Inside Out: Getting in Touch with Our Emotions

This weekend I saw the new Disney Pixar movie Inside Out. I’m a big fan of Pixar already, particularly because their previous films have explored huge existential themes like death and the meaning of life, and because they often celebrate friendship and chosen families rather than the romantic relationships and biological families that so much mainstream media focuses on. That’s a big deal in a set of films that are also massively accessible and entertaining for children and adults alike.

When I saw that the main characters in Inside Out were a person’s emotions I knew that I absolutely had to go see it. I wasn’t disappointed. In fact several times I was moved to tears by how familiar the experiences were, and by this hugely important, complex, and rarely-expressed message being communicated so simply and profoundly in a ‘kid’s film’.

If you’d rather not be spoilered for the movie then please do go see it before reading the rest of this post. Also do be aware that it may well tap into lots of different emotions as you’re watching it – if you’re anything like me – not just the joyful ones. As we’ll go on to see that may not be a bad thing!

The rest of this post is divided into three sections:

  • Experiencing all of our emotions
  • Shutting down our emotions
  • How to sit with our emotions: A practical guide

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New Zine! Social suffering and social mindfulness

I’ve made my first attempt at a zine!

For the last few months I’ve been thinking a whole lot about the social side of mental distress. It feels really important to me to recognise how our suffering is embedded within our relationship dynamics; our workplaces, communities and other institutional systems; and our wider society.

I often notice what a relief it is for me – and my friends and clients – when we realise this social element to our suffering: particularly how the self-criticism that we do so constantly is something that everybody else does as well, because we’re all in this self-critical culture. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with us. It’s understandable.

This week I’m speaking at a few conferences which touch on themes of inequalities, individualising and intersectionality, and on mental health and mindfulness. So I thought – instead of the usual stand-up presentation – I’d make a zine that captures my experiences of these things, and makes some suggestions about how we might creatively engage with them.

It was also a good opportunity – for me – to get back into making comics: something I’d love to do more of, especially now I’m working on a comic introduction to queer theory with a professional artist. Here’s one of the comics I made for the zine. You can download the whole zine at the end of this post if you’d like to read it more clearly.

Pic2

For my zine, the comics really helped me to understand how intertwined all these social levels are – as are the inequalities that we suffer from, and benefit from, and the ways in which we are individualised and individualise others.

You can download the zine as a pdf by clicking on the link below. I’d suggest printing it out as a booklet to get the full zine experience – or just reading it online. There’s also a whole book on mindful therapy by me here (including more comics!) if you’re interested in reading further on the topic.

SocialMindfulnessZine

Supporting each other through mental health struggles

Novaramedia is currently publishing a number of useful articles around the theme of mental health, including pieces on work and mental health, and one on talking therapies.

They asked me to submit something that particularly addressed mental health in the context of relationships, so I wrote this article on supporting people in our lives when they’re struggling.

craig-sunter-flickr-cc-192x108

Most of us will experience a mental health difficulty like depression, anxiety or addiction during our lives. And at some point, most of us will have a friend or family member who is mentally unwell.

Our culture tends to view people with mental health problems in one of two ways. Either they have brought it on themselves and need to ‘pull their socks up’, or they have a ‘disorder’ and need help because they’re incapable of helping themselves.

When faced with a friend who is suffering it is tempting either to blame them for their problems and try to shake them out of it, or to leap into ‘rescuer’ mode and try to fix them.

Neither extreme is a good solution. We can end up angry and resentful if we hold them responsible for their problems, or burnt out from all our attempts to help. They can end up more defeated and self-critical than ever if they feel culpable, or kept in a guilty and powerless state if they can’t respond to our efforts.

As a therapist and psychology academic I am often asked to give advice on supporting friends when they’re in difficulty. Here are seven thoughts on how you can help without either rescuing or blaming. Read more…

Dealing with the tough stuff: The value of noticing

This blog post has been bubbling away for a while. I want to write about the process that I’ve found helpful when struggling with difficult feelings. This week it’s been so useful that I almost wanted to give this post a ridiculously bold title like ‘Noticing: The answer to everything!’ but I restrained myself because I’m aware that different things work for different people at different times and it might not be for everyone. I’m putting this out there now in the hope that it could be useful to some readers as something to weave into your life, or as a way of thinking through what you’re already doing.

I’ve come across different versions of this process in a number of places. It forms the basis of several therapeutic approaches (particularly many existential, humanistic and psychodynamic forms of therapy) and it’s also fundamental to the Buddhist mindful approach which I find so helpful, and to various other kinds of meditation. But I’ve also noticed that many friends and clients have developed something along these lines more spontaneously, without necessarily following a particular approach.

I would summarise the process something like this:

Noticing -> Understanding -> Engaging

The core idea is that before going on to attempt to understand a situation, or to engage with it, it is important to fully notice it. Another way of putting it is that any time you find yourself struggling, you just go back to noticing.

Why is noticing so important? One of my favourite authors, Pema Chödrön, uses the metaphor of a glass of dirty water. This one particularly connects with me because I often start my days watching the Thames, which is, as we know from The Kinks, a ‘dirty old river’! I imagine a glass of Thames water in front of me. It is murky and unclear because it’s all churned up with mud and silt and rubbish. We can’t see anything clearly when it’s like that, so what we have to do is to let it be still for a period of time. That allows the dirt to settle at the bottom of the glass and the water on top to become clear.

glasses

Pema suggests that part of why we often don’t want to allow this to happen is the fear that we have of what we might see once it all settles. I imagine that the bottom of the Thames is a pretty scary place with all the junk and slime and probably even skeletons that have accumulated there over the years. What might loom at you out of the murky gloom if you gave it the chance? But the point is that any kind of understanding of our own accumulated mess – and the things we’ve tried to bury in there – is only possible if we allow the water to settle.

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Mental health and relationships

Today is World Mental Health day so I thought I’d write a post about mental health in relationships.

My own position on mental health is that we all struggle, sometimes, with experiences of fear, sadness, anger, loss, shame, etc. which make life very difficult. Perhaps one of the most challenging times is when everyone in a relationship is struggling at the same time.  That is what I will mostly focus on here.

I went to a very interesting workshop on this topic at the weekend which helped me to think through some of these issues. The workshop highlighted the fact that many people had shared experiences and had developed similar, very helpful, strategies for dealing with them. Of course I won’t write anything here about specific examples given because the workshop was confidential, but I do want to thank the other people there for helping me to clarify my ideas as well as for giving me the confidence to write this post.

Pressure to seem fine

The backdrop to why struggling is hard in relationships is the pressure that we are under to prove that our relationship is ‘fine’ at all times. People are often very fearful that if they admit that they have any difficulties, friends and others will say that it is the relationship that is at fault. Given that relationships are inevitably challenging, this can reinforce concerns that most of us have that perhaps there is a problem with our relationship.

For people in less conventional relationships, this issue may be exacerbated because any acknowledgement that things are not perfect could be taken, by others, as proof of what they always suspected: that this kind of relationship can’t work.

Such fears often mean that, when we are struggling, we don’t let anybody else in besides our partners. This can put strain on the relationship in multiple ways. We might feel that we are entirely responsible for our partners’ struggles (and for making them better) and that they are entirely responsible for us in return. Also, if everybody is presenting a perfect relationship and a struggle-free self to the world, then we can feel very alone knowing that we don’t really fit that.

Wanting to stop partners from struggling

One result of all this is that we can end up constantly monitoring our partners for any sign that they are starting to struggle, and then – if they do show signs – trying to cheer them up or prove that they are being irrational. This, of course, is rarely helpful and often makes it more, rather than less, likely that they will feel anxious, self-critical, or hopeless.

Perhaps part of this aim to stop partners from stuggling is the fear that we too will be drawn down into the suffering that they are experiencing. If we have had really difficult times ourselves in the past then this fear makes a lot of sense, but unfortunately the reaction to it (trying to stop anyone from feeling bad ever) is pretty unhelpful!

Instead of trying to prevent ourselves, and our partners, from ever struggling, we can try to acknowledge that we will all go through easier and harder times, and that it is okay to be sad, anxious or angry. Paradoxically, accepting such feelings often makes them less debilitating than if we layer extra difficult emotions on top of them (feeling sad about feeling sad, fearful about feeling angry, etc.) In relationships, one great thing we can offer our partners is acceptance that however they are feeling is acceptable and sensible given the situation they find themselves in.

Another part of this is recognising that just because a partner is feeling something, doesn’t mean that we have to feel it too. We might feel guilty if we are having a great time in life, whilst a partner is going through a difficult period. However, we are often of more use to them, and to ourselves, if we can hold both those things simultaneously (rather than trying to make them feel as good as us, or sinking down because they are struggling).

Different things work for different people at different times

What about those times when everyone in a relationship is having a hard time at the same time? Perhaps the most important answer is that different things work for different people at different times. For some people, at some times, it may be better to separate off and/or get support elsewhere, whilst others, at other times, find it good to get together for some mutual kindness.

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Mental health: beyond a health focus

A number of news pieces in recent weeks have discussed a new report which found that only 25% of people with mental health problems get the help that they need. Articles highlight both the frequency of such difficulties (a third of families having a member with mental health problems at any one time), the high financial cost of not treating such difficulties, and the effectiveness of treatments like cognitive-behavioural therapies (CBT) for those who do receive them.

Certainly it is extremely important to make support available when people are struggling. However, these news reports seem to miss something by regarding this purely as a health issue, and by focusing only upon treatment once mental health difficulties are present rather than also considering measures which may prevent such problems or increase resilience.

The fact that so many people suffer with issues such as depression and anxiety has implications far beyond the health service, and the focus on targeting funds only at treatment for existing mental health problems seems somewhat blinkered.

As a starting point, here is a list of other arenas which could usefully attend to statistics on mental health and shift policy and practice accordingly. In all of these areas a broader biopsychosocial understanding of the experience of mental health problems would be of value:

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Mental Health – Beyond the 1 in 4

A short while ago I was asked to take part in an Open University day about mental health for tutors. It was a good chance to give a workshop about self care and why that might be useful for both students and staff. But I was also given a lecture slot in the day. I decided to share some of my thoughts on mental health more broadly. I was nervous because this was the first time I had spoken on this topic specifically and I know that my ideas on it can be challenging to hear. However, the talk seemed to go well and led to some great discussions, so I’ve decided to share it here too.

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Suggestions for Fear and Sadness

In 2010 Darren Langdridge, Andreas Vossler and I published a textbook which brought together experts on all different types of counselling to say how their approaches would work with fear and sadness.

Understanding Counselling & Psychotherapy

When we wrote the book I thought that it would be great to do another book covering the same areas, for people who are not interested in studying counselling themselves but who just want to know about what different kinds of counselling suggest. As Mick Cooper and John McLeod have recently pointed out: different things work for different people at different times, whereas most books on the market cover just one approach in detail. Maybe I’ll write that book one day, but meanwhile here are what I personally think are the top suggestions from each chapter of the book we did write. If you find them useful of course you can always do the whole module (D240) through the OU.

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