Irish men have been stereotyped as not being very good at dealing with their feelings. But that is changing. And this book by counsellor and mens columnist Padraig OMorain is designed to help men deal with their feelings both personally and in relationships.
The book contains simple but excellent techniques for dealing with anxiety, panic attacks, depression, bullying, difficult people, marriage breakup and physical health. He draws on Western insights which promote change as well as on Eastern insights which highlight acceptance on the one hand and effort on the other.
Set out in short, easily manageable units, its style is both humourous and direct. There are good vignettes that show the situations people get themselves into.
It also has a useful appendix explaining each of the key ideas in the book.
Padraig O'Morain is a counsellor and men's columnist.
- HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
This book contains the fruit of many years of counselling men and of making my way - often uncertainly - through my own emotional and social world as a man.
I wish my readers well as they undertake the same journey and I hope this book will provide a sort of map to help them steer clear of avoidable pitfalls.
There are two ways to use a book like this. One is to read it from start to finish. The other is to dip into the chapters that particularly interest you. I have been both a straight-through man and a dipper, so I thoroughly approve of either choice!
Every chapter contains tips and these appear both in the body of the text and at the end of each chapter. They form a handy reference point and if you glance at them first, they will give you a taste of what each chapter contains.
The book ends with an appendix containing a glossary of key concepts to help you refresh your mind quickly on the main ideas presented here.
ANXIETY: LIFES CONSTANT COMPANION
In this chapter
The unwelcome visitor
Acknowledging feelings and getting things done
The feel-good trap
Two false friends
The virtue of not knowing
No, its not awful
Its okay to get it wrong
The key technique: accepting anxiety
Accept the catastrophe
The unwelcome visitor
George went to see a counsellor in the hope of getting rid of his anxiety about work, money and family issues. Why do you want to get rid of it? asked the counsellor, who was a little unconventional. Anxiety is bad, George replied, surprised, I shouldnt have it, I dont want it, its ruining my lift. I want rid of it. I cant get rid of it, the counsellor said. But isnt that what youre here for? George asked angrily. Isnt that what people pay you for? Actually, I cant get rid of my own anxiety, the counsellor said, And I guarantee I cant get rid of yours. At which point, George left without paying.
Anxiety is a more or less daily visitor to our lives. Sometimes it even climbs into bed with us, sits itself down at the table for dinner and trots along beside us when we go out to buy a newspaper. Who can blame us human beings for wanting to escape the nagging ache and the sharp pangs of anxiety?
Of course, we manage to forget our constant companion now and then: a good meal, an absorbing task, a funny movie or a conversation with an engaging person can make anxiety fade into the background. It does, however, come back. And because it comes back we need to know how to handle anxiety in our lives.
We avoid anxiety almost by default. According to Freud, the Buddha and many other thinkers, we tend to move towards pleasure and away from pain. There is nothing pleasurable about anxiety. However, the avoidance of anxiety almost always makes things worse.
How can it be that moving away from pain makes things worse than moving towards pain? The answer lies partly in the means we use to avoid pain and partly in the consequences of avoiding pain. Drink and drugs help to mask anxiety. So sometimes does frenetic, disorganised activity. So does putting things off that cause anxiety. So does avoiding people because of an anxiety about what will happen in the interaction.
As we know, the consequences of these activities can, in the case of drink and drugs, be devastating. Putting things off and engaging in disorganised, stressful activities is, lets face it, just as stressful as squaring up to the anxiety we are trying to avoid. Avoiding people because of anxiety over what might be said or done is frequently self-defeating and may well be unfair to them. Very often the thing that you fear the other person will be angry about, for example, is something that the other person is not even aware of.
Avoidance is particularly hurtful in cases of bereavement. It is by no means rare for a person who is bereaved to find that their acquaintances begin to avoid them. Indeed, it is possible to end up not only losing a partner in life but also the companionship of people in ones social circle. This is not due to callousness on the part of these people: it is due to avoidance. Neighbours and acquaintances, unsure of what to say, fearful of hurting the bereaved person, experience a little surge of anxiety whenever they see that person and avoid the encounter. It is not that they decide they will never have anything to do with this person again, but unfortunately there are cases in which that is the effect of their avoidance behaviour.
Avoidance can prevent us from doing what we need to do for our health and it can kill. This, I think, is a particularly male behaviour. The suspicion that there may be something wrong seems to put us off going to the doctor. Pleas from relatives and friends to get the problem checked out are pushed to one side. Most men finally relent and take themselves off to the surgery, but for some it is too late and the consequences are fatal. Too many of us can recall good men who died because they avoided facing up to health problems.
On a less serious level, avoidance accumulates unnecessary tension in the one who is doing the avoiding. How often have you finally done a task you had avoided for months and found it was very easy to do? The psychic energy that went into avoiding the job was actually greater than the amount of energy needed to do it!
If you recognise yourself in this you are certainly not alone. As I wrote at the beginning, it is entirely nderstandable that we try to avoid anxiety. However, if we accept that the wholesale avoidance of anxiety is unhelpful at best and bad at worst then we need to learn how to manage it, how to listen to the messages it gives us and how to put our energy not into the anxiety but into the things that we need to do in our lives.
That is what the rest of this section of this book is about. The basic message is that we need to acknowledge our anxieties and to do the things that need doing in spite of them. Instead of hiding in a corner hoping anxiety will not find you, allow anxiety to accompany you if it must as you go about your day. In that way you will get more out of life and you will be of more use to those who are close to you.
TIP: When faced with a situation that makes you anxious, ask yourself, Which will take up energy in the long run; facing it or avoiding again again?
Acknowledging feelings and getting things done
In the days leading up to the first presentation he ever gave, Derek was scared. In his imagination he could see his audience of senior managers sneering at him, perhaps even laughing out loud as he stumbled through his sentences. So Derek asked a colleague who had given many presentations to advise him on how to get his confidence up before the event. Stand up and start talking, he advised. Sweat and stumble all you like. But start at the beginning and go on to the end. Then sit down. How will that help me get my confidence up? Derek asked. It wont, he replied, but at least youll get your presentation done. So he did, and he was as bad as he feared he would be. But nobody laughed and the presentation was done.
1. Acknowledge anxiety
2. Know what you need to do
3. Do it.
If anxiety is inevitable, then we must find a way to work with it. The three steps above suggest such a way. They are derived from an approach called Constructive Living, based on Morita Therapy, a Japanese psychology (1). Moritas message is that we must acknowledge our feelings, including our feelings of anxiety. There is no need to run away from them or to pretend they are not there. However, while acknowledging our feelings - in this case anxiety - we must also know what it is that needs to be done in any situation. Then we must do it, even if our feelings are uncomfortable.
This is a simple philosophy but it can have a very beneficial effect on our lives. The key idea behind it is that we dont have to wait for our feelings to change in order to get things done. For instance, the alarm clock rings and I groan. I simply do not want to get out of bed and face this day or my 9 a.m. appointment with my boss. Thats fine, the Morita philosophy would say, by all means feel that way. But get out of bed anyhow. Would you like to put that envelope containing your credit card bill through the shredder, unopened? No problem; perfectly understandable feeling. Hold on to the feeling but while youre holding onto it just open the envelope and see how much you owe.
Simple? Yes, but how many people have lost jobs because they would not get out of bed and face the day? And how many have lost homes, cars and other goods because they would not open the envelopes that brought the bills and reminders? Indeed, how many have never done things they wanted to do, have never gone to places they wanted to visit or have never asked for a date from someone they very much wanted to be with because they kept postponing it until the anxiety went away or until their confidence showed up - but the anxiety never went away and the confidence never showed up?
None of this means that you should treat your feelings with contempt. To do so would be to make a serious mistake. Your feelings may be giving you valuable information: that you need to prepare for the meeting with your boss or that you need to get your finances in order, for instance. However, feelings have a life of their own too. Anxiety can show up when there is no obvious or good reason for it. You can feel confident today and lack confidence tomorrow in quite similar circumstances. So while you enjoy your good feelings and learn from the bad ones, you need not allow them to dictate. Rather, allow them to accompany you as you go about doing what you need to do.
know what you need to do
and as you get things done, good feelings are likely to follow in their train, as the next section explains.
TIP: When you feel anxious, just ask yourself What needs to be done next? and start to do it while you are still anxious about it.
The feel-good trap
Steve doesnt go out. Hed like to and the girls at work have invited him out a few times but hes just not as good at conversation and at kidding and joking as the other guys and the whole idea of going out with the girls scares him. He tells himself that when he gets to feel good about it and about himself hell go out with the girls, but not until then.
Roger would like to approach his boss about a promotion but he fiels scared and anxious whenever the opportunity arises. Its important to feel confident when approaching the boss, he believes, so when he feels confident about it hell do it, but not until then.
We always know how we feel so long as we are conscious and awake. Our feelings help us to navigate through our lives: we try to avoid what makes us feel bad and we seek out what makes us feel good. But our feelings can trap us too. They trap us when we insist that our feelings must be in harmony with what we are doing before we do it and while we are doing it.
Here is an example: suppose I want to go on a trip which involves making a journey by air. Now, I am one of those people whose feelings about flying will never actually be in harmony with flying. I fear that the plane will crash when its taking off and I fear it will crash when its landing. Im not too crazy about the part in-between either. I have this feeling of fear despite the fact that I have flown many, many times. If I insist that my feelings be in harmony with flying before the flight and during the flight then I will never get off the ground. So I must accept my feelings of fear and get onto the plane. Otherwise I am never going to make that trip. In other words, if I demand that I feel good about the experience before it begins then I am never going to have the experience. I need to be able to accept that the good feeling will come, not during the experience but after it is over.
Think of a horse pulling a cart. We may imagine that the big, strong horse represents our feelings and that these feelings supply the energy that keeps the cart trundling along. The cart, perhaps, represents the doing of a task. So you put your horse in front of the cart, by feeling good about what you want to do, and off you go? Not so. Real life puts the cart before the horse: first you do the thing you need to do; then you get to feel good about it.
Have you ever gone through the anxiety of wanting to ask for a raise or a date or a refund? Remember how you only got to feel good about it after you asked? Thats the cart-before-the-horse rule and it applies to almost all the important things we do in life. I really, really wish it were the other way around but it is not.
Another example: I have a negative feeling about making telephone calls. I dont know why and Im not about to waste a lot of time and money finding out, but phone calls make me nervous. If I wait for my anxiety to be replaced by enthusiasm before I pick up the phone, then I will never make that or any other call. I need to accept my anxiety, pick up the phone and ring the number anyhow: put the cart (doing the task) before the horse (feeling good about it).
I have come across people whose entire lives are on hold because they insist on feeling good about a thing before they do it. Such people often cannot even get out of bed in the morning because, like most of us, they dont feel good about getting up when that alarm rings. Oh, theyll get up in the mornings when they feel good about it alright - trouble is, theyre never going to get to feel good about it.
Life is full of tasks which you are never going to feel good about in advance. Much of the work of carers or of parents is like that. To go to another extreme, much of the work of actors in the theatre is like that: no matter how experienced they are, many suffer from stage fright before every single performance - but if they want the good feeling that comes with the applause theyve got to walk onto that stage regardless.
Note that in all these examples I have said they accept their anxiety. If you are afraid to accept anxiety, you are in danger of spending your lifetime running away from it - into addiction or some other form of denial. What matters is to be able to have feelings such as fear or nervousness while you are doing whatever you have to do. You allow
them to walk along beside you if they must. That way you dont deny the feelings but you get things done at the same time.
And if they follow the cart-before-the-horse principle, Steve might get a date and Roger might get that promotion.
TIP: Remind yourself that to get things done, you need to put the cart before the horse!
Two false friends
Michaels boss wants to see him on Monday morning. Michaels last project was two weeks late and Michael reckons his boss is going to reprimand him. He works on his defence all weekend Michael is getting married in a fiw months and he really needs this contract to be renewed. He is unable to sleep on Sunday night and gets to work exhausted and anxious. But his boss has the flu and postpones the meeting until the following Monday. Michael goes through it all again and is a nervous wreck by the time he gets to sit down with his boss. His boss congratulates him on getting the project in with only a two-week delay and asks him to take on a bigger and more lucrative contract.
Can you read minds and tell fortunes? Do you, perhaps, possess a crystal ball? Whatever about the latter, mind-reading and fortune-telling are generally regarded as belonging in a carnival tent. Yet, we all engage in these activities in our daily lives and in doing so we often add unnecessarily to our anxiety levels.
Of course, a little mind-reading and fortune-telling is inevitable as we make our way through the day. When buying a birthday present for your girlfriend you will try to figure out what her reaction might be to various gifts. In other words, you will engage in a little mind-reading - though not always successfully!
If you look up at the sky before you go to work in the morning and decide to bring a raincoat you are probably doing a little bit of fortune-telling. And if you are a salesman then you try to read other peoples intentions and preferences, rather like trying to read their minds.
So there is nothing wrong with mind-reading and fortune-telling in their place. There is nothing wrong with them if you know that that is what you are doing and if you know the limitations of these particular activities. The limitation is that you cannot really know what is on another persons mind unless they tell you; that you cannot tell what the future holds until it happens. You can only ever imagine the future and you can only ever imagine what goes on in another persons mind - this is true even if you are a trained psychologist.
It is so easy to forget that mind-reading and fortune-telling have only a very limited use. Suppose you are writing a report for your boss and you expect she will not like it at all. That is fortune-telling. You wont know whether she likes it until you submit it and get a response. And if you submit the report and hear nothing for a few days its all too easy to tell yourself that she is angry with your work. That is mind-reading. For all you know, she has been too busy to get back to you and she is satisfied with your work.
Of course, you may be right and perhaps your worst fears will come true. But how often has your mind-reading been wrong? Probably quite a lot, actually, if we could re-run a video of your life. Certainly in my case such a video would contain many embarrassing errors. Could you, like me, be like the philosopher Montaigne who said, My life has been ruined by a series of misfortunes, most of which never happened?
Every time you react to what you think your girlfriend, your partner, your boss, your mother or the driver in front of you thinks, you are mind-reading. Every time you upset yourself on the basis of something that you believe is going to happen, you are fortune-telling. Just becoming aware of these tendencies, spotting them when they happen and then naming them to yourself as mind-reading or fortune-telling can reduce your anxiety levels. You can also reduce your anxiety levels by becoming more comfortable with the concept of not knowing, as I explain in the next segment.
TIP: Whenever you spot yourself mind-reading or fortune-telling just say quickly to yourself mind-reading or fortune-telling and break the spell of these impostors.
The virtue of not knowing
Mark made very good tables, chairs and presses but when a customer passed a comment about how very good flatpacks were these days, he got it into his head that people no longer liked the work he did. He brooded on this and became surly and resentful and lost business. Actually, the customer had been joking - Marks work was highly regarded Mark also became convinced that his wife and children thought less of him because of the decline in his business and he withdrew into himself for years. In fact his wife and children loved him very much and would have continued to do so even if he had lost the business completely. Marks habit of assuming he knew what went on in peoples minds had made his life miserable and brought pain to his family.
Information is power, they say, and as human beings we strive for information. The more we know, the greater our chances of survival. Countries at war rely on information almost as much as they do on guns. Bad information can render military hardware useless. The US/British invasion of Iraq was based on false information about weapons of mass destruction. The result was what is seen as a humiliating defeat for both countries though they possessed massive firepower.
There are also men who seek excessive amounts of information about their partners activities - where she is going, what she is wearing, who she is seeing and so on. This is dealt with later in the book.
When we try to read peoples minds, when we imagine that we know what they are thinking or when we imagine that we know what is going to happen, we are substituting fake information for the real thing. And fake information can be as devastating on a personal level as it is in military conflicts. When Anthony found a mans signet ring at the back of a wardrobe in his bedroom on returning from a trip, he assumed his wife had been having an affair. Ultimately his accusations and his anguish broke up his marriage. But Anthonys assumptions constituted fake information: the ring had been lost by the previous owner of the house and had lain there since before Anthony and his wife moved in.
The antidote to fake information is to get comfortable with the fact that there are things we do not know. Does it scare you to accept that you simply dont know what is going on in other peoples minds or what is going to happen next? Well, the fact is that throughout your life you have never known what is going on in other peoples minds and they (thank heavens!) have never known what is going on in yours. So what is there to be scared about?
Similarly, throughout your life you have never really known what is going to happen even a minute from now. You may have made informed or educated guesses and you may have been right a lot of the time, but you have never actually known what is going to happen next because what is going to happen next belongs to the future and the future can only be imagined.
So you have lived all your life in a world in which you do not know what is in other peoples minds and in which you do not know what is going to happen in the next five minutes. You are, actually, an expert in living in a dont know world. What you need to be able to do now for the sake of your own peace of mind - or as much peace of mind as we can hope to attain in this world - is to accept that you do not actually know many of the things you have been telling yourself that you know.
You do not know that your customers are thinking rotten things about you any more than you know they are thinking wonderful things about you. And you do not know that your partner is going to leave you any more than you know they are going to stay.
Accept that you do not know; become used to the concept; become at ease with it instead of torturing yourself with fake information. And if you want to know what somebody is thinking perhaps you will then get around to doing the sensible thing, which is to ask them.
As for the future, it will reveal itself as it unfolds before you and will very likely be different to what you have imagined it to be. We can also help ourselves a great deal if we avoid indulging in what the psychologist Albert Ellis has called awfulising, as I explain next.
TIP: When you find yourself speculating about people or the future, remind yourself that you actua;lly dont know what they are thinking or what the future holds.
No, its not awful
David was convinced he would become head of his department when his boss retired. He had worked towards this prize for many years. When a rival got the job instead, David told himself that this was awful, his colleagues told him it was awful and his partner told him on the phone that it was awful. In fact it was so awful that David got drunk and tried to drive home and hit another car. Luckily nobody was hurt but David lost his licence. Because he lost his licence he lost his job. Because he lost his job he became depressed. When you put it all together, it was awful. But just losing the promotion wasnt awful. It was painful and annoying and maybe unjust but it wasnt awful. And if David and his friends hadnt awfulised about it, he might be in a good job and in good health today.
Awfulising is what we do when we tell ourselves that it will be awful if such and such a thing happens or does not happen. It will be awful if I ask for a date and I am turned down. It will be awful if I ask for a raise and I do not get it. It will be awful if people are not impressed with me. And so on.
The problem with awfulising is that instead of getting on with our lives we are like rabbits caught in the headlights of a car, doing nothing useful and in danger of getting run over. Awfulising, as described by Albert Ellis (a founding father, along with Aaron Beck, of the cognitive behavioural therapy movement), is one of the prime means by which we make ourselves anxious and/or miserable.
You are on the way to work for a meeting with your boss at 9.30 a.m. The traffic is in gridlock. There is a very good chance that you will be five minutes late. Its awful, isnt it? That certainly is what you might be telling yourself as you picture your boss standing there with a face like thunder, telling himself how wrong he was to ever place you in a position of trust. But is it really awful? Before you start allowing your awfulising to send you to break speed limits and red lights and collect penalty points, perhaps you might allow yourself a more reasoned point of view. Your boss knows your record, knows about traffic and may very well be held up also. He will probably be satisfied with a quick apology and an explanation about traffic hold-ups. It isnt actually awful at all: its just inconvenient. (I am assuming, of course, that you manage to get to most meetings with your boss on time!)
It is not awful that you have had a row with your partner. It is not awful that your teenager sulks and thinks you are stupid. It is not awful that the weather forecast is for rain when you wanted to go fishing. These things are inconvenient and annoying but they are not awful.
There are, of course, truly awful events in life, such as the death of a loved one, being seriously injured, your house burning down and so on. Unfortunately, there is a part of your brain and mine which makes no distinction between these life-changing events and the more trivial annoyances to which we are subjected every day. If you are held up because a car is sitting on a yellow box at a busy junction, this part of your brain would have you believe the delay is just as awful as your house burning down. But it isnt: its a pain in the neck, its annoying and its inconvenient but it is not awful.
Of course, it is not just other peoples actions that we wrongly classify as awful. We also have an irrational tendency to classify our own mistakes as awful, even when they dont really matter.
TIP: Next time you hear that voice in your mind telling you that this or that is awful, talk back and remind yourself that the thing you think is awful is almost certainly just inconvenient or embarrassing, no more.
Its okay to get it wrong!
A farmer who owned a donkey was going away for a week so instead of leaving one bale of hay in his shed for his donkey, he left two. This presented the donkey with a dilemma. Which should he eat first? Eating the biggest would give him a store of energy to take him through most of the week in case the farmer had not left enough, he reasoned (this was a donkey after all). Eating the smallest would still leave a good store of hay for him to eat later in the week and perhaps this was the wiser approach. But then, which was the biggest and which was the smallest? It was important not to get this wrong - his life might depend on it. He pondered and pondered, wondering which of the two almost identical bales he ought to eat first. When the farmer came home, he found his donkey dead from starvation and the two bales of hay untouched.
The fear of getting it wrong is one of the deepest that afflicts us. Human beings, after all, are problem-solving creatures. When you look around the world, though, you have to admit that we are not terribly good at solving problems. Indeed many of the problems that we struggle to solve were created by us in the first place.
The fear of getting it wrong applies not only on a global scale but also in our daily lives. Where this fear is irrational, it can add greatly to our anxiety. Which of these two almost identical jobs should you apply for and what if you pick the wrong one? What if you pick the wrong holiday resort for your summer vacation? Should you offer customers a 6 per cent discount or a 7 per cent discount? What if you pick the wrong one?
The person who is haunted by the fear of getting it wrong can spend inordinate amounts of time making decisions and, once the decision is made, they may still go on fearing that they did the wrong thing. If I get something wrong, no matter how small, it will be terrible and I will be a bad person, they seem to tell themselves.
Put that way, the irrationality of this fear is obvious. When you spot that fear at work in you, challenge it. Governments get things wrong and still get re-elected. Big business gets things wrong and continues to flourish. Your kids get things wrong and you still love them. So you need an antidote for this nonsensical fear.
First, you need to spot this fear when it arises. Then, remind yourself that nine times out of ten it does not really matter if you get it wrong. Usually, taking the wrong turn or buying the wrong jacket is far from important. People sometimes only realise this when confronted by a truly catastrophic event, such as a terminal illness, which puts things of this kind into perspective.
However, you do not have to get a terminal illness in order to put things into perspective. I would like to recommend to you two methods described by Susan Jeffers in her book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway to combat the irrational fear of getting it wrong. The first is to think of results not as mistakes but as different outcomes. If you make a choice and it turns out differently to what you had planned, is that really a mistake or did your decision simply have an outcome other than the one you expected?
If you charge Ôé¼600 for a piece of work and then discover that everybody else is charging Ôé¼750, this does not necessarily make you a terrible person. For all you know, you may even gain a reputation as somebody who does not overdo it when it comes to pricing and you may get even more business as a result.
What really matters here, though, is to realise that you will inevitably make mistakes and that what really counts is to correct errors when you spot them. Taking this approach is the second method recommended by Jeffers. She uses the analogy of the autopilot on a plane. Planes tend to be flown by autopilot except when taking off and landing. As the plane flies along it will veer slightly off course many, many times but the autopilot continuously corrects the error. In other words, the plane gets to its destination by spotting and correcting errors. It does not give up and sulk when it discovers that it is flying in the wrong direction - it just makes the necessary correction.
This is the principle we can use to tackle our fear of making mistakes. The question then changes from, Will I make a mistake? you certainly will - to, Am I willing to correct my errors when I spot them? So become sceptical about the fear of making mistakes. Notice how often others make mistakes and continue on their way regardless. the myth that you can only be a worthwhile person if you do everything perfectly. Remind yourself of this: correcting your errors is far more important than avoiding them.
TIP: When anxiety about making a mistake arises, ask yourself, How much does it matter if I get this wrong Youll be surprised at how often the answer is, Not a lot!
The key technique: Accepting anxiety
George finally returned to the counsellor he had walked out on before. In the meantime he had tried all sorts of