Tuesday, May 31, 2011


A friend asked me how we can introduce children to the idea of limited resources, but without spoiling their enjoyment. Perhaps it's all about who makes the decisions, and when.

Often, when we give children limitations, we do it from a confrontational perspective, and at the time of most "need". For example, we may say, in front of a funfair ride: "I have no money left, so you can't go on any more rides!" A passionate argument follows. The parent is seen as the sudden resource-restricter, and the child sees themselves as a frustrated freedom fighter!

The child hasn't has a slow and timely introduction to the decision, hasn't seen the process of arriving at the decision, and hasn't participated in the decision-making process.

Maybe there are three things to bear in mind:

1. Introduce the idea of resource restriction early
2. Make the decision process a visible one, so that the child can see what's going on
3. Make the decision process participative if at all possible

For example, if you want to spend only £25, get hold of 25 £1 coins, and a little bag. Sit with the child before you go, show them the coins and the bag, and explain that all those coins are for the outing! Let them put the coins into the bag themselves. The decision has now been shared early, is entirely visible, and the child is participating - they even have their own bag of money!

One more suggestion - try to use "we" instead of "you", and show shared feeling. Instead of saying "I haven't got any money left, so you can't do any more!" - try "Oh dear! We haven't got any money left, so we can't do any more!"

Just some ideas, but hopefully helpful ones.

Friday, May 6, 2011


There are two parts to any mental state: the factual position we find ourselves in, and any connected emotional state. The two can become interwoven in an unmanageable way. We tend to say things like: 'That person/thing drives me up the wall'.

To help, we might borrow the idea of vectors. A vector is a kind of 'separating label' that contains two or more pieces of information. For example, velocity is treated as a 'composite state' and split by scientists into two pieces of information, one about magnitude, and one about direction.

An uncomfortable reactive psychological state could be split into two: rational situation and emotional reaction. For example, you might feel uncomfortable, and diagnose your rational situation as 'rejected', and your emotional state as 'angry'. Rejected is not an emotional state in itself - you can be happy and rejected if you want! Conversely, angry is not a rational situation, it is an emotional state. So you could describe your 'vector state' as rejected/angry. The advantage of this kind of analysis, is it helps the self-analyser to disentangle the situation from their response. Behaviourally, the act of analysis itself is at the very least likely to calm the emotion identified.

It's true that complete dissociation of emotional response from situation is one symptom of what we might consider madness. But analysing the pairing of situation and emotion doesn't remove the normative association, it just gives the chance of bringing the emotion, if uncomfortable, within the bounds of comfort and manageability.

So, next time you're uncomfortable, try the old good-friend trick on yourself, of asking yourself two questions: (1) What's happening, and then, SEPARATELY, (2) How do you feel? Don't say 'How do you feel about it' - '...about it' just asks for a reinforcing of the connection. Keep the questions separate. First, what's happening. Second, how do you feel?

The result of the separation of the 'vector state' into two separate components can be that your response becomes more manageable. Just as scientists get more control over matter, so we can get more control over mind, by defining separable components.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Yesterday I read an article about empathy. It suggested that some people have too much empathy, and this can result in them over-prioritizing other people's needs. I disagree. I think it is lack of assertiveness that causes the problem, not high empathy.

We exercise empathy when we understand and share others' feelings. Many forms of meditation encourage this - putting yourself in another's position, so you can experience how life feels for them, and accommodate that in your mind. The capacity to see and take others' perspectives is key to living a fair and just life. In particular, it enables us to take other people's suffering into account.

However, it is unlikely we will eliminate all the suffering in the world with today's actions. Therefore, even though we might see a lot of suffering, we must decide how to use our limited resources. There will be some suffering we choose to actively reduce; and there will be some suffering we decide not to attend to.

Hence, several people might each have the same high level of empathy - but they might decide to behave very differently. One might fall on the floor with grief all day at the world's suffering; another might neglect their own health and security to help others all day; another might be seen living an apparently normal suburban life. It is what they do with their empathy which makes the difference.

If empathy involves feeling, then it becomes relevant to decide how we manage that feeling. Empathy - the ability to sense others' feelings - can be a good perceptual tool, just like the ability to discern colour, or the ability to solve problems.

But empathy need not dominate the social proceedings. In fact, logically, it can't... If two high-empathy people sit there experiencing each others' feelings, then what are they experiencing? Nothing but their own reflection in the other person. They might as well be two mirrors looking at each other.

A good way to manage high empathy is to work on assertiveness - in other words, if you have an ability to sense suffering, match that with a realistic confidence about what you will and will not do to help. You'll still worry about others, but you have a better chance of sleeping at night. There's an awful lot of suffering in the world, and only one you.