Yearly Archive 2020

… Yet

Yet… it’s only got three letters, but it’s a word with power.

I use it again and again in my psychotherapy. The client’s struggling with something. Whether it’s breaking a repetitive pattern of behaviour, expressing a difficult emotion or feeling able to go out and about, they feel stuck – “I I just can’t do it”. They can’t make eye contact as they say it. They’re worried what they might see in my face. But when I say ‘yet’ they look up and very often smile. It’s as if there’s suddenly some hope. There’s a belief in the potential for something different.

It’s akin to what Dr. Carol Dweck termed the growth mindset.

A growth mindset is built on the belief intelligence can be developed and has a desire to learn running through it. People with a growth mindset get excited about challenges. Obstacles are there to be navigated, not barriers that stop you. Criticism is valuable feedback and hard work is the route to getting it right. Every time you step a little outside your comfort zone, your brain evolves. Neurons fire together and new neural pathways develop. The result is higher and higher levels of achievement.

The opposite of the growth mindset is the fixed mindset. With this mindset, you’re much more likely to believe you’ve either got it or you haven’t. However hard you work you’re unlikely to get there and criticism and the success of others can feel threatening. A challenge is to be avoided. It’s definitely not an opportunity for growth.

My personal goal is to live with a growth mindset and in the past 10 years or so I’ve moved significantly in that direction. But I know my mindset is heavily influenced by my environment. If I feel comfortable with the people around me and supported, I have a growth mindset. Making mistakes and giving it another go is exciting and engaging. But if I feel judged in any way or believe the other is quietly hoping I get it wrong I have a fixed mindset.

I have often heard people talk about the need to adopt a growth mindset, as if making the switch is easy, just a matter of choice. But as you can see from my example, it’s not that simple. If it was, wouldn’t we all do it?

My psychotherapeutic work is rooted in the knowledge our way of being (how we see ourselves, others and the relationships we have with them) develops in early infancy and childhood and is wired into our neural pathways. Brains are plastic. They change and adapt as a result of experience. They are most plastic when we are young. They double in weight in the first year of life, getting heavier as more and more neural pathways form. Early relationships, therefore, are incredibly influential. But brains remain plastic throughout life so there is always the potential for change.

Dweck highlights our approach to praise as a key factor in building a growth mindset in children. She says instead of celebrating their ability to get the maths sum right or their natural running speed, we need to praise their effort. Essentially, we celebrate yet. Her research shows this builds perseverance and resilience. Children are more likely to engage with challenges that stretch them, come up with new strategies and keep going until they get there. And with such plastic brains, children are likely to get the message pretty quickly and develop the neural pathways that mean it will be their way of being.

With our less plastic brains we might be slower, but we can change as adults too. One of the biggest barriers is our approach to past experience. Denying or ignoring experiences of the past is only likely to increase their grip. Resistance to change gets stronger and the belief change is impossible gets firmer. In essence, the fixed mindset gets more fixed. So, explaining the theory and its relation to the individual is interesting but not that effective. As has long been understood in the world of psychotherapy, insight alone does not lead to lasting change.

In my psychotherapy, I aim never to tell a client simply to do something different. Put myself on the receiving end of that and I would probably feel the challenges I face have been ignored. I might feel belittled. I would almost certainly feel misunderstood and I’d be unlikely to trust the person. In short, my mindset would get more fixed. Instead working collaboratively, we validate and explore the barriers. They are there for a reason and by acknowledging them we can gently unpick and remove them, brick by brick. In parallel, we openly acknowledge how the client feels, the difficulty of the process and celebrate their commitment to staying with it.

The same is true in the workplace. Any leader who wants to develop their own growth mindset or foster it within their team members needs to accept, understand and work through the barriers while focusing the reward system on the process. Then they can step back and bask in the growth in achievement.

Embrace your anger

Hands up if you get angry. I’ve done a few straw polls and most people’s hands go up. Keep them up if you think it’s okay to feel and express your anger? Hands go down.

Anger gets a bad press. Think about someone who’s angry and the picture that comes to mind is of a person with steam coming out of their ears, shouting or screaming, smashing things. Once the red mist descends, reason goes out of the window.

Our culture says we should be ashamed of our anger; it’s not how we’re supposed to be. We should be cool, calm and collected, always in control of our emotions. Particularly at work!

But anger is a perfectly normal, healthy emotion. It’s triggered when we feel threatened, giving us the impetus to fight back, to protect ourselves and those close to us, to catalyse change. Anger is a natural response to feeling physically or metaphorically pushed around, if we see or experience injustice.

Recent weeks make the point well. The anger of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign has felt palpable sometimes. I’ve seen it expressed in different ways including in the language and expressions of speakers at rallies and in the physicality of the tearing down of statues and moving around the streets.

There are consequences if we don’t express it. If, for whatever reason, we swallow it down again and again, or worse, pretend it doesn’t exist it can become toxic. Denying anger can go hand-in-hand with unpleasant passive aggression. Or it may lead to depression, the effort to control it leading to a psychological shut down. The resistance to expressing anger, to essentially say what’s okay or not okay for you, can also poison relationships, including those at work.

I can testify to the destructive effects of denying it. I remember the moment my daughter said it was like she had two mums; one she loved and one who unsettled her. This second one would just explode without warning. There’s no sense of security with a mother who can react like that.

For me, the worst moments came when we were heading somewhere as a family. Somehow, without fail, the others would always be five minutes late and I couldn’t tolerate it. I’d react, yelling at them to get a move on and they would just look at me like I was from Mars and tell me to stop over-reacting to something so trivial. At work, I could stop the explosion but people around me knew something was going on! I’m pretty sure it was sometimes extremely difficult to ask me questions and I suspect people steered clear.

In truth, the lateness was just the trigger. The red mist only descended because I spent so long pretending the sky was clear and blue. One of the underlying causes was a hidden feeling what I wanted and needed didn’t matter, that no one noticed. But I was an expert at not acknowledging it to myself so why would anyone else notice. My stock answer to almost anything and everything was ‘I’m fine’.

So, what’s changed.

I found somewhere safe to express my anger, to say what was not okay for me. I found a space where I was given the time to express myself and felt safe enough to do so. I felt heard, without judgement or condemnation.

Two things are different now. First, I don’t see anger as something to be controlled and locked away anymore. It’s giving me a message, telling me something is not okay for me and I need to act to change things. The result is, it doesn’t build up into explosive rage anymore.

Second, I’ve tuned into my anger. I notice when my physiological response suggests something’s up and I give irritation head space, asking myself what I’m really reacting to. I’m still very much a work in progress – I’m pretty sure that will always be the case – but I am getting better at expressing myself. |

Accepting and embracing my anger means, perhaps paradoxically, I’m calmer!

I host Space for You. Each Space for you is an online gathering for up to ten people. It’s a safe place where you can connect with others and offload some of life’s pressures. At the same time, there’s an opportunity to explore the obstacles to your wellbeing and discover strategies to help you boost your happiness. Get in touch if you want to express your anger at Space for You.

Connect in Loneliness Awareness Week

This week has been Loneliness Awareness Week. The Marmalade Trust, which hosts the week, was set up to raise awareness of loneliness and help people make new connections.

Humans are inherently social creatures. More than anything we need contact with others. As the Marmalade Trust says, ‘there is nothing wrong with being lonely; it’s just a lack of social connection.”

So, feeling lonely can be incredibly painful. The absence of other people, of being able to talk to them, feel their presence and touch their hands can feel huge.

I started to visit my Dad at weekends when lockdown began to lift. I take a thermos of tea and sit 2m away from him in his garden. We chat for about 90 minutes and then I come away. Every time it’s felt weird not to give him a hug. Last Sunday, though, the absence of touch felt incredibly physical.

The coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on loneliness, plenty of people having to self-isolate or shield. The experience has been different for everyone. Some have found it painful torture, some calm contentment and plenty of us moving between the two depending on what’s going on in the day itself.

You could call the loneliness imposed by the pandemic response circumstantial. It’s starting to lift as people are able to re-engage in day-to-day life, getting out and about to meet friends.

Some people though, whatever they thought would happen, have got very comfortable in lock down. To re-emerge feels a little intimidating, scary. For these people loneliness may be around the corner. Being home alone when everyone else is home alone is fine. But as soon as you feel you’re the only one, it becomes intolerable.

It’s unlikely any organisation is going to work as normal in the coming weeks and months so there will be people working remotely, away from the hubbub of the office. Even if the workplace is pretty quiet and there’s no hubbub, if you’re not there it’s easy to feel isolated. For anyone shielding, this feeling might be particularly acute.

The sense of isolation may go deeper. I remember the moment in my training as a psychotherapist when my tutor handed around a piece of paper with a piece of prose titled ‘Masks’ on it. It started:

Don’t be fooled by me.
Don’t be fooled by the face I wear.
For I wear a thousand masks, masks that I’m afraid to take off.
And none of them are me.

The piece goes on much longer, but I was in tears by this point. I’d read it before, and nothing had happened, but this time was different. I don’t think I really understood then why it packed such a punch. I do now. Feeling vulnerable in the company of others, I had developed a persona that stopped people from getting to the real me. There was nothing conscious about this ‘decision’ to protect myself behind a front and, while it kept me safe, it stopped me from getting close to anyone. Feeling on the outside of things is a common consequence for me of my unconscious process.

It’s no fun feeling alone in the midst of people. Loneliness is no fun. I don’t wish it on anyone.

In the working world it’s no good for performance and productivity. If, for whatever reason, someone feels on the outside, their reaction, which could be anything from anger or passive aggression to withdrawal, can impact everyone.

So, what to do? How to combat aloneness, whatever the situation or cause?

Being heard, being understood is incredibly powerful. In my experience, another person taking the time to notice me and be respectfully curious about how I am has proved transformative.

To create a taste of this type of experience at work, have a check-in at the start of every meeting. With everyone listening respectfully and without compulsion, judgement or offering any solutions, each team member has a minute or two to say where they’re at. It’s a great way for people to leave their stuff at the door and really be present.

I host Space for You. Each Space for you is an online gathering for up to ten people. It’s a safe place where you can connect with others and offload some of life’s pressures. At the same time, there’s an opportunity to explore the obstacles to your wellbeing and discover strategies to help you boost your happiness. Each Space for You has a different theme. They include Undoing Stress, Beautiful Boundaries, Tricky Emotions, and a Good Goodbye.

Get in touch if you want to find out more.
cathy@cathyconnan.com
@cathyeconnan

Proud to be British?

Straight after university I travelled around the world with a friend. In South East Asia we were continually asked if we were Australian. Finally, and probably a little more pompously than I care to remember, I said “I’m British”.

I have always been proud to be British. I believe in British values: democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, freedom of speech. But today, that pride feels uncomfortable.

Born and bred in East Anglia, my ancestors are Scottish. There was ‘banter’ growing up. I learnt about the massacre at Glencoe in 1692 from my Scottish Grandad who was a McDonald. It was pitched as an English atrocity, a simplification of the reality.

History is nuanced and complex. It’s a concept defined by the victors, by those in power. But it’s so often easier to see it as absolute and binary, to see it as fact, and good and bad. Then we can disown the bad. We can remember William Wilberforce and his fight against the slave trade and not the successful campaign of slave owners for millions of pounds of compensation after slavery itself was finally abolished in 1833, 26 years after the trade.

I watched the statue of Colston be pulled from the plinth and rolled into the dock at Bristol on TV. I watched the statue of Milligan be removed from outside the Museum of London. I watched the protest outside Oriel College, Oxford for the removal of the statue of Rhodes. A huge part of me was delighted, particularly to see the Colston statue debased in a way that echoed his callous disregard for the people he transported.

Professor Sir Geoff Palmer called this week for the statues to be left in place. He said if they are removed, we will quickly forget the history. I agree. At least I suspect I would forget. I suspect if they vanish from sight, I might get comfortable. That was them, this is me and I am different. Quickly I would be back in the midst of my cosy complacency.

As a psychotherapist, I understand we mix good, bad and plenty in between. It’s a difficult and challenging process but engaging with the parts of me I’m not very proud of is important. When I ignore and disown them, they dominate in ways I don’t realise. As I acknowledge, understand and accept them, they become history, part of my past not my present. I am free to become something different.

Simply take the statue of Colston down and what he did, what our nation did is forgotten. Leave it where it is, and he and his actions are honoured. Does adding a more descriptive plaque suggest that somehow there is an argument that justifies what he did, what our nation did? Dr David Olusoga has said the statue should have been taken down a long time ago and put in a museum. Perhaps there it will give us the best chance of acknowledging the reality of our past and how we need to respond today. Afterall, for me, this is the main point now: what sort of country are we today?

I am English. I am British. I want an honest national dialogue about my country’s history so we can move forward. I hope that by recognising the complexity of it, hearing the stories of the many different people and communities who live and have lived here, and acknowledging the dark side and its impact today, we can become something different. Perhaps even a society that truly, to our very core, embodies the British values I am so proud of.

Ritualising my return to my place of work

Since lockdown, every Sunday evening at 6pm my wider family comes together on Zoom. We didn’t speak this much to each other before the pandemic!

I tried to move the call to 6.30pm once because of something else I was doing but despite everyone being willing, somehow it didn’t happen. The call was fixed in our minds for 6pm and that was that.

We haven’t formally named it, but we’ve created a ritual. I send the link to everyone on Sunday morning. A few minutes before 6pm we all log in, generally in the same order, check everyone is okay, have a catch up, then log off.

A ritual is a sequence of activities, performed in a prescribed order. They are powerful. They can achieve a lot for us. We can use them to link to others, to provide an anchor in the face of uncertainty, to give us a sense of control, to connect to our emotions.

Clapping for the NHS every Thursday has been an extremely powerful ritual for the nation. People have come together on their street each week and there is no doubt it has been emotional. Ask anyone who has taken part and they will tell you about the sense of community it’s engendered, and I’ve seen plenty of people in tears as they take part.

Last year, my daughter performed plenty of rituals, big and small, as she finished Year 11 at school. She spent a day getting her school shirt signed by everyone in her year. She planned for and attended her Prom. It all meant she could come together with her year group, acknowledge what they meant to each other and recognise the sadness that everything was changing, that it would never be the same again. This year’s cohort does not have the same opportunity.

Repeating rituals, turning them into a fixture of life can increase their power but what really counts is to name it as a ritual.

Perhaps it’s now more than any other moment in the pandemic that we need to be thinking about rituals. Lockdown is relaxing. We are being encouraged to venture back out into the world. All sorts of organisations including schools and businesses are being asked to open up. But it won’t be the same as before. We will have to socially distance. Some will be frightened of catching Covid-19, frightened of their loved ones catching it. Some might experience the enforced distance as excruciating. Some might want to hide. The options are almost endless. As the furlough scheme is phased out, there will be job losses. Some are predicting more than 6.5 million jobs will go in the UK.

I’m, hopefully, going to return to the Cottage Therapy Centre where I work with private clients in July or August and it’s going to be weird. There’s no doubt the environment will be different. I’m not sure what the impact of that will be but I know I don’t want to just turn up and get straight on with it.

I’m thinking about a possible ritual. It’s got to acknowledge what is was like to leave so suddenly, the experience of working at home over Zoom and I want to slow down and notice what it feels like to return. Then I want to find a way to metaphorically lift my head and look to the future. It may involve memories of key moments, pictures I have taken and a little yogic intention setting. I haven’t decided yet and there is still time for me to work it out, but I have noticed that even reflecting on it has anchored me.

What ritual are you and your team going to enact to mark this period of life.

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