Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Mind The Gap - Why Politicians (and You) Do Have A Choice

As the world continues to be concerned about the fragile situation in Gaza, you may well have heard the Israeli Prime Minister explain his government's actions with this: “...Hamas leaves us no choice but to expand and intensify the campaign against it.”

Aside from your political or moral stance on the issue, is there anything about the words that strikes you? “I had no choice” is such a staple part of our language that it largely goes unnoticed. I've said it, you've said it. In fact we hear it all the time. What's interesting is that it's such an old chestnut that it should have been thrown on the fire a long time ago. The reason? It's simply not true.

The truth lies in the following bit of cognitive behavioural science: between stimulus and response there is a gap. In that gap lies your ability to choose. In practical terms it means that you don't have to do the first thing that comes into your head or the thing that you've always done or the thing that everyone wants you to do. You can choose how to respond.

You're driving down a road near where you live. A car cuts you up badly. You may well vent your anger at the other driver, beep the horn madly and shout expletives in their direction. However, if you're driving in a fairly notorious area at night and the car that cuts you up is full of young men drinking beer and has very loud music emanating from it, then you may decide that the car's occupants are not people with whom you want to get into an argument. You stay calm. Congratulations, you have just demonstrated that choosing your response is possible.

In cognitive behavioural therapy, that gap is seen as the pause where you can reflect on your beliefs about an incident or event. In the first example, you perhaps believe that the other driver is driving dangerously and that he or she should not be allowed to get away with it. In the second, although you may believe the same, you also believe that the driver may pose even more danger to you if you respond angrily. Comparing the two examples shows that we do have the ability to choose a response. That choice can be widened further depending on our belief about the incident. Is the driver distracted by some serious event in their life? Is it an incident of which we have also been guilty from time to time? Was the incident so bad or are we particularly stressed today? There are many beliefs we can attach to an event such as this and the point is we can choose which one takes precedence.

Viktor Frankl realised the existence of this gap in the concentration camps when he suggested that the freedom to choose one's attitude was the last of the human freedoms. This epiphany of his made an enormous impression on me when I first read it over ten years ago. However, it is only recently that I have become aware that the response which one can choose goes much further than attitude.

You can classify responses at a basic level into a choice
  • for a thing e.g. attitude
  • to do something e.g. to take control back of a situation
  • to be something e.g. to be positive
I have already detailed some of the instances of the above in previous posts but an absolutely extraordinary example of the choices that exist in that gap between stimulus and response came from Nelson Mandela when he was imprisoned in 1964. From that time onwards he chose not to hate his oppressors any more. He chose forgiveness and reconciliation. He chose peace above war despite everything he had previously experienced and believed. He chose to allow his jailers to see him as a human being and for him to see them as human too. He didn't do what he had been conditioned to do. He didn't do what his followers wanted him to do. He realised that he could do things differently.

This is why this freedom to choose is the over-arching concept in surviving and thriving in adversity. It is the most important piece of knowledge we possess because all our other strategies flow from it. If we can learn to recognise the beliefs we attach to events and reflect on them in that gap then we can use so many other tools to thrive. The point is that we can choose the responses which help us best and not the ones that keep us in negative patterns.

The example from my own life which is most memorable was after an argument with a member of my wider family. The other person, believing they were in the right, carried that argument with them for a couple of days afterwards and their mood was badly affected. I remember choosing to not let that person's mood affect me for those two days and that decision was a liberating one as it meant that I, and only I, was in control of my emotions and feelings. I try to teach my daughters to choose between being in a bad mood or a good mood after they have been told off or after they have argued. Sometimes it works!

If we're met with bad news or on-going tough times, then think about all the ways that you can respond to what is happening. It doesn't have to be the conventional thing to do or the first thing that you think of. Often there are lots of possible choices. Even where it seems there is only an either/or choice, then it is still a choice.

Imagine being the victim of another incident on the road. Will you say next time, just like the politicians, you had no choice in your response? Or, armed with your new knowledge, will you choose a different path, one which serves you and the other driver better?

There is so much potential in realising you have a choice and it makes life just a little bit more exciting, don't you think?

Branch, Rhena and Willson, Rob: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Dummies; John Wiley and Sons 2nd Edition 2010

Frankl, Viktor; Man's Search for Meaning; Pocket 1997

Sampson, Anthony; Mandela: The Authorized Biography; Vintage 2000

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Monday, 18 August 2014

New Life In The Forest

Resilience is quite a fashionable concept at present - how people and organizations learn to bounce back from adversity. In the post-economic crisis world, how can the economy get back to old levels of productivity and growth? How can public sector organizations meet the needs of their service users and clients with ever-reducing budgets and numbers of people? The same applies to human beings of course. When we endure hardship, do we ever get back to normal? Can we still be the same dad, husband, brother, son, friend, employee, leader, community volunteer we were before?

Perhaps Aimee Mullins touched on the truth of it in a previous post. “Adversity isn't an obstacle that we need to get around in order to resume living our life... We are marked, of course, by a challenge, whether physically, emotionally or both and I'm going to suggest that this is a good thing...”

  Now, why would all the range of human and organizational hardships ever be classed as a good thing? Is that not belittling someone's trauma? Personally, I would never suggest to someone with a terminal illness or someone who's just lost their loved ones that a good thing has happened. If someone in that position were to invite me to share their pain and ask me, then I would say that their trauma is real, huge and extremely personal. I would also say, if asked, that their pain can be the source of growth. A new branch of positive psychology is looking at the whole area of post-traumatic growth and Dr Stephen Joseph's book called “What Doesn't Kill Us – The New Psychology of Post-Traumatic Growth” is an excellent introduction to the subject. He likens the process of trauma to a forest fire: immensely destructive but which eventually brings new life to the forest.

Of course, this kind of growth doesn't happen just like that. The battle through emotional and physical pain can take many years and eventually be an unsuccessful one. What we are talking about here is some light at the end of the tunnel, that maybe there is life after a crisis. This isn't just about positive thinking or actions (although without them growth is unlikely to happen) but it is possible that with a huge amount of work and commitment new growth can emerge.

Someone I admire hugely is Simon Weston, the Falklands veteran who suffered 46% burns on the Sir Galahad in 1982. He suffered immensely in the aftermath of his war experiences but has now built a multi-faceted life as a speaker, writer, broadcaster, charity worker, campaigner and business owner. Would he have had this life without his experiences? He suggests that probably wouldn't have happened as one of his central messages in his work is “to not only accept what is but turn it to your advantage”, something he seems to have done in spades.

While I have been physically inactive for many years as the result of long spells of M.E. there has been the opportunity for me to grow massively in that time. My life now has a whole new vista as I can much better understand other people's trials. I have been able to give and receive love in different ways than before. I have been able to summon up reserves of determination which I didn't realise existed and programme my mind to a level of positivity which I hope will serve me well in the future. Perhaps the most significant growth though has come in my marriage, where the trying circumstances of my illness have tested the strength of my most important relationship to the limit. After I recovered from a very long spell of illness in 2008, I was so overjoyed at having my life back that I didn't stop to think that my wife and family wanted their lives back too.
While I was busy making plans for the rest of my life, they needed some reassurance that I had resumed the role of main carer and home-maker so that the burden placed on them while I had been so ill had now been lifted. I failed to give them that re-assurance and so tension, friction and resentment grew. It affected the whole family and contributed to my becoming ill again.

As I recover from this phase of my illness, I can see that this time my marriage and our family are growing stronger (though the effects can still be felt quite intensely) and when I am fully better I will be able to see that the last two and a half years of strain for our family have had a positive outcome.

Aimee Mullins's assertion that adversity isn't an obstacle to get round in order to resume a normal life is absolutely right. I believe that she's also right that adversity leaves its mark and that this can be a good thing. Adversity is change and we can make that change a positive one. New life, growth and a whole new perspective on life are possible. That isn't just theory. It is happening and it makes life richer and deeper than ever before. Even while the forest is still smouldering in some parts, seeds are beginning to grow in others. Once we recognize that fact, we can nurture those seeds and prepare for the new life of the future. 

Please note: this blog post is for information purposes only and should not be regarded as a substitute for counselling or other psychotherapy. If you feel you are troubled in a way discussed in this post then please consult your General Medical Practitioner.

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Monday, 11 August 2014

Relentless Positivity

The new football season is almost upon us. Optimism is rife. In fact, it's never higher among football fans than when their team isn't actually playing and before they are confronted with reality! All they see during the close season is the stuff that doesn't actually contribute to the final table: the players bought or the friendlies against teams they're not going to play during the season. For many of them, the optimism finishes somewhere between kick-off and full time of the first match, to be replaced by a terrible depression as their new players belly-flop instead of hit the ground running.
Optimism waxes and wanes as a sports fan and it only takes one defeat to render a recent winning run as meaningless. If the negativity after one defeat is so widespread, what happens when the team goes on a losing streak? How on earth do players and managers cope with a run of losses which are seemingly never-ending?

 Wigan Athletic fans had a taste of that in the 2011/2012 season when from the 27th August they lost every single game until the 19th November. While a large number of fans were already predicting relegation and no team had ever gone on such a losing run and stayed in the Premier League, there was one cool head amongst it all - the Latics manager and adopted son of the town, Roberto Martinez. After the seventh match in that series, this is what he had to say: "I'm not disappointed with the performance... It is not time to feel sorry for ourselves. It's time to try to improve ourselves, try to change the negative dynamic that's affecting us at the moment. Once we get our first positive result, everything will change." Roberto's legendary positivity took hold and the Latics finished the season with seven wins out of nine games, including victories against Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Newcastle, and they stayed in the Premier League.
His positivity became almost a caricature in his time at the DW Stadium, as he dared to suggest that his team would emerge stronger from the horrendous injury problems which cursed their 2012/2013 season (they went on to win the FA Cup) and find positives in the most horrendous of defeats in other seasons.
Of course, he's not doing anything new by being relentlessly positive in the face of adversity. Cognitive Behavioural Science has shown us that our thoughts influence our actions very strongly. Negative automatic thoughts (NATs) in our response to situations normally lead to unhelpful behaviour and actions. If we change the NATs to PATs (guess what the P stands for), then we get helpful behaviour and actions. Roberto continues to focus on the positives now he's at Everton and results continue to go his way.

What can we learn from Roberto Martinez and from cognitive behavioural science to help us survive and thrive in adversity? Relentless positivity is hard to maintain especially when you're confronted with a harsh reality day after day. I've tried to show my children the benefits of being positive, especially my younger daughter as she copes with her own adverse circumstances and to do that, I'm conscious of being a role model. It's not easy though. A few months ago, I started an unfinished post for this blog which went like this:
I have to confess to having not felt particularly positive recently. Not necessarily negative but a lot of positive thoughts which I would normally expect to experience have been missing. There's been a simple reason for it on the whole – tiredness.”

When you're very stressed, you lose sleep. The tension makes you further tired. Your concentration goes and before you know it you're having trouble stringing any kind of thoughts together never mind positive ones. You know though you need to keep your spirits up and so ways need to be found of being relentlessly positive. Some people find a gratitude diary works for them (and there is evidence to back that up*) while others like me count ten positive things from their day before going to sleep. I always say that if I can count ten things then I've had a good day. (I've not had a bad day yet.)

It's possible to take positivity in the smallest of things such as a really nice cup of tea, the smallest gesture of love, a conversation with someone, a blooming flower in the garden or an interesting thought going through your mind. It's not about suppressing negative thoughts at that moment (because you'll spend enough time having those), it's just about giving time to be positive. Sometimes I need to back that up with the long-view. How far have I come with my illness over twelve months? What progress have we made with making the house or garden the way we want it? What have I got to be proud of in my life? Give time for these thoughts and no matter what adversity you're going through you will find it helps, especially as one positive thought spawns another. Roberto was doing no different when he looked for the smallest of improvements in his team and he emphasised the merest suggestion of progress.

As my dad lay dying in the hospice, the cancer very nearly having won its battle, the priest entered his room with a solemn look on his face. “Look, Father.” said Dad. “Look at this beautiful sunset over the pond outside.” With those positive thoughts my dad coped with his disease in a dignified and inspiring way. The least I can do is pass that inspiration on.

* Emmons, R. A. & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389 

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