Unhelpful Parents

Sometimes our parents or other close family are not the supportive people we deserve. It is hard for me to be able to say how common this truly is, after all, if you had them, the odds are lower that you would see me for therapy, and if you didn’t the odds are higher. Letting go of some of the negative or unhelpful people in our lives is a hard but frequently necessary step.

This isn’t to say that all mental health issues are caused by parents – Freud was wrong. Mental ill health can be caused by a number of factors – genetic, enviornmental, biochemical, drug induced, organic brain damage, poor parenting, situational stress, ongoing trauma and so on. Parenting is only one of these, and a person may experience several. Good parenting can help minimise the impact of several of these, while poor parenting can exacerbate them.

Parents are not the only people who can have a strong influence on how you think mental health and your own self esteem should work and be handled. Other blood relatives like grand parents, who came from a quite different era, can give awful advice, your current social group can be bad for you and sometimes work mates are just completely unuseful to you.

Certain people seem to be of the opinion that mental health, managing stress, choosing the right thing and being functional are all a matter of will power, morals and some knowledge that you are supposed to just have.

They are wrong.

Image of angelic moral weakness
Being “strong”. “moral” or “virtuous” isn’t enough. Sometimes we need help.

We don’t live in isolation. We live in complex systems that sometimes fail us. As listed above, that failure can be a situational distress, an ongoing trauma, biological in nature or some other thing that has nothing to do with will power or moral judgement. This doesn’t exclude the occaisional person who is suffering through bad choices – consequences can be hard – but is to highlight that most people who are struggling and need help are generally struggling through things they didn’t chose or control, and being patient and waiting for it to be over is not enough.

These unhelpful people tend to fail to pass on good self management skills, good skills for managing other people and healthy ways to see the world. In short, they make shit parents, friends and colleagues.

Fortunately, as we get older (around 15 or so), pathways open up that allow us to learn from people besides our immediate family. We get to chose our own family, our own community and our own friends. We can go and get some professional help for the tricky bits, be inspired by awesome people for the general model of how to be, and go on a self discovery journey.

By no means is this journey easy. It is really hard. It means going against all of those lessons you trusted as you grew up, recognising that not only were you led astray, but that those who raised you were also led astray and they just got lucky. After all, people who see the world this way weren’t just born that way. Recognise their limitations in being the parents you deserve, their limitations in being able to support you and move forwards with your own path. Sometimes that means leaving them behind. Sometimes that means visiting them. Rarely it means retraining them.

The world is big. It is complex. It is made of more than one kind of people. There generally isn’t a “better” or “worse” kind of people (except nazi’s – they are just worse), there is just different. Some are tall, some are short, some have blue eyes, some are left handed, some have different kinds of blood, and some are very typical of the local group and some are a bit atypical of that group. They are all valid. Don’t blame neurotypical people for being normal, it isn’t really their fault. Once you learn to recognise your “self” and how your differences make some things easier, and some things harder, it makes it much easier to start adjusting to how other people may be.

The long and the short of it is, you are a different kind of people to your parents, or family, or friends, or colleagues (basically anyone that is giving you the “just try being normal”, or “toughen up”, or “moral weakness” or “willpower” style of line). They are, in this case, wrong. Don’t feel that you have failed to be them, and don’t listen to their wrong advice. Learn who you are, and find people who are your kind of people. Be inspired by those who seem to have it together and learn how they do it. And don’t hesitate to get some professional advice to get over some of the erroneous messages, skills and ways of thinking that you were raised with.

Don’t Panic

“Don’t Panic” – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has these famous friendly letters written on the cover to help your roving hitchhiker manage pretty much any situation as they rove around the galaxy. Panic, though, has its uses. When a threat exists that requires an immediate response without thought and cogitation, panic has a fair chance of keeping you alive. Panic attacks are when this goes wrong.

Crying man in foetal position
Panicked and overwhelmed

Fear is an integral part of our survival mechanism. If we had no fear, we would do things that would harm and probably kill us. That isn’t a good way to pass on your genetic material to the next generation, and from a biological perspective, that is the point of life. Passing on genes doesn’t require joy, contentment or comfort – merely survival.

 

When we see a threat, we need to work out if we it can be ignored (passive, passive aggressive), we can overcome it (assertive, aggression) or not (hide, run). When we react to the threat we can compare our reaction to the actual thing and work out if we have over or under reacted. If we over react, we waste our personal resources, if we under react, we may not overcome the threat – and that can be fatal. As you begin to address the threat you can also assess how effective your strategy is. If it is working, you can reinforce it; if it isn’t, you can change your strategy.

Scared man bungee Jumping
Adrenaline Rush

An important ingredient to this is control. You may not have chosen the threat (sometimes you do), but you can choose how you are going to defeat the known threat. Continual assessment of success against the threat allows for continual choices to be made. It might be scary, it might be dangerous, but we feel we can defeat it. We feel in control of the threat.

 

Adrenaline junkies are people who deliberately go out of their way to do something that is known to be dangerous, but in such a way that you are intellectually certain you should survive, even if your feelings are telling you that you shouldn’t. These people thrive on this conflict in the brain and the thrill of the act that brings the fear reflexes to the fore. This is then followed by a satisfaction that they have faced and defeated a threat. The satisfaction can be very addictive.

Different regions of the brain
Fore brain (above the eyes), and hind brain (above your neck)

Let us take a look at the difference between the intellectual assessment and the feeling assessment. The adrenaline junkie works on creating conflict between the two, yet that is conflict in the same brain. Surely this should be impossible! Yet it is not. In a simplified manner, the basic threat assessment that triggers the feeling of fear is all in the hind-brain. If you cup your hand to the back of your head, just above the neck, you are encapsulating the area that contains the amygdala, thalamus and hypothalamus. Some people refer to this region as the hindbrain, primitive brain, the monkey brain or the lizard brain. Of course neuroscience is far more complex than this simple representation – but this will help you get your head around the idea of separate processing in the same head.

 

The intellectual part of your brain is at the front, the cerebrum. Put your hands out in front of you, palm up. Now put your hand together so your palms are still up and your little fingers are now touching, your thumbs are pointing away from each other. Place the heel of your hands just above your eyebrows and the little finger join goes up your head until the tip of your finger touches the crown of your head (ish). Wrap your joined hands around your forehead. This region of your skull holds the frontal regions of your brain. There are two halves, the left and the right. Mostly they do the same thing with a few very specific “one side does this bit and that side does that bit” specialised processing. They communicate via a chunky bundle of communication neurons about the diameter of your thumb called the corpus callosum that connects one half to the other.

 

The intellect can take abstract ideas, facts and feelings and turn them into predictions of the future. Once we have these predictions, we make management plans. This is how we are going to manage that threat. This is what we will do if it doesn’t work.

 

Our hind brain isn’t concerned with the management plan the intellect will eventually get around to making, it needs to know if you are going to survive right now. It looks at the current knowns – this is here, that is there, in the past we did this, in the past we got hurt by that. It tries to work out the timeline of harm from the known threat and either handballs the problem to the intellect to solve (low to medium threat) or takes over and hits the panic button RIGHT NOW.

Baby showing worry, fear
Fear is a primal instinct

Fear has three immediate survival defaults. Flight – we can’t fight it, it’s seen us, get out, go – run away! Freeze – we can’t fight it, it hasn’t seen us, don’t get noticed, don’t be a tall poppy, stop painting that target on your back! Fight – we can fight it, or we can’t outrun it so what they hey, either fight or die. Based on the perceived threat, your hind brain decides to pick the most likely survival option and either triggers that reflex if the threat is immediate, or offers that reflex to the intellect if there is some perceived time between threat and consequence.

 

This is what makes you flinch from the incoming sports ball you didn’t know you saw, or step back from the curb to avoid the oncoming truck, or brace for the unexpected attack. Your hindbrain has quickly processed the environment and yelled “watch out” and taken over. Afterwards your intellect catches up and goes …. whoa.

 

The hindbrain is a quick and dirty calculator. It doesn’t really have good information, nor does it make logical conclusions. It sees the world as raw data and samples just enough to get an early warning. It is frequently wrong in how it perceives the world. Biologically speaking, if the hindbrain gives you 9 false alarms to 1 real alarm, it has done its job. Responding to the 9 false alarms doesn’t kill you, while failing to respond to the 1 real alarm might. Alive and uncomfortable trumps dead.

 

When the hind brain responds to clear and present danger saving you from harm, it is exactly what we need in this complex world. This is a fear response to a real event. When it hits the internal alarm button and there is no clear and present danger, we call this a panic attack.

 

There are two main ways the hindbrain can get things so wrong. One is that the automatic process has been miss-trained, the other is that it is being fed bad information by the intellect.

 

We’ll cover that next time.

You can lead a horse to water…

You know the old saw about the horse?


“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”


It is a good saying when thinking about aiding someone else in their personal evolution.


We often think we know the best water, the best source and the best way to drink. That may be true for us, and it may even be true for someone else, but if you push them to do it your way, then they don’t own that process and have a fair chance of rebelling against your rules, your system and your truth. So instead, consider this new variant of the saw:


“You can lead a horse to water, but trying to make it drink is a foolish waste of energy”


This reminds you to let the horse drink if it is thirsty, in it’s way, at it’s time. It also reminds you not to be foolish or waste your strength trying to make the horse do it your way.


Now consider this variant:


“You can’t make the horse drink, but you can lead it to water”


This variant takes out your own powerlessness, which decreases your frustration in the circumstance where the horse doesn’t want to drink. You don’t have to make it drink, but you can lead it to the water.


“The horse can drink when it wants to, and you can point out where there is water”


The power in this variant is two fold. You acknowledge that the horse has choice to do or not, as it sees fit. It also demonstrates that you are only showing a way, but acknowledging there are other sources, and thus different ways.


See what works for you.