Meg Harper Therapist

Meg's Approach

Having originally trained in Person-Centred Counselling and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, I now take a bespoke approach to each client, drawing deeply on the principles of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and related therapeutic models such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Positive Psychology and Logotherapy as appropriate. I also use creative approaches and am trained to work in Sand Tray, Small World therapy and Animal Assisted Therapy. I am a keen walker and have recently started offering 'Walk and Talk Therapy'.

Methods

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is, as its name suggests, based on the theory that our cognitions or thoughts, affect our feelings and our feelings affect our behaviour. In therapy, you will be asked to give your thoughts close attention so that you begin to see how they and your habitual patterns of thinking, affect how you feel and behave. In CBT you will usually be given a ‘home task’ to work on between sessions. CBT is well-known for being a therapy where ‘strategies’ can be implemented to help wellbeing to improve. It has been shown to be especially effective for anxiety, depression and OCD but can have an useful role to play in the healing of almost any mental health condition.

Person-Centered Therapy

The person-centred approach is very different from CBT. In CBT the therapist will establish with the client an agenda for each session, whereas in person-centred therapy, the therapist will follow the client’s lead. There will be great emphasis on listening, summarising what you say and reflecting it back. You may wonder how this can combine with CBT! My approach is rooted in the core conditions of the person-centred approach. These are that the therapist will provide the client with a space in which they receive:

  • unconditional positive regard
  • empathy 
  • congruence (ie. that the therapist will be authentic and genuine in relating to their client)

Sometimes CBT becomes reduced to a ‘one-size fits all’ sequence of exercises. This is not my approach. Because my approach is underpinned by the person-centred core conditions, my aim is to ensure that my use of CBT is client-centred and tailored to each client’s issues.

Positive Psychology

This is a relatively new therapeutic approach and is based on the principle that it is helpful to study those who are mentally well as well as those who have problems, in order to find ways to help clients. It is, therefore, like CBT, very practical and involves the client in strategies and life-style changes in order to improve and maintain their wellbeing. If you have listened to ‘The Happiness Half-Hour’ podcast from Radio 4, it is mostly based on the principles of Positive Psychology.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

This is essentially, a development of CBT. One criticism of CBT is that it can be enormously difficult to identify the thinking that is troubling us and, even if we can, to adapt or change it. A danger can be to try to resist a particular way of thinking and that can lead to it persisting! In ACT, there is a great emphasis on learning to accept our feelings and to commit to our values, whilst learning how to diffuse troubling thoughts, live in the moment, observe and understand our reactions. Again, it is a therapy which is highly practical and introduces methods and techniques to help us.

Logotherapy

This is the therapy devised and practised by Viktor Frankl, the famous Auschwitz survivor and writer of the classic ‘Man’s Search for Meaning.’

A key principle is that much depends on our attitude. As Frankl writes:

‘Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’

As you might expect, an important thread of the therapy is in searching for meaning in life.

If you have read ‘The Choice’ or ‘The Gift’ by Dr Edith Eger, she was a colleague of Viktor Frankl and she too practised logotherapy.

Sand Tray and Small World Therapy

These are very different therapies from anything discussed so far in that they aim to get past our conscious thoughts and into the subconscious. Clients are presented with a wide array of small props – people, animals, vehicles, buildings, natural objects, random odds and ends. In Sand Tray work, the client is asked to create a ‘picture’ using them, in a tray of sand (which they  also use to build with if they want to) – and then will be asked to talk about it. The therapist will not interpret but will listen and perhaps prompt or ask questions. It can be a completely astounding process for both client and therapist. It is particularly useful when issues are very hard to talk about.

Small World is similar but there is no tray of sand! In this therapy, the therapist may ask the client to arrange the props in particular ways, in order to explore their issues. This can be particularly useful when exploring matters such as family dynamics.

Neither of these therapies should be confused with Jungian Sand Play therapy which has some subtle differences.

Animal Assisted Therapy

In my work in school, I am often accompanied by my Portuguese Water Dog, Rosa. She offers a homely presence which often breaks the ice for young people. The presence of an animal is known to be good for well-being and stroking one can reduce stress and release endorphin. In Animal Assisted Therapy, however, we also consider how the client relates to the animal and vice versa. It is another method that can reveal material that is unconscious.

Small World is similar but there is no tray of sand! In this therapy, the therapist may ask the client to arrange the props in particular ways, in order to explore their issues. This can be particularly useful when exploring matters such as family dynamics.

Neither of these therapies should be confused with Jungian Sand Play therapy which has some subtle differences.

Walk and Talk

It is well-established that exercise is good for our wellbeing and that walking in green spaces and spending time with plants, trees and nature, is relaxing and mood-enhancing. I am therefore very happy to leave the counselling room behind and conduct sessions whilst walking in the fresh air. 

For safeguarding reasons, ‘Walk and Talk’ sessions can only be booked in daylight and walks are taken in places which are well frequented by members of the public. Strong walking shoes or wellies and waterproofs are essential.

Other creative approaches

I am very interested in and open to using other creative approaches so you may find that I suggest journalling, using art work and other crafts, using Russian Dolls, clay and Play Dough.

Book your session today!

Recent Posts

June 17, 2024It’s been a long time since I’ve had time to sit down and write something for my blog – and no, it’s not because I’ve been on a sex odyssey! But I did go on a psychosexual therapy course which took up a lot of the time I might use for writing – and as […] [...]
April 4, 2023Photo by fikry anshor on Unsplash A very old friend and follower of this blog wrote to me the other day suggesting that an unfair characterisation of the thrust of my argument might be that I’m advocating rampant hedonism. Let’s be clear – I am not! He goes on to say that he thinks it […] [...]
January 23, 2023Walking with a friend in bright sunshine, a glorious antidote to the physical and political gloom of this particular January, I was reminded of the conversation which pushed me into starting this exploration into Gold Star addiction. My friend is struggling with episodes of utter inertia – a complete lack of motivation to get out […] [...]
November 10, 2022It’s a long time since my last post, diverted as I have been by this new member of the family! Digby, now four and a half months old, is currently fast asleep after a ‘puppy play date’ this morning and a wild walk on the common this afternoon. In terms of achievement, it’s all been […] [...]
September 23, 2022What a strange couple of weeks it has been in the UK! Whatever our thoughts and feelings about monarchy, it has been hard to ignore the National Period of Mourning. Loud has been the praise for Queen Elizabeth 2nd. Clearly, doing your duty and being consistent for a very long time indeed, brings the gold […] [...]
August 8, 2022I worked for a long time with a teenage client with high-functioning autism and ADHD. This was a hugely difficult but not uncommon combination. Imagine being extremely intelligent but combined with physical restlessness and enormous difficulty in concentrating. Now throw in anxiety and social anxiety and, inevitably, a tendency to become overwhelmed emotionally and in […] [...]
June 21, 2022Arbeit macht frei No more fucking gold stars that the teacher licked onto a chart no more verbal ability tests going off the top of the scale no more feeling virtuous after cleaning kitchen cupboards no more ‘My kid spoke at six months taught himself to read at three’ no more ‘We’ve done thirty-three years […] [...]
May 5, 2022‘We do the best we can with the resources we have available at the time.’ This is an idea that a friend who is an NLP (Neuro-linguistic Programming) coach shared with me several years ago and to which I often return. Remember in my last post the Cub Scout Law? It starts ‘Cub Scouts always […] [...]
April 20, 2022Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash The Locus of Evaluation Our rules and assumptions are about a huge range of issues. We will have them about love and marriage, parents and children, crime and punishment – I could go on! If you suffer from Gold Star Syndrome, however, a lot of your beliefs are likely […] [...]
April 6, 2022In the years I have worked as a counsellor, I have heard many powerful beliefs, rules and assumptions expressed. Here is a list of some that you may hold or that may sound familiar: I must make the most of my talents. I must make the most of or fulfill my potential. I must not […] [...]
March 26, 2022So where should we start? To a large extent, this is a record of my personal journey, what I’ve discovered and what’s helped me –  so let’s start where I began which was during my training to be a counsellor. It was a challenging time in my life. We had taken the difficult decision for […] [...]
March 17, 2022Recently, I was talking with someone I am very close to. We agreed that we are both very lucky and, compared with many people, we have not suffered badly through the pandemic. I had Covid 19 way back before the vaccinations but, although I felt really ill for nearly a fortnight, I wasn’t hospitalised and […] [...]
November 3, 2020Have you heard of Sara Bareilles? Pre lockdown she was getting plaudits for her a music for the West End show ‘Waitress’ but I wouldn’t have noticed that if I hadn’t been introduced to her work by one of my young clients. He shared with me her song ‘Brave’ which was inspiring him at the […] [...]
November 3, 2020‘You’ve made your bed so you’ll have to lie in it.’ ‘Life isn’t a bed of roses’. ‘Well, you know what thought did…he followed a muck cart and thought it was a wedding.’ You’ve probably heard the first two sayings before but the third? Really? Did someone just make that up? No, I promise you […] [...]
October 30, 2020Losing a parent when you are young is, inevitably, sad and difficult. Sad but not inevitable is feeling that our parents are absent when they are actually still with us.  I look back on the parenting I did when my children still lived at home and I know that there were times when they probably […] [...]
April 4, 2023Photo by fikry anshor on Unsplash A very old friend and follower of this blog wrote to me the other day suggesting that an unfair characterisation of the thrust of my argument might be that I’m advocating rampant hedonism. Let’s be clear – I am not! He goes on to say that he thinks it is only by seeking something just out of reach that progress is made and that we all have duties and responsibilities to all sorts of people and principles which go beyond our ‘right to be happy’. Let’s take a look at this critique and also consider the concept of eudaimonic happiness, which might help us here. What price progress? If we choose to jump off the capitalist bandwagon and lay down our subscription to the Protestant Work Ethic, will we stop making ‘progress’? I’m not arguing that we should never seek something out of our reach – though I do get wary when this amounts to greed or covetousness. My concern is when we seek the thing that is out of our reach in order to validate ourselves – when we seek the next Gold Star and the next because that is the only way we can satiate a desperate need to feel worthy. In Leamington Spa, those who are interested in engineering celebrate Frank Whittle, who lived in Leamington from the age of 9 and is widely credited with the invention of the jet engine. Read about him on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Whittle and you will find that he was boy and then a man of incredible determination as well as a mathematical genius. It took him years to get accepted into the RAF, partly because of his small stature, and his pioneering work was ridiculed at first. But he didn’t give up, his work was eventually recognised and he was knighted and, late in life, was compensated for his dismal treatment by the British Government. I don’t know what was going on psychologically for Frank Whittle but his potted life history suggests someone who was passionate about flying and engineering for its own sake, not someone who was ‘addicted’ to Gold Stars. If the latter, I suspect he could have found an easier way of achieving them! For me, giving up on an addiction to Gold Stars does not mean giving up on progress. Progress can be made by people who have a genuine passion, not a lack of self-worth that needs satiating. In my maverick moments, however, I do question whether giving up on progress would be such a bad thing. In ‘Sapiens: a brief history of humankind’ Yuval Noah Harari points out that the ‘progress’ that led to us settling down and becoming farmers was, in some ways, our downfall. We became able to breed and feed our offspring more easily – but that committed us to continuing to farm in order to continue to feed them – and once that cycle started, there was no stopping it. Whose going to opt for ‘Let’s stop farming and let a few offspring die?’ Hence, we unwittingly became committed to a way of life from which there is no escape and which, as we know only too well, has led to all sorts of damage to our planet… cleared rain forests, too much methane, polluted rivers, loss of biodiversity, cruelty to animals, to name but some. It’s very difficult in advance, to work out which progress will really benefit us all. With hindsight, would we choose to split the atom? To allow indiscriminate use of petrol-driven cars? To use asbestos in buildings? Give thalidomide to pregnant women? Or even – dare I say it? Invent the Internet? We are currently lifting the lid on the Pandora’s Box which is Artificial Intelligence. I could soon be out of a blog! In my last post I wrote about ‘Degrowth’, a concept which could be seen as turning away from progress. It depends, however, if you see progress as always being about growth. Surely we can make progress by choosing small as beautiful, by learning to be content with what we already have, by enjoying the satisfaction of walking as lightly as we can upon this planet and by caring for its other creatures? We can make progress ethically and not capitally, if we choose to. We will still have difficult predictions to make. How many of us bought diesel cars when we were told that was the ethical choice or (bad flavour of the month) wood burning stoves? But my hope is that in a ‘degrowth’ version of progress, we will be reliant on passionate degrowth disciples creating ethical options for us, rather than on people who are climbing the greasy pole of addictive achievement. Eudaimonic Happiness So where does eudaimonic happiness come into all this? Firstly, what is it? Eudaimonic happiness is very different from hedonic happiness. Very crudely, the latter is about the sensory, ecstatic pleasure of the moment. For some people, this is what is meant by ‘happiness’. Eudaimonic happiness is more like contentment – the satisfaction of being purposeful and at peace with oneself. In this blog, I am certainly advocating eudaimonia and if it was rampant, I’d have no worries! To live purposefully and to be contented in one’s endeavours sounds like a sound philosophy of life to me. It would be a far cry from Gold Star addiction which is hallmarked by its lack of contentment. Hedonism is, to me, the joy and the curse of the Gold Star life. One reaches a Gold Star and wow! For a short while there is elation, excitement, even ecstasy. But it doesn’t last. Before long, the craving for achievement rises again, the short-lived peace vanishes and is replaced by a discontented search for another hedonic high, in the hope that this time, it will truly slake the desperate thirst for long-term satisfaction with the self. In James Clear’s best seller ‘Atomic Habits’ (an excellent, clear and practical read, if you are someone who wants to change your habits or stop procrastinating), he explains that as humans, a priority is to fit in and this will affect the habits and behaviours that we choose. When choosing who to fit in with we will look to three groups: The Close The Many The Powerful Essentially, when we feel secure that we fit in, we think about standing out. We want to be like the powerful – that looks like a position of safety. I’m aware that what I’m writing about goes against much that seems to be programmed into our human nature. But our human nature seems to be very good at helping us to survive and then leaving us with few resources for keeping us peaceful and content. It makes sense that the will to survive is innate and our brain’s priority. Climb the greasy pole, make sure you are top dog, defeat all contenders. But in a society that for millions of people is reasonably safe and where we don’t need to vie for survival every day, we do need to find ways to settle ourselves into long lives of eudaimonia. This will, for many of us, include ‘duties and responsibilities to people and principles’, but these will, I would argue, help to create our eudaimonia. At times, I am sure we will experience some hedonic happiness, indeed, I hope that we do! Eudaimonia doesn’t rule out hedonic experiences! Like my friend though, I am uncomfortable with the idea of a ‘right to happiness.’ Happiness is rather something that we can create, if we choose wisely. An addiction to Gold Stars may afford us occasional moments of hedonic euphoria but it is no route to the purposeful contentment of eudaimonia. I’ve just finished reading ‘The Secret Life of Bees’, a novel by Sue Monk Kidd. Despite the traumas that underpin the plot, it is a wonderful observation of eudaimonic happiness. Towards the end, the protagonist Lily, after a demanding personal journey, says, ‘Look at me…I wake up to wonder every day.’ That is my hope for everyone reading this blog – the ability to wonder at this extraordinary world in which we live and to be responsibly content. I’m not recommending rampant hedonism, just the quiet joy of wonder. Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash [...]
January 23, 2023Photo by Esmonde Yong on Unsplash Walking with a friend in bright sunshine, a glorious antidote to the physical and political gloom of this particular January, I was reminded of the conversation which pushed me into starting this exploration into Gold Star addiction. My friend is struggling with episodes of utter inertia – a complete lack of motivation to get out of bed and get on with what is on her ‘job list’. Instead, she finds herself lying in bed reading or watching television, until the phase passes. Not only is she very puzzled by what’s going on but she feels bad about it – after all, we all have essential things that we don’t want to do. Why can’t she just crack on and get them done? Do you remember my opening paragraphs describing another friend lamenting her guilt if she wasn’t working? Guilt is the common factor. Both the person who is frenetically doing more and more work and the person who can’t get herself out of bed feel guilty because they believe they are not doing enough. I have another friend, a committed Christian, who, when she was deciding to retire, told God that what she wanted to do in her retirement was pray and read. That’s all. I had a long-standing lodger who earns as much as he needs to live off and every couple of years goes to India for a few months to travel, hang out with friends he has made, paint, take photographs and generally enjoy being alive. Neither seems to have a problem with guilt. Neither thinks they should be ‘doing more’. We are definitely in the area of core beliefs here. Two of my friends believe that there is lots of work to be done and we should be getting on with it. The other two do not. They have managed to free themselves from what I increasingly see as a very pernicious set of beliefs embedded in Western Culture – the Protestant Work Ethic. The Protestant Work Ethic It’s a phrase in common parlance and, because it sometimes gets referred to as the Puritan or Calvinist Work Ethic, I assumed its origins were somewhere in the 17th Century. In a sense they are – but no one used the phrase until Max Weber wrote his hugely influential book ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ in 1904/5. Wikipedia tells us that, according to Weber: ‘Protestant ethics and values, along with the Calvinist doctrines of asceticism and predestination, enabled the rise and spread of capitalism.’ It is one of the most influential and cited books in sociology, although the thesis presented has been controversial since its release. In opposition to Weber, historians such as Fernand Braudel and Hugh Trevor-Roper assert that the Protestant work ethic did not create capitalism and that capitalism developed in pre-Reformation Catholic communities. Just as priests and caring professionals are deemed to have a vocation (or “calling” from God) for their work, according to the Protestant work ethic the “lowly” workman also has a noble vocation which he can fulfil through dedication to his work. I am no political theorist but it seems to me that whoever is right about the origins, we are talking about the rise of capitalism being underpinned by a doctrine that work gives us worth. Some of us will have been hood-winked into being drones to capitalism because we’ve been brain-washed by the Protestant Work Ethic. Others will have been hooked in by other means. We will have been brought up with beliefs about ‘fulfilling out potential’ or ‘the poor only being poor because they don’t make an effort’ or our screens will have simply been awash with tempting material goods since we were tiny and cunning advertisements will have convinced us they are necessary. If we reject crime and are not born with a silver spoon in our mouths, we will have to work for these ‘essential’ goods. One way or another, here in the West, we have been programmed to be capitalists. Just think about how, here in Britain, we have a culture in which a clear marker of status is whether you own your own home. Think of the amount of energy, airtime and newsprint that goes into that topic and how it sways government policy. Remember my anxious school boys with their catastrophic thinking? At the end of the day, they feared that they wouldn’t be able to buy a nice house and would end up in the gutter – not so much homeless, as houseless. Photo by Andreea Popa on Unsplash – PS. If you haven’t read ‘Fun Home’ a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, try it! In schools and work places these days, it’s very popular to talk about Growth Mindset versus Fixed Mindset. If you haven’t come across it, it’s a pretty simple concept. A growth mindset means that you believe your intelligence and talents can be developed over time. A fixed mindset means that you believe intelligence is fixed—so if you’re not good at something, you might believe you’ll never be good at it. We are told, of course, that it’s better to have a Growth Mindset. Our intelligence and talents can keep growing and growing – what’s not to like? If we have a fixed mindset, we are condemned to having the measly minds we think we have. Well, frankly, there’s quite a lot not to like. Let’s take one of my pet hates. Ten pin bowling. I am awful at this game. I can barely lift the bowls, I have pretty lousy aim, I hate hanging out in noisy places with people I scarcely know (the usual set up, I find!) and where any food provided is universally nasty. But if I only had a Growth Mindset, believed I could get good at this game and used to hanging out in noisy, badly built bowling alleys, whilst practising my social skills, I could be…hmm…what? Better at ten pin bowling? Would that make me happier? I don’t think so – I think I would have wasted many hours of my life which I would have preferred to spend doing almost anything else! I have seen far too many young people who can’t wait to give up one of their least favourite GCSEs, being nagged about their lack of Growth Mindset. Could we possibly give them permission to (ssh!) give up on one of their subjects? The concept of Growth Mindset has its place, I’ll admit, but I also see it as a sneaky bit of capitalist brain-washing. That word ‘Growth’. It’s such a good thing, isn’t it, growth? Children grow, trees grow, my puppy is definitely growing – we associate it with nature and all sorts of good things. What we all need is growth. But bad things grow too. Cancer, black mould, waiting lists, the number of rats nicking food from my chickens, to name but a few! We are fed the line that our economy needs to grow and to that end, as good little capitalist drones, we have to work hard to make the money to buy the stuff that will make it do so. We will feel that we have achieved something. In our lovely homes, with all our precious accoutrements and our string of qualifications that have helped us on our way to this earthly paradise, we can count up our Gold Stars and be content. Except that we never are. There’s always the next thing and the next, encouraged as we are by the High Priests of Capitalism to never be satisfied with what we have or who we are. Let’s not get carried away here. There are clear benefits to living in a capitalist society and there’s nothing wrong with buying some things and doing what we need to do. I’ve just shelled out the money to go on a second course on relationship therapy – the psychosexual bit this time. I’m doing it because I think it will help me to help my clients and I’ll enjoy it. All I want to do here is to expose the link between capitalism and our need for Gold Stars. We have been brought up to be compliant drones in a capitalist system – and one big driver to keep us on that relentless treadmill is Gold Stars. Work hard and you will be rewarded. Work even harder and you will be even more rewarded and you will stand out from the other drones – and that will make you feel you are worth more. What’s the antidote? Maybe it could be Degrowth. My son, Phineas Harper, together with his colleagues Maria Smith, Matthew Dalziel and Cecilie Sachs Olsen, curated the 2019 Oslo Architecture Triennale on the theme ‘Enough. The Architecture of Degrowth https://www.oslotriennale.no/archive/2019 He’s written elsewhere about how we can reuse and recycle in the built environment, rather that destroying and starting again. And that’s just architecture. In what other areas could we learn to degrow? Enough. I’m already rather uncomfortably thinking of a long of list of what we think we don’t have enough of. Clean water, hospital beds, peace, just for starters. But perhaps we also need to get rigorous about what we do have enough of and learn to jump off the capitalist, work ethic band wagon. Perhaps we need to develop a Degrowth Mindset and learn to be satisfied by the Gold Stars we have already accrued. I was listening to the Nomad Podcast https://www.nomadpodcast.co.uk/ the other day (I’d highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t completely given up on Christianity but is wanting some fresh air!) and the two presenters were reflecting on how they had been brought up on a diet of sermons which told them each week that they should be doing more – that whatever they were doing, it wasn’t enough – and, ultimately, how bad that made them feel. What would it mean to us to commit to degrowth within ourselves – to not always be thinking about how we could do more and be better? To decide that we are enough as we are? I have definitely said enough for today but I’d like to leave you with this. It give me goose pimples! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=It0cwbszJ14 [...]
November 10, 2022It’s a long time since my last post, diverted as I have been by this new member of the family! Gold Star for helping to make the bed? Digby, now four and a half months old, is currently fast asleep after a ‘puppy play date’ this morning and a wild walk on the common this afternoon. In terms of achievement, it’s all been about doing as much as I can to socialise him before he hit the magic twenty weeks old when, apparently, his super sponge-like puppy brain will become resistant to new input and he is likely to be scared of anything he hasn’t already experienced. In our frenzy of encountering buses, trains, livestock, sliding doors, people of every type imaginable etc, we are bound to have missed something and I will find out the extent of my failure as time goes on. Pigs! We definitely didn’t meet any pigs. Darn. Meanwhile, in my spare moments, I have been re-reading Alain de Botton’s splendid ‘Status Anxiety’ which I highly recommend. He reminds us that we have Matthew Arnold and his seminal work ‘Culture and Anarchy’ to thank for the start of state education in Britain and the rise of meritocracy, and discusses how a meritocracy, however fair and reasonable it sounds, is actually responsible for a great deal of misery. I cannot rise to De Botton’s wonderfully liturgical prose so apologies to him as I briefly and rather crudely summarise. Essentially, it goes like this. In the bad old days, people knew their place. You were born into a particular rank in society and that is where you stayed. If you were of high rank and were a decent type, you were a responsible landlord, and took a kindly interest in the welfare of your tenants. If you weren’t (think Sheriff of Nottingham), the poor suffered. It would have been nice if Robin Hood had come to their aid but he’s probably a product of hopes and dreams, rather than reality. Image by David Reed from Pixabay That’s how it was and, if you were poor, at least it wasn’t your fault. You were worthy of compassion and might even get into heaven ahead of the pesky rich, who were going to is as difficult as a camel would to get through the eye of a needle – or so the church told you. Fast forward to the twentieth and twenty-first century. The situation is very different because now, education is available to all. Now you can, if you make the effort, become a self-made man. Bring on emancipation for women and they too, with considerably more difficulty (we are, after all, still living in a patriarchy) can start climbing greasy poles and breaking through glass ceilings. If not, why not? There is no excuse any more. It’s a double whammy. Not only are you poor, but it is now your own fault. Surely you could have pulled yourself up by your own boot straps? What a radical shift! And so Gold Stars really begin to matter. If we are not seen to be achieving, we are lazy, idle shirkers. We are the authors of our own miserable destiny and contempt is what we deserve. The liberal-minded might consider that we had a difficult start and mutter about unequal distribution of ‘cultural capital’ but Pandora’s Box has been opened. The idea is out and about and never very far from being uttered. If we’re poor, we deserve to be poor. We are not trying hard enough. Oh glorious, wonderful, liberal education! Are you a poisoned chalice? Image by daves19387 from Pixabay I include here a wonderful piece written by a great friend and teaching colleague who taught in comprehensive schools for many years, in response to a previous post. The school values she writes about are such noble, equalizing values, so intentionally in contrast with competitive ideas about ‘aiming high’, ‘striving for excellence’ or ‘doing our best’ –  but the second is still ‘Ambition’. Perhaps you will feel that she ends on a depressing note. But in myself, I feel hope. I was a child in sensible brown lace-ups and my sister’s old fawn socks that constantly fell down. At that age, I would have prized black patent and white lacy socks. But sod it, I’m past that now. Maybe a sure-fire antidote to Gold Star addiction is simply to grow old enough not to care anymore. Anyway, I leave you with my friend’s thought-provoking creative response: The grandmother studied the photograph in front of her. Nine small children in a line on a hastily assembled stage in a school somewhere in East London in 2022.  She was aware, as she looked, that the multitude of national flags in the playground proudly proclaimed the school’s diverse intake. A school for the future, its values encompassed in the acronym CARE:  creativity, ambition, responsibility, empathy. What a long way to have moved on from those old school mottoes along the lines of Per Ardua Ad Astra and the striving to be top of the class, she thought.Those nine children are the crème de la crème of this reception class. Each has been awarded a prize. Each is clutching a certificate. The child in red football shorts has probably won the Sports prize. The thin earnest one,the Science prize. It is hard to tell who was the most Creative or Ambitious or Responsible, but maybe the child leaning in towards the nervous one, has finally been awarded the prize for Empathy. Who knows? It is hard to tell what great oaks will grow from these five year old acorns, she knew that. The nature/ nurture debate will rage on, as it had when she decided to be a teacher all those years ago.She  had, after all, been well-trained in the 1960’s, the grandmother now looking at the photograph.  Girls like her had come fresh- faced from single sex grammar schools in the Home Counties, eager to learn how the old order was to be turned on its head. Their own schools had selected the top layer of those who showed ability in IQ tests and Verbal Reasoning, and who had a well-embedded knowledge of how to use a subordinate clause.  They  had dutifully achieved 8 O levels, 2 A levels (after the unexpected and unaccustomed joys of the attentions of a male teacher), Economics.Now, they realised, the world of education was different.  Comprehensive schools across the land would ensure that eleven year olds were no longer divided into sheep and goats, but ALL would win prizes.‘All children are equal and NONE are more equal than others,’ the student teachers  learned, as they brought the glad tidings to mixed ability groups of 34 or 35 pupils, ensuring that by careful preparation, the sheep and goats all had accessible tasks, and that abundant praise was scattered like soft rain over all kinds of soil where seeds had been planted. ‘They’d praise them for breathing, if they could,’ someone said. Sports days became activity days, for rankings of first, second and third were surely iniquitous, and there was always a prize for trying.‘Trying your best’ was all that mattered, for ‘the sky’s the limit’ and who knew what could be achieved if only you put your mind to it. Failure was not an option. There was always, ‘room for improvement’, yes, but as long as you were somewhere on a ‘learning journey’, all would be well.And it was. The 1960’s was a heady decade. They were post-war children, these students, and they were going to change the drab old world.  Beatles for the good girls, Rolling Stones for the bad, and what was this? A college with mixed-sex hostels? What was the world coming to? her father had said, as he began to regret having daughters, not sons.What the world was coming to, she realised, was a place where the glittering prizes were different from the ones before. A prize for the best team. A prize for the best project. A prize for the best idea for the future.So rows of desks were inappropriate now. Group those chairs and tables together in four or maybe six. Talk and discussion, that’s the way to get results. Elect a competent leader. Give a presentation to the class. Write up what you have managed to achieve together. Ignore Thatcher’s dictum ‘There’s no such thing as society’.  Why, just look in this classroom: children excitedly discussing their latest project, every bright- eyed face included, and all with a job of some importance to carry out.‘Top of the class’ means nothing any more. Top of what? Top at quick thinking ? Ten out of ten? At learning by heart? Whose heart?  Who knows what’s in the child’s heart who listens intently and says nothing.‘Timothy Winters comes to schoolWith eyes as wide as a football pool’Ever read The Family From One End Street? You should, my dear. Take care. Ability is not the preserve of the middle classes. Ability can be found in the poor, too. What a revelation.And so we care. And new acronyms tell us what the prizes will now be for, in this shining world:             CREATIVITY  AMBITION   RESPONSIBILITY  EMPATHY.That’s what we want for society to thrive. The creative child gets the prize for a wonderful model of a new school.The ambitious child sets up a thriving business at the school gate and gets the prize for enterprise.The responsible child takes the newcomer under his wing and explains the intricacies of the gold star system.The empathic child gives warm hugs freely after playground disasters and is always rewarded.But what about that child at the end of the row, yes, the girl in the rather fetching hat, with the tattooed hand and sandals? Her certificate says, ‘GOOD AT ENGLISH’ so her grandmother in particular is quietly ecstatic, though mustn’t show it.Is she herself pleased, that girl in the sensible sandals, to have achieved this accolade at the end of her very first year at school? Is she confident that her particular talents have been recognised? Will she bear away her certificate and stick it with Blutak on her bedroom wall, next to Elsa from Frozen, and her orange painting of the seaside?Or will she, only a few short seconds after the photo has been taken, look sideways at the other girl in the gingham school dress, and be filled with longing? Not for her certificate, no, no, nothing to envy there, but at the prize she would prefer to have won.Unlike her own bare feet, in the brown leather sandals, the REAL prize shouts out for all to see. It is, of course, the pristine and frilled white knee socks and the shiny black patent shoes. That, my friends, is the real sign of success. Oh brave new world.August 15th 2022. [...]
September 23, 2022Photo by Justin W on Unsplash What a strange couple of weeks it has been in the UK! Whatever our thoughts and feelings about monarchy, it has been hard to ignore the National Period of Mourning. Loud has been the praise for Queen Elizabeth 2nd. Clearly, doing your duty and being consistent for a very long time indeed, brings the gold stars pouring in. I wonder, however, what the Queen herself would think of all that adulation? I’m told that her choice of hymns included ‘Love Divine All Loves Excelling,’ the last lines of which read: Till we cast our crowns before HimLost in wonder love and praise.Charles Wesley Nice choice for a queen! Was she very publicly telling us that, as far as she was concerned, earthly glory is not the biggest deal? It’s an appropriate moment, perhaps, to stop and think about what we’re chasing, if we’re searching for gold stars. However splendid the funeral and despite a lead-lined coffin, we know what will happen to the earthly remains of our late Queen. And we also know what will happen to the memories of her life. They will become distorted. Gradually, stories will be created about her reign which will reflect the truth of it, but will not be the truth. Several years ago I wrote a short biography of Elizabeth 1st for children. I researched it as well as I could but there was so much one simply couldn’t know – and so much that was down to experts’ opinions. When I started the work, I thought Mary 1st was the big burner of heretics and Elizabeth 1st was much more moderate. It turns out that that’s debateable. I remember vividly arguing with Professor Eric Ives, an expert on Tudor History, about this point. In my view, she was hardly moderate seeing as she sanctioned the burning of Unitarians. ‘Of course, she was a moderate!’ the Professor spluttered impatiently. ‘You just don’t understand. That didn’t make her immoderate! Everyone burned Unitarians!’ Moderate or immoderate? Who knows? The point is that the received wisdom, the story that is generally told, is only an approximation to the truth. In my view, Elizabeth 1st was an extraordinary woman and Queen, worthy of many, many gold stars – but at the end of the day, what we are left with is whatever can be pieced together by historians, and even that, despite the writings and the huge body of other evidence that she left, creates only a small window into the person she truly was. Photo by Asep Saeful Bahri: https://www.pexels.com Keeping the end in mind I said I would write about ways to live happily with our neurochemistry without being a slave to it, and perhaps discussing two dead Queens seems a long way from that – but in my view it helps to keep in mind that, ultimately, we will be gone and, if not forgotten, remembered in ways that are not an accurate reflection of ourselves. That great motivational writer, Stephen Covey advises us in ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ https://amzn.to/3LAgRGa to ‘Keep the end in mind’. He would have us imagine what people will say at our funerals in order to keep us on track, to sort out our priorities and motivate us. I have no problem with this – his seven principles are wise and helpful. The danger of derailment is in what we choose as our priorities – collecting gold stars or something more life-enhancing. In the words of Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh, subtle thinker and writer: ‘Our brief finitude is but a beautiful spark in the vast darkness of space. So we should live the fleeting day with passion and, when the night comes, depart from it with grace.’ I was both baffled and sad to hear a report that some people who queued to see the Queen’s coffin, were notifying friends when they arrived so that they could be watched on the live feed and photos taken. Selfies were prohibited so this was a way round the ban. Maybe ‘I was there’ T-shirts should have been sold! What is the selfie phenomenon but a craving for notice? Look at me – I did a thing! When I was a child, it was called ‘showing off’ and was frowned upon. Even children told each other, ‘Don’t show off!’ That wasn’t entirely healthy either – I meet many an adult who is unwilling to admit to their skills and achievements as a result – but we certainly seem to have swung too far in the other direction if paying respects to a dead monarch becomes yet another closet selfie opportunity. It seems to me that, if we are more concerned to record our presence than be entirely in the moment, we are more concerned with notching up an achievement than with ‘living the fleeting day with passion’. One of the most helpful speakers and writers I have found on this topic (amongst others!) is Eckhart Tolle. His book, ‘The Power of Now’, https://amzn.to/3R70fa0 is a modern classic and rightly so. Personally, however, ‘A New Earth’, https://amzn.to/3Rc7hdE the follow-up, more helpful, despite is rather questionable subtitle – ‘Create a better life’. (I wonder if that was Tolle’s choice or his publisher’s?) Tolle writes profoundly about his concept of the ego (subtly different from Freud’s) and the way it enslaves us. I can’t do justice to him if I try to summarise here, but I would like to highlight a few of his comments which seem especially relevant. Playing Roles Tolle suggests that the ego plays roles. Why? ‘Because of one unexamined assumption, one fundamental error, one unconscious thought. I am not enough.’ He goes onto say: ‘In form, you are and will always be inferior to some, superior to others. In essence, you are neither inferior nor superior to anyone. True self-esteem and true humility arise out of that realization.’ He also writes: ‘The underlying emotion that governs all the activity of the ego is fear. The fear of being nobody, the fear of non-existence, the fear of death.’ Back to death again. It seems to me that this lies at the heart of the matter. We want to be somebody, we want to prove our existence, we want to defeat death. But we won’t do it by amassing achievements, however hard we try. Elizabeth 2nd was definitely somebody but she isn’t any more. Her brief finitude is over. This is our almost insurmountable hurdle: believing we are somebody, whilst knowing that one day, whatever our beliefs about an afterlife, we will be here no more. As Shakespeare would have it in ‘Cymbeline’: ‘Golden lads and girls all must,As chimney-sweepers, turn to dust.’ (If you’d like to hear a particularly dirge-like but very poignant version of ‘Fear no more the heat of the sun’, from which this is taken, try Kneehigh Theatre’s version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcL32ISTX7g ) Tolle again: ‘A vital question to ask yourself frequently is: ‘What is my relationship with the present moment?…since Life is inseparable from the Now, what the question really means is: What is my relationship with Life?’ So ask yourself the question! Is your life about proving to whoever happens to notice how amazingly talented you are, how many achievements you’ve notched up and how much better you are than whoever you want to be better than? Or is about something else? And if so, what? I don’t often associate Nietzsche with guidance for a happy life but this is perhaps an uplifting note to end on: ‘For happiness, how little suffices for happiness!…the least thing precisely, the gentlest thing, the lightest thing, a lizard’s rustling, a breath, a wisk, an eye glance – little maketh up the best happiness. Be still. [...]
August 8, 2022Image courtesy of Milad Fakurian on Unsplash I worked for a long time with a teenage client with high-functioning autism and ADHD. This was a hugely difficult but not uncommon combination. Imagine being extremely intelligent but combined with physical restlessness and enormous difficulty in concentrating. Now throw in anxiety and social anxiety and, inevitably, a tendency to become overwhelmed emotionally and in response to physical and mental sensations. What could I offer as a counsellor? In CBT, we are encouraged to ‘capture’ thoughts and beliefs and ‘adapt’ them. For my young client, this was like asking him to catch and tame one rabbit in hundreds, as they all scattered in different directions and disappeared off into their maze of burrows. He could see the sense of the theory, he just  couldn’t put it into practise. Occasionally, we would find one idea that he found helpful and that he could hang onto and live by and, for me at least, that felt like progress – but generally it felt like trying to climb a slime-covered mountain, inch by excruciating inch. We both thought there had to be an easier way. One memorable day my client emailed me with a book suggestion. This, he thought, might be the answer. Would I get a copy and read it? Well, of course. I was as desperate as he was. The book was ‘Habits of a Happy Brain’ by Loretta Graziano Breuning. https://amzn.to/3C5HhwT I’d never heard of her but her credentials were good. She is Professor Emerita at California State University and is founder of The Inner Mammal Institute https://innermammalinstitute.org/. The book turned out to provide a real breakthrough for my client. It is a clear and readable account of basic neurochemistry, in particular the neurochemicals that affect our happiness. I’m not going to go into vast detail – read the book, if you want to deep dive into this – but I am going to write about how this relates to Gold Star Syndrome. Some people will no doubt find the approach reductive and I know I felt a reluctance to accept that my behaviour and moods are so hugely influenced by what’s going on for me biochemically. If, however, we can get over the pride that makes us want to believe that we are independent of mammalian brain chemistry and entirely in charge of our own destiny, then I think we have access to information that can really help us. To my client, the information was clear and his response direct. ‘I need more dopamine’, he said and promptly took steps to achieve that aim. He realised that nothing in his life was giving him any sense of reward. Dopamine is the neurochemical responsible for our sense of reward. You may already have heard how it is exploited by those interested in getting us hooked into something, be it gambling, scrolling on our phones or amassing ‘likes’ on our social media. Anyone who has been ‘in love’ will have experienced the dopamine ‘hit’ when a text from the beloved pings in and then the desperation for the next text and the next and the next. Dopamine gives us a sense of reward but it doesn’t last. We all know how great it feels to buy something new – and then to notice how, as the days go by, the shiny new feeling diminishes. Unfortunately, it happens with our lovers too. Gradually, and inevitably, we become habituated to them and it becomes harder and harder for them to provide us with dopamine. I observed it recently as a young man wooed one of my lodgers. At first, she was thrilled with the flowers he gave her and it didn’t matter what flowers they were. Then, she asked if she could put the lilies he brought in the kitchen – she couldn’t stand the smell of them. Before long, she’d come home with flowers and sling them aside while she put the kettle on. ‘More flowers?’ I’d ask. ‘Yeh,’ she’d say, with a shrug and a roll of her eyes. My young client grasped all this. He knew that understanding his brain chemistry didn’t give him a magic bullet – but it did give him a very practical approach to creating his own happiness. He also needed some very specific medication and help from a specialist psychotherapist – but reading the book was ground-breaking. It gave him a new strategy and hope. What does all this have to do with Gold Star Syndrome? Maybe you are there already. It is in the role of dopamine. https://innermammalinstitute.org/dopamine/ As mammals, we are programmed to seek reward. It is a survival strategy. We seek out what will make us feel good because that way lies survival – food, warmth, shelter, love. It makes sense then that dopamine also helps make us competitive. If there is just one banana and we fight for it and win it, then at a very basic level, we feel good. Of course, centuries of becoming more civilised and having messages drummed into us such as ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’, ‘Share and share alike’, ‘Make love, not war’, (do come up with your own in a similar vein!) rather muddies the picture. We are likely to have mixed feelings. Yes, we got the banana (dopamine hit), but we’re also feeling a bit bad about being selfish and certainly, about punching our friend in the face to get it. Nice people don’t punch other people. But, deep down, we really, really want that banana, because we really, really like dopamine because we really, really want to survive! We feel very mixed up about our desire to achieve and to keep achieving because we love our dopamine – but there is other stuff going on too. Some of the other stuff is oxytocin. https://innermammalinstitute.org/oxytocin/ Anyone who has had an orgasm or who has breastfed will have felt the action of oxytocin. Oxytocin is often called the ‘love hormone’ and it is released when we feel trust: it helps us to bond. Stroke your dog, your cat or even your pet snake, and you will release oxytocin. Fight someone for the banana and you’re going to release dopamine but it’s going to interfere with your oxytocin levels. Remember the old ‘Last Rolo’ advertisements? They’re all about the dopamine/serotonin/oxytocin interplay. Try this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ENymdMBTcSo The other relevant stuff is serotonin. https://innermammalinstitute.org/serotonin/ Serotonin is released when we’re feeling status or social power – hence, when you’ve won the banana, you’ll feel the benefit of serotonin. You’ll look like a winner in the pack and that will feel good. Very crudely then: Fought for and won the banana = dopamine + serotonin – oxytocin This simple formula can fuel Gold Star Syndrome For example: You get the promotion and you feel great for a while (dopamine + seratonin) but then you become habituated to it (no dopamine). Maybe you also feel a bit bad about it because the ‘rule’ in your pack is that it’s bad to set store by worldly achievements or pride comes before a fall (minus some oxytocin). Maybe you don’t like the team you’re leading (no oxytocin) or you feel your status as leader is being undermined by a colleague (serotonin levels sink). Before long, you’re seeking another promotion – you’re getting no dopamine, your serotonin levels have slumped and you certainly aren’t getting any oxytocin! You can get round the ‘rule’ about worldly achievements by deciding that there’s nothing actually WRONG with achieving things so long as you make sure to be humble about them. Even if you work alone, the neurochemistry still has you in thrall. I, for example, spent many years working as a children’s writer. At first, it’s enough just to be published. Wow! Loads of dopamine and serotonin! You’ve made it as a published writer! But that soon fades. Then it’s the next book – or maybe the need to get a deal for a trilogy – or a series! And then there’s the lure of the  dopamine-infested book awards At first, it’s fantastic to be long-listed – then it has to be short-listed – and then it’s not enough unless you actually get the award! Meanwhile, you might be feeling a bit lonely, working on your own (no oxytocin) so maybe you try to buddy up with your agent or your editor. Or maybe you join a social media group for published authors – and then you start finding out what other writers are up – the deals they have struck, the fantastic covers their books have, the reviews they have received! All very, very bad for your serotonin levels! (and possibly for your oxytocin if you begin to feel jealous of the other writers!) Are we then doomed? Can we not escape the snares of our neurochemistry? Will we be seeking Gold Stars forever, like rats seeking glucose in an endless maze? Not necessarily. Forgive me for any repetition but I think one of the main benefits of counselling or therapy, is becoming aware. If you are unaware, you will only change anything accidently. Once you are aware, you can consciously decide what you’re doing to do – like my young client who took active, healthy steps to experience more dopamine. We can choose to start noticing when we feel the lure of the dopamine hit. I now know, for example, what’s fuelling the temptation to visit TKMaxx. Consider the set up in that store which, in my view, is utterly brilliant as a sales strategy. In TKMaxx we are both hunter and gatherer. The random element gives us the thrill of the chase and delighted satisfaction when we find something we want (lovely, lovely dopamine!). We even feel serotonin as we smugly carry home our bargain: we have done slightly better than the rest of our pack. ‘Look at what I got in TKMaxx!’ we crow. When asked about our lovely new dress/shoes/bizarre garden ornament, ‘Oh, I got it in TKMAXX,’ we say modestly, privately gloating over our spectacular bargain (loads and loads of serotonin). What is a bargain but something that you’ve got for less money than anyone else, thereby making you a winner, if briefly? Do I visit TKMAXX less often? Probably not, but I now know what I’m letting myself in for and am less likely to exit with weird biscuits that I’m never going to eat. I did fall for a dog paw washer the other day though…… On that happy note, I will finish. I will consider other ways to live happily with our neurochemistry, without being a slave to it, another day. Meanwhile, happy bargain hunting! It’s not called ‘hunting’ for nothing! Please note: this post contains an affiliate link. [...]
June 21, 2022Arbeit macht frei No more fucking gold stars that the teacher licked onto a chart no more verbal ability tests going off the top of the scale no more feeling virtuous after cleaning kitchen cupboards no more ‘My kid spoke at six months taught himself to read at three’ no more ‘We’ve done thirty-three years and fights in every single one’ no more ‘I came second’, ‘Commended’ ‘Working on a pamphlet’ I am I am I am I Arbeit macht tot – Freiheit macht frei Veronica Zundel We are in dark territory today. My friend, Veronica Zundel, whose poetry and other writing some of you will know, wrote the above poem, in response to this blog. She is the daughter of Holocaust refugees. Above it, you see her poem’s title, as it appears in the gates of Auschwitz, made by prisoners. It was written over the entrances of several other death camps too. If you don’t speak German (I don’t, but thank goodness for Google translate!), it means ‘Work sets you free’ and Veronica’s last lines mean ‘Work kills. Freedom makes free.’) There’s a horrible irony here. Even Veronica who grew up knowing the murderous and barbaric use that the ‘work ethic’ was put to, finds personal resonance in this blog about the way it entraps us and the damage it can do. Thank you, Veronica. Your poem is a clarion call to us all to break free. Would that it were easy, once noted! If you’re reading this blog, you know that it is not – and perhaps especially so (shoot me down in flames, if you must!) if you are a woman. I’ve had several comments or conversations about it with women, so I want to write about those today. My own age and that of the women who’ve commented, puts us in a unique generation. We sit in the gap between those women who, in the majority, worked running households and families, rather than for wages, and subsequent generations who assume that they will run a household and family as well as working for wages. They will assume the assistance of a partner and, if they are lucky or can afford it, will enlist other help from family and services such as nurseries and cleaning companies. My generation was liberated by effective birth control and more flexible thinking around relationships and were unencumbered by student debt or crippling house prices. Not that this meant our lifestyles were flush – it is easy for subsequent generations to be ignorant of the standard of living then. I remember feeling very fortunate to have a job when there were 4 million unemployed and queues for the dole extended round the block. Double-glazing was the exception and central heating erratic when we purchased our first home and it was normal to make do with hand-me-down furniture. I made my wedding dress myself: it cost me £22. We had a grand total of 24 photographs taken at our wedding. And so on… But this isn’t a pity party or about how well we did to manage with so little. This is about the context in which we made choices about childcare and work: many of us were able and willing to make the choice to look after our children ourselves, at least until they went to school. Or that was the intention. For a significant number, it didn’t work out quite like that. Many found that, by the time their children were all in school, the dynamic between them and their husbands had changed. Somehow or another, without really choosing it, mothers had morphed into housekeepers and nannies whilst fathers had become the breadwinners and were very happy to stay that way, secure in the knowledge that their wives would do everything else needed to keep the family ship afloat. I’ve heard of men who are happy to mow the lawn but nothing else, who will unload the dishwasher but never load it, men who will wash the car(s) or at least take it/them to the car wash and men who will ‘do the banking’. These are their sole contributions to the household running because they ‘earn the money’. Photo by Mathieu Stern on Unsplash I earn the money! Once their wives were busy raising babies, many of these husbands quickly began to earn so much money that it was hard to argue the case for bringing in someone new who would have to be trained up and paid to run the ship (probably not so well!), so that the present incumbent could go and seek fulfilment in a career for which she’d probably have to re-train to catch up. How self-indulgent! How ungrateful! How completely unnecessary! Except, of course, that for the sanity and contentment of such women, it was essential. These are women who got good degrees, in some cases the first women to go to university from their families. They started careers and professions in good faith that they would be taking a career break and then getting back on track. Instead, incrementally and insidiously they became what I recently heard termed ‘trailing wives’, hidden behind prestigious husbands like unappreciated and unpaid PAs. Perhaps they have gone on to pick up the duties of an unpaid carer for their parents or their in-laws too because it seems like the obvious thing to do – they are there, aren’t they, with time on their hands? The children are less time consuming now, surely? There will be some, of course, that are very happy in their roles and there may even be young men and women who aspire to such lives – but they are not the ones I am concerned about. I’m shouting out for those who have become stuck in lives they never wanted or intended and who still suffer the miseries of Gold Star Syndrome – because, of course, it afflicts them just as much, if not more, than anyone else. The impact can take a while to arrive but eventually, it can hit hard – perhaps when the children have finally flown the nest or the marriage approaches a big anniversary or illness strikes or even when the husband begins to talk about retirement. Then the awakening happens – what happened to my life? What happened to all my aspirations? Have I only been the caretaker for the generation to come and the generation that is leaving? What have I achieved? Surely my life had more purpose than this? Some of these women will have managed to work part-time, worked free-lance, started small businesses, alongside their roles as housekeepers and caretakers. Three cheers for them! Somehow, they have managed to keep their aspirations afloat, next to the family ship. But even they feel short-changed. They wanted and had been educated to expect, something more than this. Worse, what they hear from others is that they don’t have a ‘proper’ job, that their work is for ‘pin money’, it’s an extra, not really necessary, that it ‘keeps them happy’. I feel a scream coming on. There’s a toxic mix-up here. Too much pursuit of Gold Stars condemns us to a feeling of never having done enough. Too little opportunity to achieve, leaves us feeling bereft. Martin Seligman, the great guru of Positive Psychology tells us that there are five important elements which are observed in psychologically healthy people, summed up in the mnemonic PERMA. They are: Positive Emotions Engagement Relationships Meaning Achievement Endlessly climbing the greasy pole is not a route to happiness – but nor is being deprived of the opportunity to achieve in a way that gives us meaning and purpose. As ever, there is a balance to be struck. Seligman’s observations may only be of subjects moulded by Western Capitalism so have a particular bias – I don’t know. Would those qualities equate to psychological health within a different set of social parameters? If ‘Freedom makes free’, to quote Veronica’s poem, can we ever get free of what has been bred into us by the society we were brought up in? I think Eckhart Tolle would argue that we can but I’ll come back to his wisdom another day. Meanwhile, what’s the way forward for the ‘trailing wives’? A hard, path, I think, of being determined to find ways to get enough of what they wanted and were taught to expect, without being torn apart by the need to achieve. I found the following poem, by Erica Jong, many years ago, when I was a young teacher. It said what I needed to hear then and what I still need to hear now about how tough it is to be ‘woman enough’, without endlessly craving gold stars. May there be many more men like the one in the poem! Woman Enough Because my grandmother’s hours were apple cakes baking, & dust motes gathering, & linens yellowing & seams and hems inevitably unravelling – I almost never keep house though really I like houses & wish I had a clean one. Because my mother’s minutes were sucked into the roar of the vacuum cleaner, because she waltzed with the washer-dryer & tore her hair waiting for repairmen- I send out my laundry, & live in a dusty house, though really I like clean houses as well as anyone. I am woman enough to love the kneading of bread as much as the feel of typewriter keys under my fingers- springy, springy. & the smell of clean laundry & simmering soup are almost as dear to me as the smell of paper and ink. I wish there were not a choice; I wish I could be two women. I wish the days could be longer. But they are short. So I write while the dust piles up. I sit at my typewriter remembering my grandmother & all my mothers, & the minutes they lost loving houses better than themselves & the man I love cleans up the kitchen grumbling only a little because he knows that after all these centuries it is easier for him than for me. Erica Jong [...]
May 5, 2022Dungarees proving to be the ONLY way to manage the discomfort of shingles! ‘We do the best we can with the resources we have available at the time.’ This is an idea that a friend who is an NLP (Neuro-linguistic Programming) coach shared with me several years ago and to which I often return. Remember in my last post the Cub Scout Law? It starts ‘Cub Scouts always do their best…’ All right, let’s be honest. Can you always ‘do your best’? Can you always be that much-lauded creature ‘the best version of yourself’? In my case, it’s a resounding ‘no’. For the past three weeks, I’ve been suffering from shingles – hence the delay in the blog posting. It interfered with my sleep, my work, my exercise, my social life and my all round well-being. Over the years, I’ve suffered period pain, migraines, flu and more recently, the dreaded Covid 19. And that’s just feeling unwell! We all have times when we’re over-tired, stressed, anxious, sad or generally below par. It is neither realistic nor reasonable to expect ourselves to ‘always do our best’; it is far more humane to accept that we can do the best we can with the resources that we have available at the time. Our responsibility is not, I would contend, in demanding ‘the best’ of ourselves, whatever our immediate circumstances – it is in aiming to ensure that we resource ourselves well for whatever we need and want to do. I have worked with many a teenage Gold Star addict who will sacrifice sleep for revision, in a misguided attempt to do his or her ‘best’. I did it myself in the past so I know the temptation. These days it can still be a struggle to prioritise sleep over the many, many demands of life, but I am learning to change my script to one that supports my well-being, rather than slowly kills off my brain cells! Prioritising sleep! Photo by Alexander Possingham on Unsplash I would love, therefore, to change the Cub Scout law to something kinder. In fact, I wouldn’t call it a law at all. Maybe it could be a recommendation? Or guidance? Or even just a suggestion? And the suggestion could be: ‘Cub Scouts aim to do the best they can with the resources they have available at the time.’ How does that sit with you? How do you find yourself reacting to the idea of a law being turned into a suggestion? We’re not talking about the law of the land here (though some of that, I personally find problematic), we’re talking about the internalised ‘laws’ that bind us. How do you feel about turning your own ‘laws’ into guidance or suggestions? If you find yourself jibbing at this – arguing that this way of thinking isn’t ‘strong’ enough or fearing that you will run amok, ask yourself what’s behind that reaction. Self-Compassion If we return to the principles of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) and aim to live lives according to values, rather than goals, the value here is self-compassion. If we view ourselves with compassion, we will forgive ourselves when we aren’t our best version and look after ourselves with tenderness when we are hurting and disappointed, rather than adding to our pain by beating ourselves up. There is, of course, more to ACT than committing to our values. In the previous chapter, I encouraged you to tolerate the discomfort of not seeking validation through your performances – to begin to sit with the discomfort you might experience. This is, inevitably, easier said than done. We find comfort in familiarity, including our habitual patterns of thought, however unhelpful they actually are. A word of encouragement. We are quite used to the idea of tolerating discomfort when we need to make a change that helps us. Anyone who has consulted a physiotherapist or a personal trainer will know that sometimes we’re going to feel very uncomfortable whilst doing the prescribed exercises or new workout: we persevere because we know we will benefit in the long run, however tedious and difficult it is. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash ACT provides us with some simple tools to help with accepting the discomfort whilst we change our habitual thoughts and if you want to know about these in depth, I suggest you follow up with some reading eg. The Little Act Workbook https://amzn.to/3yhOEiv  or seek out Russ Harris on Youtube. Here, briefly, are some starting points: 1. Use Expansion. Essentially, rather than resisting the thoughts that make you uncomfortable, you are accepting, allowing and making space for them – and then observing what happens to them. Imagine pushing against a wall with one arm, really leaning into it and trying to push the wall away. It won’t go anywhere, but your arm will begin to hurt. This is like you trying to resist thoughts such as ‘I must do my absolute best or I am wasting my potential.’ Now imagine yourself resting your hand against the wall, arm outstretched, but not pushing, simply staying relaxed. You might feel some mild discomfort but you won’t hurt like you did when you pushed. This is you accepting the ‘absolute best’ thought. It’s still there, but you are simply observing it, not engaging with it, just allowing it to be as it is – a thought and only a thought. Once you aren’t resisting it, fighting with it or engaging with it in any way, you are free to walk away and leave the thought alone. 2. You can use Defusion techniques. Again, if you’re interested, you’ll find plenty online about ACT and defusion. Essentially, you are distancing yourself from your own unhelpful thoughts by reframing them in a way that makes them very separate from yourself. You can repeat them in cartoon character voices, sing them to well-known tunes, project them onto an imaginary screen with you in the role of observer – it’s a case of finding what works best for you. There’s a huge element of Mindfulness theory here. You are establishing the idea that you are separate from your thoughts and therefore, that thoughts that trouble you, can be disrupted and managed in ways that don’t harm you. I like Russ Harris’s Sushi Train metaphor to summarise this concept. Here it is: For some of you, the concept of a ‘soul’ might help. If you are happy with the idea that you are something more than a product of your brain, then it’s relatively easy to accept that you can start observing your thoughts, your feelings, your assumptions and rules, and see them as something separate from yourself. For those who don’t find the idea of a ‘soul’ useful, it can be helpful to remember that the brain has different ‘sections’: perhaps you can visualise one ‘section’ of your brain, observing other ‘sections’ of your brain producing memories and thoughts and the rules and assumptions that have become embedded. Personally, I also find it helpful to remember the times when, in the middle of a dream, I realise that I am dreaming. Who is the person who suddenly realises? I am simultaneously the dreamer and the person observing the dream. However you choose to get your head round this concept, the aim is the same –  to observe your thoughts, your feelings, your rules and assumptions, without being enmeshed in them and tortured by them. This is difficult territory and these are only a few ideas for finding ways to manage our discomfort when the familiarity of our toxic thinking is so comfortable that it keeps drawing us back in. I’d love to hear from anyone who has anything more to contribute on this. One last thing, whilst we’re on the topic of entrenched thinking and the power of thought. I said that for three weeks I’ve had shingles. Actually, three weeks ago, I was diagnosed in A&E with a kidney stone. I had no rash, had acute pain ‘from the loin to the groin’ and my blood pressure was scarily high. I was prescribed some hefty painkillers, had to drink at least 3 litres a day and was told to get my GP to book me a CT scan. Six days later, after some time outside in the sun, I found what I assumed was a cluster of midge bites ‘from the loin to the groin’. ‘Oh bum,’ I thought. ‘Now I have a kidney stone and load of very painful midge bites – I’ve never had them this painful and itchy ever before!’ It took a clear CT scan, a fraught conversation with a doctor who told me that I should, ‘Calm down and takes some laxatives!’ and some furious Googling before I worked out what was actually wrong with me and confirmed it with a less patronising doctor. I’d been told I had a kidney stone and I believed it. I then made my experience fit the diagnosis – until it couldn’t any longer. I’d had an assumption implanted that I had acted upon – although it was completely erroneous. It’s a good lesson. We act on the rules and assumptions that have been implanted – and it can be very difficult to then think outside the box. I hope this blog is helping you to do that! Please note this post contains an affiliate link. [...]
April 20, 2022Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash The Locus of Evaluation Our rules and assumptions are about a huge range of issues. We will have them about love and marriage, parents and children, crime and punishment – I could go on! If you suffer from Gold Star Syndrome, however, a lot of your beliefs are likely to revolve around the judgement of others, ranging from people passing in the street or following you on social media, all the way through to deceased ancestors or God Almighty. Forgive me for stating what you may think is obvious: you don’t start life awarding Gold Stars to yourself. In the first place, they are given to you by others, who have judged you. It is only later on that Gold Star giving becomes internalized. Carl Rogers, the founder of the Person-Centred model for counselling, expounded a very useful concept which is relevant here. It is the concept of the locus of evaluation. His theory is that this is either external (we pay attention to the judgements of others) or it is internal (we pay attention to the judgements we make ourselves). The psychologically healthy person will have a balance between the two. If we don’t pay any attention to the judgements of others, we’ll be constantly clocking up speeding fines, nicking stuff from the supermarket and getting up the noses of our nearest and dearest. We will be lawless and entitled. If, however, we swing too far in the opposite direction and allow the judgements of others to inhibit us or drive us, we’ll be deeply lacking in self-confidence or anxiously over-performing or both! We may have reached a point where we have lost sight of the original external locus of evaluation and, even within the internal locus, have become adept at beating ourselves up, basing our judgements on those which originated with others. For example, our personal moral code may insist that we give a considerable percentage of our earnings to charity. We are convinced of the importance of altruism and would say that this is based on our own judgement – but where did the idea of such generosity come from in the first place? It may well have arisen spontaneously, springing from our own compassionate spirit and, of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with such a belief in itself. It becomes problematic when the belief is one that is actually driven by an external source which we don’t fully own. Then it may lead us into a punishing process of internally judging ourselves for never giving enough. Examples of Internalized Rules I have worked with clients brought up as Christians, for whom a rule about altruism has become very problematic. They know they should ‘love their neighbour’ and they are familiar with the idea of ‘pouring themselves out’ for others, but somewhere along the line, a vital part of Jesus’ teaching has been edited out. Jesus taught that we should love our neighbours as ourselves, not more than ourselves. There is a vital inclusion of equality here and this is essential to our wellbeing, if we are to avoid burnout. We cannot continually give to others and pour ourselves out for their benefit, if we do not also nurture and cherish ourselves. I often wonder if the Brownie Guide and Cub Scout  laws gets mixed up in this:  ‘A Brownie Guide thinks of others before themselves and does a good turn everyday’. ‘Cub scouts always do their best, think of others before themselves and do a good turn every day.’ Personally, I have nothing against Jesus or his teaching on this point. I do object, however, to the Brownie Guide and Cub Scout framing of these ideas as laws. This is an inappropriately powerful way to express ideas that are implanted into children at a very impressionable age. These are good examples of external rules that may have become internalized at an early age without, if you like, ‘informed consent’. Unfortunately, in the case of Jesus’ teaching, guidance which is essentially healthy seems easily to get distorted in a way that can become damaging. In the case of the Brownie Guide and Cub Scout laws, the requirements themselves are, in my view, suspect – something I might return to in another chapter! I must do my best, think of others before myself and do a good turn every day! If Roger’s concept of the locus of evaluation sounds plausible to you, what’s the way forward? How do you free yourself of an external locus of evaluation or an internal locus of evaluation which has become sadly confused by external judgements? Help from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy First let’s seek help from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. (ACT) ACT is a refreshing and compassionate development of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which has many strengths and helpful strategies. The aspect I want to dwell on here is Commitment. In ACT, we are asked to commit to our values – so a crucial step is to work out what they are. There are many questionnaires and lists of values on the net but here’s one that I particularly like, devised by Dr Russ Harris, the writer of ‘The Happiness Trap’ and ‘The Happiness Trap Pocketbook’ , both excellent guides to the principles of ACT. The latter is a shortened and illustrated version of the original full-length book. http://thehappinesstrap.com/upimages/Values_Questionnaire.pdf I am constantly surprised by the random approach to life that many people seem to take – as if it is a juggernaut that simply shoves them along in whatever direction it happens to be headed. I highly recommend occasional times of deep reflection to consider what our values are and what we want to commit to. Please note that I am not talking about goals here. Goals are the stuff of Gold Star Syndrome. When we strive towards goals, we feed our addiction – we award ourselves a Gold Star for achieving a goal and we castigate ourselves when we don’t. Let’s return to the value of altruism for a few moments. If we value altruism, we will, of course, be looking for opportunities to be altruistic and that might, for example, include running a marathon for a favorite charity. If we are focused on our value for altruism, however fast we run in the marathon, however much money we raise, we will be content. If we are focused on the goal of doing a marathon, we are more likely to be concerned by our finish time and whether we meet our fund-raising target. We are less likely to be content with simply having completed the run and raised some money. Photo by Sherise VD on Unsplash You can argue, of course, that being focused on the goal will make you train harder, fund-raise more vigorously and run faster on the day – and you may be right – but the side-effect of that will be to continue to feed your addiction! You cannot give up an addiction without accepting some of the discomfort it was helping you to escape in the first place. Maybe by pursuing your value rather than a specific goal, you won’t ‘do as well’ as you might have done and you will have to live with a bit of disappointment or chagrin. Good. That’s important. Humility is a great antidote to Gold Star Syndrome. What we are learning to accept is that being the best or even the best that we can manage, is not essential to our happiness. Our values can stand alone. It is not necessary for them to be validated by our stunning achievements. This week, then, I recommend finding a time to really ponder your values. Where did they come from? Are they really yours? Are you happy with them? When you have worked out what they are, make the commitment to pursuing your values, independent of specific goals, and see how that feels. Enjoy! Please note that this blog contains affiliate links for the books recommended. [...]
April 6, 2022In the years I have worked as a counsellor, I have heard many powerful beliefs, rules and assumptions expressed. Here is a list of some that you may hold or that may sound familiar: I must make the most of my talents.I must make the most of or fulfill my potential.I must not waste time.I should always seek to challenge myself to do better.If I fail at something, then it’s an opportunity to do better the next time.If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.I should not give up.I should be determined and persistent.I should have grit.I should be resilient.If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.I can always do better.There’s no such word as ‘can’t’.It’s not what you say that matters, it’s what you do.It is wrong to be ‘All words, no action’ or ‘All mouth’.It is wrong to ‘say one thing and do another’.I must not shirk.It is wrong to be lazy.Work is, in and of itself, good.If I’m not the best at something, I have failed.In theory, it’s OK if someone does better than me – but that’s not how it feels in practice.I have to keep proving my worth by achieving things.I both love and hate a ‘to do’ list.It is hard to rest. There is always more to do.I feel guilty when I take time out when my jobs aren’t finished.If I haven’t finished what I need to do, it’s OK to skimp on sleep.I often think that there aren’t enough hours in the day. Getting practical Let me invite you to get practical here. Tick any that apply to you and write down any others that you hold or experience that you think are ‘on theme’. The fascinating thing about our beliefs, rules and assumptions is that we tend to think they are a given – surely everyone thinks this? I’ve had clients share beliefs with me that have almost knocked me flat. Here are a couple of examples: ‘If a girl dresses up to go out, she’s on the pull – why would she bother otherwise?’ ‘I can’t change the way I think. Other people might be able to, but I can’t.’ I try to respond with, ‘That’s a very interesting belief you have,’ or words to that effect. I’m usually met by a baffled look and some predictable comments. ‘But don’t you think that?’ ‘But it’s true – what do you mean, it’s a belief?’ ‘But I know it’s true!’ What I think or believe is, of course, irrelevant – the point is that the beliefs we hold dear are not universally held to be true and they are not immutable. If they are not beliefs that are helping us, we can choose to adapt or change them. This is not easy work. We will have been thinking and acting on these beliefs for so long that they are ingrained. They have become habitual and they will be our default position. Like any new habit, new thinking is hard to establish and will take time and effort. Sometimes clients complain that it feels ‘odd’ or ‘fake’. Yes, of course it does. Anything new feels unusual at first. If you get a pair of stiff, new shoes, it’s going to take time and in some cases some painful blisters, before you are used to them and they feel as comfortable as the ones you’ve had for years. Effecting a belief change is harder than wearing in new shoes – but is definitely worth the effort. Shoulds and Musts A good place to start is with any ‘shoulds’ or ‘musts’ in your list. Let’s take a common one. ‘I should/must make the most of my potential.’ I’m sure we can all see some sense in this. It’s a great motivator not to be a couch potato and is drilled into children and young people by well-meaning parents in order to help them pass their exams and get ‘good’ jobs. Be aware, however, that some of those parents will not be so well-meaning. Some will be wanting shiny, gold-star offspring that they can brag about to their friends and colleagues (think of some of the hellish Christmas Round Robins that many of us are doomed to receive!). Some will have issues of their own that they are trying to resolve through their children – because they never got to be an Olympic athlete/Leader of the Orchestra/Oscar Nominee/Prime Minister, they want to make jolly sure that one of their progeny makes it! Some will have religious and cultural axes to grind. It’s well worth having a think about what is or was motivating your own parents and how that is still affecting your own beliefs, even if they are long dead. So…what do we do with these ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’? I’m not going to say anything new or revolutionary here – oodles of psychologists and therapists have made this point before but it’s worth stating nonetheless. Start by changing your ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ to ‘coulds’ ‘cans’ ‘mights’ and ‘mays’ and add an element of choice. I could make the most of my potential (if I choose too).I may make the most of my potential (if I’d like too). Observe how you feel reading those two possibilities. A bit uncomfortable? A bit, ‘Ooh, I’m not sure about that – sounds a bit lazy/sketchy/irresponsible’? Does it sound a just a bit too free and easy? If so, ask yourself exactly what is so terrible about feeling free to make your own decision about how much you choose to use your ‘potential’. What law are you breaking? Whose? And let’s just unpick that word ‘potential’ whilst we’re here. Do you really believe that you have a given quantity of something stored up that ‘must’ be used or else? What are you? A long-life battery? Or else what, exactly?  Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash Really interrogate what you believe here. Notice if you are coming up with labels for yourself. ‘Oh but then I’d be really lazy! I can’t do that – I’d maybe be a bit of a waste of space! I’d be like a drop-out or a loser!’ Then interrogate the labels. Where do those thoughts come from? Who is making those judgements? You? Your peers? Society? God? Who do you want to make the judgements about you? We’ll come back to labelling and judgements later. For now, keep working on adapting some key rules and assumptions. Dig deep into your personal history and your family’s story. How far do the rules go back? What’s been handed down through the generations? Is yours a family of self-made people who are committed to pulling themselves up by their boot straps? Are there historical disadvantages that your family has had to strive to overcome? Is there tragedy and trauma, leading to your family narrative being one of survival, whatever the cost? Is yours a family of emigres or refugees, flung onto their own resources time and again? My family history is relatively innocuous compared with many and, in some ways, has influenced me for the good. But it’s also had its dark side, as we have seen. Let’s finish this chapter with  a suggestion for an alternative to ‘I must fulfill my potential.’ I can choose to explore my gifts and talents and use them as it seems appropriate to me. To me that feels remarkably refreshing compared with the previous straitjacket! But notice your own reaction. If you are questioning this as an appropriate belief to live by, what are you questioning? And what’s motivating the question? Keep digging! [...]
March 26, 2022Lots of gold stars for me for making dolls! So where should we start? To a large extent, this is a record of my personal journey, what I’ve discovered and what’s helped me –  so let’s start where I began which was during my training to be a counsellor. It was a challenging time in my life. We had taken the difficult decision for all our children to start full-time school after years of home-educating and flexi-schooling and I suddenly had choices. Where was my career to go? I was juggling three strands – writing professionally, running both a local youth theatre and a home-educators’ drama group and I was a trained and practising breastfeeding counsellor. I couldn’t decide which strand to choose so I carried on with all three. I started an MA in Theatre and Drama Education, a certificate in Person-Centred Counselling and continued to write books for children. Sleep didn’t seem like a priority – it hadn’t for years. Unbeknownst to me, my thyroid gland was slowly going on strike. We lived in a 17th century cottage so I assumed it was normal to wear two jumpers, a shirt and a vest in winter and the sleepiness – well, I knew I was short of sleep! Drowsing off in my lectures and classes seemed like par for my course. I resented the amount of time my husband spent on computer games – how come he had time for something so pointless when my entire life was dedicated to ‘worthwhile’ activities? So it went on – for several years. I couldn’t immediately follow up on my counselling certificate with a diploma because the second year of my MA was very demanding, the youth theatre was expanding and I was becoming more successful as a writer. It was some time before I started my diploma in CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and had my lightbulb moment. Just fun won’t do! In counselling training, a vital part is triad work. You work in threes with your fellow students, one being the ‘client’ and presenting a real, live issue which isn’t too massive to be dealt with by trainees. A second is the ‘counsellor’ and a third is the ‘observer’ who offers feedback when the session is finished. I was in the role of client and was talking about my lack of downtime. ‘You see,’ I said, ‘just fun won’t do.’ The ‘counsellor’ said, ‘Say that again slowly, Meg.’ Slightly exasperated, I repeated it. ‘Just fun won’t do.’ My words hung in the air. We were all silent, I think considering the enormity of what I had just said. That was the place I had got to – a place where I couldn’t enjoy leisure, I couldn’t enjoy anything other than ‘worthwhile’ work – because fun ‘wouldn’t do’. In my moral framework, ‘just enjoying yourself’ had no validity. In CBT, the premise is that our thoughts affect our emotions and our emotions affect our behaviour. In therapy, considerable time and effort is spent corralling thoughts and thinking patterns, considering how they may have developed but, more importantly, whether they are helpful or not. Where do those thoughts come from? The premise is that they will be linked to underlying Core Beliefs, which will have gradually taken root in our minds, influenced by the messages from our families and other powerful influences such as school, faith groups and the media. My ‘just fun won’t do’ belief, had a lengthy provenance, probably even pre-dating my birth. The roots are deep My mother was born in the 1920s and was brought up on a farm which struggled to stay afloat financially in the Great Depression years of the 1930s. She was the youngest of nine children, all of whom helped with the work of the household. As a result, she had calloused areas on her hands which she called ‘segs’ which had built up when she was young, peeling potatoes for the large family and farmhands. They had never gone away. She loved reading and encouraged my own love of books but she also told me that her mother, catching her reading, would say, ‘Why are you reading? Haven’t you got anything to do?’ Unintentionally, she handed down a mixed message. On the one hand reading was to be loved – but on the other, it didn’t count as a legitimate thing to ‘do’. My mother’s father was also a booklover – but his farm was failing and money was short. In the mid 1930s, my grandmother left the farm, taking half of the children with her and some cattle, and set up a dairy in inner city Liverpool. She never went back. My mother’s story was that they couldn’t make ends meet on the farm – so my grandmother took steps to keep the family housed and fed by starting her own business in Liverpool. Bizarre as it sounds, there were numerous ‘cowhouses’ in Liverpool, some of them purpose-built, because Liverpool’s position on the hinterland made it impossible to bring in milk from the countryside fast enough for it to stay fresh.  It must have been incredibly hard work – once again, the children helped run the show, churning butter, making ice cream and, in the case of one of my aunts, doing the milk deliveries in a pony and trap. It’s a story of self-motivation, determination and grit – and risk taking. My grandmother started her dairy towards the end of the ‘cowhouse’ period, shortly before refrigeration became the norm and milk could come into Liverpool by train – and shortly before the start of the second world war. The family struggled on through the Liverpool Blitz. The backstory, as one of my cousins told me relatively recently, is that the marriage was on the rocks. ‘These days,’ she said, ‘they would have divorced.’ But the public story, the one my mother handed down to me, is of the strong woman who worked as hard as she could, to save the farm and her children. No time or space for fun.  And indeed, my mother was not a ‘fun mum’. I don’t remember much laughter. My dad cracked the jokes, mostly ones of which my mum disapproved. I can’t remember her laughing much, if at all. Let me not give the impression that she was a bad or uncaring mother – far from it – but given the upbringing she had had, and the fact that she had a disability, probably a combination of congenital hip dysplasia and TB, everything seemed to be hard work and to be seen as such. Occasionally we had trips out to local beauty spots or, at Christmas, to Manchester to see the decorations – but it was all a huge effort. My mum could not drive (these days she would have been able to have had an adapted car but not then) and both buses and trains were a severe challenge as it was really difficult for her to climb aboard. Bus conductors were particularly prone to ringing the bell for departure when she was still struggling to drag herself onto the platform at the back of the old Routemasters. Imagine that with two small children in tow! I can feel myself seething with indignation even now. What did she model then? Entirely unintentionally, she gave the impression that life was hard work. There wasn’t much time or space for fun. Neither my sister nor I seemed to need any encouragement to study hard and get our homework done. Neither of us rebelled as teenagers or were desperate to go out partying. Why would we? Both our parents were teachers (or had been, in my mother’s case) so there were strong messages about the importance of education – but that’s no proof against teenage rebellion. I don’t think I trusted the ‘fun’ things that young people did. Parties felt hugely uncomfortable and not just because I was never (unsurprisingly!) one of ‘the populars’. Anything other than work and effort was, I think, deeply suspect. Sunday afternoons were often spent playing ‘Scrabble’ with my mum, grandpa and sister. My mum loved it – but I can hardly imagine a less fun game, personally. You get the picture. Add to that a healthy dose of guilt for being a healthy person with no physical or mental disability and a belief that I needed to make up for this in some way to even things out, and it’s not difficult to see how, in my mid-life, I was driving myself very hard and ‘just fun, wouldn’t do’. I mentioned the power of faith groups and the media. In my own case, brought up to go to church, I was hugely influenced by Luke 12:48. The version I read is ‘Much is required from those to whom much is given for their responsibility is greater’. It’s from The Living Bible (a paraphrase). Young, impressionable and ignorant of the nuances of translation, the words sank deep into my mind and heart. Another powerful message came from the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 14 – 30. The meaning I made was that any talents I had  must be used to the max or I would be was wasting the potential I had been given. And the media? In our family, we ate our evening meal to the accompaniment of the 6 o’clock news, which seemed to me to be an endless stream of woe. Assassinations, war, famine and always, always, the threat of nuclear annihilation. I didn’t expect to see the millennium. I have learnt to limit my exposure to the news, most of which I can do nothing about, but then I had no choice. How is all this linked to an addiction to gold stars? It’s in my slavish, driven commitment to worthwhile work rather than fun. Where did the approval of my parents come from? From what I ‘did’. ‘Doing’ was good, be it helping around the house, completing schoolwork, music exams and Brownie badges or making things. I was a ‘crafter’ before the term ‘crafting’ had been invented. If Hobbycraft had existed, it would have been my idea of heaven. Instead, I made things from whatever I could find or scrounge – dolls from pipe-cleaners, painstakingly covered in old stockings and tiny garments made of scraps left from Mum’s sewing, presents for friends and relatives, clothes for my dolls and then for myself. There was no budget for any of this. The wartime slogan ‘make do and mend’ still held sway in our house and, my goodness, did my ‘making’ get me approval! Midlife then, I was driven to ‘do’ worthwhile work, thus satisfying the demands of the beliefs instilled by my upbringing, my faith and my never-forgotten distress over the disaster-ridden 6 o’clock news. I would be a worthy, gold star person, because I would always be ‘doing’ good. Even so, I still felt endlessly guilty for not having made life less miserable for the masses, whilst probably making it more miserable for my nearest and dearest and certainly for myself. I am not suggesting that you throw the baby out with the bathwater. I haven’t done so myself. I haven’t become a relentlessly hedonistic pleasure-seeker. I finished my counselling training and have been practising as a counsellor ever since. But ever since my lightbulb moment in triad work, I have allowed more fun into my life and I have become less driven by the need to ‘do’ and to ‘make’. In my work as a counsellor, I often think that the crucial work is to become aware. If we cannot become aware of what is going on for us emotionally and mentally, what our core beliefs and drivers are and where they might have come from and how to distinguish between our healthy and destructive behaviours, then we haven’t any hope of making the changes which will help us to grow, develop and become more content and peaceful. In the next section then, I will challenge you to dig deep. What are the beliefs that bind you to endless achievement? Can you begin to see where they may have come from? Something to start pondering upon! [...]
March 17, 2022Recently, I was talking with someone I am very close to. We agreed that we are both very lucky and, compared with many people, we have not suffered badly through the pandemic. I had Covid 19 way back before the vaccinations but, although I felt really ill for nearly a fortnight, I wasn’t hospitalised and I don’t seem to have been left with long term damage. She’s had it very recently but it was milder and she’s basically over it now. We have both been able to work, with some adaptations. We’re agreed – we are very blessed. And yet… ‘So I feel guilty,’ she said. ‘I don’t,’ I said, ‘but I do find myself wondering if something will go wrong. It doesn’t seem fair – especially when you look at what’s happening in Ukraine. Or Syria. Or Yemen. Or Aghanistan – or countless other places.’ ‘Yes, so I have to keep working,’ she said. Her job is all about caring for people. ‘I’ve got to the point where I’ve forgotten what to do if I’m not working.’ Let’s set aside my doom-laden paranoia that if things are going well for me, then the world is likely to manufacture a set-back. That’s something we can come back to later. Let’s look at what’s going on for my guilt-burdened friend. What is this? Has she become a workaholic? I could certainly argue that case. But why? This is not a person who, historically, has been drawn to the demons of addiction – the fags, the drink, the drugs, the games, the sex – all those dopamine-rich agents of destruction. Far from it. I can hardly imagine a person less likely to end up in rehab. All she has ever wanted is to be good and to do good. Like me, as a child, she wanted gold stars. And there’s the rub. There are no more gold stars for her now – but she, like so many of us, has been conditioned to expect and need them in order to validate herself. My contention is that the guilt and the compulsion to keep on working are rooted in that need. ‘Fridge Door Syndrome’ Professor Steve Peters writes in a slightly different way about this in ‘The Chimp Paradox’. He calls it ‘fridge door syndrome’ and explains how well-meaning parents greet our every creative endeavour at nursery school with delight and praise. ‘Darling, that’s marvellous! Let’s stick it on the fridge door!’ And so, unintentionally, they begin excavating a bottomless hole in our souls and psyches, which will never be filled because how can we ever be satisfied with what we have achieved? How can we ever have ‘done’ enough? Our identity has been inadvertently hi-jacked and we can only pay the ransom through endlessly achieving in one way or another – whether it’s in our careers, our sports, our finances or even in our ‘goodness’. Instead of being valued for who we are, we have learnt to be valued for what we do or achieve. Our parents’ innocent encouragement has condemned us to a lifetime of striving. Like my friend, even when we know we are really very fortunate and it ought to be possible to rejoice in our blessings, we are hounded. We feel guilty. With what seem like perfectly reasonable motives (It is only right to share my gifts and talents! I really must fulfil my potential! There is so much to fix – how can I not help? etc), we drive ourselves onwards, never feeling satisfied of our own personal worth and never able to fully relax and enjoy ourselves. What a position to be in! Here we are, amongst the most privileged to ever live on this planet, and we cannot enjoy it. And in my view, it’s getting worse. My friend and I are both mature women, brought up in the wonderland that existed before the Internet, before phones, before Stranger Danger and before SATS in British schools. We had oodles of free time in which we could wander from home on bikes or on foot (even though the Moors Murders were fairly recent events and within 15 miles of where we lived). During that time our headspace was our own, uninvaded by concerns about how we looked or what our friends were doing. We hadn’t heard of FOMO – what was there to miss out on anyway? Opportunities for anything beyond Guides, Scouts and maybe the odd music or dancing lesson were few. I was regularly reminded by my mother how lucky I was to have swimming lessons AND ballet lessons – and that if I wanted to learn to play the piano, the ballet lessons would have to stop. It was a fairly limited existence but relatively free of the pressures that young people face today, with their slavery to Instagram, Snapchat, Tik Tok and the like. You cannot blink but someone seems to be assessing your blinking skill. Despite our relative freedom, my friend and I still became victims of ‘gold star syndrome’. Exams kicked in, even in our restricted lives. There were badges for swimming and ‘grades’ for both piano and ballet. I remember being very proud indeed of my armful of Brownie interest badges – for some of which I had to manufacture the interest to get the badge! This is at age 10. The roots of my addiction to achievement had already enmeshed me. What it’s like for young people now That was then. Imagine what it is like now when the young of the affluent spend their spare time hurtling from one educational activity to another and most of those activities have some form of assessment. And then imagine their ‘downtime’ which is haunted by their phones. What is their online presence like? Is it good enough? And what about how they respond to their friends online? Whether it’s keeping up ‘streaks’ on Snapchat, pondering whether to ‘like’ someone’s image or curating their own Instagram accounts, the demand to perform and perform well, is always there for young people. ‘Likes’ are the gold stars of the Internet – and they are, of course, perniciously addictive. One young ‘high achiever’ expressed her angst like this: ‘I’ve done what was expected of me – I got the great grades, went to a great university and got the great job. What now? Whose going to give me a commendation?’ It’s hardly surprising that we have unprecedented levels of people suffering from anxiety of all sorts, depression, eating disorders and body dysmorphia. How can we be mentally healthy when all our lives we’ve been reliant on the next ‘hit’ of achievement – when our validation of ourselves has all been about the affirmation we get from others? What do we do when, mid-life, we realise we are endlessly addicted to gold stars? This is the issue that I hope to address in this series of blog posts. My mission I am a counsellor who has worked with young people for most of my adult life and who has also spent many years writing professionally. In my therapeutic work, I see ‘gold star syndrome’ over and over again, and amongst friends and relatives and in myself too. It grieves me. I hope these blogs will help us all towards freedom. We have looked briefly about how we get ensnared but we will all have had individual journeys down into the trap. Precisely how you got hooked is for you to think about, if you want to, perhaps with the help of a therapist or counsellor. My interest here is in ways to escape no matter how you got stuck. I’ll therefore be writing blog posts on different ideas and strategies which have interested and helped me. I don’t aim to be comprehensive but I do aim to provide some pointers towards what might help you and some exercises for you to consolidate what you learn. Do post a response if you have comments to make or relevant stories to share. [...]
November 3, 2020Have you heard of Sara Bareilles? Pre lockdown she was getting plaudits for her a music for the West End show ‘Waitress’ but I wouldn’t have noticed that if I hadn’t been introduced to her work by one of my young clients. He shared with me her song ‘Brave’ which was inspiring him at the time and which has inspired me ever since, both the music and the official video. Watch and listen here: One of the joys of being a counsellor is that the learning is endless, from my reading, from courses and, most encouragingly, from my clients. It feels like a tremendous privilege to meet someone in a place of real vulnerability and need and yet to learn from them – to keep seeing that, however negative a situation might seem, there is the potential for growth, not just for the person themselves but for those around them, including me. Part of my journey into counselling was experiencing my mother’s severe depressive illness when I was 19. She was treated with electro-convulsive therapy, which, however effective, filled me with horror. I wanted, and still want, to find ways to help myself and others which are not as invasive as that. I’m therefore pro-active in seeking mental health and well-being, attempting to increase what the Dalai Lama calls my ‘mental immunity’, not because I think we can ever avoid suffering entirely, but because I believe there are ways to grow through it and ways to be destroyed by it. I am hugely encouraged then, when a client shares something that has helped them. Another great ‘share’ by a client was ‘The School of Life’ https://www.theschooloflife.com/ which he’d found useful to help with a personal relationship issue. If you don’t know it already, it’s a real mine of useful information, presented as both ‘Book’ and videos. I’ve been on one of their day courses and bought several of their books and resources. A favourite, very short, very sensible little number is ‘The Sorrows of Love’ https://www.theschooloflife.com/shop/sorrows-of-love/ I’d hesitate to recommend a favourite video but a quick browse is almost bound to come up with something of interest. A more recent client ‘share’ is the fascinating and very readable ‘Habits of a Happy Brain’ This is a great introduction to some basic neuroscience and what we can do to manage our neurochemistry so that we feel better. It’s not the whole story, of course, and was wonderfully balanced by a colleague who mailed me to tell me about ‘The Book of Joy’, an account of a week’s conversations between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, on the subject of what makes us joyful. I am very grateful to those who share what helps them. If you too would like to share something that might help my work and help others who read this blog, then please email me. Thank you! Meg Harper [...]
November 3, 2020‘You’ve made your bed so you’ll have to lie in it.’ ‘Life isn’t a bed of roses’. ‘Well, you know what thought did…he followed a muck cart and thought it was a wedding.’ You’ve probably heard the first two sayings before but the third? Really? Did someone just make that up? No, I promise you – that was one of my mum’s favourites! It usually came out in response to me saying something like, ‘I thought I’d do it (the washing up/cleaning my shoes/tidying my room etc) later.’ Over the years, I’ve often reflected on the ‘sayings’ that were part of my upbringing because, on the sly, without us noticing, they influence us hugely, for better and for worse. Let’s take my first example. This is clearly about personal responsibility and accepting the consequences of our actions – good. But it’s also about inflexibility, putting up with situations that we could change and being bloody-minded – bad. And what subconscious associations might I have about beds, given the first two messages? Beds don’t seem to be being associated with rest, recuperation and good times, do they? As for the ‘muck cart’ one – yes, it’s a spur to action but where does that leave periods of thought and reflection? Or taking time to consider our actions? Fortunately, my mum was also keen on W.H. Davies’ lovely poem, ‘Leisure’: ‘What is this life, if full of careWe have no time to stand and stare…’W.H. Davies so I didn’t end up completely bug-eyed and driven! In CBT, such family sayings would be seen as contributing to our core beliefs, in Transactional Analysis, they might be seen as Injunctions, in Pesso Boyden Therapy, they would be called ‘Voices’ and in psychoanalytic psychotherapy, possibly as ‘uninvited guests from the unremembered past’ https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10866284-the-uninvited-guest-from-the-unremembered-past  Whatever the therapy, messages from our families are usually seen as very important. For reasons we do not yet fully understand, some psychological problems are passed down in families. Modelling is a factor, of course: in a family where the father is never seen to cry, boys will often grow up finding it almost impossible or unbearable to cry, their sons may have the same difficulty and so on throughout the generations. Closely related are family sayings, such as mine. A quick Internet search suggests that the ‘muck cart’ one is an old Lancashire saying; my mum came from a village near Preston. Her mum probably said it to her (they lived on a farm where all the children were expected to help) and her mum to her and so on. Such sayings tend to confirm the values the family holds dear. The net result? Well, let’s look at my three examples. If those are the family sayings, what sort of family will result? I’d suggest one that is hard working and full of activity, with little time for reflection or contemplation. Life is seen as quite tough – but that will partly be our own responsibility. I hope you can see the link to your own and your family’s well-being. Out of our awareness, we have powerful messages influencing our lives and not always for our good. It’s an interesting exercise to list all the ‘sayings’ that abound in our households and to reflect on them. What’s healthy about them and likely to be good for our mental and emotional well-being? And what’s not so good? Are there any we’d like to stop repeating? Or any we’d like to bring out into the open and discuss with our families?  It’s interesting to see if there are any mixed messages going on too. In my family, my dad was keen on telling us that if we got up late, we’d ‘missed the best part of the day’ and I still feel slightly guilty if I don’t get up early – but I was dimly aware that he didn’t always stick to his own rules and could often be found watching football late at night!  Recently, I called out a man I know for remarking of a fictional character who attempted rape that ‘he got to the point where he couldn’t help himself.’ He argued that it was ‘just an expression’. I argued that if we keep repeating such ‘expressions’ we continue the toxic narrative and belief that men don’t have full control over their sex drives. What we say and what our brains hear is powerful and important. Our minds are always listening to what we say so the more we say these things, the more we will reinforce them, not just in our listeners but in ourselves. And what we say and what we model doesn’t just affect our own children’s well-being but can affect future generations too. [...]
October 30, 2020Losing a parent when you are young is, inevitably, sad and difficult. Sad but not inevitable is feeling that our parents are absent when they are actually still with us.  I look back on the parenting I did when my children still lived at home and I know that there were times when they probably felt as if I wasn’t there. We cannot have parenting in the forefront of our minds all the time – many of us are juggling work and parenting and some of us will be caring for other relatives as well. There’s a balance to be struck too – being invasive, ‘helicopter’ parents who can’t allow our children constructive independence is just as unhelpful as appearing to be absent.  It’s hard. Teenagers can be very misleading in the messages they give us. I was completely convinced that my oldest son couldn’t wait to see the back of me when he went off to university and that he certainly wouldn’t want me popping down for the occasional weekend visit. Wrong! Only much later did he tell me that he’d actually felt really bereft by my hands-off approach! Teenagers can seem so hell-bent on independence and can be so surly and uncommunicative, that we can get the impression that our opinions, concerns and activities are either of no interest whatsoever or are considered worthy of only the lowest life-forms. As for our company – well, really? What would they want that for? So we carry on with our work and our other concerns (which are, after all, very pressing and important), blithely unaware that inside our uncommunicative, frequently surly teenager, there is still an inner child who needs our love, our attention and our active presence. Hugging us feels awkward and it’s become impossible to get the words out to tell us that we are still loved and deeply needed. The process of gradually launching into the world outside our immediate families is called individuation and it’s hard for both parents and children. For children it’s like being attached to an immensely powerful bungee cord. They keep stretching and stretching away but it’s hard work and every so often they snap back with all the force in that elastic. There might be a tantrum, a raging storm of anger or a melt-down. Suddenly, your child is very, very present again and uncomfortably so, before the stretching starts again. For the parent, it can feel like everything is going reasonably well and then, out of nowhere, there’s a massive problem. So what can we do? First, it’s really important to ‘be there’ and for your child to know this. That applies to both parents. If work takes us away from home, we need to find ways to keep the connection alive. If we have demanding, stressful jobs, we must ensure that we are still finding time to be actively present in our children’s lives. Only children and those left behind by siblings who have left home can feel particularly isolated. It can seem like they are alone in the universe, rattling around with preoccupied parents who see them as too grown up to need the sort of attention they were used to when they were little. Second, when the elastic does snap back and we’re faced with some sort of meltdown, it can help to see it as an expression of the inner child on its journey through individuation. Right now, it’s all become a bit too much and your child needs your support, your compassion, your strength and your love. The inner child in all of us needs to feel secure, nurtured and cherished. If our parents don’t provide that, it can lead to problems of insecurity and low self-worth both in the present and in future life. In some cases, there will need to be a sanction for the behaviour but that, issued with reasonableness and thought, helps teach boundaries and shows that you have the capacity to contain the situation, thus helping to create a sense of safety. ‘Begin with the end in mind’Stephen Covey Stephen Covey, the author of ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ advises us to ‘Begin with the end in mind’ and learn to avoid anything we don’t want to be burdened with on our death beds. I started this blog writing about those who have lost parents, so death beds are on my mind. The question I think we need to ask ourselves is about priorities. On our death beds, will we wish we’d been more present for our children? Will we regret the preoccupations which absorbed our attention whilst they were teenagers? Will we wonder whether, in a way our children had lost us, even when we were still there? [...]
January 23, 2023Photo by Esmonde Yong on Unsplash Walking with a friend in bright sunshine, a glorious antidote to the physical and political gloom of this particular January, I was reminded of the conversation which pushed me into starting this exploration into Gold Star addiction. My friend is struggling with episodes of utter inertia – a complete lack of motivation to get out of bed and get on with what is on her ‘job list’. Instead, she finds herself lying in bed reading or watching television, until the phase passes. Not only is she very puzzled by what’s going on but she feels bad about it – after all, we all have essential things that we don’t want to do. Why can’t she just crack on and get them done? Do you remember my opening paragraphs describing another friend lamenting her guilt if she wasn’t working? Guilt is the common factor. Both the person who is frenetically doing more and more work and the person who can’t get herself out of bed feel guilty because they believe they are not doing enough. I have another friend, a committed Christian, who, when she was deciding to retire, told God that what she wanted to do in her retirement was pray and read. That’s all. I had a long-standing lodger who earns as much as he needs to live off and every couple of years goes to India for a few months to travel, hang out with friends he has made, paint, take photographs and generally enjoy being alive. Neither seems to have a problem with guilt. Neither thinks they should be ‘doing more’. We are definitely in the area of core beliefs here. Two of my friends believe that there is lots of work to be done and we should be getting on with it. The other two do not. They have managed to free themselves from what I increasingly see as a very pernicious set of beliefs embedded in Western Culture – the Protestant Work Ethic. The Protestant Work Ethic It’s a phrase in common parlance and, because it sometimes gets referred to as the Puritan or Calvinist Work Ethic, I assumed its origins were somewhere in the 17th Century. In a sense they are – but no one used the phrase until Max Weber wrote his hugely influential book ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ in 1904/5. Wikipedia tells us that, according to Weber: ‘Protestant ethics and values, along with the Calvinist doctrines of asceticism and predestination, enabled the rise and spread of capitalism.’ It is one of the most influential and cited books in sociology, although the thesis presented has been controversial since its release. In opposition to Weber, historians such as Fernand Braudel and Hugh Trevor-Roper assert that the Protestant work ethic did not create capitalism and that capitalism developed in pre-Reformation Catholic communities. Just as priests and caring professionals are deemed to have a vocation (or “calling” from God) for their work, according to the Protestant work ethic the “lowly” workman also has a noble vocation which he can fulfil through dedication to his work. I am no political theorist but it seems to me that whoever is right about the origins, we are talking about the rise of capitalism being underpinned by a doctrine that work gives us worth. Some of us will have been hood-winked into being drones to capitalism because we’ve been brain-washed by the Protestant Work Ethic. Others will have been hooked in by other means. We will have been brought up with beliefs about ‘fulfilling out potential’ or ‘the poor only being poor because they don’t make an effort’ or our screens will have simply been awash with tempting material goods since we were tiny and cunning advertisements will have convinced us they are necessary. If we reject crime and are not born with a silver spoon in our mouths, we will have to work for these ‘essential’ goods. One way or another, here in the West, we have been programmed to be capitalists. Just think about how, here in Britain, we have a culture in which a clear marker of status is whether you own your own home. Think of the amount of energy, airtime and newsprint that goes into that topic and how it sways government policy. Remember my anxious school boys with their catastrophic thinking? At the end of the day, they feared that they wouldn’t be able to buy a nice house and would end up in the gutter – not so much homeless, as houseless. Photo by Andreea Popa on Unsplash – PS. If you haven’t read ‘Fun Home’ a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, try it! In schools and work places these days, it’s very popular to talk about Growth Mindset versus Fixed Mindset. If you haven’t come across it, it’s a pretty simple concept. A growth mindset means that you believe your intelligence and talents can be developed over time. A fixed mindset means that you believe intelligence is fixed—so if you’re not good at something, you might believe you’ll never be good at it. We are told, of course, that it’s better to have a Growth Mindset. Our intelligence and talents can keep growing and growing – what’s not to like? If we have a fixed mindset, we are condemned to having the measly minds we think we have. Well, frankly, there’s quite a lot not to like. Let’s take one of my pet hates. Ten pin bowling. I am awful at this game. I can barely lift the bowls, I have pretty lousy aim, I hate hanging out in noisy places with people I scarcely know (the usual set up, I find!) and where any food provided is universally nasty. But if I only had a Growth Mindset, believed I could get good at this game and used to hanging out in noisy, badly built bowling alleys, whilst practising my social skills, I could be…hmm…what? Better at ten pin bowling? Would that make me happier? I don’t think so – I think I would have wasted many hours of my life which I would have preferred to spend doing almost anything else! I have seen far too many young people who can’t wait to give up one of their least favourite GCSEs, being nagged about their lack of Growth Mindset. Could we possibly give them permission to (ssh!) give up on one of their subjects? The concept of Growth Mindset has its place, I’ll admit, but I also see it as a sneaky bit of capitalist brain-washing. That word ‘Growth’. It’s such a good thing, isn’t it, growth? Children grow, trees grow, my puppy is definitely growing – we associate it with nature and all sorts of good things. What we all need is growth. But bad things grow too. Cancer, black mould, waiting lists, the number of rats nicking food from my chickens, to name but a few! We are fed the line that our economy needs to grow and to that end, as good little capitalist drones, we have to work hard to make the money to buy the stuff that will make it do so. We will feel that we have achieved something. In our lovely homes, with all our precious accoutrements and our string of qualifications that have helped us on our way to this earthly paradise, we can count up our Gold Stars and be content. Except that we never are. There’s always the next thing and the next, encouraged as we are by the High Priests of Capitalism to never be satisfied with what we have or who we are. Let’s not get carried away here. There are clear benefits to living in a capitalist society and there’s nothing wrong with buying some things and doing what we need to do. I’ve just shelled out the money to go on a second course on relationship therapy – the psychosexual bit this time. I’m doing it because I think it will help me to help my clients and I’ll enjoy it. All I want to do here is to expose the link between capitalism and our need for Gold Stars. We have been brought up to be compliant drones in a capitalist system – and one big driver to keep us on that relentless treadmill is Gold Stars. Work hard and you will be rewarded. Work even harder and you will be even more rewarded and you will stand out from the other drones – and that will make you feel you are worth more. What’s the antidote? Maybe it could be Degrowth. My son, Phineas Harper, together with his colleagues Maria Smith, Matthew Dalziel and Cecilie Sachs Olsen, curated the 2019 Oslo Architecture Triennale on the theme ‘Enough. The Architecture of Degrowth https://www.oslotriennale.no/archive/2019 He’s written elsewhere about how we can reuse and recycle in the built environment, rather that destroying and starting again. And that’s just architecture. In what other areas could we learn to degrow? Enough. I’m already rather uncomfortably thinking of a long of list of what we think we don’t have enough of. Clean water, hospital beds, peace, just for starters. But perhaps we also need to get rigorous about what we do have enough of and learn to jump off the capitalist, work ethic band wagon. Perhaps we need to develop a Degrowth Mindset and learn to be satisfied by the Gold Stars we have already accrued. I was listening to the Nomad Podcast https://www.nomadpodcast.co.uk/ the other day (I’d highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t completely given up on Christianity but is wanting some fresh air!) and the two presenters were reflecting on how they had been brought up on a diet of sermons which told them each week that they should be doing more – that whatever they were doing, it wasn’t enough – and, ultimately, how bad that made them feel. What would it mean to us to commit to degrowth within ourselves – to not always be thinking about how we could do more and be better? To decide that we are enough as we are? I have definitely said enough for today but I’d like to leave you with this. It give me goose pimples! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=It0cwbszJ14 [...]
November 10, 2022It’s a long time since my last post, diverted as I have been by this new member of the family! Gold Star for helping to make the bed? Digby, now four and a half months old, is currently fast asleep after a ‘puppy play date’ this morning and a wild walk on the common this afternoon. In terms of achievement, it’s all been about doing as much as I can to socialise him before he hit the magic twenty weeks old when, apparently, his super sponge-like puppy brain will become resistant to new input and he is likely to be scared of anything he hasn’t already experienced. In our frenzy of encountering buses, trains, livestock, sliding doors, people of every type imaginable etc, we are bound to have missed something and I will find out the extent of my failure as time goes on. Pigs! We definitely didn’t meet any pigs. Darn. Meanwhile, in my spare moments, I have been re-reading Alain de Botton’s splendid ‘Status Anxiety’ which I highly recommend. He reminds us that we have Matthew Arnold and his seminal work ‘Culture and Anarchy’ to thank for the start of state education in Britain and the rise of meritocracy, and discusses how a meritocracy, however fair and reasonable it sounds, is actually responsible for a great deal of misery. I cannot rise to De Botton’s wonderfully liturgical prose so apologies to him as I briefly and rather crudely summarise. Essentially, it goes like this. In the bad old days, people knew their place. You were born into a particular rank in society and that is where you stayed. If you were of high rank and were a decent type, you were a responsible landlord, and took a kindly interest in the welfare of your tenants. If you weren’t (think Sheriff of Nottingham), the poor suffered. It would have been nice if Robin Hood had come to their aid but he’s probably a product of hopes and dreams, rather than reality. Image by David Reed from Pixabay That’s how it was and, if you were poor, at least it wasn’t your fault. You were worthy of compassion and might even get into heaven ahead of the pesky rich, who were going to is as difficult as a camel would to get through the eye of a needle – or so the church told you. Fast forward to the twentieth and twenty-first century. The situation is very different because now, education is available to all. Now you can, if you make the effort, become a self-made man. Bring on emancipation for women and they too, with considerably more difficulty (we are, after all, still living in a patriarchy) can start climbing greasy poles and breaking through glass ceilings. If not, why not? There is no excuse any more. It’s a double whammy. Not only are you poor, but it is now your own fault. Surely you could have pulled yourself up by your own boot straps? What a radical shift! And so Gold Stars really begin to matter. If we are not seen to be achieving, we are lazy, idle shirkers. We are the authors of our own miserable destiny and contempt is what we deserve. The liberal-minded might consider that we had a difficult start and mutter about unequal distribution of ‘cultural capital’ but Pandora’s Box has been opened. The idea is out and about and never very far from being uttered. If we’re poor, we deserve to be poor. We are not trying hard enough. Oh glorious, wonderful, liberal education! Are you a poisoned chalice? Image by daves19387 from Pixabay I include here a wonderful piece written by a great friend and teaching colleague who taught in comprehensive schools for many years, in response to a previous post. The school values she writes about are such noble, equalizing values, so intentionally in contrast with competitive ideas about ‘aiming high’, ‘striving for excellence’ or ‘doing our best’ –  but the second is still ‘Ambition’. Perhaps you will feel that she ends on a depressing note. But in myself, I feel hope. I was a child in sensible brown lace-ups and my sister’s old fawn socks that constantly fell down. At that age, I would have prized black patent and white lacy socks. But sod it, I’m past that now. Maybe a sure-fire antidote to Gold Star addiction is simply to grow old enough not to care anymore. Anyway, I leave you with my friend’s thought-provoking creative response: The grandmother studied the photograph in front of her. Nine small children in a line on a hastily assembled stage in a school somewhere in East London in 2022.  She was aware, as she looked, that the multitude of national flags in the playground proudly proclaimed the school’s diverse intake. A school for the future, its values encompassed in the acronym CARE:  creativity, ambition, responsibility, empathy. What a long way to have moved on from those old school mottoes along the lines of Per Ardua Ad Astra and the striving to be top of the class, she thought.Those nine children are the crème de la crème of this reception class. Each has been awarded a prize. Each is clutching a certificate. The child in red football shorts has probably won the Sports prize. The thin earnest one,the Science prize. It is hard to tell who was the most Creative or Ambitious or Responsible, but maybe the child leaning in towards the nervous one, has finally been awarded the prize for Empathy. Who knows? It is hard to tell what great oaks will grow from these five year old acorns, she knew that. The nature/ nurture debate will rage on, as it had when she decided to be a teacher all those years ago.She  had, after all, been well-trained in the 1960’s, the grandmother now looking at the photograph.  Girls like her had come fresh- faced from single sex grammar schools in the Home Counties, eager to learn how the old order was to be turned on its head. Their own schools had selected the top layer of those who showed ability in IQ tests and Verbal Reasoning, and who had a well-embedded knowledge of how to use a subordinate clause.  They  had dutifully achieved 8 O levels, 2 A levels (after the unexpected and unaccustomed joys of the attentions of a male teacher), Economics.Now, they realised, the world of education was different.  Comprehensive schools across the land would ensure that eleven year olds were no longer divided into sheep and goats, but ALL would win prizes.‘All children are equal and NONE are more equal than others,’ the student teachers  learned, as they brought the glad tidings to mixed ability groups of 34 or 35 pupils, ensuring that by careful preparation, the sheep and goats all had accessible tasks, and that abundant praise was scattered like soft rain over all kinds of soil where seeds had been planted. ‘They’d praise them for breathing, if they could,’ someone said. Sports days became activity days, for rankings of first, second and third were surely iniquitous, and there was always a prize for trying.‘Trying your best’ was all that mattered, for ‘the sky’s the limit’ and who knew what could be achieved if only you put your mind to it. Failure was not an option. There was always, ‘room for improvement’, yes, but as long as you were somewhere on a ‘learning journey’, all would be well.And it was. The 1960’s was a heady decade. They were post-war children, these students, and they were going to change the drab old world.  Beatles for the good girls, Rolling Stones for the bad, and what was this? A college with mixed-sex hostels? What was the world coming to? her father had said, as he began to regret having daughters, not sons.What the world was coming to, she realised, was a place where the glittering prizes were different from the ones before. A prize for the best team. A prize for the best project. A prize for the best idea for the future.So rows of desks were inappropriate now. Group those chairs and tables together in four or maybe six. Talk and discussion, that’s the way to get results. Elect a competent leader. Give a presentation to the class. Write up what you have managed to achieve together. Ignore Thatcher’s dictum ‘There’s no such thing as society’.  Why, just look in this classroom: children excitedly discussing their latest project, every bright- eyed face included, and all with a job of some importance to carry out.‘Top of the class’ means nothing any more. Top of what? Top at quick thinking ? Ten out of ten? At learning by heart? Whose heart?  Who knows what’s in the child’s heart who listens intently and says nothing.‘Timothy Winters comes to schoolWith eyes as wide as a football pool’Ever read The Family From One End Street? You should, my dear. Take care. Ability is not the preserve of the middle classes. Ability can be found in the poor, too. What a revelation.And so we care. And new acronyms tell us what the prizes will now be for, in this shining world:             CREATIVITY  AMBITION   RESPONSIBILITY  EMPATHY.That’s what we want for society to thrive. The creative child gets the prize for a wonderful model of a new school.The ambitious child sets up a thriving business at the school gate and gets the prize for enterprise.The responsible child takes the newcomer under his wing and explains the intricacies of the gold star system.The empathic child gives warm hugs freely after playground disasters and is always rewarded.But what about that child at the end of the row, yes, the girl in the rather fetching hat, with the tattooed hand and sandals? Her certificate says, ‘GOOD AT ENGLISH’ so her grandmother in particular is quietly ecstatic, though mustn’t show it.Is she herself pleased, that girl in the sensible sandals, to have achieved this accolade at the end of her very first year at school? Is she confident that her particular talents have been recognised? Will she bear away her certificate and stick it with Blutak on her bedroom wall, next to Elsa from Frozen, and her orange painting of the seaside?Or will she, only a few short seconds after the photo has been taken, look sideways at the other girl in the gingham school dress, and be filled with longing? Not for her certificate, no, no, nothing to envy there, but at the prize she would prefer to have won.Unlike her own bare feet, in the brown leather sandals, the REAL prize shouts out for all to see. It is, of course, the pristine and frilled white knee socks and the shiny black patent shoes. That, my friends, is the real sign of success. Oh brave new world.August 15th 2022. [...]
September 23, 2022Photo by Justin W on Unsplash What a strange couple of weeks it has been in the UK! Whatever our thoughts and feelings about monarchy, it has been hard to ignore the National Period of Mourning. Loud has been the praise for Queen Elizabeth 2nd. Clearly, doing your duty and being consistent for a very long time indeed, brings the gold stars pouring in. I wonder, however, what the Queen herself would think of all that adulation? I’m told that her choice of hymns included ‘Love Divine All Loves Excelling,’ the last lines of which read: Till we cast our crowns before HimLost in wonder love and praise.Charles Wesley Nice choice for a queen! Was she very publicly telling us that, as far as she was concerned, earthly glory is not the biggest deal? It’s an appropriate moment, perhaps, to stop and think about what we’re chasing, if we’re searching for gold stars. However splendid the funeral and despite a lead-lined coffin, we know what will happen to the earthly remains of our late Queen. And we also know what will happen to the memories of her life. They will become distorted. Gradually, stories will be created about her reign which will reflect the truth of it, but will not be the truth. Several years ago I wrote a short biography of Elizabeth 1st for children. I researched it as well as I could but there was so much one simply couldn’t know – and so much that was down to experts’ opinions. When I started the work, I thought Mary 1st was the big burner of heretics and Elizabeth 1st was much more moderate. It turns out that that’s debateable. I remember vividly arguing with Professor Eric Ives, an expert on Tudor History, about this point. In my view, she was hardly moderate seeing as she sanctioned the burning of Unitarians. ‘Of course, she was a moderate!’ the Professor spluttered impatiently. ‘You just don’t understand. That didn’t make her immoderate! Everyone burned Unitarians!’ Moderate or immoderate? Who knows? The point is that the received wisdom, the story that is generally told, is only an approximation to the truth. In my view, Elizabeth 1st was an extraordinary woman and Queen, worthy of many, many gold stars – but at the end of the day, what we are left with is whatever can be pieced together by historians, and even that, despite the writings and the huge body of other evidence that she left, creates only a small window into the person she truly was. Photo by Asep Saeful Bahri: https://www.pexels.com Keeping the end in mind I said I would write about ways to live happily with our neurochemistry without being a slave to it, and perhaps discussing two dead Queens seems a long way from that – but in my view it helps to keep in mind that, ultimately, we will be gone and, if not forgotten, remembered in ways that are not an accurate reflection of ourselves. That great motivational writer, Stephen Covey advises us in ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ https://amzn.to/3LAgRGa to ‘Keep the end in mind’. He would have us imagine what people will say at our funerals in order to keep us on track, to sort out our priorities and motivate us. I have no problem with this – his seven principles are wise and helpful. The danger of derailment is in what we choose as our priorities – collecting gold stars or something more life-enhancing. In the words of Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh, subtle thinker and writer: ‘Our brief finitude is but a beautiful spark in the vast darkness of space. So we should live the fleeting day with passion and, when the night comes, depart from it with grace.’ I was both baffled and sad to hear a report that some people who queued to see the Queen’s coffin, were notifying friends when they arrived so that they could be watched on the live feed and photos taken. Selfies were prohibited so this was a way round the ban. Maybe ‘I was there’ T-shirts should have been sold! What is the selfie phenomenon but a craving for notice? Look at me – I did a thing! When I was a child, it was called ‘showing off’ and was frowned upon. Even children told each other, ‘Don’t show off!’ That wasn’t entirely healthy either – I meet many an adult who is unwilling to admit to their skills and achievements as a result – but we certainly seem to have swung too far in the other direction if paying respects to a dead monarch becomes yet another closet selfie opportunity. It seems to me that, if we are more concerned to record our presence than be entirely in the moment, we are more concerned with notching up an achievement than with ‘living the fleeting day with passion’. One of the most helpful speakers and writers I have found on this topic (amongst others!) is Eckhart Tolle. His book, ‘The Power of Now’, https://amzn.to/3R70fa0 is a modern classic and rightly so. Personally, however, ‘A New Earth’, https://amzn.to/3Rc7hdE the follow-up, more helpful, despite is rather questionable subtitle – ‘Create a better life’. (I wonder if that was Tolle’s choice or his publisher’s?) Tolle writes profoundly about his concept of the ego (subtly different from Freud’s) and the way it enslaves us. I can’t do justice to him if I try to summarise here, but I would like to highlight a few of his comments which seem especially relevant. Playing Roles Tolle suggests that the ego plays roles. Why? ‘Because of one unexamined assumption, one fundamental error, one unconscious thought. I am not enough.’ He goes onto say: ‘In form, you are and will always be inferior to some, superior to others. In essence, you are neither inferior nor superior to anyone. True self-esteem and true humility arise out of that realization.’ He also writes: ‘The underlying emotion that governs all the activity of the ego is fear. The fear of being nobody, the fear of non-existence, the fear of death.’ Back to death again. It seems to me that this lies at the heart of the matter. We want to be somebody, we want to prove our existence, we want to defeat death. But we won’t do it by amassing achievements, however hard we try. Elizabeth 2nd was definitely somebody but she isn’t any more. Her brief finitude is over. This is our almost insurmountable hurdle: believing we are somebody, whilst knowing that one day, whatever our beliefs about an afterlife, we will be here no more. As Shakespeare would have it in ‘Cymbeline’: ‘Golden lads and girls all must,As chimney-sweepers, turn to dust.’ (If you’d like to hear a particularly dirge-like but very poignant version of ‘Fear no more the heat of the sun’, from which this is taken, try Kneehigh Theatre’s version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcL32ISTX7g ) Tolle again: ‘A vital question to ask yourself frequently is: ‘What is my relationship with the present moment?…since Life is inseparable from the Now, what the question really means is: What is my relationship with Life?’ So ask yourself the question! Is your life about proving to whoever happens to notice how amazingly talented you are, how many achievements you’ve notched up and how much better you are than whoever you want to be better than? Or is about something else? And if so, what? I don’t often associate Nietzsche with guidance for a happy life but this is perhaps an uplifting note to end on: ‘For happiness, how little suffices for happiness!…the least thing precisely, the gentlest thing, the lightest thing, a lizard’s rustling, a breath, a wisk, an eye glance – little maketh up the best happiness. Be still. [...]
August 8, 2022Image courtesy of Milad Fakurian on Unsplash I worked for a long time with a teenage client with high-functioning autism and ADHD. This was a hugely difficult but not uncommon combination. Imagine being extremely intelligent but combined with physical restlessness and enormous difficulty in concentrating. Now throw in anxiety and social anxiety and, inevitably, a tendency to become overwhelmed emotionally and in response to physical and mental sensations. What could I offer as a counsellor? In CBT, we are encouraged to ‘capture’ thoughts and beliefs and ‘adapt’ them. For my young client, this was like asking him to catch and tame one rabbit in hundreds, as they all scattered in different directions and disappeared off into their maze of burrows. He could see the sense of the theory, he just  couldn’t put it into practise. Occasionally, we would find one idea that he found helpful and that he could hang onto and live by and, for me at least, that felt like progress – but generally it felt like trying to climb a slime-covered mountain, inch by excruciating inch. We both thought there had to be an easier way. One memorable day my client emailed me with a book suggestion. This, he thought, might be the answer. Would I get a copy and read it? Well, of course. I was as desperate as he was. The book was ‘Habits of a Happy Brain’ by Loretta Graziano Breuning. https://amzn.to/3C5HhwT I’d never heard of her but her credentials were good. She is Professor Emerita at California State University and is founder of The Inner Mammal Institute https://innermammalinstitute.org/. The book turned out to provide a real breakthrough for my client. It is a clear and readable account of basic neurochemistry, in particular the neurochemicals that affect our happiness. I’m not going to go into vast detail – read the book, if you want to deep dive into this – but I am going to write about how this relates to Gold Star Syndrome. Some people will no doubt find the approach reductive and I know I felt a reluctance to accept that my behaviour and moods are so hugely influenced by what’s going on for me biochemically. If, however, we can get over the pride that makes us want to believe that we are independent of mammalian brain chemistry and entirely in charge of our own destiny, then I think we have access to information that can really help us. To my client, the information was clear and his response direct. ‘I need more dopamine’, he said and promptly took steps to achieve that aim. He realised that nothing in his life was giving him any sense of reward. Dopamine is the neurochemical responsible for our sense of reward. You may already have heard how it is exploited by those interested in getting us hooked into something, be it gambling, scrolling on our phones or amassing ‘likes’ on our social media. Anyone who has been ‘in love’ will have experienced the dopamine ‘hit’ when a text from the beloved pings in and then the desperation for the next text and the next and the next. Dopamine gives us a sense of reward but it doesn’t last. We all know how great it feels to buy something new – and then to notice how, as the days go by, the shiny new feeling diminishes. Unfortunately, it happens with our lovers too. Gradually, and inevitably, we become habituated to them and it becomes harder and harder for them to provide us with dopamine. I observed it recently as a young man wooed one of my lodgers. At first, she was thrilled with the flowers he gave her and it didn’t matter what flowers they were. Then, she asked if she could put the lilies he brought in the kitchen – she couldn’t stand the smell of them. Before long, she’d come home with flowers and sling them aside while she put the kettle on. ‘More flowers?’ I’d ask. ‘Yeh,’ she’d say, with a shrug and a roll of her eyes. My young client grasped all this. He knew that understanding his brain chemistry didn’t give him a magic bullet – but it did give him a very practical approach to creating his own happiness. He also needed some very specific medication and help from a specialist psychotherapist – but reading the book was ground-breaking. It gave him a new strategy and hope. What does all this have to do with Gold Star Syndrome? Maybe you are there already. It is in the role of dopamine. https://innermammalinstitute.org/dopamine/ As mammals, we are programmed to seek reward. It is a survival strategy. We seek out what will make us feel good because that way lies survival – food, warmth, shelter, love. It makes sense then that dopamine also helps make us competitive. If there is just one banana and we fight for it and win it, then at a very basic level, we feel good. Of course, centuries of becoming more civilised and having messages drummed into us such as ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’, ‘Share and share alike’, ‘Make love, not war’, (do come up with your own in a similar vein!) rather muddies the picture. We are likely to have mixed feelings. Yes, we got the banana (dopamine hit), but we’re also feeling a bit bad about being selfish and certainly, about punching our friend in the face to get it. Nice people don’t punch other people. But, deep down, we really, really want that banana, because we really, really like dopamine because we really, really want to survive! We feel very mixed up about our desire to achieve and to keep achieving because we love our dopamine – but there is other stuff going on too. Some of the other stuff is oxytocin. https://innermammalinstitute.org/oxytocin/ Anyone who has had an orgasm or who has breastfed will have felt the action of oxytocin. Oxytocin is often called the ‘love hormone’ and it is released when we feel trust: it helps us to bond. Stroke your dog, your cat or even your pet snake, and you will release oxytocin. Fight someone for the banana and you’re going to release dopamine but it’s going to interfere with your oxytocin levels. Remember the old ‘Last Rolo’ advertisements? They’re all about the dopamine/serotonin/oxytocin interplay. Try this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ENymdMBTcSo The other relevant stuff is serotonin. https://innermammalinstitute.org/serotonin/ Serotonin is released when we’re feeling status or social power – hence, when you’ve won the banana, you’ll feel the benefit of serotonin. You’ll look like a winner in the pack and that will feel good. Very crudely then: Fought for and won the banana = dopamine + serotonin – oxytocin This simple formula can fuel Gold Star Syndrome For example: You get the promotion and you feel great for a while (dopamine + seratonin) but then you become habituated to it (no dopamine). Maybe you also feel a bit bad about it because the ‘rule’ in your pack is that it’s bad to set store by worldly achievements or pride comes before a fall (minus some oxytocin). Maybe you don’t like the team you’re leading (no oxytocin) or you feel your status as leader is being undermined by a colleague (serotonin levels sink). Before long, you’re seeking another promotion – you’re getting no dopamine, your serotonin levels have slumped and you certainly aren’t getting any oxytocin! You can get round the ‘rule’ about worldly achievements by deciding that there’s nothing actually WRONG with achieving things so long as you make sure to be humble about them. Even if you work alone, the neurochemistry still has you in thrall. I, for example, spent many years working as a children’s writer. At first, it’s enough just to be published. Wow! Loads of dopamine and serotonin! You’ve made it as a published writer! But that soon fades. Then it’s the next book – or maybe the need to get a deal for a trilogy – or a series! And then there’s the lure of the  dopamine-infested book awards At first, it’s fantastic to be long-listed – then it has to be short-listed – and then it’s not enough unless you actually get the award! Meanwhile, you might be feeling a bit lonely, working on your own (no oxytocin) so maybe you try to buddy up with your agent or your editor. Or maybe you join a social media group for published authors – and then you start finding out what other writers are up – the deals they have struck, the fantastic covers their books have, the reviews they have received! All very, very bad for your serotonin levels! (and possibly for your oxytocin if you begin to feel jealous of the other writers!) Are we then doomed? Can we not escape the snares of our neurochemistry? Will we be seeking Gold Stars forever, like rats seeking glucose in an endless maze? Not necessarily. Forgive me for any repetition but I think one of the main benefits of counselling or therapy, is becoming aware. If you are unaware, you will only change anything accidently. Once you are aware, you can consciously decide what you’re doing to do – like my young client who took active, healthy steps to experience more dopamine. We can choose to start noticing when we feel the lure of the dopamine hit. I now know, for example, what’s fuelling the temptation to visit TKMaxx. Consider the set up in that store which, in my view, is utterly brilliant as a sales strategy. In TKMaxx we are both hunter and gatherer. The random element gives us the thrill of the chase and delighted satisfaction when we find something we want (lovely, lovely dopamine!). We even feel serotonin as we smugly carry home our bargain: we have done slightly better than the rest of our pack. ‘Look at what I got in TKMaxx!’ we crow. When asked about our lovely new dress/shoes/bizarre garden ornament, ‘Oh, I got it in TKMAXX,’ we say modestly, privately gloating over our spectacular bargain (loads and loads of serotonin). What is a bargain but something that you’ve got for less money than anyone else, thereby making you a winner, if briefly? Do I visit TKMAXX less often? Probably not, but I now know what I’m letting myself in for and am less likely to exit with weird biscuits that I’m never going to eat. I did fall for a dog paw washer the other day though…… On that happy note, I will finish. I will consider other ways to live happily with our neurochemistry, without being a slave to it, another day. Meanwhile, happy bargain hunting! It’s not called ‘hunting’ for nothing! Please note: this post contains an affiliate link. [...]
June 21, 2022Arbeit macht frei No more fucking gold stars that the teacher licked onto a chart no more verbal ability tests going off the top of the scale no more feeling virtuous after cleaning kitchen cupboards no more ‘My kid spoke at six months taught himself to read at three’ no more ‘We’ve done thirty-three years and fights in every single one’ no more ‘I came second’, ‘Commended’ ‘Working on a pamphlet’ I am I am I am I Arbeit macht tot – Freiheit macht frei Veronica Zundel We are in dark territory today. My friend, Veronica Zundel, whose poetry and other writing some of you will know, wrote the above poem, in response to this blog. She is the daughter of Holocaust refugees. Above it, you see her poem’s title, as it appears in the gates of Auschwitz, made by prisoners. It was written over the entrances of several other death camps too. If you don’t speak German (I don’t, but thank goodness for Google translate!), it means ‘Work sets you free’ and Veronica’s last lines mean ‘Work kills. Freedom makes free.’) There’s a horrible irony here. Even Veronica who grew up knowing the murderous and barbaric use that the ‘work ethic’ was put to, finds personal resonance in this blog about the way it entraps us and the damage it can do. Thank you, Veronica. Your poem is a clarion call to us all to break free. Would that it were easy, once noted! If you’re reading this blog, you know that it is not – and perhaps especially so (shoot me down in flames, if you must!) if you are a woman. I’ve had several comments or conversations about it with women, so I want to write about those today. My own age and that of the women who’ve commented, puts us in a unique generation. We sit in the gap between those women who, in the majority, worked running households and families, rather than for wages, and subsequent generations who assume that they will run a household and family as well as working for wages. They will assume the assistance of a partner and, if they are lucky or can afford it, will enlist other help from family and services such as nurseries and cleaning companies. My generation was liberated by effective birth control and more flexible thinking around relationships and were unencumbered by student debt or crippling house prices. Not that this meant our lifestyles were flush – it is easy for subsequent generations to be ignorant of the standard of living then. I remember feeling very fortunate to have a job when there were 4 million unemployed and queues for the dole extended round the block. Double-glazing was the exception and central heating erratic when we purchased our first home and it was normal to make do with hand-me-down furniture. I made my wedding dress myself: it cost me £22. We had a grand total of 24 photographs taken at our wedding. And so on… But this isn’t a pity party or about how well we did to manage with so little. This is about the context in which we made choices about childcare and work: many of us were able and willing to make the choice to look after our children ourselves, at least until they went to school. Or that was the intention. For a significant number, it didn’t work out quite like that. Many found that, by the time their children were all in school, the dynamic between them and their husbands had changed. Somehow or another, without really choosing it, mothers had morphed into housekeepers and nannies whilst fathers had become the breadwinners and were very happy to stay that way, secure in the knowledge that their wives would do everything else needed to keep the family ship afloat. I’ve heard of men who are happy to mow the lawn but nothing else, who will unload the dishwasher but never load it, men who will wash the car(s) or at least take it/them to the car wash and men who will ‘do the banking’. These are their sole contributions to the household running because they ‘earn the money’. Photo by Mathieu Stern on Unsplash I earn the money! Once their wives were busy raising babies, many of these husbands quickly began to earn so much money that it was hard to argue the case for bringing in someone new who would have to be trained up and paid to run the ship (probably not so well!), so that the present incumbent could go and seek fulfilment in a career for which she’d probably have to re-train to catch up. How self-indulgent! How ungrateful! How completely unnecessary! Except, of course, that for the sanity and contentment of such women, it was essential. These are women who got good degrees, in some cases the first women to go to university from their families. They started careers and professions in good faith that they would be taking a career break and then getting back on track. Instead, incrementally and insidiously they became what I recently heard termed ‘trailing wives’, hidden behind prestigious husbands like unappreciated and unpaid PAs. Perhaps they have gone on to pick up the duties of an unpaid carer for their parents or their in-laws too because it seems like the obvious thing to do – they are there, aren’t they, with time on their hands? The children are less time consuming now, surely? There will be some, of course, that are very happy in their roles and there may even be young men and women who aspire to such lives – but they are not the ones I am concerned about. I’m shouting out for those who have become stuck in lives they never wanted or intended and who still suffer the miseries of Gold Star Syndrome – because, of course, it afflicts them just as much, if not more, than anyone else. The impact can take a while to arrive but eventually, it can hit hard – perhaps when the children have finally flown the nest or the marriage approaches a big anniversary or illness strikes or even when the husband begins to talk about retirement. Then the awakening happens – what happened to my life? What happened to all my aspirations? Have I only been the caretaker for the generation to come and the generation that is leaving? What have I achieved? Surely my life had more purpose than this? Some of these women will have managed to work part-time, worked free-lance, started small businesses, alongside their roles as housekeepers and caretakers. Three cheers for them! Somehow, they have managed to keep their aspirations afloat, next to the family ship. But even they feel short-changed. They wanted and had been educated to expect, something more than this. Worse, what they hear from others is that they don’t have a ‘proper’ job, that their work is for ‘pin money’, it’s an extra, not really necessary, that it ‘keeps them happy’. I feel a scream coming on. There’s a toxic mix-up here. Too much pursuit of Gold Stars condemns us to a feeling of never having done enough. Too little opportunity to achieve, leaves us feeling bereft. Martin Seligman, the great guru of Positive Psychology tells us that there are five important elements which are observed in psychologically healthy people, summed up in the mnemonic PERMA. They are: Positive Emotions Engagement Relationships Meaning Achievement Endlessly climbing the greasy pole is not a route to happiness – but nor is being deprived of the opportunity to achieve in a way that gives us meaning and purpose. As ever, there is a balance to be struck. Seligman’s observations may only be of subjects moulded by Western Capitalism so have a particular bias – I don’t know. Would those qualities equate to psychological health within a different set of social parameters? If ‘Freedom makes free’, to quote Veronica’s poem, can we ever get free of what has been bred into us by the society we were brought up in? I think Eckhart Tolle would argue that we can but I’ll come back to his wisdom another day. Meanwhile, what’s the way forward for the ‘trailing wives’? A hard, path, I think, of being determined to find ways to get enough of what they wanted and were taught to expect, without being torn apart by the need to achieve. I found the following poem, by Erica Jong, many years ago, when I was a young teacher. It said what I needed to hear then and what I still need to hear now about how tough it is to be ‘woman enough’, without endlessly craving gold stars. May there be many more men like the one in the poem! Woman Enough Because my grandmother’s hours were apple cakes baking, & dust motes gathering, & linens yellowing & seams and hems inevitably unravelling – I almost never keep house though really I like houses & wish I had a clean one. Because my mother’s minutes were sucked into the roar of the vacuum cleaner, because she waltzed with the washer-dryer & tore her hair waiting for repairmen- I send out my laundry, & live in a dusty house, though really I like clean houses as well as anyone. I am woman enough to love the kneading of bread as much as the feel of typewriter keys under my fingers- springy, springy. & the smell of clean laundry & simmering soup are almost as dear to me as the smell of paper and ink. I wish there were not a choice; I wish I could be two women. I wish the days could be longer. But they are short. So I write while the dust piles up. I sit at my typewriter remembering my grandmother & all my mothers, & the minutes they lost loving houses better than themselves & the man I love cleans up the kitchen grumbling only a little because he knows that after all these centuries it is easier for him than for me. Erica Jong [...]
May 5, 2022Dungarees proving to be the ONLY way to manage the discomfort of shingles! ‘We do the best we can with the resources we have available at the time.’ This is an idea that a friend who is an NLP (Neuro-linguistic Programming) coach shared with me several years ago and to which I often return. Remember in my last post the Cub Scout Law? It starts ‘Cub Scouts always do their best…’ All right, let’s be honest. Can you always ‘do your best’? Can you always be that much-lauded creature ‘the best version of yourself’? In my case, it’s a resounding ‘no’. For the past three weeks, I’ve been suffering from shingles – hence the delay in the blog posting. It interfered with my sleep, my work, my exercise, my social life and my all round well-being. Over the years, I’ve suffered period pain, migraines, flu and more recently, the dreaded Covid 19. And that’s just feeling unwell! We all have times when we’re over-tired, stressed, anxious, sad or generally below par. It is neither realistic nor reasonable to expect ourselves to ‘always do our best’; it is far more humane to accept that we can do the best we can with the resources that we have available at the time. Our responsibility is not, I would contend, in demanding ‘the best’ of ourselves, whatever our immediate circumstances – it is in aiming to ensure that we resource ourselves well for whatever we need and want to do. I have worked with many a teenage Gold Star addict who will sacrifice sleep for revision, in a misguided attempt to do his or her ‘best’. I did it myself in the past so I know the temptation. These days it can still be a struggle to prioritise sleep over the many, many demands of life, but I am learning to change my script to one that supports my well-being, rather than slowly kills off my brain cells! Prioritising sleep! Photo by Alexander Possingham on Unsplash I would love, therefore, to change the Cub Scout law to something kinder. In fact, I wouldn’t call it a law at all. Maybe it could be a recommendation? Or guidance? Or even just a suggestion? And the suggestion could be: ‘Cub Scouts aim to do the best they can with the resources they have available at the time.’ How does that sit with you? How do you find yourself reacting to the idea of a law being turned into a suggestion? We’re not talking about the law of the land here (though some of that, I personally find problematic), we’re talking about the internalised ‘laws’ that bind us. How do you feel about turning your own ‘laws’ into guidance or suggestions? If you find yourself jibbing at this – arguing that this way of thinking isn’t ‘strong’ enough or fearing that you will run amok, ask yourself what’s behind that reaction. Self-Compassion If we return to the principles of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) and aim to live lives according to values, rather than goals, the value here is self-compassion. If we view ourselves with compassion, we will forgive ourselves when we aren’t our best version and look after ourselves with tenderness when we are hurting and disappointed, rather than adding to our pain by beating ourselves up. There is, of course, more to ACT than committing to our values. In the previous chapter, I encouraged you to tolerate the discomfort of not seeking validation through your performances – to begin to sit with the discomfort you might experience. This is, inevitably, easier said than done. We find comfort in familiarity, including our habitual patterns of thought, however unhelpful they actually are. A word of encouragement. We are quite used to the idea of tolerating discomfort when we need to make a change that helps us. Anyone who has consulted a physiotherapist or a personal trainer will know that sometimes we’re going to feel very uncomfortable whilst doing the prescribed exercises or new workout: we persevere because we know we will benefit in the long run, however tedious and difficult it is. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash ACT provides us with some simple tools to help with accepting the discomfort whilst we change our habitual thoughts and if you want to know about these in depth, I suggest you follow up with some reading eg. The Little Act Workbook https://amzn.to/3yhOEiv  or seek out Russ Harris on Youtube. Here, briefly, are some starting points: 1. Use Expansion. Essentially, rather than resisting the thoughts that make you uncomfortable, you are accepting, allowing and making space for them – and then observing what happens to them. Imagine pushing against a wall with one arm, really leaning into it and trying to push the wall away. It won’t go anywhere, but your arm will begin to hurt. This is like you trying to resist thoughts such as ‘I must do my absolute best or I am wasting my potential.’ Now imagine yourself resting your hand against the wall, arm outstretched, but not pushing, simply staying relaxed. You might feel some mild discomfort but you won’t hurt like you did when you pushed. This is you accepting the ‘absolute best’ thought. It’s still there, but you are simply observing it, not engaging with it, just allowing it to be as it is – a thought and only a thought. Once you aren’t resisting it, fighting with it or engaging with it in any way, you are free to walk away and leave the thought alone. 2. You can use Defusion techniques. Again, if you’re interested, you’ll find plenty online about ACT and defusion. Essentially, you are distancing yourself from your own unhelpful thoughts by reframing them in a way that makes them very separate from yourself. You can repeat them in cartoon character voices, sing them to well-known tunes, project them onto an imaginary screen with you in the role of observer – it’s a case of finding what works best for you. There’s a huge element of Mindfulness theory here. You are establishing the idea that you are separate from your thoughts and therefore, that thoughts that trouble you, can be disrupted and managed in ways that don’t harm you. I like Russ Harris’s Sushi Train metaphor to summarise this concept. Here it is: For some of you, the concept of a ‘soul’ might help. If you are happy with the idea that you are something more than a product of your brain, then it’s relatively easy to accept that you can start observing your thoughts, your feelings, your assumptions and rules, and see them as something separate from yourself. For those who don’t find the idea of a ‘soul’ useful, it can be helpful to remember that the brain has different ‘sections’: perhaps you can visualise one ‘section’ of your brain, observing other ‘sections’ of your brain producing memories and thoughts and the rules and assumptions that have become embedded. Personally, I also find it helpful to remember the times when, in the middle of a dream, I realise that I am dreaming. Who is the person who suddenly realises? I am simultaneously the dreamer and the person observing the dream. However you choose to get your head round this concept, the aim is the same –  to observe your thoughts, your feelings, your rules and assumptions, without being enmeshed in them and tortured by them. This is difficult territory and these are only a few ideas for finding ways to manage our discomfort when the familiarity of our toxic thinking is so comfortable that it keeps drawing us back in. I’d love to hear from anyone who has anything more to contribute on this. One last thing, whilst we’re on the topic of entrenched thinking and the power of thought. I said that for three weeks I’ve had shingles. Actually, three weeks ago, I was diagnosed in A&E with a kidney stone. I had no rash, had acute pain ‘from the loin to the groin’ and my blood pressure was scarily high. I was prescribed some hefty painkillers, had to drink at least 3 litres a day and was told to get my GP to book me a CT scan. Six days later, after some time outside in the sun, I found what I assumed was a cluster of midge bites ‘from the loin to the groin’. ‘Oh bum,’ I thought. ‘Now I have a kidney stone and load of very painful midge bites – I’ve never had them this painful and itchy ever before!’ It took a clear CT scan, a fraught conversation with a doctor who told me that I should, ‘Calm down and takes some laxatives!’ and some furious Googling before I worked out what was actually wrong with me and confirmed it with a less patronising doctor. I’d been told I had a kidney stone and I believed it. I then made my experience fit the diagnosis – until it couldn’t any longer. I’d had an assumption implanted that I had acted upon – although it was completely erroneous. It’s a good lesson. We act on the rules and assumptions that have been implanted – and it can be very difficult to then think outside the box. I hope this blog is helping you to do that! Please note this post contains an affiliate link. [...]
April 20, 2022Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash The Locus of Evaluation Our rules and assumptions are about a huge range of issues. We will have them about love and marriage, parents and children, crime and punishment – I could go on! If you suffer from Gold Star Syndrome, however, a lot of your beliefs are likely to revolve around the judgement of others, ranging from people passing in the street or following you on social media, all the way through to deceased ancestors or God Almighty. Forgive me for stating what you may think is obvious: you don’t start life awarding Gold Stars to yourself. In the first place, they are given to you by others, who have judged you. It is only later on that Gold Star giving becomes internalized. Carl Rogers, the founder of the Person-Centred model for counselling, expounded a very useful concept which is relevant here. It is the concept of the locus of evaluation. His theory is that this is either external (we pay attention to the judgements of others) or it is internal (we pay attention to the judgements we make ourselves). The psychologically healthy person will have a balance between the two. If we don’t pay any attention to the judgements of others, we’ll be constantly clocking up speeding fines, nicking stuff from the supermarket and getting up the noses of our nearest and dearest. We will be lawless and entitled. If, however, we swing too far in the opposite direction and allow the judgements of others to inhibit us or drive us, we’ll be deeply lacking in self-confidence or anxiously over-performing or both! We may have reached a point where we have lost sight of the original external locus of evaluation and, even within the internal locus, have become adept at beating ourselves up, basing our judgements on those which originated with others. For example, our personal moral code may insist that we give a considerable percentage of our earnings to charity. We are convinced of the importance of altruism and would say that this is based on our own judgement – but where did the idea of such generosity come from in the first place? It may well have arisen spontaneously, springing from our own compassionate spirit and, of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with such a belief in itself. It becomes problematic when the belief is one that is actually driven by an external source which we don’t fully own. Then it may lead us into a punishing process of internally judging ourselves for never giving enough. Examples of Internalized Rules I have worked with clients brought up as Christians, for whom a rule about altruism has become very problematic. They know they should ‘love their neighbour’ and they are familiar with the idea of ‘pouring themselves out’ for others, but somewhere along the line, a vital part of Jesus’ teaching has been edited out. Jesus taught that we should love our neighbours as ourselves, not more than ourselves. There is a vital inclusion of equality here and this is essential to our wellbeing, if we are to avoid burnout. We cannot continually give to others and pour ourselves out for their benefit, if we do not also nurture and cherish ourselves. I often wonder if the Brownie Guide and Cub Scout  laws gets mixed up in this:  ‘A Brownie Guide thinks of others before themselves and does a good turn everyday’. ‘Cub scouts always do their best, think of others before themselves and do a good turn every day.’ Personally, I have nothing against Jesus or his teaching on this point. I do object, however, to the Brownie Guide and Cub Scout framing of these ideas as laws. This is an inappropriately powerful way to express ideas that are implanted into children at a very impressionable age. These are good examples of external rules that may have become internalized at an early age without, if you like, ‘informed consent’. Unfortunately, in the case of Jesus’ teaching, guidance which is essentially healthy seems easily to get distorted in a way that can become damaging. In the case of the Brownie Guide and Cub Scout laws, the requirements themselves are, in my view, suspect – something I might return to in another chapter! I must do my best, think of others before myself and do a good turn every day! If Roger’s concept of the locus of evaluation sounds plausible to you, what’s the way forward? How do you free yourself of an external locus of evaluation or an internal locus of evaluation which has become sadly confused by external judgements? Help from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy First let’s seek help from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. (ACT) ACT is a refreshing and compassionate development of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which has many strengths and helpful strategies. The aspect I want to dwell on here is Commitment. In ACT, we are asked to commit to our values – so a crucial step is to work out what they are. There are many questionnaires and lists of values on the net but here’s one that I particularly like, devised by Dr Russ Harris, the writer of ‘The Happiness Trap’ and ‘The Happiness Trap Pocketbook’ , both excellent guides to the principles of ACT. The latter is a shortened and illustrated version of the original full-length book. http://thehappinesstrap.com/upimages/Values_Questionnaire.pdf I am constantly surprised by the random approach to life that many people seem to take – as if it is a juggernaut that simply shoves them along in whatever direction it happens to be headed. I highly recommend occasional times of deep reflection to consider what our values are and what we want to commit to. Please note that I am not talking about goals here. Goals are the stuff of Gold Star Syndrome. When we strive towards goals, we feed our addiction – we award ourselves a Gold Star for achieving a goal and we castigate ourselves when we don’t. Let’s return to the value of altruism for a few moments. If we value altruism, we will, of course, be looking for opportunities to be altruistic and that might, for example, include running a marathon for a favorite charity. If we are focused on our value for altruism, however fast we run in the marathon, however much money we raise, we will be content. If we are focused on the goal of doing a marathon, we are more likely to be concerned by our finish time and whether we meet our fund-raising target. We are less likely to be content with simply having completed the run and raised some money. Photo by Sherise VD on Unsplash You can argue, of course, that being focused on the goal will make you train harder, fund-raise more vigorously and run faster on the day – and you may be right – but the side-effect of that will be to continue to feed your addiction! You cannot give up an addiction without accepting some of the discomfort it was helping you to escape in the first place. Maybe by pursuing your value rather than a specific goal, you won’t ‘do as well’ as you might have done and you will have to live with a bit of disappointment or chagrin. Good. That’s important. Humility is a great antidote to Gold Star Syndrome. What we are learning to accept is that being the best or even the best that we can manage, is not essential to our happiness. Our values can stand alone. It is not necessary for them to be validated by our stunning achievements. This week, then, I recommend finding a time to really ponder your values. Where did they come from? Are they really yours? Are you happy with them? When you have worked out what they are, make the commitment to pursuing your values, independent of specific goals, and see how that feels. Enjoy! Please note that this blog contains affiliate links for the books recommended. [...]
April 6, 2022In the years I have worked as a counsellor, I have heard many powerful beliefs, rules and assumptions expressed. Here is a list of some that you may hold or that may sound familiar: I must make the most of my talents.I must make the most of or fulfill my potential.I must not waste time.I should always seek to challenge myself to do better.If I fail at something, then it’s an opportunity to do better the next time.If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.I should not give up.I should be determined and persistent.I should have grit.I should be resilient.If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.I can always do better.There’s no such word as ‘can’t’.It’s not what you say that matters, it’s what you do.It is wrong to be ‘All words, no action’ or ‘All mouth’.It is wrong to ‘say one thing and do another’.I must not shirk.It is wrong to be lazy.Work is, in and of itself, good.If I’m not the best at something, I have failed.In theory, it’s OK if someone does better than me – but that’s not how it feels in practice.I have to keep proving my worth by achieving things.I both love and hate a ‘to do’ list.It is hard to rest. There is always more to do.I feel guilty when I take time out when my jobs aren’t finished.If I haven’t finished what I need to do, it’s OK to skimp on sleep.I often think that there aren’t enough hours in the day. Getting practical Let me invite you to get practical here. Tick any that apply to you and write down any others that you hold or experience that you think are ‘on theme’. The fascinating thing about our beliefs, rules and assumptions is that we tend to think they are a given – surely everyone thinks this? I’ve had clients share beliefs with me that have almost knocked me flat. Here are a couple of examples: ‘If a girl dresses up to go out, she’s on the pull – why would she bother otherwise?’ ‘I can’t change the way I think. Other people might be able to, but I can’t.’ I try to respond with, ‘That’s a very interesting belief you have,’ or words to that effect. I’m usually met by a baffled look and some predictable comments. ‘But don’t you think that?’ ‘But it’s true – what do you mean, it’s a belief?’ ‘But I know it’s true!’ What I think or believe is, of course, irrelevant – the point is that the beliefs we hold dear are not universally held to be true and they are not immutable. If they are not beliefs that are helping us, we can choose to adapt or change them. This is not easy work. We will have been thinking and acting on these beliefs for so long that they are ingrained. They have become habitual and they will be our default position. Like any new habit, new thinking is hard to establish and will take time and effort. Sometimes clients complain that it feels ‘odd’ or ‘fake’. Yes, of course it does. Anything new feels unusual at first. If you get a pair of stiff, new shoes, it’s going to take time and in some cases some painful blisters, before you are used to them and they feel as comfortable as the ones you’ve had for years. Effecting a belief change is harder than wearing in new shoes – but is definitely worth the effort. Shoulds and Musts A good place to start is with any ‘shoulds’ or ‘musts’ in your list. Let’s take a common one. ‘I should/must make the most of my potential.’ I’m sure we can all see some sense in this. It’s a great motivator not to be a couch potato and is drilled into children and young people by well-meaning parents in order to help them pass their exams and get ‘good’ jobs. Be aware, however, that some of those parents will not be so well-meaning. Some will be wanting shiny, gold-star offspring that they can brag about to their friends and colleagues (think of some of the hellish Christmas Round Robins that many of us are doomed to receive!). Some will have issues of their own that they are trying to resolve through their children – because they never got to be an Olympic athlete/Leader of the Orchestra/Oscar Nominee/Prime Minister, they want to make jolly sure that one of their progeny makes it! Some will have religious and cultural axes to grind. It’s well worth having a think about what is or was motivating your own parents and how that is still affecting your own beliefs, even if they are long dead. So…what do we do with these ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’? I’m not going to say anything new or revolutionary here – oodles of psychologists and therapists have made this point before but it’s worth stating nonetheless. Start by changing your ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ to ‘coulds’ ‘cans’ ‘mights’ and ‘mays’ and add an element of choice. I could make the most of my potential (if I choose too).I may make the most of my potential (if I’d like too). Observe how you feel reading those two possibilities. A bit uncomfortable? A bit, ‘Ooh, I’m not sure about that – sounds a bit lazy/sketchy/irresponsible’? Does it sound a just a bit too free and easy? If so, ask yourself exactly what is so terrible about feeling free to make your own decision about how much you choose to use your ‘potential’. What law are you breaking? Whose? And let’s just unpick that word ‘potential’ whilst we’re here. Do you really believe that you have a given quantity of something stored up that ‘must’ be used or else? What are you? A long-life battery? Or else what, exactly?  Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash Really interrogate what you believe here. Notice if you are coming up with labels for yourself. ‘Oh but then I’d be really lazy! I can’t do that – I’d maybe be a bit of a waste of space! I’d be like a drop-out or a loser!’ Then interrogate the labels. Where do those thoughts come from? Who is making those judgements? You? Your peers? Society? God? Who do you want to make the judgements about you? We’ll come back to labelling and judgements later. For now, keep working on adapting some key rules and assumptions. Dig deep into your personal history and your family’s story. How far do the rules go back? What’s been handed down through the generations? Is yours a family of self-made people who are committed to pulling themselves up by their boot straps? Are there historical disadvantages that your family has had to strive to overcome? Is there tragedy and trauma, leading to your family narrative being one of survival, whatever the cost? Is yours a family of emigres or refugees, flung onto their own resources time and again? My family history is relatively innocuous compared with many and, in some ways, has influenced me for the good. But it’s also had its dark side, as we have seen. Let’s finish this chapter with  a suggestion for an alternative to ‘I must fulfill my potential.’ I can choose to explore my gifts and talents and use them as it seems appropriate to me. To me that feels remarkably refreshing compared with the previous straitjacket! But notice your own reaction. If you are questioning this as an appropriate belief to live by, what are you questioning? And what’s motivating the question? Keep digging! [...]
March 26, 2022Lots of gold stars for me for making dolls! So where should we start? To a large extent, this is a record of my personal journey, what I’ve discovered and what’s helped me –  so let’s start where I began which was during my training to be a counsellor. It was a challenging time in my life. We had taken the difficult decision for all our children to start full-time school after years of home-educating and flexi-schooling and I suddenly had choices. Where was my career to go? I was juggling three strands – writing professionally, running both a local youth theatre and a home-educators’ drama group and I was a trained and practising breastfeeding counsellor. I couldn’t decide which strand to choose so I carried on with all three. I started an MA in Theatre and Drama Education, a certificate in Person-Centred Counselling and continued to write books for children. Sleep didn’t seem like a priority – it hadn’t for years. Unbeknownst to me, my thyroid gland was slowly going on strike. We lived in a 17th century cottage so I assumed it was normal to wear two jumpers, a shirt and a vest in winter and the sleepiness – well, I knew I was short of sleep! Drowsing off in my lectures and classes seemed like par for my course. I resented the amount of time my husband spent on computer games – how come he had time for something so pointless when my entire life was dedicated to ‘worthwhile’ activities? So it went on – for several years. I couldn’t immediately follow up on my counselling certificate with a diploma because the second year of my MA was very demanding, the youth theatre was expanding and I was becoming more successful as a writer. It was some time before I started my diploma in CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and had my lightbulb moment. Just fun won’t do! In counselling training, a vital part is triad work. You work in threes with your fellow students, one being the ‘client’ and presenting a real, live issue which isn’t too massive to be dealt with by trainees. A second is the ‘counsellor’ and a third is the ‘observer’ who offers feedback when the session is finished. I was in the role of client and was talking about my lack of downtime. ‘You see,’ I said, ‘just fun won’t do.’ The ‘counsellor’ said, ‘Say that again slowly, Meg.’ Slightly exasperated, I repeated it. ‘Just fun won’t do.’ My words hung in the air. We were all silent, I think considering the enormity of what I had just said. That was the place I had got to – a place where I couldn’t enjoy leisure, I couldn’t enjoy anything other than ‘worthwhile’ work – because fun ‘wouldn’t do’. In my moral framework, ‘just enjoying yourself’ had no validity. In CBT, the premise is that our thoughts affect our emotions and our emotions affect our behaviour. In therapy, considerable time and effort is spent corralling thoughts and thinking patterns, considering how they may have developed but, more importantly, whether they are helpful or not. Where do those thoughts come from? The premise is that they will be linked to underlying Core Beliefs, which will have gradually taken root in our minds, influenced by the messages from our families and other powerful influences such as school, faith groups and the media. My ‘just fun won’t do’ belief, had a lengthy provenance, probably even pre-dating my birth. The roots are deep My mother was born in the 1920s and was brought up on a farm which struggled to stay afloat financially in the Great Depression years of the 1930s. She was the youngest of nine children, all of whom helped with the work of the household. As a result, she had calloused areas on her hands which she called ‘segs’ which had built up when she was young, peeling potatoes for the large family and farmhands. They had never gone away. She loved reading and encouraged my own love of books but she also told me that her mother, catching her reading, would say, ‘Why are you reading? Haven’t you got anything to do?’ Unintentionally, she handed down a mixed message. On the one hand reading was to be loved – but on the other, it didn’t count as a legitimate thing to ‘do’. My mother’s father was also a booklover – but his farm was failing and money was short. In the mid 1930s, my grandmother left the farm, taking half of the children with her and some cattle, and set up a dairy in inner city Liverpool. She never went back. My mother’s story was that they couldn’t make ends meet on the farm – so my grandmother took steps to keep the family housed and fed by starting her own business in Liverpool. Bizarre as it sounds, there were numerous ‘cowhouses’ in Liverpool, some of them purpose-built, because Liverpool’s position on the hinterland made it impossible to bring in milk from the countryside fast enough for it to stay fresh.  It must have been incredibly hard work – once again, the children helped run the show, churning butter, making ice cream and, in the case of one of my aunts, doing the milk deliveries in a pony and trap. It’s a story of self-motivation, determination and grit – and risk taking. My grandmother started her dairy towards the end of the ‘cowhouse’ period, shortly before refrigeration became the norm and milk could come into Liverpool by train – and shortly before the start of the second world war. The family struggled on through the Liverpool Blitz. The backstory, as one of my cousins told me relatively recently, is that the marriage was on the rocks. ‘These days,’ she said, ‘they would have divorced.’ But the public story, the one my mother handed down to me, is of the strong woman who worked as hard as she could, to save the farm and her children. No time or space for fun.  And indeed, my mother was not a ‘fun mum’. I don’t remember much laughter. My dad cracked the jokes, mostly ones of which my mum disapproved. I can’t remember her laughing much, if at all. Let me not give the impression that she was a bad or uncaring mother – far from it – but given the upbringing she had had, and the fact that she had a disability, probably a combination of congenital hip dysplasia and TB, everything seemed to be hard work and to be seen as such. Occasionally we had trips out to local beauty spots or, at Christmas, to Manchester to see the decorations – but it was all a huge effort. My mum could not drive (these days she would have been able to have had an adapted car but not then) and both buses and trains were a severe challenge as it was really difficult for her to climb aboard. Bus conductors were particularly prone to ringing the bell for departure when she was still struggling to drag herself onto the platform at the back of the old Routemasters. Imagine that with two small children in tow! I can feel myself seething with indignation even now. What did she model then? Entirely unintentionally, she gave the impression that life was hard work. There wasn’t much time or space for fun. Neither my sister nor I seemed to need any encouragement to study hard and get our homework done. Neither of us rebelled as teenagers or were desperate to go out partying. Why would we? Both our parents were teachers (or had been, in my mother’s case) so there were strong messages about the importance of education – but that’s no proof against teenage rebellion. I don’t think I trusted the ‘fun’ things that young people did. Parties felt hugely uncomfortable and not just because I was never (unsurprisingly!) one of ‘the populars’. Anything other than work and effort was, I think, deeply suspect. Sunday afternoons were often spent playing ‘Scrabble’ with my mum, grandpa and sister. My mum loved it – but I can hardly imagine a less fun game, personally. You get the picture. Add to that a healthy dose of guilt for being a healthy person with no physical or mental disability and a belief that I needed to make up for this in some way to even things out, and it’s not difficult to see how, in my mid-life, I was driving myself very hard and ‘just fun, wouldn’t do’. I mentioned the power of faith groups and the media. In my own case, brought up to go to church, I was hugely influenced by Luke 12:48. The version I read is ‘Much is required from those to whom much is given for their responsibility is greater’. It’s from The Living Bible (a paraphrase). Young, impressionable and ignorant of the nuances of translation, the words sank deep into my mind and heart. Another powerful message came from the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 14 – 30. The meaning I made was that any talents I had  must be used to the max or I would be was wasting the potential I had been given. And the media? In our family, we ate our evening meal to the accompaniment of the 6 o’clock news, which seemed to me to be an endless stream of woe. Assassinations, war, famine and always, always, the threat of nuclear annihilation. I didn’t expect to see the millennium. I have learnt to limit my exposure to the news, most of which I can do nothing about, but then I had no choice. How is all this linked to an addiction to gold stars? It’s in my slavish, driven commitment to worthwhile work rather than fun. Where did the approval of my parents come from? From what I ‘did’. ‘Doing’ was good, be it helping around the house, completing schoolwork, music exams and Brownie badges or making things. I was a ‘crafter’ before the term ‘crafting’ had been invented. If Hobbycraft had existed, it would have been my idea of heaven. Instead, I made things from whatever I could find or scrounge – dolls from pipe-cleaners, painstakingly covered in old stockings and tiny garments made of scraps left from Mum’s sewing, presents for friends and relatives, clothes for my dolls and then for myself. There was no budget for any of this. The wartime slogan ‘make do and mend’ still held sway in our house and, my goodness, did my ‘making’ get me approval! Midlife then, I was driven to ‘do’ worthwhile work, thus satisfying the demands of the beliefs instilled by my upbringing, my faith and my never-forgotten distress over the disaster-ridden 6 o’clock news. I would be a worthy, gold star person, because I would always be ‘doing’ good. Even so, I still felt endlessly guilty for not having made life less miserable for the masses, whilst probably making it more miserable for my nearest and dearest and certainly for myself. I am not suggesting that you throw the baby out with the bathwater. I haven’t done so myself. I haven’t become a relentlessly hedonistic pleasure-seeker. I finished my counselling training and have been practising as a counsellor ever since. But ever since my lightbulb moment in triad work, I have allowed more fun into my life and I have become less driven by the need to ‘do’ and to ‘make’. In my work as a counsellor, I often think that the crucial work is to become aware. If we cannot become aware of what is going on for us emotionally and mentally, what our core beliefs and drivers are and where they might have come from and how to distinguish between our healthy and destructive behaviours, then we haven’t any hope of making the changes which will help us to grow, develop and become more content and peaceful. In the next section then, I will challenge you to dig deep. What are the beliefs that bind you to endless achievement? Can you begin to see where they may have come from? Something to start pondering upon! [...]
March 17, 2022Recently, I was talking with someone I am very close to. We agreed that we are both very lucky and, compared with many people, we have not suffered badly through the pandemic. I had Covid 19 way back before the vaccinations but, although I felt really ill for nearly a fortnight, I wasn’t hospitalised and I don’t seem to have been left with long term damage. She’s had it very recently but it was milder and she’s basically over it now. We have both been able to work, with some adaptations. We’re agreed – we are very blessed. And yet… ‘So I feel guilty,’ she said. ‘I don’t,’ I said, ‘but I do find myself wondering if something will go wrong. It doesn’t seem fair – especially when you look at what’s happening in Ukraine. Or Syria. Or Yemen. Or Aghanistan – or countless other places.’ ‘Yes, so I have to keep working,’ she said. Her job is all about caring for people. ‘I’ve got to the point where I’ve forgotten what to do if I’m not working.’ Let’s set aside my doom-laden paranoia that if things are going well for me, then the world is likely to manufacture a set-back. That’s something we can come back to later. Let’s look at what’s going on for my guilt-burdened friend. What is this? Has she become a workaholic? I could certainly argue that case. But why? This is not a person who, historically, has been drawn to the demons of addiction – the fags, the drink, the drugs, the games, the sex – all those dopamine-rich agents of destruction. Far from it. I can hardly imagine a person less likely to end up in rehab. All she has ever wanted is to be good and to do good. Like me, as a child, she wanted gold stars. And there’s the rub. There are no more gold stars for her now – but she, like so many of us, has been conditioned to expect and need them in order to validate herself. My contention is that the guilt and the compulsion to keep on working are rooted in that need. ‘Fridge Door Syndrome’ Professor Steve Peters writes in a slightly different way about this in ‘The Chimp Paradox’. He calls it ‘fridge door syndrome’ and explains how well-meaning parents greet our every creative endeavour at nursery school with delight and praise. ‘Darling, that’s marvellous! Let’s stick it on the fridge door!’ And so, unintentionally, they begin excavating a bottomless hole in our souls and psyches, which will never be filled because how can we ever be satisfied with what we have achieved? How can we ever have ‘done’ enough? Our identity has been inadvertently hi-jacked and we can only pay the ransom through endlessly achieving in one way or another – whether it’s in our careers, our sports, our finances or even in our ‘goodness’. Instead of being valued for who we are, we have learnt to be valued for what we do or achieve. Our parents’ innocent encouragement has condemned us to a lifetime of striving. Like my friend, even when we know we are really very fortunate and it ought to be possible to rejoice in our blessings, we are hounded. We feel guilty. With what seem like perfectly reasonable motives (It is only right to share my gifts and talents! I really must fulfil my potential! There is so much to fix – how can I not help? etc), we drive ourselves onwards, never feeling satisfied of our own personal worth and never able to fully relax and enjoy ourselves. What a position to be in! Here we are, amongst the most privileged to ever live on this planet, and we cannot enjoy it. And in my view, it’s getting worse. My friend and I are both mature women, brought up in the wonderland that existed before the Internet, before phones, before Stranger Danger and before SATS in British schools. We had oodles of free time in which we could wander from home on bikes or on foot (even though the Moors Murders were fairly recent events and within 15 miles of where we lived). During that time our headspace was our own, uninvaded by concerns about how we looked or what our friends were doing. We hadn’t heard of FOMO – what was there to miss out on anyway? Opportunities for anything beyond Guides, Scouts and maybe the odd music or dancing lesson were few. I was regularly reminded by my mother how lucky I was to have swimming lessons AND ballet lessons – and that if I wanted to learn to play the piano, the ballet lessons would have to stop. It was a fairly limited existence but relatively free of the pressures that young people face today, with their slavery to Instagram, Snapchat, Tik Tok and the like. You cannot blink but someone seems to be assessing your blinking skill. Despite our relative freedom, my friend and I still became victims of ‘gold star syndrome’. Exams kicked in, even in our restricted lives. There were badges for swimming and ‘grades’ for both piano and ballet. I remember being very proud indeed of my armful of Brownie interest badges – for some of which I had to manufacture the interest to get the badge! This is at age 10. The roots of my addiction to achievement had already enmeshed me. What it’s like for young people now That was then. Imagine what it is like now when the young of the affluent spend their spare time hurtling from one educational activity to another and most of those activities have some form of assessment. And then imagine their ‘downtime’ which is haunted by their phones. What is their online presence like? Is it good enough? And what about how they respond to their friends online? Whether it’s keeping up ‘streaks’ on Snapchat, pondering whether to ‘like’ someone’s image or curating their own Instagram accounts, the demand to perform and perform well, is always there for young people. ‘Likes’ are the gold stars of the Internet – and they are, of course, perniciously addictive. One young ‘high achiever’ expressed her angst like this: ‘I’ve done what was expected of me – I got the great grades, went to a great university and got the great job. What now? Whose going to give me a commendation?’ It’s hardly surprising that we have unprecedented levels of people suffering from anxiety of all sorts, depression, eating disorders and body dysmorphia. How can we be mentally healthy when all our lives we’ve been reliant on the next ‘hit’ of achievement – when our validation of ourselves has all been about the affirmation we get from others? What do we do when, mid-life, we realise we are endlessly addicted to gold stars? This is the issue that I hope to address in this series of blog posts. My mission I am a counsellor who has worked with young people for most of my adult life and who has also spent many years writing professionally. In my therapeutic work, I see ‘gold star syndrome’ over and over again, and amongst friends and relatives and in myself too. It grieves me. I hope these blogs will help us all towards freedom. We have looked briefly about how we get ensnared but we will all have had individual journeys down into the trap. Precisely how you got hooked is for you to think about, if you want to, perhaps with the help of a therapist or counsellor. My interest here is in ways to escape no matter how you got stuck. I’ll therefore be writing blog posts on different ideas and strategies which have interested and helped me. I don’t aim to be comprehensive but I do aim to provide some pointers towards what might help you and some exercises for you to consolidate what you learn. Do post a response if you have comments to make or relevant stories to share. [...]
November 3, 2020Have you heard of Sara Bareilles? Pre lockdown she was getting plaudits for her a music for the West End show ‘Waitress’ but I wouldn’t have noticed that if I hadn’t been introduced to her work by one of my young clients. He shared with me her song ‘Brave’ which was inspiring him at the time and which has inspired me ever since, both the music and the official video. Watch and listen here: One of the joys of being a counsellor is that the learning is endless, from my reading, from courses and, most encouragingly, from my clients. It feels like a tremendous privilege to meet someone in a place of real vulnerability and need and yet to learn from them – to keep seeing that, however negative a situation might seem, there is the potential for growth, not just for the person themselves but for those around them, including me. Part of my journey into counselling was experiencing my mother’s severe depressive illness when I was 19. She was treated with electro-convulsive therapy, which, however effective, filled me with horror. I wanted, and still want, to find ways to help myself and others which are not as invasive as that. I’m therefore pro-active in seeking mental health and well-being, attempting to increase what the Dalai Lama calls my ‘mental immunity’, not because I think we can ever avoid suffering entirely, but because I believe there are ways to grow through it and ways to be destroyed by it. I am hugely encouraged then, when a client shares something that has helped them. Another great ‘share’ by a client was ‘The School of Life’ https://www.theschooloflife.com/ which he’d found useful to help with a personal relationship issue. If you don’t know it already, it’s a real mine of useful information, presented as both ‘Book’ and videos. I’ve been on one of their day courses and bought several of their books and resources. A favourite, very short, very sensible little number is ‘The Sorrows of Love’ https://www.theschooloflife.com/shop/sorrows-of-love/ I’d hesitate to recommend a favourite video but a quick browse is almost bound to come up with something of interest. A more recent client ‘share’ is the fascinating and very readable ‘Habits of a Happy Brain’ This is a great introduction to some basic neuroscience and what we can do to manage our neurochemistry so that we feel better. It’s not the whole story, of course, and was wonderfully balanced by a colleague who mailed me to tell me about ‘The Book of Joy’, an account of a week’s conversations between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, on the subject of what makes us joyful. I am very grateful to those who share what helps them. If you too would like to share something that might help my work and help others who read this blog, then please email me. Thank you! Meg Harper [...]
November 3, 2020‘You’ve made your bed so you’ll have to lie in it.’ ‘Life isn’t a bed of roses’. ‘Well, you know what thought did…he followed a muck cart and thought it was a wedding.’ You’ve probably heard the first two sayings before but the third? Really? Did someone just make that up? No, I promise you – that was one of my mum’s favourites! It usually came out in response to me saying something like, ‘I thought I’d do it (the washing up/cleaning my shoes/tidying my room etc) later.’ Over the years, I’ve often reflected on the ‘sayings’ that were part of my upbringing because, on the sly, without us noticing, they influence us hugely, for better and for worse. Let’s take my first example. This is clearly about personal responsibility and accepting the consequences of our actions – good. But it’s also about inflexibility, putting up with situations that we could change and being bloody-minded – bad. And what subconscious associations might I have about beds, given the first two messages? Beds don’t seem to be being associated with rest, recuperation and good times, do they? As for the ‘muck cart’ one – yes, it’s a spur to action but where does that leave periods of thought and reflection? Or taking time to consider our actions? Fortunately, my mum was also keen on W.H. Davies’ lovely poem, ‘Leisure’: ‘What is this life, if full of careWe have no time to stand and stare…’W.H. Davies so I didn’t end up completely bug-eyed and driven! In CBT, such family sayings would be seen as contributing to our core beliefs, in Transactional Analysis, they might be seen as Injunctions, in Pesso Boyden Therapy, they would be called ‘Voices’ and in psychoanalytic psychotherapy, possibly as ‘uninvited guests from the unremembered past’ https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10866284-the-uninvited-guest-from-the-unremembered-past  Whatever the therapy, messages from our families are usually seen as very important. For reasons we do not yet fully understand, some psychological problems are passed down in families. Modelling is a factor, of course: in a family where the father is never seen to cry, boys will often grow up finding it almost impossible or unbearable to cry, their sons may have the same difficulty and so on throughout the generations. Closely related are family sayings, such as mine. A quick Internet search suggests that the ‘muck cart’ one is an old Lancashire saying; my mum came from a village near Preston. Her mum probably said it to her (they lived on a farm where all the children were expected to help) and her mum to her and so on. Such sayings tend to confirm the values the family holds dear. The net result? Well, let’s look at my three examples. If those are the family sayings, what sort of family will result? I’d suggest one that is hard working and full of activity, with little time for reflection or contemplation. Life is seen as quite tough – but that will partly be our own responsibility. I hope you can see the link to your own and your family’s well-being. Out of our awareness, we have powerful messages influencing our lives and not always for our good. It’s an interesting exercise to list all the ‘sayings’ that abound in our households and to reflect on them. What’s healthy about them and likely to be good for our mental and emotional well-being? And what’s not so good? Are there any we’d like to stop repeating? Or any we’d like to bring out into the open and discuss with our families?  It’s interesting to see if there are any mixed messages going on too. In my family, my dad was keen on telling us that if we got up late, we’d ‘missed the best part of the day’ and I still feel slightly guilty if I don’t get up early – but I was dimly aware that he didn’t always stick to his own rules and could often be found watching football late at night!  Recently, I called out a man I know for remarking of a fictional character who attempted rape that ‘he got to the point where he couldn’t help himself.’ He argued that it was ‘just an expression’. I argued that if we keep repeating such ‘expressions’ we continue the toxic narrative and belief that men don’t have full control over their sex drives. What we say and what our brains hear is powerful and important. Our minds are always listening to what we say so the more we say these things, the more we will reinforce them, not just in our listeners but in ourselves. And what we say and what we model doesn’t just affect our own children’s well-being but can affect future generations too. [...]
October 30, 2020Losing a parent when you are young is, inevitably, sad and difficult. Sad but not inevitable is feeling that our parents are absent when they are actually still with us.  I look back on the parenting I did when my children still lived at home and I know that there were times when they probably felt as if I wasn’t there. We cannot have parenting in the forefront of our minds all the time – many of us are juggling work and parenting and some of us will be caring for other relatives as well. There’s a balance to be struck too – being invasive, ‘helicopter’ parents who can’t allow our children constructive independence is just as unhelpful as appearing to be absent.  It’s hard. Teenagers can be very misleading in the messages they give us. I was completely convinced that my oldest son couldn’t wait to see the back of me when he went off to university and that he certainly wouldn’t want me popping down for the occasional weekend visit. Wrong! Only much later did he tell me that he’d actually felt really bereft by my hands-off approach! Teenagers can seem so hell-bent on independence and can be so surly and uncommunicative, that we can get the impression that our opinions, concerns and activities are either of no interest whatsoever or are considered worthy of only the lowest life-forms. As for our company – well, really? What would they want that for? So we carry on with our work and our other concerns (which are, after all, very pressing and important), blithely unaware that inside our uncommunicative, frequently surly teenager, there is still an inner child who needs our love, our attention and our active presence. Hugging us feels awkward and it’s become impossible to get the words out to tell us that we are still loved and deeply needed. The process of gradually launching into the world outside our immediate families is called individuation and it’s hard for both parents and children. For children it’s like being attached to an immensely powerful bungee cord. They keep stretching and stretching away but it’s hard work and every so often they snap back with all the force in that elastic. There might be a tantrum, a raging storm of anger or a melt-down. Suddenly, your child is very, very present again and uncomfortably so, before the stretching starts again. For the parent, it can feel like everything is going reasonably well and then, out of nowhere, there’s a massive problem. So what can we do? First, it’s really important to ‘be there’ and for your child to know this. That applies to both parents. If work takes us away from home, we need to find ways to keep the connection alive. If we have demanding, stressful jobs, we must ensure that we are still finding time to be actively present in our children’s lives. Only children and those left behind by siblings who have left home can feel particularly isolated. It can seem like they are alone in the universe, rattling around with preoccupied parents who see them as too grown up to need the sort of attention they were used to when they were little. Second, when the elastic does snap back and we’re faced with some sort of meltdown, it can help to see it as an expression of the inner child on its journey through individuation. Right now, it’s all become a bit too much and your child needs your support, your compassion, your strength and your love. The inner child in all of us needs to feel secure, nurtured and cherished. If our parents don’t provide that, it can lead to problems of insecurity and low self-worth both in the present and in future life. In some cases, there will need to be a sanction for the behaviour but that, issued with reasonableness and thought, helps teach boundaries and shows that you have the capacity to contain the situation, thus helping to create a sense of safety. ‘Begin with the end in mind’Stephen Covey Stephen Covey, the author of ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ advises us to ‘Begin with the end in mind’ and learn to avoid anything we don’t want to be burdened with on our death beds. I started this blog writing about those who have lost parents, so death beds are on my mind. The question I think we need to ask ourselves is about priorities. On our death beds, will we wish we’d been more present for our children? Will we regret the preoccupations which absorbed our attention whilst they were teenagers? Will we wonder whether, in a way our children had lost us, even when we were still there? [...]