To live and fail in the City

In my previous posting (‘Touching the Void’, 18 Nov 11) I cited an article by Tom Whipple on the taboo subject of mental illness amongst high flying City workers.  In it he quotes Neil Brenner, a psychiatrist who specialises in supporting bankers with mental health problems, who says:

The City is a place where everyone loves a winner.  But if you’re not in the winner’s enclosure you’ve got a problem.

So what does it mean to be outside the ‘winner’s enclosure’?  To put this question another way: what’s at stake in succeeding in the City?  An income?  A lifestyle?  An identity?

Presumably income comes into it somewhere along the line.  The general perception is that people who work in the City are paid very well indeed, and even for those who aren’t income must be very important.  More so, perhaps, because they will have less to fall back on when times get hard.  At the end of the day, though, the money is buying something – and maybe this is what’s really at stake.

So we are left with lifestyle and identity.  Lifestyle may seem obvious, identity perhaps less so.  At the end of the day though, aren’t lifestyle and identity part of the same thing?  Of course, lifestyle is one of those vague terms, which can mean many things.  In one sense, everyone has a lifestyle – even the poorest.  It’s a way of living, mediated through income, social class, gender, ethnicity, health and (dis)ability.

The word ‘style’, unfortunately, implies that one has a choice in the way one lives one’s life.  Some psychotherapists would readily concur, and argue that everything we do is a choice.  As a psychoanalyst I would concur – up to a point.  To paraphrase Marx: we choose our own lives, but not in circumstances of our own choosing.

Leaving this to one side for a moment, don’t our lifestyles (chosen or otherwise) say something about who we are?  To cite Whipple’s article again: he quotes Michael Sinclair, another practitioner specialising in the psychopathology of City life.  Sinclair points out that:

City workers, even those in it for a short time, become institutionalised.  They spend so long in the workplace, they don’t really know who they are or what else they can do without their jobs.  It’s a lifestyle, and their self-worth is wrapped up in it.

Perhaps more tellingly, Sinclair goes on explain that one of the reasons he is seeing so many clients at the moment is because they are worried that this lifestyle may be about to come to end.  And here lies the cruel irony: it’s the fear of losing this lifestyle that is causing a  whole range of psychological problems, including anxiety and depression.   But, to admit this to one’s colleagues (and not to mention one’s competitors) is to admit failure, and this means that one’s self-worth is already compromised.

But this is to already have entered a vicious circle: trying to struggle on regardless is going to make a person’s mental health problems a lot worse.  However, to admit having such problems is to admit ‘defeat’,which is likely to exacerbate, in the short term, a person’s lack of self-worth.   So the individual keeps struggling on towards the encroaching void……..