Category Archives: Therapy

When things get tough, it’s time for TV

Lately — well, say since about September (so, is that more than lately?), things haven’t been going so well in several of life’s major departments. Nothing drastic, just not-so-good. And how have I responded? By turning on the television.

I once lived without television for 5 years. Not out of some sort of superior attitude, but because I get lazy when things break. The television didn’t break, but the antenna on my roof did. After about 2 years of accepting this situation, I attempted to fix it. A friend of mine came over to hold the ladder and to oversee my potential death (because what could be worse than dying on a roof and no one finding out about it for ages.) So I did try. I did climb up a very steep ladder and I did wander about on the not-so-stable roof and pick up various pieces of debris that just might be my aerial (or is it an antenna?) and I did yell down to my friend as I moved bits of metal around to see if my interventions were having any impact on the ET-phone-home TV screen in my flat below.

Several years passed before I moved home and re-entered a life that included some television.

In the intervening years I’d spent substantially more time book-bingeing and singing into the mirror with my hairbrush for an evening’s entertainment than is normal for me. I’d also struggled at social occaisions. Without shared neighbours to gossip about, it’s amazing how much chit chat is devoted to X-Factor or 24 or … I don’t know … I can’t remember what else was on television in those years that went over my head — but I did find out the socially awkward way that TV accounts for a great deal of small talk. All I ever had to contribute was “No, my television is broken.” Which rarely proved the perfect conversation starter.

But I digress. The point I was going to make is that I’ve been reaching for the television lately. It’s become my comfort food. And not just any television — in fact, not even the actual television — me and my MacBook have been climbing into bed together. Yes. And what have we been doing? Downloading “Death in Paradise” from BBC iPlayer.

Which leads me to the subject of this weekend’s blog: crime dramas and murder mysteries in particular.

If you haven’t seen “Death in Paradise”, it’s a LOT better than Midsomer Murders (which is one of the only murder mysteries that I don’t particularly approve of and will only watch if there’s no other on offer… because of the ridiculous number of murders that take place in this sleepy part of England in every single episode and the generally beige tone of the central characters ) — but is a bit like it in its similarly very gentle handling of cold-blooded killings. I haven’t checked but am sure that the critics will just despise Paradise for its silliness and all those cliches about Caribbean laid-back-ness but I for one really hope it lasts a few more seasons… far worse things, have.

Now, I used to blame my mother for this habit of reaching for the nearest murder mystery when life got tough. She raised me to believe that a nice Agatha Christie was the best cure for imaginary worries (real ones were best handled by ice-cream.) But I’ve come to realize that mom cannot be held responsible for what appears to be a more universal phenomena. Beyond Poirot and Ms. Marple, consider Morse, Taggart, Cracker, Prime Suspect, Silent Witness. I know I’m dating myself — but then there’s The Killing and what about Wallander!! I know I’m also locating myself as clearly not in America. Which leads me from my first question, why are murder mysteries comforting to so many of us? to my second … Doesn’t this tradition seem particularly strong on the British Isles (which withstood the temptation for real-life crime drama for a long, long time.)

So, I ask you — can anyone out there explain to me why nothing makes me happier these days than curling up to watch Detective Poole talk to his teeny green lizard?



Filed under Bibliotherapy, Therapy

The problem with our parents

It’s hard for me to take one of the most interesting theories I’ve ever come across and present it in a blog. Quickly. After my shower, but before I need to get going today on the laundry, the shopping, the packing of my suitcase, and before I go out tonight, and get back to work tomorrow and fly to Boston tomorrow night to visit my mom.

So I won’t try too hard. I only have about 40 minutes.

Instead I will tell you about the person behind the theory which involves a story even more interesting to me. Here goes …

Back in 1998 Judith Harris wrote a book called The Nuture Assumption: Why Children Turn out the Way They Do. Here’s some of the praise on the back of the book

  • ‘Harris’s assault on the assumption that screwed-up-adults should blame their families is a refreshing corrective.’ The Observer
  • ‘[This book] is brilliant – it has the unusual combination of being completely original, high interesting, and almost certainly correct.” Steven Pinker, author of How the Mind Works

But the most interesting thing about the book is how Harris came up with her theory that other children, not adults, have much more to do with how we turn out.

Before she wrote the book, Harris published an article  in the distinguished academic journal Psychological Review. Which triggered a good deal of questions — where was her university affiliation? where were her credentials — Harris was Judith, not Professor Harris, not Dr. Harris. She received an outpouring of replies from the academics who read this journal. Her favourite came from a Professor at Cornell:

Your article constitutes a major contribution to personality and developmental psychology — which only makes me even more curious about you. Are you an academic? A clinician? An unemployed steel worker who has an interesting hobby of writing seminal scientific articles?

Harris was the steel worker. Here’s how she replied to the professor

I said I was an unemployed writer of college textbooks. I explained that I had no Ph.D — I’d been kicked out of Harvard’s Department of Psychology with only a master’s degree. I had been stuck at home for many years due to chronic health problems; I had no mentors, no students. I became a writer of textbooks because that is something one can do at home. I was an unemployed writer of textbooks because I’d quit that job.

She never heard from the professor again.

In one of life’s classic twists of fate she received the George A. Miller prize for her article. Miller was the former president of the American Psychological Society. And by chance Miller was the professor who had kicked Judith Harris out of the Ph.D program at Harvard 37 years earlier.

She’d done nothing wrong, her grades were fine, but it was his conclusion that she didn’t have it in her to come up with anything worthy enough of the Harvard badge. He’d written something to this effect in a letter to her that explained they didn’t want her to pursue her Ph.D.

In the intervening years Harris went on to be a mother. And a textbook writer. And she noticed that the theories and experiments she had to fashion into interesting textbook language didn’t add up. They didn’t explain to her why her two daughters were so different. She struggled with the idea that beyond genetic explanations (which she believes, but only account for half of who we are), her parental style would account for the rest. This was an idea with tremendous explanatory popularity throughout the 1980’s ad 1990’s when therapy took off like a tsunami. We might forget that now because genetics is back in vogue (after decades of their study being too taboo, too politically sensitive after all the effort of the civil rights movement to create a standard of equality that said all people, from all sorts of genetic variations, are just as smart and capable and worthy of the same treatment as the next person.)

Anyway, what Harris noticed is that this classic debate neglects a huge influence in our lives on what’s been called the “nuture side” but would be better known as environmental factors. She examines everything from why some children are more aggressive than others to how it is that immigrant children learn the language of their peers and not their parents and points to group socialization as the overlooked alternative explanation.

She argues against birth order theories, and twin studies and says “children identify with their classmates and playmates rather than their parents, modify their behavior to fit with the peer group, and this ultimately helps to form the character of the individual.”

I didn’t come across Harris until 2005 but her arguments backed up my own belief that school forms us for life. So of course I liked it.

But like all major theories hoping to explain humans, it’s not that Judith Harris has nailed it — it’s that, as an outsider, she saw what insiders could not see. And she stood up and said something about it. What she said was the exact sort of thing that gets you fired from teaching Ph.D programs never mind wanting to complete one. It’s that she devoted years of her life building the case to convince the people that research our lives, that shape government and healthcare and educational policy and that medicate and “treat” us with therapy or bookshelves of self-help — that there’s more they should understand about what influences our personality and life-chances than our parents (the genes they give us and the way they treat us).

What she actually said is that parents don’t matter. But she was just trying to get published. What she goes on to explain is that this over-emphasis on parenting is a huge waste of time when what really makes all the difference is going on in the playground or at after-school sports.

Parents matter, but a whole lot less than Philip Larkin and our culture insists.

[Not that this means that I personally ever forget all that you’ve done and still do for us, if you’re reading this Mom] See, I told you that 40 minutes was a very tall order to sum up Harris’ life work and get in all the nuances, never mind give my own personal thoughts on the matter … but really I have to go.

1 Comment

Filed under Identity, Social psychology, Therapy

Me, myself & I

In light of this weekend’s card-playing-related discussions (being alone, being together, small talk and socializing), please take a moment to complete this Panic Station Poll:

Thanks! I’ll use these results to re-calibrate how I’m doing in terms of normality.

A related story to wrap up this weekend’s blog session will follow in a few short hours.

Stay tuned.


Filed under Relationships, Therapy

The dangers of self-help

I have a love-hate-hate relationship with self-help. The genre once tormented me. These days I think I’ve cracked what the opposite of self-help may be (everything from doing your laundry, filing your taxes and in my case, reverting to self-belief.)

Yesterday my friend Dave (writer & podcaster) tweeted me a heard-this-thought-of-you podcast about self-help.

I Like You.

I’m listening to it now. This episode is specifically about the dangers of believing in Men are from Mars … and other books of that ilk. Worth a listen if you’re interested in a discussion of how relationship self-help typecasts men and women and why it might be wise if more of us stop encouraging these authors by buying their books.

My particular form of self-help dependency never much strayed into understanding the dating game (this could explain why I’m single now, but I DON’T THINK SO.)  It was, however, heartbreak that triggered my descent into self-help. I used reading, and reading self-help in particular, to medicate. Some people reach for the bottle, I reached for the bookstore. And the reason why I kept reaching for self-help was that it distracted my brain from obsessively sad thinking like nothing else I could find. Only years later did I come across an explanation for why this was. Rita Carter’s book Mapping the Mind explains that the very act of reading keeps busy the part of the brain that might otherwise be processing pain.

Years of book binging explained in a single blow.


Filed under Books etc., Relationships, Self-help, Therapy

Anger management

Got a request last night to blog about anger management and so here I am. It’s timely not only because of the London riots but also the bitterness of the subsequent debate that’s raging about what caused them and what to do about them.

Yesterday I was walking into Paddington station. I was at the top of the long drive into the taxi rank side of the station when I spotted a driver leaping from his black cab to race towards something or somebody that wasn’t in my view. There was a column in the way. As I kept walking I thought I just imagined it; no one near the taxi (and there were lots of people) stopped what they were doing to turn to watch what I could not see. But about 3 minutes later I’d reached the column and on the other side of it found the cabbie screaming into the face of a tall man in a suit standing calmly with his luggage. The cabbie was hefty to put it mildly. His chest butted into the twig of a man and the ferocity of his roar at that close range was probably deafening. “GIVE. ME. FIVE. POUNDS.” he boomed at the top of his lungs. Over and over and over and over.

I kept walking. Rightly or dumbly, I’ve been known to attempt to calm warring strangers I come across. Not this time. I sketched out all the possible scenarios that may’ve triggered the cabbie’s fury and sped my pace since it occurred to me that he would soon either win or give up and step back into his large piece of metal and drive off so pumped up he could easily crash into the pavement and kill me. Anger blinds us.

The cabbie was in the throes of poor anger management. And no matter how justified his anger at twig man may’ve been, I refuse to believe that this much fury can be unleashed by a stranger. What I witnessed makes me think that the cabbie has unresolved anger towards other people in his life and/or with himself.  And that’s the sort of anger management I’m going to talk about here. My advice to my friend who explains that she has trouble expressing anger goes like this:

Pay attention to the inside, then release. Pay attention to the outside, then confront.

Pay attention to the inside, then release.

Anger, like the other 5 prime emotions — sadness, fear, surprise, disgust and joy, has a right to be here. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about it. It has a function. However it is the one emotion that begs us to take pause. And the point of that pause is to pay attention to what’s happening inside of us and not the target of our anger. If you’re in the cabbie’s situation where you’ve only seconds to act, then buy time tying your shoe, counting your fingers or best yet, taking 3 deep breaths. If you’ve more time to de-trigger — say the person you want to strangle has slammed down the phone or you’re mulling over something that happened yesterday, then ask yourself what’s going on in your body (not your head) that tells you that you’re angry. For me it’s subtle. I feel electrical charges all over my skin. For most of us there is muscular tension as we hold ourselves back from the urge to physically lash out. Trembling limbs. Feeling flushed. Gritting teeth. These are all signs of anger coursing through the body. The question to keep asking is how and where do I feel the anger physically, not why do I feel angry emotionally. At least not yet.

French psychiatrist Dr. David Servan-Schreiber recommends this physical noticing approach for managing sadness but it’s just as effective for anger. The more you simply notice your physical reaction the quicker the emotion loosens it grip.

For all of us that cringe at the expression “inner child” here’s something I learnt the hard way: we all have one.

Imagine a 3 year old that you ADORE who is psychotic with outrage. Assume you don’t know what happened to trigger the child, but you know they’re generally placid, not a brat  prone to tantrums. In the same way you’d soothe and calm that child, this is what you must do for yourself. Pay attention to yourself, take care of yourself and calm yourself down.

There are probably more ways to release anger than any other emotion. Choose what works for you. Personally I go to the gym and play the Dropkick Murphys’ I’m Shipping Up To Boston. If I was by the sea I’d storm the beach with my iPod. For anger, physically intense releases are often the best. But each to their own — listen to Pachelbel’s canon, light a lavender candle, meditate, punch a pillow, knit a scarf. It doesn’t really matter except that you do something with the sole purpose of soothing yourself. Breathing always helps.

Pay attention to the outside, then confront

Once reason has re-asserted itself, it’s safe to re-enter your head.  One theory of anger is that is it triggered by unmet needs or someone crossing your boundaries. Ask yourself a few questions about what really happened — not just the circumstantial, but the thoughts that you had at the time. Ask What other times have made me this mad, what do they have in common with now? To what extent am I more angry lately? Why do I think that is? Is anger all that I feel about this situation or do I also feel hurt or scared? And finally ask yourself about the other person. Does this person routinely make me angry? To what extent do I feel sure they set out to make me angry on this occasion, that this was their intent? Imagine telling their side of the story.

Then confront.  Here you have two choices.

I don’t know anyone who relishes difficult conversations (though I’m sure there are some who do) — but there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it. Mountains of excellent material exists on the step-by-step way to express anger effectively. Read a book like Difficult Conversations or start with a link such as this one .

Choice one is to prepare and then have the conversation with the person who’s angered you. Until you do that you can never assume that they can guess what’s going on in your head. Never.

The second choice is not to bother.

The older I get the more I notice that things that make me angry say a lot about me and the weird choices I’ve made in friends or partners. Sometimes, the time and energy we invest in explaining ourselves to another is better spent explaining ourselves to ourselves. What’s going on that’s making us angry could be resolved by treating ourselves with more respect rather than asking other people to.

There is of course, a third way. Our default, when we choose neither of the above options, is called anger mismanagement and it’s what’s going on for lots of us at least part of the time. We avoid difficult conversations with others and with ourselves and we get increasingly passive aggressive or impossible to read and deeply unhappy. We let strangers trigger us. Maybe we jump out of our cars, create a scene, storm off, maybe even knock someone down in our path. We wait for the heart attack that’s coming to get us. We numb ourselves out with a bottle of wine and a pack of cigarettes. We riot. But whatever we do, we avoid paying attention, avoid listening to our bodies, avoid confronting situations and instead just lash out because of them.

What most of us need to manage our anger, to make the choice not to revert to default, is a bit of help and support.


Filed under Relationships, Therapy

Expensive coffee

Lately I’ve been self-gifting far more than is normal for me. Yesterday I went out for my morning coffee and noticed that Sweaty Betty had a pair of flip flops in the window that seemed perfect for me. I have flip flop issues. A damaged knee makes flip flop trippery a not so small matter and because my feet are big, shoes in my size tend to leave plenty of space for me to fall over – because my feet are big-long, not big-fat – in fact they are quite narrow. Fine, so there were a few special features to the Reebok flip flops that made them justifiable. But did I need the Yoga top?

Today I went out for coffee and it was even worse. I forgot my umbrella and the heavens opened so I stepped into a shop. And then another and another and another, working my way towards one very expensive cup of coffee. OK. I didn’t entirely self-gift. I bought funny t-shirts for my nieces and nephew who I am visiting soon, I bought a birthday present for a friend and at the last shop I invested in a very handsome umbrella. Again, justifiable. But I also bought myself a necklace and then a bracelet and then a bag. Oh ya, and a top. None of the items cost much, but still …. this outburst of random, unplanned spend has been pronounced lately.

In particular, I keep buying jewellery.

Now, jewellery purchase has long been a symbolic act for me. When a relationship ends I buy a ring (I’ll also buy a ring when no relationship has ended but I want my life to shove along into some sort of next phase.) And actually, I’ll buy non-symbolic-moment rings too. I have a ring buying problem. So most of the time I won’t stop and look at them. It’s too tempting. What troubles me is that I’ve branched out into bracelets and necklaces and the occasional set of earrings lately. In the past 6 weeks I have bought all of the below.

Twirling the new pebble necklace I just bought this morning it suddenly occurred to me that maybe I’m self-gifting and in particular focusing in on self-adornment in an effort to boost my self-esteem. I’ve been fat lately. Fat round the belly. In a way that I have not been before. And this nice big hefty stone and a half has proved defiant in the face of the gym – it’s become my new set point. I refuse to let this remain the case indefinitely, I will beat my fat back to where it used to be — but in the interim this might explain the whole jewellery compulsion. I just went to wikipedia and it told me the following

Under Impact on Society

Jewellery has been used to denote status. In ancient Rome, for instance, only certain ranks could wear rings; Later, sumptuary laws dictated who could wear what type of jewellery, again based on rank. Cultural dictates have also played a significant role. For example, hip hop culture has popularised the slang term bling-bling, which refers to ostentatious display of jewellery by men or women.

Under Form and Function

Jewellery has been used for a number of reasons:

  • Currency, wealth display and storage,
  • Functional use (such as clasps, pins and buckles)
  • Symbolism (to show membership or status)
  • Protection (in the form of amulets and magical wards)
  • Artistic display

Storage?  I don’t get that one. Wait — unless bags count, then I do.

And under History these points leapt out

  • Jewellery in Greece was hardly worn and was mostly used for public appearances or on special occasions. It was frequently given as a gift and was predominantly worn by women to show their wealth, social status, and beauty
  • In general, the more jewellery an Aztec noble wore, the higher his status or prestige.

Really all I can say for myself is that it’s a very good thing that I’ve never much cared for diamonds and I hope I get thin soon.


Filed under Money, Relationships, Therapy

On discipline — reporting live from the battlefield

Given my post from 2 days ago, I couldn’t help but spot this quote which appears (quite randomly) at the top of a set of instructions from a teacher to his students on how to go about structuring their final year essay.

Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success for the weak, and esteem to all


Letter of Instructions to the Captains of the Virginia Regiments (29 July 1759)


Kermit George Washington


Filed under Therapy