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Developing resilience and why it’s not about becoming a ‘hard-a**’

 

“How can I learn to become more resilient?”

Clients often ask this in their first therapy session. They tell me that they find it hard to cope with setbacks and they set ‘achieving’ resilience as their ‘goal’ for therapy. It’s one of those buzz words like mindfulness that has been floating around for the past few years and many organisations and businesses have also cottoned on to this trend, offering training on how their staff can become more resilient.

But what does it actually mean to be resilient?

The dictionary describes it as ‘the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness’ or ‘the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity’. This doesn’t sit right with me for a few reasons:

First, I think that applying the ‘bouncing back’ idea to humans and their pain (as I think many people do) is a mistake. I don’t think we do ‘bounce back’ to what we were after we go though suffering. It’s inevitable that we are changed by painful events. This is a good thing as our scars help us to develop more empathy and compassion for others when they suffer and we’re inclined to be less judgmental as a result of our own pain.

Second, the idea of resilience as meaning ‘toughness’ suggests being somehow immune or impervious to pain. Often, the people I see in the therapy room are on the more sensitive side. They encounter people in their lives who appear not to be buffeted around by the difficulties of life the way the rest of us mere mortals are and who seem not to feel pain to the same extent. Clients equate that persona with resilience and decide that that’s what they want to be like. Again, I think this is a mistake. Who knows what goes on behind closed doors for these seemingly thick-skinned types – the reality could be quite different to what we see and sometimes these people may be repressing their feelings or be emotionally avoidant. Regardless, when an emotionally open and demonstrative client tells me they want to embody that idea of what resilience looks like, it’s because they feel it’s shameful to be the person they are. They beat themselves up for ‘not being able to cope’ with life’s difficulties in a more socially acceptable way (i.e. behind closed doors). They tell me they want to become “less emotional” and “more self-contained”. This is basically just a way of denying who they are and trying to become someone else.

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Third, because of these out-dated ideas of resilience, the well-intentioned initiatives introduced by organisations aimed at ‘improving’ the resilience of the employees are apt for misinterpretation. These programmes can be seen by employees as an attempt to foist the ‘blame’ for any issues in the organisation onto them. The message they take is that it’s about their ‘problem’ and that they needed to learn to be ‘better’ rather than about the organisation addressing its wider structural issues.

A new dawn – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

I think that more modern ideas about resilience have a lot to teach us. These new concepts focus on harnessing the power of being sensitive and ‘emotional’, rather than on repressing or denying such qualities.

ACT is a branch of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that focuses, broadly speaking, on accepting difficult feelings (rather than trying to avoid or distract yourself from them), and continuing to move in the direction of your values anyway.

ACT defines resilience as:

‘coping with challenges or setbacks in a way that allows you to remain committed to living in accord with your own values’[1].

The difference between this definition and the old-school ideas is there’s no requirement that the person themselves ‘be’ a certain way i.e. that they be ‘unemotional’ during the process nor ‘bounce back’ to what they used to be, in order to be considered resilient.

There’s no rulebook as to how you have to be; it’s purely about plugging away at trying to live in line with your values, regardless of the (inevitable) setbacks along the way.

Values

So how are we supposed to know what our values are? And what’s the difference between values and goals? It’s a surprisingly tricky question to answer. Donald Robertson’s brilliant book ‘Building Resilience’ suggests various ways of getting to the heart of what your values actually are, including the following:

  • Think in terms of qualities you show in your behaviour, rather than goalsg. to act with integrity, to behave in an honest manner etc.
  • Think about the various roles you have in your life and how you’d like to fulfil those roles in order to be doing them well e.g. to be a mum with strong boundaries but also compassion, to be a lawyer who is thorough in your work but without castigating yourself for mistakes.
  • Think about any intrinsically valuable activities you have in your life and what they show you about what you value. An extrinsically valuable activity would be playing a particular sport because of a goal e.g. to become a professional sportsperson. Intrinsically valuable activities are those we do just because we enjoy them – if I enjoy cookery, is it because I value peace and quiet and alone time, the art of creating something, entertaining and providing for others? These activities can give us clues about ourselves.
  • Envisage your own funeral (morbid I know) and what you’d like people to say about you and remember you for.

 

My experience is that the new ideas around resilience and the gentler, more accepting approach is actually more likely to stimulate more long-lasting change. The traditional CBT approach of directly challenging our thinking and working towards defined goals can be great but it can feel like walking a tightrope, where one false step in either direction could mean falling off the wagon and going right back to square one. For example, if someone is struggling with overeating, often they set their goal to lose a certain amount of weight and/or only eat certain ‘good’ foods. Then, if they don’t live up to the requirements they’ve set themselves, they feel demoralised and ashamed, sometimes leading them to abandon their goal entirely.

The new approach to building resilience is two pronged: 1) to work on accepting our current state and 2) continuing to move in the direction of our values (despite the inevitable setbacks along the way). I believe that, in doing so, we create the right conditions for a more gradual change with longevity rather than a ‘boom and bust’ approach.

It would be great if we could stop using terms like resilience as a way of haranguing ourselves for not being the person we thought we would be. What ACT shows us is that the way forward is about inclusivity and acceptance, rather than shaping ourselves to fit into old ideas about what stoicism is and should look like.

Strength and vulnerability are not mutually exclusive concepts and, if we can keep working towards self-acceptance alongside our other goals then, ironically, these are the conditions within which we are able to grow and change in a healthy way.

[1] Donald Robertson ‘Build Your Resilience’ 2012 pg 4

Comparing your ‘insides’ with everyone else’s ‘outsides’…when your days aren’t so merry and bright

Every so often you get those times when a certain phrase plays over and over in your head. For me at the moment it’s about comparing my ‘insides’ to other’s ‘outsides’.

It’s a well-known phrase in 12-step recovery groups, referring to the fact that, often in life (and particularly in the social media-dominated world we now live in) people present a glossy, heavily manicured version of who they actually are and what their life is actually like. Our big mistake is to buy into the idea that these representations are real, to compare them with how we ourselves feel inside and find ourselves lacking.

The challenge of Christmas

Christmas is a particularly dangerous time for this. It’s that time of year when advertisers ramp up the schmaltz with idyllic looking scenes and happy families surrounded by delicious food and alcohol. The problem with all of this is it stirs up feelings of inadequacy for so many who feel that their lives don’t fit into the image portrayed. It can also be an incredibly triggering time for those struggling with addictions or dependence on food and alcohol.

The focus on children and family also brings up painful feelings for many. Some are going through a relationship breakdown or marking a first Christmas without their kids with them. Others are struggling to have children and Christmas is a painful reminder that it hasn’t happened for them (yet).

I often see people in the run up to Christmas struggling with the enforced jollity of it all and the stereotypes of what Christmas ‘should’ look like. It’s no wonder when we’re fed the idea that families should be together, having a wonderful time, we should enjoy masses of food and alcohol and we should all be happy spending lots of money on expensive presents for each other.

That’s a whole lot of shoulds.

And it excludes those who, for example, choose not to spend Christmas with particular members of their family as a healthy act of self-preservation. Or those who have to be very careful around their food intake or who don’t drink alcohol.

Advent and reflection

The price we pay for being overly focused on the shiny happy side of life is that those who aren’t feeling so shiny are left feeling lonely and ‘different’. I think it’s a dangerous thing to try to airbrush unhappiness and pain out of existence, even at Christmas.

Coming at the end of the year, Christmas is inevitably a time of reflection on the previous 12 months, which includes thinking about pain and loss. Traditionally, Advent (the four weeks leading up to Christmas in the Christian calendar), was a period of waiting, preparation, silence and also mourning. That space for reflection on the darker side of life, providing an important contrast to the sparkly excess of Christmas, has been lost for many. But we really need it, particularly at this time of year. Our depleted bodies and minds will thank us for it.

If, on the other hand, we seek to deny that pain exists or try to brush it under the carpet because it’s Christmas and we ‘should’ all be happy, the pain only digs its claws in even more

What clients often tell me is that, when they’re going through difficult times, what they really need is for others to acknowledge their pain and give them the space to feel it without trying to fix it. As M. Scott Peck famously said: “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it.”

So, if you are spending Christmas this year with someone who is struggling, probably the greatest gift you could give is to simply be there and listen.

Coping at Christmas

So, how do we find this space for reflection that we so need? Some tried and tested methods include:

  1. Decide in advance how many events a week you can handle over Christmas and stick to that limit (even if you feel guilty). It’s OK to say no.
  2. Similarly, don’t feel guilty about leaving any party when you need to. Plan your reasons for leaving, escape routes (i.e. transport home) in advance.
  3. If you are at a party when you’re feeling rubbish but you can’t leave for whatever reason, try to find a person who looks less comfortable than you and speak to them. By focusing on someone else, it takes the heat off yourself and you might start to feel less awkward as a result.
  4. Have at least one day or even half a day which is about what you want to do, be it a lone walk, a run, a pub lunch, a trip to the cinema.
  5. Keep regular ‘anchors’ in your week that help to keep you feeling good – a bit of routine keeps us grounded at Christmas. ‘Anchors’ can be exercise, recovery meetings, specific time set aside for reading and self-reflection, baths etc. Whatever makes you feel good.

And whatever you do, remember this. Most people (however shiny and happy they look) are probably having just as mixed a time as you are. So don’t believe the ‘outsides’.

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Are you split? #Metoo

Last week I had the pleasure of seeing Jeanette Winterson speak on the subject of feminism and the #metoo movement. This became a broader discussion about the fact that we seem to be living in a more split and divided world than ever before with, as Winterson put it, opposing forces of light and darkness struggling against each other.

I share Winterson’s view. We are living in polarised times in which people have become increasingly vehement and unshakeable in their beliefs and furious with those who do not share them. This is understandable of course; the stakes are high with so many of these issues; think Donald Trump, Brexit, climate change. These issues all potentially have a massive impact on us and of course we feel passionately about them.

Sharpening your soundbites

There’s also no doubt that the way we communicate these days makes our differences appear even more stark. As an avid Tweeter myself, I’m often surprised by the hatred and vitriol expressed on Twitter, most recently with half of my Twitter feed laying into Sir Philip Green for his alleged bullying and harassment and use of NDAs and the other Lord Hain for what some believe was his misplaced use of parliamentary privilege in naming Green.

What’s dangerous about this state of affairs is that somewhere along the way the ability to debate and any room for nuance and the possibility of changing your mind seems to be disappearing.

I think that this was demonstrated by the reaction to those (female) public figures who attempted to enter the #Metoo debate by presenting some alternative views from the perspective of some men, only to be forced to withdraw in the face of furious responses.

Splitting up and splitting off

I think what we’re seeing is an age in which the psychological phenomenon of ‘splitting’ has come to the fore. This concept was introduced by psychotherapist Melanie Klein to describe how, when we are babies we ‘split’ or categorise things and people in the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as a simpler way of seeing the world. We ‘project’ or split off our negative personality traits and put them onto the ‘other’. Klein called this way of thinking the paranoid schizoid position.

As a divorce lawyer and mediator myself, I’ve observed many clients over the years spending quite a lot of time in this position. It’s totally understandable of course – when we’re really stressed, we do have a tendency to get into all or nothing and black and white thinking. It then becomes very difficult to see where we have played a part in creating any problems and very hard to see the positive in anything the other person does.

The other position that Klein talked about was the depressive position; a state in which we are able to see the good and bad in both others and in ourselves; a more nuanced view. For example, if we think of Donald Trump as the ultimate ‘paranoid schizoid’ politician then perhaps Barack Obama is an example of the ‘depressive’ kind.

But is it even possible to go through a relationship breakdown without spending most of your time in the paranoid schizoid position? I’ve seen some clients go through it but come out of the other side, often with the help of therapeutic support to help them to identify when they’re getting into that way of thinking. These are the clients who tend to be able to negotiate or mediate, as they’re able to maintain some flexibility of thought and remain open to discussions with their ex, even though it can still be really tough.

Anger and its uses

But It’s not quite as simple as the paranoid schizoid position being the ‘bad’ and childish position. That would be like saying all anger is ‘bad’, which is of course not true. The anger inherent within this position can propel a person into action, which can be a good thing especially in a divorce where you need some ‘ooomph’ to get you through a process that can be frustrating and long-winded. It’s like that feeling when you’re really angry about something and the anger spurs you on to achieving a goal, even if that goal is just to (finally) clean the kitchen floor. The depressive position, on the other hand, can often be characterised by apathy, inability to make decisions and inactivity.

A bit of paranoid schizoid-inspired action is often needed for positive change to occur. The Suffragettes made real progress once they started to take action that caused widespread disruption rather than just debate. Similarly Nelson Mandela. The #Metoo movement also seems to be borne out of a realisation that the diplomatic route to achieving equality for women has achieved far far less than we would have hoped.

How do we use all of this?

What’s the upshot of all of this for those of us who work with conflict day to day? I think that we can use the current climate to spur us on to greater empathy for our clients. As a Remainer myself, when I feel a client of mine is being inflexible in their beliefs in a mediation for example I try to call to mind the feelings that arise in me when discussing Brexit with Leavers, not least the stubbornness and resistance to considering different sides to the story that I see arising in me. This helps me to appreciate the mindset my client may be in and to understand that I too can get into that sort of fixed position quite regularly.

My job as a mediator is to create the right conditions to gently encourage flexibility of thought, without shaming that client and I can do that so much better when I can hold in mind that I can be just as resistant to adjusting my world view.

Mentalisation

I try to encourage my clients to engage in mentalisation’, which is the ability to understand the mental state of others and what underlies their thinking. We all need to be encouraged and helped to be curious about what others are thinking and to try to step into the internal worlds of those we disagree with. When we do that, we can identify misunderstandings and help people to work them through. In mediation, mentalisation can also include bringing the child/children into the minds of parents and encouraging them to think about what may be going on in their children’s minds.

Do we want to be ‘right’ or do we want to be happy?

Working with conflict, whether in a domestic context or on a broader scale, is so far from easy and it’s common to get demoralised in the face of strong resistance from clients. After all, we all like to cling to what we think is right.

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For me, my goal is to practice what I preach in my own life so that I can help clients to do the same. If that means being willing to take on board alternative opinions on Brexit and the like, then so be it!

Are we building bridges or are we building walls?

I had an extraordinary experience at a conference last week, witnessing a presentation that was moving, desperately sad and hopeful in equal measure.

The speakers were Jo Berry and Patrick Magee. Jo’s father, Sir Anthony Berry was a Conservative MP who was killed in the Brighton bombing in 1984. Jo’s fellow presenter was Patrick Magee, the IRA member who planted the bomb. They spoke to us on the 34th anniversary of the bombing.

That’s right – Patrick killed Jo’s father. Yet somehow, these two people have found a way to come together, giving hundreds of presentations all over the world and sharing their message, which is a simple one – that dialogue and mediation are the means to peace. Through the charity ‘Building Bridges for Peace’ they’ve travelled to places including Palestine, Lebanon and Rwanda trying want to help people ‘understand the roots of war, terrorism and violence’.

Their talk made me reflect on the power of talking and those skills that are often referred to as ‘soft’ such as listening, empathy and acknowledgment. When they first met some time after Patrick was released from prison as part of the Good Friday agreement, Jo and Patrick did not describe a situation in which everything was resolved and all was forgiven. What Patrick repeated, simply, was this: “she listened to me”. This listening seemed to have had an incredibly powerful effect on him. Their willingness to enter into conversation and to really hear each other has helped them to achieve something truly inspiring.

Working through difference

This was a powerful message for an audience made up of lawyers, mediators and others working with families going through conflict.

I’ve found in my work that, even when there still remain differences between a former couple (as there often are), they can still make progress in resolving conflict, provided they can listen to the other and show some degree of honesty, open-mindedness and willingness. A lot of the time the job of a mediator has to be about finding a way forward that both people can live with; not something either person is wildly enthused about, (as no one ‘wins’ in these situations) but something acceptable to each of them.

It takes a lot of hard work by the mediator to keep former couples focused on rebuilding the bridges of communication that have been so damaged by conflict. The alternative of course would be to help the couple to continue to build up walls between themselves (often through litigation), harming themselves and any children they may have in the process.

No dialogue = no chance

I believe that we all as humans have a propensity to build walls between ourselves and others without even realising it. I was reminded of this at the very same conference, bumping into someone who I hadn’t spoken to for a long time. A situation had arisen years ago involving me, this person and some others; a situation that I looked back on with confusion, remorse, a bit of annoyance and some pain. In the intervening years, a wall had grown in my mind between myself and this person, due to my own fear-based imaginings and the passage of time, rather than any actual wrongdoing.

Having had the opportunity to sit down at the conference and have a dialogue of our own, these fears dissipated (as they so often do, once we have the capacity to be honest with a person) and the conversation ended with both of us having a better understanding of what had taken place years previously. Our meeting ended with a hug, just as the presentation given by Jo and Patrick did.

I for one want to keep on trying to build bridges, even though it’s usually much tougher than building walls. It’s much easier not to talk and to blame the other from afar. Attempting to be conciliatory also presents particular difficulties for those in the legal profession, still working within a fault-based system and facing criticism from clients for being too ‘weak’ and ‘walked all over’ by their ex and their legal team if they take this sort of approach.

This is a difficult time for our country and for the world and there’s never been a more important time to focus on building bridges not walls. As Jo and Patrick’s presentation showed, this is not the easier, softer way; it is the tougher way. But for me and many others it is the only way.

If you’ve got something out of this article, please donate to Building Bridges for Peace who need financial support in order to continue their incredible work –  www.buildingbridgesforpeace.org. 

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Lawyers! Are your clocks making you ill?

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Mindfulness is the buzz-word of recent years with everyone desperately trying to remain ‘in the present moment’. But how does that fit with the ticking clocks on the computer screen that dominate many lawyers’ lives? They’re an ever-present reminder of how long you’ve been working on each job and of the passage of time. Usually sat alongside a graph of progress against the dreaded ‘billing target’; the two together are a constant reminder to strive to record ‘enough’ hours and bill the clients ‘enough’ money.

What effect do these reminders of time have on our mental health?

Quite a big one, I would suggest. Given that lawyers are notoriously goal-driven perfectionists anyway, I think that the effect is particularly potent as a constant marker of ‘success’ or ‘failure’.

There’s also that tricky tightrope for solicitors to walk of recording ‘enough’ hours to produce as much revenue as possible, whilst not taking ‘too long’ over a task so as to be criticised by boss and client.

The different approaches of different bosses to time recording can also cause stress for junior lawyers. The two main types seem to be…

  • ‘Unapologetic Bill’ who wants you to record and charge the client for all the time spent, sending you into a state of fearful anticipation about the client’s reaction when they get the bill and inevitably dissect your time entries; and
  • ‘Slash and burn Steve’ who consistently writes off huge swathes of your time, leaving you feeling insecure as to both the quality of your work and the amount of time you spent on it.

…and of course there are some others inbetween…

The ‘planning fallacy’

A big problem with time recording and providing fee estimates is that we’re just not as good as calculating how long something will take us as we think we are.

This is about more than lawyers trying to woo clients with low costs estimates. It relates to a psychological phenomenon known as the planning fallacy in which predictions about how much time will be needed to complete a future task display an optimism  bias and underestimate the time needed. This happens regardless of the fact that the person knows that similar past tasks have taken them longer to complete than planned. You only need to think about the chronic overrunning of projects like Crossrail, to see this fallacy in action. It was also found that we also routinely underestimate the risks of future actions and tend to overestimate their potential benefits. This is a pretty stark fact for lawyers to face given that our legal lives are spent weighing up the benefits of different courses of action.

The tyranny of time

I think that the more we can move away from markers of ‘success’ in the legal profession being based on time spent, the better. It’s true that firms have become better at recognising markers other than hours in the office such as community activities, volunteering, a particular contribution to morale or a team initiative and these things are now routinely discussed in appraisals and promotion discussions.

But how much impact can these initiatives have on lawyers’ mind-sets compared with the dominance of the minute-by-minute reminder of the ticking clock?

While these new markers are positive, there is also an unintended consequence in that they load more pressure on solicitors not only meet the financial targets but also to be the ‘all-singing, all-dancing rainmaker, company tennis player who also volunteers in his spare time.

Are you a human being or a human doing?

More needs to be done to steer lawyers away from this endless ‘productivity’ and I believe that the move towards more fixed fee work will hopefully help with this.

With my therapeutic clients, I often focus not on ‘productivity’ but on how to access ‘flow’ i.e. that feeling when you get fully immersed in a job and totally in the present. Flow helps us to access creativity, spontaneity and flexibility of thought, which are all helpful tools for lawyers. But it’s nigh on impossible to access this if you’re feeling under pressure to constantly be productive.

Another key aspect of wellness is taking time for reflection. For lawyers, this can mean time considering the broader strategy of a case and/or reflecting at the end of the case on lessons learned. It’s also healthy for lawyers to spend time thinking and talking about how their cases are affecting them and what they bring to their cases. In a system dominated by time recording such activities are often neglected, given that they are largely ‘unchargeable’.

I really hope that now is the time when we see a shift in culture so that wellness is at the forefront of the legal profession rather than just being paid lip service to. The recently appointed President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane has this week urged lawyers to ‘look after themselves’ and to put their wellbeing at the heart of what they do. Let’s hope people listen.