7 things they don’t teach you at therapy school

When I graduated as a psychotherapist in 1990 I had been taught a lot of things that were never any use in therapy – watching out for ‘transference issues’ was one of them. I had also not been taught a lot of things that I really needed to know but only found out later. So like most therapists I had to make it up as I went along. But now I have been doing it for 23 years I have learnt a few things I am going to share with you.

Here is my list of seven things that really do work.

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Television interview with John Eaton

Here is a television appearance by me on the Chicago Channel – Never Not Here. Interviewed by Richard Miller.

Despite the title I talk about a lot more than Reverse Therapy: resilience, stress, how people get ill,  the changing conditions of modern society, emotional intelligence and how it works, and the difference between Bodymind and the Conscious Mind.

How the brain mirrors other people

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The discovery of mirror neurons in the brain 15 or so years ago has transformed our understanding of how children learn and how adults ‘read’ other people.

Mirror neurons are groups of nerve cells in the brain that fire if either the person sees someone else doing something and if that person does the same thing. For example, if you observe someone else smile then the mirror neurons will signal; if you smile yourself then those same neurons will also fire. Which implies that your brain is set up to ‘mirror’ other peoples’ behavour so that you can adopt it, understand it, or implement it yourself.

Which tells us a number of other interesting things:

  • Firstly, the brain is set up so that it can temporarily adopt the point of view of another person and extract information about what that person is trying and to do and why they are doing it.
  • Secondly we now know more about how humans learn. As everybody knows very young children learn by imitation. What we now know is that when children copy adult behaviour their brains automatically encode that behaviour so that they can mimic it within seconds. One reason why children learn so fast. And, also, why new cultural fads – slang, dress styles and gestures like the ‘high five’ – spread so rapidly amongst adults.
  • Thirdly, it has now become a lot easier to understand how most human beings can read other people so fast. If the brain contains neurons that simulate other peoples’ activities: their facial expressions, speech, gestures, movements and emotions then it will only take a split second for the brain to ‘read’ someone, even when you don’t know, consciously, that you are doing it. For example, your Headmind might, superficially, assume that someone you meet for the first time is nice, charming and interested in your welfare. Meanwhile Bodymind, using it’s mirror neurons, is taking a deeper assessment. It might notice, for example, that the eyes flicker elsewhere while you are talking, take in that slightly dismissive wave of the hand, that his smile fades away a split-second too short. Within moments your body is coming up with uncomfortable feelings while the conscious mind is carrying on with the conversation in the belief that all is well.

One weakness of traditional psychology is that it tries to explain how people learnt about other peoples’ intentions in terms of logic. Meaning that if the people you meet obeyed social conventions in terms of saying the right things, smiling in the right places, putting their arm around your shoulders, etc, then they might be ok. But Bodymind may know different. Which leads to a conflict between your ‘feel’ about other people compared  to what you think you may know about them. But because Bodymind uses intuitions rather than words to communicate to you those insights may be over-ridden by Headmind as ‘illogical’. To your lasting cost.

 

 

Image by  SashaW

How to make that breakthrough

Breakthrough

My good friend and collaborator Mark McGuinness recently alerted me to a stimulating new book by Steven Pressfield called Do The Work which is about a subject dear to my heart: how to overcome Headmind when it is messing your life up.

I was doubly intrigued because Steven Pressfield once wrote a powerful historical novel about the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae called Gates of Fire – one of the very few books of that kind which had me (and my wife) in tears by the end.

Taking time off from writing fiction Steven’s new, very short, book is about how to achieve your goals when you don’t think you can.

The premise is simple: whenever you work on a project that is really important to you, but which is going to take time, hard work, and personal sacrifice then you are going to hit a wave of resistance. And that resistance comes not from outside but from within;  your own personal version of Headmind in fact: doubts, excuses, distractions, worries, whinges, procrastination, or so-called ‘low self-esteem’ – in which Headmind keeps on repeating the mantra that there is no point in your doing anything very much because it is bound to end in failure.

The solution is also simple: just do it. Once you have decided that the project really is important to you then you ignore Headmind when it is trying to do you down and sabotage your goals. Specifically, you ignore the Chatterbox. Or just tell it to shut the fuck up while you get on with things.

Here are some examples from the world of Therapy:

You are working on your recovery from Depression and you have decided to get out more. The Inner Voice says ‘what’s the point?’. Your response: go ahead and call a friend and make that date regardless.

You are working on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and you have decided to increase your morning exercise routine to 10 minutes. Your Internal Saboteur says: ‘you’ll make yourself ill’. Your response: increase it to 15 minutes.

You are working on Anxiety. Your Internal Control Freak says: ‘I worry that you won’t be able to stop worrying because you have been a worrier all your life….’. Your response: you focus your attention on a non-worrisome activity for the next few hours.

One difference between using Steven’s method on creative work, and using it on personal problems is this: in creative work you just get on with the project (for example: your next novel, or work idea, house redesign, etc.). In that way you force Headmind to get on with doing something useful.

Whereas if you are depressed, anxious, obsessional, etc., you may need to give Headmind some substitute activities to do. A good example relates to giving up drug/alcohol/cigarette/ gambling addictions. Whenever the Internal Saboteur twitters on about needing a fix/drink/fag/bet then you just do a 180 degree attention turn and go off and do something more worthwhile. My experience with my clients is that when they do this repeatedly, then over the ensuing weeks that Internal Voice will gradually dwindle away to a whisper.

Image by permission of Fuyoh

Hugh Laurie, Schopenhauer, and the art of life

Schopenhaue This is the follow up article to Schopenhauer: a philosophy for grumpy people? Which attracted  a good response from many readers, many of whom had never heard of him, and were intrigued by his pessimism. Like Hugh Laurie in House he attracts people with his attitude problem.

In fact both Dr Gregory House and Schopenhauer have much in common:

  • Both are loners
  • Unconventional thinkers
  • Grumpiness combined with a wish to help others
  • Black humour
  • Grim realism
  • Mockery of conventional, pompous, people and ideas
  • Atheism
  • Disillusion
  • A (well-disguised) compassion for others.
  • Both are skilled wind-up merchants

For Schopenhauer, the world was a place he never made and little admired. Unlike almost all other philosophers, he did not believe that human beings were created to be happy. The reason for that is that our Will for personal gratification is out of all proportion to what Life can actually offer us. That, he claimed, was the reason for our continually recurring states of frustration, heartache and boredom.

Now, while I believe Schopenhauer was right in some of his diagnoses, I disagree about the cause. It is not the Universal Will which is the cause of personal misery but Headmind obsessions working through the Ego. I have written about this before in my article on How your Head F*cks You Up.

While I agree with Schopenhauer that we are not created to be happy (because we are blessed/cursed with an enlarged Headmind/Pre-frontal cortex), I disagree that we cannot, in fact find it. We can find it if we persist, through Awareness, and through downsizing the Ego.

However, I will leave you with a few more conclusions from the Master:

  • Make good use of the only thing you can control: your conscious mind.
  • Strive to live in the Now
  • Set limits everywhere: on desires, wealth and power.
  • Accept limitations: that leads to peace of mind.
  • Accept misfortunes: only dwell on them if you can change something about them.
  • Seek out personal space and time for yourself; other people may try rob you of peace of mind.
  • Keep busy, always.
  • Do not expect too much from other people: like you they are only human.
  • In the long run, assume disappointment will be your lot more times than not.
  • You are not alone: others share your disappointments.
  • Your recognition of your shared humanity with others is the basis for compassion.
  • This recognition frees you from the Ego.
  • At times of great difficulty you can take consolation from the fact that every other human being has endured similar difficulties.
  • Contemplation of Nature, Art, Music, Literature and the Spectacle of life raises you above it.

Why guilt is useless

Guilt
Guilt is a delusionary state. It doesn’t serve you at all and is a creation of the imagination; of Headmind’s drive towards conformity.

Here’s how Headmind creates Guilt:

1. Headmind is stuffed full of judgments about the person you could be, should be, should not be, etc. Those judgments were not originally your own but inherited from other people. But gradually you internalised them and they became self-judgments.

2. These judgments are re-activated by parents, teachers, priests, employers, children and partners who may be exploiting you.

3. Your Headmind buys into those judgments because it seeks acceptance, conformity, and admiration (even from people who don’t deserve your respect).

4. Dwelling on occasions in which guilt comes up – and Headmind judges you – creates uncomfortable Bodymind reactions: cringing, agitation, distress. Although Bodymind creates that discomfort in order to warn you not to indulge in guilt, Headmind interprets this as a signal that you are, indeed, a ‘bad’ person, worthy of punishment.

Here’s another way to understand ‘Guilt’:

1. Earlier societies did not recognise a psychological state known as ‘guilt’. For them ‘guilt’ was simply another word for ‘debt’ (as in the German/Saxon word: ‘gultig’). It simply meant that one person had harmed another and was unable to put things right. For example, one person stole another person’s property but was too poor to pay it back – therefore he was ‘guilty’ and subject to the penalties of the community.

2. Religious influences gradually changed this original meaning of guilt into ‘personal sin’.

3.  When Psychology started up in Germany and America in the 19th century it took over religious ideas about ‘sin’ and reinterpreted them in terms of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ actions. So doing one ‘bad’ thing made you an ‘evil’ or ‘guilty’ person – instead of someone who simply made a mistake.

4. Mistakes and ‘bad’ actions you committed in the past were based on the knowledge you possessed at the moment you committed them, no matter how daft. For example: you shop-lifted, knowing you couldn’t afford something but that you ‘had’ to have the item anyway. You let the Headmind state of greed get the better of you.

5. Therefore your past mistakes were based on inadequate knowledge (you thought it was ok to steal, or that you wouldn’t get caught, or that it wouldn’t matter if you did get caught). Your predictions turned out to be wrong, although you didn’t  realise that at the time.

6. Your present self-judgments are based on a false premise: your present self blames your past self even though your past self did not possess the experience of knowledge your present self now has.

Here is the truth:

1. You did not actually have free will back then when you committed your error of judgment. You did what you had to do at the time because you lacked Awareness.

2. Indulging in Headmind worry (i.e. analyzing over and over again about what an ‘evil’ person you were/are) may actually get in the way of your attempts to put things right.

3. If you have really done somebody wrong you could connect to the emotion of remorse and get on with making amends, rather than wasting time on guilt.

Image by Jsome1

Schopenhauer – a philosophy for grumpy people?

Schopenhauer In my last article – Can feeling grumpy be good for you? I mentioned one of my favourite philosophers – Arthur Schopenhauer – who was a grumpy old man already by the age of 19. I first read him at 15 and developed a ‘bah humbug’ attitude which was delicious and self-indulgent while it lasted although I no longer think it is clever – or even profound – to be pessimistic about life. Even so, I still think that Schopenhauer possessed a genius for philosophy. (He also wrote a lot about sex).

Here are a few gems:

After your death you will be what you were before your birth.

Everyone takes the limit of his own field of vision for the limit of the world.

The conscious mind may be regarded as a kind of parasite of the organism, a pensioner, as it were, who dwells within the body.

If you want to know your true opinion of someone, watch the effect produced in you by the sight of a letter/email from that person.

The two enemies of human happiness are pain and boredom.

We forfeit three-fourths of ourselves in order to be like other people.

Console yourself by remembering that the world doesn’t deserve your affection.

Change alone is eternal, perpetual, immortal.

There is no absurdity so obvious but that it may be firmly planted in the human head if you only begin to introduce it before the age of five, by constantly repeating it with an air of great solemnity.

The closing years of life are like a masquerade party, when the masks are dropped.

Compassion is the basis of all morality.

Wicked thoughts and worthless efforts gradually set their mark on the face, especially the eyes.

The greatest of mistakes is to sacrifice health for any other kind of reward.

There is no doubt that life is given us, not to be enjoyed, but to be overcome.

In my next article I will write about the advantages – and disadvantages – of pessimism for life.