Saturday, 13 April 2019

Passing on the wine: is it too much to expect 40 years’ worth of wine to be eradicated in four months?

Water never tasted so good...honestly

Welcome to month four of sobriety. If you had asked me back in January I would have told you that I’d stopped drinking alcohol – which in my case amounted to red wine as I didn’t really drink anything else -  for a year to see how it felt because…well just to see if I could.
If you had asked me if I had a drink problem I would have said no. I regularly had a month off. I occasionally didn’t drink every day. I only drank red wine because I loved the taste. I didn’t drink in the morning. I didn’t often have a hangover. I hardly ever embarrassed myself because I was drunk. I couldn’t remember the last time I drank to oblivion. I didn’t put myself in dangerous drunken situations. I have never been at the wheel of a car after a drink. I hadn’t angrily thrown stuff after a bottle of wine for years.
I didn’t find it difficult to give up daily red wine drinking in January, with so many others doing dry January it is almost expected. I have done it before and always been disappointed not to feel any great improvements; no weight-loss; no better sleep; no more bounce. I have always noticed that without wine I crave sugar so it was no surprise that I substituted wine with chocolate, cakes and biscuits.
By February most friends were having after-work-drinks whilst I was still on a pint of lime and soda. I noticed that I was irritable, snappy and negative. I couldn’t bring myself to socialise, wanted to go to bed at 8 pm and was seriously annoyed that I wasn’t feeling fabulous. What on earth was the point of abstaining if I couldn’t find any positive benefits?
In March I was at the base of the stress-dip that accompanies the rhythm of publishing a quarterly magazine. I had got through the January deadline but this was tougher. At the end of particularly difficult days I really wanted a bottle of wine; I wasn’t sure I had the willpower, how else was I going to deal with the pressure? And I still hadn’t lost any weight, was still waking up at 3 am, hated going out at night; what on earth was the point? But I am the kind of person that when I say I am going to do something I stick to it. I had said I was doing this for a year and so I would.
Last night - a Friday - I went to a Yoga class at 7pm. It has been another long work week, in the past a Friday would most certainly have involved wine. As I left the yoga studio I walked past bars full of happy Friday evening drinkers: Friends, colleagues, lovers, families, chatting, enjoying each other’s company, sharing gossip and news over wine, beer or cocktails. I started to cry. I can’t ever recall feeling so lonely.
Not drinking has forced me to look hard at myself and my relationship not only to alcohol but to other people in my life, to my past, my other habits; to how drinking has shaped the person I am at 54 after 40 years of loving to drink. I have started to question what it would take to label myself an alcoholic. In the past my definition of that would have been to do with the amount of alcohol consumed, the inability to control one’s drinking and the behavioural changes that being addicted to alcohol induced. I tell myself that I don’t have a drink problem and yet I have problems that alcohol seems to be the only solution to; without the soothing effect a drink brings about I feel as if I have been stripped of my protective armour.  And facing up to this isn’t easy; giving up wine has meant that I have had to give up parts of my identity.
On that journey home last night I wondered how different my life would have been if I had discovered that I could tolerate uncomfortable situations without a drink. Or even, take myself out of those situations rather than drinking to survive them.  At fourteen I had learnt that the fear of being in dangerous places – hanging out with older cool types who took drugs and thought nothing of having sex in front of me – could be eased with Lambrusco. By sixteen I was brave enough to sleep with anyone who gave me a modicum of attention as long as I had already imbibed a couple of glasses of wine. Like many girls I didn’t consider I could use the term rape because I had bought it on myself by being drunk; a night out involving wine but ending with me saying no and locking my door didn’t stop him shimmying a drainpipe and climbing into my bedroom window, but hey that couldn’t be rape could it because, although I was bruised from him holding me down, I had been drinking and flirting with him all night in a club?
And then there were the times when wine enabled me to confidently dance on tables, fall in love and tolerate idiots. And how wine had subdued my opinions so I didn’t stand out: “have a drink and shut up.”  And the family occasions where drink enabled me to feel loved. Or were wine smoothed the way to connections….the list goes on. Good and Bad.
I wish that I hadn’t drunk so much in front of my daughters. I wish that I had realised that drinking was a choice. I wish that I had said “fuck off” to those telling me that without wine I was boring, or that I was an outsider who was even weirder without a drink. I wish I had been stronger younger. I wish I could go back and provide protection to that child who started drinking because she wanted to be accepted, loved and didn’t want to be scared anymore.
These are all thoughts I wish I wasn’t having and I can’t have a glass of wine to push them away. I tell myself that I am proud to have got to month four, that I have more energy, my brain is sharper, I am a better person for facing my demons. It doesn’t erase the painful emotions that bubble just below the surface and threaten to spill over as once more I am on the outside looking in.
In some respects the child I was at fourteen had merely been numbed with alcohol for the past forty years. She was waiting for sobriety to re-emerge; vulnerable, uncertain, insecure; a bundle of troubled emotions. So how can I support her? I don’t want or need to drink, so I need a new way to be. I had no idea that the prop was actually scaffolding.
I don’t want to come across as negative; I know that this was – is – a good idea. I know that I will come through this year with greater self-knowledge. The current mental space, where I regret my past reliance on alcohol, I am upset with the choices I made and am cross that I probably could have been an unbelievably successful woman if I hadn’t let wine take away my personal power, will pass. Nonetheless, I am excited that it isn’t too late to change – it never is – and I’m not too old to take on the world stone-cold-sober. So bring on the next four months, I am ready for anything as long as I have a stash of chocolate biscuits.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Gold Boots, Conversations & Circles of Influence.

Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash
I had a lovely chance encounter yesterday. I was on my way to the station and a Daddy and young child were walking towards me. As we came close the Dad remarked that I had set him a task as his young daughter was very impressed by my gold boots and wanted a pair of her own. I stopped to chat and shared my thoughts. Now, this isn’t unusual for me, my footwear often instigates conversation; I encounter daily micro-moments of connectivity based on comments around how I dress. This little girl was looking longingly at my shiny boots and I wondered if her dad would consider letting her paint her Wellington boots – she had them on – and make her own gold boots without having to buy new ones.
I was imagining a lovely afternoon of messy-play, luckily this dad also thought it was a good idea, we discussed whether gold acrylic would be suitable, and he commented how excited Mummy would be when she came home from work. I went on my way and hopefully, there is a happy little girl splashing in puddles today in gold-wellies.

This dialogue got me thinking about how we introduce children to the concept of sustainable fashion, how we make it relevant to them in a way that is fun, and how we can encourage creativity and play into dressing that is good for children’s well-being.
At a presentation of my research into the possible benefits of everyday dress the Q and A turned to uniforms and the fragile identity formation of teenagers; I believe that we should be encouraging children to develop identities based on self-knowledge and expressing who they are, or want to be, with a creative approach to dress rather than being channelled into consuming and conforming. In the break a woman came over and shared that she had just spoken to her teenage daughter and apologised to her for being so rigid about how she dressed; this mother had made a decision that it was better for her daughter’s well-being to experiment with who she was becoming via her clothes than needing to comply with who she wanted her daughter to be.

When I was a teenager it was the tail end of Punk and the beginning of New Romantic, as an art student it was expected that I wear my ‘difference’; a motley collection of charity shops, hand-me-downs, hand-made and an occasional trip to the Kings Road. I didn’t have friends who bought their identity off the peg. We created unique looks from cheap-stuff and chopped and changed who we were on a weekly rotation. I remember wanting a pair of gold ankle boots I had seen on someone on Top of the Pops, I had a boring grey pair which I spray painted and wore that same night, with an old shirt of my Dads and a skirt I had made from vintage fabric found in my boyfriend’s loft.  Of course, there were times when I bought clothes – I worked in a boutique so had too - but those items were mixed with the ragbag collection that I loved, and held onto for as long as I could!
I still have much that same attitude to my clothes, so do my daughters. And when they were little girls a favourite summer holiday outing was charity shopping with a limited budget and the instruction to purchase as a gift for each other as well as something to wear personally. As a family we now have a ten pound limit on Christmas gifts for each other which forces everyone to be creative when trawling charity shops and turn present buying into an adventure.
Later in the afternoon yesterday I had coffee with a new acquaintance who had also connected with me over a chat about shoes. She told me how she had made a choice not to buy any new clothes since hearing my research; she now dresses mindfully and is really enjoying the renewed relationship she is having with her existing wardrobe. She questioned why she felt compelled to shop, what need was she attempting to meet and how unfulfilling that had become. It is so rewarding to know that on a micro-scale the impact of my research is trickling out into the real world.

So if you are thinking about how you – or your children – can dress in a sustainable- flourishing-fashion where can you start?

Photo by Brandon Morgan on Unsplash

  •  Go shopping in your own wardrobe – play with what you already have without a preconceived idea as to what goes with what.
  •  When you get dressed pay attention to how something makes you feel rather than how it makes you look.
  •  Give yourself the freedom and permission to try on a different version of you – even if it’s only to be at home in.
  •     Don’t save something that makes you feel amazing for special occasions.
  •   Allow your children the same license to explore who they are and experiment with putting their look together.
  •   Make shopping for clothes an opportunity to get creative, charity shops are a goldmine for clothes which can be played around with by adding bits and pieces to customise. You don’t have to be particularly crafty to change a shirt into a child’s dress or stick glitter on a second-hand bag. And children love the challenge of hunting for stuff to modify.
  •  And of course all old wellies are so much better for us when they are gold, or indeed shiny pink and sparkly and you transformed them yourself. Perhaps you could have your very own festival in your garden or local park this weekend and get your friends and children to come in their customised flourishing fashion creations.
I would love to hear your ideas for how you flourish with fashion and how you might encourage children to get creative with their clothes.

Friday, 17 February 2017

What’s Love got to do with Wellbeing?

We thrive when we express positive emotions for others and we flourish when we are on the receiving end of warm regard. The capacity to love and be loved is one of the 24 VIA character strengths that could bring us gratification and authentic happiness (Seligman, 2002).  Love as a positive emotion and our ability to form relationships are central to the concept of flourishing when viewed from the perspective of PERMA. And that means feeling love as a positive emotion in relation to our self as well as others.

So how can we make sure we get all the benefits that lots of loving provides?
I’m going to look at three ways that we can love and be loved, loving ourselves from the position of self-compassion , being in a loving relationship with significant others and love as a micro moment we can experience daily with anyone, a universal experience that is a win-win situation.
When I refer to self-love I am not talking about self-esteem. When we are encouraged to view self-love as seeing ourselves as better than others, as comparing who we are and what we have, we are setting ourselves up to fail, to feel anything but self-love. But when we see it as self-compassion we are accepting all of who we are, warts and all.
Dr.Kristin Neff researches self-compassion, she advises that instead of heartlessly judging and criticizing ourselves we treat ourselves as we would a good friend, with kindness and acceptance. Neff divides self-compassion into three elements, self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. 
With self-kindness we are warm and thoughtful toward ourselves when we hurt, are unsuccessful, or feel insufficient, rather wallowing in self-criticism; we recognize that being flawed and inadequate, is unavoidable, so we are more likely to be gentle with ourselves when challenged with life instead of feeling annoyed when we don’t get it right.  We can’t always be or get precisely what we want and denying this certainty, fighting against the reality, increases stress, frustration and self-criticism, accepting the inevitable with consideration and thoughtfulness makes us feel better. We have greater emotional stability, we can be in control.
All humans suffer, displeasure at not getting our own way is often compounded by an illogical but widespread sense of separation; no one else has to put up with this! However by the very definition of being “human” we are all vulnerable and imperfect. Therefore, self-compassion needs us to be aware that distress is part of the shared experience of being alive; common humanity highlights that this is something we all go through rather than something that happens just because I am “me”.  When we view life from this position we can identify that our thoughts, feelings and actions are effected by “external” influences such as our history, culture, genes and  the environment, as well as the actions and beliefs of others. Thich Nhat Hahn talks of a reciprocal cause and effect process in which we are all imbedded; when we recognise this ‘interbeing’ we can be less judgmental about our own imperfections. When we acknowledge our necessary interdependence we don’t take ‘life’ so personally.
Mindfulness encourages us to take a sensible attitude to all of our emotions in order that we neither repress nor inflate our feelings. We cannot disregard our discomfort and feel empathy for the hurt simultaneously, mindfulness necessitates that we don’t “over-identify” with thoughts and feelings, when we create a space we are not driven to rash action, we are we are in non-judgmental state of observation.

Details of all self-compasion exercises can be found at:

When we are able to accept ourselves with kindness, compassion and empathy we are more likely to be accepting of others and that is a healthy position from which to form long-lasting relationships based on love. And that that could come in handy as according to Harvard Psychiatrist Dr.George Vaillant we shouldn’t underestimate the power of love, because it's the key to happiness, he proposes two pillars of happiness: "One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away... Happiness is love. Full stop." He came to this conclusion based on evidence from the Grant Study, one of the longest-running longitudinal studies of human development. The project, which began in 1938, has followed 268 Harvard undergraduate men for 79 years, measuring an astonishing range of psychological, anthropological, and physical traits—from personality type to IQ to drinking habits to family relationships to “hanging length of his scrotum”—in an effort to determine what factors contribute most strongly to human flourishing.
Vaillant has said that the study’s most important finding is that the only thing that matters in life is relationships. A man could have a successful career, money and good physical health, but without supportive, loving relationships, he wouldn’t be happy (“Happiness is only the cart; love is the horse”).
“The conclusion of the study, not in a medical but in a psychological sense, is that connection is the whole shooting match,” says Vaillant “The more areas in your life you can make connection, the better.”
So the study found strong relationships to be far and away the strongest predictor of life satisfaction and as life goes on, connections become even more important. The Grant Study provides strong support for the growing body of research that has linked social ties with longevity, lower stress levels and improved overall well-being.
Knowing strong supportive meaningful relationships matter are one thing keeping them going is quite another. Despite high rates of divorce, infidelity and marital dissatisfaction,  a  2012 study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science 40 percent of couples who had been married for a decade reported they were “very intensely in love”,  As did couples who were married 30 years or more with 40 percent of women and 35 percent of men saying they were “very intensely in love”.
In the Guardian this weekend there was a report on a couple who have been married 78 years. Morrie and Betty Markoff, 103 and 100, say that there’s no particular secret to their very long marriage, other than tolerance, respect and luck. But why has Morrie never told Betty that he loves her? Why not the word “love”?  Morrie states that “to me, love is possessive; it’s controlling and demanding. The word that I would rather use instead is ‘caring’. You care about people. ‘Care’, to me, has a much deeper meaning. Love is an esoteric word, but one that people also use to mean all sorts of off-hand things. ‘I love playing tennis,’ and such. I hug Betty constantly, I kiss her constantly, I care very much about her.”
I wonder how their relationship would have matched up to research from the Gottman institute which shows that to make a relationship last, we need to be better friends, find a way to to manage conflict, and  be creative to support each other’s dreams for the future. theDr. John Gottman  has nine rules which he says support healthy relationships and are based upon empirical data from studies of more than 3,000 couples. This research shows what actually works to help couples achieve a long-term healthy relationship.
This is what we need to do:
·         Build Love Maps:
How well do you know your partner’s inner emotional world, there history, fears, anxieties, thrills, and expectations? Well get out some coloured pens and a big sheet of paper and map them out. Together. For  fun. And share.
·         Share Fondness and Admiration:
 Contempt is the death-knell of relationships, to strengthen fondness and admiration, express appreciation and respect.
·         Turn Towards:
The small moments of everyday life are actually the building blocks of relationship. Be aware of the moments when someone wants your attention  and respond to (turn towards) them..
·         The Positive Perspective:
 Look for solutions.
·         Manage Conflict:
 Manage conflict rather than “resolve” conflict, because relationship conflict is natural and has functional, positive aspects; there is a critical difference in handling continuous problems and solvable problems.
·         Make Life Dreams Come True:
Create an atmosphere that encourages each person to talk honestly about his or her hopes, values, convictions and aspirations.
·         Create Shared Meaning:
Understand important visions, narratives, myths, and metaphors about your relationship.
·         Trust:
This is the state that occurs when a person knows that his or her partner acts and thinks to maximize that person’s best interests and benefits, not just the partner’s own interests and benefits. In other words, this means, “my partner has my back and is there for me.”
·         Commitment:
This means believing (and acting on the belief) that your relationship with this person is completely your lifelong journey, for better or for worse (meaning that if it gets worse you will both work to improve it). It implies cherishing your partner’s positive qualities and nurturing gratitude by comparing the partner favourably with real or imagined others, rather than trashing the partner by magnifying negative qualities, and nurturing resentment by comparing unfavourably with real or imagined others.

We seem to have greater expectations from our long-term relationships than our parents generations had;  we want our relationships to help foster self-actualization and personal fulfilment  whereas as in the past marriage was undertaken to provide for safety and security, and maybe sex on a Saturday if played your cards right. (OK so I know this is a cliché but that’s what my parents’ marriage was like). I wonder if this strain on an exclusive relationship to provide the environment for flourishing is actually that good for us?  I prefer to give and get my love from a wide range of sources, which is where Barbara Frederickson’s take on love works for me.
Fredrickson thinks that we need to take the view that first and foremost, love is an emotion, a fleeting state that influences both our mind and body. Love, like all positive emotions, feels good.  However it is more than feeling good, a micro-moment of love, as with other positive emotions, actually modifies our mind. It expands our awareness of environments, our sense of self and the borders between us melt away, bathed with love we see fewer differences between each other. In fact when we experience love as an emotion we connect with a sense of oneness that can induce transcendence…love is indeed a drug.
Fredrickson emphases the body’s perspective of love; when we have positive resonance, micro-moments of shared love, our physiology responds in very particular ways. She considers that love, as positivity resonance, is identical whether the instants occur between parent and child, friends, lovers, or total strangers. Fredrickson maintains that these micro-moments originate through the eyes leading to us to be in sync with others. This idea of synchrony is fundamental to understanding positivity resonance, Fredrickson uses three key standpoints to explain her theory; oxytocin stimulation, vagal tone, and mirror neurons, or what has been called “brain coupling.”
She cites research by Uri Hasson at Princeton and his colleagues, who examined people engaged in conversation while their brain activity was monitored by an fMRI. The research shows that when brains are in sync, the neural links allows us to truly comprehend another. This, (along with other studies) backs up positive resonance generating reciprocal empathy, leading to a commonly shared physical occurrence in the brain. So we sense our two brains as having one experience.
Fredrickson shows that people with higher vagal tone have more moments of positivity resonance.  Briefly the vagus nerve connects our brain to our heart, it is involved in how we smile, make eye contact with others and monitors the middle ear muscles so we can focus on other voices.
Vagal tone is the link of the heart rate to the breathing rate so it stands to reason that the higher the vagal tone the better. People with more and better positive connections, are more loving and have high vagal tone. It used to be that vagal tone once was thought to be as stable as one’s height and couldn’t be changed, however Fredrickson’s research was able to prove that mind training can improve vagal tone. And it was done by practicing loving-kindness meditation (LKM), the ancient Buddhist repetition of nurturing positive feelings toward the self and others.
In her Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology (PEP) lab she randomly assigned participants to take part in LKM for less than an hour a week. Their vagal tone compared to a control group climbed radically after a few months of daily practice. Those who had the largest increases in vagal tone had the most frequent positivity resonance experiences with others.
This is a radical research: Fredrickson establishes that love isn’t something we just fall into: We can intentionally create love.
She then adds oxytocin,  “the great facilitator of life”  due to its role in mother-infant bonding, social connection, and sex, into the research mix. Oxytocin is released during intensified engagement with others and is part of our “calm-and-connect” response. It makes us more trusting and open to others. When we are under the influence of oxytocin  we pay more attention to people’s eyes, smiles and  other cues that are associated with positive social connections, of  course what this means is that positivity resonance lasts only as long as people are engaged. (This is similar to limbic resonance  as described in  A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, & Richard Lannon.)
Love, through this lens, is not just an emotion for soul-mates and family members, it is not to be saved for special occasions.  Love like this can be shared several times a day with different people to cover the full gamut from the love of my life to strangers on the street. Fredrickson’s definition of a moment of love is thus “Love is a momentary upwelling of three tightly interwoven events: First, a sharing of one or more positive emotions between you and another; second, a synchrony between your and the other person’s biochemistry and behaviours; and third, a reflected motive to invest in each other’s well-being that brings mutual care” (Fredrickson 2013, p. 17). This habit of building and maintaining strong relationships, of cultivating micro-moments of positive resonance, can start intentionally but builds to become who you are, so that loving and being loved can indeed become a key strength in your value repertoire. 

25 Barbara LOVE 2.0 facts
1.         ", and its absence, fundamentally alters the biochemicals in which your body is steeped."
2.         Love is a momentary state that can pass between strangers who share a mutually positive experience together.
3.         Love is a skill that can be learned which impacts the expression of your genes.
4.         "The sheer complexity of love's biology is reason enough for awe."
5.         When you learn to prioritize love, you actually get more value from it and become resilient faster.
6.         Love literally changes your mind and enables you to see others wholeheartedly, helping you transcend your usual ego perspective.
7.         Love is the arising of three events: shared positive emotions, sychrony between you and another's biochemistry and behaviours, motive to invest in each other's well-being.
8.         Other positivity emotions are not mirrored back in this way.
9.         Love reverberates between people and belongs to all parties involved.
10.       Safety is a precondition for love.
11.       People who suffer from anxiety, depression, loneliness and low self-esteem; have a limited ability to experience love 2.0.
12.       Eye contact is a potent trigger for positivity resonance.
13.       You can experience some of the positive effects of love 2.0 while alone, when thinking about a loved one for instance, but the effects are diminished.
14.       Love impacts your body on the cellular, even molecular level.
15.       Love physically impacts your brain's development, causing you to experience more positivity and less anxiety.
16.       Love 2.0 triggers cascades or oxytocin, sometimes called, "the love hormone".
17.       Oxytocin is the lead chemical in the "calm and connect" function; it literally reduces stress.
18.       Oxytocin appears to make people more intuitive about others.
19.       Love increases "vagal tone", which your doctor can measure to predict the likelihood of your having a heart attack.
20.       People with higher vagal tone regulate glucose levels and inflammation, as common denominator in many diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
21.       Vagal tone can be improved with training with positivity resonance.
22.       "In the very moment that you experience positivity resonance, your brain syncs up with the other person's brain."
23.       The effects of love can be carried to you by a person's voice.
24.       "Brain coupling" occurs between people who are experiencing positivity resonance and in some cases, you begin to anticipate the other person's thoughts, feelings and words, rather than just react to them.
25.       The causal arrow runs in both directions at once and drives self-sustaining trajectories of growth.

So viewed from Fredrickson’s position love is far more universal and abundant than the limited hearts and roses Valentines version. In this manner love is connection that can be experienced as mild or intense but either way our body responds with a set of positive reactions which increase our wellbeing and may also increase our life expectancy. Whether it’s the moving flutter of our heart when we gaze into a baby’s eyes or share a fond hug with a loved friend, or the affection and sense of shared purpose we surprisingly sense with strangers who’ve come together to listen to a lecture on positive psychology, this kind of micro-moment of positive resonance can be experienced anytime two or more people meet. And to me that feels just what we need right now. Following love as a shared moment  that unfolds and resonates between and among people — within interpersonal transactions —   stops it being about me, my emotions, and instead belongs to all parties involved, and to the symbolic connections that binds us together, even if only briefly. So more than any other positive emotion love belongs not to one person, but to multiples of people; within connections we find meaning and purpose, hope and reason to believe that ultimately everything will be OK. Romantic as that notion may seem I feel that humans’ capacity for universal love will outlast any momentary damage that individualism may inflict.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Negotiating IPA :Reflections on becoming a Qualitative Researcher

Becoming a qualitative researcher has been a tough. I could soften that sentence but the truth is I have found it a painful process, at times I wanted to sit under the table and cry, there were moments when I wanted to call the whole thing off, to divorce myself from the research never to go anywhere near the idea of understanding Anything Ever Again.
I have left a healing gap between my study and reflecting on what it meant for me. The space has moderated my emotional response, I can’t wait to do it again, and the memory of an anguished sense of failing, of falling into a hole of stupidity has passed. Like anything of value I have ever created – I’m thinking of giving birth here, my daughters being the proudest aspect of my life – the curve is step but coming out the other end is exhilarating.

If you are considering qual research I hope these reflections may be of some help to you:

  • My own enthusiasm for the topic has driven the study. Prior to sampling I asked myself how it feels when I wear an outfit that makes me happy. I hoped to be able to use my personal understanding to shape the questions I needed for my participants. I was able to approach the research with knowledge of my own bias; I didn’t intend to bracket the assumptions, my feelings that being part of the fashion system has been beneficial to me are part of my personality.
  • I was concerned that my need for understanding how others experienced wearing happiness could result in producing results that were narcissistic. Was I being compelled to poke into this subject to satisfy my own needs? What was I genuinely interested in discovering? Was this any use to anyone else?
  • After reading everything I could lay my hands on about IPA I had a crush on it as a method. Was I being clear that it was the right qualitative approach to my question? Did I just want to do IPA because I liked the idea of the depth of analysis it offered? Was the research question the right one for this line of investigation?
  • How could I approach participants to get the best ones for the study? How could I make sure that my participants were going to produce the right responses? What if they didn’t understand what I was trying to achieve?  I was aware that I felt too much pressure to make this study work; my need to get this perfect was hindering me in getting on with it.
  • I was excited when people responded to my Facebook request; someone wanted to take part, what a relief. This whole process felt too personal, as if I were being rejected not my ideas. My sense of identity was tied up with this study. The need to see myself as a researcher became important as I presented my ideas to ask for participants.
  • What did it mean to be a researcher? Why was it so important that my participants had confidence in me being a researcher? I knew that from my first contact with them I was performing this role, including how I dressed!

  • First interview was daunting. What could go wrong? Double checked that I knew my questions, had extra batteries, had allowed enough time, had all paperwork printed for signing. It was better than I had expected, felt very natural, pleasant, enjoyable. For the first time I felt that this might work. I was delighted with the answers.
  • When I listened back to the recording there was some good data. It was interesting how asking about one particular outfit led someone to talk about their feelings around the way they dressed in a more general way. It wasn’t just about that outfit.
  • I had decided to conduct all the interviews before transcription, was this how you were supposed to do IPA? The books gave very vague guidelines.
  • Each interview got easier by the third I was completely confident. I started all the interviews with the same question but then let them develop naturally form that point. It didn’t seem necessary to rigidly stick to the set questions. And actually it felt as if the participants weren’t really listening to what I asked, they were going to tell me what they wanted to say!
  • Became very aware of participants wanting to please me. Some explicitly telling me they choose the outfit to make me happy as well as themselves??? This is more of a responsibility than I imagined. My participants want me to like them, understand them and it feels like a relationship.
  • I want them to like me too. I feel as if we were sharing something significant that bonded us together. A subculture based on being this particular group who were involved in this study.
  • I had asked to take photos but soon realised the obligation to show my participants in the best light was going to be too much pressure. I hadn’t factored how I wanted to make them look their best possible selves into the limitations of my photography skills.

     TIME. Why does it take so long? Why did I think this was a good idea? How can I get out of this now?
     Each transcription made me feel as if the participant had taken residency in my head.  I dreamt about them!
     I wish I had only had 3 interviews. This is too much data.

     Where do I start? Just take one at a time and plough through.
     I really don’t think it was a good idea to have 6 interviews. Each transcript is a case study and I would love to have the time to devote the attention that they deserve. I feel as if I am skimming the surface because of time restraints.
·     It is daunting having all this information and working it into usable data. I can’t manage it just with text on a screen. At this point I printed off each set of transcripts on different coloured paper and did old fashioned cutting, sticking and moving around. That felt like a break through, suddenly combining themes was visible.I was able then to take the large posters I had made and see the bigger picture. I kept changing my view point from overview to details. This helped. As did reminding myself that this was about being true to my participants not to my own needs of sounding clever and being a good researcher.

After a supervision session I finally felt there was some 

cohesion to the results.  I needed to realise that I couldn’t discuss it all. The choices that I was making about what to focus on were not about being right or wrong. I had to go with my intuition and feeling that I was doing my participants justice in the themes that I saw emerging. We were in this together!

Writing up:
  • Actually turning the results back from tables into a narrative required a different vision again. I felt the funnelling of taking lots of information, turning into themes then zooming back out and making it readable was very scary. It was at this point that yet again I wanted to walk away.
  • I can only do this my way, it’s not about producing a perfect  IPA, I haven’t done this before, good enough will have to be OK… keep reminding yourself that there is an end. You will get there.
  • Tables take much longer to produce than they should.
  • Stop being scared of the data and just do it!
  • Your participants have given you a gift, it’s your job to make sure that it is wrapped beautifully and displayed with pride. No Responsibility then!
  • When can I do this again?
  • I love the interview stage best.
  • Transcription is painful but not the worst part of the process.
  • Analysing data and grouping themes is horrible. It reminds me of being in therapy and not wanting to accept the ideas that are floating around in your mind. You know that all the denial in the world isn’t going to make them go away so the sooner you accept the inevitable the better.
  • If I could do this for fun and not have to be judged I would like it more. I loved the process (in the end) but the fear of getting it wrong, not being good enough and letting my participants down was crippling; at times I came very close to giving up.
  • The fact that I believed that fashion can be good for you kept me going. That and falling a little bit in love with my participants.
  • I suspect that fear of being judged has been the one factor in this process that has created the most stress. If I had been able to let that go, the idea that once this study was out there it would be open to criticism, I would have been more relaxed about interpreting the data.
  •  I found it daunting having to attach my findings to theory; I would have liked the results to stand alone, outside of a need to fit in with pre-existing concepts. That feels as if it just about sums up the story of me as a researcher. I don’t actually want to fit, or undertake research in the way it is supposed to be conducted, but the need to be accepted by peers pulls me to conformity. If fashion is about the paradox of negotiating individuality and social approval then carrying out this study has highlighted that tension for me in other areas of life.

f you are embarking on quali research and would like support, advice or general chivvying along I will be happy to help. 
Connect on twitter :@10toshine
Facebook : rebecca weef smith/facebook

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Double Dry January (DDJ) is over; I'm left with tidy cupboards & Insta-love pangs!

So DDJ is over and I’m reflecting on what in learnt…was there any point in absenting myself from all forms of social media and denying myself red wine for a month?
At the start of January I was feeling ‘burnt out’. I’m not a great fan of psychometrics but it just so happened that I needed to ascertain my wellbeing for a university assignment, my score on PANAS (try it here) was on the low side for me, not clinically depressed but neither was it my normal cheery bright-side reading. I was coming to the end of an intense year of study, a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology, which had left me feeling uncertain as to my intellectual abilities, I didn’t know what I wanted to do next and I wasn’t sure why I had wanted a MAPP qualification in the first place. To compound my misery I had been unable to dance since the end of November due to a silly injury and the lack of exercise endorphins was kicking in; January found me well and truly fed-up!
It seemed like an ideal time to retreat for a month and contemplate in private, I turned off my notifications on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and stocked up on fizzy water…and this is what I discovered…
When I am trying to let go of a habit I will find it easier if I have a replacement arranged in advance. So instead of checking my phone in the morning I made sure I had a book next to my bed, not just one that I happened to be reading but a special one reserved for that time when I usually catch up with social media. I allowed myself a chapter each morning with my tea and the Today Programme.
Likewise having an alternative option to red wine in the evening acted as a stand-in for that moment when the day turned to evening, I needed a ritual that felt like a treat and most of the time fizzy water worked! I have drunk more camomile tea than I can remember ever consuming before and all that liquid does mean a lot more nighttime trips to the loo!
Whilst social media can be a habit that wastes time I am relatively self-regulating in the way I use/used my online presence. I get a lot of information via newsfeeds and certainly felt that a month without information gleaned in this way hasn’t been beneficial. I enrich my knowledge with what I learn, see and engage with through social media. Used as a platform to disseminate ideas nothing else has the capacity to enhance the way I absorb the world. Stepping back has made me realise that it’s a positive force for opening my mind to new possibilities.
 I have missed friends on social media. The connections I make online, those micro-moments that add to my daily need to relate have become very important to me. Phone calls, face to face meetings, long emails or even letters, are all lovely ways to be with people but they are not always available. Staying connected to friends’ lives, the everyday experiences they reveal online, the articles they share, shape my relationships and without those networks I feel cut-off.
Given the current political climate I feel that I may have benefitted from not ‘hearing’ the constant chatter of anxiety that must have been going on, on the other hand I also feel that I haven’t been able to offer support. Not that I feel that my occasional tweet would have any impact but I care about what is going on in the world and appreciate social media for giving me the chance to express my opinion; I don’t believe that we should overshare but it is helpful for me to have an outlet for my thoughts. I enjoy using that line of communication to say thank-you…to show my love for others work or to just show I care.
Not drinking Wine has increased the speed at which I finish the Guardian crossword. Just as checking FB was part of my morning routine so doing the crossword in bed is an evening habit which has been enhanced by the additional sharpness of sobriety.
I was disappointed that not drinking  alcohol had no impact on my  weight, in fact I have a feeling that my jeans are tighter at the end of January, that may not be the fault of no-wine however but my enforced exercise  limits. Yoga isn’t quite the same in burning calories!
The most difficult social media platform to not take a peek of was Instagram. I missed Instagram with a deep longing. I use instagram to catalogue the positive beauty I encounter daily. I miss having a space to create my view of the world. Instagram acts as a visual diary to remind me of how amazing this life, my life is, and how lucky I am.
When I felt the urge to give in to either wine or Instagram I took the time to question what was going on around me, what need was I trying to meet? Being mindful was the most helpful strategy and what I learnt about myself will continue to inform the manner in which I drink and interact online.
I’m really looking forward to connecting and drinking. This has been a month in which avoiding wine and Facebook has created a space that I have filled with productive reflection, and tidying cupboards. It has made me realise that it's ok to take pleasure in a bottle of wine with friends and that there is nothing damaging to my mental health in spending time on Twitter.
My positive emotion count is up, although whether this has anything to do with abstinence is uncertain, I have more energy, I am ready to get back out and be in the world. It hasn’t done me any harm to disconnect and detox my liver but I can’t categorically say I feel it made any real difference to my physiology or psychology and I don’t think I will repeat the experiment any time soon. Hurrah for February.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

We have power as creatives? What will you do?

Graphic by @MendoncaPen
World Mental Health Day on Monday 10th October was marked by the London and Home Counties branch of the British Psychological Society with an event at the London College of Fashion on Mental Health Issues in the Fashion and Creative Industries.  The evening was chaired by Dr Carolyn Mair, - CPsychol, AFBPsS. Carolyn was wearing both of her ‘hats’ for this event;  one as Subject Director  of Psychology at London College of Fashion and  the other as Chair of the British Psychological Society’s London & Home Counties branch
The diverse panel represented  both fashion, Caryn Franklin - MBE, MSc, Professor of Diversity in Fashion, Kingston University and Rosie Nelson, model and health advocate, and mental health professionals, Dr David O'Flynn - Consultant Psychiatrist at South London & the Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust with a special interest in the Arts and Dr Annmarie Rankin - Clinical Psychologist at Chelsea and Westminster hospital in the field of paediatrics and a former ballerina with, among others, the Royal Ballet Company.

Carolyn began the evening with an introduction to the issues that WMHD is aiming to address in promoting discussion around mental health and what we can do to support mental wellbeing. The extent of the problem specifically in the world of fashion was highlighted by a report in Dazed magazine which cited that whilst one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year that increases by 25 percent if you’re working in creative job.  The panel explored existing mental health issues in the fashion and the arts. The emphasis was on the toll that the demands of the fashion and creative industries can have on the wellbeing of employees and consumers.
The pressures of working the fashion industry with long hours, high expectations to create the next big thing, the stress of balancing the creative drive with the business of making money and the demands of being ultra-thin, were all touched on during the evening.

Four main themes emerged:
  •          Body image and eating disorders, the impact on models and the general population and similar issues in dancers. How can we change this?

“Stigma is all of us. In speaking out I’m standing up for others.”
                                                                               Rosie Nelson
  •          The relationship between mental health and creativity, the negative view of tortured genius. How art can help.

            “Art makes people better” Dr David O'Flynn
  •         What we as consumers of fashion can do, diversity, sustainability, outsider fashion.

           “Trends are Choices”  Dr Annmarie Rankin
  •          The potential for harnessing fashions power to enhance well-being both inside and outside the industry.

“We have enormous power to embolden and make a significant contribution.”                                                                                                    Caryn Franklin

Rosie shared how working in fashion as a model impacted her mental health, the constant pressure to be thinner, to question what was wrong with her body and how widespread the issue is. Many models are still children when they begin their careers, a time when they are forming their identity. Rosie has chosen to speak out about this issue but acknowledges how tough it is to do so. The panel attempted to come up with ways in which the tiny sample size that all models are expected to fit into could be changed. It would take the whole business of fashion to agree and there is no cohesive organisation that would be able to take that decision.
The fashion world’s responsibility for eating disorders and body-shaming was spoken about at length by the panellists. Annemarie commented that the fashion industry doesn’t cause eating disorders; they are more complex than this.  Body image is a fundamental part of our sense of self and our identity, the fashion world needs to recognise the responsibility they have to use this influence in a positive way and become part of the solution, rather than being the problem. Rosie is pushing for new laws in the UK to promote a healthier modelling industry.
Annmarie drew upon her experience as a young dancer to comment on the effects of body image and self-esteem.  Importantly she drew attention to the fact that BMI, and low body weight are not always indicators of poor mental health; it is possible to be a fit, emotionally healthy dancer and be very slim. Annmaire also shared positive stories of dance being utilised to assist well-being. There are many studies which support the role of dance to increase well\-being from both the position of participating in dance practise and as a spectator.
David is  Chair of the Adamson Collection Trust, Patron of Raw Material Music & Media, Co-Founder/Director of Innovations in Investigating Mental Health Population Outcomes (IIMHPO) and Trustee/Company Director of the Bethlem Gallery. He shared his views on the way in which creativity can be a contributing factor in recovering from mental ill-health, echoing Grayson Perry’s statement  that -

Art should not be viewed just as a visual culture but as an essential human process of self exploration and communication”

In order to develop innovative strategies to deal with the issue of mental health in the fashion and creative industries it would seem to make sense to harness our natural assets, to get in touch with our creativity and reassess our own measures of success. These are values that Caryn explained were fundamental to her role as ‘Fashion Agitator’ to reform from within the business of fashion. She advocates that consumers seize their power and shop according to the values that they hold. Perhaps if we squeeze hard enough; apply pressure from the bottom up with which trends we choose to buy into, and target those public figures who have the ability to change from the top down, a balanced diverse version of fashion will reflect the art of caring.  The many high profile fashion insiders who have experienced mental health issues could begin to challenge the stigma by sharing their  stories in a manner which shows that it is possible to recover and maintain a prominent position in the industry (of fashion). We hear of the tales of severe breakdown that has led to the sad deaths of some fashions most creative talents, such as McQueen, but where are the accounts of how it is possible to creatively traverse the inherent stress of the business of fashion?

On balance much of the discussion was around the negative impact of being involved in fashion. There was little dialogue as to how being involved in the arena of fashion can be a force for positive well-being, or how as an industry it is attempting to take care of the well-being of those inside. What can we do to create a culture of positive mental health that could well lead the way to other industries? As creativity is at the heart of what fashion’ is’ how can we apply those same skills to providing innovative imaginative interventions to provide solutions to the problems that working and studying in fashion appears to produce. And how does fashion education prepare its students to enter this ‘unhealthy’ world?
Questions from the audience followed the panel debate. The final question was how can we de-stigmatize mental health?” This gave David the chance to highlight how the way in which HIV treatment is now so effective that the physical impact from the condition can be mitigated where-as the damage done to individuals suffering from HIV, is because of the “fear of the other”; the impact on their mental health. That is shocking fact. We need to create a society where by openness takes away the power of the secrecy of mental illness, where we can talk about our own struggles without being scared of the repercussions. And the fashion and creative industries can influence this. 
This enlightening event highlighted that diversity is alive and kicking in the creative industries, we just need to tap into it in order to create well-being. The event was summed up visually with a creative and colourful graphic representation by Pen Mendonca. I feel that the strongest element in her depiction is “ART AN HELP”. It can and it does. Let’s celebrate that.
Reflecting on the event I recalled a comment made at a previous seminar at LCF, Tim Lomas, positive psychology lecturer at University of East London, issued a statement on the power of fashion to drive change:

“The most damaging thing is to think that a situation can’t be changed or challenged, and we can challenge and change situations through fashion.”

I left LCF on Monday evening with an even stronger desire to bring about change through the vehicle of fashion.