Leadership Crisis: Power Without Responsibility ? Part 1

It’s time to ask the question: ‘What on earth is happening with leadership.’ From global to everyday family life, it feels like we’re in a leadership crisis. Whether it’s incompetent political leaders or angry adolescents terrorising their families the desire for power without responsibility seems endemic.

In Melbourne watching our political and bureaucratic leaders duck for cover in the inquiry as to how the decisions were made that created the Melbourne Covid hotel quarantine disaster, was horrifying but unsurprising. It seems no-one made this decision…

I have dealt with the various incarnations of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) for 40+ years and have observed an accelerating process of directives coming down – usually in the form of more trivial accountability processes for the front line. This is a one way process any attempt to push accountability or even a question up the line is met with, at best a response reiterating the impossibility of the request, at worst absolutely nothing. I’m sure this also happens in other government departments but DHHS is the department with which I am familiar.

These little birds are unbelievably bossy and they survive unchallenged!

If I knew that DHHS bureaucracy shouldn’t be put in charge of anything important, how come Daniel Andrews or his ministers didn’t. Sadly this investigation seems to have uncovered that none of our large state run bureaucracies were up for the job. None of them complied with the practice and procedures that they impose on the front line, and none of them expected to be called to account for their actions. When did this happen that these people we trust to run our large departments could be so unaccountable as to not even take and keep minutes of meetings. It would be nice to believe this is just a local problem but as I scan the world leaders it seems to be reasonably common. Has this always been the case and the public are now less accepting of bad decisions and thanks to social media there is certainly a lot more scrutiny?

The conclusions that I’ve come to are complex and probably could be a book rather than a blog or possibly two. Certainly in the case of DHHS I think, in the main, poor management has managed to survive because of the integrity of the front line work force. Most are attracted to this field because they want to be helpful. In this field incompetent managers can mainly trust people to do their job and from my observation certainly in health and welfare the front line workers generally manage to deliver a quality service especially if incompetent managers get out of their way.

I love this sculpture. It captures quiet strength

But I would like to think about leadership in much broader terms. We all have moments when we are leaders, whether that be as parents, partners, colleagues or friends. How do we learn to lead? Embedded in the ways in which we lead are our personal ethics. Do we have a core belief that it’s important to consider the position of others who might be impacted when making a decision? Or when we make a decision that ends up being a mistake can we pick up the percentage of responsibility that is our own?

People who don’t ever consider these questions have an ethical distortion, a belief they have the right to impose and take, regardless of others. And as a consequence have developed a privileged mindset. Good leadership is a relational phenomenon – not a one way – I direct, you follow.

So lets start with the concept of privilege whether it’s male, white or whatever. When someone takes a job they think they deserve but are actually not competent to perform is a reflection of a what I would describe as a privileged mindset. I’m not talking about someone newly promoted who takes time to find their feet. But someone who steps into a position without any respect or interest for what the position entails. There is no ability to see of the impact of their leadership style on the people they are leading. There is no circularity: no feedback received, no reflection, no accountability. Donald Trump provides the most stunning current example of this style of leadership of power without responsibility.

To understand this phenomenon in leadership, I find a concept from anthropologist Gregory Bateson helpful – denial of denial. Along with many other wonderful theories he talked about two levels of denial. Most of us practice denial at some point, this is when we can feel something bubbling away but choose to deny it until it becomes impossible to do so. An example of this might be when we suspect our adolescent isn’t being entirely honest but we continue to believe them until the police take action and there is a knock on the door. In these situations we lick our wounds of shame and berate ourselves for not taking action sooner. But we are able to accept, respond and take, more or less, appropriate responsibility for our denial.

In denial of denial it will be everyone else’s fault.

In denial of denial there is an actual blindness, or a brick wall fencing in someone’s reality so that it is impossible to penetrate. Their truth is the only truth and anyone who disagrees is problematic. This creates rigidity and a dominance that potentially becomes abusive because it denies anyones right to a different point of view. This concept of denial of denial has been incredibly helpful when working with families where there has been an absence of good will. Or an unwillingness to empathise or consider another point of view as valid. It’s like an honest dishonesty. What is being denied really doesn’t exist for the denier, even when others can often very clearly see what’s being denied.

What is usually denied is a vulnerability, but this vulnerability is so defended it’s impossible to access, I’ve worked with many families with this phenomenon and often the best you can do is educate the family to build resistance to the misuse of power, accept and give up hope that this person will change.

The power for someone in a relationship with a person who has denial of denial is to refuse to accomodate the blindness even if the only way to achieve this is to walk away. Not always easy because fear is often a factor in keeping someone trapped in relationship with someone who has denial of denial. This fear may also include an awareness of the denier’s vulnerability and dependence on the compliance of the other. Tragically we see this play out when there is a murder of a partner who has managed to escape a relationship from some-one who has denial of denial.

People who have denial of denial are very controlling and hence often end up in leadership positions. They also often interview incredibly well, honest dishonesty is their absolute forte, they sell themselves incredibly well. But once in the job their leadership style demands compliance: there is no scope for difference, no scope for reflection, no scope for empathy. Ironically sometimes people with denial of denial can be seen as caring, they can be very attentive and for a time feel very nurturing until for whatever reason the recipient no longer wants the sort of care they are delivering.

Neurobiology has now given us a framework for understanding what happens to create denial of denial, validating what Gregory Bateson observed 70 or so years ago. It seems, put extremely simply, it is a form of disability created from a deficit in oxytocin (the love hormone) in our formative years. For whatever reason there has been an absence of attuned parenting. This in turn effects the neuroplasticity or stretch of the brain and the areas that allow us to think abstractly and have empathy (an abstract ability) just isn’t switched on. It’s often not malicious neglect on the parent’s part but circumstances are such that a parent is distracted and not able to respond regularly enough to the cues from their infant. Often something else is happening in the family that interrupts the ability to be attuned.

When this is the case the phenomenon is harder to understand because in the main the family is loving and caring but one child is difficult and parental guilt often feeds a process of creating a privileged mindset in this child. This child ends up getting more than their fair share of the family resources. This child then unfortunately grows into an adult who expects to be able to lead, even though they may feel powerless, and not be called to account. Simultaneously there is a profound vulnerability of unloveableness that is denied. This vulnerability may be sensed by others which unfortunately contributes to the other being forgiving of the bad behaviour of the denial of denial person. Ignoring behaviour of the over-entitled, I deserved all the resources, impossible to call to account – human. Completely closed to feedback from others. Power is conceded to the denial of denial leader heartbreakingly often.

Whether through guilt, fear, or empathy many of us inadvertently support bad leadership. Opportunities are missed to reign in leaders who practice denial of denial. It could be a parent trying to protect a child from accountability, or a manager promoting rather than performance managing an incompetent colleague, or not seriously thinking about the implications of our vote in elections. This is where I think the focus needs to be. Not on the leader who wants power without responsibility but how many acts of simple inaction have contributed to denial of denial leaders.

We all make decisions and influence others, we all have leadership moments so maybe it’s time to shift the focus to these moments and what we do with the opportunities that cross our paths.

Tragically those of us who have had enough love to be able to feel empathy tune into the panicked denial of vulnerability, that becomes denial of denial. Inadvertently supporting bad leadership, whether that be of a political leader, a partner, or the school yard bully. Those of us with empathy often try to understand and then muddle understanding with forgiveness or acceptance. In effect enabling the leader who is leading with the emotional disability of denial of denial.

This is unfortunately how incompetent leadership survives, people who want power without responsibility actually rely on the support and accomodation of others. This has been so clearly exposed in many of our political leaders and unfortunately our media co-operates by keeping the line of enquiry narrow and repetitive.

To be continued…

Curiosity – a mental health check

This year has been a challenge. I was just starting to feel relief, unlike many others, my patch of Australian bush has been spared fires for another summer. I was enjoying some much needed rain and cooler weather – wondering about plans for the year – then Covid hit.

All a bit weird, 2020 the year to sit still and reflect

Somewhere between bushfire fear and Covid 19 panic, I lost my interest in people and in the world in general. I found myself feeling hostile, irritable and incredibly judgemental over panic buying, especial the toilet paper hoarders. I resisted getting recruited to join the panic, unwisely as it would turn out when down to my last roll of toilet paper and still none on the horizon. It was then that my last fragments of curiosity slid into contempt all I could see was the ‘ugly Australian’. The more our Prime Minister Scott Morrison banged on about the great Australian spirit – the angrier I got.

At some point I caught myself about to snap at a fellow distressed shopper. It was then I realised I’d normally be interested and curious and play a game of speculating what could be going on for them. But not today, I was ready to wheel my supermarket trolley right over the top of them in order to beat them to one of the last kilo’s of plain flour. Luckily I know enough to take heed and warn myself that I need to do something about my current emotional state. I was really missing the stabilising effect of my regular routines and rituals.

Over the first 3 months of lock down due to the Covid 19 pandemic there had been lots of concern about the impact on our mental health. And now as Victoria embarks on another round, even more so.

The full impact on Families, couples and individuals suddenly locked in for weeks on end with none of the usual distractions, is yet to fully surface. Initially many of us, myself included, enjoyed the slower pace of life, but as time has gone on and the economic fallout starts to unfold, the planning significant events is futile, the loss of simple everyday practises like going to the gym are no longer predictably possible etc etc…

In my whole 30+ years as a family therapist/mental health practitioner I can’t remember a time of such intense, mass distress. Everything and everyone has escalated. The degree to which this is affecting wellbeing can be measured by observing ones ability to be curious – to be able to play with possibilities for oneself and others.

just waiting

As I observe both my clients and myself I have noticed that curiosity becomes a good guide to how we are travelling emotionally. When we lose our curiosity we are going down… Neurobiology has taught has that ongoing high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, creates a rigidity of thinking that makes us reactive, which in turn impacts our ability to effectively problem solve.

We all have our moments of inflexible certainly. But when some one holds certainly about everything, or is reactive and can’t hear, has no interest in what is going on around them or in the world, it means their ability to reflect and think has become jeopardised. Their mental health is impaired. If this is occasional which is true for all of us, it can be a warning that we need to take some self care action. This could be as simple as going for a walk, sitting down with a hot drink and a little treat, or patting the dog.

How we work out what we need requires curiosity about ourselves. What do we actual feel like? What is our reactive irritability telling us? Where does our power lie in taking the action we need to take to stabilise ourselves emotionally? If we think about a hierarchy of curiosity this is the foundational level.

The next level concerns our close connections. What is happening for them? What triggered that inappropriate snappy remark? Is the timing right to call attention to the inappropriateness of that response, or does that need to wait? And then broadening out to all the different relational levels – including global.

When we can feel curious we are well enough loved. Curiosity is embedded in empathy. It’s how we understand what it feels like to be someone else. Over the Covid lockdowns we’ve witnessed much curiosity and empathy but also much hatred and soul destroying self interest. Self interest that denies the rights of others impacts on the recipients mental health. But it also says something about the mental health of the self interested! Is this a person you want to live with? Is this a person you want to vote for or work with? The cracks in relationships are being exposed.

Do you want to go on witnessing bad behaviour by a so called loved one?

There is an old family therapy theory that talks about a 2nd order change – as a lasting change – that comes about from an escalation that is so great that at some point a change in thinking occurs. When I think about this theory I find my curiosity is restored – I become interested in what the ripple effect of this distress might be. Maybe it might spotlight misuse of power in relationships in a much more diverse and useful way – here’s hoping…

It’s heartening when I hear stories of people who have pulled together, developed understandings that have improved their sense of wellbeing and mental health – I live in a distorted world so I haven’t heard too many of these. The most common stories I keep hearing are about the re-establishing of the old gender divide of women struggling with the kids, managing the home schooling , their own work, managing the home whilst the men occupy the prime space in the home, with the door shut to the mayhem outside.

There are of course exceptions I’ve heard many men expressing their wonder at what their partners deal with and have enjoyed being more hands on, which has been possible because they are at home. Unfortunately these comments in my distorted world are the exception not the rule

The scenario I hear so often is more likely to be one of distress by overloaded woman. With men who are worried and appeasing but not really stepping up. Many of the women I see have made comments about how they feel powerless to do anything at the moment, but when its over…

I wait with interest.

being out in nature- a way of restoring curiosity

The Lost Art of Daydreaming

It’s been over a year since I’ve written a blog. Not because I haven’t had any ideas or subject matter but somehow ideas just weren’t developing into more than fleeting threads.

On reading an article on some research done by the Georgia Institute of Technology on the importance of daydreaming I realised this might contain the answer for the absence of creative thought. It seems daydreaming is good for us and the absence directly relates to intelligence and the quality of brain function (1).  Reading a summary of this research in the Neuroscience News, explains a possible explanation as to why nothing has developed beyond a concept: my daydreaming time has been seriously limited  lately. The absence of those moments of distracted thought wandering are a variable.

For some time now I feel like I have had no drifting time, ever minute seems to be nailed down into some activity. Theres is no sitting in a cafe gazing at the world passing by, no just staring into space whilst enjoying a cup of something. Free flowing brain time has almost completely gone from my, and it seems most peoples, lives.

I wonder about the link between boredom, daydreaming,  creativity and play.   My mind wanders to thinking about the possible connection to what seems like an epidemic of people  struggling with stress and anxiety. It feels like there is never any ‘down time’ to just sit in a coffee shop and watch the crowd walk by,  look at clouds in the sky, or the wind in the trees.

That phenomenon of just letting our minds loosely wander without structure is something that we now have to pay for – via meditation sessions or mindfulness in the therapy situation.

Constant emotional dis-regulation is a cultural phenomenon where marketers have sold cool = busy.  We have developed a fear of boredom. This fear nicely supports the current cultural push to making the most of every moment. This is satisfied via our great love the mobile phone, and of course rampant consumerism. I believe this fear of boredom and our current solutions undermines our trust in ourselves and our ability to be okay with unstructured, potentially, boring time.

This most powerfully plays out in our parenting practises. It’s currently a common belief in Australia that: good parents schedule their children’s every waking minute.

What is the origin of fear of boredom? Is it just a form of social control? The research done by the Georgia team found ‘MRI scans also reveals more efficient brain systems for frequent daydreamers.’    Daydreaming positively  impacts neuroplasticity, creativity, and intelligence. ‘Interestingly, research has suggested that these same brain patterns measured during these (daydreaming) states are related to different cognitive abilities.’

We seem to be living a myth, falsely believing that more information, more activity promotes intelligence and yet it seems it might actually be the opposite – not to be misunderstood as an excuse for intellectual neglect – but over scheduling  our time might be a serious mistake, especially for our children.

This research has the potential to impact the ways in which we do many things. For example the idea that’s important for children, even quite young children to do homework. The argument being it’s important to get them into a study habit, but is it actually robbing them of opportunities to play (not computer games) and create?    Whinging boredom, whilst annoying, could be the fuel for intelligence. The need to dream up a game,  each individual taking charge of working out what will satisfy their boredom. Resisting the temptation to direct a bored other into an activity. This dreaming up is also an important step in self regulation and self definition.

With no time to drift and free range think, have we confused active compliance with intelligence?  Being dominated by a fear of boredom, hence driven by activity, directly results in an inability to be just ourselves. This fear and lack of trust in self is great fodder for chronic anxiety and stress.

(1) <http://neurosciencenews.com/intelligence-daydreaming-7798/>

Goodwin, C.A., Hunter, M.A., Bezdek, M.A., Lieberman, G., Elkin-Frankston, S., Romero, V.L., Witkiewitz, K., Clark, V.P., & Schumacher, E.H., (2017). Functional Connectivity Within and Between Intrinsic Brain Networks Correlates With Trait Mind Wandering.




Pressure Cooking our Mums

For most of us our mum is the most important person in our lives. Whether we like it or not how we are parented does make a difference to our physical and emotional health. In the main, this places the responsibility for the next generation firmly in the hands of mums. In Australia, mostly, it’s the woman who are the primary nurturers.

When I look at the phenomenon of mothering what I find both annoying and confusing is a fundamental societal dishonesty. This dishonest enables a blindness to some core contradictions in the ways in which we treat families with young children, and in particular our mums. Every day via social media or advertising we watch  lots cheering on and celebrating  mothers, singing their praises, acknowledging the importance of loving, attentive relationships between mothers and children. In the very same warm fuzzy moment Australians as a community vote for and support government policies and social practices that undermine mothering. Ensuring that a mother’s ability to trust what feels intuitively ‘right’ is impossible to carry out without guilt or pressure. We want our mums to be perfect nurturers at the same time as eroding all support.

Consequently  we establish a mindset in which ordinary every day, stressed, mothers have pressure to become  MOTHERS!  Wonderful fictional characters who provide all: endless love, endless energy, competent nutritious cooks, always there for everyone, and to top it off – fit and sexy ‘yummy mummies’ where on earth did that awful phrase come from! No room here for your sleep deprived, exhausted, isolated and financially stressed mother.

Through my grandmother eyes I feel horrified at what I see happening to our  families with young children.  I see an unrelenting continuously tightening of regulations and standard setting, alongside ever expanding erosion of social and financial support. This pressure on today’s mum’s (and dad’s) is unsustainable, and I have no doubt contributes to our increasing statistics on depression and anxiety.

Coincidently, as expectations increase on our mothers to be MOTHERS there is a decrease in state/federal support as policy, whether intentional or just poorly planned, undermines every aspect that could support a family with young children. I listed a few that come to mind quickly but I’m sure there are many I have missed:

  1. Putting up the retirement age – many grandparents that could have provided free support are still working full time. (Introducing tax penalties for accessing superannuation prior to 65 years of age, and incrementally increasing the age of eligibility for accessing an aged pension.)
  2. The lack of a serious federally funded maternity leave program – 3 months is not enough, and it should not be linked to ones employment history.
  3. The constant budget reduction for maternal and child health.
  4. The cost of housing.
  5. The continual chipping away at the childcare system making it both expensive and difficult to find places.
  6. The increasing of the means test for subsidised childcare.
  7. Significant price increases to gas and electricity.
  8. The erosion of weekend penalty rates – the times when many mothers of young children can work.

The research on the importance of love based attachments has confirmed what everyone has known for ever – that babies need love. This research has  identified the importance of the love hormone oxytocin in infant brain development.  What has also been identified is chronic stress and high levels of cortisol is not good for any of us, but particularly problematic when it becomes dominant in a mother/infant bond. Despite funding bodies chanting we need ‘evidence based’ information this evidence is ignored.  With mounting evidence of the impact of stress on young brains you would think an affluent country like Australia would do everything to support mothers of young children.

Of course fathers are important too, but somehow most of them don’t get caught in the crippling guilt driven superwoman struggle that this blog is about.

In the main mothers are central to family life and are generally the primary comforters of their babies. Because at some level we all know this to be true I believe we have a crazy phenomenon present that has split the role of mother into two parts. There is you as a mother, or your own mother as an imperfect human and then there is superhero mother – the fictional mother that is perfect: always smiling, always available, never grumpy. This distortion, I think significantly contributes to us all not fully recognising the importance of supporting the people who are raising the next generation. It’s like we have a collective blindness regarding the future, or maybe don’t even believe there will be one!

I hope the pressure to be superhero mother is at a peak as I find it distressing to watch. Some political good will, and feel good action for the rest of us by getting behind our young families as a nation might contribute something to our spiritual emptiness. I’m not talking about religion here but the sense that as a community we have a shared interest in the wellbeing of the next generation. An interest in something greater than our own everyday lives. It feels like it would be an easy political message to sell. Your taxes supporting the emotional and physical health of the next generation via giving our mums support because they’re mums not because they’re contributing to tax revenue – which they will also be doing even if it’s via GST.

This change of attitude might also extend to supporting young families rather than regulating them into perfection. Now no-one wants anything terrible to happen to any of their loved ones, let alone their children, but sometimes things do go wrong. We can’t protect everyone 100% of the time through safety legislation. In many ways these regulations only tighten the pressure on the compliant, people who are above the law will never comply no matter how strictly we promote speed limits/child restraints/infant sleep rules/safety locks/health warnings etc etc etc. And accidents, unfortunately will continue to happen – there will always potentially be that one moment. Most parents are well aware of these and don’t need guilt piled on them if they sneak an infant into bed, or let a child watch more screen time than is recommended, or not foresee that the chair wasn’t as stable as they hoped, or whatever else. We all have careless moments. Luckily most of us survive.

In my experience I have never found guilt to be a helpful emotion and it can turn the every day fault filled mother into superhero mother. I think it’s important to make a distinction between remorse where you feel regret that you did or didn’t do something.   Here one is clear about the intention or mis- intention of what has occurred and there is more likelihood of acceptance for your own part. Guilt is often a free flowing, helpless knowing that you’ve done something wrong, generally as defined by someone else. Blame and shame are often embedded in guilt and most major organisations that want to control start by creating guilt. This we do to our mothers – not only through our current policies and taxing system but also via the voice of the expert. There are experts commenting on everything a mother should or shouldn’t be doing.

Of course this also includes me!  As an expert I’d like mum’s to ask themselves the question ‘what is reasonable’ for one human to achieve. Especially one who may never get an uninterrupted night’s sleep, or never get 5 minutes to her or himself. I hope that this question will help access intuition, no one really knows what is right for another person. The voice of the expert is really just a suggestion. We all (including experts) have to muddle along,  we all do make mistakes and terrible things can happen but they always happen in a context which is why the ‘what is reasonable’ is such an important question.  Whenever we go beyond our own ‘what is reasonable’ resources we end up in a stress driven pressure cooker and that’s when things often go wrong.


The Importance of Holidays

Luckily I enjoy a long holiday tradition. What we think was my Grandparents holiday house squashed next to the tall building.

I know holidays are not a thing everyone can financially afford, or take time to enjoy, but having just returned from a lovely 5 week stint in Europe, I am reminded of how important they are. I’m not necessarily talking about the extravaganza I’ve just had the privilege of enjoying. I’m more interested a process where the slog of every day life is interrupted and there is space and time for rest and reflexion.

I believe this is important for many interconnected and multilayered reasons that often get muddled resulting is an unhappy holiday experience. As a way to navigate holiday planing I’ll pick up on the anxiety theme of the last couple of blogs. Current anxieties can provide a guide to the holiday that is needed. If, when thinking about the holiday plan there’s an increase in anxiety, no joy, or excited anticipation – then it’s the wrong holiday.

I believe it’s important that a holiday enables opportunities to take of your watch and turn off your phone with the aim of getting into your own flow of activity and inactivity. This process of tuning into your  own wants – is an important antidote to anxiety.  Another important anti anxiety process is keeping the should’s at bey. Despite being on holiday just like every day life should’s can insidiously creep in: I should be doing more, should be resting more,  should put up a Facebook post…the list of holiday should’s is endless and is often presented with the marketing hype of – ‘you can’t be here and not experience this!’

It’s Fiesta time in Matera

I do believe that keeping should’s at bey on holidays is easier than at home but nonetheless when they take hold they will steal the holiday benefits.  This is a particular risk if a holiday is to be spent at home. When at home it’s very hard to keep the ever present list of jobs from interfering with the relaxation and rejuvenation process that a holiday should achieve. Whilst it’s wonderful to knock off some of those much needed maintenance or renovation tasks – this is not a holiday.  There is no or very little tuning into what your own body needs.

Another advantage of holidays, particularly those away from home, is that they allow brain space for refection on the structure of everyday life: what’s of value, what’s not working, and what possible solutions could be put in place.

A step back in time

Holidays also enable time for all levels of ritual. Starting with persona rituals, which could be as simple as going for a stroll on the beach before brekkie or lying in bed reading. Then there’s couple or friendship rituals which will vary depending on your travel companions. Some examples could be: enjoying a drink before dinner, taking a moment to connect whilst sharing a beautiful view, or seeing new things that can build connection and potentially add a new activity that can be taken home and be built into a regular relationship ritual, things like kayaking, walking, photography are common examples. Even if you’re travelling on your own having relationship rituals are still important  these might be things like the old fashioned practice of writing post cards or putting up a Facebook post. Then there are family rituals, if it’s a family holiday then potentially there will be some stress free time just to enjoy each other.

The reprieve from everyday pressures that can occur during a holiday remind us of  what is important and why we bother with all the angst of everyday life. After all why bother if there aren’t times of enjoyment.

The Trulli of Alberobello. Puglia

Over the years it’s been brought to my attention that what adults remember  from their childhoods are the breaks in the mundane routine good and bad.  In counselling sessions when seeking positive childhood experiences – childhood holidays  is  often what is remembered.

As a family therapist these stand out holiday memories offer a chance to explore a different family story to the one that might have become embedded in the dominant family folklore. A holiday does provide a space to potentially have a different experience of each other.

If a holiday is still in the same country, but within a different community, it opens up a little snapshot of other possible lives, this in turn feeds a reflective process. The question what would it be like to live here? Makes a little space between the life currently lived and other possibilities. The result of this playing with ‘possible lives’ could be a regaining of what is appreciated within a current lifestyle, or may provide the impetus for a major lifestyle change.  It’s not uncommon for people to come in for a session after a holiday experience that has left them questioning the way they are currently living.

People were living in these caves up until 1965 – puts our living standard into perspective

If a holiday is overseas even in a beautiful country like Italy, for me anyway, there is a valuing of the quality of life we have in Australia and when I go to Malta, the country of my family of origin, I always give thanks for my parents courage to step into the unknown and immigrate.  I love being in Malta and can feel the terrible emotional pull that, especially, my mother had her whole life. Even though she loved Australia there was something lost that could not be replaced or soothed.

Inside a sassi or cave house

A holiday that involves a heritage aspect is very particular, it feeds a different aspect of identity. There is a process of stepping back in time. Stepping momentarily into the shoes of all the generations that have gone before. The loss of connection to heritage that occurs with immigration undermines belonging. The impact of disrupted belonging is often overlooked in counselling and sometimes tragically labelled as depression.

A good holiday heightens our belonging, the sense of ourselves as individuals and the importance of the connections to all we love – our significant others and our home. It rejuvenates us and puts our daily lives into perspective assisting us to work towards saving for our next holiday!

Anxiety cont…

This month I didn’t quite achieve my own self imposed goal of getting up one blog a month. As the month of May drew to a close I was aware of an emotional shift from looking forward to a creative writing moment to, being anxious about finding time to indulge myself with time to write.

I discovered many years ago that there was a link for me between time, or more accurately the lack of it, and anxiety. The question needed to soothe this anxiety is what can I let go? Answering this question seems to be becoming harder to answer.

Taking a moment to read a story in the autumn sun – an antidote to anxiety

The Anxiety plague seems to be touching all of us in some way or other. Whether directly, in terms of our own anxiety levels, or being affected by the anxiety of a loved one.

To some degree I think maybe anxiety has always been very present in our lives but what it means to ‘struggle’ has shifted. Struggling to get to a meeting on time pales into insignificance when compared with struggling to stay alive. One important antidote to anxiety is thinking about whether the comparisons being used increase or decrease a sense of appreciation for ones life. Do the comparisons cause envy or appreciation.

I also wonder if the multiple levels of struggle have become merged and achieving something that, in the end, is of little consequence carries the same anxiety weight as something essential to survival. Having a hierarchy of importance is one of the answers to the question what can I let go?

In a country like Australia, it’s easy to confuse and believe that something of little consequence is actually something of critical importance.  And because most of us don’t have a daily fight to survive,  we can indulge ourselves in tuning into our fluctuations of moods and various angsts. Which, in the absence of real struggle, easily gets out of proportion.

Nonetheless there are some factors that I believe definitely  help escalate  our day-to-day anxieties. The pressure to be happy and the best you can possibly be – this translate into being active, constantly looking for opportunities to grow whether emotionally, or economically – the whole upwardly mobile – push, push, push. This is the voice of economic rationalism our current political belief system that profit and economic growth is the absolutely the most important thing – beyond question, almost like a religious belief.

And yet we all yearn simplicity – time just to be… Time to indulge in our own ‘self regulation’ pursuits. Time to day dream… How come the ‘must be achieving’ overrides this yearning. Especially as we all know, that indulging this yearning does reduce anxiety? How come this knowing is so easy to forget?

Back to Systems Theory and differentiation. What connects us to our world and what defines us as individuals? When our daily practises or personal rituals fall away – anxiety will escalate. I’m talking about simple routines and rituals that define who we are, they give us our belonging and define the sense of who we are as individuals.

The photo above is of a beach which is part of my belonging. The minute I drive down towards it I feel myself shift emotionally. Walking along this beach regardless of the weather, fulfil both a sense of belonging and a personal ritual.

Back to economic rationalism, since profit has become the number one priority there has been a gradual erosion of the importance of ‘service’. This has made even simple tasks like going to the bank quite stressful. The devaluing of ‘service’, I believe, may directly correlate with our national increase in anxiety. This operates on a number of levels: the most obvious is the amount of time small jobs now take. I’m always underestimating and so always under time pressure and anxiously never feeling quite on top of things. But the most important factor is that ‘service’ is a relational process, that connects people, whereas profit is isolating and hierarchical.

Going to a local coffee shop where you are treated with kindness and warmth is a very different experience to that of going to a large pressured but profitable franchise. This erosion of connectedness through the lack of economic value on ‘service’, has been a gradual process over many years.  I believe the increase in anxiety particularly in our children is the outcome. They don’t feel safe and belonged because they aren’t connected to themselves let alone anyone else.

There isn’t time to feel simultaneously connected and separate. The time to feel safe pottering  around in their own space  discovering their own creative, abstract pursuits. Of course fear underpins this.  We all know the experience of good ‘service’ dilutes fear and value on profit – escalates fear. Anyone who has worked for a company where they only thing that matters is ‘the bottom line’ will always feel vulnerable.

Actually I think it’s should read ‘what’s cooked!”

We’re all slowly  cooking. Anxiety is trying to warn us. But in todays world of ‘happy, happy happy’ sadness and anxiety are pathologized and medicated.  Greatly assisting the profits of drug companies.

Listen to the voice of anxiety and what counters it. When I have clients talking about things they love to do, they are usually simple things that may  involve that lovely little word no. A no that frees up time, enabling time for that run, or walk, or sitting in the garden with a cup of coffee or tea, reading a hard copy of the weekend papers, the list is endless and inexpensive. There are so many small things that we can do, if we take time to focus, we will find the solution to our anxiety. This is simple in theory but hard to put into and sustain in practice. Because it does take time and strength to stand against the dominant cultural voice of do, do, do – buy, buy buy.

Nothing like going on an adventure

Anxiety, Anxiety, Anxiety

Anxiety seems to be haunting all of us in varying degrees. Because it’s such a common phenomenon, I believe, there must be some cultural variables at play. To try and understand this I’ve engaged in a small, very subjective, research project, with the aim of trying to identify what are the contributing factors to our current anxiety epidemic.

The first that comes to my attention is systems that don’t work. Often, when using the internet to try and manage something, especially when it’s an important something, there always seems to be a glitch, and when something goes wrong trying to track down a helpful human can take an amazing amount of time! The outcome of this often repeated event, albeit with different companies or bureaucracies, is anxiety. Just knowing that I have to do something important via the internet can cause me anxiety.

This week’s challenge was connecting WiFi. I felt very anxious about my ability to achieve this task so tried to locate a human who I could pay to come and do it. This was not to be, so off I went to Harvey Norman where I was

When our anxiety is heightened we often yearn for simplicity but is that really the answer?

assured by an enthusiastic sales assistant that all I needed to do was take this new modem home, plug it in and I would have WiFi.  Needless to say it didn’t quite work out this way. After 3 hours along with recruiting help from family, I was very anxious, but I did have WiFi.

Embedded in this relatively trivial anxiety producing experience are many variables that I think feed generalised anxiety.

completely relaxed

Firstly: systems that don’t work the way manufacturers/ sales assistants/ bureaucrats say they will. This leads to the second anxiety trigger; everything takes longer than anticipated. Whether it’s paying a bill, driving somewhere, or a trying to install a new system of some sort, there always seems to be a disconnect between the time allocated and the time actually needed. Then there is the actual cost. Many of our now deemed essential household expenses eat into the family budget, and then annoyingly become out of date before they actually break or wear out. If you’ve got a household full of adolescent children this can become a relentless, expensive battle ground.

The mismatch between available finances and time is definitely an anxiety feeder.

There are many daily annoyances that trigger  anxiety. Add to these numerous other significant contributing factors.  I believe, ironically, the absence of real life and death struggle. For most of us in an affluent country like Australia, many of the things that make us anxious don’t really matter in the grand scheme of having a satisfying life. I think that especially for our children this absence of overcoming significant challenges has created a situation that is eroding their confidence. They are so protected and as parents our fear for them is so great, they have limited opportunity to gain the satisfaction of surviving, problem solving, or overcoming adversity. Whether an adult or child, when we achieve a sense of overcoming, it builds our resilience and confidence in our life management skills. This, of course,  also includes our ability to survive a tragedy.

This little dog is completely confident with her place in the world until there is a thunder storm – then anxiety +

Unfortunately, no matter what is happening we are quick to consult an expert, whilst this can be helpful and soothing,  often it undermines our intuitive knowing. I believe anxiety is created when we ignore our own intuition and enact someone else’s opinion over our own sense of what is right.  It’s much more helpful if we can consider the opinions of others, but not override   our ‘knowing’.  We have all, no doubt, experienced times when our loved ones take ignoring their advice as a sign of a lack of love. This definitely creates anxiety, and this anxiety could be labelled as a indicator of ‘control confused as love’.

The absence of community support to enact a solution that feels right is not encouraged. Everything is ‘evidence based’ and even though this evidence is not always sound, it’s given priority over ones own personal  knowledge. Over time, this undermines confidence, breeding uncertainty and in turn anxiety.  When times are tough our history of overcoming adversity is what soothes us, providing the confidence and courage to do what ever needs to be done. When our ‘pool of competence’ has been undermined by either experts or loved ones we can end up with immobilising anxiety.

When criticism is ongoing and not coherently attached to relevant events, the sense of being under siege can take hold. Because the criticism is completely detached from our own actions it can result in a chronic state of hyper alertness – keeping recipients relentless on the lookout for possible personal attacks.  This is especially problematic, if our childhood experiences are of parents who constantly criticise, or blame regardless of whether it’s  warranted and can mean the difference between anxiety that is annoying but manageable, to anxiety that cripples.

Our mental health is fragile; and even if we’ve had very supportive, attuned parents, anxiety can be easily triggered. Say for example if we end up with a very critical boss, friend or partner, it won’t be long before anxiety becomes the dominant emotion.

In my work I like to think about anxiety as a signal, the challenge is to try and find out what it’s signalling. Rather than pushing anxiety away,  bring it in and try to  work out what it’s saying.  Usually, it’s a variation on a theme, a common one is – the undermining of ones right to own their  perceptions. This is generally done by someone who believes they have the right to impose their perceptions on another.

Relationships with people like this are dangerous for our mental health. People who always need to have things their way, have low thresholds for difference and so when difference and  disagreement appear they will try to annihilate the source.  The person on the receiving end of this ends up confused and anxious, chronically so, if this dynamic happens within the relationship of a significant other.

Anxiety and confusion can become signals calling to attention when this dynamic is occurring. Just the recognition of this, whilst often hard to hold onto, can be an important step in changing the meaning of anxiety and hence the anxiety about anxiety!

As I reread this I feel anxious that what I’ve written is not very clear so I think I will come back to Anxiety for my May blog.

I’v also had a tussle with the word press media system so consequently haven’t been able to upload the photos I wanted – not only have I spent a lot of time on this – it’s given me low grade anxiety…








Living with impermanence


One thing is certain, there is no certainty! So how come we struggle so much with managing both predictable and unpredictable change?

March is a sad month for me, it is the month in which my mother and brother died, and now it’s also the month that the beautiful Azure Window collapsed. This event captured the unpredictable and life as continual change.  The only certainty is one day we will die.

My beautiful mum and dad both dead now, and my children who are no longer young

In this blog I’m proposing the hypothesis that, in the West, despite enjoying a relatively stable period of time and also unprecedented affluence,  reduces our ability to deal with impermanence. I wonder if having more stability increases fear of change and instability. It feels like, maybe, we’ve losing an aspect of our adaptability and whilst unaware in an everyday way, the increase of anxiety within the community is fallout.

The inevitability of impermanence is hidden, rarely discussed and, I believe directly contributes to a generalised, illogical fear. Instead of talking and thinking about the inevitable we seem to try and control the impossible, like not ageing. Consequently it’s easy for us to miss enjoying the small moments in life because we focus on anything and everything else. Things like trying to prevent death – even in the very aged.

When something unpleasant and unpredictable happens we often look to blame. Whilst often this is an important process, it’s not helpful if it keeps people focused on what went wrong rather than ways to soothe their hurt.  Fear drives this, including the blaming of victims. If it’s someones fault then we must learn from the experience so we can prevent it re-occuring – often  this takes all of our energy, financial and emotional. With nothing left for comfort and kindness.

This idea that we can prevent something bad from happening is mythical. Yes obviously if  someone does something stupid, we’d all like to believe that there would be learning  – but sadly we often don’t learn,or if that one individual does there’ll be someone else about to do the exact same stupid thing. And of course, sometimes shit does happen – any one of us could be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time – which no amount of  careful anticipation and planning could prevent.

Denial of living in a world full of chance happenings and doggedly believing predictability and certainty are not only possible but right – feeds anxiety. This free floating  anxiety, that seems to be in plague proportions, is signalling a sense of not being emotionally resourced to manage if something goes wrong. Especially if it’s a major going wrong event.

I’m interested in the lack of conversations about living with impermanence and constant change as inevitable. Not only inevitable but a possibly escalating if some of the global warming commentators prove to be right. Our helpless fear would definitely be a cause for anxiety.

Cynically, I think focusing fear away from things we can’t change, like dying,  is good for the economy – you can trick  people and sell stuff. Like the belief that we should all have happy and fulfilled lives; we just have to get out there and do or buy stuff. Making ourselves central, not only to ourselves which is obviously important, but to everyone else helps us believe we have a guarantee of permanence  – take Facebook for example, this is what it’s sells, but it will only take a serious power failure to help us put in in it’s place as really not that important at all. Not that any of there’s anything wrong with things that promote permanence  in themselves – it the emotional motivation of the user that needs to be considered.

The clue to what this might be is the huge difference between I should or I would like. Each phrase delivers a different emotional response.

The should voice disconnects us from our intuition and what is or isn’t right in that moment – this I believe, becomes the potential soother for managing the inevitable impermanence of everyday day life. Being able to identify what you would like means you’ve taken a moment to consult yourself.

This is an important act and one we rarely give ourselves. In the West many of us have become spiritually  disconnected, our ability to deal with loss and change has become

rite of passage, marking the end of my 30+ years of marriage – simultaneous grief and joy

increasingly challenged. I’m not talking about religion here, but those small acts of taking a moment to enjoy a  beautiful sunset, or the taste of something delightful, or the feel of someone or something. And most importantly honouring grief and sadness when something precious is lost or has shifted – no matter how trivial the loss might be.

Taking a moment to honour  a broken favourite cup is important. In effect, the greater the loss the greater the time needed for honouring. But be aware, the keepers of certainty may want to steal appropriate sadness with the depression label, and a prescription of antidepressants. This, I believe, is because our low threshold for watching someone struggle with loss and the impermanence of life – unless, of course, it comes with a happy ending!


the simple act of lighting a candle is so soothing

Blocked Trust

Over the summer break I’ve been reading The Neurobiology of Attachment Focused Therapy by Jonathan Baylin and Daniel Hughes, it’s a good read and it started me wondering if blocked trust is currently a very common problem. Are we all suffering from a form of blocked trust?

I understand Baylin and Hughes to be saying that this phenomenon of blocked trust is the outcome of being parented by adults with blocked care. This, in turn, creates a lack of attuned attending which then influences the development of trust. What I understand this to mean is that the child can’t trust that an adult will adequately take care of them; and for the adult it means they fail to read the various cues that a child is sending, resulting in continual surprise or shock by what the child does.

Of course we all have our moments, but watching the news over the last few weeks it feels like Trump’s election is the outcome of the blocked trust of a nation. Frighteningly, then there is our own local Australian  politics and we seem to be suffering from the same blocked trust phenomenon. The danger, as I see it, is that people stop thinking and so it enables the selling of very simple and utopian solutions – we can make America great again…

The way this is done has a long history and is usually the fodder for war. Firstly: target a

This little dog is racist, she has a murderous prejudice against anything small, white and fluffy and she looks a little like Tony Abbott

group; then sell the idea that getting rid of them will fix everything. This basic formula has been repeated over and over again.

Those of us who work with families know this is also a common solution for families. Albeit on a much smaller scale. Parents who have  problems that feel too difficult to face often engage in a process of  denial of an underlying, often very serious, problem.  A child, usually the most sensitive, tunes into the denied undercurrents and reacts with problematic behaviour. This then sets them up to become the target: “If little Johnny could just be good we’d be fine.” It can become  a circular escalating problem. Where the more the parents need protecting from the denied problems, the worse the child’s behaviour becomes. The child, in a sense, sacrifices

homeless seal, no belonging within his colony

themselves for the unity of the family.

In essence, the same problem solving mechanism is being used by Donald Trump. The world, including America is facing some very serious problems, global warming being the most notable example of denial. Just looking at this one example, we are all observing a change in our climate but no-one in power seems to be seriously addressing it. The escalating concern and fear around this one variable is denied, add in the sliding of our standard of living, lack of permanent employing, the erosion of the socially stabilising middle class – we should be having a full scale panic.

The scene is set for simple solutions because the enormity is too hard to get a grip on. This generates fear that enables a sort of emotional blindness, disabling the ability to reason logically, and question the motives, or even the reality of the simple solutions.

Fear, whether real or imagined enables this “blocked trust” and in turn simplistic solutions.

A few weeks ago I was spending time at the beach, a great Australian pastime. Whilst daydreaming in the sun, (very naughty but I did have on factor 50 sunscreen, even though I have a vitamin D deficiency),  I noticed along the beach a couple of large family groups who happened to be muslim’s. Yes, I did feel wonder at the women who did, to my mind, have  way too much clothing on for enjoying a hot day at the beach, but when I glanced past them to their children they looked like any other Aussie kids having lots of fun at the beach.

Despite the layers of clothing, the women were also having a great time, lots of chat and laughter and  food… all very yummy looking.  It was pretty hard to sit and watch what came out of those esky’s – my vegemite sandwich wasn’t much comfort.

I was reminded of my own childhood days at the beach when there was always a scattering of over-dressed mediterranean mamma’s. They would sit under the small circle of shade provided by the beach umbrella and spent the day handing out food. In fact, probably the most noticeable difference was the quantity of shade. The portable beach huts provides shade for everyone. The men hadn’t changed much either, they were fishing off the rocks or kicking around a soccer ball.

As a first generation Australian I do feel back then the country trusted us to belong. Yes of course there was hostility and the word wog was not uncommon, but there was a sense that we were here to make a contribution and would enrich the country.

How much could never have been anticipated. If we just think about how exciting our food is – it reflects the richness of what cultural diversity can provide. But is there a group of Australians who still fear garlic and would just prefer mutton with white sauce?

My mother wept when she bought her first loaf of squishy white bread and realised (in the early 1950s) that was all there was.  Maybe this is what is feeding the fear … What will we have to eat next?

If you look at how much the first generation of European immigrants has changed the quality of life in Australia,is this terrifying for some, are some early settlers still wanting the country to return to eating flavourless food, and have the dunny out the back, full of blow flies and spiders? Is this what people who fear immigration want?

So back to blocked trust and my beach holiday, the Muslims were all on holidays too. Each day we all returned to our same spots on the beach and over time I became more and more fascinated.  I started to think – we’ve lost trust in our country and our way of being to do the job of belonging newcomers. Don Watson in his book, ‘The Bush,’ would say that Australians (indigenous people excepted) have never had trust in their country, hence why we’re still trying to control it, and still treat it very badly. I could add, and why we are still not a republic.

If trust is blocked there is no ability to envision new ways of being. I have no doubt that over the years our country will imprint a way of being on all new arrivals. Yes, and some of their ways of being will imprint on us.

Living with trust

Trusting in this process and our strength to reject or adapt practises according to our own taste, is what is currently missing. Blocked trust erodes kindness and generosity of spirit, it feeds meanness and reactive hostility. Whether within a family, or nationally, that’s the challenge; to think about how we can all play a small part in undermining the emotional driver of fear.





2017 The Year of the Emotionally Dysregulated!

Emotional dysregulation is a term used in health and welfare to describe someone who is reactive, unable to learn from experience, is rigid, lacks empathy, is very self focused and yet unable to care for themselves. There’s more but that will do for the purpose of my blog. It is also a diagnostic term used in mental health and  is one of the indicators for labelling someone with borderline personality disorder.

living in a technology fog

I’m not sure if it’s my imagination but as 2016 hurtled to a close it felt like the whole country was emotionally dysregulated. What stood out in my mind besides my individual madness was: the reactive, combativeness of our politicians, the quality of peoples driving, the shopping panic and frenzy including the Boxing Day Sales, even the weather was erratic and extreme.

Emotional dysregulation is the result of a traumatic experience. The current research in neuroscience tells us that if we suffer ongoing trauma in childhood we will have produced chronically high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which does do damage to the ability to regulate emotions. Most of us regulate ourselves  through some form of  a reflective process – cortisol prevents this resulting in chronic ‘flight/fight/freeze’ responses. Consequently our significant relationships are dissatisfying often leaving a profound yearning that is rarely satisfied.

taking a moment to enjoy the sun

This disappointment is often the most commonly felt emotion, but is rarely recognised,  creating a constant search for some way to soothe distress. In this state we’re often tricked by opportunistic marketing promising that with this product life will be better.

At the end of 2016 most of the people I talked with felt exhausted and very much in need of a break. The question in my mind is a break from what? Yes, work is the obvious answer along with the daily grind of getting everyone out the door at a certain time; but now our technology, particularly our phones go with us everywhere.

More and more I’m coming to believe our phones, this little device that we all love, are problematic. Not in its own right but in our relationship to it, for most of us it has an addictive force that is emotionally dysregulating. It interferes with everything with a variety of noises, each with their special code. Even though I am so aware of this phenomenon I constantly catch myself turning away from a friend or worse my granddaughter, to attend to the number one in my life – my phone!  I find it so hard to ignore.

I’ve lived most of my life without a mobile phone but for my granddaughter her love affair with the phone has already become well embedded. What this means for the future who knows, but what I do know is that if you’ve got a distressed child give them your phone – it works every time!

simple beauty is easy to miss if you’re on your phone

I’m not being critical of this but once again I am wanting to call our attention to the potential outcome and provide a reminder to build in other emotional regulating practises. Remembering that  soothing rituals contribute to keeping our brains fully functional, which means having the ability to plan, reflect, be empathetic to others and kind to ourselves.

It’s so tempting to let our phones direct our activities. I’ve just started to use the calendar and was surprised to receive a sound telling me I needed to leave home because it was going to take me 47 minutes to arrive at my destination. Whilst this makes life so easy, it also means many brain functions aren’t getting a workout. Like picturing the process of getting to where ever you are going, including the time needed for getting ready and out the door. Not to mention all the creative skill that goes into thinking up excuses for being late.  These simple functions all exercise the abstract parts of the brain. They build and reinforce trust in our ability to organise ourselves.

I believe this gradual slide into reliance on technology to guide us through our day, is very different to using it as a tool, and somehow the two functions have become merged. In this merging, there is the stress of continual interruption and demand.

Our phone is slowly becoming our brain,  slowly we are turning our own brains off,  which in turn feeds emotional dysregulation, hence we become more reactive and less able to regulate ourselves. Even if we try to engage in a soothing regulating activity if our phone goes with us it will at some point make a demand, but the thought of leaving it at home or switching it off;  even thinking about this I can feel fear … what if something happens?

the simple act of lighting a candle is so soothing

This is the key. Fear is becoming the primary emotional driver of everything we do, the result is a loss of trust and low grade anxiety. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for us to hold onto the notion that regardless of what we eat, wear, say or do, most of us will survive the day.