Sunday, 27 October 2013

How narcissistic are you?

Hi all 

Happy October! 

Last week the US Government only narrowly avoided another global financial crisis after resolving the recent political stand off in Washington. Numerous commentators have attributed this almost catastrophe to the narcissistic attitudes of the Republicans with their attempts to undercut Obamacare. 

Plus last night I caught a replay of an old Channel 4 documentary on Wikileaks (check it out here -it's available to watch for a limited time). As you can imagine this documentary centres around the enigmatic, controversial figure of Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange. Watching this struck me that Assange appears to demonstrate a great deal of narcissistic qualities. 

This got me thinking of Assange's character and what narcissism is in general.

Narcissism for dummies

Narcissism originated from the Greek myth of Narcissus who fell in love with his own image in a pool of water, after rejecting the various attempts at attraction by the nymph, Echo.

The key traits of a narcissist include:
  • Self focus in inter-personal communications
  • Lack of empathy
  • Problem with distinguishing self from others
  • Denial of remorse or gratitude
  • Over-exaggerating their achievements
  • Hypersensitivity to insults, be it real or imagined
  • Vulnerable to shame rather than guilt
  • Haughty body language
Psychologist Sandy Hotchkiss identified "seven deadly sins" of narcissism:
  1. Shamelessness
  2. Magical thinking
  3. Arrogance
  4. Envy
  5. Entitlement
  6. Exploitation
  7. Bad boundaries
Most of us have some of these traits in a diluted format, but 1% of the population develop narcissism in a pathological form, called narcissistic personality disorder.

The causes of narcissism are not widely known but research suggests these factors can play a role:
  • Severe emotional abuse in childhood
  • Unpredictable care giving by parents
  • Excessive praise or excessive criticism by parents
  • Used by parents to regulate their own self esteem
  • Overindulgence in childhood
Major trauma in childhood (e.g. separation from parents) can cause the narcissist to become emotionally frozen and often their emotional age, as an adult, will correlate back to the time of the trauma. As protection against further trauma, the narcissist will create a fake persona to act as a barrier.

Hotchkiss explains that narcissists see other people as extensions of themselves and not as separate people. Other people exist to meet their needs or they just don't exist at all.Those who supply the narcissistic extension are expected to live up to the expectations of being the narcissist themselves.

Dr Otto Kernberg explains that a narcissist uses splitting as a mode of defence to combat the conflict between the real self and the idolised self. The parts of the self which are deemed unacceptable (i.e. they don't meet the expectations of the idolised self), are repressed and projected onto external objects (e.g. other people).

Here's a quick quiz you can take to see if you display narcissistic traits (if you dare)! (I've done it for myself and was quite surprised that my results were of a similar level to slightly narcissistic celebrities!...something for my therapy maybe)!

Julian Assange and narcissism

As I mentioned earlier it struck me watching the channel 4 documentary on Wikileaks that its founder Julian Assange shares a lot of traits of narcissism. For example:
  • When he was cooperating with the Guardian and other papers, he dramatically dismissed the New York Times when they didn't play by his rules, so he saw things in black and white, right or wrong (this is an example of splitting).
  • Plus Assange couldn't see the issue with leaving the names of local informants in the military cables unredacted, compared to the journalists who saw that these people could be put in immediate danger. Assange's attitude was that if they were supporting the allied forces, then they deserved to die. Again this shows very black and white thinking with no flexibility and also demonstrates a complete lack of empathy or concern for others.
  • Assange has also shown a lack of empathy for the apparent main Wikileaks source, Bradley Manning, currently serving time in US prison. When Manning was first arrested, some Wikileak colleagues suggested that they stop leaking any further information in order to protect Manning from any further harm. Assange disagreed and dismissed those who challenged him and continued to publish the data.
  • He displays grandiose thinking for example in the film regarding Wikileaks "We Steal Secrets" (the trailer is  here, its a great film!) he demanded £1 million to appear in the film, which the film maker refused. Also his time in the Ecuadorian embassy has cost the public a great deal of money (a reported £3.8 million has been spent by the Met Police).
  • Assange apparently refused to return to Sweden to submit to an AIDS test in relation to 2 women he slept with. This refusal caused the women to seek legal remedy hence the charges of rape brought against Assange. His arrogance has caused his ultimate downfall and for him to be hauled up in the Ecuadorian embassy for the last few years.
  • His mother appears to be over protective of him, despite him being 42 years old. His mother recently reported to the press that she fears for his health as he is not getting enough sunshine while he is stuck in the embassy (he's been there for over 500 days). This hints towards perhaps how his mother perceives her son and perhaps how his childhood may have been.
  • In the film on Wikileaks, it is commented how Assange has entwined his legal case against him for rape into the Wikileak cause for freedom of information. Not only does this encourage further support from him (as if he is being persecuted for his work on leaking and not in reality his casual sexual liaisons) but also shows how for him there is no distinction between the two, he IS wikileaks.
    Wonder if you spot any narcissists in your life?
Anyway some food for thought!

Till next month,

Take care



Friday, 27 September 2013

And so to bed...

Hi all,

Apologies for the month break in my blogs, I finally moved house (yeah), so needed a bit of time to get settled in and get logged on!

I thought I would tackle sleep this month after seeing a great TED talk by Russell Foster on the neuroscience of sleep. It made me wake up (excuse the pun) and really take sleep seriously, after all we spend 32 years of our life in the sleep state!

How much sleep do I need?

Most people need between 7 to 8 hr sleep a night. One sign if you're not getting enough sleep is if you fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow (afraid its not a sign of you being an amazing sleeper).

Research suggests that consistently sleeping less than 6 hours a night can increase the risk of stroke and diabetes.

Research has also shown that there can be negative health effects by having too much sleep (more than 9 or 10 hours a night), just the same as you can get too little. So its all about getting the right balance.

What happens when we sleep?

We go through several stages during sleep. 

The first stage lasts about 10 minutes and it's when we have our eyes closed and we start to go towards light sleep. People can often feel like they are falling at this stage. The next stage is light sleep where the heart rate falls along with our body temperature as our body gets ready for deep sleep, this second stage lasts about 20 minutes. Then we enter deep sleep which lasts about 30 mins. 

After deep sleep, REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep starts, which is where we dream. REM sleep lasts about 10 minutes and then we re-enter parts of the sleep cycle, reaching REM at the end. Each time we progress through the cycle, the REM sleep period lasts longer and longer until it reaches its maximum length of about an hour.

Polysomnograms show brainwave patterns in REM to be similar to that recorded during wakefulness. Heart rate and respiration speed up and become erratic during REM sleep. During this stage the eyes move rapidly in different directions. Intense dreaming occurs during REM sleep as a result of heightened brain activity, but paralysis occurs simultaneously in the major voluntary muscle groups.

It is understood that we process memory during REM sleep including working through what has happened to us during the day. This probably explains why we dream during REM and why it is important to understand the context of our dreams so we can interpret them more effectively.

What does your sleep position say about you?

Plus looking at this issue, I came across information as to what your sleeping position says about you and your personality. This seemed really relevant for me, as I've just completed a paper for my psychotherapy diploma on personality types, (admittedly I stuck to traditional models such as Freud' illness model and the Jungian functions rather than sleeping positions). 

Which one are you??
Here's some key points regarding sleeping positions, can you spot yours?
  • Foetal: According to a recent survey, more than half British adults sleep in the foetal position, a position apparently favoured by worriers as it provides comfort from the day stresses. People who prefer the foetal sleeping position are conscientious, ordered and like things in their place but are also in danger of over-thinking problems and worrying unnecessarily.
  • The Log: The next most common sleeping position after foetal is the log (lying on your back or side with your arms by your sides). This position shows a persona is inflexible and rigid in their thinking, set in their ways and stubborn.
  • The soldier: lying on your back with arms relaxed. This position shows someone as quiet and austere, who doesn't complain easily and holds themselves to a high standard.
  • The starfish: lying on your back with arms and legs out stretched. This position indicates an easy going personality who is a good listener and happy to help others, but often doesn't like being in the spotlight.
  • The Yearner: Another common sleeping position is called the yearner, meaning you sleep with your arms stretched out in front. This position means they want more from life and are willing to “go out there and get it with both hands”, eager to face the next day.They can be their own worst critics, expecting great results in everything they do and giving up quickly when things don’t go their way.
  • The freefaller: "Freefallers" is another position, which is sleeping face down with arms outstretched. Freefallers often clutch a pillow as if they are holding on for dear life. 
    So-called freefallers can wake up feelings anxious, or believing they still have issues and tasks left over from the previous day.Those who adopt it can feel as if life “happens around them” and they are just “hanging on for the ride”, believing they lack control over what will happen the next day.

    Going on the above, I seem to be a mix of "the Yearner" and "Foetal", with a bit of the freefaller mixed in for good measure, which does represent where I'm at in my life right now (being a mixture of stress and anxiety and excitement about the future).
Top tips for a good nights kip
  • Establish a regular routine for going to bed and waking up;
  • Bedrooms should be dark, quiet and ideally a few degrees cooler than the other rooms in your home;
  • Establish a winding down routine before you go to bed;
  • Finish exercising at least 3 hours before bedtime;
  • Discover your optimal sleep pattern (try to go to bed at the same time for a few nights and see what time you naturally wake up without alarm clocks);
  • A 5 or 10 minute meditation session will help you wind down;
  • Try to avoid caffeine after 2pm;
  • Avoid spending time on the computer/watching TV at least 30 mins before bedtime.
So a good night to all and have a very happy snooze!

Till next month,

Take care



Sunday, 4 August 2013

A new kind of Chick Lit

Hello all!

As part of my summer reading, I've revisited a book I read a couple of years ago, Caitlin Moran's How to be a Woman. Its a fabulous book....funny, ironic, honest and true.

There is lots of great stuff in this book, but one of my favourite parts is her analogy of sexism in the workplace to Meryl Streep in a film. She writes " These days, sexism is a bit like Meryl Streep, in a new film: sometimes you don't recognise it straightaway. You can be up to 20 minutes in, enjoying all the dinosaurs and the space fights and the homesick Confederate soldiers, before you go, 'Oh my God- under the wig! THAT'S MERYL." I just love this analogy as I have often found that I sometimes only notice that I have been witness to sexism a fair bit of time after the event, such is the acceptable face that sexism sometimes has especially in a male dominated workplace. 

It got me thinking that Moran's book represents a new wave of literature by women for women, in effect chick lit (sorry if this term causes offence) has gone through a reinvention lately.

Another great book I've just started reading is Hadley Freeman's Be Awesome. 

I love the creative and funny titles of the chapters, such as "How to read women's magazines without wanting to grow a penis" or "When to listen to your friends and when not to". Hadley includes a list of awesome women which inspired me to think of my own list, so far I have (in no particular order ladies):

  • Grace Coddington
  • Katharine Hepburn
  • Caitlin Moran
  • Victoria Wood

What great women or men would make your list?

Another inspiring and controversial book, is Lean in by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. Her book includes some interesting topics for women in business, such as:

  • To sit at the table (i.e. not to be afraid to have your place amongst your male colleagues)
  • The importance of identifying a mentor
  • Don't leave before you leave (a message for working women considering a family)
  • Busting the myth of having it all (that old chestnut)

Here's a taster re Sheryl Sandberg with a  TED talk she did a few years ago before launching her book.

As I started writing this blog, I had MTV playing in the background and I couldn't help but notice Justin Timberlake's new video for his song "Tunnel Vision" which heavily features female nudity - the women are topless throughout compared to Timberlake who is wearing several layers of denim.  The irony is not lost on me! Maybe we still have a far bit more to do!

Till next month,



Friday, 12 July 2013

Moving house and other stresses!

Hi all

Hope everyone is enjoying their Summer so far!

I am currently going through the very precarious pursuit of selling my flat and buying a new place to live. It was all going so well until last week when one of the parties in the chain decided to pull out (groan). All of a sudden everything came to a stop and we had to start pretty much all over again. Despite having sat numerous exams, job interviews and performances in public (including singing), I have never felt stress like I have done with this move. The stress is like a twisting sensation in my gut which never goes away (I certainly hope it does once this whole thing is over)! Once you start talking to others, you quickly realise that you are not alone and that most moves come with their own horror stories!

This moving stress got me thinking about what other parts of life can cause similar stresses, so I decided to do a little digging...

In 1967, a couple of American psychologists (Holmes and Rahe) devised a scale for the most stressful events a person can experience in their life, their top ten were:

  1. death of a partner
  2. divorce
  3. separation from partner
  4. imprisonment
  5. death of a close family member
  6. personal illness or injury
  7. marriage
  8. dismissal from work
  9. change of job
  10. retirement

Hard to believe that moving house didn't make it into the top ten (it came in at number 32)! I also find it ironic that retirement scrapped into the top ten, when surely that should be a time of rest and relaxation!

Looking at more recent surveys, moving house has certainly moved up the chart of stressful life events, compared to the study almost 50 years ago. It is now included within the top four, along with divorce, losing your job and dealing with the death of a loved one.

Moving house is most likely the most expensive and life changing financial transaction most of us will ever make. That coupled with the numerous parties involved (purchasers, vendors, lawyers, agents, mortgage advisers etc.) and the organisation required, its no wonder that it is one of the most stressful life events. For control freaks like me, the lack of ability to truly determine the outcome contributes towards the stress experienced. After all with so many parties involved, it only takes one to mess up and the whole transaction can fall apart.

In the meantime, I'll continue to take lots of deep breaths and meditate once in a while.....

So here's hoping all us wannabe movers get their dream house sometime soon!

Till next month



Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Domestic violence - The harsh reality

Hi all

As you may know I volunteer regularly at Victim Support, a national charity which supports victims of crime. As part of my role, I have decided to specialise in helping victims of domestic violence (DV) and I've just finished this week the 4 day training needed for this area. I thought I'd share with you some of my main takeaways from the training for this month's blog.

Firstly.....The scary stats
  • One in 4 women and one in 6 men will experience DV at some point in their life.
  • DV represents an annual cost to the UK economy of £5.5 billion.
  • Almost one third of DV cases start at pregnancy.
  • Every minute the police receive a call for help relating to DV.
  • Women on average will suffer 35 separate instances of abuse from their partner before they report the violence to the police.

The impact on children

Children are often caught in the crossfire when it comes to DV. The impact on the children is massive and can include the following:
  • anger towards the abusive parent for their actions
  • anger towards the abused parent for letting it happen
  • guilt and self-blame that they cant stop the abuse
  • development of poor role modelling, thinking that abuse is an acceptable part of life
  • unprocessed anger can result in violent outbursts outside of the home
  • lack of sleep, suffering from nightmares and possible bed wetting from witnessing the abuse
  • And most of all, they too may become victims of the violence.
A moving (but harrowing) documentary about Victim Support's team who deal with families bereaved by homicide includes the tragic situation of a mother of 4 children being killed by their father after suffering years of DV. Here's the link to the programme (called  The Murder Workers), I definitely recommend it but warn you that it will stay with you for quite a while.

The toxic trio

Experts in this area describe a "toxic trio" which when present, causes the possibility of DV to dramatically rise. This trio is made up of substance or alcohol abuse, mental health issues and financial worries. Given the current economic recession it is no surprise that the National Centre for Domestic Violence has seen a 19% increase in cases in last 3 years.

The harsh reality

One of the key learning points for me in my training is that we can't assume that all victims want to leave their abusive partner. We, as supporters, have to approach clients with absolute empathy and non judgemental ways of thinking. We have to respect the victim's decision regardless of our own convictions. Its very easy for us to say "why don't you just leave" but this is far easier said than done and is not the type of support which will help a victim. For me this will represent a great test as a trainee therapist. I will have to park the "inner rescuer" within me and help support my clients on a case by case basis. After all no one knows exactly what goes on in a relationship apart from the two people in it. A good example in the media is the situation involving Rihanna and Chris Brown, where several years after DV, the couple reunited, much to the disbelief of some commentators.
Rihanna after the DV

The reasons why victims of DV stay with their abusive partners are numerous and varied. One fact which cannot be ignored is that victims are most at risk of harm (including being killed) when they try to leave their abusive partner. I also find the following TED talk by the wonderful Leslie Morgan Steiner about why victims of DV stay with their abusers truly inspiring. 

Vicarious trauma

Another key learning from the training, and one which can apply to all therapeutic situations, is as a supporter of people experiencing trauma, is TO TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF! Supervision is absolutely vital when starting down this career path. Client work needs to be left at the office and not taken home. 

Vicarious Trauma is the term used to describe the impact on a supporter's well being who deals with trauma on a regular basis. The Headington Institute defines Vicarious Trauma as "the process of change that happens because you care about other people who have been hurt, and feel committed or responsible to help them. Over time this process can lead to change in your psychological, physical, and spiritual well-being." The Headington Institute advocates three themes of Awareness, Balance and Connection to help alleviate Vicarious Trauma. So I've decided to develop a few key objectives of my own, these being:
  • Maintain a good work/life balance
  • Leave the client material at the office (mentally as well as practically)
  • Supervision, supervision, supervision!
  • Know and observe my limits

One thing which is for sure is that with 2 women dying every week as a result of DV, more support is needed for these victims and I hope my very small contribution will make a difference in a someway.

Till next month

Take care



Saturday, 18 May 2013

Hoarding - Not just a matter of clutter

Hi all,

I am currently selling my flat in London and have gone through the process of "dressing" it ready for viewings. Anyone who knows me well will know that I am pretty fascist when it comes to clutter, so the challenge of creating clean, clear spaces was pretty much a no brainer.  Given my slight obsession with clutter free spaces, I have become a fan of the recent hoarding related programmes.

Coincidentally, it was reported in the press this week that a woman and her son had to rescued from their flat in Dagenham by the fire brigade because their hoard had taken over the property. The fire workers had to use a cherry picker to smash through a window to get the two residents out as the front door was completely inaccessible due to the clutter in the flat, (here's the article of this shocking case of hoarding).

Hoarding is described as an excessive acquisition of and inability or unwillingness to discard large quantities of objects that cover the living areas of the home and cause significant distress. Hoarding can take many forms for example with animals, food, newspapers etc. Its reported that up to 3 million Britons suffer from hoarding disorder. Despite this and the popularity of TV programmes to do with hoarding I was surprised that there wasn't a plethora of websites or information on the Internet about getting help with hoarding.
Extreme animal hoarding

So how does hoarding get started? It would seem that most hoarders have suffered some traumatic loss, be it a death or a divorce etc., in their lives which they have not recovered from. The hoarding is a reaction to this loss by either filling the void of the loss and/or by creating a defence against relationships with others (so that the risk of another loss cannot be repeated). Instead of dealing with the underlying problem, a hoarder creates a somewhat artificial problem through their hoarding, so that the real pain is suppressed and replaced with a self induced one. Hoarding can also be hereditary and can result as a extreme reaction towards having a lack of resources (money, food etc) during childhood. Other mental health issues such as anxiety and depression can also encourage hoarding behaviour. Research into the brain, has shown that hoarders experience decreased activity in the parts of the brain which are responsible for focus, attention and decision making.

Symptoms of hoarding can start in early teenage years and will become more prominent as an individual gets older and has more personal funds and capability to accumulate possessions.

This month the updated "Psychiatrists bible", DSM-V is published and for the first time hoarding will be defined as its own mental health disorder as opposed to being a sub section of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Experts believe that this recognition of the disorder will help improve diagnosis and treatment.

In terms of treatment a mixture of therapy and gradual de cluttering appears to be a good fit. What the TV programmes show is that is extremely important to let the hoarder make decisions about their belongings. Without ownership of the process, the treatment will inevitably fail. What has to be remembered is that traumatic loss is most likely the cause behind the hoarding, and so letting go of their possessions is like another loss for the hoarder. Its like an addiction, where the treatment has to be taken one day at a time, and relapse is an expected part of recovery.

Such programmes as "Britain's biggest hoarders" or "The Hoarder Next door" show the impact a hoard can have not only have on the hoarder in terms of their mental and physical environment but also upon friends and family who struggle to deal with the pain and frustration of dealing with such a disorder.

Jasmine Hardman knows only too well the strain hoarding can have on relationships as she had to cope with her mum's excessive hoarding. Thankfully her mum is making great progress and so now Jasmine is trying to help other sufferers in the UK. She has set up a website, , which has an excellent resources page with books, videos etc and she also presents her client's cases on the TV show, "Britain's biggest hoarder". Jasmine's website was one of the best I have come across in terms of content, another good one is the Cluttergone website which offers services to help clear possessions (the declutter diary of Stella is a good read).  Plus unsurprisingly as hoarding has previously been regarded as a sub disorder of OCD, the International  OCD Foundation website contains some information.

I have recently started befriending at the UK mental health charity, Mind and their branch at Hammersmith and Fulham offer help for hoarders in terms of a support group

Also the excellent Podcast "Stuff Mom never told you" did an interview with a hoarding expert a while back, here's the link to the podcast (click on "Read More" to listen).

For me what the tragic case of hoarding shows is how important it is to work through feelings of trauma when they are experienced as repressing them will only makes matters worse,

Till next month,




Friday, 12 April 2013

Looking for the Silver Lining?

Hi all

I recently saw, "Silver Linings Playbook", the Oscar winning film which centres around two people with mental health issues, one being bi polar. I wanted to see if this film lived up to its plaudits. I was certainly hoping for a sensitively framed production seeing as David O Russell, the director and writer, has a son with mental health problems. I am glad to say that I was not disappointed, the film is touching, funny and emotional and worthy of the hype.

There were some points about the film which I found interesting as a trainee psychotherapist:

  • Pat's (played by Bradley Cooper) shrink has some interesting techniques. He tests Pat by playing his wedding song in the waiting room before his therapy to see if it still can trigger an episode. Then after accidentally bumping into Pat, his client, at a football game, the shrink proceeds to follow his client to Pat's house afterwards, and then to Pat's dance competition. 
  • The film shows the tremendous highs and lows of bi polar and how moods can change incredibly quickly. For example at one point  in the middle of the night, Pat is quietly reading a book in his room and then when he doesn't like the ending, he throws the book at his window, smashing it and then wakes up his parents (and his street) with his complaints about the author.
  • The film also shows the pure honesty and lack of social filter which is common amongst people with mental health issues. In the first meeting in the film between Pat and his father, played by Robert De Niro, Pat immediately confronts his father over losing his job and his bookmaking activities (which was news his mother told Pat in secret before hand). 
  • Both lead characters find focus, discipline and release through a creative medium, being dance.
  • Although its Pat who is in therapy, his father appears to demonstrate some of the signs of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in the film including a preoccupation with deciding upon the placement of the remote controls and performing rituals before a football game.
  • Tiffany, played by Jennifer Lawrence, explains to Pat during one of their running sessions that she likes all the different parts of herself, including the slutty part (her words, not mine!) and she asks Pat is he could say the same about himself. For me, Tiffany's statement sounds like she has accepted and forgiven her own shadow, which is an essential part of a person's individual growth. 
  • There a couple of very small scenes where a neighbour's son knocks on the door asking if he can interview Pat about his mental health. This I feel is a clever way of showing some of the stigma and voyeurism attached to conditions such as bi polar.
  • One of Pat's key mantras in the film which helps him manage his condition is "Excelsior" (a Latin word meaning ever upward).  Later on in the film, Pat's father places a high risk bet which he feels is a sure thing when he discovers that Excelsior is a term shared by his son and the State of New York which was related to the bet. This reminds me of Jung's concept of synchronicity, or maybe more someone trying to find connections to provide comfort (which could be OCD related).

Here's the trailer to Silver Linings in case you want to check it out:

Seeing this film has inspired me to come up with my personal top films which feature mental health issues:
  • One flew over a cuckoo's nest - Jack Nicholson causing a riot in a mental health hospital. I first saw this film on a leadership weekend with school, say no more!
  • Silver linings playbook - enough said already
  • As Good as it Gets - Jack Nicholson again (pattern emerging?) playing a character with severe OCD, especially regarding germs and walking on the cracks in the pavement).
    As Good as it Gets
  • Rainman (Dustin Hoffman's performance as the autistic brother of Tom Cruise won him an Oscar)
  • Girl, Interrupted (This time the women gets a bit crazy in this one, Oscar winning performance from Angelina Jolie)
  • Aviator -  Leonardo Di Caprio plays Howard Hughes, showing the torment the great innovator suffered later on in his career with very severe OCD.

I'd like to end this month's blog on one of Pat's main motto's from the film, which is if you work hard, stay positive and then we all have a shot at the silver lining! Well said indeed.

Till next month

Take care


Saturday, 16 March 2013

The cunning art of deceit


Watching the BAFTAs last month, I was very pleased to see the British film, The Imposter scoop the award for Outstanding Debut. This 2012 British docu film tells the 1997 case of the French confidence man, Frederic Bourdin, who impersonated Nicholas Barclay, a Texas boy who had disappeared at the age of 13 in 1994. What I found so intriguing about this film was not only the main subject of the story, the imposter himself, but also how the family of the missing boy were so ready to accept Frederic, someone who didn’t even closely resemble Nicholas, into their lives. What the film explores is not only how one individual was able to fool so many but also the possible reasons why the family wanted to accept Frederic as the missing Nicholas. There’s a great twist in the film where the spotlight is turned from the imposter and onto the family and the conclusion leaves a lot of unanswered questions. The film is incredibly well put together using actors and real life interviews (including with Frederic himself), if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend that you do. Here’s the trailer for your viewing pleasure.
In our modern age, pulling the wool over someone’s eyes has become even easier given the internet and the immense popularity of social media sites such as Facebook. After all through the internet we can greatly control our image and essentially become an improved version of ourselves, or even completely fabricate a whole new identity.  Psychologist Sherry Turkle, in her book Alone Together" comments that regarding online identities, there is a "sweet spot of simulation; the exhilaration of creativity without its pressures, the excitement of exploration without its risk...real life takes too many steps and can always disappoint." 
The fabulous 2010 film, Catfish, tells the story of a young New York man, Nev, being filmed by his brother and friend as he builds a romantic relationship with a young woman, Megan, on Facebook. Am sure lots of you have seen this film already, but so not to spoil it, let’s just say Megan doesn’t turn out to be who she says she is (here’s the trailer for the film). Remarkably it took Nev 8 months to discover the truth about his on line love. 

The film inspired Nev to make a TV show for MTV, also called Catfish, which is airing in the UK at present. Each show follows a person who has started a romantic relationship on line, without meeting the other person, and concludes with the two of them coming together. In all of the shows, so far, no one has turned out to be who they say they are on line. For example the first show, a woman had started an online relationship with a male model who turned out to be an 18 year old girl who was purposefully deceiving others on line to get revenge on her high school bullies. Another show told the story of how a girl had deceived her boyfriend’s ex girlfriend into believing she was communicating with a guy for a whole 2 years. Needless to say this makes for great TV but more seriously it strongly demonstrates how easily we can be deceived, (most participants in the show say that they never thought to check on the identity of their on line love and took everything at face value).
I am fascinated by how we so readily accept what is presented to us and shoot down any red flags which pop up with some rational reasoning.  When it comes to love, I wonder if it is the case that we really don’t want to see any warning signs or actively go out looking for trouble as we so want to believe in the love we have found. In fact maybe that’s the case with most situations. We want to believe in others, and therefore to question their validity from the outset would challenge our values and our view on the world and maybe even cause our own identity to be challenged. 

Scientist Robert Trivers, comments in his book "Deceit and self-deception" that when being tricked "once we have taken the bait, we stop asking questions...the con artist induces an internal ride in the victim that is very satisfying but is hard to view sideways so as to see where, in fact, the ride is taking you". Trivers, in Oct 2011, spoke at the LSE on the subject of deceit, here's the link to download the talk, LSE podcast.
There has to be a certain degree of trust in our interactions otherwise the world would be thrown into chaos. However there are individuals who are willing to abuse this trust for various means including financial gain.
As a volunteer at Victim Support, I come across people who have been directly affected by people’s deceit. For example lying about their identity so they can enter a person’s home to rob them. This abuse of trust can have a devastating impact on the victim. Their whole outlook on the World can change. The loss of this trust can be greatly demoralising and often can cause the victims to withdraw from society.
So for me there has to be a balance between the two extreme ends of the spectrum, between blind trust of others and being suspicious of everyone. We need to accept that we live in a world where people, for whatever reason, are trying to deceive but understand that these people are the minority and we shouldn’t allow their existence to restrict our lives. However next time I get a random Facebook friend request I may treat this with extreme care as you never know where a catfish might be lurking!

Till next month

Take care


Friday, 15 February 2013

Dying to be noticed

Happy February all!

Hope all is good with you and everyone is managing to keep warm in this very chilly weather! For me any excuse to drink copious amounts of hot chocolate is welcomed!

I've lived on my own for most of my adult life and sometimes I do get this slightly scary thought of, "what if I fell or something on my own in the long would it take for anyone to find me or even start to worry about me?" I know its a slightly depressing thought (sorry) but since chatting to a few of my lovely single friends, it is a fear shared amongst us. In fact for one of my mates it actually happened! She slipped out of the shower and knocked herself out. She thankfully came to an hour or so later and was absolutely fine, but scary stuff nonetheless!

I was also inspired to write about this subject as I recently saw the outstanding documentary about Joyce Vincent called "Dreams of a life".

Joyce, 38, died in her bedsit in North London in December 2003 and was not found for almost three years until her housing association tried to repossess the property. Strangely Joyce's TV was still on as she lay dead by her sofa surrounded by wrapped Christmas presents. Police did not find any evidence of foul play in regards to her death. When news broke of Joyce's death, the papers neglected to include a photo of Joyce and this inspired film maker Carol Morley to investigate who Joyce was and film a documentary which essential pays tribute to Joyce and her remarkable but short life.

Joyce Vincent
Joyce appeared to have led a rather secretive life where she moved numerous times in London, never keeping in regular touch with people who knew her. Joyce lived through the lives of other people and rarely opened up to those closest to her. The problem with such self preservation and lack of disclosure is that only through revealing parts of ourselves, can we make real connections with others. The lack of connections with others seem to have greatly contributed towards her being so easily forgotten. Interestingly Joyce's striking beauty seems to have played a part in all of this as people who knew her imagined that she was somewhere else having a better life than them because of her looks.

Little is really known about her family, she had four sisters (all older), her mother died when she was young and her father died about a year after her own death. Morley did manage to contact one of Joyce's sisters who apparently explained that they had tried to locate Joyce before her death with the help of a private investigator and the Salvation Army but nothing was found. So efforts were made, but for me a bigger question is why had the family lost touch with Joyce in the first place? 

A few years before her death Joyce had left a good career at the large accountancy firm, Ernst & Young, telling her work colleagues that she was going abroad with friends. So what on earth happened to Joyce which may have started her terrible journey ending with her dying alone in a bedsit a few years later. It appears that around the time she left E&Y, in 2001,Joyce was taken in by a refuge for victims of domestic violence and it was this refuge which helped find her the bedsit she eventually died in.  It would appear that Joyce, already a pretty secretive person, felt a great deal of shame about her situation, as she hid the violence from anyone who knew her. As a volunteer at Victim Support, I wonder why there was no support for Joyce after she left the refuge. Though I do have to keep in mind the possibility that Joyce may have refused support which may explain why no one was checking on her.

Joyce's story is incredibly tragic and am sure you'll agree that there are lessons for us all. Here's the link to the channel 4 documentary if you want to see it, Dreams of a Life, I highly recommend it!

Interestingly one of the people interviewed in the Joyce Vincent documentary mentions that in the days when Joyce died and the years preceding, social media like Facebook, were not available and so photos and contact could not be easily made, in other words losing touch was easier.  I wonder whether social media sites have helped us stay in touch with people more or has it allowed us to become lazy with our forms of contact and  For all we know what with Joyce's beauty, character and her numerous London homes, she might have had 100's of friends on Facebook but that doesn't necessarily mean that her death could have been avoided or noticed earlier. What Joyce needed was real connections with others, with people who genuinely cared for her.

So a think one lesson for us all is not to be afraid to ask for help, people around us do care and will want to help and there is no shame in admitting things are a bit tough.

Scarily, there are also other tragic stories from around the globe about people dying unnoticed. For example in 2006, a man was found dead travelling on the New York subway. Officials worked out that he had been dead on the train for about 6 hours before any of the morning commuters noticed him. Another story is about a tax inspector in Finland who died in his office in 2004 and was not discovered for 2 days (about 100 staff worked on his floor).  A more horrific story is of a man who died at his desk in an open plan office of a New York publishing house on a Monday in 2001 and wasn't found till a weekend cleaner tried to get his attention 5 days later (23 people shared the same office space). So next time you hop on the tube or get to work at your desk, have a look around and keep a check on those around you (just in case)!

Till next month

Take care


Saturday, 19 January 2013

When habits turn unhealthy - OCD

Hi all

And a very happy New Year!! 

I thought I'd kick off my blogs for 2013 about an issue close to my heart, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (or OCD for short). My older brother has suffered from OCD ever since I can remember and as a trainee therapist I also have a particular interest in the condition. I also thought that this topic is slightly timely as it's the new year and we are all trying to keep our resolutions, but when does starting a new routine turn into something less healthy, say an obsessive ritual?

What is OCD?

In brief, OCD is an anxiety disorder characterised by intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviours or compulsions. OCD can take various forms and differing levels of intensity, examples range from compulsively washing your hands, avoiding cracks in the pavements, or extreme hoarding. 

Its basis is that we can somehow ensure a positive outcome by performing certain rituals (e.g. if I switch my light on five times in row, then my family will be OK). OCD is driven by the fear of consequences, no matter how unlikely the risk.  As the ritual becomes repeated again and again, neural pathways are developed in the brain to positively support such actions and contradict the brain's rational thought process.

How common is OCD?

OCD is considered to be the fourth most common mental illness in many western countries. It's also a condition which can start at a very young age; in 80% of cases, OCD symptoms present themselves before the age of 18. OCD affects three in 100 of the adult population.

And OCD is on the rise. A recent report from the Mental Health Foundation found that fear levels are rising in the UK, and more than seven million of us currently suffer anxiety problems severe enough to affect our health. This increased fear and anxiety coupled with our busy modern lives, goes some way to explaining the rise of OCD, as we seek to take comfort in performing small rituals to bring back some control into our lives. 

Mr Beckham - an OCD sufferer
OCD has even taken on a slightly hip image with the likes of David Beckham (he has a thing about lining up coke cans and cleaning hotel rooms) and Florence Welch admitted to having the condition. Last year, Tory MP Charles Walker came clean (excuse the pun) about his battle with OCD and described his condition as "a hundred little blackmails a day". Awareness of the condition has grown a great deal and there even is an OCD awareness week (this year its from 14 -20 October).

What causes OCD?

The jury is still out on what exactly causes OCD to develop.  Brain scans of people with OCD have shown that they have different patterns of brain activity than people without OCD. This different brain circuitry causes impulses such as washing your hands after going to the bathroom to remain switched on, so the hand washing gets repeated where as with a non-OCD person, the brain switches off the impulse and allows the person to continue with their day. Also a recent study of laboratory mice found animals lacking the molecule, known as Slitrk5, exhibit behaviours similar to the human form of the condition including excessive self-grooming and increased anxiety.

OCD sufferers commonly share personality traits such as high attention to detail, avoidance of risk, careful planning, exaggerated sense of responsibility and a tendency to take time in making decisions. 

Can OCD be treated?

There are different methods which can help sufferers with OCD such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) as well as medication. However, OCD symptoms persist at moderate levels even following adequate treatment and a completely symptom-free period is uncommon. 

"A little bit OCD"?

Over the Summer, as part of their mental health series, Channel 4 did a fabulous programme highlighting OCD, starring comedian Jon Richardson, who wanted to find out if he was suffered with OCD (the show was called "A little bit OCD"). The programme highlighted some interesting issues such as how OCD can run in families and how living alone can exacerbate the symptoms. At the end of the show, Richardson took a series of tests to ascertain if he had OCD. It turned out that he didn't have the condition officially but certainly suffered from some of its well know symptoms (don't get him started on the order of cutlery in kitchen drawers for example). 

If you have ever wondered if you are a "little bit OCD", then here's a link to a quiz you can take courtesy of OCD Action, good luck! Do I have OCD quiz?

And for more information on OCD check out a national charity called OCD UK.

Till next month,

Take care