Saturday, March 17, 2018


It takes a strong person, and a lot of integrity, to remain steadfastly connected to a calm perspective when everyone around you wants you to take sides.

Recently there has been a lot of fuss about Russia.  I don't mean to demean the fuss, but to put it into context, international relations have always had their ups and downs, and at times of great political heat, populations tend to get caught up in the bias.  I was thinking how it relates to the fuss that goes on in families - the same accusations, the same misinformation, the same provocations, the same reactiveness.  I was wondering what could be learned.

There are a few characteristics of these times.  Remember, perhaps, the Iraq war(s), and how various pieces of 'information' were assembled into dossiers and presented as fact.  In particular, chemical and biological weapons, it was implied, existed, and were quite possibly to be used.  Wording was found that pushed the known truth to its boundaries and slightly beyond, to maximise acceptance of the desired political stance.  The public and Members of Parliament were made to feel disloyal if they did not join the lying (or twisting of the truth); if they did not, they were accused of being traitorous in some way.

What are the main things that change when things get intense?

Think of the last argument you had with a loved one.  I bet it was hard to avoid statements like 'You always...'  When we're annoyed, and in the heat of the moment, our angry selves take over, and make the truth subservient to our personal needs. We are inclined to borrow from the truth to support our own perspective.  It's not how it should be, but we do it because we think we are under attack.

Currently, politicians are lining up to show their loyalty to the UK by inventing new phrases about 'Russian Oligarchs' and 'Putin's henchmen'.  The implication is that Russia (we don't really know what we mean by this) is somehow irredeemably bad, and will always do bad things.  The only option, apparently, is to stand up to Russia, to ostracise it, reduce its influence, and starve it of resources, until it comes to its senses and gives in.  Life is not that simple, but we don't care; we just want a clear enemy.

Governments have an advantage here.  Logically, they must keep a part of government private, to do investigations.  Politicians have access to such investigations before the public.  Therefore, politicians are in a position to imply anything they like, and to hint that someone, somewhere, in the private realm, has disclosed evidence to them.  No member of the public can challenge that.

In this way, at times of threat and haste, no one has time to wait for conclusions.  Politicians have great power, in that they can assert what they like, and loyal staff will not contradict them, for fear of being disloyal.

The temptation to manipulate public opinion is so great, that politicians use it en masse, and then cannot turn back, because they might seem to be supporting 'the other side', whatever that other side, that enemy, might currently be.

Again, think of the last time you got upset with a loved one.  During an argument, or an intense situation, we can be tempted to speak first, and check our facts later.  It is almost impossible for us to restrain this urge to pretend we know more than we do.   We are desperate to gain control of the story, and so we assert what we can, especially when no one can prove us wrong.  Religion can be misused in this way.  Who can argue if someone says that God has inspired their point of view?  

Suddenly, when politics gets intense, a 'for or against' mentality applies.  In personal relationships, too, we make the same distinctions.  Watch a couple splitting, and you will often see a great wariness about the 'story' that gets put out.  Friends' loyalties are tested, as each ex-partner tries to ascertain who is 'on their side'.  Families often divide on biological lines, and one or other party can lose a lot of friends overnight.

In the current frenzy about 'Russia', Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition, has been accused several times of being somehow allied with the enemy, when he simply calls for restraint, and patience, in waiting for evidence to come through about the truth of a situation.  It takes a strong person, and a lot of integrity, to remain steadfastly connected to a calm perspective when everyone around you wants you to take sides.  But it's how wars start, and we'd do well to look at Mr Corbyn's example, whatever our political perspective.  Waiting is unfashionable, but it often pays off in the modern intense political arena.  A lot can change in a few days or hours.

So, in families, or among friends, or in politics, three things in particular can go wrong:

1. We start making sweeping statements about our enemies
2. We stop waiting for evidence, and pretend we know things we don't
3. We start trying to alienate those who disagree with us

In personal lives, the kind of things we say include:

'John was always difficult.  I think he's got a psychological disorder.  I saw him with Jane the other day.  He's such a nasty piece of work.  I don't know what she's thinking.'

In political lives, the kinds of things we say include:

'Jeremy has always had links to socialist governments.  He's unelectable.  He's now trying to defend Putin.  I don't trust him.'

In all our lives, all the time, fact and fiction are linked.  That's why we read books, return to life, read more, live more... fact and fiction are fused in an alliance which helps us learn about life.  In a right relation with each other (when our intentions are compassionate), they help us.  In a wrong relation with each other (when our intentions are malicious), they turn our minds upside down.

So what's a better way to be?  Well, remember that famous poem 'If' by Rudyard Kipling:

'If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you...'

That poem advocates maintaining a peaceful calm and a clear perspective whatever the circumstances.  It's worth a re-read.

In the meantime, maybe, to protect yourself against all the truth-bending:

1. Stop talking so much, and just listen.
2. Wait and see.
3. Be compassionate towards everybody.

There may be a time when you need to take sides and fight.  But just make sure you're not being manipulated in the moment.  Make sure you're not accidentally fighting someone else's battle.  Make sure your intentions are free of bias.

Modern politics is increasingly 'in the moment' and frantic.  To protect ourselves, and the truth, we need to get better at listening, waiting, and being compassionate.  That way, we can't be manipulated into fighting other people's battles.  We can stay free to make peace.

Friday, March 9, 2018


Requiring a doctor’s certificate for time off can trap staff at home, fearful that they must be completely ‘well’ to return. In contrast, a continuous-protection, ‘how can I help?’ attitude can break the cycle.  Photo by Asdrubal luna on Unsplash

Workplaces make a lot of noise about mental health, especially the big ones.  But I wonder whether some of the central ways to improve mental health are being missed, through a misguided attempt to look good at the expense of real change.

The UK is still stuck in a kind of dark ages when it comes to managing mental health.  We haven't yet worked through several of its ethical dilemmas, I suspect for fear of being politically incorrect.  The result is a strange mix of attitudes, hypocrisies and legal conundrums which leave employees and HR departments reeling.


Three tensions perhaps dominate when it comes to mental illness.  If an organisation cannot work out its policies with regard to these tensions, then it will be stuck in limbo.  Everyone involved will be left with an uncomfortable feeling that the right solution has not been found.


An organisation that focuses on the medical model will find itself constantly asking for medical evidence of mental illness. 

  • This leads to further unhappiness in the employee, as they repeatedly return to doctors and hospitals to ensure that the right evidence is available
  • It also encourages some employees to stereotype their symptoms in order to 'achieve' a recognised diagnosis
  • Furthermore, it creates a problem if the employee recovers.  At the point where illness recedes, the employee's protection can disappear overnight.  Sometimes this leads to a relapse, as it is the only way the employee can access further help

An organisation that focuses on an existential model has a better chance of providing consistent support.  (By existential, I mean taking the employee's valid human experience seriously at all times, regardless of diagnosis.) This is because:

  • The employee's subjectivity is respected, and to a large extent their view is treated as evidence in its own right
  • Employees are allowed to be themselves, without having to conform to particular symptomatic rules
  • The border between 'ill' and 'well' is soft rather than hard, meaning that care can be offered irrespective of the employee's state

Even so, an existential model has its problems.  Old-style administration does not work, as 'illness' cannot be 'proven' in the same ways.  Organisations are terrified of being taken advantage of, and therefore are at a loss of how to invent new approval systems for, say, time off, without requiring medical opinion.


Most organisations still function on an illness model.  If you're ill, you take time off.  If you're well, you come back.  Some organisation do offer flexibility, but it's slightly clumsy.

  • An illness model dehumanises employees with emotional difficulties, as it implies that they need to be 'cured', rather than perhaps changing the organisation itself to make space for different emotional responses
  • An illness model can misdirect attention away from an unhealthy organisation, and scapegoat employees, who might be perfectly healthy if it weren't for emotional toxicities in the organisation itself

Some organisations now operate on more of an ability continuum.  This has some advantages:

  • Employees are encouraged to be open about what they feel they cannot do.  Focus can then be on finding ways to overcome the issue together, rather than forcing interpretation 'inside' the individual employee
  • Organisations can become more flexible, as a problem solved for one employee can help thousands of others

Again, an ability continuum has some issues.  Not least, it can be expensive to adapt an organisation to incorporate different abilities.  It can feel inefficient.  This is not a problem for me, because I think efficiency is overrated.  But efficiency is still worshipped in many economies.


This is the biggie.  We still exist in a world where organisations try, prima facie, to portray a perfect image.  Everything must be said right, everything must be seen to be done right.  You can see it when scandal hits: heads roll, as though we could easily identify the 'imperfect' staff, and by sacking them suddenly make our organisation 'perfect' again.

Many organisations operate on the perfect public image model because the public expects them to.  Particularly charities.  The recent furore over Oxfam staff conduct is a case in point.  A big 'imperfect' label has been plastered all over Oxfam.  Now, it thinks, it must not stop until it can give itself a big 'perfect' label again.

  • Being perfect is unrealistic.  We are discovering that in personal lives: we now need to apply it to organisations.  The perfect public image model can lead to good staff being sacked in order to appease, and to falsely reinventing the organisation as re-perfected
  • Perfect public images are by nature oppressive to both employees and customers.  Everybody has to be fake.  A kind of fake-speak evolves to take care of the mythical perfection.  Phrases like 'we are doing everything we can' are born, which essentially mean nothing, but sound perfect
  • Information is withheld.  On a perfect image model, no one can find out anything bad about the organisation.  So staff are punished if they speak outside the organisation's world, and everything difficult is referred to a legal department

However, some organisations have worked out that this is all an illusion.  They go for the imperfect public image model.  They allow themselves to make mistakes, and do not scapegoat those mistakes; they own them and discuss them.

  • Openly imperfect organisations show themselves to be evolving
  • Openly imperfect organisations enhance mental health by reducing the requirement to fake everything, which is a key cause of mental illness in its own right
  • Being open about imperfection means that problems do not have to go into purdah while they are 'resolved'.  Think of the pain for families when the NHS has to keep quiet about a bad patient experience.  Think of the pain of NHS employees who are told to keep quiet while 'investigations' are carried out.  Openly imperfect organisations know that the truth does not need keeping quiet, except where respect demands specific discretion


In general, we could divide the world of organisations into two types:


You can see this through the eyes of those who are off work with stress.  Often, there is little contact with the organisation.  I remember during my counselling training, when my father was dying, I took time out.  At exactly that point, when I asked what support would be available, the answer was: 'While you are on interruption, and we will not be able to provide any contact, support or counselling.'  So there you are, even an organisation that existed to train counsellors, was unable to see its way to actively support those who needed time out.  More than that, they saw it as their legal duty to dissociate.

Look out for organisations that insist on appearing to do everything perfectly.  Governments do this.  In the quest to appear to root out badness, they will sack individuals at a moment's notice, and then blithely say they have got rid of the problem.  High-performance organisations often do this: their message, to themselves and others, is: 'We are all well; if someone is ill, they cease to be functionally part of our operation.  So we remain well.'

The logic is undeniable, but so is the inhumanity.


In these organisations, the experience of the stressed can be different.  Instead of 'Come back when you are well', the message is 'How can we help you through?'  There is never a point at which the organisation disengages. 

Look out for organisations that are open about their faults.  Look out for leaders and managers who, instead of seeking fake perfection, get their hands dirty and are prepared to involve themselves in problem resolution. They are rare, but intensely valuable.  

There is a humanity is such organisations which is not logical, but you will know it when you experience it.  It feels warm, as though you are being allowed to make yourself at home.


Personally and professionally, to encourage mental health in all those around you, maybe try the following:

  1. Listen to, and accept, their personal account of their experience, and work with that
  2. Try not to divide people into those you feel are unworthy of their problems, and those who are having 'real' problems.  It is arrogant to require some kind of certificate of authenticity for other people's unhappiness
  3. Focus on how you can help individuals do their next thing.  Adaptations might happen in you, in your joint environment, or in them, but it is unlikely that the only solution is for the other person to adapt.  It makes no sense
  4. Be openly imperfect.  Everyone can then breathe a sigh of relief, and get on with negotiating life calmly, without your frantic insistence that 'everything is fine', and your constant scapegoating when it is not.

For organisations, in particular:

  1. Respect every employee's personal experience.  Don't invent an ideal employee and only listen to them
  2. Let employees take time out when they decide; don't always be requiring independent proof.  You wouldn't do it to your partner (I never heard anyone say to their partner 'can I have a doctor's certificate?' when time out was requested!)
  3. Focus on enabling employees.  Adapt, adapt, adapt
  4. Think about how, in your conduct and your publicity, you can quit being all perfect and patronising, and start being openly friendly and imperfect.  The public will like you better that way anyway


Companies, please ditch the constant requirement to appear perfect.  Especially senior management.  It's not healthy, and it's not even believed. 

Instead, make a home for people where they can be themselves, and negotiate their empowerment with them as they go.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018


Photo by Stephen Mayes on Unsplash

There is a great movement at the moment towards evidence-based practice, in all walks of life.  Ironically, it has arisen as a political reaction.  In the UK, there has been an evidence-based response to two events in particular.  Firstly, the election of Donald Trump as president of the US.  And secondly, the election of exit from the European Union as the UK's chosen path.

Donald Trump has not been afraid to make statements of fact which are open to being disproved.  A famous example was his implication about the size of the crowd at his inauguration.  Many media miles were travelled performing fact checks on this and other claims.  It has become a bit of a game to wait for a claim, check it for evidence, report the evidence, and debunk the claim.  Donald Trump humself doesn't seem to mind too much.  Once the statement has been made, he is on to something else, getting interested in a new thing.  His is not a mind that wants to dissect the past with a fine toothcomb.  I can't imagine him as an archeologist.

Politicians arguing the case for or against the UK's exit from the EU, too, have put claims out there which have later been the object of controversy and challenge.  Here, the most famous message was 'We send the EU £350 million a week.  Let's fund our NHS instead.'  Again, it has been a favourite game to check this for evidence, and challenge the claim.  Again, the producers of such slogans are often on to new projects, and find themselves somewhat hampered by the political archeologists who insist on digging up evidential controversy.

However, I suggest that those on the side of evidence are missing a trick.  They are using typical laboratory techniques for assessing statements which are made out there in the field, outside the laboratory, where events can often overtake our controlled thinking.  There is a danger that they will be found, still in their white coats, debunking myths, when life on Earth has ended.  If so, they will have failed to convince.

The evidence-gatherers have been part of a generation of passive citizens who have taken part in funded experiments.  Their nurturing has been done in a safe school environment, where the system is as follows:

1. You get funded for research
2. You do research in accordance with the rules
3. You publish your results
4. You are evaluated by your peers
5. You are given your reward

There is little to do in this environment but perpetuate the same evidence-based systems.  There is no army to apply factual claims.  There is not even any funding unless you are seen to be useful by someone, whether is be a business wanting to further its aims, or a student wanting to further their career.

The fact-producing arena, in short, has no talons.  It waits at the bird table, and feeds on whatever seeds are thrown at it.

This is not the world of the statesman.  (It's a gendered word.  I'd rather say statesperson.  But statesman is the familiar word.)  The statesman does not live in the laboratory.  A good statesman will be familiar with the produce of scientific research, certainly, and will take it into account.  But, primarily, the role of the statesman is to lead.

Statemen thrive on myth.  Don't get me wrong, I don't mean myth in the sense of lies.  I mean myth in terms of engaging stories which tell a truth.  And the truth here is different from laboratory truth.  The truth of myth is a story which holds all the world together with what I call a 'felicity' - in other words, a good producer of myth happily joins together all the complexity of the world in an inspiring moment of simplicity.  This inspiring moment of simplicity is what is experienced as truth, but it is not so well understood by current journalists.

Religious leaders are statesmen of a sort (although much of the honing of speeches is done by others after the event).  They are held up as examples of how life can be simplified into something inspiring.  This kind of truth frees us up to act in simple ways without being hampered by the complexity of everything.

The system for statesmen is different:

1. You experience a challenging life
2. You build up enormous reserves of inner strength
3. You share what you have learned
4. You gain a body of support
5. You are simplified into an ideal, an example to follow

Statesmen are more resilient.  They have an ability to reinvent themselves in response to complexity.  They are like sculptures sculpting themselves with their environment, seeking out new relationships with their surroundings.

So we have two versions of truth. 

  • One collects data, in a well-behaved manner, according to established rules, and then publishes results.
  • The other collects experience, often going against pre-established rules of conduct, and then shares learnings, gaining a body of support.

We can see this battle, for instance, in arguments between science and religion.  Representatives of science have methods, and only state things in accordance with those methods, however complex.  Many religious statespeople have learned to simplify life - that is their special truth - into wise sayings that are felicitous and transformative.

Adherents of religions who have learned to gain solace from the truth in its simplicity... they do not need the complexities of science to practise their religion.  Equally, adherents of science who have built careers from applying method... they do not need the simplicity of religion to help their lives to cohere.

There are two different functions happening here.  The truth that clarifies with simplification, and the truth that clarifies with method.

Look at the election battle between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.  Donald represented the truth that clarifies with simplification; and Hillary the truth that clarifies with method.

Perhaps a number of voters, in their evaluation, sought a presented truth that simplified the world into something they could handle.  Perhaps, in Hillary, a number of people saw someone who was a practised applier of method, comfortable and cold in her dealings.  Perhaps a number of people saw, in Donald, someone who eschewed method, but spoke with simplicity, based on experience.

I am not taking sides.  I am just looking at what might be happening in terms of the history of ideas.

Evidence and faith can be complementary.  Statesmen do come along who are able to blend method and simplicity.

But often, political leaders come across as either unbearably methodical (with the public starting to use robot analogies); or unbearably simplistic (with the public starting to use madness analogies).

Perhaps change starts from within.  Perhaps we can start by learning two things:

1. Life is not all method.  However scientific you think you are being, lend a thought to our human need to simplify, to find a truth, a myth, a story, that felicitously holds the world together in a view we can assent to.
2. Life is not all simplicity.  Just when you think you have the simple truth in your hand, something will happen to wake you up out of your complacency, and you will have to modify your view in order to survive.

Political events can polarise the public into representatives of scientific truth, and representatives of simple truth.  Leaders can seem firmly in one camp or the other.  We might benefit from learning that neither evidence, nor faith, need encompass everything.  Perhaps the science-y people could accept that many humans feel comforted by simple truths; and the faith-y people could accept that many humans feel comforted by facts. Perhaps a well-rounded politician appreciates the influence of both. 

Monday, February 19, 2018


Photo by Jess Watters on Unsplash

What's your unopened package?

When things happen to us, we have one of two reactions.  If the experience is an easy one to assimilate, to understand, then we process it then and there.  But if it is difficult in some way - if we don't have time to process it, or we can't afford to, or it's too much for us to understand... then we make a little package.  We don't even know we're doing it.  We move on to the next thing, but the unopened package will sit there at the back of our minds for as long as we leave it, like an unopened gift left over from Christmas.

Except that it doesn't feel like a gift.  If, for instance, we have been abused in childhood, and didn't understand what was happening to us, then our unopened package can be like a ghost, haunting us without even telling us it is there.  If a current experience gets close to the one that we tucked away, then we can react in ways that we ourselves don't understand.  Our sensitivity seems out of proportion to the current event.  But it is only our mind trying to protect itself from the difficulty of having to open up the old package in order to understand, unblock, the current situation.

Another way of understanding this is as a story we have failed to comprehend, to assimilate into our life story.  We all write for ourselves an autobiography.  When other talk to us about life, we recount selected events from our life as symbolic of who we are.  But we choose those events we publicise: we are our own PR team, desperately struggling to offer the world a clear and coherent picture of a successful human.

Except what happens to those stories, those experiences, that happened to us, but that we couldn't find any sense in?  The unexpected death, the unfair deprivation... these stories pile up behind the scenes, in that department of our mind called 'untold stories'.  We cannot tell them properly, because we have not found in ourselves the words to encompass what went on.  It is only when we have a language for it, that the 'it' becomes our story.

In that sense, the misunderstood story is the untold story, something that cannot be part of our autobiography, because there seems to us no sensible way of incorporating it.  It is denied, put away, left unopened, neglected.

One thing that can be a great healer in providing language where there is none, is contemporary language.  Until there are enough words and stories in circulation, you can end up feeling alone, as though there is no way of expressing how you feel.  But as soon as your experience finds a parallel in modern life, finds a way of expressing itself by saying 'Yes!  That!  My experience was like that!' - once that happens, there is a kind of relief in associating one's own experience with general wisdom.

The person who years ago never came out as gay, can point to other coming out stories and say: 'Yes, that's me too.'  The person who has suffered at the hands of others, whether bullying, harrassment, or any other kind of abuse... that person can watch the film, read the book, learn the language, and then say 'Yes, that's what happened to me, too.'

Some experiences, however, are too complex to be unwrapped by a single film, or a political movement, or a story.  They are the experiences that are left over, making us feel isolated from the world, because it may be that no one understands us.  Even if we suspect that others feel the same and have been through the same, there is no way of proving it.

Poetry is one way of offering that proof.  The way the system works, is that a poet makes a new form of words that attempts to encompass an experience or set of experiences.  If you like, the poet is defining a new emotion, as separate from anything anyone has defined before  A new modification.  In this way, the title of a poem can become iconic, as though it represents an experience set that has been somehow nailed to paper for once.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the proof of poetry is in the communication with the listener.  The listener can be the poet themselves: it's a perfectly valid form of poetry, words from the self to the self.  It can be transformative.  But, in addition, there are times when a whole room, or a whole body of readers, can participate in an enhanced understanding, simply by being open and hearing a new way of putting a story, an emotion, an experience.

Some experiences have the unlucky characteristic of being unshareable, for whatever reason.  It may be that they are family secrets which cannot be released more widely without repercussions.  Or personal secrets, where an individual needs to share and express inner voices which their usual world wouldn't understand.

A good counsellor understand their role in this respect.  The client may have come to them as an act of trust, so that they can begin to disclose to an other things which have had to be kept under wraps.  The client brings their unopened package.

Often, a client brings, at first, a small package.  They are testing the therapist, seeing how well they can handle a client bringing before them something confidential, sensitive.  If trust is found, then another, bigger package is shared and unopened together.  Then another.  Until, perhaps much later, a big package that has been clogging up the hallway is brought in for gentle dismantling and opening.  It is essential that this process is safe: it can be like unwrapping an unexploded bomb.  It deserves ultimate respect.

An analogy from real life is the friend to whom one brings one's problems.  You may have different friends for different problems, because you have learned that different people can and can't handle different things.  Often, in adult life, you will be drawn to friends who can hear things your parents couldn't.  You are seeking that listening ear you didn't get back then, so that you can open the packages from childhood that you deferred opening because you didn't understand them, couldn't relate to them.

 So, I'd ask again, I wonder what your unopened packages are.  The unresolved stories you have lying around an untidy mind.  The emotions that get stirred when a current experience has a weirdly profound effect on you. 

You are a richer mind than you know, full of these things, waiting to be explored.  How much, or little, you want to explore them, is up to you.  But it can be quite a rewarding thing, quite freeing.

And to be able to help others open their unopened packages, in safety and in confidentiality, that's a skill and an art worth developing.

We all have stories from earlier in our life that we can't yet process, and hide away.  In our adult life, we make up stories about ourselves, and collect them together into a well-practiced autobiography that we rehearse in conversations.  But the untold stories never come out.

Sometimes, though, new cultures offer new languages, new stories, with which we can see our past.  We watch a film or read a book, and see our own reflection for the first time.  Or we write a poem, and offer a new sharing of something, a new way of opening life's incomprehensible packages.  Or we go to a counsellor, or a trusted friends, and respectfully and carefully unwrap each other's unknowns.

It's always a question worth asking: what have I not understood?  What have I packed away without bothering to open it up?  What are my unopened packages?


Why do humans get angry?  We've all been there.  You're half way through an argument with someone, and something happens.  It is as though you stand apart from yourself, and look at yourself, and marvel at your own capacity to be irrational.  You can hear yourself say these strange words, accusing someone, or blaming someone.  But you carry on, as if you are locked into an inevitable story.

And it is a story, in a way.  We all tell ourselves stories about what is happening, and those stories define our reactions.  It is part of our evolutionary heritage.

I am not one of those who is convinced humans are the only self-conscious beings.  I think that's just arrogance.  Many animals tell themselves stories about the situations they find themselvs in.  Interpretation of situations is a skill most common mammals have.  And going further back, a huge amount of life lives according to long-understood participation in chains of events.  True, a lot of the time it's what we call instinctive rather than rational thought.  But we're a little too rigid about that distinction.  Much of what we think of as rational is instinctive, and vice versa.

Take a dog as an example.  A dog is faced with something unusual, perhaps a sudden noise, or an unexpected behaviour.  A useful simplification, transferable to humans, might be: that dog has a choice, made in an instant.  That choice is: 1. Do I withdraw, run from this unusual thing and hide until I understand what's going on?  Or 2. Do I attack, try to scare this unusual thing into not attacking me first?

Those who know dogs will know that they differ widely in their responses.  Some will usualy choose to sit back and watch; some will usually choose to come forward and attack.  But both, in a sense, are living out a story.  For the attacking dog, they are living in a long tradition of animals who survived by attacking as a standard response.  For the withdrawing dog, they are living according to a long tradition of animals who survived by withdrawing.  Their conscious mind may or may not see all this and understand it; but their being knows the story, is familiar with it.

Anger, in a way, is the impulse that lies behind the attack dog's behaviour.  People who get angry usually see themselves as vulnerable in the moment, and the story they are living out, is that they need to assert themselves in order to defend themselves.  So, ironically, the angry person who hits somebody, or lashes out verbally, sees themselves as the victim.  It seems absurd from the outside, but we all know what it feels like from the inside.

What about the withdrawing humans?  Don't they feel anger?  Oh, absolutely.  But a funny thing happens in their case: the anger gets turned inwards.  All that energy has nowhere to go, so it turns into internalised fear.  When you're disabled, paralysed by an unnameable fear of the world in general, sometimes it's just the anger you have turned inwards.  It's the choice you make as an animal: that you're not going to lash out.  So instead, you lash inwards against yourself.  A lot of depression has its root in this kind of self-laceration.

Whether you're an 'innie' (someone who turns their anger inwards), or an 'outie' (someone who barks at and attacks others), it would be nice if an alternative could be found.  Both tendencies can be destructive.  Sure, they helped us survive over milliions of years, but in modern society we aren't so often under threat of death.  For us, anger raises its ugly head not when our bodies are under threat of death, but when a more abstract thing, our identity, is under threat.  It feels like dying when your identity is threatened: this is because your identity is your ongoing picture of yourself; and if you lose it, you imagine that your very self (i.e. your self-image) is dying.

So what's the alternative to this reaction we are all prone to, the one that has us becoming rude to others, but insisting that we are only defending ourselves?

In a good way, I'd like you to think what it would be to lose yourself.  Deliberately.  What if you willingly gave up any concept of yourself as something that needs protecting.  If you accepted, especially, that your identity is fluid, not fixed; flexible, not static.  What if you forget the evolved story of yourself as a separate being that need protecting at all costs, and replaced it with a different story... a story where you are a bit like water; you just run through the world like a river through a valley.

Who could hurt you (or hurt your identity) if you thought like that?  If a person or situation suggests that you are not clever; or not good... and you just thought 'yes, you're probably right', and got on with living.  Who could hurt your pride?  No one.

Watch someone next time you see them get angry.  I challenge you to find any story other than this: they feel threatened, and are blaming someone or something for their feeling of threat.  They are playing out a story of 'poor me'.

I am not referring to those times when a person passionately fights for what is right in others' interests.  That kind of response I would suggest is more of a fierce wish for the right thing to happen.  I am referring to those times when a person is anrgy at the world, or others, because they are not getting what they want, and their identity is being threatened.  It's pride.  Simply selfish pride.

Next time a difficult situation arises, maybe try to imagine you are willing to give away your current identity.  imagine you don't need it, that you can simply flow into a new understanding whenever necessary.  You are like an octopus - you can squeeze into unusually tight spots, because your shape is malleable.

Instead of being like a brittle piece of glass, not budging until you break, you are being like a blade of grass, bending with the wind.

Notice how this makes you feel.  Maybe you feel relieved, that you won't have to waste energy on maintaining a self-image.  Maybe you feel suddenly free, because you're not so invested in fighting back unnecessarily.

I would like to emphasise that I am not saying roll over and accept other's misreatment of you.  But I am saying that the best form of reaction is not anger, but a fierce desire for the right thing to happen.  The difference is in your focus.  You can still defend yourself.  But your mind is no longer clouded by the illusion that you are of supreme importance.  You can now fight without your heavy crown of pride, and you'll probably be more effective.

Your evolutionary story traps you into either fight or flight.  When you fight, you end up misbehaving.  And when you fly, you end up mistreating yourself.  Try stepping aside of evolution, and losing your sense of self.  If you have no self to defend, in the sense of an artificial identity, then you can see clearly.

So watch yourself, especially in difficult situations.  Learn to get over your self-importance.  And you will find your need for anger disappears, and peace returns.

In short, next time you are either fearfully self-punishing, or angry with others, get over yourself, and develop a sense of humour.  Eventually, you will become able to just watch situations without self-interest.  It's a healthy ability, because you won't be so frustrated.  You'll flow better.

Thursday, February 15, 2018


I'd like to make the case for language being a sense.

I know that sounds ridiculous.  But perhaps I could take you to a place where I had the thought.

I was writing a poem that was partly about our sense of smell.  How it was a very old sense in evolutionary terms, possibly deriving from when simpler organisms responded to changing chemical environments.  And I wanted to write the line:

Smell is an ancient sense,
older than words

I thought: I am, in part, treating language as a sense.  It seems perfectly natural, but why?

And I started to think about what that was all about.

The thing about senses is they are active.  They are not just a question of receiving signals.  That's a misunderstanding.  Without putting out tentacles, you don't feel.  Without putting out assumptions about sound, you don't hear, not clearly.

Here's an example of what I mean.  Your hearing system is not just passive; it is constantly adjusting itself, testing the world and acting on feedback.  I remember reading the story of someone who was deaf and was cured by an operation.  At first, the world was a mess of sound.  What their brain had to do was learn to calibrate itself until the world's signals were manageable.

Vision, too, works on these principles of putting out feelers and assumptions, and receiving feedback.  If you want proof, check out the concept of 'afterimage'.  When we look at something, we apply to it a barrage of assumptions; in the to-and-fro, we develop a way of adjusting our assumptions until they are sculpted, if you like, to the shape of the object we are witnessing.  When the object is suddenly withdrawn, the evidence of the assumptions we are 'putting out' is betrayed in the afterimage, which is an imprint of active assumptions against a now-neutral background. 

Sensory adaptation is, in this sense, the act of putting out, getting back, and developing a network of residual assumptions which assist us in understanding the world.  When we learn to speak, we start by putting out noises.  (Actually we don't, we already have a set of assumptions ready from the womb; also words are not just noises, they are signs... but let's simplify things for the moment.)  We put out a noise, which is a word in its most basic form; a meaningful sound unit.  We get a response.  Maybe an echo, maybe a smile.  We spend our childhoods calibrating this 'sense of how to hear and what to say' until our word communications build in maturity.

Some would say that language is conceptual, and operates via hearing, seeing, touch etc as appropriate.  In these terms, language belongs in the general realm of 'thought', rather than sensory input and output.

But I wonder.  What if we turned the whole thing on its head, and considered thought itself the original sense.  The idea would be that organisms learned to interact in sensitive and selective ways long before the development of mammalian sense organs as we know them.  This redefinition of 'sense' would place the conceptual field right at the centre of sensing, with the five traditional senses redefined as mere sense-organs.

A sense, then, might be defined as a system of knowing made up of putting out, getting back, and modifying.  It does not matter how this happens, only that it happens.

Armed with this definition, one might see how language can be a sense.  We put out words; we get them back; we interactively modify our language network until our world makes more sense to us and is manageable by us.

Applied to counselling and psychotherapy, this way of conceptualising language brings into sharp focus how the process works.  After all, they are fond of naming themselves the talking therapies, without attempting to deal, in depth, with how therapeutic change happens via language.  All sorts of concepts such as empathy are evaluated and tested; but we are substantially missing an explanation in terms of language itself.  Or rather, our explanations never really put language at the centre of things.

Here is an example of how talking therapy could be understood in linguistic terms:

1. A client suffers because their language network cannot explain their world to them.  They are frustrated, and often tell themselves stories which catch some of what is going on.  But these stories are often partial, both in the sense of part-explanatory, and in the sense of biased.
2. A client exposes themselves to an external foil, a therapist who can work with them to develop their narrative powers.  They learn to express their experience using new language which gives them a better explanation of the world around them.  'Better', in this sense, means 'more manageable', just as the deaf person who can suddenly hear quickly develops 'better' hearing assumptions and filters.
3. A client leaves therapy with a better linguistic sense of their world.  In other words, the words they put out, the words they get back, and their adapted linguistic structure, are more in harmony with each other.
4. This has an effect both on a person's relationship with themselves (their self-talk is better); and also on a person's relationship with others (they negotiate with others better).

I developed these ideas as part of my post-graduate studies.  It seemed to me that therapeutic literature didn't deal very well with language in therapy.  It put it on the periphery, and didn't make it central.  This was OK for some clients - existing concepts were sufficient to explain the process reasonably.  But there seemed to be a more general underlying process, in terms of the client's narrative ability, which cut across many therapeutic sects.  It seemed to me to give a better explanation of the improvements people make.  It is not that empathy and love etc don't exist.  Of course they do, and they are important.  But it is perhaps our linguistic sense, in the widest understanding of the word (including signs, symbols, gestures, furniture positioning etc) that is central to the process by which we find healing through understanding.

Writing that poem...

Smell is an ancient sense,
older than words

...reminded me of that research.  It wasn't very well received at the time.  I was told to ground my work in existing counselling theory.  I was told that a narrative approach was all very well, but it wasn't consistent with person-centred counselling.  I disagreed.   I think that person-centred counselling is the use of language, in its widest sense, to come to a new interactive understanding of the self and others.  And, the more I think about it, the more I see language as a sense in itself.

So, next time you use words, imagine yourself emitting sensory signals, with the expectation of receiving signals back.  Don't think of it as a logical venture, but as an exploration, a building of a better picture of your world.  Let yourself build a language for yourself, a way of understanding, that works for you.  You will know when it works because, like that deaf person calibrating their new hearing sense, your linguistic sense will better comprehend the world you live in.

Think of a sense as being a means of putting out signals, getting back signals, and modifying your understanding.  Through your life, you learn to tell stories, and you hear stories back.  You can judge how well these stories meld into a clear understanding, by noticing how much you suffer.  The less clear your understanding is, the more you will suffer.  Talking therapy can help you to negotiate a new story, one which better explains, and is better calibrated to, your world.  Your relationship with yourself and others might improve.

How you use symbols, whether they be words, or signs, matters.  I hope I have argued a case, even, for your language being a sixth sense!

Sunday, February 4, 2018


If your car is driving at a steady 60mph, do you design all car engines to run only at 60mph? Photo by nik radzi on Unsplash

There is a persistent problem, recurring and recurring, that is to do with an underlying illusion, and an assumption based on it.  The illusion is that a thought or action can be comprehensive; and the accompanying assumption is that there can be a story or method which resolves everything.  I call it a problem of economy, because, once we realise that all resolution is only partial, then we have to admit that, because we cannot comprehend everything, we are only offering ourselves economical sketches of the truth.

Put simply, our brains are not big enough to wrap up everything, and we had better therefore be humble about the systems we rely on.

One example of how this works is out in our material economy - the economy that the news reports on regularly.  An economy is an invention of man, a word, to describe what happens when individual relationships spiral into systematic relationships.  The word business simply means 'doing things', and correspondingly an economy is simply 'a mass of things being done'.  When we describe an economy as growing, we are guessing, in aggregate, how much doing has been done this year.

In other words, the economy, as we describe it, is literally that - a shorthand description to simplify all our business relationships into something we understand.  Humans love summaries: so we invent one number, the Gross Domestic Product, to codify our simplified understanding.  And suddenly we have moved from perceiving several relationships, to perceiving only one number.

One may well ask, what is the problem with this summarising, this being economical with the truth.  Whom does it harm? 

To answer that, I'd like to refer to what happens when recession strikes a modern economy.  When an economy is efficient and happy, everyone simplifies their thinking about it.  Valuing businesses becomes a simple question of profit multiples, for instance.  When life is good, there is no need to delve in, to make things complex.  We do the same in our personal lives.  Sometimes it takes a crisis to understand how complex relationships are.

Things, in fact, get so simple in the good times, that businesses start making profits on simple assumptions.  They mistake a temporary truth for an eternal one.  National lending companies operate on simple growth models.  Banks lend on simple formulae.

In short, humans become economical with the truth when there is no need to justify the truth.

Chains of business interactions start to depend on these simple assumptions, and on narrower and narrower margins.  If you feel that growth is going to be 5% for ever, then you can have 5,000 business sectors, each making easy money on 0.005% of that growth.

The economy becomes like an efficient engine.  Honing itself until it can make money on practically nothing.  There grows a pyramid of hangers-on, all assuming one thing: things will go forward as they have been doing.

However, there is a problem.  Imagine that you are driving along a motorway at 60 miles per hour.  Your engine is working so efficiently, that you decide that all car engines should be designed to work only at 60 miles per hour or above.  After all, that seems to be the going speed.  

You can see that this is absurd.  You have simplified life into a few formulae that work for now.  If you redesigned all engines to work at 60mph, what would happen next?  Would you really be surprised when disaster strikes?

When, suddenly, there is a traffic jam ahead, all hell breaks loose.  Your simple car economy is only built to run at 60mph in a straight line, and so your cars have no brakes, and little steering.  Suddenly there is a big pile-up.

You may feel this is silly.  I agree.  But then how we run economies is silly.  We make the same assumptions about efficiency, forgetting optimality.

We all know the optimal car has good brakes.  The optimal car is very steerable.  The optimal car knows how to achieve some efficiency at different levels of output.

In the same way, we need to build more complexity into our economies.  At the moment they are one-trick ponies, only designed to work at growth of a few percent per year.  Anything else, and we can't cope, and all argue with one another.

Psychologically, we are all at it.  We are all playing this game of oversimplifying life, and then getting caught short when things change.

It is how your mind is built.  That's the rule.  You go out and live, and your mind produces for you a simple story to fit what seems to be happening.  You get married, and your mind accepts a story that tomorrow will be much like today, and you will stay together.  But the complexity of experience doesn't fit our over-simplifying, and sooner or later, you will experience a crisis.

From the point of view of cognitive economy, a crisis is the inevitable result of experiencing an event or change that throws into doubt your simplified model of life.  Your mind has necessarily simplified life, because you cannot possibly think all the thoughts that need to be thought in order to understand everything.  Simple you meets complex life.  And you see it as a disaster.

How do anxiety and depresssion look from this angle?

Well, anxiety is the response of the mind to pressure beyond its ability to cope.  Something happens which calls into doubt our ability to control our world, and we throw an enormous panic, because we are suddenly reminded that everything is in doubt.  Call it existential angst if you like.  It is existential because we are simple beings, much simpler than experience.  So experience haunts and surprises us all the time.

Depression is the response of the mind to long-term pressure beyond its ability to cope.  In terms of support, it is a response to long-term neglect.  Something happens, and lasts, which calls into doubt our ability to control our world, and our constant panics haven't worked,  so instead of fluctuating in uncertainty, we slump into a kind of certainty that everything is terrible.  Call it existential depression if you like.  It is existential because we are arrogant beings, much prouder than experience.  So experience disappoints us all the time.  Depression is perhaps more realistic than anxiety - at least it has a world view that allows for a vast range of experience.  Even though, when we are depressed, we forget the positive side of life.  So it is still a simplification.

We know our current methods are unsustainable.  Our simple models of the world, whether ideologies, or operating methods... they are just that, simple.  Our simple view of economies forgets the complexity of our environment, and the fact that it will be ruined soon if we carry on prioritising consumerism.  In our private lives, our cognitive economy manifests in our assumptions about others, our assumption that tomorrow will be like today, our desperate reliance on contracts to make life more predictable.

But you can't agree a contract with nature.  It refuses to allocate any being to sign on its behalf.

The only solution is to begin to operate with more wisdom, because wisdom is the ability to see beyond the simple models everyone is using in the present; it is the ability to accept that tomorrow we may wake up in a flood, or a fire, or a war, and everything will change.  If you like, if life is a journey, wisdom is our rucksack.  Our store of wisdom is there to help us when times vary, when economies break, when the complexity of life bursts through.

Material wisdom may involve knowing that, sooner or later, everything is taken away from us.  It may involve questioning our reliance on simple economic growth models.  Ideological wisdom may involve allowing for the fact that our ideologies are all wrong by definition - too simple.  Psychological wisdom may involve recognising, consistently, that nothing we think now will ever be enough preparation for what happens next.  That our minds, and our bodies, are organised around simplifications of life, and those simplifications are not life itself.

Our brains are built to simplify our experience into assumptions.  When the going is good, because there is no need to analyse, so we simplify even more, and take things for granted - habits, money, relationships, natural resources.  We become extremely efficient in our habits, and live in a blinkered world.  Then along comes a crisis, to remind us that life is more complex than our assumptions.  We fold in anxiety and depression.  Perhaps wisdom is knowing, in our bones, that tomorrow may not be like today.  Perhaps wisdom is being humble enough to understand that we are wrong before we start; that everything is in that sense an illusion; that we are always oversimplifying, economising, with our minds and bodies.  If we are lucky, that wisdom may make us better equipped to live in a universe that often doesn't do what we think it should.