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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Only Connect: Some personal thoughts on the importance of connection

This is more of a personal post than most that I write but I’m including it here rather than in the offline journal where I write more self-focused reflections. This is because I thought that it might contain some useful ideas for other people too – either about the topic of connection or about reflecting on our values and what we have to offer. However it is very much a work in progress and I hope that any readers will take it as such.

Yesterday I attended a retreat day run by my friend and great writer-activist-teacher-academic Jamie Heckert. It felt good to take some time out for yoga, meditation and relaxation with a bunch of other people who work in similar areas.

In true Jamie style at one point in the day he invited us to ponder the question ‘if you were a cell in the cosmic body, what would your role or function be?’ The word that quickly occurred to me was ‘connection’. To put it in bodily terms I guess the metaphor would be the kind of cell that connects other cells together, and hopefully in a way that is beneficial to them and to the wider system.

Reflecting on it today I came up with several ways in which this connection theme is important to me. They might resonate with other people too, or it might be more that this process – on reflecting on the roles that we can fulfil – is a helpful one for other people to ponder.

I’m reminded of ideas in existential psychotherapy that we might regard a ‘good life’ as one in which we recognise our particular capabilities and find ways to fit them to the word around us. Unlike some existential philosophers I don’t believe that we are given a particular meaning or purpose to our life in some mystical way, but I do believe that we develop certain meanings and values for ourselves in conversation with the world and people around us. And it can be useful to reflect on how much the ways in which we live our lives are aligned with those meanings and values.

Of course such alignment is something that is far more possible for some people than for others, and I am extremely fortunate that I’m able to align my life with my values in both my paid work and my personal life. This is a point that I’ll return to towards the end.

Anyway, back to connection. These were my thoughts:

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A very mindful 2014

Telegraph agony aunt Petra Boynton has put together a great set of suggestions going into 2014, drawing all many of the people who’ve advised her on her excellent column over the year. Here’s the bit I wrote about approaching the new year mindfully, rather than trying to force it:

At this time of year it is easy to embark on quests for self-improvement: planning how to make the next year perfect, and attempting to ensure the success and happiness which may have eluded us in the past. An alternative approach is to think critically about the pressures that we put on ourselves, and are put under, at the turn of the year.

Perhaps, instead, we could aim at a more mindful approach to 2014. We could commit to gently noticing what the year brings and how we respond to it, rather than insisting on only good things and positive feelings. We could recognise the impermanence of everything that happens – triumphs and tragedies – and the ways in which both can spin our lives in unanticipated directions.

We could take a little time alone each day to sit and breathe, appreciating this unique story that is unfolding through our year.

You can read the full article here, and more on new year resolutions from me here.

Is taking care of ourselves a relationship responsibility?

Recently Diabetes UK have been running an advertising campaign that sits uneasily with me and with a lot of my friends. In their posters they show images of people hugging their loved ones and crying, with slogans such as ‘If not for you then for your family’ and ‘so you and your family don’t suffer‘. The idea seems to be that people in high-risk groups should get tested early for diabetes so that they can do something about it before amputation, blindness, heart problems or other health implications mean that they become a burden on their loved ones.

My immediate reaction was to feel angry that this – otherwise excellent – charity was using guilt tactics to frighten people into action. I also disliked the implication that other people might have so much power over what somebody chooses to do with their own body.

However, I had to reflect that – when it comes to mental rather than physical health – I have used a somewhat similar argument myself. I am a great believer that we all need to build some form of self-care into our lives in order to be in an okay place emotionally and psychologically. It is when I don’t have a moment to myself that I get overwhelmed when stressful things happen, respond badly to conflict, or make mistakes at work. Similarly, clients who I work with in therapy are often constantly engaged with work, family and friends. When I encourage them to build in time for a ‘daily kindness’ to themselves, or for quiet reflection, the major block that they frequently come up against is all their obligations to other people in their lives. They don’t want to let down their managers and colleagues, their partners and parents.

For many of us the argument that we will feel better if we look after ourselves doesn’t get very far because we see self-care as being self-centred or as spoiling ourselves. When we’re depressed we don’t feel that we deserve this. Or perhaps it doesn’t fit the self-sacrificing image that we want to have of ourselves.

However, the realisation that we will be better for the other people in our lives is often the thing that helps us to make that first small shift towards building in some time for self-care. For example, we might notice that a small amount of self-care can leave us less exhausted, more able to hear other people, and better able to manage extra pressures. We might also see that we are a better role-model for others in our lives if we demonstrate that we are able to say ‘no’ to things or to prioritise looking after ourselves.

So how is this different to the Diabetes UK argument that people should take steps towards better physical health in order to be in a better place for their loved ones? I think it comes down to the complex tension that we all face that we are, at the same time, independent individuals, and unavoidably involved in interdependent relationships with the other people in our lives. There are a few elements of this that I want to tease out here, but I don’t think there are any easy answers. Rather I hope that this blog post might be a starting point for people who want to talk about such matters, and that it will set out some of the territory in a way that is helpful.

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The inevitability of treating partners as things? Romance in Ruby Sparks (and why I like the ending)

Recently I got round to watching last year’s Ruby Sparks on DVD. I’d been looking forward to watching this film for some time because it is a mediation on what would happen if we could create our perfect partner. The film was everything I’d hoped for. However, when I gushed about it on facebook, several people said they had felt let down by the ending. Here I want to present my take on the film, and to explain why I think the ending needed to be the way it was.

Ruby Sparks

In the film an isolated writer (Calvin Weir-Fields) has writer’s block having published one highly successful book when he was pretty young. His therapist encourages him to write a brief account of a positive encounter with another person. He invents a scenario where he meets his perfect girlfriend in the park. Soon he is writing more and more about her because he enjoys imagining her so much. He describes her to his therapist:

Calvin: Ruby Sparks. Twenty-six years old. Raised in Dayton, Ohio.

Dr. Rosenthal: Why Dayton?

Calvin: Sounds romantic. Ruby’s first crushes were Humphrey Bogart and John Lennon. She cried the day she found out they were already dead. Ruby got kicked out of high school for sleeping with her art teacher… or maybe her Spanish teacher. I haven’t decided yet. Ruby can’t drive. She doesn’t own a computer. She hates her middle name, which is Tiffany. She always, always roots for the underdog. She’s complicated. That’s what I like best about her. Ruby’s not so good at life sometimes. She forgets to open bills or cash checks and… Her last boyfriend was 49. The one before that was an alcoholic. She can feel a change coming. She’s looking for it.

Dr. Rosenthal: Looking for what?

Calvin: Something new.

Spoiler alert: Don’t read on if you want to watch the movie without knowing what happens.

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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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St. Swithun’s Day or How to cope if we get 40 more days of rain!

It rained and it rained and it rained. Piglet told himself that never in all his life, and he was goodness knows how old – three, was it, or four? – never had he seen so much rain. Days and days and days. (A. A. Milne, 1926)

This opening to an A. A. Milne short story will be familiar to anybody who has been living in the UK recently. And forget days and days: it has been going on for months. April, the traditional month of showers, saw twice its average rainfall this year. We had the wettest June since records began. And a month’s worth of rain fell in 24 hours in some parts of the country at the beginning of July. Many have pointed out the irony that the unending rain began to fall almost directly after the government declared an official state of drought.

The rain can put a damper on even the sunniest disposition, and there is concern that it may be set to continue as we head towards the UK’s equivalent of Groundhog Day on July 15th. According to ancient proverb, if it rains on St. Swithun’s day we will be set for 40 more days of rain, which will take us almost into September. There is hope though for those who are sick of the rain: If it doesn’t pour on July 15th we’re supposed to get 40 days rain free.

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain

For forty days it will remain

St Swithun’s day if thou be fair

For forty days ’twill rain nae mare

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