What is Focusing?

Learn more about this self-help practice to help manage overwhelming feelings

Focusing was developed in the 1960s by Eugene Gendlin when he was researching why some people were able to sustain a more lasting change from psychotherapy than others. He found that those who made more sustained changes had a natural ability to check within themselves for an inner felt sense of a situation or difficulty, and to use that felt sense to intuitively find a way forward. Gendlin developed a process in order that those people who don’t have this natural ability, could be taught to develop it.

Focusing is…………

  • A tool for supporting self-compassion
  • A self-help exercise
  • A way of life

Focusing is all of these – and more.

Image by Tolu Bamwo on Nappy

My own experience is of a history of getting stuck in my head, trying to think my way out of an uncomfortable situation or experience – believing that if only I could figure out the right solution, I’d stop feeling so distressed / uncomfortable / anxious. This resulted in lots of overthinking, rumination and self-criticism for not being able to get it right. Focusing has helped me develop another, much gentler way of managing difficult thoughts and feelings, which means that even when I get triggered back into old patterns of overthinking, I’m better able to recognise what’s happening and to move through it more quickly.

For me it’s been nothing short of life-changing, which is why I decided to complete the training to teach other people this wonderful skill.

How Focusing can help

Many of us learn at an early age to suppress feelings, or to be frightened of strong emotions. This can be a result of experiences of feeling unsafe in childhood, may have been modelled to us by our parents, or may have been part of the conditioning of the society or culture we grew up in – there are lots of possible reasons. Over time this can lead to us being afraid of our feelings – you might be afraid that if you let yourself feel, you’ll be overwhelmed by your emotions, like opening Pandora’s Box. In some cases we become so skilled at not allowing our feelings that we’re not even sure what we feel.

Even if they’re buried deep, those feelings don’t go away, and can often manifest themselves in other ways, including physical symptoms, poor immune response, anxiety, stress symptoms, or erratic moods.

Focusing with a skilled companion, you can learn to acknowledge, first of all, that there is something there that wants attention. You can begin to listen to what those suppressed parts of you want to say – while keeping a safe distance. Doing this with a supportive teacher helps you be alongside thoughts or feelings, rather than be overwhelmed by them. You can recognise that the feelings are part of you – they’re not all of you. With practice, you can learn to build relationships with those inner parts of you, and the intense feelings will ease as those denied voices realise that, actually, they don’t need to shout so loud to be heard.

Sculpture by Matt Baker

How does Focusing compare to mindfulness or meditation?

There are similarities between all three practices. They all aim to bring the attention inside the body, and to remain in the experience of the present moment.

However, often with meditation and mindfulness, the intention is to not get ‘caught up’ in thoughts or feelings, but to let them pass. With Focusing we bring interested curiosity to a thought, feeling or sensation. We might enquire what it’s like, what it might be connected to, and we want to stay with it in a friendly way. With this curiosity more can arise and stuck feelings can shift.

Is Focusing a type of guided visualisation exercise?

Some people will have a lot of visual imagery when they’re Focusing, but some people will have body sensations, or thoughts, or memories (and lots of people have a mixture). In my own process, I often find I start with a body feeling and then images can also come later. My role is to support people to allow images or other experiences to arise, and to find ways of describing the experience. In that process, where these ‘parts’ are attended to by trying to describe ‘just what they’re like’, images may develop into other images, or emotions, or memories.

When someone is new to Focusing, I’ll make suggestions, like ‘perhaps you could sense if there’s an emotional quality to this image’, or ‘if it feels helpful, perhaps you could check if there’s something this part is wanting’, to support a dialogue or relationship with these inner experiences.  As people become more experienced with Focusing, they’ll often learn what’s helpful for them, e.g. whether they like having suggestions or .

Should I choose Focusing or counselling?

Focusing is not therapy, although it does, of course, have therapeutic benefits. If you come to me for Focusing sessions, you’ll be learning a self-help practice, which you can also do on your own, and if you decide to take it further, you could develop Focusing partnerships with other people who are learning Focusing. The role of the teacher or companion in Focusing is to support you (sometimes via suggestions) to follow your own direction. You don’t need to give me any history, unless you want to, as we will be dealing with your present-moment experience in sessions, even though this experience will most often be influenced by past events.

Because Focusing has become an integral part of who I am, it is also an element of my counselling process. For example, I may suggest a pause within a session, to check inside, to allow some space for feelings to emerge. I sometimes also offer some Focusing teaching within counselling sessions, if I think that it may be helpful to tune in to some feeling or experience that seems difficult to put into words.

If you have a clear goal of what you want to change in your life or behaviour, it may be that counselling is more appropriate than Focusing. If you’re not sure what you want, it could be that Focusing might help you get a clearer idea of your steps forward. If you want to develop a better relationship with yourself, Focusing and counselling could both help with this.

I suggest that, if you want to try Focusing, we plan in 3 sessions initially. My reason for this is that, for some people, it can seem a bizarre and unusual way of relating to themselves, and the unfamiliar can be uncomfortable. Committing to a few sessions means that you give yourself a better chance of moving through this discomfort, where something in you might be tempted to shy away after the initial experience. Also, we’ll take some time during the first session, for some preparation before the guided exercise, and some feedback afterwards, whereas a greater proportion of the second and third sessions can be dedicated to the experience of you being with yourself.

What happens in a Focusing session?

I’ll ask you to close your eyes (or look down if you prefer), and then lead you into your body with a body-scan or check-in, then use gentle suggestions to see what’s there wanting your attention, or to check in with a particular issue that you want to look at.

You describe to me what you experience and I reflect that back to you. I may make suggestions to help you to begin gently to build a relationship with what comes up. We’re not attempting to analyse or interpret – although part of you may want to, in which case I’ll encourage you to acknowledge that aspect of you, too.

Image: Ben White on Unsplash

I’ll give you a time signal that we’re coming to the end, and I’ll suggest you take some time to thank whatever has shown up, then encourage you to come back to the room and open your eyes.

If you want you can talk about what happened in the session, and you can ask for my feedback if you think that would feel helpful.

What is Focusing most useful for?

Anxiety

I’ve found Focusing particularly helpful with clients who have high levels of anxiety, who often feel compelled to keep busy at all times and/or to focus their energies on trying to keep others happy. Anxiety can provoke over-thinking, ruminating thoughts, and compulsive behaviours as a way of filling up any empty space which might otherwise be occupied by strong feelings. With Focusing we can turn towards those feelings that are provoked if you don’t keep busy, and you’ll discover that anxiety is something that you don’t need to react to or ignore. When you acknowledge the anxiety, and turn a compassionate and curious attitude to what may be underlying it, the intensity of the feelings will lessen and become easier to tolerate. 

Trauma

Focusing can be a wonderful way of soothing the parts of you that are easily triggered due to past traumatic experiences – without having to go into the story of the trauma. This means it can be equally useful if you experience triggering or fight/flight/freeze reactions, even if you don’t think you’ve been subject to traumatic events. Because of the Focusing principle of being alongside your experience – as an observer, or witness – rather than being in it, you can get a little bit of distance from your emotions. We work with your in-the-moment, embodied present, and having the experience of being able to be in relationship with your traumatised parts can be profoundly healing at a whole-body level.

Inner critic

Focusing treats the critical voice as a part of you – not all of you. By using Focusing to build a relationship, you can develop understanding of how that inner critic has your best interests at heart – even if it doesn’t feel like it. The inner critic tends to develop as a protective device (based on some kind of childhood belief that if it works you hard enough you’ll be loved / you won’t be abandoned), and by your responding to it with compassion, it will learn over time that it doesn’t need to push you as hard.

Pre-therapy sessions

As mentioned above, Gendlin developed the Focusing process to support people to get more out of their therapy. I believe that developing your skills of listening to all parts of you, can be helpful as a precursor to counselling sessions – whether with me or another therapist.

Focusing for therapists

Focusing is a great resource for counsellors and therapists to help them manage their own thoughts and feelings stimulated during sessions with clients. Some counsellors find it difficult, sometimes, to engage with their own personal therapy, because a sense of competition or fear of being judged by their therapist can hamper their ability to be honest during sessions. The emphasis in Focusing is on developing the client’s relationship with themselves, more so than their relationship with the Focusing teacher. I don’t need to know any history or events and I don’t need to know what a particular feeling, memory etc, is connected to, in order to support your process, which means that Focusing may be experienced as a safer space than counselling at times. In addition, because I don’t need to know about the content, I can offer Focusing to people that I have existing relationships with, in a way that I would never do with counselling.

I find it hard to describe exactly what Focusing is, in a way that really conveys its essence! The best way to really understand it is to try it for yourself. If it sounds like something you’d be interested in – please get in touch with me.

Further reading and resources

What is Focusing? – The International Focusing Institute

What is Focusing? – the British Focusing Association

Eugene Gendlin talks about Focusing

Get a feel for Focusing via this video:

Resilience and connection

Resilience isn’t about being so strong that nothing moves you; it’s about how you recover when you’re shaken – and building connections can help.

I was recently asked by a 10-year-old if she could interview me to “learn about my resilience strategies” for a school project.

Which of course made me wonder what my ‘resilience strategies’ are – what do I do when ‘something challenges me’?

What is needed for resilience?

I guess when I feel challenged I go to my Focusing practice; I try and check in with myself what’s bothering me, and to listen with compassion to the part of me that’s feeling overwhelmed. By doing so I remind myself that it’s not all of me – i.e. that I can (usually) hold the part that’s feeling challenged and recognise that I am, as a whole, OK, in this moment. It’s not always easy, depending on the degree of challenge, or the level of emotional intensity – and it’s something that I’m able to do in those moments only because I’ve been practising this way of paying attention to my inner experience for a long time.

AND sometimes it just feels too difficult to do.

So – what other things help my resilience?

If something is going on which is generating frantic thinking or a feeling that I have to do something, I go for a walk outside – it probably needs to be an hour or more (although anything is better than nothing, right?) because although there’s something about the physical rhythm that helps shift how I’m feeling/thinking, it doesn’t happen straight away.

With time the greater, physical rhythm of my whole body begins to interrupt the hamster-wheel frantic speeded-up-ness of my thoughts. Almost always, the pattern of my thinking calms and sometimes I come back home feeling that things have clarified, or that I have a new way forward.

Walking anywhere can have this effect, but my preference is to be somewhere in nature. I’m lucky to live and work close to the country and sea, so nature is easily accessible to me, but if I’m in a city then getting to some green space, a park or under trees is great too. Connecting to the wider world – i.e. not just a human-created landscape – helps me to bring myself into the moment and to bring my attention to being OK in this moment.

Reflecting on all of this made me think about connection and its role in our emotional or mental resilience.

Image by Lola

I often get pissed off when people talk about resilience – or more specifically when resilience is couched in terms that imply it’s an individual’s problem to solve. A classic is the client who worked in an organisation which started putting posters up around the place on ‘how to be more resilient’ – trying to paper over the cracks by shifting the responsibility to the individual, from the reality of an underfunded, understaffed environment where people were burning out by being asked to work at an unsustainable level.

It’s a national and societal narrative, not just a job one. Resilience is a product of being physically, mentally and emotionally well and healthy. How can we expect people to be resilient if they aren’t paid a living wage? How can we expect people to be resilient if it’s impossible for them to secure healthcare? How can we expect people to be resilient if they are unable to afford to feed themselves with healthy, not over-processed food?

Inequality in the UK is among the worst in the ‘developed’ world and has got steadily more extreme in recent decades; an unequal society is not a resilient one, although it may produce individuals who look resilient because they manage to keep coping – just – even in the worst circumstances. That way those at the top of the pile get to ‘admire the fortitude of the poor’ while not considering the impact on the overall health of the people in question.

Long story short, I think the subject of resilience has become manipulated to help businesses and governments weasel out of their responsibilities, responsibilities required in a compassionate society that looks after the less-privileged as well as the over-privileged. Reflecting on how an individual’s resilience is about more than how strong their own little island of self is, pushed me to thinking about the role of connection in how resilient we are.

I think of this in 4 layers, like concentric circles:

  • Connection to self
  • Connection to people
  • Connection to community
  • Connection to the world

Connection to self

This is what I mentioned at the start – the ability to check in with myself on what’s bothering me, and to be able to create some space for the part of me that’s troubled, without making it wrong or without reacting to it. If I’m connected to myself I’m more able to respond to my needs, both physical and emotional. Improving my ability to hear those needs means that less energy is expended by the parts of me that are shouting to get my attention.

For me, that usually means making a bit of quiet time for myself to bring my attention inside. It can also take the form of an activity that I find soothing, often something physical, like gardening, cooking, or walking; these are all things that engage more of me than just my brain, and that help to keep me at least somewhat in the now because of the need to give some attention to what I’m doing.

Image by Lola

Recently I’ve also gravitated towards camping somewhere away from other people where I’m forced to be with myself (I don’t know how else to put it – there’s something about the reality of there literally being nothing to distract me that puts me in a profound space where it’s just ME in the NOW). I wrote about this experience in another blog, What I learned about myself from wild camping.

Connection to people

I think we all need to have someone there. However much you enjoy solitude, we’re a social species who depend on each other for survival, and there is something about sharing our humanity with others that’s important to our wellbeing. I’m not talking only about having a spouse, significant other or best friend, who we can open up to when we’re in distress. Although these relationships are great, and important, we don’t all find close relationships easy to maintain (often depending on our early life experiences). Also, not all relationships are healthy for us – and we might in fact need to withdraw from some relationships, particularly those where we’re so drawn into taking care of the needs of others that it’s harder for us to take care of ourselves.

So, other types of contact or connection with people are valuable; for example, I remember years ago when moving from a city to a village, the experience of being greeted by people I’d never met before, if we passed on a walk or in the street. A simple ‘good morning’ with a smile is an acknowledgement that I exist; that I have value, even in a very small way, to another human being.

Working with a counsellor comes into this category too; the opportunity to have a safe and trusting relationship with another, or to be able to say what you feel you can’t say to those around you.

Image by Lola

And this connection works in both directions (hence the two-way arrows in the image). We can open ourselves up to be more available to contact and connection to others. I did this semi-consciously when moving back from living abroad – glad to be back on familiar ground, I found myself wanting to smile at everyone I met without waiting for them to smile first. Often my invitation drew a smile and greeting from other strangers. Don’t underestimate the power of connecting briefly to someone you may never see again – these human interactions matter.

Oh, and touch – as a friend reminded me – can be a really valuable aspect of people connection. Hugging, being held, is a visceral, whole-body experience of safety, no matter how young or old we are. (Please note: touch isn’t for everyone, and some people are triggered by, or unable to tolerate, being touched. Hugging needs to be agreed by both parties, so please be respectful of others’ boundaries.)

Connection to community

Again, this is about human contact, but with a slightly different nuance. I’ve a recent example from my own experience. I frequently feel overwhelmed and despairing about things that are bigger than me – most often, at the moment, inaction on climate change and seeming indifference to human inequality. My pattern is to believe I’m not doing enough and at the same time paralysed by the enormity of it (‘what difference can I make anyway?’).

I decided that one way to support myself might be to join with other people, and reached out via a local forum to ask if anyone wanted to get together to see if we could support locally-nesting swifts (whose numbers have declined in my village hugely in the last decade). A handful of people responded and we’re taking this forward gradually as a group. It’s not easy for me – I like doing things alone so that I have control – but I notice that sharing the burden, even in a very small activity like this, helps me feel a little bit less alone and overwhelmed. I’m part of a very small community in this; people who I didn’t know previously, and whom I now know share with me this value of care for a declining species.

Image by Lola

‘Community’ operates on various scales, and is where I think the two-way arrows really matter, and link back to the dissatisfaction I mentioned earlier with the implied responsibility of an individual for their own resilience. We are responsible for each other too – a resilient community is more than the sum of its parts.

Connection to the world

By the world, I mean the physical, natural world. Swimming in the sea has become a sort of mental health maintenance for me. It’s just not possible to be doing anything other than just be in the water, aware of my physical limitations, aware of my surroundings. It’s the most in-the-moment experience I know. (See my blog about it.)

Image by Lola

You don’t necessarily have to get out into the wilderness, because I know that’s not possible for everyone when they need it. But our environment is rarely so sterile that we can’t find a stone, a weed, a bug, to contemplate. Doing something physical – and by physical I mean anything from walking in the woods to watching, smelling, touching flowers and creatures in your garden – is a reminder that you are a physical being in a physical world, that you are connected.

Why trying harder doesn’t work

When people say to me “I just have to be more resilient so these things won’t affect me” I feel sad. I’m sad because they’re criticising themselves for not trying hard enough, I’m sad that they think ‘being affected by things’ is wrong, I’m sad that they think it’s all down to them – it feels like a lonely and isolated place.

My image of resilience is a growing tree. It doesn’t resist the wind and stand unmoving, it’s pushed by the storm and then moves back into its original shape. Over time it becomes sturdier – often as a result of some of the wilder weather it’s experienced – and it’s less shaken and bent by the wind. But in order to be able to grow it needs the conditions to be right, it needs good soil for its roots to develop and hold it, it needs nourishment.

mental health support by walking - Lucy Hyde - counselling for depression

Resilience doesn’t mean that I don’t get overwhelmed, that I don’t have a meltdown from time to time, that I don’t have days where I think life is just too hard to bear. Resilience means that I have all those experiences and then I recover from them, and the better that my growing conditions are, the more quickly I recover, and the better the cuts and scrapes will heal. My roots need to tap into my inner wisdom, the nourishment of other people, the support of community and to know and feel their place in the greater world. All that feeds resilience.

A heartfelt thanks to my pal Lola, who asked the question that gave rise to this – and who made an awesome poster that says it beautifully.

Image by Lola

References / information

Inequality in the UK

Johann Hari talks about the value of connection to mental health in his book, Lost Connections.

Therapy journeys

Everyone’s journey in therapy is individual but we all need to pause to look at the view sometimes. Read about my journey of becoming a therapist.

Often, some of the most vivid memories of a journey are when we’re not moving. Pausing to catch your breath as you climb a mountain, and taking the opportunity to look all around, to enjoy the view from where you are, right now.

I’m at one of those pauses, I think. I’m at the point of completing my Focusing Practitioner Training almost three years after I started this particular journey, and, as I gradually absorb that reality, it’s prompted me to reflect on the way in which my development (or growth, or expansion – there isn’t really a single word that captures it) as a therapist has happened in a number of phases. Inextricably intertwined with that professional development has been the personal growth that comes with those shifts and changes.

Learning to be human

The first shift was as I did my Counselling Skills Certificate, begun in 2010. For various reasons, that certificate course – often run over 6 or 7 months or less – took almost a year to complete. I learned during that time that I could do this work even if I didn’t feel completely confident in myself and didn’t believe that I was ‘fixed’ – no, more than that, I began to believe that I might actually be good at it even I wasn’t always completely tranquil mentally myself. I also learned that counselling and therapy could be a way to help me understand myself, rather than just a means to emergency-fix something that was broken.

Photo by GEORGE DESIPRIS on Pexels.com

I needed all that time, to discover and internalise that belief. If I had done a 2-day workshop (provided by the organisation I then went on to train with as an alternative to the certificate course), I don’t think I’d have got there. In fact, I’m not sure how I would have reached the point of applying for a diploma course, without the time spent with my Certificate course-mates, the trust built with them and my trainer, the months of counselling alongside, that gave me space to figure out the meaning, for me personally, of what I was reading, learning and practising in those modules.

Learning how to be a therapist

The second phase was as I did my four years of TA training – my Diploma in Counselling with Transactional Analysis, followed by a further year of training (insurance policy for the possibility that I might want to progress to an analyst qualification later on). During the weekend workshops, and through the various essays, transcript analyses and case studies that were required to complete each year, I gained models and tools to help me understand myself – and to help me understand and think about others, including the clients I began to work with through my voluntary placement.

As I learned and became comfortable with particular models or theories (Transactional Analysis loves a diagram!) I began to share them with my clients, too. And those years of training supported my growth in confidence, not least through practice – the repeated sessions with clients that got me used to being a counsellor and believing I was a counsellor. To those placement clients, I was a counsellor from the very first session, which helped me believe it too. Although I learned to think about psychotherapy in the training room, I learned more about actually being a therapist from working with real people.

Image georg-arthur-pflueger-unsplash

Learning to be me

Moving on to the third phase: this shift has occurred over the last year or two, as I’ve been completing my Focusing Practitioner Certification training. Focusing is a practice that was developed in the 1960s by Gene Gendlin, to help clients, for whom it didn’t come naturally to pause and check inside themselves for a bodily felt sense of their issues, to learn how to do so – in order to get a more lasting benefit from psychotherapy then doing it all in the head. (You can read more about Focusing, which can be used both in therapy and as a stand-alone exercise or practice, in this blog.

My Focusing experience started while I was in TA training but I’ve increasingly committed to it over the last 4 or 5 years, commencing my practitioner training nearly 3 years ago. This phase has been about me learning to use myself more in my counselling work, becoming more comfortable in my counselling skin. It has been a letting-go of some what I took on during my TA training, including the ideas I’d formed about what is required to be a Good Therapist. The Venn diagram balloons of ‘me as a person’ and ‘me as a therapist’ have a much greater overlap now.

These changes and more, came about through my own personal practice of Focusing, my own therapy with a Focusing-oriented counsellor, and the gradual introduction of Focusing into my own practice with clients. That all needed time.

A slower pace

I don’t believe any of these phases could have happened any more quickly. Focusing Practitioner training typically takes one and a half to two years; I took three. I could have embarked on it as soon as I finished my core psychotherapy training, but I’m not sure I’d have got to this place, where I am now, any sooner. Each development hasn’t simply been about workshops, training, reading, CPD hours; it’s required me to gradually incorporate what I learn into me, an evolution that’s taken place through my whole mind-and-body self.

Image Jon Gerrard

Recognising that, in itself, is a significant sign of a change in me. Most of my life, I’ve been driven by the belief that I need to get on with things quickly, that achievements are better the faster they happen. The realisation that this pace, including the times when I’ve

paused for breath

paused to notice my surroundings

paused to re-calibrate in the middle of something

….that this pace has been right, exactly right, for me, is powerful. I’ve meandered off down cul-de-sacs, I’ve taken radical changes of direction, and they’ve contributed too.

Journeying with clients

All this has prompted me to notice that the same is true for the journey of any client who comes looking for therapy – and how important it is to have those pauses in the journey. The pauses give you a chance to notice how far you’ve come, to notice what’s changed, they help you realise the things that you now know about yourself that you didn’t – that you can’t now un-know. Equally important, the pauses give you a chance to consider what direction you want to head in, from where you are now.

Just because you had a particular goal in mind when you first looked for a counsellor, it doesn’t mean that that same goal applies now, where you are, in your current place.

Sometimes a client will ask me the ‘right’ way to approach a problem, or they’ll ask what I normally tell people in their situation. I often say, I don’t have an answer to give, because everyone is on their own journey, and sometimes all you can do is pause for a breather and check – Where am I? Where have I come from? What direction do I want to go next?

And the journey doesn’t take place in isolation – we’re affected and changed by what we see and experience. The first stage of my counselling training journey was in the aftermath of my mum’s death from cancer, and in the midst of the threat of redundancy and subsequent driven hard work and determination, with my colleagues, as we fought to make our section of a big national charity, Leuchie House, succeed as an independent organisation.

My dad died during the second phase, and I also discovered a new love – coastal rowing – that changed my sense of who I was (no longer the girly swot who never got picked for teams). The third stage began alongside the terrifying and exciting experience of living abroad, out of work, with limited language skills. Crucially, the clients, colleagues, the people I’ve worked with through all these stages, have played a part too. These experiences, and more, were woven through the journey, woven into me.

The way forward

I have some vague ideas of where I might want to go next – for example, thoughts about the work I do outdoors with clients and how we might allow the environment to take more of a role in that. These are hill-tops glimpsed between veils of cloud. For the moment, pausing where I am, reflecting on the last miles and not pushing on too quickly, is just the right place to be.

Perhaps YOU could pause and reflect on your own journey. You might be surprised what you notice.

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

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?