The room I practice psychotherapy from in the City of London sits between the immense financial engines of the Square Mile and the creative endeavours of the Shoreditch district. To my left are formidable, pristine, glass-monolith towers, while to my right are brick, graffiti-sprayed, design and technology warehouses.
But what unites my clients from these contrasting neighbourhoods is what brings them into therapy in the first place: feelings. It could be internalised anger and sadness manifesting as depression; dread manifesting as overwhelming anxiety and stress; or the compulsive drive to anaesthetise feeling via behavioural and/or substance addictions. It could also be feeling stuck in life because you are numb, save for occasional inexplicable outbursts of rage or tears. Whatever the symptoms, human beings' struggles around feeling have manifested today's highly developed and efficient therapy industry.
Working in financial services can do extraordinary things for your "felt sense". For example, a successful career can meet vital emotional needs, such as providing the status you value and making sure it is acknowledged by others. It enables you to achieve things you're proud of, demonstrate your competency, and mentally stretch yourself in ways that give you a sense of purpose. You may even have met your intimate partner at work and feel connected to a wider financial community of like-minded people. All these can be really helpful to your emotional well-being.
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Rewarded for your troubles
Working in a place like the City, though, can also disturb and distort your relationship with that same felt sense. For example, you might see anger and aggression rewarded for their dramatic, motivating side-effects. Excessive fear and its adjunct of distorted over-alertness to threat become enshrined in well-rewarded City careers.
The most popular employees will, of course, be those who identify solutions to the problems, but solutions aren't possible without finding problems first. Anxious people can be paid to worry. Aggressive people can be paid to intimidate. Impulsive risk-taking and selfishly getting the better of others at all costs might be richly rewarded, again for their motivational and profit-making potential.
No sector for soft emotions
The finance sector also generally overtly rewards and values the cognitive and rational IQ over the emotional IQ. The "softer" emotions of sadness, fear, pain, love and disappointment, which may all be felt within an hour in the office, are given little space. If they go unnoticed for too long, they might surprise the office in dramatic behavioural forms, such as uncontrolled anger, tears during an important meeting, or an office affair. These precipitate whispered, embarrassed meetings, and carefully worded calls to HR for advice on emotional damage limitation.
HR do their best to give some space to people's felt experience of their working day. But they may only get to hear how an employee is truly feeling when signing them off for stress or depression, taking legal advice on a bullying claim, or managing the fallout from a key employee crushed under the weight of substance addiction.
Ways to achieve well-being
So how do we get the financial and emotional benefits of working in finance, while navigating it in a way that better maintains our emotional well-being? In my experience, the first step is to take personal responsibility for your emotional well-being. To do this, you need a good connection with what you're feeling at any point in time. There are a number of ways this connection can be improved and I shall touch on two of them.
1) Ask what you’re feeling
Simply ask yourself, whenever possible, what you're feeling. Notice also the thoughts that accompany it and even the physiological effect the feeling is having on your body. Does that slight stomach ache mean you're hungry, or is it there because you've been shallow breathing from your chest and tightening your abdomen because you're under sustained stress this morning? A physical manifestation of an emotional symptom.
Two things I often do in early sessions with clients are: 1) give the client a list of the hundreds of “feeling words” so they can begin to put a name to what they're experiencing; and 2) run through an "emotional inventory" of their life to get some idea of whether their emotional needs and wants are currently being met. Emotional needs not being met results in emotional symptoms. Ask someone what their financial and practical needs are, and they'll provide a quick and detailed answer, but ask someone what their emotional needs are and this can be met with genuine bewilderment.
The basic aim is to develop more of a relationship with feelings from moment to moment, so that you can observe them, rather than be consumed by them. If you find it difficult to know what you're feeling, practices such as journaling each day, paying attention to your dreams and daydreams, mindfulness, simple meditation, and of course counselling and psychotherapy can all help with this.
2) Act on your feelings
Once you know what you're feeling and have identified your current emotional needs, it's important to act on them wherever practical, within the boundaries and limitations experienced around you. If you consistently fail to do this, if you "grin and bear it" for too long, your unacknowledged anger, resentment, frustration, fear and/or guilt may reach such a level that your cognitive and rational functioning becomes impaired. Your feelings may get their way and force you to change course, but in an unplanned and distressing way.
As an aside, one of the reasons that I believe the therapy industry exists in the context of the above is that patterns of experiencing feeling and felt responses to situations are modelled and often imprinted in very early experience. Without awareness and conscious effort to change, we'll naturally approach situations in the future as we have in the past. This is even though we really know that this is not helpful to us. We'll do what is familiar and often act unconsciously. Therapy can help with those feelings and thoughts that seem compulsive, unconscious, or out of proportion to a situation. And we need to know how to do something differently before we'll risk experiencing it. Good therapy can guide this process.
So, during your working day today, maybe make a conscious effort to be interested in your experience of life and the meaning you give it as it's happening. Then you can decide what to do about it. And, importantly, you might avoid your feelings having to do something about a sustained lack of focus on them.
John-Paul Davies, a former project-finance lawyer, is a UK-based psychotherapist at This Trusted Place. He practises in the City of London, Little Venice and Surrey.