing the Adult within, particularly when feeling overwhelmed by the feelings and thoughts associated with the other ego states. For it is in the Adult ego state that we can make choices: we can rationally observe and understand what is happening in all our ego states, and what is being evoked in us by others’ ego states, and make choices and decisions based on the reality of the present moment.
All of us daydream at times about being a different person, having a different life: losing weight and being able to run a marathon; changing our career; starting a family; travelling the world. If these type of thoughts and feelings persist beyond the normal 5-minute stare off into space and become persistent and even invasive, perhaps it is time to thing about what they mean? Do you really want to reinvent yourself? Before you can reshape your future, you need to be brutally honest about your present. How much will you need to change to achieve the reinvention you desire? Do you have it in you? Looking at the evidence from those who have succeeded in realising their dreams can give us an insight into what it really necessary. Consider these crucial questions from the experts before you move ahead:
Does your goal match your values?
You may have fallen in love with the idea of building your own house, but are you truly a do-it-yourselfer? If your goal doesn’t match your values, you’ll have less motivation to work toward it, and will feel less fulfilled even if you achieve it.
Does it conflict with other priorities in your life?
Committing yourself to reaching the corner office may bring prestige, but it could also take time away from relationships and hobbies. Consider the sacrifices you’ll have to make, and know what you’re willing to set aside before starting out.
Will you be able to pursue it long-term, and for the right reasons?
When you know who you are, you can recognize what you need to overcome to keep your personality from blocking your dreams. For example, if you can’t stand failure, you might persist even when you should stop.
Can you gain satisfaction from each step?
If the actions you take to move towards your goal give you pleaseure in themselves, you will gain satisfaction from your efforts even if you never fully attain your objective.
Are you sure you want it?
Force yourself to envision your future, keeping in mind our tendency to revert to a baseline level of happiness even after success. Will the suburban mansion really be better than your city rental once you factor in the daily commute, the weekly lawn-mowing, and the monthly mortgage? Talk it out with those who know you best and can imagine your future self nearly as well as you can.
Is achieving it within your control?
If you can take specific, practical actions to reach your goal, you’re in good shape. If it will require winning a contest, or overcoming challenges like health or geography, think twice.
And, last of all, if you find that going through these questions puts you off, perhaps it is time to think about what you are getting from holding on to a dream that you don’t really want to achieve. Is it a distraction from the rest of your life?