On Peanut Butter & Other Phobias

Peanut Butter Jar And Knife Holding Some Of It

Last week I mailed a jar of peanut butter to Steve Wright, the Radio 2 presenter.

Ordinarily, I’m not in the habit of emailing foodstuffs to famous people because I worry they’ll interpret it as the sort of character trait associated with a person who might later need to be the subject of a restraining order.

But in this case, the planets aligned, the fates conspired, and a peanut butter opportunity strode up the path to the door of my London clinic and knocked loudly upon it.

And why? Because the lovely Steve Wright just happened to mention the word arachibutyrophobia during one of his Factoid links. For those of you who don’t know what arachibutyrophobia is (and why would you, unless you suffer from it?), it’s the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth.

Yes, really. But if you don’t believe me, I’ll wait whilst you go and look it up on Google.

The reason Steve Wright is probably enjoying his jar of M&S peanut butter as I write this article (only the best for presenters at the UK’s favourite radio station) is because that very same morning I’d been talking to a client about exactly that condition.

What are the odds? Well, the obvious answer, I suppose, is that they’re sufficiently long that I felt the need to mark the coincidence in some way. With my clinic literally around the corner in Harley Street, I guess I could have dropped the jar into New Broadcasting House in person, but there seemed less chance of ending up in a police station if I mailed it.

As ludicrous as the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth sounds, the serious fact about all phobias is that they are absolutely terrifying to those who have them. To most of us, peanut butter is something we might enjoy on toast or with some jam in a sandwich and it’s hard to imagine something so apparently innocuous triggering such an extreme reaction.

Yet there are estimated to be around 10 million people in the UK – a sixth of the population – who are living with a recognised and debilitating phobia.

They can be common – arachnophobia, agoraphobia, claustrophobia being some of the more well-known; and they can be rare – the aforementioned arachibutyrophobia, turophobia (fear of cheese) and, for the contemporary age, nomophobia (fear of being without mobile network coverage) being less so.

The point is that whilst some of the fears may make the majority of people smile, they’re actually an indication of your emotional health and so it’s important to treat them professionally, otherwise they simply continue to limit the freedom you have to live your life.

People with phobias modify their lifestyle in order to cope with their fear. The modification soon becomes ‘normal’, but as the fear takes root, so the coping behaviour becomes more and more extreme.

For example, people with agoraphobia cope by staying indoors, yet there are all manner of reasons why that’s bad for your emotional and mental health, an increasing tendency to social isolation not the least of them.

In hypnotherapy, we turn the phobia on its head, working to understand where the irrational fear has come from, why it’s taken root and what the impact is on your ability to live life in the way you really want to.

By doing that, and acknowledging the root cause of the problem, we can make the phobia a thing of the past, because in the end your irrational fear is just a symptom of something else. If we can fix the something else, we fix the symptom that goes with it.

Phobias take a crippling toll on the people who have them. Many believe it’s just something they have to live with, but they don’t. Like the majority of psychological problems, they are treatable – and the first step is finding someone you trust to work with you to that outcome.

We Need To Sculpt A Better Education System

Computer Lesson At School

Ask anyone with even the most limited appreciation of the arts to name ten of the most famous sculptures in history and the chances are that Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker would probably be having a fist fight with Michaelangelo’s David to be at the top of the list.

Rodin’s work, created in the late Nineteenth Century and first cast at the turn of the Twentieth, now resides at the Musee Rodin in Paris.

I mention this not because I have any specific interest in the work of Heroic Avant-Garde sculptors (don’t worry, I Googled that), but because I have a question.

In the process of creating a masterpiece, which element contributes most to the finished work? The clay or other medium (get me with my art words)? Or the artist who sculpts it?

It’s a philosophical question, which when you think about it is appropriate when we’re talking about a piece of art that has become the universal symbol of philosophy, and the most likely answer is that they’re both vital to the outcome. But pushed to choose, I’d go with the clay, because no matter how talented the sculptor, without the raw material, there is no magic.

Which brings us, in a slightly roundabout way, to the thousands of Year 6, 11 and 13 school pupils who are about to head into their SATs, GCSE and A Level exams carrying with them enough collective stress to power a large city (if it ran on stress).

Writing in the Times Educational Supplement this week, former Government adviser on mental health, Natasha Devon, observed that students are the education system’s biggest asset and have a right to protect their mental wellbeing.

Controversially, she opened her article by saying that if she were education secretary she would limit exams if not ban them entirely, because they ‘don’t give an indication of much that matters’.

This moved me to give voice to a small but spontaneous cheer, quickly followed by an involuntary fist-pump. Because as anyone who reads my articles regularly will know, I am a fierce critic of the way in which our education system plays Russian roulette with children’s mental health.

I’m not going to rehash my ongoing argument about education and mental health here, other than to reiterate my central objection that Government preoccupation through Ofsted with exam performance as a measure for success is doing very little other than compromising the mental health of children.

This is particularly ironic when you consider that though local education authorities present a veneer of choice when it comes to deciding your children’s education, the lack of available school places together with austere local admissions policies mean a great many parents are given no choice whatsoever in their children’s onward academic journey.

In reality, the kids living nearest the so-called good schools will get to go there and everyone else will be allocated a place at an ‘unpopular’ school. So, if, by virtue of the impact of policy, school performance has little influence on where your child goes – what’s the point of the league table at all?

Yet children are ridden hard by teachers to succeed. They live in constant fear of failure. Their mental health suffers. Stress, anxiety and depression are currently the unwanted companions of children facing a month of papers designed to test not how well they have learned and understood, but how well they have memorised.

Demand for NHS services designed to meet child mental health concerns is at an all time high. The Government is funding mental health awareness sessions in schools, but not additional support treatment (presumably this is so children can add to the battery of worries they already have by recognising they are mentally unwell without being able to do much about it).

My associates and I are seeing more and more children whose parents are desperately trying to find answers to mounting exam pressure. And it’s on this issue – the source of exam pressure and anxiety – that Natasha Devon and I part company in opinion.

In the TES article she writes that whilst academic anxiety has now overtaken body image and bullying as the primary cause of child mental health concerns, she agrees with research carried out by Chris Jeffrey whilst head teacher at The Grange School in North West England which suggests exam stress is often self-generated.

Putting aside the fact that the commercial imperatives that drive the independent schools sector make it a very different animal to the state system, the simple fact is that academic stress must have its source somewhere.

Broadly speaking and accepting there are inevitable exceptions that prove the rule, it’s unlikely that parents are putting extreme pressure on their kids to overachieve. Most parents are wholly accepting of their child’s best efforts as the measurement by which to benchmark their offspring’s success.

Similarly, children at SATs age and, arguably, GCSE age are not overly concerned with overachieving, either. So, the primary cause of academic performance anxiety must be coming from elsewhere within the classroom – from teachers whose own performance is inextricably linked to exam success.

And it’s this lack of separation between how a 16-year-old child does in their GCSEs and the career progression of any given teacher that drives pupil anxiety and fuels my intolerance of the current flawed approach to child mental health and education.

That’s not a criticism of the teachers, either – they are just as much victims of a broken system as the kids. It’s a condemnation of an education and long-standing, pan-Government system that values statistics above the mental health of our kids.

We may disagree on the causal effect, but as Natasha Devon rightly points out – ‘It’s not selfish to prioritise your own mental wellbeing, ever. After all, you’re no use to anyone broken’.

Children, not teachers, are education’s most precious asset. They are the clay and without them there is nothing.

The Sickening Truth About Secrets

George Michael (1)

Over the last few days, former Wham! manager Simon Napier-Bell has suggested that George Michael may have been tortured by a childhood secret that proved to be both the singer’s inspiration and his curse.

Michael was, of course, a global superstar, recognised as one of the most gifted songwriters of his generation. A string of bubblegum hits in the Eighties with Wham! made him the bedroom-wall-pin-up for teen girls – and some teen boys – around the world.

And as he outgrew the sockless deck shoes and coiffured highlights and forged a more contemporary image rendered in brooding charcoal and black and punctuated by goatees and designer shades, his songwriting became similarly substantial, its themes darker and more complex.

The work of any artist is often a mirror on their life and so there’s no reason to think George Michael’s artistic canon should be any less personally revealing.

Simon Napier-Bell clearly knows more than he’s prepared to let on about whatever it was in George Michael’s past that tormented and drove him – and that’s as it should be: knowing can serve no great purpose and would likely only diminish him in some way.

But the possibility that he experienced a life-changing traumatic event in childhood might explain much about the way in which he lived his life and does help us to identify similar patterns in others.

Put simply, life for George Michael was an emotional trainwreck. By the time he died the world had known – and accepted – for nearly 20 years that he was gay, yet it was a secret he had felt compelled to hide from everyone, including his family, until he was 35.

His first long-term partner as a gay man died from an AIDS-related brain haemorrhage only a year into the relationship. Michael grieved for three years. Just as he got back on his feet, he lost his mother. These are life-changing events for anyone, so It’s no wonder he later admitted to feeling cursed.

Then came the acting out.

Two arrests for lewd sexual behaviour, one in a public toilet on Hampstead Heath. Several arrests for possession of both Class A and Class C drugs. Two convictions for driving under the influence of drugs. A period of drug-related hospitalisation during part of which he was said to have been comatose. And then, in 2013, he fell from his moving car on the M1 in Hertfordshire.

Though these events all eventually became public, they were nevertheless George Michael’s secrets. The ‘perceived’ dirty laundry of his sexuality, addictions, health problems and grief were all safely locked away from all but his closest friends.

And in the end, secrets are dangerous. They are the slow-acting poison that eventually corrodes you from the inside out.

You’re only as sick as your secrets.

It’s a favourite quote within 12-step recovery programmes. Addiction, whether to drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex or anything else, is a process of deceit. Addicts deceive others to hide their addiction from public view and they deceive themselves, so they don’t have to face up to the problem.

This is known as the fur coat of denial and it’s often only when someone reaches rock bottom that denial is stripped away.

We also know that addiction almost always has its roots in past trauma and that the acting out – the psychological defence mechanism of performing an action rather than addressing what is causing the impulse to perform it – is a big fat clue pointing to emotional trauma.

With all that in mind, and whether Simon Napier-Bell wants to give a name to it or not, it doesn’t take much to join the dots of George Michael’s life and trace it all back to a negative event in his early life.

But the paradox of trauma is that whilst it is ultimately destructive, it can also be the inspiration that drives people to succeed and achieve in an attempt to overcome old wounds.

In this way, the successes in the George Michael story are as consistent with trauma as the lows are. And that doesn’t just apply to celebrities, though they fly and then crash and burn more publicly – it goes for anyone who has suffered or is suffering with trauma.

George Michael kept a great many secrets during his altogether too-short life. For good or ill, he obviously believed that revealing them would have a catastrophic effect on whatever equilibrium he thought there was in his life at any given point.

There are reports he was advised early in his life that admitting to being bisexual or gay would likely decimate the Wham! fan-base and end his pop-star journey before it had even really begun. Maybe he was told that the drug addiction would destroy his image or his credibility – or both. That having a boyfriend with HIV would make him somehow publicly toxic.

We’ll never know and, to George Michael at least, it doesn’t matter now anyway. But this is the noxious dark underbelly of the fame game, where a lifestyle that should be considered acceptable is somehow twisted in such a way that the only person who really matters – in this case George himself – is made to feel in some way ashamed of who they are and what they are perceived to represent.

The nature of celebrity is such that those in the spotlight are never permitted to be honest and so they end up living a lie. And even when the lie is exiled, its legacy remains. Long after his sexuality had ceased to be an issue, George Michael continued to live part of his life in shadow because of events that were in his past.

When he died, we learned of his unconditional philanthropy, of his empathy and his humanity and we realised we had lost an incredible human being who, for reasons we will never really know, was forced to hide a core part of himself from public view.

Just as we’ll never know whether he was told his lifestyle was a potential risk to his success, so we’ll also never know whether anyone ever told him that his secrets weren’t making life easier, they were just making him sicker.

Some secrets are there to be kept – the surprise anniversary trip or a piece of knowledge that, if revealed, can only hurt someone else.

But there’s a lesson for all of us in the George Michael story about facing up to the secrets that might be hiding something more personally toxic – because those old unaddressed secrets are the ones that are most corrosive and damaging of all – and encouraging others who we know to be struggling to do the same.

A Note On Addiction

Shutterstock 98824823

“Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”

Princess Diana, speaking to Martin Bashir for Panorama, November 1995

It was the interview she was never supposed to give. A candid airing of the Royal Family’s dirty laundry that the establishment had tried, unsuccessfully, to suppress and which effectively sealed Diana’s permanent exile from royal life.

The third person in her marriage to the Prince of Wales was, of course, the woman he would later marry, Camilla Parker-Bowles, the current Duchess of Cornwall.

Of course, Diana was by no means the first or last person to have endured an intruder in their personal life and this week we saw evidence of another relationship left in tatters by the destructive presence of an unwanted companion.

On Wednesday, Ant McPartlin checked himself into rehab for the second time as an ugly collision and an allegedly failed roadside breath test forced him to face up to an addiction that has systematically robbed him of pretty much everything he once cherished.

Last year, when he first admitted publicly to a dependency on prescription painkillers and alcohol and announced a six-month sabbatical from his television commitments, the Great British public rallied to his side in an outpouring of love and support for which the 42-year-old entertainer was doubtless hugely grateful.

It was a very different story this week.

From a strictly legal perspective, we have no idea whether Ant was over the drink-drive limit when he was breathalysed – and the burden of proof lies with the authorities rather than Ant McPartlin in that regard – but his people have done nothing to deny the media reports and the official statements released by his management company and ITV have left little doubt as to the truth of events at the roadside in South West London on Sunday afternoon.

Quite where the tide of overwhelming public support began to turn into one of widespread condemnation is difficult to pinpoint. Was it when we learned that a 3-year-old girl was in one of the cars involved? Or was it simply that the public looked at McPartlin’s wealth, fame and privilege and decided he had been given his chance at redemption last year? 

What is certainly true is that there has been little nuance to the exasperation in evidence during the past week; and that underlines what we already know about public perceptions of – and attitudes to – addiction.

This may be an unpopular point of view, but the fact is that Anthony McPartlin is an addict and without professional help and support, he can no more escape the controlling effect of his addiction than he can choose to stop breathing.

In this way, and going back to Princess Diana’s quote at the start of this article, addiction has recently been the unwelcome companion in every single relationship Ant McPartlin has had – with his estranged wife Lisa Armstrong, with his best friend and on-screen partner Declan Donnelly, with his mother who was in the car with him on Sunday and with everyone else he holds dear.

And the uncomfortable truth is that along with Ant himself, every single one of them is, to one extent or another, an innocent victim of his addiction.

Addiction is terrifyingly and uncompromisingly relentless, and it doesn’t discriminate. It will infect and taint everything and everyone close to him because it manipulates and controls every choice he makes.

And in the process, it will damage everything it comes into contact with.

Without help and support, there’s no escape and there’s no respite. Just one, endlessly long and dark tunnel where the light of hope simply does not shine and where the addict is simply destined to repeat the mistakes of the past on a never-ending loop.

For every person who has rushed to adverse judgement of him this week, there’s an addict or recovering addict who will relate to the downward spiral that Ant’s addiction has engineered.

As I’ve said elsewhere over the last few days, what he did was wrong. His decisions were wrong. And it’s unquestionably right that he should face the full extent of the law in punishing him for that. And it will. Not now or tomorrow, but at some point in the near future, Anthony McPartlin will stand in a British courtroom and he will be made to pay for endangering his life and the lives of others.

And when that happens, I hope we’ll be able to say that justice for the car-related events that took place on Sunday was served.

But being a criminal – if that’s what the law ultimately deems him to be – and being an addict are two wholly different things, and it’s neither right nor fair that he should be punished for being both. Anyone who thinks otherwise is, I suggest, a victim of their own lack of understanding.

Here’s the probable truth: at the point Ant McPartlin consumed enough alcohol to become a risk to life, rational thought and evaluation were already in his mental rear-view mirror. His priority at that point was to self-medicate in order to cope with something far more immediately threatening to him than most of us can possibly understand.

Is that okay? No. Is it justifiable? No. But is it the reality that Ant McPartlin is dealing with? Absolutely.

Because in the end, addiction is the antithesis of rational behaviour. Addiction is about self-soothing and whilst the medication of choice can be transient (alcohol today, drugs tomorrow), ultimately the need to self-administer something to relieve whatever deep-rooted anxiety is involved becomes a hard-wired inevitability.

It’s probably not the case that Ant didn’t care about the possible consequences of his actions or didn’t understand them; it’s far more likely that at the point he tipped over the edge of sobriety his addiction was already in the driving seat and he was no longer in control of the chain of events that followed.

Since the events of Sunday, Ant McPartlin has issued a statement saying he’s ‘devastated’ that a little girl’s life was put at risk. The same statement speaks of his remorse at the consequences of what happened.

There’s no reason to doubt his sincerity – remorse and shame are good friends of addiction and they are usually heartfelt. But they’re not enough on their own to dig him out of the black hole he’s fallen into.

His recovery is made harder still by his fame. He has lived his entire adult life in the public eye, listening to the applause of people who adore him. That applause is fainter this week, the adulation less unwavering. Celebrity magnifies the problem and his journey back to good mental health will not be a private one. As I’ve observed before, fame can be a cruel mistress.

I have never met someone who chooses to be an addict. In fact, every addict would rather be anything but an addict. But without professional help and support, that becomes all but impossible.

In re-entering rehab, Ant has given himself a chance to heal and has at the same time given the people around him the chance to come to terms with the collateral damage left in the wake of the choices he made at the weekend.

They say you should walk a mile in someone’s shoes before you pass judgement on them. I wouldn’t wish that on any of Ant’s critics this week – I can promise you it’s not a mile anyone would want to travel willingly.

But it’s too easy and too blasé to say, ‘he knew better than to drink and drive’ or ‘he needs to pull himself together’ or ‘he’s let everyone down’.

All that and more is undoubtedly true, of course, but it’s also completely irrelevant because the rational Ant McPartlin was missing in action when his life derailed.

Whatever lies ahead for him, he will be a changed man at the end of it. It’s virtually unthinkable (though not impossible) that Dec will abandon the lad who’s stood on his right- hand side these last 25 years, but the clean-cut image they’d created for themselves has gone for good now, and who knows if they’ll be able to recapture the popularity they’ve enjoyed for a quarter of a century.

In the end, the kind thing for all of us to do is to hope Ant finds the help he needs, and he can emerge from this with his mental health intact. That doesn’t require us to defend his actions at the weekend, it requires us merely to understand the context in which they were taken.

5 Good Reasons To Stop Calling Your Ex A Narcissist

Reserved Ii

The more I read and hear about narcissism these days, the more I think that it is to contemporary emotional psychology what the Atkins Diet was to weight loss in the Nineties: everyone’s got an opinion about it, but no one seems to quite understand how it works.

Google my ex is a narcissist and you’ll get 2,650,000 results. Which is a crazy number. Though arguably not as crazy as some of the advice they contain.

The pearls of largely uninformed wisdom I found in the first dozen or so pages of search results included advice on how to break up with a narcissist, the signs to look for in a narcissist, the three phases of a narcissistic relationship and, most worrying of all, how to win back your narcissistic ex.

What does it say about us as a society that we have become so disconnected from honest and objective reason that our immediate response to the implosion of a relationship is to brand the other person in it as destructively vainglorious? 

As a faddish buzzword, narcissist is right up there with the best of them today.

It’s important to be clear here that an enormous part of my therapeutic work is helping people who have been broken by bad relationships. I work with men and women who have survived and been changed by abusive and damaging relationships. I treat heartache and loss and I take that exceptionally seriously.

So, I’m not trying to underestimate the emotional pain suffered by anyone who has been treated badly in a relationship. It’s vital for anyone who’s been the victim of an abusive or manipulative relationship to take the time and space to properly heal before even thinking about getting involved again.

And I’m not suggesting there’s no such thing as narcissism, either.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder exists. I’ve seen it professionally and I can tell you here and now that it’s not pretty to live with and it’s difficult to treat. Living with someone who’s truly narcissistic is corrosive and toxic and damaging – and it can take a very long time and great courage to pick yourself up off the floor and start moving on.

But it’s important to know that it’s a condition that’s typically diagnosed by professional psychologists and psychiatrists after forensic assessment – not by a best friend with a vested interest or someone who’s simply found themselves in the ejector seat of a relationship that’s crashed and burned.

Narcissism is more than being a bit over-enthusiastic with your mobile’s selfie mode or having a slight tendency towards control freakery in a relationship or suggesting your bum looks big in your favourite jeans.

Sometimes, your relationship will break up simply because he or she was a bit of a dick.

Worse, labelling your ex a narcissist just because you got bruised or let down by their dickish behaviour actually only serves to demean, devalue and trivialise the destructive experiences of those who have shared their life with a real one.

And that is where I think our tendency to unthinkingly brand the other person a narcissist is not only unhelpful, but also a barrier to your own healing. As I’ve discussed before, labelling is the easy option – and it’s rarely helpful.

Bottom line: what if there’s just a little bit more to it than assigning a label? Here, then, are my 5 Good Reasons to Stop Calling Your Ex a Narcissist.

They might not actually be a narcissist!

This is obviously the best reason of all. At heart, there’s a bit of Narcissus in all of us. We’re all guilty from time to time of being vain, selfish, demanding and attention-seeking. A lot of the time, the narcissist in your life is actually a common-or-garden variety selfish human being who either lacks emotional intelligence or emotional availability.

In fact, unavailability – the inability to engage in a healthy relationship – shares a lot of common ground with narcissism, but they’re not the same thing.

Natalie Lue, the author of the brilliant Baggage Reclaim is an exceptional writer on emotional unavailability, which is still largely misunderstood but vital to get your head around if you keep finding you crash and burn in relationships.

It won’t help you heal

Reading articles and blogs about narcissists is a really great way of staying stuck in the rage and grief you feel at the end of a relationship. Ditto, shadowing your ex on social media isn’t going to do anything for your self-esteem, it’s just more likely to offer up a score of ways to make you feel worse about yourself and him or her.

Just as I advise my clients suffering with health anxieties not to Google their symptoms, I also urge my clients who are coming out of a relationship to do all they can to ‘unhook’ themselves from the story. That means no destructive behaviour – like taking online narcissist quizzes – that keeps you rooted in your own painful narrative.

I’m a big advocate of self-inquiry and objective reflection – and that’s very different to finding reasons to embark on a year-long journey spent demonising your ex by bingeing on personality quizzes. It simply keeps you locked into your painful story and an obsession with them and what they did.

You’re focusing on the wrong thing

Do as many online multiple-choice quizzes as you like to find out if your ex was a narcissist and eventually you’ll find a combination of answers that will prove they were. And if you put enough chimpanzees and typewriters in a room, they’ll eventually bang out the entire works of Shakespeare. And frankly both exercises are equally pointless.

Create distance and impose a ‘no contact’ rule ((here’s more great reading from Natalie Lue on this subject). When the initial emotional fall-out has stopped and your grief and rage has abated, ask yourself the questions that will actually help you to move forward.

Instead of asking whether your ex is narcissist, ask yourself a different question. Why did I choose them? What did I ignore? What did I not see? Facing and answering these questions leads to empowerment. It allows you to ask and answer the other important questions about how you can heal and what you can learn about yourself in order to make better choices next time.

Ultimately, it says more about you than it does about them

Anger is the backbone to healing, and a natural part of a break up in which you feel wronged is to feel anger and express it. Without expression of feeling, healing is more or less impossible.

But if you spend all your time telling anyone who’ll listen that your ex was a cluster B personality or psychopath or sociopath or narcissist, eventually it’ll have the opposite effect to the one you were hoping for and people will start to question your own role in what went wrong.

This is particularly true if we label all our exes in this way. If we are to make different choices in the future, it’s vital that we own and take responsibility for the choices we made in the past.

But if we find we end up stuck in the same loop of demonisation at the end of every failed relationship, then it’s useful to remember that the common denominator in all of our relationships is us. Once we realise this, we can begin to make different choices.

They are a narcissist!

Let’s assume your ex really is a narcissist. As I say, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility – they do exist. Attention is a narcissist’s oxygen and talking about them incessantly is a form of attention. So surely the best and cleverest thing to do is deprive them of the very thing they breathe?

There is no greater approbation or endorsement for a narcissist than the knowledge that you continue to obsess about them long after the relationship has ended. After all, indifference, not hate, is the opposite of love and it’s what will hurt them most.

Moving on means stopping giving the other person power over your life, emotions and thoughts. The secret to happiness is much less about the attainment of certain things and actually much more about the ability to let go – and In the end, there are three important truths to consider:

Truth One: if you’re over your ex, you won’t bother doing a personality quiz on their behalf.

Truth Two: if you’re doing a personality quiz on your ex’s behalf, you’re not helping yourself to get over them.

Truth Three: If you’re in a good relationship, you certainly won’t be Googling is my boyfriend a narcissist.

The Path Is Not The Punishment

Lovcen Mountains National Park At Sunset Montenegro

I have a friend whose favourite theory is that Hell isn’t a place you go to when you die, it’s the place you go to live. And you get to do it over and over again, until you become a decent human being.

He’s fond of arguing that reincarnation is simply the re-taking of life’s exams. Then again, he’s also fond of arguing that the people who learn the fewest lessons in life are destined to live in Middlesbrough, so I’m not sure how much credence we can attach to his ramblings.

But if you ignore the religious context for a moment, there’s something of truth in the notion that life will continue to give you the same lesson until you finally learn it.

Giving in to human nature and casting ourselves as victims of life ‘continually’ might elicit more sympathetic hugs on Facebook, but it’s also a sure-fire way to guarantee missing the key lessons we should be learning.

That’s not to say that you can’t ever be a genuine victim.  There will be times in our lives when we are victim to very painful & difficult experiences & we need support & genuine self compassion during those times.     Some people go through life events that are so life-altering that they dwarf anything most us will ever experience and in those cases the trauma needs to be honoured and worked through with as much care, safety and time for healing as the person needs.

But recognising there are genuine victims among us also underlines the fact that many people find it easier and more convenient to play the ‘life’s got it in for me’ card. And there’s a big difference between the two.

When we stop asking why life is happening to us and instead focus our efforts on what it’s trying to teach us, life is instantly more rewarding. Just don’t expect it to stop throwing lessons at you, because part of the human condition is that we never stop evolving.

Relationships don’t always break down because the other person is a monster and it doesn’t happen because you’re ‘not good enough’. Sometimes they break down because you haven’t learned to value yourself enough, to make better choices, neither of you are really fully emotionally available or you are simply not compatible.

The business deal you were hoping for doesn’t collapse because life is out to get you, it collapses because you didn’t trust your gut giving you warning signs, or you got distracted by something else.   

You’re not exhausted because you’re useless and can’t cope, you’ve hit the wall because you’ve spent all your time meeting the needs of others rather than prioritising and valuing your own time and space.

Becoming resigned to defeat – the mute acceptance that what happens to you is beyond your own control – is one of the most unhelpful and destructive emotional states.

What you allow will continue, and life is shaped by the choices we make.

One of the choices we always get to make is whether or not to examine our decisions and look for the patterns and context that drives them. That context often lies in our childhood experiences, and lifting the drain covers on the past isn’t always easy & takes courage. 

Pain is a hard, often brutal,  teacher, but a teacher nonetheless. The lessons can also be subtle, and we won’t always learn them at the first time of asking. In fact, sometimes the lesson we’re being taught is presented to us in different ways until we get it. And when we do get it, the next lesson arrives.

We learn to set better boundaries, how to honour ourselves, how to love ourselves, how to do ‘the next right thing’, how to let go with grace, how to heal from our childhood, how to make better choices, how to listen to our intuition (and, if need be, how to live and die by its sword).

Our subconscious actually understands all of this and gives us the tools we need to make the right choices. Anxiety, for example, is the subconscious telling us we need to change something, even if we don’t quite know at the time what that something might be.

Similarly, depression isn’t a card you just get dealt in life’s macabre game of chance or something you endure forever by gritting your teeth or upping your meds. It’s a sign that you need to work through things and express what’s going on, because depression is pain turned ‘inwards’, so you can find a way to heal your wounds, clear up your thinking and create a much, much better relationship with yourself. 

Bad relationships are a sign that you need to love yourself more and understand why you’re unconsciously and endlessly re-creating your own trauma.  Addiction isn’t about dependency, it’s about what happened in the past that makes you dependent.   

But we can only take responsibility for change when we choose to get off the victim’s merry-go-round of self-blame (‘I’m not good enough’) and self-pity (‘why does this always happen to me?’).     And actually inspiration to change is all around us. The world is full of amazing people who grew up with severe and complex trauma that was so completely disempowering that they decided their path could only be to become as personally powerful as possible. And I love that emotionally pioneering spirit.    

When we suffer an emotional setback, it’s important that we let ourselves grieve & give ourselves adequate time & space to heal. But it’s also vital that we try not to lose the lesson. And once we’ve been supported to heal and we understand the lesson, we can make the right decision to move forward positively.  

Most learning cycles become easier as we become more practiced at them, and so it’s not unreasonable to hope that eventually we stop learning through pain and learn through awareness instead.

We can choose to say no when we mean no and yes when we mean yes. Happiness is a currency earned, not a right given, and we earn it through consciousness and self-awareness, both of which help us to make better decisions.

Admittedly, the path of personal responsibility isn’t easy, and when we fail to learn its lessons, it can feel as though we’re being punished. But it guides us to self-healing, and self-esteem and personal growth.

However pretty the other paths look, misery lurks in the shadows. Even if they don’t lead to Middlesbrough.

When The Solution Has Become The Problem

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Whether your view of human history is founded on Darwinism or doctrine, a common factor of man’s existence on Earth has been his almost obsessive need to fit in with his environment.

As social animals designed to co-exist in group, we are defined by elements that are as diverse as they are disparate. Blood, money, breeding, interest, appearance, education, profession and more are all part of our individual social DNA and determine our physical and mental behaviours.

And when we can’t fit in, two things generally happen. Either we modify our own behaviours to become more like the group we want to belong to; or we seek to mask our social discomfort by finding a different focus.

Sometimes that can be harmless. Often, it’s quite the opposite. Welcome to addiction.

Talk to heavy smokers and most will tell you they tried their first cigarette because their friends smoked, and they didn’t want to be the odd one out. Talk to an alcoholic and you’ll likely find loss or depression or simply unbearable strain that was soothed by booze. Celebrities turn to drugs because they’re there and just about everyone else around them is doing them. Gambling addicts are addicts because they’re chasing their losses and addicted to adrenaline.

In each case, the addiction starts out as the solution to a particular problem – social inclusion, emotional medication or an opportunity to restore the status quo – and then becomes a much bigger problem in its own right.

Very few smokers want to smoke. Most alcoholics would rather never drink again. Most drug addicts would do anything to get the monkey off their back.

The simple fact is that almost every addict wants to be anything but an addict.

The road to recovery starts by understanding that your medication of choice is understanding what needs to be addressed is what led you to make the choice in the first place.

Whether it’s tobacco, alcohol, drugs, sex, food, pornography, shopping or one of a myriad of other negative behaviours that has become your emotional and physical jailer, the problem that needs to be tackled almost certainly pre-dates it.

You’re not a smoker, you’re a kid who desperately needed the approval of friends. You’re not a drinker, you’re the career high flier who’s terrified of failure. And you’re not an inveterate gambler, you’re the person who’s struggling with debt and money and needs to believe in a miracle.

Every addiction – including negative behaviours like OCD – is a process of actively avoiding or denying the self, a nasty little game of emotional hide and seek. Find yourself, have a drink. Or a line. Or whatever.

By treating the issues that create the urge to indulge your addiction, you remove the need to behave as you currently do and there’s less chance of a relapse.

Addiction is still horribly misunderstood for what it is. It is often seen as a conscious, rather than subconscious choice and many practitioners still treat the effect (the smoking or the drinking etc.) rather than the cause (issues around trauma, self-esteem, anxiety or depression).

At Zoe Clews & Associates, our addiction specialist Paul Gibson uniquely blends methods such as EMDR, hypnosis, Havening and neurobiosensory techniques to work on addictive behaviour at all levels to ensure that freedom from the addiction is felt deeply within the body and mind.

His sessions deal with the internal and external triggers that keep the urge alive, offer advice about exercise, which floods the body with happy hormones, and use the latest psychosensory techniques to help rebalance the brain chemistry that creates the urge.

In the end, your addiction is nothing more than the resource you use to wallpaper over the cracks in your emotional health; and the more the cracks are healed, the less likely you are to need the wallpaper.

We’re currently offering four hypnotherapy sessions for the price of three – representing a saving of 30% on our normal session fees. For more information and to contact us or book your treatment, please visit www.zoeclews-hypnotherapy.co.uk

Zoe Clews is the founder of Zoe Clews & Associates and is one of London’s most recommended hypnotherapists. Her team of associates can treat a wide variety of issues and you can find out more about what we do by visiting us online via the address above.

Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time?

Funny Cleaner

Christmas. A time for peace, joy and goodwill to all. Frosted breath plumes, comforters snake about collars, greetings and laughter fill the air. A myriad of a thousand tiny lights add sparkle to a tree beneath whose branches beautifully-wrapped gifts await new owners.

At this time of year, we’re bombarded with vision after vision of what a perfect Christmas should look like. It’s all firelit ochre tones, people laughing gaily, families coming together in a blaze of harmony, perfect presents under perfect trees, high romance and not a raised voice to be heard.

In a perfect Christmas, perfect things happen. It snows in big, fluffy flakes and everyone is tremendously happy about it. Families smile and laugh with each other in a big happy love-bubble. Boyfriends propose with diamond rings submerged in glasses of champagne. The turkey exits the oven bronzed with those little chef hat things on the end of each of its legs. Monopoly is played without a single disagreement over how much rent is owed on Mayfair.

All is calm. All is bright. All is perfect.

Except, Christmas isn’t perfect. Not for anyone. Christmases can be wonderful, but they can never be without missteps, because life cannot happen without missteps. And Christmas may be a bit of an unreal bubble, but it’s life all the same.

In a real Christmas, it doesn’t snow. It either rains endlessly or it tries to. People have rows or someone gets drunk or someone says the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person and offence is taken. Boyfriends don’t always propose with rings in champagne glasses, they often just buy their girlfriend a jumper in the wrong size (but always seem to somehow get the lingerie right). The turkey exits the oven overdone and who has time for the little chef hat things anyway? And it’s almost written into law that in a game of Monopoly, someone will flip the table, hurl their property cards at someone else before stalking out of the room shouting, “I hate this game!”

For many folk, there are eggshells to be walked upon, minefields masquerading as conversations to be navigated and hormones and drama and upset lurking at every turn.

Christmas is not perfection. It is more likely to be three days in which the unstoppable force of fantasy meets the immovable object of reality in a collision that is apt to spew emotional wreckage well into 2018.

Christmas is a fantasy from the moment we are able to recognise a big fat man in a red suit as a benign stranger who breaks into our houses every 24th of December and leaves a bunch of presents we asked for.

As it progresses into adulthood, this fantasy transitions into something else. The fantasy of perfection. In our twenties it’s about a perfect social environment or relationship. In our thirties and forties, it may be about creating a perfect Christmas for the small people in our lives who still see the magic (and commercial opportunity) of the season. And in our fifties and sixties and beyond, it’s about enjoying the perfection of a wider family unit that we belong to and have helped to grow.

And at some point on that journey, we understand that the pursuit of perfect is for nought. We realise it doesn’t exist. And the next stop can be disappointment, anger and resentment.

Humans are notorious for this. We create monuments to hope, only to see them levelled by the stampede of reality that crushes everything in its path. Yet there is no greater faith than wounded faith, and so we doggedly repeat the mistakes of our past by layering expectation upon expectation in the future.

Often, as we move through the normality of the year, this can be manageable. We spread the disappointment at our unrealised dreams across time, making them less obvious and less invasive. The fortnight in the Bahamas that becomes ten days in a seaside cottage in Norfolk becomes more bearable because we see it through the prism of a life that is more identifiably greater.

But Christmas has a hard stop. It’s the end of Boxing Day, certainly the chime of midnight on New Year’s Eve, and we’ve been conditioned through advertising and TV and movies to believe that everything is going to be perfect. And so we board the train of delusion and steam ahead, knowing deep down that derailment lies only days ahead.

The negative impact of unfulfilled fantasy is that it can lead to depression and stress and anxiety in ways that, if unchecked, can fester into something more. It doesn’t take much for a family row to boil over into a feud. Relationships can become strained. Self-esteem, that fragile thing, can shatter.

So, this Christmas, try to be kind to yourself whatever your situation. Accept that life isn’t perfect, and that imperfection is one of the challenges and joys of a life fully experienced. Recognise anger and resentment for what it is, because acceptance gives you control. If you have the choice to interpret something positively, do that, because in the alternative lies misery, if you need to take a breather, take a breather.   A mantra I live by when things get heated is ‘before you do something, do nothing’.  Revel in the things that go right and be sanguine about those that don’t.

And know that if it does all become too much, we’re here to catch you when you fall.

Merry Christmas. You’ve earned it.

Sexbots – The Ultimate Emotional Anorexia?

Futuristic Selection Of Female Cyborgs Aroud Picky Man

Before you plunge into this, I need you to set aside your prejudice and your judgement and your preconceptions and find a place of honesty, because what I’m about to write requires thought to override instinct.

A recent one-off documentary on Channel 4 called The Sex Robots Are Coming chronicled the arrival of an artificially intelligent, fully mobile, communicating doll designed to have sex with a human.

If you missed it, it was, in many ways, compulsively fascinating. And in others, it was deeply disturbing and more than a little creepy, for reasons that I suspect may not be entirely obvious to everybody.

On one level, this latest development can be passed off as a piece of technological whimsy that serves as an astonishing testament to the progress of man’s innovation. And, I suppose, there’s merit in acknowledging these robots purely on that basis.

And let’s be honest here, it’s more than invidious in this day and age to feign a mask of prudish disgust that there should be a need to build machines for men and women to have sex with (20% of the potential sex robot market is thought to be women who want a male sex doll).

Show me a man with a pulse and I’ll show you the boy who likely began his relationship with sex and/or pornography by stealing a peek at the dog-eared copy of Playboy his dad kept in the garage. And surely there can’t be many women left for whom the word rabbit only conjures sepia-toned childhood memories of Watership Down.

There is no place now for moral indignation over the availability of material designed to help you to orgasm in your own company or, if you choose, the company of others. It’s been a part of the furniture for too long.

But there is a serious question here about what the advent of a walking, talking non-human sex partner costing up to £8,000 says about our relationship with ourselves, with other people and with the psychology of sex.

The economics are pretty simple. The sex robots are here because there’s a demand for them. And it’s what sits behind that demand that, to me, is the issue.

Modern life is a powerful advocate for society to become increasingly disconnected. We share our lives on social media apps and become addicted to them as we hunger for the approval of others. Addiction to pornography is on the rise. Drug and alcohol addiction continues to chew up police and medical resources. And gambling addiction is also climbing.

All of these addictions are, to some extent, a way for people to avoid true emotional intimacy with themselves. The arrival of the sex robot ramps that disconnection up to a whole new level because it’s an overt way of designing humans out of a human experience. 

Sex robots represent super-charged emotional anorexia, a very real condition which creates an addiction to doing nothing about – or hiding – a huge fear of intimacy which, in turn, is underpinned by fear of abandonment.

If anyone can think of a better example than a sex robot of something inherently designed to prevent us having to deal with true physical and emotional intimacy, then I’d like to hear it.

Emotional and/or social anorectics and people with anorectic tendencies have different behaviour patterns. They may seek out the company of many people to avoid having to manage a more intimate social situation with one person. Others feel overwhelmed by all social environments. Others still will shun social interaction completely, or quietly take a back seat.

Anorexia is a master of the incognito and so is often difficult to recognise. It is more than just fear of intimacy – we all suffer with that to one degree or another within the parameters of traits like shyness or modesty that might be defined as ‘normal’ – it is the active process of doing nothing to trust or commit or allow oneself to become vulnerable enough to experience intimacy with another human being.

When I work with victims of abandonment trauma – and trauma always has an element of abandonment in it, since it invariable happens in isolation or is an isolating experience – I continually find people who are suffering with emotional anorexia

When people attempt to give them love, they struggle to receive it and, prior to treatment, have preferred to remain in a state of emotional starvation rather than risk abandonment, which is their deepest fear.

Some behaviours that can be symptoms of emotional anorexia are perfectly normal on their own, as long as they’re transient.

Not found the right person to share your life with, temporarily or otherwise, yet? That’s fine, it can take time.

Not finding the right ‘tribe’ to fit in with is okay, as long as you know there’s a tribe you do want to be part of.

Happy in your own company? Great – provided you’re also comfortable in the company of others.

Choosing independence to build self-reliance? Good for you. Just don’t let independence be the word you use to describe loneliness.

And so it goes on. Individual characteristics of emotional anorexia on their own aren’t necessarily indicative of a problem. But if they’re all present all the time? Well, that’s a definite red flag.

The story of Davecat, a man who lives with two sex dolls, makes for fascinating reading and lends some weight to how sex robots and emotional anorexia are linked.

Davecat’s blog reveals that he consistently went for unavailable people, suggesting entrenched compromised self-esteem, abandonment & emotional anorexia issues and I highlight his story for no other reason than to make two points.

First that I find it concerning that synthesised human-lookalikes are already seen as a replacement for people like Davecat, who are already acutely and often clinically isolated; second that in providing the dolls we make it almost impossible for the Davecats of the world to have even the slightest chance of working through their underlying issues.

But there are darker concerns, too. What, I wonder, are the dangers that in the hands of socially awkward shy young men, the use of sex dolls with human attributes might reinforce objectification and exploitation of women, just as studies show extreme pornography can?

Regardless of whether that’s a question we can yet answer, it’s a certain fact that sex robots will do nothing at all to upskill their users socially. Ignore the stories that the robots’ makers spin about ‘helping’ people who struggle with human interaction. The reverse is far more likely to be true for no other reason than the robots aren’t human

Conversely, the debate around sex robots has also included hand-wringing contributions from people who talk darkly about the machines becoming a replacement for men and women. That seems faintly ridiculous to me, because well-adjusted people will never choose to routinely sleep with a robot.

Those at risk are the majority of the people who will use them and who are dealing with social isolation and trauma.

And for those who argue, as the makers of the robots do, that one benefit will be the provision of physical and emotional companionship for widowers, that’s nonsense. In fact, it’s far more likely that instead they will simply magnify the sense of loss, prolong grief and encourage greater loneliness.

The technology that created these dolls may be advanced, but the emotional intelligence certainly isn’t.   

Is Your Child Getting An ‘A’ In Anxiety?

Worried And Sad Student Online

Next week, teenagers up and down the country will be sitting their GCSE mocks. 

This may come as a surprise to those of you who don’t have a 15- or 16-year-old in the house and have been blissfully unaware of the unfolding drama being played out behind closed doors. 

But for those who do have such a creature hibernating behind a closed bedroom door, the weeks since the end of the summer must have felt a little like watching a gathering storm edging every closer.

These days, Year 11 pupils (that’s the 5th Year for those of us who still work in old money) are under pressure to do well from the moment they walk through the door of their secondary school as a fresh-faced 11-year-old. And they’re under pressure to perform measurably well. 

Whether little Johnny or Jennifer end up in the top set or a mixed ability set in French is no longer down to the arbitrary decision of a mere teacher using years of experience to gauge both achievement in the present and the potential of the future. Johnny and Jennifer are now assessed and tested to determine the probably limit of their academic aspirations.

I’ve talked at length before about why I think SATs and other tests have an unacceptable impact on children’s mental health and, if you missed it, you can read that here, so I’m not going to rehash those arguments here.

Instead, I want to focus on why parents who talk about their children suffering ‘exam stress’ might be in danger of misdiagnosing what’s going on in their child’s head.

As a society, we tend to talk a lot about how stressed we are. We say we’re ‘stressing about what to wear’, when we actually mean we’re undecided or struggling to decide; we feel irritated by the fact the house is a mess, but translate that frustration as, ‘I’m feeling a bit stressed out about the cleaning; a difficult commute to the office becomes a ‘stressful journey’ 

We offer stress as a go-to rational explanation for our children’s challenging behaviour as well. Being ‘stressy’ is almost a euphemism for the blizzard of hormones in a teenage body.

In fact, stress has become the ultimate euphemism of the modern age. We hear and see it everywhere. And the plain fact of the matter is that the euphemistic stress which parades in our lives as a convenient catch-all for any mildly irksome situation has a massive devaluing effect on real stress that affects children and adults in ways most people can barely begin to imagine.

If you want to know what your ‘stressed’ pre-exam child is really feeling, then let me help you out: they feel a profound sense of fear. From their first registration, they have been conditioned to succeed. Failure has never been an option in a world where tables and rankings and Ofsted inspections rule.

And so failure becomes the bogeyman hiding under the bed at night. What if I fail? What if I fail? What if I fail? They are terrified of what their teachers will think, of what their parents will thing and, probably most importantly, of what their friends will think. It gnaws and gnaws away at self-esteem and self-confidence and self-worth and it promotes reclusive and reticent behaviour.

The reason your child won’t talk to you has nothing to do with it being their job to hate their parents; they’re not talking because they don’t want to admit to you that they’re worried, because if they do that, the crisis of confidence will actually be real. 

And so they internalise it and what you see are the behavioural and emotional symptoms that manifest themselves as surliness or sulkiness. And we label this perceived attitude problem as stress because that seems to fit.

If you’re sitting there worrying that you’ve mistaken fear for stress, welcome to a very large and illustrious club: the majority of parents of GCSE-age children are fellow members. The problem is, there’s very little support available for parents to manage themselves and their children through the most challenging year of school life.

So, what can you do to help? Well, obviously hypnotherapy is an option and if you’d like to talk to us about how our treatments can help you and your child or children, we’d love to hear from you.

But in general day to day life, validation, recognition and reassurance goes a long way. Children need to understand they have a worth that transcends academic achievement. Repeat the mantra that their best is always good enough. Make them take a break from the books and enjoy more of the fleeting time they have as young people. Give them a hug and tell them you love them and are proud of them, whatever their results. Offer your help with revision, but allow them to refuse. Within reason, choose to interpret their infuriating outbursts as essential venting rather than rank insolence and ingratitude (even though it may actually be both of those things and more). Praise their achievements and meet failure with sanguinity. 

In short, be there for them now and make sure they know you’re there for them every day. It goes a lot further than you might think.

Additional Credits

Video by Weeks360.

Photography by Liz Bishop Photography.

Production by Mark Norman at Little Joe Media and Joanne Brooks.

Hair by Jonny Albutt.

Make up by Olly Fisk and Nabeel Hussain.