Simon Stuart: Bozos, forward together!

We can’t fight away our flaws, so what can we achieve if we take a more compassionate stance towards ourselves? Clinical psychologist Dr Simon Stuart takes a look

SHOULD, must, need to: whenever I find myself using these words, I gently try to remind myself that I’ve probably got stuck. 

Albert Ellis, a rather more eminent psychologist, had a nice turn of phrase for this, and it was what came to mind when I read Robin McAlpine’s eloquent, heartfelt article for CommonSpace, 'To end the violence we must change ourselves'.

"We must learn NOT to accept ourselves as we are," Robin wrote, "but fight ourselves to be better, kinder, more patient, less angry". An understandable and indeed admirable sentiment – but, I’d argue, a completely unworkable suggestion. Fight ourselves to be less angry? How’s that going to pan out?

I’d argue that too many of us are caught up trying to follow dreams and desires which aren’t actually what matter to us at all, to the extent that we make ourselves unhappy trying to pursue happiness.

Much of what I do therapeutically is rooted in the idea of acceptance. I’ll happily admit that’s a problematic word to describe a complex concept, so let me be clear about what acceptance is not: it isn’t giving up, giving in, shrugging, rolling over, or opting out.

Instead, it’s about opening up. It’s about exploring ways by which we might make room for difficult, intolerable or seemingly overwhelming experiences, in order to free ourselves up from fruitless struggle and begin to live more meaningful, vital lives.

Now, a more meaningful life is not the same as "follow your dreams" or "do what you feel is good". Indeed, I’d argue that too many of us are caught up trying to follow dreams and desires which aren’t actually what matter to us at all, to the extent that we make ourselves unhappy trying to pursue happiness.

This isn’t necessarily straightforward. However, at its very simplest it’s about saying: am I truly moving towards where I want to be, or am I moving away from what I don’t want?

And most of us, sadly, spend much of our time doing the latter. Think for a moment about all the unwanted thoughts that show up when we engage politically: I don’t want to be weak, powerless, humiliated, criticised! I don’t want to be wrong! I don’t want to be like that person there! So instead I should, I must, I need to ... what?

Once we realise we’re all on that bus together – all of us, with all our flaws – that’s when we can start making the ride matter. And that’s not by fighting, but by pulling together.

Push it away! Get rid of the bad stuff! Deal with that person being wrong on Twitter! Get rid of the rage I feel watching Question Time! Shout about it! And then, then I’ll get on with what matters.

Except, of course, we seldom do. Instead we get caught up in ever-decreasing circles of fighting and blame, losing sight of what mattered in the first place. And, of course, when we’re not fighting and blaming others, we’re fighting and blaming ourselves: why haven’t we succeeded? Why haven’t we changed the world?

I don’t know Robin McAlpine, but I’m going to hazard a guess that – with him being human and all – he’s flawed. Great! So am I. So are you. Every single one of us is – and I mean this with love and kindness – a bozo on the bus.

But once we realise we’re all on that bus together – all of us, with all our flaws – that’s when we can start making the ride matter. And that’s not by fighting, but by pulling together.

One of my core clinical interests right now is compassion, which research shows to be an enormously important concept in good mental health and resilience. As with everything, compassion involves relationships with others but also, importantly, our relationships with ourselves.

Might we move forward with our flaws, rather than furiously trying to fight them every step of the way?

What’s more, research suggests compassion is as much about courage as it is kindness. So if we can find the courage, the willingness, to accept ourselves – to hold our bozo-ness lightly; perhaps even lovingly to embrace it – might that mean we can learn to move forward despite our flaws? 

Might we move forward with our flaws, rather than furiously trying to fight them every step of the way?

And if we can do that, perhaps we can start to pay more attention to what we’re doing and where we’re going, rather than where we desperately don’t want to be.

There are parallels here for everyone who has an interest in progressive politics. Whoever we are, we want to be right, to be certain – not to be like 'them', whoever they are. But of course we are: they’re bozos, and so are we.

And there is more that binds us than divides us, still. Look at the help and hope that followed the horror in Manchester. Human beings are capable of barbarity, but we are equally capable of beautiful things.

With all this in mind, when we vote, might we ask ourselves: are we voting for something we truly believe in, or against something we dislike, perhaps because of old loyalties or firmly held beliefs?

There is a deeper point amid this about our unhelpful ideas of 'self', and I hope to come back to that another time. If you want to know a little more, this is a good place to begin. In the meantime, I will simply suggest that what we do is ultimately far more meaningful than who we perceive ourselves to be.

With all this in mind, when we vote, might we ask ourselves: are we voting for something we truly believe in, or against something we dislike, perhaps because of old loyalties or firmly held beliefs? In such a polarised party system, that might feel like a very subtle difference.

But if we can hold more compassionately our shoulds and musts and need-tos, and make contact instead with what truly matters to us, deep in our hearts, perhaps that’s how we progress. 

Perhaps that’s how we move forward together, and take the bus somewhere new.

Dr Simon Stuart is a bozo, a clinical psychologist and a chartered psychologist, with a core interest in social empowerment.

Picture courtesy of TikTak Images

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