Why are we so hard on ourselves?

Why are we so hard on ourselves?  I find myself asking this question over and over again.

Near enough all the clients I see for counselling will tell me that they show compassion to others – for their mistakes, for their lack of will power, for their misfortunes etc – but when it comes to themselves, they put a huge amount of pressure on themselves.

So what happens goes something like this.  “I upset someone at work today.  She was really upset with me.  I am such an idiot.  I don’t know why I did what I did – I am so stupid.  I feel so bad for upsetting her”

You will notice several derogatory words in that sentence.  So not only does the client feel bad for upsetting someone, he is now also berating himself for getting it wrong. So now he feels doubly guilty, shameful, and probably worthless.

There are several factors here.  Firstly we do NOT upset another person.  Rather we do something, say something, or not do something or not say something, which triggers a negative feeling in the other person.  This person then blames us for “upsetting them”.  But we are each responsible for our behaviour in response to our feelings.  Blaming someone else just lets us off the hook at having to examine our own behaviour, and how we might respond more compassionately.

Secondly, I always ask my clients what their intention was.  Did they deliberately go out to upset someone?  Of course the answer is no.  Intention is so important.  We all make mistakes.  We all get it wrong sometimes.  But if our intentions are sound then we really do not need to beat ourselves up when it does not go quite according to our intentions.  We can examine our motives, perhaps learn from how we handled it, perhaps apologise if this feels appropriate.  Then we need to let it go.  Because if we don’t let it go, it festers.  Then the next time we make a mistake, we add the previous mistake to the new one ……………………………  and you get the picture – more self-berating, name calling, guilt.  And this affects our self esteem.  And the habit of self-recrimination continues, doing us no favours at all.

Just something to think about.

Powerful or overpowering?

Over the last few weeks we have been bombarded by demonstrations of the human species exerting so-called ‘power’– both good and bad.  It is very easy to feel weighted down by the deluge of negativity and scare-mongering that has occurred during this EU referendum period – both from the In and Out camps.  We have seen the outpouring of grief over the pointless murder of Jo Cox and now the little girl killed by her father with a history of extreme anger.  Threats of increased terrorism, threats of economic disaster, threats of a flood of immigrants we won’t be able to support, threats of the NHS collapsing – either because of increased strain on resources due to immigration, or because we rely on immigration to sustain NHS manpower.  Threats, threats and more threats which in turn spread fear, uncertainty and sometimes hatred, and often outbursts of uncontrollable anger.  Does this make the initiating people  powerful or overpowering

In a calm moment when there is space to reflect, I believe we all have inherent ability to be powerful – but this is something which is within us, not something we force upon others by violence or scare-mongering – which becomes overpowering.  At the heart of all human beings is the desire to love and be loved.  True love is unconditional.   It is not one person exerting their will upon another – that is ‘overpowering’ not powerful.  True power comes from a place of love, compassion and peaceful intention, it is not coercive.  Think Mohandas Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Dalai Lama –  powerful men, but they were not overpowering – they did not use threats or violence.  Nelson Mandela became a man of peace – but could so easily have continued on a journey which included violence – again he became powerful, not overpowering.

To be truly powerful comes from a place of love and peace

Some of the comments I have read in the media over the last few weeks during this referendum period have been really quite personal and nasty and directed at those who do not agree with their own beliefs..  At the end of the day, even after wars have been fought, the only thing that will ultimately solve the problem is dialogue – powerful dialogue, not overpowering dialogue, or dialogue which cultivates fear and confusion.  Dialogue that seeks resolution, motivated not by greed or self-righteousness, but by love.

When we are able to operate from a place of true power, rather than seeking always to overpower, then perhaps the world will be a better place. A good starting point is honest self-reflection about our motives and methods of communicating with each other. Sometimes we need to realise that when we judge another we are, in fact, just holding up a mirror to ourselves.  True power comes from a place of love and compassion.  Anything else is our thoughts and actions motivated by our experiences, which need healing.

“There are many different kinds of power.  True power comes from serving and helping others.  Such behaviour makes people respect you.  They are willing to listen to your views and advice, and they support you.  The energy of many people is thus channelled through one person.  This kind of power is positive and authentic.”

Dalai Lama

Why reading stories to children helps promote good mental health

I listened to Michael Morpurgo, successful author, especially known for writing magical children’s books (e.g. War Horse) on BBC breakfast this morning talking about well-known authors re-writing classic fiction, and promoting the importance of reading with children.

I felt this very much links in with the editorial on BBC news yesterday about parents needing help to ensure the mental health of their children which you can read here.   “One in 10 children aged five to 16 years had a mental health problem that warranted support and treatment, the report said. And the quality of the parent-child relationship and parenting more broadly played a primary role.” The author, Professor Ashton says “Having produced healthy babies we then set about neglecting them.”  Harsh words, but probably true!

Reading to Children

Children’s classics have endured for thousands of years and therefore one must conclude they must be extremely good.  They also contain archetypal images in a language that resonates with children and teaches them many lessons in life and helps them to understand and to deal with a range of emotions. They allow them to know that life is not always easy and it often takes courage, resilience and determination, negotiation, social know-how etc to overcome obstacles as well as the ability to find happiness and to spread happiness. Stories stimulate imaginations and aid understanding of the world.  Sugar- coated stories which do not address real life problems are not helpful.  But they need address life’s challenges in a way that fires the imaginations and wonder of a child.

Apart from improving their literacy and access to other subjects as a result, parents regularly reading to their children also give their children the message that they are important, feel safe and secure feel close to the people they love, and can have conversations with parents who are more than physically present – the perfect opportunity to really listen to them, to help them understand and name their feelings, help them work through their worries, to explain and clarify some aspects of the story.

And when a child wants the same story repeated again and again, it is because it speaks to their emotional needs and their interests. Stories stimulate curiosity, help children explore strong emotions safely, enhances brain development.

Reading books with children – lots and lots of books, especially classics which you can return to time and time again, is a win win opportunity to maintain young people’s mental health. Books lay the foundations for future social, communication and interpersonal skills.

Emotional Wellbeing v. Academic Learning

We read much about the increase in mental health issues at the moment.  I am passionate in believing that a young person’s emotional wellbeing is vital in enabling them to maintain good mental health.  I also believe that attention to emotional wellbeing enables young people to be in a good place so that they are ready and able to learn.  So I was very pleased to read an article in the TES entitled ‘Wellbeing and good mental health should be seen as equally as important as academic success’ by Jan Dubiel on 12th May 2016.  Jan Dubiel is National Development Manager at Early Excellence Centre for Inspirational Learning.  Here is the link to the article.

Emotional wellbeing and good mental health are as important as academic achievement:

She says “Children are powerful and competent learners, who learn best when they are in an environment that connects with their interests, and with adults who value their ideas and engage with their thinking.” And says “Better understanding of the internationally renowned Leuven scales for wellbeing within schools would be a good starting point ……………..At Early Excellence, we would go further and suggest that wellbeing and good mental health should be seen as equally as important as academic success.”

(The Leuven scales uses tools to focus on two areas – children’s wellbeing and involvement).

The development of children’s emotional wellbeing in early years is, I believe, paramount to enabling them to access learning and reach their potential.  And the importance given to maintaining this through a child’s education is crucial to ensure good mental health.  I hope that the Government will embrace this and include emotional wellbeing and good mental health monitoring in schools and early years settings within the Life Chances strategy with a similar emphasis to academic achievement and attainment.  Tthis might in time reduce parental focus which has been clearly directed on academic attainment alone via literacy and numeracy testing, and does not seem to be helping our children.




Young People are not just exam grades!

I wholeheartedly agree with the article in the TES whose heading states: “The government’s education policy is an ‘assault on childhood’, says children’s author Meg Rosoff “.  Here is the link to the article: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/governments-education-policy-assault-childhood-says-childrens-author.

Author Meg Rosoff won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in Sweden at the end of May and attacked the government’s over-focus on exams.  The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (ALMA) is the world’s largest award for children’s and young adult literature.  She states “I meet these children all the time. Sometimes they get great marks on their exams. And sometimes they cut themselves with razors, starve themselves, suffer depression and anxiety.”   In her speech she also stressed the importance of imagination.

This concurs with what I experience when counselling young people – they are either absolutely convinced that if they don’t achieve great exam grades then they have failed – but the paradox is, that as perfectionists their marks are never good enough – they move the goalposts to a new level.  Or they feel they cannot meet what is clearly expected of them (because they know what their target grades are all the time) and they turn to some form of self harm.  Either way, as Meg Rosoff says in this article “learning has become joyless”.

And this would appear to be true for both teachers and students.  Teachers are leaving the profession or moving abroad.  Many teachers are stressed beyond measure and working ridiculously long hours per week just to keep up with the burden of paperwork.  I hear so often – “I enjoy teaching, but I hate all the bureaucracy and can’t keep up with all the marking, testing, planning and ever changing schemes of work”. Young people are stuck in the system until they have taken all their tests and exams and can leave.

As humans we are so much more than our academic achievements – I wonder when the government will stop this relentless focus on a soulless curriculum that is our education system and allow back some spontaneity, creativity, choice, focus on emotional wellbeing and, heaven forbid – enjoyment?

Mind full or Mindful?

This morning I stepped outside to take my dog for a walk across the fields.  The sky was dark and low and the rain was pouring down – but a dog still has to get his walk.  I could feel my resentment at the weather – and only a couple of days ago it had been hot, sunny, calm with just a light and welcome breeze – and now it was blowing a gale – even the birds sounded happier a couple of days ago.  And so began the negative thoughts. But then I thought to myself what will happen if I just notice my surroundings and just let it be moment by moment and stop thinking about getting soaking wet and windswept?  What would happen if I allow myself to be mindful?

Amazingly my walk became something to enjoy.  The formation of the sky was actually dramatic – thick, rolling pewter clouds one way, orangey-grey another.  The, as yet uncut, long grass looked a completely different colour as it was blown in one direction by the wind – taking on a silvery sheen interspersed with red and yellow flowers.  The cracked earth had for the moment smoothed over.  And my dog was happily jumping through the long grass getting wetter and wetter – such spontaneous and in the moment happiness is truly infectious. I found myself smiling and then happily searching for six-petaled buttercups until I found one – totally absorbed in this task.  With a conscious reminder I allowed my myself to be in the moment and to be mindful.  And in that moment everything was ok.

Thich Nhat Hanh said “The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.”

(Thich Nhat Hanh – Peace is Every Step; The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life)

Allowing such present moments are the greatest gift we can give to ourselves.

Medicalising Children’s Mental Health

I have just ready a really interesting and poignant article in The Guardian by Natasha Devon who is the Government’s mental health champion in England and Wales.  You can ready the article here.

I have noticed an increase in young people presenting with anxiety, depression, dysmorphia, eating problems, stress etc.

Devon, who founded the Self-Esteem Team, was appointed by the government to look into young people’s mental health and find out what a good school support system looks like. However, she said the government was asking the wrong question. She states “The question we should be asking ourselves is what are the emotional and mental health needs of all children and are they being met in our schools?”

I believe this is a fair question, and one for the lives of children outside school as well in many cases.  Rather than try to find solutions via medication, we should be looking at a child’s emotional wellbeing and this includes their ability to regulate their emotions and to be able to deal with both success and failure.  We should be asking what is causing this increase in these mental issues, not just looking to the doctor to provide medical support for the symptoms, for example anti depressants.

Natasha Devon’s report to Government is expected to be critical of the academic pressures on young people as a result of the testing regime.


Talking about Depression

Depression is a debilitating illness.  Dorothy Rowe, in the preface to her book, Depression, – The way out of your prison,  states:  “…… sometimes, suddenly, without apparent reason we feel unbearably sad.  The world turns grey, and we taste bitterness in our mouth.  We hear an echo of the bell that tolls our passing, and we reach out for a comforting hand, but find ourselves alone.  ………….  for some of us this experience becomes a ghost whose walls, though invisible, are quite impenetrable.”

It is hard for people to open up about depression still.  But I have just read a really interesting article in the Guardian about Graeme Fowler, cricketer and coach, who suffers with depression.  His book, Absolutely Foxed, discusses his experience. He has put together a checklist to help players keep a note of their mental health but thinks it is as important to provide a checklist of indicators for team-mates. It is not shameful to have mental health issues, he says. He does not claim to be an expert on mental health.

“It is not me standing up as a clinician and telling them what they need to do,” he says in the book. “It is simply about me sharing what happens to me and how I feel. I welcome such open discussion about depression in society.”

Marcus Trescothick, cricketer, in an interview responding to the question: But “the beast” still lurks inside? “Clearly,” Trescothick nods. “It’s not me. It’s somebody totally different who takes over. I think it always just lies dormant until the anxiety rises up. It’s more an anxiety issue I have, rather than a depression. Of course they’re two sides of the same coin but I can flip into anxiety state very quickly – because my brain doesn’t cope well with anxiety. At the same time you learn how to do all the good things so you can say: ‘OK, let’s get back to normal.”

Graeme Fowler is quoted as having said to his doctor in reply to the question: “Had he thought about suicide?” replied ““No, because I have a nice life. I have a great job, great family, lovely wife. I know all that exists but I can’t get to it. It’s over there and I can’t get there. So am I going to kill myself? The answer is no. But do I wish I was dead? Yes.”

This open sharing about what it is like, and importantly what others might look out for (signs) and how to support a person with depression is relevant to all areas of life. It helps lift the taboo around mental health and hopefully allows sufferers to be more open about their illness.  Keeping quiet about the inner turmoil seems to serve only to compound the suffering.

It is good that more and more public figures from various walks of life are opening up about their experiences of, and battles with, depression.


Young Children Learn Through Play and Social Interaction

Young children learn through interaction and imaginative play right from the word go.  In a very short space of time their brains absorb huge amounts of information, and their brains develop so that they can recognise words, body language and then more abstract things like autobiographical memory, feelings, they develop empathy and compassion.  So their early years experiences can be so important in helping them with their social and emotional development, not just their intellect. And play and interaction with peers and adult nurturing allows this.

So I was really pleased to see Ben Fogle’s rant in The Telegraph recently about the development of modern Lego.   Here is the link to his comments: Modern Lego.

Basically he is saying that when he grew up, lego came in a box or bucket of bricks or all shapes, sizes and colours. Children could then let their imaginations create anything from a small boat to a huge town.  Whereas modern lego mainly comes in boxes with the bricks and instructions to build a particular object, e.g. a spaceship.  The outcome is prescribed and therefore the onus is on getting the instructions right to achieve the stated outcome, rather than encouraging unlimited imagination.

And this prescriptive formula seems to me to illustrate what we are doing to our current generation of children.  They are told what they should be doing, how they should be achieving every step of the way.  The emphasis of learning is still on academia and a playing down of the more creative elements of the curriculum.  They are tested every step of the way and from a very young age a child will know if they are ‘failing’.  How damaging is this? Where is the spontaneity, the inventiveness, the desire to find out, the space and opportunity to learn vital social and emotional skills?  The time to just be children?  We should not assume that because a child is not engaged in, what is to an adult, structured learning, that our children are not learning.  They learn all the time.

In social situations they are learning the skills of negotiation, regulating their emotions, self-soothing, self awareness, boundaries, empathy, compassion, sharing, self-confidence – all skills that will enhance their wellbeing, and will help them in their academic life.

I feel there has to be a link between this prescriptiveness, over testing and the increasing incidence of mental health issues amongst young children.



Anger is just an emotion

Over the years I have seen many clients who have presented with ‘anger issues’ – either they come saying they have anger issues or they have been told they must ‘go and do something about their anger’ by someone else. What is common is that each person sees anger as being something bad, something to be ashamed about, and something they need to learn not to have.

But anger is an emotion like other emotions we experience, for example sadness, joy. Anger lets us know that something does not feel right, or is not right for us. The problems arise because many of us do not learn how to express anger in a constructive way, and it becomes destructive.

Many of us, as children, were told that it was not ok to get angry, and we were often told this in an angry way. So a double message my have been received – it is not alright to show anger, and anger is something to be feared. So we can grow up learning to squash down our anger, but the problem is the anger is still there, rather like a pressure cooker simmering away, until a trigger makes us blow, and hence anger can then be quite aggressive and is perceived by others to be frightening. It is often the little things, frustrating things which ‘tip us over’, and once we have tipped, it is too late to stop, even though we may feel remorse afterwards and wonder why we get so angry.

If we could learn to express how we feel about things as we go along, then this pressure cooker situation would not arise, as we would have been able to express, in a healthy way, our feelings of anger without the situation becoming confrontational.

Destructive ways of expressing anger can be both passive (e.g. depression, apathy, withdrawal) where perhaps we fear any form of confrontation, or aggressive (shouting, breaking things, hitting someone) where we cannot control our outbursts – neither is healthy because no-one’s needs are being met and much hurt and pain is caused.

It is ok to express how we feel in a loving way. Taking the time to learn how to do this can be life changing – both on an individual level and in relationships,

NHS Choices website has some useful tips about managing short term and long term anger http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/Pages/controlling-anger.aspx#managing – .

And a useful book is Managing Anger by Gael Lindenfield.