Superheroes

20 12 2011

The last time I did some management training, three weeks ago, I remember thinking at the end of the first day, “This isn’t so bad. In fact it’s brilliant. Why would I ever want to give it up?”

Then I woke up at 4 a.m., with the usual adrenaline hangover, and spent the next three hours remembering all the reasons why I need to stop doing this kind of work. The following week I quit my company.

One of the things that enabled me to do this was that I have found some work teaching English in a company, which is giving me a) an income and b) some structure to my days.

Work causes/ prevents depression

Work, both consulting and teaching, has been a brilliant way of staving off depression, although it hasn’t prevented me from getting unhappy and burned out. Work is like a super anti-depressant, that keeps me cheerful and functioning, even while my life becomes an unsustainable nightmare.

Since deciding to quit my company I’ve been carefully monitoring my moods, looking out for any sudden surges in either very good or very bad feelings. I have had two episodes of feeling very bad, of feeling out of my mind recently:

  • the day before going to Paris and quitting my company
  • when I spoke to my sister on the phone about how long she’s intending to stay with me over the Christmas holidays (6 days).

Out of my mind

When I feel out of my mind, I feel like my attention, which seems to be controlled by some kind of sphincter muscle, has been reduced to a pin-prick. If attention is like oxygen, then I am having a mental asthma attack. I barely have enough attention to remain upright, and all I want to do is lie down on the sofa and watch TV series until it passes.

It’s very hard to function in this state. The day before I went to Paris it required a supreme effort to focus my remaining attention on my students, with all the distress signals clamouring around my head. I could see myself saying and doing stupid things, telling inappropriate stories (how my sister’s ex stuck it to the man the day after he resigned from his job), being insensitive to my students (e.g. today’s topic: “managing change”, in a company that’s about to be restructured). I felt beside myself. I felt like a helpless observer, a parent of an out-of-control adolescent. I could see that something was wrong, but was powerless to do anything about it.

This reminds me of a recent conversation with my mother, in which she was denying that she’s an anxious person. She doesn’t seem to know how she’s feeling, but she exudes anxiety from every pore. It’s in her voice, her posture,  in everything she says and does. I think I am like this as well, sometimes. It’s like we have some sort of emotional leprosy in my family, a loss of sensitivity, of feeling, a pervasive numbness that ultimately causes you to accidentally burn or hack bits off yourself. It’s unsightly and contagious, and causes people to people shun you.

The equivalent of an inhaler in this situation is to make me laugh, or reassure me, make me feel safe, which isn’t easy. The other day, after I got off the phone with my sister, my significant other, M,  got me back into myself, (sufficiently to book a hotel room for my sister, which should reduce the stress for all of us), by finding an episode of “Christmas with Jamie Oliver” on the iPad. Anything with Jamie Oliver, who I worship, makes me feel like the world is a warm, friendly place.

Superheroes

Superhero: The Vicar of Dibley

There’s a technique called Superheroes which involves conjuring up inner resources by thinking about people you admire. You identify your heroes, living or dead, real or fictional, and list what you admire about each of them. This should remind you that the world is not entirely a cold, hostile place, in which everyone is doomed.

For example, I admire Jamie Oliver tremendously, not for his cooking, which features too much butter and bacon for my tastes, but for his attitude: his boundless and infectious enthusiam for whatever he turns his attention to, and his incredible perseverance in the face of the many, apparently immovable obstacles he encouters in his mission to change the way people eat.

Apart from Jamie Oliver, other examples of ‘heroes’ that help restore my faith in human nature are The Vicar of Dibley, French & Saunders, Scott Adams, Charles Schultz, Heather Armstrong of Dooce, whose mommy blog I follow, not because I feel any kind of affinity with her seemingly perfect life, but because she writes movingly and amusingly about her struggles with depression. I notice that my heroes are comedians, cartoonists, chefs and mommy bloggers, who probably wouldn’t feature on most people’s top 10 most inspiring people in the world. Hero worship is a personal thing, and you need to identify who really gives you that warm feeling.

Superheroes: French & Saunders

If you’re trying to tackle a specific problem, then you need to proceed to the second part of the exercise, which is to ask yourself “What would [superhero] do?” This can give you a surprising number of new ideas and insights into your situation. A good example of someone using this technique is James Altucher listing in this post all the things he’s learned from Charles Shultz.

You can get also use anti-heroes that you don’t admire at all. I have done this exercise using Michael O’Leary, the CEO of Ryanair, a company I loathe with every fibre of my being. Using anti-heroes forces you to adopt a point of view which, by definition, is not your own, which will automatically produce new ideas and insights about your situation.

The original Superheroes technique gets you to use actual superheroes, Superman, Spiderman, etc., but I’ve found this doesn’t work too well with the Italians or French, who grew up reading very different kinds of comic. Also, hero-worshipping doesn’t seem to be part of Italian or French cultures. My French and Italian trainees often find it difficult to come up with people they admire.  This is what happens when I use this technique with French or Italians:

French or Italian trainee: “I don’t admire anyone.”

Me: “Oh, come on. There must be someone you admire.”

French or Italian trainee: “…”

Me: “What about, I don’t know, Steve Jobs? You’re a fan of Apple products.”

French or Italian trainee: “Steve Jobs is arrogant. I don’t admire him. I admire Apple products.”

Me: “Ok. What about Gandhi? Mother Teresa? Are they arrogant?”

French or Italian trainee: “… No …”

Me: “So, do you admire Gandhi? Mother Teresa?”

French or Italian trainee: “ … Ok. The person I admire is my mother.”

I swear I have had this exact conversation on 10 different occasions.


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