New Zine! Staying with feelings

A topic I’ve written about on here quite a lot is the idea of ‘staying with’ feelings. After the Pixar movie Inside Out I wrote all about how important it is to get in touch with all our emotions. I’ve also written about the value of noticing how we feel with kindness and curiosity, and about how to stay with other people’s feelings.

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In this new zine I discuss both why we get so shut off from our feelings in a wider culture which values some emotions far more highly than others, and how we can go about shifting our patterns of avoiding and fighting some feelings, and craving and grasping for others. It covers both therapeutic and spiritual practices for staying with our emotions.

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You can download or read the zine here.

 

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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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.

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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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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.

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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The H-word: Happiness

On May 22nd the magazine DIVA and the mental health charity PACE are holding an evening event called The H-word. The H-word in question is happiness, and the plan is to have a discussion about happiness, health and well-being and about how people can support each other towards ‘happier, more meaningful lives’, with a particular focus on lesbian, bisexual and queer women.

The focus on these groups is appropriate because both women, and lesbian, bisexual and queer people, are particularly highly diagnosed with mental health problems such as depression and anxiety (when compared with men, on the one hand, and heterosexual people on the other). They also self-report higher levels of distress and lower levels of happiness and well-being than other groups.

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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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