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James O’Brien: ‘I’ve spent my whole life in fight-or-flight mode’

“I went to therapy very sceptically. The stiff upper lip mentality, the idea that talking about your feelings is questionable and effeminate – these things were drilled into me very effectively.”

Radio host James O’Brien has become known for his no-nonsense approach to dismantling intellectual opponents. But in a new interview, O’Brien revealed his verbal gymnastics were unable to help him when he faced a personal crisis – though this wasn’t through a lack of trying. 

“I went to therapy very sceptically. The stiff upper lip mentality, the idea that talking about your feelings is questionable and effeminate – these things were drilled into me very effectively,” the 49-year-old explained in a new interview with The Big Issue.

“But it had come to the point in this family crisis that if someone had told me a coffee enema would help me be a better husband and dad then I’d have tried that. 

“One of the people I love most in the world got really, really ill and I approached it like I’d approached everything else in life: with my source artillery of quick wit and verbal dexterity. 

“I was almost trying to argue the family better. And when you’re dealing with potentially life-changing trauma that approach is of bugger all use to anybody,” he told Jane Graham in this week’s Letter To My Younger Self, which sees famous faces look back on their upbringing and family life. 

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O’Brien began his career working for the Daily Express, following in the footsteps of his father who was also a journalist. Talking about his upbringing, the broadcaster said he had spent his whole life in a “sort of fight-or-flight mode” after being badly beaten by teachers at prep school.

“Casual violence from teachers to pupils was commonplace. So at big school I’d always shoot first and ask questions later,” he said. 

“I thought attack was the best form of defence, sometimes physically but with me usually verbally. 

“But looking back now, after lots of therapy, I think I’ve spent most of my life trying to win a game I didn’t realise was optional. 

“I tried to convince myself that getting brutalised by teachers didn’t hurt me at all. I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of knowing that they were hurting me. 

“And I must have internalised that rationale on a pretty epic scale because I ended up arguing sincerely that things like corporal punishment were good for children, which obviously makes me a fucking idiot.” 

Read more from James O’Brien, where he opens up about therapy, family life and his lack of ambition in this week’s Big Issue, available now from your local vendor

How Not To Be Wrong by James O’Brien is out in paperback on May 13 (Ebury, £9.99)

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