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.

A mood forecast for the autumn

octoberblogA mood forecast for the autumn

26 October 2016

As the temperature and light levels drop at this time of year, so each day rapidly shortens. Falling leaves unequivocally announce autumn and the inescapable ‘decline’ towards winter. It’s difficult not to be aware of the lack of vitality in nature and the echoes of endings: the end of summer; the end of long days; the end of warmth; and, deeper down, the counterpart that yet another year has slipped through our fingers – and, for many people, an uncomfortable connection with death.

Like the change in leaf colour, the calls to my therapy practice also alter during this season. Certain types of depression become prominent, and relationships seem to suffer even more as couples and families are thrown into closer proximity by the shorter, colder days … not to mention Christmas already becoming a pressure point for many. I note, too, that the two times when existential issues flurry most prominently into my practice are spring (the counterpart to birth) and once autumn beckons (reminding people of the ‘what should have been’ moments of the year).

But it isn’t just a myth that lower light levels bring about a time of increased depression for many millions of people. The ‘winter blues’ (which start in the autumn) has scientific evidence in its support. Seasonal Affective Disorder (often just referred to by its highly appropriate acronym SAD) is thought to occur because of the way our bodies respond to the lack of light available in the short daylight months. Theory around SAD suggests that the light entering our eyes causes changes in hormone production levels in our body, lowering the ‘feel-good’ hormone serotonin and also interfering with our melatonin levels – a hormone that helps determine sleep patterns. And, overall, the low light levels disrupt our circadian cycle – our naturally recurring body rhythms during a 24-hour period. For many people, these changes add up to considerable lethargy and the experience of other connected symptoms of depression.

So far, I’m not really offering much positive about the final part of 2016 stretching into 2017 – especially as I mentioned death earlier (the one unavoidable issue we must all come to grapple with at some point). And while August has the fewest deaths in the UK, January looms at the top of the chart, which equates to an unwelcoming month with more anniversaries of people’s passing – another great trigger for dialogue in the consulting room.

While we can’t avoid death, we can take a leaf (or perhaps an acorn) from a squirrel’s book and prepare for those light-depleted winter days by taking action and planning a few things before the dark takes hold.

For example, think about good, clean eating rather than succumbing to sugary carbohydrates that will add to a feeling of sluggishness, not to mention a few pounds.

Get active before your New Year’s resolutions. According to Dr Andrew McCulloch, the former chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, ‘There’s convincing evidence that 30 minutes of vigorous exercise three times a week is effective against depression and anecdotal evidence that lighter exercise will have a beneficial effect, too.’* Of course, it follows that exercising outdoors (e.g. brisk walking**) during this period will be useful in helping to expose you to higher levels of light than you would get indoors.

When it comes to that increase in relationship stress, it might be time to book in a relationship MOT session with a therapist, where you can talk in a safe, comfortable, non-confrontational space about any issues troubling you in your life together.

*NHS website

**Walking for health website

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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.

Effective solutions for failing relationships

couplesii200-copyEffective solutions for failing relationships

28 September 2016

It is never very comfortable to feel that one is failing at something in life. When it comes to a relationship failing, we can all bring out some pretty special defence systems that keep us away from this recognition: ‘Of course, I’m not perfect, but this really is all his/her fault’; ‘What do you mean we never talk? What were we doing when we went out with Rob and Sue?’; ‘I’m not avoiding you; it’s just that I’ve got to get this work done/answer this message …’;  ‘Oh come on! I’ve not had chance to watch any of my TV programmes this week’; ‘What do you mean I’m always on Facebook [bing … type, type, swipe]?’

If you find yourself in a relationship that is experiencing difficulties, it’s common to feel that you won’t be able to work things out. And if you are feeling that, then the chances are you’ve stopped (or perhaps never did) communicating well. That sense of not mattering in the relationship or the lack of intimacy will very likely have something to do with the couple not being able to properly reach or connect with one another and therefore not talking things through.

Of course, it’s not always easy to see where we are going wrong with our communications. It’s likely that many surface issues will be getting in the way of us finding our voices with one another. Even serious matters such as affairs and addictions can be the secondary issue – the disease symptoms rather than the cause of the illness, so as to speak. Once you realise that difficulties can so often arise from a hunger for real communication and understanding from a life-partner, then effective counselling or therapy can begin to change your joint life.

In my couples counselling and therapy practice I find it’s good to start by checking out what views people actually hold of the relationship they are in. Too often, as I mentioned in my blog ‘A stitch in time …’, people wait until very late in the day before taking action. In relationship therapy and counselling it’s as if one partner has already given up on the relationship. This sort of secret needs to be brought out into the open. Therapy attempts to help partners view the relationship in an objective way – importantly, stopping ‘blame conversations’ and attempting to replace them with a process that involves both partners making an enquiry into how they jointly and individually got to where they currently are. This style of working develops the narrative ­– the story of the relationship to the current point in time. If there are contextual situations lurking in the background – for example, loss in the family or money worries – it helps to see that these are factors that can be negatively influential on the immediate situation the couple find themselves operating from.

It is important to understand that couples therapy isn’t just a mental process. When fully engaged with, couples work is also about behaviour change and emotional understanding. Dysfunctional behavioural issues (such as addictions, anger and especially any perceived or actual physical threats) all need to be examined in terms of what damage they do to trust, intimacy and the ability to communicate. Emotional avoidance tends to lead to fears about expressing the inner dialogue. Depending on how we were brought up, our attachment patterns can lead us to acting out our attachment story in adult life within our close relationships – sometimes with very negative consequences. (Read ‘On being ignored, forgotten or abandoned’ for more detail.)

Your first session of couples counselling or therapy might not result in booking date nights, having meaningful sex with the person you are attending with, finding yourself buying them little gifts, writing love notes or perhaps simply having great fun with them. However, with an effective couples therapy approach, at the right point in your couple difficulties, you should be able to discover just what you need as you move along the therapy road together.

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

Just call me …

Blogfind200Just call me …

30 July 2016

“Yes you’re right,” says Jessica, as we begin to talk for the first time about the process of therapy. “The only clues I’ve got,” she says, “are from TV sit coms and films.” We laugh together for a moment and then I begin a fairly routine explanation of what my work role as a therapist is.

First, what I am not. I’m not a psychiatrist. The Royal College of Psychiatrists* describes Psychiatry as a “medical speciality, like general practice, surgery, general medicine or paediatrics. You have to train for 5 years as a doctor and in the UK – like every other medical specialty – do 2 further years of ‘Foundation’ jobs in hospitals before you can start to specialise in psychiatry. It usually takes another 4 years to pass the two professional exams of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, after which you can specialise further.”

Although I studied some developmental psychology during my initial degree, I am also not a psychologist. A Clinical Psychologist (the type of psychologist you are most likely to encounter within an NHS setting) will have gained an undergraduate degree in psychology. Again, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, psychologists will have gained “further experience working in relevant healthcare settings[;] clinical psychologists then do 3 years Doctorate clinical training in an approved training scheme at university. During this time they work with patients under supervision from experienced psychologists and study for an academic doctorate as well as their first degree. They complete training placements with adults, children, older adults and people with learning difficulties.”

Historically, psychology has applied experimental approaches to exploring sates of the human mind. My shorthand for people is that psychiatrists are doctors of the mind and psychologists are scientists of the mind.

So back to what a psychotherapist is and isn’t …

“I’m not an analyst.”

“So I’m not going to be lying on a couch answering your questions,” says Jessica. “It’s not a Woody Allen film, then?“

Indeed, in my own twice-weekly analysis that lasted nearly 6 years I never laid down on a couch because even analysts don’t all do that.

“I am a therapist who deals with people’s internal mental and emotional issues and difficulties,” I continue. “Sometimes people are comfortable with me as their counsellor – a word that is derived from one who walks alongside. Other people I work with refer to me as their psychotherapist, from the Greek for ‘soul and healer’. Some think of me as their coach, and others come to me for hypnotherapy.**

“What I will actually do is sit in a chair opposite you and listen, talk and engage with you in a relational manner. In short we will have conversations about you, what course of action you might need to take, often what you have done or experienced in the past, how you see the world and your interactions with it, and where it is you are trying to get to. I work with all the issues a human can have problems with – including things that are really difficult to talk about such as sex, addiction, relationships, anxiety and bereavement. But I’m not a doctor of the mind and I’m not a scientist of the mind. I’m more an interpreter or an artist, helping you to construct your own canvas by pulling things from one place and sitting them somewhere else.”

“I call myself a therapist, but my professional registration*** says I am a counsellor/psychotherapist. You can just call me Duncan.”

 

* http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/

** I am fully qualified hypnotherapist and is registered with the General Hypnotherapy Register.

*** I am a fully qualified, registered and accredited BACP (British Association for Counselling and psychotherapy) counsellor/psychotherapist.

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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.

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’.

Cheaper than a divorce

BlogCoupleCheaper than a divorce

1 May 2015

Some of the ills of today’s multi-media, socially networked life are that expectations of things can be unrealistically high. From rom-coms to choosing the right restaurant, we all get fed through image and consumption some pretty unobtainable ideas. And in relationships, especially aspects around sex, people can easily become disenchanted.

When expectations are high, the crash of reality can send people heading for the relationship exit way too soon. While separation can be emotionally harrowing, for those who have made joint commitments to mortgages and/or marriage there is a big financial price to pay too.

While I don’t think anyone should remain in a miserable relationship, as a couple’s therapist I see more ‘lack of quality communication’ than outright relationship breakdown. (Believe it or not, poor communication itself can indirectly lead to infidelities.)

If you consider that a study by Aviva (2014) concludes a typical divorcing couple spends £43,958 on the process, you can see the true value of taking some time to talk about your relationship, together with a therapist. Although therapy might initially look expensive, it can represent excellent value when set against the real costs of your relationship turning to ashes.