“We don’t do emotion in my family” Were the words of a science graduate I interviewed recently. He reminded me of me.


Growing up, I watched my mother and father having rows and shouting at each other and vowed to avoid emotion. It helped that Dad was an industrial chemist (we did our own drycleaning with a carboy of carbon tetrachloride we kept in the garage) so I did science at school and university. It helped even more that Mum didn’t believe in physical displays of love. She sent me Valentine’s cards well into my 20s – but hugs were out.

We now know that our growing brains need both the physical and the intellectual experience of love – or the necessary circuits don’t form. So I grew up with a bit missing – and apparently I am not alone.

And it doesn’t have to be dramatic – or obvious, or gender biased. A mum and dad of my acquaintance, reacting to their six year old crying at the departure of his playmate for a week’s holiday:

Her: Cheer up! You’ll see him again soon.
Him: Of course you’re sad. It’s OK to cry. Here, have a hug.

Check out your own reaction to people’s upset-ness. We’re a bit uncomfortable with emotion and try to suppress it. But in its absence our interpretation of the world can be seriously flawed. I asked the science graduate what he did when a situation frustrated and angered him. “I turn the anger into icy logic” he said. “Good luck with that” I said. I didn’t hire him. He reminded me of me.

love 2

“I want to know what love is” is a great song by rock band Foreigner. In my 20s I went through a succession of girl friends, desperate to fall in love but unable to prove to my one-sided scientific mind that this was ‘it’. I got married, still uncertain if this was love. The only proof I had was that Jen could make me madder faster than anyone else in the world.

In the months before and after Jen’s death in 2008, I was working constantly with a therapist. I needed to be in top shape to support Jen beforehand and then to support me after. The earthquakes of emotion broke through my defences, allowed the therapy to reach the parts it needed to, and I started to build the missing circuits.

CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) is the NHS’s favourite answer to mental health problems. It works by changing the stories you are telling yourself about life. It works at the beginning when you are probably in a bit of a state. As emotion dies down it works less well and can become just a talking shop. You can ‘get’ why you tell yourself the unhelpful stories that you do but the only thing that will shift them is engaging with the emotion that implanted them.

Trust me. I know what love is.

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‘High status versus low status’ or ‘A long time ago I recognised that my ability to get served in a crowded bar was a lot to do with whether I felt on top of the world or had had a bad day.’


You pop in to see the boss. “Busy?” you ask, poking your head round the door. You’ve just used ‘low status’ behaviour in the presence of someone you feel to be ‘high status’. You walk into a shop and stand squarely, waiting to be served – you’ve just played high status. After all, you’re the customer.

We live in a democracy. We believe in equality. Logic and reason says that ‘all men are created equal’. Yet our behaviour is based on our heritage as creatures of the herd where a pecking order is the natural state of things. It’s wise to accept that, and other aspects of our heritage as Homo sapiens. Continue reading

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Games People Play: ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’; ‘Boy Wizard’. What’s your game?

Games People Play was a book written by Eric Berne in the 60s. A bestseller, it introduced us to the way that people adopt roles in the ‘play’ of their lives. ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’ and ‘Boy Wizard’ are reflective of our society’s encouraging girls to be endearing and boys to be clever. [If you want more on that find your way to Soraya Chemaly’s brilliant 10 Simple Words Every Girl Should Learn.] But our role-playing goes beyond gender stereotyping.

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Ever lost something that you needed urgently – only to have it turn up in plain sight, after the panic was over?

Then you’ve stumbled on one of the best kept secrets of how your brain behaves, or doesn’t. There’s a little piece of it that sits at the top of your spine and the bottom of your brain stem. It’s called the Reticular Activating System (RAS) and that mouthful might explain why you’ve never heard of it.

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If I knew I could get a better job – I’d leave this one.

I was talking last month to Ray Dance. Ray qualified as an engineer but helping other people find a job has become his ‘better job’. He’s so good at it that he won’t charge for his help if you don’t get offers.

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I Wish I’d Written That

Mary Schmich

I try to write a blog every week. Normally, something comes up that sets me off. This week, an email appeared in my inbox which was a retirement message from an old friend to the colleagues he was leaving behind. I wish I’d written it – so below is a sample.

He introduced his message with reference to Mary Schmich’s ‘Wear Sunscreen’. I wish I’d written that too. He writes:

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I’m doing a great job, why does nobody notice? Or the importance of managing upwards.

‘They should know what I’m doing’ The voice of frustration from someone who has had their head down, perhaps for years, bent over their tasks and their teams only to discover that ‘they’ – not their immediate boss – but ‘they’, the wielders of power and decisions, don’t know, understand or seem to care what’s really been going on.

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