Permission to be wobbly

Acknowledging the impact of change

This week I’ve been thinking about transitions and changes. This is partly because of a transition in my own life – I’m about to move house and move country, and having done it (in the opposite direction) two years ago, I’m keen to acknowledge the effect that this is likely to have on me. And someone very close to me has also had a very big change in their life, and so it’s brought into sharper focus the impact that change can have on us.

I wonder whether there are certain changes that culturally we ‘expect’ to have a bigger impact than others – whether we’re ‘allowed’ to be rocked more by one event than another, and in the same vein whether we therefore permit ourselves to ‘feel’ more in response to one change than to another. If I apply this to myself, when my mum died, I think I was really good at grieving, for want of a better way of putting it. Somehow it seemed uncomplicated; I’d got lots of messages from people that it was OK to start crying at random moments (and I did), I sought out hugs from people (sometimes to their surprise), I accepted offers of help gratefully. On the other hand, when I moved to another country, while part of me thought “this might be a bit tricky”, another part was very much focused on the idea that I was lucky to have this opportunity and therefore it would be ungrateful or weak to be discombobulated by the experience – viewing myself as an entitled middle-class snowflake fussing about a first world problem.

Thankfully I’ve got better in recent years at voicing my discomfort, and a number of conversations with people helped me recognise that, from an outsider’s perspective, stopping working for the first time in my adult life, leaving my home, friends and family and moving to a country where I didn’t speak the language, had the potential to be quite challenging. That didn’t quiet the voice inside me, that told me I ‘should’ be better at living the dream – “Oh for goodness sake, embrace the challenge!” –  but it did help me pay attention to what fears or anxieties that voice might be trying to drown out, and to learn a lesson about allowing myself to find the change difficult.

These are fairly significant changes. But changes that, on the face of it, may ‘look’ small, can still have a big effect, yet we have a tendency to dismiss them – “it’s not worth getting upset about”. The problem is that in telling yourself something isn’t worth getting upset about, there’s an implicit message that by being upset, there’s something wrong with you. So then not only are you feeling uncomfortable, you’re feeling ‘bad’ for feeling uncomfortable – a double whammy.

There can be all kinds of reasons why you might find a particular change difficult. It can upset your routine, which is what gives structure to how you function day to day. It can tap into deep-seated fears or decisions that you made as a small child of how your life ‘should’ be – decisions that you might not be aware of consciously but that direct how you live your life as an adult. It can trigger memories of past experiences that were traumatic in some way. (Years ago I remember getting a small promotion at work. I knew I ‘should’ seize this as a career opportunity, but the offer triggered memories of an earlier experience in another company where I had been given more responsibility, little support and eventually was disciplined because I was isolated and didn’t know how to speak up. Is it any wonder I didn’t welcome the promotion with open arms?)

Perhaps most importantly, it’s hard to think of any change that doesn’t bring some loss with it. A new baby is cause for celebration, but it can also mean a loss of freedom and control for the parents. So there may be a part of us that is experiencing grief, even when a change may be perceived as positive.

It’s important, too, to pay attention to the cumulative impact of changes. In my example of moving countries, there were a number of linked changes – job, social connections, language, environment – but sometimes we experience lots of little unconnected changes that, added together, can really rock our foundations. Maybe you move jobs. Oh, and your best friend just had a baby. They couldn’t be around for you when your pet died two months ago, or when your sister moved away from the area. We might see some changes as positive or dismiss them as unimportant – but that can mean ignoring or minimising the effect they have on our equilibrium. Imagine yourself standing in a boat, and having three waves knocking into you from three different directions, and how that throws you off balance. It’s all very well people saying ‘the only thing that doesn’t change is change’; knowing that doesn’t help when you’re in the middle of it! I’m not saying change is bad – sometimes things are as they are, and we can’t stop change – but acknowledging the effect of it can help us adjust.

Just take a moment, now, to reflect on a change that you may have experienced – big or small – and to sit for a few minutes with your mind on that change to see what comes up for you. What is or was the impact of that change on you emotionally, physically, mentally? Do you allow yourself to feel that impact or do you push it away? Can you offer yourself some compassion for feeling off-kilter? Is there something you can do, for yourself, gently, to ease that feeling?

If you give yourself a hard time when you find things difficult, therapy can really help you unpick those feelings that you feel you ‘shouldn’t’ be feeling and can give you more understanding of, and compassion towards yourself.  It is OK to find change hard and to take care of yourself through a transition. Maybe you can give yourself permission to be wobbly.

Therapist heal thyself

What does self-care look like for counsellors?

This week I’ve been fighting a bug. (You don’t need to feel sorry for me, I’m doing a great job at that.) As I decided each day whether to go ahead with client appointments I’ve been reflecting on what was The Best Thing To Do – for me and for my clients. Never an easy one to figure out, this is even less clearcut with online work when the factor of “Is it in the best interest of my clients to be infected with my snotty bug?” is removed. And I don’t have the additional effort of hauling myself through the cold to a rented room in the city.

I’ve been remembering an article I read when I first started working with clients (alas, I can’t remember the reference) which spoke of the ethical requirements of self-care. That as therapists we have a professional obligation to look after ourselves so that we are in the best possible position to look after others. At the time I read it this was gold for me; if I had a duty to look after myself it meant that I would do it, as I could circumnavigate the internal messages that told me I was being self-indulgent by doing so. possible.

The downside of my interpretation of this requirement is that my tendency to ‘do things right’ then kicks in, in the area of self-care, too; I find myself asking myself if I’m short-changing clients by working when I’m not 100% in peak physical and mental condition (i.e. coming down with a cold). That battles against the belief that my clients need me, that I’m letting them down by cancelling. (As counsellors we sometimes forget that our clients continue to live and function pretty well the other 167 hours of the week that we’re not with them.)

I’m sure my perspective is skewed by being inside the therapy world, but sometimes it feels to me that counsellors are particularly demanding of themselves and each other in the need to do things right. Counselling attracts people who care, who want to do well for others, who want to ‘make people happy’. But sometimes we can be blinded to the value of making mistakes, of having to make a judgment call in a fuzzy situation. Black and white decision making is so much easier!

Self-care isn’t all chocolate cake and scented candles (as pointed out in an article I shared a month or two ago). In this context – of whether or not to cancel appointments – it’s not all about feeling sorry for myself and curling up under a blanket. Even where I may have felt anxious in anticipation, often I feel energised after a client appointment – something about being so focused on the client, about the privilege of sharing their world, about the magic that happens in therapy. Is depriving myself of that feeling self-care? The total focus that I bring to a counselling session means that sometimes I feel as I’m ‘coming back into the world’ afterwards. It’s therefore an opportunity for me to be centred on something other than feeling under-the-weather – surely a form of self-care?

And as therapists we often feel uncomfortable talking about the reality that our work is also our livelihood – we don’t like the idea that we’re charging people a fee for ‘being nice to them’. (NB: GuthrieTherapy recently helpfully reframed this as “therapists are people you pay to teach you how to care for yourself”.) We need to make a living, and I would be dishonest pretending that potential loss of earnings isn’t a factor – financial survival is self-care too. There’s a practical business aspect to this though: we need to be good enough therapists otherwise our clients won’t come back. If we’re putting ourselves under pressure or making a habit of working when we’re not up to it, that won’t help the bottom line.

All of the above comes with the caveat that we need to not push ourselves to extremes – either of overwork or of self-care! As an example; today I felt I was functioning at 85%; I went ahead with the appointment; I did feel I had more energy afterwards but I knew also that I had recovery time, a buffer of a few hours before the next client.

I have worked in jobs where I would go in when I was feeling rubbish – ‘presenteeism’ we called it in the HR world – because there was stuff that I could do that took less of my energy, and because I felt I had to look like I was keen. I’ve also worked in jobs where I really needed to be 100% fit to cope with the demand of the role. Being self-employed the only person I’m fooling is myself and I just need to make a judgment and make the best of the situation.

As a therapist part of my work is modelling behaviour to the clients I work with. What am I modelling if I feel like shit and go to work anyway for the sake of my client? That the other person is always more important than the self, that I have to rescue them? Instead I need to check each day as it comes with the information that I have; am I fit enough to work? And check at the end of the day; was I a good-enough counsellor? If some days I decide I would have been better taking the day off, that’s information for the future. And that way I’m modelling what it is to be human, that there are very few black and white decisions and that being human is good enough.

***As a footnote: the week after I wrote this, the bug really kicked in, totally flooring me. At one point I started to wonder if I would ever be well again. This was a good reality-check to my musings; there was no way I could have worked in that state – I could barely even think, let alone ‘focus on my client’. It was a reminder that sometimes there are black and white decisions!

References: Kevin Guthrie https://www.facebook.com/guthrietherapy/photos/a.845794862156054/2040954505973411/?type=3&theater , Brianna Wiest https://thoughtcatalog.com/brianna-wiest/2017/11/this-is-what-self-care-really-means-because-its-not-all-salt-baths-and-chocolate-cake/?fbclid=IwAR0mhoAchqyad-4LLCtZfKfSlfE1cua3CvGxff6Qn5xveLjHvbjmbPRVzdM

Why can’t we let ourselves be sad?

Listening to the inner critic.

I had a conversation with a friend around New Year. We had both had periods during the festive season where we had been feeling sad in some way. Sad – what a lot that word contains. My friend used the words ‘sensitive’, ‘spiky’. My memory is of a mood of suppressed rage.

Two things occur to me now as I reflect on our brief chat. One is that I was really glad that she felt able to tell me. The second is that I felt relief that I wasn’t the only one that felt like this. You might think that, in my line of work, I would be well aware of the difficult feelings people experience over Christmas or holidays or family gatherings – and I am, more-or-less. Why were my social media posts, in the run-up to Christmas, so full of exhortations to self-compassion and the need to make space for yourself? Because I hope to remind and reinforce that belief in me, too, by reminding others! But although I am – these days – able to reflect on my responses and emotions at difficult times with more kindness, I am still learning……and I don’t always catch myself in the moment and give myself permission to feel whatever it is I’m feeling. Minute-to-minute kindness? Not quite.

However, one way that I realise I have changed is that my question, reflecting on my festive bad moods (Festive Bad Moods! I must remember that as a tagline to celebrate next year), has shifted from “Why did I feel sad?” to “Why can’t I let myself be sad?” and this is a really important difference for me. Lots of people come to therapy because they want to understand WHY they think / feel / behave as they do. I understand that, of course I do – I want to know those answers myself and just because I’m not asking that question today doesn’t mean that I won’t get frustrated by it tomorrow. But I also believe from my own experience that 1. You might never know and 2. Even if you do get the answer, it’s not necessarily The Answer. Even if you can pin down a cause, it doesn’t change how you feel……….only experiencing things differently, and lots and lots of practice, can do that. The answer to “Why did I feel sad?” in this case, was: I just did. And that’s OK; but I didn’t remember that at the time.

In my Transactional Analysis training, one of our core bits of theory was around “racket” and “authentic” feelings (English 1972). “Authentic” feelings are fear, anger, sadness and joy, each of which has a useful function in our lives (e.g. anger is what we use to tackle a barrier to where we want to go). “Racket” feelings are those which we have learned to use to ‘cover up’ the original feeling, so for example, if anger was considered an unacceptable emotion when you were little, and you got into trouble for being angry, you may have developed a coping mechanism whereby if you were angry, you would cry and get comforted for being sad. So over time you learn to overlay anger with sadness, such that as an adult, your response when someone treats you badly is to feel sad. You may never feel angry at all. (That’s not to say one feeling is more ‘real’ than the other, but words are imperfect and so we make do with what we have.)

I love this piece of theory and have spent hours trying to puzzle out exactly how it fits for me, and why, and trying to remember scenes from my childhood as ‘evidence’ for this…….and yet. And yet, although it helps me understand myself more, I still find myself in situations where I feel what I unconsciously label as ‘bad’ feelings, and try and suppress them, which often ends in me feeling worse. I get less of an emotional ‘hangover’ from this than I used to because I understand why I do it. But there is still something going on, around trying to change my feelings, which feels judgmental.

I truly believe that there is no such thing as a bad feeling…..but there’s a little part inside of me that’s not always convinced when I apply that to myself.

So now I’m trying a new tack which is more about acceptance. For me, this is enhanced by Focusing, which is a body-centred practice where I bring awareness to feelings and sensations that are going on in the background. The key with Focusing (which you can do alone or with a companion) is learning to ‘sit alongside’ uncomfortable feelings rather than trying to change them. This process in itself allows the feelings to shift and become less uncomfortable because they’re no longer vying for attention or feeling unworthy. This for me is also an important way of allowing the fears of my inner critic (which after all, is only looking out for me) to be voiced. Focusing is what works for me; I guess other people use mindfulness practice, or meditation, or spiritual practices of other sorts that work for them.

Mind you, it’s hard to break the habit of wanting to ‘figure out’ or fix; a lot of the time I am paying attention to that part of me that wants to figure out…… before I can pay attention to other stuff. But there is something really key about the experience of allowing uncomfortable feelings, that helps, that is part of self-compassion, self-care……….something about not trying to make yourself change, in order to allow yourself to change. Permission rather than pushy parent.

So I think, actually, the title of this blog should have been “May I let myself be sad?”

References or other sources of information: English, F. The substitution factor: rackets and real feelings. TAJ. 2:1 1972; https://psychologymuffins.wordpress.com/2014/03/26/racket-feelings-in-transactional-analysis/; Focusing – https://focusingresources.com/or http://www.focusing.org.uk/

Drop the resolutions

Lightening the load as 2019 arrives

Some months ago I watched an interview with Shawn Achor, a positive psychology specialist, during an online conference about building resilience. One of his tips was around New Year’s resolutions. Instead of setting yourself resolutions, he suggested, ask yourself “What are 3 positive things I achieved last year – even if they weren’t planned?” His proposal was that paying attention to the positives already achieved gives you a strong base for the next level, rather than focusing on what is missing.

I’ve never been a great one for resolutions, certainly in my adult life. In a way this seems strange, because I have a pretty strong inner critic and a part of me that worries about needing to work hard to get things right. New Year’s Resolutions, you’d think, would tap well into this, as it’s the perfect opportunity to set yourself unrealistic targets and then beat yourself up for failing. Perhaps there’s another part of me that’s been alert to this possibility and has resisted as a result. But I think it’s rather the case that I’m a doer; in the past I’ve been pretty skilled at distracting myself from how I feel by ‘getting on with things’, and so the moment something pops into my head as something I ‘should’ do, I’m likely to get stuck in. From that perspective, my year was already full of resolutions started and coming up with extra ones would require too much contemplation!

But I really like Achor’s idea of backwards resolutions. We can be so good at not noticing, or even ignoring, what has gone well – what we have done well. We are naturally inclined to reduce the value of skills that we are good at, in favour of those we find difficult, which is a great way of measuring ourselves against other people and coming out worst. How things are framed is so important and yet, when we reflect on ourselves and our lives, it can be really easy to slip into negative patterns of thinking and feeling about ourselves. 

How might it be, then, to notice what we had done well – and pause at that for a moment? Instead of saying “I made a new friend – well of course, that’s because I find talking to people easy, and anyway she already knew that other friend of mine so it wasn’t really down to me”, how would it be to say “I made a new friend, who I feel happy when I’m around.”

Or instead of “I started seeing a counsellor – well I had to because really things had reached rock bottom and I couldn’t sort myself out”, how about “I realised that I’m allowed to ask for help, and I started seeing a counsellor as an investment in my wellbeing and future happiness.”

I see either example as a hugely positive achievement. From the standpoint of having already succeeded, you’re in a good position where resolutions might not feel necessary – you’ve got foundations to start the year with.

So instead of adding to your burden of responsibility with more to-dos, how about spending some time reflecting on 3 positive achievements from 2018? This could be a great exercise to do with a friend – a trusted other, perhaps someone who you think has a slightly different perspective to you, as another viewpoint can be really helpful for reframing those things that you take for granted or even see as negatives. (That’s one of the advantages your therapist has – she / he can see your life from a different angle.)

And what nicer thing to do with someone than spend a little bit of time looking at each other’s positives? There may be more than you think, and that’s a good way to start a year.

References: Greater Good Resilience Summit and Shawn Achor