We should all have one of these….

This is a great idea.  If only we could get it miniaturised and slide it into our hippocampus and wire it up to our limbic system.  Bingo!  Instant sunshine every day…


How being a Perfectionist can damage your life

I attended a course last weekend which started me thinking about how much we all damage ourselves and our quality of life by indulging in Perfectionism.   We often think of Perfectionists as having some form of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) where all can labels in the cupboards have to face forward and the cans and bottles have to be ranked in size order and by colour and content.

Most of us have some element of the Perfectionist within us – liking a tidy home or desk or having a regular place to put the kitchen scissors.  This type of behaviour helps us have more efficient and pleasant lives and avoids wasting hours of effort trying to find a roll of Cellotape.

However, our Perfectionism can become a problem when we start to apply it to ourselves and how we feel the world should treat us.  For instance, when the mechanism of the subconscious (which builds our map of the world and the everyday rules for living), starts to create rules which build an unrealistic expectation about the world around us and the way it should (must) treat us.

If we aren’t careful, we can begin to construct unrealistic rules for ourselves and then try to live by them, expecting the world to treat us well in return.  Examples of these beliefs could be  “I should never turn down the chance of doing something” or  “It must be 100% right.  Not even a tiny error is acceptable” or “My employer must always treat me well because I am a such a good worker and he really values my contribution”.

The result of creating these types of rule is that you put a massive amount of pressure on yourself and those around you to deliver something which is, in reality, unachievable.

“I should never turn down the chance of doing something” means that instead of having a varied and interesting life you are manically running/driving from one event to another.  Getting up early to get somewhere; leaving that event early to get somewhere else; frantically changing clothes for the next activity;  driving furiously to get somewhere else; always looking at the clock, cursing buses, trains and planes for being late; fretting and agitated in traffic jams; dragging friends and family around behind you in a frantic hurry to get somewhere and do something else rather than the thing you are actually doing!

Many people also apply this same “never turn anything down” rule to their work lives by never turning down a job or a project.  Clients tell me “it’s because they know I’m the only one who can  do it,”  “It’s my area of expertise”, “no one else can meet that kind of deadline”.  What they are really telling me is that their employer is exploiting their mistaken belief.  The Manager handing out the work probably thinks that my client is a mug for taking on more and more work; that they don’t really care what happens to one of their team when they eventually break down.  That as long as the job gets done and the Manager looks good, they’ll keep on piling on the work.  If it all goes wrong, they can blame the overworked and Perfectionist who has moved heaven and earth to make sure that they deliver a 100% perfect job.

The self-delusion that one is valued at work and that a company cares still runs deep in the veins of many employees, despite the evidence in front of them every day.  They will tolerate bullying, abuse and overwork because they fear the effort of finding a new job and lack the confidence to rise to the challenge of being given tasks without the right training, timescale or resources.  The chances are that if your boss never has to say “do it or I’ll find someone else who will” when loading another massive burden on your already overburdened back, then it’s YOU who’s the one taking on the work others have already said is impossible to do in the time/for the money/without more resource etc!

Another corrosive belief is that “it must be 100% right, otherwise the rest of what I’ve done is useless and worthless and I am a useless and worthless person who doesn’t deserve thanks or praise”.   No amount of praise can be meaningful to his kind of Perfectionist.  It rolls off them as their subconscious mind rejects what it sees as hollow words from people who  “just don’t know how much better the result could have been if only I could have done a better job”.  This creates in the Perfectionist a deep well of frustration and dissatisfaction with everything in their lives.  They feel bad all the time.  They might turn to drink, drugs, sex or food for comfort in order to achieve that elusive feeling of control over their lives. They might begin to blame others for their lack of perceived achievement, or break up relationships or just work harder and harder until they eventually break down.

The payback which comes from all this manic behaviour is often the firm belief that “My employer must always treat me well because I am a such a good worker and he values my contribution so much”.  Perfectionists believe this of their families too “because I work until 2am every night cleaning the kitchen the family must love me more and show me their appreciation”.

But because everyone views the Perfectionist as neurotic and unreasonable, they don’t value that person more.  In fact, they probably value them less than they would if they just worked 9-5 in the office and spent their time enjoying relaxation with the family playing games and doing trivial things.

As I’m always telling my clients, it’s OK to want to do things to the best of your abilities, but only within the context of the time, energy and other commitments that you have.

If you find yourself under constant pressure, ask yourself why.  What are the beliefs which are driving you to be under that pressure?  What makes the rules you’ve created for yourself true?  What less pressing rules could you create?  Are the rules you are currently living your life to actually out of date – were they right for when you were younger but are they appropriate to life as it is now?

Try writing down the rules which trouble you most and think about them.  How much do they ruin your life?  What would happen if you didn’t obey them?  What would you lose  AND, more importantly, what would you gain?

Why not take a look at the Perfectionist in your own life, and see how your own work and home life could be improved?

Can Anger Management therapy really work?

I’ve worked with several people lately who have come to me with Anger management issues.

Sometimes they had already lost people they love or jobs they really enjoyed because of their flashes of anger or uncontrollable and intimidating outbursts of physical or verbal abuse.

Others have arrived looking stunned and in a state of shock.  Often they’ve been told by a court or a partner that they have to seek out treatment to deal with their problem or suffer the consequences.  They often have only just begun to realise the devastating consequences of their actions.

Some people realise their problem; others are in denial, claiming that they just have a quick temper – “I just have an outburst and then it’s all over” – without realising the damage it is doing to the recipient of the outburst.

As I therapist I have no magic wand that tells me who’s telling me the truth about the extend of their anger or its true causes; all I can do is work with what I’m told at our first consultation and then explore possible causes arising from upbringing, life experiences etc.  as we progress.

Anger has many causes.  Sometimes an individual might have an ongoing psychotic mental health problem (paranoid schizophrenia for example) which requires specialist diagnosis and the help of psychiatric healthcare professionals who are able to create drug and therapy programmes designed to help patients control their illness and return to normal functioning.   I refer to this as a functional problem, and is beyond the remit of therapy to resolve.

In many cases, however, anger can be the product of emotional trauma, such as being betrayed by a trusted partner in business or in love, or the sudden loss a parent or child resulting in unresolved grief, or the outcome of a sudden traumatic event leading to creation of symptoms of (or even full-blown) Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 

In other cases it can be a learned behaviour – the result of being raised in a chaotic or combative family where aggression is the norm, or is the only way of protecting personal possessions or avoiding being picked on.

I therefore start therapy by taking a thorough Case History.  This is only a three page questionnaire but by the end I know everything I need to about the client’s life, family relationships and major life issues.  From this information I can begin to isolate and investigate those issues/events which might be driving anger.

In effect, what I do is identify “buttons”.  The buttons which get pressed by a partner, or an innocent customer standing in a pub.  The words which, when spoken, provoke an instant and frightening verbal or physical attack.

Couples who’ve been together for a while know all about buttons.  They know exactly what to say  to provoke an instant fight – “You’re lazy”, “You’re selfish”, “It’s no wonder the kids hate you”.  But while their arguments might be loud and unpleasant, most couples arguments don’t end up in the casualty department of a local hospital or in the police being called.

My job as a therapist is therefore to identify the buttons and then to help defuse them.  To drain off the emotional fuel which drives them so they no longer cause volcanic eruptions of rage. 

I therefore approach Anger Management in two main ways:-

i)  To straight away teach a client a number of methods for becoming aware of what drives their anger (the Buttons) and then fast ways of controlling rising anger – in effect, changing the response to the things which make them angry – thus teaching a client right from the outset how to keep themselves and others,  safe in stressful situations.

ii)  At the same time, I try to establish the reasons for a client feeling angry.  Often this is obvious; at other times it has been blocked and needs exploration before it emerges in conversation.  Either way, I look to deal with the emotions and feelings of frustration, fear, anxiety etc which have led to the anger emerging.  These unresolved emotions are the fuel for anger. If we remove the fuel, the anger just evaporates.

iii)  Having done this, I then help the client to see their lives in a new way. To notice the change in the response of loved ones, friends and workmates to this new calmer person.  How new opportunities arise in their lives.  How they become more secure, more loved and valued.

And the therapy need not take lots of sessions.  I have completed work with one client in five sessions – the last of which was a session to explain to his partner how we had managed to bring about such a dramatic (and hopefully) lasting change in his behaviour!

One last word.  To all those women who think they can change a violent or abusive man.  You can’t.  Leave the relationship and put the experience behind you.  Protect yourself and your children.  You must understand that you are a catalyst to your partner’s anger. Whatever you do, whatever you say, you are part of the problem. You will never be able to effect change alone.  Your partner needs to be evaluated to eliminate functional causes and then to work with someone independent of your relationship who can use the therapies needed to bring about change – if change is possible.  The best thing you can do for your partner and yourself is to remove yourself to a place of safety and to urge them to seek professional help and resolution before it’s too late. 

Beware what you say to children…

Imagine that you are 6 months old and are in charge of the world’s most sophisticated supercomputer.  You have to programme it so that it can move, think, communicate and understand the world in all its complexity.  It needs to recognise voices and places, cross roads safely, drive cars, write poetry and music, do complex calculations, know where it is in time and space, experience emotions, interact with other supercomputers and make decisions on a multiplicity of things.   How would you go about it?

The ultra-efficient human brain is estimated to have 100 billion neurons and at least 100 trillion synapses.  Internal communications happen at incredible speeds as it processes different streams and types of data simultaneous, so that you always know where you are, what you are doing and what your next action is going to be every millisecond of every day.  It’s a miracle that we function at all.

Yet nature leaves the programming of this fantastically complex computer to babies and young children!   Babies go through the mechanical part of their learning in well-known stages – recognising faces, learning to crawl, walk, run, hop on one leg and so on. As their brains develop, so does the capacity for language – learning to speak, building a vocabulary, recognising words, reading – and for numbers and calculation.  They also develop a sense of place – cot, rooms, house, street, school etc.

To keep track of this mass of data they create maps in specialised areas of their brains and unless there is interference from a viral infection or genetic or physical damage, these processes continue right through their lives.

However, one of these mapping areas is created and set quite early in life – it’s the part which gives us our view of the world and our place in it.  It is created from a combination of direct experience and what we are told by other people, especially parents and authority figures like priests and teachers.

So, if I am six and I am told by a priest that I am going to hell, that will be put into my map of the world and I will be fearful of that belief until someone who I trust more than the priest tells me different.  If a parent tells me repeatedly that I am stupid, then I will grow up with that belief.  I won’t try to understand things which I find difficult because there’s no point – I’ve been told I’m stupid, I believe that I’m stupid,  so it’s a waste of energy to try.  And so a cycle of self-defeating behaviours begins at a very early age.

A child has no other reference point other than what they are told, so they are extremely vulnerable to deliberate or unintentional implanting of  ideas and beliefs.  These ideas will then continue throughout childhood and into adulthood, affecting self-esteem, relationships, work, creativity and everything to do with their ability to achieve their full potential as well-rounded individuals.

And it’s not just young children who are vulnerable.  Those in early teenage years are equally at risk.  This year alone I have seen one good-looking, highly intelligent under-achiever who has convinced himself that he needs to have his jaw shortened because he was told by a class mate when he was 13 years old  that his jaw protruded.  It doesn’t.  But he now suffers body dysmorphia, and sees a protruding jaw that isn’t there every time he looks in a mirror.  Now in his early 20’s he’s determined to find a plastic surgeon who will agree to saw his jaw in half and move it back a few millimetres so that these wounding words from a 13-year-old child (which he replays hundreds of times a day in his head) can be exorcised from his mind.

I’ve also dealt successfully with an attractive girl who had been told as a young teenager that she was too ugly for anyone to love her.  Again, those words impacted so strongly on her inner world map that she suffered anxiety and depression right through her 20’s.  When I first saw her she was dressed in a baggy grey track suit and her body language was one of hiding and not wanting to be noticed.  Three sessions later she bounced into my consulting grinning widely having bought a bright pink dress and feeling on top of the world. She said that people had noticed how much happier she seemed and how things at work which she’d found depressing had suddenly started to improve for the better.  All because we had redrawn that part of her internal mind map which contained her view about herself, the way she looks and the way in which she then relates to the world.  Simply replacing it with a true picture of how she really is.

So, consider what you say to children.  If they do something stupid, they need to be corrected.  But pushing a wire coat hanger into a lit electric fire is “a stupid thing to do” but it doesn’t make the child stupid.  Similarly, continuously praising a child is almost as bad as being continuously critical.  Being critical makes them feel they will always fail; continuous praise makes them believe that they can never fail.  Either is an unrealistic model of the world to present to a child and gives them unrealistic expectations of life.

So, if you come across people who seem to be overly negative or have no enthusiasm for life or who give up before they begin, just consider how they view themselves.  Don’t judge them as lazy or stupid.  Perhaps their internal map of the world is distorted through no fault of their own.

Letting Go

I suspect that one of the recurring themes of this Blog will be the idea of Letting Go.

When we have fears or phobias, we have to learn to let go of the phobic reaction and replace it with a new response.  Without letting go, we can’t create the space for the new learning to take place.

The same with eating and sleep disorders, we need to let go of the emotions which drive us to eat innapropriately or which wake us up at 4 o’clock in the morning.

Being in control of everything in our lives is impossible.  Yet still we can’t let go of the desire to put things in order, keep painting, mowing, mending, tidying, watching everything everyone else is doing, keeping pace with fashions, trying to do our jobs 110% right, hanging onto old wrongs and regrets, reliving painful memories.   We simply don’t know how to loosen the reins; give ourselves a bit of slack.  Stop the world from spinning us around so fast.

Yet meditation, self-hypnosis, mindfulness and yoga are all about learning how to let go.  To slip away from the world or to see the world as it truly is.  To let the mind stop churning and to give it space.  These practices don’t solve problems; they don’t make bad things go away.  All they do is give us a space in which we can let go of them all for a while.  To stop hugging them to us like so many toxic teddy bears.

Agoraphobics have to learn to sit on buses and planes and let go.  They must trust the driver and the pilot to get them to their destination safely.  Those who have been abused as children need to be helped to resolve emotions which have haunted them for so many years and to let them go.  To create the space into which new, positive feelings and emotions can flood.

For many with emotional problems, letting go is so hard to do.  What’s going to replace the fears and the anxieties?  Is it possible to live without them?  How should one feel when they’re gone?   What if their departure leaves even worse feelings behind?  What am I going to be like when they’ve gone – after all, I am my illness.  What else can I be?

Yet when all’s said and done, when those with problems learn how to shed their painful load, they are suprised at how quickly and how delightfully the space is taken up with new ideas, new people, new interests and new perspectives of empathy and positive power.

It’s amazing how many of life’s true achievers, the people who light up a room with happiness and optimism when they walk into it, have trodden the path of Letting Go.