Gratitude: The Black Country breakfast
The above title may sound a little odd especially if you are not familiar with the area known in the UK, West Midlands, as the ‘Black Country’. It is mainly urban, covering most of the Dudley, Sandwell and Walsall metropolitan boroughs. The towns Dudley and Tipton are generally considered to be the centre.
The area was one of the industrial revolution's birthplaces and the term "the Black Country" came into widespread usage when in 1868 the American diplomat and travel writer, Elihu Burritt, wrote about Britain for American readers. He was the author of the famous early description of the Black Country as "black by day and red by night", adding appreciatively that it "cannot be matched, for vast and varied production, by any other space of equal radius on the surface of the globe”.
You might be wondering at this point why the need to talk about the Black Country and how this relates to, of all things, a breakfast and then equally what this has to do with the concept of gratitude. Well if you can bear with me, I will attempt to explain.
Firstly, I have lived and worked as an analytical psychotherapist in the heart of the Black Country, i.e. Dudley, for a number of years. As a result, the places, the people, the food and not at least the Black Country dialect all hold a special meaning for me. For example, you might say I was ‘born and bred’ in the Black Country.
Regarding how the Black Country breakfast relates to the concept of gratitude, please let me explain. I had been working with a patient for a number of years who had also been ‘born and bred’ in the Black Country. Equally, he would refer to the Black Country as his motherland. He would often joke on occasions that if he left the area to travel outside the Black Country he felt that he needed to take his passport.
Recently, he described an experience where he visited a Black Country cafe and ordered a breakfast. He explained in detail the scenario. For instance, he told me that he was slightly apprehensive as he entered as he wasn’t sure what to expect due to not using the cafe before. (This patient suffered from heightened anxiety, which usually got activated when embarking on a new or unfamiliar situation). In time, we came to learn and understand that he would have to battle a default template/state of mind where he would often experience a new scenario as unwelcoming, frightening and shame-inducing.
There had been many occasions where this state of mind or belief had prevented him from entering shops, and restaurants or even asking people for directions. In his mind, these simple tasks terrified him. We might imagine that these simple tasks were like ripples that turned into waves, which then turned into a tsunami or putting it another way, some little thing became a big thing that became everything.
After a number of years, we were able to understand the origins of this state of mind and how it shaped and coloured some of his choices and decisions. I will discuss this later in the article. However, understanding the origins was key to the therapeutic process, as once he was able to understand, name and identify the problem he was then able to relate to this aspect of himself. Putting it simply, he was able to have a relationship with it rather than become consumed or over-identified with this part of himself. Being internally vigilant is essential here, as without this, one can easily fall back into old ways and habits.
As a result, entering this cafe was one such example where he had started to become internally vigilant and challenge this part of himself that was terrified and assuming the worst. On this occasion, he was greeted by a warm reception from the people who were at the counter. He placed his order before easily finding himself a seat by the window. Not long after he received his breakfast and all the trimmings, he also received a nice warm mug of tea to swill it down with.
As he was eating his food, the cafe started to fill up with people. As the time passed, he noticed a couple peek inside of the cafe. My patient noted that, unfortunately, there was no space for the couple. Recognising that he had nearly come to the end of his meal, which he remarked he had thoroughly enjoyed, he decided to vacate his seat/table for the couple.
My patient was telling me about the above scenario as he was enthusiastic about understanding and exploring the reason he was so empathic towards the couple – especially as he tended to feel aggrieved and resentful on occasions compared to feelings of empathy and gratitude.
Together, we were able to ascertain how the whole experience of the Black Country cafe/breakfast – the people, welcoming atmosphere, service and hearty breakfast – had met his needs in a way that allowed him to experience gratitude and empathy towards the couple outside. We might view it as being akin to a psychological domino effect with the whole experience leading him to feel like a welcoming participant. Also, this could now be played out in other situations.
As an analytical psychotherapist, I reflected on how this was also a good example illustrating the importance of our early childhood, especially the early feeding scenario between mother and baby in sowing the early seeds of gratitude and compassion. For instance, my patient's early history was more akin to the opposite of the ‘hearty black country breakfast’. He had a very frustrating time during his early exchanges with his mother and at one point he was hospitalised for a mouth infection, which meant he was on his own for a week in a hospital, with little or no contact with his parents.
If we had to put this into the Black Country breakfast scenario, we might imagine a scene where instead of finding a warm, welcoming environment, and a hearty meal, he found coldness, an unwelcome environment and a lukewarm meal! Could we then really imagine a baby/adult willing to vacate for another after a feed like that? I think the answer is a resounding ‘No’. Instead, what emerged was a set of negative beliefs or templates about himself, reality, relationships and a legacy that sadly impeded his development and choices. Gratitude was in short supply!
However, through my patient's willingness and determination to recognise and name this state of mind, enabled him to harness his warrior spirit rather than his worrier spirit.
For more info about the warrior spirit please refer to my other short article entitled ‘Worrier or Warrior?’ I cannot stress enough the importance of being able to recognise, name and understand one’s negative beliefs and then being able to harness one’s internal warrior in challenging them. For example, for a long period of time, my patient was unaware that he struggled with anxiety. He mostly put his behaviour down to not being a very sociable person, an introvert. We might say that denial was a strong defence mechanism at play.
The problem with denial and other defence mechanisms is that, although they start out protecting people from overwhelming effects, quite quickly they evolve into something that can keep people as prisoners or servants to their minds. Thus, people can go through life oblivious to what is going on.
I am reminded of the Matrix films where the lead character Neo finally wakes up by unplugging himself from the Matrix! I think psychotherapy can help some people to awaken from their unconscious conflicts (matrix) and instead of them being a servant to their unconscious mind they can start to become the master/conscious of their mind.
The ability to join the dots of their experiences and to be curious are so important in being able to understand one's mind and unplug from the unconscious matrix. If my patient had been unable to unplug then he wouldn’t have been able to see that what had been underlying his unsociable behaviour was primitive anxieties relating to his very early experiences.
The role of the 'witness consciousness'
A key process in being able to unplug from the old patterns from the past is the ability to create internal breathing space or an internal ‘witness consciousness’. Without this awareness and the ability to take this observing position, we are in danger of over-identifying with the old patterns. What we don’t work out we act out or sadly live out!
If my patient had not recognised and owned how much his anxieties were colouring so much of his life, then he wouldn’t have entered the cafe and enjoyed the Black Country breakfast/feed. We might say the combination of his self-awareness and being internally vigilant had enabled him to choose a ‘fresh alternative’. In doing so, it led to a situation where not only did he experience gratitude but more importantly his warrior spirit (his decision to enter the cafe) was welcomed and endorsed. A new seed was sown and challenged the legacy and early dynamics of his past.
As a result, if you find yourself finding it difficult to experience gratitude or compassion maybe it's worth asking yourself, 'What type of breakfast did you have?'