Over the last three or four years I’ve undertaken a couple of different rounds of psychotherapy. I liken the experience to that of spotting constellations in the night sky.
That’s probably the result of the goal I stated when going in to the first round: I’d like you to help while I take myself apart, try to understand how I work, and then put myself back together again.1I’m trying to connect the dots between who-I-once-was and who-I-am-now and find causal influences.
As I’m sure you can imagine: with an opening statement like that I needed to contact a few different therapists before I found one who was compatible with my aims2. But then, I was always taught to get three quotes before hiring a professional.
It’s that “connecting the dots” that feels like constellation-spotting. A lot of the counselling work (and the “homework” that came afterwards) has stemmed from ideas like:
This star represents a moment in my past.
This star represents a facet of my identity today.
If we draw a line from one to the other, what does the resulting constellation look like?
I suppose that what I’ve been doing is using the lens of retrospection to ask: “Hey, why am I like this? Is this part of it? And what impact did that have on me? Why can’t I see it?”
When you’re stargazing, sometimes you have to ask somebody to point out the shape in front of you before you can see it for yourself.
I haven’t yet finished this self-analytical journey, but I’m in an extended “homework” phase where I’m finding my own way: joining the dots for myself. Once somebody’s helped you find those constellations that mean something to you, it’s easier to pick them out when you stargaze alone.
1 To nobody’s surprise whatsoever, I can reveal that ever since I was a child I’ve enjoyed taking things apart to understand how they work. I wasn’t always so good at putting them back together again, though. My first alarm clock died that way, as did countless small clockwork and electronic toys.
2 I also used my introductory contact to lay out my counselling qualifications, in case they were a barrier for a potential therapist, but it turns out this wasn’t as much of a barrier as the fact that I arrived with a concrete mandate.
I’ve been having a tough time these last few months. Thanks to COVID, I’m sure I’m not alone in that.
Times are strange, and even when you get a handle on how they’re strange they can still affect you: lockdown stress can quickly magnify anything else you’re already going through.
We’ve all come up with our own coping strategies; here’s part of mine.
These last few months have occasionally seen me as emotionally low as… well, a particularly tough spell a decade ago. But this time around I’ve benefited from the self-awareness and experience to put some solid self-care into practice!
By way partly of self-accountability and partly of sharing what works for me, let me tell you about the silly mnemonic that reminds me what I need to keep track of as part of each day: GEMSAW! (With thanks to Amy Blankson for, among other things, the idea of this kind of acronym.)
Because it’s me, I’ve cited a few relevant academic sources for you in my summary, below:
Taking the time to stop and acknowledge the good things in your life, however small, is associated with lower stress levels (Taylor, Lyubomirsky & Stein, 2017) to a degree that can’t just be explained by the placebo effect (Cregg & Cheavens, 2020).
Frankly, the placebo effect would be fine, but it’s nice to have my practice of trying to intentionally recognise something good in each day validated by the science too!
I don’t even need a citation; I’m sure everybody knows that aerobic exercise is associated with reduced risk and severity of depression: the biggest problem comes from the fact that it’s an exceptionally hard thing to motivate yourself to do if you’re already struggling mentally!
But it turns out you don’t need much to start to see the benefits (Josefsson, Lindwall & Archer, 2014): I try to do enough to elevate my heart rate each day, but that’s usually nothing more than elevating my desk to standing height, putting some headphones on, and dancing while I work!
Understandably a bit fuzzier as a concept and tainted by being a “hip” concept. A short meditation break or mindfulness exercise might be verifiably therapeutic, but more (non-terrible) studies are needed (Vonderlin, Biermann, Bohus & Lyssenko 2020). For me, a 2-5 minute meditation break punctuates a day and feels like it contributes towards the goal of staying-sane-in-challenging-times, so it makes it into my wellbeing plan.
Maybe it’s doing nothing. But I’m not losing much time over it so I’m not worried.
During my 20s I gradually began to suffer more and more from “winter blues”. Nobody’s managed to make an argument for the underlying cause of seasonal affective disorder that hasn’t been equally-well debunked by some other study. Small-scale studies often justify light therapy (e.g. Lam, Levitan & Morehouse 2006) but it’s possibly no-more-effective than a placebo at scale (SBU 2007).
Since my early 30s, I’ve always felt better to get myself 30 minutes of lightbox on winter mornings (I use one of these bad boys). I admit it’s possible that the benefits are just the result of tricking my brain into waking-up more promptly and therefore feeing like I’m being more-productive with my waking hours! But either way, getting some sunlight – whether natural or artificial – makes me feel better, so it makes it onto my daily self-care checklist.
Acts of kindness
It’s probably not surprising that a person’s overall happiness correlates with their propensity for kindness (Lyubomirsky, King & Diener 2005). But what’s more interesting is that the causal link can be “gamed”. That is: a deliberate effort to engage in acts of kindness results in increased happiness (Buchanan & Bardi 2010)!
Beneficial acts of kindness can be as little as taking the time to acknowledge somebody’s contribution or compliment somebody’s efforts. The amount of effort it takes is far less-important for happiness than the novelty of the experience, so the type of kindness you show needs to be mixed-up a bit to get the best out of it. But demonstrating kindness helps to make the world a better place for other humans, so it pays off even if you’re coming from a fully utilitarian perspective.
I write a lot anyway, often right here, and that’s very-definitely for my own benefit first and foremost. But off the back of some valuable “writing therapy” (Baikie & Wilhelm 2005) I undertook earlier this year, I’ve been continuing with the simpler, lighter approach of trying to no more than three sentences about something that’s had an impact on me that day.
As an approach, it doesn’t help everybody (Zachariae 2015), but writing a little about your day – not even about how you feel about it, just the facts will do (Koschwanez, Robinson, Beban, MacCormick, Hill, Windsor, Booth, Jüllig & Broadbent 2017; fuck me that’s a lot of co-authors) – helps to keep you content, and I’m loving it.
Despite the catchy acronym (Do I need to come up with a GEMSAW logo? I’m pretty sure real gemcutting is actually more of a grinding process…) and stack of references, I’m not actually writing a self-help book; it just sounds like I am.
I don’t claim to be an authority on anything beyond my own head, and I’m not very confident on that subject! I just wanted to share with you something that’s been working pretty well at keeping me sane for the last month or two, just in case it’s of any use to you. These are challenging times; do what you need to find the happiness you can, and hang in there.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the messages we send to our children about their role, and ours as adults, in keeping them safe from people who might victimise them. As a society, our message has changed over the decades: others of my culture and generation will, like me, have seen the gradual evolution from “stranger danger” to “my body, my choice”. And it’s still evolving.
But as Kristin eloquently (and emotionally: I cried my eyes out!) explains, messages like these can subconsciously teach children that they alone are responsible for keeping themselves from harm. And so when some of them inevitably fail, the shame of their victimisation – often already taboo – can be magnified by the guilt of their inability to prevent it. And as anybody who’s been a parent or, indeed, a child knows that children aren’t inclined to talk about the things they feel guilty about.
And in the arms race of child exploitation, abusers will take advantage of that.
What I was hoping was to have a nice, concrete answer – or at least an opinion – to the question: how should we talk to children about their safety in a way that both tries to keep them safe but ensures that they understand that they’re not to blame if they are victimised? This video doesn’t provide anything like that. Possibly there aren’t easy answers. As humans, as parents, and as a society, we’re still learning.
I discovered Philosophy Tube earlier this year but because I’ve mostly been working my way through the back catalogue it took until very recently before I got around to watching the video Men. Abuse. Trauma. And about 95% of everything he says in it so-closely parallels my own experience of an abusive relationship that I was periodically alarmed by his specificity. I’ve written before about the long tail an abusive relationship can have and that this video triggered in me such a strong reaction of recognition (and minor distress) is a testament to that.
I escaped from my abusive relationship seventeen years ago this month. It took me around seven years to acknowledge that the relationship had been abusive and to see the full picture of the damage it had done me. It took at least another four or five before I reached a point that I suspect I’m “recovered”: by which I mean “as recovered as I think is feasible.” And the fact that this video – on the first two viewings, anyway – was still able to give me a moment of panic (albeit one well-short of flashbacks) is a reminder that no, I’m not yet 100% okay.
Regardless – I’ve wanted to plug the channel for a while now, and this was the vehicle I had to hand. Go watch.
Let’s face the truth. We are in an abusive relationship with our phones.
Ask yourself the first three questions that UK non-profit Women’s Aid suggests to determine if you’re in an abusive relationship:
Has your partner tried to keep you from seeing your friends or family?
Has your partner prevented you or made it hard for you to continue or start studying, or from going to work?
Does your partner constantly check up on you or follow you?
If you substitute ‘phone’ for ‘partner’, you could answer yes to each question. And then you’ll probably blame yourself.
A fresh take by an excellent article. Bringing a feminist viewpoint to our connection to our smartphones helps to expose the fact that our relationship with the devices would easily be classified as abusive were they human. The article goes on to attempt to diffuse the inevitable self-blame that comes from this realisation and move forward to propose a more-utopian future in which our devices might work for us, rather than for the companies that provide the services for which we use them.
The ANAR Foundation and Grey Group Spain have created a unique advertising campaign that only kids can see. The ad campaign uses lenticular printing to show individuals below a certain height — children, in this case — a certain image, while taller people see a different image. Children looking at the ad see a photo of an abused boy, a help hotline, and the message ‘if somebody hurts you, phone us and we’ll help you,’ while adults can only see an unbruised photo of the boy with the text ‘Sometimes child abuse is only visible to the child suffering it.’
The ANAR Foundation and Grey Group Spain have created a unique advertising campaign that only kids can see. The ad campaign uses lenticular printing to show individuals below a certain height — children, in this case — a certain image, while taller people see a different image. Children looking at the ad see a photo of an abused boy, a help hotline, and the message “if somebody hurts you, phone us and we’ll help you,” while adults can only see an unbruised photo of the boy with the text “Sometimes child abuse is only visible to the child suffering it.”
I am a survivor of an abusive relationship, and parts of that experience affect the way that I engage in romantic relationships… but I have difficulty quantifying exactly how much. Insert obvious (minor) trigger warning here, and scroll past the kitten if you want to read more.
I’m fine, by the way. It took… a long, long time, like in the region of a decade, to be completely fine about it, and I appreciate that compared to many people, I got lucky. Like many victims (and especially among men), my recovery was hampered by the fact that I found it difficult to see the relationship as having been abusive in the first place: that first step took many years all by itself. I’m not kidding when I say I’m fine, by the way: no, I don’t need to talk about it (with many of my circles of friends made up of current and former helpline volunteers of various types, I feel the need to make that doubly-clear: sometimes, one just can’t escape from people who care about you so much that they’ll offer you a cup of tea even if they’ve only got saltwater to make it with, if you catch the drift of my needless in-joke).
But I wanted to share with you something that I’ve gradually realised about how I was changed as a result of that relationship. Something that still affects me today and, for all I know, probably always will: a facet of my personality whose origins I eventually traced back to that dreadful relationship.
A major factor in my attraction to people, for the last decade and a half, has been whether or not they demonstrate being attracted to me. I’m sure that’s the case for everybody, at least to some extent – there’s a necessary reciprocity for a relationship to work, of course – but in my case there’ve been times in my past when the entirety of my attraction to somebody could be described in terms of their attraction to me… and that’s a level that definitely isn’t healthy! It stems from a lack of belief in my own worth as relationship material, which had grown to such an extent that feeling as if I were even-remotely attractive in somebody else’s eyes has, regardless of whether or not I’d be interested in them under other circumstances, made me feel as though I ought to “give them a shot”. Again: not healthy.
This, in turn, comes from a desperation of considering myself fundamentally unattractive, undateable, and generally unworthy of the attention of anybody else in any relationship capacity… which is highly tied-up in the fact that I had a relationship in which my partner repeatedly and methodically taught me exactly that: that I was lucky to be in a relationship with them or indeed with anybody, etc.
Given enough time, persuasion, and coercive tactics, this is the kind of shit that sinks in and, apparently, sticks.
I don’t mind that I’m a product of my environment. But it bugs me a little that I’m still, to a small (and easily managable, nowadays) extent the product of somebody else’s deliberate and manipulative efforts to control me, a decade and a half after the fact.
Now I’ll stress once again that I’m fine now: I’ve recovered by as much as I need (or at least expect) to. Some years ago, I finally got to the point that if you let me know that you’re attracted to me then that isn’t by itself something that makes me completely infatuated with you. Nowadays, I’m capable of actually engaging my brain and thinking “Hmm: would I be interested in this person if it weren’t for the fact that they’d just validated my worth in some way?” But I’m still aware of the sensation – that nagging feeling that I’m acting according to a manipulative bit of programming – even though I’m pretty confident that it doesn’t influence how I behave any more.
It’s funny how our brains work. At the end of the relationship, I made a reasonably-rapid bounceback/recovery in terms of my general self-worth, but it took far, far longer to get control over this one specific thing. I guess we all react to particular stresses in different ways. For me, somebody who’d spent his childhood and teen years with perhaps, if anything, a little much self-worth, it might have been inevitable that I’d be unable to rebuild the part of that self-image that was most-effectively demolished by somebody else: the bit that is dependent upon somebody else’s validation.
But who knows… as I said, I have difficulty quantifying how much that abusive relationship impacted me. Because it is, of course, true to say that every single thing I’ve ever experienced will have affected me in some way or another – made me the person I subsequently became. How can I justify blaming a single relationship? I know that I wasn’t “like this” back when I first started my dating life, but I can’t conclusively prove that it was the result of any one particular relationship: for all I can claim, perhaps it was something else? Maybe this was always who I’d become? Or maybe, of course, this entire paragraph is simply the result of the fact that my brain still has difficulty with the term “abusive relationship” and is more-than-happy to keep trying to reach for whatever alternative explanations it can find.
Once again though, I’ll stress that I’m okay now and I have been for many years. I just wanted to share with you an observation I’d made about my own psychology… and the long tail that even the “tamest” of abusive relationships can leave.