7 ways that reading books can improve your life

We read to know we’re not alone

William Nicholson, ‘Shadowlands’

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.)

Reading as therapy image-annie-spratt-unsplash
Image Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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.

self care through reading Lucy Hyde counselling
Image: Thought Catalog on Unsplash

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.

Reading as self care Lucy Hyde online therapy

1. The stress-buster: ‘The Bear and the Nightingale‘ by Katherine Arden

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.

2. The connection-builder: ‘The Shadow King‘ by Maaza Mengiste

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.  

Reading as self care Lucy Hyde online counsellor

3. The language-developer: ‘Growth of the Soil‘ by Knut Hamsun

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.

4. The great book group read: ‘Girl, Woman, Other‘ by Bernardine Evaristo

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. 

Self care via reading Lucy Hyde counselling

5. The pure enjoyment gift-to-self: ‘The City We Became‘ by NK Jemisin

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.

6. The self-help aid: ‘Rewild Yourself‘ by Simon Barnes

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.

self care with books Lucy Hyde therapy

7. The self-discovery tale: ‘The Left Hand of Darkness‘ by Ursula Le Guin

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.

Finally…………………

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.

Books and wellbeing Lucy Hyde counsellor

References and further reading:

Reading V television

When I read in another language

Which language has the most words?

How can I live with my white privilege (when I just want it to go away)?

I’ve been thinking a lot more about systemic racism and white privilege in the last few weeks, like many people.

Part of me feels that I have to somehow make an excuse, or apologise, for writing about this topic on my blog. I usually blog when I feel I have something to offer that may help people and this is no different; but I’m aware that there’s a bit of me that feels somehow I have no ‘right’ to speak about this. Which is – of course – bollocks, but it’s also relevant in terms of the discomfort that I feel in putting myself out there in discussing racism and what I think about it (and my role in it).

Lucy Hyde therapist thinking about my privilege

I guess I’m concerned that this is essentially a blog written for a white audience, and I’m afraid that it’ll give the impression that I’m a white therapist for white clients. I’m glad when anyone reads my blog – AND I’m aware that difference really exists (pretending that it doesn’t contributes to systemic racism).

I’m a white middle class person living in a fairly white area with little deprivation, and I’m writing this from my white middle class female perspective. I’ve made the assumption that this article is going to be more pertinent to other white people. And I’m aware that it is an assumption, and also that not every white person’s understanding of racism and privilege is the same.

White people experience white privilege differently
Image by John Simitopoulos on Unsplash

So here goes – this is where I am with my white-person experience right now, and if it feels relevant or helpful for one other person that’s 100% better than nothing.

My focus in this article is not whether white privilege and systemic racism exist (I’m taking that as given), or about what I, as someone who has white privilege, can do about them. Other people with a lot more experience than me have written and spoken more eloquently than I could about these and related topics (some links and information are at the end of this article). Where I consider my expertise to lie is in learning to manage my own uncomfortable feelings, and in my work as a counsellor supporting other people to manage theirs.

Protesting against systemic racism
Image by Joshua Koblin on Unsplash

When I told a (white) friend I was trying to write this blog, their response was “I wouldn’t go there if I were you. I just want it all to go away.” Other things I’ve heard: “I hate my white privilege.” “How can I give my white privilege back?”

Where I am with my white privilege at the moment is here: I believe the reason I struggle with my own relationship to it, is that I see myself as a good person, and part of me feels very strongly that in order to be OK I have to do whatever I can to make sure that other people are happy – and yet at some level I have been complicit in a system that doesn’t treat people as equal.

When I’m feeling under stress, or out of my comfort zone, or doing something I don’t feel fully confident and in command of, that ‘people-pleasing’ part is much more activated and takes a much bigger role in the overall ‘me’.

Black lives matter
Image by Lan Nguyen on Unsplash

So now, as I’m writing this in my quiet back room with birds cheeping outside and no immediate pressures, I’m able to get distance from that part and see it as an aspect which has good qualities (helps me form good relationships and build trust) and more difficult ones (pushes me to suppress my own needs in favour of others and to lose sight of where my responsibility ends and someone else’s begins).

But when I’m under stress I can feel as if the need to keep people happy is ALL OF ME and my ability to think from a more adult perspective is reduced and I just want to make the panicky feeling stop. When that happens I tend to respond from that panicked part which believes that if it can just solve a particular issue ‘everything will be OK’. The actual basis of that feeling is a magical belief rooted in childhood; what it is exactly doesn’t matter but it influences my behaviour with a need to be a good girl, to not be any bother, to behave well……

Basically my wee child belief “you have to stop other people being unhappy otherwise you’ll die” is coming up against a reality where I have ‘more’ than some people purely because of something I can’t do anything about and had no choice in…..the colour of my skin.

The colour of skin
Image by Joao Rafael on Unsplash

While child-based beliefs vary, a lot of us have some version of this which contributes to our urge to ‘be a good person’. On top of this most of us have some sense of our values and morals, which, whether we admit it or not, are connected to how we want people to see us.

So that child bit is quite near the surface and quite panicky, and, for me, that tends to push me in one of two directions to try and get rid of the feeling:

1. If I can convince myself this issue doesn’t exist (i.e. if I can convince myself that I’m not in a privileged position) then I will stop feeling ‘bad’.

2. If I can convince myself that I’ve fixed this issue (i.e. if I can ‘give my privilege away’) then I will stop feeling ‘bad’.

With the first I ignore the problem, or tell myself ‘I live in a very white area so there’s nothing I can do about this’, or look for occasions when I’ve experienced prejudice myself so that I can move into more of a victim role.

With the second, I start hand-wringing, looking for ‘quick fixes’ and ways in which I can ‘make it better’ somehow for black people / people of colour. As I write that, I can’t even imagine what that ‘make it better’ looks like but I recognise that it’s a ‘rescuing’ role, where I’m still in a position of power or privilege.

Drama triangle (Stephen Karpman)
Stephen Karpman’s ‘Drama triangle’

Both these options – if I was successful in getting there! – might help me feel better for a bit, but because they’re based on fallacies – that white privilege doesn’t exist or I can give it away – the feeling doesn’t have substance and won’t last. Essentially my focus is on ‘my feeling about the racism’ rather than racism itself.

So my alternative is to accept that I hold a position of privilege because I’m white, and that I really don’t fucking want to hold a position of privilege, and I didn’t bloody ask for this privilege that I’ve got AND I can’t get rid of it.

Confusion and messy feelings about white privilege
Image by Gordon Johnson on Pixabay

And that is very very uncomfortable. I’m not looking for sympathy, this is my understanding of how messy my feelings are around this.

My emotional experience isn’t going to be exactly the same as that of other white people, in the same way that my privilege isn’t exactly the same. But if you’re feeling uncomfortable about discussions about race and racism then it might be useful to think about how your own particular patterns of thinking or feeling relate to those emotions – e.g. if you recognise you have a strong inner critic, or struggle to feel good enough, or are anxious about conflict.  There is probably something of relevance in the points below for you, too.

Things to do to help manage the uncomfortable feelings that may be stirred in you in connection with racism and your white privilege:

1. DEvelop tolerance

Find a way to accept that the discomfort isn’t going to go away, and to develop your tolerance for it. Unless something very dramatic happens the racism which is embedded into our society isn’t going to be ‘cured’ in our lifetime. We can all contribute to improving things and reducing its impact but this stuff has been solidly entrenched over generations; we’re in this for the long haul. Rather than get away from it we need to learn to sit with it. ‘Inner work’ practices can be helpful for this: there’s an example of one, inner relationship focusing, in my blog “How to ease coronavirus related anxiety“.

Develop tolerance of uncomfortable feelings
Image by David Zawila on Unsplash

2. EDUCATE YOURSELF

This really helps – although you might imagine you’ll just feel worse about your part in this, learning more about it can help with stuck feelings. Learning more about the history of black people in the UK can help you to be more understanding about your unconscious biases; getting to grips with how people choose to identify themselves (e.g. why terms like BAME and BME are unpopular) supports you to feel more competent in talking about this stuff.

Don’t add to the problem by asking black people to educate you; there’s lots of information willingly put out there already. I highly recommend Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’, a thoughtful and thought-provoking examination of race relations in the UK that is easy to read (though not necessarily an easy read). Ask your white friends for tips on relevant reading – Layla Saad recommends people to buddy up when they work through her book ‘Me and white supremacy

Educate yourself about racism

3. TALK TO PEOPLE

I’m not talking about calling out racism (that’s important, but it’s not the focus here). One of the things that we can do is have conversations about race, racism, white privilege. Speaking from recent experience, this really helps, and though it might feel like you’re not good enough for not being out in the streets protesting, it does make a difference. It’s a step forward from not talking about race, from pretending that difference doesn’t exist. It also helps you move from a stuck place to processing your own relationship with this massive topic.

Talk to another white friend or set up a small online group to chat. Sometimes it might seem you’re just getting into a cycle of ‘isn’t it awful’ to start off with which can feel unproductive, but by talking about how you feel and hearing from someone else about what’s important to you both, you can develop your understanding and you can build tolerance for the awkwardness you feel. I’m fortunate that part of my working life involves talking about this, as I run tutorials exploring anti-discriminatory practice in online counselling – so I’m used to managing my own fears of ‘getting it wrong’. But I’m aware that those conversations are more emotionally charged at the moment and so I give myself more space around them. 

Lucy Hyde counsellor talking helps
Image by Mabel Amber on Pixabay

4. shift your perspective

Expose yourself to different points of view. This is a great way of noticing what you assume is ‘normal’ and you can make it fun. I love escaping into a book so I read as many novels as I can by people who are from countries and cultures I don’t know much about. It doesn’t have to be fiction – it can be biography or whatever your preferred genre. The vast majority of published writers thus far are white men so that has tended to limit literary perspective throughout history. If reading isn’t your thing then there are films, music, podcasts and loads of TED talks, and (once we can get there again) theatre, art, etc……

Expose yourself to a different point of view
Image by Nahashiondiaz on Nappy

5. BE CAREFUL OF YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA USE

To be fair this is a rule for life! I love the opportunity that Facebook gives me to stay connected to people and to build friendships. But it tends to create a bubble of ‘people like us’ which has its downsides. It also encourages a polarisation of views into right or wrong, all or nothing, on the topic of #BlackLivesMatter as with other things.

Before you start getting into an argument take a moment to consider – are you just wanting to call someone out on racism or are you hoping to change their mind, and is that realistic? If you’re outraged or distressed by something someone’s shared – do a quick fact-check before sharing as it may well not be true.

There are lots of inflammatory stories that people like to share because they get a reaction, and the saying ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ is often NOT true.  Protect yourself, take a step back, do something else, phone a friend for a chat instead.

Be careful of social media
Image by Nordwood Themes on Unsplash

6. BE COMPASSIONATE (TO YOURSELF)

Understand how your context shapes you. I don’t mean try and make excuses for not having recognised your privilege before. I mean that you’re a product of your upbringing, experience and environment, and they all feed into the assumptions and biases you hold. You need to start where you are – even if you know the direction you want to go in.

Be compassionate to your own context
Image by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

7. don’t forget self-care

You’re no use to your fellow human beings if you’re burning yourself out. So it’s necessary to look after yourself in this without that tipping over into avoidance of the discussion. Make use of the resources that you know support you when you need them, and if you need some ideas, check out my blog about stress management tips.

Make use of the selfcare resources that you know support you
Image by Tolu Bamwo on Nappy

I realise that one of my fears about publishing this piece is that I’ll be perceived to be pandering to white fragility or encouraging a ‘poor me’ view. That’s not my intention. As a therapist I’m generally encouraging people to find the balance of safety and challenge that feels tolerable for them. That perspective has a different heft in the conversation about systemic racism, where ‘doing nothing because it feels safer’ leads to more black people dying and more people of colour being disadvantaged.

Black Lives Matter protest
Image by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

But I’m not talking about turning a blind eye here. Some of us choose to protest and be vocal, some of us aren’t there yet and may never be, and the phrase ‘keep your eye on the prize’ (a folk song from the US civil rights movement) seems pertinent here. It feels as if we are at a unique point of opportunity to make real change. Systemic racism is a problem created by white people that white people need to sort out, but it’s not going to happen quickly, so we need to build our resilience to make it happen.

This is a muscle we can exercise to make it stronger.

Black and white
Image by Aaron Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

Further reading and resources:

Dealing with uncomfortable feelings: How to ease coronavirus related anxiety and The 8 steps of Focusing. Plus Finding your support.

Read more about white privilege at Is white privilege a useful concept in a UK context and My white friend asked me to explain white privilege.

Check your privilege (it’s not just about whiteness) with this Buzzfeed quiz.

Useful for exploring your unconscious biases are Overcoming unconscious and hidden biases and Implicit Association Tests. Please note that some tests ask for information about your own characteristics, some of which information in itself demonstrates bias, for example, binary options with regard to gender!

Read more about Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race and Me and white supremacy.

Here’s a neat little video about being an ally.

Read about things that you can do to help make the UK less racist.

If you’re on LinkedIn you can read Zoe Clement’s blog about calling out racism in your family.

Dr Dwight Turner talks about being a black man in therapy and a black therapist and writes about it too in Black steel in the hour of chaos.

Good sources for human stories include Narratively and Gal-dem.

And finally, you can read about the drama triangle at Karpman Drama Triangle or simply by searching for ‘drama triangle’.

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

Listening to your inner child

When is it OK for a therapist to talk about their pants? The answer is (I hope 🤔) right now!

Putting on my therapy pants!

My training was in Transactional Analysis. The ‘transaction’ is any interaction with another person, and one of the aspects that we ‘analyse’ is what ego state someone is in when they are interacting with someone else.

Too  much jargon? Sorry. But ‘ego states’ is really shorthand for describing a way of being that is related to past experiences – and I love this model because it’s really easy to understand.

nner child - Parent Adult Child model
Eric Berne’s ego state model (1961)

There are three ego states – Parent, Adult and Child. When you’re in Adult, you’re operating in the here and now; it’s a useful state for problem-solving and for managing day-to-day concerns.

Your Parent ego state is influenced by messages from your parents and other care-givers or important authority figures in your life. It’s the voice in your head that says “Don’t speak with your mouth full”, “Always put others before yourself” – and various other instructions and accepted wisdoms for getting on in life. Many of these help you get on and be accepted in society, but this voice can tip over into criticism and an internal voice that tells you you’re only OK if you’re keeping people happy, for example.

Your Parent can be nurturing as well, with messages like “You’ve overdone it this week, you’ll get overwhelmed if you see too many people” that can help you take care of yourself – but that can also tip over into “Don’t run! Don’t do anything spontaneous!”

Therapy - mother daughter relationship (Image 5540867 from Pixabay)
Image 5540867 from Pixabay

Then your Child. Your Child often adapts to the Parent by responding to critical messages, and sometimes rebels by behaving badly, for example eating or drinking too much.

But you also have a Free Child somewhere in there. And this is the part that gets excited when it snows………..or enjoys swimming in the sea……or doing some kind of fun or joyful activity. For some people, this little guy doesn’t often get a look-in. It has its roots in a very young you, before all that conditioning and learning how to behave, and its focus  is itself and what it wants. Selfish in a completely natural and positive way, it’s a vital part of your wellbeing!

Therapy for your inner child (image Amber Clay from Pixabay)
Image Amber Clay from Pixabay

“So what’s all this about your pants?”

(said nobody, as they’re relieved I’ve got off the topic).

WELL, I was reminded of the simple Parent Adult Child model the other day when I needed to buy some undies (long overdue because I hate shopping except when it’s for food). My internal conversation when I got into M&S went something like this:

🩲 I need new pants. (Adult)

Which ones do I normally get?

🩲 You won’t be able to bring them back. (Parent)

🩲 Oh dear, I’d better make the right choice. (Adapted Child)

Why do they have to change anything ever? This is too hard!

🩲 Look at these red stripey ones! (Free Child)

🩲 These ones look right. But where are they made? Have they got plastic in them? (Adapted Child)

🩲 Perhaps I should try and get ones that are comfortable for rowing in. (Nurturing Parent)

🩲 I’d better get it right or it’s a waste of money if I can’t return them. (Adapted Child/Critical Parent)

🩲 Why don’t I try them on, there’s a fitting room just here. (Adult)

🩲 OK, so which are the most ethical and also comfortable and right for every possible occasion? (Parent)

🩲 Look at the stripey ones! I WANT THE STRIPEY ONES! (Free Child)

Guess what? I bought the stripey ones. A daft illustration perhaps, but it gives a sense of how we can move between ego states from moment to moment – and it also shows how each state has their role to play.

Lucy Hyde therapist - inner child (Image Kalahari from Pixabay)
Image Kalahari from Pixabay

People often assume when they first learn about this model that they should be in Adult all of the time. We’re adults, right? But actually, the reality is that our Adult is often contaminated by the Parent or Child getting in on the act and having a little battle with each other out of awareness. If you find yourself using the word ‘should’, there’s a good chance that you’re in Parent mode.

Counselling - father and son relationship (image Lorraine Cormier from Pixabay)
Image Lorraine Cormier from Pixabay

In the dialogue above, the Parent was, at least some of the time, concerned that I was going to be comfy in my new pants. That would certainly have been my mum’s driving message when she was buying pants for me when I was little, which I guess equates to ‘be sensible’ in my head.

The Free Child was reminding me that joy in simple things – red stripes in this case – is OK.

So it’s not so much about it not being OK to be in our Parent or Child ego state, but it can be really helpful to increase our awareness of when we are being influenced by them – whether our response to something is based on the here and now or whether we’re being swayed by messages from our family history, or by beliefs of what keeps us safe from the imperfect logic we used to make sense of things in childhood.

One of my supervisors used to ask me – when I was feeling uncomfortable or unsettled about a choice I had to make “Are you making this decision from your Adult?” And that was really useful, because it would help me see that sometimes my decision-making was being influenced by a Parent-Child battle between ‘shoulds’ and beliefs of what I thought would ‘help people to like me’.  

Much of the work of therapy is often about integrating these ego states into our Adult so that they can bring their own wisdom, experience and sense of fun into our day to day experiencing. When I’m working with clients, I’ll sometimes suggest that they pay attention to what’s going on in their body, as often this can tell us something about what their Child is wanting, or is afraid of.

And every day when I get dressed I smile when I pull out a pair of stripey pants. 🩲🩲🩲

Lucy Hyde counsellor - inner child (image Dara Nilrothanak from Pixabay)
Image Dara Nilrothanak from Pixabay

Reference: Berne, E. Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy. New York, Grove Press 1961.

How I put my needs first! (on one day of the year)

November is my birthday month and for as long as I can remember – or at least for as long as it’s been an option – I’ve always taken a day’s leave for my birthday. Now that I’m self-employed, that feels more significant than it did when I was taking a day of paid holiday entitlement, which has caused me to think about WHY I do it.

Birthdays are funny things, aren’t they? We can respond to them in different ways, and feel differently about them at different times in our lives. Some people see them as a reminder that they are getting older, and thereby are inching closer to death – and that awareness of mortality feels overwhelmingly negative. Sometimes birthdays bring up memories of loved ones who have died or left, and the poignancy of being reminded of people who are gone can cause us to feel that we can’t enjoy the day now that they’re not there to celebrate it with us.

Lucy Hyde therapist putting yourself first
Me on my 19th birthday in student-land

Why celebrate my birthday?

Perhaps it IS a funny thing to celebrate – this accidental day when we just happened to arrive through no doing of our own, and I guess that’s why it’s a celebration – a celebration that I’m here! I’m important! I matter!

I’m the youngest child in my family, and grew up as a baby in a family of adults. Over recent years I’ve become aware of the beliefs that I’ve created for myself from that position, mostly around having to get things right because everybody else knows what they’re doing, working really hard at keeping other people happy (without really having the full knowledge of what it is that will make them happy) and particularly about having to know what to do without asking for help.

Knowing those beliefs are there doesn’t always stop me from being tripped up by them, but does help me tune in, when I’m feeling particularly shitty about a situation, to what baby Lucy is feeling, and acknowledging that – which helps me recover much more quickly.

Please yourself!

So it’s been nice to realise the flip side of that family role – that my birthday is a day when it’s OK to do just what I feel like doing – to be a child, to please myself. Because, for sure, I did get a fuss made of me on my birthday when I was little and probably got a bit of leeway into the bargain. I know – from the stories – that my late arrival was celebrated, and perhaps this is the one day when I know that in my body rather than just in my head.

My 18th birthday cake with 18 little marzipan piglets.

I had parties! With games! (Did you ever play that game that involved putting a hat, scarf and mittens on and then opening a bar of chocolate with a knife and fork?) And trifle! My big siblings came home from uni! I got good attendance at my birthday parties cos we had a big house that was popular for playing hide-and-seek, so some of that anxiety about whether other kids liked me was probably allayed too.

Birthdays are more than just birthdays

Chances are that for you, too, how you feel about your birthday is influenced by your family history – because you’ve been having a birthday for longer than you can consciously remember. Were there people who were missing at your birthday? Family arguments? Drunken fallings-out? Do you feel it’s OK to be made a fuss of? To ask for what you want? To be the centre of attention?

Lucy Hyde counselling eat what you like
Birthday breakfast. Yum.

For me, it is, definitely, the day when my urge to keep others happy is at its least powerful. I ask for what I want for my breakfast (this year it was kaiserschmarrn – see picture). I get to choose what I want to do without recourse to anyone else. This year it was to have an outing to somewhere with good autumn colours (see my previous blog on the joys of walking outdoors) – I even relinquished the responsibility of deciding where! But equally it might have been to spend the day lying on the sofa reading (one birthday in my 20s I spent the whole day reading Tales of the City).

Only when I took a pause to think about it, did I realise how rare it is for me to allow myself to choose what I want to do completely without regard to others. And how important taking that day for me has been, over the years, because of what it represents in terms of letting me know I matter.

It’s all about me!

Now, these days, I’m actually not bad at listening to myself. At not planning the hell out of a weekend to maximise my productivity (whether that production be a clean house or a day out lifetime experience), but instead being OK with having a low-key time pottering about doing not very much of anything. So maybe the need to have a day that’s All About Me isn’t so crucial as it was in the past. But now I’ve realised that it has symbolic significance, I’m sure as shit hanging on to the habit!

On my birthday I take a holiday and I let that little child within me out to play. What does it take for YOU to put yourself first?

Lucy Hyde therapy asking for what you want