I should have written this blog three days ago as I returned to work following my period of absence. My initial feelings of anxiety had diminished as I had wanted to return to work several months previously. However, I think my anxiety had turned into trepidation.
I found it very strange that after entering through the doorway how everything was the same but felt equally different. There were new faces who looked at me with some form of inquisitiveness and there were faces I knew but carrying 10 months’ worth of stress and other work/home related problems. I was also surprised at the amount of people who were presently working their resignation. Indeed, it was a sad realisation of how much the job had changed for so many people.
I spent the previous day or so thinking and reflecting upon the events of the past few months and on how my outlook and views had changed. Initially I was both cross and disappointed with myself that I had not found another job. I had a realisation of how much my chosen career path had taken out of me to the expense of my health and family/social life. However, it is easy to reflect on that when the reality was that I was too ill to consider a new job.
Page or chapter?
I also considered how my worldly outlook has also changed. By returning to work I suppose a new page or chapter had begun and so reflecting on these new findings was right.
Conciliation of philosophy
It was during my time at university that I was introduced to philosophy. Admittedly it was political philosophy but I had caught the ‘interest’ bug and carried on reading all sorts of philosophical genre. As a result (and I am not selling it here) I came to realise that no matter what our thoughts or feelings are, someone somewhere has also thought the same things. I have found it to be both comforting and, if you like, an endorsement of my views when I have come across another thinker with the same opinions. I suppose it can be considered as a form of conciliation.
Feeling like a fraud
As I grew older I discovered that hitting rock bottom had different levels. To put this simply some bad days were better than others or lasted longer than previous feelings of hopelessness. Because of its irregularity I could not see the point or purpose of seeing anyone about it. Furthermore, the idea of an appointment system often let me down because by the time I had managed to make an appointment I had started to feel better. It made me feel like a bit of a fraud. In effect my health had literally gone awry.
CBT wasn’t for me
Time and again CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) had been suggested as a form of treatment. It came highly recommended and so I gave it a go but for me it didn’t work. However, whilst searching the internet I discovered that the psychologist who had invented it, Albert Ellis, had got the idea directly from ancient philosophy (Greek to be exact). Since reading about Ellis’s ideas I found that it matched up with Epictetus (AD 55 – 135) view of human weakness. Epictetus suggested that…
“Men are disturbed not by events but by their opinion about events.”
Perhaps my views of the world like Epictetus, had considered that our emotions always involve beliefs or interpretations of the world we live in. Perhaps, therefore, our interpretations may often be inaccurate, irrational or just simply wrong. And as a result, will make us emotionally ill or devoid of the things around us. Whilst I write this perhaps I can consider that I had a value system that put a huge emphasis on working and behaving to the best of my abilities. Perhaps I can now consider that this flawed belief system has put too much pressure on my simple and narrow shoulders. It is ok to be human and say; ‘I’m just not managing and want a second consideration’. I can now say that this is what I would happily except from others, so why not myself?
I am not finding or looking for a reason or excuse but perhaps our beliefs are ingrained from an early age and so become habitual. Would it be fair to consider that our, actions become so regular and habitual that they become comfortable or unseen in our day to day activities? Perhaps this is why people are generally uncomfortable about changing their life patterns or regularity. Taking a leap if you like. For example, people may not be able to cope after the pattern of a long-term relationship comes to an end. I know some of you may be screaming at me right now saying that this is what CBT encourages us to consider. But for me I was uncomfortable talking about this in front of people sitting in a circle. My main concern at that time was to just get out of there with my integrity intact. This is why I renewed my love for philosophy. Or to be precise my re-reading of philosophy.
It has often been suggested that our capacity to choose our paths in life is constrained by a great many things (genes, childhood, circumstances, wealth [or lack of], education and so on). But to a degree we can widen the paths we have selected by considering views different to our own. This ability can make us improve ‘our lot’ and open up our ideas and views with the resources we have to hand.
Epictetus put this simply by dividing life into two categories: the things we control and the things we don’t. We don’t control the weather, other people, our reputation, our even own bodies and health. But he considered that although we can influence these things, we don’t have complete control over them. The only thing we do have control over is our own thoughts and beliefs.
I would like to suggest that emotional problems arise when we try to gain control over something external – something out of our control. When I had hit rock bottom and felt destitute, I rested all my self-esteem on others’ views of me. This, of course, made me feel helpless, depressed and finally anxious.
My enlightened moment came one day whilst walking in the park. The end to this self-enslavement was to stop trying to manage other people opinion and views of me. Instead I decided to focus on controlling my own thoughts and beliefs. I knew my good and bad points and I also knew the facts behind a false allegation. I won’t say it was an instant relief, but it had given me the strength to return to work with a ‘do or be damned’ attitude.
Alas, I must confess that this makes it sound so simple. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. The problem is that humans are incredibly forgetful creatures. We might read a book or hear a revelation on the radio or TV and have a light-bulb moment, but then a few days later we forget and go back to our old way of seeing and doing things. We are creatures of habits. In fact Aristotle (384–322 BC) wrote:
“It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference.”
Every day, we have a choice to either reinforce a habit, or challenge it. The Greeks understood the importance of habits to the good life. Their word “ethics” comes from “ethos”, meaning habit and they developed some great techniques for habit-formation.
One technique the ancient Greeks liked to use is the idea of ‘maxim’. A maxim is the compression of an idea into a short, memorisable phrase, like “everything in moderation” or “look before you leap” and so on. Ancient Greek students would repeat these maxims over and over, even sing them, until they became neural habits, thus became expectations.
So how has this helped me?
Well the ancient philosophers enjoyed and encouraged other thinkers to keep a journal. As you know (if you are a regular reader) my blog became my journal. It outlined and tracked my progress. When I read many of my blogs back to myself I can witness the growing of my strength and understanding. This of course, has also been endorsed by other bloggers and readers who have also encountered their own difficulties and problems. It is not a measuring tool to compare our woes, but it has become a support structure for others to say ‘yes I get that, I’ve been there too’. Epictetus would have embraced this as he once stated; “count the days when you were not angry”. To be able to do this you need to keep a journal of some kind. A blog is now the ideal medium of which to do this in modern times.
As I write this I consider that our new-found philosophy needs to be more than theory, it needs to be practice too. Time and again I have found myself to be confident in the classroom, but a miserable shipwreck when it comes to practice. To put this simply you cannot get over your anxiety by holding a new view in the safety of your living room. I learnt that you need to go out and practise. For me it was important to take small steps first, like walking in the park, then the shops and finally back in to work. Can I therefore, suggest that every situation we’re in can be an opportunity to practise our new philosophy. Seneca (4 BC – AD 65), put it better when he said; “The Stoic sees all adversity as training.”
I have now realised that philosophy through CBT can heal suffering and perhaps save many lives. But it’s not the last word and it is not a wonder pill to be taken once a day. To use another maxim “no man is an island” I would suggest or even dictate to male suffers of anxiety and depression to get those tablets and embrace counselling. The offensive term of ‘manning up’ is not a philosophy. It is a dangerous, small minded point of view that has killed more than it has saved. Being a good person is the acceptance that sharing your pain or recovery process for the benefit of others is perhaps the best gift you can give.