Manipulation & ‘Personality Disorder’ – Dig Deeper

Keir is a Lead Therapist in an NHS Specialist Service and provides training, consultation and therapy around complex mental health problems through beamconsultancy.co.uk

Every now and then people are kind enough to respond to some of the things I’ve written with really thoughtful stories, ideas and comments.  I’m sharing this one.  (And feel free to let me know if you’d like me to share what you think, whether it’s complimentary or not).  It’s inspired by my most read post which is also about manipulation.  If you enjoy reading it do let @sarahjaynepalgr know.

“We all manipulate. People who tend to be diagnosed with personality disorder are just particularly bad at it”. Keir Harding (2016)

Manipulation in the context of those diagnosed with personality disorder has negative connotations. Selfish, egotistical, devious, difficult; but those assumptions refer to the intent behind the behaviour. Manipulation is essentially used for survival in whatever form is required. Our children manipulate us all the time if they feel this is necessary to get what they want and depending on how we respond some may learn that this is an effective means of survival. Forming attachments becomes a risky business when a child lacks nurturing and emotional stability. Toxic parenting, neglect, abuse or indifference (intentional or otherwise) teaches a child that human relationships are untrustworthy, painful and disappointing so the negative experience of this will be carried forward into adult life and form the basis for expectations.

Something people diagnosed with PD have in common is a lack of validation of their feelings from an early age. Many have abuse in their history, sustained trauma, complex PTSD. Receiving little or no validation of thoughts and feelings creates insecurity, fear and lack of trust as a child’s personality is forming. When emotional needs are left unmet the message is ‘you are not worthy’. Layered on top of this, any further dysfunction or trauma re-enforces the belief of unworthiness until trust is an unknown feeling. Anyone who lives in fear and cannot trust will continually test any relationship to prove their belief that no-one can be trusted. When we refer to Personality Disorder we are referring to a personality that has ‘disordered’ itself in an attempt to cope with a traumatic reality. A person has an inability to manage emotions as they have learnt their lessons in life through pain and fear not love. When a person is fearful over a sustained period of time (raw fear in a child, anxiety in an adult), the fear internalises and the chemicals in the brain remain in a permanent ‘fight or flight’ response. This heightened state of anxiety causes automatic and extreme responses to stress as any situation can trigger the fear response with no conscious control, hence creating ‘unreasonable’ behaviour which others find difficult.

Very few can empathise without having walked in a person’s shoes, however we can show human compassion and understanding and refrain from judgement. We are all unique in our ability to cope and heal and if a client is triggering you, ask yourself why and what this tells you about yourself; are you are working from your ego or your heart? To label people dismissively as manipulative, difficult or with terms such as ‘it’s behavioural’, is to ignore the core issues where the answers lie. To dismiss the cause of the condition isn’t really treating it at all but does represent the way in which we approach dis-ease in general in our culture.

It’s worth pointing out also that individuals who have had to read the moods and energy of another to stay safe from a young age are very good at sensing when they are being misunderstood or patronised. Staff should be given access to regular training sessions and examine how they manage their own health and emotions to make a positive impact in the life of another. By the time service users get the diagnosis, care plan and treatment they so desperately need it may be at the end of a very long road of confusion and suffering. To engage with staff and form a relationship takes a lot of energy and effort for someone who is crippled with anxiety and afraid of forming attachments. Whilst lack of funding and adequate resources for training can always be an issue, compassion and empathy come from the heart. If we can share this we will improve service and outcomes and enjoy better relationships with those who we have a duty of care towards.

Sarah J Palgrave @sarahjaynepalgr

Views are based on my own experiences
Professional & personal experience in mental health
Reiki & Theta Healing Practitioner

Keir is a Lead Therapist in an NHS Specialist Service and provides training, consultation and therapy around complex mental health problems through beamconsultancy.co.uk

 

 

The State of ‘Personality Disorder’ Services in Wales

 March is upon us and this is my first blog of this year.  The main reason for that is that I’ve been desperately trying to get my dissertation finished and any writing that has not contributed to that 18,000 word total has felt like a betrayal.  Anyway, it’s handed in now and it’s time to cast my eyes upon the land of my fathers as the British and Irish Group for the Study of Personality Disorder Annual Conference is coming to Cardiff on March 20th.  With this in mind, it’s worth looking at how Wales responds to the needs of those diagnosed with personality disorder and how we compare to our neighbours on the other side of Offa’s Dyke.

In some ways, Wales has been quite pioneering in this field.  While the NICE guidelines for borderline personality disorder were published in 2009, Wales laid out its own blueprint for services in 2005 calling for the provision of specialist services that were integrated into current provision.  This was echoed in the NICE guidelines 4 years later.  With Welsh Government guidelines and the National Institute for Clinical Excellence requiring trusts to provide specialist services you would assume that Wales would have ploughed ahead.  You would be mistaken…

In 2017 Oliver Dale and his colleagues undertook a review of the provision of personality disorder services in England.  They found that 84% of trusts provided a specialist service.  In Cardiff in 2016, at a conference that gathered people from all the trusts in Wales, we very quickly replicated Dale’s study.  We found that less than half of Welsh trusts (3/7) had specialist services.  This was odd because 2 had services that were recognised as being very effective while areas that didn’t have specialist services talked about “the privatisation of PD” – how those diagnosed with a personality disorder were ‘not their business’ and were sent to expensive independent hospitals miles away.

Given the potential for specialist services to reduce the amount of people sent (and they go under the mental health act so they are literally sent) out of area I began to wonder why the Welsh Government wasn’t pushing trusts to follow NICE guidelines, or even its own guidelines.  I wrote to the Health Secretary asking if he could encourage trusts to follow his own and NICE guidelines or explain what they were doing that was better.  The disappointing response was:

“I hope you will understand that neither the Cabinet Secretary nor Welsh Government officials can intervene in health boards’ day-to-day operations”

This seems to me to be a preposterous answer.  Not least because one of the Welsh Health trusts is under ‘special measures’.  This is defined as “Current arrangements require significant change. Welsh Ministers may take intervention as set out in the NHS (Wales) Act 2006.” So in contrast to the answer I received, Ministers can not only ask why NICE guidelines are not being followed, they can take intervention to remedy it.  In this case they merely choose not to.

If over half of Welsh trusts were refusing to provide treatment for people with cancer I suspect someone at the assembly would pick up the phone.  If half of Welsh trusts declined to offer services to war veterans I’m convinced someone at the assembly would write a letter.  Over half of Welsh trusts are ignoring Welsh Government guidelines and NICE guidelines for people diagnosed with personality disorder and the government doesn’t even see it as within its remit to ask why.

We can have lots of ideas about why this might be.  We could say it’s because specialist services cost money, but the evidence is that they save money by reducing the need for expensive Out of Area placements.  We might conclude that personality disorder remains a diagnosis of exclusion in Wales and that for some reason this is acceptable.  Those in mental health tend not to shout very loud for their rights to be upheld.  Those diagnosed with personality disorder are probably the most stigmatised and excluded within mental health.  They are easy to ignore, easy to forget about and potentially paying £200,000 a year for them to be sent out of area is for some reason a better option than having to work with them at home. We can do better than this.

I wasn’t particularly satisfied with the answer I received, so I emailed again.  Part of my letter said:

“I take your point that neither the cabinet secretary nor government officials can intervene in the day to day running of health boards, but I wonder if the Welsh government could avoid being complicit in the exclusion of people diagnosed with personality disorder by strongly encouraging trusts to follow its own guidance.  My understanding is that NICE clinical guidelines continue to apply in Wales so I’m curious why it’s acceptable for less than half of Welsh trusts to follow them.  Given that trusts have been sued for not following NICE guidelines would it be prudent for the Welsh Government to call on trusts to justify why they are not following the guidelines rather than have to pay the legal bills when somebody opts to take matters to court?

I welcome the extra money that the Welsh Government has put into primary care however the clientele I was speaking of tend to manage their distress with potentially lethal self harm.  This is generally not seen as a primary care role and an absence of specialist services means that they get sent to largely unsuccessful out of area placements at a cost of around £200,000 a year.  This is £1,000,000 to treat 5 people where a specialist team at a fraction of the cost could provide better treatment without the necessity to send Welsh people to England”

My response to this one was equally uninspiring.  I was told that despite seeing no role for itself in highlighting that less than half of its trusts follow NICE guidelines for a particularly stigmatised group, the government had signed a pledge to reduce stigma.  I feel like actions might have spoken much louder than words here.

I was also told “The Welsh government’s main role is to set the strategic direction for health services and hold the NHS to account”.  For me ‘Strategic Direction’ might include writing guidance.  ‘Hold the NHS to account’ might include ensuring that guidance is followed.  I’m baffled why this is the case for some areas of health but not the realm of personality disorder.

The reply finished with “Health boards must regularly review their services to ensure they meet the needs of their resident population you may, therefore, wish to consider contacting the individual health boards directly on this matter” – my interpretation of this was “We have produced guidance, NICE has produced guidance, half of our trusts are ignoring it and if you want to know why, you can ask them yourself”.  Again, this seems an incredibly vague interpretation of setting strategic direction and holding the NHS to account.

I did an experiment and opted to contact one of the health boards to find out why they didn’t follow NICE guidelines.  They replied that Dialectical Behaviour Therapy was available in some areas and that intervention was offered through generic services.  “That’s not what I asked” I replied, “Where are the specialist services that NICE recommend?”  They replied something along the lines of “We know we’re not following the NICE guidelines and we’re working on it as a priority”.  Given that it’s 13 years on from the Welsh government guidance and 9 years from the NICE guidance you have to wonder how far down the list of priorities it must have been.  There is also the worrying response that “we need additional funding to create specialist services” when the reality is that a service could be paid for immediately by not sending one or two people out of area.  If the health boards are happy to spend £1,000,000 providing treatment to 5 people for a year, why not provide therapy to hundreds of people in the community for the same money?

Frustrated and wanting to know the extent of the problem the trust was ignoring I tried one more time.  A freedom of information request asked:

  1. How much does the Health Board spend on residential treatment for people diagnosed with a personality disorder?

  2. How many acute beds are utilised by such patients who are often stuck on acute wards?

This resulted in the response:

“Unfortunately, the Health Board is unable to respond to your request for information as we do not record data on personality disorders to this level of detail.”

“This level of detail” is an interesting phase. Another interpretation of this is “People we pay over and above £200,000 per year to receive treatment in private hospitals, we don’t even record what we are paying for”.

No Longer A Diagnosis of Exclusion was a document published 15 years ago highlighting the discrimination people diagnosed with personality disorder experienced within mental health services.  15 years on, despite an early call for better service provision, the Welsh dragon must hang its head at the ongoing systemic discrimination that goes on.  This is a client group of whom 10% will die by suicide.  The National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide by people with a Mental Illness found that none of the 10% who died over the period of their study were receiving care that was consistent with NICE guidelines.  Perhaps a high proportion were living in Wales where for some reason the NICE guidelines don’t apply or, for this client group, there is no will for trusts to implement them.

It was about 2 years ago that I asked the Welsh government to encourage trusts to follow the guidance it had written around personality disorder, let alone the NICE guidelines that apply across England and Wales.  That 84% of English trusts have a specialist service compared to our 43% is shameful indeed. It would be less shameful if we saw it as a travesty to be addressed rather than an issue to contact individual trusts about if you are interested.  I’ve asked Mind Cymru, Time to Change Wales, Hafal, Gofal and other groups with an influential voice to try to make some noise about the current exclusion of this client group in Wales.  Perhaps with the British and Irish Group for the Study of Personality Disorder Conference coming to Cardiff in March, the Welsh Government might reassess it’s position on encouraging trusts to follow its own guidance.  Perhaps it might start counting the amount of money spent on sending people to England for treatment they don’t want.  Perhaps 15 years on it might reread No Longer A Diagnosis of Exclusion and consider that the difficulties experienced by those diagnosed with personality disorder have a legitimate place in our health service after all. I hope they do.

For a petition to be considered by the Welsh Assembly it needs to get 50 signatures.  A petition that calls on the Welsh Government to implement the NICE guidelines for borderline personality disorder can be found HERE.  Please sign.

Keir Harding provides Training, Consultancy and Therapy around complex mental health problems via www.beamconsultancy.co.uk

A Disorder for Everyone?

Dec 8th 2017

It is too early in the morning, there is a light dusting of snow on the ground, and I’m heading off to Manchester to spend a day dropping the disorder.  A Disorder for Everyone  (#adisorder4everyone) advertises itself as a one day event for a range of staff and service users to discuss critical questions around the biomedical model in health.  My perception of it is that it’s overtly critical of our current system of diagnosis (especially around the term personality disorder) and heavily promotes the idea of formulation and understanding difficulties rather than labelling them.  Less a neutral place to debate but a place with an agenda and a message to impart. This is no bad thing as I’d agree with something that I often hear emanating from the AD4E days, that “Diagnosis obscures peoples stories”, that once something is labelled, it’s an excuse to stop thinking and respond to the label rather than the person.

The event comes at a poignant time.  Earlier in the week I’d lost someone I was relatively close to (as close as you can be to someone you have never met) on twitter to suicide and I was at an event  where her passing was to be acknowledged.  She was almost described as someone who ‘had’ personality disorder and I was glad to be able to point out how much she (and eminent psychiatrists) rejected that label for her presentation, how she felt that it had led to a ‘care’ plan she felt to be brutal and dehumanising and how she saw the label as something that had led to the staff around her acting in a way that was toxic to her.  So in a week where the damage labels can do is on my mind more than usual I was off to find out more.

I need to confess to being a touch apprehensive about going.  When talking about what textbooks describe as ‘personality disorder’ on social media I tend to get a bit of a hard time.  I wonder if it’s because the debate tends to become polarised and I actively try to keep something of a middle ground.  In a polarised debate this means I don’t end up on anyone’s ‘side’ tending to result in me being perceived to be ‘against’ people.  I rarely am and if anything, my views on diagnosis tend to slide more towards the DTD side.  I shall elaborate….

Whenever I’m training people about personality disorder, someone will pretty much always say “I want to know about the signs and symptoms and the different types”.  In many ways, this knowledge is next to useless, but it does help staff feel more competent and competent.  Most days this statement gets a response along the lines of….

There are 10 types of personality disorder.  I’ve worked in a variety of mental health settings for the past 18 years and I have met less that 10 people with a personality disorder diagnosis that isn’t borderline or antisocial.  So – there’s these 10 types, only 2 of them ever get diagnosed.  Something with this system is seriously wrong.

In my experience if you are a woman who self harms, you are getting a BPD diagnosis regardless of whatever else is going on.  Something with this system is seriously wrong.

Research suggests that if you can be diagnosed with one personality disorder, it’s highly likely you’ll meet the criteria for another 2.  That’s 3 personality disorders in all.  So in a system that aims to put people into a neat tidy box so that we know a care pathway, it’s messy because they’re actually in 3 boxes (and probably with some traits in a few others).  Something with this system is seriously wrong.

Let’s take borderline personality disorder in the DSM 5 as an example.  To be given the diagnosis you need to match 5 of the 9 criteria.  Let’s say that my friend Ian and I are on the ward.  He can meet criteria 1-5 and I’ll meet criteria 5-9.  That’s us with the same diagnosis, the same treatment plan, and sharing only one characteristic.  Something with this system is seriously wrong.

Those are the problems within the system, let alone the insult inherent in labelling someone as having a disordered personality.  I can intellectually accept that we all have personality traits, that some of those can cause us difficulties (mine do!) and that if they cause us serious difficulties that could be described as a disorder. The difficulty in this field is that the majority of the people getting this label are those who have lived through experiences of neglect, abandonment and outright abuse.  To then label them as disordered rather than seeing them as having an understandable response to their experiences then seems to be somewhat callous.

Now often, people can’t accept that the ideas above go anywhere near my head at all.  One reason for this is that I work in a personality disorder service.  I’m told that I have an investment in this label and that I have forged a career on the backs of abused women.  I can see a basis for this argument but I’m not sure what the correct response is.  I suspect it’s to jack in my job.  The difficulty I see with that is that systems often struggle with people who get a personality disorder label.  I want to make that better.  I’ve met too many people who come onto wards feeling suicidal and never get let off again.  Ways of coping that would go unnoticed in the community become reasons to detain in hospital and all of a sudden people have been on an acute ward for 6 months, they’re on a range of toxic chemicals, they’re 3 stone heavier and they’re about  to be shipped off to some institution miles from home.  Will this happen less if I stop work?  I suspect not.  Will there be a voice that challenges this trajectory?  Again I suspect not.  I was reading Gary Kasparov’s book last week and he was talking about what to do to combat malaria.  Do you try and help some people now or a lot of people in the future?  Do you make more mosquito nets or do you work on a cure?  I’m making mosquito nets and I want all those working on the cure to succeed.  It doesn’t mean that either of us is the enemy.

So in essence, this is what I a took into the event.  I also took some worries.  If the diagnostic system vanishes, how do newly qualified staff cope?  It took me years to feel confident enough to just look at the difficulties people were experiencing.  Can someone do that fresh from college?  How does that culture change come about?  Painfully I suspect.

Also, what do we do with our accumulated knowledge so far?  Is it useless because it’s built on such a shaky foundation?  With a diagnostic system shattered, will we know ‘what works for what’ anymore?

 

 

So the event is over.  And I survived.  Actually, the apprehension I’d had about attending was totally groundless and while a couple of people recognised me from social media, they couldn’t have been friendlier or more welcoming.  While there was a touch more poetry present than I would normally have the stomach for, it was powerful in its delivery and did what I think all good poetry does, says more with less words.

I’d opted to go to this event rather than other DTD ones as I was keen to hear Lucy Johnston speak and I’d somehow managed to overlook that she actually speaks at all of them.  I was a little bit disappointed, not it the quality of what she said, but because I’d expected there might be something to rail against.  Something that sounded a bit too left field or a bit ‘crazy’.  Instead Lucy gave a critique of diagnosis where there wasn’t anything substantial to push against.  If I’d wanted to be particularly devilish I might have pointed out that the diagnostic criteria she (rightfully) pointed out as being moral judgements did come with the caveat that they needed to cause problems for people for the diagnosis to apply.  Having said that, I’ve seen people detained in hospital for self harm that was only a problem for other people so I might support Lucy’s position about the spirit of how diagnosis is used, if not the letter of it.

In the afternoon Lucy spoke about the value of team formulation.  Again (almost disappointingly) there was little to disagree with.  She described a mechanism to keep teams thinking so that they weren’t overly rejecting or enmeshed.  It made me think of the Knowledge and Understanding framework for Personality Disorder and the Offender Personality Disorder Pathway and how they both (in my experience) aim to challenge labels, offer a understandable and empathic alternative to a diagnosis and “try to keep thinking at all levels in the organisation”.  It also made me think of the NICE guidelines for Borderline Personality Disorder which encourage trusts to set up specialist services to “provide consultation and advice” which in my experience has been a similar “let’s forget about labels and understand what’s going on approach”.  Now the KUF, the OPD and the NICE guidelines are heavily loaded with the PD label, but as they offer a non diagnostic approach is that a price worth paying to get organisations thinking differently?  In systems that are welded to a hierarchical, diagnostic system, are these tools a wedge to get different thinking in?  Many will think not but one of the reasons I often berate Wales for not following NICE guidelines is because without a mechanism in the organisation to promote thinking, people mindlessly (often with good intentions) do what they have always done.   One of the comments about the use of team formulation is that getting a team together to think for an hour costs a lot of money.  It does.  But locking someone in a “specialist” placement for a year costs £200,000 and if formulation stops that happening once then its paid for itself until most of the team have retired.

Jacqui Dillion (Dr Jacqui Dillion no less) finished the day off with a description of her journey through life, services and activism.  It was a captivating talk with far too many people who you might expect to be helpful being outright abusive.  We heard experiences being discounted as illness, emotions being discounted as illness, anger about not being believed discounted as illness and a host of people who should have helped replicating the abuse of the past.  It was this part of the day I found most affecting and it was heartening to hear Jacqui talking of what made life liveable for her again.  Not some magic therapy but someone who would listen, someone who would validate and someone who empathise.  Someone who could give a different perspective to those who told her she was evil and bad.  I’m going to butcher this quote but it was something along the lines of “We are traumatised by relational abuses and we need relationships to get past them”.  For all those on the ward and the CMHT who don’t know how to help I’d urge you to read that sentence again.

Jacqui asked how many people worked in mental health and a bunch of hands shot up.  She told us that you have to be a bit odd to choose to do this.  I tend to agree and I often wonder if what gets labelled as personality disorder is the combination of those who get all their self worth from helping people in distress meeting those who understandably cannot trust those who are supposed to care.  Much to think about…

Having left the event I’d share what one of the delegates voiced with frustration, that this is all just common sense.  It is, but we need to find a way to inject it into systems that run like they have always run and are paralysed by the fear of being blamed.  My only gripe of the day is that there wasn’t much of a chance to interact with the other delegates.  Even if there had been my suspicion is that the event wasn’t populated by senior managers and clinicians from the NHS.  I think people left validated rather than converted but again, this is no bad thing.  We might also have left a bit angry.  ‘Anger is an energy’ was quoted (but not attributed to the Sex Pistols).  I quite like ‘Anger is a gift’ from Rage Against the Machine.  Certainly people left with anger but also with some ideas around how to apply it.

Part of the theme of the day was how labels can stigmatise and stop us seeing people.  We talked a lot about the value of stories, how people are made of stories (not sure I agree, but certainly our perceptions of others are), and how “recovery” was about getting a story that portrayed you as a survivor of adversity rather than someone who was disordered or ill.  We have the power to influence the stories that are told about people and I left today inspired to tell better ones. To tell stories about people, about why difficulties make sense and about ways in which we can help.  I want an alternative to a Daily Mail letter that talks only of illness and tablets, and in the midst of all the evils of the world, I want to tell stories that are full of hope.

I’d heartily recommend attending one of these events and there are details of the next ones here…

For a bit of balance, here is another view around critiquing diagnosis which I found interesting.

www.adisorder4everyone.com

Keir is the Clinical Lead of Beamconsultancy.co.uk and provides Training, Consultation and Therapy around the issues often labelled as Personality Disorder

*Thanks/Curses to @sisaysPSYCHOSIS for pointing out that I don’t know my Sex Pistols from my Public Image Limited.  That will teach me to be so smug.

Validation – Working with People who Think the Wrong Things

After another day of training people around how to work with people who hurt themselves and find it hard to trust others (often diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder) I was left thinking about how eager staff are for ways to be helpful. The generic ward and community staff often have a sense that they can offer nothing and that all the skills for working with this client group lie either with psychologists or mystic practitioners of 3 letter therapies. One of the exercises we do on the day looks at how to take the heat out of situations so that people can talk to each other. We normally identify it as ‘validation’ and in all my years of working with people labelled with personality disorder, I think its the most useful thing I’ve picked up.

In the spirit of trying to be helpful to the Keir Harding who struggled to work with traumatised people 15 years ago, I’m going to go through the 6 levels of validation as outlined in DBT. While DBT is a therapy specifically aimed at those with a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, this way of relating to people is useful for everyone. I even used this to get £300 worth of free mechanical work so this is literally a valuable tool to have in your arsenal.

Level 1 – Being present
I think in the old days we would call this active listening. Eye contact, nodding, smiling in the right places. Budding Elvis impersonators might like to throw in an ‘uh huh’. While this seems like the most obvious thing in the world to do I think back to my early career when I was doing assessments with people. The session tended to move away from a place where we could learn something and instead turned into an exercise in getting a form filled in. I’m pretty sure I’d ask closed questions so as to fill a particular box and then stop listening once said box had been ticked or crossed.
So without being too creepy, look at people with rapt attention, as if in this moment what they are saying (or not saying) is the most important thing.

Level 2 – Accurate reflection
This is where you move on from showing people you are listening to showing them that you have heard them. This can be a simple “So you’ve told me you’re upset” a more hypothetical “It sounds like you’re really sad” or “When you came in you said you wanted x”. All we are doing here is repeating back what people have said in different (but not always) words. Again, when I think of myself doing this badly, I’d get to the end of the form and say “Right then, I’ll write this up and send you a copy. See you next week” which would pretty much give the impression I hadn’t heard anything they said.  It was as if the priority was getting the form filled in, rather than tryin to understand something about the person in front of me.

Level 3 Reading
This is where validation gets more interesting as we get to use our brains a bit more. Here we are taking what someone is telling us and offering something new. “When they walked out and the house was silent, I wonder if you felt utterly alone?” or “When your friend said she didn’t like her present, I wonder if that hurt?”. Again this lets people know that you’re not only listening but thinking about them. Try to avoid telling them what they should have felt.
I think my best (worst?) examples of doing this wrong is similar to the above, where I’ve written down responses verbatim or, where I’ve told people what they should feel.
“So he ran away with my bag”
“You must have been angry”
“I was too frightened”
“You weren’t angry that he took your bag?”
Telling people they should see and feel things your way never tends to work out too well…

Level 4 – Normalising based on past experience
This is one I use a lot and probably the one I’ve done most badly in the past. This is where we show that we are not only listening and thinking about someone, but we know them too. With this we try to show people that what they have felt/thought/done is entirely understandable given their background. It’s something I like to use when people say “I was so BPD”. For example…
“I get so worried about saying the wrong thing I just don’t say anything …it’s just my BPD”
“Well you could think of it as BPD, but you said that when you were younger you used to be severely punished for saying something that your parents disagreed with. I wonder if you learned that saying the wrong thing can be dangerous so it makes sense that you’re frightened.”

Here we are trying to show that their feelings are perfectly understandable, based on what has happened to them in the past. If we don’t know their past we can be curious – “So you say that you feel worried about speaking. Worry makes me think of fear and that makes me think of something threatening or dangerous. I wonder if something has happened that has taught you speaking can be dangerous to you?”. You might get a few “don’t knows” but I’m betting you will build a better relationship with one “I expect there’s a really good reason you feel this way” than you will from a hundred “There’s nothing to be afraid of”s.

Level 5 – Normalising based on it being normal
It’s this one where we help the person who feels freakish and different to see that they’re like everyone else in the world. We take the bizarre, baffling and unfathomable and turn it into pure reason. I often find this is what many staff struggle with and when they can’t understand, they make their own interpretations as to why people do what they do.  To use a real life example …
“I want to go on leave”
“We’ve sent you on leave a few times but you just sabotage it” – might possibly be better framed as:
“when you’re home by yourself you get frightened and desperate, so you cope by doing what you normally do when you’re scared. Everyone does what they can to cope when they are desperate.”
Or
“I get scared that I’ll be on my own forever”
“I think everyone would find the idea of being alone forever fairly scary”

It is in this area that I excelled in invalidating people. I’d learned some CBT on my travels through mental health and I had an obsession with challenging ‘thinking errors’ and ‘negative thoughts’. I would have seized the above statement and tried to convince them that they were wrong to feel what they felt. I’d ask what there was to be afraid of, I’d ask what was so bad about being on their own. I think I would tend to keep going until they felt stupid and ashamed for thinking what they did. I’m not proud…but (sadly) I am certainly not alone in making this mistake. One of the interactions I regularly see in services is someone saying “My life is so shit” and the other person leaps in to tell them they’re wrong.
“I want to die, I’ve got no money, everybody hates me and I’m never going to go out on my own”
“But Rachel, yesterday you were laughing at Simons joke, and this morning you made a cake and said you’d enjoyed it”.
This rarely makes people suddenly believe that their life is worth living and it certainly convinces them you don’t understand.
“I want to die, I’ve got no money everybody hates me and I’m never going to go out on my own”
“I can hear how much you want things to be different. Most people would despair at the idea of being hated and dependent on people”
The other common one I used to do a lot was “I’m never going to get better” at which point I’d leap in with gusto (because remember, my patient not getting better is an explicit criticism of me) ranting “But you’re doing so well!!!” To make me feel better the college lecturer would nod and agree when I told him he’d caught a bus by himself and stayed in the busy shop for a whole hour. In reality I had totally dismissed what he was feeling and instead put some work in to make myself feel better.
It is useful to challenge people but for most, and certainly the group I work with, people hear you louder if you can validate what they’re saying first.

Level 6 – Radical Genuineness
This is the master level of validation that only the true mental health ninjas can achieve, although in essence it’s not that hard. Once we have shown people that we are listening, hearing them, thinking about them, shown it makes sense given their experience, shown it makes sense given the rest of the world would feel like that too, – then we can take the final step, “I would probably feel like that!” or even “I have felt like that”. This can be as simple as:
“When they said I couldn’t get any leave I was fuming and just trashed my room”
“If I’d been planning something all week and someone told me it couldn’t happen I’d be pretty angry too”
Or it can be a bit more personal…
“Its so unfair, I just want to go home and they said they’ll section me if I try to leave”
“My daughter was in hospital once and the consultant said we could take her home. He went off shift and the physio said we couldn’t take her until the Dr said it was OK. Knowing it had been agreed I wanted to discharge her ‘against medical advice’ and the ward staff told me they’d call social services if I tried to take her. I know it’s not the same but I understand some of that feeling of being trapped, threatened and it being unfair.”
It’s possibly my own reading of radical genuineness, but i think there is a value in being, well, genuine with people. I think back to the times when someone has told me of some weekend that Stephen King and HP Lovecraft couldn’t have imagined if they’d had a month together. I’ve nodded along as if tales like this are all in a days work for a consummate professional like me when inside I felt like a cartoon of a shocked man. It might well have been more useful to convey the horror of what they had told me. When it seems helpful I now tend to drop in the odd “If that happened to me I think I’d be terrified”, “I can feel myself filling up as you’re describing that” “I’m trying to listen to you but I’m so worried about what you’ve told me I think I’m going to be useless to you until you get medical attention and my anxiety comes down”.  Non verbally I might wince when someone describes something painful.
The other obvious element of GR is that if you can do something to make the situation better then you do it or at least be really explicit about why you’re not. I’ve known people who were desperate to be admitted to hospital be told that they won’t be admitted because it’s not in their best interest. End of explanation. Either acting, or giving a detailed pros and cons of why you are not acting is a lot more validating than giving the message that they are wrong to want the things they want.

So those are the 6 levels of validation. I find myself using them most when meeting people for the first time and when the situation is becoming heated. Very often I’ve seen someone go up to a member of staff and shout at them. The staff member shouts back. They shout louder and a few minutes later there’s a wrestling match going on for which the staff have a numerical advantage. I’ve seen people shout at staff and the immediate response is that “You can’t talk to me like that”, which is a valid point, although a debate on the niceties of social etiquette is not something anyone whose emotions are dialled up to 11 is ready for.
“Youre a F***ing C*** you are!!!”
“You seem REALLY angry, can you help me understand what’s going on for you”
Or
“You seem really angry at the moment but when you shout at me my anxiety goes through the roof and I can’t think. Can we both take a breath and think together about what’s going on ?”
And you can wrap up with “If that happened to me I think the other person was a bit C***y too”.
In other blogs I’ve talked about wanting to ‘win’ interactions with people. Validation is not about ‘winning’, but giving the people we are talking to the clearest picture possible that we are there for them. When I’m doing training, at some point someone says that we can’t just validate everything. There are limits. Lines have to be drawn. And this is true, there are behaviours that can get people in trouble with the police, hurt people and destroy relationships. We do not validate the behaviour we find unacceptable, but we do validate the motivation. We don’t validate the assault but the anger. We don’t validate the overdose but the hopelessness.
The other question that comes up is whether or not we can challenge people. Of course we can. Most of the people I work with have been repeatedly abandoned so theyre always on the lookout for signs its about to happen again even when the staff are really invested. While being told how much I hate the person I work with, I’ve found a Monty Python style “Oh no I don’t” usually isn’t going to cut it.
“To be honest, I do get a bit frustrated when you interrupt me, but I wonder if I can be slightly irritated sometimes and enjoy working with you as well”
Or
“I can hear you think I hate you. I wonder what I’ve done to make you think that?”
Or
“You seem upset and angry with me. I expect I’ve done something that’s led you to feel that way. Can you help me understand what it might be”
The consistent thing with all those examples is to validate first. Once they know we’re listening we can offer something else. That might be a direct contradiction or it could be a synthesis of ideas:
“I’ve got nowhere”
“I know you feel stuck and that nothings good enough, but I wonder if two things are true, that your standards of success are really high and you haven’t changed as quickly as you wanted”.

So there is validation in a nutshell. It is not rocket science. It is barely paper aeroplane science but it is something that can easily slip when we’re tired and the work is hard. I forget a lot but I tend to be at my most effective when I’m using this a lot. I think this would have been useful to me when i was first starting out in the NHS. I hope it’s useful to you.

Keir is an Lead Therapist in an NHS Specialist Service and provides training, consultation and therapy around complex mental health problems through beamconsultancy.co.uk