Has Britain Got a Talent for Spite?

Following the aftermath of the Britain’s Got Talent final, I’ve been asked for quotes and analyses of the whole Susan Boyle phenomenon, with the news that she is suffering from exhaustion and allegedly being assessed until the Mental Health Act. Given that one  in four of us will suffer some form of mental health problem, it’s important to put it all into context. An assessment is different from a diagnosis.

I’ve been asked if I thought Susan Boyle’s behaviour was ‘weird’ after the result. Reporters and presenters have commented that she didn’t make eye contact with Ant and Dec and even showed her leg, which apparently was disturbing. Had it been a 28 year old showing a leg, I doubt whether the same comments would be made. Again, let’s put it into context. Looking at the footage, we can see that she smiled and applauded Diversity, and was very gracious. As for her ‘strange behaviour’. It’s important to acknowledge that she has had little or no media training. Ant and Dec make it look effortless but they have been in the spotlight for nigh on 20 years. Again, it seems that the body language brigade and spouting its usual bullshit. Susan’s Boyle’s body language was not different from most people in her situation. And as for the wiggling and leg flashing, well wasn’t that intended as a bit of fun? Do we all do strange things in strange circumstances? Also, reports of her back stage tantrum have more than likely been greatly exaggerated. Even a seasoned professional would not be a model of composure given the same amount of pressure.

It’s all too easy to jump to conclusions and interpret any behaviour as symptoms of ‘mental illness’ once you’ve made up your mind that someone is mad! There’s a classic 1970s study where researchers went undercover and pretended to have mental health problems, and made notes throughout their assessment. The only people who realised they were faking it were the real patients. One of the interesting outcomes was that the phrase ‘patient engages in writing behaviour’. So, the field notes had become a symptom!

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Susan Boyle phenomenon was the run up the final with news reports of her verbally abusing strangers in the hotel lobby at which she was staying. But although they were strange, they weren’t strangers. They were journalists deliberating goading Susan Boyle to lose her temper so they could get a story and spoil her chances in the competition. It seems that sometimes, Britain has a talent for spite. I lose count of the vile text jokes I’ve seen and cruel cartoons. Let’s again put this into context. She entered a talent contest, she’s not war criminal! I think it’s sad that we can’t just be happy that someone is enjoying success.

The question has also been raised as to if Susan Boyle has been looked after properly by the producers of the show. The answer is a qualified no. But who could have predicted the reaction to the original audition with an unprecedented number of hits on YouTube in such a short space of time? Also, we have to recognise that all reality TV is basically exploitative. However, hopefully she will be looked after and supported and given the coaching and training she needs to deal with the media spotlight, as well as carry on with her new career.

I wish her every sucess and I know the well-wishers outnumber the ‘haters’ because although her story has shed a light on the more unseemly side of the British psyche, it also represents what none of us can live without: Hope!

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Is ‘addictive personality’ really just a coping style?

The concept of addiction seems to be ever-extending.  It’s all part of the tendency to view everything according to an ‘illness model’ that sees any excessive behaviour as an addiction, from drugs and alcohol, to eating, to shopping , to gambling,to computer games, to social networking, to texting, and even having sex. However, it’s clear that not all of these behaviours are physical addictions but more psychological compulsions.

Clearly, hard drugs do create a physical, biological dependency but can we really apply the same to texting, social networking or eating too much cake? Are some so-called addictions really indicators of psychological problems rather than symptoms of an underlying disease process? Does it really help to treat psychological problems as if they are physical illnesses or does it harm us by taking away the responsibility for our actions and emotions?

It’s first interesting to observe that different cultures are addicted to different things, so in part ‘addiction’ has a cultural or social component. From a social psychology perspective, what we are increasingly labelling ‘addictive personality‘ is arguably learned behaviour rather than anything biologically determined. Of course we can argue that we have inherited an ‘addictive personality’ but it is equally valid to argue that some behaviours, such as over-eating, are part of wider family and social patterns. In short, we learn our eating patterns by copying others. After all, our first models of what is normal and how to cope with the world come from our families.

Another way of viewing addictive personality is look at it in terms of coping. From an early age we are taught how to replace negative emotions with positive ones. As children, gifts of sweets of food help ‘heal’ a disappointment or offer an ‘antidote’ to sadness, and sometimes even physical hurt. Fall off your bike and a chocolate bar will make it better’. As adults we tend to use the same approach, for example with comfort eating: a nice slice of cheesecake is thought to cure all manner of emotional ills. This is known as emotion-focused coping. We focus on replacing the unpleasant emotions rather than getting to the root of the problem (control-focused coping). So if we are sad or bored; we eat. When we gain weight and feel even more sad, we eat again to get rid of the unpleasant emotion, and on it goes. It’s the same as people who go out and spend on their credit cards to cheer themselves up from the dismay of the size of their credit card bill! This approach never gets to the ‘why’!

It’s easy to see how an over-reliance on emotion-focused coping can be described as an ‘addictive personality’. Instead of dealing with the  issues  that cause the unpleasant emotions we blot them out by drinking, eating cake or having sex. Replacing negative emotions with pleasant ones is not an ‘addictive personality’ it’s a short-term fix, coping strategy. It’s a psychological problem not a physical one. For a longer term fix, we need to address the underlying issues and look take a control-focused or solution-focused approach. What can we do to change the factors that cause the negative emotions?

This is not to deny that some people experience incredibly stressful events in their lives and a little bit of emotion-focused coping can provide blessed relief for a short time. However, it’s never a long term solution, and neither is owning a label (‘addictive personality’) that prevents people from even bothering to try any more!

If we scratch the surface, all forms of addiction have a psychological component.  If we focused on long-term coping strategies instead of unhelpful labels and quick-fixes, would ‘addictive personality’ cease to exist? Can we get unhooked from our dependency on the ‘illness model’ to address the underlying psychological reactions to the root causes of our problems?

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Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It