Wednesday 22 May 2019

It's good for the soul to feel bad about yourself

Psychologist Tony Humphreys persuades Fergal Keane of the power of negative thinking and of his own responsibility for his happiness. TO GET to...

Psychologist Tony Humphreys persuades Fergal Keane of the power of negative thinking and of his own responsibility for his happiness.

TO GET to his home you drive east of Cork city along the Lee estuary. On a narrow country road, you travel through the Irish countryside at its pastoral and restful best: an ideal introduction to the calming presence of Tony Humphreys.

Humphreys Ireland's most eminent psychologist finds himself in constant demand from universities, business organisations and teacher training institutions, not to mention his clinical practice. His books have sold more than 100,000 copies and are being translated into 10 languages. His latest, The Power of Negative Thinking, was published in Britain last week.

I first met Humphreys through a family friend who'd been undergoing an emotional crisis and had come out the other side a much-changed and happier person; at the time, I was attempting to deal with the after-effects of my father's death and was in need of some wise counsel myself. But if I had expected someone to feel sorry for me, I was mistaken.

Humphreys listened patiently, and asked some searching questions. His style is calm, but emotionally and intellectually rigorous. Bear witness to what has happened, he said, and then get ready to move on. I have Humphreys to thank for that first, important realisation that personal happiness was nobody's responsibility but my own.

And when I attempted to make sense of my experiences as a reporter during the Rwandan genocide, he opened my eyes to the way in which psychological phenomena can help to create such tragedies. In Rwanda, the vast inferiority complex of the Hutu peasantry, whipped into murderous hatred by a paranoid leadership, was an important factor in the slaughter.

When I met him in London last week, Humphreys was halfway through a publicity tour. His book represents a deliberate reversal of the prevailing (and vacuous) demand that we think ``positively''. At its core, Humphreys argues that what we regard as negative phenomena depression, schizophrenia, hallucinations are in fact powerful signs of psychological strength. Each alerts us the precise thing in ourselves that we need to change. What we condemn as negative behaviours are, in fact powerful protectors.

``There is no such thing as `negative' thinking,'' he says. ``Distress is a sign of strength, not weakness. Once you see the sense and wisdom in it and understand what it is protecting you from, then you can set about changing. There are huge citadels people build around themselves which are actually quite ingenious. They are certainly not being stupid, they are being amazingly clever.

``People give themselves negative messages: they say, `I know I'll fail that exam, I know I won't get that job', to protect themselves from disappointment and reduce others' expectations of them. My argument is that you don't simply say: `If I just think positively then everything will be all right.' You need to take those negative thoughts and follow them through, get to the root of them and turn things around. Negative thinking always points you in the direction you need to go.

``Another example is the person who says: `I hate the idea of going into work today.' People who are confident and competent don't think about work in that way; what these people are doing is protecting themselves from facing the problem of their own low self-esteem by blaming work.

``Or take the person who says: `I look awful, nobody could find me attractive.' This pattern of thought helps to protect them from rejection. If such a person practised `positive' thinking and went around saying to themselves: `I am handsome, I am unique,' it wouldn't make any significant difference to the way they saw themselves. I would say: you have developed a very clever strategy for avoiding contact with others and that, in turn, protects you from rejection. Fear and timidity are strengths they serve the powerful purpose of getting people to treat you with kid gloves. Who's controlling whom?''

Humphreys's gift is personal empathy. As a child, he was constantly and unfavourably compared with his twin brother, so when his mother became an invalid, and was confined to a wheelchair, he moved into the role of carer to win approval.

At the age of 18, he entered a monastery to study for the priesthood and remained there for seven years. But with just one month to go before ordination, he decided to leave: the priestly vocation had also been an exercise to win the approval of his devoutly religious parents. The experience of leaving was both liberating and traumatic.

``In the Ireland of those days, you just didn't leave the priesthood. It was every parent's dream. But I wasn't living my own life. When I got home, nobody would speak to me, so I left after a week and went to Dublin.'' He put himself through college at night, eventually obtaining his PhD in clinical psychology from Birmingham University.

Much of his work these days is concerned with bringing people to the point where they have the emotional strength to separate their identity from that of their parents, partners, children or job. It is about ending the `dependency culture' in relationships.

``I have adults, people with their own families, who come to see me and talk about going `home' for the weekend. When I ask what they mean by `home', they invariably tell me that they are talking about their parents' home. Yet their real home is where they live. There are also people I see who won't smoke or drink in front of their parents.''

One 32-year-old man was followed to his new flat by his mother when he moved out of his parents' house. She visited every day to clean, wash and iron. Surely, asked Humphreys, he could tell his mother he would do his own washing? When he did so, she was irate, accused him of rejecting her and of being ungrateful.

``Try to take a carer away from their caring and you see huge resistance,'' says Humphreys. ``You take away the thing they have been using for theirvisibility.''

A great deal of his clinical work involves dealing with the breakdown in relationships within families, particularly between parents and children. He strongly believes that children benefit from having a parent at home for the first two to three years of their life, and not necessarily the mother.

``I want society to recognise the major social responsibility that this man or woman is taking on,'' he says. ``Women who stay at home are taking on one of life's most important social responsibilities, and they deserve recognition for it. Women are being pressurised to go out to work and it's not fair.

``The same thing goes on in many countries: governments insist that the family is the most important social unit, but they don't give it any practical or financial support.''

On reading Humphrey's work, you might be inclined to say: well, it's all just common sense, isn't it? But it is amazing how many ways human beings can find to avoid using their common sense. Luckily, Humphreys is on the case.

* The Power of Negative Thinking by Tony Humphreys is published by Newleaf, price stg£6.99

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