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…

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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Tuning out, turning in – Turning out, tuning in

Yesterday I found myself reflecting on two different issues that I think about a lot: depression and conflict.

I’m about to start writing a chapter for my mindfulness book on depression so I’ve been mulling over what the experience of being depressed Is like, and what things help and hinder when we’re in that place. At the same time I’m becoming fascinated and concerned by the processes of conflict between people which seem to inevitably happen in all the academic and activist groups I’m part of. I’m wondering what might be done to maintain some kind of useful dialogue, rather than people convincing themselves that the other side is wrong and bad whilst they are right and good, and thus ceasing all engagement. Even as I see the problems in this approach I recognise the same tendency in myself.

As these two lines of thoughts unfurled themselves yesterday I found that they began to weave together into a similar set of ideas, so I decided to write a little about the patterns that I see in how we experience depression and conflict, and in how the experience can shift. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised that these ideas have come together: I deliberately started my book on relationships with a chapter on the self because of the connections that there are between how we relate to ourselves and how we relate to others.

Depression: Tuning out, turning in
When I reflect on being depressed the experience is one of being simultaneously tuned out, but turned in. What I mean by tuned out is that when we’re depressed many of us become terribly concerned with other people and the outside world. We monitor ourselves closely through the imagined gaze of others and judge what we think they are seeing very harshly. We become anxious about what others will see in us, and frightened that we will get it wrong somehow and be exposed in all our uselessness. Decisions become very difficult because we are so tuned out – trying to be okay for everyone else – that it is almost impossible to tune in to what we want and need ourselves. We might find ourselves busily rushing around trying to please everyone and not letting on how much we are struggling, or we might withdraw from contact as much as possible for fear of what others might see if we let them in close.

At the same time as being tuned out, we are also turned in. Whilst we are hugely concerned with what other people think of us or how we are being seen out in the world, we don’t really see or hear the people around us because we are so turned in and focused on our own struggles. We often spend a great deal of time in internal conversations with ourselves about whether something is wrong with us, what it is, and how we might fix it. We view other people in terms of their danger to us (‘they might see me as I really am!’), or the possibility that they might be able to help (‘maybe they have the answer’), but it is hard for us to make the shift that is necessary to understand how they are feeling and what is going on for them. Often we assume that we are the only person who is this bad and full of problems, and we are so fixated on not showing other people that this is the case, or apologising to them for our perceived wrong-doing, that there is no space available to turn towards their experience and let go of all of our own stuff for a moment.

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Living alone and depression

A Finnish study last week reported that people who live alone have an 80% increased risk of depression compared to those who live in families. This is of concern particularly because of the rising numbers of people who live by themselves (around a third in US and the UK, and even higher in urban areas). Since the risk of depression was judged by use of drug treatments for depression, researcher Laura Pulkki-Raback argues that the 80% figure may well be an under-estimate as it doesn’t include those who are untreated, or treated in different ways.

The study itself linked living alone to poor housing in women and low social support in men (something that has long been found to be a risk factor for single men). However they are understood, the findings clearly point to the vital social role in depression: a condition which is commonly understood to be both internally caused, and in need of only internal treatments (such as drugs and therapies). We need to move to more biopsychosocial (or even sociopsychobio) understandings of this experience.

The bounded self

Social psychologist Kenneth Gergen points towards one idea which may help to make sense of findings like these. In his book, Relational Being, he argues that in the past few centuries we have come, in the west, to see ourselves as ‘bounded beings’: as singular and separate from others. This is a culturally peculiar belief, according to Clifford Geertz, but one which we generally take for granted as a ‘fact of life’.

Gergen argues that if I accept this view of myself:

‘I must always be on guard, lest others see the faults in my thinking, the cesspools of my emotions, and the embarrassing motives behind my actions … I must worry about how I compare to others, and whether I will be judged inferior.’ (xiii-xiv)

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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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