Emotional Intelligence, Mental Health

[Before all else, I will add this clarification: This is an opinion, albeit one informed by years of clinical observations of my own clients: those who self-identify as neurodiverse, those who self-identify as neurotypical, those who aren’t entirely certain where they fall, and perhaps mostly those who VIOLENTLY reject the notion they themselves might be on the spectrum somewhere.]

The human brain likes to organize and categorize things. Human culture likes to organize entire groups of people into “Us” and “Them”, then create entire arbitrary systems of values and rules and justifications tied to the perceived differences between those who are Us, and those who are Them. We see exactly the same kind of almost tribalistic distinctions between Those Who Are “Mentally Well” and Those Who Are “Mentally Ill”, and even when science moves to recategorize what used to be seen as mental illness into different forms or levels of executive functionality, humanity still very much adheres to those differentiating Us and Them labels.

With the re-examination of what we now term “neurodiversity” in the past decade, trying to better understand executive functionality in its much-broader-than-anyone-ever-realized scope, I often see through conversations with my clients the not-always-subtle pushback in our culture to the idea that a wide-ranging selection of behaviours tied to executive functionality might be way more prevalent than we thought. There has been a strident demarcation between the Us that can function without those disruptive behaviours, and the Them that seem persistently plagued by them; the affected neurodiverse (ND) who struggle to mesh with the world around them, and the “normies” who adhere to the notion of being “neurotypical” (NT). “I’m not like THAT,” “I’m not broken,” I’m not CRAZY”–therapists hear these kinds of statements all the time, just as we hear from the other side, “Am I broken?” “Am I crazy?” Why is this so hard for me and so easy for everyone else?”

Almost a decade since the first ND folks walked into my office, and now five years of working more closely with ND folks of many stripes, through my clinical observations and interactions I have come to a singularly compelling conclusion:

The concept of “neurotypical” is complete and utter bollocks,
a damaging, tribalistic myth of epic proportions.

There. I said it.

I deal with a lot of adults who are officially diagnosed with ADHD or autism.
I deal with a lot of adults who are self-diagnosed with ADHD or autism.
I deal with a lot of adults who regularly present with behaviours consistent with ADHD or autism.
I deal with a lot of adults who periodically or infrequently present with behaviours consistent with ADHD or autism.
I deal with a lot of adults who regularly present with maladaptive behaviours consistent with exposure to/immersion in high ongoing or repetitive stress or overstimulation (including burnout).

Guess what? One group, the first listed here, has an official diagnosis of some form of neurodivergence. The second is willing to see themselves as such. The other four? Statistically most likely to self-identify as neurotypical. You know what they all have in common? They all share the same types of dysregulated emotional reactions and behaviours when pushed past their respective breaking points. The breaking points’ locations differ for each group, but they can be mapped on a very uncomplicated two-axis graph with GROUP on one axis and STRESS on the other.

What this means, then, is that under the right set of circumstances, WE ALL exhibit the same dysregulated responses to stress and/or overstimulation.

TL;DR: pushed past certain points, WE ARE ALL NEURODIVERSE.

Take THAT, stupid tribalism!

So what’s happening for us then that puts us all on the same spectrum of executive function but at vastly different points of regulation? Turns out, the variable factor is the Window of Tolerance, or what I’ve been calling “tolerance capacity”.

The primary difference between the folks who claim to be “neurotypical” and those who don’t is their capacity to process stimulation. Stimulation past a certain point starts to exact heavier and heavier tolls, becoming stress. Stress surpassing tolerance levels starts to wear us down into a variety of hypoarousal and fatigue states (this is often where we see our burnout clients showing up). Stress and overstimulation that continue for many people into breakdown zones will eventually result in dysregulated responses; the tolerance window for NT folks is simply higher or wider, on average, than most ND folks whose overstimulation can start as soon as they wake in the mornings.

The reason why I would most like to strike the myth of “neurotypical” from the records is the damage done by any system that presents a mythical standard of high moral value, then subjugates a vast swath of the population into the OTHER group: “NEUROTYPICAL is GOOD, anything that DIVERGES from GOOD must therefore be BAD; therefore NEURODIVERSE is BAD.” Trust me when I say, it’s been a LONG struggle just to get language shifting from “Neurodivergent” to “Neurodiverse”. “Divergence” still carries the stigma of “diverging from the NORM”, which is hugely problematic when we can increasingly prove that “normal” is a mythological crock of shite. A lot of ND folks have brought in their frustrations and terrors around encountering time after time the messages that they are perceived as somehow less than, broken, crazy. They’ve been gaslit for generations into believing they are mentally ill, or at least deficient somehow; the ongoing stigma attached to neurodivergence is part of why the Tribe of Neurotypicals clings so desperately to the Great Myth of Normalcy.

Most of us have a window of tolerance, even the advanced autistics; it may not be as big as yours or mine and it almost certainly looks very different from anyone else’s window. We generally each have SOME capacity to tolerate stimulation or stress, but our ability to tolerate can shift dramatically, even from one moment to the next; it can shift up or down the Stress axis, it can grow or shrink. It is definitely impacted by the number of stress/stimulation sources in our lives. Some folks thrive in high-stress environments indefinitely because they have high-capacity tolerance windows; others are grumpy as soon as they wake to the weight or feel of their own bedsheets against their skin, and tolerance windows only shrink or move downward from there.

So instead of firmly and proudly declaring yourself in the camp of Neurotypical, I would ask you to remember a time when you maybe lost control emotionally or physically; how did you react? Did you feel overwhelmed, or distraught? Were you thinking clearly, acting your best Executive Self? How many times in your life has that happened? It’s important to reflect on these moments; these are the experiences that put us all on the same spectrum. There are a lot of great resources to help you understand how your own window of tolerance operates, starting from the seminal works of Dr Daniel J Siegal (described in the video link below), and how to be better at regulating yourself in the moments where those neurodiverse behaviours signal moving out of your optimal range. Even if we don’t bring the angle of Neurodiversity into the office, therapists are often well aware of a client’s executive functional state and capacity; we’re constantly working in various ways to help grow a client’s tolerance for a variety of stressors (whether this winds up looking like “tolerating in place” or “tolerating change” around those stressors).

Rethink your understanding of the myth of Us and Them. There are no camps here, just a spectrum of tolerance capacity and some beautiful, mobile windows into each of us on it.

Relationships, Uncategorized

Last week In my last post* I started a topic about the impact of our work lives on a general level, specifically as that issue relates to the local High Tech community. My own observations from both within and without that particular environment and culture definitely colour my professional work with the clientele coming out of this field. As I wrote previously, an increasing number of clients are coming to me BECAUSE of that background. I don’t just speak the language; I GET IT.

One of the many, many things I understand on the personal AND the professional levels (clinical and not-clinical professions) is the innate and potentially terrible impact that working in this field can have on our intimate and family relationships. There’s nothing that suggests that people who work in High Tech are intrinsically any better or any worse at having and maintaining relationships than people employed in any other field, especially industries with high performance pressures or Just In Time (JIT) delivery models. My perspective is, therefore, entirely biased by experience and direct observation, and like any good researcher, I prefer to identify my bias right up front.

In my previous post, I wrote:

When I ask clients what their core values are organized around, they almost always list their top three-four in this order:

  1. kids (if they have any)
  2. partner(s) (if they have any)
  3. family
  4. work

But when we look at how they distribute the finite resource of their time (often the indicator of truer ?real-life? prioritization), it looks more like this:

  1. work
  2. work
  3. work
  4. everything else

Most of us at some time or other have encountered the cliche of someone being “married to their job”. We generally understand this to mean someone who regularly prioritizes their work over everything else, whether by preference or by necessity. What we don’t always look at, however, is the impact that prioritization has on the person or people waiting at home… assuming they aren’t likewise married to THEIR jobs as well.

My client base currently runs the gamut from co-op students to C-suite (Chief executive-level) officers, and the issues are, by and large, the same: stress about work performance, strain in relationships, poor sense of work/life balance. When I sit with couples who are concerned or complaining that their Busy Lives have them feeling like a slow continental drifting apart, I always ask them right up front, “What stops you from choosing to prioritize each other and this relationship (or the family) over the external factors at work here?”

In many cases, a significant peril of the High Tech world is the crushing cycle of sales promises and deliverable schedules, tied to performance reviews and bonuses. There’s no secret that IT salaries and many corporate bonus/incentive plans are a BIG part of the reason WHY so many people accept the Golden Handcuffs; money remains the #1 stress factor in relationships. The idealized, romantic notion of “success” that includes owning one’s own home with the picket fence, 2.5 dogs, maybe a kid, gets to be a little unwieldy when white collar industry sends housing prices supra-orbital. Partnering into a two+ income arrangement is often the only feasible way to afford housing. Or childcare. Or financial support for extended family; given the rising number of immigrant employees with strong family obligations in their countries of origin, we see an increasing number of non-Canadian residents working in local companies and trying to get themselves settled while sending a hefty percentage of their income back home. (The intersectional aspects of multiculturalism and relationships and gendered role expectations and work environment stresses and… there isn’t enough time in the world to dive down that set of rabbit holes.)

Behind the scenes, the expectations of management are that employees will, by implicit if not explicit requirement, drop everything to pull 60-80 hour work weeks, often on a recurring (if not entirely predictable) basis. When you add in the precarious availability of potential on-call work (in any industry), it’s difficult to make plans, to find guaranteed time for quality engagement. There’s a prevailing context of “I might not be available when you need me” that makes it challenging to build intimacy and connection. And this is before we factor in the additional hassles of needing sometimes-highly-flexible childcare to support working families with lengthy work-weeks and crunchy project deadlines.

I commonly see IT clients coming in after lengthy periods of disconnect and increasing tension, frustration, or hostility in their relationships. Communications have deteriorated because of busy-ness getting in the way of restorative time together, or the buildup of small disappointments over time into cascading frustrations or anger through the slow death by a thousand cuts. It’s not that any of these issues are exclusive to High Tech, just that the environment of working in, or in support of, High Tech Culture, seemingly exacerbates the effects of common relationship issues. Once we get to the point of illustrating the shifting incongruence of their stated values and priorities versus their day-to-day behavioural indication of priority, we can make it clear that they have a difficult choice to make, in terms of “What will you do differently to make time for prioritizing THIS relationship?”

And therein lies the challenge. Doing things differently often provokes a degree of despair initially in clients because they feel powerless to push back against the behemoth of their employer’s expectations. Women in particular feel the emotional weight of “letting the team down”, along with the divisive pull of home and family, in ways that threaten their sense of balance and self-worth. When couples stop sharing these strains with each other, preferably devoid of any expectation of our partners somehow magically “fixing” them or the situation, then we start that inevitable slow slide into disconnection and lost intimacy. We don’t have time to practice authentic vulnerability when we barely have time to see each other over coffee in the morning. Many people don’t believe they have the right to push back against employer demands, and frankly, many employers are happy to take advantage of that belief. But at the end of the day, we keep coming back to the discrepancy between stated and displayed values, and the challenge of what WILL clients do differently to move back into connection and congruence with those stated priorities?

We start with the “low-hanging fruit” of solution-focused answers: carving out time for each other, as something unique from making time for family, has to become a more-highly-exercised priority. Date nights have to become an ardently-defended part of the scheduling, and the more time we can make to repair connection and intimacy, the better. Is there a “throw money at the problem” solution or familial support opportunities available for childcare, for example, that enables clients to re-establish time for intimate connection? Is there a conversation we can prepare with team or corporate management regarding workload management? Do we need to adopt extraordinary measures for managing workplace stress or fatigue as a component in glacial relationship erosion? In session, we work on breaking down the slow buildup of frustration to re-establish that intimate connection, but the onus is on the client(s) to make time to practice and sustain these changes in between sessions.

And more often than not, the hardest part of this work for all of us is simply normalizing these stresses and frustrations. I wish frequently this WASN’T such a normal scenario, but for this area in particular, it’s pretty much par for the course with High Tech clients. When I meet with HR or executive folks who want a therapist’s perspective on what they can do to improve employee quality of life, I can guarantee the LAST thing they want to hear is the truth: please stop expecting as normal the unreasonable standards for job execution you have bought into for this industry, and projecting that deadly bullshit onto your employees to deliver. It’s debilitating, demoralizing, and destabilizing them, and it’s damaging their lives outside of work; the cascading impact on people who don’t even work for you is inescapable, and costly. They want to hear instead that they can fix everything by supplying in-office massages or yoga, or enforced mindfulness training, or more mandatory “fun, team-building” exercises–the ones often scheduled outside of work hours, thereby eating into what little personal time or homelife these employees may have left. Resentment builds quickly, and if it’s not adequately offset by salary and benefits, it’s certainly not met by upgrading cafeteria service to near-gourmet provision, or adding laundry/drycleaning services (though some clients who have worked for employers providing on-site, licensed daycare have reported that as being a singularly-game-changing factor).

Again, very few of these issues are specific to the world of software development. But the typical project cycle and sometimes-unrealistic expectations for deliverables and performance metrics, tied to some of the highest payscales of any industry (even outside of the C-suite bonuses), make it a damnably difficult work scenario from which to walk away. And it *IS* endemic to High Tech that corporate “solutions” look more like changing the physical work environment rather than changing the mental environment defining their sense of work/life balance. Not a lot of us make the leap OUT of High Tech for something… else; the Golden Handcuffs are deemed too worthwhile. And that may be true, until we start to look at the impact on more than just the immediate employees, a whopping part of the cost remains borne by those invisible shoulders of spouses, partners, children, families in general.

This NEEDS to change.

* — With apologies; I have been trying for three weeks now to find enough motivation and impetus to write, and it just hasn’t been there. “Getting back on track” is definitely a work in progress, but I’m getting there… kinda. Sorta. Eventually…

Mental Health

Recently a friend — actually an ex-colleague from the software company I worked for prior to a slow-rage-quit that got me back to grad school as part of the career change process* — asked if I had written anything about the impact of workload stress on relationships. The short answer before today was no, not specifically, but today’s your lucky day! (Thank you, Don, for being the inspiration for this weeks post, BTW; I’ll cut you in on a half-percent share of the book royalties when this essay eventually goes to the Big Time 😉

My online bio pages both at my own site and at the Bliss site make it very clear that I wasn’t always a therapist. For twenty-five years I worked primarily in IT as a tech writer, deep in the bowels of software development teams and processes. I still keep a toe in the IT waters; I have an interest, uncharacteristic for non-tech psychotherapists, in data security, even when it makes me sound a lot like Cassandra preaching catastrophe to those who prefer to not know the doom rolling in toward them.

In the year-plus I’ve now been at Bliss in particular, I note how often people are requesting to book with me specifically on the basis of that IT background. It tells them, right off the bat, that not only do I speak a common language — it’s amazing how well project management lingo adapts to relational change processes — but I also absolutely “get it” when it comes to understanding the impact working in High Tech has on… well, everything, frankly.

My IT career started officially in 1993. I sent my first email in 1985, however, and haven’t really been offline since. I grew up in the world of math and computer science students and the all-nighter crams to finish assignments and projects under deadline. I came of age in the industry before and during what we now only dimly remember as the Great Dot Com Boom & Bust, and I’ve survived I don’t even know how many accelerating waves of technological progress ever since. Eventually, I came to hate so much of certain aspects of the industry that I unfortunately unconsciously sabotaged my way out of my last job, rather than speak up in self-advocacy to save my own arse. (I really need at some point to take my ex-manager out for a beer by way of an apology for that; he went out on a limb for me, and I did not repay him well.) It worked out extremely well for me, ultimately, in that now I have finally completed the transition to full-time therapist, work that I feel is soul-fulfilling, meaningful, deliciously challenging, (sometimes heart-rendingly exhausting), always engaging. And I like to think I’m modestly good at it. I’m ALSO a Very Good Writer, most of the time, and I’m very good at navigating and managing the process of figuring out and explaining processes, which is a key trait for technical writers specializing in end-user documentation. My LinkedIn bio starts with the brazen declaration that “I explain complex processes to people, and complex people to each other.”

What all of this means to my clients in 2018, at the end of the day, is simple: I GET IT.

Almost every client who seeks me out for the IT background is coming in for issues relating to stress:
stress at work, about work
stress at home (partner, kids, extended family, all of the above), because of work
depression and anxiety, because of and impacting work (and also impacting partner, kids, extended family, all of the above)
health issues related to stress

Overall job satisfaction is at an all-time low. “Company loyalty” in either direction is in a shambles, as the Tech Sector tries to appease its workforce with enforced team-building activities like axe-throwing (really, who thought arming the QA team with throwable weaponry was a Good Idea??), beanbag chairs or slides in the workplace, nap rooms, on-premises childcare/yoga classes/laundry/drycleaning services, gourmet cafeteria service… all while stagnating salaries in may places, outsourcing hiring reqs to offshore sources, and cutting benefits or paid time off options.

“Job engagement, according to Gallup, is low. Distrust in management, according to the Edelman trust index, is high. Job satisfaction, according to the Conference Board, is low and has been in continual decline. The gig economy is growing, economic insecurity is growing, and wage growth overall has stagnated. Fewer people are covered by employer-sponsored health insurance than in the past, according to Kaiser Foundation surveys. And a strikingly high percentage of people, even those covered by insurance, say they forgo treatment and medications because of cost issues.

I look out at the workplace and I see stress, layoffs, longer hours, work-family conflict, enormous amounts of economic insecurity. I see a workplace that has become shockingly inhumane.” — Dylan Walsh, for Stamford Business, March 15, 2018

It’s not all doom and gloom, but the industry has tried to placate its employee base with beads and baubles, all while demanding increasing worktime commitments with decreasing management support. Performance reviews are a time of huge strife for many, especially if stock vests, bonuses, or salary increases are tied to performance evaluations; right now, a lot of my Google clients, for example, are getting clear of the twice-yearly PERF processes. They bring their anxiety into the counselling offices as they struggle with their fears around not delivering on expectations, or worry about what working on high-performance/high-stress teams for the bonus money is doing to their homelife. They bring in their depression and general “life malaise” as they struggle to reconcile the 60-80 hour workweeks with the growing distance between them and their partners or children. “I need to find a better work/life balance,” they almost all say at some point or another in our conversations. They look to me for answers, not just because I’m the therapist in the room, but because (as at least two different clients have said to me now) I somehow managed to beat the system.

(The problem, of course, is that I *didn’t* beat the system; I became a classic victim of the system, first in 2007 then again in 2016. I only “beat” the system by doing a Captain Kirk-like Kobayashi Maru maneuver: I changed the rules. I created my own door marked “Exit”, and left the game. Very few people are equally willing to make that same sacrifice, it turns out.)

One of my greatest potential gifts to these clients who are struggling to cope with the sense of entrapment in this brutal system, is that, having been in it as long as I have been, I can normalize the situation in a way that carries the gravitas of experience. Unfortunately, the gift only goes so far with High Tech clients in particular; in general psychotherapy, normalizing helps the client recognize they are not alone in their struggle, that others have surely gone through very similar circumstances and for similar reasons, with similar outcomes, and we draw strength from knowing we are not alone in the suffering. Yes, the Buddhists really ARE onto something with their tonglen practices. The sad part in High Tech is that EVERYONE ALREADY KNOWS JUST HOW MUCH EVERYONE ON THEIR TEAM IS STRUGGLING. They may not know how much of that stress everyone else is also taking home, but odds are good they implicitly know that a lot of workplace stress follows all of the team mates outside of the work environment, regardless of how many games of foosball we play in between code compiles or meetings, regardless of how many extra hours we work (or take home to finish there) to try to stay on top of the deadlines.

When asked about the psychological obstacles to moving on to greener pastures even within the industry, Jeffrey Pfeffer, author of “Dying for a Paycheck” (which I just ordered for myself), said,

There are many issues. One simple one that we should never overlook is sheer exhaustion. Finding a job is itself a job. If you are physically or psychologically drained by workplace stress, then you?re not going to have the capacity to go out and look for another job.

Companies also play to our egos. They say, ?What?s wrong with you? Aren?t you good enough? We?re a special organization. We?re changing the world and only certain people are going to be up for the task.? Who wants to admit they?re not good enough?

And we are influenced by what we see our peers doing. I?ve had people say to me: ?I look around and all my colleagues are working themselves to death. What makes me think I?m so special that I don?t have to?? We have come to normalize the unacceptable. It?s hideous.

This, then, is the backdrop to the relationships High Tech employees tend to have. Unreasonable demands on time, tied to unreasonable demands on loyalty for that time at the expense of anything Not-Company (regardless of increasing lip-service paid by HR to work/life balance, management and sales demands apply not-so-subtle counter-pressure to jettison that balance on the crunchy end of every project cycle) threaten a person’s ability to effectively prioritize non-work relationships. When I ask clients what their core values are organized around, they almost always list their top three-four in this order:

  1. kids (if they have any)
  2. partner(s) (if they have any)
  3. family
  4. work

But when we look at how they distribute the finite resource of their time (often the indicator of truer “real-life” prioritization, it looks more like this:

  1. work
  2. work
  3. work
  4. everything else

The exhaustion factor that Pfeffer describes above, that follows our clients home from the work environment every day. Unfortunately for many of them, the work ALSO follows them home. So, exhausted as they are, they engage minimally and exhaustedly with their partners and families, then fight to find “just a few more hours” to do more work, all before getting up the next morning to do it all over again.

Pfeffer: You know what might change this? I gave a talk on this to Stanford alumni and afterward a lawyer came up to me and said there are going to be lawsuits.

Interviewer: On what grounds?
Pfeffer: In a way parallel to the lawsuits that were filed against tobacco companies. Some companies are killing their workers. People have been harmed. If I had to bet on how this will change, some company is going to get sued, some lawyer will win an enormous award, and that will open the floodgates.

Interviewer:If you meet with executives, can you make a competitive strategy argument to not treat employees this way?
Pfeffer: Of course.

Interviewer:Is that effective?
Pfeffer: Depends on whether they have any sense. […] There?s data on this ? there shouldn?t need to be, but there is ? that suggests that when people come to work sick, they?re not as productive. Companies have problems with presenteeism ? people physically on the job but not really paying attention to what they are doing ? with lost workdays from psychological stress and illness, with high health care costs. Seven percent of people in one survey were hospitalized ? hospitalized! ? because of workplace stress; 50% had missed time at work because of stress. People are quitting their jobs because of stress. The business costs are enormous.

I support dozens of stress-leave clients a year. MOST of them are High Tech. All of them report some variety of the anxiety/depression cocktail, almost all of them report feeling lost or disconnected in their relationships, unable to muster energy for connection, further disrupted in their recovery as frustrated partners trying to address their own needs and wants ALSO add to the pressure. And the general consensus is, this is never going to change. Since 1993, it has rarely changed in favour of the employees; more perks and colourful baubles are added to the corporate environments, but at the same time, High Tech’s love affair with the “collaborative open office” is taking away employee beliefs on an increasing array of levels that we’re at all entitled to ANY boundaries in the workplace, including the perfectly-reasonable ones.

Unsurprisingly, lack of boundaries and lack of willingness to speak up about the conditions becomes a common theme in the personal relational issues with which my High Tech clients are also struggling. The personal mirrors the professional, or vice versa.

In the short term, there are no good answers. I hate admitting this. I can work on helping clients differentiate the personal processes from the professional ones, trying to create some new boundaries that separate and protect the private connections so that they can be repaired as much as possible within the context of the larger, pressing priority of the workplace. But in truth, the primary culprits in this scenario remain the corporate mentalities driving workplace policies, setting the standards AND the stage for the 21st century work ethic that demands unreasonable things from a workforce that cannot sustain delivery on those demands. They remain the HR policy pundits who see the numbers and fail to influence effective changes in corporate expectations. And to a lesser extent, they remain the employees themselves who yield their own agency in exchange for a paycheque, who don’t mass together and stand up to the unreasonable demands, who repeatedly burn themselves out in the process of instead capitulating to corporate priority over their own personal ones. Who sacrifice their lovers and spouses and children to “the demands of the job”.

Because these are issues that hit us rather-more-literally-than-we-care-to-admit where we live, there is no quick fix for this. This is a systemic clusterfuck of bordering-on-epidemic levels. We do what we can to examine the priorities and adjust for MORE congruence, but as long as we stay tied to the High Tech industry for the sake of those glorious, sometimes-outrageous IT salaries and benefits, we remain imprisoned by these unrealistic, unsustainable, destructive demands. And it will continue to cost us all, in terms of struggling to find healthy balance, in terms of corporate costs to benefits packages, or covering increasing numbers and duration of stress leaves, and in terms of overall morale in the industry.

Here endeth the rant sermon, at least for today. I strongly expect this will be a recurring topic for years to come. Next week I’ll try to take a more directed look at how we work with the relationship-specific aspects of this epidemic.

*–In and of itself, a very long and convoluted story that isn’t entirely unrelated to this week’s post, but I’ll leave it for another day.