The Bully in our head

We all have an inner critic that voices our fears and insecurities, but what happens when the inner critic becomes a vicious bully? Below is a lovely metaphor about how this can feel and how we can handle it from the Getselfhelp website:
Imagine you’re given a parrot. This parrot is just a parrot – it doesn’t have any knowledge, wisdom or insight. It’s bird-brained after all. It recites things ‘parrot fashion’ – without any understanding or comprehension. It’s a parrot.
However, this particular parrot is a poisoned and poisonous parrot. It’s been specifically trained to be unhelpful to you, continuously commenting on you and your life, in a way that constantly puts you down, criticising you.
For example, the bus gets stuck in a traffic jam, and you arrive at work 5 minutes late. The parrot sits there saying: “There you go again. Late. You just can’t manage to get there on time can you. So stupid. If you’d left the house and got the earlier bus, you’d have arrived with loads of time to spare and the boss would be happy. But you? No way. Just can’t do it. Useless. Waste of space. Absolutely.
How long would you put up with this abuse before throwing a towel over the cage, or getting rid of the parrot?
Yet we can often put up with the thoughts from this internal bully for far too long. Decades. We hear that parrot, believe the parrot, and naturally get upset. That then affects the way we live our lives – the way be behave towards others, how we are, what we think about others, what we think about the world, and how we think and feel about ourselves.
We can learn to use the antidote: just notice that parrot, and cover the cage! “There’s that parrot again. I don’t have to listen to it – it’s just a parrot”. Then go and do something else. Put your focus of attention on something other than that parrot. This parrot is poison though, and it won’t give up easily, so you’ll need to keep using that antidote and be persistent in your practice!
Eventually it will get tired of the towel, tired of you not responding. You’ll notice it less and less. It might just give up its poison as your antidote overcomes it, or perhaps fly off to wherever poisoned parrots go.’
Adapted from “The Malevolent Parrot” by Kristina Ivings, Carol Vivyan 2010

The damaging concept of the Superwoman mum

‘Superwoman mum’ – the idea that is supposed to be a compliment to motherhood but in reality, makes the life of mothers much harder than it should be. 
It really gets to me when I hear people saying that mums are ‘superheroes’, because what it does is setting unrealistic expectations and putting a tremendous pressure on mothers.  It is this unspoken message that comes with this ‘compliment’ that if you choose to become a mother you do not have the luxury anymore to have needs and wants and to be anything but perfect. However, becoming a mum does not mean that you become a robot and I imagine even these would break down over time without proper maintenance.
In addition, what is the message we send to our children by trying to be perfect? If a mum is not allowed to make mistakes or to be tired etc, many children interpret this as the right/only way of being. And this might lead to unhealthy perfectionism Also, more often that not this pressure to be a super human being might lead mothers to experience feelings of resentment, anger, guilt and other negative emotions or  mix of emotions, which often manifest with ‘martyr’ like behaviours. And when a mum acts like a ‘martyr’ kids usually feel like a burden, not cherished as some might think. Furthermore, by not asking for what she needs (sleep, time for self care, social time etc) children might get the message that they should not ask help or should not voice their needs. On the other hand when mothers take care of themselves, they model/teach our children how todo this for themselves.
So mums, don’t try to be superheroes – be the loving, caring but still human parents that you are!

Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma in Helping Professions

Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious or Secondary Trauma can have a huge impact on people in helping professions and a good understanding of these two conditions are very important in preventing them. However, to understand how compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma work, we first need to understand how empathy works.

One of the characteristics of the human nature (and not only human) is the capacity to feel empathy, without which we would probably not have survived as a species. Empathy is the ability to understand and feel what another person is experiencing. But how do we do it? Well, according to Neuroscience when we are in the presence of another the more we get attuned to them the more our body starts mimicking and getting in sync with theirs. Our body might mirror their posture, our breathing might get in sync, our heartbeat might change, and our Central Nervous System in general starts copying theirs. The physical mirroring triggers relevant emotions. We start experiencing the anxiety, the sadness, the anger, the emotional pain etc. And this is billiard and helpful for a mother who needs to understand why her young baby cries, but it can also lead to Vicarious Trauma and Secondary Traumatic Stress which is indirect trauma that can occur when we are exposed to difficult or disturbing images and stories second-hand.

Now imagine a nurse who works in A&E, a homicide detective or a psychotherapist. Due to the nature of their work they are constantly exposed to physical and emotional pain and trauma. The repeat exposure to emotional distress and traumatic situations can lead to deep emotional exhaustion which is called Compassion Fatigue. This exhaustion diminishes one’s ability to feel empathy for their clients, loved ones and co-workers. You might hear people describing it as “having nothing left to give”.

And it needs to be noted that Adoptive Parents can also be affected by these two conditions as they are exposed to the trauma their children might have experienced.

Now the important question is, how do we support ourselves so we can keep caring and helping others? And the answer is simple (at least in theory): we have to ‘have’ in order to give and self care is the key to this. We need to find ways to recharge emotionally without that becoming a chore on it’ s own. It could be a good meal, having a relaxing bath, watching a good movie, reading a book, making sure we take small breaks from our work during the day or even just allowing ourselves to do nothing for half an hour a day. Find the simple things that give you joy and treat yourself, especially on difficult days. And make sure you rest, emotionally and physically.

Another important element is finding support ourselves. For people in the caring professions, being the helper has become such a part of our identity that we often struggle to ask for help when things get difficult. It is ok to be human and it is vital for a good and ethical practice to accept our limits and be able to ask for support. This could be in the form of Supervision, talking to a colleague, discussing with your manager, getting advice from a professional etc.

Finally, for anyone interested in reading more about this I would recommend ‘Help for the Helper’ by Babette Rothschild. It is written for Psychotherapists and Counsellors, but there is useful information there for everyone.

Teaching children about equality.

Did you know that babies start recognising racial differences as early as 6 months old and that they start internalising ideas about race, gender etc as early as 2 years old?

When they are around 2 to 3 years old our little ones start processing all the messages, spoken and unspoken, that they receive from the world about what it means to be black, white, yellow, blue, girl, boy, tall, short etc. And unless we educate them differently, they will accept the ideas they receive as true.

Children will not naturally come to the conclusion that we are all equally important, as unfortunately this is not the world we live in and these are not the messages they receive. As parents we have to actively educate them about what the issues are and about how to be kind to everyone. I would even take it a step further and say we need to teach them that we should stand up (each one of us in our own way) to bullies, racists, discrimination and injustice when we come across it.

I wish for a future that all adults and children will leave in harmony, but the only way to get there is by educating the younger generations now.

On depression

There are a lot of information out there about depression. However, I think the following are not mentioned as often as they should:

-The first thing I would advise somebody who feels low or depressed is to do a blood test. A number of medical conditions like iron deficiency, lack of vitamin D, thyroid dysfunction and other, can cause low mood and can contribute to depression.

-Another very important element is sleep. From the Sleep Foundation ‘The relationship between sleep and depressive illness is complex – depression may cause sleep problems and sleep problems may cause or contribute to depressive disorders.’ Note that an adult that is sleeping less than 7 hours a day is considered sleep deprived, regardless if it is by choice.

-Brain development during adolescence can trigger depression as a side effect.

-Depression is not something that happens only to adults. Children as young as primary school age can experience depression and low mood.

-You don’t have to be traumatised or to have experienced something serious to end up with depression. You might have a lovely family and life, but still suffer from it. Depression is a complex condition and its causes are not fully understood yet.

-And the most important of all – If you think you or your child might be depressed ask your GP for help. It might not feel like it at the moment, but things can get better with help.

You don’t need to be perfect as a parent

You don’t need to be perfect as a parent, just ‘good enough’ IS enough.

Donald Woods Winnicott (1896–1971) was an English paediatrician and psychoanalyst, whose work and innovating for the time ideas had a great impact on psychoanalysis and the way children and parenthood are viewed today. One of the very important ideas that Winnicott introduce first, is that of the ‘good enough mother/caregiver’ (1953). According to Winnicott there is no such thing as a perfect parent as there is no such thing as a perfect human. The caregiver needs to be ‘good enough’ not perfect, and that is enough for a healthy baby and child development.
Specialists in Brain Development today take it one step further and advise that children learn from the mistakes of parents and that a parent being perfect, if such thing was possible, would actually not be good for their child’s development. Dr Daniel Siegel advises that children learn from the ‘rupture and repair’ in the relationship between parent and child, as long as parents are able to repair.
In a world where we are constantly bombarded with information and advice about ‘should and shouldn’t s’ in terms of parenting, and where many parents run themselves to the ground in order to be perfect for their children, I find great relief and hope in these ideas.