Let it go

The virus-which-shall-not-be-named is a most tempting topic for a blog. Although I am tempted, I am looking for something we all may have in common in our current experience, rather than squarely at the culprit. And I think I may have found it.

Imagine your child with an ice cream in hand. They are perhaps smiling and cherishing the thought of it. As they lift it to their mouth, you notice the blob shifting. Then, oh dear, it slips and falls to the pavement with a sloppy splat. Even with the enhanced cleanliness of Singapore’s constantly mopped pavements, I doubt it can be licked off. You may even have to stop them trying. So in the end, there it will sit, shrinking away like the Wicked Witch of the West. Oh, what a world.

What your child then experiences is a sense of loss, a sensation of having something taken away, something they liked. As well as the thing itself, it was the hope and the joy that was stolen, the associated experience. And though that experience took place in the outside world, it was also an internal loss. To mourn this loss – any loss – is a process, one which Freud (1917) long ago described as letting go of the individual memories, one by one. It is painful, but also part of development and our common humanity. It is necessary for recovery and the development of resilience. Kessler (2019) a century later, similarly sketched out a process of grief, noting how people move through stages which end with making meaning.

There perhaps is where your role as a parent comes in. Freud, and many since, also pointed out that there is a difference between this process of ordinary mourning and one which he called ‘melancholia’, what we would now call depression. In this state, it is less clear what is felt to be lost and the feeling becomes more personal – to paraphras in e Freud, a feeling that they themselves are poorer and emptier ( Freud, 1917 P.45). This loss of self-regard or esteem, or a growth of self-reproach in your child would be greater cause for concern. But it may not be immediately apparent, or distinguishable without some exploration.

So if you feel that your child is down, perhaps think with them about what they may be feeling sad about. They may need help in articulating the things they have lost, as well as the associated feelings. You do not need a psychology doctorate to do this. In fact, your own expertise as their parent will serve you well. Perhaps the main thing to consider is how much room to give them to explore, and how much to hold their hand while they do so. While listening and thinking out loud with them, you will help them to share their feelings, as well as be their company. Having feelings thought about with someone trusted is the essence of the therapeutic role but the heart of a parental role. And if you decide they, or you, may need some further support, you will do so with insight and a feeling of partnership in your next step.   

Freud, S. (1917 (1915)) ‘Mourning and Melancholia’’, in Freud, S. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 14: 1914-1916. On the History of the Post Psycho-analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works. London: Hogarth Press, 1958, pp.237-258.
Kessler, D (2019) Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. Simon and Schuster, Scribner Imprint, New York.

Written by:
Robert Leveson
Psychotherapist & Counsellor,
Children and Families (Reg; TSP, BPC)


Is wearing masks getting in the way of social interactions?

Wearing a mask is becoming the new norm of the post-coronavirus society. With what consequences on our social interactions and our understanding of others?

Prof Ursula Hess, facial expression and emotion researcher, provide some answers based on her research in an interview conducted by Stella Marie Hombach.

In her research, Prof Ursula Hess observed that recognizing emotional expressions is no worse when our mouth and nose are covered. Thanks to our multitude of facial muscles involved in facial expression, the observation of the eyes area is generally enough to recognize someone’s feelings. Only fear and surprise caused confusion as we usually rely on the way the mouth is open to differentiate both emotions.  

Indeed, the eyes are a powerful vector of expression, but, being sad, scared, angry, or happy is also expressed by the way we speak and move. We are feeling and carrying our emotions with our whole body. Our attitude, gestures, rhythm and modulation of our voice are enough clues for the observer and listener to understand our emotional state. 

In her research, Prof Ursula Hess observed that covering mouth and nose does not seem to prevent social mimicry, which is when we naturally mirror the other’s behavior. This makes us feel closer and judge the interaction more positive. In the study, participants imitated the smile of another person even when this smile was hidden.

Children of primary school age are barely less able than adults to recognize emotions. However, for toddlers, seeing faces that look different, disrupts their bearings and can, therefore, be stressful. Parents can familiarize their children with the mask in a playful way, for example, by placing it in front of their face for a short time, then removing it again. Toddlers learn quickly and get used to the new situation.

Prof Ursula Hess suggests that wearing a mask as a sign of solidarity and as an expression of mutual consideration for others, can bring us together and create a sense of community.

Article based on an interview by Stella Marie Hombach in Scientific American’s German-language sister publication Spektrum der Wissenschaft.

Prof Ursula Hess is a facial expression and emotion researcher, deputy dean for international affairs at the faculty of life sciences at Humboldt University of Berlin.

To read the full article in English: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/from-behind-the-coronavirus-mask-an-unseen-smile-can-still-be-heard/

To read the full article in French: https://www.cerveauetpsycho.fr/sr/entretien/coronavirus-comment-voir-les-emotions-derriere-les-masques-19573.php

Written by:
Lucie Ramet

Clinical Psychologist

Life is NOT black and white

Black and white thinking (also dichotomous thinking) is our tendency to look at the world in terms of “all or nothing.” We either find things to be “good” or “bad,” “beautiful” or “ugly,” “easy” or “hard,” “happy” or “sad.”
Black and white thinking might feel reassuring, at least in the beginning, but when pursuing this thinking we don’t acknowledge all the grey areas in life. The things we can’t fit into a box. Life’s paradoxes. Unknowns. The stuff that’s difficult to put into words. Instead, this illusion that we have all the answers to life when we really don’t, it limits possibilities and holds us back. And when we engage in this type of thinking, it can actually cause a lot of unnecessary unhappiness and problems in our life. It will ruin
important relationships and it will, eventually, isolate us.
Sometimes new information and new experiences tell us we need to adjust those lines we draw. And without this open-mindedness, we will always be trapped within those same limitations.

Thus, black-and-white thinking is a ‘cognitive distortion’: one of the many biases that can obscure our ability to judge and make good decisions. And when we erase possible choices, it becomes easy to feel angry or impotent, or maybe both at the same time.
This rigid way of thinking precludes creative solutions. The judgments are
unquestionable and the right path is one and only one, there is no room for the exploration of any new or better alternative. This type of thinking inhibits problem solving and makes life constricting, which may further exacerbate depression. What is wrong will become irreparable, what is ugly will become monstrous, what is scary will become terrifying, what is negative will become catastrophic.
There are a number of techniques which may help reduce and, eventually, eliminate black and white thinking:

Re-Frame Your Thoughts: try to give yourself the luxury of a few moments of time to take a deep breath and gently challenge your negative thoughts, actions or words.
Say goodbye to ‘never’ and ‘every’ and absolutistic definitions.
Ask yourself:
Is there evidence that supports my thoughts?
Am I considering all angles or am I leaving things out?
Does everyone else see it this way?

You CAN start to realize when you are giving-in to black and white thinking, and then make the choice to avoid those extreme cognitions in favor of healthier ones.
Give yourself time and lots of practice identifying and eliminating negative self-talk and seek support from others who can help or talk to a professional and enjoy the rich spectrum of the opportunities that life presents to you.


Written By:
Laura Spalvieri
Counsellor, Psychotherapist & Transactional Analyst

Narrating the new normal

As we begin to have restrictions eased throughout Singapore and the Circuit Breaker slowly winds down, we all are waiting anxiously for our lives to return to normal.  Yet all around, we hear the phrase, “the new normal.”  As I have been contemplating my own integration back into a regular routine that allows me to leave my home, I wonder about stepping into the new normal and how that can be done so with intention.  

What can we take from our recent experiences that will allow for a more purposeful, intentional life?  What can we take from our collective contraction?  What can we leave behind as we move forward into a new expansion? How do we continue to evolve so that a more positive and heartfelt experience can emerge from this global blow to humanity?

In order to really feel as though we have grown and developed from our experience during this pandemic, it seems essential to build a new narrative for ourselves; one that incorporates and honors our individual experiences during this time, one that recognizes the benefit in our personal and collective experiences, one that allows us to continue to engage in those things that provided us benefit and have kept us going through this time of crisis.

While many people have had experiences of isolation, anxiety, sadness, anger or boredom during the circuit breaker, it is important to look at how those emotions may be seen as having molded or shaped us for the better.  What positive can we gain from experiencing these negative emotions?  In experiencing the positive side of emotional challenges we need to feel them, not resist them.  Undesirable emotions have an evolutionary aspect as well as an ability to provide insights and thus they do have something to teach us.   One way in which to begin to shift our perspective on our negative emotional states is to write a gratitude letter to that emotion for what it has provided us, if the feeling is isolation, perhaps it has given you a greater ability to listen to internal thoughts, perhaps it has given you a new appreciation for your family, maybe being isolated has taught you a new skill.  In any case, being able to examine and be with our challenges can be a great tool to assist us in creating a narrative of our time that holds value.  

Another aspect of taking value and creating a story that holds richness is how we take new positive experiences with us into the new normal. During this circuit breaker, some of us have had increased time with family, more time to read and incorporate creativity into our lives through painting, writing, learning a new skill or hobby. Or we have been able to increase our physical health with at home workouts.  Once we begin to go back out into the world, ensuring time to continue these activities can be essential to build a new narrative of living life with intention.   Plan your week and “pay” yourself first.  If you have enjoyed game night with your family, put that in the calendar, block time for your workouts, even time to read or paint should be included in your schedule; whatever refuels us needs import. These activities have kept us sane, and grounded when things felt unknown and because of the value, keeping these pastimes is a way to ensure that our story is grounded in an appreciation for how this global pause has stretched us.  

In all of the things that we have gone through collectively, it is important to remember that our journey is not an isolated one, our story has a cast of characters that include our friends, family as well as all of those individuals affected by this pandemic (and we have all been affected).  With that in mind, the recreation of our narrative should include honoring and finding appreciation for those people in our life. Include them, use them to process those challenging emotions, include them as part of your “payment” to yourself.  The way to move forward and ensure that our new narrative is intentional and lasting is to have support in our new normal to support others in theirs.

Written by: 
Kimberly Fisel
Marriage and Family Therapist