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

In memory of Trevor Butt

Last week I found out that my dear friend, colleague and mentor, Trevor Butt, had died. It’s still very hard to believe that he is gone. I feel terribly sad that he didn’t have the time – freed up from work by his retirement – to explore the projects he was passionate about, and to get more of his wonderful writing out into the world outside of the constraints of academic frameworks.

Trev

Inspiration

Trevor had a huge impact on my life. It’s not exaggerating to say that I wouldn’t be where I am here, now, if it wasn’t for him.

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Self-help

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d post some of the original interviews here.

Here’s one I did on self-help.

When did self-help books became bestsellers in the US? Why? What were the first self-help authors who made their way to the top?

The term ‘self-help’ was first used by Samuel Smiles in Scotland in 1859, but it was in the US that the idea of self-help books really took off in the twentieth century. Perhaps the first major self-help authors were Dale Carnegie in the 1940s (How to Make Friends and Influence People), Norman Vincent Peale in the 1950s (The Power of Positive Thinking) and and Thomas A. Harris in the 1960s (I’m OK, You’re OK).

What have been the preferred topics of self-help books?

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Happy new year

Happy new year all!

Soon into the new year I will be linking to a great article where a bunch of people give their suggested alternatives to making standard new years resolutions.

Meanwhile enjoy this excellent post on the topic by BishUK:

‘Should I Make New Year Resolutions?’

You really don’t have to make New Year’s Resolutions, but here’s some advice about how to make them work if you do.

JustinYou Don’t Have to Make Changes

There’s a lot of hype about New Year’s Resolutions but that doesn’t mean you have to do them. Instead of thinking ‘this is s**t, I’m going to change it’ maybe think about what is good for you right now – what do you enjoy about yourself and those around you? Maybe your New Year’s Resolution could be to stop making resolutions and to chill and enjoy what is happening (just like I give up giving up for Lent). Read more…

You might also enjoy this post that I wrote on new year resolutions this time last year.

Other People’s Feelings

Something that has been a live issue for me recently – both in my own life and in conversations with friends – is how we relate other people’s feelings.

It seems like many of us have a default way of relating in which we feel responsible for how other people feel. A major alternative to this that has been put forward is the idea of ‘owning’ our emotions. This is the notion that people are only responsible for what they, themselves, feel.

I’m going to argue that both of these ways of seeing the situation are limited. An alternative would be to practice being with our own feelings and those of others (without trying to deny, avoid or escape them, or taking all the responsibility for them). This involves recognising that we are not completely separate selves, but rather that we are intrinsically connected with others.

‘You made me feel…’
It seems that a common taken-for-granted way of understanding feelings is that we cause other people to feel things and that we should take complete responsibility for this. People often say ‘you made me feel angry/scared/good/happy, etc.’ and we rarely question the truth of this.

SadKitty

A common extension of this is that if somebody expresses a feeling in relation to something that we are involved with we feel entirely responsible for them having that feeling. Given that we tend, also, to divide feelings into purely positive and purely negative emotions we may then approach the world in a way which attempts to create only positive feelings in others and no negative feelings. We may feel wonderful if those around us are happy (to the extent that we put pressure on them to be so) and distraught if they are not.

Owning our emotions
Perhaps in response to the problems with this common way of viewing other people’s feelings, several authors on topics like assertiveness, relationships and conflict management put forward the alternative approach that we are not at all responsible for other people’s emotions. The idea of owning our emotions suggests that nobody makes us feel anything except ourselves. We can choose how to make sense of other people’s behaviours, and thus we are in control of any emotional response we have: it belongs to us. An extension of this idea is that we would certainly reject any accusation that we had made anybody feel anything.

I am cautious about this because it feels like a pendulum swing to the other extreme: from the idea that we are entirely responsible for other people’s feelings to the idea that we are not responsible at all.

Either completely responsible or not at all?
There are two problems that I have with this either/or approach: one theoretical and one more pragmatic.

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The tendency to polarise

The last couple of days I’ve been thinking and writing here about academic and political debates, particularly the tendency that these have to become polarised into ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ positions (here and here). Whilst I was writing I became wryly aware of the fact that, whilst seeing all these problems with polarisation on an academic level, I was regarding things in very polarised ways in all kinds of other aspects of my life.

So I thought that it would be useful to reflect here upon our tendency to polarise. This is both because it is a useful thing to recognise and to challenge in ourselves, and because greater awareness and empathy about the strong magnetic pull to either/or positions is a helpful thing to bring to the kinds of academic/political debates which I’ve been writing about.

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Relationship conflict and the community of selves

I came across a great example this morning in a paper by my friend and colleague Trevor Butt which I thought could be very usefully applied to relationship conflict.

Trevor is writing about the personal construct psychologist Miller Mair who came up with the idea that, rather than the usual sense that we have that we are one coherent self, we are actually all more like a ‘community of selves’ who have conversations with one another.  This is an idea that I explore in the chapter on ourselves in Rewriting The Rules, suggesting that it is important to recognise that we are actually plural rather than singular: that different sides of ourselves come out in different situations and relationships.

We can easily see that this is the case when we think about who we are with two different important people in our lives. We may well feel that we are ‘being ourselves’ with our best mate and our sibling, but find that the selves we are being are quite different (e.g. outgoing, fun-loving and silly with our best mate; quieter, more serious and responsible with our sibling). Similarly we are ‘ourselves’ first thing in the morning, during a work meeting, out with a friend, and going through a crisis, but the selves that we are often feel pretty different.

The example that I found so helpful in this article by Trevor is as follows:

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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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Smartphones

I’ve blogged about smartphones and the ways the can impact our relationships with ourselves and others over on Social Mindfulness.