Every Tuesday afternoon I disappear from the office for a couple of hours to meet my therapist. I’ve been doing this for over a year now, attending 50 minute sessions at PF Counselling in Edinburgh. I resolved to beat depression without drugs years ago and this therapy is part of the solution. As a major stakeholder in this investment of time and money, I can only benefit at the times I take on board what my therapist and I talk about. The result: a more mature, happier, balanced individual. Well, that’s the plan.
Today, for example, we got on to talking about my ‘frame of reference’. As I understand it, one’s frame of reference is your collection of experiences, opinions, rules and so on. It is the lens through which you look at the world on a day-to-day basis. It is also what you are comfortable with and you draw from it to ‘frame’, so to speak, your interactions with others. It is your comfort zone. So when you step outside your comfort zone (sound familiar now?), you encounter “everything else”, as my therapist put it.
This idea was used to explore how I might overcome my strong perfectionist streak, my intense fear of failure, and the associated terror of being shamed and mocked for getting things wrong. Seeing this in writing makes me realise how logically ridiculous these feelings are, but somewhere down the line they’ve gotten into who I am and are now part of my frame of reference.
So how do I fix this? To do so, I need to step outside the frame and venture into “everything else”; I need to move out of my comfort zone. As anyone knows, this can be quite a challenge! It may require a fundamental challenge to deeply-held core beliefs (i.e. I’m shit, useless and worthless), which could anger, shock, sadden…or elate, strengthen, comfort. So, I need to challenge myself. I need to do something, or things, which might show me that I don’t need to be a perfectionist to enjoy what I do, for example. But gosh, it’s hard.
It was a bit of a coincidence that we talked about the frame of reference thing in my session today because I’d already been thinking about open-mindedness and belief-challenging earlier in the day. Recently at work, a number of postgraduate students have abused the resources granted to them to air their strong opinions to a large group of researchers, peers and industry. In one case, having spent several weeks pulling together resources for my fellow researchers, the abuse of this felt tantamount to a personal attack.
Today, a similar issue reared up, but from someone else perhaps emboldened by earlier actions of others. While contrite about the actions they’d chosen, these people still hold a fundamental set of beliefs. And despite what they say, it appears that they won’t allow themselves to be challenged on them.
They are idealists. Their world is black and white. They’re right and their perceived enemies are wrong. Only they have the answer. Action now, immediately, fundamental change, no compromise… And frankly, I can sympathise. In my world of depression, where perfectionism and getting it ‘right’ are the rules which operate in my frame of reference, then things are black and white for me: I get it right and I’m happy, or I get it wrong and I’m miserable. Only I can solve my problems. I can’t compromise, why should I? Etc., etc., etc… But, of course, this is not a helpful way of thinking. It is inward looking and not receptive to change or challenge.
Getting back to the issues at work, the people I’ve been referring to were given a golden opportunity to engage with their enemies, at no monetary or professional cost to themselves. An opportunity to air their opinions in an appropriate and valid forum; an opportunity to meet and discuss; an opportunity to berate or cajole; but most importantly, an opportunity to open their minds, to step out of their frames of reference and be challenged on their ideals. And to see the grey area between black and white.
To outright criticise and dismiss this opportunity upsets and frightens me, because these are people are supposed to be at the top of their game with respect to education. Ranked 21st in the world from 874 institutions, one would think that Edinburgh University postgraduates at this level have the skills to critically assess the arguments on all sides of a debate. Right? I mean, if you only consume that which only reinforces your beliefs, how can you adequately defend your position? What right have you to criticise others and draw conclusions on how the World works with only half (or less) of the information to hand?
Now wait a minute… am I not being a total hypocrite here? Isn’t this the exact same thing which I need to learn to do to overcome depression? I can’t criticise people for not being receptive to change or challenge when I’m not doing it either. So really, I share a common goal with those who have upset me: we need to look outside of our frames of reference and challenge our thoughts and views. Dammit, if I can do it, they can do it too.