I had a week off recently. It was a bit ‘meh’. My previous week off had been a couple of months into lockdown and I relished being prevented from doing anything very much, in glorious weather. I expected to feel the same this time, and I didn’t.
Instead my mood yo-yoed and I found it difficult to settle. I enjoyed seeing some friends in real life – it felt like an ‘event’ – and I was also aware that in some ways seeing people in real life now feels a bit weird. Some days I kept bursting into tears and couldn’t motivate myself to do anything. One day the weather was terrible and I was relieved because it meant my options were reduced!
Exactly halfway through the week I crashed and had to go back to bed after breakfast. Initially I was railing against myself; unable to get up, to move, yet unable to allow myself to lie there – but by the afternoon I was able to surrender to not being able to do anything other than lie in bed and read Joan Aiken books. And that ‘surrender’ felt like an improvement – rather than being consumed by frustration that I wasn’t ‘making better use’ of my holiday.
The day after I felt, quite simply, better. We went to a wildlife reserve that we hadn’t been to for a few years……..and I realised how much I had needed to get away from home. I recognise how lucky I have been during lockdown to be able to get out for walks locally but something in me had really needed more country and to be out of earshot of traffic. For a while we just sat and listened to grasshoppers, birds and wind.
I caught up with a couple of people by phone/Zoom and discovered that I wasn’t alone in struggling, and that what I was dealing with was partly ‘Covid weirdness’. We spoke about places we’d been together, and I was taken a little out of myself and my horizons pushed further away.
It occurred to me that I’d shifted into another state from the initial fire-fighting in the weeks immediately before and after lockdown, through the girding-my-loins for the long-haul, and into something that felt a little like ‘pandemic fatigue’.
As I got ready to return to work, I noted down some of the things I’d learned that week. Here they are, in no particular order.
1. It helps to reach out
………even in a small way. Let others know that you’re finding it tough. Sometimes opening up to someone new can really help – not necessarily a counsellor, but someone you don’t normally have such conversations with. It can help you feel you’re not moaning all the time to the same people about the same old stuff.
2. Sometimes you need a few plans in place
Having a completely empty week that I could do what I liked in didn’t help me on this occasion – I just felt additional pressure to Use It Well. A couple of appointments, days out or even planned tasks, would have given me a bit of structure……….
3. …………and routine
Even on a holiday routine can sometimes be helpful; not necessarily the SAME routine, but something to create a scaffolding to hang your day on, such as getting outdoors at the start or end of the day.
4. Finding ANYTHING weird at the moment is normal
Even things you think are ‘just the same’. So much has changed in how we do things, that it’s affecting relationships, work, leisure. We’re more likely to notice BIG changes and consciously attend to them, but the subtle ones can be slightly out of our awareness and hence more destabilising.
5. Getting moving helps
Going for a walk is always useful for me; I had a looooong walk one day. Although it didn’t ‘make me feel happy’ something about the movement and being in a different space stirred me up and enabled me to clarify and voice some of the stuff that had been going round in my head and bugging me. Walking brought some kind of shift, and that’s what I needed. Swimming outside helped too, for different reasons. When I’m swimming in the sea, most of my focus is on not drowning or doing anything (too) risky and that makes it hard to ruminate – in fact, I’m too busy ‘being’ to notice how I’m feeling.
6. A change of scene is good
It doesn’t have to be a trip abroad. Taking a train, a drive, a cycle to somewhere else gets you away from your usual space. In my case this meant getting away from the reminders of all the things I wasn’t getting done at home, freeing up a little bit of space in my head. The risk of catching Covid from the car club car was outweighed, for me, by the emotional benefits.
7. Small tasks or activities help your mental health
Even things like cleaning or tidying. Finding a way to bring it back to one thing and focusing on that rather than being overwhelmed by the enormity of everything that I wasn’t getting done enabled me to do something and to feel a small sense of achievement from that, even where it was just cleaning the bathroom. It helps if it’s something you can do mindfully, bringing your attention to what you’re doing as you’re doing it (I did a bit of berry-picking) rather than, for example, clearing a pile of paperwork where each piece can potentially lead to another ‘to-do’!
8. Sometimes I just need to surrender to misery!
…….and to hide in bed. Fighting it can mean it takes longer to get through. For the morning of the day I spent in bed, I had a voice in my head telling me I was being lazy / needed to pull myself together / was wasting my week off, but once I’d made the decision to just stay there until I sensed that I wanted to get up, the relief of giving myself permission to collapse was – well, a relief. It was a turning point that seemed to free up more of my energy for the next day.
I’m not saying just letting go and being miserable is always the solution, but my hunch is that it’s more often helpful than you think – because there’s something about giving yourself permission that sends a really significant message to the part of you that might feel it’s not good enough.
Part of me continues to say “but you’ve had it easy during 2020 compared to many people”. I get that. I am grateful that my income hasn’t been affected, that I haven’t had to worry about home-schooling, that I have other privileges that many people don’t (not just my colour, but economics, class and where I live, too), that have meant that I haven’t been hit as hard as many people by this.
I can be grateful for all of that and I can also listen to that part of me that’s frightened and fed up and doesn’t know what’s going to happen…… and to let it know that I hear it. Expending energy on giving yourself a hard time for being a snowflake doesn’t help anyone else (or yourself).
If you can find the things that support you in difficult times you’ll have more energy available to support others.
WHY it’s normal to find coming out of lockdown difficult
WHAT might help you cope with the unexpected anxieties brought up by coming out of lockdown
HOW to disagree with people on the ‘best’ way to behave around COVID-19
Coming out of lockdown – why it’s tricky!
Is it just me, or is coming out of lockdown harder than going in?
From this distance, looking back to mid-March, it seemed like we flicked a switch. One moment we were tootling along as normal, the next we were hiding behind closed doors. Of course it didn’t really happen like that – especially for those of us keeping an eye on what was going in the rest of the world and waiting for the tidal wave to hit – but there was some sense of the world changing overnight.
During lockdown I heard people saying “I can’t wait for things to get back to normal” and felt surprise that they thought that life was going to return to operating in the same way. And I heard at least as many people saying “I’m enjoying not having to see people/commute/be driven by fear-of-missing-out/etc”.
Perhaps THIS is a more difficult transition to negotiate. Somehow life was simpler when you were told the safest thing to do was stay indoors except for once-a-day ‘government-mandated exercise’. Suddenly there are variables. There’s choice. There’s using your own judgement – and therefore the fear of getting it wrong.
And there’s disagreeing with other people about what ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is.
Personally, I don’t like conflict (some people do, honest). While I’m OK with challenging injustice, or speaking up in defence of causes I’m passionate about, I struggle where things are less clear-cut. In particular I’m uncomfortable when I feel differently, or have a different opinion, from someone who’s important to me. I get nervous, anxious, wobbly, and it’s only in recent years that I’ve realised that something in me believes that it’s OK to disagree with ‘them’ but not with ‘us’ – that this part of me feels scared and unsafe in such situations (probably terrified of being abandoned / rejected – yeah, that wee inner child again). So I’m constantly having to remind that part of me that it’s OK to disagree.
It’s OK to disagree. And still be loved, and loveable, and safe.
Coronavirus etiquette – who’s right and who’s wrong?
In terms of the current situation, there are many not-clear-cut areas. You think there are lots of ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldnts’ but they’re all mythical really, a kind of collective hallucination about what is and isn’t ‘allowed’. For example…..some people are exempt from wearing masks and (as there’s no requirement to wear a label stating what your exemption is!) we have no way of knowing who they are.
When I did an internet search for ‘coronavirus legislation’ I found a lot of temporary changes to very old laws but nothing that told me about what was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in terms of my behaviour as an individual. A mid-July article on the BBC website showed that while the law in England stated that you can have a gathering of up to 30 people at home or anywhere outside, the government’s official guidance said you should only be socialising in groups of two households or six people. 🙄😤🤬 FFS!
So very little has changed in terms of law – but, for many people a lot feels as if it has changed – and social ‘norms’, which we often allow to restrict us, are part of that.
There are very few absolutes on what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Really, the only thing we can do is to take note of guidance and then make our own risk assessment – remembering that any decisions made in terms of guidance are made accounting for a number of variables, and they may not be given the same weight as you would give them. (An example is ‘getting the economy going’. My personal opinion is that the myth that ‘economic growth’ is the only thing that can sustain civilization, is partly what has led us to destroying more and more wilderness areas where viruses previously unknown to humans reside. My personal opinions influence my decisions.)
How do I stay safe around other people?
We risk assess all the time; it’s part of how we navigate our way through life. Risk assessing is how we adjust our behaviour when crossing the road, now that traffic is returning to non-lockdown levels, so we don’t get run over. But we don’t operate in a world where ‘not catching coronavirus’ is the only consideration and the only indicator of health. For some people, particularly people with significant physical health conditions, it may be a very important consideration, in which case staying away from other people completely might feel more important. But we need human connection, and for some of us the likely risk of dying of coronavirus needs to be weighed in the scales against risking losing important human connections.
Risk assessments with regard to coronavirus need to take account of the risk to the other, of course. “I think there’s a low risk to me if I catch the virus, so I won’t bother with social distancing” doesn’t account for the risk to the person you’re not social distancing from. And so, into the mix comes the reality that you can’t control what others do, you can only operate in the world, and finding peace with the reality that others don’t have the same attitude as you is as important in navigating the coronavirus pandemic as it is in so many other aspects of your life.
So it’s OK to disagree. And in some ways it’s easier to disagree with ‘the other’ – to tut at those people who don’t wear a mask on the bus, who don’t give you your 2 metre gap when you want to get past them. They’re ‘not like you’.
But it becomes more difficult to navigate when you disagree with people who are close to you – friends, family, loved ones.
For me there are two main aspects to this whole coming out of lockdown situation…………..
😷 managing your own anxiety, discomfort or incomprehensible feelings
😷 managing disagreement with your loved ones
Managing your own anxiety, discomfort or indefinable ‘weird’ feelings
A reminder: these are normal. It was normal as we went into lockdown to find it fucking difficult, and it’s normal as we come out.
Take a moment to pause and reflect on where you in your ‘pandemic journey’. There are so many unknowns. “What is the world going to look like in six months’ time? In 2021? For the rest of my life? Will we ever get back to where we were before I’d heard of coronavirus? Do I want to?” You’re likely to have your own particular stories around the pandemic – the cancelled opportunities. Death or serious illness of loved. Financial stressors. Loss of work. Relationship break ups. Loneliness.
Even positive experiences – like realising that you were more relaxed or happy during lockdown than you had been, like, forever – are likely to make you question your sense of who you are and who you want to be going forward. Questions and uncertainty are all around us. You may be experiencing fear, anxiety, depression, resentment, frustration, burn out…….
So what do you do with all that? Well….learn to live with it. No, I don’t mean ‘suck it up and get on with it’. I mean, literally, that there are things you can do to help you tolerate feelings that are difficult. You’re probably doing some of them already, or have some that you know work.
Think about what you know helps you in terms of self-care, such as
getting exercise 🏃🏽♀️
getting outside in nature 🌳
eating properly 🥗
good sleep hygiene 🛏
scheduling worry time (setting aside a time each day when you write out everything that’s bothering you) 😟
mindfulness, meditation or focusing exercises 🧘🏻♂️
talking to people 😀😀
relaxation exercises 😌
mindful activities – anything that occupies your brain in a soothing way, such as cooking, gardening, crafts, colouring 👨🏽🌾
If there’s something that you want to feel less anxious about getting back to, see if you can break it down into smaller steps that feel more manageable. No step is too small.
Think about a particular relationship that feels like work at the moment. Then take a moment just to think about where that person might be in their ‘pandemic journey’, in a similar way to when I suggested you reflect on yours. Is it possible they might be in a different place from you?
Even if you can’t easily see they might feel differently from you, you need to find a way of accepting that they do. We can assume that our way is the ‘right’ way but – as mentioned earlier – there are few ‘absolutes’ and little to be gained by trying to persuade someone else into our point of view. It’s OK to love someone and have different views from them.
But sometimes acceptance isn’t enough – especially if there’s two of you, both thinking you are ‘right’, both unable to convince the other to agree.
If you disagree with someone else you need to find a way to compromise rather than expending energy on worrying. THERE IS NO RIGHT OR WRONG ON THIS. You need to account for the feelings of the other person. You are going to have to learn to disagree so finding a way of doing this is the only way that you are going to be able to maintain relationships with people.
Much of this is about communication. Even when we think we talk a lot, we’re not necessarily communicating what is important or healthful to our relationships. Here’s some guidelines for effective communication:
1. Make space for the conversation
Tell that person that you’re finding things difficult and that you’d like to talk about it. Be explicit about what you want to talk about and try to avoid doing it in the heat of the moment. If you can’t get their buy-in then you may not be able to change things alone. If necessary share these guidelines with them.
2. FOCUS ON THE PARTICULAR ISSUE
Don’t get caught up in the all the myriad ways that you wind each other up. You want to find a solution to the current problem and reach a point of understanding. DON’T try and decide who is right/wrong or try and find ‘the truth’.
3. speak for yourself
Offer your thoughts, feelings and concerns and don’t give your perception or interpretation of the other person’s motives.
4. own your feelings
Say how you feel from your point of view (not how they ‘make’ you feel or even how Covid ‘makes’ you feel). “When this happens, I feel anxious” not “You make me anxious” – can you hear the difference? These are your feelings.
5. listen to the other’s thoughts, feelings & concerns
Hear their point of view without trying to change it. There needs to be room in this for you both to hear each other. Share the floor.
6. SLOOOW IT DOWN
Pause before you react to criticism. Slow down, listen to the pain in the other person and try and respond with empathy rather than becoming defensive. Notice when your reactions are coming from a place of fear. It’s not easy, but it can really help.
7. ASK FOR WHAT YOU WOULD LIKE AND ALLOW THE OTHER TO ASK FOR WHAT THEY WOULD LIKE
There may not be a perfect solution, but perhaps you can find a position of compromise.
8. oFFER EACH OTHER YOUR UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT’S BEEN AGREED
You both need to be clear that you know what you’ve agreed. Don’t agree to something that you won’t do, or that you will feel resentful about doing. Be assertive and make decisions on what you can control.
Finally – compassion, compassion, compassion. For yourself and for the other person. No one is finding this easy and if they say they are they’re probably talking bollocks or at the very least kidding themselves.
We are living through a challenging period and allowing yourself to feel that it’s fucking hard is not only OK, but necessary.
If you’re finding things hard to manage on your own, you might find it useful to speak to a counsellor to get some help. Sometimes just a few sessions can help you recognise that what you feel is normal and to reframe how you look at things. There are lots of counsellors working online who can support you to get back out in the world. Get in touch with me if you’d like to talk about having some therapy online, or would like to try walk and talk therapy outdoors, or visit one of the online directories like ACTO, Counselling Directory or Psychology Today
I’ve been thinking a lot more about systemic racism and white privilege in the last few weeks, like many people.
Part of me feels that I have to somehow make an excuse, or apologise, for writing about this topic on my blog. I usually blog when I feel I have something to offer that may help people and this is no different; but I’m aware that there’s a bit of me that feels somehow I have no ‘right’ to speak about this. Which is – of course – bollocks, but it’s also relevant in terms of the discomfort that I feel in putting myself out there in discussing racism and what I think about it (and my role in it).
I guess I’m concerned that this is essentially a blog written for a white audience, and I’m afraid that it’ll give the impression that I’m a white therapist for white clients. I’m glad when anyone reads my blog – AND I’m aware that difference really exists (pretending that it doesn’t contributes to systemic racism).
I’m a white middle class person living in a fairly white area with little deprivation, and I’m writing this from my white middle class female perspective. I’ve made the assumption that this article is going to be more pertinent to other white people. And I’m aware that it is an assumption, and also that not every white person’s understanding of racism and privilege is the same.
So here goes – this is where I am with my white-person experience right now, and if it feels relevant or helpful for one other person that’s 100% better than nothing.
My focus in this article is not whether white privilege and systemic racism exist (I’m taking that as given), or about what I, as someone who has white privilege, can do about them. Other people with a lot more experience than me have written and spoken more eloquently than I could about these and related topics (some links and information are at the end of this article). Where I consider my expertise to lie is in learning to manage my own uncomfortable feelings, and in my work as a counsellor supporting other people to manage theirs.
When I told a (white) friend I was trying to write this blog, their response was “I wouldn’t go there if I were you. I just want it all to go away.” Other things I’ve heard: “I hate my white privilege.” “How can I give my white privilege back?”
Where I am with my white privilege at the moment is here: I believe the reason I struggle with my own relationship to it, is that I see myself as a good person, and part of me feels very strongly that in order to be OK I have to do whatever I can to make sure that other people are happy – and yet at some level I have been complicit in a system that doesn’t treat people as equal.
When I’m feeling under stress, or out of my comfort zone, or doing something I don’t feel fully confident and in command of, that ‘people-pleasing’ part is much more activated and takes a much bigger role in the overall ‘me’.
So now, as I’m writing this in my quiet back room with birds cheeping outside and no immediate pressures, I’m able to get distance from that part and see it as an aspect which has good qualities (helps me form good relationships and build trust) and more difficult ones (pushes me to suppress my own needs in favour of others and to lose sight of where my responsibility ends and someone else’s begins).
But when I’m under stress I can feel as if the need to keep people happy is ALL OF ME and my ability to think from a more adult perspective is reduced and I just want to make the panicky feeling stop. When that happens I tend to respond from that panicked part which believes that if it can just solve a particular issue ‘everything will be OK’. The actual basis of that feeling is a magical belief rooted in childhood; what it is exactly doesn’t matter but it influences my behaviour with a need to be a good girl, to not be any bother, to behave well……
Basically my wee child belief “you have to stop other people being unhappy otherwise you’ll die” is coming up against a reality where I have ‘more’ than some people purely because of something I can’t do anything about and had no choice in…..the colour of my skin.
While child-based beliefs vary, a lot of us have some version of this which contributes to our urge to ‘be a good person’. On top of this most of us have some sense of our values and morals, which, whether we admit it or not, are connected to how we want people to see us.
So that child bit is quite near the surface and quite panicky, and, for me, that tends to push me in one of two directions to try and get rid of the feeling:
1. If I can convince myself this issue doesn’t exist (i.e. if I can convince myself that I’m not in a privileged position) then I will stop feeling ‘bad’.
2. If I can convince myself that I’ve fixed this issue (i.e. if I can ‘give my privilege away’) then I will stop feeling ‘bad’.
With the first I ignore the problem, or tell myself ‘I live in a very white area so there’s nothing I can do about this’, or look for occasions when I’ve experienced prejudice myself so that I can move into more of a victim role.
With the second, I start hand-wringing, looking for ‘quick fixes’ and ways in which I can ‘make it better’ somehow for black people / people of colour. As I write that, I can’t even imagine what that ‘make it better’ looks like but I recognise that it’s a ‘rescuing’ role, where I’m still in a position of power or privilege.
Both these options – if I was successful in getting there! – might help me feel better for a bit, but because they’re based on fallacies – that white privilege doesn’t exist or I can give it away – the feeling doesn’t have substance and won’t last. Essentially my focus is on ‘my feeling about the racism’ rather than racism itself.
So my alternative is to accept that I hold a position of privilege because I’m white, and that I really don’t fucking want to hold a position of privilege, and I didn’t bloody ask for this privilege that I’ve got AND I can’t get rid of it.
And that is very very uncomfortable. I’m not looking for sympathy, this is my understanding of how messy my feelings are around this.
My emotional experience isn’t going to be exactly the same as that of other white people, in the same way that my privilege isn’t exactly the same. But if you’re feeling uncomfortable about discussions about race and racism then it might be useful to think about how your own particular patterns of thinking or feeling relate to those emotions – e.g. if you recognise you have a strong inner critic, or struggle to feel good enough, or are anxious about conflict. There is probably something of relevance in the points below for you, too.
Things to do to help manage the uncomfortable feelings that may be stirred in you in connection with racism and your white privilege:
1. DEvelop tolerance
Find a way to accept that the discomfort isn’t going to go away, and to develop your tolerance for it. Unless something very dramatic happens the racism which is embedded into our society isn’t going to be ‘cured’ in our lifetime. We can all contribute to improving things and reducing its impact but this stuff has been solidly entrenched over generations; we’re in this for the long haul. Rather than get away from it we need to learn to sit with it. ‘Inner work’ practices can be helpful for this: there’s an example of one, inner relationship focusing, in my blog “How to ease coronavirus related anxiety“.
2. EDUCATE YOURSELF
This really helps – although you might imagine you’ll just feel worse about your part in this, learning more about it can help with stuck feelings. Learning more about the history of black people in the UK can help you to be more understanding about your unconscious biases; getting to grips with how people choose to identify themselves (e.g. why terms like BAME and BME are unpopular) supports you to feel more competent in talking about this stuff.
Don’t add to the problem by asking black people to educate you; there’s lots of information willingly put out there already. I highly recommend Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’, a thoughtful and thought-provoking examination of race relations in the UK that is easy to read (though not necessarily an easy read). Ask your white friends for tips on relevant reading – Layla Saad recommends people to buddy up when they work through her book ‘Me and white supremacy’
3. TALK TO PEOPLE
I’m not talking about calling out racism (that’s important, but it’s not the focus here). One of the things that we can do is have conversations about race, racism, white privilege. Speaking from recent experience, this really helps, and though it might feel like you’re not good enough for not being out in the streets protesting, it does make a difference. It’s a step forward from not talking about race, from pretending that difference doesn’t exist. It also helps you move from a stuck place to processing your own relationship with this massive topic.
Talk to another white friend or set up a small online group to chat. Sometimes it might seem you’re just getting into a cycle of ‘isn’t it awful’ to start off with which can feel unproductive, but by talking about how you feel and hearing from someone else about what’s important to you both, you can develop your understanding and you can build tolerance for the awkwardness you feel. I’m fortunate that part of my working life involves talking about this, as I run tutorials exploring anti-discriminatory practice in online counselling – so I’m used to managing my own fears of ‘getting it wrong’. But I’m aware that those conversations are more emotionally charged at the moment and so I give myself more space around them.
4. shift your perspective
Expose yourself to different points of view. This is a great way of noticing what you assume is ‘normal’ and you can make it fun. I love escaping into a book so I read as many novels as I can by people who are from countries and cultures I don’t know much about. It doesn’t have to be fiction – it can be biography or whatever your preferred genre. The vast majority of published writers thus far are white men so that has tended to limit literary perspective throughout history. If reading isn’t your thing then there are films, music, podcasts and loads of TED talks, and (once we can get there again) theatre, art, etc……
5. BE CAREFUL OF YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA USE
To be fair this is a rule for life! I love the opportunity that Facebook gives me to stay connected to people and to build friendships. But it tends to create a bubble of ‘people like us’ which has its downsides. It also encourages a polarisation of views into right or wrong, all or nothing, on the topic of #BlackLivesMatter as with other things.
Before you start getting into an argument take a moment to consider – are you just wanting to call someone out on racism or are you hoping to change their mind, and is that realistic? If you’re outraged or distressed by something someone’s shared – do a quick fact-check before sharing as it may well not be true.
There are lots of inflammatory stories that people like to share because they get a reaction, and the saying ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ is often NOT true. Protect yourself, take a step back, do something else, phone a friend for a chat instead.
6. BE COMPASSIONATE (TO YOURSELF)
Understand how your context shapes you. I don’t mean try and make excuses for not having recognised your privilege before. I mean that you’re a product of your upbringing, experience and environment, and they all feed into the assumptions and biases you hold. You need to start where you are – even if you know the direction you want to go in.
7. don’t forget self-care
You’re no use to your fellow human beings if you’re burning yourself out. So it’s necessary to look after yourself in this without that tipping over into avoidance of the discussion. Make use of the resources that you know support you when you need them, and if you need some ideas, check out my blog about stress management tips.
I realise that one of my fears about publishing this piece is that I’ll be perceived to be pandering to white fragility or encouraging a ‘poor me’ view. That’s not my intention. As a therapist I’m generally encouraging people to find the balance of safety and challenge that feels tolerable for them. That perspective has a different heft in the conversation about systemic racism, where ‘doing nothing because it feels safer’ leads to more black people dying and more people of colour being disadvantaged.
But I’m not talking about turning a blind eye here. Some of us choose to protest and be vocal, some of us aren’t there yet and may never be, and the phrase ‘keep your eye on the prize’ (a folk song from the US civil rights movement) seems pertinent here. It feels as if we are at a unique point of opportunity to make real change. Systemic racism is a problem created by white people that white people need to sort out, but it’s not going to happen quickly, so we need to build our resilience to make it happen.
This is a muscle we can exercise to make it stronger.
I’d like to introduce a simple practice that I believe can really help with managing uncomfortable feelings. It’s relevant in any situation, but perhaps particularly so at a time when more of us are dealing with unaccustomed feelings because of the unusual situation we’re in, with changes to routine, uncertainty, fears for ourselves or loved ones and other challenges. ‘Covid-19 anxiety’ is becoming a catch-all term for all sorts of ways in which our emotional and mental wellbeing may be thrown off balance.
Focusing, or ‘inner relationship focusing’, is a way of easing difficult feelings. Notice I don’t say ‘getting rid’ of feelings. I’m used to hearing from people that they want to get rid of feelings of anxiety or overwhelm or stress or despair. If that’s you, then you might not like it when I say that, in my experience – and I’m talking about my personal experience as well as professional – what really makes a difference is when you stop pushing those feelings away.
What is ‘Focusing’?
Inner relationship focusing is a term coined by Ann Weiser Cornell who worked with Eugene Gendlin, the originator of ‘Focusing’. Gene Gendlin studied under Carl Rogers, who founded person-centred therapy. Gendlin did extensive research in the 1950s and 60s, in an attempt to ascertain what made psychotherapy successful for some clients but less so for others. He found that clients who made positive lasting change had an innate ability to pause and check ‘inside themselves’, to access a body feel of their issues, an intuitive ‘felt sense’ which they could learn from for their personal development and growth.
Gendlin went on to develop a step-by-step process, by which clients who didn’t have this ability naturally, could be taught it – not only to get more from therapy, but to work on issues or challenges themselves. Ann Weiser Cornell, a student of Gendlin’s, went on to develop her inner relationship focusing from this.
How can Focusing help me?
Three years ago I uprooted myself from my home and moved with my partner to Italy for two years. Various circumstances led to this being possible, and for it to be the right time (post Brexit referendum but pre-Brexit!) to do it. What I thought in my conscious mind was: “It’s going to be a bit tricky in some ways but it’s a great opportunity and I’m lucky to be able to do it.”
Underneath all this – and mostly ignored and suppressed by me – was terror at the unknown and the fear that I wouldn’t be able to cope in a country where I didn’t speak the language and didn’t know how things worked.
You know what? It was bloody hard. I wasn’t working for the first time in my adult life. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t have any friends or family close by, other than my partner. Everything was complicated by not knowing how things worked. BUT what made it harder was that, at the start, I didn’t allow myself to really feel how difficult and frightening all this stuff was, because I was living in the most beautiful city in the world and so I was ‘lucky’. I was aware there was a lot of discomfort, and that I wasn’t feeling happy and skippy – but also there were lots of times when I was excited and happy at the newness and beauty of it all – the ‘acceptable’ feelings.
My feelings about the experience were unique to me – my own history and personal baggage lent their own twist – but even as I began to acknowledge that there were feelings of fear and loneliness and shame (at not having a wonderful time) I was ruminating about how to get rid of them, figuring out what I could busy myself with to get through them or away from them quickly.
I’d been trying Focusing on and off over the previous 3 or 4 years, while also in personal therapy – and it had become something I used to try and make sense of intense feelings (a kind of emotional first aid when things became extreme). Because I knew it could be helpful when I was feeling things were getting on top of me, when I was anxious or stressed or emotionally overwhelmed, I began doing it more.
What I discovered was interesting. Focusing didn’t make those feelings of anxiety or stress or shame or overwhelm go away. As I look back on my experience of living in Italy, I remember vividly that it was both terrible and wonderful, and that, even after two years, I was still at times experiencing anxiety, fear and shame.
But what I learned was that I could tolerate these feelings by sitting alongside them. I learned that I could hold both the despair and the delight – sometimes at the same time – without being consumed. I also discovered that sometimes these parts of me, that were trying to get my attention, had some wisdom to impart, which I could learn from. My friend and colleague’s phrase “This is an AFLOG” (another fucking learning opportunity for growth), was never so apt as then.
A part that often came up during this time was my inner critic. So I might find myself sitting with something that was telling me I just needed to get on with things. Often as I stayed with this, I realized that this part was really scared and young, and ‘getting busy’ was its way of pretending it was grown up. The critic or the busy bee was trying to protect me in the only way it knew how. I see people writing about ways to ‘shut the inner critic up’ and I feel sad for that treatment of what is essentially someone’s inner child, who just needs to be listened to, but is manifesting itself in a way that feels ‘too much’.
My experience of feeling out of place, not belonging and not knowing how to belong, has been invaluable to me in my work since then with clients. Developing my practice to offer online therapy (so that I could continue to work with English-speaking clients) was unexpectedly invaluable in the current setting where suddenly online counselling is all there is.
But more valuable than both of these has been learning the ability to sit with the not-knowing, to feel anxious, or afraid, or not-good-enough – to be able to say to those parts of me “Oh hey there! I know you’re there. I know you’re feeling [whatever]” and to be able to carry on. Don’t get me wrong – that inner critic is still there (this time saying “you shouldn’t be feeling that your emotional wellbeing is affected by coronavirus lockdown because you’re an experienced online counselor”)…….but I’m able to recognise it pretty quickly and to give it space while still allowing the feelings of sadness and missing family and friends and routine.
How is Focusing different from meditation or mindfulness?
You might already be familiar with exercises or practices that can help you soothe yourself, like mindfulness or meditation. In which case you might not be interested in learning about another one! Focusing is much like mindfulness…..AND it’s more. Because with Focusing there’s the opportunity, not only to notice when something comes into your awareness but, rather than letting it pass through, to form a relationship with it, listen to it – and learn from it. It can be soothing, it can be calming – and more too.
“If I let my anxiety in, won’t I become overwhelmed?”
Here’s a metaphor for you. Imagine that the anxiety (or feeling, or self-critical thought) is a little child wanting to get your attention. You ignore it. It shouts louder. You shut it in a cupboard. It really needs to scream now to be heard. And it’s going to carry on screaming even if you try and pretend it’s not there. What would happen if instead you let it out of the cupboard, take it in your arms and soothe it?
That’s how I think about uncomfortable feelings. Whether it’s anxiety, feeling that you’re out of control, thinking that you’re not good enough – there’s a part of you that’s trying to get your attention, and the more you ignore it the harder it tries. The practice of inner relationship focusing is a way of giving those feelings some space without becoming overwhelmed by them, because it encourages you to sit alongside them – like you might sit with a friend – rather than be in them. I see these ‘parts’ as being rooted in myself at different times in my life – part of my ‘inner child’, if you will – and by spending time with them I’m doing some gentle parenting.
The easiest way of understanding what inner relationship focusing is, is to try it! I’ve included a video at the end of this blog that talks you through a very brief version of a focusing exercise so you can try it for yourself. If you want to skip the preamble, you can fast forward to about 2 minutes 20 seconds in, to the start of the exercise.
My own experience of Focusing encouraged me to learn more, initially with a Focusing Skills certificate, and I’m currently studying to become a Focusing Practitioner. I use a Focusing way of being in my work with clients, and I also teach them Focusing, if they’re interested, as a way of becoming more comfortable at ‘checking-in’ with themselves.
Bring your attention to the part of you that is panicking. This isn’t the whole of you; you are still functioning. Let that part of you that is feeling anxious know that you hear it. Say to it “No wonder”. Anxiety is normal, and it’s OK. And you can hold the anxiety and carry on with other stuff.
DISCLAIMER: I should mention that I’m just a therapist who happens to do a lot of online work. I’m not qualified to train other people to work online, and I don’t recommend switching your practice online on a permanent basis without specific training. This is an extreme situation and I simply want to offer reassurance and practical tips at a time when there is a lot of uncertainty and anxiety.
So here, in no particular order, are some things to think about if you’re planning to transfer your practice online, or even if you’re wondering if you can. I’ll add / update things as I think of them.
Check that your insurance company will cover you for online work. They don’t all do this as standard, but even if not, they will probably offer it as an optional add-on – in the current situation even if they didn’t before.
Check registration body guidance
Most of the registration bodies provide at least some guidance around online working. It may also be helpful to check out the competencies published by the Association for Counselling and Therapy Online here.
When in doubt – talk to your supervisor! You can discuss your caseload and your sense of yourself working online and explore doubts and fears. Consider whether you have at-risk clients that online working wouldn’t be suitable for. You might want to discuss whether your Clinical Will is up-to-date, at a time when many people are going to get ill. Your supervisor should be able to help you decide on how competent you feel to work in this way from an Adult position.
You could also consider extra supervision from a supervisor who has expertise in working online (if your existing one doesn’t). Check out ACTO-approved online supervisors here. Who do you know that works with clients online who could offer some peer support?
ICO & GDPR
Most therapists are registered as Data Controllers with Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). If you’re not already then you need to consider whether you should do so at this point as you are likely to have at least some personal information stored / processed electronically.
Added 25.03.2020: You may also need to consider note-taking, particularly if you work for an agency where notes are stored on the premises. Do you have lockable secure storage for your notes in your house? What might you need to consider in terms of secure electronic storage? I use a cloud-based secure client note system called bac-pac, but there are other types of secure client-note software too – ask around to see what other people use.
Platforms / software
It is generally understood in the online counselling world that Zoom is the best choice for working with clients. There are various reasons for this which centre around security of calls and data security, which you can read more about if you want to here. VSee is another option which is more secure than Skype, but, like Skype, you have a contact list which means client data is at risk if you get hacked. (Note: there has been talk about VSee restricting new free accounts but they still seem to be available as at 19.03.20.)You don’t have this with Zoom. (And if you have clients who ‘don’t like online’ but are happy with phone counselling, you can use Zoom for audio calls too.)
However, I have heard that Zoom has been struggling because of the additional load as everyone moves online. So, we are talking least worst here at least in the short term, and it’s good to have a back-up. My personal preference is to use Zoom and then to let the client know that we will use WhatsApp as a back-up, checking that I have the right number for them; this means I have their number to hand – belt-and-braces if we need to go to phone counselling.
If you work with groups or offer group supervision you will need to pay for at least a Zoom Pro account – the free account only offers group calls up to 40 minutes.
Added 25.03.2020: It goes without saying that you shouldn’t be using the same password for your Zoom account as any other account and if you’re working more online than normal, cyber-security is an important principle to consider. Use different passwords or pass-phrases for every different log-in that you need and don’t write them down. Consider investing in a pass-phrase storage system like Keeper or something similar to ensure that client data isn’t vulnerable.
Added 01.04.2020: There have been stories about people trolling Zoom rooms or ‘Zoom-bombing’ where someone keys a random string of 9 digits into Zoom in the hope that it will just happen to be the ID of a meeting. The chances of finding their way into a meeting that’s actually running at that time are pretty slim, but there are a few things you can do to protect yourself and your clients.
One is, obviously, only send the meeting link to people you want to be there! Another is to enable the ‘waiting room’. This means that your client will have to wait for you to let them join the meeting but crucially, means that you would see anyone else who tried to get into the meeting. You can also set a password which means that someone with the meeting ID – but without the password – wouldn’t be able to access the room. The password is encrypted into the link you send your client, so you don’t need to communicate it separately. And finally, if you set screen-sharing options to host-only, then even if someone was to access the room, they wouldn’t be able to share unwanted images.
Planning and physical set-up
Many of us are used to spending at least some time online or at a device of some sort. Don’t assume that you need to be set up with a PC and camera. You can use Zoom from a mobile device too – phone or tablet. You can make a phone stand out of cardboard like the one below.
It’s important that you consider lighting and background. Your face needs to be visible to the client and you probably don’t want a view of your socks drying on the radiator behind you.
My preference is to use headphones or earbuds because they
cut out any noise interference from my end, and ensure no one elsewhere in my
house can hear the client. I encourage clients to do so as well – sometimes there’ll
be feedback of my voice from the speakers at their end which can be
The main thing, of course, is that you have a private and confidential space with a good enough internet connection. The easiest thing may be to find a colleague in the same boat, set up your Zoom accounts and call each other, then you can feed back on each other’s ‘space’.
Added 23.03.2020: Remember to account for any ‘smart’ devices you have in your house. Law firms are highlighting concerns with client confidentiality where Alexa or similar devices may be listening in to conversations. Don’t forget to turn devices like this off or make sure they’re out of earshot of wherever you’re working. Think about other potential interruptions like deliveries, house phone ringing etc. Olivia Djouadi has written a helpful article about practicalities here.
When I first started working online, I had a check-list that I used to make sure I had everything to hand when I sat down. This included things like ‘shut doors, earphones, pen, phone, diary, water’. This is particularly helpful if where you normally sit at your computer doesn’t feel ‘appropriate’ as a client space, for example you might want to sit on the sofa with your laptop on the coffee table instead, so a checklist can help you have things to hand.
It’s also helpful to plan what you’ll do if there’s a problem with the technology, to have a back-up plan.
Remember this is new for the client too, to relate to you in
this way. They may be used to FaceTimeing friends and family and it’s going to
be helpful for them to be reminded that this is something different. Reassure
them while acknowledging that you are not an expert – you are modelling being
I send an info sheet to all my online clients before we start working together (and have done so with in-person clients who are moving to online work) to help them prepare their ‘room’. It’s important that they, too, have a private and confidential space. Reminding them of the importance of taking time to ‘get into the space’ before and afterwards can be helpful as they won’t have their usual travel to you.
Re-contract with clients
You should make your client aware that nothing online is
100% secure, even though you are taking precautions. I include a paragraph in
my online working contract around the limitations to security and advising
clients not to use shared computer equipment or communicate in environments
where there is a lack of privacy.
I’m also explicit about online counselling not being
suitable for working with certain issues, such as suicidal thoughts or acute
mental illness, and that I will support clients to other sources of help if
these arise during our online work and we can’t meet. This is a slightly
different scenario to when you already have an in-person relationship but it’s
still important to talk about what you/they might do if emergency support is
Be clear with clients about the difference between face to face and in-person work – that some of the usual sensory cues are absent so that there is a greater opportunity for misunderstanding each other.
And – agree what you’ll do if there’s a technology fail.
Client presentation & online disinhibition
Clients may present differently when you are working with them online and you will both need time to adjust to this. If you’ve ever found yourself marvelling at the ‘flame wars’ that arise on social media, you’ve experienced the online disinhibition effect. The particular relevance in online work is that clients can ‘expose’ themselves more due to the perceived distance from the therapist, that they reveal more of themselves, which can be beneficial.
However, it can also have a negative impact on the client because they can say more than they later feel they wanted to and feel shame or want to retreat. Here we are talking about someone you are already used to working with and you can help them pace themselves. You can read about the online disinhibition effect here.
Be aware of your limitations. Make your workspace as comfortable as you can – it may only be temporary, but if you’re sitting at it for hours a day, it’s going to have an impact on you physically. Take regular breaks from the screen and from your seat.
Remember you’re likely not to be moved around as much, if you’re used to travelling to and from your place of work so be mindful of this when you’re scheduling clients in and make time to move around, go out for a walk or do some crazy dancing on the spot if you’re in self-isolation.
It will be OK
It’s OK to acknowledge that you’re not tech-savvy – your client
didn’t contact you because they thought you were a technical wizard. You are
not expected to be an expert, don’t be afraid to not know. It’s OK to ask. These
are extreme circumstances and you are looking to balance the risk against the
benefit. Refer back to your guiding ethical principles to remind yourself what
is in the best interests of your client and yourself. Don’t let Perfect be the
enemy of Good!
You are going into the not-knowing together with the client
in this as with the rest of your work. Allow it to be a bit weird. Bring yourself
back to core principles that you work to and to your self-awareness. These will
serve you in this uncertainty as they always do.
And finally – invest in training!
A reminder that there is lots of great training out there for working online with clients. Don’t be tempted to think after a few weeks of working with clients online “Oh, I know what I’m doing know.” Committing to a proper training course is essential if you decide to do this on a more permanent basis. Look here for information about training courses.