Friday, 27 February 2015

How are things working for you?

Our relationships with the work we do are a subject to enter the therapy room with great regularity.  For many of us, how we are doing in our work has a significant bearing on how we are doing overall.  Hardly surprising, given the emphasis placed on work as a facet of our identities and the inescapable fact that, due to the fact we have bills that need paying, most of us tend to spend the majority of our waking hours at our places of work.  

I am fascinated by the impact that how we employ our time has on us, and remain committed to exploring ways in which we can reduce stress, promote resilience and enhance creativity.  This deep-seated interest is something I hold as something more than an academic curiosity:  I am constantly thinking about wellbeing as a holistic working concept, and hope to share my observations and learnings as widely as possible, as often as I can.  

I do this in my therapy practice, and in my mindfulness consultancy teaching individuals, teams and groups how to recognise and respond to their stress signatures whilst addressing the so-called work-life balance (so simple, in theory, so complicated, in practice) and their identity (which I see as wider than a job title).  This type of work is constantly in progress - we never arrive at perfect balance:  it is something we need to address and review regularly, in order to continue to respond wisely and skillfully - this is how we maintain ourselves.  The higher our stress, the more blinkered we become, and the harder it is to see what it is that we are apt to do to ourselves, which is itself disabling.  

Stress is a contagion.  We cannot escape this reality.  It eats people up and burns others out.  I see its devastating consequences each and every week I work with people.  I have become acutely aware of the connection between work and our identity:  it seems that most of us derive a great deal more than our payslip from whatever it is that keeps us busy.  What we have to show for what we do, may be positive or negative.  Work can be helpful or harmful for us, and this depends, I think, to a large extent, on how we are doing our work.  

Stress is the adverse reaction people have to 
excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them.

Perhaps we have stayed in a job, or in a sector that no longer feels to 'fit'.  Perhaps we have outgrown not only our position but the organisation as a whole.  Just like shoes that pinch, if we stay in the uncomfortable job for long enough, we will get blisters.  

Perhaps we are experiencing the effects of inadequate support.  When working under pressure, we need to know that we have quality support available to us.  And that support must be accessible, and consistent.  

Whilst today I work for myself, it was not ever thus.  Whilst today I am self-employed, I remain a realist.  I seek to support those who are unhappy in their work to identify what it is that they are missing, before facilitating a meaningful exploration as to the options available to them.  

Sometimes it is helpful to simply have an objective space in which to explore what it is that you are experiencing at work with someone neutral.  I hope to bring to our dialogue some valuable objectivity, with which we might begin to see more clearly what, exactly, it is that is causing the difficulty you are experiencing, before thinking about what steps you might wish to consider.

One life.  Live it well.  7 days a week.  

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Contentment is...

...finding joy in the ordinary; taking pleasure in the simple things, like finding myself smiling whilst walking to the underground station.

At the beginning of the year, I made a note to myself, to allow myself enough time to walk, when the weather permits, rather than getting the bus.  

More often than not, the weather is not so inclement that I cannot walk.  It is just that I tend to leave insufficient time, thus robbing myself of the opportunity to spend 15-20 minutes outdoors before descending onto the Northern line.

The walk, whilst not the most interesting, creates a spaciousness.  It is an opportunity to shift gears, and turn my attention inward, to notice where it is that I am at that particular moment.  Taking some time to see the sunshine, and feel the breeze on my face is like a dose of 'contentment'.  

There are few people for whom the longer daylight hours do not positively impact.  At this time of year, it is not uncommon for this to enter the door of my consulting room as a theme on which we might touch briefly.  People notice increased energy levels, creativity and a welcome lift in their mood.

Things seem better under a blue sky.  Spring has sprung, and there is renewed hope.  It is as though we begin to emerge from our hibernation.

It is spring again.
The earth is like a child
that knows 
poems by heart.
Rainer Maria Rilke

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Fifty shades of what, exactly...?

Never before have I pushed the doors to exit the screen with such a sense of deflation.  I was not angry.  I hadn't taken any expectations in with me.  Other than to be entertained.

Seems reasonable; given the ticket price.  No one forced me to go.  And fewer still had encouraged me.  But go, I felt I must. So I went.  We couldn't get tickets for the 1:15pm showing at the most local Picturehouse.  So we went a little further afield...

...And took our seats in time for the numerous adverts, and then the trailers for The Duke of Burgundy (which, now, looks rather interesting), Still Alice (which I've been looking forward to seeing since I first learnt about it) and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (which will, with that stellar cast, surely be brilliant).

Having been reminded that there are membership options more than once, the title and the BBFC's classification finally made an appearance.

'Strong sex and nudity' were promised.  

What followed can, at best, be described as a frankly rather dull film which lacked a script and included some scenes that were, at best, BDSM-inspired (rather than informed).

As a therapist with a special interest in working with clients who identify themselves as having preferences of a flavour other than vanilla, the film shocked me, but not in the way it sought to.

I left the auditorium disappointed by the woefully inadequate research which can only have been cursory, and the resultant messages which were so wildly inaccurate as to be misleading, and possibly very unhelpful.

That the film has outraged campaigners for victims of domestic abuse is a separate issue, worthy of comment, elsewhere.  My primary sensibility is that James' (likely blockbuster) movie (and, I can only assume, her written trilogy) sends out some powerful statements to an unsuspecting (and, I suspect not terribly kink-aware) audience as to what BDSM comprises and how it is practised which do not, I think, do justice to a variety of erotic practices the author clearly knows so little about.

‘Most people find it difficult to grasp that whatever they like to do sexually will be thoroughly repulsive to someone else, and that whatever repels them sexually will be the most treasured delight of someone, somewhere…  Most people mistake their sexual preferences for a universal system that will or should work for everyone.’ 
Gayle Rubin (author of Deviations)

BDSM has been described as one of the most demonised forms of consensual sexuality.  BDSM stands for bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadomasochism (something I would hazard was known to only a minority of those clutching their overpriced popcorn on St. Valentine's afternoon).

My profession gets it very wrong too often already, and not helped by the suggestion implicit within the Fifty Shades plot (which might be rather generous description of the meanderings that occurred for 125 minutes) - that those who practise BDSM do so because they are, in some way, not 'normal' and, more problematic still, the suggestion that this be due to some (childhood) trauma.  

Society finds BDSM troubling, and in some quarters, threatening.  In my experience of supporting queer identified clients, alternative sexualities trouble the binaries that society seeks to impose, rather than their practitioners.

To my mind, the danger this film presents is untold:  in an era where we are moving away from the pathologies of the paraphilia diagnoses, at something only a little quicker than the pace of a snail, Fifty Shades does nothing to enhance awareness - in fact, it runs the risk of cultivating yet more misconception and prejudice based on fearful ignorance.  

BDSM is a term used to encompass various activities. These generally involve the exchange of some form of power or pain, often, but not exclusively, in a sexual context.  It can be difficult for those unfamiliar with such practices to conceptualise what is meant by ‘power’ and ‘pain’ in this context and to understand how they might be experienced positively by anyone.  Herein lies a significant problem with the film...

What E. L. James sensationalist (rather than sensational) portrayal omits is the important truth that a degree of power or pain exchange is common in many people’s sexual practices.  Here, I could, (but won't) list a number of examples that many so-called 'normals' would, and do, engage in - because both parties find this desirable and exciting. 

BDSM codifies such practices more explicitly and uses terminology such as ‘power’ or ‘pain’ exchange in negotiation between partners, so that there is a shared understanding.  The film attempted to portray this in the (somewhat comically negotiated) 'Contract' that was, in fact, never signed.

Some people regard BDSM as an integral part of their sexual identity, whilst others view it more as an activity they practice.  This simply mirrors most sexual identities and means that, while it is possible to make some general comments, it is important to remain aware that BDSM is a wide, umbrella term for a type of dynamic and/or identity that is also subject to modification by the other groupings within which individuals find themselves (where identities intersect). 

Contrary to fears a movie such as this might conjure up, BDSM generally results in far less severe injuries than sports such as boxing and football, and BDSMers do not frequent A & E any more than anyone else.  However, whilst boxers are seen as ‘sane’ and consenting under the law, BDSMers are not. 

BDSM is also still pathologised in the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV-TR)iii, with sexual sadism and masochism being listed as ‘paraphilias’ (302.83, 302.84).  These definitions are inherently problematic because they equate BDSM with non-consensual ‘disorders’ (paedophilia, voyeurism) and suggest that BDSMers are more psychologically unhealthy than others, despite the absence of any empirical evidence to support this. 

So, my outrage on leaving the cinema was not that E. L. James had in any way shocked my senses.  My upset stems from the fact that she has (whilst making millions) done very little other than to reinforce the existing pathologising taboos.

The clients I see whose sexualities do not neatly fit within society's window of tolerance might best be classified (as Chess Denman has, in Sexuality: A Biopsychosocial Approach) as 'transgressive':  their practices fall outside out current cultural comfort zone.  They may well be accepted in other times and places, as there is nothing inherently harmful about them. Coercive sexualities are something else, and involve some degree of coercion or force: they are non-consensual.

No one has the right to pathologise transgressive sexualities from which people gain pleasure and happiness.  It is coercive sexuality that falls within the remit of the criminal-legal systems, along with other acts of violence and abuse.

50 Shades may have succeeded in bringing BDSM to a far larger audience, and to far greater popular attention, than any previous media product.  The token references to BDSM included a contract, safe-words, and a checklist of activities, together with several conversations between the lead characters which seemed to centre upon consent.

However, the portrayal of the communication that takes place between the characters about what Ana desires is not only lacking any merit from a script perspective, but generally poor, and Christian frequently violates arrangements within the relationship more broadly, by controlling Ana and her life, when she has explicitly asked him not to do so. 

And this is where the domestic abuse campaigners and I are in agreement:  the film is problematic.  It does a great disservice to the BDSM community by giving insufficient insight into the communication and consent central to BDSM relationships.

Were it not for the soundtrack and the airborne scenes, I would have been tempted to ask for my money back.  

Basic BDSM Glossary (by Wiseman, SM 101: A Realistic Introduction):

Aftercare – The period after a BDSM scene when the top looks after the bottom, bringing them up from any submissive headspace, and often praising them in general and in relation to the scene they have endured. For some this is almost more important than the scene itself. 

Bondage – Restraining/restricting someone.

Bottom – Slang term for a submissive/masochists, but generally meaning a person who enjoys being given various physical sensations as opposed to a ‘submissive’ who enjoys being controlled psychologically. 

Discipline – Training someone to behave in a certain way through punishment. 

Dominant (dom/domme/dominatrix/master/mistress) - Person who takes control over others.

Head space – State of mind somebody goes into during BDSM play (e.g. submissive/dominant headspace). Not all BDSMers talk in these terms. 

Kinky – General term for BDSM, fetish or non-vanilla sexual behaviour or people engaging in this. 

Play – Engaging in BDSM.

Safeword – A word that players can use to end the scene if it stops working for them. 

Scene – A BDSM encounter/session, sometimes divided into heavier/lighter scenes depending on physical and/or psychological intensity, although what constitutes this differs between people/occasions. 

Sensation Play – A term often used to describe play that involves physical stimulation, which may be pleasurable, painful or both. 

Submissive (sub/slave) – Person who gives control over to others.

Switch – Person who can enjoy both sub/dom or top/bottom roles. 

Top – Slang term for dominant/sadist, but generally meaning a person who inflicts various physical sensations as opposed to a ‘dominant’ who enjoys being in control psychologically. 

Torture – Administered erotic pain. 

Toys – Devices designed for BDSM or sex, or used for this purpose.

Vanilla – A term sometimes used to describe non-BDSM, non-kinky sex. 

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Turbo-charged attack

Charlotte is preparing for her second round of this second chemo series.  The nausea came, and was contained with super strength antiemetics.  Whilst energy levels and breathlessness serve to remind us of the alien's antics, the schedule permits some important reprieve and I have been delighted to spend some very chilled out time with someone who truly understands the meaning and value of 'rest'.  

She remains one of the greatest teachers I've ever had.  And I've had some goodens.  Her humble acceptance of life on life's terms continues to inspire me.  Her humour through it all never ceases to amaze me.  It's contagious and my own life is injected with meaning by her exceptional wisdom, strength and hope.  

And then there's her fortitude.  This week's activity schedule included a breathlessness workshop and a session on the turbo trainer...  Charlotte remains an athlete.  She knows her body and she respects her dynamic limitations.  Within them, however, anything's possible.  Including turbos.  Alien beware. 

Fortitude...  It means fixity of purpose.  It means endurance.  
It means having the strength to live with what constrains you.  
Hilary Mantel

Fortitude is the marshal of thought, the armour of the will and the fort of reason.
Francis Bacon

Monday, 2 February 2015

Stress-less swimming

Swimming is my medicine.  It's as simple as that.  I got back in the pool following a traumatic incident that sent my body into shock in 2010.  The pool became far more than a body of water:  it was the site of healing at a physical, mental and emotional level.

I didn't think about it:  I couldn't.  I just swam.  I wasn't counting laps, or even time; I made my way to the pool and felt my way through the water.

Nearly 5 years on, I'm still swimming.  I try to prioritise time spent in the pool.  It is part of my essential maintenance.  Last week I swam three times.  Each swim was different.  No two swims are ever the same but some are more memorable than others.  These days, a great many of my swims are 'good':  they enable me to switch gears, and let go of whatever I might need to.

Just occasionally, I get into the pool and, within the first 3 or 4 lengths know it's going to be a 'great' swim.  These are the swims during which I find my way 'into the zone'.  It has little do with what I am bringing with me (in terms of what's going on between my ears) and nothing to do with whom occupies the lane either side of me.  Energy levels are not indicative of these swims - I cannot make up my mind to have one - it just happens.

My body finds its position, comfortably and naturally.  My breath settles and I am 'at one' with the water.  Movement and breathing are in sync.  There is only this moment.  And the next.  This breath.  And the next.  My strokes are smooth.  I move through the water without effort.  Fully supported by it, I glide serene.  There are no splashes between the two lane ropes I am aware of only vaguely within my peripheral vision.  I am alert and awake, yet my consciousness is empty and expansive.  This is how I re-set.  In this moment, I can swim forever.  Having achieved this state, I needn't swim for long.  I am restored.  I am replete.  

"Your mind will answer most questions if you learn to relax and wait for the answer."  William S. Burroughs