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“Who buys the beer?” 

I was a twenty-five-year-old trainee psychologist and I had just asked the question that was about to get me chucked out of a family therapy session. 

I thought I understood what was happening.

A mother and daughter were distraught because the father was drinking himself into an early grave. In fact, he was already so unwell that he was unable to be in the session. 

Listening to their sadness and desperation I asked a genuine and innocent question. 

Who was it that was supplying him with beer? 

I assumed there must be an unhelpful grandmother or brother lurking in the wings who didn’t feel the same desire for this man to sober up. 

As soon as I asked the question I knew I’d got it wrong. The mother became very defensive, telling me, quite rightly, that I had no right to judge her. 

Of course, SHE was the one buying the beer. 

Even though she hated the fact her husband drank it. Because if he stopped drinking beer something would change. He would change, he would no longer be the person she took care of and worried about. She would no longer be “the wife of a drunk.” 

She hated both of those things but they were part of her and losing them would mean she lost her identity (or part of it). She couldn’t stop buying the beer until she felt able to give up those parts of herself.

Take home message? Change, even positive change, is very scary for humans. 

Those of you who have sober (ish) spouses may be wondering why I am talking about this in a blog that aims to support your mental health as you negotiate armed forces life and the workplace. I told you that story because it is an extreme example of how much we hate people we are close to changing. 

Gaining employment or setting up a business when you have been a full-time carer for a while brings big changes for you and the people close to you and, because you are humans, that change will inevitably bring some difficult feelings. Think of some of the toughest moments in life, having a baby, a new posting, the end of a relationship. What do they all have in common? Change.

Why is change so hard for humans?

While the world is predictable we feel like we know how to avoid threat and that gives us a sense of control over it. Imagine you spent your life living in a woodland where there were bears. You figured out how to live alongside the bears by avoiding them when they were hungry, befriending them and feeding them fish. They were dangerous and you wished they weren’t there but you knew how to cope and your threat system gradually switched off as you get to know your hairy neighbours. One day you are given the opportunity to move to a woodland where there are no bears but there IS a roaming pack of labrador puppies. You have never seen a dog before in your life. You are told that dogs are easier to tame than bears and everyone you speak to agrees that you will be better off living alongside the puppies. But all you can see is sharp teeth and fast movements. You can’t predict what the puppies will do so it is harder to avoid them. Your threat system starts going off the charts and telling you that you should stick to your bears. The mind simply does not like the unknown.

Change also involves loss. Anytime you gain something you lose something. If you take a new job you lose time at home, you lose your role as a fulltime carer (whether you liked or disliked it), you lose whatever label you gave yourself around being at home. For example, “stay at home mum/dad, supportive wife/partner/husband etc.” The identity and roles of your family members also change. Your partner will no longer hold the role of “breadwinner” and they will have mixed feelings about that. This is all particularly relevant if you are within a culture (like British culture) which has complex gender politics. If you have children, they will, rightly, feel they are losing some of their exclusive access to you too if you go out to work (or into the home office). 

Loss and lack of predictability leave us feeling insecure. We feel under threat and we don’t know who we can rely on to support us to deal with it. When you go back to work your family is a bit like a football team playing in a new formation. It could be WAY better than your usual way of playing but there is also the potential that it could be a huge mess. A good football manager knows you have to try it out anyway if you want to get the best possible results from your team. That means dealing with your fear of change AND recognising and compassionately helping your family to deal with theirs. 

Dealing with change: Recognise the stories

The first step to harmoniously navigating a big change as a family is to recognise that it IS unavoidably difficult for you all. There will be moments where all of you find your threat system has kicked in and you behave in a way you regret as a result. Fight, flight and freeze are all likely to show up so you might find yourself lashing out, avoiding family members or generally being irritable with each other. If you can see this in yourself and your family however you can take control of your reaction by:

Stepping away and activating your soothing system (see my blog and live video on dealing with strong emotions for some tips)

Showing compassion – letting your partner or child know that you can see their pain and you want to help. A hand on the shoulder, a listening ear a simple “I know this is hard for you” can all bring down someone’s threat system and activate their soothing system.

If you behave like this you will both end up feeling calm enough to connect and work as a team.

Dealing with change: Family values

Part of the fear of change is the fear of losing who we are and the things we care about. In order to take the risk of change in our stride, we need to know that what we are doing is worth it. Figure out what you care most about as a family, the things you don’t want to compromise on and the things that you are looking forward to together. When you do this think together about the benefits of your new employment or business. What does your working bring to the family? Getting around a table with a flipchart and coloured pens is a great way to do this. Then once you know what matters to you all you create your family rules. This should be a short list of commitments you are making to each other that help make sure you are living out your shared values. Your list might include things like “a weekly date night” or a “fortnightly swimming session.” Make sure it is a small enough list that you know you can do it. Of course, there will be exceptional times when you have to break a commitment. You can’t have a date night when one of you is deployed on a submarine. When that happens, apologise for it and express how it makes you feel. 

Dealing with change: Take comfort in the present

When things are changing threat mode means our minds go looking for the worst-case scenario. For this reason, even when things are actually going well, it is perfectly possible for our bodies and minds to be reacting as if we are in terrible danger. My final tip is, therefore, to practice “dropping anchor” in the present moment. I went into detail about how to do this in the series of blogs I wrote on anxiety. Essentially it involves finding something in the here and now to focus on, often your breath, sometimes a physical movement or something you can see, touch, or hear, focusing your attention on it and returning your attention to it whenever the mind wanders. This can help remind your brain that you are safe in the present moment.  

I hope this has helped you prepare for the possible bumps in the road that could come up for you and your family as you transition into work. These issues are likely to be intensified by the pressures of the pandemic but if you recognise what is going on you can take the exciting opportunities that come your way with your mental health, and your family values, in tact.