Think!

There are two ‘sides’ to our brain and nervous system. One deals with routine matters that we don’t have to think about – the things we just do, like walking and breathing. Then there is the part of our brain and nervous system that deals with the things we do consciously. Most of the time we rely on the former and only call on the latter when we need to. That is, much of what we do is carried out with little or no conscious thought – and that’s a mixed blessing.

On the positive side, it means that there is much we can get done with minimal effort, leaving us to focus our mind on other things. On the negative side, it means that there is a danger that we may do things on ‘automatic pilot’ that really do need our full attention. In a general sense, just think about how many road traffic accidents are caused by people not concentrating, by drivers not having their mind fully on driving safely. And in a professional sense, we need to be careful that we are not doing important things in a routinised, unthinking way.

This brings us to an important part of reflective practice, namely the ability to stand back from a situation and clarify what is happening, what we are doing, what we need to be doing, what pitfalls we need to be aware of, and so on – what is often called ‘reflection-in-action’. This involves switching from the side of the brain and nervous system that deals with automatic, unthinking actions to the other side, the side that deals with conscious thought. It involves becoming more alert (more ‘mindful’, to use the currently popular terminology), more tuned in to our surroundings and our circumstances.

Unfortunately, being called upon to focus in more consciously in this way can make some people feel anxious. In my experience this is often because of negative experiences in the education system where they have been criticised (or even mocked) for their efforts to think things through. For other people, because they are busy, they can make the mistake of assuming that they are too busy to think; they feel under pressure to just ‘get on with it’, as if thinking is a waste of time. Some organisations can cause problems too, because many have a culture that discourages thinking. Thinking is sees as ‘down time’, something you do instead of working, rather than an essential part of effective professional practice. Of course, some thinking can be a waste of time if it is unfocused, ill informed or misdirected.

What is also important to recognise is that, although thinking is something we can all do to at least a basic level, it is possible to develop our skills to a more advanced level. For example, there are analytical skills that involve, among other things, being able to recognise significant patterns and interconnections in a given situation. The good news is that it is possible to develop those skills over time, to become more effective thinkers. A key element of this is practice. That is, the more we think, plan and analyse (that is, the more reflective we are), the more skilful we will become over time. By contrast, the more intellectually lazy we are (that is, the more we shy away from thinking), the more we are denying ourselves the opportunity to improve our thinking skills.

Some people will warn of the danger of thinking too much, of ‘overthinking’, but generally that is more to do with anxiety than thinking, and that is a different kettle of fish altogether. Then there will also be the people who complain thinking is no substitute for doing – just thinking about something does not produce results. But I don’t think anyone is really advocating thinking instead of doing; it’s more a case of thinking to help doing, to try and make sure that what we do is safe, appropriate and effective.

Know your blind spots

No one has 360-degree vision. When we are focusing on something, everything else is out of focus, so there will be many important things that are there, right by us, but we don’t see them. That is fine most of the time, but on occasions it can be really problematic if we don’t make ourselves aware of those blind spots. How often have you felt like kicking yourself because, after the event, you have realised that you missed something significant and really wished you hadn’t?

What is boils down to is that perception is an active process. Our senses don’t just simply alert us to what is around us in a direct way, with us passively receiving the sense data. What actually happens is that our senses are constantly filtering out much of what is presented to them. Much will depend on purpose. What is it we are doing? What are we trying to achieve? Answers to those questions and others will shape what is highlighted by our senses and what is filtered out. For example, imagine a painter and decorator entering a room to prepare for carrying out work there. What they notice will be linked to what they need to know in terms of the materials needed, any particular complications or whatever else a painter and decorator needs to know. Now imagine that a health and safety inspector subsequently enters the same room. They are likely to pay no attention at all to how many rolls of wallpaper would be needed or whether the doorframes would need to be sanded down. But what they are likely to notice is that loose electrical socket in the corner that could be highly dangerous or the pile of boxes in the other corner that is so high and so badly stacked that it is only a matter of time before someone brushes against it and gets seriously injured. They went in to the same room, but saw different things and came away with different conclusions, and therefore will no doubt behave differently as a consequence.

What we notice (and don’t notice) therefore depends largely on what we are doing and why we are doing it. But that is not the only factor. Much can also depend on habit and taken-for-granted assumptions. For example, if we are used to trusting someone and have never had cause to question their loyalty to us, we may not notice the way they are exploiting or undermining us. Habit is a powerful force, and generally a very helpful one, but it does have its downside – it can blind us to important issues or potential dangers

So, what is the magic answer? How do we become more tuned in to these blind spots that can stop us moving forward positively at times (because we didn’t spot the opportunities) or put is in danger (because we didn’t spot the hazards)? Of course, there aren’t any magic answers, but there are things we can do. Let’s go back to the two sets of issues we have already looked at. First of all, the purpose of your activity – being clear about what your purpose is can help to keep you focused and that is a good thing, of course. But what you can also do is to think about how a situation might go wrong or how opportunities may be missed. This involves being sensitive to your surroundings – focusing carefully on what is important, but not doing that to the exclusion of all else. For example, a parent focusing on their career to enable their children to have a good standard of living may focus narrowly on work issues and not spend enough time with their children – thereby providing well for them financially, but perhaps not so well emotionally. The challenge, then, is to be holistic: focus narrowly when you need to, but also take a broader look at the situation too.

Second, in terms of habits and assumptions, this is where self-awareness comes in. If you review for yourself what your habits and assumptions are in certain situations, you will find yourself in a stronger position to avoid blind spots – you will be more tuned in to the potential issues to be missed because you allowed yourself to get stuck in tramlines, rather than go where your spirit takes you more creatively.

 

Know your triggers

We all have certain things that get under our skin, things that are likely to get us annoyed, irritated or distressed. These are known as ‘triggers’. Some triggers are shared by a wide range of people (if not by everybody) – for example, losing face or being humiliated. But there are also triggers that are specific to each individual. For example, what gets me really riled may have little or no effect on you, and vice versa. It depends on a number of factors, not least past experiences, future aspirations and, of course, our values. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Our past experiences can be significant in so far as they can leave us sensitive about certain issues , feeling vulnerable about one or more things that have proven painful or problematic for us – a ‘once bitten twice shy’ scenario. That is, the past has taught us to be wary of certain situations. Sometimes we will be only too aware of precisely what it is that is triggering a strong response in us, we may have a vivid memory of what has hurt us in the past. But at other times, the connection may not be so clear; we may have a strong reaction, but not be able to pinpoint what the trigger was. That can leave us feeling confused and perhaps insecure (and potentially leave others around us feeling confused and insecure too).

Our aspirations have an important part to play too. For example, if we are hoping to achieve something important in the future (let’s call it x), and something happens that blocks our path to x (or threatens to do so), this may again serve as a trigger to provoke a strong emotional reaction in us. So, it’s important to understand that our triggers can be linked to the past or the future. In some circumstances there may be elements of both.

Our values also have an important part to play. Our values are, by definition, what we value, those things that are important to us. Events or circumstances that offend or unsettle our values in some way can serve as a very powerful trigger. For example, if a major part of our value system revolves around a commitment to fairness and we encounter a situation where someone is being treated unfairly, it is highly likely that it will trigger a strong response, such as anger.

Of course, triggers can set in motion positive processes too – provoking satisfaction, joy and so on. But when we add together triggers from our past experience, our future aspirations and our ever-present values, we can see that these are important influences on our behaviour, our emotional responses and our interactions with others. It is for this reason that getting to know what our triggers are can be a very wise move. Having a degree of self-awareness about these can help us to anticipate difficulties, prepare for potentially challenging situations and feel more confident because of our greater sense of control.

What we shouldn’t do, though, is focus too closely on those triggers and risk obsessing about them. That’s the difference between being self-aware (which is a good thing) and being self-conscious (which is not so good). We have to be balanced about it, of course.

Once we have a good grasp of our own triggers we will then find ourselves in a stronger position to tune in to the triggers of other people – and that applies in our private, personal lives as well as in our working lives. The more skilful we become at these matters, the more effective we can be in various aspects of our lives.

 

 

 

Make full use of support

Sadly there are many people who seem to feel that they can – or at least should – get through life without support. For many people, asking for support is seen as a weakness, as if only inadequate people need – or ask for – support. This sort of stoic or ‘macho’ approach is both ill-founded and potentially dangerous. We need to be very clear that this perspective on support is something we need to move away from.

A major part of the problem is that western societies tend to be characterised by a strong emphasis on individualism, and this involves a conception of each of us as a more or less fully independent, autonomous individual. This is set up as some sort of ideal, resulting in any need for support potentially being seen as less than ideal – as a form of failure, in a sense. Of course, the reality is that this is a distortion of the true picture. We are all unique individuals, of course, but we are unique individuals in a social context – to divorce the individual from that social context is to tell only one part of the story (which then makes it a very misleading story).

Throughout my career I have been involved in various roles that have entailed providing support to a wide range of people. Three things that stand out for me from that experience are:

  • So many people left it until the eleventh hour to ask for support. Of course, I did my best to help people when called upon to do so, but there were very many occasions where I could have helped them so much more if they had come to me sooner. This was partly because we could have nipped problems in the bud if I had been aware of them sooner and could have intervened earlier, and partly because, by the time they came to me for help they were often already worn down and at a low ebb. Getting help sooner could also have saved a lot of heartache and suffering for them.
  • People commonly apologised for asking for support. This has been a marked feature of people seeking support from me over the years. It has always struck me as strange that this should be the case. People help and support one another all the time, and yet it can so frequently be seen as something we need to apologise for. Support can, of course, be beneficial for both parties, giver and receiver. Giving support can give us a sense of self-worth, a sense of being useful that can bring a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction.
  • They were generally glad they did ask for support. Despite how common it has been for people to approach asking for support in a guarded, apologetic or reluctant way, the usual outcome was that they were really glad that they had got past their reluctance. And, of course, I am sure that my experience is not unusual in this regard. This makes it all the sadder that a reluctance to seek support (or to accept it when offered) holds so many people back.

So, if you are one of those people who are reluctant to ask for support, you need to ask yourself why that is, how much it is costing you in personal terms and what you can do to change the situation. Supporting one another is an important part of being human, so this strange idea that seeking or using support is to be seen as a last resort proves to be quite a costly one.

Book review: The Establishment: And How They Get Away with It

The Establishment: And How They Get Away with It, by Owen Jones, Penguin (2015): ISBN 978 0 1 141 97499 6

Owen Jones has established himself as a highly respected social commentator, first in his column in The Independent and more recently in The Guardian. This book extends and consolidates that reputation. In a clear, well-written text he provides a powerful and convincing critique of the Establishment, the institutionalised power interests that have such a far-reaching effect on ordinary people.

Across eight chapters he offers an impressive analysis of how certain groups of people have the ability to present their vested interests as the interests of the country or the economy or the social order in general. His scope is broad, encompassing politicians, the media, the police, and, of course, wealthy capitalists. In each case he provides evidence and argument to back up his case that the Establishment continues to succeed in pulling the strings of power to suit their own needs and interests at the expense of the wider population.

This is a narrative that captures the elitism underpinning the UK social, economic and political systems. In particular it highlights well how the definition of the ‘centre ground’ has been shifted way to the right. The extreme free-market approach that has become established as the norm would, not so very long ago, have been seen as very right wing. One of the results of this is that what was previously seen as ‘centrist’ and moderate is now presented as left wing, and what was previously seen as left-wing Labour movement ideas are now construed as extremist.

This is a very important book that should be closely read by anyone who shares a commitment to social justice. It provides invaluable insights that cast important light on key aspects of our society and the political direction it is going in.

 

Beware of stereotypes

A stereotype is a distorted and often exaggerated depiction of some aspect of reality. As such, stereotypes are potentially very dangerous because they can influence our thoughts, feelings and actions in misleading ways. Confusing an oversimplified and distorted picture of something with the complex, multi-level reality it actually represents is clearly not a wise step to take.

So far, so straightforward, but what is often not realised is that (i) stereotypes are far more prevalent than people generally realise; and (ii) they work both ways – that is, we can both stereotype others and be stereotyped by others. Let’s consider each of these in turn.

The mass media are very important influences in modern society, often having a profound and far-reaching impact on how we perceive reality. We tend to become so used to the media that we rarely realise what effect they are having on us. When those influences are rooted in stereotypes, we can find ourselves in difficulties, relying on someone else’s definition of reality. This is often a definition that reflects certain people’s power interests and the discriminatory assumptions that uphold them. For example, there is a stereotype that presents unemployed people as ‘scroungers’ unwilling to work, rather than as people denied work by an economic system that prioritises profits over human needs. This is not to say that such ‘scroungers’ do not exist, but rather that it is dangerous to do what stereotypes generally do, which is to take one aspect of reality and present it as the whole picture.

Despite so often being inaccurate and misleading, stereotypes are none the less very powerful in their influence. Consider, for example, the common (stereotypical) assumption that women talk more than men do. Compare that assumption with what the research on the subject tells us and a very different picture emerges.

Stereotypes feature regularly in advertisements (spotting stereotypes in ads can be both fun and enlightening), television programmes (think about how police work tends to be portrayed in crime dramas, for example – do you think police work is really like that?) and in news reporting (indeed, especially in news reporting). Stereotypes are, sadly, all around us, and we are oblivious much of the time to the effect they are having on us.

We should also be wary of the oft-quoted idea that there is an element of truth in all stereotypes (as if to suggest that they are not so far from reality after all). Some – but certainly not all – stereotypes are an exaggeration of reality and do therefore contain an element of truth, but they are still distortions and therefore potentially dangerous things to base our ideas or actions on.

So, clearly, we should be very careful not to rely on stereotypes (which basically means unlearning much of what we have been taught by the media), but we also need to be wary of the danger of being stereotyped ourselves. Some people have said to me words to the effect of: ‘If other people choose to stereotype me, that is a sign of their ignorance and is their problem not mine; I am not going to change my behaviour because of them’. While I can fully understand the feelings behind this view, it is still one that can lead to significant problems. If we are subject to a certain stereotype and our behaviour reinforces that stereotype in the minds of others, we could lose out significantly because of this. For example, we could fail to get a job we really wanted because we reinforced rather than challenged a stereotype. Yes, I agree that it should not be this way, but it would be naïve not to recognise that it is this way.

Book Review: Sociology of the American Indian by Gerry R. Cox

Sociology of the American Indian by Gerry R. Cox, Edwin Mellen Press, ISBN 9 781495 503191

Guest post by Dr Sue Thompson

The discriminatory treatment of minority groups is something that still exercises us to this day, but it has a long history. A significant part of this history is the way Native American nations were displaced and marginalised by the European settlers. Much has changed since those early days, but the legacy of those events is still with us.

In this important text, sociologist Professor Gerry Cox provides a fascinating and thought-provoking overview of a range of key issues relating to the life experiences of contemporary American Indian groups. At over 600 pages it is a lengthy tome that offers a wealth of insights spread across twenty-five chapters. Topics covered include the complexity of Native American cultures, ways of dealing with loss, spiritual practices, family, afterlife practices, healing, beliefs and traditions, burial practices and the erosion of tribal languages.

The author clearly has extensive expertise in this area and shows great sensitivity to the life experiences of the peoples he discusses. What comes across very clearly is a strong commitment to highlighting important issues and the complexities involved, and, in so doing, moving away from the stereotypes and oversimplifications associated with dominant cultural representations of American Indians.

As the title indicates, the subject matter is approached from a sociological perspective, and this is an important part of what makes it such an interesting read. The author brings important elements of Native American lives into focus with his sociological lens.

This book is an important counterbalance to the simplistic distortions of the cowboys and Indians mentality that has suffused so much of the popular representation of American Indians. It will be of interest to anyone interested in the richness and diversity of human cultures.

Love (and respect) yourself

To be described as a ‘narcissist’ is generally to be insulted. Narcissus was someone who was in love with himself. But being ‘in love with’ yourself and loving yourself are two different things!

In my career I have been called upon to help and support a number of people who are struggling with depression. From that experience I noticed certain recurring themes or characteristics. One of them was the tendency for people who are depressed to be harsh on themselves – for example, to be very critical of something they have done when they would not have been anywhere near so critical if it were someone else who had done it.

But, of course, it isn’t just people wrestling with depression who can have a negative view of themselves. Self-esteem is a consideration here too (and indeed an important factor in depression). People who have a low level of self-worth (in other words, people who do not love themselves) can create a range of problems for themselves (not least being unduly harsh towards themselves and being hypercritical).

One such problem is that, if we are giving people the message that we have a negative picture of ourselves, we are, in effect, inviting them to adopt a negative picture of us too (and if they do that, then that is likely to reinforce our low sense of self-worth – creating a vicious circle). This is part of assertiveness. Trying to negotiate win-win outcomes when we are, in effect, doing ourselves down, becomes much harder than it needs to be.

But loving ourselves isn’t just about self-esteem or self-worth. It is also about feeling comfortable with ourselves, comfortable ‘in our own skin’ as it were. So, in this sense, it is a spiritual matter, part of our sense of who we are and how we fit into the wider world. Many people (those who have been traumatised at some point or who are wrestling with unresolved grief issues, for example) can find this very difficult, but it is a worthwhile goal to pursue none the less.

To love someone does not mean that you have a perfect relationship with them and the same applies when it comes to living ourselves. It does not mean that we will feel entirely comfortable with ourselves or will have no aspects of ourselves that we are not happy with. But what it boils down to is that, if we do not love ourselves despite our flaws and imperfections, then why should anyone else feel able to love us?

But as well as loving ourselves, we need to respect ourselves. Saying yes when we mean no, not objecting to things that bother or diminish us or telling ourselves we can’t do something before we have even tried does not reflect an attitude of respect. We are back to the theme of being harsh on ourselves – often we treat ourselves with a low level of respect that we would not feel comfortable in applying to others. Perhaps it is no exaggeration to say that respect for others can and should begin with self-respect.

So, while we don’t want to go to the self-indulgent extreme of being ‘in love with’ ourselves, nor do we want to miss out on the benefits of loving and respecting ourselves by going to the other extreme of adopting a negative attitude towards ourselves.

Think global, act local

On the one hand, it is very easy to get bogged down in details and lose sight of the bigger picture – to not see the wood for the trees. On the other hand, though, it’s also very easy to have an understanding of the bigger picture and struggle to put that understanding into practice in concrete practical ways – it can be difficult to translate that big picture into smaller, manageable steps.

So the political slogan of ‘think global, act local’ may not be as easy as it initially sounds – but that is no reason to abandon it, as it is an important principle, not only for eco-politics, but also for our lives more broadly. So, what is involved in thinking globally, acting locally?

‘Think global’ basically means that we need to consider the wider and longer-term consequences of our actions (at the macro level) and not just focus on the here and now of our current circumstances (the micro level). This is why the slogan has been adopted by the environmental movement – each time we switch on a light we don’t need or throw away something that could have been recycled we are contributing to the global picture of the gradual destruction of our habitat. But, of course, most people don’t think about this as they go about wasting precious natural resources. So, the idea is that our actions (what we do at a local level) need to be informed by the global picture.

Not only is this vitally important in terms of preserving our habitat, but it is also a wise lesson for how we live our lives more broadly, in the sense that there is much to be gained from being clear about how what we do at a local level has an impact on our lives in a number of ways. If we have no sense of what our actions at a micro level are doing in terms of their impact on the macro level, we may be acting against our own interests. If I have no sense of where I am going in my life or what I am doing with it, I may do things that are against my long-term interests. For example, I may commit one or more offences and thereby get a criminal record that closes off career opportunities that I might have wanted to pursue.

Many people would recognise this as a feature of spirituality, part of how we develop and maintain a sense of purpose and direction and thus meaning. It also reflects the spiritual notion of ‘connectedness’, the awareness that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, whether that be culture, society, religion or one or more political causes. Religious doctrines tend to provide a more global, macro picture to guide their adherents, but, of course, it is not necessary to subscribe to a religion to get the same benefits, the sense that there is a ‘global’ that our ‘local’ is a part of.

So, the idea of ‘think global, act local’ is not only a useful ecological strategy. It is also a way of making sure that what we do makes sense in terms of the wider picture of our lives and is not just an uncritical reaction to the circumstances we may find ourselves in at any time. It gives us a firmer basis for making sure that we are enriching our lives, rather than just being carried along on the waves of circumstance.

Get the balance right

The mantra of being ‘balanced in all things’ is a well-established idea, but there is a paradox here. If we are aiming to be balanced in all things, doesn’t that mean we are being extreme (and therefore unbalanced) about being balanced? Shouldn’t we be trying to find a balance between being balanced and unbalanced?

But, however we tackle that philosophical riddle, the value of seeking balance remains strong. This can apply in a number of ways. For example, there is considerable wisdom in balancing head and heart. This means that we should not let our heart rule our head (which could get us into all sorts of difficulty!), but nor should we try to be entirely rational beings as if emotion is a problem to be solved (rather than a key part of what makes us human). As the old saying goes: go where your heart takes you, but take your head with you.

There is also a balance of ‘self and others’ to be struck. If we are entirely selfish, we can find ourselves isolated, unsupported and struggling. If we go to the other extreme and become totally ‘other directed’ (to use the technical term), then we are neglecting our self-care, which can also be highly problematic. The philosopher, Voltaire, wrote about ‘enlightened self-interest’ by which he meant helping ourselves by helping others – that is, we can meet our own needs by helping other people to meet theirs. This is not only the basis of the idea of community, but also a very effective way of achieving a balance of self and others.

But, just to complicate matters further, we also have to be aware that there is a subjective element to what is seen as a balance. What one person considers to be extreme another person may see as balanced. For example, someone who is committed to social justice and tackling inequality may see certain political steps as reasonable and justified, while for someone who sees inequality as natural, inevitable and even desirable, such actions may be dismissed as left-wing extremism. What this means, then, is that there is no absolute sense of balance – it is a matter of what is balanced for you, what works for you in your circumstances.

A key point to note is that being balanced means looking at situations more holistically, seeing the big picture. Focusing narrowly on one aspect of a situation will give us a very unbalanced view. This can happen in relation to risk issues sometimes. For example, someone weighing up the risks involved in a particular set of circumstances can easily make the mistake of seeing only the dangers involved. They can fail to take account of the range of factors that can make the chances that the danger will materialise very slim indeed. The result can then be an over-reaction that, ironically, can introduce new risks into the situation.

So, the notion of getting the balance right is not as simple an idea as it may originally seem. But it is still an important one. We shouldn’t be looking for simple answers to the challenge of finding a balanced approach to whatever it is we are tackling. What is likely to be much more helpful is a well-thought-out approach that takes account of the complexities involved – and which gives us a richer and more well-rounded picture of the challenges we face.