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THE STORIES WE TELL

Adam Curtis’ recent film ‘Bitter Lake’, exposes the disastrous consequences that have resulted from an acutely simplistic and agenda-driven perspective on the situation in Afghanistan and generally on the growth of violent Islamic extremism taken by “those in power (who) tell stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality…stories that are increasingly unconvincing and hollow”. What transpires from the film’s uncomfortable reality check is just how little is really known about this multi-faceted and confused situation which has become profoundly complicated by misleading narratives over decades and even centuries.

Watching this film, it occurred to me that it is human nature to tell stories about situations or events outside us and also about ourselves and those close to us which are simplified to help make sense of what is complex and difficult to rationalize. And these stories provide the basis for further narratives and beliefs about who we are and how life will turn out. A man says to his partner in couple counseling, “you always shout when you get angry”. This is a story. It is unlikely to be entirely true and whilst it maybe his experience that it happens often, when trying to resolve conflicts it is important to examine the actual experience of what is happening and not be influenced by the story.

Psychotherapy is a process which aims to promote growth in people who have come to a point where they feel stuck, unable to break from unhelpful or destructive patterns; or perhaps a shocking event has challenged them to find a new perspective on their life and they are unable to shift long-held beliefs which need to be shaken to move through and beyond this new life situation. No one is immune from developing blind spots so that they are unable to see a healthy path forward when life becomes a struggle. The struggle is often the symptom which brings them into therapy, underneath which lies a story they have about themselves – a story which inhibits choice and creativity, limiting the possibility to live more fully and with awareness.

Eric Berne, author of “the games people play”, developed a way of understanding these stories which he called ‘scripts’ – life plans that were laid down early in life which we are now unaware of, but which determine choices and decisions and how we feel about our world.The script has evolved from the infant’s relationship with parents whose ideas about the external world and most importantly about how that infant will fare as he matures through life, have been learned.  Cultures, religions, nations and communities all have scripts as do families, couples and individuals. They are both a necessary means of understanding the complexity of life and potentially an over simplification of a complex reality we would rather not have to understand. Scripts, as described by Berne, are a particular kind of story, with the (mostly) unhelpful function of protecting us from the uncertainty of not knowing how life will unfold. There’s a safety in expecting the worse but a price to pay for the comfort gained by protecting oneself from the uncertainty of the future.

As adults we have a choice to put aside our biases and look afresh at the world. To write a new script for ourselves based on our wants and needs, in the here and now. My job as a psychotherapist is to help people write a new story, which starts by uncovering the old one so that an understanding can be gained of how they were constructed and have become an underlying, unseen force in a person’s life.

imagesAdam Curtis’ recent film ‘Bitter Lake’, exposes the disastrous consequences that have resulted from an acutely simplistic and agenda-driven perspective on the situation in Afghanistan and generally on the growth of violent Islamic extremism taken by “those in power (who) tell stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality…stories that are increasingly unconvincing and hollow”. What transpires from the film’s uncomfortable reality check is just how little is really known about this multi-faceted and confused situation which has become profoundly complicated by misleading narratives over decades and even centuries. Watching this film, it occurred to me that it is human nature to tell stories about situations or events outside us and also about ourselves and those close to us which are simplified to help make sense of what is complex and difficult to rationalize. And these stories provide the basis for further narratives and beliefs about who we are and how life will turn out. A man says to his partner in couple counseling, “you always shout when you get angry”. This is a story. It is unlikely to be entirely true and whilst it maybe his experience that it happens often, when trying to resolve conflicts it is important to examine the actual experience of what is happening and not be influenced by the story. Psychotherapy is a process which aims to promote growth in people who have come to a point where they feel stuck, unable to break from unhelpful or destructive patterns; or perhaps a shocking event has challenged them to find a new perspective on their life and they are unable to shift long-held beliefs which need to be shaken to move through and beyond this new life situation. No one is immune from developing blind spots so that they are unable to see a healthy path forward when life becomes a struggle. The struggle is often the symptom which brings them into therapy, underneath which lies a story they have about themselves – a story which inhibits choice and creativity, limiting the possibility to live more fully and with awareness. Eric Berne, author of “the games people play”, developed a way of understanding these stories which he called ‘scripts’ – life plans that were laid down early in life which we are now unaware of, but which determine choices and decisions and how we feel about our world.The script has evolved from the infant’s relationship with parents whose ideas about the external world and most importantly about how that infant will fare as he matures through life, have been learned.  Cultures, religions, nations and communities all have scripts as do families, couples and individuals. They are both a necessary means of understanding the complexity of life and potentially an over simplification of a complex reality we would rather not have to understand. Scripts, as described by Berne, are a particular kind of story, with the (mostly) unhelpful function of protecting us from the uncertainty of not knowing how life will unfold. There’s a safety in expecting the worse but a price to pay for the comfort gained by protecting oneself from the uncertainty of the future. As adults we have a choice to put aside our biases and look afresh at the world. To write a new script for ourselves based on our wants and needs, in the here and now. My job as a psychotherapist is to help people write a new story, which starts by uncovering the old one so that an understanding can be gained of how they were constructed and have become an underlying, unseen force in a person’s life.

MENTAL HYGIENE

I have recently given talks to a gathering of GP’s and another to a bank on the issue of Mental Hygiene. As awareness of the perils of stress and burn–out grows, those responsible for the health of people working in highly demanding environments are needing to broaden their understanding of what can be done to limit the damage to the workforce.

The feedback from my talks with doctors, human resource and occupational health professionals suggests that more needs to be done to equip individuals and organisations with good mental hygiene awareness. According to the World Federation for Mental Health, the concept of optimum mental health refers not to an absolute or ideal state but to the “best possible state insofar as circumstances are alterable”. Mental health is regarded as a condition of the individual, relative to the capacities and social-environmental context of that person. Mental hygiene is the action we can take on daily basis and in more general ways over time, to improve our emotional and psychological well-being and mental health.

Mostly these are common-sense measures. Daily attention to the basics: sleep, nutrition, exercise, are a crucial part of maintaining good mental hygiene. We also achieve a balanced life from:
• A measure of social support – people need to feel a sense of belonging, whether within family, friendship groups, teams at work, membership of clubs and organisations.
• A sense of purpose (work, religion, causes)
• Perspective and humour
• Leisure time and time to relax

What strikes me most from what I have heard during these talks and what I encounter daily in my private practice is how people are finding it hard to achieve a balanced life. It requires a commitment to self-care; a moment-by-moment attention to detail to maintain the equilibrium needed for a healthy emotional and psychological life.

By regularly checking in with yourself to ask, “How is my posture right now?”; ”Am I breathing well, slowly, deeply?”; “When did I last drink some water?”, you’ll be taking some important steps to achieve good mental hygiene. People struggle to keep updating themselves like this when they become so focused on what they’re doing that without knowing it they have switched to autopilot. They have lost touch with themselves. It may at first feel rather mechanical and laborious to have to keep monitoring oneself but this is what it takes to regain control of a life which has become lost in trying to be constantly productive without any respite.

mental-hygiene_designI have recently given talks to a gathering of GP’s and another to a bank on the issue of Mental Hygiene. As awareness of the perils of stress and burn–out grows, those responsible for the health of people working in highly demanding environments are needing to broaden their understanding of what can be done to limit the damage to the workforce. The feedback from my talks with doctors, human resource and occupational health professionals suggests that more needs to be done to equip individuals and organisations with good mental hygiene awareness. According to the World Federation for Mental Health, the concept of optimum mental health refers not to an absolute or ideal state but to the "best possible state insofar as circumstances are alterable". Mental health is regarded as a condition of the individual, relative to the capacities and social-environmental context of that person. Mental hygiene is the action we can take on daily basis and in more general ways over time, to improve our emotional and psychological well-being and mental health. Mostly these are common-sense measures. Daily attention to the basics: sleep, nutrition, exercise, are a crucial part of maintaining good mental hygiene. We also achieve a balanced life from: • A measure of social support - people need to feel a sense of belonging, whether within family, friendship groups, teams at work, membership of clubs and organisations. • A sense of purpose (work, religion, causes) • Perspective and humour • Leisure time and time to relax What strikes me most from what I have heard during these talks and what I encounter daily in my private practice is how people are finding it hard to achieve a balanced life. It requires a commitment to self-care; a moment-by-moment attention to detail to maintain the equilibrium needed for a healthy emotional and psychological life. By regularly checking in with yourself to ask, “How is my posture right now?”; ”Am I breathing well, slowly, deeply?”; “When did I last drink some water?”, you'll be taking some important steps to achieve good mental hygiene. People struggle to keep updating themselves like this when they become so focused on what they’re doing that without knowing it they have switched to autopilot. They have lost touch with themselves. It may at first feel rather mechanical and laborious to have to keep monitoring oneself but this is what it takes to regain control of a life which has become lost in trying to be constantly productive without any respite.

THE LESS YOU CHANGE THE MORE YOU GROW

The French saying, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”, can be interpreted as a rather bleak view of life, quite literally, the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing. Or, less literally, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Either way it’s a phrase that doesn’t offer much hope, suggesting we might as well just keep plugging away doing what we’re doing as it won’t make much difference if we try out something different. However, this well-worn saying can be understood in a very different light. Something like; the more we try to change ourselves, to be other than who we really are, the less we grow.

I first came across this perspective during my Gestalt psychotherapy training which incorporates into its theoretical framework, Arnold Beisser’s “paradoxical theory of change”. This theory states that “change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not. Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is – to be fully invested in his current positions”.

By changing who we are, because we would like to be, for example, more opinionated, easy-going or charitable is an implicit rejection of our true nature. And that by accepting who we are in this moment, the possibility of exploring other ways of being through greater awareness of a range of possible responses (response-ability), will organically lead to a more creative, versatile set of responses. Not by forcing, but by being more aware so that we act in ways that are congruent to our needs and values.

For example, a man who comes to therapy frustrated that he seems not to be progressing at work as he is not able to find his voice in meetings and seems to have little impact, wants to change his personality style. He says he needs to be more confident, outgoing and extravert in nature. I suggest he is unlikely to achieve this by force of will. First of all he needs to understand what holds him back. How might it have benefitted him as a child to keep quiet and avoid conflict. When he can accept and understand the part of himself that learned to sensor himself, he might be able to access the energy he learned to suppress in order to avoid the unwanted attention of an aggressive father – an energy that can help him as an adult to be heard and taken seriously. This is change through acceptance of what is – not towards an idealised self.

The French saying, "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose", can be interpreted as a rather bleak view of life, quite literally, the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing. Or, less literally, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Either way it’s a phrase that doesn’t offer much hope, suggesting we might as well just keep plugging away doing what we’re doing as it won’t make much difference if we try out something different. However, this well-worn saying can be understood in a very different light. Something like; the more we try to change ourselves, to be other than who we really are, the less we grow.

I first came across this perspective during my Gestalt psychotherapy training which incorporates into its theoretical framework, Arnold Beisser’s “paradoxical theory of change”. This theory states that “change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not. Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is - to be fully invested in his current positions”.

By changing who we are, because we would like to be, for example, more opinionated, easy-going or charitable is an implicit rejection of our true nature. And that by accepting who we are in this moment, the possibility of exploring other ways of being through greater awareness of a range of possible responses (response-ability), will organically lead to a more creative, versatile set of responses. Not by forcing, but by being more aware so that we act in ways that are congruent to our needs and values.

For example, a man who comes to therapy frustrated that he seems not to be progressing at work as he is not able to find his voice in meetings and seems to have little impact, wants to change his personality style. He says he needs to be more confident, outgoing and extravert in nature. I suggest he is unlikely to achieve this by force of will. First of all he needs to understand what holds him back. How might it have benefitted him as a child to keep quiet and avoid conflict. When he can accept and understand the part of himself that learned to sensor himself, he might be able to access the energy he learned to suppress in order to avoid the unwanted attention of an aggressive father – an energy that can help him as an adult to be heard and taken seriously. This is change through acceptance of what is – not towards an idealised self.

TAKING A DIFFERENT PATH

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN
By Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

 

Working with a client recently, an image came to mind which I shared with him. He was stood in a clearing in a forest with two possible paths to take. One was familiar, well trodden and worn. It led to a painful place of self-rejection and isolation. I suggested there had always been a strong urge for him to follow this path which was clearly defined and inviting despite the dark destination it would always take him to. Our task has been to help him find a different path.

The compulsion to repeat destructive patterns is one of the significant challenges that therapy seeks to confront. Robert Frost’s poem describes beautifully the choice to take the other (path), ‘because it was grassy and wanted wear’. Generally speaking, humans are risk averse, fear change and continue behaviours which have become the norm, without being questioned, simply through reinforcement by habit. Evolutionary adaptations have shaped us this way. possibly because the most likely approach to survival has been to stay within the confines of what is well known to us. We take the road well-travelled rather than that which is unclearly defined and where the destination is unclear. It may have been the only option for the client I mentioned, when he was young and felt repeatedly hurt and rejected by his family, to collapse into despair. If there was no one else to turn to and seek comfort from he may have learned to turn inwards. After a while this might start to feel strangely comforting, despite being dark and painful. It is at least a world of his own where others cannot intrude; a private place where dark thoughts can ferment. If this happens enough it becomes the default response to any upsetting or traumatic event – a familiar path.

I asked the client to visualize himself stood before these two paths and to take the unfamiliar path. I described it as being overgrown, hard to follow and that it would require hacking through some dense foliage to follow it but that there was always a sense of the direction to take, even though unclear. Eventually he would find himself in a new clearing, with other possibilities. The point of this exercise was to explore the possibility of breaking a well established pattern. It proved a helpful vision to carry with him and bolster himself when faced with challenges that might result in him taking the usual route towards despair and into a deep, dark hole. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, the process of change involves the creation of new neural pathways in the brain. These pathways are made more permanent when we repeat an action, thought, or response, like a new track through the forest being created each time someone finds way their along it.

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN By Robert Frost Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth; Then took the other, as just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim, Because it was grassy and wanted wear; Though as for that the passing there Had worn them really about the same, And both that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back. I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference. divergingpaths Working with a client recently, an image came to mind which I shared with him. He was stood in a clearing in a forest with two possible paths to take. One was familiar, well trodden and worn. It led to a painful place of self-rejection and isolation. I suggested there had always been a strong urge for him to follow this path which was clearly defined and inviting despite the dark destination it would always take him to. Our task has been to help him find a different path. The compulsion to repeat destructive patterns is one of the significant challenges that therapy seeks to confront. Robert Frost’s poem describes beautifully the choice to take the other (path), 'because it was grassy and wanted wear'. Generally speaking, humans are risk averse, fear change and continue behaviours which have become the norm, without being questioned, simply through reinforcement by habit. Evolutionary adaptations have shaped us this way. possibly because the most likely approach to survival has been to stay within the confines of what is well known to us. We take the road well-travelled rather than that which is unclearly defined and where the destination is unclear. It may have been the only option for the client I mentioned, when he was young and felt repeatedly hurt and rejected by his family, to collapse into despair. If there was no one else to turn to and seek comfort from he may have learned to turn inwards. After a while this might start to feel strangely comforting, despite being dark and painful. It is at least a world of his own where others cannot intrude; a private place where dark thoughts can ferment. If this happens enough it becomes the default response to any upsetting or traumatic event – a familiar path. I asked the client to visualize himself stood before these two paths and to take the unfamiliar path. I described it as being overgrown, hard to follow and that it would require hacking through some dense foliage to follow it but that there was always a sense of the direction to take, even though unclear. Eventually he would find himself in a new clearing, with other possibilities. The point of this exercise was to explore the possibility of breaking a well established pattern. It proved a helpful vision to carry with him and bolster himself when faced with challenges that might result in him taking the usual route towards despair and into a deep, dark hole. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, the process of change involves the creation of new neural pathways in the brain. These pathways are made more permanent when we repeat an action, thought, or response, like a new track through the forest being created each time someone finds way their along it.

TOO MUCH INFORMATION – PRIMAL RESPONSES IN THE DIGITAL AGE

I am frequently reminded, during my work as a psychotherapist, that we have evolved to live in ways that are far removed from the demands of life in the 21st century. I recently heard that only 50 years ago the amount of information we would normally process during a lifetime would be the equivalent of that contained within a Sunday paper and all its supplements. In the pre-digital age we didn’t have to remember passwords and pin numbers, read through thousands of emails or have access to an infinite mine of information on the internet. We are evolved for a life where our relationship to the environment was more clearly defined and our purpose straightforward. Our nomadic ancestors had no need for therapists or philosophers in their quest to find food, shelter and a mate and avoid or fight off threats.

Try keeping a total of the number of choices you are making each day and you’ll soon lose count. We are overwhelmed with choice, the possibility of instant gratification and tons of (mostly) useless information. This wasn’t an issue for the hunter-gatherers. They lived in a much simpler but more threatening world in terms of their daily fight for survival. This has important implications for understanding depression and mental health in general in today’s world.

Mike begins therapy describing how he has always felt tense, anxious, angry, braced for the next threat or challenge and as a result of this has become quite depressed, He has experienced some sort of trauma during his early life. Not perhaps a specific event but a general sense of feeling unsafe in a family where an undercurrent of hostility and angst was pervasive. As a child he could not relax fearing the next argument was just around the corner. Instead, he has become vigilant in readiness for an emergency that no longer exists, now, in his adult life, as it did in childhood.

Those parts of the brain that control our responses to perceived threat and for which survival is the primary goal, are designed to override all other responses with a ‘safety first’ strategy that evolved to keep us alive in the dangerous world of our early ancestors. Hunting and gathering is what we are primarily evolved for, accounting for at least 90 percent of human history. In short, the progressive, modern technological world we have created is mostly too safe for our threat response systems. The fight or flight response, first described by Walter Bradford Cannon in 1929, can be likened to a car alarm that is set off by the wind; triggered by events that do not require such a dramatic course of action. And the price we pay for this heightened state of vigilance is high levels of anxiety, depression and other conditions that result from our body’s instinctual and primitive survival responses.

Another example of how an instinctual response to threat that can be limiting is that of the need to look strong. In our distant past it was useful to appear fearless so that others with malign intentions would be less inclined to take advantage of our weakness. It is believed that early man learned the unfortunate habit of going to war with other tribes or social groups to fight for the limited resources that were available before farming could provide more sustainable supplies of food. This tendency to hide vulnerability and appear stronger, which might have been useful in such territorial struggles, is of less value in the developed world where a lack of resources is not a problem. Instead, we become distanced and disconnected from the important information that emotions such as fear and loneliness can give us about our place in the world.

There is no Lion to escape from anymore, (unless you live in the Serengeti) but Mike’s body had responded with the equivalent level of perceived threat because his boss bullies him and he is reliving the experience of being intimidated by his father. Add to this the fact that he is trying hard to look strong, to disguise his vulnerability, and you have a sense of what this man is trying to suppress and contain. Mike is a fictional character, but his story echoes many of those I have encountered during the course of my practice.

Increasing awareness of how we have created a world that is radically different from the one we adapted ourselves to survive in can help explain some of the deep-seated, embodied responses such as anxiety, panic and depression.

primalI am frequently reminded, during my work as a psychotherapist, that we have evolved to live in ways that are far removed from the demands of life in the 21st century. I recently heard that only 50 years ago the amount of information we would normally process during a lifetime would be the equivalent of that contained within a Sunday paper and all its supplements. In the pre-digital age we didn’t have to remember passwords and pin numbers, read through thousands of emails or have access to an infinite mine of information on the internet. We are evolved for a life where our relationship to the environment was more clearly defined and our purpose straightforward. Our nomadic ancestors had no need for therapists or philosophers in their quest to find food, shelter and a mate and avoid or fight off threats. Try keeping a total of the number of choices you are making each day and you’ll soon lose count. We are overwhelmed with choice, the possibility of instant gratification and tons of (mostly) useless information. This wasn’t an issue for the hunter-gatherers. They lived in a much simpler but more threatening world in terms of their daily fight for survival. This has important implications for understanding depression and mental health in general in today’s world. Mike begins therapy describing how he has always felt tense, anxious, angry, braced for the next threat or challenge and as a result of this has become quite depressed, He has experienced some sort of trauma during his early life. Not perhaps a specific event but a general sense of feeling unsafe in a family where an undercurrent of hostility and angst was pervasive. As a child he could not relax fearing the next argument was just around the corner. Instead, he has become vigilant in readiness for an emergency that no longer exists, now, in his adult life, as it did in childhood. Those parts of the brain that control our responses to perceived threat and for which survival is the primary goal, are designed to override all other responses with a ‘safety first’ strategy that evolved to keep us alive in the dangerous world of our early ancestors. Hunting and gathering is what we are primarily evolved for, accounting for at least 90 percent of human history. In short, the progressive, modern technological world we have created is mostly too safe for our threat response systems. The fight or flight response, first described by Walter Bradford Cannon in 1929, can be likened to a car alarm that is set off by the wind; triggered by events that do not require such a dramatic course of action. And the price we pay for this heightened state of vigilance is high levels of anxiety, depression and other conditions that result from our body’s instinctual and primitive survival responses. Another example of how an instinctual response to threat that can be limiting is that of the need to look strong. In our distant past it was useful to appear fearless so that others with malign intentions would be less inclined to take advantage of our weakness. It is believed that early man learned the unfortunate habit of going to war with other tribes or social groups to fight for the limited resources that were available before farming could provide more sustainable supplies of food. This tendency to hide vulnerability and appear stronger, which might have been useful in such territorial struggles, is of less value in the developed world where a lack of resources is not a problem. Instead, we become distanced and disconnected from the important information that emotions such as fear and loneliness can give us about our place in the world. There is no Lion to escape from anymore, (unless you live in the Serengeti) but Mike’s body had responded with the equivalent level of perceived threat because his boss bullies him and he is reliving the experience of being intimidated by his father. Add to this the fact that he is trying hard to look strong, to disguise his vulnerability, and you have a sense of what this man is trying to suppress and contain. Mike is a fictional character, but his story echoes many of those I have encountered during the course of my practice. Increasing awareness of how we have created a world that is radically different from the one we adapted ourselves to survive in can help explain some of the deep-seated, embodied responses such as anxiety, panic and depression.