Lessons in intimacy: Over-ride your factory settings

A few weeks ago Surviving Work was talking a conference in Wales for people interested in mental health. Risk, resilience and the recession. This may not sound like a chuckle but for those of us working in mental health it promised to be a huge relief to look honestly at how to survive the systemic bullying that has set up home in the UK’s mental health services.

I got to the venue with its calming panoramic views of the sea and immediately felt my soul being sucked out through my nose. I was sharing a platform with the Buddhists, a group of jolly nuns talking about the power of meditation and mindfulness.

Buddhism is big in the Vale of Clwyd, and like many religious groups since 2008, they provide much needed social services in the area. People really like them so in a not-entirely grown up move I went and locked myself in the lavs. Breath you bastard, breath.

How to say this without sounding like a total arse.

Probably the most vicious criticism Surviving Work has had over the years has come from Buddhists. Psychoanalytic efforts are not generally met with a warm hug and a thank you but even A4E and Randstad’s communications look like Christmas Cards in comparison. Yup, long angry emails, stinging stuff about the dangers of encouraging people to feel their anger and the neurological benefits of learning how to CALM DOWN, particularly in my case.

I am of the paranoid persuasion. My factory settings start with a profound sense of not being wanted and a conviction that other people organically will be, eventually, repelled by me. This has led to a lot of flight and being very busy and, by 2008, the complete inability to sit still with my own thoughts. I’m begging you, don’t leave me alone in a room with myself.

This psychic default position is actually not uncommon, a reality that many of us successfully cover up by being useful, charming or high achievers. But when we’re up against it this capacity to walk away from an existential crisis becomes harder and many of us are looking for ways of holding ourselves together.

One model is to try to transcend these realities, part of the seduction of mindfulness. Because of my lack of faith in a benevolent universe I had to go at meditation with a fury.  It took me three 10 day silent retreats during a period of immense psychological pain, what I call my Tenko period, to successfully meditate.  

At the last retreat my job was to clean the lavs at which point I learned that the regime of 4am starts and one meal a day will attract 200 women with eating disorders. On New Year’s day I sneaked out of the locked compound for a walk and felt something trapped in the lining of my coat. A chocolate coin. My immediate reaction was to check that nobody was about to steal it and stuff it into my gob with the paper on.  Turns out that I was trying to transcend other people.

One of the problems with work is that we can’t avoid the bump and grind of trying to get along with other people. Against all our instincts, when things get tough we actually need to rely on people. Be intimate in the sense of showing people that something is wrong and asking for their help. Mindfullness might be a technique to stop us punching our colleagues but it doesn’t  change the nature of the problem that in order to survive work you have to stay in it, with all its blood and guts.

So, back in Llandudno the universe threw me a psychic opportunity for growth as the Buddhists came and sat down next to me at lunch. As the irony of angry shaven heads rolls over me I find my hand squeezing my fork defensively and experience deep feelings of shame. Please, I beg myself, stop being so hostile to the nuns. So an attempt was made to talk about the benevolent universe and this is what my sweaty soul came up with.

Accept indifference.

Accept that 99% of the time the people we work with are indifferent to our suffering. That doesn’t make them bad people and it doesn’t mean they hate us, just that the world of work is rammed with people filled to the brim with stress and paranoia politely defending themselves through indifference.

For the paranoid amongst us this is actually a huge relief, a starting point which doesn’t discount the possibility that a request for help might be received well and responded to rather than jumped on greedily as a way of getting you the sack.

So my third lesson in workplace intimacy is to over-ride our cave-dwelling psychic factory settings, and start each day with the comforting thought that the people you work with are totally indifferent.

It’s from that position that we can work upwards towards genuine respect, fondness and intimacy.