Monday, 23 January 2017

The Temptation to Rescue

As a Psychotherapist, friends often ask if I'm ever tempted to step in and solve problems for my clients.  The truth is that sometimes I am tempted.  Of course, that's not what a Psychotherapist should be doing, but it doesn't mean I'm never tempted.  New clients sometimes ask me if I will be providing them with advice as to how to live their lives better or to 'fix' them.  I usually respond with something like, "Who am I to tell you how to live your life"? Most people seem to appreciate that because in an instant it hands back a large portion of control to the client.

Are you a 'Rescuer'?  We all enjoy doing nice things for others when we can but do you regularly find yourself doing this, often at your own expense? Perhaps you keep finding yourself lending money that you don't have, giving up time that you don't have, being emotionally available for everyone but yourself or drawn to partners who need to be 'fixed'?  Maybe you tell yourself, you love to help others and that's just the kind of person you are?  Altruism is a wonderful thing BUT I'm willing to bet that even despite the toll this 'self-sacrificing' might take on you, you'll keep doing it because there is an anticipated or actual pay-off. That's not to say that you engage in this pattern of behaviour because you want something from it - you probably engage in it because unconsciously you are being driven to have needs met that have been lacking elsewhere, either in the past or the present.  "No way, not me", you might say; "I'm just doing this because I'm a really kind person".  I'm sure you are and I'd believe that kindness was your sole motivation if this happened only occasionally but when this becomes a pattern of behaviour which often leads you to feeling depleted in some way - a part of your 'script', if you like, then it's most likely that you are seeking something that will fill an emotional hole of some sort.  Maybe you fear being rejected or disliked, so you do everything you can to be 'liked'.  Maybe you are trying to prove something to someone else.  Maybe you weren't able to help or 'fix' someone in your past but now you can make amends by doing that for someone else.  There are many reasons why people do this and the answer usually lies in the past.

So, apart from the emotional toll this kind of behaviour can take on us, how else might it affect our relationships?  Firstly, has someone actually asked you to fix something or have they merely shared a problem with you?  Sharing worries or concerns might be all the other person wants to do - they might feel that you can support them best just by listening.  By really listening and asking appropriate questions, you show that you care and that you are interested - maybe that's enough. We can often figure things out by ourselves just by naming a problem out loud to someone else.  There is healing to be had by relating to another human being.  When someone isn't asking for your opinion or an answer to a problem, they can feel judged or disempowered - no, that's not your intention but that won't change how they might feel.  Telling them a story about yourself that 'trumps' theirs is also unhelpful because then it becomes about you, even if your intention is to make them feel like they are not alone. If you are going to share your own personal experience, timing is everything.  Showing empathy is everything when people are struggling with an issue - I mean genuine empathy, not just telling them how awful a situation is, while you type away on your keyboard! Simple responses like, "that must be so hard for you right now" or "I can see you're really struggling right now", show a desire to understand but hold back from full-on rescue mode.  You might ask them if they have any thoughts on what they will do.   It's good to note that sometimes, when we see someone's distress and we feel a strong desire to save them, it might be more about our discomfort with our own emotions.  Maybe they need to feel what they are feeling in order to process what is happening for them?   

Now back to my own temptation to rescue.......there are rare occasions when someone needs to be rescued (at least a little bit); that could be a child from an abusive environment or someone who is in such a vulnerable place that they do not feel capable of supporting themselves.   In the case of adults who are particularly vulnerable, where possible, the goal should always be to work towards a point where they can learn to support themselves.  These cases are pretty rare but sometimes we have to dig deep to find those resources to support ourselves.  Sometimes my job is to help my clients in seeking out the resources that are available to them.  I know that when I start to feel slightly anxious before a session with a client or feel inclined to rack my brains for solutions to a problem, then I am veering off into rescue mode.  Sometimes it takes a bit of reflecting on my part to figure out what's going on but once I do, then it's a massive relief for me because I can acknowledge what's going on for me and because it's now in awareness, it has little control over me - years of therapy and training do come in handy sometimes!  I also reflect on whether or not, I've been subtly 'invited' by my client to rescue them.  I have asked some clients (where appropriate) if they felt they might have been looking for me to rescue them and usually they have; once we acknowledge that co-creation, we can get back to the task at hand, which is me supporting them to support themselves, NOT 'RESCUE'.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Self-Acceptance: The Holy Grail of Therapy

I always explain to new clients that I see the ultimate goal of therapy (well, at least in terms of how I work) as being 'SELF-ACCEPTANCE'.  You see, self-acceptance is the key to true change and real change can only come about in a meaningful way when you become who you really are and not who you think you ought to be.

There are many reasons why people struggle with self-acceptance, which might originate from things that have happened to them, things they have done, things done to them or beliefs they have about themselves, which might actually be other people's beliefs about them but they now own them as their own.

The first step in accepting ourselves is finding some understanding or explanation as to how we have come to be the way we are; what life events might have lead to us feeling unable to accept ourselves? This first step is important because it will help you to make links between the past and the present. The next step is to try to see that you adapted as best you could (as we all do) to the experiences you had and that most likely, for a time, this probably worked to some extent; it might have kept you safe in some way, either physically or emotionally or both.  This second step is not an easy one, because it asks you to view yourself in a non-judgmental and compassionate way; as someone who did the best they could with the tools they had.  This is where a good Therapist can help; they can reinforce the fact that you did your best and will not judge you and they might even challenge you to find some compassion for yourself, however small.

This brings us to the next stage, which is expressing the feelings you have about the events/situations which have lead to you feeling unable to accept yourself; you might feel anger, sadness, shame, disgust or any number of emotions.  Exploration of your emotions are part of the healing process; the 'inner child' gets to say what he could never say at the time and the adult you (and perhaps your Therapist) gets to stick up for the inner child and reassure him/her that they have an ally on their road to accepting themselves.  You might not want to feel the emotions but denying them is just perpetuating the cycle and denies you the chance to accept all the parts of you.

Once you can begin to accept that the bits you don't like are there for a reason and they might have even kept you safe (or saved your life even), you are opening the way for a much better relationship with yourself.  With that in place, you can then pave the way for much healthier and boundaried relationships with others. Most importantly, you can start living an authentic life.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Metaphorically Speaking

Have you ever vowed to make a change in your life?   It’s probably wise to understand where you are before you decide where you want to be.  When I ask new clients to describe their lives to me, metaphors are often offered by way of explanation.  Some examples of metaphors shared with me include, “I’m peering into an abyss”, “I’m at a crossroads”, “I’m adrift at sea”, “I’m on a treadmill and don’t know how to get off”, “My life’s a car crash”.    The images created by the metaphors give you access on an emotional level, enabling a connection with the experience.

So, what’s your metaphor?  A metaphor might be a good way of helping you and others to make meaning of your situation. It certainly helps me in my work with clients, at times when words don’t come easy to them.  In addition, having a visual image means that the image can be changed.  Take the treadmill metaphor above.  Treadmills have an emergency ‘stop’ button, so what if it was used?  What feelings/emotions would that elicit just thinking about pressing ‘stop’?  Once the feelings are identified, one might want to look at the past to see where those feelings have been most prominent and try to find some compassion for oneself; that it’s ok to slow down.  Easier said than done, indeed, but the metaphor enables understanding and further exploration.

In finishing this piece of writing, I’ve crossed a finish line and you probably know that’s a good feeling because the image of the finish line is something you can relate to. We make use of metaphors in our everyday lives because they create an impact, so don’t you deserve to have one that represents your way of being in the world?

Anxiety: Fear of the Unknown

It’s a normal human emotion which we’ve all experienced at some point or other and come out the other side but sometimes anxiety morphs into something much more overwhelming.  How do we recognise when it’s time to seek help and take on this ‘burden’ which might be controlling us? 

Anxiety disorders vary in their nature and severity.  You might be familiar with anxiety-related conditions such as generalised anxiety, panic attacks, social anxiety, phobias, health anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorders.  These all differ in many ways from each other but the one thing they all have in common is FEAR.

Anxiety is about fearing the future – the future can be one second from now or 50 years from now but either way there is a fear of the unknown, of what could happen between now and then.  The future is, by its very nature, unknown (unless you believe in psychic powers) and therefore we cannot control it.  We can plan for it and prepare the best we can, but we cannot predetermine it. When we feel anxious, our senses are heightened, as we revert to a very primal state, where we have the options of ‘fight or flight’.  Anxiety helps to keep us safe by making us more alert to danger, making us perform better at certain tasks and it can prompt us to move from a state of inaction to taking positive action.  Think about times when anxiety might have been useful to you – maybe you were nervous about an exam or a job interview, so you prepared yourself so as to minimise the chance of failure.  Maybe you were in a life or death situation and you had to perform an extraordinary task in order to survive or to save someone else.  In contrast, anxiety becomes unhelpful when we are reacting where there is no danger or threat, eg that a harmless house spider is going to jump out of the bath and land on us, when actually spiders don’t do this.  Anxiety can also be unhelpful when it is disproportionate to the level of threat, eg when someone has a fear of crowds and that this fear prevents them from leaving the house for fear they may get caught up in a crowd.  In such cases, anxiety does not serve to protect – it becomes an imprisonment and stops us from living.

The unpredictability of life can be extremely difficult for some people and so they spend valuable time and energy ‘living’ in a hypothetical future, where all sorts of catastrophes could occur.   This might be based on past experience of actual events or a perception that they are in an unsafe environment but whatever the root cause, living in the ‘here and now’ suffers at the hands of the dreaded dangerous future. It is only through living and experiencing life, that we can believe we will be safe most of the time.  When something happens to challenge this belief, the ability to keep things in perspective is how we push through and carry on living.

It is very important to understand that you don’t choose to have anxiety in your life.  It is there for a reason, whether it is beneficial or not.  Try to accept this and stop blaming yourself for feeling the way you do as it’s counterproductive to think otherwise.   If you can stop this blame game, you are likely feel better about yourself and therefore more likely to feel able to face your fears.   Talk to others who won’t judge you.  It really can help.

The Imperfections of Perfectionism

Your project deadline has arrived - you know, the one you've been working tirelessly on and which you've reviewed over and over again. You finished it long ago but waited to send it, just in case. Pressing the 'send' button brings you out in a cold sweat because once you've done it, that’s it. The 'what ifs' bombard your mind.  'What if I've missed something? What if I got something wrong? What if it's not perfect? What if I'm not perfect?

If you're a perfectionist, the above scenario is probably familiar. It goes beyond taking pride in your work; it sets you up for a life in which little pleasure is taken in achieving goals and where you are left with a feeling of deep shame when you might feel judged as less-than-perfect. It's a relentless cycle, so who are you really doing it for? Is there someone important in your past who would accept nothing less than 100% from you and whose acceptance of you was conditional? Perhaps you tirelessly sought recognition from someone as a child and are still seeking it.

Being afraid to get things wrong robs us of many pleasures in life, as we are forever chasing perfection, which is a cruel illusion. We avoid doing enjoyable activities because we might not measure up to our own idea of perfection. Relationships can suffer because nobody can quite make the grade if you cannot accept your own imperfections.  Instead of viewing others as lazy or not caring when they slip up, try to see them as human beings, just like you. 

Think of it like this: Perfectionism is about looking outwards at what others will think; healthy striving to improve is looking inwards at oneself – a much better place to be.

When History Keeps Repeating Itself

Do you often find yourself making the same poor choices over and over again?  For example, it might be dysfunctional relationships, unsatisfying jobs or poor lifestyle choices.  You might have vowed to make changes because these choices don’t make you happy but yet you find yourself back in that familiar place time and time again.  It’s like you’ve written a ‘life script’ but don’t know how to ‘break’ it, so where do you begin?
Our ‘life scripts’ or fixed beliefs about ourselves are usually written relatively early in life, through the messages we got from our families, friends and teachers, amongst others. Examples of life scripts might be: ‘People always leave me’ (so you act defensively and drive people away); I’m worthless (so you engage in behaviours that make you feel bad about yourself); ‘You should always put others before yourself’ (so you become a martyr, while resenting others for not helping you); ‘You’re not able to do things for yourself’ (so you might find yourself in relationships with people you judge to be stronger than you, potentially leading to you being exploited).

Notice that the behaviours keep the ‘script’ intact because we need to protect what we believe to be true, no matter how dysfunctional that might be.  Just trying to change your behaviours doesn’t usually work, since it’s an understanding of what drives your script that is required.  Identifying the script and understanding where it came from is likely to help you feel less angry at yourself, which may just lead to acceptance of yourself. This could help you to become who you really are and not who you think you should be – a struggle which most of us can relate to.  

Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Strong-willed Four-Year- Old: Fear of Breaking the Spirit

I often find myself questioning whether I'm breaking my four-year old's spirit when I discipline her for her poor behaviour.  Don't get me wrong - I am not against consequences for poor behaviour (nor reward/praise for good behaviour) but seeing her in full-on 'angry' mode when she hasn't had her way, there's a part of me that is proud of the fact she can express her feelings, no-holds-barred.  Of course, there is also the part of me, who feels angered by the fact that she either won't listen to me or refuses to comply with my request.  In those moments, I too, can feel like a four-year-old, who wants to shout and stamp my feet so that my feelings can be seen and heard.  I don't, of course because I meant to be the adult, who contains the situation - right? Well, that adult, also feels full of admiration for her because there she is, secure enough that she can behave in that way and know that she will still be loved.  I also feel deep compassion for her because it's tough feeling so angry that the only thing you feel you can do is roll around on the floor until is passes (and it does pass within in a minute or two).  The last thing I want to do is demonstrate to her that being angry is wrong, so I allow the tantrums to run their course, telling myself that she has to learn to regulate her own emotions, with my support.  

She can be is clear about what she does and doesn't want and likes to point out my mistakes to me, particularly focusing on my double-standards: "Mummy, you said I wasn't allowed to do that but now you are doing it".  This forces me to reflect on my behaviour as she will always want an explanation from me.  She is bright, spirited and boisterous and if I'm honest, I love that she is not a 'shrinking violet'.

I am acutely aware that I have a responsibility to teach her right from wrong and I often find myself thinking that it's for her own good when I withdraw a treat or an activity due to her behaviour. She constantly tests me - I can see when I've given her a final warning over her behaviour and remind her of the consequences, that her mind is rapidly evaluating her next step.  Sometimes she makes a good choice and sometimes not, but when I feel a pang of guilt kick in as I return a toy to the shelf in the toy shop, while she screams the shop down and shouts, "Mummy I'm sorry, please don't put it back, I promise I'll behave", I have to have an internal dialogue with myself.  It usually goes along the lines of, "If you don't do this, you will create a monster".  That is in conflict with the part of me who wants my child to like me and who hates to fall out with her.  What I have learned however, is that she still loves me even when she doesn't like me and within a matter of minutes, it has blown over and she is calm enough for us to talk about what happened and her understanding of why I took the action I did.  She usually tries to get me to change my mind one more time but when she's met with a "you know why I can't do that", that is the end of the matter.  We hug it out and she will often tell me that I'm now her 'best friend' again - the very thing I don't wish to be but it's her way of saying, "We're ok"..............until the next time.