Sunday, 28 July 2019

Will the Real Boris Johnson Please Stand Up

In case you’ve missed the news recently, the Conservatives have a new leader and the nation a new Prime Minister. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. Boris - to us, but not his family and friends - for short.

He’s been a long time coming and, according to reports, has wanted to be “World King” since the age of seven. Now may be a good time to see if we can work out a little bit more about our new leader.

Boris is the oldest of four “full” siblings including Rachel, Leo and Jo. We’re told the family is intensely competitive and we know a reasonable amount about all of them, except for Leo, who seems to keep a less public profile. The family ties with patriarch Stanley, himself once an aspiring politician, remain strong. Stanley, talking immediately after his son’s election, made a laughing remark about the leadership skipping a generation. One wonders how much of a familial trait is being expressed here …

Until just a few days ago, we knew of Boris as a very clever man – a scholarship to Eton and then to Balliol College, Oxford – twice mayor of London, sometime Latin-speaker and MP for Uxbridge. He’s clearly charming and well-liked by those who know him (although he’s by no means popular with everyone) and is self-deprecating with his humour, which is also a good way of disguising his intellect.

However, nobody who’s got where he has – even with connections – can have arrived there by chance. He has worked for it, no matter how effortless he may have made it seem.

And this where the contentious bit comes in; I’d suggest somewhere in his early years, after moving from a happy home life to boarding school, the boy who started out Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson developed a “false self” persona - the one he's shown us up until now.

The false self theory is connected with early life experiences and secure attachment. Put simply, the idea is that, if you have a good-enough start in life and a secure primary care giver, then you can generally deal with what life throws you. And, when life becomes difficult (as it inevitably will), you have someone alongside you to help you work out how to manage and develop in a healthy and beneficial way.

At last - the keys to Downing Street
The Johnson family moved around often in his early years, including spells outside the UK but, when mother Charlotte became ill (his parents subsequently divorced), Boris and his siblings were sent away to boarding school, first at a prep school and then on to Eton.

I’d suggest life might have been a little hard for Boris as a scholar at Eton.

He came from a very close and intellectually driven family, was well travelled – he had been at school in Brussels and spoke fluent French – and was probably a great deal more sophisticated than his schoolmates. And, even if he was a great sportsman (those rugby shoulders), upper-crust English families at that time (we’re talking 1970s remember) tended to appreciate sporting prowess above academic genius. I doubt there is any other country in the world that describes someone as: “Too clever by half.” England did.

Also, the British upper-class system is not really designed for those who aren’t immediately part of the group, as Boris wasn’t. His ancestry would have been pretty different from most of his fellow schoolmates (a Turkish great-grandfather as well a host of other foreign connections from both sides) as would his cleverness. We’re all excited by diversity nowadays but we were a much more secular society then.  

So, I would argue, Boris had to contend with his removal from a very close and supportive family environment to a much less sophisticated world, coping with the complications of his mother’s illness and his parents’ subsequent divorce. He had to put on a brave face and he did and that is the Boris that we feel we have come to know.

The false self persona comes about in part because of the need to fit in and also with that often comes a desire to be liked. That, too, fits Boris’ profile. When he heard he was being interviewed by one journalist for nine of the 10 hustings, he was horrified, saying: “But he doesn’t like me!”

So how did a man who appears to need to be liked make the momentous decision to fall out with many of his friends – including fellow old Etonian David Cameron – and join the Vote Leave Brexit campaign? That seems to go entirely against the grain.

Critics argue it was a cynical ploy and Boris saw it as his one chance to gain the highest office in the land. However, his supporters argue that his decision could have cost him his political career. They say his decision was based on deeply held beliefs, not just cynical opportunism.

We know Boris Johnson wrote two articles, one in favour of remaining in the EU and one against. He told journalists (charmingly, of course) it was a way of focusing his own mind on what he believed to be best for Britain. The one he published was the one in favour of Brexit.

Certainly, the new PM is now showing us a different side to the one to which we’re used. His “take no prisoners” change of ministers within a day of coming to power indicates a determined will lurking within that jovial exterior. And, making his first speech as PM outside No 10 Downing Street, I didn’t hear him use one Latin phrase. He spoke clearly, sharply and fluently and finished his sentences without the awkward hesitation we often hear. This was a different man from the playful Boris to whom we’re used.

Could it be that this fun-packed, devil-may-care, witty, erudite Briton who makes us smile when we hear his name, is not all there is to Boris. Could it be that what began as a disguise and a reaction to a traumatic change in his early life is indeed a cover?

For what or for whom I don’t know. But we will find out.

Top pic: Mayor Boris Johnson in 2012 at the opening of the London Olympics 

NB: This is my entirely personal view, written wearing the analytical hat of a journalist. I’m aware that, as a qualified counsellor, I have no business writing about somebody of whom I have no personal experience. However – and that’s an interesting point for me – I feel I know him, as many of us do, so I’ve decided to take a punt and write about what I see. In my defence, I’d argue Mr Johnson is a politician and we have a right to consider what makes him tick.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

The Obesity Epidemic

Every week, we are told we are getting progressively fatter as a nation and that the illnesses and physical disabilities that can be directly attributed to excess weight are placing a catastrophic drain on the resources of the NHS. 

Two-thirds of adults in the UK are now overweight and 27% are classified as obese. Resultant illnesses include Type 2 diabetes, cancer, strokes, heart attacks and sometimes irreversible damage to muscles, joints and tissues.   

And, every week, we are bombarded with information on new “wonder” diets, new fitness programmes, new exercise plans and nutritional guidelines. 

Old-school slimming organisations such as Weight Watchers continue to thrive while we are increasingly offered slimming pills and medical interventions ranging from gastric bands to body modifications of one sort or another.

So, we have all the information, we know all the risks, and we have access to all the possible support systems and “cures” . . . and yet we continue to get fatter and fatter - why???

Perhaps the answer lies in the question.

It is often said that the reason diets and slimming programmes don't work is because they are not sustainable. It is important to recognise that the reason that they are not sustainable is not because the slimmer is not getting enough food to sustain them - as no ethical diet or programme would promote that - but because they are seen as restrictive and boring.  

So it seems the real problem can then be identified as connected with the lack of "feeding" the pleasure response, rather than the actual hunger itself.

I believe, therefore, it is more productive to approach this problem from the perspective of the feelings which cause us to eat, rather than the food we then consume. 

People often bemoan their lack of will-power in not sticking to a diet, whereas I suggest it is precisely their will that is persuading them to reach out for more food despite their better judgement, and the power given to the food is often to make us feel better rather than to satisfy an actual hunger. 

We eat the “wrong” foods, not only because we like the taste, but because we absorb them more swiftly into our systems and therefore experience a quicker response.   

Food has emotional connections
Just as we would not consider it helpful to take an alcoholic into a pub and discuss with him/her the various ingredients and comparative merits of each bottle of alcohol I feel that, until we take the focus off the food and place it on the reasons for eating, we are not attacking this crisis at source. 

Food has always had - and will always have - strong, emotional, cultural and religious associations and it has traditionally been used both to celebrate and to punish.  

These feelings remain embedded in us and we then easily learn to attribute the feelings to the food itself.  

This is demonstrated by the fast food chains who make their food very attractive to young children as those connected happy feelings will often remain with adults throughout their lives.   

How often do we eat for social, celebratory or habitual reasons, or out of loneliness, boredom or unhappiness?   

Just over 40 years ago, Susie Orbach in her book Fat Is A Feminist Issue explored how women can use gaining weight as a psychological defence. Little has changed. 

A recent six-page supplement on obesity in The Guardian which contained articles by doctors, nutritionists, surgeons, physiotherapists and other health care professionals, included just one sentence on the possible need for psychological help.

Obesity is an illness that we wear; the symptoms are not hidden or random. 

While we focus on the food, we are on a constant roller-coaster of deprivation and compensation where food is both our gratification and our punishment and comes with a heavy coating of guilt.

Yet the medical profession is often fearful of addressing this crisis out of concern for shaming the patient.  

I would argue that we are at risk of allowing more and more people to die of obesity and its related illnesses if we cannot lift the stigma that is attached to fatness.

Instead, we need to look and see it as an emotional and psychological defence that can be managed and overcome with sympathetic and insightful care.      
Integrative Counsellor and Psychotherapist

Photo by Christopher Flowers on Unsplash  
Photo by Alexander Mills on Unsplash