Monday, 1 June 2015

How caring are you towards your partner?

Take nine minutes to watch this interview on Youtube:

Positive versus negative interactions

The inestimable Hedy and Yumi Scheifer give a little summary here of some of their work as renowned relationship therapists (once you get past their slightly hysterical interviewers). They talk about recent research which suggests that we should offer our partners not ten, not fifteen, not sixty, but one hundred caring behaviours per day. Now that may seem like a lot, but apparently this effort to think about what might make your other half happy is going on in the healthiest relationships that the researchers observed. I sometimes suggest to couples that they seem to have lost some generosity towards one another, and though this can be difficult to hear, it often strikes a chord. It may have disappeared gradually over time, lost in the mists of sleepless nights after children are born, financial pressures, and health concerns. It may have vanished the moment an affair was discovered, or during an explosive argument. We can explore in some depth how the generosity faded, and acknowledge the painful feelings that both halves of the couple are likely to have experienced, and we can then take some time to explore how they might rebuild some generosity of spirit. On this theme Hedy and Yumi state that the balance of positive interactions versus negative interactions should be 5:1 - so if we speak harshly to our partner or upset them in some way, if we can notice our behaviour we can then try to make amends by focussing on doing five things to make them happy.

The languages of love

Hedy and Yumi reference John Gottman, another highly experienced relationship therapist, and his languages of love. I often discuss this with couples that I see. John's research over many years has concluded that there are five languages of love: touch, words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service and gifts. He has also observed, as have I in my clinical practice, that couples generally don't speak the same language.  So while the cockles of A's heart are warmed when B makes his/her sandwiches for the lunchbox in the morning, B feels totally loved-up when A suggests cuddling on the sofa in front of a film. A's language is 'acts of service', while B's is 'touch'. It would be understandable for A to busy about cleaning B's shoes, and for B to keep trying to hug A, but this probably won't have the desired effect - much better to understand what our partner's language is, and try our best to offer them love in the way that really means something to them.

Daily rituals

Hedy and Yumi stress the importance of four transition times in our daily life: waking up, leaving the house, coming home and going to sleep. They believe our relationships will be improved if we pay close attention to our partners at these times, looking them in the eye and nurturing our connection.

Stepping up to the plate

When you really think about it, there's nothing too complicated here. All of us can take responsibility to try this stuff out, to make the effort to offer our partners some generosity, to put ourselves in their shoes and try to give them pleasure. We might be resentful, we might wish they would make the effort, we might like to punish them for past hurts, but despite this we could choose a different approach, and by making our partners happy, we might just find that we start to get more of what we like as well.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Can there be life after suicide?

I caught up with Angela Samata's affecting documentary Life After Suicide last night. She takes the time to explore the effect of suicide on family and friends, the help available for those who feel suicidal, and ongoing research into why one person might develop suicidal feelings when another doesn't. She's thoughtful, sensitive and honest, and brings together a rounded view of suicide that we don't often see.

Angela has a personal pull to the subject as her husband Mark took his own life eleven years ago, leaving her with two young sons. Mark's death was totally unexpected and left her baffled and traumatised. She explained how particularly difficult it is when someone dies by suicide, because of the stigma and shame attached. She found help from SOBS (Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide) People can attend SOBS groups and explore their feelings with other people who are going through a similar experience. I have had several clients who have found comfort and support through this organisation.

I was already aware of some of the statistics - that 4 out of 5 people who end their lives are male, and that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 - but I think they bear repeating here as they are stark and shocking. I didn't know that most don't leave a note, as was the case with Mark. Angela, and others in the programme, struggled with a need to understand why their loved ones had chosen to kill themselves. Which is where Prof Rory O'Connor of Glasgow University comes in. He sees suicide not as a selfish act, but an attempt to end unbearable pain. He's studied 2000 people who have made suicide attempts and is attempting to find answers about what causes people to end their lives.  He believes that in the majority of cases they will have developed 'constricted thinking', and this is likely to include feeling trapped, humiliated and defeated, emotions that seem to be a potentially toxic and lethal combination.  One questionnaire his interviewees complete probes their feelings of entrapment, requiring them to rate how applicable certain statements are to them: 'I feel trapped by my obligations', 'I am powerless to change things', 'I would just like to run away'. Angela commented that these were quite poignant declarations, and wondered if people were reluctant to take part - on the contrary, Rory explained, they tended to be glad to be asked, and relieved to be able to explore their feelings.

Angela also attended Maytree which describes itself as a sanctuary for the suicidal. Extraordinarily, considering the statistics above, there is only one such organisation in the country. I knew of its existence, but hearing Angela Rodriguez speak about the work they do was inspiring. People who are suicidal can stay for five days in this calm and simply furnished house, where the curtain poles are collapsible. It is agreed with each guest that staff will intervene if they make a suicide attempt. On the wall is a quote: 'Every day is a gift - that's why we call it the present'. Guests can sit together and talk, and Angela sees the power of suicidal people realising that they are not alone, and that other people feel as desperate as they do at times.

The programme also highlighted the work of Winston's Wish with bereaved children, and Samaritans You don't have to be suicidal to call Samaritans - the volunteers are there to listen and to help you explore your feelings, without offering judgments or telling you what to do. If you are thinking of ending your life, they will listen without intervening.

I was very moved by the willingness of Angela, and many other participants in the programme, to share some extremely difficult feelings. Her own greatest fear is that her openness with her sons about how their father died might lead them to think it was an option for them if they found themselves overwhelmed or unhappy, and there was a touching segment where she expresses this concern to her younger son. Ultimately the message from Angela, and others in the programme, was the importance of talking about how we feel - 'You can rebuild your life if you can talk about it'.

If you or someone you know is struggling at the moment, or has been affected by suicide in some way, you might want to watch the programme: You can search the Counselling Directory if you feel that you or someone you know might benefit from talking to a counsellor about their issues. People are often nervous at first, but in my experience they usually relax into the sessions, and do find that exploring how they're feeling helps them to find a way through.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Daring greatly - Brene Brown on shame

After a break I'm keen to get back to my Perspective posts. And I'm starting with this TED talk, which is well worth a listen. Brene calls shame 'the swampland of the soul' and tells us that shame requires three things to survive: secrecy, silence and judgment. We can combat it by finding empathy, for ourselves, and for others, and by 'daring greatly' - encouraging ourselves to get out there and have a go, with all the risks that entails. She says that shame tells us we're not good enough, and asks us Who do you think you are? And she draws a distinction between shame (feeling I'm a bad person) and guilt (feeling I've done a bad thing). How can we let ourselves be vulnerable, with the risk that allowing ourselves to be seen as we really are may cause us to feel shame? She encourages us to take the risk, because this is how we find creativity and freedom.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Cooling the engine part 3

‘Mindfulness means intentionally paying attention, in the present moment, in a non-judgmental way. Once you stand back, you don’t try to make things different, it’s not even about relaxation but about witnessing whatever’s going on without the usual critical commentary.’ That’s Ruby Wax’s take. Russ Harris says: ‘We connect with the world directly, rather than being caught up in our thoughts. We let our judgments, complaints and criticisms come and go like passing cars, and we fully engage in the present moment. We see our thoughts for what they are and let them go. We make room for our feelings and let them be.’

Ruby makes the distinction between doing and being. ‘The ‘doing’ mode drives us on to achieve things in our lives, while the ‘being’ mode ‘has no voice, it’s just directly sensing something, and being in the eye of the experience’. It’s what psychologists call flow, when you’re completely absorbed in something ‘without added running commentary’. You’re totally immersed and involved, and thoroughly enjoying the experience. Ruby finds it when she’s scuba diving. For me it might be when I’m taking photographs. For you it might be gardening, playing the piano, running, hide-and-seek with your grandchild, painting the kitchen wall, performing on stage. ‘In this mode, the mind isn’t flipping between the past and the future, it has nothing to do, nowhere to go, so it can start to settle and slow down from the high-speed chaos, noticing what’s going on in front of your eyes at that moment and experiencing thoughts as passing phenomena that arise and disappear.’

There are many books on mindfulness, and you can probably find an eight-week course running near you which will give you the tools you need if you really want to get into it. Both Russ and Ruby’s books contain many different types of exercises which encourage a mindful and accepting awareness. There’s a wide variety so you’re bound to find something that makes sense for you. I’ve limited myself to a few here which are brief and easy to explain.

Russ offers Breathing to Connect: ‘Take ten slow, deep breaths. For the first five, focus on your chest and abdomen; connect with your breathing. For the next five, expand your focus, so that as well as being aware of your breathing, you’re also connecting fully with your environment; that is, while noticing your breathing, also notice what you can see, hear, touch taste, and smell.’ You can do this exercise for a while if you’ve got time to spare, and you might just take three or four deep breaths if you’re waiting in a queue or sitting at traffic lights.

Part of the process is to notice how our minds distract us from focussing on the present. That’s okay. It’s what our minds do. Both Ruby and Russ suggest we might name or label thoughts as they come up. ‘I’m never going to get that essay in on time’ could be named as ‘panicking’. ‘I bet he earns more than me’ could be labelled as ‘comparing’. ‘I wish I could afford to take the kids to Disneyland’ could be ‘longing’. ‘The laundry needs doing’ could be ‘planning’. If we can notice these thoughts for what they are and return our attention to the present, they’re not really a problem – we try not to get caught up in them, but we just let them pop up and pass on through.

Russ encourages us to recognise that our minds are trying to help us, trying to keep us safe by alerting us to potential issues that we may need to think about. So he suggests we adopt the practice of thanking our minds for their input. When we find ourselves thinking ‘It’s about time I finished clearing out the garage’ when we’re trying to enjoy a relaxing bath, we can literally say ‘Thank you, Mind’. We acknowledge the thought, and let it be, without having to do anything about it.

If you’d like to be more in tune with physical sensations and how they’re related to your feelings, you could try Ruby’s exercise on emotions. ‘Focus in on a predominant feeling and notice where an emotion arises in the body and explore into the core of the feeling, the edges, pulsing, throbbing or stabbing. Notice how eager your mind is to create a story out of a feeling, which might not even have anything to do with the feeling. Stick with the feeling, and skip the running commentary.’

If you’ve found some of this interesting you could read more at and You could have a look at The Happiness Trap or Sane New World or any of the other host of books on mindfulness. In times of anxiety I find it helpful to think of myself as being more than my feelings, thoughts and sensations. I try to see myself as the sky, containing all the weather that comes and goes – sunshine, fog, clouds, storms, heat and frost. None of it lasts. It all passes.

Whatever you’re doing this Christmas, you might find some time here and there to set aside worries about the future and regrets about the past, and focus, however briefly, on the present. It could make a difference to your life.

I leave you with an apple I noticed that was just crying out to be gazed at. And a few words from William Carlos Williams:

so much depends

a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Cooling the engine part 2

The big tool that both Ruby Wax and Russ Harris advocate is acceptance, which can be reached through mindful practices. We’re going to feel difficult emotions, we may be anxious about looking good at the Christmas party, envious of someone having more invitations than us, angry that we’re doing all the work. But if we can accept these feelings, rather than telling ourselves off for having them, or trying to pretend we don’t have them, or ignoring them altogether, we’re likely to be better placed to keep going.

Russ talks about the ‘struggle switch’. When it’s switched on, we’ll be doing our level best to avoid any negative, painful, difficult emotions. And this may give rise to other difficult stuff – we’ll feel angry that we’re anxious, or worry that we’re overloading our bodies by feeling stressed, or guilt that we’re letting things get on top of us. We may try to avoid or get rid of the feelings, by overworking, overeating, drinking too much, spending hours on Facebook. There’s no problem if we distract ourselves in these ways in moderation, but they can lead to addictions, problems in our relationships, health concerns etc.

Our childhood experience will inevitably have an impact on our tendency to label emotions as good and bad, positive and negative. You might find it useful to think about the messages you received about which emotions were acceptable and which were not, and about how feelings were dealt with in your family – was anger freely expressed? Were you encouraged to be different, and have your own view?

As Russ sees it, the problem with judging feelings as good or bad is that we’ll struggle to avoid the ‘bad’ ones. It’s the struggle that wears us out, rather than the feelings themselves. He urges readers to ‘let go of judging your feelings altogether and see them for what they are: a stream of constantly changing sensations and urges, continuously passing through your body’.

Ruby puts it like this: ‘This doesn’t mean that you sit there like a lump of tofu with a bindi on your head, listening to the sitar. It means when your mind does what all of our minds do, which is change – change constantly and never stop chattering – you don’t fight it, but rather understand and accept it for what it is.’ She believes that: ‘Pain exists but suffering is optional. You can’t stop the unhappy mood but you can stop what happens next. Fear is in fact never as bad as the fear of fear.’

If we can recognise the struggle and flick the switch off, we let the feelings come. They may be unpleasant, and we may not like them, but we try to let them be. ‘With the struggle switch off, our anxiety levels are free to rise and fall as the situation dictates. Sometimes they’ll be high, sometimes low, and sometimes there will be no anxiety at all. But more importantly, we’re not wasting our time and energy struggling with it.’

That’s all very well, I hear you say. But how? Next time we’ll think about how we might move towards some feelings of acceptance.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Cooling the engine

Christmas is coming … Some people look forward to it. Many do not. You may recognise some of the following scenarios; you may well have other reasons for finding Christmas a challenge. You’re facing the first Christmas since you lost someone close to you. There isn’t enough money to do the things you’d like to. Those happy TV ads look nothing like your family life. You feel all your friends have more invitations than you do. You’ll be spending Christmas alone again. Your partner leaves everything to you. You meant to get fit beforehand to look your best but you’ve been tucking into festive meals. You can’t stand the crowds in the shops. You know you’ll drink too much and regret it. Your parents are making you choose where to spend Christmas.

It’s likely that some or all of the above would make you feel stressed and anxious. And if things are mostly going pretty well in your life, you may still be starting to feel the clock ticking towards the deadline. Over the next weeks I’m going to share some thoughts on stress and anxiety, and offer some suggestions as to how you might help yourself.

First up, it might be useful to consider what a stress response actually is. There’s plenty of neuroscience out there to explain what’s going on in our brains, and I’ve found Russ Harris in his book The Happiness Trap and Ruby Wax in Sane New World to be among the best at making the science accessible. Russ explains that when we feel threatened, we move into fight or flight mode – either we defend ourselves and stand and fight, or we run away. And there are physical changes in our bodies to facilitate this: ‘Your heart rate speeds up, your body floods with adrenaline, blood shunts to the large muscles of your arms and legs, and your breathing increases to give you more oxygen’. Ruby adds that when the stress hormone cortisol is released, activity in the hippocampus (the part of our brain which organises memory) is reduced, and cortisol also stops our digestion and the urge to have sex, as ‘thinking about sex or eating during a disaster would only make things worse’. 

In prehistoric times, we needed this response to keep ourselves alive, to detect where the dangers were and respond appropriately. Here’s Ruby again: ‘Out on the Savannah, our physiological responses were perfectly suited to deal with stressors (run from the big animals with big teeth). These days we can’t just run from what drives up our anxiety and stress: mortgages, money problems, looking hot, relationships and deadlines. Evolution did not set us up to suffer Jurassic Park levels of stress, day in, day out. That’s the bitch of living at today’s pace.’ Russ Harris believes that ‘our mind, trying to make sure we don’t get killed, sees potential danger almost everywhere’, and maybe that includes Christmas preparations, the difficult-to-buy-for relative, when to get the sprouts, whether the tree will lose its needles before the big day.

Both Russ and Ruby make the point that we just weren’t built to be constantly on the lookout for danger. As Ruby puts it in her no-nonsense style: ‘The problem these days as modern man is that when we perceive danger, adrenaline shoots into us but because we can’t kill a traffic warden or eat an estate agent, the juice never comes back down. We’re in a constant state of red light alert, like a car siren that drives you nuts.’

So that’s where we are, or at least some of us, some of the time. Next time we’ll think about how we can cool the engine a little, and take a bit of time out from the hectic panic.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Are you one up or one down?

As I mentioned last time, Terry Real, a family therapist and lecturer, has some interesting ideas about men and women in heterosexual relationships. In his book How Can I Get Through To You?, he talks about closing the intimacy gap between men and women. He’s a robust kind of therapist who cheerfully states that he takes sides, and he tends to make sweeping statements about men and women, observing that men in relationship take a ‘one up’ role, while women are in ‘one down’ mode. In my experience I have found the reality to be more nuanced than that – in some relationships the dynamic fluctuates, so that sometimes one partner is ‘one up’ and sometimes they’re ‘one down’. And indeed I worked with one couple where the woman was very definitely ‘one up’ at all times. Having said that, I have seen many couples where the man does tend to be ‘one up’, and I think it’s useful anyway to consider the inevitable impact that the ‘one up/one down’ dynamic has on a relationship, regardless of gender.

In Real’s experience he has found that these are the typical male/female positions:

Many men …

  • are raised to be competitive and to perform, which makes them disconnect from their feelings and gives them a sense that they have to be brave and strong at all times
  • assess their value by their achievements
  • are unhappy with their partner’s unhappiness
  • are on the receiving end of their partner’s unhappiness and get used to waiting for the storm to pass
  • find it difficult to cope when the going gets tough – they struggle to express how they feel, and they don’t get help
  • take the option to run away from difficult relationships/family life
  • feel they have to be invulnerable, working hard, performing well, and that this precludes love and connection
  • are uncomfortable with the idea of intimacy – it arouses fear and mistrust in them, which leads to shame, and then rage, and the need to be ‘one up’
  • blame their partner if the relationship is struggling

Many women …

  • derive a sense of themselves through connecting to others
  • are taught to accommodate, and their anger, frustration and sense of injustice at this spills out at certain times
  • choose silence over conflict or separation, but feel resentful
  • operate in ‘one down’ mode so as not to provoke their male partner, and quietly seethe about their role
  • blame themselves for difficulties in the relationship

So far, so dispiriting. And while many men and women wouldn’t recognise themselves in those bulleted lists, if any of it resonates with you, or if you feel that your relationship suffers from ‘one up/one down’ syndrome, here are some ways forward.

  • Women have to express their needs calmly but firmly (Real encourages them to ‘talk softly but carry a big stick’). Men have to listen, and see what they can do about meeting their partner’s needs. I would go further and suggest that once there is more of a sense of two people ‘being with’ each other rather than in ‘one up’ and ‘one down’ mode, men can also be encouraged to say what they need, and women can listen, and respond
  • ‘What can I do to help you give me more of what I’d like?’ – I believe that this is an important question for both partners, as it models the fact that we can only control our own actions. It also underlines that we’re in a loop in relationship – we do something, our partner responds, we react and so on
  • Identify your bottom lines, and calmly stick to them: ‘I won’t tolerate …’
  • Accept the flaws in your relationship, regretting what is lacking without resorting to blame
  • Accept the other’s point of view even if you don’t agree with it. This becomes easier once you know that your perspective will be similarly accepted
  • Listen carefully and look for a response that furthers repair. As Real says to clients: ‘You can be right or you can be married. What’s more important to you?’
  • Try to keep control when you get that whoosh of fear, shame or anger
  • Develop your negotiating skills: with an invitation (‘Would you like to …?’), a request (‘Would you do … for me?’) or a demand (this is your bottom line again: ‘I can’t accept you shouting at me’)
  • Try to find your adult mode, keep calm, and make sure your comments are moderate even if your partner is being immoderate
  • Recognise that the following will not help your relationship: control (constantly trying to change your partner to suit your agenda), revenge (trying to hurt your partner so they actually get how much they’ve hurt you) and resignation (acting as though you accept something when really you’re resenting it).

Essentially Real is wanting to ‘bring men in from the cold’. He wants to help them to leave behind the relentless pressure to perform and to achieve, and to risk connecting with their partner, making themselves vulnerable. It’s to be hoped that they then see that the two are not mutually exclusive, and that if both partners feel connected and appreciated, all kinds of issues can be solved together.