There comes a point when you have to take stock and say, “Things are bad.”
The beginning of the economic downturn saw a tedious increase in ‘experts’ telling us that positivity would make everything better. Thinking about what is good rather than bad and focusing on the good stuff really can build new neural pathways and change your attitude for the better. But it won't help if you want to walk across the road with your eyes shut.
Very quickly the suggestion that positivity can be helpful has turned into a demand. We live in a country where therapists are working with the DWP to make unemployed people go back to paid employment and where paid employment is suddenly perceived as a ‘positive health outcome.’ If you think that’s wonderful then you don’t care about evidence.
It is unethical, counterproductive and has no basis in fact. It speaks volumes about the desperation that many therapists are feeling.
Because you’re reading this it’s probable that you’re all too aware that things have been falling apart for some time. Many businesses can’t afford the materials and staff they need and so existing staff are working at the edges of their ability and capacity. Public services - the services we all use when we travel, get ill, expect an educated population or want our elderly relatives to have some kind of dignity – have been amputated. Things are falling apart. The most vulnerable amongst us have been telling us this for years. And now ordinary people who are not vulnerable are feeling it.
Cognitive dissonance is
“the mental stress experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values; when performing an action that contradicts existing beliefs, ideas, or values; or when confronted with new information that contradicts existing beliefs, ideas, and values.”
We all experience it from time to time but many of us are finding a home in this unbearable environment.
Demands for positivity have become authoritarian, insisting that we cut a smile into our face and do little dances of joy to demonstrate team spirit or something. Anyone saying, “My life is hard” is a shirker. Anyone suggesting that motivational speeches don’t put food on the table is dismissed as unenthusiastic. People who want to care for a sick child are told that they must ‘arrange alternative childcare.’
How do you discern whether positivity indicates confidence or stupidity? Intelligence, good business strategy and the ability to avoid danger involves knowing when to cut our losses. The alternative is to continue staring at the sun, borrow unsustainable amounts of money, time and good will and crash disastrously.
Things are bad for most of us right now and, as adults, we need to look at facts rather than allow our prejudices and desires to rule us. Sterling is falling and the trend is downward. A 60-hour week is no longer unusual. (If you don’t work a 60 hour week that’s a good thing not an indication that you’re lazy.) Anxiety is twice as prevalent as depression. Our children are becoming more and more distressed.
If you’ve read my blog for a while you know I don’t like inspirational quotes and the pretence that everything will improve if we all just pull together and think happy thoughts. Now I’m saying that if you’re an ordinary person and you’re not feeling a bit crap that it’s likely that you’re ignoring something.
The NHS definition of hoarding demonstrates how badly understood the problem is:
"A hoarding disorder is where someone acquires an excessive number of items and stores them in a chaotic manner. The items can be of little or no monetary value and usually result in unmanageable amounts of clutter.
It's considered to be a significant problem if:
Someone in a bedsit with this disorder is going to be dealt with very differently than someone in a detached, 8 bedroom property even though both people are suffering. 87 year old Mrs Appleton was evicted from her home because a housing trust believed her hoarding was a health and safety issue: the trust made her life safer by making her homeless.
It’s not news that the rich are treated differently from the poor. The Panama Papers are not news.
We know that a majority of rich people are obsessive about being rich. They have developed a mental disorder, a form of OCD, which has profound and blatantly deleterious effects on the people around them. It’s just that - unlike people who hoard newspapers and old toys who get upset when their family try to address the issue – money hoarders they don’t know the people that they effect. And they are never directly confronted with the effects of their hoarding. In most cases they’re surrounded by other money hoarders at best and parasitic sycophants who milk them at worst.
There is nothing inherently wrong with being wealthy, morally or in terms of mental wellbeing. Where prosperity becomes unhealthy is when a person identifies so profoundly with their wealth that it skews their version of reality. Just as the very poor person can justify burglary so the rich person can justify withholding money that they know helps fund roads, pavements, clean water, the sewerage system, railways, gas and electricity, things that they use every day. Rich people aren’t stupid, they know that poor people proportionately pay more in taxes than they do. Rich people who hoard money are mentally ill.
By no means am I suggesting that we feel sorry for them. I'm proposing that we watch out for similar behaviour in ourselves.
Excellent research shows that the more prosperous we feel the less we care about other people. This is repeatable in a lab-based rigged game of monopoly where players win meaningless tokens: we are hard wired to become increasingly self-centred the more affluent we feel.
There’s a lot to be said about the profound unhappiness of the rich. Many are brought up never to trust anyone because, “They don’t like you, they like your money.” Imagine what that does to a child. Just as eating too much good food eventually becomes toxic so having everything you want becomes poisonous, it’s called Ahedonia. And the smart ones know it:_
“You know, I thought the more money I made, that I would spend more. And that’s the opposite. The more money I make, the more I want to save. I didn’t think it would be like that and I’ve actually surprised myself.”
For many rich people life becomes essentially insignificant. Imagine how unwell a person has to be if contributing to the wellbeing, and in many cases the survival of other human beings is of no importance or interest . There but for the grace of god go we all.
I loathe this kind of Inspirational Quote. The cliché of a Wise Exotic Person, in this case that acme of wisdom, a Native American; the shrewd observation of nature; the comparison between something ordinary and ubiquitous against something noble and clever; and the requirement to change your attitude, you weak, stupid fool.
Clearly, this person has never seen a raptor in the rain. This kind of ‘inspiration’ is too often built on fantasy, ignorance and the desire not to encourage but to load blame on to vulnerable people. It has the added benefit that it makes us feel better about ourselves.
Viktor Frankl and his selectively quoted book, "Man's Search For Meaning" is often used to punish people: "When we are no longer able to change a situation - we are challenged to change ourselves." "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."
Can we be clear? Frankl was writing about his experience in a Nazi concentration camp. Although he hypothesised about what signs individuals gave of despair as a prelude to their death these are not research results, they are the desperate observations of a dying man. Using Frankl’s words in this way suggests that if only those spineless failures in concentration camps who gave up had just changed their attitude a lot more of them would have survived. Frankl turned the memory of his wife into a kind of religious mania, an act he credited with keeping him alive, but I’m not aware of any inspirational quotes suggesting we all do the same.
There’s a great deal to be said about altering our attitude towards events. It’s absolutely true that if we can gather ourselves after a failure, loss or catastrophe and keep moving forward then we are more likely to achieve more and perhaps be happier. This can be very important for people who’ve experienced bereavement, at some point they need to drag themselves away from misery and shock if they’re not to remain out of the world. But some people will remain in that state. Do they have terrible attitude? Are they stupidly refusing to be helped?
Or has no one offered them the kind of help that they can accept?
There’s always a reason for a ‘bad attitude.’ Sometimes it’s a personality habit and it’s no use saying that this can be dealt with by snapping out of it: in every situation people do what they believe is best. When we say they should just try harder or be nicer their perception of the world as a place full of cruel people who have no empathy is compounded.
Happily, an increasing number of people are beginning to speak out about their failures and anxieties, their inability to buzz through the world like a chainsaw, the mental illness that floors them and the shock and humiliation of collapse. Less dramatically, we’re recognising the existence of introverts who make up around half of the population and who are quickly exhausted by having to do things that extroverts are energised by. Like go to meetings. Or talk to people.
By the time that most people come to therapy they’ve moved past the possibility of changing their attitude into miserable paralysis. Thank goodness. That’s the place where change happens, not in denial of reality.
Let’s look at another Viktor Frankl quote – one that’s longer, more complex, requiring more reflection than those chosen by other people who want us to get a grip:
“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he could become, he makes these potentialities come true.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
When we tell people to change their attitude we shut them down. When we acknowledge the reality of their situation - that they are unique, that they are not us - when we give each other compassionate space, then genuine, individual growth becomes possible. Not growth to satisfy anyone else’s idea of success but growth that leads to their own concept of accomplishment.
A woman caught me as I stumbled on the bus yesterday. I sat next to her and she said, “We’ve all got to be kind to each other now,” and something extraordinary happened between us.
I held her hands. If you don’t live in London you may not know how utterly bizarre it is to hold a strangers hand on a bus. It’s unusual to make eye contact! But this woman was radiating something powerful that compelled me to take hold of her hands.
“What did you vote?” she asked. I’m old enough to remember when it was considered incredibly rude to ask how a person voted, but I answered her anyway.
“I voted UKIP,” she said and turned to look me straight in the eye. All I could think of to say was, “Why did you do that?”
“My next door neighbours are on benefits and they work cash in hand,” she said, clearly wanting my response. It’s not the most insightful or professional thing I’ve ever said but what came out was,
“Don’t you think that’s wrong?” she asked, and I said that they probably had very good reasons for taking the terrible risk of being caught. “But they’re from Iran or Iraq or somewhere, and I’ve had cancer and I work. Don’t you care that they’re on benefits?”
I told her I couldn’t care less and asked her where she came from - English wasn’t her first language. She said her mother and father were from different nations and that she was from yet another. “My boys tell me the same,” she said, “They say that what my neighbours do is none of my business.” We looked at each other, holding hands very tightly, and then she got off the bus.
I was dumbfounded. The whole interaction had taken about 3 minutes.
It would be foolish to extrapolate an entire theory from that short connection, but isn’t there something about her anxiety, her desperate need to understand, that’s reflected in the national response to the election? She won’t be the only person to have voted against her own interests – a non-White, not-affluent woman who has had cancer – because her need to punish, to punch down, to harm people who are more vulnerable than she is, is greater than self preservation.
An accumulation of other stresses would have preceded this outpouring and perhaps the election was the final straw. I have no idea. But it seems to me that the single most important thing that this woman said, that goes beyond politics and ideology, beyond feeling gleeful or shocked or devastated at the outcome of this election, is the very first thing she did and the very first thing she said to me:
She caught me when I stumbled.
She said, “We’ve all got to be kind to each other now.”
I had to stagger in to work today, feeling like hell and dosed up on Lemsip. If you’re self employed, as I am, you’ll be aware of the pressure to choose between staying in bed and paying some bills, and today I just had to get on with it.
That said, I was also able to come home two hours later and sleep, then continue to do a little bit of work from the comfort of my sofa. That’s a blessing. For the previous two days I’ve done nothing at all even though there’s a never ending ‘must do’ list. There always is. A few days away from it won’t kill anyone.
One of the questions I ask most of my clients is, “What’s the worst that will happen if you don’t go in to work?” Their response is usually to smile, look sheepish and say something along the lines of “Nothing much.” The pressure to keep attending work is astonishing. Just having your body in the office seems to be the single most important aspect of employment, rather than any work you might do. One of my clients* left his employer after a review where he was told his work was, ‘Exceptional, we can’t fault it,’ but he mustn’t listen to the radio on headphones. Why? Because his employers need for control was poisonous.
For this client, after finally realising that he was being bullied every day handing in his notice a couple of days later was the right thing to do. He had the backing of his family and enough savings to see him through 6 weeks of job seeking. For him, it was worth visiting his GP to get signed off, taking a week or so to rest and recover from an absurd work environment, and then get on with finding a new job.
The ideal way of dealing with a job you hate is to find a new one while letting your current employer pay your wage. What makes that difficult for many people is that they won’t admit that their employer is toxic. We tend to bitch and moan about work without doing anything about it, whether that’s looking for new employment or talking to a Union, and wait until something so preposterous happens that things begin to spiral out of control. I’ve had a number of clients who’ve denied anything was wrong until they’ve been assaulted at work. Denial is not just a river in Africa.
*Identifying details have been changed.
If you google 'Carnival' endless pictures of women catching a cold turn up. You won't see pictures like this one on the news, but for me this is one of the most fascinating parts of Carnival - Jouvert (a contraction of jour ouvert or 'daybreak') sees a small number of people walking Carnival route the wrong way round at dawn, throwing flour and paint at each other and along the route. I find this magical and inspiring, a real demonstration of the subversive and chaotic, a kind of secret ritual that allows and boundaries the following two days.
Carnival is The World Turned Upside down, a time when some people pretend to be what they're not, things that are illegal at other times are now permitted, and feasting and revelry are indulged. Carnival is not, despite what it may seem, an advert for Top Shop or an opportunity for a politician to make a terrible arse of himself, it's a reminder that racism still exists and that magic remains possible. In the UK it's a farewell to Summer and a blowout before Autumn. Go out and have a ball.
Depression has been under the spotlight this week after Robin Williams’ suicide. It’s great that despair – lets call it what it is rather than a medicalised euphemism - and mental ill-health are finally coming out of the dingy little spare room closet for an airing and wonderful that people who are suffering depression are having their voices heard. Talking about how mental ill-health can feel shameful, that there is little parity of esteem (a nice, tight, catchphrase) between the care offered to people with physical illness and people with mental illness is temporarily refreshing. Politicians and policy makers are saying worthy things about how dreadful this and that are and how they’ll make things better.
They're being economical with the truth.
People with chronic illnesses, physical and emotional, are being driven to suicide by the same ministers now saying how awful depression is, something that was recognised by the DWP back in 2012. It's only going to get worse.
It’s not just people at the end of their financial tether that are killing themselves. Successful men, you are killing yourselves at a catastrophic rate.
“We have a series of assumptions about suicide that are explicit and implicit, and they make a toxic mix,” Powell says. “One is that suicide is undertaken by failures: people who have no friends, who spend all their time in their room, who have something wrong with them. Are you going to talk about people close to you who might have taken their own lives if that is what others are thinking? If you say your son has taken his own life, then that means saying he’s a failure too. But when you look at the people who do this it’s quite the reverse - it’s often true that they are admired, well-loved and talented - though they might push themselves extremely hard.”
Take a look at this article:
"The most deadly criticism one could make of modern civilization is that apart from its man-made crises and catastrophes, is not humanly interesting. . . . In the end, such a civilization can produce only a mass man: incapable of spontaneous, self-directed activities: at best patient, docile, disciplined to monotonous work to an almost pathetic degree." Lewis Mumford, 1951
Unhappy women generally medicate and endure, unhappy men kill themselves.
I’m no fan of the Good Old Days when we all lived in each others pockets and did our socialising at the communal launderette or men-only club, but when as a nation we took the decision to vote for personal prosperity people began getting more sad. Now we're reaping that whirlwind. People who bought their council houses find their adult children have nowhere to live. When we all demanded cheap washing machines it was inevitable that manufacturing was going to go abroad. When we decided to treat each other as economic units it can’t come as too much of a surprise when we are also treated not as individual people but as things that make other things function. Like a widget.
Counselling falls into this trap too. Far too many counsellors join in the scroungers and strivers nonsense. Too many believe that success is a client returning to work, even in the face of a foundational belief that our job is to support the client in discovering their own meaning for their own life.
For a great many people depression is a sign that your life has lost any meaning. A lot of people believe that having a high status job title, two posh cars, a big house and garden owned by the bank, and some nice clothes will mean their life is complete, but if they ever attain all that life remains just as hollow and meaningless as ever.
Look to the US which is 5 or so years ahead of us. If you want that life then do nothing, it’s on its way. You may be interested to learn that the American Dream has been totally debunked: if it were true then immigrant women would be sipping champagne in a swimming pool on a Learjet.
If you’re depressed take yourself seriously. As well as going to the GP and doing all the stuff you already know helps depression, think about what you want to do with your life. It may be that you want to spend more or less time with your children. You might want to spend more time awake, relaxed and communicating with your partner or you might want to get far away from them. You might regret having got on your bike like you were told to at 18, to move far away from your family, who are getting old. You may have to sell your house and move somewhere smaller (If you move out of London this won't be a problem.) you may have to take a significant wage cut. But you really are more than your job title and bank balance.
You don’t need to come to counselling to discover this – though it can be helpful to get some support as you explore your fears, desires and options. But you do need to recognise that something is wrong, understand that you don’t have to do what’s expected of you – even if it’s just you who’s putting you under pressure – and then dare to think of what you genuinely want to do with the rest of your life.
Campaign Against Living Miserably is a charity specifically for men under pressure.
If you live in London the start of the working day can be absolutely dismal. There is another way! And as long as employers don't subvert this life-enhancing concept by making staff wrap their ties round their head and jump up and down, this kind of event could alter the way we approach work.
"The [wildly successful] nerds who run IT businesses are much less interested in the "suit and tie" approach to business and much more willing to experiment with any idea which they think will keep their staff enthusiastic and creative."
Watch the Channel 4 News report here. Watching this 3 minute video will set you up for the day!
Mindfulness works. Its venerable parent, meditation, works. Exercise works and most of us find dancing a damn site more enjoyable than running in the rain. Add human connection, no matter how fleeting, and you've got a recipe for joy.
Let me know if you go to one!
Happy St George's Day, a day to appreciate the many, many benefits we have as people living in a first-world economy.
The World Service broadcast a particularly interesting piece last night, on how France Must Change. High unemployment, a State-bound economy in the doldrums, strikes, laughable working hours, and now – get this! – legislation that prevents employees from responding to work emails after 6pm! What an outlandish and economically naive country.
Strange then, that France is ahead of our own Hard Working, endlessly striving, entrepreneurial economy, second only to Germany in Europe and fifth in the world. In a survey out today comes the news that “Britain has the lowest quality of life of 9 major European countries."
France has the highest quality of life.
The weather has something to do with it as does our naturally cynical nature – we expect to be treated badly and so it comes as no surprise when we’re treated badly – but here’s a chilling analysis:
“We may still be enjoying the fourth highest household income in Europe, but the high cost of living means we are living to work.”
Person Centred counselling has a useful principle called the Locus of Evaluation. It proposes that when we’re allowed to remain in touch with how we genuinely feel we can make good choices; good for ourselves and good for the people around us. This is called The Internal Locus of Evaluation. The External Locus of Evaluation develops when we’re told how we must feel and criticised for feeling differently from the people around us. We have to ignore our genuine feelings to continue to be valued. People who function from an External Locus of Evaluation continue to look to people in authority to decide how they must feel and often feel absolutely dreadful, even if they determinedly continue to believe they are content with the way things are. You can read up on the theory here.
On Sunday the Mail felt it would be profitable to send an undercover reporter to a food bank and, despite noting that the reporter was asked lots of questions about his circumstances, recount that he walked away with £40 worth of groceries, unquestioned. In the past that would simply have added to the sneering disgust of the nation but this time it resulted in £35,000 in donations to the Trussell Trust.
Times and nations are not going to change much. Against all the evidence, as a country we’re going to continue believing that the French are lazy and on the verge of economic collapse whilst we lead the world in toughness and fiscal wisdom. But, as the Daily Mail incident demonstrates, individuals are now more than ever capable of effecting change. I’d propose that the conditions that bring individuals to the point of collapse are those that we are experiencing now. We’re being told one thing – that food banks are stupidly supporting evil people to lie around laughing at the Hard Working Tax Payer – when we know something very different – that food banks are a symptom of an unequal society, that the more unequal the society the more miserable society becomes and that we have the lowest productivity in the whole of the G7. Social media is a tool that individuals use to subvert propaganda, but attending to the messages that we constantly berate ourselves with is another, more difficult matter.
It can be profoundly sad and even disturbing to understand that many of the beliefs we hold dear are nothing but empty words, to realise that the way we've lived to this point has been largely meaningless and for someone else's benefit. It takes time to understand how it happens at all, but if you find yourself wondering about this kind of thing then you're ready to explore it. There's a lot to cherish in the English (and British) way of being, we'd be foolish to reject all of it, and there's a lot that needs to be examined too.
*Written by Cecil Rhodes, who left England at the age of 9.
The majority of my clients come to me with very similar stories: “I have too much work, my boss is either very nice but doesn’t support me or is unpleasant and doesn’t support me. I’m working way over my contracted hours and achieving very little of actual value, but as long as all the boxes are ticked that’s all that matters. I like my work but the kind of stuff I’m expected to do now has really worn me down. I don’t see my family. Secretly, my children have become a burden, they get in the way of my work.”
In some cases coaching helps the client to break down what looks like an enormous pile of never ending demands into smaller, more manageable tasks and attention to relationships, and whilst this can be very valuable it is not the whole answer.
Whether we like it or not the UK is now in the grip of a fantasy approach to life where a lack of hard work is the only thing keeping you from success and the unemployed are all workshy scroungers. I read an article in Forbes yesterday that partly drove me to write this blog entry: “Mentally Strong People: The 13 Things They Avoid.” What really chilled me were the comments, 65 pages of “Thank you so much, this really made my day, this is so amazing and I can see where I need to do more work on myself.”
So many clients are being told that they have ‘the wrong attitude’. Almost always what this means is “You’re not doing what you’re told to do fast enough and you ask too many questions.”
Our concept of success makes us all feel like failures. It may be that a person has to be single-minded to increase their income but the actual facts show us, again and again, that being male, remaining in full time employment and the income of the family you're born into are better determinants of not living in poverty than either hard work or ‘attitude’.
While some of the points in the first article are valid and good advice, for a moment let's turn the rhetoric on its head. Emotionally Damaged People: 5 ways to understand them.
1. Emotionally Damaged People don’t seek insight. They have learned that their feelings – and the feelings of others – are unimportant and they're disinterested in concepts of fairness or integrity. They have been trained to ignore their feelings and to treat harsh life lessons as something to be grateful for, as a matter of personal survival in an incredibly brutal environment. When a situation turns out badly they cannot bear to examine why, or who may have been affected.
2. Emotionally Damaged People don’t care about people who are less powerful than them. They couldn’t care less about criticism or advice from people they perceive to be beneath them. If the criticism comes from people they believe to be more important than them they are trained to be grateful, even if that criticism is persecutory. They can only function in a hierarchy. And they strive to be as high up as possible in that hierarchy, whatever the cost to their family or to themselves.
3. Emotionally Damaged People ignore the costs that instability have on them and on others. Emotionally Damaged people are not interested in how bereavement, low pay, illness, children, elderly parents or anything else affects anyone. They perceive themselves and especially other people as things.
4. Emotionally Damaged People are not interested in the causes of problems or how to alter anything for the better, other than the manner in which their betters perceive them.
5. Emotionally Damaged people are desperately lonely. They've been told from childhood that they are entirely alone in the world. They know that they will not be supported by anyone and they’re not interested in supporting anyone else. If their culture includes being seen to be supporting others via charity or mentoring they will become involved in these activities in order to be seen to be compliant. They have learned that human nature punishes failure and non-compliance, even if that’s the failure to be born in a prosperous family, and the emotionally damaged person is resigned to this situation. They have learned that it is better to stand on other people than to be trodden on.
Genuinely successful people know that relationships are what matter, not status or income. Having enough money to remain healthy, pay the bills, eat and sleep well, spend time outdoors for pleasure and relaxation and with people who contribute positively to their wellbeing is important – having more is nice but not necessary.
Here’s another piece of research: 1 in 5 British workers have taken time off due to stress.
“According to the study difficult deadlines, management pressure and a lack of support are the main reasons for workplace stress and 6% and 3% of stressed workers resort to unhealthy practices to cope, smoking and drinking alcohol respectively.”
Look at your attitude. See who you're trying to please, and why, and what you genuinely want from life.
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