Monday, 2 December 2013

Six month sentence or life?

Let me tell you about Luke.

Luke has been a volunteer youth leader for the last three years at one of the youth clubs I'm involved with. He's great with the kids, a reliable member of the team, and probably would have been selected as chairperson if he hadn't already been running a football club almost singlehanded. He's a thoroughly decent guy who cares about young people and wants to give them opportunities – very empathetic, easy to talk to, good fun. Maybe that's just his nature, but it's probably got something to do with his life experience too: he was bullied at school, he became an angry teenager – in fact he ended up doing six months in a detention centre. So Luke can empathise with youngsters who aren't finding life easy. But he came through, got a job and it wasn't long before he was asked to keep an eye on the apprentices at work.

Luke got married, had children, but sadly his wife died of cancer and he found himself bringing them up on his own. Oh, and did I tell you his son has ADHD and was eventually sent to a special school, so Luke also knows all about dealing with special needs.

As you can imagine Luke didn't come out of school with many qualifications, so it was amazing when he decided to do a degree as a mature student. And once he graduated he started job hunting and asked me to be one of his referees. It was not  difficult to write a great reference for him when he applied to be a support worker at a home for people with learning difficulties. Nor was I in the least bit surprised to hear he had been offered the job, subject to a DBS check.

What did shock me a few weeks later though, was when he told me the offer had been withdrawn because of his criminal record – because of what he had done when he was 17 and 18 years old. You see there's one thing I haven't told you about Luke, which is that Luke had just celebrated his 50th birthday. And he is being told he is not suitable to work with people with learning difficulties because of things he had done as a teenager over thirty years ago!

I have written to the organisation involved to question their recruitment policy, but that is not enough, because this sort of insanity is going on all over the country in the name of safeguarding. Instead of using a bit of intelligence, common sense and discretion when faced with DBS information, HR departments are using a blanket tick-box approach. We need to get this story out there so that those who are recruiting start questioning their policies, instead of covering their backsides, and putting some humanity into Human Resources policies.

As Luke put it, "I did something wrong as a teenager and was punished for it. I don't expect to be punished for the same thing again 30 years later."

Monday, 22 July 2013

How to Motivate Yourself

The other day a friend asked me how to stay motivated when writing a book. I told him the key to motivation is to ditch trying to be conscientious and disciplined and instead to work out ways to trick your mind, and most importantly to learn how to be naughty!

Some principles:
  • replace 'should' with 'could' – instead of 'I should work on that chapter right now' say 'I could work on that chapter right now' and give yourself permission to choose not to
  • follow your energy – do what makes your energy  go up; if you think of cleaning the flat and your energy goes down, find something more interesting to do (which might at that moment by your assignment or your book, or it might be going shopping!)
  • let your body tell you what you need to do – it will tell you when you need to eat, sleep, work, rest, exercise, watch TV, go out; listen carefully and do what it tells you to do
  • be naughty – if you think you ought to be writing your book be naughty and clean the flat instead; if you think you ought to be doing an assignment be naughty and spend half an hour on the book before you start; if you think you ought to be exercising be naughty and finish off an assignment
  • observe your creative cycle – notice when you get your best ideas: in bed, in the bath, when walking, and allow yourself to do these things; notice what time of the day you write best and timetable this in; give yourself time to warm up to creativity, maybe start by editing a previous part until your writing brain clicks in; if working after a certain time affects your sleep or how you feel in the morning then stop before that time
  • trust that it will all get done in the end – when you find yourself doubting you can get everything done remind yourself it will happen, it just might take longer than you thought
  • use external deadlines to raise the stakes – when an assignment has to be in by a certain day it tends to get done; when you're expecting a visitor the house gets cleaned; understand that these things will get done in the end, so don't give yourself a hard time for not doing them earlier 
  • divide jobs into small bits and do one at a time – instead of aiming to do a whole assignment aim just to write the plan; instead of writing a whole chapter aim to write/edit/improve  one section; instead of aiming to clean the whole flat aim to clean one room
  • be kind to yourself – notice and praise yourself for all that you have achieved (which might include resting, socialising or having a good night's sleep) rather than focussing on the things you haven't done

Friday, 17 May 2013

Building a Better Future

I’m in the office getting ready for next week’s Building a Better Future course, which my husband Peter and I run for people who want to make changes in their lives. The list of names has been shifting all week, some people dropping off because of changes in their circumstances, others being added at the last minute.

We’ve been in the self-development field for many years and have worked on this particular course during the last three. It was initially aimed solely at people who had been in prison, but we soon realised there are many more people needing this kind of input, so opened it up to anyone who is ready and willing to change. We have teamed up with the homelessness charity Crisis and run the course in their Skylight Centre in London four times a year. Participants now include the homeless and recently homeless, people who have struggled with addiction, and those looking for a new way forward. Anyone is welcome as long as they come for the full five days, are prepared to look at themselves and their situation, and are open to change.

We’ve had people of all ages, from young people of 18 through to pensioners; men and women; many nationalities and from all walks of life. Whatever the backgrounds of those in the room, at the end of the week there is a group of people who have been on a journey together, who care about each others’ future and are prepared to offer one another support if it’s needed.

Despite the range of people who attend the course, their issues are often similar: a difficult childhood or traumatic event that caused deep pain, low self-esteem, anger and self-pity. This often led to disengagement with education; violence or crime; substance abuse; and/or mental health issues. Most people are deeply ashamed, but often mask this by blaming their circumstances, other people or society for their ills.  

During the week we explore the emotions that control us, discover how to identify them and to release them safely and effectively. We identify the best in us and the worst in us; most people find it much easier to see what is wrong with them than to acknowledge their qualities, but by the end of the week everyone knows their strengths and how they can use those to move forward. We look at our life stories and how they have made us who we are – we take responsibility for the decisions we’ve made, and forgive ourselves for those bits of our lives we aren’t proud of.

We use a variety of processes to achieve this. The key thing is to build trust within the group, and a range of simple exercises help participants get to know each other and feel comfortable in the room. On the first day we look at a model of emotions, allowing people to explore what emotions have dominated their lives and how to manage them; we use discussion and drama to do this. Throughout the week we use relaxation techniques, breathing and visualisation to manage stress, build self-esteem and release old emotions. We use stories, poems, drawing and symbolism to by-pass old thought patterns and explore new ways of looking at things. Once the group has bonded and there is a high level of trust, participants can use a listening circle to express and release the parts of their past that are holding them back. By the end of the week the group knows each other well and are able to give each other powerful feedback that leaves people feeling valued and recognised. The final day involves making a practical action plan for next three months and a simple ritual to leave the past behind and step into a better future. 

The course allows people to let go of things that have been holding them back, leave their past behind and to decide what needs to be done to embark on a positive future. There’s a lot of laughter along the way and often a few tears. For many it is healing place and a turning point in their life. It is powerful and effective because it addresses the causes of the participants’ destructive behaviour. Once these have been identified and released, the person is able to move on from their past and start making constructive choices. Whilst the journey is by no means over, participants usually leave with a sense of self-worth feeling that a burden has been lifted from them. This makes it easier for them to address mental health issues, addiction and offending, and so not only improves their life chances, but also reduces the amount the state will spend on them in their lifetime – a week’s investment with a high return in every sense.

So back in the office I’ve done the confirmation calls and am looking forward to meeting those I’ve spoken to. I look at the list and wonder who will arrive and who will not, and who will stay the course. I’m looking forward to getting to know the personalities, hear their stories and witness the struggles and triumphs they experience during the week. But most of all I’m looking forward to learning what each person I share the week with will add to my life.