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What’s Love Got To Do With It?

The year 1790. The scenario: A large asylum (as they were then called) outside Paris. Inhuman unhealthy conditions prevailed with many inmates kept physically restrained by various devices. Each afternoon the asylum was opened to the public who, for a small fee, were let in to be entertained by the antics of the ‘mad’ people. It was a zoo for humans.

That was until a remarkable French physician came on the scene: Philippe Pinel. In 1792 Pinel was appointed to take charge of the asylum. He and a colleague were determined to pioneer a humanitarian approach to mental distress. Against a lot of opposition they introduced better conditions for the inmates who for the first time were treated with respect and kindness and given purposeful tasks to do. Most of all Pinel established friendly contact with the inmates and discussed with them their personal difficulties. The result? After a while a good many of the inmates started to get better, to the extent they eventually became well enough to leave the asylum.

One such inmate had been an officer in the French Army. He had been incarcerated in the asylum for 40 years, mostly being kept shackled. Pinel spent a lot of time with him, talking and, more importantly, listening to him. After a while Pinel asked the man if he would give his word that he would not harm anyone if Pinel released him from his restraints. The man gave his word and sure enough, when released, showed no violence. Pinel then took the man outside the asylum for the first time in all those years. The man gazed up at the sky and exclaimed “Comme c’est beau la lumière!” – “How beautiful is the light!”

From then on the man took on a job of helping to care for the other inmates. His mental and physical health improved, so much so that after two years he was well enough to leave the asylum, which he did, a free man.

No-one knows why he was incarcerated in the first place or what became of him after he left the asylum. But a transformation had been wrought.

Respect, being listened to, human contact, being valued. If we can provide these for others and work to gain these for ourselves, respecting ourselves, listening to the different parts of ourselves, basically treating ourselves with compassion, it seems to me freedom to flourish is there for us too. There is life outside the asylum or the prison of our beliefs if we can give to ourselves what was given to an ex-Army officer over 200 years ago.

What do you think of this true story? I welcome your comments below. For personal transformation of your own check out our e-book ‘I Just Want To Be Happy – An Insider’s Guide To Positive Transformation’. Paperback on Amazon.

Upgrading Your Life

My heart was beating faster but not through excitement. The cause? The remark “A number two scalpel please nurse”. Normally dentists use gentler phrases “such as “this may cause some discomfort” (carefully avoiding words like ‘pain’). But not this time. Trapped in the dentist’s chair halfway through a difficult extraction the only real option was to accept the inevitable, trust the dentist, and strive hard to adopt the Buddhist philosophy of ‘acceptance’.

Isn’t this also a metaphor for our mental and emotional life? Painful though it can be the only true path to healing is to confront what is causing us pain and, with support, work through it. It’s a kind of exorcism, that we need to get out whatever is toxic in our life because only then can our life be transformed into a better and healthier one. Avoidance of painful stuff (attractive though it can often seem) not only doesn’t work but tends to make things worse because by avoiding it we are providing evidence to ourselves that the pain is too much to confront.

Telling ourselves that ‘things will get better by themselves’ is a delusion. They won’t. With avoidance nothing is really fixed because nothing is healed. As someone said to me once, it’s the difference between surviving and living. Surviving means trying to cope with whatever is unresolved while living offers freedom to move forward without that burden.

The most rewarding aspect of the work I do, and have done for over three decades as a counsellor and psychotherapist, is to help people to think differently and to do differently. But there’s no avoiding going through some pain first. With support though it’s manageable and relatively short-lived, and can open up a whole new way of looking at the world and, more importantly, a new way of looking at ourselves.

And, yes, facing up to my dental experience was totally successful. A lingering soreness for a few days, but healing soon started, and now freedom from pain. As with our physical life so with our inner life. The choice is ours.

Feel free to leave any comments below. And do check out my e-book I Just Want To Be Happy. Full of practical exercises and bite-sized easy to digest chapters it takes you on a personal journey of self discovery and change. Paperback version available on Amazon.

Abnormal (or not)?

Not many people outside the world of psychiatry and psychology will have heard of DSMV. This is a massive American publication and is the psychiatric bible not only in America but many other countries too. DSMV stands for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Edition 5 and at close to a thousand pages is a substantial work indeed. Here you will find listed every conceivable state of mental ill health. This whole area of study is officially known as ‘abnormal psychology’.

In DSMV there is a label for every state of mind you could imagine, and some you probably could not. Psychosis, schizophrenias, depressive states, anxiety states, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorders, paranoia, plus every kind of perversion. It is so comprehensive that as others have cryptically remarked, even if you regard yourself as mentally fit you won’t have to look far before you find a perfect description of yourself.

However, among all the thousands of labels for so-called ‘abnormal’ states of mind there is a glaring absence. There is no description of a ‘normal’ state of mind. This is because in the wonderful world of psychology no-one can agree on a definition. So there isn’t one.

This then begs the question, if we don’t know what normal is how can we possibly know what abnormal is? After all, something must be defined in terms of what it is not. It must be the opposite of something, but the opposite of what?

Of course, if normality doesn’t even exist it means abnormality can’t exist either, which then puts the whole term ‘abnormal psychology’ into question.

In fact, in my 32 years as a psychotherapist and counsellor I have found most mental distress is a result of unhappy or traumatic events or circumstances that we would logically expect to create a ‘mental injury’ of some kind. After all, if someone falls off a ladder and suffers a broken leg we might say the person was unlucky, or even careless, but we would be unlikely to say they were abnormal.

But there we have it. Mental illness and those who suffer from it have a long history of being thought of as abnormal, and the title in psychology persists. Things are changing but it’s a slow business. And it’s unlikely to stop the next edition of the DSM being even bigger than the present one.

You are more than a label. Check out ‘I Just Want To Be Happy’ on Amazon or the e-book version on this site.

 

Thinking outside the box

I did a lot of telephone counselling work in the past for EAPs (employee assistance programmes). These are set up by companies, who usually employ a specialist body to provide counselling and, often, other support for employees suffering stress. However, it can be a revolving door. Employees referred for counselling, are ‘put back together’ again, and then re-enter the same workplace that caused them stress in the first place.

Does the support they get make them happy? Well, they generally appreciate it at the time but the sense of wellbeing is unlikely to last if they then return to the same environment. In this event it’s a temporary fix. It’s not a solution.

A true solution would be to reduce stress in the workplace to a manageable level so there is less need to alleviate it. It is also of course a more human approach that would benefit not only the workforce but the employer as well. Happier people work better and more productively. Some progressive companies do have this enlightened view, but many do not and see employees as simply cogs in a machine. Repair the worn cog as quickly as possible and put it back in the machine, even though it’s the machine itself that is causing the problem.

What I often did in those telephone counselling sessions (and I can confess this now that I don’t work for any EAPs) is to gently imply a change of job might be a better option for the employee, and to give them some support in exploring this option. Rather than them wondering how they could return to their job and try to cope better, this often inspired them to ‘think outside the box’. It opened up new possibilities. They started to think the unthinkable: “Yes, I could do something different”.

It takes courage to step outside the box but if we always stick with what we know just because it’s familiar we are likely to look back on our life with regrets.

My book ‘I Just Want To Be Happy’ (co-authored with Susan Smith) is all about doing things differently. Then our future is bound to become different too.

As you might expect, my counselling approach with a good many employees would not have gone down well with their employer. Luckily, they never found out. Telephone calls were not recorded, so my subversive activities went undetected.

Yes, I did things differently.

Love

A statistic: a recent survey came up with the finding that just over 60% of all songs ever written are about love. I imagine the same is true, or more so, of poetry and of course most novels contain a love story of some kind. And yet psychology mostly, although not entirely, goes quiet about love. In my 32 years in the profession I can’t remember attending a single workshop or course with the word ‘love’ in the title. In mainstream psychology there are very few books on the psychology of love, never mind the healing power that loving support can provide.

Carl Rogers, generally considered the founder of counselling, believed strongly that in the counselling setting a respectful, non possessive and non judgmental love had that power to heal. He once wrote: “It respects the other person as a separate individual and does not possess him (or her). It is a kind of liking that has strength, and which is not demanding”. He saw it as “temporarily living in the other’s life, moving about in it delicately without making judgments”. He believed this was the pathway to empathy and to the true understanding of another person. As he famously wrote: “If a person is understood he or she belongs”.

It is perhaps psychology’s greatest disservice that it says so little about it. And yet we can easily remember those doctors, psychologists or therapists who were able to allow this in themselves and not just see ‘being professional’ as being semi detached from the person in front of them. I have found it striking that as a standard question I am likely to ask clients what medication they are on. Very often they can’t recall the name of it but, if they had a good relationship with their doctor, they will always remember the doctor. The relationship comes first for them, the feeling of being listened to, valued and, most of all, understood.

Resilience

Given the demanding times we live in, I thought resilience would be a good topic. What makes for resilience? Why are some people more resilient than others to life’s pains and stresses? One person can go through a stressful experience and feel devastated by it with emotional, psychological and perhaps physical effects, while another person will suffer much less. Some get through a tough experience, others crumple under it.

A key ingredient for survivability seems to be the foundation stone of ‘meaning’. If we have a sustaining faith in something then it gives us something to survive for, an inner ‘rock’ to hold onto, rather than being swept away by whatever life throws at us.

Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist, came to this conclusion during his three years as a prisoner in Auschwitz and other concentration camps in World War II. His wife and most of his family died in the camps as, of course, did very many others. But Viktor Frankl survived and after the War wrote ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’. Published in 1946 he described his own horrific experiences and his observations of how he and others coped. It seemed to him that those who had a faith – not necessarily a religious faith – but a faith in something profoundly important to them, survived the terrible experience in the camps much better. Their life had meaning. Those who had no faith had little to live for, suffered more and would often just ‘give up’. There was no inner passion for life, no drive, to keep that person going.

In Paulo Coelho’s 1999 novel ‘Veronika Decides To Die’, a young girl (Veronika) has friends, a social life, a loving family even. She displays no signs of depression, but life lacks that same essential ingredient: meaning. Life is empty for her. As she says herself, one day seems much like another. There is nothing to drive her forward in her life. She too gives up and in her case attempts suicide.

Frankl believed that whatever gave meaning to our lives had to be invested with love, that the two were inseparable What has real meaning for us we love, what we love holds meaning. He saw our salvation as “through love and in love” which he described as “the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart”.

So what do you really love? What gives fundamental meaning to your life?

I think if we are able to discover that then life is truly worthwhile.

Happiness is stomach shaped

Many Eastern approaches to medicine and healing would see the stomach (the gut) as the seat of our emotions. A surprising discovery in recent years that tends to reinforce this belief – and which has raised some fascinating questions – is to do with the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve runs from the brain down to the gut. It’s a major highway, and a very busy one indeed. It carries heavy traffic.

Up until recently it was assumed that most of this traffic was one-way, from the brain to the gut, the brain conveying instructions to the gut on all matters to do with digestion.

Now Professor Michael Gershon’s pioneering work at New York’s Columbia University suggests the opposite: that far more traffic flows from the gut to the brain than vice versa.

The big question is what are all these messages from the gut conveying to the brain? Well, there are lots of don’t knows to questions about the hugely complex human digestive system. What we do know is that 90-95% of our serotonin, which dictates our mood, lies in the gut and only a small amount in the brain. So all that huge traffic of messages to the brain may be largely to do with conveying, literally, gut feelings. In other words, it may be the gut, not the brain, is telling us how we feel. Eastern medicine may have got it right all along, that emotions really do originate in the gut.

Unlike the brain, which conveniently thinks in words, the gut is more to do with us ‘sensing our sensations’ and having faith our gut feelings may be conveying an important message for us. In my 32 years of practice as a psychotherapist I know that accessing our gut feelings can be liberating. It frees us of unresolved issues ‘stuck’ in the gut where they reside very uncomfortably.

In the area of our emotions it seems our gut is the senior partner. A knot in the stomach, butterflies in the stomach, your gut reaction to something? Listening to your gut more than your brain may be a true education.