Wednesday, December 27, 2017

What Is It Like To Cut A Toxic Parent Out Of Your Life? A Personal Perspective

Note: the original piece did not identify the relative. Now, as he passed away some years ago, I have updated it. 23 November 2022

I’ve thought about writing about this topic more than once, and I’ve always chickened out. However, I was asked the other day for tips about coping with toxic people, including toxic family, and having had second, third and fourth thoughts, I’ve decided to go for it.

A few years ago I was making a phone call to my father. I intended to arrange a night out. A drink followed by dinner. I felt dreadful: churning stomach, sweaty hands, and headache alive and hammering.

I didn’t have the flu. It was pure nerves.

I was standing there and that’s when it hit me. I looked at myself and thought, “This is ridiculous. I’m not doing it anymore.”

I made a decision on the spot to end it. It wasn’t easy, and despite the apparent circumstances, it wasn’t a sudden one either. Our relationship had deteriorated over a period of years.

I’d tried to fix it several times but it was like talking to a brick wall. No matter how I tried, the barrage of lies, put downs, mind games and a whole load of other absolute poisonous crap that I won’t discuss here went on and on and on.

I’d kept going because I kept thinking that it would change, that it would get better.

But it didn’t and so I said, “Enough.”

Not making that call was huge for me. The moment I made that decision I felt absolutely awful. It’s hard to describe but it was a sense of failure, of utmost misery.

But you know what?  I also felt huge relief.

I cried buckets, pure guilt, and then I got sensible. I thought it through and planned for the fall-out.

First, I had to cut ties. I worked out what I wanted to say the next time we spoke, and I practiced and practiced so I’d get it all out in one go, without being drawn into long debates.

I don’t remember the exact words but I was very brief and impersonal. It went something like, “We’ve not connected for a long time. Our meetings upset me. It is best for me to step back.”

The conversation took place over the phone and it took less than a minute. Afterwards I went through more a barrage of those same conflicting emotions but at that point the relief loomed larger than the rest.

Then when the news spread, I tackled the issues one by one.

My close family and friends understood as they’d seen for themselves what led up to it.  Apart from, “We’re here if you want to talk” they were kind enough to leave me to it. 
And when I got myself together, I did do a bit of talking. Still do, sometimes. I don’t think I could have done it without them and I’m forever grateful.

It was the people I didn’t know well who were a pain in the bum. I learned to cut off the well meaning ones by saying, “This is a private family matter I prefer not to discuss.” 

The few who persisted got shorter shrift. “Mind your own business and I’ll mind mine” caused some red faces but I don’t regret it. Busybodies who want to second-guess and armchair moralise are best kept at arm’s length.

The most difficult thing was that some more distant family and friends complained. I had some very difficult conversations with them but I realised very quickly that they were mainly bitching out of fear.

I’m afraid this is very common in these situations: they knew I'd dealt with a lot of shit and if I stepped back, it might fall on them. Once you realise what’s behind the, “Why can’t we just go back to the way we used to be?” it’s easier to stick to your guns.

So, am I happier?  Was it the right decision? 

I do feel grief over What Might Have Been. And sometimes I play that, “What if I’d said this instead of that?” But on balance it was right to walk away. For me the answer is yes.

Is it right for you? I don’t know. What I would say is this: think it over. Wave a magic wand and ask, “What would life be like if...?” and think it through.

As this is my blog, and I’m a counsellor, I’d say that if you need to, it can help to talk it all through with someone like me. 

If you don’t want to hire me, my advice would be to  pick someone who has experience of abuse and domestic violence cases. People who’ve been up at the sharp end tend to be better at talking through all the possibilities of dealing with toxic relationships. 

Also, avoid therapists who are committed to ‘saving’ relationships. You want someone who wants the best for you, not someone who wants you to live according to a pattern they think is nice.  

And having said all that, Happy New Year. May 2018 bring you health, happiness and lots of laughter.

Image by Arek Socha

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Dear Ellen, “How to deal with people who keep bugging you on social media?”

Boundaries matter

This was written as a response to a Facebook post asking what you'd like me to blog about. 
The question was, “How to deal with people on Facebook who keep bugging you?

Social media is great for keeping in touch, and making new friends, but unfortunately, it also opens the floodgates to unwanted contact. 
The two things that top the list include unsolicited advice and repeated PMs or requests for private chatting.  
Note: I'm not including PMs that ask for a contact, referral, or other very specific help or information. Those are always okay.

For me, the factors pushing both behaviours is similar. 

I see giving an unsolicited opinion once is okay, as it can be very hard to see if someone is just moaning about an issue because it happens to be on their mind or whether they are asking for help. 
Asking someone to chat when you've not met and you haven't had long public conversations on their timeline, well, I wouldn't do it myself but assuming it's polite and not a dick pic, I suppose there's no harm in it. 

However, it's only okay if the friend stops when you don't reply or fob them off with an "I'm busy" or equal non-response.

A person who is genuinely interested in your advice or who wants to chat in order to get to know you better will come back to you. If they don't, you should move on. This is why I think a second push is a no-no.

Still, suppose your friend goes for it again.  If you think they're basically okay but just not getting it, you have to be completely straightforward. The message has to be utterly plain, so they can't mistake it. After all, the subtle stuff has already passed them by.

For random unwelcome advice, you might say, “This is not something I wish to discuss further.”

If you have a health problem that's brought out the crazies, a friend who is expert at fielding these recommends, you preface it with a graceful, “Thank you for your kindness. I have a detailed treatment plan I am comfortable with.”

For persistent chat requests, I use this standard phrase, “If you have a specific question, or need a contact, do PM me, but I just don't have the time for random chitchat.”

It can be difficult to have to be this blunt but it means you can invite an “okay, I get it” in return, and it's all good again. With this option, you make it possible to keep your friend. I'm all in favour of this, because relationships are to be treasured.
However, if that person has a hissy fit, or keeps bugging you, that’s different.

I could beat around the bush here and be super sweet about it, but let’s talk turkey. There might be many underlying causes fueling this annoying persistence, and none are flattering.
·    They are self-centred/entitled and can't see their opinions/attentions are unwelcome.
·        They are selling something and hope to bully you into buying.
·        They are advocates/evangelists, meaning they are bullies intent on shoving their opinions onto you.
·        They are abusive and this is an attempt to control you by wearing you down.

In all these cases, I think it’s acceptable to cut them off. I do.

Clearly it will be more difficult if this person is close to you. However, there really is no reason why you should put up with bad behaviour.

Friends respect boundaries.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Oh, Oh! When We're Not As Clever As We Think


Long time, no see!  I’ve been busier than the proverbial bees and so haven’t had the time to blog.

However, apart from the private clients and the novel writing, I’m also back into research. I’ll tell you more about it in a few months. In the meantime, I thought you’d be interested in this nugget.

Do you ever find yourself super irritated by people who wax lyrical on complex topics they know absolutely nothing about? If yes, then read on....

The Man In The Pub is a classic. He’s the one who tells you how to fix the national budget, lower your blood pressure, dump your difficult boss, and he’ll have a sure fire fix your love life too - whether you ask him or not! The thing about him is that he's just ordinary but he thinks he's a genius.

Curiously, the Man In The Pub phenomenon is becoming more and more common. Just look around and you’ll hear people talking very confidently about statins, food additives, allergies - and they do it while admitting they barely passed their high school chemistry and biology exams, never mind taking a hard science course of any kind at college.

Question: why do these people think they understand complex topics when their ‘research’ consists of reading a couple of Facebook posts based on a magazine article that was shared by friends?

First, there’s the Dunning-Kruger effect. It says that when you lack skills, you come to the wrong conclusions. Then, because you don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t tell you’ve made a mistake. So you go about, thinking you’ve got it nailed, when actually you don’t. What you do have is a case of illusory superiority. Ouch, right? (Want to read the papers, check out the references below)

And here’s the bit I’m interested in... I think the reason we’re all becoming The Man In The Pub is because we have the illusion that we’re always connected and always learning. Our smartphones and our Google make us think that we’re soaking up smarts. 

We feel empowered, which is lovely, but we’re not actually learning that much. While we might be a bit better about finding out quickly where Bangui is, or who was fighting at Flodden back in 1513, no amount of Googling is a substitute for serious study. That's common sense, right? If all you had to do was Smartphone away, we’d all have a couple of dozen PhDs by now.

Given we're living in the Internet age, we’re all suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect at least a little bit. And the problem is that it can make life awfully difficult. (I’ll write more about that later, as this is getting a bit long.)

It got me thinking, what’s a quick self-check to see if you might be falling into this?

I suggest this: the next time you talk about a complex topic, like medicine or space exploration, ask yourself what kind of knowledge you would need to be a world renowned expert. Could you be a surgeon on the basis of your marketing degree?  Would NASA ask you to take charge of the Space Station because you have a masters in psychology? If the answer is probably not, watch yourself.

Crushing, right? And I was so certain I could do Robert M. Lightfoot Jr's job! But hey, better than being The Man In The Pub. 

Check it out these papers:

Dunning, D. (2011). 5 The Dunning-Kruger Effect: On Being Ignorant of One's Own Ignorance. Advances in experimental social psychology, 44, 247.

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(6), 1121.
Image by Barbara A Lane from Pixabay

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Are You For Real? A Tip For Avoiding Con Artists Posing As Psychologists

Gif from Cruel Intentions

Most of the information we see online about  psychologists comes from the EU, North America, Australia and New Zealand. That's a problem if you don't live there because it gives a very false impression of the field.

Psychologists deal with vulnerable people but in most of the world, the profession is totally unregulated.

Shocking, right? If you're in Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia and goodness knows how many other countries, you can simply announce, "I'm a psychologist!" and nobody will do a blessed thing to stop you messing about with people who are suicidal, struggling with learning issues and other serious problems.

There are con artists with no training whatsoever, not even a basic diploma in psychology, running companies that advertise in newspapers, setting up their own endorsement agencies, and even their own training centres.  They  'diagnose' you and often charge the earth, too.

There is plenty of discussion about it in the field, but in my opinion, this will be an ongoing issue for some years to come. Even if you fix the problem with a quick bit of legislation, enforcement is difficult - especially as these people will simply rebrand themselves as "lifestyle gurus" or whatever other title sounds cool.

So when you need a psychologist, how do you avoid the cons? I had the look yesterday at the social media (Facebook and LinkedIn) of several leading lights in the community and then I compared it to some known crooks.

The legitimate people were posting cartoons of owls, photos of their lunch, moaning about their kids, giggling about silly things that happened to them, sharing jokes - and very occasionally commenting on a psychological issue.

The cons had a steady stream consisting of shares of journal articles, press articles, motivational quotes and their own evil advertising.

Also, you should know that cons make up fake associations.Yes, it doesn't take much to register an association, and as anyone can be a psychologist, nobody cares who's proper and who isn't.

Depressing, right?  The cons looked so damn good that if I didn't know better, I'd consult them!

So what can you do?

Sourcing specialists, say those who work with eating disorders or autism, is best done through your national hospital network and your public universities.

If you're looking for a regular therapist to talk about relationships, divorce, abuse and so on, a safe bet is to work with someone who has a basic Bachelor’s degree in psychology as well as a Masters in a mental health field that includes several hundred hours of supervised practical clinical work. That way you have someone who's done all the academic work with a healthy dollop of practical work. (My Masters involved about 400 hours of practical work.)

When you see a therapist you think you want to work with, ask where they went to college and what their qualifications are. As a first step, make sure that the school exists and that they have the programme your contact says they have completed. (You can call the school but in my experience, they rarely know who's in class this week, never mind who's graduated.)

Then, do a little spying on their social media. One thing that stood out from my looking around is that professionals have connections to universities. They don't necessarily work in them but they'll have friends there.

So, see who their friends are. If you see their pals are from recognisable unis, you're probably okay.

You can also ask me. I may not know the people you want to consult myself, but I have a South East Asia network that I'm happy to draw on. Oh, and if you want to check me out on social media, have a look at my Facebook page.

Did you like this? Then you may enjoy this, “If it’s quackery, why is it working for me?”

Monday, August 28, 2017

Should Your Therapist Give You advice?

Sigmund Freud, Wikipedia
If you’ve never been to see someone about a mental health issue before this may seem a weird question.  However, there are two broad approaches to our kind of work.

In the old days, clients would pitch up, describe what was going on, and receive an expert opinion.  Possibly this came about because many of the first modern generation of mental health providers were psychiatrists, medical doctors specializing in mental health.   
So they’d act like traditional doctors, dispensing wise counsel to their patients.

But in the 1940s, the idea of a client centered approach became popular. It was championed by Carl Rogers, a psychologist (not a medical doctor!) who believed that we are each our own best expert. He advocated that mental health workers should listen to and work with the client to set goals and find solutions.

Today mental health providers who give advice are called Directive and those who are client centered approach are called Non-Directive.

Generally speaking, people in the West lean towards wanting Non-Directive practitioners because it generally falls in line better with our individualistic, egalitarian cultural approaches while people in South East Asia lean towards wanting Directive practitioners because it falls in line better with their group oriented, strong hierarchical cultural approaches.

I say generally and am making sweeping statements because this is just a casual blog post. If you want to debate this, we can talk about it.  For now the question is, if you are looking for help and a bit uncertain about what you want, what should you know?

Here are some thoughts:

A big pro of the Directive approach is that you don’t have to make any decisions. You pay someone to do it for you. If you get someone good, who thinks like you, that can work very well. 
The big drawback is that what works for me, may not work for you. If you are not totally in sync, the advice may not work - or make things worse.

A big pro of the Non-Directive is that you are involved in every stage of the process, and so you are much more likely to develop good approaches that suit your unique person and situation. 
The big drawback is that it takes a lot of work, and it can be tiring.

Me, I suggest it’s best to work with someone like me who does a bit of both. You see, there are times when something is clear to me because of my training and experience.

For example, I’m very happy to say things like, “There are three ways of doing this, A, B and C. From what I know of you, I’d go with approach B as it’s most likely to suit you best.”

I’m also not shy about giving opinions. For example, “I think you should consider looking into your relationship with your MIL, because it sounds toxic and I think it may cause you trouble if you don’t address it.”

But I also check with you that this is what you want. And if you disagree, that’s okay. Because I’m someone you work with; I’m not your nanny. In the end, you decide what's good for you.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

When Hate Gets To You, Reach Out (Plus, Tom's Awesome Tuna Shirt!)

Does it seem to you that hate is becoming mainstream?

My brother called me this morning, worried about the terror attacks in Barcelona, Cambrills and Turku over the last few days, coming right on top of Charlottesville, Manchester and London. As he's in Saudi and I'm in Malaysia, we are also aware of the many hate crimes that don't hit main stream news media.

"I don't believe in profiling," he said, "but we have to do something about violent arseholes!"

In case you're confused which particular violent arseholes we were thinking about, the answer is all of them. 

You see, if you take me, my brother and our partners and their sibs and partners, just us very close family, you will see a kind of United Nations effect. 

 We range from Nippon Paint's brilliant white to the finest dark chocolate in terms of skin, and we cover most of the major faith groups. 

We're from Europe, North America and Africa and we live in all those places plus the Middle East and Far East Asia.

In other words: whenever someone blows up "the enemy" or mouths off about "the x problem" you're talking about one of us. It is very hard not to fall into hate. Especially when politicians and faith leaders make speeches about how you are Evil Incarnate.

I can't fix the world but I can help manage my feelings.

What helps me is engaging with people who are cheerfully accepting of differences. The kind who  just respect that we're all different and celebrate it.

When I'm having an anti-X moment, I pick up the phone, and go for a coffee with a friend who isn't like me, and we just hang and have a good time. It can be a Malaysian Christian Mala or a Cambodian Muslim May or a Thai Hindu Myriam - it doesn't matter. Just reminding myself that friendships cross divides cheers me up.

Awesome tuna shirt

Good random experiences are a tonic too. Like when me and my friend Emanar were in Central Market a week or two ago, talking to two Malay girls running a clothing stall.

(For non-SEA readers, most Malay people are Muslim. These two definitely were because they wore tudungs, traditional local Muslim headscarves. Although some Muslims drink alcohol, Malaysian Muslims usually believe their religion forbids them to drink and the law prohibits them from buying alcohol. )

"I need a party shirt for my husband," I said to them.

They hauled out a lovely batik, perfect for a posh event.

"I love it," I said. "But I'm thinking more of a party at the pub."

"He can wear this there too," the sisters giggled. "And he'll look so handsome!"

"He's dressed nicely all week at work. Do you have something more relaxed?"

The sisters thought for a second, and then dived into their stock, producing the best beach party shirt I'd seen in years and asking, "Will tuna fish be suitable for the pub?"

"The tuna fish," I said seriously, "will be the talk of the regulars for weeks!"

"Tell them where you bought it!" the girls chorused instantly.  

Such a simple story, right? An everyday occurrence. But when I hear hate speech urging us into "Us & Them" remembering that little scene gives me hope.

Hate isn't universal. And when we reach out and remind ourselves of the ordinary people who are quite happy to accept differences, the world looks a little better.

PS the sisters have the stall on the first floor, on the balcony, directly facing the main door. Their batik shirts are awesome, and they had several more tuna shirts! You should go and take a look.


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Review of How to Remove a Brain by David Haviland

How to remove a brain
My first thought is that if you were suspicious of doctors, How to Remove a Brain: and other bizarre medical practices and procedures  by David Haviland will drive you screaming away from them!  This is a wonderful book devoted to dragging up every weird and wacky idea in medical science from times ancient to present.

Well written with a pen dipped in sarcasm, you’ll find yourself laughing and groaning.  I thoroughly enjoyed it!

On a more serious note, I wanted to read this because it also has a nice little history of how Western doctors used to deal with their patients. It seems that the posh ones didn’t bother talking to their patients directly; they wrote letters to each other. Because actually seeing someone and possibly viewing nasty body bits was just too eeeeeewwww.

I have a feeling that this is what influenced early mental health practitioners to adopt the stand-back-and-don’t-engage policy that still permeates the profession today. As I’m a therapist, I found a lot of food for thought in this book as well as a lot of giggles.

I would very much recommend How To Remove a Brain. However, I do worry that with the present hate campaign against science, David Haviland’s book will add to this trend as it completely ignores all the positive innovations. Still, let the truth prevail!

I received this book from the publishers via NetGalley and am reviewing voluntarily

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Review of Shame: A Brief History by Peter Stearns

Shame: A Brief History by Peter Stearns

"Shame: A Brief History by Peter Stearns is a well researched beautifully written thought-provoking book! A must read for psychologists, leaders, teachers, parents, managers and anyone interested in human nature." Ellen Whyte, upcoming Amazon review 

I love this book! Peter Stearns did a brilliant job of presenting shaming uses and norms in societies past and present, and I love the way he examines the resurgence of shame 's use as a force in today 's social media.

Stearns thinks that the rise of the individual led the demise of the use of shame as a tool for power and control in the US. He points out, though, that it has risen again, thanks to the anonymity of the internet. Thus, shame is still used to control, but the nature of its use has changed. You'll have to read it to find out more!

I loved this book because I live in Malaysia, a country with a collective and hierarchical culture, which means shame is perceived and used in ways that we don’t really see much of in the West. 
This book really helped me pull together some threads of thought, and I am certain that I will be better at my job because of it.

My immediate thought is that I see many of the traditional uses of shame here but there are also significant differences. For example, girls and boys who are abused, raped and victims of incest, are still regularly blamed and the family is shamed into keeping silent so that the perpetrator gets away with it.  
However, I see more and more people standing up for victims. Malaysia is a collective society, not an individualistic one, and yet, we're seeing large changes in thinking, just like the US saw in the 1800s. 

I'm going to read this book again next week, and then I'm going to talk to some activists, lawyers and HR managers to get their input. Then I'll read the book again. I'm certain this will be one of my most influential books of 2017.

It comes out 15th September 2017 and if you can get your hands on it, do buy it!

I received a copy of this book from the publishers through NetGalley and am reviewing voluntarily.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

How To Be Happy At Work - When You Don’t Like Your Job


Some of us are lucky enough to have a career that fascinates us. They may live to work.
However, there are many more who work to live. They just exchange labour for money.
That’s perfectly fine but it can mean being less than enthusiastic about work. And when the job takes up 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, it can quickly become a miserable experience. 
If you aren't happy at work, check out this suggestion for you to be happier at work.

While there are lots of different psychological approaches to working on this problem, one of my favourite go-tos is Self Determination Theory.

What is Self Determination Theory?

Basically, this is a macro theory that suggests motivation relies on us having three things:
  1. Autonomy - having control over your own life.
  2. Competence - developing skills you are proud of and having them recognised
  3. Relatedness - being part of a team, or at least feeling connected to the people around you
Okay, now if Edward Deci and Richard Ryan ever see this over simplified summary of their forty odd years of research, they’d probably have fits. However, this is a simple blog post and it’s good enough for you to get started.

How do I use Self Determination Theory?

Look at your work and analyse your average month.  Then ask yourself questions and use the answers to pump up your happiness potential.

Question 1: At what point in my work do I feel as if I’m Mistress of the Universe? Look for that feeling of control and purpose.
Question 2: What parts of my work mesh with my own beliefs about how life should be?

For example, suppose you work in a customer service centre and feel at the beck and call of faceless others. By asking these questions you might find that your core values include kindness and making a difference. If so, know that each time you help a customer, you are making the world a tiny bit better. If you shift perspective and tell yourself you really are spreading joy, work becomes more joyful.

Question 1: What do I do that’s fantastic?
Question 2: What do I do okay at that I want to become fantastic at?

Simply put: we love doing things we do well, and we often do well at the things we love. So when you pick a work skill and turn it into your super power, you will get a thrill every time you use that work skill. This pushes up your overall happiness level. Bonus: if you become a true skills ninja, you may be able to get a job you like better!  

Question 1: Do I feel connected to the people around me? And if I don’t how do I make that happen?

For me this is a fundamental part of happiness. People who feel cut off from the world around them fall into despair. There’s no getting away from it: we need to feel connected, even if it’s only to one or two people.

So my advice is, if you can connect to the people you work with in a friendly way, you will feel happier about work. Make friends, and then spread your wings and start connecting with others in your field. LinkedIn is good for that!

If you want more

Like I said, this is a super short blog post that introduces one of the ways you can go about improving your happiness at work.

I’ve made it look like a simple 1-2-3 but clearly there’s a lot more to the theory and what goes into using it in therapy.  This is a conversation starter; it’s not a substitute for proper professional help.

If you are stressed and depressed, and you need help, please do contact me

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Check out my feature in Malaysia Womens Weekly

When you've had a shock diagnosis, your thinking can become a bit wobbly. Check out my feature article, "Why we buy quack medicines when we're ill" and the tips on how to cope when someone you love has a health crisis in this month's Malaysia Womens Weekly 

Ellen Whyte in Womens Weekly

Ellen Whyte in Womens Weekly

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Try This Simple Tip When Your Mother In Law Drives You Crazy

When you are so frustrated you want to scream or burst into tears this gives you perspective – without turning you into a doormat.


When you’re in a sticky situation, facts, assumptions and emotions all swirl together, blending into each other.  

Being upset blinds us to facts. And when we are overwhelmed, we tend to jump to conclusions rather than see what is truly happening. 

This means we’re likely to make mistakes.

There is an old saying, count to ten. Taking a time out can help. 

But in complex emotional situations, assumptions and biases can obscure issues. You can count to 10 as many times as you like and you still feel frustrated!

Suppose you are in this situation:

You and your husband had a nice dinner with his sister and her husband. The next morning you get a call from your mum-in-law. “You didn’t invite me!” She calls you insensitive, accuses you of trying to cut her out, and has a complete meltdown.

If this happened, you’d probably feel as if you were a monster. Selfish, unthinking. You might quickly promise never to do it again just to keep the peace. Or you might feel so angry and annoyed that you vow never to see her again.  

Neither will make life happier for you.

You can gain perspective by retelling the story impersonally. Like this:

Jack and Jan invite Rob and Jasmine for dinner. The next day, their friend Sam calls up, screaming that he feels left out. What do you feel now?

If you take away the factors of age and family, you’ll see that this situation isn’t about you or about dinner. Sam clearly has issues he’s trying to push onto jack. Your mum-in-law has issues of her own that she’s pushing on to you.

These issues might include control, loneliness, competition, and more. 

Whatever is at the root of their behaviour, perspective can help you make better decisions. Like in this example, common sense suggests that if you give in, you run the risk of having to live your life according to their rules – which they will change to suit them. That is going to be very stressful.

A sensible approach is to acknowledge their feelings, without being drawn into discussing who’s right or wrong. For example, “I’m sorry you feel left out.”

You don’t need to promise never to do it again. It’s tempting sometimes – just to keep the peace – but it’s reasonable for you to see your friends.  

So in future, when you’re in a sticky emotional situation, take a breath, step back and recast events in the third person. Tell yourself a story stripped of emotion. Then examine it again.

It can help you gain perspective – and in turn that can help you come up with better ways of coping that keep the peace with even the trickiest mother-in-law, without turning you into a doormat.

I wrote this originally for Malaysia Womens Weekly. Check it out, and enjoy!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Secret Clues Someone You Love is Depressed

Especially in stressful times like these, when the world economy seems stagnant 
and the future is far from clear.

Depressed girl

Depression can show itself in many different ways: feeling sad or blank for days at a time, being dead tired and not taking joy from favourite pastimes are classic signs. But depression can also reveal itself in unusual ways. 

These are clues to watch for in the people you love – and in yourself. If you spot these symptoms, approach the subject gently, and talk to a professional therapist or doctor about getting a diagnosis and formulating solutions that work for you.

#1 Ragged nails and messy hair
Uncombed hair, smelly skin, ragged fingernails – it might look like a person is just being careless or disrespectful, but depression can also cause self-neglect. 

So if someone used to be clean and tidy but now they live in unhygienic surroundings or don’t eat properly it can be a clue that they’re clinically depressed.

#2 Sudden Anger
We often assume a depressed person is withdrawn and quiet. But sadness can sometimes surface as rage. 

Typically, it’s a rapid angry reaction that’s unreasonable and out of proportion. It’s happens when feelings of guilt, rejection and loss get so bottled up that they erupt as sudden anger – watch for it especially if stress as well as depression are involved.

#3 Working Way Too Much
Faced with intense dark feelings, some people try to avoid emotions. They might sleep too much, take drugs, or drink too much, but some bury themselves in work. 

The problem with this symptom is that we often perceive working long hours as being ambitious or trying to provide for a family. 

So look for other clues: does this behaviour typically seem more like a compulsion? Perhaps he’s clearly exhausted yet he’s up every night trying to finish that report? Or she escapes into her email inbox the second you try to talk to her about her worries.

#4 Forgetting Ordinary Tasks
Depression can make it very hard to concentrate – depressed people tend to forget all kinds of weird things, from leaving their keys in the fridge to leaving the milk out in the hall again. Or they may often forget appointments or constantly be late. 

Forgetting things is a tricky depression symptom to spot because stress can also make people forgetful – it’s like the brain is just too “full” with worry to remember much. So look for other clues as well, like….

#5 Not being able to make even small decisions
Depression can go hand-in-hand with hopelessness. People get the idea that no matter what they do, it will all go wrong. 

Victims of depression get wrapped up in thoughts of the bad things to come, that they become unable to make even a tiny decision. Shall I get out of bed? What to have for breakfast? What shall I wear?… it’s all too much. 

They become apathetic and almost paralysed by indecision. You can go out to work and come back hours later… and they’re still in bed.

#6 Too Much Partying
Dancing on the tables can just be high spirits, but it can also be a form of distraction. 

If you don’t want to face your dark feelings or you’re frightened of feeling “numb”, it’s tempting to distract yourself by drinking too much or burying yourself in frantic activity. 

But instead of going out feeling like fun, it feels like desperation, and there’s an undercurrent of hopelessness.

This article written by me, Ellen Whyte, originally appeared on Malaysia Womens Weekly. 

Photo credit: thanks to RyanMcGuire @ Pixabay 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

5 Weird Body Clues That Show You Are Stressed

Telltale signs that you are stressed can be surprising as well. Find yourself identifying with one or more of these clues? Assess what’s going on in your life.
Stressed girl

Normally we associate stress with bad stuff happening, like losing a job or having too many deadlines. But stress is simply a reaction. You can be stressed by being promoted, getting a raise, and even by going on holiday.

#1 Flatulence. When you’re stressed, your body goes into flight or fight mode. This includes making changes to your digestive system. 

When you’re stressed continuously, this can cause an upset tummy, diarrhea, constipation and gas.

#2 Weird dreams. There are a lot of theories about why we dream, and if they have an impact on our health, but studies suggest we all dream at various points in the night, whether we remember them or not. 

While nothing can be done about dreams, some people find they dream more – and more vividly – when they’re stressed. 

So strange wild dreams can be a useful clue that you’re taking on too much in your life.

#3 Skin rashes, spots and pimples. When sweat glands are blocked, trapped moisture leads to inflammation such as spots and rashes. 

Sweating is normal in hot tropical countries like Singapore and Malaysia, but when you’re stressed, you tend to perspire even more. 

At the same time, being over-stressed can affect your immune system, which can also inflame skin issues like acne. 

If you have skin conditions like allergies, eczema or psoriasis, these are also more likely to flare up if you’re stressed.

#4 Muscle cramps. When you’re stressed, you may tense your muscles. After prolonged tension, this can lead to all kinds of cramps. 

Although you might have tummy cramps one day and foot cramp the next, a lot of people find that they are affected in a particular way. I get back pain and tension headaches when I’m stressed.

#5 Menstrual problems. Stress can make your periods arrive early, late or disappear altogether. Most annoyingly, it can increase period pain. In the long-term, stress can affect fertility for both men and women. 

If you’re worried about this, keep a diary that includes stress level notes for auditing and talk to your gynae.

Note: I have two jobs, author and counsellor. This article first appeared on Malaysia Women's Weekly on 22 December 2016.  Go over and check out the free articles, and buy the magazine copy for even more goodies! Update: 23 November 2022, MWW web site is no longer up, sorry!

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Psychology of Sudden, Severe Back Pain

I wrenched my back rescuing a tiny kitten from a storm drain some years ago, and every now and again it goes out of whack. No biggie.

I tend to avoid medical information online because I'm not a doctor and so I can't critically evaluate information. I just do what my family doctor advises and hope for the best.

Two weeks ago when my back went I followed the usual routine: muscle relaxants, anti-inflammatories and I lay flat for a day or two. Then I went out and about, but slowly. I also took my back for a swim, because it's a good easy way to stretch.

This time I hurt my back on Monday but by Wednesday I was okay again, swimming for thirty minutes, no problem. So on Friday I went out. I walked a mile or two, and ended up in a mall, looking for cat treats. 

While there, a wildly running child ran into my back, full tilt.

Courtesy Geralt Pixabay


Luckily I was too hurt to swear at the brat. I simply limped off, took a breather on a bench, and then went on to meet up with my friends as usual.

Three hours later I was home and lying flat again. The next morning I couldn't move. Any movement provoked screaming pain. And I mean, screaming. 


About Pain And Mind

Pain is subjective, and so are reactions, but this is my experience:


Insight #1: Extreme pain is frightening. I didn't want to be touched, and it freaked me out if anything or anyone came near me.

Insight #2: The fear messes with your mind. When pain is extreme, there's just one message you can focus on: avoid it. Everything else becomes completely unimportant.

Insight #3: Real pain causes tears - lots of them. I was okay if I kept flat and totally still, but moving was agony. Sitting made me weep. Lying down after sitting made me cry too.

Insight #4: Pain is humiliating because it makes you helpless. I was completely aware of what pain was doing to me, but even so it made me feel dreadful that I was in floods, that I couldn't move, and that I was totally useless. Embarrassing.

Insight #5: Despite the pain, certain essentials are inevitable. When pain comes and goes, it takes a certain frame of mind to move through it. With my back, I found I could lie still and be okay.  It was just moving that hurt. Ideally I was going to lie totally still until my back stopped screaming at me. However, one must pee. 

I lay in bed, thinking that I should simply stop drinking water just to avoid the agony of making myself sit up and shuffle to the bathroom. Although it's ten feet away from the bed, it was taking me a full 20 minutes to get up and shuffle there. And I'm talking one way.

What helped me!

Helpful #1: Knowing what the issues were. Yes it was scary, humiliating and horrible all round, but understanding the connection between the physical and the mental helped me manage both.

Helpful #2: Putting the pain aside from me. This is a little harder to explain but what I find useful is to think of my painful back as not being part of the essential me. 

 I am the person, the pain is just a nasty thing that's messing up the body that carries me. It's a way of distancing myself from the pain.  

I talk about it that way too, by saying, "I take my back for a swim" and "I'm going to see how my back will take to doing this".

Helpful #3: A walking stick.  I found that a stick gave me certainty. Having a solid foundation to lean on made it easier to push through the pain when getting up and sitting down. I could also use the handle to pick stuff up.

Helpful #4: Shaping my environment. I rearranged my bedside table so that I had my ipad and connections all next to me. I moved all the loo paper so I didn't have to twist or reach. And once I got out of my bed, I moved everything in the kitchen and fridge to the top shelves so I didn't have to bend. 

Helpful #5: Telling my husband what I needed. The people who love you want to help, but they're not clairvoyant. This is common sense but it's amazing what we don't do "because we don't want to be a bother".

I realised that what I really, really missed was my early morning coffee. But the machine is downstairs, which was about an hour's travel. So I asked Tom if he could bring me coffee in bed. What a difference!

Helpful #6: Socialising!  I couldn't go anywhere and I certainly didn't want people coming round, but thanks to the Net I was able to Skype and chat with friends. Very cheering! 

Helpful #7: Serious drugs. If I'd been home in Spain, I would have gone straight to the doctor. It's not my first option now because I have had some very mixed results in Malaysia.

To be clear, I've met lots of excellent ones.  However, there was the man who poked me with his pen because his religion forbade him to touch women who weren't related to him, and the woman who sold me "special" medicine that I later found in the chemist and supermarket - at ten times less than she charged me. 

We've also had media reports of bogus medical practitioners (like this one, and this one) and problems about faked results. As such, I only see doctors who have been recommended personally by friends. I was too scared to go to hospital and trust in an unknown doctor.

I went to see my GP who is a rock of common sense. She told me this was sciatica. She gave me advice on when to go to emergency (e.g., if my leg went numb). She also told me which hospital to go to.

I wanted to give it 24 hours so she gave me a shot of something. I'm sorry, but I can't remember the name, I think it was Olfen but it may have been a painkiller.

She also gave me Neurorubine Forte, a combo of vitamins B1, B6, and B12 that give your nervous system a kick and OLFEN 100, an anti-rheumatic, anti-inflammatory and analgesic.

After seeing my GP I was back in bed, exhausted with the pain and possibly the drugs too. I slept 14 hours and when I woke up, I felt a million times better. 

I made a point of shuffling about the house every hour on the hour. The day after that I woke up feeling another million times better. Actually, I felt fine.

WEIRD And that's the other thing about this kind of back pain: it's full on for days and then it disappears as quickly as it turned up. 

I'm told that nerves get pinched causing super pain and then unpinch just as suddenly. Maybe it's true, maybe it's not, but it does describe exactly how I felt. 

On the third day I felt bruised and a bit shaky, also nervous in case it came back, but I was okay.  Really.

Now I'm back to work, but being very careful. I lie down as often as I sit and I'm making a point this week of going for a swim every day.

Bottom Line

If you have sudden severe pain, expect to be frightened. Understand it may confuse you, so do have someone you trust to help you when you seek medical advice. 

Your trusted person needs to make sure all the questions are asked, and to keep track of what you need to do to get better.

Seeing pain comes with a lot of emotional upheaval, you may want to talk to someone like me. This is especially true if your pain is long term because pain and depression can go hand in hand.  So if you're suffering, for goodness sake reach out! 

Courtesy Marcelabr Pixabay