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All aboard the U-shaped curve

Part of the reason I’ve got a blog is to document my life and to share those details with other people. For example, I’ve had at least three people who have mentioned how writing about dealing with the death of a friend, going through therapy, and dealing with anxiety issues prompted them to seek assistance.

A chart entitled 'The shape of happiness' showing a U-shaped curve when self-reported happiness is plotted against age across different countries.

A glance at this blog’s archives shows that this time of year absolutely batters me. I’m not sure if it’s the nights closing in, the change of seasons, the run up to Christmas, or lingering PTSD (Post Teaching Stress Disorder) but October really sucks for me. In addition, we’re about to move house, and I haven’t quite got enough work on at the moment.

One of the things that I learned in therapy was that, behind everything else, I’ve essentially got some self-esteem issues. As my therapist showed me on a whiteboard several times, I get stuck in a loop of not thinking I’m “good enough”. Hence wearing a ‘mask’ of being successful, in a professional and academic sense. And in addition to people thinking I’m good at things, I also have a need for people to think I’m a morally good person.

All of this coalesces into quite a large metaphorical stick with which to hit myself over the head when things aren’t going so well. But finding solace in my academic credentials or professional achievements doesn’t actually solve the problem. It’s a temporary salve rather than a long-term fix. What actually helps is to remind myself that I’m not playing the same game as everyone else: my role isn’t to cosplay a successful middle-aged executive from the Home Counties.

I guess part of the problem is that it feels very much like I’ve lost my tribe. Enough pixels have been wasted with people typing eulogies for the death of Twitter, but that platform made a huge difference to my life. My career and life path has had twists and turns, but the network I built up now seems scattered to the winds. I made IRL friends via Twitter, some of whom I’m still in touch with. The trouble is that it feels like there are conversations that are happening in which I’d be really interested (and to which I could contribute!) but I don’t know where they are.

It’s not just me. I’ve heard others complain about the decline in decent online discussion and debate. I’ve seen people being laid off and freelancers wondering where the work has gone. I know plenty of people with mental health issues.

They say that your early forties are some of the worst years of your life from the point of view of happiness (see that chart at the top of this post!) Things apparently improve from here on out. I’m not depressed, and I can deal with my anxiety levels. I’m just a bit disillusioned. Let’s hope my upcoming MSc helps mix things up a bit.


Image: World Economic Forum

Checking out of therapy

I checked myself into Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in September 2019, a month and a half after one of my good friends passed away, and after another friend talked about how much CBT had helped him.

I checked myself out of therapy yesterday. Until next time.

Quick backstory

Even pre-pandemic, the NHS was overwhelmed with people self-referring for things like anxiety. This meant I ended up paying for my 17 sessions; for the price of a decent laptop, I changed my life.

Based on a recommendation, I was helped by Johnny from Blue Talking Therapies. I’m not sure what I expected, but a tattooed, straight-talking guy pulling on his own experience of some of the stuff I was going through probably wasn’t it.

That’s because, probably like most people, the only knowledge I had of therapy came from films, with neurotic people lying on coaches being asked questions by a psychiatrist with a clipboard. Let’s just say my experience was pretty much the opposite of that. No digging into repressed childhood memories, and about half of the sessions ended up happening over Zoom.

What is CBT?

CBT is a problem-focused and action-oriented talking therapy, with the following diagram used a lot::

CBT basic tenets: Behavior - Feelings - Thoughts
CC BY-SA Urstadt

The whole point of CBT, in my case at least, has been to enable me to be myself without wearing a ‘mask’. It’s possible to paint yourself into a rather unhelpful corner by being the person everyone else expects you to be. That wasn’t helping me either professionally or personally, so decided to do something about it. Of course, I didn’t know what the problem was, other than a feeling that something wasn’t quite right.

The reason I wasn’t being myself, it turns out, stemmed from a fundamental belief that I’m not “good enough”. It took about 10 sessions of archaeology to get there. It was like a more sophisticated version of asking “why” five times, with Johnny (gently) pulling me back from my rambling anecdotes to the job in hand. The great thing about CBT is that it doesn’t particularly matter where and how this problematic belief came about; I’ve learned to spot it, and deal with it when it does.

Most recently, I noticed this belief manifesting itself in a need for praise from everyone around me. I’ve realised that I often set up situations to solicit positive feedback from people about both professional and personal stuff. As Johnny helped me realise, even if I do then get that praise, it ends up being meaningless, because I asked for it.

For me, CBT goes hand-in-hand with my study and (attempted) practise of Stoicism. I’m not the first to notice this link: in fact, it’s no surprise that Donald J. Robertson, perhaps one of the foremost thinkers on modern Stoicism, is a cognitive psychotherapist. He’s written about the links in many places, including his books, and this article.

Ending my therapy (for now)

I know a few people who are in therapy who, for entirely justified reasons, keep it to themselves. I’ve chosen to be open about the process, not because I’m on some big crusade to get men to talk about their feelings (although there is that angle) but because I work and live openly, and this has been a big part of my life for the last 18 months.

Some might ask, “how did you know you were ready to end therapy?” Well, first it’s worth saying that I’m sure I’ll need to talk to Johnny or another therapist at some point in the future. But the main thing was realising that, in my appointment yesterday, scheduled to be three months after my last, I was having to think about things to discuss with him. That’s never been the case previously. Plus, rather unhelpfully, I guess, you just know

Get in touch!

The most scary thing about it is making the first appointment. In reality, it’s no different to going to the GP when you’ve got a physical problem, the only difference is the (ever-diminishing) stigma.

If you’d like to talk to me about my experience of therapy, feel free to drop a comment below, or email me directly (therapy@dougbelshaw.com).

Weeknote 30/2020

I’ve written quite a bit this week as part of my #100DaysToOffload challenge:

Over and above what’s detailed in these posts, I’ve been splitting my time between working on projects for We Are Open and Outlandish this week. For the former, my ‘home’ co-op in the CoTech network, I’ve been mainly focusing on work for Catalyst and the Social Mobility Commission. We’re working with Erica Neve and Pedram Parasmand on three contracts, helping charities who are rapidly undergoing digital transformation. We had a really successful retrospective on Friday with UpRising, who we’ve been helping in more depth.

With Outlandish, I’m helping with some productisation of similar projects they’ve worked on for a range of clients. I find this really interesting as it’s simultaneously about meeting user needs and about organisational development. I’m also advising around ways in which they can develop the workshops they offer.

I’m fortunate to work with organisations which are so emotionally intelligent, and which go out of their way to be so. One of the reasons for working with Outlandish is to give them some short-term help with project management while they’re a bit stretched. But another reason is to learn from their processes and procedures; although they’ve only been a co-op for as long as us (four years), they’ve been together and honing things for a decade.

When I was at Jisc, one thing that always impressed me was their internal knowledgebase. They used PBworks for that, while Outlandish uses a WordPress installation with a theme called KnowAll. I’ve been wanting to experiment with wiki.js and so this week Laura Hilliger and I set up an instance at wiki.weareopen.coop and copied over existing pages from our GitHub wiki. I’ve set user permissions so that only logged-in members can edit the wiki, and indeed see any pages that are ‘internal’ only.

We finally got sign-off from Greenpeace for one of the best things I think I’ve written for a while: HOWTO: Create an Architecture of Participation for your Open Source project. As Stephen Downes mentioned when mentioning it in OLDaily it’s perhaps applicable to wider contexts than just open source projects.

Other than that, I’ve just been reviewing a document Laura put together for some work we’re doing with Red Hat, doing a small amount of work for our ongoing work with Greenpeace, and contributing to a ‘playback’ of some recent work we did for Catalyst.

Next week, I’m tying up work for We Are Open on Monday, and for Outlandish on Tuesday, before turning everything off and going on a family holiday for 10 days. As my therapist said in our meeting on Friday, as I’m a bit of a perfectionist, there’s no guarantee that I will actually relax during my holiday just because I’m away from home. So I’m actively trying to cut myself some slack. I deliberately went for a slow run this morning and I even had an afternoon nap yesterday. Small steps.


Header image is a selfie I took on a family walk in the Northumbrian hills last Sunday. Inspired by Low-tech magazine’s solar powered website, I loosely followed this guide to create the ‘stippled’ effect. This reduced the size of an 8.6MB image to a mere 36.6KB.

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