There is a funny meme that one can look up by going to Google Image Search and typing in “what people think therapists do”. I can tell you that I do relate to a lot of these. The “what people think” meme is one of my favourites because it concerns my one of my favourite subjects: empathy. Agree or disagree with what some people put in these memes it nonetheless challenges one to think about how differently people see the same thing. I have worked as a therapist/mentor/behaviourist for several years now and I’ve picked up that few people understand what a therapist does and why these things are important. This list of three functions of a therapist is what I consider to be the most important things that I do as a therapist. Keep in mind that other therapists would possibly disagree and that maybe their approach suits their clients. This list is ordered by the importance I place on them; here are the three things I believe therapists should do:
Imagine an ordinary porcelain bowl sitting on a table in front of you. There’s nothing special about this bowl. It is plain without any distinguishing features. There are thousands, if not millions, of bowls like this in the world. They are useful, one can put rice in it, a salad, water, fruit or any other number of things. Despite it being useful, it would be odd if anyone missed it should it fall to the floor and smash to pieces. The bowl has utility, but it doesn’t have value. One day a tattoo artist was feeling bored and decided to paint an original and intricate art work depicting Norse gods from an epic saga. Now something peculiar has happened: the bowl that was once so ordinary that its destruction would have been inconsequential has gained a new quality: value. It’s still just as useful as a bowl, but now it requires more protection, care, and respect. This bowl that was once so ordinary could now sit comfortably in a museum or an art gallery. It has become important not just because of its usefulness for holding objects, but because it has acquired a value through the beautiful art work now inscribed on it. People are similar, they can be useful, but they have a value that extends beyond their utility. Surprisingly enough, an incomplete understanding of these terms can actually lead to suicidal thoughts.
When I was a teenager, I had a fascination with all things supernatural and superstitious. It started out with me telling stories about witches and the occult. Then I started to carry an astrology book with me and work out the horoscopes of my schoolmates. My tarot card reading phase got me into trouble with a catholic priest once. I must confess I actually read those incredibly boring books about witchcraft while the other kids merely put them on their shelves to impress fellow adherents to the gothic sub culture. But one day a classmate produced something truly scandalous: a copy of “The Satanic Bible“. Now I can’t for the life of me articulate what I actually was expecting to find in this book, I just knew it had to be bad. Preferably dark, sinister, and disturbing so I could impress girls with my wicked seductions or some other nonsense. However, I remember feeling disappointed with the book. It just didn’t contain anything in it that sounded particularly evil. The idea behind the book was the assumption that Christianity was altruistic and therefore Satanism logically should be the opposite of Christianity and thus be selfish. However, the book quickly ran into some philosophical problems regarding the nature of selfishness and how it related to evil. Namely the assumption was that being selfish was necessarily a bad thing, however, this assumption about selfishness quickly hits a brick wall. So for a book that’s meant to be about being evil it ends up being a rather peculiar, if not silly, unintentional self-help book.
Last night I was chatting to a friend about depression. As someone who is still recovering from depression she kept referring to it as “her weakness” which bothered me a little. This lead to her sharing with me a perspective on depression she had encountered recently: that depression was a method by which nature would rid a tribe of weaker members. Presumably it worked something like this: a person who couldn’t meet the expectations placed on them by their tribe would develop depression and end their own life so that only the strong members would survive. Thus it is a form of eugenics programmed into our psyche to effectively off ourselves for the benefit of the rest of the tribe. Now, I am trained as a biologist and such a genetic trait is unlikely to be passed on via natural selection because it actually lowers the probability of an individual passing on their genetics. Such genes usually die out quickly. However, this got me thinking about something: if so many people have the potential to get depression – why would such a trait be preserved by natural selection? What survival advantage does a propensity for depression actually have? Here is my case on why depression is helpful rather than harmful.
The Roman god Janus, for whom the month of January is named, had two faces. One looking towards the past, and the other towards the future. Each new year the typical god fearing Roman would make a selection of promises to Janus. Promises to do his duty, to be honest, to do better work, to make a better sacrifice, to be a better person. Thousands of years have passed since this Roman tradition started and Europeans across the world to this day carry on the tradition of making special promises to themselves to do better in the new year. Surprisingly this tradition is not going away, but actually getting stronger. A century ago only one in four people made resolutions each year, but today half the population of Western countries make new year’s resolutions. I take this as a hopeful sign that we are living in an age of a new awakening in terms of self-awareness and self-responsibility.
A resolution is an act of rebellion against mediocrity within oneself. It shouldn’t be about recognising that one isn’t perfect, of course one isn’t, but instead about recognising that one can do better. I am a poor cook for instance, off the top of my head I know about ten recipes that I can make with confidence. I do find myself making the same things over and over again and I would like to learn how to make more interesting dishes. So one of my new year’s resolutions this year is to learn one new recipe each month. That’s merely a total of 12 new recipes for the year. It’s not particularly hard resolution on the face of it, but it would improve the quality of my life in many ways. Firstly, it would more than double the number of dishes I currently feel confident making. This would bring more variety into my meals, pleasing me, and increasing my quality of life, but it would also increase my value to other people as an entertainer or guest to a pot luck dinner party. Having new recipes I can make for my friends means that I can give more to them and enjoy the giving experience as well as the increased respect that comes from my increased value as a friend. Continue reading
For many years now I have worked with children. Most of them have had autism, speech problems, cognitive delays, or some kind of behavioural problem. It has been an immense privilege to work so closely with so many children and their families over the years. No two families are the same in how their household is run in my experience, every family is its own unique culture. However, I have never encountered a family without the most classic and pervasive power struggle dynamic of them all: the tantrum thrower and the enabler. In every family I have encountered there has always been two people taking on these roles in some way. Child to child, child to adult, and adult to adult: the methods of throwing a tantrum may vary in age groups, but tantrums are ubiquitous. Understanding the nature of tantrums is a good strategy for unravelling the origins of dysfunction in any unhealthy relationship.
First, since we’re all about philosophy here, we need to make sure that we define our terms. A tantrum is a display of hyper emotionality usually resulting from being informed of some bad news. They can be overt through the use of shouting, crying and other verbal cues. They can be violent with the throwing and breaking of things. They can be subtle with silent treatment, passive aggressive words and deeds. They can be sophisticated with rationales, lies, excuses, and guilt trips. A tantrum never involves negotiation or an honest account of one’s situation. Continue reading
Apparently, I’m not a sociopath.
See, this morning I was placed in a situation of moral hazard. I was at the hospital having a blood test taken. This was for a clinical trial that I am participating in. The nurse just assumed that I had come at the correct time, but I was half an hour early. The study guidelines stated that the blood had to be taken no earlier than 9.30am, not the current time of 9am. However, it would convenience me to finish up at the hospital at 9am instead of 9.30am. I was almost elated; the nurse hadn’t noticed the guidelines. All I had to do was keep quiet and I would get my way and be happy. Except, I’ve worked in research in the past, I know how serious following protocols are: this nurse would certainly get in trouble with his supervisor. *sigh* I really, really wanted to leave the hospital earlier. But I didn’t want this guy to be in trouble for this. So I told him. He checked the guidelines and realised the mistake he was about to make, and told me I had to wait for 30 minutes longer before I could leave. Continue reading
In the interests of keeping my site fresh with new content, I’ve decided to start blogging about the various therapy related ideas that come into my head. These are generally just my thoughts about a particular topic, article, or book that I have read recently.
Have you ever seen that animation of the ballerina silhouette pirouetting? Where one cannot tell if she is turning clockwise or counter clockwise? If you observe her long enough you can actually control which direction you would like her to spin. It’s a fascinating example of how our minds can shape our perception with the prejudices we bring to them subconsciously. Especially when one considers that one can decide whether or not to see the ballerina turning towards oneself, or away.
Anger is an emotion that works just like this animation. One can decide if the anger is directed away from you or towards you. For example, Bert has a habit of leaving his car lights on and one morning he attempts to start his car only to find it won’t start. Bert initially thinks about how he only just recently had his car serviced. He flares up in anger at the mechanic, cursing his supposed incompetence. Then just as he was about to call the mechanic to give him a piece of his mind; Bert notices that his car lights were left on.
Mood dependent behaviour refers to the state of mind when a person can only take action if they feel capable of it, even though they are otherwise completely capable of acting. It might be putting off doing an assignment, it might be procrastinating about preparing a healthy meal, it might be as simple as waiting until the house is empty before emerging from one’s room. It can be hard for a person to understand this if they have never felt so small and miserable before to find such ordinary daily activities so overwhelming. Ridicule or condescension are common reactions when opening up to someone about facing such struggles. Failing to find a compassionate ear results in an unwillingness to attempt to open up again in the future, adding an extra layer of loneliness and despair to the experience. When one is this powerfully affected by one’s mood, it can feel preferable to hide alone or to starve rather than to ever face the terrifying world that lies beyond the front door. Continue reading