What are you living for now

JamWhat are you living for now

5 April 2016

It is a gloriously sunny spring afternoon and all I can see, as I walk away from the city centre of Cambridge, is an unending line of traffic queuing to make its way to an impossibly small number of parking spaces. I am aware that I feel very free, liberated, uplifted by the sunlight. But as my passage contraflows the stationary victims – would-be shoppers – I can’t help picking up on the silent messages of those stranded in their overheating metal boxes. Hands flex and contract as they grasp and ungrasp leather clad steering wheels. Passenger seats wriggle with adults and children, each stretched to breaking point by the seemingly endless wait to reach the junction of this road in order to join the main queue on the next one. Further along, the frustration has already erupted in road rage as a woman in a 4×4 mounts the pavement in a very unwise manoeuver. For a while my joyful mood is attenuated. I have stopped enjoying my journey (on foot) and begun to focus on getting to my goal, far away from this line of traffic. Without conscious passage, my head is cluttered with thoughts about the anxiety of modern life – something I’ve been meaning to write about for some while – and then my working mindset is to the fore.

From the communication style they’ve adopted, the male/female pair in the silver Merc look ready for a couples session. Come on! Shouting rarely gets listened to. The family in the people carrier could do with an anger management workshop. And will someone please hand the sports car driver a paper bag to breath into before he passes out!

For a few more metres I’m left wondering what this line of suffering stretching out in front of me is all about before the words of British philosopher and Zen exponent Alan Watts come to mind. In one of his engaging talks* he states: “You can’t live at all unless you can live fully now.” The point he is making is that it’s not the end goal that forms the major reward and provides the greatest pleasure, but the journey itself. And having engaged with this thought, I felt once more liberated, uplifted and grateful that I wasn’t sat in the traffic looking for anticipated reward in my shopping basket.

*If you can spare 2 minutes 22 seconds, you can listen to the rather inspirational way Alan Watts talks about life fully in the now.

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Why not visit my therapy website – therapy-space – where you can contact me or find further information about the therapies I provide for women, men and couples.

A stitch in time …

StitchA stitch in time …

29 March 2016

In total, with two different therapists I spent 8-and-a-half-years in therapy. For 5-and-a-half-years I even went twice a week. On the face of it then, therapy was no quick fix. But the main reason I spent so long talking to my kindly octogenarian Jungian analyst was that I had waited too long (22 years to be exact) before I began to face my issues.

When I meet a sizeable proportion of the people coming to my private practice for the first time, they are rather like I was: they come to the space having struggled with their issues for too long. Avoiding issues, as we know, seldom helps them to go away, and when we don’t share difficulties or problems with other people the negatives often become amplified. When issues are within an intimate couple, it’s not uncommon for the partners to struggle together for years, somehow hoping that things will just get better. But in fact the couple usually fall into deeper and more upsetting patterns of behaviours as the partners hang on in there without addressing the underlying problems.

Individuals and couples can live with an overwhelming and prolonged sense of helplessness and sadness. While human beings are quite remarkable in their ability to cope, against the odds, in all sorts of negative scenarios, it is also common for people to enter ‘survival mode’ and this is often accompanied by depressive moods, anxiety, anger and relationship difficulties. As the issues become more widespread and deeply ingrained over time, other issues become amplified and begin to feed back into one another, sometimes leading to a full depressive episode, addictions, anxieties, anger, family and relationship difficulties, and even sexual problems. By this time it can be extremely difficult to decide where one problem begins and another one ends. It’s then common for feelings of being overwhelmed or a prolonged sense of helplessness and sadness to be the presenting issue in therapy. None of this makes it easier to sort your issues out. So, while I don’t have the answer to why we wait so long before seeking help, I hope reading this short blog might make you do something about your needs. Don’t wait; act as quickly as you can.

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Why not visit my therapy website – therapy-space – where you can contact me or find further information about the therapies I provide for women, men and couples.

When someone strays

Blog200Couple29 February 2016

Most people – whether through experience or empathy – can understand the range of feelings that go through someone’s mind and body when they discover their partner has, or is currently having, an affair. The event more often than not is experienced as a catastrophe by at least the wronged partner and it is common for all blame for the situation to be heaped on the straying partner.

From the therapist’s chair, affairs often look rather different. An affair, almost without exception, is actually a specific form of communication. In supposed monogamous relationships the fact that an affair has arisen suggests there might be evidence to support the idea that this is a relationship that has issues – and the underlying issues have probably developed over time. While it is very difficult to look beyond the pain of the immediate situation, couples who find their way to the consulting room tend to be providing themselves with an opportunity to really deal with their immediate and more longstanding problems.

One of the difficulties couples have to overcome when starting work, if an affair is the presenting issue, is avoidance. Avoidance is a strategy that rarely works in relationships and, while I don’t have space to go into any detail about it in this blog, it might be obvious to most people that avoiding an issue doesn’t mean it goes away. Indeed, a wide range of strategies of avoidance gets used between couples. One thing to bear in mind is that avoidance restricts resolution.

If you have discovered that your partner is having an affair, then I suggest you move more slowly with things than you might immediately feel driven to do. If you leave the relationship straight away you limit your opportunity for understanding what has happened and ultimately for your own repair.

Find yourself space. You are unlikely to want to go on sleeping in the same space as your partner for a while, but if you move too far away this is likely to fuel your anger and indignation. Try to reach a civil agreement that can work for a short time about how to use the space in your home.

Seek out some help, but be careful of other people’s moral judgements or advice. Therapists can be useful at a time like this because we don’t have to take sides. We tend to try to open up the picture so that understanding of the situation can be brought to bear, and the non-judgemental position can help make sense of the anger and rage that is commonplace at a time like this.

The process of working things through is actually just as likely to make you a stronger and closer couple than it is to split you up, providing you both want to work on the issues and are happy to look at not just your partner’s actions but also your own. Sadly, not every relationship can be brought back from the brink, but in thinking and talking together it is likely that even the decision to split will bring some positive benefits.

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Why not visit my therapy website – therapy-space – where you can contact me or find further information about the therapies I provide for women, men and couples.

On breaking resolutions and getting things fixed

Calenderblog19 January 2016

Blue Monday – apparently the most depressing day of the year – has now passed and, according to many reports, three-quarters of those who made New Year’s resolutions have already not seen them through. In fact, badly made plans start to fall apart as early as the ninth day of the New Year and 35 per cent of people break their resolution before the month is out.

Since most therapists (myself included) work with addictions at some level or other, the start of the year brings to our practices some people who already feel pretty deflated by their own effort to control negative life habits. This is a pity, since it’s often not the person’s willpower or discipline that is at fault but the way in which they planned to make their change.

Many people don’t understand how to successfully make changes in their lives and so tend towards ‘over-commitment’ when they undertake those changes. Connectedly, if you try to make too many alterations at the same time, you tend to make a successful outcome harder to achieve.

Evidence from many sources, including my own practice, suggests that making change in life is more easily achieved when you make a proper plan to achieve it. If you simply make up your plans on the spot, there is a much greater chance you will miss the detailed planning that goes along with effective change. (I guess you might already be able to see why deciding to finally give up something on the last strokes of midnight on December 31 often fails so quickly.)

It can also be quite difficult, if you are on your own during the process, to not only make changes but also retain motivation. Sharing your goals with someone, even a therapist, will likely help you to stick to the change. Effectively, when you talk through your ideas for change with someone else you begin to form a contract with yourself. In the 14 years I’ve been involved in helping people to make changes, a well-formed contract has often made the difference between success and failure.

Finally, we tend to underestimate how long it takes to change a habit. According to research conducted at University College London (see Phillippa Lally), it takes a sobering 66 days for simple new habits (such as eating fruit daily or jogging) to become automatic – although individuals range wildly in their abilities, taking anywhere between 18 and 245 days to affect the changes).

When it comes to positive change around issues like overuse of porn or other sexual acting out, then habits are often deeply ingrained and complex. Rather than launching my new porn recovery programme REWIND on 1 January, you can perhaps see why I’m waiting until a little beyond the first few weeks of the year before I open it up.

On being ignored, forgotten or abandoned

AttachmentblogOn being ignored, forgotten or abandoned

1 December 2015

From my window seat, I was enjoying watching the early Saturday coffee addicts flock into the café for their various flat whites, cappuccinos and espressos – or at least I was for the first ten minutes. But, during the next five, it was becoming increasingly clear to me that my friend had forgotten we were supposed to be meeting for a long overdue catch-up. At times like this, there is often a choice of internal conversations to follow, and by the time I’d sat for twenty minutes on my own I began to indulge a few childhood voices. Some remembered being ignored, others the embarrassment of being forgotten; and then came the memory most often worked on in my own twice-weekly analysis: the sorrow of abandonment. So, what are these often strong feelings based on?

In the very early months and years of our lives we build up particular ways of relating to people. This is referred to in the therapeutic world as our attachment pattern. The research into attachment patterns was originally conducted in relation to children and their parents.* These early attachment patterns are referred to as Secure, Avoidant, Ambivalent/Anxious and Disorganised. Later research has suggested equivalent patterns of attachment in adults to their significant intimate partners.** In other words, once attachment patterns are established it then becomes the way we relate in our intimate relationships.

People who had the opportunity to form Secure attachments as children also tend to form Secure attachments as adults. The Secure person has a desire for close connections with others and has a sense of a positive view of her or himself. Not surprisingly the Secure personality holds positive views about partners and their relationships.

The adult Dismissive personality is associated with those who had avoidant attachments as children. People with Dismissive personalities are largely characterised by being more separate, inward and isolated. Relationships and emotional life tend to be viewed as relatively unimportant. The cerebral takes precedence and feelings are suppressed – including distancing themselves from others.

Ambivalent/Anxious children often become Preoccupied personalities in adulthood. Self-critical and insecure, the Preoccupied adult seeks approval and reassurance from those around him/her even though this never provides the sought relief from self-doubt. In relationships, this type of personality imagines they will be further rejected which, in turn, creates more anxiety, over-dependence, lack of trust and emotional desperation.

The Fearful-Avoidant personality has its connections with the childhood Disorganised pattern of attachment: i.e. in childhood there was a detaching of feelings at times of trauma, and this persists into adulthood. There is a desire to be involved in relationships until the point at which the relationship develops emotional closeness. This becomes the trigger for the repressed feelings from early life to become live triggers in the here-and-now, which are then experienced as if they are happening in the present moment. This makes it very difficult to have a coherent sense of (your)self with the corollary that it makes intimate connections with others equally challenging.

By the time I left the café, it transpired I’d had quite a mental workout. Assured that I can still rely on my own Secure attachment, I wandered through the already stressed shoppers pondering whether my friend’s lie-in had been as interesting as my own solo coffee encounter. Perhaps, I thought, I should enjoy my own company more – but that might just have been the edge of some Dismissive personality traits talking.

* See Mary Ainsworth
** See Hazan and Shaver

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Why not visit my therapy website – therapy-space – where you can contact me or find further information about the therapies I provide for women, men and couples.

Crying has an upside – for men and women alike

Cryblogsmall9 November 2015

It’s 8am on a cold early November morning and I’m not expecting to cry any time soon. In fact, I’m sat inside an incredible structure made from discarded and dormant materials, which itself sits inside the bombed-out remains of the 14th century Temple church in Bristol. Among a small group of people – some clearly on their way to work – my wife and I are listening to a band, toyface, who are part of Sanctum, a 24 hour-a-day, 24-day-long performance.

Visiting the city I was born and raised in – and still feel deeply tribal towards – there are always emotional triggers from my past to be found; the song being beautifully performed by the band suddenly triggers a deep emotion in me. And I want to cry. Despite the distractions of the fluxing audience, the music and lyrics of the powerful quartet of musicians speak deeply to something at my core. And yet, I’m still coded to my childhood upbringing half a century ago: ‘big boys don’t cry’.

I know the ‘big boy’s don’t…’ myth well, as men commonly apologise when their emotions release and they cry in my consulting room.

Although little is in fact known about the function of crying for humans, it appears that, according to Professor Ad Vingerhoets, a world leading expert on crying, on average women cry 30 to 64 times a year in comparison with 6 to 17 times a year for men.*

While I cry at the lowest end of the parameters of the quoted figures, I have rarely cried as an adult in a public setting and yet everything tells me this morning that toyface could do me a favour and offer a very therapeutic tear to slip out and relieve me of a few thoughts that the weekend has imposed on me.

A recent study by Asmir Gračanin** suggests that crying might indeed go a long way to making us feel better. The research team examined both the immediate and the delayed effect of crying on mood within a controlled laboratory setting. Immediately after watching two tear-jerking films, 28 participants who had cried and 32 who hadn’t were asked how they felt. They also had to rate their moods 20 and 90 minutes later.

The mood of the non-criers was unchanged and unaffected immediately after seeing the films. However, the mood of the group that cried was distinctively low. After 20 minutes, it was reported that their mood had returned to the level experienced before the screening. When asked again, after 90 minutes, the group that had cried reported a better mood than was the case before the films started.

My own call to personal emotional catharsis, while sitting in the Sanctum space, finally caused my eyes to fill but not to spill. For that to happen, I needed to be a man alone in the company of the downloaded track and my own safe space. I’m adding the track Motherlover to my iPod emotional triggers list. I encourage anyone to experience the purgation of a personal cry list. Think how good you might feel in 90 minutes’ time.

*Professor Vingerhoets also claims that women cry for an average of 6 minutes, while men cry for only 2 to 3 minutes.

**Gračanin, A. et al (2015). Why crying does and sometimes does not seem to alleviate mood: A quasiexperimental study, Motivation and Emotion.

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Why not visit my therapy website – therapy-space – where you can contact me or find further information about the therapies I provide for women, men and couples.

Men: porn, relationships and the respectful gaze?

Curveblogsmall31 October 2015

As part of my wide-ranging work as a therapist, I engage in conversations with men who have issues with pornography and sexual addictions. The work can be short and contained or it can take a considerable period of time but, in whatever way it progresses, the issue of ‘how to look’ and ‘what will be seen’ at some point becomes a central issue for conversation.

Gay and heterosexual men alike have to confront how pornography and sexual addictions have affected their looking-and-seeing process. In my practice, there appears a difference in the way these two groups of men confront their burden. The female form is used differently in art and the media from that of the male body. Male couples are often able to pull together through conversation about what looking-and-seeing means and how it functions for the individual – and the couple. Conversely, heterosexual couples frequently fracture during a simple stroll along a high street or as they sit in a restaurant, where every passing female form becomes an unknowable challenge.

In a free, thoughtful and open society, thankfully it is an impossibility not to have the option of looking at and seeing the human form. But what is it that a respectful, heterosexual male (even one previously challenged by negativities created by porn and sexual addiction) looks at and sees when in the presence of the female form? The question leads men to search not down a single agenda track but to open their horizons, and one of my starters for this process is often with something like a poem. Rick Belden captures something in his poem, looking for the perfect curve.

looking for the perfect curve

my eyes
go where they want to go
and they’re always looking
for the perfect curve.

my mind
knows what it wants to know
and it wants knowledge
of the perfect curve.

what is it about the female form
more perfect
than the quiet moon in the sky
or the gentle bend of a river
or the soft contours of waves
rhythmically caressing a beach.

without it
my life is all
straight lines and right angles
and every sentence ends in a period
never a question mark to be found.

the mere sight of it
lights my heart and lightens my day
it nourishes me
and reconnects me with the pure cosmic joy
of being a man.

perhaps only a fool is driven
by that which he cannot have
I’m an old fool now
getting older all the time
and most of the curves I see these days
are many miles
and many years
out of my reach
but my eyes still go
where they want to go
and my mind still knows
what it wants to know
and I’m still looking
for the perfect curve.*

The first two stanzas often create the acknowledging head nod; the third brings breath in – as comfort is acknowledged; the fourth raises a smile or chuckle; the fifth results in a sigh, and the sixth, in equal measures, clasped hands or a bowed head.
And as we come back to conversation, we look at each other and smile – now, just two men sitting in a room. We perhaps understand in the others’ psyche ‘the perfect curve’ – a heterogeneous proliferation of one man, getting the other.

* looking for the perfect curve Copyright © 2013 by Rick Belden. The work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Visit http://www.rickbelden.com

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Why not visit my therapy website – therapy-space – where you can contact me or find further information about the therapies I provide for women, men and couples.

When to dwell on things

Dreamblogsmall20 August 2015

Rumination (the process of repetitive thoughts often but not always about a negative situation) is a common, if not universal human process. Most of us will have had the experience of finding it difficult to let go of certain types of thoughts at some point in our lives – perhaps things that are known unknowns like an upcoming business presentation or perhaps something in the recent past such as when one partner said something in the heat of an argument that really hurt the other, but was based on a level of truth both recognized.

What we know is that during the day, as we learn new things, a new connection forms in our brains between one nerve cell and another. As we sleep, this connection is strengthened forming a memory of the thing we learned while we were awake. This is very useful to know if, for example, you are studying and choose to do some trial answers in your head as you begin to drift off to sleep. However, what might be even more useful is to know that if you have traumatic memories or events it is a really good idea not to dwell on these issues before going to sleep because, if you do, this will tend to enforce the memory and strengthen the emotional fear response attached to it. Turning the results of this research on its head we can see that by attending to, and dwelling on, some of the positive memories and events of the day we can, for ourselves, cement and bolster positive experiences instead.1

So, just before you go to bed why not select a number of positive things you experienced during the day. Even simple things – e.g. reminding yourself how great the walk back from work was in the sun – will do and let your brain consolidate the positive memory and affect while you sleep. Sweet dreams!

1 Dr Hannah Critchlow, BBC Radio 4 ‘How to Have a Better Brain’ Sleep Ep4

When the sex goes bad, make the talking good

Blog200Couple1 July 2015

Sadly, lots of people don’t feel very satisfied with what happens in their sex lives, and there are many reasons why it can go wrong. Sexual difficulties for men such as premature or delayed ejaculation (when they orgasm too quickly or, conversely, take too long to get there for the couple’s satisfaction) or issues for women like vaginismus (where they might not be able to let their partner enter, or find penetration painful) are common experiences for couples. When a couple suffers the issues rather than talking about them to try to work out the root of the difficulty, things can tend to get worse. Many common sexual issues can have organic, health-based origins or can be related to the use of some types of prescription drugs. Other difficulties can be psychological at their roots. Age and general health also often contribute to an individual or couple experiencing difficulties.

Additionally, sex can break down because relationships become stale or are challenged by life events. Over time, negative issues in sex lives build up because talking about your sex life often seems too difficult and challenging. Talking about your own intimate and personal experience, especially with the partner you share your life with, is a different type of talk for most people. No one really teaches us how to discuss a part of our lives that can make us, and our partner, feel unusually vulnerable. Add to this difficulties around intimacy for one partner due to, for example, a loss of trust based on infidelity, cheating, flirting or perhaps use or overuse of pornography, and you might begin to see why sexual activities fall into a rut or ‘just cool off’; rejection and blame are often quick to follow, and the sex cools further. No one dares to talk about the root issues – be they physical, emotional, psychological, cultural or even spiritual – that can affect what is or isn’t going on in the bedroom. And yet, that is where therapy can begin.

While you might perceive that talking to a therapist (a total stranger) about your sexual issues will be anxiety provoking (quite normal), or could be even worse than suffering in silence or living with the proverbial elephant in the room, the majority of people who talk to me as a couple or as individuals generally find it easier than they thought. I’ll always do my best to make clients feel comfortable: there are no ‘off-limits’ topics of discussion; you’ll always be treated with professional respect; and I’ll do my very best to facilitate the least stressful way of working with you. Therapy really can become ‘good talk’.

Finding a good therapist

Blogfind2002 June 2015

I remember reading Canadian educationalist Allen Tough’s pioneering thoughts in the area of self-directed growth in adults and being inspired at the way most adult learning occurred in informal settings and ways. You could say that adults learn on a need-to-know basis. When you need to get a new car you read magazines, check the Internet, ask around your friends and family for their views, and if you are lucky enough to know a professional in the area you are ‘researching’ then you tend to ask them.

I’m tempted to say that the above pretty much all holds true for finding a therapist as well. But if I think back 20 years or so when I needed therapeutic help myself, I can all too easily remember how difficult it was to talk to people about such issues. Back in the early 90s society was still too wary of therapeutic help. It was also the pre-Internet world when counsellors and psychotherapists were more difficult to find. So, should you just rely on the Internet? Is it good enough to simply look someone up on a website and then hand over your emotional wellbeing to them?

If I were looking for a therapist today here’s what would be on my checklist before I started any sessions with them:
Are they registered and accredited by a respected professional organisation such as the BACP, UKCP or BPS?
Will they talk to you on the phone, by Skype or email before you book a session?
Are they experienced in working with the issues you want to work with? (This is particularly important in areas like sexual difficulties, as few general trainings offer enough input in this area.)
Is the therapist used to working with people in short-, medium- and/or long-term encounters? This might be very helpful in matching your needs with the therapist’s skill set.
Has your prospective therapist had their own therapy? (It might seem odd but not all models of therapy require therapists to undertake their own therapy, while some will simply have done the minimum required by a training course. I’d find it odd to have therapy with someone who hadn’t been in the chair themselves.)

Above all, don’t be persuaded that someone is a good therapist because they have a lot of letters after their name. Studies show that once core requirements of education and training have been met, the effectiveness of the therapist is not dictated by their qualifications.

To my mind, all therapists should be looking to make a good match to the people they are going to work with. Again, studies support the view that it is the quality of the relationship that really helps therapy work. So, it follows that I always offer a no-obligation initial session.

Finally, go with your gut feeling and, if it doesn’t feel right in the room, shop around.