What I learned about myself from wild camping (and how I wasn’t anxious)

At the end of September I took a solo trip walking and wild camping. In this blog I share my reflections on what it taught me, and the value of doing something new to learn about yourself.

Lone camping was a first for me. I’ve done plenty of walking alone, and I’ve camped with my partner occasionally, but I decided to do this 2-night trip, because the notion came to me one sleepless night, and I wanted to see if I could.

I was excited about the prospect of being in my own company for 48 hours. This feels like quite a new thing for me; traditionally I’ve sought out the company of others and am quite gregarious. But I’ve come to understand recently that partly, that’s because I didn’t like being left alone with my own thoughts, that being around other people was a way of keeping busy. AND (thanks to the lockdown experience) I realised that actually time alone is needed recovery time, as my people-pleaser aspect tends to be on alert when I’m around other people – I’m always trying a little bit harder.

Don’t get me wrong – I still enjoy spending time in company. But the idea of not having to think of anyone else – and in fact, being unreachable through circumstance (i.e. no phone signal) rather than avoidance – had an appeal. No one was going to expect anything of me for the whole of that time. I was going into country I’d not walked before. It was going to just be me, and my food for 3 days, and my ‘home’ for 2 nights, and the hills, and the birds. Writing this now, the idea of it seems exciting all over again!

Lucy Hyde walking therapy

And the reality?

Lucy Hyde walk and talk counselling

Yeah, there were some moments when I was really happy to be in the middle of nowhere with the ravens, where I was excited to think “I’m doing it!” These mostly coincided with sunny bright weather and feeling confident having successfully put the tent up (or having successfully stowed it away).

There was some swearing– when I snapped a tent pole, and at the steady increase of the rain just as I arrived at camp.

There were NO moments when I thought “I wish I wasn’t here” or even “I wish I had someone else here”. (Though there might have been, had I snapped the tent pole when I was putting it up in the rain, rather than when I was taking it down on my last morning.)

And there was, more than anything else, a lot of just-keeping-going and not particularly noticing how I felt at all. It surprised me how much ‘in-between’, neutral time there was, given that I had imagined that, with all that time alone, I’d be likely to get lost in my thoughts, or to get busy worrying. Yet I found myself taken up with being, with getting through it.

For example, a day’s walk on fairly good paths and gently hilly terrain felt more of a feat of endurance with a heavy pack than I’d bargained for. I found myself going more slowly, taking smaller steps. I was careful to eat regularly, yet often didn’t feel particularly hungry – instead I was focused on making sure I had the necessary fuel to make sure I was capable of putting my tent up at the end of the day. 

At some level, even though I wasn’t scared at the remoteness, I suppose I was aware of the reality of having to depend on me, of being careful of husbanding my strength, of not risking injury by sudden movements.

And this process, I guess, kept me very focused in the now, and that’s probably why there were very few points when I felt anxious. My anxiety is often linked to worrying about what I need to do, or anticipating problems (that may or may not arrive), or imagining or assuming what others think about me. Somehow, here, there was less space for worrying about the future: too much attention on ‘now’ (my shoulders hurt, how can I adjust my pack?) to leave room for anticipating problems; and no one around, or expecting anything of me, for me to worry about.

So what DID I learn from the experience?

A few things……..

Sometimes comparing your situation with others’ CAN actually be helpful.

This is not at all a maxim I normally believe in. Many times I’ve had a conversation with a client where we’re trying to undo their tendency to punish themselves because they think other people have it worse than them so they’re not allowed to find things tough. Yet in this situation I was doing something similar.

reading for inspiration

I was halfway through a book before I’d headed off to the hills – A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell (check it out – it’s quite the adventure story). It’s a biography of Virginia Hall, who was an Allied forces agent during World War II, who built up and coordinated units in the French resistance. She had a prosthesis following a leg amputation, and the tale of her having to escape through the Pyrenees in winter with insufficient clothing and food are astonishing.  Yet she survived, and even thrived, in gruelling conditions.

She came to mind when, 4 miles from the nearest available shelter, I‘d just pitched my tent in the pouring rain and had crawled into it, damp, trying to keep wet and dry stuff separate, and to get warm. In that moment I managed to make a little bit of space for the part of me that was finding it All A Bit Much and say “yeah, of course you’re finding this hard! You’ve not done it before”, and to remind myself that Virginia Hall had gone through way harder things and come out OK on the other side – and I would too.

What was important in this moment was my attitude towards myself. Instead of telling myself I wasn’t allowed to find it hard because my issues were too insignificant, I reminded myself that people can come through difficult times and still be OK, while also validating my reaction. (My Focusing practice helped with this – you can learn more about that process here.)

It’s OK to find something challenging even if you’re not the first person ever in the world to do it.

You wouldn’t think this was rocket science, but apparently it’s a lesson I need to keep on learning.

I’d borrowed the kit off a bike-packing friend, and I knew that ‘lots of people wild camp’. And that’s when the more unhelpful side of comparing myself with others kicked in. You know, comparing apples (people who are experienced) with pears (me, the novice). I realised, only when I was catching up with friends afterwards, that a part of me had assumed I wasn’t allowed to find my trip difficult at times.

Finding your path online therapy

When I was met with the Wow, that’s quite an undertaking – weren’t you frightened? I recalibrated that judgment of myself as somehow inadequate at not immediately being a comfortable camper. And even allowed myself a little glow of satisfaction that I hadn’t been frightened (well, not much).

On the upside, I can see, looking back, that my survival instinct actually prompted me, when feeling a bit low, to be compassionate towards myself and – in the moment – reassure the wearied bit of me that it was OK to find it a bit tough, so that the judgmental part didn’t take over.

Compartmentalising can make me miss the obvious.

The obvious being: carrying stuff is hard work. I know! Who could imagine?

What happened was: I looked at my route before setting off. My longest day’s walk was 11 or 12 miles. Quite a long way, but I knew it was within my capabilities, especially on good paths. I also packed up my rucsac, completely, a couple of days before going, so I could check everything fitted in, and put it on to see how heavy it was. Heavier than I’d usually carry on a day trip, but within my capabilities.

road to find yourself Lucy Hyde therapy

What I omitted to do was to put ‘long day’s walk’ and ‘heavy rucsac’ together. Oops. It didn’t take many miles before I was feeling that, in various parts of my body in turn. Somehow that principle I share with clients, of noticing when you’ve got more than one stressor in your life, cos the impact is greater, fell by the wayside…….which takes me onto my next discovery.

It’s surprising what you can do when you don’t have the option NOT to.

My walk was harder going than I’d estimated, AND it was also fine. By the time I’d realised the miscalculation of effort, I was well into the moors and would have had as far to go back as I did to continue. If my foot (or hip, or knee) was sore, the only thing I could do was adjust things slightly to see if that helped – and to carry on. And actually that knowledge stopped me focusing on the discomfort, and so I wasn’t as aware of pain.

This was a helpful learning for me. I really value listening to my body. But this experience flagged up that I can sometimes allow fear to stop me pushing myself  – in this case anxiety about damage to my body, and worry that I can’t do as much as I used to (probably linked ultimately to a fear of age and even death). It reminded me of the key role that the brain has in the way we experience physical pain (you can read more about the mental – emotional- physical connections of pain here ).

I discovered that I can control time!

sunshine beyond online counselling

When was the last time you did nothing? Like, literally, NOTHING? I honestly can’t remember, prior to this experience.

I’ve got much better at giving myself a break over the last decade or so. Gone (well, mostly gone) are the days when I would feel inadequate or a failure if I hadn’t been somewhere new or achieved a significant task on a weekend.  Now I let myself sit and read the weekend papers over breakfast for an hour or two, I potter, I lie on the sofa with a book for an hour.

But even though I don’t think of myself as ‘keeping busy’, actually doing nothing – that’s very unfamiliar. When I was camping, there was around 12 hours of darkness. I was in a tent I couldn’t sit up in. I had limited power and no signal on my phone. So I lay in my sleeping bag pretty much from 7pm to 7am, even though I wasn’t tired enough to sleep (and didn’t, much, even when I was).

And yet, most of that time, I wasn’t particularly bored. I was just, kind of………..there. Existing. Tuning in and out to the noises around me. Noticing my toes warming up in my sleeping bag. Wondering whether it was going to pish down again the next day.

It felt weird to be in that not-doing space.

Time behaves differently when you’re not doing. For many of us, that’s WHY we keep busy, right? We’re often scared of the empty space because we’re not sure what will creep into it. Empty space fosters anxiety, and over-thinking. We avoid it at all costs. The flipside of that is that we keep so busy that times passes quickly, the more so as we get older, and we end up feeling like we’re running out of it!

I felt like my two nights out were way longer than a weekend. So, perhaps a way of stopping time feeling like it’s going so quickly, is to stop ourselves – and just do nothing. How much time just disappears when you’re scrolling through social media, for example?

I’m not sure how easy I’ll find it to do nothing now I’m back home, surrounded by all the things that ‘need doing’, with my phone available to distract me. But I’m going to give it a go.

It’s good to do something new, even if it’s hard.

I feel like I gained a lot from this experience. That’s not consciously why I did it. I wasn’t on some mission of personal growth. And when it was challenging I thought “I don’t know if I’ll do this again”. But I learned some new stuff about myself because it was sometimes hard, and – as I told my therapist later – it feels like this experience is a little resource that’s sitting on my shoulder. I don’t know quite what to do with it yet, but I like that it’s there.

finding your way Lucy Hyde online counsellor

So…..would you take the plunge to do something new?

To be honest, I don’t recommend heading off on your own wild camping experience right now. Winter is coming (if you’re in the northern hemisphere) and nights are colder. But if there’s something you’ve thought you’d like to try but are a bit scared of, or not sure whether you’ll be good at it (hint: probably not, the very first time) I would really encourage you to give it a go.

Final tip:

if there IS something you have in mind – tell someone about it. In one step, this makes it more likely to happen. Getting to the point of telling someone is a move in itself – it can be scary, if you think ‘I can’t back out if I tell someone!’ – yet actually, that’s not true, is it? But if you tell someone you have a dream, it makes it a little bit more real.  It brings it closer. And then it’s more within your reach.

walking in the rain Lucy Hyde walk and talk

References and further info:

Book: A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

Pain: Not all in your head, it’s in your brain

Focusing and how it can help manage anxiety

How to access more of what you love

Sometimes I have an idea that seems ‘new’ and then when I say it out loud, or write it down, it suddenly looks to me like the most blindingly obvious thing, that a child would know. Maybe that’s the point – a child would know, because it’s a simple idea and children sometimes get direct to the heart of the matter without the layers of complication and conditions that adults learn to overlay ideas with.

Anyway, the latest ‘idea’ was the reflection that connecting to something you love can be healing and enriching. Obvious, right? But the key word here is ‘connecting’ – by which I mean mindfully reflecting on the qualities of this loved thing, giving attention to what it is you appreciate and value in it. This mindful attention can enrich the relationship that you have with the loved thing, deepen your appreciation of it, and that in turn can deepen the nourishment that you get from doing it / being with it.

Buillding wellbeing through contact with nature

A couple of occurrences recently poked this notion into my awareness.

One is when I attended a webinar on ‘embodied writing’ by Ann Dowsett Johnston , an author and psychotherapist, who uses Focusing in her writing. (You can read about Focusing in a previous blog I wrote here). Ann led us in a number of exercises during the workshop, one of which was to free-write about something or someone we love. As the ten minutes set for the exercise began to tick away my mind battered around the inside of my skull like a moth trapped in a lamp, flitting from person, to animal, to object – but not settling. At the edges of my mind something was sitting and as I wrote ‘What do I love?’ and came into a more in-body-presence state, that ‘thing’ came into the foreground, and I wrote the following:

What do I love? I love to be in the sea.

Not to go in, not to come out, not the walking to and fro along the street….. I love that feeling, once I’m in the water.

The water is silky across my skin, supporting me. I swim out, out of the cove, towards the horizon. This is never boring! Never do I think to myself “Oh here I am again, it’s just the same as ever.”

Never is it the same.

The water changes…… today it is silvery, a long low swell that takes me by surprise, the shapes of the shadows and reflections abstract and two dimensional on the faces and facets of the waves. Tomorrow it may be milky, churned, grey and opaque, churning and pulling at me, holding me back as I try and push my way through the froth.

Never is it the same.

The land changes as the sea changes – the boundary between them moves and shifts with the height of the tide and the shape of the water and becomes visible and invisible.

I don’t want to leave and I’m scared to stay but in the moment I’m not scared of the sea – only of my own weakness, of getting it wrong. The sea is just there, under me and around me, making way for me, pushing against me. Silver silk slipping and sliding over my skin. Playing with me – slapping me round the head, sucking mischievously at my ankles as I stagger out. Waiting for my return.

Lucy Hyde counsellor with nature

I deliberately haven’t edited this passage, I’ve just set it down as I wrote it, because it’s real and what came to me in that moment.

And having written it, and then reading back over it afterwards, I realised, yes, that IS what I love about swimming in the sea. And although I hadn’t taken it for granted – in fact, I’ve particularly come to appreciate being close to the ‘wild’ over the last 16 months of reduced movement – this exercise, of really paying attention, has given me a new appreciation for my swimming. It’s encouraged me to prioritise it as something I can do conveniently, easily.

Of course there’s other things in my life that I love and that are more difficult for me to do right now, for various reasons, but having brought this one into foreground focus has somehow shifted my perspective slightly from regretting what I’m missing to appreciating what I’m able to do, and prioritising it.

Another example is a conversation I had at the weekend with a green-fingered friend. We were talking about growing, I was asking their advice, we were sharing experiences, practices, plant likes and dislikes – and something about that chat shifted my perspective. I let go of some of the stress that had been sitting on my shoulder, nagging at me about the various gardening tasks that I ‘should’ be doing or had got behind with, and instead took pleasure in the few hours that I then allowed myself to work away in the garden.

It was almost as if sharing the experience with someone else reminded me that I loved gardening, when I had turned it into a chore. (I’m really expert at doing that, by the way – doing something because I love it and then subtly shifting my approach so that one day I wake up and find that what I loved has become a stick to beat myself with.)

The work that I did that afternoon in the garden was the same, but my attitude towards it was completely different, as was my sense of being nurtured by it instead of tired out by it – I’d connected to it in a different way.

Counsellor self-care

So……….. I really encourage you to pay attention to what you love, to remind yourself of what you love, and to pause, notice and connect to what you love. If you’re not sure how to do that, based on my own recent experiences my suggestions are:

Free writing

Set aside half an hour for a creative exercise like the free-writing one I gave the example of above. Use whatever meditation, mindfulness or grounding technique works for you, or even check out the Focusing video on my blog and use the lead-in at the beginning of it, then when you’ve settled in your body, ask yourself ‘what do I love?’ and free-write what comes. (Ann Dowsett Johnstone used Mary Oliver’s painfully beautiful poem ‘Wild Geese’ as a lead-in to her exercise. You can hear Mary Oliver’s reading of the poem here .)

Talking about what you love

Make time for a conversation with a trusted other who loves what you love. Resist the small talk……. Instead talk about what you love, even if it’s just for ten minutes. Then, set aside a little time to think about and reflect on your conversation. Was there anything that surprised you, that you hadn’t realised was important to you about this activity, or this object? Has it changed your relationship with what you love?

Sharing with others

Start an appreciation group. I started a Facebook group a couple of years ago sharing recipes and meal ideas. Sharing with other people who love what I love (cooking and eating food) has been really stimulating, the ideas of others reminding me of things I’d forgotten or introducing me to new notions. Posh food, comfort food, food out of cartons is all welcomed. You could try a WhatsApp or Signal group of a few friends, or simply meeting up with folk, like a more traditional book group.

Give 5 minutes to reflect

Simply set aside five minutes at the finish of the day to ask yourself ‘What have I loved today and why?’ If you find it hard to think of anything go reeeeally small – a conversation, a much-needed cup of tea – and re-experience that enjoyment. Give yourself a bit of time to wonder how you can have another moment like that tomorrow.

I often don’t know what I think about something until I’ve put it through my typewriter.

Ann Dowsett Johnston

Joy is really important to wellbeing – the antidote to burnout. Paying attention to what you love helps you notice more opportunities to find that joy, enables you to be more open to joy where it arises. Allowing yourself something that you love, wholeheartedly, is an act of self-love. Make a bit of space to give that to yourself.

Lucy Hyde walk and talk therapist

Further information

Focusing

Ann Dowsett Johnston

Adding joy to your life

Self-care: How to relax

I’m just back from a week’s leave.

I’m being strict with myself this year about taking regular and frequent breaks for self-care. It’s been an interesting and useful experience; because a bit of me thinks it’s ‘self-indulgent’, I’ve been challenging that thought by talking about it. Getting it out there helps counteract a tendency to feel ashamed about looking after myself.

Breaks = regular maintenance

So many people I encounter find it difficult to prioritise time off. This has been the case especially in the last year where the usual ‘reasons’ for taking leave, many of which are connected to other people – visits to family, plans arranged with others, booked holidays – have been unavailable, leading to many people realising belatedly that they haven’t taken a break for a loooong time.

Online therapy to help you relax

I feel a sense  of responsibility to look after myself because of my work with clients; I use myself in my work, I owe it to my clients to offer value for money, and I’m less effective when I’m less healthy or emotionally unwell. This makes it ‘easier’ for me to take time off out of a sense of duty. I’m a people-pleaser who worries about getting it wrong, and changing that is an ongoing, slow process. In the meantime, if ‘duty of self-care’ encourages me to take time off, then I make the most of the result, without worrying too much about the impetus!

Exactly halfway through my leave I felt I had to make a significant decision – ‘how best to use my week off’. Essentially, having had the opportunity the day before to meet up with family for the first time in nearly 6 months, my attention up until then had been focused on that; and indeed, it WAS a highlight – being able to spend a few hours together eating, and walking, outside, filled me up. But after that, I had empty days in front of me and a sense of responsibility to not ‘waste’ them.

Of course, reality-checking after the event, I realise that the idea of a ‘right’ choice was a myth, and it was being faced with the emptiness of unplanned time that felt disorientating.

Lucy Hyde walk and talk counselling

I was talking to someone a few days later who said they experienced a similar sense of pressure at weekends:

“During the week I’m just busy with work and eating and sleeping and recovering, then at the weekend I feel I have to make the most of it and often I end up not enjoying my time off because of thinking how else I could be spending it, and it’s almost a relief when Monday comes and I just slot back in to automatic work pattern.”

I’ve heard people say they need a week off just to get used to being on holiday, to let go of the feeling they should be ‘doing’, after which they can start actually enjoying it. But sometimes we only have a week, or a few days (or a weekend).

And it can spiral into self-criticism too; for example I felt anxious about how to use my time off, then felt guilty for being bothered by such a first-world problem – ‘poor me, I’ve got a break’. It can sometimes take me a while to pull back, to recognise that yes, I am fortunate, and no, feeling guilty about it doesn’t make one jot of difference to people worse off than me, any more than enjoying it would.

How to deal with the fear of getting it wrong

For me, learning to tolerate the thought or feeling, rather than distracting myself from it by getting busy, has helped. I recognise it for what it is, a thought generated by my perfectionist tendencies, rather than an actual real-life risk. Being able to sit with it for a time helps it feel less urgent.

Lucy Hyde walk and talk therapist

A few other things that I’ve found are useful:

1. Using my Focusing practice to sense bodily what I need.

You can read more about Focusing here. ‘Clearing a space’ was a particularly useful exercise in my week off. Once I had settled inside myself I used the question ‘what’s stopping me feeling really fine right now?’, seeing what appeared, acknowledging it and putting it aside. This is particularly helpful when there’s a few practical problems or life events that take up mental space. You can read about clearing a space here .

2. Giving myself options.

Sometimes checking within myself for what I need can bring an urge to hide away or retreat. While hibernating is OK, I know from previous experience that connecting to the world by getting outside, getting moving, or being with people is often better at getting me ‘unstuck’, even if it feels like an effort initially. Sometimes it helps to give myself options – ‘How do I feel about X? or Y?’ – and seeing what my gut response is. If I have a week off, making just one plan for something I usually enjoy takes some of the pressure off figuring it out.

3. Remembering that there’s no ONE right answer.

The reality is that whatever I feel I need, it has to fit in with life. Yes, it might sound great to be able to always follow my sense of what I need at any moment, but realistically it’ll be dependent on time, resources, other people, etc. So finding something that’s, say 60 – 70% good-enough self-care right now, rather than looking for the perfect answer, is fine. Good enough for now IS actually, sometimes, the perfect answer. I was talking to a friend who said:

“I had a few things I really wanted to do, things I like doing, but I felt like going back to bed. And when I was sitting in bed, I was thinking ‘Oh, I’m not doing x, y and z.’ And I had to remind myself that I WAS doing something else that I needed, by just being. But it took effort to do that.”

Lucy Hyde online counsellor

4. Noticing when I’m content.

When I can notice that I’m enjoying the moment, that’s really bloody useful. Because if I can do more of it (right now) then it’s fulfilling a need. That happened to me when I was sitting in the sun reading a book and – having finished my coffee – I thought ‘This is really nice. Oh, actually, I can carry on sitting here!’ It sounds so obvious, but it can be tricky to catch yourself at these moments – particularly if your pattern is that you can only do the thing that you LIKE once you’ve finished the task that you don’t (and it can lead you to NEVER getting round to the thing that you like).

5. Finding a balance.

On my week off, Covid restrictions at last allowed travel round Scotland. There was a temptation to rush around the place seeing people, to recharge my social battery. But one thing I’ve learned in recent years is that although I need people, I also need solitude.  Someone told me recently:

“I’ve learned I need to consciously rest more to actively counteract those stress hormones…..I love lying cosied up with a book……and when I feel a bit sluggish or melancholy from that quiet time I know it’s time for a little activity”.

Most of us live such busy lives of doing that it’s no wonder we find it difficult to change gear and slow down. It’s also normal, as you get older, for transition from one thing to another to take longer – and that includes transition from one way of being to another.

It’s OK and normal for relaxing to not come naturally AND there are things that you can do to support yourself to let go a little. Although I’ve shared some of what works for me I’m really interested to hear if there are ideas or tips you have for how you help yourself relax.

The most important thing, I think, is that ANY relaxation is better than none. So if I can let go of ‘getting it right’ and allow it to be Just Good Enough For Now, that really helps. And if that letting go only lasts for half an hour, or a few moments, that’s OK, because that’s relaxation time I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Lucy Hyde therapist helping you relax
Photo: Jon Gerrard

If reading this has been useful, you might also like to check out my blogs on Focusing for anxiety, and tips for dealing with stress. And if you want to share any ideas, or would like to try working with me, please get in touch.

How to feel more in control by setting goals for the year

“You never know ahead of time what something’s really going to be like.”

Katherine Paterson, ‘Bridge to Terabithia’

Please note that this article was written at the start of 2021 and references dates accordingly.

At the start of a new year, I always feel a sense of hope. The year is spread out in front of me like a beautiful expanse of pristine snow just waiting for me to make a path off into the distance. Or indeed, rush off, fall over and flail around getting wet. Even the start of 2021 had that sense of hope, although I didn’t buy in to the fantasy that 2021 was going to be wonderful, as if we could somehow close the door on what happened in 2020 when it was still happening.

I like to set goals at the start of the year. I don’t like New Year Resolutions (you can read more about this in my blog ‘Drop the Resolutions’). Even the word ‘goals’ smacks of business and sales targets, when what I’m talking about is a reflecting on what I want for myself – but ‘goals’ is the word that seems to fit best, so bear with me!

You may feel that with everything still so uncertain in the world, there’s no point in planning ahead. Perhaps you feel as if you’re just keeping your head above water in the latest phase of the pandemic battle. But goal-setting doesn’t have to be about major life changes or dream holiday plans.

Reflecting on what you want in the medium- or long-term can be a way to regain some control of your life, and can help provide a sense of purpose to support you when you’re finding things difficult, especially if you approach it in a way that is compassionate towards those parts of you that may be feeling anxious or worried.

So how to do it?
How to follow your path Lucy Hyde online counsellor

This is the process that works for me. I like to do it with paper and pen; you could do it on your laptop – but what’s important is to record your thoughts somehow so you can go back to them.

1. Review the previous year

2. Set your goals for the coming year

3. Check how you’ll know you’ve achieved your goals

4. Consider what might get in the way

5. Think how you’ll support yourself to get there

6. Review and refine your goals

7. Choose your Word of the Year

8. Keep your goals under review

Let’s talk about these in more detail.

1. Review the previous year

OK, so 2020 was a bit of shit-storm in many ways, and there are very few of us who didn’t find some of it difficult to a small or MASSIVE degree. This exercise needs to include acknowledging that, and appreciating that you got through it and survived.

But you can still take a bit of time to notice what went well for you, and/or what you achieved. For me, although my business increased and I feel very fortunate in that, what was more of an achievement, was noticing that I’d prioritised work over me. Revisiting what I needed in terms of my life balance led to me wild swimming regularly – in the process, discovering something new. 

Over the last year, the circumstances we’ve been living in have meant that many more people have struggled with anxiety, with low mood or depression, or with feeling they have no control. If you feel you didn’t achieve anything, try to step outside yourself, look at what you were up against and how you’re still here. No achievement is too small to acknowledge.

If you did set goals last year, where are you in relation to them? What got in the way (hm, let me think, was it by any chance a pandemic?) and what can you learn from that? I didn’t achieve ANY of my goals from last year, other than my target client hours, and I’m fine with that, because I believe I focused my efforts to the best of my ability in the 2020 storm and ended the year healthy and mostly content.

2. Set your goals for the year

Do you have some kind of idea what you would like from your year? Probably. But it can still be helpful to think about it. If you’re self-employed, like me, then there’s a temptation to assume the goal is to increase income – but this may not always be entirely within your control, and anyway may not fit with what you actually want deep down.

Some people find it helpful to look at where they want to be in 5 years’ time, and then reflect on what this might mean for the coming year. 

And this doesn’t have to be about professional goals. I always include at least one non-work goal, sometimes more, depending on what’s going on in my life.  If the idea of setting goals doesn’t fit for you, you could try the ‘average perfect day’ exercise, where you spend time dreaming about what the average, routine day in your life would look like in an ideal world, in detail, so you can focus your attention on the gap between ‘here’ and ‘there’. You can read more about this exercise at ‘Average Perfect Day’ .

Spend some time daydreaming to help you set some goals – ideally 3 at the most, so be strict with yourself!

3. How will you know you’ve achieved your goals?

Thinking about this will help you refine your goals if they’re a bit ‘woolly’.

As an example, if I set a goal ‘to write more’, how am I going to know at the end of the year if I’ve written more than I did the year before? And what am I writing? On the other hand, if my goal is that I’ll have published a blog per month……….. if I get to the end of the year and I’ve published only 6 blogs since January, I’ll know I haven’t attained that goal (here’s a clue as to what one of my 2020 goals was ?).

Imagine you’re at the other end of the year looking back. Think about how the You in 12 months’ time is going to know whether you’ve got what you wanted. Getting a sense of this now will help you celebrate, but may also help you see where things have got in the way of your achieving what you wanted.

Are your goals concrete and clear enough?

Setting your goals with the help of therapy

4. What might get in the way?

It’s tempting to avoid thinking about this……… but ignoring it can be your downfall!

a. How might you sabotage yourself or allow others to sabotage you? It’s all very well to have ideals but it’s easy for old patterns of thinking to cut in and prevent us achieving them, with the result that we feel bad for not getting there and then get into self-blame for feeling bad.

Here’s an example. My main goal for 2021 is to complete my Focusing Practitioner Training, which I’m partway through. In order to be able to focus on my own training this year, I’ve decided to restrict my workload – but I know that this’ll create some anxiety for me around ‘not being a real therapist’; this anxiety has the potential to push me to take on more work, thereby sabotaging myself by not leaving enough time for the training course.  

b. What will achieving your goals cost you? With any goal of doing something additional or different, there’s going to be something sacrificed – time, energy, money, etc. With the example above, achieving my training goal will cost me money this year, as my earnings are going to be lower. On the other had, what you sacrifice may be something you’re quite glad to let go – a toxic relationship, for example.

It’s important to take the cost into account, so that you can be more mindful that you have made a choice to prioritise one thing over another. 

5. How can you support yourself?

The flip side of No. 4!

a. What will you gain in achieving your goals? This can be useful to consider, alongside the question of what achieving your goals will cost you. You may need to allow yourself to mourn for what you have to let go in order to achieve your goals, but you can balance that against what you’ll gain – why do you want this?

b. What do you need to do or NOT do to achieve your goals? Look at your responses to how you might sabotage yourself. So, with my example; I need to say No to additional clients over and above what I’ve decided is an OK level for me to maintain alongside my training. I also need to review my goals on a regular basis, so that if I’m struggling, I can decide what to prioritise, and what needs reassessing. 

c. What resources do you need, and who might support you? This question will help you be realistic; you need to have the resources to get to where you want – whether it be financial, or emotional, or something else. For example, I need to remind myself that social supports are important for me – to ensure that I maintain contact with the people in my life who nourish me. If you can’t see where you can get the resources or support you need, you may need to get creative – perhaps by discussing this exercise with a friend or family member.

6. Review and refine your goals

Once you’ve completed steps 3 to 5, go back to the goals you set, and consider again whether they feel achievable. The purpose of those last few steps was to help you set goals that are realistic. If we continue to live through a series of lockdowns for the coming year, will this affect the achievability of your goals? Are they within your control? Are there less ambitious goals that are within your control and would move you toward where you ultimately want to be?

There’s a tendency to think that setting yourself high targets makes you work harder. Well, that might be the case for some people, but for most of us, we’re already pretty good at seeing where we feel we’ve failed; we don’t need to set ourselves up to do that.

Can you simplify or reduce your goals? Can you make it easier for yourself? Setting a goal or a target or a to-do list that some part of you believes is ‘too easy’ is more effective and more motivational than setting yourself one that you feel you ‘should’ be able to reach. Trust me on this, I’ve been there.

Now – adjust or rewrite your goals if necessary.

Using goals to feel more in control of your path

7. Choose a word for the year

You might already have something in mind, stimulated by this exercise. For example, the word that floated up for me was ‘Choice’ as it feels particularly relevant when I’ve chosen to commit to a goal that is going to affect how much work I can take on this year. Reminding myself that of ‘choice’ when I think ‘I have to’ is going to be useful.

If you don’t know where to begin, you could try simply writing down the first 20 words that come to mind and see if one fits, or do an internet search for ideas, such as 2021 Word of the Year . There’s no right or wrong with this.

Once you have your word, stick it up where you can see it from time to time.

8. Don’t leave your goals just lying there

Once you’ve done this exercise, come back to your goals in a week or so, to give yourself ‘settling time’. Read them over and see if there’s anything you want to add or change. Then, consider what smaller steps you can take to move forward. Break your goals down into the very smallest steps you can take.

Looking at the interim steps in this way might be particularly important if your ultimate goal is, for example, dependent on an end to pandemic restrictions. At some point, we will reach a less constrained ‘new normal’, and so there’s a good chance that there are smaller steps you can take to get yourself into a good position. Don’t forget to include attending to your own wellbeing as part of this process; your ultimate success requires you to be resilient and resourced.

Then pop a reminder somewhere to review your goals monthly or quarterly. Life gets in the way and for sure at the moment there may be lots of reasons why you feel you’re just plodding on. So make time for an occasional review of what you thought you wanted at the beginning of the year; this isn’t set in stone, so check – are your goals still relevant? What can you do to get closer to them?

And finally………..

Setting goals at the moment can feel as if it’s just another thing to make life hard. I’m tired of hearing about people who’ve seized the opportunity of lockdown to become expert on the piano, learn a foreign language from scratch or write a book. But this doesn’t have to be an opportunity to make yourself feel shitter; reflecting on what you want in your life can give structure and focus and bring your attention to what you can control rather than what you can’t. And by approaching it in a self-compassionate way, you might even help your dreams come true.

If you know what you want but aren’t sure how to get there (or if you don’t know what you want) you might find it helpful to speak to a therapist to clarify what you want for yourself and how you might make changes to help you move towards your goals. Get in touch with me via Contact details or search in a reputable online directory such as Counselling Directory , BACP or ACTO .

Online therapy to help you find your path

Why is Christmas so bloody hard?

Finding Christmas challenging LucyHydeTherapy

Bah, humbug! A friend tagged me on a Facebook post – a video of Fascinating Aida performing their song which goes “Try not to be a c*nt at Christmas” (their asterisk). My response was that my own song would be more along the lines of “Why doesn’t Christmas just fuck off?” ……….so what is about Christmas that brings out my foul mouth and my prickly side?

Over the years, I’ve definitely developed more of my bah humbug side, and if the thought of Christmas fills you with nothing but joy – or if Christmas simply is irrelevant to you – then this may not be the blog for you! If you too find Christmas tricky, however, reading on may help you understand why you struggle.

I’ve noticed in recent years it’s become more socially acceptable to say that you don’t look forward to Christmas, or find it difficult. Personally, I’ve veered between extremes of love and hate over time and I’m surprised – AGAIN – when I realise I’m not sure how I feel about it.

There’s part of me, that in the last few years has simply wished that Christmas would Go Away, or that I could fall asleep for a  month and wake up when it’s over so I don’t even have to decide whether it’s Good or Bad, and I recognise that these – along with the occasional “I HATE CHRISTMAS” running through my head – have much of the child about them, so there’s clearly something triggered in me at this time of year, even if I don’t know what it is!

But what I’m also noticing is that somewhere in this I seem to have moved towards an acceptance that Christmas is Difficult. As if instead of pretending it’s wonderful, I’ve decided that it’s awful, and I suppose I’m wondering if I – and those of you who struggle a bit at Christmas – can choose a different response.

What is it that makes Christmas a challenge?

Here are some of the reasons that seem relevant to me for why this can be a difficult time of year, and I’ll explore them more below.

  • Guilt over how one ‘should’ spend the festive period
  • Family dynamics are intensified
  • Financial stresses are increased
  • Juggling work pressures
  • SAD or winter blues
  • Expectations of self
  • Figuring out how to keep everyone else happy (and forgetting about self care)
  • Grief for lost loved ones intensified
  • Being out of usual routines
  • Environmental / climate distress linked to consumerism

Guilt over how one ‘should’ spend the festive period

There are lots of assumptions around Christmas. Even while we know that it’s not all about roasting chestnuts round an open fire while dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh, and that the reality is more about the oven breaking down just as the packet of ready-made roast spuds is being opened, on a day that is too-warm-for-this-time-of-year and never gets properly daylight through the grey………….even while we ‘know’ that cognitively, there’s often a part of us that still holds the dream of a Christmas card within.

This can be equally so whether you grew up with the perfect Christmas gathered round the tree and are always seeking to return to that, or if your Christmasses were full of arguments and broken families, because chances are that you have a very vivid picture of what you missed out on, and part of you still wants it. So Christmas has some weight riding on it and there’s a good chance that it’ll disappoint – and you might blame yourself in some way for that.

Family dynamics are intensified

Ah, Christmas…….it’s all about family, right? Getting together and feeling the love……at Christmas there’s a good chance that many of us will be seeing family, and often quite a few in a relatively short period. Even with people with whom we have an apparently harmonious relationship, spending time in the family setting can trigger historic patterns of behaviour, perceived injustices and slipping back into family roles such as the black sheep or the golden child.

On the other hand, we may also be more likely to see people out of a sense of ‘duty’, when we’d really rather not. It may be the one time this group of family members gets together! This all takes its toll on our emotional energy, and can lead to us feeling shitty for reasons that we may not understand, especially if they’re pushing buttons from a time when we were very young.

Arthur Rackham Christmas 1 Prawny from Pixabay

Financial stresses are increased

It can be a particularly hard time for parents, if we think that Christmas should be a time of excess and generosity, and we’re struggling as it is week to week. Of course you want to give your child the best Christmas possible – everyone’s sharing the latest bloody John Lewis ad.

Parent or not, there’s often Christmas nights out to pay for on top of presents and we expect to eat more luxurious food than normal. And again, whilst we might be consciously thinking “but I know the most important thing is that I’m seeing the people I care about” we can still often be carrying expectations of ourselves and believing that those people will think we don’t love them if we don’t get them the right gift.

Juggling work pressures

The financial aspect feeds into this one too; for people who are self-employed the festive period can be a tight time with everything closing down or clients’ holidays meaning that they have less work. Alternatively, for people who work in industries that keep going right through without a break, there can be the added pressure of fitting shifts around getting together with friends and family who don’t have the same commitments, and for potentially working out childcare arrangements while children are off school.

SAD or winter blues

Whose bloody idea was it to make Christmas at this time of year? Yes, culturally we associate Christmas with snow and dark starry skies, but winter can be a tough time for people with the reduced daylight hours, and some people also have low energy levels because of the cold. Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder can include low energy, trouble concentrating, fatigue, increased appetite, desire to be alone, greater need for sleep and weight gain. Whether you have a SAD diagnosis or not, you may be affected by low mood more in winter than the rest of the year.

Winter blues counsellor Lucy Hyde

Expectations of self

These can be hard to notice – we often assume that we should do and be a certain way without even being aware that these are assumptions  – based on our family history, and then exacerbated by Christmas adverts and Hollywood. (I bet if we were all brought up on Mike Leigh or Ken Loach versions of Christmas movies we’d have a different perspective.)

I was brought up in a house where we always had lots of homemade sweets around and every possible foodstuff; 10 or more people descended on the house and yet it seemed there was still everything that anyone could possibly want. I carried that memory with me as I set up my own home and couldn’t understand why I found it a struggle to fit in making two different sorts of homemade fudges plus rum truffles and marzipan-stuffed dates, around working full-time in a busy job up until Christmas Eve. It took me years to pay attention to the fact that when I was little my mum had already been doing that type of Christmas for 20 years, wasn’t working outside the home – and may anyway have been fed up with the whole thing herself!  

Figuring out how to keep everyone else happy (and forgetting about self care)

Are you a people-pleaser? Chances are that this part of you heads into overdrive in the run-up to Christmas. It’s only when I lived abroad for a while, and enjoyed Decembers that were pretty much as tranquil as any other month – because we didn’t know many people – that I realised that my ‘normal’ December seems to involve having to meet up with practically everyone I know, all in one month! “Oh, we must go for Christmas drinks!” Wait, I’m already having a busy month, but for some reason I feel I need to agree to making it busier thereby further reducing the time that I have to do the things that I’m the only person that expects them of myself anyway…………?

Grief for lost loved ones intensified

This can be relevant whether those people are missing through death or have moved away. For people who have families scattered all over the globe, Christmas can feel a very empty time, the equivalent of the little match girl gazing through the window into the candle-lit sitting-room of children gathered round a parent reading a story by the Christmas tree. You might also be grieving for the family or loved ones that you never had – a lost Christmas experience that never was.  So Christmas can also be a very, very lonely time.

Being out of usual routines

Routines are great. They’re the scaffolding that our lives hang on, the stuff that we don’t have to think about that gets us through the day or week. For anyone who’s had times when they’ve felt their energy ebbing – physical, mental or emotional – developing self-care routines can be really helpful.

These can often be very simple things – a brief walk before starting the day’s work, 10 minutes planning the day, journaling before bed. They can take a little time to establish – and they can easily fall by the wayside when the rest of the daily routine changes. Kids are around all the time demanding attention. You’re not at work. Sleeping patterns are different. Often you don’t notice you’ve slipped out of healthy routines until you realise that you’ve already emptied the tank.

Balancing consumerism and environmental concerns

I spent years – and I mean YEARS – feeling crappy about Christmas present shopping, gradually finding ways of making present-shopping a pressure and a chore. At some point in the last decade, I added a new tradition to Christmas Day: the empty box to put the Christmas gifts in that, as soon as they were opened, I knew were going straight to the charity shop. And yet it still took me a long time to be able to say, at last, to all those people I exchanged gifts with: “I’m not getting you anything this year, please don’t get me anything.”

The effort and angst that was involved in giving myself permission to do things differently – because I was afraid, at some level, that people would think I didn’t love them – or wouldn’t love me – was enormous. I see lots of people this year struggling with the balance of wanting to demonstrate love but with awareness of the devastating effect that that ‘demonstration’ is having on the planet – and a lot of these struggles seem often to be focused on the fear of hurting others.

But what can I do about it?

Many of the above points relate to challenges that affect other areas of life, or crop up at other times of year, but there’s something about Christmas – with its combination of tradition, family scripts, media hype and cultural assumptions – that seems to roll lots of difficult shit up in one stinking bundle and rub our faces in it. A lot of people find it difficult to prioritise their own needs at the best of times, so a festival that is all about ‘giving rather than receiving’ can exacerbate this.

Winter blues LucyHydeTherapy

Interestingly, research indicates that emergency room visits for mental health reasons drop around Christmas itself – possibly because people at risk have others around them on Christmas Day – but that they rise again afterwards. See this article about it. This, for me, highlights that ‘Christmas stress’ speaks more about the whole atmosphere around the Christmas period rather than the day itself.

And it seems to me that the ‘remedy’ for this can be the same as at other times of year – but it can be harder to apply during this period. How can you listen to what your body’s telling you you need, when there’s a family row going on in the next room? How do you choose not to repeat previous unhelpful patterns when you’re thrown into the historic family setting that led to them developing?

I don’t have a simple solution to this. I struggle with it too. But I think it’s something that we need to continue talking about and I’m offering some suggestions to help you think about it below.

Notice

Lucy Hyde therapy how to cope at Christmas

Make some time to tune in to yourself to get a sense of what your discomfort is around Christmas. Perhaps you think you already know quite well, but it might be something that you try and ignore because you feel you ‘should’ be looking forward to it. Making a few moments to just notice what comes up, not to change it, simply to acknowledge, can really help that part of you, that may be anxious or unhappy, settle a little.

Question

Lucy Hyde counsellor how to cope at Christmas

What are your beliefs around what Christmas is or should be? Have you stopped to consider whether these are realistic or achievable – or might they be rooted in some childhood fantasy? Does hanging on to them help, and if not how might you allow yourself to let them go?

Buffer

Lucy Hyde counselling how to cope at Christmas

Give yourself buffer time if you can, to manage the emotional impact of seeing people. If you find yourself thinking “Well, the most efficient way of getting round these different sets of family would be drive to see everyone the same day”, stop a moment to consider instead what might be kindest to you? There may be certain people who really stir you up emotionally at this time, and if you can give yourself time to settle after you see them it could help.  

Say No

Lucy Hyde therapist how to cope at Christmas

It’s OK to do things differently. I often hear people say “We always do……” – No. You may always HAVE done something but it doesn’t mean you can’t choose to do it differently. You might find others would enjoy the change too – and if they don’t that’s not your responsibility. Let’s be realistic though – you may need to choose your battles here. There are going to be some people you find it easier to say No to than others, so keep reminding yourself the purpose of this is to conserve your own energy and wellbeing.

Think about what you want

Lucy Hyde counsellor Coping with Christmas

What would you like to be different about your festive season and how might you get it? How realistic is it? Who would need to be involved? What would you need to do differently? If there are things that others need to do differently – think about what you can do for yourself, if they refuse to change.

Start a conversation

Lucy Hyde counselling Coping with Christmas

Talk about how you’re feeling about Christmas with someone. You might find they feel the same. Most importantly, find ways to talk about it with the people who are involved. No, I don’t mean saying “I hate Christmas and I’m sick of you getting me things I don’t want even after I’ve told you” – but perhaps it would be OK to start with something that feels relatively small and unthreatening. I really believe that this is a time when practically everyone, to a greater or lesser extent, focuses their attention on what others think or want, or makes assumptions about what others expect – so actually owning what YOU want can make a real difference.

Plan ahead

Lucy Hyde therapist Coping with Christmas

I’ve found that Christmas seems to have suddenly come upon me this year. I’m not sure some switch in my head doesn’t flip on 1 December. But that’s made me think of the advantage of thinking ahead next year – starting to make plans way too early because suddenly it may be too late. I’m not talking about plans for ‘getting everything organised to have the perfect Christmas’ – I’m talking about making time in January to reflect on how the last month was – and really thinking about what I might want for next year.

Be prepared to ‘manage’

Lucy Hyde therapy Coping with Christmas

Perhaps one of the hardest things to let go of is the belief that somehow if you can just change that one thing, then you’ll have a joyous Christmas. While hope can be a wonderful resource for change, some of the things you find difficult about Christmas may not be ‘fixable’ on your own, so it might be helpful to think instead of how you might manage Christmas in the healthiest possible way for YOU, including allowing yourself to be ambivalent about it.

Breaking with traditions

For those people for whom Christmas is a religious festival, even where they find the secular bit a bit tricky, they may still celebrate and enjoy the spiritual aspect of the period. If Christmas doesn’t have that relevance for you then getting a real, felt sense of what you are celebrating may be important to consider.

I often hear people talking about making their own traditions at Christmas. This can be a great way of escaping from misery-inducing family traditions that you were born into, the classic example being when starting a new relationship and agreeing that you spend Christmas Day together (not with the family of either partner).

But even with new ‘traditions’ we can set ourselves up to ‘feel bad about feeling bad’ – i.e. we establish our own rules on ‘what will make us happy at Christmas’. We all change over time, as we get older and go through different transitions. I’m thinking of establishing a new tradition for myself – of checking in as the season approaches, to decide what I need this year. A few days away where no one knows me? Helping out in a soup kitchen? A quiet time with normal food and a long novel to read by the woodstove? I might even surprise myself one year by choosing to host a full-on tinsel-and-turkey gathering……you never know!

Surviving Christmas LucyHydeTherapy

If you’re alone at Christmas, and would like company on Christmas Day, check out Sarah Millican. She started the annual #joinin campaign at Christmas, for people to hang out together on Twitter, rather than alone at home.

I’m very aware that this blog is written from my own particular perspective on The Christmas Struggle and that I have my fixations and blind spots. Take some time to notice what you find easy or hard at Christmas time, how you manage challenges, and if there’s anything you’re thinking about doing differently.

Remember also that Christmas – or the run-up to it – could be a good time to reach out, to speak to someone. If something from this has struck a chord with you that you’d like to explore, please get in touch with me here or with another counsellor.

Oh – and if you like foul-mouthed Christmas tunes and want to enjoy Fascinating Aida’s song – it’s here .

Coping at Christmas LucyHydeTherapy

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

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 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.

Doing self-care ‘right’

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 OK 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!

Is it OK for counsellors to have needs, too?

Self-care isn’t all chocolate cake and scented candles, as has been pointed out before. In this context – of whether or not to cancel appointments – it’s not just a question of feeling sorry for myself and curling up under a blanket. Even where I may have felt anxious in anticipation, often I feel energised after an appointment – something about being so focused on that person, about being allowed a little way into their world, about our relationship, 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’. (Reframe: 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.

Giving it our best guess

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 believed I had to ‘look 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?

Sometimes there’s no formula

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:

‘therapists are people you pay……’

What self care really means