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How Byron Katie is helping me to cope with Brexit

I’ve not blogged for a very long time, and part of the reason for that has been the plethora of angry voices filling my online space since June 2016. Of course, there’s been a lot to be angry about, regardless of which side of the Leave/Remain divide you fall into. But I’ve found it very hard to deal with, especially as I’m highly invested in the European project on both a business and a personal level.

Brexit – image by Stux from Pixabay

As a UK-based translator, my clients are almost exclusively based in the EU and Switzerland. There is still very little clarity on how Brexit is going to impact upon services provided between Britain and the EU, and while February sees the beginning of a transition period, there is (in my opinion at least) a strong likelihood that the end of 2020 will see that transition period end with no agreement in place. Having said that, there are ways to deal with this situation, relocating my business to another EU country being one obvious option.

I’ve found dealing with the personal impact of Brexit far more difficult. I was born in the UK to a British father and a Canadian mother (so already not “pure” British). Our family moved to Germany when I was nine years old, so I spent my formative years in that country. By the time I reached adulthood, I wasn’t properly “German”, of course – too many allegedly English “eccentricities” remained for that – but I wasn’t “British” either: I wasn’t familiar with contemporary slang or any of the other things like TV shows and music that go into making up a shared cultural background.

I’m not saying this in a cry for sympathy – the benefits of growing up this way far outweigh the drawbacks, in my opinion – but to explain why my sense of identity soon became concentrated on a supra-national structure whose aim was to bring countries together, remove borders, and enable freedom of movement – the European Union. I didn’t feel German, I didn’t feel English, but I did feel European (sorry, Canada). This community of different European states provided people like me with a feeling of “home”.

Precisely this question of supra-national identity was one of the key issues in the EU referendum, of course. Leave voters “wanted their country back”, wanted rid of foreigners, wanted rid of “upper middle-class snowflakes” who were invested in more than one country (I paraphrase some of the comments I had the misfortune to read when scrolling through my Twitter feed). Of course there were a multitude of other matters at stake, too, and not all Leave voters subscribe to such views, but it’s impossible to deny that identity politics concerning what Britain was and who it belonged to played a huge role in the way people voted.

The referendum severely shook my own sense of identity. I was left wrestling with anger (“How could they do this?!!”), shame (“I’m bloody well going to use my Canadian passport next time I travel to Germany, I don’t want anyone to know I’m British”), and heartbreak (“I’ve lost my home”). All of these feelings were exacerbated by the discourse in the public space and by the complete failure of UK politicians and public figures to provide any kind of conciliatory, unifying narrative that could have helped heal the wounds caused by the Brexit vote.

Some of the emotions I’ve experienced (and continue to experience) are understandable, some are petty, most of them are unproductive. What’s the way forward? A couple of years ago, I was introduced to “The Work” of Byron Katie by a friend. “The Work” is a simple but highly effective tool that allows you gently to question the thoughts and beliefs that bring you pain. There are four steps. First, once you’ve identified a painful thought (e.g. “Brexit is taking away my home”), ask yourself: is it true? (“Has Brexit really taken away my house, my neighbourhood, my friends, my family, everything that goes into making up ‘home’? No, it hasn’t.”) Often, there is still resistance at this stage, so the second step of The Work is to ask: can I really be sure that it’s true? (“No, I can’t. Sure, Brexit is taking away a lot of opportunities and ease, but it’s not taking away my home.”) The third step is to examine how you react when you believe that thought. (I panic. I feel completely out of control. I feel threatened. I can’t concentrate on work, I can’t concentrate on my beautiful house and garden, I lose sight of all the love I receive from my family and friends.) The fourth step is to ask: who would you be without that thought? (I’d be so much calmer. I would be able to look at my situation rationally and make plans to deal with any impact Brexit may have on my livelihood and family. With plans in place, I’d feel much more in control.)

Even more interesting to me has been the exercise Katie calls “Turnarounds”: here, you turn a thought around and seeing whether the opposite might be just as or even more true. (“Brexit hasn’t taken away my home.” – Yes, I can see that now. “I’ve taken away my home.” – By spending all my energy on anxious thoughts, I’ve blinded myself to what a good home I have. And so on!)

This process creates a sense of space, of ease in my mind, and I’m able to question other parts of my thinking too. I’m so aware that the idea of “Britishness” clung to by many Leave voters is a construct – well, surely so is my idea of “Europeanness”. Am I any less European because, as of 31 January 2020, 11pm, I’m no longer a citizen of the EU? Does belonging really have anything to do with nationality or citizenship? When I think of the places I feel I fit in and belong – on my yoga mat, in our orchard here in Rutland, in the Chalice Well Gardens at Glastonbury, in my favourite cafés in Regensburg – I realise that it’s often just as much the activity I’m engaged in and/or the people I’m with that create that sense of belonging. Will that change because my next passport will be blue instead of burgundy?

When I question my painful thoughts, the whole situation becomes much more straightforward. I am able to see that I have a plan to mitigate any negative impacts Brexit may have on my business; that I’m still going to be able to travel between the UK, Germany and Canada to see my family. I’m able to engage with Leave-voting friends and neighbours without feeling that they’ve caused me existential harm. It doesn’t mean that I’ve changed my mind on Brexit. But The Work has given me a way of coping, of moving forward, of seeing that home can be many different places in Europe and beyond, regardless of whether the UK is part of the EU or not.

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