A promise to my daughters

As well as being on the progressive left politically, I’ve increasingly identified as an active feminist over the last decade. I’m sure that this has been apparent from my blog, which has at times posted about this topic explicitly. So this has been a depressing few months for me. After the inauguration of a racist, misogynist sex pest as the POTUS, and in the context of the thoroughly depressing situation in the UK with the toxic politics of austerity and Brexit, I have been thinking about the kind of world I want for my daughters. I have also been thinking about what I can do to to instil in them the values that I think are important and will help them have the kind of future I would want for them.

The massive turnout across the USA and around the world for the Women’s March has been a heartening message in a hard time. It is empowering to think that women all around the world and for several generations, as well as their allies, are working towards the same goals of equality and to further progressive causes (such as caring for the environment, LGBTQ and BME rights, and the value of science/evidence over propaganda and opinion). That sense of community and caring for each other and the future is also a refreshing change from all the aggressive posturing, selfishness and commercialism that seem to saturate the narrative at the moment.

The placards and quotes from the Women’s March have been particularly inspiring. I particularly like those shown on the MightyGirl blog. They illustrate how women all over the world are bringing up the next generation of girls to approach the world on their own terms and have whatever aspirations they want, without the boundaries of sexism and prejudice holding them back. There is one placard that says “I am only 4 years old, but I know everyone is equal” and that is the simple truth – until children are skewed by the prejudices they see around them, they understand the fundamental truth that whatever differences there are between people in how they look or how they live their lives, we are all equal in importance and all deserve to be treated with kindness and respect.

My children have often surprised me with their insight into international conflicts and world events. I remember driving them home from the supermarket when they were four years old, and them asking why the rich people of the world couldn’t give jobs to all poor people so that they could afford the things they need like food, clothes and places to live. I couldn’t really answer that, because I don’t think there is any justification for levels of inequality that mean that the richest eight men in the world have more money than the poorest half of the world population. Yet we have stopped seeing how odd and obscene that is, because we are implicitly given the message that we live in a meritocracy, and wealth is earned through hard work (when the reality is that many people inherit wealth, and few would argue that even the self-made plutocrats work harder than anyone else in the wealth spectrum). A year later, after explaining why poppy badges were being sold I remember having a conversation about whether there were still wars in the world. I said that there were, and most of them were to do with people having different religions. We talked about how wars don’t only affect soldiers, and how a recent bombing campaign had destroyed schools and hospitals. My daughters suggested that “we need to send people in that country postcards to remind them that schools are really important”, as “that is where children will learn that people are equal even if they are different, and you need to be kind to everyone”. I’ve never felt prouder.

I’d like to think I’m good role model of a woman facing the world on my own terms, setting up my own business and being “the boss” at work, as my kids see it, and being an equal partner in my relationship, which does not conform to traditional gender roles. We’ve worked hard to expose our daughters to a range of interests, and given them a variety of experiences. I’d hope that they can make choices about what they enjoy or how they want to present themselves unencumbered by narrow gender expectations or unhealthy/unrealistic body norms. Our bedtime stories have characters of both genders who solve their own problems, rather than princesses passively waiting to be rescued by a prince to live happily ever after. I’d like to think we’ve also modelled the way that we interact with each other, and with a wide variety of people with respect. We have taught them to appreciate diversity and to admire those who defy convention or achieve something despite adversity.

But I’m not sure I’ve done enough to show that we can take action to address issues we see happening in the world around us. I should have taken them to the march on the weekend. I think it would have been a great experience for them, but frustratingly I’m still too unwell to travel. So I need to think of other ways to involve them in activism. And I need to do more myself than donate to charities, sign petitions and write messages on the internet. At a time in which the news is dominated by a super-callous-fragile-racist-sexist-nazi-potus I want my daughters to know that I’ve done everything I can to give them the maximum range of choices for their future lives, and the best chance of being judged by their actions rather than their appearance. So I will finish with the words from a placard that resonated with me: I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change, I am changing the things I cannot accept.

Identity and Change

This was the blog I wrote a few days before the US election. After the election I felt like the other stuff was more pressing, so that skipped the queue. I’d be interested in feedback about the topics and intervals of this blog, and whether the pot-luck and intermittent nature of it is disconcerting for readers. So do feel free to tweet or comment to let me know. Anyway…

My kids were given brass instruments at school recently, that they will get to use for the next 4 years. Every child in the school gets the use of a brass instrument for free, along with the group lessons to learn how to play it. One chose a trumpet, the other a baritone. It seemed like a nice idea, but I wondered why there was a scheme to learn brass instruments in particular, rather than woodwind, strings or percussion. The penny finally dropped when I searched for clips of brass bands on youtube and ended up with colliery bands and a poignant scene from Brassed Off! We now live in an area in which the coal mining industry was a major employer until the 1980s. There were nearly 200 mines in the county at the turn of the last century, and there are none now. So presumably the brass music scheme is linked with the idea of preserving local cultural heritage.

It made me think about other disappearing parts of British culture, from learning Gaelic and Welsh to Morris dancing, and how each culture around the world has different bits of heritage and culture to keep alive. There are stories told through the generations, losses to commemorate, celebrations to mark particular dates and events, rituals and arts to keep alive. Language and history seem to be bound into our identity. But why do we want to keep some parts of the past alive, and does it have any value? I’d hope that at least we can learn from our collective experiences, avoid repeating problems and continue the things that give us joy and bring us together. Which brings me back to music.

Music has been an integral part of human existence for an extraordinarily long time. Wikipedia tells me that “Music is found in every known culture, past and present, varying widely between times and places. Since all people of the world, including the most isolated tribal groups, have a form of music, it may be concluded that music is likely to have been present in the ancestral population prior to the dispersal of humans around the world. Consequently, music may have been in existence for at least 55,000 years and has evolved to become a fundamental constituent of human life”. Maybe that is why it is such an enjoyable thing to participate in. I know I value the half hour of singing I do with the children each night before bed as a time to wind down, but it also reconnects me to past experiences and brings out particular emotions dependent on the songs I choose.

I think there are loads of skills to be gained from being part of playing music with others. These include patience, persistence, co-operation, and other aspects of social skills and executive functioning. It reminded me how powerful various musical projects have been in changing the identity of people in socioeconomically deprived situations. The El Sistema project in Venezuela, although criticised for its strict regime and some examples of exploitation, has been praised for opening opportunities for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and getting over 2 million children involved in orchestras. The Landfill Harmonic helped children living in a slum community on a rubbish dump to learn to play classical music and to have aspirations that were previously unthinkable to them.

The Big Noise project in Scotland has drawn on El Sistema but applied it to deprived Scottish communities. Independent evaluations cite positive impacts on different facets of the children’s lives, beyond just the gains in musical skills. Their education shows improvements in concentration, listening, co-ordination, language development, school attendance and school outcomes. Their life skills show improvements in the domains of problem solving, decision-making, creativity, determination, self-discipline and leadership. Their emotional wellbeing shows increased happiness, security, pride, self-esteem, emotional intelligence, an emotional outlet, resilience. Their social skills have improved along with increased mixing, cultural awareness, strong and diverse friendships and support networks. The project also has wider benefits to health, as there has been encouragement for healthy diet and lifestyle choices. The children have also had additional adults to confide in, a calm, safe environment and report reduced stress.

What I like about all these projects is that they help people to learn new skills and change their own identity to reflect that. Instead of being members of a deprived and devalued community pervaded with hopelessness, they have a new identity as musicians who can enjoy the process of creating, sharing and performing and gain aspirations outside of their previous horizons. Even the sense of belonging when singing along to a well-known track being performed live at a festival is up-lifting. How much more so to be performing music in front of an audience, and to travel to new places to perform.

But music isn’t the only thing that inspires change. We are all changing all the time. Life changes move us from being a child to an adult, through education and into professional or employment roles, bring changes in living arrangements and new relationships. In turn, aspects of our identity are sometimes defined by our role within those relationships and settings. We take on certain expectations and responsibilities when we become a being a partner, parent, aunt/uncle, grandparent. Our educational or work experiences can similarly add a facet to our identity (I am very much a psychologist as part of my core identity, even outside of work). So can being part of many different positive community projects or group activities, or even the act of learning new skills or trying new things at an individual level. I learnt to scuba dive a few years ago, and gained a new identity as a diver and a new world to explore. Likewise, the random act of supporting a friend who wanted to set up as a personal trainer introduced me to weight lifting, and for a couple of years that became part of my identity too (frustratingly since an RTA injured my shoulder I have not been able to lift for over a year, though I do hope to get back to it soon). I also like to grow fruit and vegetables, and to make preserves and bake, adding gardening and cooking to my repertoire and identity. And of course I am now a writer and blogger! Likewise I watch other members of my family gain new skills. This year we moved to a dilapidated farmhouse, and my husband has gained a new identity from learning to cut wood, keep chickens, and mow the fields with a tractor. As well as learning their brass instruments, my kids are learning to swim, ride bikes, write stories and poems, make art, and take part in outdoor activities. Their identities have expanded to include facets of artist, poet, writer, scientist, explorer and many more.

Changes to our identity can also be out of our control, and negative as well as positive. Many of us survive traumas, or difficult relationships, or experience rejection or failure. From redundancy to car accidents, cancer to infertility, losses of people we care about, changes of home, job and relationships, we are each shaped by our experiences even as adults. I have blogged before about the impact of adverse childhood experiences, but how we recover from these also forms part of our identity. Do we remain wary and cynical, or learn to trust again. Do we try to shut out the past, or work through it. Do we aim to get closure. These questions have never been more live than in the aftermath of institutional abuse, and in the wake of the historic sexual abuse cases that were triggered by Savile and other cases coming to public attention.

Over the last few years I have been talking to a man in my extended social network who was groomed and then raped as a child by a member of the Catholic church, whilst at a Catholic school. He has had to make a series of decisions about whether to disclose his experiences to anyone at all, whether to share them with members of his family, with his therapist, with his partner, and with friends. Then he has had to decide whether to come forward as a witness and victim in a public enquiry, and whether to seek compensation from the government and/or church. Each decision has an impact on his sense of identity, which has been slowly evolving from a victim hiding the shame of his experiences into a survivor who is able to look back and place the blame firmly where it belongs and manage the consequences on his life successfully. That isn’t an easy journey.

Over the time I have known him, he has talked very movingly about how his childhood experiences made him question his gender identity, sexuality, sanity, and whether he would in turn present a risk to others (something I know not to be the case, but which has been his darkest fear, based on the fact that many perpetrators report having been abused themselves in childhood, despite the fact that the majority of survivors do not go on to perpetuate the cycle of harm). He felt that he did not want additional sympathy or allowances making, and said that other people had been through much worse. Nonetheless, his experiences have had a considerable impact on his well-being. He has experienced intrusive flashbacks and images, panic attacks, stress, depression, time off work sick, and at times coped through self-harm. He has struggled to have enough self-belief to assert himself appropriately, and always tries extra hard to please others even at great personal cost – a trait that has been exploited by some members of his network and employers. I know he has had mixed feelings about giving evidence in an enquiry; wanting to come forward to represent and protect others and to ensure that concerns are not dismissed or covered up, but knowing this will be at some personal cost. And he has had very contradictory thoughts about applying for any form of redress, whether an official acknowledgement and apology from the church, or compensation from the fund for victims.

I can empathise with the ambivalence about accepting money. I can understand that survivors don’t want paying off and that money doesn’t make their abuse go away. And yes, possibly things could have been worse, there are people who have crappier experiences or less positive aspects to their lives in mitigation. I get that the people who are in the lucky position of considering claims are already survivors, and probably don’t want to look backwards to the time when they were victim and to have to relive that experience for another second, let alone in statements and testimony and the flashbacks that will bring. I also know there is a discomfort with the idea of financial settlements as a panacea, and that it feels wrong to benefit in any way from the harm that was done to them.

But when we look at the population level we can see that experiencing abuse changes the path of people’s lives. There is impact to the person’s sense of self, their ability to form healthy relationships and to be happy. People who are abused in childhood have their norms and expectations about themselves, other people and the world changed compared to those who aren’t. They have neurochemical pathways that are more primed for fight or flight, and perceive threat that others do not see. As a result they are less able to concentrate and focus, more likely to switch to anxiety or anger, less able to aim high and achieve in school and employment, less able to trust in relationships. Their self-esteem and sense of identity is damaged, and this permeates their ability to enjoy life in the present and to plan for the future. So whilst that doesn’t have a monetary value, there is a quantifiable loss to their earning power and quality of life, and the compensation is just making a nod towards acknowledging that.

Those responsible for compensation are also massive organisations, and in the case of the Catholic church, organisations that have accumulated massive wealth that for the most part they are not using to benefit the needy – it is kept in stocks, shares and property, and some is used to fund the legal defence of the perpetrators and those who knew about the abuse within the church. That is one of many reasons that lead me to say that victims should always apply for any compensation on offer. My general advice is to “take what you can get, use it for whatever feels right, and build upwards from where you are”.

It seems there is a good message in that for us all: Don’t let your past define you. Build your identity on who you are now, your values and aspirations, and the things that you enjoy. Then find a pathway towards self-actualisation and happiness in the future. Take on new facets to your identity. Become the diver, the weightlifter, the mother, the partner, the poet, the film buff, the cook, the gardener, the video gamer, the artist, the builder, the bookworm, the collector or whatever combination of roles and interests makes you happy. And seek out personal and professional allies for the journey to support you until the wounds of the past heal to become scars that don’t stop you from doing the things you enjoy.

Wisdom and reflection

Every now and again I stumble across something that makes me think “yep, that’s true, that explains something really profound”. I want to record that bit of wisdom, and hang on to it, and pass it on to others. So this blog is partly to fulfil that desire, as well as to meander through some of my own experiences and ideas, which are less well-formed and still open to the process of being improved through constructive challenge. There is a certain vulnerability when expressing ideas that are not yet thought through from every perspective, but I think that reflection and feedback is an important component of personal growth. I believe that beliefs can and do change according to your knowledge and experiences. If you look at life as a journey towards wisdom, then each interaction and experience is an opportunity for reflection and learning.

One example of a simple piece of wisdom I like comes courtesy of Michael Specter’s TED talk about the danger of science denial. He says “everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but they are not entitled to their own facts”. It is a helpful thing to remember, because people believe all kinds of disagreeable things that make them prejudiced, intolerant, selfish and lead them to act against their own best interests. As therapists, we are taught to give our clients unconditional positive regard, but what do we do when people have harmful behaviour and offensive beliefs? Do we just ignore them and try to work as normal? Do we pass the client on to another therapist? Do we try to find (or fake) respect for them despite the parts that are uncomfortable? Or do we challenge their beliefs? And what if we as therapists have our own prejudices, or see them in colleagues?

The first step is to recognise and acknowledge the underlying beliefs that are at play. We can then formulate to understand where such beliefs might come from. That will increase our empathy for the individual, but it isn’t an excuse. It doesn’t make the beliefs or behaviours acceptable, just as we can understand why a person might learn to use violence or abuse substances, without endorsing that choice. Sometimes our job as a psychologist is to go back to the facts, and then explore how they fit with the opinion, and what the costs and benefits of maintaining that opinion are. This can true be from the typical inward-facing cognitive distortions of depression or anxiety, to the outward facing generalisations behind racism, misogyny or homophobia, or the poor choices that lead to substance misuse, offending or aggression.

When a colleague of mine declared some of the narrative techniques I was using with a child to be “one step away from tarot cards and the work of the devil” and a non-judgemental discussion about a young person’s self-identified sexuality and gender to be “encouraging an abomination”, it was somewhat mind-boggling to try to understand where those beliefs came from and whether or how to challenge them. Had I known Specter’s quote then, I think it would have given me some guidance. She was entitled to her beliefs, but the service needed to operate on the basis of facts. The facts were that the therapeutic technique I was using had been used thousands of times before causing outcomes ranging from neutral to positive, and had published studies of efficacy. And it is evident that large numbers of people identify as LGBTQ, and that this occurs across the animal kingdom, suggesting it is an innate drive (although the evidence suggests that early experiences do have some influence). It is not a choice. There are enormous risk factors in not accepting that and responding with empathy and compassion (including appalling levels of self-harm and suicide where such identities are rejected/devalued, or there is pressure to act like they are heterosexual and cis-gendered).

I found the beliefs that colleague expressed repugnant, whilst I was also trying to respect her culture and choices, which included the right to participate in a charismatic Christian church that held these beliefs (and no doubt many others) as doctrine. Thankfully I had a wiser supervisor I could take the issue to. Fifteen years down the line, it might be that I would be the person who had to address such a concern about an employee in my company or line management. I think that where beliefs get in the way of facts sufficiently that they interfere with your work, this raises issues about competency to fulfil the role. This should be dealt with much the same as if the person was failing to do their paperwork, or wasn’t dressing appropriately for the job – with feedback about the requirements of the role, an offer of support to develop new skills, and a timescale in which change is required. This might lead to recognition by either or both parties that the person is not suited to the role.

A past supervisor once told me another wise thing: “It is easier to grow the things you like than it is to shrink the things you don’t like”. Whether that is in terms of the balance of fun and frustration in your job, or the way your children behave, a focus on growing the good can lead to more positivity, progress and creativity.

Another piece of wisdom that I have found helpful is the serenity prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”. This is helpful as we lose a lot of energy trying to change things that are immutable (or at least moaning about them), when we would often make more progress by focusing on the things we can do, even if they seem much smaller. We only have finite time and emotional/physical resources, so we have to prioritise. As Dave Allen said, “you can do anything, but not everything”.

On the other hand, Emma Watson’s powerful questions “if not you, who? If not now, when?”, Ghandi’s instruction to “be the change you want to see in the world” and Nelson Mandela’s observation that “it always seems impossible until it is done” are reminders that we each have responsibility for progress and the power to make change. We shouldn’t be overwhelmed by big challenges and can’t rely on other people to get things done, so we need to stop procrastinating and take action to step up to the plate for things that we care about.

I’ve ended up making a website and forum that get 10 million page views per year because it seemed like a good idea and I was in the right place at the right time for that to be a possibility. I am active with my professional body and contributing feedback to national policy, because someone needs to do it and I can just about eke out the capacity. I’ve supervised Assistants and Trainees, and done personal and professional development coaching for early career stage psychologists for many years, because it feels like a helpful thing for me to do. I’ve left the NHS and set up a company and a social enterprise that have survived through a recession. I sometimes get to hear how little things I have done have rippled out and influenced people or events in ways I didn’t expect, and there are people who cite me as influential on their lives personally or professionally. Yet when people ask how I manage to do all these things, it seems like a strange question, as I feel like they are all things any of my peers could equally have done.

Duncan Law, a Clinical Psychologist who has been instrumental in setting up CYP IAPT, said recently (in the context of successful bids for service development) that it is only looking backward that things look like a straight line, because when you are doing them it seems like you are just trying lots of options in the hope of finding a path forward. I feel that about my career. Looking backwards it seems that every component of my experience has culminated to prepare me for the things I am doing now, as if I planned my career methodically. However, at the time I was just taking the most interesting available option, in ways that often seemed to deviate from what I really wanted.

I’ll give the last word to Steve Jobs, who said “the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it”. For all its periodic frustrations, I feel very privileged to be able to earn my living doing something that is interesting, worthwhile and rewarding. I wish that everybody had the same experience in their working lives.