‘Interesting Times’

In 1966, the year the English football team lifted proudly the FIFA world cup aloft as they skipped around the Wembley pitch, the American Robert.F.Kennedy (not the ex-president, John, this was his brother who was the senator for New York in 1966, two years before he was assassinated as his brother was before him) said:

‘There is a Chinese curse which says “May he live in interesting times.” Like it or not, we live in interesting times.’

I find this so intriguing, that to live in interesting times can be framed as a curse. That said, we still live in interesting times and I often wonder whether that is a good thing or not.

The world has changed a lot since I was a child. Technology has gathered apace, and we can now do on a cheap phone, what we could not do on a computer worth thousands of pounds in the 80’s and 90’s.

Some people embrace this change and will share their opinions using these same phones, often on the internet or through ‘social media’ (I really dislike that term, there is nothing sociable about something like snapchat or Instagram in my opinion, but that may be a blog for another day!), all the while not having to leave their bedroom and actually make physical or even visual contact with another human being. Very ‘social’. But again, that is for another day.

As technology shows no sign of slowing down this is leading to big changes in how our societies and countries are interacting with each other. Elections can ‘allegedly’ be influenced by tricksy psychopaths in positions of power and that is nothing compared to the new access to knowledge and experience that is available to those who would have struggled to know what was happening in the country next door to them fifty years ago. Now everything is out there, for everyone to see.

What is the point of all this Mark I hear you ask. Well, I will tell you my thoughts!

As I woke this morning and stared down the cream and brown furball that was lying on my chest, not blinking, but with a very overactive tail wagging manically in the background, I found myself thinking about change. Initially it was around how often clients of mine will have real difficulty making changes to their ways of thinking or behaving, even after they are aware of why those struggles are there and what the potential consequences of them are to their health, both mental and physical.

Strange enough, as the furball crept closer to my face with the clear intention of aiming a warm, slimy, dog breathy lick right on my lips (which she knows I hate), this thought led me on to thinking about the state of politics at the moment. The rise of the populist (Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson etc) and how their rhetoric of fear and allusions to past nationalistic glories is really resonating with a significant number of people in the world today.

Personally, I am rather proud of multiculturalism and difference in general. I grew up in Birmingham surrounded by all manner of different colours, views, foods, conversations and people. I am still proud of my roots. Therefore I have struggled with the rise of people like Nigel Farage, who in my eyes is an obvious bigot, hypocrite, liar, manipulator of reality (that does so much harm to people and is my least favourite trait in any person in a position to influence a lot of people) and, well, he just doesn’t seem like a very nice person. But that is me. It is obvious he spoke to and was understood by millions of people in the still recent EU referendum. More people listened to and believed him and his like than, the other side who were saying the (to me) obvious, ‘this is the best deal we will get that we already have, and Europe will never let us leave without consequence’, which is exactly what has happened.

Recently the level of abuse directed at people who want to stay in Europe, or even those that don’t, but still believe we should be mates with Europe has increased exponentially. Also there seems to be a rise in misogynistic, homophobic and racist ideology on our beloved ‘social media’ which is proving almost impossible to monitor and stop.

I had distracted the furball with a darn good ear rub, so my lips and face were safe as I continued with this line of thought. Where is all this anger coming from? As someone who has been in the mental health field for nearly fifteen years, most of that time in some way involved with the treatment and support of people with complex mental health issues, I have seen a lot of anger through the course of my career. I have seen many physical scars (old and new) and many, many emotional ones too. There is nearly always anger involved in this process at some point, be it directed at the self (self-harm, eating disorders, destructive behaviours), other people (violence to others, verbal abuse, manipulative behaviours) or sometimes even, the world in general (random violence to others, unpredictable behaviours, psychosis, dissociation). Anger in some form also appears to be a key component of depression and anxiety, so why are people increasingly angry I wondered.

By this point the furball had got bored of me, been distracted by our other dog and was nudging him, trying to get him to play. As he made a low grumbling noise that indicated very clearly that he did not want to play (it didn’t stop the furball persisting though) I was thinking about ‘change’ and ‘anger’.

As I did so I had a light bulb moment (only around a 30 watt moment, nothing dazzling like the old 100 watt bulbs that could blind you in a matter of moments).

As I said at the start, it is more often than not clients really struggle to change their patterns of thought and behaviour through the course of their therapy. Even the negative ones. Their thoughts and behaviours become part of their defence mechanism to a world and the people in it that are not being kind to them or hurting them in some way. Even though that defence mechanism may lead them to be vulnerable to further abuses by other people, or give them permission to cut and burn themselves, or to starve themselves, without it they are naked and defenceless. They will hold onto a negative view of themselves with all their might, because if they believed for just one second that they are a good person who did not deserve the bad experiences that they have had, then the whole house of cards they had built up to survive would collapse around them as the emotions attached to their experience would suddenly flood and overwhelm them.

So, in other words:

‘Change is dangerous. Oh, and scary too. So, I am not going to do that then. I will just keep things as they are, because even though I can only survive day to day by starving myself, hurting myself or letting other people hurt me, I KNOW those experiences. They are familiar and safe (after a fashion). If I change, I do not know what will happen and I will also have to give up the only control I have ever had and worst of all… I have to TRUST someone again and also have HOPE that I can change and that they will not re-enforce the negative thoughts and feelings that I have about myself and the world I live in.’

When looked at like this, I can honestly say that I don’t blame people for struggling to trust enough to make the important changes in their lives. I often sit with clients and nod along as I agree with them it seems crazy for them to change things because I could let them down and everything will implode afterwards. I agree with them, but also always add the caveat that at some point I WILL let them down, get something wrong and likely make them angry. The one big thing I commit to doing though, that they will not have had much experience of previously, is, I will commit to owning my mistake and making it right as best I can in the therapy room. I don’t mind people being angry with me, or just being angry in my office. Anger is oft misunderstood and maligned as we would be in a right pickle without it.

But, the world and the rise of the angry blogger (hypocrite much Mark?!?), is that linked to the fear of change too? Well it would make sense wouldn’t it?

People in the main like routine and familiarity. It is part of our DNA, our evolution was so successful in part because we like routine and familiarity so much. In a world where you can live, work, procreate and play without ever having to leave your house, we are now faced with a generation that can forge their own routines and not ever be challenged or pushed into things they do not want to do. So, what happens, when, inevitably change does occur (because it always does!)? What do we do when the politician, yet again, does not do what they said they would and we feel let down and scared that what they promised won’t happen now? Does the person facing unfamiliarity, change and disappointment embrace it and go with the flow? Do they challenge themselves and grow as a result of their experience? Or does the person become scared, then angry about the change being ‘forced’ on them and then use that anger to try and beat people down, so they submit to their will through the shear force of their emails, blogs and trolling?

We live in interesting times. But for some people, that is clearly a curse and not something they want any more. They would like safety, routine, sameness and things just as they are and have been before.

I have to admit I used to get really angry at Donald Trump and the people on the ‘Have Your Say’ bit on the BBC News website when they talked about ‘taking back control’ and making Britain/America great again. But, once I had viewed them as I view my clients when they first walk into my office, that changed.

These vast swathes of people who are scared and angry need the same space and permission to explore their experience as a client seeking help individually from a therapist does. They need to feel like they are being listened to and most importantly of all, that they are being taken seriously. There is no way they will engage in any negotiation or discussion around change and acceptance without this. If they continue to feel ignored by the ‘establishment’ or the ‘liberal elite’ then they will continue to be angry and they will continue to metaphorically ‘self-harm’ and deny themselves the opportunity to grow and change, with the times, rather than against them as they do currently. They will also latch onto the populist’s rhetoric because it is familiar. It is angry and based on fear too, so it feels familiar, safe and warm like a puppy’s belly. As we latch onto this it forms part of our identity, which means it is part of our psychological defence now. From what I know of this kind of process, it is not easy to change a decision or belief when it becomes an essential part of one’s individual coping strategies and therefore your physical and psychological safety.

Change following this kind of internalisation of experience can be slow and often very hard work with individual clients in the therapy room. Imagine the scale of the task of supporting millions of people in this mindset that really don’t think they are doing anything or thinking anything wrong. Who is to say they are wrong anyway? Despite what I write here, I respect other people enough to give their views respect unless they involved harming themselves or others. As the evidence grows and becomes more obvious that we are all complicit in an active, national self-harming process, I wonder if there is anything that can be done to help us to all be a bit more reflective around what is happening in the world at this time and what the bigger picture should possibly be.

I fear that Great Britain will fall apart, Scotland and Wales voting for independence, Ireland re-unified and England being shunned and sent to the naughty corner by the world. Yeah, that is taking back control alright!! But one thing will remain the same at least. People will still be angry and scared.

When I finally managed to get out of bed this morning, the cream and brown and black and white furballs were growling, headbutting and biting each other’s faces (apparently this is them ‘playing’. Really!! Playing!?!) in anticipation of their second breakfast (Weetabix and milk is the first one. Don’t ask!). As I stepped over them and walked downstairs, I pondered how to make lasting change to our national psyche. Unfortunately, beyond arranging a nationwide group therapy session I am not sure I have much to offer in terms of an answer to helping the nation I love being less angry, scared and more accepting of self and others. I do know I can help people in my little office address such issues, and that will do me just fine for now.

As I scooped the dog biscuits up and into the always disgusting and slimy dog bowls, I also took a moment to hope that one day, living in interesting times will be an actual boon to the world and the individuals that wander around on it, and not the curse it appears to be at the moment.

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