Tag Archives: empathy

Impotency problems

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Impotency when imposed on us is very damaging.

This is not perhaps a post about what you think it is. But for the males in particular who may have interest piqued DO keep reading.

While it may be nothing to do with sexual dysfunction this is an important post. Important for the way especially we treat women (and men) and so frequently treat children.

While we may often relate the word impotency to a complete failure of sexual power, impotency in its broadest sense is so much more. It is a state of reduced or absent power, helplessness, unpersuasiveness and ineffectiveness.

Believe me, it’s not a nice state to be in, especially for a prolonged period of time.

I previously wrote about how challenging it can be to embark on something new like a change of job or even becoming a parent, especially when change has been imposed on us.

I outlined that my academic position was proposed to be disestablished in the broad scale restructuring of the university where I work.  When I last wrote I was some nine weeks into limbo-land, waiting to hear my definitive fate.

I am now 30 weeks down of gestating my impotency and much like a pregnancy, I’m hopefully expectant that I’ll give birth to a more potent state in eight more weeks on 1st December. That’s when I leave my present position.

The act of closure, of turning a page to the next chapter begins.

Despite my best efforts and the hard work of so many around me, the mass of submissions to save my position and even morph my current position instead into something needed and innovative made no difference.

Way back at the end of May I learned my position was definitely going, in a meeting that started with “It’s quite clear you are an outstanding lecturer but on that basis we can’t retain you”. The rest of the meeting was similarly depressing and full of WTF moments- the excellent, valid points we made appeared to fall on ears wide shut.

As perhaps the only afflicted academic in my institution presenting an incredibly well supported alternative solution, it has been especially hard.

To never be able to engage in discussions about what we thought was a true win-win scenario has been cruel & wasteful.

To be left  without a voice. To be yelling, to be fighting and to have no one listen.

To do my best to trust those in a position of power over me and to believe that this was a process of genuine consultation.

To feel instead unsupported by my institution throughout this process, although that is not to say I did not have colleagues in support of me. In the main though as explained previously, the emotional support and empathy I so desperately needed in 30 draining and wasted weeks was lacking at work, or elsewhere.

To feel unacknowledged.

It’s been a horrible, long process, poorly conducted, lacking in good communication and true leadership.

For those that would expect a swift resolution after the final outcome was released sadly no, the eternal limbo land continued with a farce of looking at redeployment options.

And then nothing for weeks.

Until we have finally come to this closure point.

In amongst this though, there’s been a bullying email by a colleague, which said among other things “sort your bloody life out”, reminiscent of an authoritarian parent talking to a teenager.

Complaint laid, no response, follow-up, no response. Nothing after months.

And now there never will be. Assailant free to do it again to someone else.

There’s been feelings of intimidation, questions I have asked that sit now permanently remain unanswered.

There’s been a lack of real acknowledgement of the distress and stress that have been my world.

I could never adequately put into words what my year has been like. And no one unless they have been in an incredibly similar situation of this magnitude could begin to understand.

I can sum it up best as demoralising and feeling so impotent. That word.

What does such a protracted state of impotency do to a person? It lowers self esteem, it escalates the imposter syndrome.

It exhausts and takes away the fight because faced with non-listening ears, tenacity is simply not enough.

It leads to cycling backwards and forwards at each stage through the grief cycle.

It obviously places one under a large amount of stress. That has had for me the resulting effect of weight gain, not due to eating more, rather less, but because those stress hormones are screaming out to the body to keep stocking up for this danger that will not dissipate.

It lowers the immune system’s ability to combat infection. I’ve had many more illnesses this year, including severe asthma and an atypical migraine presenting like a stroke and putting me in hospital.

It leads to anxiety, especially in social situations because in my case basal stress levels are elevated and what would normally be an imperceptible rise in stress when placed in a social situation is now very much registered with adrenaline coursing. For an extrovert, this is bizarre.

It leads to difficulty thinking, concentrating and performing tasks.

Impotency and parenting

What has outlining the incredibly challenging and demoralising year I have had got to do with parenting? The situation I have outlined above sounds extreme and it is, but many parents who adopt a certain style of parenting, authoritarian in nature, impose somewhat similar situations on their children.

No matter what our age, we want to be heard, to be listened to, to be respected as a human being. When we don’t find ourselves in that space, whether adult or a toddler, there are negative impacts.

When children experience similar sorts of situations the outcomes for them are no different than what I described above.

Children trust in adults that they are being loved and looked after, that their best interests are in place. Parents sadly don’t always treat their children with the respect our little people deserve.

The first step in dealing with a meltdown is for the child to feel safe enough (often in loving arms) to be able to freely express these big feelings children have and secondly to then have those feelings acknowledged.

The same goes for babies who communicate their needs by crying and especially need the loving arms of parents. Little does not mean insignificant.

When children are hurt or upset, this acknowledgement is essential, no matter if it seems ridiculous to the parent. Whatever the upset, it certainly isn’t trivial to the child.

To achieve this putting yourself in the place of your child and trying to see it from their perspective is important. And being the bigger person, not through power over your child but rather control of yourself and your own emotions will help both of you through the situation.

Making fun of a child for a ‘trivial matter’ and their big feelings is never ok- that shames and humiliates them. Shame also results from feelings not being listened to.

Shame though is the most destructive emotion in terms of an individual’s sense of value and self-worth because it is typically the most obstructed and hidden emotion.  But shame when appropriately handled is important as it provides the weight for morality in our society.

An approach of acknowledging feelings first doesn’t mean that children get the ultimate say but rather shows them what they need to know-that they are valued.

For anyone in distress or under stress the best acknowledgement is often agreeing the situation is not ideal- for example provide the empathy they require and validate their feelings by saying “I can see that you have some big feelings about X…. etc”.

Too many of us however, skip over this emotional support that is the essential first aid, regardless of whether we are dealing with adults or children, because most people find it difficult dealing with feelings. And usually this difficulty is because of the way we were treated as children.

Frequently we skip straight to providing solutions or worse we either dare to make light of a situation by telling the child how they feel “You’re all right, you’ll be fine” or we deny them the opportunity to have feelings and shame them, “Don’t be ridiculous, it’s only a….” (so similar to “sort your bloody life out isn’t it?”), or “It’s not that bad”, or else we distract them “Wow there’s a rubbish truck going past”.

The second we do any of these things we are invoking a state of impotency in our child (or our friend, or our relative or our colleague). We are giving a clear signal they and their feelings are not valued and that they do not have a voice. This is invalidation.

The child in a state of distress is clearly signalling it has unmet emotional needs. This may not always be indicated by crying. Perhaps a child is biting, hitting, engaging in other destructive behaviours, being defiant or generally what might be described as ‘badly behaved’. Applying empathy or emotional support is actually the key to turning any of this behaviour around.

Many parents sadly think their children shouldn’t have a voice, that they must be controlled in a desire to have obedient teenagers and outstanding adult citizens. It might be tempting to use more authoritarian methods such as “Time-out” or threatening behaviour or telling the child how naughty they are in an effort to control.

Invalidation however, as I outlined above has a destructive effect on mental health and wellbeing and these negative impacts can be lifelong, especially in children.

Thus, authoritarian approaches may have the converse effect because rather than connecting, disconnection results as the child’s unmet needs are not being dealt with.

What place or space is there for a child to contribute their ideas? Toddlers and preschoolers who perhaps think of an alternative plan for something, need the opportunity to express their opinion and to have it genuinely considered.

Considered need not necessarily equate to agreed with by the parent. However, we are less likely to share our stories with those that don’t listen. When that happens, meaningful communication is lost and relationships get destroyed.

In order to be heard therefore, we first need to listen. Building trust through the act of active listening, acknowledging feelings and demonstrating empathy is how to achieve this. We need to give our children the space to be allowed to complain as this actually helps them and us work through their emotions and develop emotional resilience.

As clinical psychologist Colby Pearce says “for our own sakes and the sake of all we come into contact with, we need to get better at listening, understanding, accepting and respecting. Only then can we expect to be heard”

When we muck up as parents, for example in say unnecessarily snapping at our child, or shutting down their right to speak, taking the time to revisit the situation and acknowledge their hurt by apologising and providing an opportunity to listen will do restorative wonders. And it models important skills such as empathy we all want to foster in our children.

It might be tempting to think that acknowledgement of feelings is pandering to a child and allowing manipulation of the parent, but ensuring active listening and empathy as a response isn’t a promotion of permissive parenting nor a case of a lack of limits where they are needed as these equally make children feel unsafe. It is simply a matter of treating children as we would want to be treated ourselves.

We as parents need to also find the space in these situations to deal with our own feelings arising from our childhood, our experiences of having unmet emotional needs and shame leading to a feeling that we must also shut down the emotions of our children. If we want our children to be emotionally intelligent we need to spend time fostering our own empathy skills.

Final thoughts

I’m super tough and I will survive. Once I find a new job that suits and nurtures me, I’ll be rejuvenated but I will still bear scars. For me sharing this story has been a continuation of my step towards healing, of turning this experience into something positive. Rather than being hard, writing this post and re-finding my voice has been empowering.

I’m committed to using my experiences to better listen to and understand others, either directly, or in this post by helping others foster their empathy and listening skills too.

Our children though are more vulnerable than my adult state. “I was raised this way and it hasn’t done me any harm” may be a common phrase but it’s simply not true and nor should it be any form of a mantra to live by. No parent wants to see their child scarred and this should be as true of emotional harm as it is of visible damage.

Despite a horrific year I am blessed. I receive the validation every day that I am doing a decent enough job with MissBB. Every single day she does something nice for me, whether it’s giving me a special card or wrapping up a special ‘gift’ for me from objects in the house, painting something beautiful (like rainbows with pots of gold), passing me her last bite of her favourite food, or a super hug and kisses. And she makes me choose her stories every night.

And every time she does one of these gestures she explains why: “I’m doing this Mummy because you’ve lost your job”. With incredible empathy skills like that she will provide the right emotional support to those that need it as she grows.

Let our children have their voices. Let them gradually and with love become potent, not impotent. They are our future.

My Ice Doctor science blog post on the loss of my position can be found here.

The rubber band effect: building and maintaining resilience

When resilience is low, it can feel like life is an uphill battle

When resilience is low, it can feel like life is an uphill battle

Resiliency is one of those qualities that when we’re fully equipped and our resilience cup is overflowing, we don’t notice how strong we are- life just feels good. We tend to be either unfazed in the main by the curve-balls that constantly seem to come the way for many of us as adults or in a state of mind where we can readily find coping strategies to work through the issues we register. When our rubber band gets stretched out however, at some point we suddenly realise that there are cracks forming.

Hopefully, we reach that point with enough insight into our own inner workings and limits to know that our resilience systems are in need of repair. Psychological resilience is our ability to cope with stress and adversity. When we reach this state it’s time to regroup and find that inner strength to alter our situation (frequently that centres on changing our thoughts) in order to bring the rubber band back to its strong relaxed state. If we’re unaware that our rubber band is starting to fragment by being stretched so thinly then it’s difficult to see a way out of the tunnel that’s starting to enclose us and that can lead to the beginning of the blues or other negative feelings and for some people, symptoms of depression.

Stretching the rubber band

This last week and the last of my summer holiday, I reached the sudden realisation that my resilience indicator was reading low. In fact, it felt like I was hitting a record low alongside a feeling of being the most exhausted I have ever been. The power of the mind to erase previous negative experiences or at least lessen their magnitude means I don’t really think this was my least resilient point or my most tired- surely those severe reflux, no sleep newborn months were worse, or the times immediately post-earthquakes or other far more stressful events I have experienced? To me, it just felt earlier this week that like the polar vortex in the US that I was heading to zero or below.

It seems strange that at the end of a decent length holiday anyone should feel least resilient or most tired. However, anyone with children will know that holidays with children are not particularly restful (not even!), as pleasurable as they may be. In my case, after our family time away, it was two weeks at home for me and my daughter whilst my partner was back at work six days a week.

There are many interrelated reasons why my resiliency took a hammering at this point. Parenting a full-on boundary-pushing four year-old is one way to achieve a new level of exhaustion I have discovered (upcoming post). After another long arduous year with effectively no holiday time, it’s probably unsurprising that as the holiday went on, my mind and body realised how much resilience rebuilding I need. That and the trepidation of what the working year ahead entails as I am aware it is going to involve significant restructuring, including job losses, with one of the first (and uncharacteristic) emails issued this year about how we could maintain wellbeing this year (alarm bells screaming). For all the residents of Christchurch still, there are now the longstanding, multi-factorial and accumulated effects of being now three years and counting post earthquakes. The predictions of health professionals (e.g. here and here) were that the 3rd-4th year post quakes would be the hardest and they weren’t wrong and it’s worse for women.

Frequently, there’s a trigger(s) or factor(s) that is a resilience eroding tipping point and I would take a guess that all parents reach a point or many time points where their resiliency is far from optimal. In my case, the camel’s back-breaking stone was actually technology. We live in an age where we have embraced all the advances of technology and what it offers us, but there’s actually significant stress associated with use of technology- it’s real and it’s called tech stress. For me it was combined effects: a faulty motherboard in my work laptop which I have been waiting a replacement for for seven long months plus our home internet failing and promised support call-backs from our provider not eventuating. The ultimate tug on the rubber band has been, for the last month, needing to use my old, faulty and mega infuriating android because my iPhone was being fixed and has just been declared terminal following an unfortunate road/car vs. iPhone incident.

I’m acutely aware that this is a crazy first-world issue and seems pathetic as I write it, but the actual frustrations and time wasted trying to use this largely non-functional phone have felt epic. When technology use actually impedes life and impacts heavily on time in a negative way, it’s not the magical thing it’s touted to be.

How to rebound

I could have spent ages self-analysing and trying to pinpoint exactly what factors were impacting me and to what degree but having spent enough time working out the general list my aim was to get that rubber band back to as close as its strongest phase as soon as possible using decisive action. To take myself back to a state of wellbeing using whatever psychological, social, cultural, and physical resources seemed appropriate. These are called cumulative protective factors.

Get out and get active- surefire ways to boost wellbeing and enhance resilience.

Get out and get active- surefire ways to boost wellbeing and enhance resilience.

Although I am largely opposed to listicles, it seems appropriate to insert a list here. None of it is rocket science. For me, some of those key wellbeing steps are:

  • Get out. Getting out of the house to experience new things or favourite things is a key way to bounce back. Sunshine improves mood. Taking children on our journey teaches them too the steps they can take to improve their own mood.
  • Get physical outside. There’s nothing better than pushing oneself hard in the sunshine. In my case that means carrying my petite four year old (but still 13 kg) up a steep hill to the top on a sweltering day for a stunning view or mountains, hills, harbour, sea and (broken) city and then engaging in activities that are fun for both of us.
  • Get physical inside. Whether it’s just at home doing squats and abs or a super hard gym workout.
  • Be kind to self. Kind thoughts. Kind actions. Treat oneself- a hot chocolate out (without over-indulging which will lower self-worth)
  • Dancing. In the privacy of my living room in front of and with my child to the latest hits.
  • Engage in daily mindful breathing. Breathe in and breathe out.
  • Recognising that external situations I cannot change, but my thoughts and attitude I can control, not falling into the victim trap- it’s totally unconstructive.
  • Yoga and pilates. One of my two gym sessions a week where I escape the house sans child.
  • Honesty with my child about how I’m feeling- the most touching thing that happened last week was my empathetic and thoughtful daughter putting together a whole bag of her things while I was in the shower so she could cheer me up, when my phone stress got too much. That and lots of hugs, when the tech stress rose to the surface! This honesty also teaches them that no one is perfect- adults struggle at times too. Letting them be a part of the support of the journey back to wellbeing is invaluable in teaching empathy and also allows them to witness how to find their own coping strategies.
  • Honesty with others (partner, friends, family) about what’s going on. Doesn’t need to be long and involved- a problem shared is a problem halved and all that.
  • Creativity. Doing something for me like craft is such a great way to rebound and feel self-confident and fulfilled.
  • Gardening. Looking at what is growing in the garden, the insects and butterflies and new life is such a restorative activity as is eating produce we have grown.
  •  Doing fun activities in or out of the house with my daughter (and my partner, friends, family)- getting joy from her development, catching up and connecting with others. A day with my parents picnicking and walking on the beach was fabulous.
  • Reading. As a parent and an academic, reading a work of fiction or literary non-fiction is such a decadent relaxing treat.
  •  Watching a movie. There’s no way anyone could watch Frozen and not feel more buoyant afterwards, even my musical hating husband.
  • Organising and goal setting. This can be as simple as getting the house in a semblance of order each day after MissBB is asleep, or making progress on some chores, writing lists and plans or even unpacking some more boxes following earthquake repairs temporary relocation (from a year ago…).
  • Thoughtfulness. Doing something thoughtful for someone else.
  • Abandon technology. Ok, so the technology is not working- may as well pretend I am still away out of range and attempt not to use it.
  • Sleep. Reset the mind. Recover strength.

Most of these are recognised as key factors that promote resilience. In the wake of the earthquakes here, much has been written about individual and personal wellbeing and I will write more on it in later posts. One of the best initiatives nationwide is The Wellbeing Game, which runs for a month each year and individuals from teams have to record their wellbeing activities across a range of categories during that time.  Aside from great data collection for governmental departments, at a personal level this game showed me daily just how many activities I engaged in last October that promoted my wellbeing and it also pushed me to fit in even more. I was pleasantly surprised just how much I did to address my health and it has since made me conscious of what I do in a day to foster personal wellbeing and register when I am not doing enough.

The other great social media campaign running in Christchurch (but applicable to anyone anywhere) is All Right? which is led by the Mental Health Foundation and the Canterbury District Health Board. Like The Wellbeing Game it aims to make us think about our mental health and wellbeing, here as part of the earthquake recovery process. With great billboards, postcards, lots of online resources and crazy spontaneous activities it is bolstering our exhausted residents. Mine and MissBB’s favourites: the posters stuck around the city with ‘free compliments’ to rip off and keep.

Many reality TV programmes are partly built around the concept of testing resilience- the Survivor series and the like. While, I was writing this post in the background I had the new Bear Grylls TV series, “Bear Grylls: Get Out Alive” shot here in New Zealand playing. American teams of two are put in taxing situations in our remote areas and those that don’t have coping strategies are eliminated. It’s both a contrived and extreme example of the assaults on our resilience we face daily, but the methods to improve resilience and be equipped for survival are exactly the same.

Just like the grip of the first polar vortex has eased in the US, my rubber-band is relaxing and rebounding again. Being prepared and equipped means a second cold snap for the US or in my case the return to work should hopefully have little negative effect.

When parents are resilient then they are better able to parent positively. Allowing children though to witness the ebb and flow of resilience is an important part of their own development (more on that in the next post). I just hope I can get our intermittent, suddenly dial-up speed slow internet to behave long enough to put out this post. Breathe in, breathe out.