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Being in charge…Faint praise…What we tell ourselves

Here is the really first ever blog from me. And I am going to do almost no editing. I will just whack up ideas here and hope you find something in them to send your imagination off to do some more thinking and searching. The following ideas have caught my attention lately.

Being in charge of our lives

This topic is important and fascinating to me. I see people who have given up control of their lives…and it does not seem like a good thing. Not for them, nor for those around them. Equally, it always seems like a noticeably good thing when people start to take control of their lives. Being in charge of ourselves seems to have two interwoven aspects. It is about both belief and action. It is about the extent to which we are able, and believe we are able, to shape our destinies. Because if we can, and we believe we can, then we are more likely to do well in life in so many different ways. The reverse is also true. I have included below part of a conversation from ABC National Radio (Australia) from ‘The health report.’ This conversation is relevant to anyone who works in some sort of helping professional, as well as having value to good old ordinary parents and dear human beings everywhere.

While the interview is a few years old now, it fits comfortably with many ideas being discussed in many places now. The discussion is between the ABC interviewer Norman Swan and Len Syme who can be found on the net in many places. The discussion is about Len’s research which has found that one of the major determinants of mental and physical health is a sense of being able to control our own destiny. The research also shows that social networks can be a really important way in which we can achieve this control.

Len Syme: ‘… I’m looking for the answer… My hypothesis is that it’s control of destiny… My argument was this is the most important finding in the last several decades. So I now understand why social support is seen to be important. I now regard social support as one of the ways that we use to control our lives. That is to say, if I challenge you with a problem and you look to others for advice and support, that helps you negotiate life’s challenges.’
Norman Swan: ‘How does it translate to the home and family?’
Len Syme: ‘If I challenge you… with a very difficult life challenge about which you know nothing, I know that you’re not worried about it… You’re going to talk to some other people, you’re going to make phone calls, and within a few days you’re going to work out a scheme to deal with it…That kind of confidence, and not only the confidence but the knowing how to go about solving the problem, is almost automatic… It’s not a question of intelligence, it’s a question of knowing that you can work it out and having the training and experience to work it out…’
Norman Swan: ‘So mastery is infectious- it goes across things. Once you’ve mastered your life you master the circumstances which confront you on a day-to-day basis, is that what you’re saying?’
Len Syme: ‘Yes, exactly.’

‘Mastering the control factor, part one’. ‘The Health Report’ ABC radio. 9th November 1998. This was one of four programs looking at the way people are able to take charge of their lives.

Faint praise

Po Bronson ( together with Ashley Merryman, presents a series of articles called ‘How Not to Talk to Your Children’ in which they quote the research of Carol S. Dweck in the value of ‘praise’. They say: ‘Praise then walks a fine line, then with rewards and their positive and negative consequences on motivation.’ Now this interests me as they say ‘negative’ influences on motivation, because I suspect many of us would think that praise would only have a positive impact. Yet for example, to single someone out as needy of praise can suggest to them, and to those around them, that perhaps they need a little extra help; that perhaps they are not as capable as others. And this is just what we don’t want to suggest. A delightful woman recently told me that she has constantly been praising her son about how well he has been doing at football. He finally said something to her like: ‘Mum, I know you love me…but you don’t know anything about football.’ Interesting comment. The boy thought it was faint praise coming from someone who didn’t really know what they were talking about. To his great credit though, it is delightful that the boy could see his mother’s intentions. What he did genuinely value, was his father’s more critical, informed and detailed response: ‘So and so seems to be really working well so that’s great. Let’s keep that. And x isn’t doing so well and we need to work on it.’ Truthful, honest and balanced.

This all makes sense to me having worked for 30 years now with young people having a hard time. Some years ago a then-teenager Anna, told me: ‘I’m sick of people being nice to me just so they can help me.’ This stayed with me. She was/is extremely bright, aware and responsive. If she has been slacking this week you had better tell her just that. Not some dressed up version that we think might encourage her. That comment she made about eight years ago. Recently (she is now 24) I interviewed her for a DVD I am making and asked her to describe herself as a person. She said that she felt she was a better person and in response to my next question: ‘How did you become this better person?’ she said a number of things. And what stood out was that it was the unadorned ruthless honesty of people around which she prized most highly. It kept her on track. And she said, this was coupled with her own knowledge that she cared deeply for these people and they for her. So…a powerful combination of honesty and regard.

What we tell ourselves

I return here to one of my favourite sources of information and entertainment, ABC Radio National (Australia) and to a show called ‘Life Matters’ on 2nd July 2007, and to a segment called ‘Talking Therapy.’ Here Jonathan M. Adler from Chicago was interviewed and talked about narrative story telling. It is not new to hear what he had to say but I think it is still important. And it went along the lines that narrative is powerful, that we tell ourselves stories about our lives and that these are important in shaping who we are. Stories not just about what has happened but how we remember what has happened, how we describe it and the meaning we give it. He says we do this storytelling with a sense of what he describes as our imagined past, our perceived present, and our imagined future. He says that: ‘The stories that stick around…become who we are.’ And he also says that changing these stories (Ie how we describe what has happened and the meaning we give this) has the capacity to change our lives.

The significance of this I think for us in what can loosely be called ‘the helping professions’ is to consider closely what it is that we help and encourage people to focus on, to talk about, to write poems about, to write songs about and to make plays about. Given that we are trying to do more than entertain people I think this matters. Jonathan goes on to say that people who seemed to do best from psychotherapy tended to tell stories of ‘a victorious battle.’ Community work isn’t psychotherapy but we are constantly challenged to be respectful of a person’s past, their present story and the telling of that story. And I post these comments to encourage discussion about the most productive and uplifting ways we can do this. What stories do we, and those we seek to offer something to, want to tell, to encourage, and to retell?

And I return for a moment to the first part of this post. People seem to do well when they are in charge of themselves and when they perceive that they are in charge of themselves. See ya soon.

1 thought on “Being in charge…Faint praise…What we tell ourselves”

  1. Hi Peter,
    This is Jonathan Adler, from Chicago, who you heard on the ABC National program. One of my friends googled me and passed along your blog entry on the ABC interview. Glad to hear you liked what I had to say and hopefully some of it will be useful to you and your work!

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