My favourite books of 2022

Check out my top 20 reads of the year!

I love reading, it’s one of my great joys in life that I feel really nourishes my soul.

In 2021 I started keeping a note of the books that I read. I planned to share my 10 favourite books of 2022 in the run-up to the year-end, but I could only narrow it down to 20.

I shared these 20, in pairs, over the last few days of 2021 – but I thought I’d gather them all together in one place here too – so that I’ve got them somewhere to remind myself!

Please note these aren’t specifically therapy (or self-help) books – there were some of those, but I haven’t included them here.

In no particular order!

No.1: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A wonderful immersive story moving from Nigeria to the US and back again. Ifemelu moves to the United States to study, where she encounters racism and for the first time, discovers what it means to be a “Black Person”. One of those that I didn’t want to put down and also didn’t want to end.

No.2: The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn

A friend recommended Raynor Winn’s first book, The Salt Path, after my first solo wild-camping-walking expedition (and if you haven’t already read it, start with The Salt Path). The Wild Silence continues Ray and Moth’s story as they try and find a place to settle and feel safe, after enforced homelessness in middle age. It’s a memoir, and Winn’s voice is just so bloody authentic.

No.3: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

One of this year’s Bookgroup books, Piranesi is mysterious, eerie, magical. I still have vivid mental pictures of the ‘house’ in which the book takes place – an ocean-filled Roman temple that is invaded by tides twice a day. The reader gradually learns more about how Piranesi comes to be there, becoming more emotionally attached in the process.

No. 4: The Library of the Dead by TL Huchu

A great romp through a dystopian Edinburgh, following the main character, Ropa, a teenage school drop-out who makes ends meet talking to ghosts. It almost feels like Young Adult literature except some of the events are just too gruesome. Great fun for anyone who knows Edinburgh and can picture the entrance to the Library via the Old Calton Burial Ground……

No.5: Feeling Heard, Hearing Others by Rob Foxcroft

This is a book about Focusing (and if you don’t know what that is – check out my blog: What is Focusing?). It’s kind of a how-to………and also isn’t really. It’s not really a self-help guide……….and it is also helpful and therapeutic. I wasn’t sure whether I liked it at first, the structure and pace is so unlike other books, as is the tentative nature (there are no rigid guidelines here) and the mixing of poetry through the prose to try and convey another sense of what the writer is wanting to express. But I realised that it has similar qualities to Focusing itself; everyone will respond differently, some ideas can’t be captured easily with words, it requires both the speaker (writer) and the listener (reader) to engage, to find a way of meeting or making contact ‘enough’.

No.6: English Pastoral: An inheritance by James Rebanks

The word ‘elegaic’ was made for this book, which is a beautiful ode to a landscape by one who is truly hefted to it. James Rebanks is a Lake District farmer who inherited the family hill farm. As a child he watched farmers around him turning to new ‘improved’ methods and saw the destruction of the fabric of the soil, and the disappearance of the creatures living in, around and through the land; in middle age he is returning his land to something closer to the natural/human-influenced state that had evolved over the previous centuries. If you read this, keep going through the middle section of heartbreak; hope does return.

No.7: Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah

This book gives an experience of a very specific place in time, one which was completely new to me. The young boy who’s the main character is transferred from his rural home to urban East Africa in bonded servitude as payment of his father’s debt, and then has to adjust to European colonialism and its upheaval of existing social hierarchies.

No.8: All the light we cannot see by Anthony Doerr

This novel is also in a very specific place in time – that of occupied France in WWII. It follows the stories of a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy whose worlds collide, and is hauntingly beautiful with wonderful imagery and language. I really didn’t want it to end.

No. 9: Natives: Race & Class in the ruins of Empire by Akala

OMG. It’s brilliant. When looking for ways to educate myself about racism, it’s easy sometimes to get distracted by offerings from across the pond, and then to be frustrated when things don’t seem to fit or have the same relevance. Someone on GoodReads says this is ‘essential reading for anyone British or who wants to understand Britain’. Akala uses his own experience to drive the narrative to brilliant effect. It’s also so chockful with information and references and ‘things I want to know more about’ that I could probably have spent the whole year just being led on to other books by it.

No. 10: Joseph Knight by James Robertson

A different angle on the intersection of colonialism, empire-building, race and class. You may not know (I didn’t until a couple of years ago) that Scots made up a disproportionately high percentage of British-born plantation owners – Scottish cities owe a lot of their beauty and wealth to the proceeds of the slavery. Joseph Knight was brought to Scotland by his ‘owner’ and eventually successfully gained his freedom in the Edinburgh courts. This true story has been turned into a historical novel by James Robertson – it has the flavour of Scott or Dickens, though I’m not sure they would have given as much credit to the strong female characters. 

No.11: Silence is a sense by Leila Al Ammar

A novel I picked up by chance in the library, Silence is a Sense is narrated by a young woman who has lost her ability to speak following a long, traumatic journey from Syria to the UK, and begins with her observing the lives going on in other flats in the tower blocks around hers. She begins writing anonymously for a magazine, and the book uses fragments of emails and articles to put her story together.

No.12: Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

From silent to invisible. This is a book I’d been meaning to read, but was afraid it would make me furious. When it was chosen for our Bookgroup I read it. Guess what? It made me furious. It picks apart every single aspect of life and carefully and forensically demonstrates just how data bias perpetuates systemic discrimination against women. Public transport. Car safety (crash test dummies being based on an ‘average male body’ meaning that women are at far greater risk of injury and death than men, for example). Sport. Health. But really – it’s a book that any man SHOULD read (you’ll be furious too, generic male, but not as furious as me), because men are needed to change this.

No.13: Diary of a young naturalist by Dara McAnulty

My list of books read, says in brackets after this one ‘one to return to for spiritual guidance’, which makes it sound like some religious treaty. The book is drawn from Dara McAnulty’s journal, written over his 15th year. He’s autistic, and finds solace in the natural world when the neurotypical human world becomes too overwhelming, and this in particular spoke to me; that at times when I find myself despairing because of the uncaring of human beings, I can retreat to nature. His ability to look at the tiniest bugs and creatures and lose himself in their worlds is inspiring for people of any age.

No.14: Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

From tiny bugs to big bugs – that’s all I’m saying. This book is mind-bending, amazing – I saw it described somewhere as ‘evolution-based science-fiction’ which is right enough. There’s a whole world, a civilization, that develops through the book, alongside a bunch of astronauts from a fucked-up Earth travelling through space for all that time. You read /hear about suspended animation all the time in sci-fi, but the way it weaves through the story, with different people having to wake up to do stuff at different times, the way they age at different rates as a result…….it’s tremendous, adventurous fiction that Really Makes You Think.

No.15: Underland by Robert Macfarlane

Robert Macfarlane is right up there with my absolute favourite authors of all time, the way he writes about landscape is just so beautiful and lyrical. This latest book of his is about underworlds – literal, mythical, literary. Unlike many of his other books, I felt happy to be an armchair traveller with this one; I do not want to do that potholing shit where you have to hold your breath to get round a u-bend in a cave in the hope that there will be air on the other side.

No.16: Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

Somebody recommended this to me a while ago and I’m so glad I read it at last. Solnit writes about the relationship between thinking and walking, and walking and culture…….taking in pilgrimages and urban strolls. Beautifully written, I’ll be looking out for more Rebecca Solnit.

No.17: David Mogo Godhunter by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

I’m getting to know more African speculative fiction – there’s some exciting stuff out there, of which this Nigerian god-punk novel is just one. This is set in a dystopian future, but one where the Orisha War caused thousands of deities to come down onto the streets of Lagos. David is a demigod who needs to, essentially save the world. The environment of the book is vivid and terrifying, and very visual – I could imagine this being made into a blockbuster or a Netflix series with lots of CGI and special effects.

No.18: Dark Hunter by FJ Watson

A book set in a place I know to some extent (Berwick-upon-Tweed) but at a time I’ve never given much thought to – the young squire, Benedict, who narrates the story is with the English-held garrison here, in 1317, 3 years after the Scots were victorious at Bannockburn. Much of the time they are under siege, hungry, bored and homesick. There’s lots of chat about the savage Scots. To make things exciting, however, Benedict has to solve a murder. A good rip-roaring page turner.

No.19: Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper

This was the first book I read in 2022, sent me by a friend. It’s a lyrical, wistful story of a family in a small village in Newfoundland in a time where fish stocks begin to dry up and people have to move away to find work elsewhere. The place, the landscape, the time, play just as much a part in the story as the characters. 

No.20: The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone

……….and the last book I read. Margaret Elphinstone is a recent discovery for me and I love her storytelling that immerses me among peoples and times that I’ve never considered, opening my mind wide open. The Sea Road, based on a real person, tells the tale of Gudrid, an Icelandic adventurer (who of course never got a saga because she’s a woman) who travels ‘outside the world’ to what would later be called Newfoundland.  

Do you read to relax? To escape? To learn? Because you feel you should?

If you like reading but don’t let yourself loose on books as much as you would like, check out my blog 7 ways that reading books can improve your life – it might encourage you to give yourself permission.

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 happens in therapy? – PART 2

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:

5 self reflection Lucy Hyde online counsellor (image Ben White on unsplash)
Image by Ben White on Unsplash
  • Something’s broken
  • 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
repair tools in container with hammer and screwdriver
Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels.com

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.

Cozolino, 2002

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.

Lucy Hyde counsellor talking helps
Image by Mabel Amber on Pixabay

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.

Making changes

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.

Lucy Hyde counselling outdoors East Lothian

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……..

Listening to your inner child
Image by Paolo Stefanelli

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.

big waves under cloudy sky
Photo by GEORGE DESIPRIS on Pexels.com

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. 

lucy hyde therapy words mattermatter

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!

How can I change my habits? - phone counselling

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.

walk and talk therapy (georg-arthur-pflueger-unsplash)
Image by Georg Arthur Pflueger on Unsplash

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.

Talking it out Lucy Hyde online counsellor (taylor hernandez on unsplash)
Image Taylor Hernandez on Unsplash

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.

Cozolino, 2016

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.

* not clients’ real names

help with depression

References and further information

The empirical case for the common factors in therapy by Asay & Lambert

The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy by Louis Cozolino

Why Therapy Works by Louis Cozolino

There are various interesting articles and short videos by Dr Cozolino at drloucozolino

Counselling and neuroscience

Strengthening neural connections through meditation

What happens in therapy

What is attunement?