Monday, 23 November 2009

Why Regret?

"Non, je ne regrette rien" (No, I do not regret anything) as legendary French singer Edith Piaf sang many years ago. "Why regret a life lived in full, good and bad?" as the song goes and also the mantra of many living under the banner of positive thinking. It is true, that a life lived well is inevitably a life with mistakes, however to completely deny regret is to ignore the chance to stop repeating the same mistakes. It can also become a phantom that never leaves but is never properly dealt with. Without regret and empathy for the impact we have on others then a narcissistc personality can be an unpleasant side effect.

Where some critical errors have been made, regret can be a time of reflection, learning and growth. At times in my life, confronted with the consequences of my decisions and actions, I have wished I'd done things differently and felt deep regret. "If only.." is one of the most painful thoughts that can then trigger a whole litany of thoughts that create psychological pain. How then does one turn regret into a positive?

Cherie (name changed), a woman in her late fifties and mother to a grown-up son, came to see me due to suffering from high levels of anxiety, including debilitating and daily panic attacks. Cherie was no longer able to venture very far from her door and had become extremely isolated. This was an extreme case of someone regretting far too much. It became clear that her biggest problem was her inability to accept many of the decisions she had made throughout her adult life, as well as some of the unfortunate life events that had tripped her up along the way. She was literally consumed by regret. This, coupled with her extremely active inner critic (her self-condemnatory thinking), had frozen Cherie in a place where she could not move forwards, nor create a better life for herself. After eight sessions, Cherie was able to live with a more realistic level of responsibility to the point that she no longer needed to be in therapy, with the tools at her disposal to better manage her emotions and recognise where she might be vulnerable to a relapse. Her panic attacks had stopped, she was doing voluntary work and was taking holidays once more, something she had been highly uncertain about just two months previously.

If you find yourself regretting the events of the past it can indeed increase your ability to face the present and also to create a more fulfilling future. Getting stuck in regret is not the same as learning from past mistakes however. Here are the basic steps for putting regret to good use:

1. Allow yourself to feel sad.

2. Recognise a realistic level of responsibility - not necessarily totally and completely responsible, nor completely removed!

3. Understand why, what and how: Why did this happen? What are your triggers or vulnerabilities? How will you respond differently?

4. Remind yourself that you are fallible.

5. Remind yourself that a life lived well is a life with mistakes.

6. Figure out what else you have learned about yourself.

7. Apologise if you think this helps and is appropriate - it is never too late and a simple "I'm sorry" goes a long way.

8. Accept that you can make mistakes and decide to move on without the fear of making more.

"The man who achieves makes many mistakes, but he never makes the biggest mistake of all - doing nothing" -Benjamin Franklin.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Do what you love, love what you do

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-High Chick-Sent-Me-High-ee) is an eminent psychology professor in California and has written some interesting stuff on the psychology of humans, in particular our happiness as well as what it is to be truly successful (not just financially well-off, highly thought of, famous etc.). For ease in referring to him in this blog I'll call him "MC". MC coined the term "flow" to describe the state of being immersed in an activity for its own sake, feeling totally energised by the act rather than the rewards that may follow afterwards. He grew up in Europe during World War II and first began thinking about flow after witnessing so many people unable to find any joy once they had lost the security of their job, home and status, and yet some did.

Having clear goals, being immersed in the activity where time passes unnoticed (time is distorted), losing any self-consciousness, having a perception of high personal control, the activity earning direct and immediate feedback, with little to no disparity between the level of challenge and ability, all contribute to flow. In relation to learning new skills or knowledge, flow is extremely important. He recognises that for children to want to master something and overcome fear or boredom, as any good teacher already knows, they must experience moments of flow, where challenge matches the level of ability, and regular goals and opportunities for direct feedback are provided (Motivating People to Learn, Edutopia, Oct 2008, MC). I can think of moments like this recently with my French tutor, me desperate to improve my ability and he generally chivvying, congratulating, advancing and reinforcing (thanks Gerard!).

Importantly MC emphasises that older people who consider themselves to be truly successful don't think so because of the amount of money they earn nor are they too worried about the opinions of others. What they report as being key is the internal state of feeling good about themselves, being respected and valued for what they do and having peace of mind. It is above all else, how we live now that determines how satisfying our lives become later on.

The real key to achieving flow, according to MC, is having the ability to direct one's attention, to control and organise it, and ignore distractions whilst pursuing what you enjoy doing. We cannot process very much at all if constantly being distracted by too many goals, objectives or interests. Most important is to do the things that truly matter to you personally, to focus on this and this alone, at the expense of other distractions. Those who cannot do this, live with what MC refers to as "psychic entropy" which means there is too much interference in the mind to allow any one thing to be done well. Flow is the exact opposite of psychic entropy. This is not about doing something grand or important either. MC notes that many of the examples of people in flow are doing fairly mundane or routine work rather than being Professors or esteemed Politicians. It is how this person feels about what they are doing, how much control they have over it and how immersed they are in doing it that matters. Being a Janitor in flow is about viewing this as meaningful and experiencing intrinsic reward more than it is about being recognised by others or being paid well. A highly ambitious individual might not really be that focused on the job at hand, rather more concerned about what the future holds, how much he / she will be paid or what prestige is attached to the job. This person runs the risk of doing this for his / her entire career before being presented with the gold watch and being asked to retire still never having been truly fulfilled (a less obvious example of psychic entropy).

A hopeful message that I take from the idea of living in flow is that it is never too late to experience a "second adolescence" and discover something that gives us this experience. We can change fairly dramatically from being highly competitve to being concerned about others (think of ruthless politicians or business-men becoming philanthropists in their later years), or from being concerned only with financial security to being financially secure doing something that holds meaning as an individual. These things might indeed become more possible once freed from the pressures of providing for a family or repaying financial commitments.

Here are some pertinent questions to ask to explore being in flow:

- when am I unconsciously good at something? (MC reports it takes c.10 years of practice to be able to be in flow for activities such as sport, music or art);

- what is it I really like to do, that I would happily do if it weren't for my obligations?

- who do I know living like this?

- would I happily put in the hours (years) of practice i.e. you feel good when engaged in this activity rather than what rewards the future offers?

- when I am older will I be at peace with having lived like this?

- how do I rate my overall ability to concentrate, block out distractions and pursue a goal single-mindedly?

- what are the main things that distract me from living more purposefully? (MC gives the examples of TV, extrinsic motivators, family, internet, friends, computer games, the media in general)

In an age where we are constantly bombarded with attention-robbing information, hopefully these questions trigger some ideas on achieving more flow, and satisfaction in your life. They certainly have for me, as someone who runs the risk of finding new and interesting projects which distract me from my bigger, more important goals. When I project myself forwards in life, suddenly my choices become much clearer and I am reminded of what I must do more of now (at the expense of these others)!

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Excitement Seekers

Last year a couple came to see me who were hooked on excitement but since starting a family were now struggling with all the changes that this had brought to their relationship. The couple, Jenny and Steve (names changed), had enjoyed a liberated sex-life, with risk-taking and spontaneity important to both of them. Of course, this had changed after conceiving their first child, and since then, for the past 2 years, they had seen a steady decline in their sex life as well as intimacy as a couple. For couples with new babies this can be a common observation but not necessary a problem for all. For Jenny and Steve it had become a problem.

At the beginning of therapy, Jenny and Steve showed confusion, resentment and some anger towards each other. The real issues had clearly become mixed up with added misunderstandings and stresses of current everyday life and they did not know where to start to unravel the problem. One of my first tasks was to help them separate the current events from the underlying issues. I explained to Jenny and Steve that if they could resolve the real issue, then much of the current resentment, confusion and anger would dissipate. Also, in practicing truly listening to each other and in dealing with the changes as they arise, they would gain new depths of intimacy together.

As with all expectations about what it is to be a couple, I explored firstly their learned beliefs about what is important to them in a relationship and what important qualities are needed from their partner. These are the beliefs that we hold that are unique to us as individuals and have been learned from our own unique life experiences. Jenny had grown up in a very authoritarian household, with a submissive, stay-at-home mother and overly dominant father. This was something that Jenny despised and had vowed would not happen to her. It would be fair to say that this was one of Jenny's "triggers" for the anxiety she was now experiencing in her own relationship, paralysing her from being able to talk openly about it. Steve had grown up in a religious family, and feared that because his parents were quite sexually repressed, with his father absent and highly critical, that he would be too. Needless to say, their current situation was triggering considerable anxiety for them both, more so than it would for another couple without these triggers.

Exploring their learned fears, we began to challenge their perspective from something along the lines of "we are going to be just like my parents, I can't bear it" to "at times it's ok to be passive, not have sex. If we can talk about it, rather than get anxious about it, then we can create something better together. We are not a sum total of our parents' experiences, rather something different entirely". They also explored what they still loved and appreciated about each other. After this, Steve and Jenny seemed calmer, more connected and at times held hands as they opened up. They were realising that their choices were much wider than either ending up just like their parents or in being the exact opposite. In over-compensating by doing the exact opposite to their parents, couples are still reacting to the past rather than dealing with the present. Finding their own equilibrium point became more possible when their fears were aired and put into the past. Jenny had also been repressing her anger, unknowingly responding in a similar way to her mother. Jenny worked specifically on learning how to deal with anger through not denying her feelings, nor letting them get on top of her either to the point where she would just lose it.

Task 1: - Jenny and Steve, individually in therapy, explored, balanced and reshaped the expectations of their relationship. In order to do this, they put to bed some of the learned fears about passivity, mundane life and a relationship that wasn't 100% sexually-charged. Rather than fearing their current situation, they explored understanding it in the context of everything else happening in their lives.

Task 2: - Jenny and Steve listened to each other's story and fears and confessed that they had never talked about their need for thrill-seeking lovemaking in this context. They also acknowledged the enjoyment they received in lovemaking, touching, kissing and holding, and did not necessarily need the thrill-seeking. In doing so they were taking a wider perspective of their sexuality that gave them meaningful lovemaking and contact through many avenues. If couples have difficulty with this stage, keeping a pleasure diary while going back to the basics of touching, holding, caressing and appreciating can help provide added insight.

Task 3: - reintroduce some spontaneity into the relationship, within the context of now being a family of 3. Jenny in particular craved more spontaneity and so Steve listened to this and found that this was something he could easily do. Hiring a baby-sitter and booking a restaurant, coming home with flowers or just sending a text to tell her he was thinking of her, became things that Steve would happily arrange to give his wife a break, surprise her and give her more one:one attention.

Task 4: - Jenny and Steve practiced "good" anger in therapy and then outside at home. This involved recognising it early and expressing it clearly in terms of how they were feeling. They were able to talk about specific aspects of each other's behaviour that irritated or angered them without judging or condemning the other.

Over the weeks Steve and Jenny discussed accepting and appreciating some of the more mundane aspects of being a family, and creatively found new ways of being spontaneous, loving, physical and exciting. The insecurity and confusion lifted releasing much of the tension, and instead of pent-up resentment, they were talking and listening.

This was a particularly satisfying case as here were two people willing to take on and face their problems, as well as make the changes. Jenny began to see that at times she could be passive and it was OK for Steve to take the lead without it meaning that she was headed down the same road as her mother. Steve could see that both he and Jenny had some differences in their sexuality and just because they were not always connecting sexually, this did not need to mean they would become like his own parents, but that he could let Jenny know how he was feeling rather than panic. They both learned to see their problems in the context of here-and-now and realised how much of their interpretations had been tied up in their own history, which was really no longer relevant.

Having a baby will usually introduce many changes into a couple's life, not just sexually. It can highlight the more hidden, learned fears and unrealistic expectations that as adults we can hold. Through exposing them, Jenny and Steve were able to change how they viewed the "crisis" and move on from it. Jenny and Steve reported that going through such a test had allowed them to now experience an even deeper level of intimacy, growing even closer together as a family as well as a couple. This is lovely to see but even lovelier to experience!