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Michael Sylvester interview

15 December 10 words: Pete Lamb
Emotional oppression is a state of mind that has been fed into us by parents, teachers, and authority figures
Michael Sylvester author of Don't Upset Renee: The Discovery of Emotional Repression. 

Michael Sylvester is a local businessman who started his own training and development company (Michael Sylvester Ltd) in 1986, prompted by a period of unemployment and a desire for a more common-sense approach in business. Earlier this year he published his first book, Don't Upset Renee: The Discovery of Emotional Oppression; recounting his life long battle with his mother's bullying and oppressive behaviour with the aim of encouraging people to think more about their actions and how this type of behaviour is systematic throughout life. Peter Lamb caught up with him to find out more about this psychological condition and what it was like to collaborate on the project with David Knight.

You worked in collaboration with David Knight. How did you find working with another writer and is this something you would recommend?
Five years it took me to get it together. I’d never written a book before so I didn’t know how to go about it. I got to a certain point and then I lost my way a little bit so it sat on a shelf. Then I got to meet David Knight. David was a client who came to me for mentoring on public speaking. We’d got to know each other and become good friends and he was interested in my story. And really it all began because I am an orator and David is a wordsmith and we put the two together and it was absolutely brilliant.

To pick up on the subtitle of your book, ‘The discovery of emotional oppression’, one of the questions I was keen to ask you is whether that’s still a consistent thing or was that particularly a product of your childhood era?
It isn’t a product of my generation, young people talk to me about experiences that I’m describing as emotional oppression. It’s what happens in families, very often people say very negative things to others and we don’t realise the damage we’re doing; phrases like, ‘could’ve tried harder’ and ‘you don’t know the meaning of being stressed’. And that’s how I think it manifests itself as pressure within us.

Nowadays do you think it’s easier for children and young adults to rebel against that sort of parental authoritarianism?
It is easier in some ways. In my case it was because I didn’t know how to rebel because I was oppressed by my mum who was a real controlling individual. It was just like hitting your head against a brick wall. I don’t think that we realise that emotional oppression is happening to us and therefore how can we rebel against it?  But it’s not really about rebellion, it’s about understanding yourself. If you’ve had, or been given emotional oppression, it’s very difficult to be assertive because the two things don’t go together and so the assertiveness has to be learned.

On your website you’re described as having something of an epiphany in the Eighties which broadened your perspective beyond materialism. Do you think any others had this ‘epiphany’ as the result of a decade that is always characterised as one of greed and self-interest?
I’m not sure that a lot of people have. In my case, and I agree with you the Eighties was a materialistic period, it wasn’t a period of social improvement. Being out of work made the difference to me. I was very reluctant to change and I think it was some years after before I realised that I had changed. I used to dress in very strong suits and I used to behave in quite a sort of prickly manner and my business cards were all red and black and things like that. And I met a guy who was a colour consultant in marketing and he said, ‘the way you present yourself is like a 1980s engineering company, but you’re not like that and the client doesn’t want that, they want to know you’ll listen to them’. And that was part of the epiphany, realising that you didn’t have to have this materialistic front to hide behind.

"Very often people say very negative things to others and we don’t realise the damage we’re doing."

On the back of the book, it’s categorised as a ‘self-help’ book but you yourself specifically say in the opening chapter that it’s not a ‘self-help’ book. So how would you categorise the book?
We’re not making a statement, we’re asking a question. We’re saying emotional oppression and what happened to me is the focus to introduce emotional oppression. So we’re not trying to educate people in trying to handle it, we’re trying to get people to identify, see that there might be something in there. And the feedback has been absolutely amazing! So that’s been quite exciting but I don’t see it as a self-help book, no.

In terms of your education, you spoke of a negative experience of private education. Do you have a bias now, either way? Or was it just your personal experience, perhaps a one-off?
The experience that I had was, mother felt that state education wasn’t good enough for me. So I went to this private school and I hated it! And when I was 15, I can remember the headmaster, an ex-military man, caught me talking in a non-talking period of the lunchbreak if you can you believe it. I had to go into his study and take my trousers and underwear off and he hit me with a cane and I can feel, not the pain, but the humiliation. It was frightening, and I remember tackling mum about it later in life. And I said, ‘do you know, you paid him to hit me’. And she said,’ oh that didn’t happen. That couldn’t have happened, you’ve only imagined it’.

One final question, if you could offer one piece of advice to victims of emotional oppression, what would you say?
I would say it’s about self-checking. If one feels they can’t step forward or move into an area one wants to be in then self-check and ask why. I can give you one example. I have two sets of students at Sutton-in-Ashfield College I help with Business Marketing lessons. At the end of one academic year all the people who were about to leave felt they couldn’t do what they wanted to do. There was this one girl who must have been about eighteen or nineteen years old who wanted to be a zoologist and her dad wanted her to work at Boots the chemist. Big difference. She got a place at Brackenhurst Zoo and she spent some time in Africa learning about zoology. If you think you can’t do something; ask yourself is it because you haven’t got the skills (and you can find them) or is it because at some point somebody told you they don’t think you can do it?

 David Knight appears on our WriteLion 9 podcast which will be out next year. The book is available to buy from Matador

Michael Sylvester's website  David Knight's website

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