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.

Develop your body language skills

Communication is so fundamental to most of the things we do in our work as well as in our private lives. One of the most potent forms of communication is body language, the subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – ways in which our body gives off signals or ‘messages’. Sometimes body language reinforces what we are saying – for example, when we say yes and nod at the same time. At other times, body language undermines what we are saying – for example, when, in response to being asked how we are, we say: ‘I’m fine’, but the look on our face says we are anything but fine.

We learn the basics of body language as young children, so it becomes ingrained in our behaviour and our interactions with other people. It becomes normal and natural. However, we can go beyond this if we choose; we can take those basic, everyday skills to a new level. We can develop advanced-level non-verbal communication skills if we put in the effort.

This can involve both ‘reading’ body language and ‘writing’ it – that is, using body language effectively to get our point across. When it comes to advanced-level skills in reading body language, this involves picking up subtle cues that most people will miss. It means being very sensitive to other people’s gestures and movements. In terms of using body language to get our message across better, it is a matter of knowing precisely what is effective in reinforcing our point. For example, if we want to come across as confident, then we need to be clear about (i) what forms of body language communicate a message of confidence; and (ii) which ones undermine any such message. We can then try and make sure that we do much of the former and little or none of the latter.

By being more tuned in to what other people’s body language is telling us (for example, about their emotional state) and being more effective in what messages we are trying to put across we can be far more skilful and successful in our interactions with others – and that can bring us significant benefits in our personal lives as well as in our work roles.

What can get in the way of developing such a level of effectiveness is the very fact that we are so used to body language; it is part and parcel of our daily lives and has been for as long as we can remember. This means that we can (and generally do) become blasé about it. So, what is needed, then, is a greater level of self-awareness. To become more effective in our use of body language we need to raise our level of self-awareness, to be more tuned in to the signals other people are giving off and more alert when it comes to the signals we are giving off.

People vary considerably in their ability to use body language. You may have met people who are so skilled that you immediately feel comfortable with them; their ability to ‘tune in’ to you and put you at your ease is at quite an advanced level. You may have also met people who are pretty clueless when it comes to body language – they fail to ‘connect’ with people and totally miss important information that is there for them to use if only they would tune in to it.

A simple example is smiling. A smile generally means ‘I am pleased to be with you’ and can therefore be a very positive message. By the same token, not smiling can give a very negative message. I once came across a student who had spent 200 days on a work placement and her supervisor had not smiled once during that time, giving the student a very strong message that she was not welcome. Thankfully, the student had not allowed this to get in the way of her learning, but it could easily have been very different and highly problematic.

All forms of communication, including body language, are complex, so it is not just a matter of saying ‘smile more often’. It is more about building up your skills over time, knowing when it is helpful to smile and when it is not. Just relying on the habits that you developed in early childhood gives us far less control (and thus far less effectiveness) when it comes to communication.


Be careful about who you can trust

It is often said that trust needs to be earned, and that implies that we start off not trusting people until they reach the point when they have done enough to convince us that they are trustworthy. But is it really that simple?

How realistic is it to withhold trust until we feel that the risk of having that trust abused is at a low enough level? Of course, it isn’t realistic at all. To a certain extent social interactions would not be possible if we did not begin with at least a degree of basic trust. Imagine totally mistrusting everyone we encounter unless and until they have done enough to convince us that they can be trusted. That would surely make life extremely difficult all round. So, we need to have a certain amount of trust as the basis of our society.

But does that mean that we should just abandon ourselves to trusting all people all of the time? Of course not. That would be a potential recipe for disaster. Unscrupulous people would have a field day in exploiting others if we automatically trusted everyone in all circumstances. There’s also unreliable people, those who don’t intend to exploit us, but who cause us problems because they do not deliver – they either have no compunction in letting us down or they are in some way incapable of making sure they do what they have promised to do. In all of these situations we would be unwise to trust people unconditionally.

So, how do we handle this? Well, to my mind, there are (at least) two sets of issues to consider: degrees of trust and circumstances of trusting. Let’s consider each in turn.

The question of ‘degrees of trust’ is basically a matter of how far you are prepared to be trusting in a particular situation. For example, while certain retail outlets may trust customers to pay for their newspaper by putting the correct amount in the ‘honesty box’ provided, I can’t imagine a car dealership ever allowing people to pay for their new car in that way. To what extent we are prepared to trust will depend on a number of factors. It can be very helpful to be clear about what those factors are before making a decision about trust – especially in those situations where the stakes are high.

Then there are the circumstances of trust to be considered. One obvious aspect of this is somebody’s track record. Have they proven trustworthy in the past? But that’s not the only factor to consider. If you are concerned about whether you can trust someone to do something as agreed, how much evidence is there that they have the ability, resources and commitment to deliver? How serious would the consequences be if they did not deliver? These and other situational factors can be important considerations. Assessing the circumstantial factors involved won’t give us a fool-proof way of managing trust-related risk issues, but it will give us a much stronger and safer basis than just relying on gut feelings or putting everything down to chance.

Finally, then, how do we know who to trust and who not to? The short answer is that we don’t. Each episode of trusting someone is a risk, a gamble. There is no guarantee that we will get it right. Sometimes we will not trust someone when there was nothing to be concerned about and perhaps a good opportunity will have passed us by. Then there will be times when we trust people and later regret it, having had our fingers burned. What we need, then, is the same as what we need in relation to any risk issues: a balanced approach. Complete, unconditional trust will leave us vulnerable, whereas minimising trust will narrow our horizons considerably. A balanced approach means avoiding these two extremes and that means weighing up degrees of trust and the circumstances of trusting.

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.