The Elixir of Life

Tom Baker’s Doctor is surrounded by The Sisterhood of Karn

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I recently rewatched ‘Doctor Who: The Brain of Morbius’, first aired on BBC1 in January 1976. That’s 46 years ago this month. The reason was due to recent Doctor Who storylines regarding the ‘Timeless Child’ and because I walked into a pub in Preston the other day and it was playing on the big screen. It is a childhood favourite of mine, when I clearly remember hiding behind the sofa at home. But being only 5 years old when it was first aired, I don’t remember a huge amount and I certainly did not understand it back then. But it really holds up well, given the production values of the time. It comes from the enjoyable gothic period of the show. All the sets around this time were designed in a classic, gothic style and a lot of time and effort was spent on creating a Frankenstein or Hammer Horror feel to this one, even if everything is filmed in the same BBC studio in 1976. In the DVD commentary, Terrence Dicks states that The Sisterhood of Karn, later seen in mini episode, ‘The Night of the Doctor’ (2013), as well as later Peter Capaldi episodes, were originally brought in by him, but due to Robert Holmes’ significant re-write, Dicks requested a pseudonym be used. So the episode was attributed to ‘Robin Bland’. Like a lot of old Who TV stories, but not so true of current Who, the viewer gets some chance to breathe, although this story cracks on pretty well, and there is not much filler.

Led by the ancient Maren, the sisterhood worship the ‘Sacred Flame’, which furnishes them with the ‘Elixir of Life’ and provides them with their mighty power, thus it fades when they are away from the flame. Only the Time Lords, with whom they have shared the Elixir since the ‘Time of the Stones’, parallel them in mental ability; while other races they can ‘destroy from within’, the Time Lords can resist their influence – a strength which allows Morbius to reside on Karn without being detected. The Time Lords themselves use their Elixir sparingly. For example, if they encounter difficulty when regenerating, which was clearly shown in the Night of The Doctor. As a plot device, regeneration, originally a way to write William Hartnell out of the role, but keep the show going, has always been an effective way to build on what has gone before, with the same person at the centre, but carry on the show with renewed interest.

RENEWAL

Why start a new blog post by writing about this? Well, sometimes I just need something to renew my enthusiasm for what I do. I can’t regenerate myself, alas. But I can build on what has gone before and find a new interest. I’ll call it renewal. So, I guess it’s a hook to intrigue the potential reader – something we might ask our students to do when giving a presentation, be it online or in-person. Having been a language teacher since 2007, I needed to make a change in 2021. Whilst working on my second summer in Sheffield, I applied furiously for EAP (English for Academic Purposes) or similar positions. As my last post showed, I was successful in two of my applications and decided on swapping the white rose for red, starting in September. However, the transition to an extended life in the North didn’t go as smooth as planned. It was not until the 8 November 2021 that I started my new role as a Study Skills Tutor at the University of Central Lancashire. I was meant to start on 13 September, but my mental health took a bad turn and I felt overwhelmed in my new surroundings. Long story, which I won’t go into, but I was on the verge of quitting in November! However, I am now turning up for work in a full-time university-based role all year round, rather than just in the summer months. I’ve finally got the more settled and well-paid job I was looking for, having decided around a year ago to move on from English language teaching due to its precarity. Between my revised start date and the end of the year, I managed to turn things around, with a little bit of help from one book – on Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and, more recently, another on Teacher Wellbeing – a Christmas gift. But I also spoke privately with friends and was grateful for some counselling sessions offered by my new employer. During December, I discovered that my optimism and confidence began to surge as I learned about aspects of my new position and the variety that it brings.

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Load up on books and bring your friends. Tools of the trade with Gina Wisker and others.

NEW YEAR, NEURO-LINGUISTIC PROGRAMMING

By writing this personal paragraph, I hope that I will ‘bottle’ what it was that made the difference between quitting, with all the consequences that it would create, and succeeding. I felt a palpable difference once I had conquered the inner thoughts. On the weekend of 27-28 November, I spoke to several friends online or by phone. Together, this formed a significant part of my recovery from a minor bout of anxiety and depression. While I was away and up until my return, I had a series of 8 counselling sessions, one per week, which I gratefully received from my new employer. On the penultimate session, I aired my fears about quitting, although at that time I felt it inevitable that I would have to take that decision. One week later, with those friendly chats in-between, I was raring to get going again. I borrowed a book from the office, about Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). Now I have a healthy cynicism of pseudoscientific approaches to communication, personal development, and psychotherapy. However, I used this copy of NLP in 21 Days to reframe my thinking and shared the book information with Marjorie Rosenberg, a seasoned practitioner of NLP, who on 2 December took part in a Zoom call with me about the topic. She guided me through the contents of the book. Whilst I had heard of NLP years ago and knew what it stood for, I have never practiced it in any meaningful way. I assumed it was just positive thinking or a reprogramming of the brain with conscious thoughts and actions. Each chapter came with a presupposition and a task. The intention was to do one chapter per day, but I am a terrible reader (I know, fixed mindset!) and soon fell behind. I got around halfway through it, before returning to work in January. There are some key concepts applied in all forms of NLP, although they appear to vary in how they get interpreted:

Anchoring: The process by which any stimulus or representation (external or internal) gets connected to and triggers a response. Anchors can occur naturally or be set up intentionally. These can be used to trigger specific feelings when they are needed.

Presuppositions: These are ideas or statements that have to be taken for granted for a communication to make sense. Although these are broader than that. They are presuppositions which guide our lives in many ways, so it goes beyond communication.

Reframing This about changing the frame of reference round a statement, behaviour or situation to give it another meaning. Getting another perspective, e.g. to gain an insight or different view of a problem.

A book called NLP in 21 days
NLP in 21 Days

One key chapter of this NLP book, ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’, is about building rapport through ‘matching’. Having a good rapport with another person creates the right conditions for an effective exchange of thoughts and ideas, whether in selling, negotiation, interviewing, counselling or any ongoing relationship (Alder and Heather, p52). Effective rapport involves ‘matching’. People who have a rapport tend to act like each other in a number of ways (ibid, p53). Additionally, rapport skills offer benefits far beyond your professional or work life. Apparently, the secret lies in matching and this is done in the following main areas: physiology, voice, language and thinking style, experience and, interestingly, breathing. Now I’m used to building rapport in the language classroom, often through personalisation. NLP uses representational systems to examine the experience of another person.  People experience the world in different ways and accepting the experience of another person is a major part of creating rapport, according to Marjorie. 

The bit about breathing fascinates me the most, because I did not expect to read that here. I fully understand that breathing or controlling it is the key to overcoming a panic attack, but it is not about that. Breathing offers an opportunity to match another, too, in that their breathing might change when you are around them (ibid, pp64-5). In addition, according to Marjorie, breathing is one of the most important but most difficult. A practiced practitioner might begin by breathing with someone and then ‘lead’ them to a slower and deeper breathing pattern to help them become calm, just as medical professionals have used breathing techniques to help patients in a variety of situations.

The chapter ends by suggesting some ‘matching’ actions. The presupposition that ‘the meaning of a communication is the response it gets’ invites the practitioner to start matching and notice how it affects rapport. You can think of a situation when a great piece of communication did not bring the required response. Alternatively, you may remember a situation where you felt you did not communicate effectively, as I did when delivering an introduction presentation to our services on Friday, but actually was what was required. NLP is not my solution; it is not what has given me any kind of ‘elixir’. But it has helped me to look at my situation with in a new light, reframe my thoughts. I’m only halfway through the book, and I might not even finish it. The reason is, like medication, I only do or take something long enough for it to set me on the right path again and to feel better about myself. I know, that can be a mistake – as complacency can lead to another crisis. I still take one tablet every night for safety, but I have dispensed, for want of a better word, with another. Work is very important to me. I know that when I am not working or not earning, I can get depressed, even anxious. I’ve always wanted to be more occupied, than less. But, again, with that comes warnings about taking on too much. I’ve read plenty and been to enough talks on the topic of burnout. Being busy, like drinking alcohol, must be done in moderation. Just this week I turned down an opportunity to take an online 10 week course, because I did not want to put too much pressure on myself, opting to focus, instead, on building solid foundations and creating good impressions at work.

TEACHER WELLBEING

The other book I’ve read (most of) recently is by Sarah Mercer and Tammy Gregersen, which focuses on positive psychology and what the individual can do for themselves. It is fairly well known that I drew inspiration from Sarah Mercer’s 2017 IATEFL talk when I first researched my topic of the Mental Health of Language Teachers later that year. This new book and the advice within is deliberately ‘me-centred’ and the word ‘me’ is in the titles of each chapter.

Teacher Wellbeing has a chapter on the workplace. It acknowledges that there are systemic levels of intervention and support that can be offered, alongside steps that an individual can take, but primarily this book is focused on individual psychology and action. Whilst teacher associations and unions can be useful for collective voices, the overarching idea here is about you and your own response to sometimes adverse situations, as the authors state: “While providing an understanding of the systemic factors that contribute to a positive workplace, [their] purpose is to inspire language teachers to seek change personally and collectively wherever possible” (Mercer and Gregersen, p15). Empathy also gets mentioned in this chapter. I find this crucial in not only tutoring students, but in workplace relationships. Getting into the shoes or sandals of whoever you come across at work is an invaluable and arguably important 21st century skill. A culture of empathy was also, of course, the theme of Kieran Donaghy’s IATEFL plenary last year, during which I got a brief reference to my research.

Social relationships are one of the foundations of wellbeing. Because we are social beings, the interaction we give and receive with others can make or break how we feel and behave. In chapter 5, ‘Me and My Relationships’, ‘socio-emotional competences’ are shown to be learnable skills. A core part of this is ’emotional intelligence’, with references being made to Goleman’s 1995 book on the topic. There is disagreement on what this means, but “little dispute over the idea that a recognizable set of skills exists from which we can draw to promote and sustain positive relationships.” (ibid, p69). The key components of emotional intelligence are defined as:

  1. self-awareness (understanding your own emotions)
  2. self-regulation (managing your own emotions)
  3. internal motivation (being able to motivate yourself)
  4. empathy (recognizing and understanding the emotions of others)
  5. social skills (being able to manage relationships with others)

– Goleman, D (1995, cited in ibid, p70).

Now, self-awareness is the foundation on which all the other components of emotional intelligence rests. This means that before being able to work on relationships with others, we must first understand our own emotions. Key to this is knowing when and where our emotional triggers are. Now, I’m familiar with ‘triggers’, being prone to anxiety and panic, which is part of my panic disorder. But I no longer try to avoid situations in which this can happen. Back in August, I was really struggling to accept that I was making a significant move to Preston and the responsibilities of taking on a flat for at least 12 months. I was panicking each day, full of fearful consequences of (a) going and it being a mistake and (b) not going at all. What happened over the first few months here reinforced the first of these, or so I thought. Through my new GP, counselling and talking to friends, as stated earlier, I was able to turn things around. Now, with a much improved outlook, I have not only reminded myself of my own emotions, but am able to build on this to self-regulate, motivate and deal with social interactions – both professionally – at work – and socially – for example, going down the pub, such as the one mentioned in the introduction. In addition, ‘anxiety’ and ‘stress’ are now emotions which only happens in small doses and are at the right level to operate on a day-to-day basis.

Mercer has referred to Chris Eyre in the past and does so again in this latest book. We have both used the same quotation about stress found in Eyre (p12) in presentations. I return to Eyre’s book time and again. Although it is aimed at school teachers, its advice still resonates with me. It also covers burnout and the demands of high school teaching, in particular.

Now, burnout is not something I have ever really suffered from. But I realise it is very common for language teachers for many factors, which I have discussed at length in my own research. But depression is another mental health condition – either diagnosed or not. I remember reading snooker wizard Ronnie O’Sullivan’s book about running – which is a religion for him and his own remedy for depression. When I take part in physical exercise, it can be very satisfying for my head. My own brain is operating on the same level as it often (over)thinks. But we often couch depression into our own contexts or even link it to certain days of the year.

This post has been published on so-called ‘Blue Monday’ in the UK. I have very sceptical feelings towards this term. I understand why it is labelled as such, but it is wrong to believe it. Contrary to the myth, it is not the most depressing day of the year. There isn’t one. It isn’t depressing, if you go by what science, psychology and reasonable thinking in general would attest. Dr. Sandi Mann, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Central Lancashire told the i newspaper: “Blue Monday is mainly a marketing ploy for organisations to hang some message on – it isn’t a proven phenomenon.”

“Depression doesn’t just exist on Blue Monday – people’s spirits won’t lift automatically with time like the concept seems to suggest. Those struggling with mental health problems need help in the form of self-help books, websites, wellness journals and possibly professional help, as well as medication if appropriate.”

I would rather share the work that The Samaritans do. This organisation challenged this a few years ago and begun to promote ‘Brew Monday’ around this time every year.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion. I, for one, will be tackling my workload with vigour, attending meetings, eating well, sleeping well and generally being positive. The only caveat to that is that when my confidence surges, there is a tremendous pitfall. As my feelings of pronoia increase, so does my ability to say something inappropriate or do something that I will regret. I did this over Christmas and have learned a valuable lesson. Much like the Doctor needs his companions to reign him in, so I also need my companions, work colleagues, friends or anyone I might be in a relationship with to reign me in. That includes you, the reader of this post.

I can say that things are looking positive once more. I am renewed, building on my past experiences and looking forward – which is very Cliché for a New Year. Much like the recent Chris Chibnall written Doctor Who episodes, you might think that I have introduced a big topic or theme only then to wander off topic or forgotten what the focus of the post was in the first place. It is not for me to write conclusively about renewal or regeneration, for that matter. This is just a blog post and these can sometimes be as personal as they are professional. I welcome your thoughts, comments and [hides behind sofa] criticisms!

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Doctor Who and his companions. BBC. Available at Blogtor Who.

REFERENCES:

Alder, H. and Heather, B. (1999) NLP in 21 Days: A Complete Introduction and Training Programme. London: Piatkus.

BBC. (2008) Doctor Who: The Brain of Morbius. DVD, Accessed 11 January 2022.

BBC. (2013) The Night of the Doctor. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-U3jrS-uhuo

Burnett, Dean (19 January 2015). “Blue Monday: is it really the most depressing day of the year?”The Guardian. Retrieved 20 January 2015.

Donaghy, K. (2021) Embedding a culture of empathy in English language teaching. IATEFL talk, June 2021. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XGl7HvhduUQ&t=18s

Eyre, C. (2017). The elephant in the staffroom. How to reduce stress and improve teacher wellbeing. Abingdon: Routledge

Mann, S in Andersson, J. (2022). What is Blue Monday? The myth of the ‘most depressing day of the year’ explained and how it gained traction. Available at: (inews.co.uk)

Mercer, S and Gregersen, T. (2020). Teacher Wellbeing. Oxford: OUP.


Note: I’m grateful to Marjorie Rosenberg for talking about NLP with me, checking the contents of the book I have borrowed and proofreading an early draft of this post. Originally the post was only going to be about NLP, but I decided to widen and reframe it within a wider context of my ‘renewal’ and how I turned things around.

3 comments

  1. Hi Phil – interesting self reflection on the ups and downs of starting a new full time position at Preston. Hope it works out for you. I taught on the 2020 Sheffield 10 week course. I too will need to find a new full time job but it isn’t easy and have come second in two job interviews – close but not chosen – this can be negative though my wife told me it can take 17 interviews before landing a job so I need to stay positive.

    Liked by 1 person

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