by Helen Stone MBACP (Accred) MNCS (Accred) Dip Couns MA PG Dip Psych
For all of us facing the 2019 Loan Charge, APNs or any other aspect of HMRC’s Retrospective Tax, we face an avalanche of complex feeling and emotions and this article on the psychological aspects aims to demystify some of them, explain why these feelings can, at times, be experienced at such an intense level, and to respectfully offer some ways forward and things you can think about doing that may help make things bearable, or even bring you back from the brink.
This is only intended to be a brief piece and so I have to apologise for only being able to skate over some of the complex psychotherapeutic ideas contained therein. Hopefully, it will serve as an introduction to some, or a reminder to others.
Who am I?
I have worked as a counsellor in practice for the last 6 years, accredited with BACP and NCS. I had a psycho-dynamic and psycho-spiritual training and work with adult clients who all face varying levels of intractable or impenetrable situations in which they typically feel helpless and powerless. The work is always about hearing the story, sitting with the intense despair that the person telling it feels, and finding ways together to make any shifts we can, engage with whatever choices we can create and perhaps together finding some level of perspective.
My main qualification here though, is that as the ex-wife of a contractor caught by the first wave of IR35 and retrospective taxation, I have experienced at firsthand how damaging and destructive this attack by HMRC is to relationships, peace of mind and physical and mental wellbeing. I believe the prolonged psychological stresses when trying to engage with the faceless bureaucracy of HMRC, the exquisitely timed letters (some have arrived on birthdays and at Christmas), and terrifying life-changing demands for the kind of sums one would normally see in the accounts department of a medium sized company, have a massive impact, akin to being in a relationship with a psychopath.
How this situation plays out
Many people will be undergoing an extreme and grueling emotional turmoil whilst they try to come to terms with, and figure out what to do for the best, in the face of many unpredictable factors and highly unattractive choices. Already the first thing that many of us need for psychological wellbeing – CERTAINTY – is lost. We know that human beings have an affinity for things being settled, formed, safe, concrete, and that significant stress is created in the mind and in the body when people do not know their next step in life, because it is out of their control. This is an extreme situation we face here, so it is especially difficult knowing which way to turn.
Stress Levels & HMRC
We know that stress increases when there are other difficult feelings attached to it, and especially where shame or guilt play a role. This situation is particularly pernicious when you consider how the comments on any recent press articles reflect what is in the mind of the general public. HMRC have done a good job of spinning the story they want the public to hear – evil, greedy tax avoiders, not paying their fair share, bleating about how they are being ruined, etc.. They have SCAPEGOATED us and done a brilliant job of it.
This damages our reputation almost irreparably and cuts us off from justice and our right of reply to the other. Just as the persecution of any groups in history has always depended on an initial period of dehumanization, the bleakness and isolation that this causes has a profound effect on the mind, even on the collective consciousness. Even now, in some of my darkest moments, I have to work hard to realise this is not my shame. The most insidious thing about shame is the way in which it silences the recipient. It is so effective because it keeps one always on the back-foot, always having to waste energy justifying instead of taking positive action. The message from HMRC is, YOU did wrong, this is all your own making.
In the uniqueness of this post IR35 aftermath, this is one of the most masterful stitch-ups one could imagine, and it is classic narcissistic abusive territory. In a relationship with a narcissist, there are years of under the radar shifting of the focus, intermittent reinforcement that creates uncertainty for the other, minimizing of their actions and maximising of yours, word salad onslaughts, selective forgetting, denial of responsibility and gas-lighting or distortion of reality.
Relationships with narcissists typically are very difficult to disengage from and one of the only effective ways to do so is to gather sufficient support to go completely No Contact. This might be why many of us fantasize about emigrating or running away or somehow leaving this intolerable situation. Unconsciously we know that this is the only way we can truly recover, for this to be somehow done and dusted, in some way resolved.
At the same time, HMRC tightens the screws, increases the agony and forges ahead with more inhuman telephone number demands when we are least able to withstand it.
Some Thoughts about Stress & What You May Be Experiencing
These are some of the classic signs:
exhaustion – anxiety – despair – fury – resentment – guilt – self-loathing – intense anger – poor sleep – digestive upsets – unexplained pain or repeated infections – constant aching in the muscles and joints.
Stress, as we know from neuroscience, is not all bad; it can energise you in ways that can save your life when faced with extreme life threatening situations. Unfortunately, it becomes chronic and harmful to the body when the external issue continues unabated year after year and there is no way to discharge the stress.
Stress – Amber Warning Signs for when it crosses over into something more severe:
Intense exhaustion – deep unremitting despair – lack of joy – feelings of being ‘in the way’ – overwhelming apathy – wanting to sleep, eat or drink excessively – no longer wanting to connect – low libido – constant feelings of oppression and hopelessness – AWFULISING about the future – constant pressure in the head – worsening physical symptoms with no apparent physiological cause – eventually, suicidal ideation and the beginning of planning
You do not have to be suicidal to call a helpline such as the SAMARITANS or CALMZONE.
Self Care – what may help in the recovery from stress, anxiety and depression (not the whole answer!)
This is what clients tell me works for them: Nutrition, Exercise, Sleep, Spirituality, Life Goals, Relationships, Connection, Finding their tribe, their community, who they were before the trauma or problem. Sometimes getting involved with what they used to love doing – whether it was sailing, cycling, music or whatever – it can mean reconnecting with a younger, happier part of themselves.
The message I take from this is that HMRC does not have the power nor the right to rob you of the core essence of who you are, nor suspend your enjoyment of life or take you away from a happy and fulfilled future.
I recognize though that this is very difficult because we are starting from a terrible place and may have a lot of powerful feelings about what is being done to us and how it has been handed out.
One of the worst parts of this for me, is the inhuman nature of the bureaucracy – denied our rights on so many levels already, the obvious solution must be to sit down in front of another human being and make a deal. But HMRC does not work that way and this will no doubt bring up many feelings of outrage and indignation for many people.
For me, connecting with other periods of history in which people have suffered persecution resonates and can be helpful. Victor Frankl, in his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, found himself in one of the worst positions one could envisage, an Austrian Jewish psychiatrist driven out of his home in Vienna in 1942 and into a concentration camp, where he lost his wife and parents. He came to many realisations whilst at hard labour in the camps, observing how some inmates, whilst not the most robust, if ‘used to a rich intellectual life … the damage to their inner selves was less’, and noting that these same prisoners ‘… were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom.’ ‘This intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence ..’ He noted how the same prisoners could literally disidentify from the horror of their surroundings and still experience the joy of a sunset or the sudden presence of a bird perched in front of him.
Self Harm – unconscious self-punishment in an attempt to self-soothe
Through all of this, you may have cravings to anaesthetize the pain of this, with alcohol, with food, perhaps even over-exercising, overspending, recreational drug use. I think I have outlined that there are no easy answers to any of this, but if there is an addictive process beginning, in response to the deafening inner tormenter that is HMRC, you may want to work towards more creative choices, finding a counsellor or support group etc.. that can help you emerge from this.
Finding your voice may be an unexpected byproduct. Perhaps you may be thinking about what you could do to fight back, – see your MP, speak to a journalist, become active on twitter – this is not a recruitment drive because we all know what feels right for us personally. Group initiatives are powerful of course and the recent Windrush scandal shows what can be achieved when the whistle is blown on exploitation of a group of individuals. There are some parallels with our situation perhaps.
Realise that it is a choice to feel angry or resentful or cluttered within your mind, 24 hours a day, about the atrocious unfairness of retrospective tax and the actions of HMRC. Find SPACE from this, begin to build your inner ground, find that clearing in your mind for just a little time each day, and you will have correspondingly increased strength to survive this. This situation DOES NOT DEFINE YOU and you will come through this.
Mindfulness as a practice teaches you to turn towards the worst and most frightening things that are surfacing in your mind and to be okay within those moments. It helps you to build inner resilience and find deep spaces of calm; it teaches you how to sit with that discomfort if that is the reality for you in the here and now. There are many drop-in centres that offer courses, or you could try an online course with the British Institute of Mindfulness.
Living with Uncertainty
Playing devil’s advocate and exploring what the worst that could happen actually looks like for a moment. Imagine you have had to settle, are bankrupt, perhaps you have also lost your relationship or career or both – this is obviously a horrendous possibility and almost certainly not part of any plan you ever made. So what next? You still have your life and hopefully your health. Friends? Family? Loved Ones? What would your next course of action be? New life choice, new career, traveling, write a book, emigrate, start something new? I am not trying to make light of any of this, just suggesting that sometimes our fear can magnify what is in front of us so that it becomes unimaginable in its ferocity and stifles and paralyses us.
You could find a Counsellor who can help. Perhaps I would say that, but I do not advocate talking therapies above anything else. If you do think about therapy, be sure to pick from a reliable source, such as Counselling Directory or the BACP Find a Therapist. Look for a therapist who can hold the context of meaning, which is why I recommend psycho-spiritual counseling as a modality.
Whatever else, if you have been suffering under the very real fears and worries around retrospective taxation and the 2019 Loan Charge, know that you can get to the other side of this and that you will find your own unique way through. Also you are not alone in this and there are many things you can do for yourself on a psychological level that may help to make things bearable.
Helen Stone MBACP (Accred) MNCS (Accred) Dip Couns MA PG Dip Psych
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