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10 Stress Management tips: go easy on yourself with some simple tips

Getting stressed about stress management?

Searching online for ‘stress management’ brings up A LOT of advice and tips. Sometimes in itself that can be stress-inducing – “Oh bloody hell all the things I should be doing / need to do before I’ll feel better!” – which can add to the sense of pressure we feel.

My aim is to, first of all, reassure you that stress responses are normal – there isn’t anything wrong with you; and secondly, to remind you that you can do something about how you feel, and it’s OK to start small. You don’t need to get self-care right all the time. If you’re feeling stressed, the last thing you need is to think that there is yet another thing you have to fit into your day, or ‘get on top of’.

What is stress?

Well, it’s a bit hard to define because the word stress is used to describe both a cause and a symptom. People talk about being under stress, or feeling stressed, or having workplace stress. What I mean here by stress is the reactions that we have to what we perceive (consciously or unconsciously) as difficult or challenging situations or environments.

10 Stress Management tips - LucyHydetherapy - counselling for stress in Edinburgh

Stress symptoms are the body’s reaction to feeling threatened, when hormones are released that allow it to act so as to prevent getting hurt – the ‘fight/flight’ response. The heart rate increases, muscles tense ready for action, blood pressure rises (to get the blood where it needs to go), breathing speeds up. But there are very few situations in the modern world where we need to fight a bear or escape from a lion, so while a stress response causing you to slam on the brakes to stop hitting a bus is useful, a stress response to being asked to work an extra shift at work isn’t. Those tense muscles and racing heart become a problem when they can’t find an outlet.

What causes a stress reaction in one person may not affect another. Look at two people in one workplace doing the same job; one of them might not be able to sleep at night because of work stress; the other might be quite happy to go home at the end of the day and forget completely about work until 9am the next morning.

I’m not saying that if you feel stressed by work you’re somehow to blame – after all, maybe you work for a shitty employer. Maybe you work in a very pressured environment and there are lots of stressors around you. Maybe there’s just a hell of a lot going on in your life. But – you can cultivate a different attitude to most stressors. It doesn’t remove the pressures around you, but crucially, it helps you feel better – you’re alleviating stress.

Me and stress – old friends

10 Stress Management tips - Lucy Hyde - online counselling for stress

What do I know about it? Well, I’ve a history of stress – essentially workplace stress, I guess, though I never defined it. My feelings of stress, as they built up, became intertwined with anxiety and depression, and my typical pattern would be to withdraw when I felt under pressure. I felt that contact with other people would prevent me from being able to hide that I wasn’t coping and I needed to maintain control at all costs. ‘Coping’ is a key word here; clearly I was coping – in that I was still functioning day-to-day – but ‘coping’ wasn’t a happy place.

I would overthink things – trying to think myself out of a situation; I would distract myself thinking I might ‘forget’ how rubbish I felt; and I sort of lived in fear of the future, feeling that things could only get worse. Every now and then I would have a meltdown when the rigid keep-clinging-on-at-all-costs shell just couldn’t hold it in any longer, and that would give a brief relief until things started building up again.

The knowledge that other people, working in the same, demanding, environment as me WEREN’T stressed didn’t help; understanding it was my problem that I needed to do something about – no matter how supportively expressed – added to my sense that I really wasn’t able to function properly as an adult.

How I de-stressed myself

So how did I change it? Various things – too many to remember. Some were small, but there was something about getting a little movement that started the ‘change’ ball rolling, until over time it gathered momentum.

10 Stress Management tips - Lucy Hyde - counselling for stress in Edinburgh

I asked for help. I went to the doctor and got a prescription for anti-depressants. To this day I don’t know how much of the effect was the drug and how much the realisation that I could ask for help, but my mood lifted enough that I was able to make use of a great CBT workshop with a local community organisation, which helped me look at how my thought patterns would get into a downward spiral – and how reflecting on these could help shift me out of disaster mode. This worked for a while, and when I slipped back again it didn’t take me as long to reach out – I’d done it before. I started to talk to people about how I was feeling – even my family!

There were a couple of major events that happened in my life which jolted me enough to shift my priorities slightly – stressors in themselves, but they pushed me to check the reality of how much what I was stressing about really mattered. I was also lucky to have really solid support from my partner.

And then, longer-term, I was offered the opportunity of a counselling skills course and that pushed the ‘change ball’ onto a different path. Surprisingly, I found it OK that I had an extra thing in my week – because it shifted my focus slightly, and some of the other stuff began to look a bit smaller.  

The greater understanding that I had of how I dealt with problems enabled me not only to make slight changes, but crucially my own therapy also helped me notice when I was giving it that double-whammy of beating myself up for beating myself up! Psychotherapy training is great for helping you understand the ‘why’, but in personal counselling I started to heal the anxious child within me, who made those decisions to protect me, and I supported them to make different ones. 

It’s that which has enabled me to look after myself for no other reason than because I AM IMPORTANT. And even being able to write that in a blog is a sign of what a change there has been. I’m not going to pretend I never feel stressed now. But I recognise it and I take steps and I feel better sooner.  I take some of the small steps that I’ve outlined below and in doing so it reinforces the commitment I’ve made to look after myself.

STOP right there!

10 Stress Management tips - Lucy Hyde - counselling for stress

It can be the hardest thing to STOP! To stop and take stock. Stress can produce a sense of an unstoppable hamster-wheel that speeds up and escalates and encourages you to believe that if you can only do MORE, run FASTER, work HARDER then you’ll feel more in control. But stopping really can help. If you’ve stopped long enough to read this blog: Well done! That’s a start!

The 10 stress management tips I’m sharing here are things which help me. I hope some of them may be useful for you.

Stress Tip No. 1: Manage your time gently

When you feel stressed you might have a sense that there’s just not enough time to get things done. But often we contribute to this by setting ourselves to-do lists that are simply unachievable in the misguided idea that we’ll get more done that way, and this adds to the sense of pressure.

The sense of achievement at having successfully met a goal can be energising, and the positive attitude gained from this leads to us being more ready for the next task. So, if you are a list person, write your normal to-do list. Then put aside HALF the items on it; given that you won’t have time to do them anyway, they can be moved to another day.

Stress Management tip No 1 - Lucy Hyde - online counselling for stress

Then take ONE most important item from the list and focus on that at your most productive time of day. For me, this is first thing in the morning before coffee-time. For others it might be in the evening. But the most important thing deserves your most attentive time.

If you still didn’t manage everything on your halved to-do list – golly, you’re really putting pressure on yourself. Try cutting it down further. Be a bit gentler with yourself, huh? You’re only human.

Stress Tip No. 2: Practice saying No

This is a tough one for a lot of people. I get that, it’s hard for me too. And it’s hard because most of us know that this is an essential skill; when we say No we might feel guilty, when we don’t say No we feel ‘bad at self-care’.

Stress Management tip No 2 - Lucy Hyde - counselling for stress

So I don’t want to dwell on the validity of saying No – that actually, only saying Yes to the things that we have time and inclination to do well is better both for us and the person asking us. Instead I’m suggesting that you notice what you could have said No to, and reflect on how you might say No next time, and that you start with the small stuff, those you feel ‘least guilty’ about. Saying No to small requests might feel it won’t make that much difference to your stress levels, but the important thing is getting yourself in the habit.

And when you say No, don’t make excuses why. At the very most just say “No, I’m sorry, but I can’t.” You don’t need excuses to look after yourself.

Stress Tip No. 3: Slow your breathing

Stress Management tip No 3 - Lucy Hyde - online therapy for stress

Breathing deeply is beneficial for releasing stress, partly because the ‘fight or flight’ mode that we find we’re in if we’re stressed tenses everything up and we end up breathing high in the chest. However, taking deep belly breaths can be almost impossible for some people if they’ve got out of practice doing this, and it can actually be triggering for some people who have a history of trauma.

Instead, start by focusing on slowing your breath. Deep breathing can come later. Next time you’re feeling under pressure, stop for a moment. If necessary set an alarm on your phone for 5 minutes. You can afford 5 minutes.

  • Sit back in your chair with your feet flat on the floor and your hands in your lap.
  • Close your eyes, or look down at your hands.
  • Imagine yourself somewhere that you find peaceful or relaxing.
  • Breathe in for a count of four, then out for a count of four.
  • Notice the feeling of the breath moving in through the nose and out through the mouth.
  • Repeat.
  • If you find your mind drifting to your to-do list, just notice that, and say “Yep, I know you’re there” and then bring it back to that peaceful place.

Stress Tip No. 4: Drink water

Dehydration can increase levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). Essentially dehydration is stressful for the body because it’s deprived of what it needs to function well. Dehydration affects the flow of blood to the brain which can lead to feeling fatigued. Sometimes we can also mistake hunger for thirst – so if you feel like you need a snack to keep going, take a drink of water first.

Stress Management tip No 4 - Lucy Hyde - therapy for stress in Edinburgh

Perhaps you forget to stop long enough in your busy day to even notice that you’re thirsty. So before you settle down to work, get yourself a big glass of water and put it somewhere within your line of vision. That way you’re more likely to notice it’s there. If you work on the run, take a bottle and set an alarm on your phone to remind you to take a drink. Even stopping for the few seconds it takes to reach out and take a sip will shift your body position slightly, which is good too.

Stress Tip No. 5: Reflect on what you ‘need’ rather than what you ‘should’

What do I mean by this? Well, one of the things that we can put ourselves under pressure with, is all the things we think we should be doing. I look out for that word ‘should’, because it’s a real signal that someone is self-critical and has high expectations of themselves. Next time you think to yourself “I should be doing X”, reword it to “I COULD be doing X” – this way there’s less of a burden on you.

Stress Management tip No 5 - Lucy Hyde - online therapy for stress

Then ask yourself if you WANT to do it. Ditch one ‘should’ from your week and add one thing that you enjoy – whether that be spending time alone, or spending time with people – whatever you need. Trust your instinct and if you hear a little voice saying you’re being selfish, say “I hear that you think I’m being selfish and that makes you feel anxious. Right now I’m looking after myself.” Because you are.

Stress Tip No. 6: Take a walk

The symptoms of stress are a flight or fight response which is geared towards activity – preparing you to run away or to defend yourself. Often people find that a really good workout after a stressful day can release a lot of the tension they were feeling.

Stress Management tip no 6 - Lucy Hyde - online counselling for stress

The thing is, we can get caught up in what we’re constantly being told about optimum levels of exercise. All I want to say here is “A little is better than none”. If you keep telling yourself you ‘should’ join a gym or go to Zumba classes but you just don’t know where to fit it in, you’re piling more pressure on yourself. Instead, start by fitting a 5 minute walk into your day. 5 minutes after your lunch or after a particularly difficult phone call. You’ve got time to do that. You can build it up from there, but with that 5 minutes you’ve made an active decision to look after yourself. Well done!

Stress Tip No. 7: Cushion your day

Stress Management tip No 7 - Lucy Hyde - counselling for stress

Create a buffer around your day by detaching from your phone for 30 minutes at the start and end of your day. Is the first thing you do on waking up check your phone? When your mind and body are still coming to, you are more open and vulnerable, and seeing upsetting news stories, or being reminded of family politics, can affect you more deeply.

Being constantly connected can add to that a feeling of time pressure, that you need to ‘keep up with things’ – but ask yourself, what you are checking your phone FOR? Think about ways that you can take care of yourself without resource to the outside world. Perhaps you could start your day with a 5-minute meditation. Or read a book with your breakfast. It’s OK to protect yourself at your most vulnerable times.

Stress Tip No. 8: Do things that make you laugh

Stress Management tip No 8 - Lucy Hyde therapy - counselling for stress

Laughter can help you relax; a big belly laugh gets the whole body moving, can dissipate some of those accumulated stress hormones and relieve tension. Laughter has many physical and mental benefits and is a way of strengthening connections with other people

Watch a silly film or TV programme. Reconnect with someone who makes you laugh. Even just pretending to smile and laugh has been proven to have health benefits – why not try that right now?

Stress Tip No. 9: Focus

Inner Relationship Focusing is a practice that can help you manage your stress levels. It encourages you to pay attention to uncomfortable feelings rather than trying to change them and it’s surprising how that alternative to trying to push a feeling away can really bring a change in itself.

Stress Management tip No 9 - Lucy Hyde - therapy for stress

As an example, imagine you’re feeling a tightness across your chest as you worry about getting a piece of work finished. You try and ignore it because you need to get on with that bit of work! Instead, you can sit and pay attention to that tight feeling and develop a relationship with it. You get a sense of what it’s trying to tell you (this feeling might be associated with something you internalised as a child on having to get things done or working hard). And because you’ve ‘listened’ to it, it relaxes a little and lets you carry on with what you’re doing in a less stressed way. There are similar practices and methods; Focusing is one that works for me and you can teach yourself to do it with free resources (see the end of this article).

Stress Tip No. 10: Find a therapist

OK, you got me – therapy isn’t a quick 5-minute stress tip. But you can spare 5 minutes to look for one! Speaking to someone unconnected with the rest of your world can be really beneficial to get an understanding of why you are feeling so stressed – and what you discover might surprise you.

Stress Management tip No 10 - Lucy Hyde - therapy for stress in Edinburgh

There may be good reasons that you are feeling stressed, especially if you’ve had a number of changes in your life in a short space of time, and a counsellor can support you to recognise that what you’re feeling is normal and not weakness.

On the other hand, often we look for reasons outside us to blame our feelings of stress on, and while there can be all sorts of very real external factors that contribute to why we feel under pressure, actually working on how we manage our response to these is more helpful in the long run. And we can take control of our own behaviour and responses – whereas we can’t always control what goes on around us.  

When counselling, I often encourage people to focus on what they are doing well rather than what they’re not doing, and to consider how they can be kind to themselves, which can then resource them better to deal with the strains of everyday living. Get in touch with me if you want to find out more.

10 Stress Management tips - Lucy Hyde - therapy for stress in Edinburgh

These are just some suggestions for managing feelings of stress. There are plenty of others and there are additional references and sources of information below. But start small; if you give yourself the target of a major life change to ‘escape’ stress, you may be setting yourself up for failure.

Remember – stress reactions don’t mean that there’s something wrong with you. But if you don’t pay attention to them they can take over your life and drain it of its colour. While external factors contribute, stress responses are an internal process, and you can make choices to do things differently and take more control. You will sometimes slip back – and that’s OK, because if you’ve made changes once, you can do it again, and practice helps you get better at it.

Start with a small step today.

Other information

http://www.stress.org.uk/national-stress-awareness-month-2019

https://www.webmd.com/balance/guide/tips-to-control-stress#1

https://psychcentral.com/lib/20-tips-to-tame-your-stress/

https://medium.com/s/notes-on-changing-your-life/https-medium-com-laura-khoudari-dont-start-with-the-breath-3f4b7f5d3b33

https://focusingresources.com/

Permission to be wobbly

Acknowledging the impact of change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Therapist heal thyself

What does self-care look like for counsellors?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why can’t we let ourselves be sad?

Listening to the inner critic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drop the resolutions

Lightening the load as 2019 arrives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References: Greater Good Resilience Summit and Shawn Achor