Sunday, 30 April 2017

Setting and pushing boundaries.

This is the extended* Wellbeing Column, first published in the York Press on Tuesday, April 25th, 2017.

It has been like the BBC TV programme, ‘Springwatch' in our back garden recently. As well as a tuneful variety of bird life, the bird feeders and garden have encouraged other visitors too. Squirrels, rabbits, deer, a stoat, pheasants, hedgehogs, bees, butterflies and even a pair of ducks have appeared near the house for the first time.

One morning we looked out of the window and were shocked. There was a scene of wanton vandalism. Hanging feeders lay on the ground, broken and empty. A baton of wood was snapped in two. Due to the height of the feeders, we blamed deer, but out of curiosity, we erected a night time camera.

The next morning, a similar scene met us. We looked at the camera and were amazed. A badger was the culprit. We know how fortunate we are to have such a wonderful selection of wildlife on our doorstep and we encourage it, despite the downside of nibbled flowers and shrubs. But it is wild life. Life that knows few boundaries.

Recently I heard a retired headteacher talk to a group of NSPCC supporters, about her years in charge of a primary school, in a tough area. She talked of children growing up ‘wild’ and how much they responded to the boundaries set at school. “They knew where they were and what was expected of them.” People need boundaries. When we’re younger, we have to be told and guided, learning about taking personal responsibility and that actions bring consequences. We push at them, question them, sometimes break through them, but need them for a healthy society. As we grow up and our brains mature, we can set boundaries for ourselves.

* Taken from the book, 'Are you Chasing Rainbows?' 

Peter, in his fifties, was an only child and close to his mother, who idolised him. He held a prestigious academic position in a university. He regularly had tantrums in the workplace, generally shouting, screaming, banging the table and walking out of meetings. Most of the time he succeeded in getting his own way.
I would suggest that while he had a high IQ, his EQ (emotional intelligence) did not match: he presented as a man/boy. He had grown up getting his own way by having tantrums, and was indulged by staff members. Unless someone was able to draw boundaries and be consistent in their non- acceptance of his behaviour, it was likely to continue. 

If animals, both domestic and wild, are kept inside boundaries and those boundaries are too restrictive, they will not thrive and usually display disturbed behaviour. The same can be observed with children. It’s not easy for parents and carers, especially with teenagers. Boundaries which are too restrictive can lead to as many problems as too few boundaries. 

*There is general acceptance now that praise and encouragement are helpful, and that filling a child with a sense of failure is unhelpful. The problem is that teaching is tipping the balance into giving a child unrealistic expectations. We praise a baby when it picks up a toy, but when do we stop? If we continue to praise a child for doing something that comes easily, the praise will be devalued. As adults, we need to move the boundaries of praise, along with the expectation of success. For example, a young child can be praised for a drawing: if that drawing doesn’t get much better and the praise continues, the child will know that the praise is empty. Either that or they will not try to stretch themselves because they will be praised anyway. What I suggest is that the effort should be praised instead.
Sometimes, as adults we set ourselves inflexible and unnecessary boundaries - a comfort zone. Perhaps 2017 is the year to step outside and explore the unknown?

* There are many reasons for preferring to stay within our comfort zone, but a major reason for may people, especially as they grow older, is not to wanting to fail. An adult can often be reminded of uncomfortable, even horrible, childhood experiences. The childhood emotion can 'hijack' the adult thinking and they stay in their comfort zone. That can be a shame and a loss of personal development.

"Failure is success, if we learn from it." Malcolm Forbes.


Thursday, 30 March 2017

Striking the balance of being solitary.

This is the extended* Wellbeing Column, first published in the York Press on Tuesday, March 14th 2017.

Two women of mature years met on the bus going into town and enjoyed chatting and catching-up on their lives. Sitting in a nearby seat, I couldn’t help but hear some of their conversation. One of the women said, “he’s a bit clingy.” and I wondered if they were talking about a grandchild. It quickly became clear that the woman was talking about her husband. Both women compared notes on having husbands at home who wanted to know what their wives were doing and where. The women were going into town to have some precious time on their own. They laughed as they admitted not taking their mobile phones with them, so that they couldn’t be contacted. “My son would be cross with me”, said one woman, “but it’s such a bother.” I smiled at the description of her trying to retrieve a ringing phone from deep inside a handbag, looking for her glasses and then finding out that it was her husband wanting to know how long she would be. She said longingly, “I don’t get much privacy these days.” The quote about retirement came to mind. ‘I married you for life, not for lunch.’ 

Finding time and space for some ‘me time’ is the other side of the loneliness coin, a well-aired subject at the moment. We need to find a balance. Too little time to oneself can be as emotionally unhealthy as too much time.  In the same way as too much self-reflection can be as unhelpful as too little.  We need to find some personal space each week, somehow, somewhere. Somewhere away from the demands of others. It is not about being selfish, it is a human need for healthy emotional growth. The activity could be a hobby, a class, reading, walking, listening to music, gardening or just ‘being’. The space could be a shed, spare room, study, the bath, going to the shops and cafes, enjoying a walk or sitting in a garden.

The writer Alice Koller wrote: “Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your won presence rather than the absence of others. because solitude is an achievement”

*Taken from the book 'Are you Chasing Rainbows?' Chapter 20.

Privacy, or time on one’s own, is like the refrain in the story of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’. Too much is not right. Too little is not right. We need a balance of just enough to be just right. However, in reality, who is able to achieve that? We are just as likely to be screaming inside that we want to be alone for just a minute, as we are feeling that we are getting too much of our own company.
I had a crazily busy life that veered from barely a moment alone, to one where every evening was spent on my own with the TV and red wine for company – but I did discover the difference between loneliness and solitude. I spent many hours feeling very solitary but, due to a great network of family and friends, I never felt lonely. 

Thinking time. Being still. Putting things into perspective. Certainly some problem-solving can be achieved in states of high emotional arousal in an emergency, but generally if we want to look at all the options available to us, we need the mind to be more relaxed so that the brain can work effectively. Using alcohol and drugs is a common way of relaxing and switching-off the noise of life, but they come with a price: addiction and/or later problems with ill-health. In the same way that as children we were often given a sweet or biscuit to ‘make it better’ when we had hurt ourselves, rewarding stress and a need to relax with alcohol and drugs sends a message to our brain that this is what we do when we need to relax.

That need is one that we all have at times: some ‘me time’, some space. It is not about being selfish, it is about allowing the brain to slow down. A time to rest the mind and body. A time to recharge the batteries. Like the battery indicator on a mobile phone, we all need to have a time for our mind and body to recharge, otherwise our batteries run out. We are warned. Our body tells us, the red light goes on – and we don’t listen to our cost. Or perhaps our mind and body feel like an electrical socket, and each demand on us is a plug: it is easy to imagine how the circuit can be overloaded. We need to remove a plug or two, or just switch off the whole system for a while. 

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Managing an illness and recovery.

 This is an extended* column, first published in the York Press on Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

 How was your January? Did you cough your way through it? I did and it appears that there were many others who did too. *Coughed through February too, my commiserations to others who have experienced this persistent bug.

 I was mostly housebound for ten days. After a couple of days of feeling ‘proper poorly’ and becoming bored with daytime television, I knew that my daily routine needed to be reassessed. Television is a useful distraction at times, but it can also lead to apathy and be a delayer of recovery. *I witnessed this on a psychiatric ward.

 What was needed were some daily targets and a reason to get up and dressed. It is surprising what an effort it can take to get washed and dressed, if there is no real incentive to do so. This became my four point plan.
1. A purpose. Gentle de-cluttering. I spent 60 - 90 minutes a day completing a light de-cluttering task. Most homes can benefit from de-cluttering drawers, cupboards and paperwork. In my case it was boxes of paperwork, acquired from clearing my father’s house four years ago. I had some plastic storage boxes, bin liners and an audio book to listen to for distraction. Satisfaction from a task completed each day felt good.
2. Small steps. Each de-clutter or other small task would last around an hour. I recovered slowly, but now, can reflect on fourteen hours spent completing jobs I didn’t want to do and would have stayed not done, if I had I been well.
                    3. Task and treat. I would reward myself after any task 
             that was completed. Sitting on the sofa with a magazine 
             and a hot drink had to be earned. The same with a TV 
             programme. Resting was important too.

4. Gentle exercise. My family gave me an exercise wristband last year. There was no hope of achieving the usual 10,000 steps a day, it was 2-3,000 most days. My target was another figure on the band, 250 steps an hour between 9am - 5pm.This encouraged me get up and move around much more than I would have done without a visible target. These four points can be adapted for most people in a variety of circumstances. It is much better than doing little and feeling even sorrier for oneself.

*After writing this article, some thirty year old memories came to mind. In 1985, after having a cold, I developed aching limbs, brain fog and a very weak body. It was ME/CFS (Myalgic Encephalopathy/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), but in those days, very little was known about the illness. Thirty years later the diagnosis is still controversial and leads to debate. After many tests, no-one could say what the problem was, but by chance I read a magazine article by the round the world sailor, Claire Frances and recognised her symptoms of ME/CFS. The GP was minded to agree.

Because there was nothing medical that could be done, I kept going - just. I lay on the sofa for most of the day, but just about cooked a family meal each evening.  I seem to recall only one day defeated me. This meant I had a purpose and had to move.

In the end, I recovered slowly. I firmly believe that having to move and cook a meal every day led to a faster recovery than if I had done nothing. Nowadays the thinking is that minimal movement is a good idea, though at the time, ones mind is screaming not to make things worse. It was really quite frightening and even now, if I'm overtired, a leg muscle can ache in the way it did all those years ago and make me stop and think. I wrote about my experiences in 2011.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Emotional maturity seems a topical subject.

There has been a change in the rota for contributors to York Press and my next column isn't due until February.  I thought a reminder of the contents of my book would be timely, as over recent days and weeks, there have been many mentions of emotional maturity in the media. 

As I have been writing about emotional maturity for ten years, it seems timely to 'cut and paste' some relevant parts of the book, the title of which is, "Are you Chasing Rainbows - a personal and practical insight into emotional maturity and why adults sometimes behave like children.' I started collecting examples of such behaviour years ago and used many in the book and on the website.  Over the last few days, I have been overwhelmed at the examples available. I could comment and write something up-to-date, but I will leave readers to make up their own minds.

From the Introduction in the book

Have you ever looked at an adult and thought, “Oh grow up”? Perhaps you have uttered those precise words. I am sure you have – in fact, I should be astonished if you have not. The person may be someone well-known to you, or a complete stranger. It makes no difference to the fact that at that precise moment, their behaviour in some way resembles that of a child, and you are feeling a sense of despair and frustration.

If this person is someone who you have to live or work with, then it could be helpful to understand a little of what may be happening in their brain. Of course, in the unlikely event that those words have ever been said or thought about you, then it might be helpful to know what may be happening in your brain.

However, it is not only the expression “Oh, grow up!” that is commonly used. There are all sorts of words and phrases that suggest the speaker is observing some behaviour that they find irritating and exasperating.

“You’re acting like a child/two-year-old.” 
“Why can’t you act your age?” 
“Stop being so childish.”
“You’re behaving like a spoilt brat.” 
“She’s daddy’s little princess.”
“He’s a mummy’s boy.” 
“It’s playground behaviour.” 

“Your child acts older than you do.” 
Then there are descriptions of immature behaviour:

“They threw their toys out of the pram.” 
“They spat the dummy out.”
“She’s daddy’s little princess.”
“He’s a mummy’s boy.”

“He’s a Peter Pan.”
“It’s playground behaviour.”

The type of immature behaviours that can be observed include:
  • having tantrums
  • sulking
  • pouting
  • slamming doors
  • throwing things in a temper
  • not facing the speaker
  • blocking ears
  • sucking a thumb or sleeve

    In the context of this book, this is about when these expressions and descriptions are of adult behaviour. They are not complimentary, and they are used in a critical way: the implication is that the person allegedly behaving like a child is, in fact, an adult.
    What precisely is being described in such a negative way? The criticism may be directed at the whole person, but really it is only a part of them that appears to be a little underdeveloped at times. Physically, they should be at their fully grown height and weight, so their build is not childish. Chronologically, they have grown to be the age shown on their birth certificate: the age of an adult. Intellectual growth may have some development to go,
       In the context of this book, this is about when these expressions and descriptions are of adult behaviour. They are not complimentary, and they are used in a critical way: the implication is that the person allegedly behaving like a child is, in fact, an adult. 

Generally, the IQ (Intelligence Quotient) is appropriate for the adult’s age. Immature behaviour can appear quite incomprehensible at times if the adult we are observing is highly intelligent. So, what we are left with is emotional development (EQ or Emotional Intelligence). Could it be that while the person looks and works like an adult, at times they feel like a child and their behaviour reflects their feelings? Perhaps some of their emotions are well past their sell-by date. If some of the following statements, which have been said to me by people with emotional health problems, are true, then I suggest they are: 

“I behave like a stroppy teenager.”
“My mother makes me feel like a child of six.” 
“My father treats me like a nine-year-old.” 
“I’m forty-five going on five.”
Think anger in children, think of a tantrum. Think adult throwing a tantrum, think child.
After some years of seeing clients who were able to recognise their own infantile behaviours, there was one question that interested me: why do adults behave like children? What is the point? What do they gain? It doesn’t seem to make anyone happy, so why do it?
I should state here that if there is a tacit agreement between adults that childish behaviour will be tolerated, then there may be no problem to address. If people in relationships are tolerant and supporting of behaviour that is carried on behind closed doors and does not upset anyone else, then this is not a criticism of them. After all, there are different strokes for different folks (Chapter 9).

Childish, or childlike? 

“There’s nothing wrong with being childish. It’s fun.” I have heard this many times from people disagreeing with my views, but they tend to be mixing up childish with childlike. The difference between childish and childlike is important and needs to be highlighted from the beginning, as the difference is not always appreciated. 
Enjoying childlike moments of joy, fun, wonderment, innocent curiosity and simple pleasures is to be recommended and encouraged until the day we die. We can still behave as an adult and remain in control, and it is not boring. It can be delightful, uplifting, fun and enjoyable for all. I definitely recognise and enjoy childlike moments in my life. Some examples are: 
visiting the seaside 
receiving gifts 
playing games with children 
having harmless fun 
What certainly is boring and a pain for everyone involved is childish behaviour. Someone behaving in a childish way appears to have had their emotions hijacked, their thoughts and actions taken over (‘hijack’ is a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence; see Bibliography). The results can be extremely damaging and long-lasting. For example:
  • sleep problems
  • complaining of feeling unwell – whether real or imagined
  • bed-wettingpage28image976
  • head-banging and other self-harming actions
  • eating problems
  • not wanting to go to school or go out to play 
The type of immature behaviours that can be observed include: 

•having tantrums
• slamming doors
• throwing things in a temper
•not facing the speaker
•blocking ears
•sucking a thumb or sleeve
From Chapter 1
As stated, if a baby is failing to thrive it will show distress physically. A child’s physical and emotional distress will show in wider behaviour problems:
  • attention-seeking behaviour
  • the use of old comforting behaviours
  • outbursts of emotion – crying or temper
  • irritation
  • lying
  • sulking
  • hitting
  • biting
  • throwing
  • sleep problems
  • complaining of feeling unwell – whether real or

    After a workshop I was giving, a man approached me. He said, "Looking at that list of behaviours, I've just realised that my six year old child is troubled. What should I do? " We talked about the options available.


Saturday, 31 December 2016

Getting perspective on 2016.

This is the extended* Wellbeing column, first published in the York Press on Tuesday, December 13th 2016

What a year! A year that is likely to be remembered in history for a long time. A year of political upheavals, untimely deaths of prominent people, contentious US electioneering, immigration protests, starving children in war zones, Fidel Castro, new technology changing news reporting, President Trudeau of Canada, Mexicans causing trouble, Russia threatening neighbouring countries, Olympic success in the Americas and a change in the world order. 

Yes, 1968 was certainly a year of momentous events. How do I remember 1968? It was a year of teenage fun, friends, love and great music. I can remember the news stories, but overall I would say 1968 was a great year.

If you were to ask me about 1974, 1987, 1991 and 2013, I would say that they were not happy years, though I know there were many happy times in those years. You may recall them as being good ones for you. 

2016 will be memorable for many reasons, but all I read and hear, is what an awful year 2016 has been. Really? Will Andy Murray and all the Olympic medal winners in Rio think it’s been a terrible year? 

In January I wrote about the York floods and there’s no doubt that whatever 2015 had been like for those people whose homes were flooded, it finished traumatically for them. 2016 will have started badly, but I wonder how they will reflect on this year on New Years Eve. Will all 366 days have been bad ones? Will there be days when they can recall happier moments, however small? 

* Until fairly recently there appeared very little positive being written about 2016. It was all 'doom, doom, we're all doomed.' Then as the year end became hijacked by more celebrity deaths, it seems that people realised that good things did happen and some columnists are attempting to put 2016 into perspective. I am sure that while we all know people who have had a pretty awful year and that may include ourselves, we will also know people for whom 2016 has been a good year, if not a fantastic year. What about the Brexit/Trump supporters who have little interest in the Arts and social media and whose domestic lives were fairly untroubled this year?

* One columnist complained about the outpouring of grief over the deaths over Christmas, particularly George Michael. I felt a sadness for a talented song writer/singer and troubled soul who died alone and tears did come to my eyes, but they weren't for George Michael, they were for me and the past. I can enjoy his music, but there is one song that brings back a mass of memories from 1991. Just one song out of many, that I heard on the car radio on a journey home from work in London to home in Buckinghamshire. The words mean very little, I just love the tune and the memories are strong and bittersweet. The majority of people who are upset at the death of a celebrity are more sad for themselves, than the celebrity. 

*That has reminded me of a client whose driving phobia was associated with a panic attack she experienced when driving. It was then repeated many times before she saw me. The root?  We traced it to a song that came on the car radio, a song that had also been on the radio as she left the house some time before with paramedics, when she was having a miscarriage. 

*As Noel Coward wrote: "Strange how potent cheap music is." And how powerful and helpful it is proving to be with people with dementia.

It’s very easy to become dragged down by the doom merchants and negativity. It’s important to put events of this year into perspective. Reading a book about 1968 has helped me do this. 

A helpful exercise at the end of each day is to write down five simple pleasures to be thankful for. As we leave this interesting year behind, it will be beneficial for us all to recall those times of happiness and pleasure that we have experienced this year. There will be many more than five.

With my glass half full, I say ‘Cheers’ to you all. Bring on 2017. (Seat belts on!)


Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Who are you today?

This is the extended* Wellbeing column, first published in the York Press on Tuesday, November 8th.

A recently bereaved friend, Laura and I were having a chat and the subject of her new and unwelcome title of ‘widow’ came up. Further discussion revealed that Laura had other titles. She was also a mum, step-mum, sister, grannie, aunt, neighbour, friend, golf partner and cousin, to name just a few she could claim. Titles can also be labels.

As we were talking, I reflected on a recently hectic two weeks away. Time had been spent being a wife, sister, sister-in-law, mum, mother-in-law, grannie, aunt, schoolfriend, college friend and acquaintance. At times I felt like the comedian and magician, Tommy Cooper in his act where he kept changing hats and voices. Remaining at home was neighbour, writer, colleague, friend, volunteer and ‘me’.

These titles or labels, reveal the roles we have as life unfolds. It can be like a play with different scenes and actors who come and go, it certainly can border on a farce at times, tragedy at others. Or I like to think of a book with many chapters and characters, with each turn of the page providing the twists and turns in our story. Sometimes the focus can be on one role to the detriment of others. Perhaps it’s only temporary, but we need to remember the other roles we have. We can forget or have no time for ’me’, the narrator of our story. It’s not selfish to think of ones own needs and ‘me’ needs attention too, but in balance. Too little or too much ‘me’ leads to difficulties.

Illness and disability can be a title or label, especially if our needs are being met through playing this role. We should be careful of the role of victim. If played for too long, being a victim is ultimately psychologically and physically unhealthy. I was taught to ‘separate the person from the problem’. Saying, “I have an alcohol problem” rather than “I am an alcoholic” or ‘“I have episodes of depression”  rather than “I am a depressive’" can help people see that they are much more than their problem and therein will lie the solutions. 

*I have known people who have shared the same illness/disability, but the difference in managing their situation arises from their attitude. The people who live entirely in the role as a victim will not have as a fulfilled life, as the people to whom the illness/disability is only part of who they are.

Unhelpful labels that were given to us as children need to be challenged too.

* One of my first clients presented with anxiety problems. Almost immediately he explained that when he was a little boy, his mother used to introduce him to people they met as, "This is Peter, he's our anxious one." It had stuck with him all his life, but now he wanted to get rid of the label. Probably one of the most common labels from childhood, that adults can still feel attached to is, "you're stupid." It's so important to look at the context. Who said it? Why? What was going on? Is it really necessary to still keep that label now?  Throwaway comments made by parents, relatives, teachers and siblings can be extraordinarily unhelpful, if the child keeps them into adulthood. It can be a comment that hurt deeply, but as an adult with emotional maturity, we can see the fuller picture and see the comment for what it was. 

Unfortunately, we are given to recall the few negative words spoken in the millions we're heard over the years, rather than the positive ones. I'm reminded of an advertisement some years ago, with a cartoon demon character attempting to stop an adult taking a training course by whispering negative comments in her ear. It can happen to us every day and we need to blow raspberries at the demons and tell them to go away - strongly!

Meanwhile our story continues:
Let’s turn the page. I wonder what happens next?


Monday, 31 October 2016

Beginnings and endings

This is an extended* version of the Wellbeing column that was published in the York Press on Tuesday, October 4th 2016.

While January 1st is considered the beginning of a New Year in the Gregorian calendar, for many people, there is a feeling of new beginnings in Autumn. The start of a new academic year and all the ‘Back to School’ signs in shops, can bring back memories from decades ago, of new uniform, shoes, pens, bags, classrooms and teachers. 

In my own life, this autumn will see some new beginnings. A new routine at home, the start of a new writing project and new bulb planting in the garden. These are beginnings to look forward to. Autumn also reminds my family of a time three years ago, when the doctors and nurses at Scarborough Hospital saved my husband’s life, one month after my mother’s death and two weeks before the publication of my first book. There were many new beginnings that Autumn, not all of them were welcome. 

Beginnings often involve endings too. While some endings can bring relief, they can also bring feelings of loss. If the ending has been sudden, rather than planned, there is usually some shock and trauma to manage too.  It can be tempting to dwell too much on the endings, rather than look forward to the opportunities that new beginnings can bring. The past is familiar, but the future is unknown and we can dwell in what is familiar, even if it makes us unhappy.

*After this was published, I spent some days with my four grandchildren, who live in other parts of the UK and so changes can be more noticeable. The passing of years seemed more striking this year, in their size, milestones and growing maturity. It was surprising to feel more emotional than usual. With a little self analysis, I could recognise that it was the sands of time that appeared to be gathering speed and I didn't like it. It was sobering to recognise hints of the very same behaviour in myself that I had written about in October's column. I was quietly grieving for the past and it hurt.  

“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.” Helen Keller
While getting my head around the changes in my own life, another quote has come to mind. 
“We live in the past or in the future; we are continually expecting the coming of some special moment when our life will unfold itself in its full significance. And we do not notice that life is flowing like water through our fingers.” Father Alexander Elchanov

I plan not to waste valuable time dwelling on what I can’t change or have no control over. I have time to make the most of each new day and see what tomorrow brings. There are always simple pleasures in each day, which can be appreciated. Seize the Day!

*I allowed myself to wallow for a short while, but knew there was only one healthy way forward. Onward!