Sunday, 22 July 2012

Empowerment through assertiveness

Years ago, three months after leaving a Mental Health hospital for what I hope is the last time, I found myself working for a council. I shan't name the council for their ways may have changed - for the better by now. Most of my working time was spent in the tearoom chatting but I got bored with that so I signed up for a course and told my employer I needed every Wednesday off to travel to London to attend. I was doing menial shift work so I couldn't see how it could be a problem, indeed I thought I was doing them a favour for paying for training for myself thereby making myself more useful to them at my expense and saving them money. They were not pleased but went along with it.

Meanwhile the work itself continued in the same way... chatting in the tearoom. Stimulated by my course I set about finding more things to do round the building until one day I had run out of ideas and spent the entire shift in the tearoom chatting with my colleagues. I'd had enough, so the following day I phoned up and said I wouldn't be in. I said I wasn't ill, and they were not to count my day of working from home as holiday either, but that I would be in the following day and expected to be given loads to do.

The manager I phoned understandably went into a rage, but not with me. When I returned to work my own line manager and the rest of the team didn't like me much and from that point forward I was blamed for every moan and grumble from our department until I left 6 months later. I went on to work in London, much to everyone's surprise because they thought having a mental health history there was no way I could possibly progress and indeed shouldn't. I worked hard and eventually became a manager myself.

Lessons learnt
Since that time I have worked for other councils and all have been hard working and diligent with regard to ensuring that the British tax payer gets their money's worth from each and every worker. I have also come across many other places where a lot of time is lost in idle chatter though too. To me lethargy is a breeding ground for misery and depression. When people are not inactive, negative thoughts, moans, grumbles and criticism take hold until all the whole of life, despite it's wealth of positive opportunities, becomes something to be cynical and sceptical about. Paranoia can set in and ultimately depression does.

This doesn't mean you have to or should work every minute of every day. It merely means that some people need to avoid too much stimulus to be well, while others like myself need lots, but to be well, we each need something to be of interest to us. We each need to actively seek and invest in things we find rewarding and pleasurable and so long as those pleasures and interests harm no one else then there's a chance we can all be happy whatever we choose to do with our lives. Indeed, among some of the most inspiring people I have met have been factory workers who chat all day while working, save their pennies up and then spend it on their kids and amazing holidays.

I do NOT advocate doing the same thing as I did if you are unhappy at work which may surprise you. Imagine if everyone told their employer they were not available for their work because they'd signed up to training course, or because they were bored - the result would be chaos. I consider myself lucky to have got away with it and I am sure I did so because my employer was fearful of the repercussions that would have arisen had they not been seen to be supportive of someone with a mental health history. I was lucky that the manager I spoke to understood mental health issues as his wife was a sufferer too.

It could be argued that I was empowering myself by being assertive of my needs and in some respects it's true, but... assertiveness should never be aggressive and my manner at the time without a doubt was forceful in that I was non-negotiable - therefore I was being aggressively assertive. A few counselling sessions later I discovered why.

Aggression is not assertiveness
In common with many who have been bullied, (I was at school among other places) learning to stand up for oneself does not come easy. It is a long and hard battle to find the confidence and self-belief to simply find one's own thoughts, let alone one's own voice. Once found I fell into the trap of becoming too self-centred, too selfish and defiant of anyone who stood in my way. My stance was that I was never going to allow anyone to bully me again.

What I was not doing was listening to or considering anyone else. Had I done so I might have opted for a different way of communicating my needs i.e. a less confrontational way and still achieved the same result but with the added benefit of making friends, being respected and supported by my colleagues and managers.

People often mistake aggression for assertiveness but the two are entirely different. I now regard anyone who describes themselves as strident, feisty, sassy or determined with a considerable amount of caution as often they behave this way with little or no regard for what other people's needs (not wants) are.

Needs are always more important than wants. They are the basic foundation stones to our well being, the essentials of life. They include (harking back to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - see previous blogpost) warmth, shelter, food and companionship; they include acknowledgement for who we are, what we think, say, do and feel. When we are not in receipt of such we feel hurt and often rejected and negated. The solution is simple... walk away from such people and find others willing and happy to value you.

Conflict of needs
I was recently told that I was selfish by someone who felt that I had the view that my thoughts and feelings were more important than theirs. They are - to me. But only to me. I am the centre of my universe but not theirs. They wanted to be acknowledged more and to have more say and that's fine. However, they seemed to think I was responsible for stopping them when I am not, they are. They have missed entirely that I enjoy their company and find their conversation so stimulating that I want to respond to virtually every utterance they make. I was accused to talking too much and told to shut-up. Not heard from them since so now we are both feeling hurt.

It's taken me over 40 years to find my own voice and to learn how to use it so I'm not about to give that up. With luck they will learn to do the same, I hope not aggressively but assertively which always means bearing in mind other people's needs and what we know of someone's personal history. We can never know everything about another person without being them, but we can strive to try to avoid what we know to be things that upset others until we and they are ready to talk about them and address those issues head on. We can but try and I believe that is better for all than not doing so.

We cannot resolve anything without communication. We cannot overcome difficulties without confronting them and learning what, how or why things went wrong. And we cannot cure ourselves without investing in the support of others be they family, friends, colleagues or professional help. We each need to believe in ourselves so much to let nothing divert us from our goal of well being. But, we can only address hurts when the time is right for us to do so. I hope the time will be right soon for my dear friend of over 10 years as I would like to see an end to his suffering and for him to embrace and enjoy life to the full as indeed I would wish for all.

Empowerment is not competitive
I often come across competitive people. I believe it is one of the sicknesses of world to engage in one-up-manship to quite such an extreme degree. That said it is perfectly normal and healthy to want to be better or the best at something for it gives us an added sense of self worth. From scoring well at test to winning at sport or being successful at work to merit a bonus or promotion - it helps us feel of value to achieve.

All well and good but... it isn't good when competitiveness leads to negating other people's potential. To empower others is to encourage others to reach that potential, not to keep that person down at heel disabling them to achieve their own ambitions and goals in life. Empowerment is all about equipping people to reach their goals, not spoon-feed them by doing things for them, but providing them with the knowledge, skills and tools to do these things for themselves. I have no desire to become a business or world leader, but respect and admire those whose talents lend themselves to such so long as they are also advocates of empowering others to do what they have an aptitude for.

The fear surrounding empowering others seems to stem from a phobia of others ending up being more talented or more successful which is not helpful to your ego and self esteem if you want to be the best at something. Realistically though no two people do anything in the same way, or in the same style so while some may favour another's efforts others will still favour yours. Even creative people get competitive, scathing, sneering and critical to the point of character assassination though my impression is not as much as others. Sports of course is designed to be competitive and is a good outlet to release tension, but no one is on top form all the time so the trick is to be gracious in defeat. The Olympics is upon us here in the UK and I sincerely hope all who win are those who will also help others to succeed thereafter. Surely there is no greater reward in life than to empower another to become happy so long as your own needs and happiness are not sacrificed in the process. People pleasing is not the way to go (covered in a previous blogpost on here).

Examples of bad practice
I'll finish with one final example from years ago of aggression and sadly it is a worrying one. While under CMHT (Community Mental Health Team) care I was asked as a 'service user' if I would like to go on a training course so that I could represent service users on interval panels for professionals in mental health care. I said yes.

On the course a mental health professional loudly and repeatedly 'asserted' his view that service users should not be on such interval panels to judge their skills. Throughout the whole course he kept popping out to check his phone as he was expecting to hear the results of a recent interview which would have been a promotion for him. His stance was very much that anyone who has been mentally ill is not capable of being sentient enough to be able to judge if a person is suitable to deal with anyone who is vulnerable or ill. My experience of working with the mentally ill is that they are never devoid of all powers of reasoning.

I can only hope that the other mental health professionals on that course did what they said they would and reported his appalling attitude to his line manager. I rather hope he didn't get the job. I rather hope he got sacked or that he got copious amounts of counselling to correct his attitude. After all, mental illness does not discriminate and there are many medical professionals who suffer from it as well and business leaders and even some world leaders... as the records of history so record. Fortunately in the UK at least such instances among the mental health professionals seem to be on the decrease... one day I hope there will be none to record.

My final example of non-empowerment comes from some Welfare to Work services who take the stance that if you have been a client with them you can never be considered to be an Employment Adviser. That's like saying you cannot enter the medial profession if you have ever had to see a doctor, or you cannot become a teacher if you have ever been a student. As I posted in my last article... it's not really surprising that mental illness is so rife when such is the attitude of those in power. There are times when I feel the real lunatics are the ones running a global asylum.

Best not to get too angry about it or aggressive. Better by far to assert your views with a degree of empathy for their being so ill as to not even notice the flaws in their arguments and above all... help them see sense by quoting their own nonsense back at them. For you see, some of them don't even listen to themselves. Then I recommend going off and treating yourself to some company you enjoy doing something of mutual interest. That's my coping strategy and it seems to be working quite well... time for a little more practice though as it's still a work in progress.

If you want others to be interested in you, be interested in yourself and them. Always, always, always strive to be kind to all, if you want others to be kind to you.  

Monday, 16 July 2012

Perceptions of an insane world

What follows is but a few thoughts on why I think the majority of the world is insane and why I believe that 25% of the population deemed to have fallen by the wayside as a result is but the tip of the iceberg.

Now we are firmly established in the second decade of the 21st century what (if anything) has the world collectively learnt from history? Have we learnt not to be greedy? Have we learnt not to be uncaring of others? Have we learnt to avoid violent conflict? Have we learnt not to be cruel, not to abuse, torture or bully others? Have we learnt not to criticise others? Have we learnt to be non-judgemental? Have we learnt NOT to give false hope to the disadvantaged? Have we learnt to avoid making assumptions? Have we learnt to use our logical powers for the betterment of the whole of mankind and not for the betterment of simply ourselves? Have we learnt to share? Have we learnt forgiveness? Have we learnt kindness, generosity or compassion on a global scale?

If you feel the answer to all this is 'no' then the burning question has to be, "what will it take for us to do so?" Almost without exception all these values are common to all societies and all religions. Have we learnt to agree on that at least?

It seems not yet. Religion has been the foundation stone to every single society and nation. From those most basic of ethics of being considerate to ALL we encounter further laws which have arisen as our social structures have developed and become (allegedly) increasingly sophisticated.

I am beginning to wonder if the true nature of us all does not prefer violent conflict instead of peace and harmony, paranoia and ignorance instead of wisdom derived from factual information; mistrust instead of trust and cruelty instead of 'humanity'. We seem determined to bicker about everything like it's an addiction of some kind.

Instead of focusing upon what we all have in common to find our way out of this endless cycle of upset and distress we seem to be hell-bent on latching onto the patterns of behaviour which we are most accustomed to and familiar with as if we are afraid to let go of them. Globally we fear that uncharted territory of harmony and peace. Even though the majority of nations are of one accord on this point. We remain insistent upon arguing about which version of the that ethic is related the best or has nailed it on the head. Why not focus on the content instead?

And for all the agnostics (of which I am one) and atheists on the planet I would say this - imagine our world with no ethical values whatsoever; no laws, no sense of right or wrong at all. Like it or not that is what religion has given us and without it those civilising rules we have just about managed to accept and adopt  as a good idea at least would result in total chaos. So if you think things are bad now, I suggest you ponder what life would be like with no ethical values at all. I am not the first to say this by any stretch of the imagination, I am merely adding to the list of people who have said such things throughout all history.

If we continue to ignore all the rules and laws we have all be brought up with, or pick and choose which ones we want to abide by, then we have no structure whatsoever by which any of us can feel safe and secure as was superbly pointed out by Robert Bolt in his play 'A Man for All Seasons'.

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law! 
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? 
William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that! 
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

Perhaps what is the saddest and most damning indictment of all is among those who have fought for peace, common sense and fairness is that fact that quite a few have ended up killed for such efforts. Not all by any means but quite a few notably ones. It's quite an impressive list of famous names already, here is just a sample.

Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Yitzhak Rabin, Steve Biko, Edith Cavell, Catherine (Kate) Puzey,  Hypatia, Jean Jaures, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Chico Mendes, Rachel Corrie, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Hilda Murrell, Ita Ford.

If you google 'killed peacemakers' you can see even more evidence of this insanity as quite ordinary people end up as victims too. WARNING: Be careful when you read up on some of them stories though as some of them have been written by terrorist and extremist groups who'd brainwash you into believing that theirs is the only peaceful and harmonious route forward while encouraging you to blow the brains out of anyone disagreeing with them! Charming.

And, if that wasn't enough to convince anyone of how insane this world really is, then how about how everyone is still bickering about money at a time when the whole planet is running out of enough resources to sustain all of human life. We have the technology, skills and knowledge to start a colony on the Moon or Mars now, yet we continue to quibble about who is 'worth' more in financial terms. Are we not equal? Do we not all have the capability to contribute to the global community in some way or another? How can the rich enjoy their fineries and fripperies without less paid individuals working to provide them? How can we hope to be made aware of anything without people communicating or made well without people working in health care... etc etc.

No building, no power, no food, no transport and no education would be possible without people preferring to do that as their chosen career instead of being a leader. No art, no sport, no gardens no music the list is endless. And that should be a positive thing. Thank goodness we are not all the same to want the same things or be interested in the same things for if we did societies would quite simply collapse.

One of the most telling things of all is that here in the 21st Century no one can eat or have a roof over their head without money. No other species has been so stupid. Neither can happen without permission to use the land which is always owned by someone. I fear it won't be long before councils will fine you for foraging for picking blackberries that grow in the wild and that every single seed nature ever produces has to be sold under a license. Is that what lies in wait for the future of mankind?

No wonder then that people get depressed and suffer mental illness. The only remarkable thing about it to me is that the numbers are so few... but perhaps that's because not all who are ill are recorded as being ill. I have a hunch that some of the most dangerous examples are leading our precious, beautiful, vibrant, diverse planet down the road of self-destruction.

Here at the beginning of the 21st Century (second decade) we quite plainly have a choice. Never before have we had the means to create or destroy life in so many ways. We can even initiate new life, sustain life, cure all manner of illnesses. In many ways this is the MOST exciting time in the history of the world bursting with all manner of positive and wonderful possibilities. It is a time great potential but... it is a time of great risk. Never before has our future as a species been so precarious. What, I wonder, will we collectively choose to do next?