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16th July 2024 


Recently on Radio4 they were discussing how scientists are recognising that it is impossible to describe anything objectively because our brain filters and shapes everything we experience. For example our hands are probably not identical but our brain re-interprets the image we 'see' so that they appear identical to ourselves because this is our preferred ideal image.

This lead me to think about how many people have predictable/repetitive responses to others. A very common example are individuals who constantly blame others for their unhappiness.For example others are seen as uncaring, selfish, insensitive and punishing.If our past experience is shaping our current emotional interpretation of other people then in this example it is probably wise to explore previous experiences of rejection and loss.

How can we use this insight to prevent ourselves falling into habitual repetitive patterns which shape and reinforce unhappiness?

One way of re-shaping our habitual responses is to think about our own stories or narratives.
We can explore the stories we were told about ourselves as children;were we the 'spoilt baby' of the family,the 'scatty' one, the 'sensible eldest', the handsome tearaway. How have these stories shaped how we see ourselves and how others see us?

Do we match our story?Is it still relevant to our adult self?How can we start the process of re-inventing ourselves/creating a new narrative?

We can start this re-storying by looking for even the smallest incidents when we have stepped outside our story and acted in a way which fits our preferred story.

For example the person who sees others as uncaring can search for an instance when some-one has shown them care.Then they could think about how that felt, and how they responded. They could then look for further instances when they have been cared for and begin to develop a story around their 'care-worthiness' and others' sensitivity to them.

Often people are attracted to others who 'fit' their story. So,for example the 'spoilt baby' may find a partner who feels good when they are needed,the 'scatty' individual may look for the sensible organiser.These 'fits' can work well but sometimes they become too rigid and stultifying for one or both of the partners.If this happens both will feel let down and blame the other. To overcome these disappointments the first step is to recognise that the fit needs over hauling. A fun way to do this is to exaggerate the roles in the story so that they become ridiculous; or to swop roles to highlight the benefits/disadvantages of each role. This can allow the partners to explore their stories and how they fit together in a non threatening light hearted way. Then they can jointly begin to develop new stories; sometimes they might find it liberating to have stories which don't fit together so tightly.

One characteristic of a healthy family is the capacity of each individual to celebrate (or at least tolerate) seeing two other members of their family enjoying closeness without feeling excluded or jealous. This capacity is clearly learned, as observation of ordinary sibling rivalry in very young children demonstrates. Parents are sensitive to the need to shield first borns from the shock of the arrival of the second born and take care to give them special attention. However, it is a life long learning process and when fully developed can lead to much harmony and loving sharing. How would you rate your capacity to enjoy the love shared by other pairs in your family?

Often the BBC produces a programme which is brilliant; such was Women's Hour today. It was devoted to listeners' comments on Psychologist Penelope Leach's latest book "Family breakdown". In it she argues that children's wellbeing can be protected when their parents split only if they pay attention to their own psychological wellbeing.She points out that 'distressed parents are destructive parents' and that re-building a different parental relationship and learning to regulate their own emotions takes time and plenty of support from a range of sources. Woman's Hour invited contributions from an amazing range of perspectives including parents, children and adults who had experienced their parent' separation; everyone had something insightful to contribute. The complexity, pain and impact of the separation process was very clear but it was brilliant to hear so many positive stories of people re-creating new family constellations and relationships.

Thinking about re-creating new family constellations, this is a process which goes on continuously whether or not a family splits up. For example it is essential that parents adapt to the changing needs of their children as they become young adults. During adolescence they are finding their own identity and this involves experimenting with being more independent practically and, importantly, emotionally. Their often clumsy attempts to become separate human beings can be experienced by their parents as rejection or disrespect. If their parents can see their need for privacy and space to make decisions/mistakes as a normal part of growing up, the family will transform into a new constellation of parents and growing adults sharing their lives.

At the other end of the life span elderly parents have to relinquish some of their independence as they come to rely more on support from their adult children. How this transition is experienced will be influenced by how graciously the elder can accept help, and how tactfully it is offered. Learning to be an independent elderly person who needs some support can be as difficult as it is for parents and children to negotiate the adolescent stage of life. The themes which unite all these processes is separation and loss leading to the re-creation of relationships which are life enhancing and developmental.

When couples have reached a stage in their partnership when they are thinking about separation or divorce there can often be a build up of acrimonious panic which often ends in a series of pleas turning into threats and ultimatums. In these emotionally charged situations it is difficult to see the whole picture, and to take time to really consider the other person's position. However, if one, or both parties, can pause for a moment and acknowledge some of the flaws in their own argument it is possible to discover some areas of common agreement. Whatever the outcome the parties have to continue in a working relationship to sort out practicalities,review the rules of the relationship and come to terms psychologically with the outcome.

Thinking about transitions in life I am often struck by how they become progressively more difficult to negotiate. Giving birth for the first time is a huge shock to most people; thankfully the joy and flow of love for the new baby carries the new parents through this major change in their lives. Breaking up becomes more complex and daunting the longer the relationship survives and the more people it impacts.The complexity is increased when families merge and much energy needs to be used to synchronise the differing needs of each member.The death of a family member leaves a gap which means re-negotiating all relationships. Preparing for retirement can be a destabalising experience involving the loss of status and identity. Each stage presents new opportunities to develop new roles and relationships and the skills learnt can be transferred and refined. People who can approach these changes openly, discussing the necessary adaptations which need to be made, acknowledging the losses and gains usually manage these transitions well.

Spending more time than usual with family can renew energies and help us to feel the value of long term relationships.Looking at old photos and reliving happy memories helps to confirm our sense of identity and place.Proximity can also rekindle old jealousies and resentments which we wish we could resolve in some way. In the bustle of family gatherings this is probably not possible. But afterwards as we review the celebrations it may be possible to think of a way to revise the past so that future relationships become more open and fulfilling. A useful start can be writing an account of your own feelings and where they might have come from. Then you could write how you would like the relationship to be in the future and think what the first steps might be to achieving this change. Remember it is only possible to change your own behaviour and the first step is to change how you view a situation.

Terrorist assaults on innocent bystanders have been much in the news.Our outrage about these events needs to be placed in the context of the more generalised nature of violence. Statistics consistently show that 2 women are killed by their partners or ex-partners every week in the UK. These shocking figures point to a failure to generate a culture of collaboration, tolerance of multiple viewpoints and conflict management skills. Next time we disagree with someone's views it may be useful to listen carefully, and then reflect back to them our understanding of their perspective before sharing our own opinion.