Tomorrow is the big day and I’ve yet to meet anyone waiting for their results who isn’t anxious. For young people this is an especially critical time because so much depends on it. Whether or not you get into the university that you want to. Whether or not you leave home. How you’ll compare to your peers.
The hours up to 8am tomorrow can feel unbearable but there are a few simple things you can do to manage your stress.
Most importantly, move around. It doesn’t matter if the movement is housework, going to the gym, taking the dog for a walk whatever it takes to get the air moving in your lungs and to build up a bit of a sweat. Stress releases adrenaline and the purpose of adrenaline is to make your muscles more efficient for escaping or fighting. If adrenaline just hangs around in your body you will become irritable and restless. If it comes to it, just jump up and down on the spot until you get breathless. If any of that breathlessness is because you’re laughing at yourself jumping up and down on the spot, so much the better.
From now on any time you feel anxious, use the adrenaline that is produced by your anxiety.
The next most useful thing you can do is have a drink of water. Just water. Not juice or coke or alcohol. There’s a link between even very slight levels of dehydration and anxiety, so rule that out. And have a glass of water every hour or so.
Now, spend 30 seconds breathing properly.
Stand up. Plant your feet firmly on the floor. Imagine a thread pulling you gently upright from the crown of your head.
Breathe in through your nose and imagine that you’re filling your lungs from your belly button upwards. Your tummy should move, then your chest, but not your shoulders.
Let the air move into your body and then gently let it flow out again. Again, your tummy should move then your chest, and your shoulders shouldn’t move. The in and the out breath should take about 12 to 15 seconds.
That breath is how you should be aiming to breathe all the time. From your belly button up as your breathe in. From the belly button up as you breathe out. Simply breathing like that will ensure that you’re not breathing shallowly and too quickly, in a way that can actually bring on a panic attack. If you’re breathing effectively your voice should become a little deeper. If you hear your voice getting high pitched you know that you’re not breathing effectively.
Slow down. Plant your feet flat on the floor. Breathe.
This kind of breathing will slow your thoughts down and help you get things in perspective.
The only admin you can do between now and then is to get the email address and phone numbers of the universities you want to go to, and those of your insurance choices
The UKAS Track website will freeze from 6pm today. For what it’s worth, I’d leave it alone now. You’ve already changed everything you need to. It doesn’t update at midnight and won’t be open until 8am tomorrow.
UCAS’ social media team will be around from 6am and the contact centre opens at 7.30am for enquiries. There’s no point in spending any more time with the website until then.
So get some things in place from now until you pick up your results.
Try not to make alcohol one of them.
Timetable in a couple of exercise sessions – yes, a couple! - and if you can do them with a friend so much the better. Go swimming, go for a run or a long walk. Do some sit ups, press-ups or planks. Do the washing up, cook dinner, clean the windows, walk the dog, try to make the expenditure of energy meaningful. If you can’t find anyone to do exercise with just do it by yourself. Exercise will help you sleep better tonight, so put your heart into it.
Plan a good evening meal, something that has a decent amount of protein in it. Tryptophan is an amino acid, one of the building blocks of protein, that aids sleep and combats anxiety. You’ll find good levels of tryptophan in nuts, tofu, meat – especially turkey – eggs, cheese, beans, lentils and oats. Plan your breakfast around this list too.
Set an alarm, right now, to remind you to breathe properly for 1 minute every waking hour. That’s a total of about 12 minutes. About 50 good breaths.
Find a good distraction and immerse yourself in it. If it’s an outdoor distraction that’s great. If it’s outdoors with friends, even better. If it’s gaming, well so be it, just don’t turn into a slob. Drink water. Get away from the screen to eat a good meal. Run up and down some stairs once in a while. And stop around 10pm at the latest.
Be kind to yourself.
There may be some very critical voices in your head telling you that your life will come to an end if you don’t get the results you need, that you didn’t work hard enough, that you’re a disappointment to your family and to yourself.
Perhaps you didn’t work hard enough. There’s nothing you can do about that now. You can determine to work harder from now on. That’s all anyone can do.
When I did my A levels a friends mother wouldn’t talk to him for 3 days because he didn’t get the results she wanted him to get. We all thought she was cruel and wrong. 30+ years on, knowing all about the causes of punishing behaviours I still think she was cruel and wrong.
If your family or anyone else punishes you for not getting the grades you need they too are cruel and wrong. There’s no point in punishing you. Punishment – including passive aggressive sighing “It’s OK. I know you did your best,” ie "I know you're not very clever," – is not going to alter your grades.
Some families look to their children to lift them out of poverty. In countries where that is a matter of survival pressures are different but in the UK getting good grades is not a matter of life and death. Your parents may well have made sacrifices to get you through education. That’s what parents are meant to do.
What people who take A levels are supposed to do is to work hard enough to get the best grades they can without driving themselves mad. Anorexia, bulimia, depression and anxiety have exploded in young people. That’s a price that’s just not worth paying for A grades. For anything at all.
Breathe in and out properly twice RIGHT NOW!
Then go and get a drink of water.
Avatar was on the television again this evening and I was reminded of the phenomenon of Avatar Blues
"One can say my depression was twofold: I was depressed because I really wanted to live in Pandora, which seemed like such a perfect place, but I was also depressed and disgusted with the sight of our world, what we have done to Earth. I so much
wanted to escape reality," Hill said.
We’re living through extraordinary times. As I write this people are being held at American airports and sent to any old country.
In the UK the temptation is to say: “That will never happen here.” Yet we have had a British MP murdered by a member of a legal organisation. Within a day of the Brexit vote hate crimes began and within two weeks had increased by 58%. If you’ve spent any amount of time online you’ll be aware of newly emboldened commentary from people sneering, bullying, spilling over with contempt.
So if you have an ounce of sensitivity a film like Avatar can be very painful. We know that indigenous people have been destroyed whenever they come into contact with our civilisation. We know that animals and people do not connect in the way the film shows us, and that we have made the purpose of the natural world to be industrialised for our use. We know that the untamed world has never risen up against an enemy that is destroying it, and who can bear the destruction of the helplessness and innocent?
It is incredibly rare to be born blunted and callous. We have to close large parts of our hearts and minds because to keep them open and vulnerable is too painful. Sometimes, because we are not exposed to pain happening in front of us, we ignore it.
Fascism doesn’t arrive wearing jackboots. Of course, if any group were forced to wear an identifying badge a great many of us would also wear that badge in solidarity. But would you identify as ‘Unemployed’? Or ‘Poor’?
The UK poor have been dying decades before their more prosperous neighbours for centuries. It’s quite normal for adverts at bus stops to tell us to anonymously inform on anyone we think may be defrauding the benefits system even though benefit fraud is such a minute issue that it’s not counted separately from errors in benefit distribution: combined they account for around 1% of the benefits bill. You know that unemployment benefits are 1% of the total benefits bill. And you know that pensions account for 42% of benefits.
If we can allow one group to suffer, to be identified as worthy of contempt and vilification, then we can allow it to happen to anyone. In our hearts we know that. There are three ways we can respond to it:
Join in with it.
Resistance is painful and exhausting. Acceptance can feel like a relief but it gnaws away at you because you know it’s wrong. Joining in with it can be wonderful. You’re amongst friends. They support you and you gain entrance to a genuine community with a narrative about the world that makes you feel justified and safe. Very often there is no downside to this, people do not wake up and say “I was wrong,” we go to our graves believing in things that are deeply, demonstrably wrong with no regrets.
For people who are unsure about what the hell is happening and what to do about it, it can feel best to keep it simple, to know the enemy and turn a blind eye. If you know the historical futility of resistance life can become unbearable. Low-grade suicidality is not at all unusual, it’s so common that many people don’t recognise it until it’s identified in their behaviours or in the casualness of their language. Pain becomes normal.
How to remain on an even keel in times like this?
Identify the parts of you, without judgement, that hate. We all have them. The part that says, “The Jews have put the house prices up there,” or “Trump’s mad but he’s got a point about Muslims,” or “If the poor worked harder they wouldn’t be poor.”
Non-judgement is absolutely critical. It’s not about being good or bad, it’s about knowing what’s going on. Treat that part of yourself with respect; listen to what it has to say. Listen. Don’t tell it what to do.
When we’re better able to hear ourselves, in all our aspects, we gain a better understanding of the world. When we’re able to be gentle with our own flaws we can accept them more gracefully in others. And at a time when grace is sorely lacking that’s becoming an urgent interpersonal and political need.
Last weekend I went to a workshop run by Mick Cooper, Professor of Counselling Psychology at the University of Roehampton, author, researcher, therapist and Chartered Counselling Psychologist. During the day Prof Cooper told us about his schedule which, apart from university work, included extra academic research, preparing and running workshops and conferences, an arduous commute, family life, physical exercise and writing 2,000 words a day.
The workshop was an introduction to Existential counselling, a form of counselling that I trained in and use a great deal in my own work, and which I see interpreted in ways that I find increasingly concerning. Therapists, not just those actually trained in existentialism, often quote Viktor Frankl the founder of a form of existential analysis, as a way of saying 'Pull yourself together' something I've written about often, especially here.
Strangely, absolutely no one is saying that one must be immersed in rabbinical and Talmudic texts, as Frankl (and so many other therapists) was or that one must establish a kind of monomania about ones spouse, which Frankl did, an obsession he credited for keeping him alive. His work is only used as a way to tell people they're not good enough.
It's always been very popular to tell people they're not good enough and to pull themselves together. When we do it we place ourselves directly opposite losers, people who can't (or more likely, the lazy pigs, just won't) get their act together. The contrast makes us feel successful and positive, consistent, resilient, focused, leaning in - whatever other buzzwords are being thrown around today.
And so my invitation to you is to just get a grip and reproduce Mick Coopers' schedule. He has children so that's no excuse for you not to. Prepare and educate yourself, reject chaos, double down, strive for excellence. Get on with it. What are you waiting for? Why are you procrastinating? What the hell is wrong with you?
I don't know Prof Cooper but I can tell you two things about him:
And whilst energy can be cultivated there is only so much that a person can do. Mick Cooper can do all these things and you can't. I can't. Most people can't. Which is the single best reason why you and I and the huge majority of people aren't a professor and the author of 10 books.
There are some people who are consistently incredibly productive, often for decades. They get cancer and they work through it and fight it and beat it. Their child dies and they produce their magnum opus. They're exiled for 14 years and return to become the leader of a nation and Time's Man of the Year. Good for them.
So because they can do it, people who die from cancer are losers? Selfish, too, for not fighting hard enough and burdening their families? Bereaved parents who can't move on from this catastrophe, they're just workshy or weakminded? I know a number of people who are disabled and who run successful businesses - other disabled people have no excuse? Viktor Frankl survived concentration camps so all those lazy arses who died have only themselves to blame?
All of my clients are, by anyone's standards, very successful. When they feel that they're not doing as well as they have done in the past ask for help. And the ones who excel?
They're competitive but not vicious or scared. They work to their strengths whilst valuing and respecting aspects of their personality that aren't geared towards making money. They know that status within their employment is just another facet of personal success because they know endless numbers of peers who are rich and exhausted, cynical, addicted, burning out, psychopathic and phoney.
Ultimately, they are concerned with what is meaningful for them and don't try to be what they're not. Frankl, like the other Existentialists, understood that meaning gives flavour and satisfaction to life. Here's one of his quotes that is plundered much less often:
“Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success,
like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal
dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself.
Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.
I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge.
Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had
forgotten to think about it”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
Just by being themselves they're being (not doing) what the Harvard Business Review recognises as resilient. Not fighting anything. Not surviving a terrorist attack. They're taking the time to discover what is important for them and doing just that.
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.
I’m writing this listening to Tallis’s Spem In Alium while the growing spring light and warmth is bringing my garden to budding life.
Terry Pratchett intended to die listening to this - “That’s the one where every single part of it comes together at once, where God picks you up and drops you on your head,” - in his garden drinking an excellent brandy. Apparently he died in his own bed with his family and his cat with him, and I hope he was listening to this music.
Many of my friends and acquaintances are texting, emailing and talking on Facebook about the loss of this good man, all of us feeling a bit stupid about the terrible sadness we’re experiencing. But we’ve shared a world, landscapes, lineages, lives, adventures and histories with him and with each other, and that world has now come to an end. The characters we love can now only repeat their stories, they can’t develop or mature any more. Discworld has suddenly become preserved rather than living on in a kind of real time.
The most common element on Discworld was Narrativium, which caused people to act and events to play out as they are meant to in a story. Heroes were guaranteed to win if the chances were a million to one. If a little girl walked alone through the woods she had to meet a wolf, who was forced to try and eat her. But Pratchett’s most complex characters fought the pressures of storylines that cast them as the Evil Witch, the Killer Cop, a Farmers Wife or an Unwilling Reaper and in doing so became more fully themselves and infinitely more interesting people.
Mistress Weatherwax, Sam Vimes, Susan Sto Helit, Tiffany Aching and Death himself exerted self control, experienced pain and unhappiness in order to learn and grow and become who they were truly meant to be. None of them were interested in being nice or even particularly liked, and paradoxically became loved.
Please take the time to listen to Spem In Alium and raise a glass to Terry Pratchett who brought good philosophy to millions of children and adults, and whose legacy is fierce, funny and full of wisdom.
This is a great description of the process of accepting and submitting to emotional pain in order to address it. Go and visit Bethany Webster's page to see more about her work.
Posted on September 13, 2014
Sitting with our pain is such a simple act and yet it can be one of the hardest things to do.
Feeling our pain and not rushing in to fix it, numb it, avoid it, or cover it up takes enormous courage. This is where surrender comes in. We reach a point in our healing where we’ve read all the books, consulted all the gurus or tried all the fancy techniques and all that is left is the last thing we want to do: Feel our painful feelings. Ironically, sitting with our pain is precisely what will eventually bring us all the things we were looking for through avoiding it.
A major key to healing emotional wounding is the willingness to endure discomfort for the sake of transformation. This willingness is essential to truly coming out the other side of childhood wounds.
Discomfort can come in many forms:
To an unhealed inner child, the only way it knows how to soothe itself is to act in accordance with the patterns that were imprinted by the family of origin, but usually those are precisely the patterns that are causing the pain. This keeps us trapped in a loop. The answer is to cultivate the skill of mothering and soothing our inner child while we make new choices that better reflect our true desires and needs. This inner bond is what helps us to effectively separate from family and cultural patterns that cause suffering.
For most of us, growing up involved a series of self-betrayals in which we had no choice but to create an inner split in order to survive. The split usually involves some form of numbing our feelings and rejecting ourselves in order to be accepted by our families. Healing involves the recovery of our ability to fully our feelings and thus, to feel and express the truth of who we are without shame.
While we are surrounded with messages to avoid our pain, both externally in the culture and internally through early coping mechanisms, it is through being present with our own pain and allowing our feelings to flow that healing really happens.
Truth is found outside our comfort zone. Outside the comfort zone is the space in which we separate from dysfunctional patterns that have been ingrained in us by our culture and families.
There are two main phases of learning to endure discomfort for the sake of transformation. Each phase may overlap at times, but generally we move from resistance to surrender.
Here we usually have a great deal of aversion and avoidance of looking at the painful feelings we experience. We may seek various ways to numb out or repress the truth of what we are feeling. Resistance can take the forms of self-sabotage, forgetfulness, overwhelm and addictions. Sometimes resistance can be helpful as an inner boundary of slowing things down until we are ready to fully see something. And sometimes it can be avoidance of what we know we must face. It takes careful self- examination to see which form of resistance is operating. We may experience some resistance at each new level of healing, but as we grow, we can better recognize resistance and more easily move through it.
Most of us surrender simply because the pain of resistance becomes too great. We eventually cross a threshold where we’ve learned to trust that embracing pain rather than running from it is what provides relief. We fully taste the joy and freedom that come from being in contact with the REAL within oneself. There is nothing like having moved through the pain and into the joy of feeling ONE within yourself. The peace of inner alignment: feeling and expressing your authentic feelings without the need to defend them.
There dawns a harmony between your personal imperfections and your irreplaceable part in the greater perfection of life.
Eventually the longing and hunger for living your truth overshadows all other desires, including the desire to be free of pain. It is seen that this hunger for truth is trustworthy and will lead you to what you need in each moment. And sometimes what you need is to embrace is yet another level of inner pain. The moments of relief and bliss that open up through having embraced your pain makes it all worth it. Over and over we learn that the act of embracing and being present with our pain is what connects us with the larger truth of who we are.
I think that one of the reasons why the crucifixion is such a powerful, pervasive symbol in the western world is because it symbolizes precisely what can be profoundly difficult: the willingness to accept and be present with our painful feelings.
A new inner space is created where you have permission to live from the REAL.
As we do the inner work, eventually a conviction arises; a quickening, a hunger and fierce commitment to living one’s truth. A desire develops to live from each moment from within the fire of your original self. Each moment begins to represent a new, fresh opportunity to live from simple, open, awareness of what is.
We see that awareness itself is an embrace.
We start on the painful periphery and as we become increasingly skilled in enduring discomfort and the uncertainty of the unknown, there lies the potential to merge with the holy presence that lives at the center of our pain and realize that is the truth of who we are.
Many of us have a feeling of homesickness deep within. A nameless longing and aching grief. Many of us experienced this as children in relation to our mothers, a feeling of being groundless and adrift. Embracing the homesick feeling within the mother wound leads us to eventually come to a place where we realize that we can never be truly abandoned. This becomes possible by becoming a loving inner mother to our inner child as we embrace her deepest despair.
In that despair is a door; a door to our source, the unified consciousness in which we are one with all.
In this way, our pain is a messenger. A messenger telling us it’s time to come home; to the primordial home within, which is the realization of our true identity as consciousness, the knowing that we are spirit and can never be truly harmed or abandoned because we are one with all. I recall moments in my own healing process when I would process layers of grief within the mother wound; the sense of worthlessness and wanting to die. And in that willingness to simply feel the full scope of that incredible despair and grief, I knew that this was the bottom. There was no pain deeper than that. That pain was the ground. And by standing on that ground and being present with my deepest pain, I was free.
Feeling our pain frees us from it.
By sitting with our pain, we begin to recognize that the pain we have felt is not the truth of who we really are. We begin to see that the open, loving presence that we embody as we embrace our own pain is who we are, our true identity underneath all our other identities.
The culmination of living as a “self” is to live as the “no-self”; the vast, loving space that lovingly witnesses our pain and embraces it completely. This is what a healthy mother does for her child. Author Rupert Spira has said that awareness is like the space in a room, it unconditionally accepts what happens in it. Likewise, in order to develop optimally, a child needs a mother who is unconditionally present and accepting of her. However, mothers are human beings with flaws who make mistakes. All of us receive some degree of wounding from our mothers.
Through that primary, holy wound, we are called to become that loving mother to ourselves…and to all life.
As we embody the unconditional love of the inner mother, we become re-connected to life itself. We become re-connected to the birth-less and death-less center that is constantly born and dies in countless forms. This is the evolutionary step that lies within the pain of the mother wound.
As women, we grow up believing that a holy power lies outside of ourselves and in the healing process, we start to realize that what we most desire, that which is most holy, eternal and pure is inside of us and has always been there. In fact, it is us. Not just in one or some of us, but it lives equally in all of us, in all of life.
Because we are all connected, each time you lovingly embrace your own pain, you activate the power of oneness in all.
© Bethany Webster 2014
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.
The media is buzzing with commentary and opinion on Robin Williams’ suicide some of it fairly shocking. “Williams was selfish,” “What a stupid thing to do,” “Didn’t he know how much people loved him?”
People who haven’t experienced clinical depression can have no idea what depression is like. When it’s bad it’s a life sentence in an underground cell with no door or window. When depression is just ticking over you know that life is a sea of endless pain and loss and sorrow and that whilst there are little shallow islands of not-misery you know that continuing to live means having to continue swimming through pain and loss and sorrow.
Williams suffered bipolar disorder and had a long relationship with addiction. Other people have suffered bereavements, traumas, illnesses and disappointments that they just can’t recover from. Some people go through the world with one less layer of protective psychological skin than other people, that’s just the way they’re made. Anti-depressants can definitely help some people and other people are not helped by them. The same can be said for therapy: drugs and therapy can work well to begin with and then their efficacy wears off.
Imagine having an illness that isn’t visible, that can’t be seen on an x-ray or CAT scan or be identified in a blood sample. You can understand feeling miserable if you’re made redundant or a relationship ends or someone close to you dies but when those feelings spiral downward into depression that’s less easy to understand. You’ve read about exercise and diet being really good for depression, so why can’t they come out for a run or even a walk for goodness sake? Why can’t they just eat better?
Being around someone who is depressed can be tough. It’s difficult to understand why a depressed person just can’t clear their head, take a deep breath and see that life isn’t so awful – there is sunlight and beauty, joy and pleasure in the world there for the taking. What makes it particularly difficult is that to a great extent this is true, it’s just that for someone who is depressed it’s not. People who don’t have depression can aim to leave this painful place they’ve found themselves in, people with depression can do all the exercise and healthy eating and find god and all the rest of it, and some of it may help but for a significant number it won’t make much of a difference.
You might be surprised to know how many people seem completely fine but think about death every day.
Therapists have a duty to break confidentiality when someone discloses that they are acutely suicidal. That means that if someone says, “Thanks Clare, it’s been great but this is our last session. I’ll be killing myself later today,” or “I’ve taken an overdose,” I am obliged to call the clients GP and possibly an ambulance. That seems sensible to me. And there are some people who have become exhausted from trying to keep their head above the sea of misery. They’ve taken the drugs, had all the therapy, made the lifestyle changes, love their family and friends, feel guilty about the trauma they know they’ll leave behind them and the sheer weight of having to bear life is greater than everything else.
That’s what happens to a lot of people who get cancer, MS, Motor Neurone Disease, osteo- or rheumatoid arthritis or any other chronic condition. Many of us can understand why some of those people make their way to Dignitas because we can see how their illness has reduced their enjoyment of life to nil. That’s what many people with chronic depression feel and not all the love, care or sense of duty can make a difference.
RIP Robin Williams
A link to helpful resources for people who are suicidal is on my homepage, including the Maytree Sanctuary for the Suicidal. If you want to commemorate Williams, consider donating to them.
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.
Therapy has been criticised for encouraging solipsism. We focus on the needs of the individual in front of us often to a greater degree than anyone ever before, including parents. Counsellors know that if we create a place of boundaried safety, understanding and respect the client is likely to flourish.
Paradoxically, when a person is given total positive individual attention for 50 minutes a week as well as becoming more understanding of themselves they become better able to understand wider relationships. In some sense, a person in therapy needs to become child-like; to have their feelings valued so that they can value those feelings themselves; next to examine their situation with curiosity and respect; then to formulate some kind of plan for the future; and then go out and live it.
In many ways, therapy is a kind of parenting, allowing the client to move from distress, confusion and retreat from the world to understanding and renewed relationship with the world. Relationship is the be all and end all of therapy and ultimately of life.
Once or twice a week I spend a couple of hours listening to a local talk radio station to get a flavour of what people are thinking. Today’s debate was about the proposed tax break for parents, £2000 for every child under 12 where both parents work. Any number of childless people phoned in to ask why they should fund parents, their reasoning being, “If you can’t afford kids you shouldn’t have them.” Never mind that the rebate includes households with a joint income of up to £300,000. When asked who they expected to care for them when they were elderly, to maintain every part of society from midwives and schools to hospices and graveyards, they didn’t see the connection. They were only interested in their own income and didn’t want to support anyone other than themselves.
Last century, Communism was condemned for offering childcare. A mothers place was in the home taking care of her husband and children and often elderly relatives who had previously helped with housework, cooking and caring for children. Now, children live far from elderly parents who are maintained by strangers, childcare has taken the place of parenting and both parents are expected to work. It takes a lot of thought and strength to organise a family so that children spend more than 24 waking hours a week with their parents, a decision that almost always incurs a drop in status and a greater amount of personal satisfaction and contentment within the family.
Therapy gives a person the space and time to move from the infant position of memememe (where we all go when we’re distressed, confused and threatened) to the more adult viewpoint of how others affect us, how we affect others and the most healthy ways of engaging with that reality. We can pretend that other people don’t matter only as long as we accept that other people shouldn’t give a damn about us.
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