Month: May 2018

Stressed person

Millennial stress: the more things change, the more they stay the same

This year, Mental Health Awareness week is themed around stress. As part of this, the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) is running a series of articles zooming in on the idea of millennial stress. A boiled down version of this post appears on the UKCP blog here: What (some) millennials think about millennial stress.

As a psychotherapist who is a millennial (born 1980) the idea of millennial stress is both interesting and confusing to me.

On the one hand, I’m aware of the millennial experience being drastically different to that of both older generations (who are often bewildered by the technology millennials consider commonplace), and the emerging, younger generation z (who are often bewildered at the very idea that there was a time before such technology). On the other hand, I’m aware of how arbitrary and forced these generational divisions feel, and question how much someone’s birth year can tell me as a therapist about a client that the client can’t tell me themselves.

The 1980 to 1995 timeframe is also incredibly broad, covering a current age range of 22 through 38. To put that in perspective, consider the global financial crisis of 2008. I was 28 that year, employed in a full-time, permanent, Local Government role. The youngest of the millennials were 12, and several years away from entering the workforce.

By the time these younger millennials came to consider University, tuition fees were rising to £9k a year, and student loans were no longer covering the cost of living in many places. Meanwhile, those who left education were entering a highly competitive job market characterised by an emerging gig economy. This is partly why the term xennial has been proposed to describe people born between the end of generation x and start of millennial timeframes.

Millennial stress: familiar themes

Maybe it’s the millennial in me, but to help inform this article I set up an online survey, and used social media to reach out to other millennials to find out what they thought about millennial stress. With the caveat that such a survey is limited, both in sample size and by a respondent self-selection bounded by my social media reach, familiar themes emerge.

The most common source of stress in responses was money and financial concerns generally. Renters worry about making rent, homeowners worry about meeting mortgage payments. One of the millennial edges to this is the belief that homeownership is out of reach, based on high house prices, the consequent high deposit needed, and the incredibly strict post-crash constraints on getting a mortgage even with a deposit and stable employment.

This combines with a rental market that is often insecure; private landlords can and do refuse to renew contracts for tenants who “cause trouble” by, say, requesting that basic repairs are carried out to heating systems or plumbing. And further combines with the increasing percentage of take home pay that goes towards rent, which landlords are free to hike.

Millennials overlap heavily with the idea of Generation Rent, and the housing crisis is our everyday life. Having grown up poor in social housing, I feel viscerally the difference between how secure that housing felt compared to the precariousness of the private rental market. Especially so in a context of rapidly diminishing social housing stock.

After this, a wide range of responses can all be grouped under the core therapeutic material of personal issues. That is to say, the concerns a person has about the unfinished business of their past; their present concerns about relationships, loneliness, self-esteem, health (self and others, physical and mental), the roles they occupy (as parents, as partners, as workers) and how those roles impact each other (especially working and parenting!); and their fears for the future, that great expanse into which all our demons get free reign to paint the nightmarescape of our personal shadow.

After these, two other strong themes are work stress, and current affairs; together with money, these form the social context in which millennials find ourselves. Work is stressful for a myriad reasons; bullying by leadership, intermittent periods of unemployment, being off sick long term for physical and mental health reasons, worrying about career prospects, and dealing with promotion bringing new stresses.

Current affairs places everything else in a political context, one dominated by Brexit fears, Donal Trump, climate change, welfare cuts, and social justice; stressors combine with social identities like class, gender, disability, race, sexuality etc in unique ways, and these social identities stack.

Importantly, whilst I’m writing from a UK perspective, a couple of respondents were based elsewhere in Europe. And yet, whilst the particular political situations is those respondents’ countries will be different, the over-arching themes remain broadly in line with UK respondents. Which of course raises the question of the extent to which “millennials” is primarily a western / first world / global north phenomenon.

The importance of intersectionality to the practice of psychotherapy starts to become clear.

The message for therapists

Where does consideration of these themes take us within a contemplation of “millennial stress”? I included a question about what psychotherapists need to know about millennials, and a clear message came through. Millennials want to be seen as individuals, not simply typecast as millennials, and are especially wary of older generations viewing us through pre-conceptions that paint us as workshy or over-sensitive.

And not all millennials think “millennial stress” is a thing. Maybe contemporary ideas of stress are exaggerated compared to what older generations faced. Or maybe people in their late 20s now face the same stresses as people in their late 20s did 30 years ago.

At the same time, it’s seen as important that psychotherapists (who are more likely to be from an older generation and financially secure) remain mindful that the social context for millennials is one in which jobs are less secure. I’ve found in my experience with clients that the younger my client is, the more likely they are to be caught in the gig economy; characterised by zero hour contracts and low skill, low paid work.

Further to this, automation is predicted to replace a significant proportion of current jobs over the coming decade. Millennials will bear the brunt of this change. Homeownership is less attainable (regardless of avocado intake!) and the world is both drastically different, and still undergoing rapid and unpredictable change.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

For me, the lesson for psychotherapists can be summed up in the expression, “the more things change, the more they stay the same“. Millennials are, by and large, stressed by the same things every generation is stressed by, including frustration at older generations for not understanding the younger! The work of psychotherapy – of creating a space in which a process of discovery about how a person creates themselves in the midst of various forces over which they have varying degrees of control can take place – remains more or less the same.

It is maybe important that psychotherapists are mindful of the age of their client more than the generation to which they belong, and this brings me back to the idea of intersectionality. Beautifully summed up in the concise comment that “being a woman of colour does not help with any of the above”, intersectionality emphasises the way in which aspects of social identity intersect, creating a more nuanced understanding of social freedom and oppression.

I may be a millennial, but I am also white, male, straight, University educated, working class, cis-gender. Change male to female, or white to black, or working class to middle class, and the kinds of social forces I’m subject to change dramatically. It may be that knowing I’m a millennial is less important than knowing that I’m currently 37, and contemplating how my stage of life interacts with current social forces.

Go back to the financial crisis example: that didn’t just affect millennials. It’s just that it had different implications for 20 year olds than for 40 or 60 year olds. Ten years on, and one of the impacts for me is homeownership being out of reach. But years of austerity measures mean that there are also impacts for older generations in the form of service cuts. Whilst the younger generations face impacts through cuts to education budgets.

If the idea of millennial stress is going to be useful to psychotherapists, then it needs to be rooted in an understanding of how millennials experience the world events and social forces that have shaped and continue to shape our lives. The best way of achieving this is to ask millennial clients about their experience from a nonjudgmental position of compassionate curiosity.

Fortunately for us, this is the meat and potatoes of what psychotherapists are trained to do.

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Image credit: IMG_2753 by Eric, shared under Creative Commons.

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dandelions in a field

Weeds or flowers? Modifications to contact

One of the core concepts in gestalt psychotherapy is contact. Specifically, gestalt therapists are interested in what happens at the contact boundary; itself an emergent phenomenon that arises wherever self meets other.

In gestalt’s founding text, Perls Hefferline & Goodman’s Gestalt Therapy (PHG), the self is defined as “the system of contacts at a given time”. This is an idea of the self as an emergent, moment-to-moment, constantly created and re-created entity (a theme explored in broad terms in Philippson’s The Emergent Self).

But what is in contact with what?

In concise terms, this is the work of the ego, described in PHG as having the task of alienation and identification. It is the ego’s job to define me and not-me at any given time, for any given information. This is in contrast with the id, which can be taken to be the sum of all experiential information at any given time. And this is in further contrast to the personality, which can be taken to be the cumulative effect of our preferences over time; the story we tell ourselves about who we are to make the ego’s work easier.

Note: this outline of id, ego, and personality differs to the use of these terms in psychoanalysis, and is one of gestalt’s points of departure with that tradition.

Back to the contact boundary, and it’s fair to say that the ego’s main function is to determine where the contact boundary is by dividing experience into two sides: me and not-me, self and other, organism and environment.

The contact boundary mediates experience, and this is where the concept of modifications to contact comes in. I find two ways of thinking about this to be particularly useful: information, and experience.

The contact boundary serves an important information gathering function. I hear the world through my ears, but I don’t hear all the sound that comes into my ears. I can tune out background noise, just as I can suddenly tune in to a distant conversation if I hear my name. That is the work of the contact boundary, distinguishing between useful and useless information.

The contact boundary also serves an important experiential function. Some experiences are pleasant, some are neutral, some are unpleasant, some are painful, and some are overwhelming. Part of the contact boundary’s function could be understood as keeping experience within a tolerable range. Reflexively moving my hand away from a burning surface is part of the contact boundary’s work. So is moving to the beat in a satisfying way.

Modifications to contact become important when withdrawing from contact with something is difficult or not possible. Back to the sound example. If we’re having a conversation in the park on a busy day, I can’t simply withdraw from all that sound. But I can focus my awareness on the sound of your voice, and automatically relegate most other sound to background noise. That process involves a degree of desensitising to all or most other sound.

Alternatively, consider the flow of information, and the difficult job of taking in information in a meaningful way. Suppose I read something or someone tells me something. I need a certain amount of time and space to register that information, make sense of it, ensure I understand it. Now suppose someone is giving you a stream of information, rapidly, moving from one subject to the next without a moment’s notice. If you can’t get that person to stop and go slowly, then you might find yourself zoning out and trying to absorb as much of what’s being said as possible.

This is a merger strategy called confluence, where you try to lose the boundary between yourself and the other person and enter a we-state. Much of the information you take in during this state will likely be introjected, that is taken in uncritically and not given much reflection or contemplation.

The ego’s work of discriminating between me and not-me is bypassed by the temporary erasure of the contact boundary. Later, much of this information will come to feel alien because it hasn’t gone through the integration of being received, broken down, and re-created; it remains something someone else said that I pseudo-identify with, not something I broke down and reconstructed out of my own thoughts.

Gestalt therapists work with various defined modifications to contact. Their therapeutic value is in identifying how awareness of the here and now is being in some way impeded. They are somewhat like weeds in the sense that a weed is simply a plant in the wrong place. In other words, modifications to contact are only problems when they are problematic.

The initial therapeutic task is becoming aware of how contact is being modified. From there, it is sometimes appropriate to work with that modification (eg applying some critical thinking to the introjected views of parents that are holding you back from pursuing something important to you). It is also sometimes appropriate to leave things be (eg respecting that a memory fragment from a past trauma needs to stay desensitised because you don’t feel ready to go there yet).

Context is everything, and modifications to contact give gestalt therapists an important concept for exploring how and to what end a client adjusts to their present situation.

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Image credit: dandelions by Mike Mozart shared under Creative Commons.

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Stressed person

Millennial stress: the more things change, the more they stay the same

This year, Mental Health Awareness week is themed around stress. As part of this, the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy …

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