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.
A tool for supporting self-compassion
A self-help exercise
A way of life
Focusing is all of these – and more.
My own experience is of a history of getting stuck in my head, trying to think my way out of an uncomfortable situation or experience – believing that if only I could figure out the right solution, I’d stop feeling so distressed / uncomfortable / anxious. This resulted in lots of overthinking, rumination and self-criticism for not being able to get it right. Focusing has helped me develop another, much gentler way of managing difficult thoughts and feelings, which means that even when I get triggered back into old patterns of overthinking, I’m better able to recognise what’s happening and to move through it more quickly.
For me it’s been nothing short of life-changing, which is why I decided to complete the training to teach other people this wonderful skill.
How Focusing can help
Many of us learn at an early age to suppress feelings, or to be frightened of strong emotions. This can be a result of experiences of feeling unsafe in childhood, may have been modelled to us by our parents, or may have been part of the conditioning of the society or culture we grew up in – there are lots of possible reasons. Over time this can lead to us being afraid of our feelings – you might be afraid that if you let yourself feel, you’ll be overwhelmed by your emotions, like opening Pandora’s Box. In some cases we become so skilled at not allowing our feelings that we’re not even sure what we feel.
Even if they’re buried deep, those feelings don’t go away, and can often manifest themselves in other ways, including physical symptoms, poor immune response, anxiety, stress symptoms, or erratic moods.
Focusing with a skilled companion, you can learn to acknowledge, first of all, that there is something there that wants attention. You can begin to listen to what those suppressed parts of you want to say – while keeping a safe distance. Doing this with a supportive teacher helps you be alongside thoughts or feelings, rather than be overwhelmed by them. You can recognise that the feelings are part of you – they’re not all of you. With practice, you can learn to build relationships with those inner parts of you, and the intense feelings will ease as those denied voices realise that, actually, they don’t need to shout so loud to be heard.
Should I choose Focusing or counselling?
Focusing is not therapy, although it does, of course, have therapeutic benefits. If you come to me for Focusing sessions, you’ll be learning a self-help practice, which you can also do on your own, and if you decide to take it further, you could develop Focusing partnerships with other people who are learning Focusing. The role of the teacher or companion in Focusing is to support you (sometimes via suggestions) to follow your own direction. You don’t need to give me any history, unless you want to, as we will be dealing with your present-moment experience in sessions, even though this experience will most often be influenced by past events.
Because Focusing has become an integral part of who I am, it is also an element of my counselling process. For example, I may suggest a pause within a session, to check inside, to allow some space for feelings to emerge. I sometimes also offer some Focusing teaching within counselling sessions, if I think that it may be helpful to tune in to some feeling or experience that seems difficult to put into words.
If you have a clear goal of what you want to change in your life or behaviour, it may be that counselling is more appropriate than Focusing. If you’re not sure what you want, it could be that Focusing might help you get a clearer idea of your steps forward. If you want to develop a better relationship with yourself, Focusing and counselling could both help with this.
I suggest that, if you want to try Focusing, we plan in 3 sessions initially. My reason for this is that, for some people, it can seem a bizarre and unusual way of relating to themselves, and the unfamiliar can be uncomfortable. Committing to a few sessions means that you give yourself a better chance of moving through this discomfort, where something in you might be tempted to shy away after the initial experience. Also, we’ll take some time during the first session, for some preparation before the guided exercise, and some feedback afterwards, whereas a greater proportion of the second and third sessions can be dedicated to the experience of you being with yourself.
What happens in a Focusing session?
I’ll ask you to close your eyes (or look down if you prefer), and then lead you into your body with a body-scan or check-in, then use gentle suggestions to see what’s there wanting your attention, or to check in with a particular issue that you want to look at.
You describe to me what you experience and I reflect that back to you. I may make suggestions to help you to begin gently to build a relationship with what comes up. We’re not attempting to analyse or interpret – although part of you may want to, in which case I’ll encourage you to acknowledge that aspect of you, too.
I’ll give you a time signal that we’re coming to the end, and I’ll suggest you take some time to thank whatever has shown up, then encourage you to come back to the room and open your eyes.
If you want you can talk about what happened in the session, and you can ask for my feedback if you think that would feel helpful.
What is Focusing most useful for?
I’ve found Focusing particularly helpful with clients who have high levels of anxiety, who often feel compelled to keep busy at all times and/or to focus their energies on trying to keep others happy. Anxiety can provoke over-thinking, ruminating thoughts, and compulsive behaviours as a way of filling up any empty space which might otherwise be occupied by strong feelings. With Focusing we can turn towards those feelings that are provoked if you don’t keep busy, and you’ll discover that anxiety is something that you don’t need to react to or ignore. When you acknowledge the anxiety, and turn a compassionate and curious attitude to what may be underlying it, the intensity of the feelings will lessen and become easier to tolerate.
Focusing can be a wonderful way of soothing the parts of you that are easily triggered due to past traumatic experiences – without having to go into the story of the trauma. This means it can be equally useful if you experience triggering or fight/flight/freeze reactions, even if you don’t think you’ve been subject to traumatic events. Because of the Focusing principle of being alongside your experience – as an observer, or witness – rather than being in it, you can get a little bit of distance from your emotions. We work with your in-the-moment, embodied present, and having the experience of being able to be in relationship with your traumatised parts can be profoundly healing at a whole-body level.
Focusing treats the critical voice as a part of you – not all of you. By using Focusing to build a relationship, you can develop understanding of how that inner critic has your best interests at heart – even if it doesn’t feel like it. The inner critic tends to develop as a protective device (based on some kind of childhood belief that if it works you hard enough you’ll be loved / you won’t be abandoned), and by your responding to it with compassion, it will learn over time that it doesn’t need to push you as hard.
As mentioned above, Gendlin developed the Focusing process to support people to get more out of their therapy. I believe that developing your skills of listening to all parts of you, can be helpful as a precursor to counselling sessions – whether with me or another therapist.
Focusing for therapists
Focusing is a great resource for counsellors and therapists to help them manage their own thoughts and feelings stimulated during sessions with clients. Some counsellors find it difficult, sometimes, to engage with their own personal therapy, because a sense of competition or fear of being judged by their therapist can hamper their ability to be honest during sessions. The emphasis in Focusing is on developing the client’s relationship with themselves, more so than their relationship with the Focusing teacher. I don’t need to know any history or events and I don’t need to know what a particular feeling, memory etc, is connected to, in order to support your process, which means that Focusing may be experienced as a safer space than counselling at times. In addition, because I don’t need to know about the content, I can offer Focusing to people that I have existing relationships with, in a way that I would never do with counselling.
I find it hard to describe exactly what Focusing is, in a way that really conveys its essence! The best way to really understand it is to try it for yourself. If it sounds like something you’d be interested in – please get in touch with me.
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.
I often get pissed off when people talk about resilience – or more specifically when resilience is couched in terms that imply it’s an individual’s problem to solve. A classic is the client who worked in an organisation which started putting posters up around the place on ‘how to be more resilient’ – trying to paper over the cracks by shifting the responsibility to the individual, from the reality of an underfunded, understaffed environment where people were burning out by being asked to work at an unsustainable level.
It’s a national and societal narrative, not just a job one. Resilience is a product of being physically, mentally and emotionally well and healthy. How can we expect people to be resilient if they aren’t paid a living wage? How can we expect people to be resilient if it’s impossible for them to secure healthcare? How can we expect people to be resilient if they are unable to afford to feed themselves with healthy, not over-processed food?
Inequality in the UK is among the worst in the ‘developed’ world and has got steadily more extreme in recent decades; an unequal society is not a resilient one, although it may produce individuals who look resilient because they manage to keep coping – just – even in the worst circumstances. That way those at the top of the pile get to ‘admire the fortitude of the poor’ while not considering the impact on the overall health of the people in question.
Long story short, I think the subject of resilience has become manipulated to help businesses and governments weasel out of their responsibilities, responsibilities required in a compassionate society that looks after the less-privileged as well as the over-privileged. Reflecting on how an individual’s resilience is about more than how strong their own little island of self is, pushed me to thinking about the role of connection in how resilient we are.
I think of this in 4 layers, like concentric circles:
Connection to self
Connection to people
Connection to community
Connection to the world
Connection to self
This is what I mentioned at the start – the ability to check in with myself on what’s bothering me, and to be able to create some space for the part of me that’s troubled, without making it wrong or without reacting to it. If I’m connected to myself I’m more able to respond to my needs, both physical and emotional. Improving my ability to hear those needs means that less energy is expended by the parts of me that are shouting to get my attention.
For me, that usually means making a bit of quiet time for myself to bring my attention inside. It can also take the form of an activity that I find soothing, often something physical, like gardening, cooking, or walking; these are all things that engage more of me than just my brain, and that help to keep me at least somewhat in the now because of the need to give some attention to what I’m doing.
Recently I’ve also gravitated towards camping somewhere away from other people where I’m forced to be with myself (I don’t know how else to put it – there’s something about the reality of there literally being nothing to distract me that puts me in a profound space where it’s just ME in the NOW). I wrote about this experience in another blog, What I learned about myself from wild camping.
Connection to people
I think we all need to have someone there. However much you enjoy solitude, we’re a social species who depend on each other for survival, and there is something about sharing our humanity with others that’s important to our wellbeing. I’m not talking only about having a spouse, significant other or best friend, who we can open up to when we’re in distress. Although these relationships are great, and important, we don’t all find close relationships easy to maintain (often depending on our early life experiences). Also, not all relationships are healthy for us – and we might in fact need to withdraw from some relationships, particularly those where we’re so drawn into taking care of the needs of others that it’s harder for us to take care of ourselves.
So, other types of contact or connection with people are valuable; for example, I remember years ago when moving from a city to a village, the experience of being greeted by people I’d never met before, if we passed on a walk or in the street. A simple ‘good morning’ with a smile is an acknowledgement that I exist; that I have value, even in a very small way, to another human being.
Working with a counsellor comes into this category too; the opportunity to have a safe and trusting relationship with another, or to be able to say what you feel you can’t say to those around you.
And this connection works in both directions (hence the two-way arrows in the image). We can open ourselves up to be more available to contact and connection to others. I did this semi-consciously when moving back from living abroad – glad to be back on familiar ground, I found myself wanting to smile at everyone I met without waiting for them to smile first. Often my invitation drew a smile and greeting from other strangers. Don’t underestimate the power of connecting briefly to someone you may never see again – these human interactions matter.
Oh, and touch – as a friend reminded me – can be a really valuable aspect of people connection. Hugging, being held, is a visceral, whole-body experience of safety, no matter how young or old we are. (Please note: touch isn’t for everyone, and some people are triggered by, or unable to tolerate, being touched. Hugging needs to be agreed by both parties, so please be respectful of others’ boundaries.)
Connection to community
Again, this is about human contact, but with a slightly different nuance. I’ve a recent example from my own experience. I frequently feel overwhelmed and despairing about things that are bigger than me – most often, at the moment, inaction on climate change and seeming indifference to human inequality. My pattern is to believe I’m not doing enough and at the same time paralysed by the enormity of it (‘what difference can I make anyway?’).
I decided that one way to support myself might be to join with other people, and reached out via a local forum to ask if anyone wanted to get together to see if we could support locally-nesting swifts (whose numbers have declined in my village hugely in the last decade). A handful of people responded and we’re taking this forward gradually as a group. It’s not easy for me – I like doing things alone so that I have control – but I notice that sharing the burden, even in a very small activity like this, helps me feel a little bit less alone and overwhelmed. I’m part of a very small community in this; people who I didn’t know previously, and whom I now know share with me this value of care for a declining species.
‘Community’ operates on various scales, and is where I think the two-way arrows really matter, and link back to the dissatisfaction I mentioned earlier with the implied responsibility of an individual for their own resilience. We are responsible for each other too – a resilient community is more than the sum of its parts.
Connection to the world
By the world, I mean the physical, natural world. Swimming in the sea has become a sort of mental health maintenance for me. It’s just not possible to be doing anything other than just be in the water, aware of my physical limitations, aware of my surroundings. It’s the most in-the-moment experience I know. (See my blog about it.)
You don’t necessarily have to get out into the wilderness, because I know that’s not possible for everyone when they need it. But our environment is rarely so sterile that we can’t find a stone, a weed, a bug, to contemplate. Doing something physical – and by physical I mean anything from walking in the woods to watching, smelling, touching flowers and creatures in your garden – is a reminder that you are a physical being in a physical world, that you are connected.
Why trying harder doesn’t work
When people say to me “I just have to be more resilient so these things won’t affect me” I feel sad. I’m sad because they’re criticising themselves for not trying hard enough, I’m sad that they think ‘being affected by things’ is wrong, I’m sad that they think it’s all down to them – it feels like a lonely and isolated place.
My image of resilience is a growing tree. It doesn’t resist the wind and stand unmoving, it’s pushed by the storm and then moves back into its original shape. Over time it becomes sturdier – often as a result of some of the wilder weather it’s experienced – and it’s less shaken and bent by the wind. But in order to be able to grow it needs the conditions to be right, it needs good soil for its roots to develop and hold it, it needs nourishment.
Resilience doesn’t mean that I don’t get overwhelmed, that I don’t have a meltdown from time to time, that I don’t have days where I think life is just too hard to bear. Resilience means that I have all those experiences and then I recover from them, and the better that my growing conditions are, the more quickly I recover, and the better the cuts and scrapes will heal. My roots need to tap into my inner wisdom, the nourishment of other people, the support of community and to know and feel their place in the greater world. All that feeds resilience.
A heartfelt thanks to my pal Lola, who asked the question that gave rise to this – and who made an awesome poster that says it beautifully.
Ever wondered WHY talking to a therapist helps you feel better? Counselling / psychotherapy works by promoting changes in the brain through the experience of sharing thoughts and feelings within a safe, secure relationship.
How does counselling promote change?
Earlier in the year I published ‘How does therapy work? – Part 1’, which talked about the practicalities of what to expect when you start counselling for the first time.
But that question – ‘How does therapy work?’ – can be answered in another way.
What is it that makes talking therapy an effective resource for helping you feel better?
What processes are at work there?
“Can I fix this problem in me?”
Many clients come to counselling, believing that if they could just understand WHY they feel so depressed, or anxious, or stressed, or angry, they would be able to do something about it. It seems like a no-brainer, right? It seems such a logical process:
It needs fixing
If I figure out what it is I can fix it
Then it won’t be broken anymore
We can expend a lot of energy in the trying-to-fix, and often exhaust ourselves with thinking round and round a problem before we even get to point of finding a counsellor, eventually deciding we need an expert who’ll be better at fixing or figuring-out, to help us with the WHY.
But that’s NOT how therapy helps.
More understanding about ‘root causes’ CAN be helpful – but only if it encourages you to take a more compassionate attitude to yourself. In terms of ‘fixing the problem’……….
It might be that the reason for the depression, anxiety or stress is something that happened to you – and you can’t go back and change that
It might be that we’ll never know exactly why you have symptoms of anxiety or feel so angry – because you can’t remember everything that’s ever happened to you in life
If therapy isn’t about fixing problems – what IS it?
The way I see it – it’s all about the relationship.
The relationship you have with others.
The relationship you have with yourself.
The truth appears to be that many human struggles, from phobias to obesity, are consequences of evolution and not deficiencies of character. Identifying problems that we hold in common and developing methods to circumvent or correct them is a solid foundation upon which to build a therapeutic alliance.
What is the therapeutic relationship?
Asay and Lambert (1999) researched the factors that influenced the effectiveness of therapy. They found that the biggest contributor towards how well someone responded to therapy is ‘client variables and extratherapeutic events’ – i.e. what other shit is going on in your life, what supports you have around you, and how motivated you are to do the necessary work in order to make changes in your life.
The second biggest contribution – 30% – is the therapeutic relationship: the relationship that the client and the therapist form as they work together. This is why it’s important to find someone you feel comfortable – or comfortable enough – to talk to. You need to be able to trust your therapist. You need to feel safe in order to be able to explore those feelings.
I think of therapeutic work as being about GROWTH (I want more of myself) and RECOVERY (I want to feel less wounded by what happened to me).
Both growth and recovery need to be nourished in an environment that feels safe enough, as the client will at times be feeling very vulnerable and exposed as they reveal their innermost hopes and hurts. The therapist won’t laugh at, or criticise, these tender, vulnerable parts – and for some clients, that experience of compassionate, loving attention may never have occurred before. Seen in this light, the therapeutic relationship really is healing.
Another important aspect is CHANGE – which is presumably what you, as a client, are looking for. If you’re content with things staying just as they are, you’re probably not going to look for a counsellor. So, there’s something you want to change, whether it’s changing an aspect of your life situation, or changing the way in which you feel about something or somebody (including yourself). Both involve you needing to do something different in terms of your behaviour – from changing the way that you talk to yourself, to taking steps to change how you live your life.
Lots of research has demonstrated that changes take place within the brain during the therapy process. Although the most significant change and learning takes place during the first seven years of life, the brain continues to change and adapt throughout our lives, as we do new and different things. This is what’s meant by neuroplasticity.
When we encounter new situations or experiences (for example, the experience of believing that another person – the therapist – really wholeheartedly accepts us just as we are), we develop new neural networks. These networks get stronger each time we repeat the same experience – it’s a bit like walking over the same route repeatedly. A path gets clearer as we use it more, and the old path, as it gets less used, gets overgrown.
The most recent research has demonstrated that brains have evolved socially – i.e. that the brains have evolved to connect with other brains, which explains why we can be influenced by the feelings of others. When people feel something we feel it too, by the brain creating an internal model of the other. So the therapist can influence the brain of the client by modelling and attunement; I’ll say more about this later.
There’s a great clip by Louis Cozolino talking about this here:
Within the relationship between therapist and client, a number of different experiences may take place, that support you, as the client, in making changes. These include:
having a neutral space with someone who has no connection to your life situation
hearing yourself say things out loud for the first time (and having them offered back to you)
being in a relationship with someone who accepts the whole of you just as you are
making sense of your thoughts, feelings and behaviours and where they may have come from
learning and practising ways to change your relationship with yourself
finding resources to improve your wellbeing
bringing your attention to how you and the counsellor relate to each other (helping you choose a different way of responding in relationships with others)
being able to experience strong emotions and still be OK
subconscious-level experiences, such as getting your emotional needs met
Let’s look at each of these in more detail.
Opening up to someone neutral
“This is the first place I’ve had where it felt OK to say how I really feel.” That’s what Mandy*, who’d got in touch because of overwhelming social anxiety, said to me at the end of her first session. And many, many clients say a similar thing when I ask them how it’s been – that first occasion of speaking to someone, where you don’t worry about the impact of what you say on them, is so DIFFERENT.
Sometimes, you might not even realise how much you self-check or monitor when you’re talking to family and friends (no matter how much you trust them). You worry that if you really tell them how much it hurts, or how lost you feel, they’ll be frightened, or worry about you, or feel that they have to do something to make it better. The relationship between counsellor-me and client-you is different from ALL of those, and that means that you actually get to air those thoughts and feelings that generally just keep buzzing around inside your head, and……..
Saying things out loud for the first time – and hearing them
The experience of hearing your words reflected back when you share your thoughts and feelings can be very powerful. Speaking out lets that part of you that feels stressed, or angry, or ashamed, know that it’s OK to share that; and to have that received with empathy and understanding reinforces that sense.
Even if it’s not the first time you’ve spoken to someone about what’s going on for you, often people’s responses are something along the lines of ‘oh, yes, that happens to me too, isn’t it awful’ or focused on figuring out how to fix your problem, both of which don’t really make space for your feelings. When I offer your words back to you, you know that you really have my full attention, and that it’s important to me that I really hear and understand just how it is for you.
Being accepted just as you are
You’ve probably come to therapy because you want to change something about your life or about yourself; you might think there’s something ‘wrong’ with you. But although I’ll talk about what you want to be different in your life, my starting point is that you are an OK human being just as you are, right now.
That doesn’t mean that I won’t be able to see that some behaviours or thoughts you have may be unhelpful, or hindering you, but I believe your core, your fundamental being, is right.
Making sense of thoughts, feelings and behaviours
Probably, as we talk, we’ll discover that those behaviours and thoughts and feelings mentioned above, are actually a pretty logical and normal response to your experiences in your family, in your life, and in a society, culture and world, that is frequently dysfunctional and restrictive of natural human growth. You might be reading this and thinking “but nothing bad happened in my childhood”, because a frequent narrative is that unless you’ve experienced ‘capital-T-trauma’ you should be a fully-functioning confident adult.
However, there are many aspects of 21st century life that discourage us from following natural healthy tendencies. These include:
excessive exposure to other people’s lives via social media, encouraging us to make unhealthy comparisons;
product marketing that is designed to play on our insecurities, promoting a sense of not being ‘enough’;
political and social attitudes that put increased emphasis on the individual rather than recognising collective, community responsibilities for each other; and
disconnect between a philosophy that economic growth is appropriate or desirable, versus the real existential threat to life – via the climate crisis and unequal access to resources – that such a philosophy promotes.
Emotional distress is a natural response to living in today’s world, no matter what your individual history is.
Getting a better understanding of the links between how you feel and the context of your life, while it doesn’t ‘fix the problem’ in itself, can help you be more accepting of your emotional experience. It can also help you recognise those areas that are outwith your control, and those areas that you can do something about, so that you can choose where to focus your energy to make changes.
Developing a better relationship with yourself
The experience of me accepting you just as you are, right now, combined with greater understanding of why you have the emotional experiences that you do, are really powerful in supporting you to shift from a self-critical to a self-accepting attitude.
In addition, I’ll often point out the language that you use in talking about your thoughts, feelings or behaviours. Language can reveal a punitive attitude to yourself that you may not have realised you had; a common example is using the word ‘should’ – “I should be doing such-and-such” which implies that you are failing if you’re not doing this.
Noticing this, and making small changes subtly shifts your attitude towards yourself – in this example, replacing ‘should’ with ‘could’ is softer, more permission-giving, less judgmental. The language that we use in relationships is powerful, and that applies in your relationship with yourself too.
I’m interested in ALL the thoughts and feelings that you have, even – in fact, especially – ones that seem contradictory, inappropriate or unattractive, and I’ll encourage these different aspects of you to get an equal say, possibly in contrast with your previous tendency to squash them down or ignore them. As I do this, I’ll support you to make space for these parts yourself – which usually leads to you realising that they’re not as scary or unpleasant as you thought they were, and you’ll discover that you can develop a compassionate attitude towards them.
Finding resources to help your wellbeing
There are two aspects to this, as one place you’ll find resources is within yourself. There’s a good chance that, when you’re finding things difficult, there are tools that you already know help you. In fact, one of the solutions to helping you feel better, can be to do more of what you’re already doing, or to remind yourself of things that have helped in the past that you’ve stopped.
You might say to me “but I’ve been doing my yoga / getting out for walks / going to bed early so I should feel OK” – yet sometimes our need for what resources us is greater than at others, and recognising that can be helpful.
The other aspect is looking for new resources. I’ll encourage you to come up with your own ideas, sometimes by us exploring together what already helps or hinders you in feeling well, and developing further ideas from this. I might also make suggestions based on my experience of what other people have found helpful.
I’ll ask you to focus on the smallest possible next step you can take, because building things up gradually is more manageable. The experience of successfully making a small change is more motivational and encouraging of hope, than trying and failing to make a big one!
Understanding your patterns of relating
You and I can learn a lot about the way you are in relationships, by noticing what happens in our relationship – we’ve got really valuable information playing out in real time in sessions. For example, when I first started working with Mahmood* he would sometimes take a long time to answer questions that I put to him, and I could see that he was thinking hard before he replied. After a few sessions, we reviewed the work together and I discovered that at these times he was working hard to try and guess the ‘right answer’ to my question – his focus was on giving me what he imagined I wanted. This was relevant for his process in relationships generally, where he found it difficult to pay attention to his own needs as he was so concentrated on keeping the other person happy.
Discovering this meant that when I saw this happening, I could bring his attention to it and we could notice what his internal experience was in those moments, paying attention to the part of him that felt it had to keep the other person happy, and checking out what it needed. Mahmood was also able to experiment with not giving me the right answer, or with telling me when my questions didn’t make sense or feel relevant, noticing what feelings this triggered and how he could learn to tolerate them. The therapy session can be a safe enough space to try a different response, before taking that different behaviour into the outside world.
Developing resilience and recovery
Often clients say to me at the start of our work together that they want to get rid of a feeling – of anxiety, or anger, for example. I’m clear that I won’t help someone to ‘get rid’ of any aspect of themselves – it doesn’t fit with my philosophy of the whole of that person being OK. As mentioned earlier, feelings are a response to a situation, a response that has been a natural, logical step for some aspect of that person at some time in the past, even if with their grown adult perspective it may not seem helpful now.
Your way of dealing with an uncomfortable or overwhelming feeling might have been to try and ‘not feel’ it, to suppress it, ignore it, or distract yourself from it in some way – through over-eating, perhaps, or through getting very very busy doing things. In therapy we do something different – I welcome the feeling, and hold a safe space for you to gently turn towards it.
I’m there to pace you, to encourage you to pause when it feels like it’s too much, to help you get some distance between you and the feeling so that you’re able to experience it as part of you rather than feeling consumed by it. Almost always, you’ll find that you’re more able to tolerate these strong feelings than you realised.
And crucially, by giving the parts of you, that are anxious or angry or stressed, some time and attention, they will usually settle down and be less demanding. I use the analogy of a small child screaming with distress – you could shut her in a cupboard, but she’s going to carry on crying, whereas if you sit her on your knee and ask what’s going on she’ll begin to calm down.
Getting your emotional needs met
Sometimes the most profound and important work that happens in our relationship together is the hardest to see and articulate, that we may not talk about explicitly in sessions. This takes the form of interpersonal (between you and I) and intrapsychic (within your mind) growth and development.
As we work together, I influence your brain through modelling, where I demonstrate a way of being that may be different from other significant caregivers in your life. Modelling is much more powerful than verbal instruction – ‘Do as I do’ is hugely more influential than ‘Do as I say’!
I’ll also be influencing your brain through attunement, which is where I allow myself to resonate with your emotional experience, genuinely listening and caring about what is going on in your inner world. Attunement is fundamental for children to develop their ability to securely attach to others, but sometimes we don’t get enough of this when we’re little. The therapy relationship is ‘reparative’ – repairing the deficit. As we work together we create the optimum conditions for your inner growth and development, supporting you to be more able to meet your emotional needs – both in your responses to yourself, and in your ability to voice your needs to other people.
This is one of the seemingly ‘magical’ effects of therapy, that you can start to feel better, to learn to like yourself, by the experience of being in a relationship with someone that is reparative and healing of your previous wounds.
All of the above experiences happen over and over again during the counselling relationship. There may be some moments where it feels like a lightbulb goes off in your head, and something big changes, but more often, in my experience, the process of therapy is one of re-learning or adjusting your way of being.
It’s not a straightforward linear process where you steadily feel more and more like the person you want to be. Shit will still happen and you’ll sometimes be triggered by it and react exactly like you did before you started counselling. The difference is you’ll be more familiar with, and understanding of, those reactions and can use your new learning to recover more quickly from those experiences.
Effective psychotherapy or counselling is a transformation that therapist and client facilitate together by allowing ourselves to really connect to each other in relationship. It’s mutual work – not something ‘done’ to the client by the therapist, but something that is built together. Like any work, it can sometimes be hard, or a trudge, but it’s sometimes fun and enjoyable! Importantly, to be able to work together to create something, client and therapist need to be able to establish a good-enough, safe, trusting relationship where both can be vulnerable to being impacted by the other.
Psychotherapy is not a modern intervention, but a relationship-based learning environment grounded in the history of our social brains.
If reading this has been helpful, you might also want to check out ‘What happens in therapy – Part 1’ where I talk about the practicalities of what’s involved from that very initial contact.
And if you think I’m someone who you’d like to try and build that therapeutic, growthful relationship with, please get in touch.
Have you been thinking about therapy but feeling anxious about getting started? In this blog I talk about the practicalities of starting therapy, and what to expect when you get in touch with a counsellor.
How does counselling actually work?
When people ask me what I do as a counsellor, I sometimes find it hard to answer. I just ‘do it’. But when a prospective client asks me to tell them more about therapy so they can decide if they want to go ahead, ‘just doing it’ isn’t good enough!
So I decided to write this – for two reasons: firstly, for anyone who’s wanting to get an idea of what to expect if they start counselling, and secondly, to help myself articulate more clearly what it is I do – for the next time someone asks!
The questions ‘What happens in counselling?’ or ‘How does therapy work?’ can be answered in different ways (which probably contributes to my tying myself in knots answering them!) so I’ve split this blog into 2 parts.
Part 1 looks at the practicalities of starting therapy, and what happens at a conscious level, including the sorts of questions I might ask, setting goals, boundaries, and the control you, as client, have over the direction we go in.
Part 2 speaks more of what it is that makes talking therapy a useful contribution to helping people to ‘feel better’, touching on the neurology behind psychological healing – the unconscious stuff that’s going on while – and after – therapist and client talk.
I’m writing from my own perspective – i.e. about what’s likely to happen if you and I work together. While much of what I say will hold true for many other psychotherapists and counsellors, there will be variations in the way we work.
What happens in therapy – Part 1: The Practicalities
So………you’re thinking you might find it helpful to see a counsellor. Or someone’s suggested to you that it might help. Or perhaps they’ve told you that ‘being in therapy’ has helped them. What happens when you take the next step, and get in touch?
Initial contact with the therapist
When you contact me, sometimes I won’t have space to start working with you straight away. If so, I’ll ask if you want to go on my waiting list, and I’ll usually suggest some colleagues who may have availability.
Sometimes by the time I get in touch to offer someone on my waiting list a space, they’ve found someone else, which is absolutely fine and to be expected. At this stage, I don’t usually ask you for information other than contact details, until I know we’re going to start working together.
That’s not because I’m not interested in you – it’s because a) I don’t want to hold unnecessary personal information about you unless we actually start a relationship, and b) your situation may have changed by the time I have a place, so the information I gathered is out of date anyway.
Even a brief email exchange agreeing the above should give you a bit of a feel for what I’m like, and at least a hunch as to whether you want to work with me. Forming a working relationship is really important in therapy (more on that in Part 2). If, for some reason, I get on your nerves, it doesn’t have to mean we can’t work together – but no matter how good the counsellor is, sometimes there’ll be personality clashes.
Trust your instincts UNLESS you reach the point where you simply think you will never find the ‘right’ therapist – it may be that something in you doesn’t want to! In which case, try someone – or a few people – who feel ‘good enough’, to get started.
We’ve agreed to start working together – what now?
The dreaded paperwork! I ask people to complete a brief assessment form to check I’ve the experience and skills required, and – if we’re going to be working online – that I believe online therapy is appropriate.
I usually offer a chat over the phone at this stage – sometimes that’s the easiest way for us to compare diaries and find a time that works for both of us, and I can take some assessment notes at the same time, which some people prefer to the form-filling!
We’ll also talk about HOW we’re going to work together. At the time of writing this blog (early 2022), I’m offering:
online counselling via Zoom video call, instant messaging and email;
tele-therapy / phone counselling;
walk-and-talk therapy – counselling while walking outside.
If you’ve decided you want to work in-person with somebody in a room (the ‘traditional’ way of counselling) I can signpost you to other people who may be able to offer you this.
Again, this is an opportunity for you to get a sense of what it might be like to have sessions with me. If we decide to go ahead and book a first session, I’ll send you an agreement or contract to read over, complete and sign. The agreement goes over practicalities like fees, privacy and where/how to complain if you’re not happy. There’s no requirement to commit to a certain number of sessions.
What happens in our first counselling session?
There are a few areas I usually cover at the start of the first therapy session (e.g. confidentiality, cancellation policy), which are also in the written agreement – I go over them again because I think they’re important. At the end of the session I’ll check with you how the experience has been, and whether you want to continue; we’ll confirm further details, usually agreeing a review point after the first 5 or 6 sessions.
In between the beginning and the end, though, the first session varies greatly depending on you. You might have a very clear idea of what you need to ‘get off your chest’ and the relief of having a space where you can do that means that you don’t need any help to get started. This can be especially true if you don’t have much opportunity to talk to other people about how you feel, or if you’re anxious about burdening people by telling them.
At the opposite extreme, you might not know where to start. If that’s the case, then I may ask you some questions…………..
Things the therapist is likely to ask about:
More information about why you’re seeking counselling
-and why now? Has something changed or brought things to a head?
Your previous experience of therapy
If you’ve had therapy before, I want to know what you found helpful or unhelpful, partly because I don’t want to do more of the unhelpful stuff, but also so I can look out for similar dynamics repeating in our relationship so that I can flag them up and we can talk about them; they might be a feature in relationships in your life generally, so we could learn something from them.
What do you want to GET from counselling?
If this is where you are now, where do you want to be? You might not know at this point, in which case we’ll come back to it at some point down the line.
Your current circumstances
Your living situation, significant relationships, occupation – this helps me understand things like support networks that you have available to you and factors that might contribute to your overall wellbeing.
Your family of origin
Information about what it was like for you growing up can be really useful as it’s likely to influence your behaviour and relationships as an adult, and getting more understanding of ‘no wonder I do this when I had that experience as a child’ can help you be more forgiving and compassionate to yourself.
Lifestyle and self-care patterns
Mental and emotional health is completely interwoven with physical health; there may be changes you want to make at a practical level that will help you mentally.
Anything that feels important to you about your identity or sense of self
You may have a very strong sense of who you are – or you may not know at all.
All these areas may have a bearing on why you’ve decided you want to have therapy, and talking about them can help you better understand yourself. We might not get to any of them in the first session, but I’m likely to ask you more about them at some point.
Reviewing how it’s going
It’ll take us at least a few sessions to settle into a rhythm and get used to each other. I normally suggest that we review how it’s going at session 6 (assuming that you’ve decided you want to carry on that long).
I’ll ask you how you’re finding the experience and I’ll share things that I’ve noticed – patterns that we get into, things I’ve not asked you – to see if they feel significant. I’ll want to know what has felt helpful, but I’ll also ask what has felt challenging or unhelpful, and what you think I or we might do differently – for example – do you find it difficult to stay on topic, and want me to flag up when you’re going off on a tangent? Do you feel as if you’re trying to guess the ‘right’ answer when I ask you questions?
Contracts and goals for counselling
I see my role as being to help you change. That might be:
making changes in your life
changing the way you respond to situations, circumstances or people
So, when we review how it’s going, I might ask what you want to change. Sometimes people find this a difficult question to answer – either because they don’t know, or because voicing what they want to be different, out loud, feels risky. But that’s useful information for both of us, too, as there isn’t a right or wrong answer to this question.
You’re the expert on you, and it’s your right to direct the course of the therapy. It might be that I’m not prepared to agree to work towards the change you want, in which case I’ll say so (gently!) and why. Usually this will be because I don’t think the particular change is within your – our – power.
You might say you want to change the way other people treat you.
I’d point out that we can’t make that change as you don’t have control over other people’s behaviour, and suggest that we could focus on changing how you respond if other people treat you badly.
This might involve, building your confidence in speaking out; choosing not to engage with such people; or developing your self-compassion when you feel bruised by the behaviour of others.
And if my suggestion doesn’t feel right for you, we can carry on negotiating, or we can agree to park it and come back to it. From time to time I might check with you whether the goals we’ve agreed are still relevant or whether they need tweaking.
Is it just the client talking and therapist asking questions?
To an observer, a counselling session might look like two people having a chat. It’s known as talking therapy, after all. Often at the start of our relationship, a large chunk of sessions might be you telling me your story – what’s caused you to get in touch. Early in therapy, I’ll probably ask you more questions about your life now, and your history, as I try to get more of a sense of who you are and the influences that have shaped you.
I don’t tend to give advice and certainly don’t tell you what you should do. But equally, I don’t hold back on information which might be useful to you, and so will sometimes share models to help you understand your thinking or behaviour patterns, or introduce some basic neuroscience – this can be helpful in reassuring you that what you see as ‘something wrong with me’ is often a normal biological response to past experiences.
I might also share exercises for you to try inside and outside sessions. Sometimes we’ll agree homework tasks that we can discuss from session to session.
Sometimes I teach a practice called ‘Focusing’ (read about it here) during a session. This is somewhat similar to mindfulness. It can be really helpful as a way of learning to respond to very strong emotions in a way that doesn’t involve avoiding them or being driven by them; instead, you can learn to acknowledge that they’re there and ‘sit next to them’ which can help lessen the intensity of overwhelming feelings.
Doing this in session means that I can help you pace how you do this, a little at a time, especially if you find the thought of engaging with strong feelings, such as anxiety, shame, or fear, is really scary, and worry that they’ll take over – using the session as a space to practice in can be helpful.
Focusing can also be helpful when you’re not sure how you feel, or when you feel numb – it can help you tune in to the feelings that really will be there, below the surface.
Talking about boundaries
The counselling relationship is a very specific one, like no other. We’re often sharing things that are really intimate, revealing the most vulnerable parts of ourselves. And yet this is happening within one 50-minute session, once a week (or whatever frequency we agree).
I’m firm about the boundaries of the relationship, both for the client and for myself. When we sign our agreement to work together we’re also agreeing the parameters within which that takes place. I don’t engage in conversations outside sessions, other than administrative ones where something unforeseen happens and one of us needs to rearrange the session.
This doesn’t mean that I’ll ignore you if you contact me, and it doesn’t mean that we can’t agree extra sessions sometimes if you’re in distress, but – as I don’t offer a crisis service – in general, we’ll keep to the principle that therapy takes place within the session time boundaries.
This is partly because I take my responsibility as a practitioner seriously, and that means taking my own self-care seriously; I’m not good at multi-tasking and need to keep my work and leisure time separate.
But it’s also because many clients I’ve worked with, struggle to maintain good boundaries, which can lead to various difficulties, such as burning out because you can’t say no when someone asks you to do something. My maintenance of boundaries models to you as a client that taking care of oneself is important; this is much more effective therapeutically than simply telling you that boundaries are important without practising what I preach.
In Part 2 of this blog I’ll talk more about how ‘modelling’ by the therapist is a key part of the effect of talking therapy, as well other aspects of how the therapist and client relate, and I’ll delve a bit further into the internal changes that take place during the therapeutic experience.
Everyone’s experience of therapy is unique because every relationship between two people is unique. If you want to know more about what it might be like for you to work with me, please get in touch and we can have a chat.
Get some tips on how to find a healthy balance if you struggle to relax.
I’m just back from a week’s leave. I’m being strict with myself this year about taking regular and frequent breaks. It’s been an interesting and useful experience; it was very much a conscious decision, and because a bit of me thinks it’s ‘self-indulgent’, I’ve been challenging that thought by talking about it – getting it out there to counteract any tendency to feel ashamed about it.
So many people I encounter – not just clients, but colleagues and friends too – find it difficult to prioritise time off. This has been the case especially in the last year where the usual ‘reasons’ for taking leave, many of which are connected to other people – visits to family, plans arranged with others, booked holidays – have been unavailable, leading to many people realising belatedly that it hasn’t occurred to them to take a break for a loooong time.
I feel a sense of responsibility to look after myself because of my work with clients; I use myself in my work, I owe it to my clients to offer value for money, and I’m less effective when I’m less healthy or emotionally unwell. This makes it ‘easier’ for me to take time off out of a sense of duty. That’s just the way it is for me; I’m a people-pleaser who worries about getting it wrong, and while I’m alert to that being a driver, changing it is an ongoing, slow process. In the meantime, if it encourages me to take time off, then I make the most of the result, without worrying too much about the initial impetus!
Exactly halfway through my leave I felt I had to make a significant decision – ‘how best to use my week off’. Essentially, having had the opportunity the day before to meet up with family for the first time in nearly 6 months, my attention up until then had been focused on that; and indeed, it WAS a highlight – being able to spend a few hours together eating, and walking, outside, filled me up. But after that, I had empty days in front of me and a sense of responsibility to not ‘waste’ them.
Of course, reality-checking after the event, I realise that the idea that there was a ‘right’ choice was a myth, and it was being faced with the emptiness of unplanned time that felt disorientating.
I was talking to someone a few days later who said they experienced a similar sense of pressure at weekends:
“During the week I’m just busy with work and eating and sleeping and recovering, then at the weekend I feel I have to make the most of it and often I end up not enjoying my time off because of thinking how else I could be spending it, and it’s almost a relief when Monday comes and I just slot back in to automatic work pattern.”
I’ve heard people say they need a week off just to get used to being on holiday, to let go of the feeling they should be ‘doing’, after which they can start actually enjoying it. But sometimes we only have a week, or even a few days (or a weekend).
And it can spiral into self-criticism too; for example I felt anxious about how to use my time off, then felt guilty for being bothered by such a first-world problem – ‘poor me, I’ve got a break’. It can sometimes take me a while to pull back, to recognise that yes, I am fortunate, and no, feeling guilty about it doesn’t make one jot of difference to people worse off than me, any more than enjoying it would.
So how to deal with that anxiety and fear of getting it wrong? For me, learning to tolerate that thought or feeling, rather than distracting myself from it by getting busy, has helped. I recognise it – not immediately, I’m not that expert – for what it is, a thought generated by my perfectionist tendencies, rather than an actual real-life risk. Being able to sit with it for a time helps it feel less urgent.
A few other things that I’ve found are useful:
1. Using my Focusing practice to sense bodily what I need.
You can read more about Focusing at How to ease coronavirus-related anxiety. ‘Clearing a space’ was a particularly useful exercise in my week off. Once I had settled inside myself I used the phrase ‘what’s stopping me feeling really fine right now’, seeing what appeared, acknowledging it and putting it aside. This is particularly helpful when there’s a few practical problems or life events that take up mental space. You can read about clearing a space here.
2. Giving myself options.
Sometimes ‘sensing into what I need’ can bring an urge to hide away or retreat. While hibernating is OK, I know from previous experience that connecting to the world by getting outside, getting moving, or being with people is often better at getting me ‘unstuck’, even if it feels like an effort initially. Sometimes it can be helpful to give myself options – ‘How do I feel about X? or Y?’ – and seeing what my gut response is. If I have a week off, making just one plan for something I usually enjoy takes some of the pressure off figuring it out.
3. Remembering that there’s no ONE right answer.
The reality is that whatever I feel I need, it has to fit in with life. Yes, it might sound great to be able to always follow my sense of what I need at any moment, but realistically it’ll be dependent on time, resources, other people, etc. So finding something that’s, say 60 – 70% good right now, rather than looking for the perfect answer, is fine. Good enough for now IS actually, sometimes, the perfect answer. I was talking to a friend who said:
“I had a few things I really wanted to do, things I like doing, but I felt like going back to bed. And when I was sitting in bed, I was thinking ‘Oh, I’m not doing x, y and z.’ And I had to remind myself that I WAS doing something else that I needed, by just being. But it took effort to do that.”
4. Noticing when I’m content!
When I can notice that I’m enjoying the moment, that’s really bloody useful. Because if I can do more of it (right now) then it’s fulfilling a need. That happened to me when I was sitting in the sun reading a book and – having finished my coffee – I thought ‘This is really nice. Oh, actually, I can carry on sitting here!’ It sounds so obvious, but it can be tricky to catch yourself at these moments – particularly if your pattern is that you can only do the thing that you LIKE once you’ve finished the task that you don’t (and it can lead you to NEVER getting round to the thing that you like).
5. Finding a balance.
On my week off, Covid restrictions at last allowed travel round Scotland. There was a temptation to rush around the place seeing people, to recharge my social battery. But one thing I’ve learned in recent years is that although I need people, I also need solitude. Someone told me recently:
“I’ve learned I need to consciously rest more to actively counteract those stress hormones…..I love lying cosied up with a book……and when I feel a bit sluggish or melancholy from that quiet time I know it’s time for a little activity”.
Most of us live such busy lives of doing that it’s no wonder we find it difficult to change gear and slow down. It’s also normal, as you get older, for transition from one thing to another to take longer – and that includes transition from one way of being to another.
It’s OK and normal for relaxing to not come naturally AND there are things that you can do to support yourself to let go a little. Although I’ve shared some of what works for me I’m really interested to hear if there are ideas or tips you have for how you help yourself relax.
The most important thing, I think, is that ANY relaxation is better than none. So if I can let go of ‘getting it right’ and allow it to be Just Good Enough For Now, that really helps. And if that letting go only lasts for half an hour, or a few moments, that’s OK, because that’s relaxation time I wouldn’t have otherwise.