Don’t make decisions when feelings are running high

As human beings, we are, of course, emotional creatures just as much as we are rational, if not more so. This means that any attempt to understand human actions without taking account of the emotional dimension is likely to be, at best, incomplete and potentially totally misleading. Part of the reason emotions are so significant is that our emotional response to a situation can actually change the way our body reacts. For example, if we are anxious, angry or frightened, there can be increased levels of adrenaline in our blood stream (the classic ‘fight or flight’ mechanism) and this can have a powerful effect on our behaviour. In effect, our emotional reaction has triggered a biological reaction that is preparing us for action of some sort. It is an important protective measure to keep us safe from harm. We would struggle without it.

However, this can also backfire on us at times, in the sense that being in an emotionally charged state can have the effect of distorting our perception of the situation we are in. For example, at certain times we may not be in danger at all – it just seems that way in the circumstances – and that could possibly lead to an overreaction, or even a panic reaction. It can work the other way too, in the sense that we may be very happy about something that has happened, feeling very good about a positive development, but we may not spot one or more dangers involved in the situation. Our positive feelings are leading us to focus on one side of the situation, but not the other.

The idea that we should not respond in anger, that we should count to ten, is well established and is wise counsel. However, it isn’t just about how we respond to people at the time. The balance of our blood chemistry can remain out of sync for an hour and a half or more, and that can mean that, if we make any decisions during that time, we may not be doing so with a balanced picture of the situation. I know full well that I have made mistakes in my life by making decisions at a time when emotions are running high and then regretted it later – and I am well aware from conversations in both my personal and professional lives, that this is a very common phenomenon.

For example, someone who has been hurt in or by a particular situation may decide: ‘Right, I’m not doing that again, I will not allow myself to be in that type of situation ever again’. So, it is, in effect, the emotional pain that is making the decision. But, by withdrawing from the type of situation that was hurtful on that occasion, we may be missing out on all the other occasions when it wasn’t hurtful and would actually have been very positive and enriching.

I am not suggesting that decisions should be entirely rational, with no emotional elements at all, as that would be unrealistic and would not reflect the reality of what it means to be human. But if we go to the other extreme and make lasting decisions when we are emotionally worked up (‘aroused’ to use the technical term), we may well regret doing so later – whether the emotions we are feeling are positive or negative or a mixture of the two. I suppose that what it boils down to is a lesson I was fortunate enough to learn many years ago: go where your heart takes you, but take your head with you.

 

Extend, recover, renew

A widely accepted way to build muscle strength is to exercise just beyond what you are comfortable with (extend), give yourself time to get back to normal after the exertion (recover) and then start the process again when you are ready, so that it is a constant process of renewal. If you don’t extend, you won’t build muscle strength; if you don’t allow time for recovery you risk muscle strain and potentially serious injury. If you extend and recover just the once, you will not make much headway in terms of muscle development, so renewal needs to be part of the process too.

The same logic can be broadly applied to other aspects of our development in terms of thoughts, feelings and actions. That is, we can follow the same process to feed our development more holistically and not just physically. Consider the following:

Thoughts

Extend: This is about not just sticking with familiar, well-trodden paths of thought – being prepared to explore new ideas and perspectives. A closed mind is no basis for learning.

Recover: Link the new ideas to our existing understanding; make connections. That way, we are not constantly exploring new territory and potentially getting lost and confused – a form of mental strain equivalent of muscle strain.

Renew: But then, when you are ready, you can extend your boundaries of understanding just a little further and thereby begin the process once again. This is all part of the process of developing your thinking skills.

Feelings

Extend: We can play it safe and attempt to stay within our emotional comfort zones – for example, by not trying new experiences in case we get hurt or disappointed. But then we will get no emotional growth; we will be ‘stuck’ and then potentially ill-equipped to rise to future emotional challenges. We can, however, extend our emotional range a little, without doing it so much that we get emotional strain.

Recover: Again we need to get back to safe, comfortable emotional territory (and that is where social support can be very useful), giving us time to recover from our emotional exertions.

Renew: We now have the basis of emotional intelligence by learning how to gradually extend our emotional ‘repertoire’ and become more confident in dealing with feelings – our own and other people’s. This can also be a springboard for developing emotional resilience, the ability to bounce back from emotionally difficult situations.

Actions

Extend: We can try new approaches and explore new perspectives just beyond what we currently feel comfortable with.

Recover: We can connect the new approaches to our existing strengths so that not everything is new (and that way avoiding the equivalent of a muscle strain where we feel overwhelmed by too much change).

Renew: We then begin the process again, so that we are constantly getting the benefits of learning without creating problems for ourselves by taking on too many new things at once. This is the basis of lifelong learning.

So, there is much to be gained from adapting the extend, recover, renew process from physical fitness to other aspects of our personal and professional growth. It Is not an easy answer or a mechanistic process to follow unthinkingly, but it is a framework of understanding that can offer useful insights and opportunities for taking our learning further.

Be realistic

Positive psychology and its promotion of optimism have become firmly established in the popular imagination now. The idea that people who are optimistic will fare better than people who are pessimistic has received a great deal of coverage and has become widely accepted – despite the fact that it grossly oversimplifies the complex dynamics of human experience.

The self-help and self-improvement literature are full of examples of simplistic approaches to personal problems and challenges, and the uncritical acceptance of optimism as the way to go can now be added to that list.

So, what is wrong with being optimistic? ‘Nothing’ is the short answer, provided that optimism is justified in the particular circumstances, provided that it is reasonable to focus on the positives of the situation at that time. But sometimes – often even – optimism is not justified. In fact, there will be times when pessimism is by far the better approach to certain circumstances. Hoping against hope in situations where there are no grounds for hope can serve only to distort the situation and present us with a false picture of what we are dealing with. There are clearly times when it is wise to give up and accept the negatives of the situation, rather than naively disregard them by focusing narrowly on the positive elements.

So, should we adopt a pessimistic outlook, then? Negative psychology rather than positive psychology? ‘No’ is the answer to this, as that would amount to falling into the same trap of adopting a distorted, one-sided view of human experience – except this time from a negative point of view, rather than a positive one.

Where does that leave us? Well, that is where a realistic approach comes in. Realism, in this context, means recognising that there are positive and negative features to life in general and to every specific situation we encounter as we live our lives. Optimists see the glass as half full; pessimists see it as half empty, each focusing on just one aspect of the positivity-negativity continuum and failing to see that the glass is half full and half empty. Optimism and pessimism involve seeing only one side of a complex picture, while realism involves getting a more balanced overview.

As is so often the case where complex issues are oversimplified in the quest for straightforward answers to life’s challenges, it boils down to the fundamental mistake of seeing the situation in ‘either or’ terms, rather than ‘ both and’. The technical term for this is ‘reductionism’ – complex, multilevel phenomena are reduced to simple, single-level answers. This is a potentially very dangerous mistake to make, as it can lead to some very unwise, unbalanced decisions that have not been based on a careful consideration of what is involved.

Realism, then, involves adopting a more flexible approach to the situations we are called upon to deal with and to make balanced decisions about the positives and negatives involved, so that we have a fuller picture of the challenges we face. Unthinkingly adopting either a fully optimistic or a fully pessimistic approach simply serves to produce a one-sided picture. Realism, by contrast, provides a foundation for reflective practice in which we can weigh up the positives and negatives and develop a more balanced understanding.

Realism will not present us with simple, straightforward answers, but then we should be wary of any approach that tries to convince us that there are simple, straightforward solutions to life’s challenges. Assuming that there are such things out there for us to stumble across is, in itself, far from realistic.

To thine own self be true

The idea that we should be true to ourselves has a long and honourable history, and also has much to commend it. However, much depends on how it is interpreted. A very common interpretation is that it involves being clear what your ‘true’ self is and then acting in accordance with that. This entails digging deep into yourself to find out what your ‘true’ or real self is.

This is highly problematic, as it is based on an oversimplified understanding of what it means to have a ‘self’. The technical term for this is ‘essentialism’, because it is based on the false idea that everyone has a fixed ‘essence’, an unchanging underlying personality or identity. This is what is seen as a ‘true self’ – the ‘real me’, as it were.

So, what is wrong with this assumption? Why is it problematic? The short answer is that it is just too simplistic to account for the highly complex processes that shape who we are. It also assumes that we are fixed entities that stay pretty much the same throughout our lives. It therefore fails to appreciate the dynamic nature of selfhood. If our ‘true’ self were fixed, then no one could change, and yet we see evidence of people changing all around us.

What we need is a more sophisticated understanding of what it means to have a ‘self’. One such approach is to see our ‘self’ not as a fixed entity on a journey through life, but to understand our self to be that journey. This means understanding human existence as a constant process of ‘becoming’. This is not only a more accurate picture of selfhood (in so far as it fits more closely with the reality of people’s lives), it is also a more positive one. This is because the idea of constantly ‘becoming’ offers much greater scope for change, growth and development.

And this is where the notion of being true to yourself comes into its own. It is not about finding the real you, but more a case of becoming the you that you can be – fulfilling your potential. In other words: don’t try to find yourself, make yourself! Of course, that’s not necessarily easy, but trying to be who or what you want to be is what being true to yourself is all about.

A key part of this is the concept of ‘self-disempowerment’. It refers to the ways in which we prevent ourselves from moving forward. We can question our own ability, undermine our own confidence by relying on negative self-talk and generally convincing ourselves that there is nothing we can do to change our circumstances. Defeatism and cynicism are extreme forms of this, but milder forms are very common. For example, many people will not try a new experience because they have already convinced themselves that it is not for them. Similarly, many people are not open to learning; they stick to their existing views and perceptions and are not prepared to consider alternatives.

These are not just individual characteristics; these patterns are often ‘taught’ through social experiences. For example, sexist structures and cultures can make women and men feel trapped within their own gender roles. Similarly, the education system can, for many people, give strong messages about what they are and are not capable of – creating unnecessary barriers to self-fulfilment (or what the 19th century philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, called ‘self-overcoming’ – which can be seen as the opposite of self-disempowerment).

So, with these thoughts in mind, we can see that there is far more to being true to yourself than finding your ‘true’ self. ‘To thine own self be true’ challenges us to embrace the opportunities for growth and development we have and not write ourselves off (or allow societal prejudices to write us off).

Don’t oversimplify the complex or overcomplicate the simple

We live in a world of soundbites and dumbed-down media messages. Having so many people competing for our attention and trying to capture that attention in a short time is bound to lead to an oversimplification of complex issues much of the time. Add to this the fact that there are so many people trying to earn a living by coming up with simple solutions to complex problems and a strong picture of oversimplification starts to emerge.

Sometimes it is a straightforward matter of unscrupulous people trying to sell ‘snake oil’, magic potions to cure all our ills, ranging from wonder diets to get-rich-quick schemes. But much of the time there are people who are – up to a point – offering potentially helpful guidance and understanding, but doing so in a way that does not tell the whole story. For example, there is much that has been written from a psychological perspective which offers useful insights, but does not take account of the social context in which human psychology operates. By the same token, some people can offer important sociological insights, but without considering what these mean for people at a psychological level. If we want to have a sound understanding of people we need to have a more holistic perspective that incorporates both psychological and sociological aspects (hence the common use of the term ‘psychosocial’) rather than choosing between the two perspectives.

What can also lead to an oversimplification of complex issues is pressure of work. If you are under pressure to come up with a solution to someone’s problem (or your own), easy answers can have great appeal, even though easy answers are generally far removed from the best answers and are often dangerous. This can lead to digging ourselves into a deeper hole. That is, when one easy answer causes further problems, we may be tempted to look for another easy answer, rather than step back and draw on our professional knowledge, skills and values in a spirit of reflective practice.

I once heard someone say ‘The further away you are from something, the simpler it seems’. I think that is a very wise insight, as so often people don’t look closely enough at what they are dealing with, and the result can be a dangerously distorted picture – for example, when people don’t look closely enough at the risks involved in a situation and then go to one dangerous extreme (complacency) or the other (a risk-averse overreaction).

However, we also have to be aware of the dangers of the opposite of oversimplifying a complex situation, namely overcomplicating a simple matter. One example of this would be the tendency for many academic writers to present relatively straightforward concepts in very obscure, overly complex language. Sometimes concepts are very complex and very difficult to explain in simple terms, but that is not always the case.

In practice situations we can sometimes overcomplicate the simple because of anxiety. If we are dealing with a tense situation or one where emotions are running high, we may oversimplify, but the danger of going in the opposite direction can be present too. For example, I have come across many situations where someone is grieving and, for the moment, just needs reassurance and human warmth, but is actually being offered much more than that (reflecting the common false assumption that anyone who is grieving needs grief counselling).

So, how do make sure we get the balance right by not oversimplifying the complex and not overcomplicating the simple? Well, if I were to give a simple formula, I would be falling into the very trap I am warning against. What it boils down to is thinking situations through before we respond to them, so that we have chance to consider what level of complexity we are dealing with.

Robert Adams – a sad loss

Robert Adams was one of the most successful and highly respected authors of his generation. His death on New Year’s Eve at the age of 70 therefore means that the world of human services is now much the poorer.

He was a prolific author and editor, with his work being extremely well received in social work and social care and the human services more broadly. He shared with me and many others a commitment to trying to make sure that social work was not seen as something separate from the wider field of intervening in human problems. In all this his compassion and integrity came shining through.

Jo Campling, the renowned publishing adviser, was keen that Robert and I should work together, as she described us as kindred spirits. Two planned projects on which Robert and I could collaborate both collapsed through no fault of our own, so we never did get chance to work together directly, although I did have chapters published in several of his edited collection books. But, more importantly, we did become friends.

Robert had a long and varied career, but in whatever field he worked he was well aware of the importance of values and of the need to act in accordance with them. His complete consistency in this was a key part of what made him such a special person and such an asset to our profession.

In addition to his very impressive human services publishing track record, Robert was also a crime writer, producing several crime novels that were well received. This is further evidence of what a talented and resourceful man he was.

Sadly not everyone in the caring professions is a caring person, but Robert certainly was. If ever there was a role model for being a member of the caring professions Robert was it. I personally will miss Robert a great deal, but more significantly, the field of human services education will miss him immensely. Thankfully, Robert leaves an extensive legacy of a range of excellent publications that will offer important insights to current and future generations of students, practitioners and managers.

Dr Neil Thompson

www.neilthompson.info

Force of habit

In my People Solutions Sourcebook I write about the ‘Three Hs’ that are powerful influences on behaviour: head (reason); heart (passion or emotion) and habit. Which is more powerful will depend on the circumstances at any given time. For example, following a major loss heart is likely to be to the fore.

It’s also fair to say that these three sets of influences will affect each other – for example, our reasoning may well be affected by emotional issues at times (and vice versa, of course). But one thing that tends to remain constant most of the time is the power of habit. A major part of the reason for this is that habits establish ‘neural pathways’. That is, we ‘train’ our brain to react in certain ways, according to certain predefined patterns of behaviour and response. So, in a sense, a habit becomes an automatic, pre-programmed response. We do something so often that it becomes an established part of our ‘repertoire’ – we just do it without thinking about it. And that is why the phrase ‘force of habit’ is such an appropriate one.

But, and it’s a big but, that does not mean that habits become forces beyond our control, parts of our behaviour that we can do nothing about. That is an unwarranted defeatist approach, one that oversimplifies a much more complex picture. Neural pathways can be changed. They will continue to apply if nothing happens to change them, but steps can be taken to change them, of course.

This is where reflective practice comes in. A key part of reflective practice is self-awareness, being able to ‘tune in’ to what effect we are having on a situation and what effect it is having on us. This can include being aware of our habits and evaluating whether they help or hinder. We can then leave the positive habits well alone and let them continue to do their good work and focus on changing those habits that may be problematic in some way.

So, how do you change a habit? Basically it involves taking a more conscious approach to certain behaviours. For example, if you know that you tend to speak too quickly when you are nervous, then you need to train yourself to speak at normal speed when you are nervous. This would involve being self-aware enough to recognise that you are starting to feel nervous and then consciously controllingthe speed at which you are speaking (without going to the other extreme and speaking too slowly!). What you need to do consciously, carefully and deliberately to begin with will soon become established as a new habit – you will establish a new neural pathway. This time, though, it will be a more positive and helpful habit.

This may all sound simple and straightforward at one level, but what makes it more complex (and difficult at times) is: (i) being tuned in to what our habits are is not always easy (by their very nature they tend to operate without our knowing they are happening); and (ii) it can take time before we have sufficient confidence in our ability to change habits to be able to discipline ourselves into behaving in new ways.

What adds to the complexity is that I have focused here on trying to change habits of behaviour, but there are also habits involved in our emotional responses and our thinking patterns. Like behavioural habits these too can help or hinder, but they too can be changed with the help of reflective practice.

What it boils down to then is that habits are very powerful influences on our thoughts, feeling and actions, but they are not all-powerful. Reflective practice has an important role to play in helping us take greater control over what influences us.

Reference

Thompson, N. (2012) The People Solutions Sourcebook, 2nd edn, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan. tsPSS 2e

Routes to Resilience: a guest post by Carolyn Barber

When we talk about physical health, we mean healthy habits, fitness, strength, agility, energy and so on. Mental health on the other hand has become synonymous with ill-health – depression, anxiety, stress, unable to cope, and above all stigma.

With physical health, we all know that at times we have to work harder at it. We all know that if we get flu, or if we have an operation, there will be a period of recovery needed. Sometimes we have to build ourselves up physically to take on a particular challenge – stamina if we plan to run a marathon, for example. No one imagines that if you get yourself into peak physical condition you never have to think about your physical well-being again.

The stigma which surrounds mental ill-health means that we are often ignorant about what contributes to good mental health, which habits are beneficial and can help build psychological strength and mental resilience in times of change, for example. And if you’re in the 25% of the adult population who are identified as experiencing mental ill-health, such as depression and anxiety – many people say that the stigma and attitudes of others are the hardest things to deal with, making recovery tougher than it needs to be.

For those working in the people professions, self-care in terms of good mental health and well-being, is a pressing concern. According to the Health and Safety Executive in their 2013 report, the ‘industries that reported the highest rates of total cases of work-related stress (three-year average) were human health and social work, education and public administration and defence.’

There are huge challenges in the changing political and economic context, as well as the organisational cultures associated with human health and social care services. A better awareness of how to take care of our own mental health strengthens our professional ability to help others in a climate of uncertainty.

The 5Cs framework represents five core components of good mental health:

Challenge – this is the way we grow in self-confidence, and develop a sense of competence and capability. ‘Challenge’ represents learning new things, taking risks and stepping outside our comfort zone, setting goals for ourselves.

Character – this is about how we understand and believe in our own personal values, strengths, skills and resources. We all have stories about our lives, but how do we tell them?

Composure – this is the ability to distance ourselves from our thoughts and reduce emotional intensity. It means learning how to still the mind, notice more, and develop our self-awareness.

Connection – this is about our relationships with others, our social networks, and our contribution to work, to our family, to the community.

Creativity – this represents the fun, child-like aspects of our nature which all too often we lose sight of as we grow older. It’s about using our imagination, developing our creative talents, and thinking outside the box.

The 5Cs framework is simply a way of organising information to make sense of complex ideas. It’s helpful to think of a framework rather like a travel map. Like a map, a framework can help us make decisions about the route we want to take. It can show us that there may be many different paths to get to the same place. Using a framework we can explain why we might try this or that path depending on our circumstances.

Carolyn Barber is a qualified social worker with over thirty years’ experience as a practitioner, manager, practice educator, researcher and trainer. She is the author of The Layperson’s Guide to Good Mental Health: Your A-Z for a Happier Life (2013) and a founder director of The Good Mental Health Cooperative, a social enterprise based in Hampshire. Her new e-learning course, Positive Mental Health, uses the 5C’s framework to explore self-care in relation to good mental health, well-being and resilience; develop a broader perspective on the research and theory around what contributes to good mental health; and identify specific interventions which can be applied in direct work to support people experiencing poor mental health and mental ill-health. For more information go to www.avenueonlinelearning.co.uk.

Groups and Groupwork – Book Review

A – Z of Groups and Groupwork by Mark Doel and Timothy B. Kelly, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, ISBN 978 0 230 30857 2, 9 + 241pp.

This book is part of a new series of A to Z books from Palgrave Macmillan. As the name implies, each book contains a set of dictionary-style definitions covering different aspects of the subject concerned, in this case groups and groupwork. Groupwork is a method that can be very effective in a variety of ways, a powerful way of bringing about much-needed change in what can often be very demanding circumstances. Sadly, it is not used as much as it used to be, but its value as a helpful resource remains unchanged and there is certainly much to be gained from making much fuller use of the empowering opportunities skilled groupwork offers.

Experience has taught me that any book that has Mark Doel’s name on the cover will have much to offer. He is one of those relatively rare authors who succeeds in discussing complex issues in an accessible way without oversimplifying them. In this new work he teams up with Timothy B. Kelly, another experienced groupworker, to produce an A to Z guide to groups and groupwork. The result is a well-written and very helpful overview of groupwork.

I believe this book will be helpful in a number of ways. For people who are undertaking groupwork, it will serve as a useful reference guide to be dipped in as and when required. For people who are new to groupwork it will be a useful introduction that gives a good flavour of what is involved in what they are about to embark on, including the challenges and the rewards. For students there will be much here to help them with assignments and their learning more broadly.

So, overall, this is a very welcome addition to the literature on this important topic.  As an A to Z guide should be, it is broad ranging in its scope. It is also clearly written and very well informed by two authors who quite obviously have considerable experience and expertise in the subject. Anyone involved in, or considering becoming involved in, groupwork should have a copy of this book.

BOOK REVIEW

Assessment in Child Care: Using and Developing Frameworks for Practice edited by Martin C. Calder and Simon Hackett, 2nd edn, Russell House Publishing, 2013, ISBN 978 1 905541 85 0, 384pp.

This is a new, revised edition of an established textbook. Working with children and young people in need of care and protection is complex and demanding work. Assessment is one of the major keys to effectiveness in this type of work, as it is a process of laying a foundation of understanding, a framework of meaning or narrative that helps us make sense of the situation we are dealing with. Developing a sound, helpful, accurate and reliable assessment is a highly skilled process, and so a well-resourced, wide-ranging book like this is to be welcomed.

In these bureaucratic, managerialist days I have seen far too many examples of assessment reports that do not do justice to the complexities involved, which do not achieve the level of professional understanding required for high-quality work. It is as if some people see assessment as just a process of filling in a form, when of course the reality is far more complex than that. This book is effective in getting across the message of just how complex and how important assessment is. It provides quite a comprehensive overview of the subject with chapters on a wide range of aspects.

Given that the book contains so many different chapters by different authors, it is perhaps inevitable that some chapters are better executed than others, but overall this is a well-written book with important things to say about important issues. It is not the sort of book that is likely to be read from cover to cover – although no doubt some people will, and will be all the better for doing so. It is more likely to be used as a reference source, and one that could and should be available to teams of staff charged with undertaking assessment work with vulnerable children and young people.

When it comes to concern about well-being, the well-being of children and young people can often be forgotten. The growing literature on well-being and happiness has little to say about children and young people, but this book provides an important contribution to our understanding of the needs of children and young people in need of care and protection.