Vicky Newham


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Why standing up to bullies isn’t straightforward

Recently I’ve needed to reflect on how I feel and act when someone tries to intimidate me. Of course, not every experience of intimidation is the same, and I know that I can respond differently. In many situations, if a person is being unpleasant, I am able to stand up for myself. What interests me is what happens when I am not able to, and this is what I want to cover here.

Last night, while walking the dog, another dog flew at mine and got its mouth round her neck. Fortunately I was able to pull the dog off and she is unhurt. Having established who the owner was, I went to speak to him in his shop on my way home. People had seen what happened, as it was in a busy pub garden on the beach, and, by the time I arrived at this man’s premises, word had reached him that his dog had caused trouble. He saw my dog and greeted me with, ‘Oh, you’re the person who’s been complaining about my dog, are you?’ And his sneer prompted the thought, this is not going to go well. Part of what upset me about the subsequent interaction with him was that I felt disempowered. He was in the wrong, as his dog had been roaming, unsupervised, several hundred yards from his business, and had attacked another dog on the lead. He wasn’t interested in this. He dismissed my request to supervise his dog more closely, and invalidated the need to keep the dog on a lead. He spoke to me as if were a child, and a dim one. I was wrong. I didn’t understand dogs. It’s what dogs do, he told me. They roam and they fight. Rubbish. When I was walking along the beach to speak to him, I asked myself what I wanted to achieve. I had one objective: to get him to control his dog better. I failed. He wasn’t interested in taking any responsibility. He just wanted me to crawl back under a stone. I repeated my request, and he stuffed his face in mine and hissed at me to go away.

I have been wondering what I could have done differently. Had I taken someone with me, would he have been more apologetic and amenable? Perhaps. If I had taken a man with me, would he have behaved differently? I suspect, yes, but obviously have no proof. Did he see blondie girl in flip flops with a fluffy dog, and know that he could brush me off? Who knows? And this is why it can be difficult to challenge bullies. There is something in the power dynamic which disempowers the person being bullied. But it isn’t just that. People who behave like this are highly skilled at what they do. It is their modus operandi. They have a repertoire of practised behaviours which they know will silence you. Having told me he to go away, this man then turned and walked off into his premises. Had I wanted to continue the discussion, I would have had to follow him inside. I could have done, but I decided not to. Bullies are often cowards but it isn’t true that they don’t have power. It may not be authentic power in the form of genuine self-esteem but they know exactly what to do to shut you up and often their behaviours are passive-aggressive. It can be useful to analyse how you can handle situations differently but sometimes you have to make a snap decision, and act.

When people trot out, ‘Stand up to bullies’ and ‘Don’t let them see they’ve upset you’, while I agree with both sentiments, neither is helpful in some situations or possible. You can make your stand, but if it’s invalidated and ridiculed, that ‘stand’ falls flat. I do think that bullies choose their targets. I don’t take this man’s behaviour personally. It wasn’t me, Vicky Newham, he was reacting to. It was that he didn’t like being challenged on his negligence, and being asked to do something about it. I know that this man has received other complaints about his dog. It has form (requiring surgery) and so does he. Bullies accumulate confidence in the way that a snowball gathers snow.

Another factor in this situation is that there was no-one around in a position of authority to request help from. However, often, even when there is, not much happens. When I was teaching full-time, I would have to refer on reports of bullying. It was worst amongst the girls. Schools have bullying policies, and you have to follow them to the letter. I saw girls have their lives made miserable by bullying. If you can convince a bully to see that their behaviour is wrong, you might be onto something. Most derive satisfaction, power and identity from what they do. If they don’t have much else in their lives to nourish them, and role models to show them how to behave kindly, they are not going to give up what feeds them. My default mode with people is to try to invoke reason. Unfortunately there are some people in the world you cannot reason with.

I have reported this man to the police, and I will follow it up. I have heard this morning of another dog which this one has attacked. I was aware last night of feeling that he had got one up on me. That I had allowed him to wriggle out of taking responsibility. But then I realised that sometimes in life people do get ‘one up’ on us. But if it involves doing something shitty to another human being or animal, it is a hollow victory, and perhaps not even a victory at all. I am glad I spoke to him. And I said what I wanted to even though I was extremely anxious and he laughed at me.

The aspect of bullying which is just as difficult to bring under control is how it affects you. This was a one off so it is much easier to bounce back from. Where bullying is systematic, it is much harder. Just as the bully increases in confidence, the self-esteem, and sense of agency, of the person on the receiving end, decrease. What helped me last night was the support of people on Twitter and Facebook. Someone told me who to report the man to, others expressed concern and agreement that he had behaved badly. Also, I was able to decide in advance what I wanted to say to the man. It needs to be brief and to the point, I told myself. He still gained the advantage, but probably would have done more so if he had been with the dog when it attacked mine. And this brings me to something else which disempowers: when something takes you by surprise it is less easy to think what you want to do and say. If it’s vicious texts arriving on your mobile, or posts on the internet, the moment you click on them, DING. And you can wither.

Ultimately, then, what may be most helpful to people who are bullied is the opportunity to discuss and role play things to say and do. For children, it helps when parents can keep emphasising, ‘It isn’t you, it’s them’. That if you are bullied it doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you, it means that, unfortunately, some people in life are not very nice. I suspect this helps prevent feeling victimised. It so often isn’t personal. It is about what a bully perceives you to represent or simply that they sense a vulnerability or are just trying their luck. And that deep down they feel unhappy on some level. It is worth trying to confront a bully, in my opinion, if you can, with the awareness that it may go wrong. It may not go as you wish, but occasionally something trickles through. And even just saying ‘Don’t do that’ can make you feel more empowered. It is also important to refer bullying on and report it when you can, a scatter gun approach.

But the hardest work is within yourself: not letting bullying ruin your confidence and make you doubt yourself.

For me it is about not letting it knock me off course, and prevent me from doing what is important to me. And that involves – at the moment – looking after myself, making sure my dog is happy, healthy and safe and getting my novel finished. With that in mind, I shall take the dog for a walk and then continue editing my book.

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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Psychology, psychotherapy and psychiatry in fiction

In view of #psywrite starting tonight on Twitter, hosted by @rosieclaverton and myself, I thought I’d add to Rosie’s blogpost and outline what psychology involves and how it differs from psychotherapy and psychiatry.

Psychology is the scientific study of human thought, emotion and behaviour. I did a 4 year BSc at Birkbeck College, London. We studied research methods and statistics each year. Other modules covered memory, perception, attention, developmental psychology, family studies, psychoanalysis, cognition and emotion, abnormal psychology, language development, social psychology, brain and behaviour, parapsychology and pseudoscience, and animal learning theory. Birkbeck has a reputation for excellent research and so my degree was very science-y, which I loved. When studying abnormal psychology, for example, we learnt about psychological explanations of disorders as well as biochemical and neuro-anatomical ones. This is how it should be and is how many of the A-level specifications work too.

I realised quickly when I first started teaching GCSE and A-level psychology that many people don’t really know what the subject covers. They sign up for the course thinking that it’s about analysing dreams and people’s body language, and hope that they will learn how to read people’s minds and psycho-analyse them (which usually means figuring out whether they think the person a) likes them or b) fancies them). Oh, how many people I’ve had to disappoint over the years.

Psychology is an academic subject. It is a science. It involves learning about and evaluating explanations of thought, emotion and behaviour using theoretical frameworks, and testing them using scientific methods. Studying ‘pure’ psychology at undergraduate level does not generally involve any clinical experience. Psychotherapy involves treating mental health problems using psychological methods. This sometimes involves post-graduate training (so the therapist has a general degree in psychology) but it is also possible to train as a psychotherapist without an undergraduate psychology degree. Psychiatry, which is Rosie’s area, is a specialism of medicine and involves diagnosing and treating (psychiatric) disorders in various settings.

There is some overlap between psychology and psychiatry and also points of departure and difference. For example, I know about hypothesised causes of a range of disorders, what treatments are used and what research shows about both … but I have very little clinical experience. Psychiatry is all about the clinical side of things.

Psychology covers lots of topics which don’t relate to mental health, and many which do, including:

• how memory works and when and why it doesn’t (amnesia), including eye witness testimony
• attachment between child and caregiver, attachment failure and disruptions, and day care implications
• body’s response to stress, effect of stress on health, causes of stress, treatments
• abnormality, explanations of why people develop mental health problems, eating disorders
• group behaviour, conformity, obedience, ethical issues in research
• relationship formation, maintenance & breakdown, love, cross-cultural differences in relationships, gay, lesbian & electronic relationships
• Pro-social behaviour (eg. altruism, bystander behaviour)
• Anti-social behaviour (aggression and violence), including causes
• Biorhythms, sleep and dreaming, including sleep disorders such as narcolepsy
• Perception (receiving sensory input) and attention (processing it consciously and unconsciously)
• Cognitive development (how thinking develops) and moral development, implications for learning
• Intelligence
• How we learn (operant & classical conditioning, and social learning theory)
• How culture, gender and individual differences affect phenomena
• How the brain works, including structure, neural pathways and neurochemistry
• Personality and gender development, including gender roles and gender dysphoria
• Evolutionary psychology and its influence on human reproductive behaviour
• Addictions, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, autism, amongst others – symptoms, causes and treatments
• Psychological treatments and biological ones including psychosurgery
• Research design and implementation, validity and reliability

The purpose of #psywrite is to provide a regular time and place where writers can ask Rosie and I questions about psychology and/or psychiatry in relation to plots and characters. For example, you might want to check the plausibility of something you’ve plotted, terminology or accuracy. Don’t worry about whether your question comes under ‘psychology’ or ‘psychiatry’, just ask away.

The first one is tonight, Tuesday 21st October at 20.00 GMT on Twitter, using the #psywrite hashtag. Hosted by @rosieclaverton and @VickyNewham


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Rules, deals and transactions in relationships

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As you’ll have gathered from the title of this blogpost, it’s not about writing. What is it about then? Recently, I’ve found myself re-visiting a topic I’ve been interested in for a long time. It’s about how, in all relationships, there are rules about what is and isn’t acceptable. Some of these are explicit in that they are laid out formally via contracts (at work, for example) and codes of conduct, and some of them are implicit. It’s the latter category which interests me and, whilst the form they take might vary, I cannot think of an example of any kind of relationship where there aren’t ‘deals’ made about what will and will not happen. What intrigues me about these deals is how they are communicated and entered into, and what consequences arise if transgressions occur. I also find it interesting when the explicit rules and implicit ones are at odds. Perhaps a few examples might help.

When I was growing up the unspoken rule at home was ‘No-one must upset your mother’. By the time I was aware that this was the rule, I’d left home and I am still unsure about how my mother got so many people in the family to sign up to it. Twenty years later I discovered that one of her sisters was aware of this rule and had been going along with it since they were children. Her other sister and her own mother also realised what was going on, and chose to go along with it although they weren’t always honest about this. And this is another thing: where there are rules, and particularly if they are ones with winners and losers, there is usually collusion and denial, and a lot at stake.

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When I was teaching I remember a lot of talk at one school about learning being a priority. Policies and guidelines were issued on the subject, backed up by training sessions on things that were thought to promote learning. But whilst this was the message that the school wanted to be seen to promote, ultimately, what they actually wanted was for teachers to use methods which would guarantee good exam results for them and the students. But isn’t that okay, you might wonder? Sometimes good exam results can be achieved without real learning taking place, and without many skills being developed except how to rote learn and answer exam questions. For me, being a teacher was never about teaching kids to pass exams: I wanted them to learn and understand, and I wanted to foster intellectual curiosity and passion for their subjects and for life. So why was the school pretending to care about learning when it actually cared more about exam results? Simple: because its success depended on good exam results.

I’ve noticed these rules in romantic relationships and friendships too. With partners there are usually understandings about certain things: we will both be faithful; you will be faithful but I won’t; we will do some things together and some separately; you won’t leave your stinky socks on the floor and I’ll remove my hair from the plughole. Sometimes they are reciprocal. Sometimes they are one-sided: you will always defer to me or I’m the knowledgeable one.

I’m going to ask you a question. It’s okay, you don’t have to tell me the answer. But tell yourself: how honest are you with your partner? About how you feel, and what you do and don’t want. One key area where there are almost always rules is honesty. Sometimes it’s: I don’t want you to be honest with me because I am scared of what you might tell me. Or: let’s both be selective about the truth. Rarely is it: let’s both be 100% open and honest with each other. This saddens me. Why is that? Telling the truth in all situations is a risky endeavour. No, I don’t want to have sex. Yes, you’re your bum does look big in that. No, I don’t fancy him, I was just being friendly. I do still love you. No, I’m not going off you. Yes, I do want to go on holiday to that place. Do partners enter into their relationship ‘contract’ consciously? Does it depend on whether they agree on what’s in the contract? Technically, I would say ‘no’ to both questions. Are two people going to stand in front of each other and admit that they both want the other to not be honest? Isn’t this sort of thing hinted at ever so subtly, and communicated in covert, roundabout terms? Why is this? It’s because the consequences and implications of not sticking to the deal are unthinkable. For example, if I acknowledge you’ve lied to me, I am going to have to take action so I’ll pretend I don’t know. That sound familiar? Sometimes the deal is about roles, and in turn these are usually about power and control. It amazes me how many people give up power in relationships via deals that put them one down.

With acquaintances and strangers there are rules too: some of these are cultural, for example, the British thing of when someone asks how you are, you say ‘Fine thank you, and you?’ But what if you aren’t fine? Why should you say that you are fine when you’re not? I’ve never understood this. Sometimes this is mutually acceptable. Desirable even. We’ll just make polite conversation, keep things superficial, and not risk getting close because I don’t like you and you don’t really like me. Or because I’m envious of you. Or because you irritate me. Because it’s all a bit messy to actually say how you really feel. If this farce works for both parties, that’s fine. But if one person wants to be honest and have a more authentic interaction, the relationship – whatever it is – is on stony ground. Have you ever told people that you’re struggling with something, or with life in general? How have they responded? Or if you’ve been on the receiving end of someone telling you that they’re struggling, has your response been one of empathy, a desire to understand and help … or one of irritation? Exposing vulnerability to another human being can be a tricky business. If that person wants you to be strong, and ‘not complain’, they might want a deal along those lines. Sometimes it’s because that person doesn’t feel strong themselves, because they lack empathy or quite simply because they are selfish. On many occasions I’ve seen people say that they’re struggling, only to be greeted with “We’ve all got problems, you just have to get on with it” or – worse – rejection, because the deal is “I will only be friends with you if you always say you’re fine”. Usually, warnings are given, little tugs at the lead. They send a ripple, communicating the message, “Hey, be careful, that’s not the deal, remember?” Often this is enough to persuade the person to start towing the line again. But sometimes they don’t want to. And then, so often, the relationship flounders.

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Have you ever been in a situation where you feel like you’ve changed and the rules that used to work don’t anymore? This can occur when people change and the ‘old’ rules no longer feel comfortable.  It can be a gradual thing as in when one member of a couple changes, creating tension around the rules of the relationship. Or it can be as a result of a person growing up and developing new hobbies and interests, and not wanting to do certain things anymore. Accepting change in another person can often be hard, particularly if it reminds us that we haven’t changed at all (and secretly we’re annoyed with ourselves for it and are envious that the other person has).

I find it interesting to analyse these situations using Transactional Analysis. This suggests that there are three main modes of relating: Parent, Adult, Child. All interactions and communication between people are called ‘transactions’. Transactions work best when both people are ‘in’ Adult mode. If one person, or both people are in Parent (the negative aspects of which can be critical and persecuting) or Child (wilful or disempowered), communication is likely to be unsuccessful. It strikes me that most of the deals that we sign up to are about control: who has it and who doesn’t.

Something else that intrigues me about the deals that people make is that often people agree to things that they aren’t actually happy with, and even when it results in pain – for themselves and others. Why? Usually to avoid acknowledging and confronting their own human feelings. Whilst I don’t agree with all of Freud’s ideas, I do believe that we so often reject in others what we cannot come to terms with somewhere in our own psyche. Or we reject the person because they bring up in us feelings which we find unpleasant. I’m a big fan of operant conditioning: behaviours which are reinforced positively or negatively are repeated (learned). The key question here is: what’s the pay off? Negative reinforcement is where something unpleasant is avoided, for example, people and things which we can’t (or don’t want to) cope with. Positive reinforcement is a straightforward reward. This brings me back to my mother, why did people collude with her? Because the consequences of not doing so were unbearable. In this kind of family situation, if everyone has signed up to a rule, the consequences of transgression can be devastating. My need for honesty and authenticity has always caused problems in my family. How many people are made the family scapegoat for breaking the rules? It is something which has always struck me as incredibly cruel: families can gang up on individual members and ostracise them because they refuse to keep quiet about something that everyone else has signed up to. And it’s often done in a very clever way: you are made to feel that you are the one in the wrong. You are the black sheep.

The final aspect of rules which makes me very sad, is how much self-delusion is often involved. I’m not making any judgements here, I’m as guilty of it all as the next person. Except honesty. I have a thing about honesty, and have avoided and left many relationships (and been left) from a need to be honest. I explore the above issues in terms of my own relationships and life (and those of the characters in my books, ha, sneaked a bit of writing in!). Many years ago I had a long relationship with a man who said from the outset that he ‘didn’t do emotions’. This statement should have made me walk away but I didn’t because I was already in love with him by then. I agreed to a deal which made me unhappy. I needed to know how he felt about me but had signed away my right to ask. Ultimately my need to know the truth broke us up. Many years later he told me that he’d been in love with me the whole time, something which, at some level, I think I’d known but couldn’t trust. So, what he’d meant was that he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – talk about his emotions, not that he didn’t have them.

So, how to conclude this post? Sadly, I don’t have any answers. All I know is that life is messy. Relationships are messy. Being human is a tricky business. We are all a mass of contradictions. We all experience wormy feelings such as anger, envy and resentment. We all fall madly in love, and experience joy, excitement and beauty in life. Some people struggle more than others, or struggle with aspects of life in particular. We can sit on the sidelines or roll up our sleeves and trousers and wade in. And we can be honest about who we are and what we want. Most importantly, perhaps, we can be kind to those around us who are struggling, and not presume to know what they’re struggling with if we haven’t actually listened, and not judge whether or not we think they should be struggling with that thing. These days I am much more careful about the deals I enter into with people. And when I sense that I’m being silenced, or left with crappy feelings to deal with, I have a greater capacity to walk away.

Vicky Newham © 2014