The Placebo Effect and how we might heal ourselves.
First written as an under-graduate psychology student on 12/02/2003. Blogged here without correction or updates.
Abstract:The nature of the Placebo effect and its plausible explanations are examined – specifically the classical conditioning and endorphin based theories. The methods and administration of placebos is considered along with the contexts in which placebo effects occur. The roles of the patient and doctors are assessed with particular reference to the influence of expectancy. The implications of an internal mind-based healing system and its potential applications are discussed.
Whether we are thinking through a lunch menu or pondering the big questions, if we are honest within ourselves, reflecting on how we feel as we reason in the moment, then we can be confident in our thinking… I think.
Here is where head and hearts can align or, we can notice that they are askew or even in conflict. It is in this perception of self-awareness that we grow and refine our thinking. Our feelings are the compass that gives direction to our thoughts. However, its is important to understand that our feelings are not necessarily ‘truth’ indicators or any ‘correct’ direction, rather they are honest reflections of ourselves (our composite life experiences and impressions of the world) and through this head-heart process of self-reflection, we can examine our feelings, our emotional reactions to thoughts, concepts and ideas – and gradually come to understand what makes us tick and what makes us ticked off….
There is no ultimate ‘right’ way to think or feel, rather this is an ongoing process of self-examination, reflection and adjustment. Whether we notice something we dislike (thought or feeling), we can thus experiment with alternative ways to look at things and adjust our experience of both thoughts and feelings. Only when our heads and hearts align, do we feel content. Otherwise we experience a sense of dissonance and unease. In this we have a perfect example of the power of perception and the magic it contains – perception is the lens we choose.to see through and thus creates our experience of the world. This is the true essence. of. what many refer to as ‘manifesting’.
What if your perceived comfort is the very thing that creates your discomfort with your lot in life?
There is an uncomfortable truth lurking in the shadows of our comfort zones: they are more self-made prisons than the personal playgrounds or protective bubbles we like to think.
Despite its name, your ?Comfort Zone? isn?t necessarily a comfortable or happy place. Some people are comfortable residing in a space of intolerance, anger or self-pity; others even seem to thrive in an environment of high stress. Many refuse to leave such spaces despite being miserable.
So, why does recognising the boundaries of our comfort zones matter? Self-esteem.
We are not born with self-esteem, we grow it through positive risk-taking adventures. Through babyhood, childhood, teenage and for the rest of our lives.
As babies, children and young adults we need to be nurtured – ?encouraged to grow?. We need to be encouraged to take those risks to reap the rewards of discovering our own abilities and to do so knowing that we have support, such as going to nursery for the first time, making a new friend, holding a scary snake or petting a big dog for the first time, auditioning for a play, trying a contact sport, riding a bike and so on.
So the same for adults – we need peer and familial support and new positive risk-taking adventures.
When we are not nurtured or simply refuse to be nurtured as many do, and put up barriers or ?defences?, we end up walled in to a comfort zone of fear. We think the walls protect us but they simply keep us captive to our own demons.
We cling to our comfort zones typically because therein we have familiarity and predictability. Even if what is familiar and predictable is uncomfortable – anyone who has been stuck in an abusive marriage for years will tell you exactly that… they were ?stuck?.
So some force is needed to overcome the stuck-ness. This is why the decision to take a risk is crucial. The risk is the force needed.
Everything and everyone we love changes or leaves at some point or at many points, and so do we. From leaving a job, town or relationship to changes of career, lifestyle or mindset. So why stay ?stuck? expecting things to remain familiar? Surely this only can lead to anxiety and resentment? Loss is difficult but also a necessary part of growth beyond those comfort zones. Read more on how loss creates space for gain.
There is a difference between being uncomfortable and being in discomfort. Bring uncomfortable suggests there is something with agency poking at or harming us in some causal way and to be in discomfort suggests a lack of that which comforts us. Ironically, they both hold space for the illusion of a comfort zone.
Until we move, take a risk and see what?s beyond our boundaries we won?t recognise either the agency responsible or what we lack, and we will continue to be our own captors.
Last Winter I was invited to speak as part of a panel discussion on the topic of transgender, hosted by Rev. Michael Hampson of the Church of England, at St. Margaret’s Church in Hornby. My contributions were drawn from my long experience in both burlesque theatre and in advocating psychological wellbeing.
My ‘angle’ overall was on the positive lineage of gender satire in theatre and my aim was to advocate the burlesque world being an ally to those trans people whose voices are often diminished beneath controversy and misunderstanding.
Here are some thoughts from my address. Parallels between church and theatre are drawn with a call to all to practice what they preach.
Gender-blending in Burlesque:
Like gender itself, burlesque is subject to a lot of myths.
Burlesque theatre is not a recent trend (although there is a resurgence of enthusiasm) and it is not an American form per se. It is also not equivalent to striptease nor even ‘posh stripping’ as some lazy newspapers (and even producers!) have expounded over the years. In fact, in equivocating burlesque to ‘stripping off’ for the sake of stripping off, they misrepresent a joyful sparkling jewel of historic satirical theatre. Besides, striptease is an artform in its own right, too!
Historically and in its contemporary form, burlesque is a multi-faceted genre of diversity one that includes and challenges societally perceived gender and body norms – although I feel today it has more room to grow than ever. Burlesque actually has a 2500 year history going back to Aristophanes in 500BC and just as it was then, true burlesque theatre still rocks the status quo through the very powerful medium of satirical humour. Essentially, performers work in detail to set up, present and then subvert perceptions of propriety/normality. It most often targets gender norms and seeks to question notions of acceptable behaviour e.g. how we ought to conduct ourselves according to our assigned gender identities.
In particular over the millennia, burlesque has dealt with how WOMEN ought to behave, in any given era, often throwing out anachronistic absurdities and double standards that still dictate today. Here is where stripping does fit perfectly – both historically and with modern relevance – because any amount of public nudity is still taboo for women, but not for men.
Double Double Toil and Trouble:
There is a prevailing, undeniable double standard that shames women’s bodies. E.g. On a hot day men can be publicly topless (regarded as distasteful at worst) yet women quietly and even discretely breastfeeding their babies, remains controversial and an ‘outrage’ to many resulting in women having to actually determine official ‘breast feeding friendly zones’. There’s an app for that.
Women are subject to staggering expectations of grooming, weight and genetically determined body proportions that men are not. There is an automatic sexualisation of women’s bodies that encourages shaming – both for the nature of being sexual and for their ‘adequacy’ of sexual attractiveness, whatever that means at any one given moment. Furthermore for the trans community, they also have to contest with a new form of critique – that of being regarded as ‘passable’ (whether or not they could, would or do ‘pass’ as a believable man or woman), which kind of be implies a default status of ‘failure’ as an identifiable being. The fear ignited by the ambiguity of such subjective impressions is where anxiety and self-loathing blossom. In theatre, the three graces (of the classical era) became a trio of ugly and necessarily ‘evil’ witches – an idea that prevails in our modern ‘culture’ where women are admonished over the unattractiveness of ageing or wisdom. There is too, an increasing concern for young men today who are also being emotionally targeted over body shame (typically for commercial financial gain, e.g. grooming, weight and muscle building products and services) in a similar way, but the long term prevalence of women’s oppression is undeniable.
As the Western marketplace for health and beauty has been directed by white straight male privilege for as far back as advertising has existed, the resulting notions of ‘appropriate’ gender roles and bodily ideals have been perpetuated by a communal participation – to the point of perceived ‘fact?’. Of course, like many ‘facts’, gender and body norms are entirely subjective and are in-fact subject to a changing landscape of belief.
As liberal as the world of arts is considered to be, it too is not without such biases of its own or as enforced by the status quo; there are often venue rules that only apply to female anatomy e.g. no nipples to be seen on stage (but male nips are fine). An irony is now raised in asking whether such rules apply to women or only to those with assumed XX chromosome pairings, per se. What of transgender women’s nipples? What of transgender men’s nipples? Or are these nips in some sort of policy limbo? As a producer I have yet to get a straight answer on this from venues.
Gaze, Gays and a new Craze:
Our cultur’s backdrop too, has the eponymous ‘male gaze’ in paintings, the arrests of Victorian music hall performers, the imprisonment of homosexual writers and the selective recording of history that has relegated herstory to bit-parts and supporting roles at best. The theatre was also constrained by male privilege for so very long (arguably still is), yet interestingly at the same time it was a relatively safe place to be subversive. Such subverting artists gradually affected change because there was a costume department and stage with a fourth-wall that permitted the suspension of belief and a sense of separation from audience participation. Here there were thinkers and risk-takers ready to write or perform and to sneak their ‘dangerous’ ideas in the stage-door (which is usually the back-door) and on to the public platform for consumption.
Burlesque theatre in itself is actually where we see the first women take up lead roles on stage – but they did so, in the male lead roles (let’s face it, all lead parts were male parts and you needed well, male parts to be allowed to play any part even if you were pretending to have female parts). Crucially however, these male roles came with an almighty opportunity for women to be heard and not just seen – for the first time, women had speaking parts with which to address a captive and willing audience. Dressed as feminised male icons, villains and heroes (e.g. Don Giovanni, Henry VIII, Robinson Crusoe, Bluebeard…), led the shows mocking the patriarchy of their day with their ribald speech, song and gender-blending figure-hugging modus-operandi. See Eliza Vestries and Lydia Thompson for some 19th Century gender-blending fun.
Burlesque was (and when authentic) still is essentially, a kind of adult pantomime with a socio-political undertone. In my opinion, what was really shocking about burlesque in Victorian Britain was not the fact that ladies had ankles (two by Jove!) and were in fact bipedal like their male counterparts, but more so that they were literally wearing the trousers and these garments symbolised power. They had for the first time, a public voice and they used it for derision. Whatever would be next? Opinions on things? Financial independence? The vote?
Not a far cry of “he’s (or perhaps she’s?) behind you!?” or even a gender neutral? “they’re behind you!!?” that we still see in pantomime today where young women play feminised lead males known as the principle boy (think Buttons, Peter Pan or Prince Charming) and in contrast to everyone’s favourite the outrageous Panto Dame – usually the local vicar or policeman. Again the subversion of gender and societal norms is clear: On stage we are allowed, permitted, to empower those without male privilege whilst we emasculate those who traditionally hold all the male-dominated community power. Underneath all the twinkling tat and titillation, lies a rather potent inverted power-dynamic.
Burlesque was and is a playful form of exploring transitions – often we see performers transition in character and/or costume as their backing music and lighting jump dramatically between styles – from fully clothed to nude, from male to female and vice versa, from timid to bold, from repressed to liberated. Always in the positive direction of freedom.
Now more than ever, we see the same stages hold space for transgender expression but the stage is an oasis of relative safety amidst the real world of gender-driven power dynamics, fear and redundant social conventions. Through performance art we begin to really appreciate that our notion of ‘male or female’ gender itself is arguably a complex performance with no one defining aspect – a performance that each and every one of us is playing out, right now. We do it every day, from the moment of birth, as we learn and play, at home, school, work, and online. Whether ever on stage or off, it is one life-long personal interpretative dance sequence.
The trick is in learning to play and perform together, not as segregated by conceptual differences. We must share our props and costumes – and to not only allow all people to move and adapt the roles they were randomly assigned as babies, to encourage play, develop and perhaps even to move to an entirely new role that is more suited to their unique being. In the school play of life, some of us get the part of the prince and others the princess but most of us are cast as generic genderless, mute townspeople or background trees. The roles assigned may seem important at the time – but in reality they are all equal starting points for our individual progress because they don’t ever define us as people.
In Other Frocks:
When I first received Rev. Hampson round for tea and cake as a new resident of his parish, I was concerned that he might not embrace some of my ideals as exemplified in my decor choices; namely the multitude of pagan icons on the walls, the pet pythons, the morbid collections of Victoriana and our Holy Toilet of Wonder. This is the tiniest room in the house – a downstairs loo festooned with rosary beads, crosses, reclaimed church apparel, dancing 3D religious images, Buddy Christ (from the film Dogma) resting on the toilet brush, choral music playing from a light up nativity scene and portraits of myself as “Mary Dragdalen”, my other half as “Jon the Baptist” and our friend smoking a roll-up as the “The Virgin”. I was delighted to hear him laugh heartily from the confines of this unusual confessional and I knew I was on to a different breed of cleric. After much discussion about art, humour, comparative religion, gender, metaphor and the power of provocation, I was excited to become involved in his Peace and Justice Week of panel events and to learn of his own story of controversy within the CofE itself – where he has tirelessly championed for the inclusion of gay marriage services.
From having participated in the Peace and Justice Week it is a breath of fresh air to be able to see that there are many such enlightened clergy today challenging their own institutional status quo, their direct contemporaries and congregants in order to support the inclusion of all, regardless of sexuality or gender identity. This is no mean feat considering the staggering history of church-led persecution and its mercurial (often ironic) interpretation of scripture to exclude, punish and create a culture of fear and intolerance of various groups of people. Colossal mistakes of the past are to be learned from and clerics today have more autonomy to lead effectively and in line with the core message of their faith – one of universal love. For example, Rev. Chris Newlands (Lancaster Priory) went all the way to the General Synod to pose a motion for services to recognise gender transition. The result was that the Church of England has created new liturgy meaning that trans people (who had been baptised or Christened in their former gender and name), are able to ‘re-introduce themselves’ to their community and to God.
Regardless of how absurd it may seem to some (in either camp) to draw parallels between burlesque theatre and the Church, if we can all put our trendy or moralistic prejudices aside and see the people, there is hope for ever more celebration of our collective and individual being, regardless of whether you believe in creation or cabaret.
In in the spirit of moving forward together, we need direction. We must let go of misdirected anger, grudges and prejudices that we often levy at aspects of the perceived patriarchy – perhaps the church, the government or even society itself. Yes, there is history (and herstory) and it is to be learned from. We all could practice what we preach and it seems that burlesque theatre and the church might just be singing from the same sheets – albeit if it’s in a cat’s choir.
A further theatrical parallel is clear when contemplating the whole point of the church is in being a host to and also representative of Jesus, often described as ‘the Host’ that ministers to the community. Successful variety shows rely on a great host – one with commanding skills of influence, through grace of wit they offer the audience ‘the way’ to engage on both sides of that invisible 4th wall or ‘realm’ .
Hosts with the Most:
As In the variety show that is the church (it’s not always a media shit-show), some churches have ditched the dogma and where Jesus is referred to as ‘the Host’ – he is still regarded as a renegade going against the status quo of his society… and from what I’ve read in wider terms, he seems to be all for pan-sexuality and gender equality. Perhaps now, the church, can introduce people to one other as souls beyond gender and encourage more gracious support for each other, applauding each other’s performances, however uncertain, and with however much room still to improve; both there in the theatre of the church, and out here in the world.
Our burlesque show hosts always encourage the audience to give in to rapturous applause and to make as much noise as they can – to whoop, cheer, encourage and ultimately to show Love. We often joke that we need the applause because performers are rather needy people.
Big laugh… but there is truth in this.
Keeping the Faith:
It is important to recognise that needing a show of support is not a sign of weakness. It is in fact a request for solidarity because to get on stage in front of strangers (especially those who have paid hard earned money) takes guts. In fact, it takes more than guts – it takes a special kind of Faith. Faith in others to understand or at least, to listen. Like all people secretly do, performers openly crave acceptance and praise – but they know the risks and are willing to take them to be heard. Even in acts who do not use their audible voice, being heard is about the sharing of ideas, a fundamental truth about the self – an encoded message sent out in to the dark in the hope of some kind of response.
Extending the theatre as a metaphor for life, by virtue of their own courage, transgender people are exposed on the world stage. Every day in the media, at their workplaces and schools, at home and in play. They cannot escape to the green room – because they are not actors. They have emerged beyond performance, the masks are off and they are the authentic jewels.
It’s time that burlesque theatre reminded itself of where it came from, so that it might continue toward a more inclusive future. One without the body and gender shame for all. Striptease, pinup glamour and political whimsy are entertaining but hardly addresses the patriarchy, the pound or the potential for change with any power. It is time to revel once again in the taboo and play dangerously with those matches and mismatches – that just might ignite a revolution.
The Church of England are, rather ironically, making like an ecdysiast – the serpent and the stripper. They are shedding their skins. Peeling off their once oppressive robes and stepping out into the light. We can all take inspiration to lose our dogmas and be bold in the simplicity of individual freedom. As ecdysiasts with a sense of humour, we need to scale up our operation.
Whether we go to church in the morning or cabarets at night, we all stand together in our vulnerability. Just as a performer can be naked and fierce in public they are yet gently bathed under a lighting rig’s colours to flatter or augment their realities. Stained glass images can be beautiful to behold, we must not forget to go outside and see the source that makes them possible – that one true light that shines on all of us equally.
Loss occurs in many ways. It hurts, but must we always Iose?
In the past year I?ve seen friends and family experience different losses – the loss of loved ones (through death, dementia, divorce and even unresolved dispute), the loss of personal ability and opportunity as changes occur in health, job position, home or career move, others have gained in beautiful ways (having children) and yet lost a sense of their own identity. It has me wondering?
What is loss?
All losses involve some sense of a loss of control. Loss always takes the form of an event (or series of events) in time, that marks significant change, generally creating anxiety or/and sadness. So, in spite of all the anxiety and sadness, what opportunity does loss create?
It occurs to me that maybe in thinking of loss as an event in time, we take it to be one that reveals ?space?, creating opportunity for growth. The old space-time continuum conundrum of life. I can think of times when this has been true – the freedom felt after the break-up of dysfunctional relationships, in not gaining acceptance to one thing we are often led to more original projects and so on. In each case, we have been granted space (or had it thrust upon us) to reflect, because of a loss.
When we lose someone or something, we often feel a sense of space on a scale – either vast or restricting. For example, we often feel lost, afraid, vulnerable, alone, empty, that we might float away in silence to some forgotten zone of nothingness. But sometimes, it?s the opposite and we feel trapped, crushed or suffocated? Either way we become overwhelmed by ‘space’ – in either direction by the amount of space we perceive. Too much and we are lost in the vacuum or, too little and we are crushed.
Either we fear the loss (of control) and have too little space to breathe or we fear the loss (of control) and we have too much to stay anchored. Sometimes we swing from one to the other. Either way, we ultimately feel we won’t cope and might not survive the event.
Perhaps the person, pet, role or circumstance we have lost was in fact ?holding space for us?, whether we knew it or not. To put this expression in context, therapists often ?hold space? for their clients and this means that they take on a role of being a ?container? that holds empty space – like an empty bucket in to which the client can pour their feelings and thoughts (without judgement). The feelings and thoughts are thus ?contained? within the space (and time-slot).
Sometimes we feel overwhelmed day to day and need another person, role, project or outlet to pour our overflowing selves in to. Those special people, roles and outlets are our containers. When they are lost or taken away, we have nowhere to pour. Or, contrastingly perhaps we were the containers, holding space for others who have gone e.g. a friend or relation who needed us in their sunset, communities or projects that gave us a sense of purpose, identity and so on.
Having the ?wrong amount? of space.
So, when our losses occur, it can feel that our personal space has been compromised.
Resolve can come from acknowledging and managing our mental and emotional volumes, by adjusting our perception of the space we occupy we can feel more comfortable just being with our emotions and, where there is overflow be willing to pour in to new containers – art, sport, animals, meditation, others, community groups…
Space is not a tangible asset that comes and goes. It is a perceived concept formed across our senses and emotions. Someone or something departing cannot take space with them, nor all that you poured in to it nor can they take away what they shared, when you held space for them. When a loss occurs, the space does not go with that person or circumstance.
The grieving party can therefore choose either: to avoid the space or explore it.
Our losses can lead to our most precious gains.
We create our spaces as we project ourselves in to them. By exploring, we expand into that space, fill it and grow. Space is created by us as we perceive it. Just as when we pour in to those containers, we are projecting into and filling that space. The space is never lost.
Ultimately, when we lose we also have opportunity to gain. We may lose our ‘containers’ and grieve or be angry for this but if we move in to the space that was held, we grow.
It is often seen as something to be proud of – or a personal quality that would ensure ?success?, whatever that is… but it?s all so hypothetical and future-dwelling.
I say it?s time to put ambition on hold and be inspired in the moment.
Ambition involves competition and therefore comparison to others, with that comes fear of not being ?first?, resentment, envy and self critique hammering on self esteem the success of ambition is measured through unhelpful comparison to the perceived superiority or inferiority of others and their achievements.
Contrastingly, aspiration dispenses with the external yardsticks and focussed inwardly on personal potential andthe realisation of growth.
In moments of mindfulness, we can uncover how we really feel, now in the present and see what we want. The answer will likely be far less complicated than that ambitious road or destination fraught with limits set by others. It might look simply like ?I want to feel I contribute to a better community? or ?I want to express my creative ideas? or ?I want to be a dedicated parent? or ?I want to provoke change in my area of interest? and so on. It is a place of harmony within yourself and not some convoluted series of comparisons with others.
How much time do we spend in comparison – driven by ambition – when we could already be breathing in our inspiration and breathing out as we aspire?
Breathe in, Breathe out… is literally to inspire, aspire…
IF you are anxious then you are using doubt, a lot. If you are to give any credibility to your doubt and test it’s validity then you need to apply it in a parsimonious way – that is, apply it radically and fairly to everything… including itself.
When you apply doubt to doubt itself, you create hope
Whilst there are many millions of great motivational quotes to be shared, there is an unhealthy trend for disgruntled folks to post wellbeing word memes as a form of thinly veiled bitchy commentary – don’t fall for it! If you feel uncomfortable seeing one, ask yourself why? Afterall they are INTENDED to uplift, right? Don’t fall for their misuse – or the peer pressure to share it!