I am entranced by this video
The song is about the singers relationship with her father, but it elegantly describes some of the processes that some people – by no means a particularly damaged or miniscule proportion – go through in order to discover more about their problems.
Michael * came to therapy with acute symptoms of stress. His workplace was stultifying, his boss out of his depth and another member of the team was a bully. The workload was too heavy for everyone and Michael had become the earthing rod for the offices collective unhappiness. We worked together to identify the shock and shame of being stressed, addressed the office dynamics and considered why Michael might have become a scapegoat. Michael felt much better prepared to deal with the complexities of his toxic work environment and decided to remain in therapy to explore the other matters that had begun to unfold during our time together.
Most of us have lost the innate power of our imaginations by our mid teens. Our heads are stuffed with factoids that will help us become hard working taxpayers and tremendous machine parts. You don’t have to write poetry or wear a rainbow jumper to be something other than a component: part of being a whole human being is about knowing what you feel and why you feel it, and therapy is a good way of kick-starting that process.
Michael found it straightforward to remember his past but realised that he couldn’t recall how he felt about events. His memory had become almost entirely cognitive. I wondered what his younger self looked like and we began thinking about Michael as a child of around 9 – how did he dress, what did he eat, did he have a nickname, what he liked and disliked, and so on. In a short period of time this younger Michael regained his own voice and began speaking with older Michael reminding him how he felt in some detail.
Like most people who come to therapy there was nothing poisonous or horrific in Michael's past. Part of growing up is, as well has having good times, experiencing disappointments, shocks, fears, loss, unhappiness, the usual stuff of an ordinary childhood and dealing with them. For all of us there are events that stand out usually because the adults around us behaved in ways that were unhelpful.
In therapy this work is never about blame. Circumstances make people behave in certain ways, no one is perfect, and it’s useful just to consider how things happened so that we, as adults, can make better sense of them.
Remembering the difficult feelings – betrayal, abandonment, shock, bereavement, resentment, terror – can be much more difficult and so we tend to say, “Well, that happened, it’s over. Let’s move on.” In fact, those feelings remain, unacknowledged and hidden away.
But they’re alive. And if we ignore them they begin to run us.
I'll be writing more on this subject in my next post.
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.
A good part of my working week is spent in other people’s offices where I've noticed that there are little signs telling people how to use a microwave, what the fridge policy (a fridge policy!) is, reminders not to steal and that in the event of a fire they must leave the building to avoid being burned to death. In one office there were 14 full colour, laminated notices telling people to come to work on time, not to pour boiling water on toddlers, to avoid spreading infectious diseases, the sink policy – yes, really - that time in the kitchen was being monitored, and that staff attendance was under review.
This in an organisation that "doesn't have the money" for a box of tissues.
I'm a big fan of Health and Safety legislation, it really is necessary to tell people that hot water is hot, but Health and Safety is not the issue in an organisation that feels it necessary to watch how long individuals are spending in a kitchen.
The private sector doesn’t seem to have the same issues. People there somehow know how to use a fridge without needing a policy. It's not that people who work in the private sector are any brighter than people who serve the public, far from it. It’s more that initiative is more likely to be nurtured rather than treated with suspicion and organisational vision tends to be wider than what’s happening in a microwave.
Work in the public and voluntary sectors is too often reduced to a Kafkaesque model of not-work where flair and imagination are perceived as suspect and personally threatening. In the private sector innovation, ideas and positive critique are more likely to be welcomed.
I've worked in places where little children bellow and cry too much while stressed workers scream nursery rhymes at them. The staff have obviously gone through training and got appropriate qualifications. The staff ratios are legal and the toilet-cleaning rota is managed very well, everything is fine on paper and that's all that matters. Sickness rates and staff turnover are costing an arm and a leg but the funders are content with the reports sent to them. Funders tell organisations what they expect to hear and then organisations repeat it back to them including, incredibly, sending them ‘case studies’ instead of saying, “No, we will not send you a case study because that would be entirely inappropriate.” Instead, organisations make case studies up.
It's true that many people are put into positions of responsibility that they are not worthy of and they can have a profound effect on the people working under them. It's an irony that those people who don't feel anxious about being competent at their job, who believe they're indispensable to the organisation, are more likely to be so comfortable at work that they feel no need for personal development. Similar problems arise when a leader isn't confident enough to lead but just keeps doing what they're told rather than saying, "Why do we need to be told not to scald children? What's going on here?"
Writing a fridge policy is not a good use of anyone's time. Any organisation that needs a fridge policy has far, far greater problems than manky yoghurt.
Psychiatry has often been used as a tool of state control. People who have been inconvenient or low status or cost too much to care for have been brutalised for centuries, so last weeks 'kite flying' announcement that people who are unemployed and mentally ill may be forced to attend some kind of therapy or have their benefits stopped has precedent.
Throwing an idea out without a formed policy behind it is called 'kite flying' because the people proposing it want to see how such an idea might fly. Will we rejoice that unemployed people are being further required to perform more hoop jumping or will we boggle at what a ludicrous bit of nonsense this is?
Ethically, it's a non-starter. When we begin compelling adults to have medical procedures we enter the world of ethical committees and High Courts: particularly because psychiatry has been used to abuse people compulsion in it is treated with enormous caution. This is not to say that it doesn't occur but when it's used it's almost always in a situation that is considered life threatening. People who are not sectioned but who are so depressed or anxious that they cannot work are not a threat to themselves or others.
We have evidence of what happens when we put a government agency - ATOS - between a patient and their GP. The suicide rate increases and the financial cost of appeals outweighs any savings made. The emotional cost to patients and their families is often catastrophic. There's no reason to believe this new scheme will be any different.
Therapeutically, counsellors know that a person who has been sent to therapy by a spouse, employer or parent is unlikely to do well. Therapy should never be a punishment or way of controlling someone, it has to be freely chosen. Yes, offenders are often compelled to attend therapy and what happens is that a majority learn the language of contrition rather than positively learning much about their motivations and their effect on victims.
So we know that compelled therapy is ineffective. We can also add that if this dreadful idea was ever to be implemented it would be limited to six or so sessions, which is barely enough for someone who is mildly unhappy let alone someone with a mental health diagnosis. The waiting list - already enormous for NHS and most agency therapy - would make it unmanageable and we can guess that, just as with CBT, many of the people trained for this project would not actually be therapists at all, but technicians on a budget and under pressure.
So what might the purpose of this dreadful scheme be? Would people compelled to have therapy be removed from the official numbers of the unemployed? This is what happens to people who are compelled to join other unemployment schemes so that the numbers of unemployed and particularly long term unemployed fall, on paper. If ministers wanted to help people with mental illness back to work they need to give appropriate funding to existing mental health services and reopen the services that closed because of reduced funding.
But we live in a period of time when it's not quite acceptable to throw stones at the mentally ill, yet we are encouraged to pour scorn on them if they are also unemployed. If the public mood likes the idea of punishing people who are so profoundly unwell that they have resigned themselves to living on around £100 a week then this will no doubt happen. At the very best, it will offer therapy to people who have not been able to access it. At worst it will offer dreadful non-therapy from ill-trained, ill-motivated non-therapists.
This idea slunk off in shame in 2009: there's no good reason why, 5 years later, it shouldn't slink off to die.
A few evenings ago I was with a group of business managers who wanted to talk about how domestic violence affects their work. I spoke with any number of individuals and every single one of them said something along the lines of “It’s such a shame that you have to frame the subject around profits and losses. Shareholders don’t care about human suffering, and the moral aspect of people you know being assaulted has become redundant. In this room it’s only you and I who think about anything beyond money.”
People said they felt isolated, paralysed, disgusted with their employers and themselves. I was able to say, “You’re not as alone as you think. I’ve had this conversation with lots of other people in your situation,” and was pleased to see their surprise, but then a veil of caution came down and the conversation took a turn towards inaction.
Being responsible for other people’s wellbeing is a big deal. Many professionals enjoy the human contact and problem solving that HR and line management can bring, particularly when good polices and attitudes exist to support and contain that helping instinct. But austerity has brought with it cynicism, hopelessness, fear and a disturbing insularity. Increasingly we – particularly people in their late teens and twenties - are looking for someone to blame, whether that’s recent immigrants, asylum seekers or people who are unemployed, basically anyone that we perceive is costing us money. Even if it’s not our money at all.
A person who is assaulted by a stranger gets a huge amount of support compared to someone who has to take time off work because their partner has attacked them. We blame them for staying. We blame them for putting up with it. We blame them for leaving and depriving the kids of their father. We blame them for making us take up the slack when they can’t work. We blame them for not coming out with us after work. We blame them for being hospitalised. We ask how they contributed to their own death.
Feeling powerless and hopeless at work is debilitating: sometimes you can do something about it and sometimes that’s only going to cause you grief. But if you feel strongly about something ethical at your workplace the likelihood is that you’re not alone, and if you feel it’s dubious to seek connection with peers who might feel the same there is likely to be an organisation that will support you.
Here’s CAADV, the Corporate Alliance Against Domestic Violence, with membership that includes BP, KPMG, the Corporation of London and Diageo amongst many others. They recognise the monetary loss to business of domestic violence. What really motivates them is the human cost.
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!
I had to sit down to listen carefully to a radio programme this morning, discussing this news. A growing number of school age children are still wearing nappies.
The assumption is that that it is underclass parents, people who can barely drag themselves from their filthy pits to tend to their almost-inhuman offspring, who are responsible for this epic neglect. Those people who called in to the radio programme to talk about their personal experience of this phenomenon felt they don’t have enough time because they're at work. The research suggests their attitude isn't limited to people who call radio programmes.
They work all week and on their days off they don’t have the energy to commit to this very basic task. They can’t bear the thought of having to clean up the inevitable and quite normal mistakes that occur during toilet training so they don’t bother. Helping their child move from an infant stage to that of an appropriately independent and capable child takes a couple of weeks, and these parents can't spare that time.
Quite obviously, the majority of parents from every background manage to toilet train their children. I’d propose that a parent who cannot manage to care for their children should have Social Service involvement whatever their background – the excuse that you’re too tired after work to bother with your own children is preposterous.
There are any number of employers who would happily work their employees into the ground and resent any workplace legislation that gets in the way of making a profit. I’m suggesting that if an employee feels under such profound pressure that they cannot take time off work to toilet train their child then something is dangerously out of balance. Dangerously. Even the DWP doesn’t insist that a lone parent work until their youngest child is 7 years old.
But there’s so much greater status in being employed rather than being a single parent on the dole. At what point does caring about your status become more important than caring for your child?
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.
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.
I work with a lot of Employee Assistance Programme clients, people who refer themselves for support because something is affecting the way they function at work. Before they meet me they go through an assessment that focuses on goals and outcomes but almost every time, when the client comes to their first meeting they forget about them.
When I began EAP work I tried hard to coach and not counsel, to keep the person with their nose to the grindstone but it always felt wrong like whipping an overworked horse, so I soon stopped. People are generally very compliant, they’ll do what they’re told, so it would be easy to force someone to do this and that but it would be entirely counterproductive and unethical.
The group I trained as a coach with is an excellent organisation that was very clear on ethics. This organisation was full of talented people but it was just a bit too full-on for my liking. Everything was wonderful! brilliant! exciting! Anything that wasn’t 100% positive was subtly disapproved of.
Using their techniques I’ve been able to help clients who are totally ready to move on find their own way forward very successfully, it takes a couple of sessions and one or two top-ups a year. This kind of coaching is perfect for people who are just a few moves away from success. They would not approve of me allowing someone to ‘slack off.’ It would not be ‘exciting’ or ‘motivating’. They’re kind and at your service but not really interested anything you’ve got to say that isn’t about how excited you are about working towards your wonderful future.
So it was a real pleasure to spend Saturday with Dr Raj Persaud, Liz Hall, Windy Dryden and Ho Law at the excellent City CBT and Coaching College event Four Perspectives on Coaching.
These four excellent speakers have a different approach to coaching and the lines between coaching and counselling are less clear-cut. They agreed (and so do I) that it’s important to know what the differences are between coaching and counselling but that the relationship between practitioner and client, rather than any technique, is what really moves things on. Coaching requires that the client is facing forward, looking to the future ready to make the next move. Counselling doesn’t require anything other than that the client turns up and therapeutic boundaries are maintained. Coaching focuses on goals and outcomes, counselling on feelings and emotions. Coaching is progress driven, counselling is process driven. But when you come down to it, whether you use counselling or coaching or divination or prayer a client who is able to move forward will do that and a client who can’t, won’t.
There are ways to engage people who are really desperate and exhausted, to move them towards recognising and fulfilling their own goals rather that their employers goals – and you may be surprised how many people need to tease those apart. The person who is going to be made homeless will find little value in spending all the session talking about their childhood, but if they’re not allowed to talk about it they’re less likely to work with a counsellor or coach to find ways of keeping a roof over their head. A good counsellor or coach is responsive to the individual in front of them, both want the best outcome for the client and will want to listen and talk with the authentic you rather than the person you think you should be, and in return if you feel that you're being pushed in a direction you're not comfortable with let your coach or counsellor know.
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