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

The value of pushing yourself to do something new in learning more about yourself.

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.

the winding road Lucy Hyde counsellor

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

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

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

Lucy Hyde walking therapy

And the reality?

Lucy Hyde walk and talk counselling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what DID I learn from the experience?

A few things……..

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

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

reading for inspiration

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding your path online therapy

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

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

Compartmentalising can make me miss the obvious.

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

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

road to find yourself Lucy Hyde therapy

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

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

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

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

sunshine beyond online counselling

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.

finding your way Lucy Hyde online counsellor

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

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

Final tip:

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

walking in the rain Lucy Hyde walk and talk

References and further info:

Book: A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

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

Focusing and how it can help manage anxiety

How to access more of what you love

Allowing yourself something that you love, wholeheartedly, is an act of self-love. Make a bit of space to give that to yourself.

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

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

Buillding wellbeing through contact with nature

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

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

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

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

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

Never is it the same.

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

Never is it the same.

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

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

Lucy Hyde counsellor with nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

Counsellor self-care

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

Free writing

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

Talking about what you love

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

Sharing with others

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

Give 5 minutes to reflect

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

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

Ann Dowsett Johnston

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

Lucy Hyde walk and talk therapist

Further information

Focusing

Ann Dowsett Johnston

Adding joy to your life

How to relax

Get some tips on how to find a healthy balance if you struggle to relax.

I’m just back from a week’s leave. I’m being strict with myself this year about taking regular and frequent breaks. 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.

Online therapy to help you relax

I feel a sense  of responsibility to look after myself because of my work with clients; I use myself in my work, I owe it to my clients to offer value for money, and I’m less effective when I’m less healthy or emotionally unwell. This makes it ‘easier’ for me to take time off out of a sense of duty. 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.

Lucy Hyde walk and talk counselling

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

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

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

Lucy Hyde walk and talk therapist

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

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

You can read more about Focusing 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.”

Lucy Hyde online counsellor

4. Noticing when I’m content!

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

5. Finding a balance.

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

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

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

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

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

Lucy Hyde therapist helping you relax
Photo: Jon Gerrard

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

How to ease coronavirus-related anxiety

I’d like to introduce a simple practice that I believe can really help with managing uncomfortable feelings. It’s relevant in any situation, but perhaps particularly so at a time when more of us are dealing with unaccustomed feelings because of the unusual situation we’re in, with changes to routine, uncertainty, fears for ourselves or loved ones and other challenges. ‘Covid-19 anxiety’ is becoming a catch-all term for all sorts of ways in which our emotional and mental wellbeing may be thrown off balance.

overthinking counsellor East Lothian

Focusing, or ‘inner relationship focusing’, is a way of easing difficult feelings. Notice I don’t say ‘getting rid’ of feelings. I’m used to hearing from people that they want to get rid of feelings of anxiety or overwhelm or stress or despair. If that’s you, then you might not like it when I say that, in my experience – and I’m talking about my personal experience as well as professional – what really makes a difference is when you stop pushing those feelings away.

What is ‘Focusing’?

Inner relationship focusing is a term coined by Ann Weiser Cornell who worked with Eugene Gendlin, the originator of ‘Focusing’. Gene Gendlin studied under Carl Rogers, who founded person-centred therapy. Gendlin did extensive research in the 1950s and 60s, in an attempt to ascertain what made psychotherapy successful for some clients but less so for others. He found that clients who made positive lasting change had an innate ability to pause and check ‘inside themselves’, to access a body feel of their issues, an intuitive ‘felt sense’ which they could learn from for their personal development and growth.

Lucy Hyde therapy asking for what you want

Gendlin went on to develop a step-by-step process, by which clients who didn’t have this ability naturally, could be taught it – not only to get more from therapy, but to work on issues or challenges themselves. Ann Weiser Cornell, a student of Gendlin’s, went on to develop her inner relationship focusing from this.

How can Focusing help me?

Three years ago I uprooted myself from my home and moved with my partner to Italy for two years. Various circumstances led to this being possible, and for it to be the right time (post Brexit referendum but pre-Brexit!) to do it. What I thought in my conscious mind was: “It’s going to be a bit tricky in some ways but it’s a great opportunity and I’m lucky to be able to do it.”

Underneath all this – and mostly ignored and suppressed by me – was terror at the unknown and the fear that I wouldn’t be able to cope in a country where I didn’t speak the language and didn’t know how things worked.

You know what? It was bloody hard. I wasn’t working for the first time in my adult life. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t have any friends or family close by, other than my partner. Everything was complicated by not knowing how things worked. BUT what made it harder was that, at the start, I didn’t allow myself to really feel how difficult and frightening all this stuff was, because I was living in the most beautiful city in the world and so I was ‘lucky’. I was aware there was a lot of discomfort, and that I wasn’t feeling happy and skippy – but also there were lots of times when I was excited and happy at the newness and beauty of it all – the ‘acceptable’ feelings.

managing conflicting feelings with online counselling

My feelings about the experience were unique to me – my own history and personal baggage lent their own twist – but even as I began to acknowledge that there were feelings of fear and loneliness and shame (at not having a wonderful time) I was ruminating about how to get rid of them, figuring out what I could busy myself with to get through them or away from them quickly.

I’d been trying Focusing on and off over the previous 3 or 4 years, while also in personal therapy – and it had become something I used to try and make sense of intense feelings (a kind of emotional first aid when things became extreme). Because I knew it could be helpful when I was feeling things were getting on top of me, when I was anxious or stressed or emotionally overwhelmed, I began doing it more.

What I discovered was interesting. Focusing didn’t make those feelings of anxiety or stress or shame or overwhelm go away. As I look back on my experience of living in Italy, I remember vividly that it was both terrible and wonderful, and that, even after two years, I was still at times experiencing anxiety, fear and shame.

But what I learned was that I could tolerate these feelings by sitting alongside them. I learned that I could hold both the despair and the delight – sometimes at the same time – without being consumed. I also discovered that sometimes these parts of me, that were trying to get my attention, had some wisdom to impart, which I could learn from. My friend and colleague’s phrase “This is an AFLOG” (another fucking learning opportunity for growth), was never so apt as then.

A part that often came up during this time was my inner critic. So I might find myself sitting with something that was telling me I just needed to get on with things. Often as I stayed with this, I realized that this part was really scared and young, and ‘getting busy’ was its way of pretending it was grown up. The critic or the busy bee was trying to protect me in the only way it knew how. I see people writing about ways to ‘shut the inner critic up’ and I feel sad for that treatment of what is essentially someone’s inner child, who just needs to be listened to, but is manifesting itself in a way that feels ‘too much’.

My experience of feeling out of place, not belonging and not knowing how to belong, has been invaluable to me in my work since then with clients. Developing my practice to offer online therapy (so that I could continue to work with English-speaking clients) was unexpectedly invaluable in the current setting where suddenly online counselling is all there is.

the growth you hold within - online therapy
AutoRinascita by Carlotta Baradel

But more valuable than both of these has been learning the ability to sit with the not-knowing, to feel anxious, or afraid, or not-good-enough – to be able to say to those parts of me “Oh hey there! I know you’re there. I know you’re feeling [whatever]” and to be able to carry on. Don’t get me wrong – that inner critic is still there (this time saying “you shouldn’t be feeling that your emotional wellbeing is affected by coronavirus lockdown because you’re an experienced online counselor”)…….but I’m able to recognise it pretty quickly and to give it space while still allowing the feelings of sadness and missing family and friends and routine.

How is Focusing different from meditation or mindfulness?

You might already be familiar with exercises or practices that can help you soothe yourself, like mindfulness or meditation. In which case you might not be interested in learning about another one! Focusing is much like mindfulness…..AND it’s more. Because with Focusing there’s the opportunity, not only to  notice when something comes into your awareness but, rather than letting it pass through, to form a relationship with it, listen to it – and learn from it. It can be soothing, it can be calming – and more too.

“If I let my anxiety in, won’t I become overwhelmed?”

Here’s a metaphor for you. Imagine that the anxiety (or feeling, or self-critical thought) is a little child wanting to get your attention. You ignore it. It shouts louder. You shut it in a cupboard. It really needs to scream now to be heard. And it’s going to carry on screaming even if you try and pretend it’s not there. What would happen if instead you let it out of the cupboard, take it in your arms and soothe it?

Listening to your inner child
Image by Paolo Stefanelli

That’s how I think about uncomfortable feelings. Whether it’s anxiety, feeling that you’re out of control, thinking that you’re not good enough – there’s a part of you that’s trying to get your attention, and the more you ignore it the harder it tries. The practice of inner relationship focusing is a way of giving those feelings some space without becoming overwhelmed by them, because it encourages you to sit alongside them – like you might sit with a friend – rather than be in them. I see these ‘parts’ as being rooted in myself at different times in my life – part of my ‘inner child’, if you will – and by spending time with them I’m doing some gentle parenting.

The easiest way of understanding what inner relationship focusing is, is to try it! I’ve included a video at the end of this blog that talks you through a very brief version of a focusing exercise so you can try it for yourself. If you want to skip the preamble, you can fast forward to about 2 minutes 20 seconds in, to the start of the exercise.

My own experience of Focusing encouraged me to learn more, initially with a Focusing Skills certificate, and I’m currently studying to become a Focusing Practitioner. I use a Focusing way of being in my work with clients, and I also teach them Focusing, if they’re interested, as a way of becoming more comfortable at ‘checking-in’ with themselves.

You can read another version of this article at ‘The 8 Steps of Focusing‘.

If you want to learn more about Focusing, including how to develop your own practice, check out the resources below.

Benefits of Focusing

Ann Weiser Cornell’s inner relationship focusing

Gene Gendlin’s six step guide to focusing

British Focusing Association

help with depression

Why can’t we let ourselves be sad?

Listening to the inner critic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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