Monday, 24 July 2017

Self-help for sceptics

Yesterday I began to try to explain to a good friend what I meant by using science to sort myself out. I didn't get far. It's not hard to explain but it's not something I can encapsulate in a few sentences drinking coffee outside a cafe in Shoreham. This isn't helped by the fact that most people don't really know how science works. They maybe remember what they learned at school about repeatable experiments, and later they read the often controversial and mind-blowing claims about climate change and vaccination, cosmology and subatomic particles. At best they maybe watch documentaries or read popular science but most people know very little about the process of ordinary everyday science.

I’ve made some immense improvements to how I deal with my life over the last few years, after 50 years of struggling and being very unhappy, and frankly I’m as amazed about that as anybody. As it stands I’m pretty much the only person I know who has suffered from debilitating low self-esteem, depression and anxiety all his life that has succeeded in working his way out of it, mainly by thinking it through. I’ve been a little surprised and disappointed that nobody’s wanted to know how I did that, considering so many of them suffer similar problems. You’d think they’d want all the ideas they could get.

I certainly spent a lot of time asking people how they manage – hoping for some sort of useful insight but instead I’ve been told I’m obsessing, over-thinking and being paranoid, navel-gazing, being self-indulgent or self-involved. If I feel unhappy I should simply be more positive they say. If I’m struggling to get on in life I’ve been told I should just believe in myself – ‘just do it’. People who’ve given me advice have been exasperated with me for not simply doing what they say. I’ve been told I don’t really want to be happy – that I’m just wallowing or attention-seeking.

These people are of course expressing their own impatience with my unhappiness rather than trying to help, and that means I’ve almost never had a constructive conversation with anyone about it and have had to work it out for myself. Furthermore, I’ve never found the idea of Gods, spirits or souls, or any ‘consciousness’ beyond our own (and perhaps a few other animals) made much sense, so I’ve had to work it out without being able to fall back on any of that. I can’t put my trust in a higher power or ask the universe because nothing about my experience suggests that makes any sense. I can’t simply put intangible things down to ‘energy’ or ‘spirit’ because I have no idea what those things mean (I know what energy is in a pure physics sort of way, but not in the way New-Agers talk about it, which seems very muddled)

Of course, none of our experiences are completely objective. Science goes to enormous lengths to minimise the effects of personal perception and interpretation by making the process as open and impersonal and disinterested as possible. Peer review is about laying your work open to people who don’t necessarily agree with you and want to find fault. But this is impossible with introspection. Psychoanalysis has made a lot of money out of our ability to delude ourselves about what’s really going on in our own minds, but I think it’s possible to achieve a useful amount of objectivity if two things are true:-
1. If you genuinely want to get better. If you use the wrong information the treatment won’t work, or it’ll only work superficially but won’t tackle the deeper causes, so the problems will re-emerge in a different way. If you really want to get better you need the best possible information about what’s happening or there’s simply no point. There’s no point pretending – you’ll only be fooling yourself. Even so the information you gather will always be incomplete and any conclusions you reach will be uncertain. All you can do is make as coherent a theory as the evidence allows, and be ready to revise it when new evidence comes along.
When you come up with a hypothesis you have to test it to destruction – you have to try to think of anything that might disprove it. You learn to spot that nagging feeling that something about your new hypothesis isn’t quite right – that it’s too easy or too generic. You need to be ruthless – no comforting half-truths or convenient rationalisations.
With a bit of experience you’ll know when you hit the right explanation because you can feel it fit, and the change happens like that - whether you try or not. It simply works. You don’t have to practice or say something over and over or believe in something. If it’s right it works, in exactly the same way as using the right component fixes an engine.  If it doesn’t work you try something else.

2. If you can take an inquisitive and fearless view of whatever you find. Simply be interested in the contents of your mind - in whatever comes up. Don’t cherry-pick evidence to support a preferred story. In science, there is no wrong answer. The evidence you uncover might lead in a completely unexpected direction. Go with it – see it as interesting rather than disturbing, exciting rather than unacceptable (after all – nobody else needs to know). I suspect many people stop when they come across something they don’t want to know, or that they think reflects badly on them and instead of exploring further, just pretend it’s not there, or cap it off with a lie. I understand that if you’ve been through something deeply traumatic this might not be easy (none of this is easy) but it might be doubly good – debriding the wound – getting in there and clearing the junk out so it can heal properly.

Another thing you must be prepared for is for it to take a long time and to involve a lot of going around in circles (this is when people think you’re obsessing and wallowing). The first part of any scientific project is the collection of data. You’ll need to really get into the feelings that come up on a daily basis, in order to see what they consist of – to unpack them and trace the components back to their origins. As a scientist, I assume that things are not random - that causality applies - so I’m looking for connections and patterns. I’m not going to go into the details here, but the fact is, unless you find the workings of your mind intrinsically interesting, you won’t be able to do this, because it’s time-consuming. Personally I think minds are fascinating (not mine especially – it’s just that mine is the one I happen to have handy and which is giving me trouble). Looking at other people’s minds, just by talking and observing and/or by taking in a little psychology and neurology really helps. A bit of anthropology and philosophy helps too but none of this is essential - an ability to think critically and a ruthless honesty are really all you need.

Where to start? I begin with the time-honoured idea that how we are for the most part comes from our childhoods. Traumatic experiences can over-write that but for most of us, who we are is based in the time before we were able to make conscious choices about how to be and life just was whatever it was. If I understand it correctly, the research tells us that we’re more or less 50:50 nature/nurture, but in any case we take after our parents genetically and form our characters mainly in response to the behaviour of the people we spent most time with in those early years. Probably the amount we change after that gets smaller and smaller the older we get with a small peak at adolescence.

I think it’s crucial to understand what your early years were like as much as possible – not just the events, but how your parents felt and behaved, and not just in terms of how it was good or bad for you (this is not about blame). You can’t avoid being very much like your parents, so it’s best to get to know them as well as you can. You may have taken after them or rebelled against them, or a bit of both but you need to know. It might be worth doing a bit of history – see what the world was like when they grew up – what the dominant culture was then (mine grew up in WW2 but were too young to remember much about it, but they remember the post war austerity and were just too old to enjoy the 60s, unlike some of their friends who had their children only a few years later) Find out how their parents treated them and what their early memories are (my dad did his best to be nothing like his own father, who was a very angry man) Observing other people’s children, it is obvious that their basic characters are already well developed by the time they’re 2 – whether they’re withdrawn, adventurous, curious, fearful, dominant, sensitive, confident, proud, caring, or mischievous – it’s all there. It gets added to and modified over the years but in many ways, once it’s set it takes an enormous amount of deliberate effort (and possibly therapy) to change and generally it’s not really possible. It would be like changing the foundations without dismantling the house.

I’ve found the Freudian Id/Superego/Ego model very handy – especially as transformed into the Child/Parent/Adult model in transactional analysis (the Ego/Adult in this case is a rational, mature, disinterested person – not a selfish authoritarian one. The Parent/Superego is the authoritarian). I think this makes sense because of what we know from child psychology about how children’s minds develop. Those early Child /Parent interactions aren’t rational, whatever the actual real-life parent may intend. To the child, life is all emotions and instincts and conditioning. It is what it is – natural, common sense, normal, obvious. You do as you’re told or you get into trouble (or you get away with it). And of course, much of the time adults are no more rational than their children. Only later can we think about fairness and whether doing things another way makes sense but by then it’s too late - the deep feelings are set. We can (with a lot of effort) change our behaviour superficially (wear a smile, force ourselves to get up in the morning, repress our rage) but the deep feelings are there, and if the behaviour and the feelings are at odds there’s going to be a struggle.

For those of us who are struggling, this all sounds a bit hopeless but the iota of hope in all this is that the foundation is, as I said, never completely coherent – it is made up of lots of misc bits and pieces and the number of permutations, even among a small number of components, is large. We can’t be anything we want, but we can find a way of combining them to make a foundation that works better and allows the house to be improved. Some of the old components can be reused or they may become redundant (they’ll always be there but not actually doing anything, except maybe getting in the way.)

For me, locating a whole load of components that had been ignored was the key – things from my Child that had been dismissed as useless but which were undoubtedly there, and strong, from the start. I had gone through life viewing my Child the way my Parent did, which at its worst, was with contempt and exasperation – an unrealistic, immature, lazy, and somewhat stupid child. I’d somehow dismissed all the other things I was, and which I still am. I had to go in and see all the different ways I was back then, what I did, what I wanted, and also how other people responded. More than anything I had to look at my Child not as my Parent did, but as my Adult, with understanding and compassion and curiosity (because that tends to be how I look at other people) and I found a creative, conscientious, imaginative and enthusiastic child with a good heart. And as I said above – when I found the right components they fitted and my new way of doing things simply worked. It’s almost like I can’t see myself the old way now (or at least, only sometimes when I’m very tired). As a bonus I learned to look at my actual parents that way too, and to let them off.

It’s taken a very long time but maybe if I hadn’t had to work it all out from scratch it might have happened sooner. I don’t know. No doubt this ‘method’ is not original. I’m sure it’s been thought of before. I’m not a fan of self-help books or self-improvement courses so it’s probably out there. That said all those I’ve come across do seem to rely on either some form of spiritual belief or some sort of rigorous practice to keep it going, so if you’re a sceptic or don’t have that kind of self-discipline but really enjoy thinking, maybe this could help.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Clean and Tidy

I've thought a great deal about this and have come to the conclusion that there are basically two good practical reasons for cleaning and tidying - making it so the place is reasonably hygienic and people don't get ill too often on the one hand, and on the other, so we can find things reasonably easily and not trip over stuff all the time. The rest is aesthetics, and as such, is purely a matter of personal preference.

Hygiene seems to some people a very cut and dried thing - there simply mustn't be any 'germs' about the place and we buy products that claim to kill as much as 99% of them, but of course it's not as simple as that (is it ever?) Frankly our bodies inside and out, our homes, our food and in fact our entire environments are veritable ecosystems of 'germs'. Many species of mostly bacteria but also archaea, yeasts, and microscopic plants and animals live in and on us and everything we touch, and the vast majority do us no harm whatsoever. A few are crucial to our survival (certain gut bacteria most obviously) and a few can cause disease. It is well known now that we have in fact over the last few decades, in our attempts to keep everything germ-free with a huge range of new cleaning products, possibly made ourselves sicker with autoimmune conditions and more susceptible to hitherto harmless organisms as a result. This shouldn't be very surprising - in macroscopic ecosystems (forests, lakes, gardens), if you eradicate the existing fauna and flora to plant crops the land doesn't stay clean and tidy for long but fills up with opportunistic generalist plants and animals - commonly known as weeds and vermin and you have to invest immense amounts of time and money controlling them. My guess is this is what happens with the germs that live on us too.
But I'm not advocating just leaving everything filthy. Our living conditions have changed so much over the last few centuries and our immune systems have not kept up so we use medicine and cleaning to make up the difference.

Tidiness is more a matter of practicality but living a disordered life can be deeply depressing and frustrating. At the same time, if you have a vigorous mind and have a fair idea where everything is, having everything out in piles on the floor, on chairs, on the bed, in the car, might suit your way of working. Or you just might not have time to do much about it.

Beyond that, cleanliness and tidiness are completely a matter of individual taste. Some people like a very spare white and chrome look with huge windows and shining floors and are prepared to spend a lot of time or money keeping it that way. Others prefer a more cluttered look with lots of books and toys and plants about the place and accept that there will be some dust and a certain amount of wildlife about the place, otherwise they'd never do anything but clean.
So cleaning and tidying are very much a matter of personal priorities. Beyond a basic level of health and safety and practicality it depends only on how much time and energy you want to spend on it. Possibly we'd all like a spotless abode to come home to, with the kitchen surfaces clear and ready for action, the duvet cover changed and no fluff behind the telly, but there are so many other things to do. I want to talk to my friends, read, write, run the nursery, and frankly, since I'm not one of these people with loads of energy, I also want to spend time on the sofa watching old DVD boxed sets. And above all I really don't want the tyranny of having all my time mapped out and filled up. I really enjoy loose time.

And yet...
And yet so many people don't seem to see it that way. They seem to think that there is some absolute necessity to keep things clean and tidy. It is simply something one must do, always, even if one doesn't feel like it, even when one is sick or exhausted. There is no excuse. The way some people react to the washing up being left for the morning you'd think it was a notifiable public health hazard.
This isn't supposed to be a sexist point. I've known women who were utter slobs - especially when they were single, and men who were incredibly pernickety. The gay couples I know often move to opposite ends of the spectrum over time, so one becomes the nag and the other becomes the slob. Sadly though, in heterosexual relationships, it is almost always the woman who is the martyr and the nag, and the man who is the oblivious slob.

If you came over here right now to my flat you might notice that the carpet hasn't been vacuumed for a while (I hate vacuuming) but the washing up is well under control and there's not much stuff lying about. I tend to put things away when I'm done with them but things sit on the table if they're part of some ongoing activity. I have a couple of areas of chaos - the most obvious is the bedroom table which has piles of unfiled paperwork on it. I get around to sorting through it about three times a year.

When I was married I tended to take responsibility for the kitchen and 'wet works' (bathrooms, toilets etc) I actually don't mind washing up at all and I do it once a day, usually in the morning. I was a better cook than her and also tended to do most of the laundry. I did the bins and recycling, The Big Shop once a week and was around for her kids when they got in from school. She worked longer hours than I did but she was in a career she loved. She earned more money, but also bought a lot more stuff, whereas I can live happily on very little if it means I don't have to work full time.
Nevertheless there were times when I got that look - the one that says 'You're just not doing enough.' She wasn't particularly interested in housework herself. She'd do a blitz on the place every so often, especially if someone was coming. Later she complained that I was not doing 'deep cleaning', whatever that is.
It came to a bit of a head when we redid the bathroom. It certainly was a bit shabby and leaky and we went for a total refit. I've never been into DIY and I was by now running the nursery which took up a lot of my time and energy. I demolished the old wall between the bathroom and the airing cupboard and chipped off the old tiling. I had to build a new wall, box in the waste pipes and put up the shower cubicle after the plumber had done his bit. I made a T&G frieze and wooden floor. We both did the tiling - several times actually because the wall I built wasn't rigid enough and the adhesive didn't work. She painted the walls.
At the time I felt guilty and hassled about it - that I wasn't doing enough - a feeling I can get very easily from just a slight disapproving glance or a well-placed silence. The feeling that I was the useless man and she was the dutiful woman grew during that time. The summer house that I'd planned and built sat unfinished and empty at the end of the garden because I didn't have the time or the energy to work on it. I was very sad about that when our marriage ended. For our wedding present we'd asked people to just give us money towards it.
In retrospect I can see that not only did I do almost all the work on that sodding bathroom (despite the fact that I had no aptitude for it and made many mistakes) but that in fact, having a new bathroom was a purely aesthetic decision. The old one would have needed fixing up for sure - re-tiling and a new shower head, but it worked. It wasn't worn out, and frankly that's all I want. I don't spend a lot of time in the bathroom and I really don't care too much what it looks like as long as it's reasonably clean. No, this was her project - her priority. It was no more necessary than me doing the garden or building the summer house. It was almost entirely a matter of personal preference and yet I ended up feeling guilty and inadequate over it.

Was she wrong to want a nice new bathroom and a 'deep-cleaned' kitchen? Of course not. If that's important to her there's no reason why she shouldn't spend her time and money on it and I'd help where I could. I got no help in the garden because that was what I was interested in and I didn't need or expect any help. (I could have done with some help with the summer house though.)
Anyway - where am I going with this? The point here is that something that should have been a matter of personal preference ended up being about my laziness and untrustworthiness.

Of course there are still men who expect their women to do everything around the house but not nearly as many as there used to be. It used to be pretty much the rule. Now it's something some men get away with, not something they're entitled to. Things have changed. And yet a worrying number of women still seem to think this way, even though women these days can choose who they want to be with, and have an equal say in how the relationship goes. It is entirely a matter of choice now. Are women choosing to be with selfish gits because they find them attractive in other ways? Perhaps the characteristics they're looking for in a man do not fit well with them doing their bit around the house. Perhaps nice helpful blokes are not sexy? It's possible they're less forward so perhaps women don't tend to meet them, or even realise they exist. At any rate, the period of courtship should give her some idea of how interested he's likely to be in doing stuff around the house, long before they move in together. She shouldn't really be all that surprised or disappointed. And yet she is.

At that point the need to change him steps in - to make him more the way she thinks he should be, but by then it's not a matter of personal preference. By then, having the house cleaned and tidied in a certain way is simply the way it should be. Somehow she has access to the universal objective standard of how people should live, and he's falling short. In fact he only has to be a short time behind her for her to end up doing all the work. If he typically notices some dirty crockery needs putting in the machine only five minutes later than she does, she will end up doing it every time. He doesn't have to be a slob at all to end up doing almost nothing, because his tolerance for mess is only a little greater than hers.
After that he becomes resentful and rebellious and she becomes martyred and judgemental. Neither of them handle it well, but because she believes she's objectively in the right, she has the advantage. All he can do is give in and do as he's told or throw a tantrum or sulk. The women then martyr themselves - scuttling around, huffing and tutting, saying 'no, I'm fine', doing what has to be done, exhausted and stressed but fired up with self-righteousness and self-sacrifice.
At this point she sees herself as the victim in all this, powerless against the men in her life, and she blames men in general for something she has chosen.
There are many heinous ways in which women all over the world are victimised and oppressed and abused, but this isn't one of them. This is a matter of choice. If he turns out to be different to what she wants, she can ask nicely, but she can't expect to change him. Would she change her standards for him? I don't think so.
And if he really is a slob - how did she not spot that when they got together? Was he an amazing actor, or was it just not something she was thinking about at the time? Too often we choose a partner based on looks or confidence or sex, and then try to change the other parts of them. I really don't think that ever works, unless they enjoy bickering, or being in a sub/dom, parent/child type of relationship, which some people apparently do.
And if she has kids with him, that is her choice too. She didn't have to do any of those things. It was her choice, her freedom and her responsibility, and denying that does nothing for women's power. She's made herself a victim, and frankly it's beneath her.