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How to Handle Catty Women Comments, Criticism, and Unkind Remarks
by Karly Randolph Pitman
There is a paradox with the body, and our appearance: while,
yes, how we look does not define us, and should not be our primary focus, at the same time, we should never feel ashamed,
guilty, or uncomfortable for letting our outer beauty shine. This morning, I read these words from Religious Science minister Reverend Ron Fox,
"We must go beyond wishing and hoping. We must
be willing to go beyond our fears."
How many of you readers are wishing and hoping that you can transform your body? That you can
be thinner, stronger, leaner, in better shape, in better health, have greater style, or look younger? How many of you want
to let your outer beauty shine, and yet are unwilling to go beyond your fears?
Because our bodies are the most physically present part of ourselves, this means that our bodies
are often the must subject to others' critique. We may be afraid of such criticism, both positive and negative, so we hide
our light, our beauty, from the world. We self-sabotage so that we aren't our best selves.
There is a link between your behavior (and
the underlying beliefs about your body that drive such behavior), and your perception of other people's beliefs
about your body. It's one of the primary reasons why we sabotage ourselves. When a woman decides to change something in her life,
whether it be a physical change, such as losing weight or gaining better health, or an internal change, such as altering the
husband-wife contract, it can be threatening to those around her. Her changes radiate outward, affecting all of those around
This is true even in something as seemingly inconsequential as external
beauty. I'll be honest: when I was abusing my body with overeating, sugar addiction, and dieting, it was hard for me
to accept other women's successes. I remember feeling envious and competitive when other women were able to overcome their
obstacles and lose weight, or regain lost health. If I'm also honest, I can recognize that sometimes this type of energy is
likewise directed towards me. And when I feel this body-voodoo, typically, it becomes too much, and I resort to self-sabotage,
overeating, and other destructive habits as a misguided attempt to protect myself.
Negative energy comes in all shapes and sizes. Envy and jealousy
are a part of it, but so are shame, judgment, criticism, and condemnation. I read a post this week by a woman who lamented
the hurtful comments that she's endured over the years, all because she was overweight. Sadly, we can all be subjected to
other's negative energy, whether we are overweight, underweight, or at a normal weight; whether we are considered ugly or
beautiful; whether we are young or old.
No matter what brand of negative energy you
are facing, here are three steps to transmute rude comments, so that you can process them, and move on, instead of internalizing
them in self-sabotage:
1. Relax. It's not personal. I know it feels personal. I know that rude comments
and body voodoo feels like an attack. But it's really about the other person, and not you. When people make snarky comments,
they are expressing their beliefs, perceptions, and judgments outloud. You don't have to make them your own. They
are your beliefs or perceptions only if you get hooked by them, and feel defensive, angry or insulted. If you are
at peace with yourself, their comments will be like the chatter of a parrot, of a mindless bird: simple talk that is
At the same time, have compassion: have you ever been critical or snarky towards someone
else? When we recognize that we all harbor a critical side, that we all have moments of pettyness, we can relax when we face
this side in others. For all you know, they may be feeling badly about their own body, and are merely taking it out on you,
the nearest scapegoat.
2. Recognize that you don't know the whole story. Have you
ever miscommunicated? Said something that was misinterpreted? Failed to communicate your true meaning? We all have. And this
also means that we all have been the recipient of such failed communication. We often proscribe judgments to other people's
words when we are unaware of their true intention. We create a story -"She thinks I'm ugly because I'm overweight," or "She
doesn't accept me," construing comments as insults, assuming that the other person meant to insult us. But we just don't know.
And often, they aren't insulting us at all: just communicating in an insensitive manner.
Instead of feeling defensive, redirect an insensitive comment, or even
one tinged with envy, so that it honors you. Thank the person for their comment, and assume that they meant to compliment
you. Here's an example: If someone says, "You have such a pretty face. You could be so beautiful if you lost weight,"
you can say, "Thank you for saying I'm pretty. That means so much to me." Or, if someone says, "You always look so together.
You must spend hours getting ready," you can reply with, "Thank you for noticing. I've been making an effort to take better
care of myself, and I'm glad it shows."
What's great about this tactic is that if
they were trying to jab at you with a petty insult, they'll be feeling so sheepish after you turn it into a compliment that
they will be silenced. This leads me right into step three:
3. Reframe it. When you are being criticized by others, how can you frame
this event so that it supports your growth? Even when you are being treated unkindly, you
still have a choice with what you do with that pain. You can frame hurtful commments in two ways: "Other people don't
like me. People don't accept me as who I am. I'm not good enough as I am. I'm always being picked on." Or, "I'm so glad I
love and accept myself, at any weight. I'm being given an opportunity to love myself unconditionally. What an opportunity
for me to practice self-love, and forgiveness."
Yes, I know that it's much easier to feel wronged when you've been
hurt. I know it feels better, too - in the short term. But it's your life, your time, and your energy that you're expending.
Those hours you spent, getting angry and sad and feeling hurt by someone's rude comment? Those were hours you can never reclaim.
Those hours were your very life.
It would be wonderful if women could support one another, 100% of the
time, in their journeys. It would be wonderful if we didn't feel threatened when other women achieve what we desire for ourselves.
It would be wonderful if we could accept that there's an abundance of beauty in the world; that letting another woman's beauty
shine doesn't diminish our own.
In the meantime, we can take steps to support ourselves, so that we
remain unhooked by negativity. Then we are free and clear to make healthy choices, are comfortable with our feminine gifts,
and allow ourselves to be beautiful.
site: First Ourselves
Unkind comments strangers make about your children in public settings
My children *seldom* misbehave
in public (Notice I didn't say NEVER!), but when they do, it's usually due to tiredness or illness. I seldom have people make
comments about my children in public, unless it's something nice, such as "Oh, they're so cute.." or "Oh, they're so well-behaved"..
However... There are a few exceptions to that rule!
I don't appreciate ANYONE
criticizing me or my children just because one of them might cry or raise their voice slightly, especially if the person doesn't
have children or they seem to have forgotten what it's like to have a small child! That being said, I also don't think I need
to subject other people out in public, to my children's crying, fits, etc.. If the kids are overly tired or not feeling well,
the best thing to do is to remove them from the situation and take them home.
It is not anyone else's place
or job to judge me or my children however, and so, on occasion when I do get rude or unkind stares or comments.. I just politely
ignore the person. I also try my best not to stare or make rude or unkind comments to someone else about their children...
Unless you are in that mother's shoes, then you have no idea what's *really* going on.
I think if a mother is doing
her best to make sure her children are polite and well-behaved in public and doing her best to remedy the situation, that
there is no cause or reason to be rude and stare or make unkind comments. If someone feels
the need to give me unsolicited, and unwanted, advice.. I usually don't even respond.
Perhaps my response is a little
rude, but, if, for example, I'm trying to get my grocery shopping finished, my kids are crying because they're tired, etc...
I can't very well drop what I'm doing to listen to someone's "advice" that isn't wanted or needed, nor do I have time to continue
"shushing" my children simply because someone is giving me rude stares. If I'm in a restaurant, however, and my children may
be "acting out", I will, out of respect for other diners, get to-go boxes and take my children home.
As parents, we do the best
we can to teach our children how to behave in public, but sometimes, we should take our children's ages, tiredness, etc..
into consideration.. And ask ourselves, "Is it really necessary to continue ___________? Or would it be best to take my child
home." You'd be surprised how often things aren't THAT important, and the best thing to do is to take care of the well-being
of your child.
Children don't always mean to "act up" in public, and so we really
should take that into consideration before we chastise them... Sometimes taking them home is necessary... Other times, quieting
them is also necessary. But I find it best to also ignore the rude stares, and ignore the rude or unkind
comments and the people making them. Ask yourself if there's truth to anything the person is saying, if there is, rethink
how you're dealing with your child's "acting up"... If there's not, then ignore the person and go on!
source site: Helium
Unkind comments strangers make about your children in public settings
What do you do when strangers
make unkind comments about your children in public settings? The impact of what they say can affect your children and you,
as well, if it is not handled correctly. There are a couple things to consider so that you can rise above their unkind words.
Always teach your children
that they are loved by you, by God and by the whole family. Constantly remind them that they are special and one of kind,
and that nothing anyone says can ever change that love.
If your child suffers from
any kind of handicap, never allow them to accept the handicap as being part of them. It is a cross they have to carry, possibly
throughout life, but it is NOT who they are. And you need to accept this, as well.
You need to build on the spiritual
foundation of both, you and your children, and be strong inside so that when attacks like this happen, they can fall to the
wayside. Both of you need to understand that the unkind comments are just that, and have no reflection on who either of you
If your children do not have
a handicap and unkind words are spoken, you need to think on why the comments were made.
For example, if your children are completely uncontrolled, screaming and jumping off furniture in a doctor's waiting room,
the comments may be directed to their undisciplined behaviour.
That does not justify the
unkind words, but it could give you an insight to a situation that needs to be put under control. And although the comments
may be rude or harsh, you need to understand that they were spoken in frustration. Your children probably are not what was
said about them, but there may be some validity in the reason of the remarks.
So, in this type of instance,
you can actually take the comments and accept them as the awakening you needed to deal with such a situation. And then you
can begin teaching your children the proper etiquette.
If the comments are directed
to your children's size or the way they're dressed, you can again evaluate their comments to know if there is any justification
in them. Perhaps, such comments could make you realize that you need to give some attention to these areas.
However, often times strangers
just like to vent out and speak their mind, and a common target is children. Why? Because these strangers need the satisfaction
of being heard or noticed and will speak out bluntly and hurt for the sake of hurting, just because they can.
Some adults can't accept that
times and situations are changing, and that how they handled
certain situations when they were young is not necessarily how they are handled now. It's becoming more common for people
to judge and make comments about things that they know nothing about. They feel it's their earned right to say whatever they
want. And this goes especially for older people.
This is a very poor and irresponsible
attitude and has no place in any society. Therefore, when you encounter these types of people you need to be prepared to either
excerpt anything positive or helpful from what they have said, or you need to ignore it.
You can ignore their comments
if you have taught your children inner security so that you can say to your children, "Ignore her, we know the truth and she
just likes to be heard". If your children have a close bond with you, they will continue to feel confident in who they are,
and they will be able to ignore the unkind words, as well.
But sometimes, the unkind comments need to be dealt with especially when you believe that they were spoken totally out of line.
Then, as a supportive parent, you need to show your children that you will not tolerate such unwarranted criticism from a
stranger. Just remember to use tact and discretion, and not anger or sarcasm.
An example, "You don't know
me or my children and you have no right giving your unwanted opinion about something you don't know anything about. You should
direct your rude comments to yourself because that's where they belong."
Just remember, people speak
openly for different reason: some because they can't control situations in their own lives; some because they are programmed
to accept only their own generation as intelligent; and some because they are so self-righteous that they have no compassion
or respect for anyone else.
But your focus at all times
should be on your children who look up to you for acceptance. As long as they know that you believe that they are special
and that you will always love them, they will be able to overcome such attacks.
And as long as you continue
to love your children and accept them for who they are, you will always rise up above the unkind
words spoken by strangers.
source site: Helium
Every time I say something
unkind or mean about a friend I am hurting myself more than I am hurting that person? Why
is this? Well first of all, if my friend is not in the same room as I am in, then they have no idea that I am talking about
them. I am putting a negative thought into my mind. I'm focusing on the bad side of that person.
What's more, I'm putting feelings
of anger, unkindness, hate and mockery in my heart and mind. Although I don't know about
it right away, I am also inciting feelings of guilt for having said such unkind thoughts.
I am reminded of them every time I see that person...more guilt.
Now what is the person am
talking about feeling? If he's playing golf, then chances are he is feeling the cool breeze from the wind on his face (for the sake of golf I hope there is no breeze at all!). Depending on who he
is playing golf with, he might be feeling any of the following: friendship, love, kindness, enrichment, gratitude, thrill
Of course he could be feeling
frustration too. The point is that his feelings are in no way as bad as the ones I experience. Mine are so much worse; especially
if he doesn't hear them.
Now if he does hear my heartless
words then he does feel bad. What is important to remember however is not that he is the only person feeling bad - we're both
Saying unkind words (or even thinking them) is done with the intention
of inflicting damage on others. Yet the result is that we get as much or more damage done to ourselves.
This is something that people
never stop to think about, yet they know it.
Keep this reminder at the
back of every conversation you have.
Unkind, risk averse and untrusting – if this is today’s
society, can we change it?
Julia Neuberger, Baroness and member of the House of Lords
The JRF’s recent public consultation revealed a strong sense of unease about some of the changes shaping
British society. This Viewpoint continues the discussion about modern ‘social evils’ on
the theme of ‘a decline in values’. Julia Neuberger argues that we can change society for the better by deliberately
rebuilding trust, opening up our institutions, and stopping the ‘blame culture’ from preventing simple acts of kindness and altruism.
• We have
become more self-obsessed, more narrowly focused, as the public
domain seems increasingly dangerous.
• It is harder
to help others than it used to be, and doing so in any structured
way has become fraught with bureaucracy and barriers, so that
where altruism still exists it is harder to express.
• We increasingly
devalue older people, while we live in an increasingly ageing
• Ideas of
mutual obligation have taken a considerable battering. We are not
sure who we ought to be responsible for, nor who our ‘neighbours’ really are or who we want them to be.
• We are
seriously risk averse whenever we offer help or care professionally,
and that leads to unkindness as it is easier to do nothing than to run the risk of blame.
• We tolerate
high levels of human misery, at the same time as we are shocked
by appalling scandals in care.
• The more
fearful we are of allowing our children out, or our older relatives
to be visited by strangers, the more we look in at ourselves and take our own emotional temperatures. Our obsessions then become how we feel instead of worrying about the welfare of others.
• Part of
our fear comes from a deep distrust of our politicians, and doubt as to whether they can do anything about it or, even if they could, whether they are to be trusted to get it right.
• The solution
lies in trying to rebuild trust and encourage altruism; opening up our institutions so
that communities can own them; stopping blaming people when
things go wrong by recognising systems failure rather than
personal failure; and reassessing the value of concentration
on the self, encouraging a sense of purpose in life by getting
people involved in doing things for others in their communities.
There is a rabbinic
saying, probably from the first century BCE, that sums it
all up: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And
if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?
(Mishnah, Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14)
Broadly interpreted, the rabbis were saying this:
I have to look after myself, for I have to stand proud and
know who and what I am. But if that’s all I do, what
kind of a human being am I? Selfish, uncaring and unkind.
And there is some urgency here – the world
needs to be made into a better place and though I may not
be able to do much, I can do a bit, and it’s no good
saying someone else can do it. The responsibility lies with
me, and I cannot leave it till tomorrow.
Society today is selfish, individualistic, lazy,
uncaring. That is what many of the participants in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) consultation have alleged, and there is a large element of truth in it. But it is not simple. Broadly, this is a social evil that negates the community we live in, or, more accurately, the communities
we live in, overlapping and supporting as they should be.
I have watched
bemused as we seem to have become less and less caring for, or even aware of the suffering of, the most vulnerable
in our society. This is not to say that there are not hundreds
of thousands of people who carry out acts of kindness for a variety of people in trouble day by day. Nor is it
to say that we are bad people, or uncaring – although we may be insensitive to the needs of
others, incompetent, or somehow unaware in other ways. Nor is it to argue, as religious leaders
have often done and as respondents to the JRF consultation
have asserted, that we have become selfish – although
that too may be partially true.
I believe that something else is going on, a complex pattern of interactions of ideas, events, zeitgeist, and personal human attitudes that has somehow allowed us to reach this position.
The idea that we
have an obligation to society beyond the demands we ourselves wish to make
of it is becoming unfashionable. Utilitarianism –
the greatest happiness (or
welfare or benefit) for the greatest number
– is a philosophy now held in severe disrepute.
is adulated, as is personal autonomy. Utilitarianism might
deter the huge efforts, for huge gains, of the talented
entrepreneur. Thus society looks less at the welfare of
the whole, and more at the welfare of the individual. And
the intervention of the state is seen as less than desirable, and often less than benevolent to boot.
old sense of mutual obligation, somewhat fostered by war-time, has taken a battering.
We are into understanding ourselves, into self improvement:
improving our homes, our looks and our minds. And our view of faith is also increasingly individualistic. We choose the elements
of faith that suit us – we may go to church, synagogue or
mosque. Individual salvation is part of the appeal of the
evangelicals. Personal salvation is the carrot held out.
But the requirements
our faiths put on us to consider and care for others may get less than their fair attention. We look
at ourselves, not beyond. And despite all the surveys demonstrating
widespread belief in God, despite the huge readership of religious books and the increasing attendance at evangelical churches, our views about social solidarity, evening up the inequalities and making a difference to groups or individuals who suffer, have taken a battering.
This is a huge
generalisation. Yet our obsession with ‘self’ – not necessarily selfish but perhaps self indulgent – leads to strange behaviours.
As the death of Princess Diana recedes into history, it
is hard to remember the reaction many people had to it.
Yet a walk through London’s parks in the days immediately
afterwards was a curious experience.
All over, there
were groups of people sitting in small groups, often round a lighted candle, contemplating, reminiscing, remembering and memorialising. Their grief, though real and genuine at the time, was not truly about the death of ‘the
fairy princess’. This was quite different.
This was remembering
for themselves; grieving for those they had not grieved for before, remembering mothers, fathers, siblings, or
even children. It was a sentimental wash of grief, until then unexpressed and even unrecognised. The sadness
was for themselves, although the grief for others may have been necessary and incomplete from
earlier times, and it played out as something truly self-indulgent.
were looking inward, at themselves and their experiences,
one of the curses of our age, rather than thinking about
what outward action they might be taking to improve things for others worse off than themselves.
And yet, more than
50% of adults in England and Wales volunteer at least once a month1. People clearly do get out of bed
to help others. They want to make a difference. All the
polling shows that people want “to improve things
or help people”, or that they feel that “the
cause (is) important”.
Nor is it necessarily
only older people who volunteer, despite popular preconceptions of volunteers being old ladies who sort clothes in charity shops. Indeed,
it is impossible to measure the ‘informal’ volunteering that goes on within communities, except that we know it
to be significant, and possibly to be in decline
was shown in Helping Out and in evidence presented to the Commission on the Future
of Volunteering in 2008, arguing that informal volunteering was not taken seriously.
So why does the
accusation of selfishness in society stick? Two reasons: one of the main motivations
in much volunteering is to give the volunteer a reason to get up in the morning – more for themselves
than necessarily for the people who need help, although
that does not mean volunteering is not valuable.
Secondly, those who are genuinely altruistic, or who simply want to help make a difference
because they cannot bear looking at their community as it
is, often find it extremely hard to lend a hand. And that
is because we have become seriously risk averse –
fearful as a nation, scared of terrorists, child molesters
and violence on the street – and as a result we make
it harder and harder to help those who need our aid, and
we become more and more withdrawn into ourselves.
It is hard for
ordinary people to give a leg up to someone less fortunate, to help the kid in care or the granny whose life is getting tough. As a result
of scandals surrounding some of our institutions and carers, such as children’s homes, schools and foster homes, we do not allow ordinary people to visit other than in a structured way.
is no sense of the local community just ‘passing through’.
The clearest example of this is our obsession, not wholly
misplaced, with sexual predators on young people. That has
made it necessary for anyone who works with children or vulnerable adults to be checked by the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB).
this meant that a child in the care of foster parents could not spend a night at a friend’s
house unless the friend’s parents were themselves
prepared to undergo CRB checks too. Yet what children in
care need more than anything else is to have ordinary friends
and to live ordinary lives.
The need for teachers
in schools or volunteer helpers with reading or similar to be checked for their
past record also means that those who might be willing to
be mentors and friends to young kids on an occasional basis – like a sort of rent-a-granny scheme – have to be
CRB checked too.
In itself this
is no bad thing, but the fact that we have become so stringent
in our requirements about checks on those who work or have
any relationship with children has perverse consequences.
themselves are encouraged to be suspicious of adults in a way that may be quite unhealthy, both for themselves and for society as a whole. Second,
those who are inclined to look after a child or young person
who is distressed – who is, for instance, lost or
being attacked by older children – will be very nervous
of getting involved. An example of this is the tragic case
of Abigail Rae, a two-year-old child who drowned in a pond after she escaped from her nursery school in Warwickshire.
The inquest into
her death heard that Clive Peachy, a bricklayer, had passed
by the toddler as she wandered down a road alone, but failed to stop and help her because he was afraid
that people would think he was trying to abduct
her. Suspicion of what their motives might
be has forced some people, particularly men, to restrain
themselves from showing ordinary common decency.
Yet many of our most troubled young people – although by no means all – have no regular male role model in their households and need to know what being an ordinary, stable, feeling, understanding man is all about.
Add into that a public worry (ever growing) that some of those apparently stable men (it is largely men) may well be interested in
pictures of young girls (or boys) in
sexually provocative poses, and may download them from the internet – a criminal offence.
Such men may therefore pose a real threat to the young, and so we look at all of them through nervous eyes.
Indeed, you begin
to see a picture of a society that wants to protect children from potential attack, but
may end up scuppering valuable relationships between young people and their elders because the fear of sexual attack takes precedence over a belief in ordinary common humanity. When pictures of children at nursery school cannot be taken without
parental consent, for fear of pornographic use, we have a problem.
When we are so
suspicious of adults’ motives in wanting to help a child that one cannot help in a
school without a thorough and lengthy police check, including one’s own children’s school, we will deter all but the most determined, however legitimate
our concern may be.
When more than 11.3 million people will be on a child protection database by 2009 when the new Independent Safeguarding
Authority comes into force, and volunteer school bus drivers and parents who host school exchanges will soon be subject to CRB checks, the question arises,
as Professor Frank Furedi has put it so well, of whether the fears of attacks on children are themselves being stoked by a “stealthily expanding”
growth in child protection measures.
But our fear of sexual predators on our children is by no means wholly unfounded. In recent years we
have lived through the Soham murders, through a series of scandals
surrounding children’s homes and special schools, through the disappearance of Madeleine
McCann, and through the ever more bizarre story of Shannon
The Roman Catholic Church is still reeling from revelations about attacks on young children
by priests as well as stories of violence and abuse by priests and nuns in Catholic-run
children’s homes, about which senior church members knew and did nothing. Or, worse, they simply moved the offending priests or nuns on, and
did nothing to protect the children or to heal their wounds.
Yet with all that, such a level of protection as we have instituted will make children unable to trust anyone. Those accused of any attack on children will be run out of town and are therefore likely to go underground. And those who want to help
children whose own families may be the worst abusers, by far the majority, or children whom
circumstances have let down in a big way through parental
death or family breakdown, are deterred by the bureaucracy that they have to deal with.
It is as if we are trying to create a risk-free society, which we know in our heads and our hearts is impossible. The result is that we restrict
and regulate, hoping to make abuse impossible, while knowing we cannot. And, that way, we deter the willing and the kind.
Our attitude to older people can best be described by our willingness to accept a high level of
neglect and abuse of older people, despite knowing that it goes on. We would not tolerate it for younger people. Yet, curiously, we fail to be truly
shocked when older people die in hospital in Kent because the circumstances of infection with clostridium difficile were so pervasive, and patients
were being told to “go in the sheets” rather than helped to the commode or the
We live in a society which has tolerated older people suffering from malnutrition in hospitals, tolerated lack of pain control in care homes,
and accepted inadequate payments for older residents in care homes and the poor quality food and care that flows from that. And we have tolerated a society that
has seen the disappearance of public loos, park benches and park keepers, all essential
if older people are to feel comfortable and safe going out of the house.
To add to that, we have been less than clear about
who is responsible, and who should pay, for older people’s care – it is all of us, young and old
alike. We talk about ‘bed blockers’, as if it is older people’s fault
that they have nowhere to go, and we discuss euthanasia rather than improvements in the quality of care.
We allow our frailest
and oldest to be cared for by people with no qualifications and poor pay and prospects, yet we seem surprised if the care is not always first rate. And we fail to learn
from other countries that living arrangements for older people, including those with dementia,
can be infinitely better, kinder and more satisfying.
But, worst of
all, we tolerate a dramatic increase in loneliness amongst older people – up from 5% of older people
surveyed by Help the Aged in 2005/06 to 13% in 2006/07. Nearly 1 in 3 older people said
their life had got generally worse over the last year. But still
we fail to see what we are doing to our communities by not including older people within
Related to this is a lack of clarity about who is responsible for whom – a result of what many respondents to the JRF consultation describe as family breakdown’, but which
is in fact a mixture of straightforward family breakdown and a change from lifelong relationships to shorter, but faithful,
marriages and partnerships
(loosely this can be described as serial marriage/monogamy).
As a result, it has become less clear who is responsible for whom in terms of caring for elderly or disabled relatives. Are you, for instance, responsible for your ex-mother-in-law? Then we are also increasingly
unclear as to who our ‘neighbours’ are. Our attitudes to community and outsiders have shifted. We still have a certain amount of suspicion
of ‘outsiders’, though many people relish the diversity of our cities.
There is also a growing body of opinion that feels our policies towards asylum seekers are plain cruel, and that if we cannot sort out our immigration and appeals
system it is hardly fair to blame those who are trying to come here, even if some are ‘economic migrants’ rather than true refugees.
While cynics might argue that many immigrants are
here to exploit our welfare systems, leaving less for those who have paid for it and continue to do so,
the presumption should
be (and some of the respondents suggested this) that
people have come for the right reasons. Therefore there should be a fast, firm, fair and compassionate system which sieves out those who have not.
If we cannot sort out how we should judge people who came here looking for a safe haven, or set up a sensible system for doing so,
it is hardly appropriate to make them suffer for our incompetence.
Indeed, it might be argued that our incompetence
should lead us to treat them better, rather than worse. These
principles have to be set against an increasing xenophobia that is astonishingly widespread,
which ranges from a general distrust of asylum seekers and refugees
to a more particular and frightening hostility towards Muslims.
In the wake of 9/11 and 7/7, such hostility embodies the fear that all young Muslims are the extremist Islamists who are so often portrayed in
our media. There are many who have sympathy with the Muslim
community – more accurately, communities – over this, but their opponents are
many and various.
Hostility emerges from the mouths of people who would otherwise think of themselves as very tolerant,
at least in part because many Muslims simply do not share
many western liberal values. Some politicians, shamefully, play to this xenophobia, and allow genuine asylum seekers to be treated with outrageous hostility.
We are also frequently intolerant of those who
have mental health
problems or learning disabilities, although in some ways our attitudes have improved since the old habit of locking them all up in the old long-stay institutions, which became warehouses of neglect in many cases. Indeed,
some people are passionately concerned about the welfare of people with mental illness, as demonstrated in the British Conservative party between
2001 and 2003, when championing the cause of those with mental illness was not necessarily
likely to win friends and voters.
There is enormous prevalence of mental ill health
in our prisons. In 2002, 72% of male and 70% of female
sentenced prisoners suffer from two or more diagnosable mental disorders, according to the Social Exclusion Unit’s Reducing reoffending by ex-prisoners report (July
2002). In 2004, 20% of prisoners had 4 of the 5 major mental health disorders5.
Last year saw 22,459 recorded instances of self-harm in prisons6 and 92 prisoners committed suicide, while over 100 prisoners were resuscitated after serious self-harm incidents7. This suggests that people with mental illness are all too likely to drift into what is our last ‘closed’ institution,
with the old hospitals gone. And there is little heed given to, and inadequate treatment
provided for, people with mental illness in prisons, by and large: far less is now being spent on each patient within the prison system than on a comparable
We are also surprisingly unmoved by the fate of
children who have been in care. We often choose to ignore the overwhelming statistics of our prison populations, with disproportionate numbers of people who have been in care, or had
severe mental health problems or educational difficulties. Though we continue to have high
expectations and hopes for our own children, it appears that
many of us have given up on any hope, or sense of responsibility, for those children in
are undoubtedly part of our community – or should be. Most of us will know something
of what happens to children when they leave care. And we will also have met them: the sad kids asking for spare change; the young boys going from door to door with trays or kitbags
of dusters, candles and CD cleaners to sell for too much money;
the young kids on drugs, alcohol or glue sitting in the park staring rather vacantly into
space with no apparent prospects; or the girls hustled and bullied into the sex trade with many apparently caring men their willing customers, even if they
Not all young care-leavers have these experiences,
but enough do for us to notice, observe and pass by on
the other side of the street. Yet we blame family breakdown for their predicament, rather than our own lack of attention to what is going on around us. While we agonise over the risk of
sexual predators who might attack our children, we ignore the sexualisation and sexual exploitation of those children who leave our care system.
Similarly for those who fail to get into care when they run away from home, because there is so little provision for runaways in our cities. What kind of society are we that
locks up those young people with mental illness in prisons rather than where they can get help and care, such as some kind of mental health unit designed
for young people?
Behavioural and mental health problems are particularly prevalent amongst children in prison9, with 85% of children in prison showing signs of a personality disorder and 1 in 10 showing signs of a psychotic illness. Young women
under 18 years old are twice as likely to injure themselves as adult women. In 2007, 89% of girls under 18 years old had self-harmed10 .
And what kind of society are we that allows our
young care leavers to get into the criminal fraternity so easily, and does not make sure they have the support of sensible adults
as mentors and befrienders for their late teenage years and early twenties?
Indeed, what kind of society are we that makes it so unattractive, to young men particularly, to volunteer to act as mentors to troubled young people because of the fear of how6 they will be perceived?
In 2007, 13% of men who do not volunteer to work with young people, but do volunteer, said this was due to the fear of being perceived as a paedophile, according to a survey carried
out for the NCH children’s charity11.
Values beyond community
Our inability to address some of these issues in our own, local communities
has led to two conflicting developments. One is the keen concern felt by many people,
largely younger, about the environment and scarce resources. It is this movement which has
drawn our attention to climate change, to water shortages, to the damaging effects of flying, to the horrors of ‘food miles’–
the travelling of green beans from Kenya rather than eating the local and seasonal produce
of the area.
But the same self-righteousness of this environmental concern can play havoc with the fragile economies of the developing world. If the farmers of Kenya
cannot sell their green beans to us because of environmental concerns, they will go hungry. If we start arguing only for local produce, the farmers
of the developing world will be left worse off than ever.
Many of these same young people will volunteer abroad, raise money for aid charities, and adopt a child
and ensure she or he receives healthcare. But their conscientiously held views may themselves
be part of the problem. Right or wrong, climate change versus
human survival in the here and now, are not easy problems. Slogans are less helpful than
a considered view on how best to help and support marginal farming, and the sense that ‘globalisation’ is bad leads to a moralising position
that may well harm the world’s poorest, a luxury only the developed world can afford.
Meanwhile, as the evidence about child protection makes clear, risk aversion all too often takes precedence
over kindness and risk aversion militates against communities supporting themselves. The smallest of risks (and some are not so small) takes
precedence over what we used to call kindness and care.
The result is that the kindness one sees in hospitals often comes from porters and care assistants rather than from senior staff; from the people whose training has not yet brought
them into a culture where risk aversion is so strong.
The result is that kindness to people with severe mental health problems often comes more from the owners of cafés where they sit for
much of the day, or the staff in public libraries, than from the nurses and outreach workers
who are in a position to extend a hand. Many of these nurses and outreach workers are wonderful, dedicated human beings, but the system they work
for is increasingly loath to allow them to take on any risk.
An arm around the shoulders might be thought to be common assault. An invitation to come and have a meal might be seen as some of kind of sexually predatory lure. Often ordinary caring and
kindness is shown to the most vulnerable by ordinary people who have not had it professionally
frightened out of them by a risk-averse system.
Risk aversion has increased a natural human reluctance to get involved, the
lack of caring highlighted by some of the respondents. That reluctance is always exacerbated by city living, where city dwellers have an unspoken, unofficial code
of not interfering in each other’s lives. This means that those who are troubled can become totally isolated all too easily.
Around Christmas and New Year, when many of the regular support services close for ten days at a time, those who are old, cold, young and isolated, mentally
ill or with learning disabilities, can find themselves totally unsupported. No friends, no family, and reluctance on the part of strangers who have
observed what is going on to get involved.
That reluctance will grow unless we look carefully at why we have (deliberately) grown
such a culture of risk aversion and the regulation to go with it, why we are so suspicious of sexual motives, why we no longer trust the ‘stranger’.
And that requires examining our own personal experiences.
If we fall in the street, it is the stranger who picks us up and dusts us down. If we have a car crash, it is the
stranger who calls the police and stays with us to give comfort. If we are mugged, it is the stranger who, all too often, gives us the wherewithal to get home. If we are suddenly distressed, or feel ill or overcome
with fatigue, it is often the stranger who carries our bags, who asks if we are all right, or who offers to take us to the Accident and Emergency department
of the hospital.
Those of us who
have reached our older years, or watched parents and relatives do so, know that it is often
the friendly, caring stranger who will do what is required at that very
minute. Yet we are making it more difficult. Why, as evidence grows that crime is down,
are we ever more fearful, ever more timid and ever more frightened of each other? And why do politicians foster
that fear, encourage us to be ever more watchful, and surround us
with CCTV so that ‘Big Brother’ (apparently) has his eye on us - to make us feel safer once our fear has been encouraged to grow?
That fear of others has turned us inwards. We have never been so internally reflective, so obsessed
with ourselves and our feelings, or so enveloped in understanding
ourselves. As we look deeper into ourselves, we lose the will to think beyond ourselves
to others, we lose the inclination to help, serve or work
for others. And we fail to look into the middle or near distance and deal with what we find
within our communities.
Part of this desire to look inside ourselves is precisely
what leads to that lack of a longer, more measured view. Psychotherapy has brought great gains, allowing those with unusual behaviours to understand themselves and behave differently, but it does encourage
the personal over the group.
Although cognitive therapy is shown to make a huge difference to many people with severe mental health problems, its
rightful place is in the clinical setting and not in the everyday
encounter with self- examination that, at worst, leads to
an inability to act. One could argue that all this emerges
from an unfortunate confluence of events, or of intellectual and emotional
For, at one and the same time, individualism became paramount; the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher stated that there was no such
thing as society12; and consumerism hit new heights and
the consumer, rather than the citizen, was king. That was
the very period when the obsession with looking inwards
grew in intensity, combined with a political and philosophical
view that the individual should control what happened to
him or her.
All these factors combined led to a distaste for looking at the welfare of society as a whole. For we are individuals
now. We demand things. We go for the personal. We understand
our own needs. We look inside ourselves, and we access information
on the internet. We know what we want and we will demand
The idea that we might not each of us be able to
have what we believe we want and need is anathema to us.
We have become demanders, not citizens – people who look to ourselves rather than to the whole society. It was always thus, to some extent. The tendency is not new; it has just acquired far greater weight. But the words so often uttered until just a few years ago, particularly
by elderly people, that ‘I have had my turn, it’s
someone else’s now’, are becoming rare.
We see no need to moderate our demands or say that we have had our share. Though we may feel that the doctors have done enough for us in the way of interventions and we want no more, it is no longer about what we regard as
our fair share. Instead it is about when we feel, as individuals
with autonomy, that we have had enough.
Trust is both political and ethical. In a society
where voting figures go down and down, and where trust in
politicians is at an all-time low, reassessing what we provide for the most disadvantaged, including the oldest in society, is difficult to do. What we have is a failure of trust combined with an aversion to risk: those who work in our services do not trust the politicians not to blame them when things go wrong.
What we have is
a society that thinks politicians lie when they promise
things for all of us, including the most disadvantaged.
Improvement in education? Show me. More higher education?Where is it, and why have I got to pay for it? And so on. Yet trust is essential if we are to value our services. And risk aversion makes for poor services, where no one will do what seems natural and kind in case they get accused of behaving improperly or riskily. They do not feel they are trusted to do the right thing.
Indeed, trust is
‘blowing in the wind’, and a trusting society
will be hard to claw back. Politicians are, often unfairly, regarded as only out for their own ends, not ours. But
if we want a society where people feel that fairness is
part of the ethos, we need to be seen to be involved with
our politicians and thinking about our society. We cannot
just let it go, and then complain. And if we are too individualistic,
then we will suffer.
as Richard Layard has argued so cogently13, will suffer, and so will our sense
of belonging. When David Cameron argued that “we know
we have a shared responsibility; that we’re all in
this together, that there is such a thing as society –
it’s just not the same as the state” (leadership election campaign, September 2005),
he was reflecting back on his predecessor Lady Thatcher’s
But he was also saying something important. We are all interrelated, but the state may not be able to put all the ills of our society right. The result of this is that everyone will have to make more of a contribution to
righting the wrongs of society. Altruism will need to be
fashionable again, and helping others, for whatever reason,
will need to be a part of our daily lives.
But that is not
so simple. For the question remains of who forms part of
that society in which we will all have to play a greater
role, voluntarily. Ultimately, this is about who belongs
to our society and how we regard them. It is about insiders
and outsiders, trusted and distrusted. If we recognise mutual
obligations, how far does that mutuality extend? Who is
‘us’, and who can we legitimately say we do
not count as being part of ‘our’ society, to
whom we therefore have no obligation?
If we only look
to ourselves, we narrow the view, and in the end become
automata, selfish, self-obsessed and shirking responsibility.
If we are only interested in long-distance travel and adventures
miles away, we miss what is under our noses. Both the furthest
and the nearest gaze negate the need for trust. It is in
the middle distance, from one’s fellow citizens to
one’s politicians, where trust, debate and discussion,
and making the world a better place, truly sit.
will just negate our experience of friends and colleagues.
Escaping to the ends of the earth will bring excitement
but no permanent gain. The issues we need to grapple with
are in our cities, towns, families and countries. Unless
we rethink our obligations and the trust we accord to those
in charge, we will become even more cynical, even more atomistic,
even more individualistic. And then there really will be no such
thing as society.
• We must
rebuild trust. That means politicians being less frightened
of the voters and closer to them. It means doctors and other
professionals talking frankly about risks and benefits.
It means the media applying self-denying ordinances to stories
of blame, day after day. It means all of us heeding the
lessons of Onora O’Neill in her Reith lectures on
trust, and of W.H. Auden’s famous line in the lead
up to World War Two:
must trust one another, or we die”14.
• We must
open out our institutions so that ordinary people can see
what happens in our care homes and children’s homes.
Of course we will need to be careful. But these are institutions
within our communities. They
need to be part of our communities. And ordinary people
need to go into them, on our behalf.
• We must
challenge the insurers and the writers of policies in care
homes and other institutions. Fear of fault-finding has
led to masterly inactivity. That must cease. We need to
stop blaming people and stop seeking their dismissal, unless
in extreme circumstances. We need to recognise that getting
most things right most of the time is an impressive record in human interactions.
• We must
reassess family breakdown and put more emphasis –
in settlements, in counselling and in relationship support
– on those who suffer as a result but never chose
to part the ways, notably children and other dependents.
• We must
reassess the prevailing emphasis on ourselves – our
contentment, our inner feelings. Sometimes those feelings
need to be addressed. But all too often the focus on self
leads to an inability to do things for others. We must work
out how to focus on the glorious sense of purpose that comes
out of doing things for others rather than oneself.
• We need
to reinvent altruism, and take up the challenge which argues
that the state cannot do everything for everybody. It probably
cannot do everything, but it can undoubtedly set out the circumstances in which more of us can, and would wish to, do things for each other as part of normal behaviour – without being threatened with
burdensome regulation and an atmosphere of mistrust.
source site for footnotes: click here