Blue Monday, acceptance and the ‘good enough’ New Year’s Resolution.

bluemonday

This year, Blue Monday* – reportedly the most depressing day of the year – occurs on 16 January. But for a moment, I’m not thinking about why, for so many people, things might get so rotten early in the year. In fact, I’m thinking back to a workshop I ran for therapists who came a from wide variety of theoretical backgrounds, and the theoretical approach I’m particularly reminded of as I write this blog is Winnicott’s ‘good enough mother’.**

Beyond the technical details of theory, there is something almost magical about the simple phrase ‘good enough mother’ – especially if seen as a contrast to the idea of the ‘perfect mother’. I often find the same sort of clarity when I examine the word ‘acceptance’, because both the idea of ‘good enough’ and ‘acceptance’ offer us the chance of freedom or liberation from expectation.

As Blue Monday approaches, imagine how quickly you could realign some of the simple hurdles you have already erected in 2017 if you begin to use the ideas of being ‘good enough’ or ‘acceptance’ rather than seeking unobtainable standards.

Reportedly, more than 30 per cent of people will have broken their New Year’s resolutions by the end of the second week of January. So, I wonder how useful the concepts of ‘good enough’ or ‘acceptance’ might be in helping people to continue with the positive changes commonly set around 1 January each year.

Imagine your resolution is to run regularly. At a packed party on 31 December you announced enthusiastically and publically at the stroke of midnight that you’d run a marathon before the end of 2017. On 14 January, as you put on your running shoes and realise how dark and cold it is outside, you notice your determination and enthusiasm shrinking. Despite wanting to save face, you throw in the towel and return to your sofa – crisps and beer in hand. At some point later, you beat yourself up for being weak-willed or lacking commitment.

But what if you take the option to reframe? Drawing from the ‘good enough’ idea, how would it be if you simply decide that enjoying a bit of running could be good enough? In the following days and weeks, you might discover that 1 kilometre turns into 2km, then 5km, then 10km. It turns out that you can accept where you find yourself right here and now and allow your ability to grow naturally, rather than demand of yourself that you adhere to the unrealistic goal you first chose.

Similarly, if you set yourself the task of losing weight – a popular New Year’s resolution – then be realistic. Don’t set your goal at a huge weight loss in an impossible period of time. At least at first, just try to lose something each week – which is actually going to be ‘good enough’ until you have firmly built the habit. If you focus on the small, the sizeable will quickly grow from it. You will then have a much better chance of embedding the change in your life long term; it will become achievable and, therefore, much more likely to improve, rather than knock, your self-esteem.

As you begin to succeed, come from your continued acceptance of the here-and-now ‘good enough’ perspective. This will undoubtedly create chances for you to grow more, but without that demanding self-expectation.

Let me wish you a happy, ‘accepting’ and ‘good enough’ 2017!

*The concept of Blue Monday, the point at which we are supposedly at our most melancholy, was first proposed by psychologist Dr Cliff Arnall as part of a 2005 press release from holiday company Sky Travel. It is claimed that the date was calculated using the equation: [W+(D-d)]xTQ/MxNA – W is weather, D is debt, d monthly salary, T time since Christmas, Q time since failure of attempt to give something up, M low motivational level and NA the need to take action. See: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/blue-monday-the-science-behind-the-most-miserable-day-of-the-year-a6816926.html

**Donald Winnicott (1896–1971), a British paediatrician and child psychoanalyst, was the original proposer of the ‘good enough mother’.


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Where we live: family, home and not making assumptions

bloghomes

The situation in which people live is a common subject that comes up in therapy. There are students new to semi-independent living. There are couples going through the pains of divorce without knowing if one or other of them will be able to afford a new house or be able to keep the family home going. There are people who were brought up in care where the idea of family and home itself might be a challenge, even years after the childhood situation has been resolved.

In Cambridge and Bristol (the two cities in which I work) and, indeed, in much of the UK­, being able to afford to buy your own home is a far-off dream for many people. Home is often the fantasy; everything from situation comedy to the big-budget movies and advertising sells the home, the family, in terms of an ideal myth. Think of the Christmas hearth with burning logs, or the burgeoning table with succulent turkey and steaming hot gravy. And now, as we approach Christmas, the pressure really cranks up for the perfect home and the perfect family.

Anyone who has worked with me or read my blog knows that I keep what happens in the therapy space strictly confidential. But in the run-up to Christmas and the unbalancing pressure it can bring to home and family, I’ve asked two men if I might recount a little from recent conversations I’ve had with them for the Therapy Place Blog. They are men who, in the last few weeks, have challenged some of my automatic thinking about Christmas, home and family, and I hope they might make you pause and contemplate for a moment or two before December 25 arrives.

Simon* (54) was brought up in the care system north of Cambridge. He never knew his real parents, as he was placed in care very early in life. Growing up in care was difficult. He found himself in a series of foster placements but he never felt anyone cared for him very much. He reported being quite a naughty child. ‘I probably just wanted someone to notice me,’ he said. ‘A psychologist told me once that it’s better to get negative attention for being naughty [if you can’t get praise for positive actions] than it is to be ignored. I don’t know what it’s like these days, but when I reached my 18th birthday, that was that! I was sent to the hostel and just had to get on with life on my own.’

Through his 20s and 30s Simon was an alcoholic, but when the doctors told him he was going to die from the effects of his consumption he was able to stop permanently. Simon has never known any family, but he reports having friends he can trust.

Until 2002, Dan* (52) was the owner of his own engineering business in Bristol. ‘I grew up in a large family – two brothers, three sisters, me, my mum and dad, and my gran and pops all lived in the same house. It was pretty mad but we mostly got on. I had a lot of freedom, and from my teens I enjoyed recreational drugs. I never really liked to drink so I sort of joined in by letting go by other means. I got through tech college and set up my own business repairing mechanical things that went wrong. For a long time I had it really made when I think back on it.’

Dan pauses. His eyes tear up. ‘I repaired everything from washing machines to motorbikes. It all went wrong though. I lost my daughter, my wife and my house when I started taking heroin. Even my mum and dad refused to help me out. I stole things from them to support my habit, I was an awful person because of drugs.’

Dan has been clean for four and a half years.

‘I actually found it more difficult to give up the prescription meds than the heroin. I’d really like to get back with my family now but I understand why they can’t trust me – at least not just yet.’

So why do Simon and Dan challenge my automatic thinking about Christmas, home and family? I met Simon sitting on the pavement close to St Andrew’s Street, Cambridge; I met Dan on Prince Street Bridge, Bristol. There had been frost the night before I met each of them. Simon has spent 36 years living rough, and Dan has been sleeping out for 18 months. It’s interesting to think who we walk past in our busy lives planning for the illusive ‘perfect’ Christmas.

Joyeux Noël!

*Names and certain details have been altered in order to protect the identity of both men.

On breaking resolutions and getting things fixed

Calenderblog19 January 2016

Blue Monday – apparently the most depressing day of the year – has now passed and, according to many reports, three-quarters of those who made New Year’s resolutions have already not seen them through. In fact, badly made plans start to fall apart as early as the ninth day of the New Year and 35 per cent of people break their resolution before the month is out.

Since most therapists (myself included) work with addictions at some level or other, the start of the year brings to our practices some people who already feel pretty deflated by their own effort to control negative life habits. This is a pity, since it’s often not the person’s willpower or discipline that is at fault but the way in which they planned to make their change.

Many people don’t understand how to successfully make changes in their lives and so tend towards ‘over-commitment’ when they undertake those changes. Connectedly, if you try to make too many alterations at the same time, you tend to make a successful outcome harder to achieve.

Evidence from many sources, including my own practice, suggests that making change in life is more easily achieved when you make a proper plan to achieve it. If you simply make up your plans on the spot, there is a much greater chance you will miss the detailed planning that goes along with effective change. (I guess you might already be able to see why deciding to finally give up something on the last strokes of midnight on December 31 often fails so quickly.)

It can also be quite difficult, if you are on your own during the process, to not only make changes but also retain motivation. Sharing your goals with someone, even a therapist, will likely help you to stick to the change. Effectively, when you talk through your ideas for change with someone else you begin to form a contract with yourself. In the 14 years I’ve been involved in helping people to make changes, a well-formed contract has often made the difference between success and failure.

Finally, we tend to underestimate how long it takes to change a habit. According to research conducted at University College London (see Phillippa Lally), it takes a sobering 66 days for simple new habits (such as eating fruit daily or jogging) to become automatic – although individuals range wildly in their abilities, taking anywhere between 18 and 245 days to affect the changes).

When it comes to positive change around issues like overuse of porn or other sexual acting out, then habits are often deeply ingrained and complex. Rather than launching my new porn recovery programme REWIND on 1 January, you can perhaps see why I’m waiting until a little beyond the first few weeks of the year before I open it up.