The new book by Delphi Ellis, Answers in the Dark: Grief, Sleep and How Dreams Can Help You Heal is now available to order on Amazon.
The 4am Mystery: that’s an actual thing by the way. Even before a global health crisis took the shape of COVID-19, people around the world were finding themselves sleep deprived, awake in the middle of the night.
You might be someone who says, no matter what you do, you just can’t sleep. Sometimes you know why: your thoughts are racing, or a nightmare has startled you into consciousness. Other nights you might toss and turn and, just as you finally doze off, the alarm blares.
This book was written for you.
It explores why you’re awake, how you can manage your mind at night, and what might help if it’s your dream content wreaking havoc.
Drawing on nearly two decades of therapeutic work, research, and an ancient wisdom proven to helpfully manage the mind, Delphi connects the dots between sleep, dreams and our mental health. She particularly highlights the impact of grief and loss on our well-being, which can ultimately affect the quality of our night-time rest – even if no one has died. Her book guides the reader on a journey to make friends with night-time, learning what the dark might have to offer, to achieve a calmer, healthier, happier life.
I have a special interest in dreams and sleep, appearing on TV shows like Loose Women and ITV’s This Morning. (You can find out more about this further down the page).
I started my therapeutic career in 2002, where I supported those bereaved by murder and suicide, including attending inquests at coroner’s court. I now work in the community promoting well-being maintenance and recovery, through 1-1 sessions and group events.
I also work for a charity in my spare time, managing volunteers who provide a unique transport service for cancer patients, which won the Queens Award for Voluntary Service in 2014.
Pregnancy Mental Health
In 2004, I established a unique website and peer support group dedicated to Pregnancy Mental Health, following my own experience of ante-natal depression and anxiety.
As a result, I have featured in several popular magazines on this topic, including Pregnancy and Birth and Natural Health magazines, and featured on radio programmes like Radio 4’s Women’s Hour. (You can see a full list of tv and media appearances below).
I am a community ambassador raising awareness of signs and prevention of domestic abuse. If you or someone you know may be affected there is a list of useful links on my services websitehere.
Qualifications and Training
My qualifications and training include Therapeutic Counselling, Delivering Adult Learning, Support for Insomnia, Positive Psychology, Pain Management, Mental Health First Aid (and Psychological First Aid for Pandemics), and Mindfulness.
I have also received training with the National Homicide Service, Victim Support, and Women’s Aid. I am accredited to work with victims of crime, including those escaping domestic abuse.
TV and Media Career
I have enjoyed a TV and media career talking about the subjects I am passionate about, including dreams and healthy sleep. You can view an expanded list of media appearances below:
BBC Radio: BBC Radio 2, BBC Radio 1 Xtra, BBC WM, BBC Shropshire, BBC Coventry, BBC Three Counties, BBC Radio 6 with George Lamb, BBC Suffolk Breakfast Show, BBC Radio Cambridgeshire Drive Time, BBC Radio Leeds Drive Time, BBC Tees, BBC Radio Shropshire, BBC Radio Scotland, BBC Radio 4, Woman’s Hour, BBC London with Sunny & Shay and on the Eddie Nestor show, Talk Sport, Beacon Radio, Hallam FM, Original 106 FM, Gemini FM, WLR FM, XFM, The Psychic Show (LBC 97.3), My Spirit Radio, Bridge Radio, Red FM
Loose Women, ITV’s This Morning, DayBreak (Presenter of The Guide to Sleep), , GMTV, The Wright Stuff, LK Today (Lorraine), Consultant to SO Television for My Lovely Audience (Graham Norton), Psychic TV
Featured work –
Natural Health, In Style Magazine, Glamour Magazine, Daily Express, Practical Parenting & Pregnancy Magazine, Soul & Spirit magazine, Huffington Post, Guardian (G2), Sunday Express, Pregnancy, Baby & You, Daily Express, Daily Telegraph, Pregnancy & Birth magazine, Prima Baby magazine, Practical Parenting, Columnist for Spirit & Destiny Magazine, Contributor to Talk Mum, Contributor to Silent Voices, Columnist for Spirit Force Magazine, Mens Health magazine
Dreams Bed Company, Maybelline New York, Sky + HD (article featured in Daily Telegraph), Johnson’s Beauty: Dreamy Skin, Snow Leopard Trust
Volunteer of the Year Cohesion Award for services to the community;
Nomination: “Women Who Keep Bedfordshire Safer”;
Regional Finalist for the Health and Social Care Awards for Mental Health and Wellbeing;
Spiritual Connextions Awards for Best Service to Others
As well as dreams and sleep, I have a keen interest in Buddhist psychology including mindfulness and have followed a Buddhist way of life since around 2009, most recently in the Theravada tradition. This means I hold a positive intention to be of service to others, bringing into my work, where appropriate, an intelligent philosophy which focuses on intentional living.
If you would like a dream interpreted, this is now a paid-for service – click here for details. To send an enquiry about services, click here.
You might also like:
Monday Mojo™ – A weekly email containing feel-good motivation for the week ahead. Sign up here.
With Delphi’s help, I have a new perspective on life and the strength to face new and challenging things in a positive way.” B.
⚠️ Note to reader: this article discusses challenging topics including male violence. If you are affected by any of the issues discussed here you may find these links useful.
I make no secret of the fact I’ve been subjected to male violence.
In recent years, I’ve talked about this more openly, also mentioning it briefly in my book Answers In the Dark and the significant impact it had on me.
In the last couple of years, I’ve spoken specifically about why we need to have this conversation and expanded my research to look at the harms of male supre macy. I’ve talked about why we need change that lasts, encouraging meaningful dialogue in our communities – which includes our workplaces – to help create a safer world. It hasn’t always been easy; there is a natural resistance to change, but more so among those driven by power, dominance and control, and who benefit from the privilege their current comfort zones maintain. This has particularly shown up on social media.
The good news is, most people I speak with acknowledge we need this harm to end – because it affects all of us, including men. However, there is an obvious need for insight or awareness on the topic, like how it starts – which is long before we think it does – what it looks like and what we might try to help it stop.
If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know I’ve been trying to have this conversation for a long time. You’ll know that I’ve written thread after thread with my thoughts on this (as well as blogs on my own website), particularly around misogyny and what this can look like, and I decided to bring it all together under “one roof”.
If We Act is an anti-violence ‘movement’ that promotes Collective Care and Upstandership, placing a particular focus on workplaces showing a social responsibility to end hate and harms in our community. The area I have chosen to focus on is specific to my training and lived experience of domestic abuse. If We Act aims to help inform conversations in order to address escalating hate, particularly towards women (hence the launch on International Women’s Day). It’s a call to action for a shift in awareness, to bring about meaningful change.
That’s not to say this harm only affects women; we know that men and non binary people are also affected by male violence and this is why If We Act is a movement that everyone can support if they care about peace, at work, at home and our wider communities. You can follow on social media (see buttons below) or read any number of articles I’ve written on the If We Act website about why I think this matters and what might help. You can also ‘pledge‘ (vote) for an act or intention you’ll make to support the movement (No money asked for or required).
There are of course many causes which are close to each of our hearts and this is just one that may resonate with some; it won’t be for everyone – it may well make some uncomfortable. I would encourage anyone to find healthy ways to channel what matters to them, in a way that’s constructive, healthy, meaningful – and safe – for us all. If We Act is the area I am choosing to focus on, based on my knowledge and experience, alongside helping people find their mojo and get their sparkle back after a difficult time in their lives – because I believe it’s all connected. For me, working to end male violence against women and girls/children (MVAWG/C) is now my life’s work.
Whichever path you take going forward, may it bring peace and a safer world for all of us.
⚠️ Note to the reader: This article contains references to trauma, triggers, domestic abuse and male violence, and may include some broad descriptions.Nightmares can be distressing for many; this blog in no way intends to minimise that. Treatment options mentioned won’t be right for everyone. Please reach out to local healthcare providers if you have any concerns about your health and well-being.
This morning, I woke from a nightmare.
This isn’t unusual; I’ve been having them for years. Some might (wrongly) think that as a qualified counsellor and having written a book that covers this topic, that I would be immune to that. But I’m not. Because (and as I cover in Answers In The Dark) this is normal. Let me explain.
I’ve been open about my experience of being subjected to male violence, particularly domestic abuse, and why I talk about it now, so it won’t come as a surprise to anyone who understands this landscape, that nightmares come as part of the trauma “package”.
One of the biggest misconceptions about trauma is that it’s like a broken bone that heals, as if after a while, and with a bit of self-care, you’re “over it”. But, just as when we’re grieving, that’s simply not the case. Anniversaries, movies, even the smell of aftershave can be enough to remind us of what’s gone before. Society’s false expectations of what it means to heal also don’t help, along with systemic failures (like long waiting times for treatment) that keep people suffering. That doesn’t mean we will necessarily be unable to function because of it; for many of us, whilst trauma can be life long, it isn’t always life limiting.
“Blips” are normal
Authentically speaking, well-being also doesn’t mean we never have “blips”; in fact they are to be expected. Life deals us curve balls all the time, and surviving trauma doesn’t mean we will never be triggered again. It’s an awareness, as Bessel van den Kolk says, that The Body Keeps The Score and there will be times when events take us back to places in our minds that were painful.
People worry these “setbacks” mean there’s something wrong with them but, despite what society may endorse, finding our way forward is not linear, with a ‘neat’ beginning and an end. The (false) notion that people in the helping profession should also be above that, as if we are never affected by life, is a myth. The idea no one will ever be triggered again is unhelpful; it’s a natural response to what we’ve been through.
It might mean there are times when we need to be kinder to ourselves, or take a step back for a while to find our way back to centre. To check coping strategies are healthy and if we need, ask for help (especially if those mechanisms are harming us in some way.) If we’re noting elevated or intense emotions, like feelings of anger for example, we might need to check what they’re really giving away. But setbacks don’t mean we are flawed or broken or ‘beyond help’. Not at all.
So if you find you have a “blip”, or a nightmare that surprises you, then that proves you are human, trying to navigate the labyrinth of ways the experiences you’ve been subjected to – through no fault of your own – have had an impact.
(Article continues below video).
Nightmares are subjective
Nightmares are also different for everyone. A nightmare to me, might not be for you. If you’re scared of dogs, a dream containing them can be terrifying, whereas to someone who loves them, it wouldn’t be a nightmare at all.
They can be loud, violent, or just unsettling. They’re not always gory (although those that are can be particularly distressing), they can relive past events which we feel like we can’t escape from, and they can be repetitive. This is why keeping a dream diary might be helpful, so that we can start to spot patterns in our dreaming; if we know what prompts them, we can prepare helpfully. (I don’t have nightmares as regularly as I used to, but they still arrive periodically; noting when I do has helped me understand why. (I offer a template along with some free resources (subject to availability) in my book).
Importantly, and as I explain in Answers In The Dark, like our dreams, nightmares can be trying to tell us something. Sometimes what we’re not dealing with during the day, can show up in our sleep at night. It might be a relationship breakdown, the pressure of work, or something less obvious: a news article prompts a difficult dream that gets our attention (that’s what happened in my case). They might even be telling us we’re overwhelmed and need a break.
Interestingly, even some forms of medication may prompt nightmares (or the events surrounding the reasons you’re taking them), so always have a chat with your healthcare team, if you think it could be that. Ironically sleep deprivation may also cause bad dreams, which is the kicker if your nightmares are the cause of that; the very definition of a vicious cycle. (I also offer a Sleep Cycle Repair Kit in the book). Where nightmares reference or replay lived experiences, as if they’re happening again, you might find other forms of treatment like EMDR of some benefit.
Over time, you might notice some nightmares become less intense and less troubling – dreams have been described as overnight therapy to help us work through difficult times – especially if we find ways to express them helpfully. (I talk in the book about how some people have used their dreams as inspiration for works of art including books and paintings). You might find when you wake up you’re less affected than you used to be, knowing this is normal and that they’re just trying to help. As you take time to explore them safely (or their pattern), at a pace that’s right for you, you may be able to work out why and what, if anything, you need to do about it.
Most importantly though, please remember that having nightmares doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you; on the contrary, it might mean your brain is working helpfully to try and process all you’ve been through. Sometimes you might need help with that, and that’s a choice for you to make if and when you’re ready. Ultimately though, take your time and do what’s healthy and right for you.
I am genuinely so sorry to be writing this. I know, for some reading, they may be holding on to a hope that if they just love someone the “right” way, they will change. It might sound pessimistic, even hopeless for me to say it (I don’t think it is) but that just won’t work.
I talk quite openly about the fact I have been subjected to domestic abuse, which took many forms. I even wrote about it briefly in my book, Answers In The Dark: Grief, Sleep and How Dreams Can Help You Heal and the significant impact it had on me, and I work hard in my spare time to facilitate change that lasts. I don’t hide my experience now, because I am not ashamed of it. It is not my shame to carry. Genuinely, there is nothing I could have done to prevent it.
Statistically, as I explain here, the likelihood of me ending up with a man who harmed was quite high. But I didn’t “seek him out”, it wasn’t “daddy issues” that drew me to him, it’s not that I’m “underprivileged” or just “a bit thick”; these are all false myths and stereotypes used to blame women for what violent men (in my case) do to them. Misogyny is prevalent. And the only person responsible for the harm caused is the harm doer.
I have also made it clear, as I did in this article for Tiny Buddha about grief and betrayal, that I do not see my experiences as a “lesson”. I did not need the trauma of what happened to me to be a “better person”; I was already good enough. Whilst I honestly understand why some people need to process it that way, that’s not how I choose to see it.
But I do want to talk about the trap we fall (or are coerced) into, when we are being harmed by another: that if we “just” love someone and please them enough, they will stop hurting us and change.
We seem to take responsibility for other’s behaviour (predominantly trying to keep them happy) even when they don’t take responsibility for their own, often I think because we’ve been socialised to carry that weight. And I’m not just talking about intimate relationships here; we might have been subjected to harm from a family member or even outside of a relationship, with a controlling and abusive boss at work.
It’s so important in these moments to recognise that you can’t love someone into loving you. They may tell you that you matter, whilst at the same time tricking you, through gaslighting and other coercive and controlling behaviours (all forms of violence), into believing that it’s you that’s flawed in some way.
But as bell hooks explains in All About Love, abuse and love cannot coexist. Whilst what the other may do might loosely and occasionally be described as “caring” when they choose to be, violence is never love.
So it wasn’t that you didn’t love them enough and please, please let me reassure you that it’s not because you are unloveable. It wasn’t that you were “too needy”, “over sensitive”, that you didn’t give them enough chances; just as it isn’t because they had been drinking or were “under a lot of pressure at work” when they were violent (I talk about “entitlement” dressed as anger here).
It wasn’t because you didn’t get their meal ready on time, or because the house was untidy, or the way you look. It wasn’t even, as the apologist mantra implies, that “hurt people hurt people”. You didn’t “make” them do it, and it wasn’t because someone else hadn’t loved them enough.
It was because somewhere in their shakyideology, they need to maintain power and control. They falsely – and harmfully – believe violence is their “right”. They lack the maturity and skills to handle the potential of rejection, so they try to control instead, using violence (of all kinds) to achieve it. Healthier skills do need to be taught, but no amount of “education” will help them if they’re not ready to relinquish that power.
They are not children. They have agency to choose to be different. And that’s on them, not you. When they are choosing not to change, that’s not your burden to carry.
Change is hard, but when people are ready they’ll find a way and do the work – they will take those steps. You letting go of that weight does not mean you’ve abandoned all hope, it means you’ve liberated yourself – rightfully – to make your safety and well-being a priority. And you’ve given them the gift of space (to seek help elsewhere) so they can choose to be different.
You can love everybody, but some you must love from a safe distance.
So I strongly believe you cannot love someone into loving you, if they don’t want to change and stop the harm they cause. The decision to stop controlling and hurting is theirs, and not because you didn’t love them the “right” way. Only they can decide to let go of the power and control they seek, but until then, if that’s what they have to offer, it isn’t love.
If you or someone you care about are affected by any of the issues here you may find this list of links useful. The Domestic Abuse Helpline in the U.K. is 0808 2000 247
In the days following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, it was no surprise that tens of thousands of people around the UK chose to pay their respects, including those that joined what became affectionately known as The Queue, to see our longest serving monarch lying-in-state. What was surprising for some, was the feeling of ‘unexpected grief’ described by those who didn’t identify as royalists at all.
In The Times, Kat Lay’s piece ran with the headline “Grief takes non-royalists by surprise” describing that “Even ardent republicans have reported becoming unexpectedly emotional after the news of the Queen’s death”.
The outpouring of grief will be familiar to those of us old enough to remember the sudden death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997. The displays of public emotion were seen around the world, despite millions of mourners acknowledging they’d never met her.
If you ask people where they were when they heard the news of a celebrity’s death, they may well be able to recall exactly what they were doing.
Albeit not with the same enormity or ceremony, when I deliver workshops on bereavement awareness, guests often acknowledge similar feelings when other well-known public figures died, like singer/song-writers Freddie Mercury, Prince and David Bowie. In fact, if you ask people where they were when they heard the news of a celebrity’s death (especially one they liked), they may well be able to recall exactly what they were doing.
So why is it that people feel the effects of the death of a person they’ve never met, and possibly one they may have no connection with at all? There could be a few reasons, here’s some suggestions:
1. Permission to grieve. On the death of a high profile figure, and especially when we see others mourning too, it may give us freedom to grieve for those we’ve loved and lost personally, especially if our grief had gone ‘underground’, resting underneath awareness. I explain in my book Answers In The Dark: Grief, Sleep and How Dreams Can Help You Heal, the number of losses we experience during our life can accumulate, especially if we’re not given permission to grieve at the time.
Disenfranchised grief is when parts of society don’t recognise our reason for grieving. This has already been seen across social media since the Queen’s death, with some deriding those paying their respects, or suggesting there are “more important” things to focus on, the implication being people should stop feeling what they feel. Whether we agree with their point or not, disenfranchised grief creates problems. It forces people to hide their sense of loss or it shows up in other ways, either internally as a physical illness – sometimes known as inhibited grief – or externally in unhealthy expressions of anger. All grief is valid, and allowing people to feel what they feel is healthier than them feeling forced to ignore it or express it in ways that don’t help anyone.
The loneliness of grief can be a devastating reality for many, particularly when they feel unheard or unseen in their pain, or when people say unhelpful things like “I know exactly how you feel”. Whilst we can share a common experience of grief, how it affects each of us individually can paradoxically be quite unique. We therefore do need to feel safe enough to feel what we feel.
2. Belonging. On that note, belonging and connection are important to us humans, so seeing other people feeling similar can help us feel like we’re not alone, and also like we’re part of something that matters. One man said he joined The Queue as an individual and left “with a family”. Many people also stated that this was an important moment that they may not see again in their lifetime, and so being part of that history meant something – they found that in itself emotional, and prompted a mixture of feelings. I explain in Answers in The Dark that grief can be all the emotions but also none of them (and, despite popular commentary, we don’t really grieve in ‘stages’). It therefore makes sense that some could feel sadness, confusion and numb at the same time, and all for different reasons.
3. Memories. The death of someone famous can tap in to memories of another time and place. The new Prince of Wales said “Doing the walk (behind his grandmother’s coffin as they moved her to Westminster) was challenging, because it “brought back a few memories”, most likely referring to himself as a 15 year old boy in the public procession when his mother died.
In a similar way, you may remember the Queen coming to visit your home town during a time when someone you cared about was alive. In the example of a celebrity, memories of David Bowie in concert may surface, if you went with someone who’s since died, just as a new movie about him is due to be released. These are examples of how current events can ‘re-activate’ feelings of grief. Grief doesn’t have a timeline – it’s a process, not a to-do list – so there is no expiry date on your feelings. That said, those feelings can surprise you when they rise to the surface seemingly out of nowhere.
4. Symbolism. For many people, the Queen may have symbolised something, perhaps their heritage or a connection to the past. People in the military and other statutory services, who literally signed up for a life of service as Crown Servants, may carry a feeling of loss. Even if they never met her, their sense of duty means something, and the Queen as their figure head provides a sense of purpose.
Her death could also be a symbol which acts to exacerbate fears (see also 7.) of losing someone we love (like our own mum or grandma), known as anticipatory grief. This was echoed by many young people in the crowds who brought flowers to the Royal Palaces to pay their respects, when interviewed said “it’s made me think of my gran”. We may have a heightened awareness of what it means to lose something or someone that matters.
5. Overwhelm. Even though to some extent the Queen’s death was inevitable sooner rather than later, many people said it came as a shock. The new Prince of Wales himself said (on meeting the crowds on 15/9/22, featured on Sky News) “You think you’ve prepared yourself for this, but I’m not that prepared.”. The pandemic may have also impacted how we experience grief today. The speed with which COVID-19 appeared as we found ourselves in lockdown alongside the many different ways we experienced loss: from the death of loved ones to being made redundant or the breakdown of a relationship. I explain in Answers In The Dark that even a child leaving home to go to University can be a tipping point in grief, because loss looks like many things; it doesn’t just belong to death. It could be some of what we’ve seen since the Queen died is a vast feeling of overwhelm – “too much, too quickly”.
6. Missed opportunities. We don’t just grieve for celebrities; we can also experience loss for people we’ve never really known that weren’t famous. If you’ve ever watched the popular TV show Long Lost Family with Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell, himself adopted, you’ll have seen how some of the children featured, now as adults, describe missing the biological parents they didn’t know, and upon learning they have died, are visibly upset. The same could apply for those with a strained relationship with their mother or grandmother, or whose parents weren’t who they needed them to be. The loss of connection and possibility counts; ‘what if’s or ‘if only’s can feel like missed opportunities whilst many questions remain unanswered. All important to acknowledge. This may explain why so many people, in their thousands, felt they couldn’t miss the Queen lying-in-state, to some extent a palpable fear of missing out, but also a real sense of loss for what might have been had they met her at another time in their life.
7. Loss of the familiar. The Queen was the only monarch many have ever known, and upon her death was repeatedly described by members of the public as a “constant” in their lives providing “stability and security”, and “steadying the ship” during the pandemic with those famous words “We will meet again”.
For those who have never known anything different, who had not contemplated life without her, who are already concerned about the cost of living, or struggle with change in general (particularly after a global pandemic), these may well feel like challenging times. This may have been exacerbated when many are already feeling the pain of loss in other ways, as some stating their feelings about the relevancy of the monarchy, others feel like they’ve already lost enough; the thought of losing the monarchy for some would feel like a bridge too far. Even so, some may well be asking questions about what life will be like now under a new King, himself with a past played out in the public eye, and how the change will affect them personally. The death of someone famous can also bring the subject of our own mortality sharply in to focus in what are already unsettled and uncertain times.
Many people are grieving for lots of reasons – it’s not a competition, there’s is no hierarchy in grief; it all counts.
These are just some ideas about why we might grieve for someone we’ve never known, but it’s important to say that however we feel, it matters as is how we express it. Many people are grieving since the death of the Queen for lots of reasons – it’s not a competition and there’s is no hierarchy in grief; it all counts.
May we navigate the coming weeks and months with an empathy and compassion for one another – however we may be grieving, or what for – in the knowledge that, in the end, we may all just be trying to heal.
Answers In The Dark: Grief, Dreams and How Sleep Can Help You Heal is available on Amazon and Hive.
⚠️ Content warning: This article contains discussion about acts of violent extremism including domestic abuse, and briefly alludes to self-harm.
If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of an irate customer that’s demanding a refund, snide comments from a stranger on the internet, or even a toddler “throwing a tantrum”, you might think what I’m about to say is, well…a little unusual. The thing is, I believe anger is healthy. Stick with me, whilst I explain.
It’s healthy because, like all emotions, our anger is trying to tell us something; emotions have their own intelligence. They’re not “good” or “bad”, they contain their own wisdom. They tell us we’re facing injustice, we’ve pushed something down for too long, or maybe we’re just sensing something’s not quite right.
So it’s not the emotion that’s destructive so much, but the expression of it; these expressions – I call them the “emotion in motion” – can connect or separate us. In anger’s case, sometimes that expression – or display of anger – could be aggression.
Anger might not be what you think it is
Anger is sometimes referred to as a secondary emotion – ie, there’s a primary emotion driving it. This is why some refer to “The Iceberg of Anger” in an attempt to show what’s going on underneath.
As an example, anger can be driven by fear; you’ll recognise this if “fight” is part of your stress response. When we perceive immediate danger in our environment, our nervous system responds, perhaps by wanting to fight the “threat” (or fleeing it). It can be motivated by other things though, including grief, and to some extent can be driven not so much by what is happening, but what we think about (or how we interpret) what is happening. This is known as the ‘appraisal’ of our circumstances.
Anger is also on a spectrum. On the one end of the anger scale you’ve got mild frustration and annoyance, moving up into irritated about half way. At the other end, all out explosive rage.
We may see displays of anger along this entire scale though, fuelled by intense feelings (and thoughts about what is happening) from micro-aggressions: like a snarky comment back at someone who’s annoyed you – to macro-displays: the extreme reaction of criminal damage and physical violence. So aggression can be verbal, not just physical; even silence (when it’s done as ignoring someone to punish them) can be an act of aggression.
Other styles can include “Misattributing Causation” – this means blaming the wrong person or thing for how you’re feeling (you’ll know this if you’ve ever screamed at the coffee table when you accidentally bashed your knee on it) – and “Inflammatory Labelling”; essentially, that’s name-calling.
Where’s the problem?
One of the scary things about aggression is that it can be addictive. How? Because aggressive displays can make a person feel “better” in that moment, even if they regret it later on. Their displays of aggression may also facilitate them getting their own way; they literally learn that their expressions of anger help them “win” – even if it means intimidating others – and so they show it more and more and more.
This doesn’t excuse their behaviour in any way: let’s be clear, aggression can be dangerous and damaging for everyone in the vicinity. This includes when anger is swallowed (by not knowing how to express it helpfully), which can turn in to depression (the etymology of that word meaning “something that’s been pushed down”) which can result in acts of self-sabotage, and even violence towards themselves. The video below by Soraya Chemaly also explains how unexpressed anger, in women particularly, can show up as physical pain.
Anger expressions can also include chronic judgement of self and others, like mandates about how everyone “should” look, be and behave, offering little room for movement (rigid thinking like this is known as a Fixed Mindset). And if someone doesn’t abide by that individual’s personal set of rules or standards, there can be a (false) belief that people who don’t agree with them “should” be punished.
You’re allowed to feel anger. You’re not entitled to hurt people with it.
That brings me on to entitlement. In the case of anger, underlying beliefs can keep the emotion in motion through a person’s false notion that their judgements are accurate, and unhealthy expressions of aggression (from trolling to acts of physical violence) are their “right”.
This style of anger – and the subsequent displays of aggression – can be rooted in what Dr. Ryan Martin refers to in his TED talk (influenced by researchers like Jerry L. Deffenbacher) as Cognitive Distortions; in this case, wonky – and fundamentally unhealthy – beliefs about power and control.
This is one reason why sending someone on “anger management” classes won’t always work if there is no attempt to address unhelpful beliefs around entitlement (i.e, not just specific behaviours) – especially if the person’s goal is ultimately to oppress and suppress.
Courses that provide tools for ‘managing’ anger may (albeit inadvertently) actually encourage someone to innovate new but unhealthy ways to express it, in order that they may achieve their harmful objective.
This is why it’s essential that facilitators keep a sharp focus on a person’s beliefs as well as individual accountability. In fact, if they don’t, it can lead to what I call “untouchable entitlement” – especially if that person is never held to account, they will believe they can do whatever they want – including seek revenge without consequence – and probably will.
By focusing only on behaviour rather than beliefs, individuals might just learn to use or develop passive-aggressive behaviours instead. This can include gaslighting, ghosting and manipulating someone into following their version of the rules or giving in to what they want. This might explain how perpetrators of domestic abuse manage to persuade services they have ‘fixed’ themselves and then go on to kill their partner, or in cases such as white male supremacy someone can convince authorities to let them have a gun licence renewed and subsequently murder people (as has happened in the UK), even when they’ve demonstrated violence in the past.
Denial also feeds in to this, as does intransigence; we see this when confronting some “conspiracy theories” with facts, and people defensively double down. Soraya Chemaly says in her book Rage Becomes Her “Denial is rarely based on facts or reasoning. It is a visceral emotional defence that overrides reason, critical thinking and deliberation.”
This is why, even when convicted of violence, some will show no sense of remorse because of their false entitled belief that it was somehow for “the greater good” – which incidentally, they will have been taught through engagement with society somewhere along the way. What they really mean is they’ve helped to create or maintain a system of power and control.
Society plays its part
This is further reinforced by others “liking” the aggressive actions of others (for example, on social media) – an expression of rage is endorsed – and so the reactive, addictive pattern continues. Those who express anger unhealthily may seek out others who do the same (even if not realising it) to legitimise what they do; e.g. they justify their position with “If others do/say this, then it must be ok”, even if it feels morally or ethically wrong to the rest of us.
We observe this when someone dismisses their own aggressive actions of verbal abuse as simply “banter”, when it is in fact a clear expression of (false) entitlement that has caused harm to another person (ie, bullying).
Society also perhaps unwittingly colludes with unhealthy expressions of anger when it says things like “hurt people hurt people”, not realising how harmful and dismissive that is to those on the receiving end. It’s the same when some say things like “boys will be boys” or “he hurt you because he likes you” or derail conversations around women’s safety and male violence; all unhelpful reactions centred on dominance, that harm everyone including men.
Trying to convince someone then, that their beliefs are unhelpful or unhealthy, will be challenging work if they are being encouraged by others. There is power in numbers, especially when they’re all feeling angry about the same thing. Therefore it’s imperative that we acknowledge how entitlement, dominance, intransigence and denial can filter in to the extreme end of unhealthy expressions, instead of dismissing someone’s actions as simply “anger issues”.
In fact, researchers in Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) like Liberty Day from START and the University of Maryland say “There is no current research that suggests mental health conditions are a cause of violent extremism”. What we do know is how unhelpful expressions can lead to radicalisation. William Braniff, Director of START, goes on to highlight three “N’s” to be aware of:
Need: A personal need to feel important and significant
Narrative: an ideology that positions that need (for example, a toxic yet common script that women should “know their place” and a minority of men falsely “justifying” their anger on the “rise of feminism”)
Network: a group of people that think similarly to them (meeting another need, through a sense of connection and belonging), which may even erroneously endorse and encourage unhealthy expressions of anger like violence, to keep their narrative alive. (This is proven by the growing number of forums and posts on social media displaying misogyny and acts of racism).
Where an individual or group takes no responsibility for their expressions and the wider impact they have, they will continue and potentially escalate. In these cases, silence really is complicity and it can feel like collusion to those being harmed. Those with unhealthy expressions of anger can be held to a higher standard by all of us, especially if we are to create an enlightened society. This includes Big Tech doing their part.
We know that violent communication can lead to acts of violence and so it’s vital that, for example, social media companies take unhealthy expressions of anger seriously as early as possible. We cannot meet hate with hate. Principles of non-violent communication (NVC) can be considered, and where control is a motivating factor, sometimes the only way we can influence change is to take power away.
What some describe as “Cancel Culture” may in fact be a useful tool if done correctly, e.g. by removing a platform that prevents someone from spreading or inciting hatred (and therefore violence), rather than trying to erase the person. (It can be interesting to check the motivation of those who rage against this concept, and what motivates their actions. E.g. How is power showing up in their discourse?) Others can help by safely challenging toxic narratives, opening dialogue with friends about feelings in general, or creating a larger group that models healthier expressions of emotion.
Manage The Moment
Having said all of this, it’s important to reiterate that people do have the “right” to feel anger, remember anger is a healthy emotion. People feel what they feel, whether we agree with it or not.
It’s what we do with how we feel that will either take us towards trouble or recovery. Where anger is rooted in faulty beliefs, we may need to step back and be open to where that’s coming from, and acknowledge the harm we may cause ourselves and others if we don’t.
In cases of systemic injustice, principled moral outrage can be a healthy approach when individuals or groups channel this energy meaningfully, through for example raising awareness, signing a petition or taking part in peaceful and lawful protests. When we understand the driving factors underneath our anger, and the cost of how we express it, we can learn to put space between what we think, feel and ultimately what we do.
Here’s what might help:
1. Know your early warning signs: If you know that you tend to have unhealthy expressions of anger, then you could start to register what that looks like through embodiment practices (e.g. how your body responds when you feel it). Do you notice your fists clench, your face starts to flush or your heart starts racing? Remember, this can be the ‘fight’ part of your stress response, that implies you may be sensing danger, even if none is present. Do the work to learn how to pause before the emotion escalates, and check your appraisal of the environment to see if it’s accurate. Perhaps you’re being activated by a memory of being hurt, rather than something that’s happening now. Where are you on the anger scale and what can you do to prevent you moving in to unhealthy expressions of anger? Consider also what may be underneath your anger. Perhaps grief – or fear of loss – is driving how you feel. Grief doesn’t just belong to the death of a loved one, but anything that mattered to us that’s no longer there, like a breakdown of a relationship or being made redundant. (I talk about loss in my book Answers In The Dark: Grief, Sleep and How Dreams Can Help You Heal).
2. Check your entitlement. Think about whether you tend to blame, shame or complain a lot. One way to measure this is maybe keep a “should/shouldn’t” diary for a week, and see how many times you believe that people – including yourself – are getting it wrong somewhere. It could be a boundary violation, where you feel somewhere has overstepped the mark but again it’s worth evaluating where this position is coming from.
You might identify themes around how much of your anger faces outwards (e.g. other people are the problem) and how much of it you direct towards yourself. Also consider whether any sense of entitlement is based on a rule book that’s no longer valid. For example, you might think people “should” keep busy, or you “shouldn’t” sit for five minutes and rest, based on an old idea that sitting and doing nothing is “lazy”. Self-care is essential not selfish, especially when we’re struggling.
Check your old beliefs and how they might be harming, not helping.
3. Find an “off ramp“: If you or someone you know is being impacted by unhelpful expressions of anger, organisations like Refuge and the Respect phone line in the UK are there to help. You might also find peer support useful to hold each other accountable, as long as groups don’t endorse or encourage unhealthy expressions of anger. Speak to your healthcare provider to see if they know of such resources in your area.
4. Build a Big Tent Approach: This is where communities come together to address societal problems, rather than working in silos. This might be particularly helpful if the source of your anger is a lack of action on a local issue that’s causing a strain. You might decide to work together with the support of agencies in your area that can help solve the problem. This has been helpful in cases for example where knife crime has been a problem, and communities have worked together across faiths, policing and other local authorities to send a clear message that violence won’t be tolerated whilst simultaneously providing off-ramps to young people who may need to exit dangerous groups.
5. Sit with it. Ultimately some people may need to learn to regulate their emotions, especially where expressions are turning harmful towards themselves and others, and definitely where entitlement is playing a part. Sometimes, for example, people ‘act out’, using their anger as an “excuse”, because they haven’t learned how to disagree meaningfully, how to handle rejection or how take no for an answer.
Yet people have the right to say no, whether it’s that they don’t want to be in a relationship anymore or they don’t agree with what’s been said – whether we like it or not – without being subjected to any form of abuse. As a society, I definitely think we need to learn how to handle rejection more skilfully.
Learning to sit with the pain in a way that’s helpful can move us towards meaningful recovery; ultimately we all pay the price for anger that’s not processed effectively. The Buddha (loosely) said that holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. Sometimes we have to accept things as they are, as the sage Shantideva once said (paraphrasing) being frustrated with someone who isn’t going to change is like being angry at fire for being hot. It is what it is.
We used to think punching pillows helped, but some now argue all this does is leave you feeling tired, and potentially authorises violence as a coping mechanism in your brain. Thich Nhat Hanh echoes this in Anger: Buddhist Wisdom for Cooling the Flames by emphasising don’t hit anything. Instead, researchers like Jill Bolte Taylor argue that giving ourselves 90 seconds of breathing space can make the difference between coping helpfully or not. Mindfulness can be useful for taking each moment as it comes – regulating the breath helps to activate our relaxation response – but this may need the help of a teacher (rather than an app) or perhaps doing your own reading on what helps and what doesn’t. Books like Mindfulness and The Art of Managing Anger (which suggest reframing our language – eg., acknowledging you feel anger, but that’s not who you are), and Why We Get Mad by Dr. Ryan Martin may be inspiring. (More books may be added to this list).
Finally, take some time to think about what contributes towards your feelings of anger, especially if it’s overwhelm (lack of time, energy, space and so on). Learn to measure your window of tolerance, and when things might be getting on top of you. Spinning too many plates at once can mean we take our eyes off the things that matter, including our own health and well-being; tiredness can definitely take its toll, and even hunger can make us irritable. So be gentle on yourself, take care of the basics, and maybe think about a meaningful plan of action. We all deserve to live a calmer, happier more peaceful way of life.
Our feelings are our most genuine paths to knowledge.
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⚠️ Note to the reader: this article briefly discusses male violence against women, hate speech and bereavement, and is a general discussion on empathy. It is not intended to minimise how challenging it can be for some people to express it.
There’s now a thing called Empathy Day. Whilst we can acknowledge with any ‘Awareness Day’ (like ‘World Kindness Day’ or ‘World Mental Health Day’) we should be able to demonstrate that we understand someone else’s struggle, or that we care for others every day of the week, that’s just not how the world seems right now.
If you navigate conversations on social media you’ll know there seems to be an escalation in hate. Trolls, unsolicited DMs and displays of misogyny, (erroneously) trying to “justify” male violence against women is just one example. The United Nations International Day for Countering Hate Speech campaign explains that this is on the rise worldwide. Whilst some try to argue their take is “free speech”, others (dismissively) claim it’s because “we’re breeding a generation of snowflakes”; they insist we all just need to “Man Up”. It feels harmful, unhealthy and actually quite extreme.
A lack of empathy doesn’t always show up as hate though. It can be in the subtle ways people – including friends and family – try to “help”, but potentially do more harm than good.
Let’s take bereavement. Undoubtedly one of the worst things a person will have to navigate during their lifetime – and one you would hope we have lots of empathy for – yet seems to have a short shelf life in terms of what society is prepared to indulge. Collectively, we seem to be growing impatient with people who can’t seem to “snap out of it”. We assume something is ‘wrong’ with anyone who is not conforming to the Typically British idea that we just need to “keep calm and carry on”. The problem is, that’s not helping either.
One of the things I talk about in Answers in the Dark, is how when someone is grieving, ‘society’ – a completely amorphous entity by the way, with no face but a very loud voice – tries to instil on us how we ‘should’ be feeling or what we ‘should’ be doing to heal. We only seem to be given permission to grieve for a very short time, and if we’re still talking about it a few weeks later, we’re told we should be “over it” (which, of course, is absolute rubbish). All grief is valid. Everyone is different. It takes as long as it takes. And yet, the implication that we’re grieving wrong means our grief goes underground and we stop talking about it.
Nothing is more important than empathy for another human being’s suffering. Nothing – not career, not wealth, not intelligence, certainly not status. We have to feel for one another if we’re going to survive with dignity.
What is empathy?
Sympathy and empathy are often conflated. I’ve offered some insights below.
Sympathy – “I am so sorry this has happened”. This recognises that something bad is taking place, but at the same time acknowledges that we may not know what that person is going through. This is when people tend to say “I can’t imagine what that’s like for you” (which some grieving people say doesn’t actually help). It is often enough, however, to say “I am so sorry this has happened”, especially when we’re not in a position to help.
Empathy – “I can relate to this”. This might be something we say internally, not necessarily to the person disclosing their pain; it also says “I hear you”, without feeling a need to interfere. It’s important to consider our language here though: “I know exactly how you feel” is neither sympathy or empathy if it potentially derails the conversation, pivoting to being about us, rather than the person going through a difficult time. It’s therefore more helpful to say “I’m so sorry this has happened” (sympathy) and add “it makes sense you feel that way” (empathy). If we don’t know what to say, it’s better to say that, and add (as Brené Brown suggests) “I’m just so glad you told me”. Remember, not every problem a person tells us needs “fixing”; sometimes listening and responding empathically is enough.
So why is it then, as Jamil Zaki calls it in his Ted Talk below, that there’s an empathy shortage?
He explains that when our ideas, values or feelings clash it becomes too hard and we abandon it altogether. He gives politics as one example of this “empathic black hole” where we tune out people we disagree with and, even worse, “savour their pain”. For those of us who have a deep level of empathy, the emotional labour involved in keeping the peace can be exhausting, as if we’re running a marathon every day.
Thankfully, as Zaki offers, empathy is not a personality trait, it’s a skill. The research determines this because, quite simply, people who were paid to show empathy were able to do so. This also reduces the assumption, for example, that empathy is gendered and that women are more empathic than men; that doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, it’s not that we’re either empathic or not, we can grow to be helpful; we’re not stuck at one level of empathy or another.
The good news is, like resilience and courage, we can learn to show empathy – the more we do, the more we will – and there are benefits of doing so. People who show empathy have better connections, and forge strong friendships.
Here’s what might help:
Practice Engaging. When people believe that empathy is simply a trait – e.g. they’ll say “this is just how I am” – they shy away from accountability for their actions and the need for meaningful change; it’s a convenient mantra for not trying to adapt. Whereas when people believe they can be helpful, Zaki argues they will be; his research identified that those who believe empathy as a skill work harder at it, especially when they’re feeling empowered. One example of this was Sue Rahr‘s police training in Washington, U.S. As Rahr explains, “If you’re overly aggressive in your initial approach, you’re going to provoke resistance.” Her cadets would practice defusing situations by slowing down, asking questions and paying attention. As a result her officers use of force declined, especially towards people with mental illness. (Other examples of this in policing include Cheri Maple’s thoughts around “Fierce Compassion” – recognising there are times when we need to be “warriors”, but often that can be the last resort.) Practice makes peaceful.
Know Your bandwidth. Lacking empathy can also be a sign of Compassion Fatigue, as can profound cynicism. People who are particularly vulnerable to this include first responders and Blue Light Services, but, as Juliet Watt explains, it can potentially be anyone who is repeatedly exposed to another person’s pain without having time to reset and recharge. Thankfully compassion fatigue is treatable, with regular restorative acts of self-care. Learn to recognise your early warning signs; if you’re growing intolerant to other’s problems, it may be useful to step back, let someone cover and take time to reset.
Listen. Understand. Connect. To improve our empathy shortage we could move forward with purpose, especially when it’s hard. As Zaki offers, we can point our curiosity at people who anger us; take time to listen to their fears and frustrations to see if there is some common ground. As Marshall B. Rosenberg also writes in his work around non-violent communication, understanding what matters to each of us, is a step to building bridges. Are we as invested in helping other people needs be met as we are in our own? It’s so much “easier” to judge than to take time to understand and connect, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t try.
Probably not many people can say they’ve pushed Vin Diesel in a shopping trolley. Although I can; except I haven’t. Confused? That’s dreams for you.
I’ve been exploring the subject of dreams and nightmares, and other night-time phenomena (like sleep walking, hearing your name at night and waking up with a song on your lips) for most of my adult life. Though, my story really begins in childhood, when we would sit around the breakfast table and talk about the night-time adventures we’d had whilst asleep the evening before.
In all the years I’ve spent as a qualified counsellor working mainly with the bereaved, attending speaking events all over the country, and appearing on TV and Radio, people have shared with me their dreams and nightmares, everything from being chased, losing teeth and their partner cheating. Some tell me they struggle to remember their dreams, others recall the content in such vivid detail it’s stayed with them for years. Most people say “I had such a weird dream last night”. Except, when we talk about it, they often have a light bulb moment that the weirdness contained a golden nugget of insight to help understand fears and frustrations, hopes and aspirations and even solutions to some of the problems they face – if we just take the time to explore them. It’s one reason I wrote Answers in the Dark, a genuine labour of love that covers all this and more.
When I wrote the book I was acutely aware that there are loads of books on sleep and dreams, which is why I pride myself on the fact that I think this is different. It sets aside the science-y jargon that makes a lot of people glaze over, when what you probably really want to know is how to sleep better, right? It busts some big myths of sleep, like the idea we all need eight hours sleep every night; because, well, it’s just not that simple.
I offer a Sleep Cycle Repair Kit that offers tips and techniques to help people get a better night’s shut-eye, along with ideas on how to use mindfulness effectively – a proven strategy for helping people sleep better – in ways that actually might work for you. I also talk about grief, and why I think we need to talk about it in a different way.
The last part of the book, Part III, talks about how to explore dreams. It’s deliberately not a massive, complicated or convoluted section for one simple reason: in all the years I’ve been talking to people about the dreams they’ve been having, they actually just needed to know how to decode it. Answers in the Dark offers food for thought, recognising that there isn’t “one size that fits all”. It does contain a selection of different dreams people have; it looks at the types of dreams we might have around death, dying and loss as well as some common anxiety dreams like turning up somewhere naked (because that can feel like a nightmare) alongside what it means when you put your foot on the brake in a car in a dream and nothing happens.
But I’m careful to say the book is not a dream dictionary, mainly because most people I speak with know dream dictionaries only give you one bite of the apple, especially if it’s written from one specific theoretical model, rather than helping you try to unpack it. The thing about dreams, is that they speak to us in ways that are encrypted, so that only we can decipher them. My book aims to help you do that.
So if you had the weirdest dream last night, check it out. If you’ve ever dreamt you’re back at school taking exams you weren’t ready for, dreamt you were on the toilet with no walls to the cubicle or try to call out and you can’t, you might find the answers you’re looking for.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
This book is a life changer! Delphi literally goes under the covers and shares her vast experience and knowledge about the reasons why many of us struggle to get a peaceful and rejuvenating night’s sleep.
Beth Lee-Crowther, Pulse Talk Radio Presenter and Author – to read Beth’s full review, click here
Answers in the Dark is available to order on Amazon.
⚠️ Content warning: This article is a discussion around death, dying, loss and bereavement.
When we talk about loneliness, we might think about the number of friends we have, or how much time we spend alone. Many people can relate to going days without speaking to a single person; this was almost certainly a reality for millions of people around the world during the pandemic.
But when I talk about loneliness, I include what it means to feel disconnected. For many people, they recognise what it’s like to be surrounded by those they know, yet who don’t really “get” them, and so feel out of place. Our “social norms” often set standards that we should “fit in” and not be different. We hide our authenticity or shift our values in a need to belong. We don’t feel heard or understood. And that can be lonely.
Lacking connection can also be felt heavily when we’re grieving, and particularly in a world that doesn’t recognise the many different layers of loss we experience throughout our lives.
In my book, Answers in the Dark, I talk about how grief shows up, even if no one has died. We assume when we speak about grief, that we mean following bereavement, and yet throughout our life we will have experienced loss after loss that we’ve either been able to process or not. It might have been parents divorcing at an early age. Being made to change schools and leave friends behind. As we get older, it may be through redundancy or retiring from a beloved job of 30 years. It all counts.
And yet, society doesn’t necessarily recognise these as “reasonable reasons to grieve” (sometimes referred to as “disenfranchised grief), or give us permission to explore them as such. When we feel like we can’t talk about how we feel, our grief can go underground. We may not even connect with the fact that we’ve experienced a loss, and yet nonetheless our body speaks to us in various ways, like not being able to sleep or the dreams we have when we do. Imagine if every loss you’ve experienced but couldn’t process is just resting underneath awareness, and its only outlet is in the darkness of night. It might not be an obvious thought about grief itself, just an ineffable noise that keeps you awake that’s implicitly saying “I’m not ok”. This is why I wrote this book.
Creating safe spaces for people to talk about their grief should be a natural part of our every day conversation. And yet, discussions around death and dying are seen as morbid and taboo. We feel uncomfortable asking if someone’s ok, and we worry we might make things worse. The reality is, for grieving people, the worse has probably already happened, and not being able to talk about it can create further feelings of loneliness and isolation.
When we don’t feel connected or safe in the space around us, we instinctively shy away from the dialogue we may really need to have. Thankfully there are organisations there to help if you need time or space to talk about the loss you’ve been through.
What else can help?
In speaking to grieving people over the many years I’ve worked in this arena, they’ve often echoed similar things that can help. Many recognise that having a group of people that do understand is so important – connection and community are key to our well-being. This very idea of bringing grieving people together and holding space for each other was the concept behind the work I’ve done travelling around the country, training people how to run peer-support groups. Organisations like the Good Grief Trust also offer talking spaces for people to connect.
It can also help to find ways to reconnect with the world around you. It might be through yoga or meditation, music lyrics that uplift you or poetry that helps you feel seen. Have a think about what could bring back a sense of connection, even if in your own company. In the same way, think about what you’ve had to sacrifice in order to feel like you belong. Have you had to make changes which mean that you’re not living life aligned with your values? If your friends and family aren’t helping, see if you can find ways to communicate to them what you need, that allow you to show up authentically in all that you do. It’s ok to say “I’m grieving and how I feel is to be expected”.
If you know someone going through a difficult time processing a loss, it’s also important to let them feel what they feel. Our instinct as humans is to go in to what can be known as the Fixing Reflex, in an effort to “cheer them up” out of their pain. But grief just doesn’t work like that. It needs to be seen and understood in order for people to find their way forward, knowing that they may need to revisit that, time and again. Creating a safe space for someone to talk might be as simple as saying “how can I help?” or even something practical, like walk their dog.
If we can normalise conversations about grief we can bring people together. We can acknowledge that all grief is valid and equally unique. We can learn that whilst we may relate to each other’s pain in different ways, at the same time making comparisons can be unhealthy; it’s not a competition to see who had it worse. Instead we can acknowledge each other’s pain and say “this matters, I’ll sit beside you” for as long as we reasonably can. Grieving doesn’t have to be lonely. We can bring light in to the dark.
This article was written originally for Mental Health Awareness Week 2022 and the theme is loneliness. Answers in the Dark is available to purchase on Amazon.
⚠️ Content warning: this article speaks about suicide, and male violence against women and girls (MVAWG), including sexual assault and domestic abuse. It also contains links to research on male supr emacy which references known ‘actors’ in this arena.
I don’t know a single person who hasn’t been touched by loss. I say that confidently because I’ve been working with the bereaved as a qualified counsellor for about 20 years. But, as I explain in my book, loss extends beyond someone dying. Grief doesn’t just belong to death.
It can show up as redundancy.
A relationship breakdown.
A child leaving home for university.
We might think of these as ‘little L’ losses because, to some, they might seem insignificant. That’s one reason we’re often met with unhelpful clichés – like “there’s people worse off than you” – when things really do feel just awful. (‘Big L’ losses are the ones most people recognise, like death, but society only lets us mourn those for a short time, before it somewhat disgracefully shames us into thinking we should be ‘over it’. More on that in the book too). In short, it takes its toll.
As a result, we push our losses away (in reality, it’s more like we push them down), and hope they never reach the surface of our awareness again. The cumulative effect of loss after loss can cause us to feel overwhelmed, without ever really being in touch with the storyline that explains why we feel like we do. And so there we are, awake in the middle of the night, caught up in our thoughts which take us, as I call it, down the plughole. And it’s dark down there.
The good news is, when the time is right, we can find ways to get our sparkle back. Not that we ‘move on’, we just find our way forward at a pace that’s healthy and right for us.
So what does this have to do with misogyny? I’ll be the first to admit it’s quite the tangent. Why would a woman who has spent two decades of her life supporting grieving people use her Twitter account to raise awareness of what seems to be a topic so grossly misunderstood.
Because, it’s all connected. I spent time training with the National Homicide Service so that I could effectively help people bereaved by murder; I know many grieving families whose loved one has died as a result of male violence. I’ve supported people at coroner’s court, that knows all too well how men die by suicide because of the pressures from a ‘Man Box‘ that says “be more and feel less”. Misogyny kills.
In my book, I also briefly describe my own experience of being subjected to male-perpetrated domestic abuse. I don’t go in to detail, for lots of reasons, but suffice it to say it had a significant impact on me.
As a result of my experiences and over the course of many years since, I became accredited to support victims of crime, and continue to speak with those subjected to and bereaved by male violence today, all on a voluntary basis. I have spoken with several policing leads on the subject, and looked at ways to create change that lasts, with the view that this all needs to be high on the agenda, long before the tragic events of ‘high profile cases’ that caught everyone’s attention in 2021.
That’s not to say that men aren’t victims too – they are – or that women don’t show violent behaviour (they can and some do). But, as I explain in this blog, I think we need to talk about women’s safety and male violence.
I use my Twitter account to raise awareness of misogyny and how it’s rooted in a dangerous ideology that seeks to legitimise male supr emacy. Because it’s everywhere. As my very long thread explains, it even shows up in policy and, of course, drives male perpetrated sexual violence and domestic abuse. Even women can show internalised misogyny when they punch down on other women to get ahead with men at work (I talk about misandry in the thread as well). And when some men think other men don’t ‘conform’ to what it means to “be a man”, they harm each other too.
Vivek Shraya explains misogyny with these examples:
The disdain for women and femininity is insidious, infecting even those of us who profess to love women, and it takes many forms… Using “sensitive” as a pejorative and a mechanism of restraint [..] is a form of misogyny…Men’s assumptions that they are entitled to touch others’ bodies without consent and the dismissals of my boundaries were misogyny.
So in summary, I “keep on” about misogyny because it matters and I offer particularly a Call to Men (the thread explains why). Addressing it is important for everyone; to help reduce the number of bereaved families that may have to navigate an already creaking criminal justice system, and the volume of people subjected to rape and sexual assault; that has to be important.
If we can tackle misogyny and the ideology behind it as the root cause of male perpetrated violence, we will create a more enlightened society; one that creates a safer world for us all.
Answers in the Dark: Grief, Sleep and How Dreams Can Help You Heal is available to purchase on Amazon. The book primarily joins the dots between sleep, dreams and our mental health, particularly how grief shows up even when no one has died. It discusses briefly my own experience of being subjected to male violence, but not the topic of misogyny in itself. (That may be for another book…)
At least not in the way they’ve been portrayed. A lot of people talk about them like five things on a to-do list, that we have to achieve in order to “finish” grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But of course, it’s just not that simple.
In fact, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross – attributed with saying there are five stages of grief – wasn’t talking about that as such in the way it’s been interpreted, when she began the conversation. She was actually referring to what she had observed when people were dying, and how they felt towards the end of their lives. Her message – based on important work framing the experiences of the terminally ill – has been to some extent diluted around the world ever since.
In fact, the false idea of grieving as a tick list has become so reductive that we assume we must “get over it” within a short period of time. And if we don’t, we worry we must be getting grief “wrong”. But it takes as long as it takes. Grief is a journey we must all navigate at some point in our lives and no one can do it for us. And how it feels – and how it shows up – can be different for everyone.
I explain that emotions can range from those you might not even have considered like guilt, jealousy – even relief. You might even feel nothing at all for a while – and that’s normal. You might feel anger that the one you love has died, especially if it’s unexpected, but that doesn’t mean you’ll feel that emotion just once or that it won’t come back again. The way the five stages have been interpreted over time implies that’s the case, but there isn’t an order to what you will feel and even if there was, there’s no time-frame associated with it. There is no simple formula we can apply when grieving nor should we, except perhaps that we allow ourselves the space and time we need. Whilst there might be things we can order for next day delivery if we can afford it, we can’t hurry grief.
Grief, then, is more like a roller-coaster than a flight of stairs; and it doesn’t just belong to death. We can grieve for anything that mattered to us that’s no longer there. A relationship breakdown. The loss of a job we’ve done for 30 years. Even a child leaving home for university. All grief is valid.
Which is why it can be so unhelpful when friends and colleagues don’t help. When someone you care about dies or something meaningful comes to and end, people who genuinely mean well will often offer thoughts and platitudes to try and help you feel “better”. The reality is though, even though they’re not trying to be unhelpful, that some of what they say can be inappropriate, even lack empathy. This reinforces the idea that we’re not following the “stages” when in fact our grief is unique to each of us. Their commentary can sometimes imply there is a ‘right way to grieve’. Grief doesn’t work like that.
As a society, at least in some parts of the west, we are woefully ill-prepared to talk about difficult and uncomfortable things. We are solution focused and so have been taught to some degree, to try and “fix” people when they’re sad.
To cheer them up.
To rally them out of pain.
The trouble is their good intentions can leave us feeling misunderstood, frustrated – even annoyed. So when they say things like “At least you’re still young, you can always find someone new’ or “I know exactly how you feel”, you might glaze over or shut down. You stop talking about how you feel. And because of that, they may then assume you’ve “moved on”, which as Nora McInerny explains in the video below, is just not how it is. So friends stop asking how things are and it becomes an unspoken cycle of emptiness, where no one talks about what needs to be said. Not feeling heard by those around us when we are suffering can be a lonely experience, and so if we are not given permission to feel what we feel, our grief can go underground.
We can’t outsource our pain so we have to find our way through in ways that are meaningful.
This is why I think it’s time we change the way we talk about grief and loss.
Conversations around death and dying, loss and bereavement need to start with recognising that everyone is different and allowing people to feel what they feel. The way I mourn for a loved one will be different to the way you grieve, and depend on many things. My feelings could range a variety of emotions, just as yours might swing between all of them and none. But it’s also important to remember that even with all the support in the world, we never really “get over” the loss of a loved one; at least not if being “over it” means we forget – that’s not going to happen. What we can do, is find a way forward from what’s happened, knowing it will always be a part of the journey even if it changes shape over time.
If you’re not sure what to say to a grieving friend, Megan Devine offers some thoughts in her video below. It often starts with acknowledging what they’ve been through and it’s ok to start with “hello”.
This article first appeared (now adapted) on the website A Grief Guide. My book Answers in the Dark: Grief, Sleep and How Dreams Can Help You Heal is available on Amazonand in all good book stores.