A Book Review

‘SWITCHCRAFT: Harnessing the Power of Mental Agility To Transform your Life’

by Elaine Fox

‘There is no one-size-fits all solution to dealing with life… It’s the people who know how and when to switch between different approaches – people who have an agile mind – who achieve the best performance.’

As I write this, the country is waiting for the announcement of the name of the third British Prime Minister this year. Tomorrow we shall wake up to yet another leader and another shift in government policy and style. The UK is facing national challenges of economic upheaval and a crisis in energy supply at a time of global instability and uncertainty. All this while we continue to process the profound impact of the Covid pandemic. At a time of flux – and with a prediction of a difficult winter ahead – it is easy to feel anxious and possibly overwhelmed.

However, while the nature of this particular turmoil has been unexpected, hasn’t the challenge of ‘Life’ for human beings been ever thus? Change and uncertainty are inescapable. We change, our lives change, and some of those changes are for the better while many others are for the worse. Life has always meant dealing with the unexpected; at the micro as well as macro level and rather than be knocked sidewise by setbacks and flattened by adverse situations, Elaine Fox, in her new book ‘Switchcraft’, describes how we can all learn the skills of mental agility and become more resilient when navigating stormy waters. 

Resilient people are not unaffected by stress but they do have a toolbox of strategies and alternatives that can offer a sense of agency and control. There is a fundamental truth in the adage, ‘We cannot direct the wind but we can adjust the sails.’

Of course, there are traumatic events that shake us to the core and leave us adrift and lost, feeling a shell of the person we once were. We feel lost and in desperate need of the support of others just to get through the day. We feel robbed of our identity and cannot imagine how we will have a future.

There are also sudden events, like separation, redundancy, a medical diagnosis, that pull the rug from under our feet and leave us disorientated and in shaken.

We might anticipate other situations, like children leaving home, retirement, moving to a different area, our first baby, but get surprised by emotional reactions we had not foreseen.

Fox highlights the need for a pause at times like these, as change and uncertainty can trick us into making decisions too quickly. We need to understand the importance of taking a metaphoric (sometimes very long) breath in order to process our feelings about what has happened. However much our tendency is to withdraw into a shell, connection with trusted friends and family can steady us and help us reorientate. They can remind us about who we are. It cannot be rushed. Sometimes therapy is the safe space that allows us to explore the implications and adjust self-definitions. Getting to know yourself again means stepping into an essential period of transition. Psychoanalyst Fritz Perls describes it as stepping into a ‘fertile void’. This is not a dead space in which we fear being subsumed. When we are ready, it is a dynamic and productive space, which offers the opportunity to mourn what we are leaving behindwhile taking the steps to move towards. We can fear being unprepared for the task, and emotionally overwhelmed, but with compassionate support, we can grieve what has gone, what we were, and begin to understand and assimilate where we are going and what is coming next.

Fox understands that our brain is a predictive organism -programmed to look for familiar patterns and cues – and alert for ‘error’ signals. To keep us safe it has a natural negativity bias, playing up threat. The amygdala is hypervigilant to the possibility of danger. It would prefer that we stay in the safety of our familiar comfort zones. But Fox warns this can result in the ‘mental arthritis’ that keeps us stuck in self-destructive, habitual and repetitive, rigid behaviours.

Our family backgrounds and life experiences shape our attitudes and reactions to risk. Those who have been hurt badly in a past relationship, for example, can be defensive and reluctant to trust a new partner. But Fox stresses the importance of developing the skills and strategies that build our sense of Self and give us greater confidence in our own abilities and intuition.

Knowing we have a healthy range of options in our tool box allows us to step back from the fray and take a more detached view. We can make more informed and realistic risk-assessments which allows us to relax and be less risk-averse. 

Fox suggests a check on which mind are you in:

The panicked splintered mind which cannot think clearly.

The depressed mind with dark negative thoughts which has no positivity or joy.

The emotionally overwhelmed mind which is reading a situation through a confusion of feelings.

The rational mind which is understanding the situation through dry facts and figures.

The wise mind which is allowing for complexity, accepting of sometimes contradictory complications, and is meshing both the emotional and rational together.

Sometimes events happen that make us feel we have no agency, no voice, no control. But though terrifying and destabilising at first, we are not passive victims blowing in the wind. We can survive and thrive. To do so we need a range of flexible coping strategies that can help us deal with the blows and stresses and strains. 

Fox suggests the key skills that are necessary to allow us to be the active steward of our own well-being, allow us to be open to different possibilities, allow us to think creatively, and allow us to take alternative routes when faced with obstinate obstacles in our way.

Fox is an advocate of flexibility of mind understanding that, in our panic when faced with change, our tendency is to become rigid, fixed and stuck and play out old and familiar scenarios which are no longer relevant or suitable. For example, there is no point changing tack if grit and persistence are what is needed. On the other hand, while perseverance can be a strength, it is no good if it is now essential to make a change. 

Martial arts actor Bruce Lee said we should beware of becoming stale and stagnant. Instead, we should keep changing shape, be like running water, and flow through the cracks of obstructions on our path. 

‘The realist sees reality as concrete. The optimist sees it as clay.’ (Robert Brault)

Brault also said ‘When you cannot overcome the obstacles in your path, perhaps it’s no longer your path.’

Perhaps it’s time to take an unanticipated and completely new path altogether. We may not recognise that there are many alternative pathways, choices, and opportunities for us in life. We fear straying from the designated plan. Although it may feel hard to step into the unknown, it’s usually not about being rightor wrongbecause we can take charge of shaping the outcome. Fox defines ‘Switchcraft’ as the development of the agile mindset by cultivating as a ‘craft’ the ability to ‘switch’.

She uses the metaphor of a game of golf to illustrate an attitude to life. Sometimes we land a dizzying hole in one. But golf can also be full of problems: the ball may end up on the green, or in the bunker, in the water, or in the long grass. But there is a golf club for every eventuality and no matter where your ball lands you must choose the right club for the right shot, deal with the situation, and continue the round. There is no one-size-fits-all so there is need for mental agility, a positive mindset, and the capacity to engage and seize any new opportunities. 

Fox says, ‘Succeeding in life is often about finding the right balance between mental strengthon the one hand and mental agilityon the other…’ and goes on to explain that our emotions are at the heart of our mental agility. 

We are affected by what mindfulness teachers call ‘feeling tones’. ‘Feeling tones’ are a subtle window into our emotional life and provide us with a continuous read out of a situation, often informing us of what is going on before our conscious brain catches up. 

However, in a noisy modern world we often disregard or fail to hear the signals coming from within our bodies and hearts. We can miss the messages of wisdom that are contained within us that would be of help. She says developing our emotional awareness and intuition is so important. Balance can so easily be lost. Inflexibility, attention focused on the negatives, and anxiety and depression can take hold making recovery more difficult

She says it is an essential lifetime’s work to maintain the four overarching pillars of the craft:

  1. Stay agile in the face of our changing times.
  2. Know yourself. Work to develop your self-awareness.
  3. Work on enhancing your emotional awareness. Strengthen your ability to self-soothe and regulate emotions.
  4. Give yourself time and space for reflection to give room for your intuition. Your intuition can become a trusted guide when linked to your understanding of your core values and beliefs.

You will then be better armed to navigate the turbulence and challenges that make up modern life today.

Kathy Rees