Posts in Category: Relationships

Older mothers

Nature, until now, has been unfair. Men have always been able to continue to reproduce until death, but women’s fertility screeches to a halt mid-life.
But despite this it is now quite normal to be a first time mother at forty. The proportion of first births to women 35+ has increased eightfold since 1970. The oldest recorded natural mother gave birth at 59 in the UK in 2007.
Menopause 1As life expectancy continues to increase, women will want to continue to have children into their forties and beyond. Currently most women’s eggs have run out by the time they are fifty, and any births after that are almost always either from donor eggs, or from ovarian tissue transplant from tissue frozen earlier because of cancer treatment. There have been at the very least raised eyebrows and some virulent condemnations of the few cases of sixty and seventy year old mothers (from donor eggs) who were, according to the critics, unlikely to live long enough to bring up their children. Indeed this was the case of Maria del Carmen Bousada who had twin boys at sixty-six and died two years later of stomach cancer. However, had she lived as long as her mother (101), tongues would not have wagged quite so much.
Increased life expectancy can often mean new relationships and the desire to have children with later partners; donor eggs, even if IVF were allowed in all countries at any age (and it’s not), are not the solution for most women, especially those with biological children already.
Artificial techniques such as freezing eggs and embryos have not been proven to be safe because of the possible damage done by the formation of ice crystals. As research into adult stem cells continues perhaps there will soon be a way to create new eggs from any cell.
Despite the fact more people are living longer, the age of menopause has not changed. Reversing the menopause has been shown to be possible with human growth hormone, but as yet it is not known whether mindfulness techniques and combating social conditioning has any effect on the age of menopause. The word certainly produces anxiety in women, since they fear it signifies the end of their sexual desirability – delaying menopause would therefore mean the ability to continue to look young and fresh for longer. A team led by biologist Rama Singh at McMaster’s Dept of biology has concluded menopause only occurs because men select younger women, rendering menstruation pointless in older women. It is true that few other species manifest menopause, and the prevailing theory until now has been that menopause occurs to allow grandmothers to help their daughters rear more children in quick succession. However, Singh disagrees, claiming that, “If there were no preference against older women, we would be reproducing like men throughout life.” Men therefore are to blame for the menopause she claims. If women had historically been the ones to select younger mates, the situation would have been reversed, with men losing fertility. Longevity is not inherited by gender, so women continue to live past their fertility because men remain fertile – and therefore useful to Nature – throughout their lives.
Menopause 2Without the spectre of the menopause, women could finally relax about finding a partner quickly. It would be hugely beneficial for human relationships (many of us are fifty before we understand what the hell’s been going on). The pressure would be off, and personal issues and decisions about who we really want to have children with and whether we want them at all could be worked through without the horrible sound of the biological clock ticking away. Epigenetic changes due to lifestyle would have more time to benefit later generations. Big differences in age between siblings, and family members who only share one parent might seem irresponsible, but the nuclear family is a recent phenomenon. In the 19th century, when average life expectancy was less than fifty, remarriage was common. Imagine a world where women would no longer have to fear breaking a bone due to osteoporosis, or where the career/motherhood dilemma was finally resolved.
The hive mind objection to anyone looking to extend youth – that it is cheating Nature, that it is weird and selfish – is never voiced more loudly than when it comes to reproduction. However, wisdom and maturity often produce better mothers, and those practising life extension may have spiritual and health perspectives that can only be beneficial to their children. Moreover, the onset of health problems that can accompany the menopause means it is in the interests of society to investigate whether it is time to explore ways of combating this old trick of Nature. If people are remaining healthier for longer older parents will no longer suffer from the disadvantage of being less energetic. Seventy year old mothers may sound grisly to most, but in a world where life will soon be extended to 120, or even 150 for more than the odd outlier, it will perhaps not be quite so peculiar. If the fifty year olds of today are like the thirty year olds of yesteryear, there is nothing to say the seventy and eighty year olds of tomorrow – those who practice staying ageless – will be like the forty year olds of today. Some already are.
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Difficult People

There are 6.4 billion people out there and conflict is a fact of life. Of those 6.4 billion, obsessive compulsives make up 8%, paranoids 4%, schizophrenics 3%, 2% are borderline personality disordered, 5% are chronically depressed and 1% are psychopaths. And those are just the most common disorders. Chances are that even if the only thing we do every day is pop out to buy a loaf of bread, sooner or later one of these people is going to cross our path.
This post assumes we are not the difficult person. It assumes we are used to serious soul searching and have not caused conflict through thoughtlessness or aggressive or irresponsible behaviour.
Well….anyone left still listening?
Difficult peopleBut seriously, although we all overreact sometimes, have our buttons pushed, have impatient days, get angry with slow or foolish individuals etc., there is no doubt that there are also a whole lot of personality disordered people out there living “normal” lives with whom we come into regular contact and whose aggressive, unreasonable and sometimes downright weird behaviour knocks us off our guard.
Some of them are in our own families, some are at work, some pop out of nowhere when we were minding our own business…many are very difficult to avoid.

So….when these people do crazy things, how can we stop our stress levels rocketing, our blood pressure soaring and untold DNA damage careering through our bodies preparing us for an early grave?

The dilemma is this: if we are completely Zen, withdraw, stay silent, do not voice our discontent, although further external conflict may be avoided, it is possible we are setting ourselves up for a long period of internal conflict while we deal with feelings of injustice, resentment and frustration. And let us make no mistake….turning over what we might have said, what we should have done and eating ourselves away inside with feelings of outrage at what has been done to us is just as bad….correction, is worse for our health than screaming back at the lunatic who caused this situation in the first place.

However, silence is often far more powerful than throwing a tantrum. So how on earth can we live peaceful, mindful, stress-free lives in a world like ours?
Here are just a few examples of possible reactions to difficult people:

Family members and friends :
Here we mean a family member or friend who fails to respect our boundaries – basically this means treating us as less important than them or even as a non-person. Example : a parent who openly favours another sibling, a family member or flatmate who never knocks before entering our room or who uses our stuff without asking, a relative who never acknowledges we may have feelings or needs.
Difficult people 3The day we make a stand and say, for example, “I am not an object. I feel you are invalidating my feelings”, the reaction may not be a textbook re-evaluation of the relationship. If the person mocks our feelings and screams, “Oh so your ‘feelings’ are more important than my eternal suffering…” (fill in something they constantly complain about), these are signs we are dealing with a narcissist, especially if the reaction is extreme – nuclear even – involving insults, threats, hysteria, put-downs and attempts to get other family members on board to convince us (not them of course) to have therapy. Anyone who has been a doormat or family/social dustbin and who suddenly stands up and says, “No more,” is likely to endure an intense outburst of wrath, since acceptance that we are in fact not an object would mean the narcissist would have to confront their real image, not the false one, and this they cannot do. In situations like this screaming back, hysteria and threatening is the worst possible reaction, since this will endorse their claim we are the one who’s nuts. Let the difficult person have their enraged reaction, but if necessary we repeat our position in a calm, monotone voice (monotone to help us control our own emotions). No angry emails. Best course of action is immediate withdrawal and either ending the relationship or restricting it to practical matters. Our core values may have moved so far away from our original family/friends any extended contact is harmful and irritating to both sides.
Rumination is likely, since there is no closure; distance is therefore the best possible option in order to distract us from harmful, stress-inducing thoughts. If abusive phone calls or nasty letters/emails arrive, we ignore them. Later, much later, introspection can be employed, in case anything (however minor) about what they said about us is true.

Rude strangers :
If a stranger is rude to us, without real reason and without knowing us from Adam, it is likely they are hard to live with and that it is nothing to do with us, so it is wise to say to ourselves, I’m not going to take this personally. However…difficult one, since in the heat of the moment, they do seem to be attacking us. Remaining Zen and not responding will perhaps limit conflict, but it is deeply unsatisfactory, since it will appear that the rude shop assistant/bank teller/tour guide etc. has “won”. They have disrespected us without possible equalization at a later stage. We can move away, but the balance has not been reestablished and as we do not know them, is unlikely ever to be. The injustice and souring of our mood is devilishly difficult to get rid of if we are unable to state our case.
Best course of action, assuming the difficult stranger is not likely to physically attack us (in which case a disappearing act is advisable), is therefore to make one short but sharp retort, and then withdraw immediately.
Here are two examples from real life :

On a plane, a young mother still carrying her pregnancy weight was struggling to put her suitcase in the overhead locker with 2 whiny toddlers. An impatient passenger behind her said, “If you weren’t so fat you wouldn’t be taking so long and holding everyone up.”
The mother counted to ten, turned to the passenger and, paraphrasing Winston Churchill said loudly, “I am fat and you are ugly. But I can go on a diet.”
Then she sat down and looked away to end the exchange.

At the pool an office worker in his fifties, trying to pack in a lunchtime swim, picked up a polystyrene board to swim with from a plastic crate – belonging to the pool – containing dozens of other boards. The aqua gym teacher slammed her foot on the man’s hand and said, “I need those.”
The man looked at the 12 portly ladies cycling on the spot in the pool for a short while, each already with their board. There were obviously many spare boards so he tried again to extract one. The aqua gym teacher said, “I said no,” in a very aggressive tone.
The man let go the board and looked at the gym teacher saying, “Oh I’m so sorry. I can see you are a very aggressive person. Apologies, I should have noticed from those deep wrinkles on your upper lip that you have trouble controlling your negative emotions.”
He then entered the pool and back-stroked away.
The entire gym class heard.

In both instances the exchange was brief, honest and calm, but emotions were equalized. No rumination ensued – at least not in the people defending themselves against the difficult person. Note in both of these cases the person attacked by the stranger paused to consider their reaction first and was therefore able to choose one for maximum effect.

Rude colleagues :
Two possibilities – either the colleague has power over us or he/she doesn’t.
If the colleague has no power (and is for example acting as though she does), then failure to react will lead to harmful rumination. After the statutory counting to ten, breathing deeply to avoid sounding angry (even though our heart may be racing), we make our response.

Example :
Rude colleague : “I can’t believe you screwed up so badly there.”
Count to ten.
Response to difficult colleague : “How interesting to see you also have an aggressive streak. Is this a new thing, or have I just uncovered it?”
Ah yes, the skill of the put-down. To avoid souring the atmosphere at work – after all, we have to continue to work in it after the exchange is over – we use humour.
If the colleague does have power over us then silence and withdrawal is usually the best strategy, unless we are extremely good at the humorous but pointed response which will not challenge their authority. People in authority often got there because they wanted power over others. If we are fortunate enough to have a boss who took up the position in order to discover his or her inner demons and engage in 24/7 introspection, then a fairer exchange can take place, but let’s face it…there ain’t many of them about, and they aren’t likely to be difficult people.
Although it may lead to rumination, we won’t regret silence in a case like this, whereas we may regret an impulsive angry response. And regrets, fear of consequences and belly-aching remorse are worse in triggering the stress response.
Difficult people 2So in this case, the lesser of two evils unfortunately. And if it happens all the time, best to get away from that person if we can – change jobs/departments/activity – since it may be a vibrational personality clash. It is well known people behave differently depending on who they are with. One boss was particularly cruel and overbearing to a young girl who would tremble in fear whenever she was near him. In fact this was because he was rejected by a girl who strongly resembled her years back. Deep down it might not be about us at all, just the fact the difficult person in question is using us to exorcise their own hang-ups. There is a reason for their bad behaviour (but it doesn’t mean it’s not bad behaviour).

If the worst comes to the worst, “I can see you feel very strongly about this,” is a good all-rounder. No one can object to our having said it, and it liberates us from having to swallow our bile.
Let’s drop the need to always be right with difficult people. The one-liner is enough. Conflict is necessary for growth. It expands consciousness and fosters appreciation of its opposite. Rumination, regrets and bitterness write themselves across our brows and add decades to our appearance.
Developing high interpersonal intelligence means learning how to successfully deal with each individual person we encounter according to their temperament.
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Does being single shorten your life?

After a particularly stinging betrayal and years of a roller coaster of fluctuating periods of affection followed by abuse, Marianne ended a ten year relationship. Feeling bereft, abandoned and lonely, she plucked up the courage after a few months to attend a “Singles Fair” in her home town. It was held on a former industrial site and involved crossing an almost empty gravel car park, where the only sound was of her crunching feet. There was no signposting, so she had to ask some workmen the way – therefore feelings of shame also had to be managed. The route into the exhibition hall was through a sinister disused railway station, with youths circling on bicycles on the old platforms. Somehow she managed not to turn back. Once inside, rather than stands celebrating the single lifestyle, they were all about how to end one’s single status : dating agencies, life coaches, personal presentation courses, speed dating events, lingerie stores and a stand featuring large pink vibrators – ie so you can pretend you aren’t single even while you still are. “The message was if you’re single, you’d better do something about it,” she said. “And I had been trying to tell myself being alone was better than being in a bad relationship for years.”
Marriage 7One of the oft-cited factors which contribute to long life is being married. This creates a sense of smugness in those who are married, and guilt and despair in those who are either divorced or single. The message is, if you die before your time well, it’s kind of your fault for being unloveable or selfish. But what this much-quoted statistic does not tell you is why married people live longer, and what kind of long-term relationship lengthens life. Some facts :
• Many studies only feature men. It is no secret men benefit more from marriage than women. Single men are less likely to seek medical help in the first stages of disease whereas a partner is likely to prompt them to do something about it. Clearly social isolation increases mortality. A Harvard study reported that socially isolated men have a 82% higher risk of dying of heart disease compared to men with strong personal relationships; not eating properly, drinking too much and engaging in other risky behaviours also worsens the health of single men.
• People with families have a sense of purpose about both their past and their future. But this does not factor in the enormous strain of raising children, particularly when things go wrong, which they almost always do at some point. Moreover, it is a fallacy to suggest people without families have no purpose; in fact they are more likely to have wider circles of friends than marrieds, who find themselves more isolated when a spouse passes away and therefore exposed to the risk of dementia. We will all be single at some point in our lives unless we predecease our mate.
•  Longevity statistics are affected by the fact married people commit suicide at lower rates than singles.
• The studies may be self-selecting, as healthy people may be more likely to attract a mate. If you are healthy and single, this factor can therefore be eliminated.
• Studies claim children whose parents live together but are not married are more likely to do badly at school and develop a serious illness. But this is clearly a question of income and education, not the marriage bond, since until recently less educated people were less likely to marry. This is no longer the case (only half the population on average is now married) probably because the advantages of marriage are dwindling by the year (except for divorce lawyers). Obesity greatly reduces any advantages of having got married, as it is a major risk factor for heart disease and diabetes. The number of diabetic Americans doubled from 1998 to 2013.

Being single has nothing at all to do with dying sooner. Happiness and social connections however do seem to affect how long and how healthily we live.

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Is Happiness Fleeting?

It is said that happiness lasts about fifteen minutes. Sooner or later either some news will arrive to spoil it or a niggling thought will surface to change it. Even when we are happy, we worry about what might take our happiness away. Happiness is not stationary. It is always moving. No matter what we get or achieve, happiness from external events will be short-lived. Successful people who have achieved their goal report immediately focusing on the next one. It is human nature to always be looking for the next big thing. There is nothing wrong with that. Life would be dull if we had nothing to look forward to, so the question is, how can we change our set point and get happiness to last?

In a classic study conducted by the Southern Methodist University, three groups were given a writing task. One was asked to spend a few minutes over four days describing their ideal future, another had to describe their plans for the day and the third was asked to relate a traumatic event. The results revealed that the happiest group, even three months later, were those who described intense happiness in the future; they reported longer periods of contentedness during the day. Although talking about trauma felt cathartic at the time, it did not have any long-lasting effect on happiness itself. The key with discussing trauma seems to be to release the feelings and replace them with positive thoughts that the trauma is dealt with, that wisdom has been gained through the experience. Simply replaying it in our minds will reproduce the feelings of despair the original event provoked.

Worrying 1Feeling unhappy is more often than not a result of thinking about past unhappiness or imagining a bleak future. When asked what makes them unhappy a group of people replied :

• Remembering loved ones they had lost through death or separation
• Recalling feelings of hope that were dashed
• Remembering a moment of intense shame or defeat
• Worrying about loneliness
• Feeling unloved, unwanted, rejected
• Dissatisfaction with work and relationships

Dwelling on these things causes a drop in serotonin, which affects mood, creating a vicious circle of sadness. Action is needed to reverse mood, and force of will to play an upbeat piece of music for example, when we feel a sad melody would better match our state of mind. Medical conditions that cause depression such as thyroid imbalances may be originally caused by stress, and stress is a result of our perception of our circumstances.
Counting our blessings may seem a twee response to an apparently desperate status quo. Humans have a tendency to focus on the negative however, in a misguided attempt to avoid denial. But we can be aware of an issue without allowing it to alter our perception of life. Whatever problems we face, there are always others who have it worse; there is always something to feel thankful for.
Homes for the elderly are full of people still fretting after all these years. Let us not die worrying about the future.
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The Problem of Generosity

For those of us who find generosity challenging, being told we should be generous can trigger a host of feelings of resistance and guilt that leaves us feeling we are lacking, while not wishing to remedy the lack. Generosity can be difficult for those who had a less than ideal childhood. Watching one’s family members cut out grocery coupons and worry about money, discuss prices and wring their hands over taxes and bills makes a strong imprint on a child and informs his or her attitude to money later on. Furthermore we are constantly told we live in a world of shrinking resources, that only the few will make it to the top, and that less and less will be available as time goes by. Society also adjusts to any increase in abundance by decreasing what is on offer – thus a single salary was enough for a family to live on in the nineteen seventies, but today the same standard of living requires two salaries. This is the law of diminishing returns. Set against such a social cue, it is extremely difficult for many of us to give anything away for free, or to believe that an act of generosity will yield more abundance in the long run.

However, anyone who has tried to be generous even though it feels like battling against a gale will have found that it yields surprising results. It is, for example, good for our health, since it causes the release of oxytocin – important for social bonding – and endorphins, which reduce the perception of pain. A study at the University of Buffalo found that in a group of elderly people facing stressful situations (death of a family member, financial problems, burglary..) those who had helped others during the previous year were less likely to die. Andy Mackie, dubbed the Harmonica Man, stopped taking his 15 medicines after his ninth heart surgery and put his money towards teaching students music and distributing free harmonicas to schoolchildren. Although his doctors told him this would mean certain death, he lived almost ten more years, distributing over 20,000 free harmonicas with the money he saved on medicine. The same phenomenon affected South African Camie Walker, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Advised by a medicine woman to give 29 gifts in 29 days, her symptoms, which modern medicine could not cure, began to disappear. Further studies have shown that giving to a worthy cause activates the same brain regions as food, sex and earning a bonus for oneself. Giving activates the relaxation response and subsequently the body’s natural repair mechanisms.

It sometimes helps to take a banknote and ask ourselves what it really is. The note is composed of paper, with some fibre. Its lifespan is about two years. Its intrinsic value is minimal – it simply represents something. If it represents what we have in the bank, what then is this? Our bank accounts are now merely virtual. They exist in cyberspace, and appear in the form of a series of numbers on a screen. What then is this money stuff? Is it not simply a form of energy, an agreement as to how much of ourselves we have put out there? A value based on a social agreement, on other people’s perceptions? Money is created by a kind of a perpetual interaction between concrete things, our intangible desire for them and our abstract faith in what has value. Money is valuable because we want it, but we want it only because it can get us a desired product or service.

Generosity 2A shift of perspective is necessary to start the flow of events an act of generosity triggers, so for those of us who feel anxiety when we give to others, let us try with something small – volunteering to do a chore, or to buy a round of coffee, or food for someone, stop to give directions or stay on after hours to help someone in need. Then let us observe how we feel inside – gently does it, no need to force this. If this feels good, we can then progress to larger acts of generosity as an experiment. Let us also observe our attitude to the rich – do we see them as selfish money-grabbing exploiters, or as generous supporters of charities? If we were rich, how would we give?

Many spiritual movements – including Christianity which says it is in giving that we receive – claim that those who give freely always get more back than they give out. This may be simply to do with feeling less anxious about money, less afraid of large amounts or what might happen to us if we lose money. But it may be something deeper – a more universal truth about the collective consciousness and the flow of energy between members of the group. If we are all part of the same life force, then giving away may create a vacuum of energy, which sucks energy back in. The more we give – of time, love, money – the more we will suck back into our space. It’s worth a try. It is an expression of self-love, since we know we will benefit more from a generous act than from clinging to what we have.

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The Inner Monologue

What do you say to yourself when no one is around? Take a crowded street. Every one of the individuals will be experiencing an inner or outer monologue. We are all part of the hive and the astonishing density of human thought emitted by our planet on a daily basis makes up the collective consciousness. It is constant, mainly unstoppable and can sometimes prevent us from falling asleep at night. Some of the people on that street will be running through the filing cabinet of their minds – speech rehearsal, appointment planning, phone call scheduling etc. Others will be reviewing recent events, the classic “post-mortem” of a confrontation, a successful conversation or a piece of work completed. Common thoughts are feeling we are an imposter at work (“Well, I fooled them all yet again. One day they’re going to find me out.”), fear we will lose love (“He’s going off me. It’s my thighs.”), or steeling ourselves against life (“Don’t give up. You can do it. So-and-so believes in me.”). Still other pedestrians will be analysing how their lives are going (“I have a shoulder pain. It’s cancer, I know it,” or “I’m going to get home and there’ll be another lawyer’s bill waiting,” or “I worked well today. And the boss noticed.”) This form of analysis has little to do with outside events and everything to do with our default setting of how we see the world. Most of the people will be flitting in a seemingly random way from one form of inner monologue to the next.

Stream of consciousness is slightly different; it tends to be less ordered than interior monologue. In literature, stream of consciousness has little or no punctuation, and in the mind this may take the form of flashes of concepts, pictures, or ideas without verbalisation or sentence construction.
Inner monologue 2A conversation with oneself is one of the few mental activities humans can actively observe, the other tasks of the brain being largely unconscious or automatic. The inner monologue depicts activity in the prefrontal cortex which is associated with logic and reason. In those suffering from schizophrenia, the internal dialogue will depict active areas all over the brain, illustrating the person’s inability to distinguish between their own thoughts and the reality outside.
If we are serious about staying ageless and living fulfilled lives it is important to begin to monitor this inner monologue. The stories we tell ourselves affect our mood, and vice versa. Our perception is rarely completely objective, and those of a pessimistic, fatalistic disposition are more likely to have paranoid or defeatist thoughts. These emotional states can have an enormous impact on how we proceed along the arrow of time. Successful people will see a negative event as a springboard for a learning experience or for a future success. Defeatist individuals will see setbacks as confirmation of their own lack of worth, or their constant stream of bad luck, or of the pointlessness of trying. Let us be under no illusions: the inner monologue is independent of actual events. The same events will trigger a completely different inner monologue in different individuals. Moreover the stories we tell ourselves are coloured by our culture and our family environment. This is why it is important to protect ourselves against fundamentalist pessimists in our entourage.
Two examples spring to mind : recently Amnesty International profiled the caseInner monologue 3 of Amina Filali, a 16 year old who committed suicide because of the decision of a judge to marry her to her rapist, a common “solution” to rape cases in Morocco. Let us imagine her inner monologue as she prepared to end her life. How could she have changed it? Another example is that of Lily. She was belittled in her childhood and overshadowed by her successful sister. When her true love, the one who could have taken her into adulthood with him, preferred another girl, her world collapsed, she contracted cancer of the thyroid, increased the drinking she had innocently copied from her father and went into rapid decline. She then spent the next 20-30 years thinking she was worthless and a burden to everybody. In fact she was far from that, being a very artistic and humane woman, and earnt her welfare payments by manning after-school homework classes for underprivileged children, teaching art classes as well as being an anonymous phone counsellor. But changing her inner monologue could have changed her life.
Some of us may have heard of the 1950s B-movie, The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. When it comes to our thoughts, we must protect ourselves against the attack of the 50 foot inner monologue. Vigilance is everything. Let us clean up our mind today, and prepare for change.
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Stoicism and the Art of Self-Denial

The Stoics believed that by controlling our minds, we can control our world and ultimately our destiny – not unlike the law of attraction that has gained so many followers today. For the 3rd century BC Stoics, negative emotions were a result of wrong thinking. Distress was the result of being of the opinion that something is bad and that the only possible response is feeling distressed. When we feel that the world has done us a disservice, it is not uncommon for our inner monologue to imagine explaining our distress to others : in this way we justify our sorrow and indignation to ourselves. Stoicism taught self- control and reason with the aim of being free from rage, jealousy and depression. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor in the 2nd century and a follower of stoicism. In his meditations he says:
“Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill… I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together…”
Clear-thinking and a philosophy of virtuous living is the basis for all philosophies and religions, but it is the Stoics’ aversion to self-pity that makes stoicism timeless. Marcus Aurelius echoes Byron Katie’s epiphany when she woke up from her years of depression in 1986 in advising : get rid of the thought I am hurt, and you get rid of the hurt itself. Attitude is therefore everything.
Stoicism 2Stoicism is often maligned as being about emotional detachment and self-obsession, the stiff upper lip which engenders insensitivity to others. What is less known is that they advocated the cultivation of happiness and benevolence towards their fellow men. The real self-denial of a Stoic is denying oneself destructive thoughts and attitudes. They advocated enjoying pleasures without being dependent on them (“mastery of passion”), feeling joy in our relationships to others without the fear of loss and overcoming mistreatment by others through practical techniques, so that we may be sick yet happy, in disgrace and yet at peace. The Stoic Epictetus said, “Men are not disturbed by events, but by their opinion about events.” Wallowing was a reflex they subjected to personal will. Exercising will power was, to them, like exercising a muscle – the more we use it the stronger it gets. Physical and mental self-control was the key to a successful life.
The principles of stoicism have been adapted to modern-day cognitive behavioural therapy, which treats patients with depression and trauma. History is full of individuals who applied these principles to overcome suffering – captured soldiers in times of war, people born with a disability, those facing famine or epidemics or natural disaster. If we have faced adversity in our lives, and bounced back, we are a modern-day stoic.
Adversity is nothing more than an opportunity for greatness. Overcoming stressful situations can actually promote health. Stoicism is not a dry, joyless antiquated ideology; it has much to offer for the foundations of a successful, long life.

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The sweet sorrow of abuse

Martine Wijkaert, a modern Belgian playwright and author of “Trilogy of hell” wrote, “An amoral hell is so much more enticing than a smug paradise of candied joy”. What did she mean?

Abuse can cause an early death. Arthritis, heart disease, high blood pressure and a host of psychosomatic ailments are often part of the fall-out affecting those who have experienced serious and repetitive patterns of abuse.

Words are powerful; negative words can have long-lasting results that spread far beyond the person at whom they were hurled. People who were brought up by parents who used sharp criticism and mockery instead of encouragement and love as parenting methods confirm that verbal violence can hurt even more than physical blows. Verbal violence embeds itself in the subconscious, and early programming that we are worthless is one of the hardest things to overcome. If the child’s friends have loving, kind parents, it simply confirms to him or her there must be something wrong with them to be so cruelly treated. It is impossible for a child to understand his parents must have issues of their own from their own childhood, issues unaddressed and embedded deep in their own subconscious. We attract and are attracted to those who embody these early authority figures. And so the cycle of abuse continues.

Abuse 2If this is us, we are bait for partners suffering from narcissistic paranoia or borderline personality disorder. Today we will deal with the borderlines who make up 2% of the population. Borderline disordered individuals have often had a similar childhood to their victims, but instead of understanding the mechanics of abusive families, they have grown up with a huge chip on their shoulder which leaves them needy, weak and wanting to feed off their romantic partners. Famous for the ‘I hate you don’t leave me’ line, they alternate between intense adoration of their lovers and the most vile abuse imaginable. They will home in on the vulnerable aspects of their partners – often based on secrets they were entrusted with when times were good – and use them to intimidate, blackmail and bully them. Their rages are triggered by their own unstable psyches, but they will always blame them on their significant other(s). This leaves those used to analysing human motives due to an unstable childhood themselves reeling with confusion and desperately re-playing the tape to discover where they went wrong and how they can avoid this in future – exactly as they did in their childhood. From then on they will be forever walking on eggshells, but the borderline’s rages will flare up anyway, often accompanied by physical violence, sometimes as a result of OCD tendencies. One victim said, “James was so neat he boasted the army photographer came to record his wardrobe as an example to the other recruits. But when he started mocking mine, and calling me a ‘total mess’ if I even left a document on my desk, I felt deeply hurt. I told him this behaviour wasn’t normal, pointing at far worse desks in other houses, but he said I was bringing up my children to be tramps and flew into a rage saying I always had to be right.” Another victim said, “She knew I had a bad relationship with my boss. One day I strongly objected to her calling me a pathetic wimp when I asked her why she had given away some of my tools, and as revenge she wrote my boss an email telling him what I thought about him. Afterwards she was very loving and then got angry when I couldn’t take what she called a joke.”

Expressing your sad and confused feelings to the borderline will more than likely trigger more extreme anger. Whereas their victims have often developed great empathy as a result of their own childhood suffering, the borderline has none whatsoever. They may have “sympathy” during the good times over problems nothing to do with them, but no amount of explaining will enable them to put themselves in their victim’s shoes and feel what someone else is feeling or what they are doing to that person by insulting, threatening and publicly vilifying them. They do not care what anyone else is feeling. Most frustrating of all, they distort, lie and embellish the facts and play the martyr to their entourage. Often they will enlist the support of the same parents who abused their romantic partner to ‘prove’ the victim is insane.

“I tried for the first time in my life to explain to my mother how much her constant invalidation of my feelings hurt. She became hysterical and called me evil and ungrateful. Later my partner in a BPD rage got in touch with her and together they attempted to get me psychiatric ‘help’”.

As Shari Schreiber says on her excellent website on leaving a BPD partner, “Hanging out with yourself can’t actually kill you but hanging out with a Borderline definitely can.”

What relevance do toxic, abusive relationships have to aging?  The issue here is the dizzying hormonal cocktail rushing through our cells during the roller coaster ride of life with an abuser. Aristotle said all good tragedies are based on the sudden suspension of a steadily induced state of fear. Horror movies have the same mass appeal : after the screaming during the murder or monster attack scene, the atmosphere suddenly changes and the music switches to soft and reassuring as we find ourselves outside the drama in a quiet lounge, or a peaceful seashore. But the danger is still out there in the movie, and an abusive relationship has precisely the same thrill effect. Worse, it is addictive, because high levels of adrenaline eventually cause the person to become conditioned to needing production for every day functioning. Adrenaline triggers fear and anxiety but this causes the release of dopamine which can actually have an anti-depressant effect. Adrenaline can boost mood and provide huge levels of energy because the brain is thinking so quickly. This is why people raised in an abusive household are often high achievers. Once the supply of adrenaline is used up the brain seeks out new excitement to keep the production going. For this reason it is hard for abuse victims to adjust to a relationship with a normal person, whom they often find ‘boring’. Being boring has a bum rap.

Excessive adrenaline production changes our physiology. Anti-stress alpha brain waves are drowned out by beta waves. Dr Archibald Hart, an expert in adrenaline addiction and author of Thrilled to Death, believes that modern life – being bombarded with texts, emails, video games and the internet – can burn out the brain’s pleasure centres. Adrenaline is meant to help us lift cars off accident victims and get away when we’re under attack. It is not meant to be a permanent part of our lives.

When we are familiar with the relationship dynamics of abuse from childhood and seek them out, it is thrilling but eventually deadly. Abuse always annihilates our self-image. Sometimes the death of an abusive parent can trigger awareness, sometimes the abuse escalates until the abuser does something so hurtful we need to end the relationship to survive.

As awareness grows, toxic relationships will begin to fade away. In the meantime we need to ask ourselves, I want to stop the abuse, but (in the words of Byron Katie) is that really true? Weaning ourselves off it is painful but cathartic, and crucial if we are to protect ourselves from cancer, heart attack and other lethal diseases.

Those who survive abuse while understanding what happened to them live longest and happiest, and are strongest and wisest of all.

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Social Connections

An interesting psychological study at Berkley university showed that those who most often used the personal pronoun ‘I’ (or me, my) were more likely to have heart disease and to die of a heart attack. Those who said “we” and “us” – i.e. those with social ties – were shown to be healthier than those without them, even if the isolated individuals had a healthier lifestyle. Of course those with friends and a healthy lifestyle lived longest of all. The current trend in self-promotion and the mentality of the “me” generation may be the precursors of a wave of disease and poor health in years to come.

Lonleliness 1Connecting to others and caring about them prolongs life, whether it be through a network of friends, church or volunteer groups, and is just about the healthiest thing we can do. When we lose a partner, or the social connections of work, adopting a ‘new life’ strategy may spare us the fate of being yet another statistic of someone who retired and then expired. Having friends is good for your health in part because stress levels are lower during times of trial when we are accompanied by a supportive other. Loneliness causes depression, anxiety and lack of confidence but there is plenty of evidence it is also bad for our physical health. In one of the most famous experiments on social connections, those with friends in a group exposed to the cold virus were far less likely to fall sick (of course connections that harm us or cause stress, such as an unhappy home relationship, will not have the same positive effects).

Loneliness 2Lonely people release cortisol, too much of which can cause chronic inflammation and disease. Feeling lonely is a health risk. Rather than sinking into ‘poor me’ thinking, if we wish to live a long life it is our responsibility to organise visits and outings for ourselves. Doing things with others and especially for others can stave off feelings of “I’m only doing this because I’m desperate”.

Currently half of over 75-year-olds in the UK live alone. Being lonely has been found to be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic. If we find we are spending long stretches on our own, let’s act now and get out there. Even if it’s simply online.
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On being left for a younger woman

Today the French president announced he was leaving his partner Valérie Trierweiler after he had an affair with a younger woman. Ms Trierweiler is perhaps feeling an immense loss of self-esteem at the moment, and extreme anger at this humiliation which will currently be presenting itself in the form of sorrow. The fact the actress involved in the affair is younger than her must of course make it worse, since it is only human for women to compare themselves with other women. Human beings have been socialised to compete with each other; men compete for status and women over physical beauty.

When we are close to a young, unblemished face, sometimes it is hard to look at ourselves afterwards. Do we envy the young their youth?

jealousy 2

On being left

Of the human emotions, sexual jealousy is one of the most powerful and painful, perhaps the most difficult to control. Men become very upset, even violent at the suggestion of a sexual indiscretion by a mate – perhaps an instinct designed to ensure any children are their own. Women however can eventually overlook sexual infidelity but the idea their mate might be emotionally involved with another female is devastating. Someone in the grip of jealousy will suffer raised blood pressure, heart-rate and adrenalin levels, weakened immunity, anxiety and probably insomnia. It is one of the most aging of human emotions.

There is something profoundly human about wanting to be sexually valued, and it transcends genders. An interview with a former top model recorded her as saying this: when I hit the menopause, suddenly – overnight in fact – men stopped noticing me; bit of a downer. But comparisons are pernicious, because they assume all other things are equal. When a partner leaves us for someone younger it often says more about them than about us. Do not be deceived : conversation is limited when dating someone from another generation and passion is ephemeral. Expressing sincere concern for the new partner will lighten our burden, while warning them of what is to come. “I now know I did her a favour,” is a thought harboured by many former mistresses, and “Her husband wasn’t such an asshole after all,” is perhaps the male equivalent. No one knows how things will finally turn out in these circumstances. When Valérie Trierweiler left her marriage in 2010 for François Hollande, her husband could not have known that once Hollande became president he would betray Valérie far more publicly with Julie Gayet.

It is a natural but delusory instinct to envy the young their youth. Physical beauty is said to be at its peak in our twenties. But how did we spend those years? Chance is we were lacking in self-esteem and worrying about finding the right partner, the right profession, gaining respect at work, fearing those with power over us and cringing over the reactions of our parents.

We do not belong to anyone and no one is our property. Accepting another’s good fortune boosts our self-esteem even if that good fortune seems initially to be at our expense. Let us practise it once a day – how fortunate he/she is because…I am pleased for them because their current happiness contributes to more joy in the world. It is the expression of mastery over circumstances. It is choosing how to feel. It is the opposite of victimhood and a powerful expression of self-love because it replaces fear and envy with peace.

Bitterness and rage affect the body and write themselves on our faces. Our minds can make us sick. Coco Chanel is famed for saying, “At fifty a woman has the face she deserves.” The way to stay young forever is to forever love ourselves profoundly because our day will come too. Always.

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