I realised recently that it’s 20 years since I had my first experience of counselling, as a client. It prompted me to think about the course that my life has taken since then, and to see that counselling did change my life.
I can’t remember now, exactly what it was that prompted me to seek counselling in 2003. I was miserable, I know that much. Feeling depressed, stressed, trapped, that life was meaningless, not feeling good enough – all these had been familiar states of being for me as long as I could remember, certainly since early teenage. I didn’t think of myself as having a bad life, as these feelings were interspersed with periods of relief, moments of joy, happy events and the comfort of some truly meaningful relationships.
I think I was probably closer to truly believing “I can’t cope” than usual. “I can’t cope” is a phrase that I’ve become accustomed to hearing from other people, yet actually unhappy people are very good at coping. Coping is what we do; we manage, we survive, we keep on going. Often, I believe, when we say “I can’t cope” to another person, something in us is saying “I don’t want ‘coping’ to be my way of life. I want more from life than ‘coping.’”
I remember that I went to my GP. It wasn’t the first time that I had spoken to a doctor about mental distress, although I didn’t have the language to describe it other than to say that I was stressed. Although the word ‘depression’ had resonated with me for many years I thought that people who were depressed didn’t have functioning lives so didn’t think I had the right to the word. On at least one previous doctor’s appointment, I’d been offered medication, but had been reluctant to pursue that route, thinking agreeing would be an admission that I was never going to feel better (rather than seeing it as an opportunity to help me feel better).
I can’t now remember whether I was offered anti-depressants in 2003, but I do remember the GP giving me a leaflet with a list of local counsellors and counselling organisations on it. They couldn’t provide me with this via the NHS, but they could signpost me to where I could access it for myself.
I now see that even that was hugely important – the doctor (I can’t remember who it was, but I can certainly remember those old white male GPs who it sure as shit wouldn’t have been) helping me believe that talking to someone was a valid avenue to pursue, and also that there was something I could do for myself that might help, rather than getting that via the NHS. GPs even now have a powerful role, and that GP – though I had wanted them to tell me what to do – handed some of that power back to me.
Clearly I was in a sufficiently privileged position to be able to pay for counselling, although I’m sure I, like many clients I’ve worked with since, struggled to believe that it was really a justifiable expenditure. I expect I could probably have afforded more than the 4 or 5 sessions I permitted myself, but at the time, my emotional wellbeing didn’t sit in the same position in my priorities that it does now. In fact, the phrase ‘my emotional wellbeing’ wouldn’t even have been in my vocabulary.
There’s lots I can’t remember. I can’t remember the name of the counsellor who I saw, although I’m reminded of them anytime I pass the end of the street that they lived on, where I would visit for sessions on dark winter evenings. I wouldn’t recognise them if I passed them in the street. I don’t remember much of what we talked about.
What I do remember is that, during those few weeks, I noticed an advert in my local paper for care assistants at a local respite centre. The pay was significantly lower than my earnings in my customer service role in a financial company, yet something drew me to it. I didn’t really believe I should apply for a job as a care assistant; I worried I was just trying to run away from work stress in my existing role, but I mentioned it to my counsellor, who responded as if it was a perfectly normal thing to be interested in, and helped me explore the potential rewards and fulfilment in such a position that were missing from my job. I remember her suggesting that caring for others might in itself be something that I would find nourishing.
It was possibly the first time that I’d been encouraged to trust my gut instinct for what felt right, rather than what I imagined was the appropriate or culturally expected way forward (and by culturally I mean my family culture as well as society; I already thought I was a failure for not having a ‘graduate’ job).
I went into the session wondering if my counsellor would know what was wrong with me for being attracted to that job. I came out of the session thinking “I am allowed to want this.”
And I made a change.
I resigned my job in the city and exchanged a long bus commute for a half-hour drive across farmland in the opposite direction, to Leuchie House , a respite centre for people with long-term conditions. I can remember those first shifts, where I didn’t really know what I was doing, but was blown away by all the interesting guests (we never called them patients) I got to meet, and nourished by the gratitude and appreciation they expressed to me for helping them with tasks of daily living that I took for granted.
It changed my life.
I didn’t stay in the role for long. Caring wasn’t for me after all, plus the pay levels at the time were unsustainable for me, on top of running a car to commute 30 miles a day (there being no public transport). I found the process of deciding what to next, 10 months later, stressful, and felt anxious about my future all over again – but I still didn’t regret having made that move. I remained with the organisation, ultimately moving to a managerial role and developing a career in human resources, and stayed there for 13 years, during which the organisation went through some incredibly challenging times, and so did I.
It wasn’t perfect, and at times I struggled with work stress. By the time I left to build a private counselling practice, I felt I had given as much as I could and was ready to go.
But I also thrived in the various roles that I had, and at times felt a sense of purpose that had been missing, being part of a team working towards a single aim, that of providing the best possible nursing care in a holiday home environment. I met and worked with some really inspirational and passionate people. And the experience that I gained, including practising mediation skills, having difficult conversations, supporting colleagues through difficult times, meant, when I was offered the opportunity to do a counselling skills course, I jumped at it, which ultimately led me to being a therapist today.
I’m absolutely not saying that I took one step in a different direction and never looked back. The decision to switch jobs didn’t change me totally. That younger Lucy, who was stressed, depressed, anxious and self-judgmental still resides within me. Although she doesn’t appear anything like as much, or have such an influence on what I think and feel and do, that’s not just about me having had one change of direction. It’s thanks to many years of therapy, lots of hours of psychotherapy training, learning Focusing skills and practising behaviours or skills to shift my mindset, over those 20 years. Plus a bunch of other experiences, influential people and being taught to see that difficult times could also be AFLOGs (Another Fucking Learning Opportunity for Growth).
But, as I look back over 20 years, I can see the thread that links my life now – as a therapist moving into my seventh year of self-employment – to the choice I made as a result of those few counselling sessions in someone’s living room 20 years ago. I can see the thread that links some rewarding adventures, following scary decisions, to the encouragement, from that therapist back then, to trust what feels right, not what I imagine other people think is right.
And I’m very, very grateful to that anonymous counsellor whose name I’ve forgotten, and who doesn’t know the huge difference she made. Counselling changes lives.
If you’ve read this you might be wondering whether you could use some help in making a big decision – or a small one. A decision that might seem relatively small, can have a much bigger impact on your life than you expect.
Or perhaps something is feeling off-kilter in your life and you don’t know what to do about it. Maybe you don’t want ‘coping’ to be your life. Talking to someone can help you to access a deeper understanding in yourself, and discover that there is wisdom there that can show you the way.
Focusing was developed in the 1960s by Eugene Gendlin when he was researching why some people were able to sustain a more lasting change from psychotherapy than others. He found that those who made more sustained changes had a natural ability to check within themselves for an inner felt sense of a situation or difficulty, and to use that felt sense to intuitively find a way forward. Gendlin developed a process in order that those people who don’t have this natural ability, could be taught to develop it.
A tool for supporting self-compassion
A self-help exercise
A way of life
Focusing is all of these – and more.
My own experience is of a history of getting stuck in my head, trying to think my way out of an uncomfortable situation or experience – believing that if only I could figure out the right solution, I’d stop feeling so distressed / uncomfortable / anxious. This resulted in lots of overthinking, rumination and self-criticism for not being able to get it right. Focusing has helped me develop another, much gentler way of managing difficult thoughts and feelings, which means that even when I get triggered back into old patterns of overthinking, I’m better able to recognise what’s happening and to move through it more quickly.
For me it’s been nothing short of life-changing, which is why I decided to complete the training to teach other people this wonderful skill.
How Focusing can help
Many of us learn at an early age to suppress feelings, or to be frightened of strong emotions. This can be a result of experiences of feeling unsafe in childhood, may have been modelled to us by our parents, or may have been part of the conditioning of the society or culture we grew up in – there are lots of possible reasons. Over time this can lead to us being afraid of our feelings – you might be afraid that if you let yourself feel, you’ll be overwhelmed by your emotions, like opening Pandora’s Box. In some cases we become so skilled at not allowing our feelings that we’re not even sure what we feel.
Even if they’re buried deep, those feelings don’t go away, and can often manifest themselves in other ways, including physical symptoms, poor immune response, anxiety, stress symptoms, or erratic moods.
Focusing with a skilled companion, you can learn to acknowledge, first of all, that there is something there that wants attention. You can begin to listen to what those suppressed parts of you want to say – while keeping a safe distance. Doing this with a supportive teacher helps you be alongside thoughts or feelings, rather than be overwhelmed by them. You can recognise that the feelings are part of you – they’re not all of you. With practice, you can learn to build relationships with those inner parts of you, and the intense feelings will ease as those denied voices realise that, actually, they don’t need to shout so loud to be heard.
How does Focusing compare to mindfulness or meditation?
There are similarities between all three practices. They all aim to bring the attention inside the body, and to remain in the experience of the present moment.
However, often with meditation and mindfulness, the intention is to not get ‘caught up’ in thoughts or feelings, but to let them pass. With Focusing we bring interested curiosity to a thought, feeling or sensation. We might enquire what it’s like, what it might be connected to, and we want to stay with it in a friendly way. With this curiosity more can arise and stuck feelings can shift.
Is Focusing a type of guided visualisation exercise?
Some people will have a lot of visual imagery when they’re Focusing, but some people will have body sensations, or thoughts, or memories (and lots of people have a mixture). In my own process, I often find I start with a body feeling and then images can also come later. My role is to support people to allow images or other experiences to arise, and to find ways of describing the experience. In that process, where these ‘parts’ are attended to by trying to describe ‘just what they’re like’, images may develop into other images, or emotions, or memories.
When someone is new to Focusing, I’ll make suggestions, like ‘perhaps you could sense if there’s an emotional quality to this image’, or ‘if it feels helpful, perhaps you could check if there’s something this part is wanting’, to support a dialogue or relationship with these inner experiences. As people become more experienced with Focusing, they’ll often learn what’s helpful for them, e.g. whether they like having suggestions or .
Should I choose Focusing or counselling?
Focusing is not therapy, although it does, of course, have therapeutic benefits. If you come to me for Focusing sessions, you’ll be learning a self-help practice, which you can also do on your own, and if you decide to take it further, you could develop Focusing partnerships with other people who are learning Focusing. The role of the teacher or companion in Focusing is to support you (sometimes via suggestions) to follow your own direction. You don’t need to give me any history, unless you want to, as we will be dealing with your present-moment experience in sessions, even though this experience will most often be influenced by past events.
Because Focusing has become an integral part of who I am, it is also an element of my counselling process. For example, I may suggest a pause within a session, to check inside, to allow some space for feelings to emerge. I sometimes also offer some Focusing teaching within counselling sessions, if I think that it may be helpful to tune in to some feeling or experience that seems difficult to put into words.
If you have a clear goal of what you want to change in your life or behaviour, it may be that counselling is more appropriate than Focusing. If you’re not sure what you want, it could be that Focusing might help you get a clearer idea of your steps forward. If you want to develop a better relationship with yourself, Focusing and counselling could both help with this.
I suggest that, if you want to try Focusing, we plan in 3 sessions initially. My reason for this is that, for some people, it can seem a bizarre and unusual way of relating to themselves, and the unfamiliar can be uncomfortable. Committing to a few sessions means that you give yourself a better chance of moving through this discomfort, where something in you might be tempted to shy away after the initial experience. Also, we’ll take some time during the first session, for some preparation before the guided exercise, and some feedback afterwards, whereas a greater proportion of the second and third sessions can be dedicated to the experience of you being with yourself.
What happens in a Focusing session?
I’ll ask you to close your eyes (or look down if you prefer), and then lead you into your body with a body-scan or check-in, then use gentle suggestions to see what’s there wanting your attention, or to check in with a particular issue that you want to look at.
You describe to me what you experience and I reflect that back to you. I may make suggestions to help you to begin gently to build a relationship with what comes up. We’re not attempting to analyse or interpret – although part of you may want to, in which case I’ll encourage you to acknowledge that aspect of you, too.
I’ll give you a time signal that we’re coming to the end, and I’ll suggest you take some time to thank whatever has shown up, then encourage you to come back to the room and open your eyes.
If you want you can talk about what happened in the session, and you can ask for my feedback if you think that would feel helpful.
What is Focusing most useful for?
I’ve found Focusing particularly helpful with clients who have high levels of anxiety, who often feel compelled to keep busy at all times and/or to focus their energies on trying to keep others happy. Anxiety can provoke over-thinking, ruminating thoughts, and compulsive behaviours as a way of filling up any empty space which might otherwise be occupied by strong feelings. With Focusing we can turn towards those feelings that are provoked if you don’t keep busy, and you’ll discover that anxiety is something that you don’t need to react to or ignore. When you acknowledge the anxiety, and turn a compassionate and curious attitude to what may be underlying it, the intensity of the feelings will lessen and become easier to tolerate.
Focusing can be a wonderful way of soothing the parts of you that are easily triggered due to past traumatic experiences – without having to go into the story of the trauma. This means it can be equally useful if you experience triggering or fight/flight/freeze reactions, even if you don’t think you’ve been subject to traumatic events. Because of the Focusing principle of being alongside your experience – as an observer, or witness – rather than being in it, you can get a little bit of distance from your emotions. We work with your in-the-moment, embodied present, and having the experience of being able to be in relationship with your traumatised parts can be profoundly healing at a whole-body level.
Focusing treats the critical voice as a part of you – not all of you. By using Focusing to build a relationship, you can develop understanding of how that inner critic has your best interests at heart – even if it doesn’t feel like it. The inner critic tends to develop as a protective device (based on some kind of childhood belief that if it works you hard enough you’ll be loved / you won’t be abandoned), and by your responding to it with compassion, it will learn over time that it doesn’t need to push you as hard.
As mentioned above, Gendlin developed the Focusing process to support people to get more out of their therapy. I believe that developing your skills of listening to all parts of you, can be helpful as a precursor to counselling sessions – whether with me or another therapist.
Focusing for therapists
Focusing is a great resource for counsellors and therapists to help them manage their own thoughts and feelings stimulated during sessions with clients. Some counsellors find it difficult, sometimes, to engage with their own personal therapy, because a sense of competition or fear of being judged by their therapist can hamper their ability to be honest during sessions. The emphasis in Focusing is on developing the client’s relationship with themselves, more so than their relationship with the Focusing teacher. I don’t need to know any history or events and I don’t need to know what a particular feeling, memory etc, is connected to, in order to support your process, which means that Focusing may be experienced as a safer space than counselling at times. In addition, because I don’t need to know about the content, I can offer Focusing to people that I have existing relationships with, in a way that I would never do with counselling.
I find it hard to describe exactly what Focusing is, in a way that really conveys its essence! The best way to really understand it is to try it for yourself. If it sounds like something you’d be interested in – please get in touch with me.
I was recently asked by a 10-year-old if she could interview me to “learn about my resilience strategies” for a school project.
Which of course made me wonder what my ‘resilience strategies’ are – what do I do when ‘something challenges me’?
What is needed for resilience?
I guess when I feel challenged I go to my Focusing practice; I try and check in with myself what’s bothering me, and to listen with compassion to the part of me that’s feeling overwhelmed. By doing so I remind myself that it’s not all of me – i.e. that I can (usually) hold the part that’s feeling challenged and recognise that I am, as a whole, OK, in this moment. It’s not always easy, depending on the degree of challenge, or the level of emotional intensity – and it’s something that I’m able to do in those moments only because I’ve been practising this way of paying attention to my inner experience for a long time.
AND sometimes it just feels too difficult to do.
So – what other things help my resilience?
If something is going on which is generating frantic thinking or a feeling that I have to do something, I go for a walk outside – it probably needs to be an hour or more (although anything is better than nothing, right?) because although there’s something about the physical rhythm that helps shift how I’m feeling/thinking, it doesn’t happen straight away.
With time the greater, physical rhythm of my whole body begins to interrupt the hamster-wheel frantic speeded-up-ness of my thoughts. Almost always, the pattern of my thinking calms and sometimes I come back home feeling that things have clarified, or that I have a new way forward.
Walking anywhere can have this effect, but my preference is to be somewhere in nature. I’m lucky to live and work close to the country and sea, so nature is easily accessible to me, but if I’m in a city then getting to some green space, a park or under trees is great too. Connecting to the wider world – i.e. not just a human-created landscape – helps me to bring myself into the moment and to bring my attention to being OK in this moment.
Reflecting on all of this made me think about connection and its role in our emotional or mental resilience.
I often get pissed off when people talk about resilience – or more specifically when resilience is couched in terms that imply it’s an individual’s problem to solve. A classic is the client who worked in an organisation which started putting posters up around the place on ‘how to be more resilient’ – trying to paper over the cracks by shifting the responsibility to the individual, from the reality of an underfunded, understaffed environment where people were burning out by being asked to work at an unsustainable level.
It’s a national and societal narrative, not just a job one. Resilience is a product of being physically, mentally and emotionally well and healthy. How can we expect people to be resilient if they aren’t paid a living wage? How can we expect people to be resilient if it’s impossible for them to secure healthcare? How can we expect people to be resilient if they are unable to afford to feed themselves with healthy, not over-processed food?
Inequality in the UK is among the worst in the ‘developed’ world and has got steadily more extreme in recent decades; an unequal society is not a resilient one, although it may produce individuals who look resilient because they manage to keep coping – just – even in the worst circumstances. That way those at the top of the pile get to ‘admire the fortitude of the poor’ while not considering the impact on the overall health of the people in question.
Long story short, I think the subject of resilience has become manipulated to help businesses and governments weasel out of their responsibilities, responsibilities required in a compassionate society that looks after the less-privileged as well as the over-privileged. Reflecting on how an individual’s resilience is about more than how strong their own little island of self is, pushed me to thinking about the role of connection in how resilient we are.
I think of this in 4 layers, like concentric circles:
Connection to self
Connection to people
Connection to community
Connection to the world
Connection to self
This is what I mentioned at the start – the ability to check in with myself on what’s bothering me, and to be able to create some space for the part of me that’s troubled, without making it wrong or without reacting to it. If I’m connected to myself I’m more able to respond to my needs, both physical and emotional. Improving my ability to hear those needs means that less energy is expended by the parts of me that are shouting to get my attention.
For me, that usually means making a bit of quiet time for myself to bring my attention inside. It can also take the form of an activity that I find soothing, often something physical, like gardening, cooking, or walking; these are all things that engage more of me than just my brain, and that help to keep me at least somewhat in the now because of the need to give some attention to what I’m doing.
Recently I’ve also gravitated towards camping somewhere away from other people where I’m forced to be with myself (I don’t know how else to put it – there’s something about the reality of there literally being nothing to distract me that puts me in a profound space where it’s just ME in the NOW). I wrote about this experience in another blog, What I learned about myself from wild camping.
Connection to people
I think we all need to have someone there. However much you enjoy solitude, we’re a social species who depend on each other for survival, and there is something about sharing our humanity with others that’s important to our wellbeing. I’m not talking only about having a spouse, significant other or best friend, who we can open up to when we’re in distress. Although these relationships are great, and important, we don’t all find close relationships easy to maintain (often depending on our early life experiences). Also, not all relationships are healthy for us – and we might in fact need to withdraw from some relationships, particularly those where we’re so drawn into taking care of the needs of others that it’s harder for us to take care of ourselves.
So, other types of contact or connection with people are valuable; for example, I remember years ago when moving from a city to a village, the experience of being greeted by people I’d never met before, if we passed on a walk or in the street. A simple ‘good morning’ with a smile is an acknowledgement that I exist; that I have value, even in a very small way, to another human being.
Working with a counsellor comes into this category too; the opportunity to have a safe and trusting relationship with another, or to be able to say what you feel you can’t say to those around you.
And this connection works in both directions (hence the two-way arrows in the image). We can open ourselves up to be more available to contact and connection to others. I did this semi-consciously when moving back from living abroad – glad to be back on familiar ground, I found myself wanting to smile at everyone I met without waiting for them to smile first. Often my invitation drew a smile and greeting from other strangers. Don’t underestimate the power of connecting briefly to someone you may never see again – these human interactions matter.
Oh, and touch – as a friend reminded me – can be a really valuable aspect of people connection. Hugging, being held, is a visceral, whole-body experience of safety, no matter how young or old we are. (Please note: touch isn’t for everyone, and some people are triggered by, or unable to tolerate, being touched. Hugging needs to be agreed by both parties, so please be respectful of others’ boundaries.)
Connection to community
Again, this is about human contact, but with a slightly different nuance. I’ve a recent example from my own experience. I frequently feel overwhelmed and despairing about things that are bigger than me – most often, at the moment, inaction on climate change and seeming indifference to human inequality. My pattern is to believe I’m not doing enough and at the same time paralysed by the enormity of it (‘what difference can I make anyway?’).
I decided that one way to support myself might be to join with other people, and reached out via a local forum to ask if anyone wanted to get together to see if we could support locally-nesting swifts (whose numbers have declined in my village hugely in the last decade). A handful of people responded and we’re taking this forward gradually as a group. It’s not easy for me – I like doing things alone so that I have control – but I notice that sharing the burden, even in a very small activity like this, helps me feel a little bit less alone and overwhelmed. I’m part of a very small community in this; people who I didn’t know previously, and whom I now know share with me this value of care for a declining species.
‘Community’ operates on various scales, and is where I think the two-way arrows really matter, and link back to the dissatisfaction I mentioned earlier with the implied responsibility of an individual for their own resilience. We are responsible for each other too – a resilient community is more than the sum of its parts.
Connection to the world
By the world, I mean the physical, natural world. Swimming in the sea has become a sort of mental health maintenance for me. It’s just not possible to be doing anything other than just be in the water, aware of my physical limitations, aware of my surroundings. It’s the most in-the-moment experience I know. (See my blog about it.)
You don’t necessarily have to get out into the wilderness, because I know that’s not possible for everyone when they need it. But our environment is rarely so sterile that we can’t find a stone, a weed, a bug, to contemplate. Doing something physical – and by physical I mean anything from walking in the woods to watching, smelling, touching flowers and creatures in your garden – is a reminder that you are a physical being in a physical world, that you are connected.
Why trying harder doesn’t work
When people say to me “I just have to be more resilient so these things won’t affect me” I feel sad. I’m sad because they’re criticising themselves for not trying hard enough, I’m sad that they think ‘being affected by things’ is wrong, I’m sad that they think it’s all down to them – it feels like a lonely and isolated place.
My image of resilience is a growing tree. It doesn’t resist the wind and stand unmoving, it’s pushed by the storm and then moves back into its original shape. Over time it becomes sturdier – often as a result of some of the wilder weather it’s experienced – and it’s less shaken and bent by the wind. But in order to be able to grow it needs the conditions to be right, it needs good soil for its roots to develop and hold it, it needs nourishment.
Resilience doesn’t mean that I don’t get overwhelmed, that I don’t have a meltdown from time to time, that I don’t have days where I think life is just too hard to bear. Resilience means that I have all those experiences and then I recover from them, and the better that my growing conditions are, the more quickly I recover, and the better the cuts and scrapes will heal. My roots need to tap into my inner wisdom, the nourishment of other people, the support of community and to know and feel their place in the greater world. All that feeds resilience.
A heartfelt thanks to my pal Lola, who asked the question that gave rise to this – and who made an awesome poster that says it beautifully.
Earlier in the year I published ‘How does therapy work? – Part 1’, which talked about the practicalities of what to expect when you start counselling for the first time.
But that question – ‘How does therapy work?’ – can be answered in another way.
What is it that makes talking therapy an effective resource for helping you feel better?
What processes are at work there?
“Can I fix this problem in me?”
Many clients come to counselling, believing that if they could just understand WHY they feel so depressed, or anxious, or stressed, or angry, they would be able to do something about it. It seems like a no-brainer, right? It seems such a logical process:
It needs fixing
If I figure out what it is I can fix it
Then it won’t be broken anymore
We can expend a lot of energy in the trying-to-fix, and often exhaust ourselves with thinking round and round a problem before we even get to point of finding a counsellor, eventually deciding we need an expert who’ll be better at fixing or figuring-out, to help us with the WHY.
But that’s NOT how therapy helps.
More understanding about ‘root causes’ CAN be helpful – but only if it encourages you to take a more compassionate attitude to yourself. In terms of ‘fixing the problem’……….
It might be that the reason for the depression, anxiety or stress is something that happened to you – and you can’t go back and change that
It might be that we’ll never know exactly why you have symptoms of anxiety or feel so angry – because you can’t remember everything that’s ever happened to you in life
If therapy isn’t about fixing problems – what IS it?
The way I see it – it’s all about the relationship.
The relationship you have with others.
The relationship you have with yourself.
The truth appears to be that many human struggles, from phobias to obesity, are consequences of evolution and not deficiencies of character. Identifying problems that we hold in common and developing methods to circumvent or correct them is a solid foundation upon which to build a therapeutic alliance.
What is the therapeutic relationship?
Asay and Lambert (1999) researched the factors that influenced the effectiveness of therapy. They found that the biggest contributor towards how well someone responded to therapy is ‘client variables and extratherapeutic events’ – i.e. what other shit is going on in your life, what supports you have around you, and how motivated you are to do the necessary work in order to make changes in your life.
The second biggest contribution – 30% – is the therapeutic relationship: the relationship that the client and the therapist form as they work together. This is why it’s important to find someone you feel comfortable – or comfortable enough – to talk to. You need to be able to trust your therapist. You need to feel safe in order to be able to explore those feelings.
I think of therapeutic work as being about GROWTH (I want more of myself) and RECOVERY (I want to feel less wounded by what happened to me).
Both growth and recovery need to be nourished in an environment that feels safe enough, as the client will at times be feeling very vulnerable and exposed as they reveal their innermost hopes and hurts. The therapist won’t laugh at, or criticise, these tender, vulnerable parts – and for some clients, that experience of compassionate, loving attention may never have occurred before. Seen in this light, the therapeutic relationship really is healing.
Another important aspect is CHANGE – which is presumably what you, as a client, are looking for. If you’re content with things staying just as they are, you’re probably not going to look for a counsellor. So, there’s something you want to change, whether it’s changing an aspect of your life situation, or changing the way in which you feel about something or somebody (including yourself). Both involve you needing to do something different in terms of your behaviour – from changing the way that you talk to yourself, to taking steps to change how you live your life.
Lots of research has demonstrated that changes take place within the brain during the therapy process. Although the most significant change and learning takes place during the first seven years of life, the brain continues to change and adapt throughout our lives, as we do new and different things. This is what’s meant by neuroplasticity.
When we encounter new situations or experiences (for example, the experience of believing that another person – the therapist – really wholeheartedly accepts us just as we are), we develop new neural networks. These networks get stronger each time we repeat the same experience – it’s a bit like walking over the same route repeatedly. A path gets clearer as we use it more, and the old path, as it gets less used, gets overgrown.
The most recent research has demonstrated that brains have evolved socially – i.e. that the brains have evolved to connect with other brains, which explains why we can be influenced by the feelings of others. When people feel something we feel it too, by the brain creating an internal model of the other. So the therapist can influence the brain of the client by modelling and attunement; I’ll say more about this later.
There’s a great clip by Louis Cozolino talking about this here:
Within the relationship between therapist and client, a number of different experiences may take place, that support you, as the client, in making changes. These include:
having a neutral space with someone who has no connection to your life situation
hearing yourself say things out loud for the first time (and having them offered back to you)
being in a relationship with someone who accepts the whole of you just as you are
making sense of your thoughts, feelings and behaviours and where they may have come from
learning and practising ways to change your relationship with yourself
finding resources to improve your wellbeing
bringing your attention to how you and the counsellor relate to each other (helping you choose a different way of responding in relationships with others)
being able to experience strong emotions and still be OK
subconscious-level experiences, such as getting your emotional needs met
Let’s look at each of these in more detail.
Opening up to someone neutral
“This is the first place I’ve had where it felt OK to say how I really feel.” That’s what Mandy*, who’d got in touch because of overwhelming social anxiety, said to me at the end of her first session. And many, many clients say a similar thing when I ask them how it’s been – that first occasion of speaking to someone, where you don’t worry about the impact of what you say on them, is so DIFFERENT.
Sometimes, you might not even realise how much you self-check or monitor when you’re talking to family and friends (no matter how much you trust them). You worry that if you really tell them how much it hurts, or how lost you feel, they’ll be frightened, or worry about you, or feel that they have to do something to make it better. The relationship between counsellor-me and client-you is different from ALL of those, and that means that you actually get to air those thoughts and feelings that generally just keep buzzing around inside your head, and……..
Saying things out loud for the first time – and hearing them
The experience of hearing your words reflected back when you share your thoughts and feelings can be very powerful. Speaking out lets that part of you that feels stressed, or angry, or ashamed, know that it’s OK to share that; and to have that received with empathy and understanding reinforces that sense.
Even if it’s not the first time you’ve spoken to someone about what’s going on for you, often people’s responses are something along the lines of ‘oh, yes, that happens to me too, isn’t it awful’ or focused on figuring out how to fix your problem, both of which don’t really make space for your feelings. When I offer your words back to you, you know that you really have my full attention, and that it’s important to me that I really hear and understand just how it is for you.
Being accepted just as you are
You’ve probably come to therapy because you want to change something about your life or about yourself; you might think there’s something ‘wrong’ with you. But although I’ll talk about what you want to be different in your life, my starting point is that you are an OK human being just as you are, right now.
That doesn’t mean that I won’t be able to see that some behaviours or thoughts you have may be unhelpful, or hindering you, but I believe your core, your fundamental being, is right.
Making sense of thoughts, feelings and behaviours
Probably, as we talk, we’ll discover that those behaviours and thoughts and feelings mentioned above, are actually a pretty logical and normal response to your experiences in your family, in your life, and in a society, culture and world, that is frequently dysfunctional and restrictive of natural human growth. You might be reading this and thinking “but nothing bad happened in my childhood”, because a frequent narrative is that unless you’ve experienced ‘capital-T-trauma’ you should be a fully-functioning confident adult.
However, there are many aspects of 21st century life that discourage us from following natural healthy tendencies. These include:
excessive exposure to other people’s lives via social media, encouraging us to make unhealthy comparisons;
product marketing that is designed to play on our insecurities, promoting a sense of not being ‘enough’;
political and social attitudes that put increased emphasis on the individual rather than recognising collective, community responsibilities for each other; and
disconnect between a philosophy that economic growth is appropriate or desirable, versus the real existential threat to life – via the climate crisis and unequal access to resources – that such a philosophy promotes.
Emotional distress is a natural response to living in today’s world, no matter what your individual history is.
Getting a better understanding of the links between how you feel and the context of your life, while it doesn’t ‘fix the problem’ in itself, can help you be more accepting of your emotional experience. It can also help you recognise those areas that are outwith your control, and those areas that you can do something about, so that you can choose where to focus your energy to make changes.
Developing a better relationship with yourself
The experience of me accepting you just as you are, right now, combined with greater understanding of why you have the emotional experiences that you do, are really powerful in supporting you to shift from a self-critical to a self-accepting attitude.
In addition, I’ll often point out the language that you use in talking about your thoughts, feelings or behaviours. Language can reveal a punitive attitude to yourself that you may not have realised you had; a common example is using the word ‘should’ – “I should be doing such-and-such” which implies that you are failing if you’re not doing this.
Noticing this, and making small changes subtly shifts your attitude towards yourself – in this example, replacing ‘should’ with ‘could’ is softer, more permission-giving, less judgmental. The language that we use in relationships is powerful, and that applies in your relationship with yourself too.
I’m interested in ALL the thoughts and feelings that you have, even – in fact, especially – ones that seem contradictory, inappropriate or unattractive, and I’ll encourage these different aspects of you to get an equal say, possibly in contrast with your previous tendency to squash them down or ignore them. As I do this, I’ll support you to make space for these parts yourself – which usually leads to you realising that they’re not as scary or unpleasant as you thought they were, and you’ll discover that you can develop a compassionate attitude towards them.
Finding resources to help your wellbeing
There are two aspects to this, as one place you’ll find resources is within yourself. There’s a good chance that, when you’re finding things difficult, there are tools that you already know help you. In fact, one of the solutions to helping you feel better, can be to do more of what you’re already doing, or to remind yourself of things that have helped in the past that you’ve stopped.
You might say to me “but I’ve been doing my yoga / getting out for walks / going to bed early so I should feel OK” – yet sometimes our need for what resources us is greater than at others, and recognising that can be helpful.
The other aspect is looking for new resources. I’ll encourage you to come up with your own ideas, sometimes by us exploring together what already helps or hinders you in feeling well, and developing further ideas from this. I might also make suggestions based on my experience of what other people have found helpful.
I’ll ask you to focus on the smallest possible next step you can take, because building things up gradually is more manageable. The experience of successfully making a small change is more motivational and encouraging of hope, than trying and failing to make a big one!
Understanding your patterns of relating
You and I can learn a lot about the way you are in relationships, by noticing what happens in our relationship – we’ve got really valuable information playing out in real time in sessions. For example, when I first started working with Mahmood* he would sometimes take a long time to answer questions that I put to him, and I could see that he was thinking hard before he replied. After a few sessions, we reviewed the work together and I discovered that at these times he was working hard to try and guess the ‘right answer’ to my question – his focus was on giving me what he imagined I wanted. This was relevant for his process in relationships generally, where he found it difficult to pay attention to his own needs as he was so concentrated on keeping the other person happy.
Discovering this meant that when I saw this happening, I could bring his attention to it and we could notice what his internal experience was in those moments, paying attention to the part of him that felt it had to keep the other person happy, and checking out what it needed. Mahmood was also able to experiment with not giving me the right answer, or with telling me when my questions didn’t make sense or feel relevant, noticing what feelings this triggered and how he could learn to tolerate them. The therapy session can be a safe enough space to try a different response, before taking that different behaviour into the outside world.
Developing resilience and recovery
Often clients say to me at the start of our work together that they want to get rid of a feeling – of anxiety, or anger, for example. I’m clear that I won’t help someone to ‘get rid’ of any aspect of themselves – it doesn’t fit with my philosophy of the whole of that person being OK. As mentioned earlier, feelings are a response to a situation, a response that has been a natural, logical step for some aspect of that person at some time in the past, even if with their grown adult perspective it may not seem helpful now.
Your way of dealing with an uncomfortable or overwhelming feeling might have been to try and ‘not feel’ it, to suppress it, ignore it, or distract yourself from it in some way – through over-eating, perhaps, or through getting very very busy doing things. In therapy we do something different – I welcome the feeling, and hold a safe space for you to gently turn towards it.
I’m there to pace you, to encourage you to pause when it feels like it’s too much, to help you get some distance between you and the feeling so that you’re able to experience it as part of you rather than feeling consumed by it. Almost always, you’ll find that you’re more able to tolerate these strong feelings than you realised.
And crucially, by giving the parts of you, that are anxious or angry or stressed, some time and attention, they will usually settle down and be less demanding. I use the analogy of a small child screaming with distress – you could shut her in a cupboard, but she’s going to carry on crying, whereas if you sit her on your knee and ask what’s going on she’ll begin to calm down.
Getting your emotional needs met
Sometimes the most profound and important work that happens in our relationship together is the hardest to see and articulate, that we may not talk about explicitly in sessions. This takes the form of interpersonal (between you and I) and intrapsychic (within your mind) growth and development.
As we work together, I influence your brain through modelling, where I demonstrate a way of being that may be different from other significant caregivers in your life. Modelling is much more powerful than verbal instruction – ‘Do as I do’ is hugely more influential than ‘Do as I say’!
I’ll also be influencing your brain through attunement, which is where I allow myself to resonate with your emotional experience, genuinely listening and caring about what is going on in your inner world. Attunement is fundamental for children to develop their ability to securely attach to others, but sometimes we don’t get enough of this when we’re little. The therapy relationship is ‘reparative’ – repairing the deficit. As we work together we create the optimum conditions for your inner growth and development, supporting you to be more able to meet your emotional needs – both in your responses to yourself, and in your ability to voice your needs to other people.
This is one of the seemingly ‘magical’ effects of therapy, that you can start to feel better, to learn to like yourself, by the experience of being in a relationship with someone that is reparative and healing of your previous wounds.
All of the above experiences happen over and over again during the counselling relationship. There may be some moments where it feels like a lightbulb goes off in your head, and something big changes, but more often, in my experience, the process of therapy is one of re-learning or adjusting your way of being.
It’s not a straightforward linear process where you steadily feel more and more like the person you want to be. Shit will still happen and you’ll sometimes be triggered by it and react exactly like you did before you started counselling. The difference is you’ll be more familiar with, and understanding of, those reactions and can use your new learning to recover more quickly from those experiences.
Effective psychotherapy or counselling is a transformation that therapist and client facilitate together by allowing ourselves to really connect to each other in relationship. It’s mutual work – not something ‘done’ to the client by the therapist, but something that is built together. Like any work, it can sometimes be hard, or a trudge, but it’s sometimes fun and enjoyable! Importantly, to be able to work together to create something, client and therapist need to be able to establish a good-enough, safe, trusting relationship where both can be vulnerable to being impacted by the other.
Psychotherapy is not a modern intervention, but a relationship-based learning environment grounded in the history of our social brains.
If reading this has been helpful, you might also want to check out ‘What happens in therapy – Part 1’ where I talk about the practicalities of what’s involved from that very initial contact.
And if you think I’m someone who you’d like to try and build that therapeutic, growthful relationship with, please get in touch.
When people ask me what I do as a counsellor, I sometimes find it hard to answer. I just ‘do it’. But when a prospective client asks me to tell them more about therapy so they can decide if they want to go ahead, ‘just doing it’ isn’t good enough!
So I decided to write this – for two reasons: firstly, for anyone who’s wanting to get an idea of what to expect if they start counselling, and secondly, to help myself articulate more clearly what it is I do – for the next time someone asks!
The questions ‘What happens in counselling?’ or ‘How does therapy work?’ can be answered in different ways (which probably contributes to my tying myself in knots answering them!) so I’ve split this blog into 2 parts.
Part 1 looks at the practicalities of starting therapy, and what happens at a conscious level, including the sorts of questions I might ask, setting goals, boundaries, and the control you, as client, have over the direction we go in.
Part 2 speaks more of what it is that makes talking therapy a useful contribution to helping people to ‘feel better’, touching on the neurology behind psychological healing – the unconscious stuff that’s going on while – and after – therapist and client talk.
I’m writing from my own perspective – i.e. about what’s likely to happen if you and I work together. While much of what I say will hold true for many other psychotherapists and counsellors, there will be variations in the way we work.
What happens in therapy – Part 1: The Practicalities
So………you’re thinking you might find it helpful to see a counsellor. Or someone’s suggested to you that it might help. Or perhaps they’ve told you that ‘being in therapy’ has helped them. What happens when you take the next step, and get in touch?
Initial contact with the therapist
When you contact me, sometimes I won’t have space to start working with you straight away. If so, I’ll ask if you want to go on my waiting list, and I’ll usually suggest some colleagues who may have availability.
Sometimes by the time I get in touch to offer someone on my waiting list a space, they’ve found someone else, which is absolutely fine and to be expected. At this stage, I don’t usually ask you for information other than contact details, until I know we’re going to start working together.
That’s not because I’m not interested in you – it’s because a) I don’t want to hold unnecessary personal information about you unless we actually start a relationship, and b) your situation may have changed by the time I have a place, so the information I gathered is out of date anyway.
Even a brief email exchange agreeing the above should give you a bit of a feel for what I’m like, and at least a hunch as to whether you want to work with me. Forming a working relationship is really important in therapy (more on that in Part 2). If, for some reason, I get on your nerves, it doesn’t have to mean we can’t work together – but no matter how good the counsellor is, sometimes there’ll be personality clashes.
Trust your instincts UNLESS you reach the point where you simply think you will never find the ‘right’ therapist – it may be that something in you doesn’t want to! In which case, try someone – or a few people – who feel ‘good enough’, to get started.
We’ve agreed to start working together – what now?
The dreaded paperwork! I ask people to complete a brief assessment form to check I’ve the experience and skills required, and – if we’re going to be working online – that I believe online therapy is appropriate.
I usually offer a chat over the phone at this stage – sometimes that’s the easiest way for us to compare diaries and find a time that works for both of us, and I can take some assessment notes at the same time, which some people prefer to the form-filling!
We’ll also talk about HOW we’re going to work together. At the time of writing this blog (early 2022), I’m offering:
online counselling via Zoom video call, instant messaging and email;
tele-therapy / phone counselling;
walk-and-talk therapy – counselling while walking outside.
If you’ve decided you want to work in-person with somebody in a room (the ‘traditional’ way of counselling) I can signpost you to other people who may be able to offer you this.
Again, this is an opportunity for you to get a sense of what it might be like to have sessions with me. If we decide to go ahead and book a first session, I’ll send you an agreement or contract to read over, complete and sign. The agreement goes over practicalities like fees, privacy and where/how to complain if you’re not happy. There’s no requirement to commit to a certain number of sessions.
What happens in our first counselling session?
There are a few areas I usually cover at the start of the first therapy session (e.g. confidentiality, cancellation policy), which are also in the written agreement – I go over them again because I think they’re important. At the end of the session I’ll check with you how the experience has been, and whether you want to continue; we’ll confirm further details, usually agreeing a review point after the first 5 or 6 sessions.
In between the beginning and the end, though, the first session varies greatly depending on you. You might have a very clear idea of what you need to ‘get off your chest’ and the relief of having a space where you can do that means that you don’t need any help to get started. This can be especially true if you don’t have much opportunity to talk to other people about how you feel, or if you’re anxious about burdening people by telling them.
At the opposite extreme, you might not know where to start. If that’s the case, then I may ask you some questions…………..
Things the therapist is likely to ask about:
More information about why you’re seeking counselling
-and why now? Has something changed or brought things to a head?
Your previous experience of therapy
If you’ve had therapy before, I want to know what you found helpful or unhelpful, partly because I don’t want to do more of the unhelpful stuff, but also so I can look out for similar dynamics repeating in our relationship so that I can flag them up and we can talk about them; they might be a feature in relationships in your life generally, so we could learn something from them.
What do you want to GET from counselling?
If this is where you are now, where do you want to be? You might not know at this point, in which case we’ll come back to it at some point down the line.
Your current circumstances
Your living situation, significant relationships, occupation – this helps me understand things like support networks that you have available to you and factors that might contribute to your overall wellbeing.
Your family of origin
Information about what it was like for you growing up can be really useful as it’s likely to influence your behaviour and relationships as an adult, and getting more understanding of ‘no wonder I do this when I had that experience as a child’ can help you be more forgiving and compassionate to yourself.
Lifestyle and self-care patterns
Mental and emotional health is completely interwoven with physical health; there may be changes you want to make at a practical level that will help you mentally.
Anything that feels important to you about your identity or sense of self
You may have a very strong sense of who you are – or you may not know at all.
All these areas may have a bearing on why you’ve decided you want to have therapy, and talking about them can help you better understand yourself. We might not get to any of them in the first session, but I’m likely to ask you more about them at some point.
Reviewing how it’s going
It’ll take us at least a few sessions to settle into a rhythm and get used to each other. I normally suggest that we review how it’s going at session 6 (assuming that you’ve decided you want to carry on that long).
I’ll ask you how you’re finding the experience and I’ll share things that I’ve noticed – patterns that we get into, things I’ve not asked you – to see if they feel significant. I’ll want to know what has felt helpful, but I’ll also ask what has felt challenging or unhelpful, and what you think I or we might do differently – for example – do you find it difficult to stay on topic, and want me to flag up when you’re going off on a tangent? Do you feel as if you’re trying to guess the ‘right’ answer when I ask you questions?
Contracts and goals for counselling
I see my role as being to help you change. That might be:
making changes in your life
changing the way you respond to situations, circumstances or people
So, when we review how it’s going, I might ask what you want to change. Sometimes people find this a difficult question to answer – either because they don’t know, or because voicing what they want to be different, out loud, feels risky. But that’s useful information for both of us, too, as there isn’t a right or wrong answer to this question.
You’re the expert on you, and it’s your right to direct the course of the therapy. It might be that I’m not prepared to agree to work towards the change you want, in which case I’ll say so (gently!) and why. Usually this will be because I don’t think the particular change is within your – our – power.
You might say you want to change the way other people treat you.
I’d point out that we can’t make that change as you don’t have control over other people’s behaviour, and suggest that we could focus on changing how you respond if other people treat you badly.
This might involve, building your confidence in speaking out; choosing not to engage with such people; or developing your self-compassion when you feel bruised by the behaviour of others.
And if my suggestion doesn’t feel right for you, we can carry on negotiating, or we can agree to park it and come back to it. From time to time I might check with you whether the goals we’ve agreed are still relevant or whether they need tweaking.
Is it just the client talking and therapist asking questions?
To an observer, a counselling session might look like two people having a chat. It’s known as talking therapy, after all. Often at the start of our relationship, a large chunk of sessions might be you telling me your story – what’s caused you to get in touch. Early in therapy, I’ll probably ask you more questions about your life now, and your history, as I try to get more of a sense of who you are and the influences that have shaped you.
I don’t tend to give advice and certainly don’t tell you what you should do. But equally, I don’t hold back on information which might be useful to you, and so will sometimes share models to help you understand your thinking or behaviour patterns, or introduce some basic neuroscience – this can be helpful in reassuring you that what you see as ‘something wrong with me’ is often a normal biological response to past experiences.
I might also share exercises for you to try inside and outside sessions. Sometimes we’ll agree homework tasks that we can discuss from session to session.
Sometimes I teach a practice called ‘Focusing’ (read about it here) during a session. This is somewhat similar to mindfulness. It can be really helpful as a way of learning to respond to very strong emotions in a way that doesn’t involve avoiding them or being driven by them; instead, you can learn to acknowledge that they’re there and ‘sit next to them’ which can help lessen the intensity of overwhelming feelings.
Doing this in session means that I can help you pace how you do this, a little at a time, especially if you find the thought of engaging with strong feelings, such as anxiety, shame, or fear, is really scary, and worry that they’ll take over – using the session as a space to practice in can be helpful.
Focusing can also be helpful when you’re not sure how you feel, or when you feel numb – it can help you tune in to the feelings that really will be there, below the surface.
Talking about boundaries
The counselling relationship is a very specific one, like no other. We’re often sharing things that are really intimate, revealing the most vulnerable parts of ourselves. And yet this is happening within one 50-minute session, once a week (or whatever frequency we agree).
I’m firm about the boundaries of the relationship, both for the client and for myself. When we sign our agreement to work together we’re also agreeing the parameters within which that takes place. I don’t engage in conversations outside sessions, other than administrative ones where something unforeseen happens and one of us needs to rearrange the session.
This doesn’t mean that I’ll ignore you if you contact me, and it doesn’t mean that we can’t agree extra sessions sometimes if you’re in distress, but – as I don’t offer a crisis service – in general, we’ll keep to the principle that therapy takes place within the session time boundaries.
This is partly because I take my responsibility as a practitioner seriously, and that means taking my own self-care seriously; I’m not good at multi-tasking and need to keep my work and leisure time separate.
But it’s also because many clients I’ve worked with, struggle to maintain good boundaries, which can lead to various difficulties, such as burning out because you can’t say no when someone asks you to do something. My maintenance of boundaries models to you as a client that taking care of oneself is important; this is much more effective therapeutically than simply telling you that boundaries are important without practising what I preach.
In Part 2 of this blog I’ll talk more about how ‘modelling’ by the therapist is a key part of the effect of talking therapy, as well other aspects of how the therapist and client relate, and I’ll delve a bit further into the internal changes that take place during the therapeutic experience.
Everyone’s experience of therapy is unique because every relationship between two people is unique. If you want to know more about what it might be like for you to work with me, please get in touch and we can have a chat.
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!
And the reality?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
I’m just back from a week’s leave. I’m being strict with myself this year about taking regular and frequent breaks. It’s been an interesting and useful experience; it was very much a conscious decision, and because a bit of me thinks it’s ‘self-indulgent’, I’ve been challenging that thought by talking about it – getting it out there to counteract any tendency to feel ashamed about it.
So many people I encounter – not just clients, but colleagues and friends too – 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 it hasn’t occurred to them to take a break for a loooong time.
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. That’s just the way it is for me; I’m a people-pleaser who worries about getting it wrong, and while I’m alert to that being a driver, changing it is an ongoing, slow process. In the meantime, if it encourages me to take time off, then I make the most of the result, without worrying too much about the initial 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 that there was a ‘right’ choice was a myth, and it was being faced with the emptiness of unplanned time that felt disorientating.
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 even 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.
So how to deal with that anxiety and fear of getting it wrong? For me, learning to tolerate that thought or feeling, rather than distracting myself from it by getting busy, has helped. I recognise it – not immediately, I’m not that expert – 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.
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 at How to ease coronavirus-related anxiety. ‘Clearing a space’ was a particularly useful exercise in my week off. Once I had settled inside myself I used the phrase ‘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 ‘sensing into 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 can be helpful 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 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.”
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.
When I want to escape to another world, I do it through reading. For that half-hour, I’m not in my own life anymore, I’m inhabiting a different world, where I really care deeply about the experience of someone else, where I feel their feelings, even becoming a different person.
I believe reading can change your life in different ways.
Throughout history, education has literally changed people’s lives, and there is a political and humanitarian argument for literacy being a right for that reason. While I completely subscribe to that (after all, restricting educational access to males, or to white people, has been a way of subjugating different parts of societies in order to keep power in the hands of the few)- what I’m talking about here is at a more individual level.
I grew up with my nose in a book. We didn’t have a telly in my house, a fact that I was resentful of at various points in my childhood. (If you want to know how to nurture a child’s belief that they’re the odd one out or will never belong, deprive them of the ability to engage in playground conversations about last night’s Grange Hill episode – I used to watch TV round at my best friend’s house, but Grange Hill came on just at the time when I had to go home for my tea.)
However, setting aside the injustices of my upbringing for a moment, what I did have plenty of was books. Apparently even before I learned to read, my parents would be woken up each morning by me calling from my cot “Light on and books!” I’m not sure I would describe reading as a favourite activity – it was, simply, an indelible part of my life.
When I grew up and left home for uni, then work, reading time was squeezed by the demands of adult life – and by my developing tendency to, at some level, believe that ‘unproductive’ time was self-indulgent. I wonder now if there’s some connection for me with reading being ‘lazy’ because it’s a sedentary activity. I still really enjoyed to read – but I wouldn’t let myself do it as much as I liked – I was always too busy.
I was well into my 30s when I started a bookgroup with a friend. Having to read a book a month, for that, encouraged me to make more time for reading. I think the logic probably went something like this: “Reading a book for bookgroup isn’t self-indulgent because I’m answerable to other people.” But I began to feel resentful that everything I was reading was chosen by others (we take it in turns to choose a book) and so that prompted me to carve out more time so that I could read what I wanted to read too.
My time was often constrained, especially when I started psychotherapy training alongside work – and transferred my ‘shoulds’ about productive behaviour to the self-expectation of reading books by therapy experts. But at least personal therapy, and psychotherapy training, helped me to recognise what a strong ‘Critical Parent’ lived in me – telling me what I ‘should’ be doing – and I gradually started to allow myself to trust my instincts into what I wanted – or needed – once more.
In recent years, reading has become a form of self-care, and I feel more connected to that little Lucy who liked to escape from the real world with a book.
One of the things I’ve appreciated about lockdown is that I’ve been able to indulge (that word again!) that love, because there’s not so much than I can do (regardless of whether I want to or not), and because so much of my work is screen-based, that looking at a page instead is a way of looking after myself physically as well as mentally.
The experience of recently ramping up my book-reading has prompted me to reflect on how I experience emotional benefits from it.
How is reading a form of self-care?
1. It can ease symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression
Reading a book that you can lose yourself in gives you a break from life. I don’t generally advocate distraction as a technique for managing anxiety or depression, as it can shore up a habit that if there are feelings that are too uncomfortable to deal with, they get ignored or suppressed, and however that might feel comfortable in the moment, those feelings don’t go away; they just get stored up.
Having said that, if you get into cycles of overthinking, ruminating, feeling anxious and trying to think your way out of it, interrupting that cycle can be helpful. The fight or flight hormones (that are running through your body as a result of some part of you panicking that it needs to do something to keep safe by ‘fixing a problem’) get a chance to dissipate. That allows your breathing to steady, your blood pressure to drop, your muscles to relax; there’s a physical as well as mental and emotional benefit.
Note – I’m recommending a book you can ‘lose yourself in’, that will allow you to switch off, so preferably one unrelated to the situation you’re worrying about or trying to fix. I know only too well that when my imposter syndrome kicks in, and part of me believes I’m not a good-enough therapist, I feel a pull to read ‘professional stuff’ – about techniques, or presenting problems or theory. That kind of reading has its place – but not here.
This is about taking care of your whole self, not about fixing the problem your busy brain is worrying away at.
2. It helps you make connections
There’s nothing like being immersed in another world to help me develop my empathy for what someone else, with a completely different life experience from me, might be feeling. The process of doing this by reading is different from that of watching a film because the brain engages and involves itself in a different way – for example, reading about riding a bike activates the parts of the brain that would be involved in riding a bike.
Even if you’ve never left your country or particular area of the world, you can visit other places through books and build your understanding, and that will help you connect to others – virtual travel broadening your mind. If you want a further stretch then reading in another language from that of your mother tongue can also help you shift your perspective, because the way that different languages behave shapes the way that people think.
Obviously this has potential to benefit others – if you meet people from different places and with different backgrounds from you, you’ve developed your intuition and empathy to respond to them – but there is also a benefit to you, because of the emotional experience of connecting more deeply.
You might make connections to experiences too, perhaps to something you didn’t notice you were missing. For example, I’m often drawn to books that are embedded in the landscape or nature and reading them benefits me in at least two ways; firstly, I get something of that experience of actually being in the place described, of feeling that awe or wonder or amazement; and secondly that they remind me to notice my environment when I’m outside, often at quite a small scale – they prompt me to rediscover the world around me and to really notice where I am right now, grounding me.
3. It improves your communication skills, helping you be heard and understood
Reading develops your language skills because it introduces you to different ways of expressing things you may experience around you, and to new vocabulary. Many languages – and certainly English – have a huge vocabulary providing potential for saying one thing in a myriad of very subtly different ways.
This isn’t just about ‘sounding more intelligent’(although I have had situations in my life where wielding words has helped me level a power dynamic) but also about being understood. If you can express yourself in different ways, it gives you more options when talking about difficult subjects, or when asking for what you want in your important relationships, and this can make a real difference to your ability to be clear about communicating your needs, setting boundaries and for saying No gently.
4. It can build and deepen relationships
As mentioned earlier, reading can be a way of connecting to others, but there’s another way that reading can develop relationships – through sharing your reading experience. That became important to me in the last few years when I moved away from the UK to live elsewhere for a while, and then, a year after returning, found myself in a different kind of isolation because of Covid 19 stay-at-home restrictions!
The book group I’ve been a part of for 15 years has been a precious lifeline over the last 4 – a steady mooring rooted in my diary when I’ve felt adrift and isolated. We’ve continued to meet and talk and argue and laugh via webcam when we haven’t been able to do it in person. (Obviously this would apply to many other types of groups as well as reading ones.)
Reading together with others has encouraged me to try and explore other worlds that I might not have done (even while complaining about being made to read about the real life drama of a college American football team, for example). It has given a focus away from the other struggles of life for a few hours a week. It has brought the joy of connecting through shared experience.
Our book group is the best in the world, which helps. Though I may be a bit biased.
5. It’s an overt message to yourself that you matter
Pausing to read a book is a commitment to yourself that you are important and deserve this time. It’s just not possible to read a book ‘busily’. (Actually, one member of my bookgroup, realising that they weren’t going to get the book finished on time, decided to listen to the audiobook at 4 x normal speed. They arrived at the meeting in a wide-eyed manic state having got quite a different sense of the book from the rest of us, and they didn’t recommend it as a relaxing activity.)
It’s one of the most common things I hear when friends say ‘Oh, I love reading, but I just don’t have the time’. I used to say it myself – especially while studying, when I would make time to read neuroscience tomes, but not to pick up a fantasy novel.
No one else is going to make that time for you. If you think you don’t have the time to read because that’s not ‘productive time’ – think again. Think of the longer-term benefits of allowing yourself to take a break, to do something that you enjoy, something that relaxes you, that slows you down.
6. It can teach you how to be healthier and happier
Personally, I very rarely read self-help books. Anything with a title that seems to be saying ‘This book will change your life’ is a definite turn-off (note to self: don’t title this blog ‘reading this will change your life’).
Having said that, I do read books to educate and ‘improve’ myself. Like many other white people, over the last year I’ve been reading more literature by Black authors on addressing my privilege and unconscious racism, and of course, that hasn’t been comfortable. But without building my tolerance to that discomfort, I can’t engage in the antiracist behaviour required to mend that disconnect between ‘thinking I’m a good person’ and ignoring the benefits I enjoy by living in a white-centred society – i.e. I see it as enabling me to become more true to who I think I am.
Lots of people find self-help books useful, either because of the practical steps that they introduce to doing things differently, or even because – as mentioned above – picking up a book that promises to improve your life sends a little message to yourself that you matter.
If you’re attracted to self-help books, but find that they don’t seem to bring the change that you want, it might be useful to reflect on whether the subconscious message you’re directing at yourself is ‘you’re not good enough and need to change’ rather than ‘I want you to be happier because you’re important’. See if reframing this shifts the sort of book you want to read!
7. It can take you on a voyage of self-discovery
In another form of self-help, I believe books can help you become more understanding of yourself and more aware of what you need. If you have a strong reaction when you read a book, taking some time to reflect on this can lead to you learning more about yourself.
What is it in this book that triggered that anger, or feeling of being overwhelmed with love, or despair, or feeling a bit lost, or defensive? Did something about one of the characters speak to something in you? Was it a sense of affinity that you felt with a particular event?
I sometimes find that a book that I didn’t feel I was particularly enjoying at the time of reading can stay with me for days or even weeks afterward, returning to my mind as if there’s some kind of message there that it has for me. I can be prompted to notice something that I’ve let go in my life, that feels missing or that I need more of, by my reaction to what I read. Even if I can’t pin my finger on exactly what it’s about, spending a little bit of time alongside that part in me that responds strongly feels therapeutic, as if it’s meeting a need of something that wants attention.
Reading tastes are so personal, and what some people find therapeutic, others may feel is just too much hard work. Here’s 7 books that do it for me in different ways.
A book (or series – the Winternight trilogy) that I really lose myself in, this story has the flavour of a Russian folk tale, with a very strong young female main character – who is only too aware of her own vulnerability. A fantastic illustration of resilience, set in a wonderful magic realist sweeping fantasy.
A book that has stuck with me long after reading, this novel is set during the real life events of the Italian invasion and occupation of Ethiopia in 1935, and tells the story of the women who fought in that war. It pushed me to read more about Ethiopian history as I realised how little I knew of one of the world’s oldest civilisations, and how much my perceptions of a country had been influenced by growing up in the 80s amidst white Western media depictions of famine victims.
One of my all-time favourites…….a novel, but also a poem to the land, and humans’ relationship to it. Every time I read this book I’m reminded of what it is to be human, and how imaginary and transient many of my worries, fixations and anxieties are. Books like this give me a way to talk about and develop my understanding of what really matters to me at my core. This book is an antidote to social media life of the 21st century.
This was almost unanimously popular (an unusual occurrence!) in my book group. Evaristo manages to succinctly capture on paper so many different lives, of mostly – though not entirely – Black British women. For me this was a fantastic combination of entertainment and exposure to lives different from mine, but also, in sharing our responses to the characters, and which ones we loved, a great book group read.
For escaping into new worlds, NK Jemisin, a science fiction / fantasy writer I’ve only recently discovered, takes some beating. (As a Black woman, she also challenges stereotypes of what a sci-fi writer ‘looks like’.) This book is set in a New York that is – and isn’t – just like the real one, and as well as having some full-on sci-fi concepts that take some bending your head around, is chock-full of strong female characters.
The closest I’ve got to self-help recently, Rewilding Yourself is a gentle book that brings you closer to nature. In a year when taking cruises to Alaska to see arctic wildlife hasn’t been an option (even for those who can bear to burn the fossil fuel to do it), this little book is a great introduction to becoming a small-scale David Attenborough in your own back garden or field.
Le Guin was an amazing writer – her Young Adult Earthsea books were a part of my growing up – and I recently discovered her adult fiction. I never read one of her books without being given pause for thought – about the assumptions we make about what is ‘normal’ or ‘real’ based on our experience, environment and upbringing. She deals with philosophical questions with a light touch. The Left Hand of Darkness – written in the 1960s – challenges concepts of sexuality and gender with a delicacy that is impressive 50 years later.
If you think you don’t like reading – perhaps you just need to give yourself more of a chance. Start with something that fills your soul. Read a love story, or a children’s book. A graphic novel (I’ve just finished the fantastic ‘Persepolis ’ by Marjane Satrapi, which tells her early life story, as a girl growing up in the Iran of the 1970s and 80s). When I need the reading equivalent of curling up under a blanket and hiding from the world, I read Joan Aiken’s children’s books, even now. Reading takes practice – but the rewards are so worth it!
It’s cheap, too, especially if you’ve got a library that is operational at the moment, or by making use of charity shops, or Betterworldbooks – although it’s also great to support authors by paying full whack for their labour, when you can afford it.
Of course, reading isn’t the only way of taking care of yourself! But it sure has benefits that can include learning more about yourself, giving yourself a break, connecting to others and building relationships.
If you’re a reader who struggles to prioritise time to read as much as you’d really really like to, I hope reading this may have helped you to recognise the longer-term benefits of doing what you love.
I’d love to hear what reading means to you, if you feel reading has a therapeutic benefit, and whether there are particular books you return to again and again.
And if reading isn’t enough, and you feel you could benefit from learning more about yourself through talking to someone, please get in touch here.
“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?
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?
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.
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?
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 .
WHY it’s normal to find coming out of lockdown difficult
WHAT might help you cope with the unexpected anxieties brought up by coming out of lockdown
HOW to disagree with people on the ‘best’ way to behave around COVID-19
Coming out of lockdown – why it’s tricky!
Is it just me, or is coming out of lockdown harder than going in?
From this distance, looking back to mid-March, it seemed like we flicked a switch. One moment we were tootling along as normal, the next we were hiding behind closed doors. Of course it didn’t really happen like that – especially for those of us keeping an eye on what was going in the rest of the world and waiting for the tidal wave to hit – but there was some sense of the world changing overnight.
During lockdown I heard people saying “I can’t wait for things to get back to normal” and felt surprise that they thought that life was going to return to operating in the same way. And I heard at least as many people saying “I’m enjoying not having to see people/commute/be driven by fear-of-missing-out/etc”.
Perhaps THIS is a more difficult transition to negotiate. Somehow life was simpler when you were told the safest thing to do was stay indoors except for once-a-day ‘government-mandated exercise’. Suddenly there are variables. There’s choice. There’s using your own judgement – and therefore the fear of getting it wrong.
And there’s disagreeing with other people about what ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is.
Personally, I don’t like conflict (some people do, honest). While I’m OK with challenging injustice, or speaking up in defence of causes I’m passionate about, I struggle where things are less clear-cut. In particular I’m uncomfortable when I feel differently, or have a different opinion, from someone who’s important to me. I get nervous, anxious, wobbly, and it’s only in recent years that I’ve realised that something in me believes that it’s OK to disagree with ‘them’ but not with ‘us’ – that this part of me feels scared and unsafe in such situations (probably terrified of being abandoned / rejected – yeah, that wee inner child again). So I’m constantly having to remind that part of me that it’s OK to disagree.
It’s OK to disagree. And still be loved, and loveable, and safe.
Coronavirus etiquette – who’s right and who’s wrong?
In terms of the current situation, there are many not-clear-cut areas. You think there are lots of ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldnts’ but they’re all mythical really, a kind of collective hallucination about what is and isn’t ‘allowed’. For example…..some people are exempt from wearing masks and (as there’s no requirement to wear a label stating what your exemption is!) we have no way of knowing who they are.
When I did an internet search for ‘coronavirus legislation’ I found a lot of temporary changes to very old laws but nothing that told me about what was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in terms of my behaviour as an individual. A mid-July article on the BBC website showed that while the law in England stated that you can have a gathering of up to 30 people at home or anywhere outside, the government’s official guidance said you should only be socialising in groups of two households or six people. 🙄😤🤬 FFS!
So very little has changed in terms of law – but, for many people a lot feels as if it has changed – and social ‘norms’, which we often allow to restrict us, are part of that.
There are very few absolutes on what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Really, the only thing we can do is to take note of guidance and then make our own risk assessment – remembering that any decisions made in terms of guidance are made accounting for a number of variables, and they may not be given the same weight as you would give them. (An example is ‘getting the economy going’. My personal opinion is that the myth that ‘economic growth’ is the only thing that can sustain civilization, is partly what has led us to destroying more and more wilderness areas where viruses previously unknown to humans reside. My personal opinions influence my decisions.)
How do I stay safe around other people?
We risk assess all the time; it’s part of how we navigate our way through life. Risk assessing is how we adjust our behaviour when crossing the road, now that traffic is returning to non-lockdown levels, so we don’t get run over. But we don’t operate in a world where ‘not catching coronavirus’ is the only consideration and the only indicator of health. For some people, particularly people with significant physical health conditions, it may be a very important consideration, in which case staying away from other people completely might feel more important. But we need human connection, and for some of us the likely risk of dying of coronavirus needs to be weighed in the scales against risking losing important human connections.
Risk assessments with regard to coronavirus need to take account of the risk to the other, of course. “I think there’s a low risk to me if I catch the virus, so I won’t bother with social distancing” doesn’t account for the risk to the person you’re not social distancing from. And so, into the mix comes the reality that you can’t control what others do, you can only operate in the world, and finding peace with the reality that others don’t have the same attitude as you is as important in navigating the coronavirus pandemic as it is in so many other aspects of your life.
So it’s OK to disagree. And in some ways it’s easier to disagree with ‘the other’ – to tut at those people who don’t wear a mask on the bus, who don’t give you your 2 metre gap when you want to get past them. They’re ‘not like you’.
But it becomes more difficult to navigate when you disagree with people who are close to you – friends, family, loved ones.
For me there are two main aspects to this whole coming out of lockdown situation…………..
😷 managing your own anxiety, discomfort or incomprehensible feelings
😷 managing disagreement with your loved ones
Managing your own anxiety, discomfort or indefinable ‘weird’ feelings
A reminder: these are normal. It was normal as we went into lockdown to find it fucking difficult, and it’s normal as we come out.
Take a moment to pause and reflect on where you in your ‘pandemic journey’. There are so many unknowns. “What is the world going to look like in six months’ time? In 2021? For the rest of my life? Will we ever get back to where we were before I’d heard of coronavirus? Do I want to?” You’re likely to have your own particular stories around the pandemic – the cancelled opportunities. Death or serious illness of loved. Financial stressors. Loss of work. Relationship break ups. Loneliness.
Even positive experiences – like realising that you were more relaxed or happy during lockdown than you had been, like, forever – are likely to make you question your sense of who you are and who you want to be going forward. Questions and uncertainty are all around us. You may be experiencing fear, anxiety, depression, resentment, frustration, burn out…….
So what do you do with all that? Well….learn to live with it. No, I don’t mean ‘suck it up and get on with it’. I mean, literally, that there are things you can do to help you tolerate feelings that are difficult. You’re probably doing some of them already, or have some that you know work.
Think about what you know helps you in terms of self-care, such as
getting exercise 🏃🏽♀️
getting outside in nature 🌳
eating properly 🥗
good sleep hygiene 🛏
scheduling worry time (setting aside a time each day when you write out everything that’s bothering you) 😟
mindfulness, meditation or focusing exercises 🧘🏻♂️
talking to people 😀😀
relaxation exercises 😌
mindful activities – anything that occupies your brain in a soothing way, such as cooking, gardening, crafts, colouring 👨🏽🌾
If there’s something that you want to feel less anxious about getting back to, see if you can break it down into smaller steps that feel more manageable. No step is too small.
Think about a particular relationship that feels like work at the moment. Then take a moment just to think about where that person might be in their ‘pandemic journey’, in a similar way to when I suggested you reflect on yours. Is it possible they might be in a different place from you?
Even if you can’t easily see they might feel differently from you, you need to find a way of accepting that they do. We can assume that our way is the ‘right’ way but – as mentioned earlier – there are few ‘absolutes’ and little to be gained by trying to persuade someone else into our point of view. It’s OK to love someone and have different views from them.
But sometimes acceptance isn’t enough – especially if there’s two of you, both thinking you are ‘right’, both unable to convince the other to agree.
If you disagree with someone else you need to find a way to compromise rather than expending energy on worrying. THERE IS NO RIGHT OR WRONG ON THIS. You need to account for the feelings of the other person. You are going to have to learn to disagree so finding a way of doing this is the only way that you are going to be able to maintain relationships with people.
Much of this is about communication. Even when we think we talk a lot, we’re not necessarily communicating what is important or healthful to our relationships. Here’s some guidelines for effective communication:
1. Make space for the conversation
Tell that person that you’re finding things difficult and that you’d like to talk about it. Be explicit about what you want to talk about and try to avoid doing it in the heat of the moment. If you can’t get their buy-in then you may not be able to change things alone. If necessary share these guidelines with them.
2. FOCUS ON THE PARTICULAR ISSUE
Don’t get caught up in the all the myriad ways that you wind each other up. You want to find a solution to the current problem and reach a point of understanding. DON’T try and decide who is right/wrong or try and find ‘the truth’.
3. speak for yourself
Offer your thoughts, feelings and concerns and don’t give your perception or interpretation of the other person’s motives.
4. own your feelings
Say how you feel from your point of view (not how they ‘make’ you feel or even how Covid ‘makes’ you feel). “When this happens, I feel anxious” not “You make me anxious” – can you hear the difference? These are your feelings.
5. listen to the other’s thoughts, feelings & concerns
Hear their point of view without trying to change it. There needs to be room in this for you both to hear each other. Share the floor.
6. SLOOOW IT DOWN
Pause before you react to criticism. Slow down, listen to the pain in the other person and try and respond with empathy rather than becoming defensive. Notice when your reactions are coming from a place of fear. It’s not easy, but it can really help.
7. ASK FOR WHAT YOU WOULD LIKE AND ALLOW THE OTHER TO ASK FOR WHAT THEY WOULD LIKE
There may not be a perfect solution, but perhaps you can find a position of compromise.
8. oFFER EACH OTHER YOUR UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT’S BEEN AGREED
You both need to be clear that you know what you’ve agreed. Don’t agree to something that you won’t do, or that you will feel resentful about doing. Be assertive and make decisions on what you can control.
Finally – compassion, compassion, compassion. For yourself and for the other person. No one is finding this easy and if they say they are they’re probably talking bollocks or at the very least kidding themselves.
We are living through a challenging period and allowing yourself to feel that it’s fucking hard is not only OK, but necessary.
If you’re finding things hard to manage on your own, you might find it useful to speak to a counsellor to get some help. Sometimes just a few sessions can help you recognise that what you feel is normal and to reframe how you look at things. There are lots of counsellors working online who can support you to get back out in the world. Get in touch with me if you’d like to talk about having some therapy online, or would like to try walk and talk therapy outdoors, or visit one of the online directories like ACTO , Counselling Directory or Psychology Today