By Dr Benjamin Piperbennewpicrounded

Over the last bank holiday, with nothing much to do, I embarked on a
box set journey by settling down to watch a US series called
‘Girls’. It was one of those where you feel bereft when you reach
the end of the available episodes! The characters developed
beautifully in a realistic look at what it is like to live in a large
city in your twenties, lots to compare for those of us who call London
home. Mental health issues developed for a number of the characters
and the presentation to the viewer felt honest, despite the insertion
of some comedy to lighten the load. An interesting quip by Richard E.
Grant (who seems to pop up all over TV) was made to one of the main
characters while both were in rehab. He patronisingly said ‘you’re
too young to understand what thoughts are useless to you’. It was
delivered with great comedy value but revealed an important
psychological message!

Thoughts are often understood as factual and to be relied upon. They
can often seem convincing because: we thought them; they keep
returning; they have a strong historical base in our experience; and
they might cause a strong emotional reaction!!

However, as Richard E Grant’s character was suggesting, a lot of
our thoughts are not always factual and certainly should not
automatically be believed! Many of our thoughts are useless and not
worthy of our time. So, remember: Thoughts aren’t facts, they are
just thoughts!

Let me give you some examples to illustrate what I mean here:

While giving an important speech an executive noticed two people in
the front row speaking and then one walked out of the room and the
other stayed but looked distracted. The executive began to think her
speech was not being received well and that she was boring people. Her
negative and self-doubting thoughts then had an impact on her energy
levels and concentration for the remaining five minutes. Afterwards,
she was told that the two people in the front row were a couple and
they had been arguing. The speaker then realised that she had jumped
to conclusions and personalised the couples behaviour, indicating her
first thoughts were not factual and she had interpreted their
behaviour according to her own anxiety that she had been feeling. This
lead to a reaction that changed her performance.

Here is another example:

A man had been rejected by his lover a month ago and he had felt down
since. As a result, he decided to extend his social network using
Facebook. A number of people had not accepted his friend requests and
he started to obsessively think that people do not like him and these
thoughts lowered his mood further still. During the coming months
those people did accept his friend requests and it turned out that
they do not use Facebook very often. This showed him that his thinking
had been inaccurate and he had allowed this situation and the
resultant thoughts to deepen his depression.

I promise, this is the last one:

A banker had an argument with a colleague the previous day. On
returning to work, he said hello to the receptionist who walked
straight past him and did not answer. He thought that she was ignoring
him because she might have heard about the argument the previous day.
The banker began to get anxious that he had been represented badly and
was being judged by people. As a result he was having huge difficulty
concentrating on his work. Thirty minutes later, the receptionist
walked past him and apologised for not answering him and said that she
had felt ill and was rushing for some fresh air. He realised that he
had jumped to conclusions and that his initial thoughts were
irrational and inaccurate!

These examples, hopefully, demonstrate the danger of not being able
to, as Richard E Grant’s character in Girls puts it, work out which
thoughts are useless to you. Our ability to dismiss useless thoughts
varies massively according to our mood. When a person is depressed,
thoughts become very rigid and negatively skewed. A person can find
themselves adding negative meaning to aspects of their experience that
would be dismissed as nonsense and irrational at times of better mood.
For example, a friend of mine is feeling quite depressed at the moment
and I call every day at the same time. His thoughts on my support was
that I was only available to him in the morning and that he was not
important enough to have time in my evening. Therefore, he did not
always answer as he felt I was being unfair! When we were able to chat
about it I explained my perspective – that I was calling every day
first thing to ensure he knew I was there. I would have been happy to
chat in the evening too. These kind of distorted patterns of thinking
are symptoms as well as primary maintaining factors in depression and
anxiety disorders. If you give irrational (useless) thoughts your full
attention you may end up feeling very depressed or anxious!

There is help available if you are unable to tackle your distorted
thinking alone in the form of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
This therapy is very useful for learning the skills of challenging the
idea that thoughts are factual and deserve our attention. One of the
most important skills learned in cognitive therapy is to be able to
observe problematic thinking styles and force a balanced evaluation of
them.  This can lead to a more positive thinking style and that feels
nice……The aim is for a person to eventually dismiss thinking
styles/patterns/ particular thoughts that lead to unnecessary negative
emotion, because these thoughts are useless and take us where we
don’t need to be.

Don’t be a slave to your thoughts, they can hold you back.

Please see the thought sheets in the resource centre. When feeling
low or anxious please note down your thoughts and their meanings. Then
attempt the process of holding those thoughts up to rational
judgement. Good luck, and if you need further support please give us a


Is Capitalism making us Crazy?

By Dr Benjamin Piper

London, a beacon of capitalism, is a great place to live and work as a Psychologist. At work I am confronted with so many different presentations and by so many different types of people. We are all living on top of each other, trying to figure things out both individually and collectively as groups. Working with clients from different cultures has made my field of work much more ‘internationalised’. And the prominence of social constructionist theory means that as therapists we work with the understanding that minds are created and maintained by individuals’ participation in social worlds – worlds defined (among other things) by country of origin and specific region, race, gender and socio-economic status.

This approach is incredibly effective as these social worlds can help me to understand influences on other peoples thinking and feeling and they can also suggest to me how people structure what they think and feel.  However, western cultural imperialism often leads therapists to overlook specific western cultural features for universal principals. This is hardly surprising considering psychological research from the last 100 years has come pretty much exclusively from American or European psychologists. This research is rooted in Western philosophical assumptions about what it means to be a group member in an individualist orientated society.

I first began thinking about the effect of western culture and capitalism on psychological functioning the day Margaret Thatcher died. I learnt of her death on arriving at Liverpool Street Station, through a copy of the Evening Standard. As I walked through the city, that sort of insular, business – ghetto, on my way to my offices in Bishopsgate, I thought about who Margaret Thatcher was to me. It is safe to say, more so in retrospect, that I am a child of Thatcher. As an actual child I guess I recall her as something of a headmistress – a stern matriarchical figure, hair like an iron helmet, that instantly recognisable voice, shouting at the IRA, the miners, the rioters, the single mums, the Argentineans; well everyone really.

I walked past people on that day and saw myself reflected back in their faces, slightly tired and pensive tired, rushing to get back to work – just as Thatcher would have wanted. And it made me realise the effect western neo liberalism can potentially have on our psychological structuring. We heard a lot about Margaret Thatcher’s legacy that day, from how she broke the glass ceiling for women, (in so far perhaps that the falling shards of glass impaled any women that came after her) and more importantly that she created an ‘aspirational’ society, somewhat contradictory perhaps as it was Margaret Thatcher who told us there was no such thing as society.

I certainly would not argue that an ‘aspirational’ society would be detrimental to someone’s psychological processing, however we need to consider what we were told to aspire to – things. Things are incredibly important to us these days and the words of Oscar Wilde of 100 odd years ago never ring more true today ‘we know the price of everything and the value of nothing’. Very often we end up loving the things we have and using the people we know. If we look at some of the main components of capitalism, we start to see potentially serious psychological structuring issues.  Free market enterprise and capitalism often do not promote efficiency or abundance, but rather they instead encourage artificial creation of scarcity to maximize profits, encourage suboptimal technological development in order to maintain cyclical consumption and put the interest of people second to monetary gain. Capitalism is a zero sum game, where in order to win you have to be better than everyone else because there isn’t enough to go round. This idea can feed into western social problems where ‘failure’ creates a sense of inadequacy, and being born at a socio economic disadvantage creates a feeling of inferiority.

Capitalism as an ideology perhaps owes it success to one of the few universal norms of human behaviour. The one constant force we all share is desire. It propels us to acquire our most basic needs and wants, such as food and to be safe, to wanting the new Samsung Galaxy android phone. We constantly desire something, and when capitalist marketing strategies tell us what to desire, we expect to be fulfilled once we have acquired it.

However in my practice, I work with extremely wealthy clients who have everything they could desire. I also have clients who would not be considered wealthy. On psychological wellbeing measures they score almost identically. Neither is more or less happy than the other. There is plenty of research to support my personal findings, lottery winners have been found to be no happier than before their win and successful Olympians are remarkably prone to depression after sporting success.

The internal dialogue we have with ourselves where we expect or ask ourselves why we aren’t getting the things we want, whether it be from inanimate objects or our relationships with others, can manifest itself as psychological problems when we view not having certain things as the reason for being unhappy. Obtaining the things that we want and being successful is great. It also goes a long way to changing your living situation. But it can’t change you. After the initial surge of happiness we can eventually become dissatisfied with our new situation, or the new situation presents us with a whole new list of problems.

In a sense, it appears our capitalist attitude towards money and possessions can make us unhappy. It can cultivate core beliefs about not being good enough, being a failure, feeling inferior and worthless and even that we are unlovable. These types of internal beliefs can lead to anxiety and a heap of unhappiness. Please do not get me wrong, I am not against financial success and certainly strive for this myself but for me success is also defined in other ways.

I guess what I am suggesting is that you should not allow the side effects of capitalism to get you criticising yourself and comparing yourself  unfavourably with others. Feeling negatively about oneself certainly does not promote motivation for you to chase your dreams. The best way for most of us to achieve is to set very personal goals and not to measure all our success on possessions and how much we earn. So, what I am getting at is: be aware that the structure of our society can lead to self-critical rumination and self-doubt.  If you are able to look past this it is more likely that you’ll be happier. And when we are not criticising ourselves it is more likely that we’ll reach for and achieve what success means for each of us personally.