Everything has still to be learned

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Everything has still to be learned

14 March 2017

On a wall in my consulting room is stenciled, in 2-inch high letters, a quote from C G Jung: ‘Let no day pass without humbly remembering that everything has still to be learned.’ The quote, which was first offered to me by my Jungian analyst during my own twice-weekly encounter in the late 1990s and early 2000s, made its way to my wall six years ago when I moved into my current workspace. It had, by then, become a mantra for me in my professional and personal life.

I’m aware that the simple idea of never-ending learning that the quote suggests has often been the inspiration for my writing of this blog; see, for example, Crying has an upside for men and women alike, On being ignored forgotten or abandoned and What are you living for now. When we really begin to look for learning in our lives we can be surprised just how much opportunity there is to do so.

While it is obvious and common that people think about therapy as being focused on re-working, understanding and narrativising (for example, past traumas, anxieties, bereavement, loss or depression) or that counselling and psychotherapy help us to move through issues like understanding communication or sexual difficulties as a couple, a simplifying, alternative view is that a surprisingly large amount of therapy is done around learning things. Of course, this learning is not in the way we learn in an academic institution but, nevertheless, therapy is about learning. In the unique non-partisan confidential space of the therapy room we might discover and learn how to look after ourselves better or we might learn a new way to look at a difficulty or problem. With the help of therapy, we might even be open enough to learn new things about old stories or patterns of behaviour; we might see that we can still alter the way we see ourselves within a relationship or perhaps in relation to a past situation.

In part of my professional life – working with sexual addictions – I am even more taken by the learning that therapy becomes. One exercise I use to help addicts become more aware of their behaviours, which I call ‘Stop Moments’, is a task focused on seeing the world in a different way. You ‘stop’ and find something to see in a way that you haven’t before. When people begin this special sort of observation, they often find themselves monitoring the movements of an insect on a window frame or watching a raindrop slide down a pane of glass. Later on in their therapy, I get to hear about wonderful and special moments that people find for themselves. These observations enliven the process but, more than that, they make me certain that therapy is created in a very individual way. Importantly, it continues to remind me, as the therapist, that I too still have everything to learn about a process I have been involved in for more than 20 years.

On beginning to change your life: the first session

blogfirstsessionOn beginning to change your life: the first session

14 February 2017

‘Signing up’ for counselling/psychotherapy can be a big move? It may even turn your life around in ways you hadn’t thought of. So it’s wise to consider a few things before, during and after your initial session.

Many people looking for a therapist do an initial search online. Others look through a directory. And yet others may be given recommendations by friends or a GP. However you ‘find’ a therapist, you may still wish to run the following checks.

First, your new therapist should, at minimum, be registered – if not also accredited – with a respected professional organisation such as the BACP or UKCP. (Psychologists should be graduate or chartered members of the BPS.) You should also read their website carefully to check they have the experience of, and feel comfortable working with, your general/specific issues. (This is particularly important in areas like sexual difficulties, as few general psychotherapy/counselling trainings offer enough input in this area.)

You shouldn’t be persuaded that someone is a good therapist because they have a lot of letters after their name. Studies suggest that once core requirements of education and training have been met, the effectiveness of the therapist is not dictated by their qualifications; indeed, research indicates it is the quality of the relationship between you and your therapist that can have a huge positive influence on the outcome of your work together.*

Remember also that, with personal recommendations, what works for one person may not always work for someone else. There is still a ‘goodness of fit’ to consider.

And so, having selected a therapist who you believe will be a good fit for you, the next step is to chat to them – through Skype, email, text or telephone call – and, if it still feels like a good fit – book an initial session.

***

So what can you expect at your first session. If your therapist works for an organisation, your initial session might be quite prescribed. You may have to fill in the organisation’s routine forms and even complete questionnaires or diagnostic tools. However, in a private practice situation, where the therapist works for themselves rather than an organisation, things might be a little more personal and relaxed.

In my own practice, for example, I like people to spend a moment or two getting comfortable on the sofa. It helps me to know how difficult it is for the person to be in the room with me at the start of it all. I often ask people how anxious they feel about coming along for this session – something simple like: ‘On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is low and 10 is high, how anxious do you feel right now?’ Perhaps people don’t always tell the truth – a little in the manner that doctors can’t always trust patients to be honest about the number of units of alcohol they drink in a week – but it gets us started. (By the way, the usual ‘anxiety score’ is around 8. Also, people who have had some counselling or psychotherapy before often find it easier to be in the first session with a new therapist.)

Quite often, we might then go on to talk about how odd it is for two strangers to meet in a room, knowing little about each other but being there with the intention of talking about some of the most challenging areas in one of those two people’s lives. I make no secret of the fact there was a time when I, too, needed the help of therapy. I might use that at some point in an initial session if it helps to build a bridge. After all, most of us understand things best when we know something about it – and sometimes going through a process is the best way to find out.

When you’ve said a few things about your issues and discovered that the therapist is a human being, just like you, your anxiety can fall a point or two.

As the session goes on, people begin to sit back on the sofa. They pick up a bottle of water, which I always have available. They might even check out the tissues. In short, they begin to dial into the character of my room, my therapy space. Their breathing deepens and they discover that therapy is just a special kind of conversation. It’s a confidential place where: the therapist won’t have expectations of what you want to do; the phone won’t ring; no one else will ‘break in’. It’s a special conversation because it’s focused on you. That doesn’t mean the therapist has to be silent or a tabular rasa (blank slate) like you see in the movies (although if that’s what you need, then that sort of therapist can still be found).

I see the therapist as someone who: joins you on your journey, facilitating you to find your answers to fulfil your needs; won’t get their story in the way of yours; can help you, from a detached position, to look at things. I also think that therapy is a distinctively creative process that, through working together, forms the unique therapy you need.

The first session normally races by. People often comment they were worried they wouldn’t know how to say things, or even what to say. Yet, somehow, in the end, there wasn’t enough time to cover all the things they wanted to mention.

***

Your first session is over. You are walking away from the place of therapy and are going about you real life again. What can you expect now? You may realise you feel pretty tired, perhaps even exhausted. This is the time to start looking after yourself. Between now and your next session you may spend time thinking about the process. You may even dream some answers or questions. An awful lot of the therapy happens between sessions. Your process has begun … Bon voyage.

 

* See for example: Lambert and Barley (2001) in Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, Vol 38(4).

 


 

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.

 

Living life by numbers … and the midlife crisis

Numbers_edited-1Living life by numbers … and the midlife crisis

May 7 2016

Conveniently, for lovers of statistics, the Canadian-born psychologist and social analyst Elliot Jaques – who coined the term “midlife crisis”* – died at the age of 86. I say ‘conveniently’ because his lifespan correlates so well with modern statistical expressions about the mid-point of life. As examples of this, the World Health Organization revealed in 2013 (the most recent figures available) that life expectancy for the average UK citizen is 83 years, and a 2015 report from the Economic Journal revealed that life satisfaction gradually declines throughout the early part of adulthood, reaching a low between the ages of 40 and 42 – so close to Dr Jaques’ midlife point.

The difficulty with reporting averages and statistics about human life is that it can obscure life-lived experience and meaning. If we expect a ‘midlife crisis’ to occur at a certain age, then we will be likely to attribute all negative experiences and challenges to that age rather than to the actual experience triggers and events we are living through at that point in time.

Our later 30s and 40s can be especially difficult times, not particularly because of our age, but because of the responsibility life tends to have assumed. In contrast to childhood – a time when the vast majority of people will have been nurtured, protected and cared for by other people – 35 to 50 year-olds generally have to work hard to support themselves and other family members. And with these struggles come other issues – including depression, anxiety and the realisation that time is passing quickly.

It seems that headline statistics as reported in the media tell us very little about the real nature of a person’s issues – although they do appear to make people feel unhappy when they don’t live up to the ideal average. And how do we, as individuals, ever know when midlife will be? For some, 50 will be the figure they never reached; for a few – take, for instance, therapist Hedda Bolgar** who, aged 102, still worked four days a week – that midpoint would not yet have been reached.

I remember sitting on the sofa with my mother listening to the radio on the eve of my 10th birthday, feeling sad that it didn’t matter how long I would go on to live “I could never count my life in single digits again”. While I didn’t realize it at the time, I was actually making an observation that the middle of life can only be seen on reflection, since the truth of it all is that we are actually continually positioned at the extreme end of our lives. This is as true today at the start of my 51st year as it was at the conclusion of my ninth.

Crises can happen at any time of life and it’s important to see each crisis for what it is – and act accordingly. Then, perhaps we can aim for 45 joyous, rather than a total of 90 miserable, years.

* Elliot Jaques (1965) Death and the Midlife Crisis

** http://www.today.com/id/45287411/ns/today-today_people/t/age-therapist-still-psyched/

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