On how The Arts help us feel ‘all the feels’

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I had a request  yesterday, for a online magazine comment  about the efficacy of music in therapy. I declined the offer, not being a fully qualified and registered music therapist (for more info on this, see https://www.bamt.org/), but it got me thinking and considering how I feel about and make use music, art, drama and other creative avenues within therapy.

I am a huge believer in creativity. I deem our creativity to be part of the essence of our humanity. I believe that unlocking, channelling, making use of, and enjoying our ability to be creative is often the key to unblocking some of the issues that can hold us back in life. In my opinion, when the creativity can flow, so can the ‘qi’ – the lifeforce. I suppose that makes my approach to therapy a kind of ‘feng shui’ for the psyche 😉

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What is it about creativity and the arts that I find so exciting therapeutically? Most specifically, it is the way it expands our metaphorical vocabulary. By that, I mean the way it gives us access to a whole range of thoughts, feelings, emotions, experiences that are impossible to articulate.

Ever been stopped dead by a piece of music? Brought to tears by a scene in a film or play? Felt a rush of ‘emotion’ (for want of a better word) at a piece of art, or a poem? Those are the feelings I am talking about. For me, this little excerpt is a surefire short cut to that ‘feeling spectrum’;

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGsKzZtRwxw

It does it for me, every time! So many feelings that I can’t describe. All the feels.

Know what I’m talking about now? Thought so…

There is a theorist called Gendlin, who writes extensively about this sensation, and is often referred to in psychotherapeutic literature;

“Those who were successful in therapy came to an inner knowing which Gendlin called the “felt sense”, “a special kind of internal bodily awareness … a body-sense of meaning” (Gendlin, 1981: 10) which the conscious mind is initially unable to articulate. … That feeling is a felt sense.” (Embodied Situated Cognition /The Felt Sense – Embodiment Resources
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He is basically saying that for therapy to really be effective, to have really taken root within us and made real movement or change,  an inner part of us has to have been activated. A part of us that we can’t describe, can’t simply ‘go to’ on a whim when we choose. It is an ‘extra sensory’ part of us. It is a place which is close to intuition, a sixth sense kind of place, a hunch, but it goes way beyond that too, as it encompasses many other indescribable feelings, thoughts and emotions too. The only thing I can say is ‘you’ll know it when you feel it’ – and anyone who has had good, effective therapy will know what I mean by that (Jeeez, I am suddenly aware of the parallel that can be drawn between the way I am describing this feeling, and the way really good sexual feelings are often described – and I am purposely going to draw your attention to that and leave it there, because this really is an awakening that takes place on a similar level, when it happens properly!)

So, this hard to reach, seemingly readily inaccessible place needs to be approached somehow. And we, being humans, are all complete individuals with totally different internal roadmaps to this place.  Indeed, this place looks and feels very different to every one of us, and is usually stumbled upon by surprise as we have no idea what or where we are even looking for! So – for me – as the therapist, or ‘tour guide’ – a trip into the unknown is a good place to start, and we all have that doorway to the unknown available to us through art.
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So how do I help clients to access that? Empathy. I sit with them. I hold space for them. I try to enter into their world with them, feel their perception, get a real sense of who they are and then encourage them to gently push at that so that they can hold, savour and appreciate their uniqueness the way I do. I try to help them find their loves, their hates, their excitement and their disappointment, and if possible, I try to help them channel that into a place of their own creation. Cultural touchstones help us find commonality. The feeling of sharing that special place can encourage us to have confidence and affection for it, and with that comes a sense of knowing and enjoying ourselves. Once in that creative place, ‘flow’ can happen, (In positive psychology, flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity ) and in the state of ‘flow’ healing can really happen. Who knows? That thing that is created could be epic, and might change the world. Equally, it might never leave our therapy room, and it doesn’t matter either way. It is all valid and important and life changing and valuable.

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I love the popular phrase ‘all the feels’, because to me, it captures something of that felt sense. When I feel a client’s feels, and I know that I have helped a client get in touch with their ‘feels’, I know that we have taken real steps towards self actualising, towards getting in touch with the authentic self, and that – to me – is what therapy is all about.

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On my feelings, and how I make use of them in therapy

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I have been reflecting  today, on an aspect I consider to be one of the most important parts of my job – my connection to my feelings.

In relevance to my therapeutic framework, my feelings are used as my connection to humanity, and are a part of the way I connect myself with my whole human experience – and hopefully, help my clients to do the same.

I have just come from a final session with a client with whom I had been working for a long time, and feel full of those emotions that endings can bring; happy for my client, that they were feeling ready to embark on the next chapter of their life – sad that I was not going to see them again – excited about what the future might bring for them, armed with their new knowledge of themselves  – proud of the work that we have accomplished together, and many other feelings besides.

At the end of our session I felt that I wanted to give my client a goodbye hug as we parted company. Now, I know that hugging a client is highly contentious issue in therapy. Boundaries (of every kind) are a big deal for us all, in life, and therapy is a place where this is often worked out. As such, as a therapist, I am always extremely aware and  respectful of them. Equally, though, I feel that warmth, empathy, and a sense of humanity are just as important to MY way of practising psychotherapy. I know that it is isn’t that way for every approach to therapy, and every therapist out there – many would see a hug as crossing a boundary too far – so i feel  that I want to explain my reasoning for this.

Firstly, I would like to clarify that I do not hug, or even want to hug, all my clients! It is absolutely NOT a staple part of therapy with me!  I am using this (well considered and deemed appropriate) action as an example of a feeling led intervention on my part. Because  what I do really do in ALL therapy,  is acknowledge and attend to my feelings towards and with my client throughout every part of the therapeutic process. If I have a hunch that my feeling is relevant, and that it would be productive for the therapy to express it, I do so. Once I have become aware of and made sense of it. I usually have a sense that if it is felt strongly enough to want to mention it – it is most likely to be relevant.

After all, one of the fundamental beliefs of psychotherapy is that the therapy room is a microcosm of the client’s world. That is to say that if it goes on the therapy room , it goes on in the client’s life. This principle guides me with my client throughout the entire therapeutic process. I use my feelings as a tool offering me an indescribable sensory glimpse into my client’s world; they can guide me with how the client feels, as well as giving me insight as to how the people around them probably feel towards them – often in a far more accurate way than straight-up verbalising does.

The trouble is, you see, that very thing that often brings us to therapy  – the ‘incongruence’ as Carl Rogers called it – is often a master of disguise. It takes our feelings and it tangles them up, it dresses them up in other things, it makes them hard for us to recognise and understand. It is often hard to talk about feelings, so hard that we get overwhelmed and don’t where to begin when asked about them. (I have very clear memories of my ‘bad old days’ – before I learned how to understand my feelings – simply dissolving into tears whenever my doctor or therapist asked me how I was. The tears were an uncontrolled indicator of how beseiged my poor brain was!)index

A massive part of my training as a therapist was me learning about my own feelings, how they impact on me and those around me, and where they have come from.  This helps me to separate my feelings from those of my client. A huge part of my job involves me and my client untangling and identifying their feelings. We pull them apart from out-dated defence mechanisms they have become welded to, prise them off misguided beliefs, tease them away from ancient narratives and only then we can start working out where they come from and how we can best deal with them. The knowledge I have of my own process with this is invaluable when trying to help my client effectively.

Freud’s initial concept of psychonanalysis was born of his observation of suppressed feelings leading to illness. It led to his ‘discovery’ of the unconscious mind – an idea that had not been considered before he suggested it. Early psychoanalysis was all about making the unconscious conscious, and that premise has not altered vastly over the years. (Sure, I would like to hope that modern therapists do more than that too, but really this constitutes the meat and bones of therapeutic work)

Feelings provide a pathway into the unconscious.They can set off a chain of bodily responses and events that we are quite unaware and out of control of.  Modern neuroscience has given us a a way of literally seeing  them lighting up brain scans -amazingly, we can actually watch the pathways brighten and pulse as the feelings are experienced. We can now see how much more there is going on within our astonishing bodies  than we may have previously been aware of.  What a gift! How Freud would have marvelled at that – although I’m sure that he would have noted that the scans reinforced ideas that he had already posited.

If we are clever, and develop our self-awareness well, we can follow our feelings and create a ‘map’ of where they lead us. Our brains are so magnificent and complex, and (most importantly) malleable, that we can then decide whether we want to continue following that map, or whether we want to try out a new route. This is often a good idea. After all, if the road map keeps leading us to a place we dont want to be in, why would we stay on the same route? Of course, its not always easy. A well trodden in pathway is often easier to take than a new unknown course.

So, back to the hug.

Sensing that perhaps it was something that they felt that they wanted too – and after asking them if it was ok – we hugged our farewell. My client seemed very relieved that I had suggested the hug, saying that it was what they had wanted but that they were unsure of protocol, and did not want to ‘break the rules’. It felt like a good way to end our work, and our hug spoke a thousand words that would have been very hard to say. I’m glad we hugged. (If therapy had been continuing, I would have been interested to explore their feelings surrounding ‘rules’, but thats another story, and tangent I cannot go to right now)so-many-feelings

That hug was full of  feelings that cannot be expressed verbally at the ending of a lengthy and productive piece of work. A long, intimate, intense (at times), relationship had been built. So much stuff had been felt, examined, considered, discussed, played with and understood. Lots more hadn’t been, couldn’t be – after all, we get way more feelings than we know what to do with. All the more reason, in my opinion, to act on the ones we do know what to do with  especially when we instinctively know exactly what to do with them. I just knew that a hug was right, on this occasion, and i took a leap and asked if that was a reciprocal feeling. Turns out it was. It spoke. It said way more than either I or the client could. Stuff that clearly needed to be said, otherwise we wouldn’t have both felt that we needed it. Did it add a new piece on to our ‘neural road maps’? Perhaps. Perhaps it underlined the biggest lesson therapy can possibly give any of us?

That we are human, and that our feelings are a huge part of what make us so, and that we have so many different ways of expressing and using those feelings. Why not make use of them? Paint with the whole palette, not just black and white.

Isn’t that an ultimately positive lesson to take from therapy? Isn’t the ‘incongruence’, the ‘sickness’, the unhappy or uncomfortable feelings that led us into therapy in the first instance, our body (which includes our mind, of course) reminding us that it needs to be used properly and as fully as can be, in order to work well?

I think so.

 

 

 

On Self-Disclosure and why I choose it, as a therapist

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I feel compelled to write about an issue that was raised in a recent supervision session of mine – the highly contentious counselling issue of ‘self-disclosure’ (in other words – giving the client any of our own personal information) It is an issue of great debate amongst counsellors and psychotherapists, and raises some very strong opinions –mostly negative. After all, original Freudian psychotherapy required the therapist to provide a blank canvas and space for the client to fill with the workings of their unconscious mind. For many years, clients lay down on a couch facing away from the therapist to facilitate this process, whist the therapist said little or nothing throughout the session, but took copious quantities of notes – giving us our therapy stereotype that we all know and (maybe) love, or (sometimes) fear.

I didn’t realise I felt quite as passionately I do about the subject until quite recently, when I started to realise that I was self disclosing reasonably frequently. So with trepidation I cautiously mentioned it to my supervisor, knowing that it was something I had to revisit and explore. I was right to be nervous, as my therapist met my confession  – yes, that was how it felt – with a look of concerned shock and the response that she would never recommend this usually.

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Here is where one of my character flaws kicked in before I could control it (yes, I own this), and my rebellious streak took over. Seeing her response, I couldn’t stop myself from pushing the envelope, and (maybe exaggerating some) I blurted out “Oh yes, I self-disclose all the time these days!”

Did I say that just to see the look on her face, and make her eyes widen? Did I want to play the disobedient child in order to test her ‘mothering’ skills (she is a relatively new supervisor to me – so it is possible) Am I so used to being provocative, and posing alternative ways of thinking, that I wanted to show her how competent I actually am? Or did I simply want to be completely congruent and own the fact that I am wholly myself in the therapy room – the exact same person as I am whilst out and about in the world?

Of course, she questioned me further on my statement (after all – what kind of therapist or supervisor wouldn’t?) and I found both all of the above, whilst going along on a train of thought that I hadn’t expected, and that my younger therapist self would have been quite surprised to hear. It took me back to my training;

 

One of my clearest memories of my first counselling placement as a trainee was of the final session I had with my very first long-term client. As you can imagine, this being my first proper job in the field, I was very keen to get things right, and wanted to make sure I did everything properly every step of the way, to the point where my self-awareness was often painful, and often extremely rigorous and perhaps heavy-handed at times. Although I had explicitly mentioned to him (whilst preparing for our ending) that the organisation I worked for did not allow us to accept any gifts, he had brought me one anyway. It was a lump of cheese –  and an extremely nice one too. I was surprised – taken aback, even, and I told him so.

 Why had he brought me a gift when I had clearly told him that he mustn’t, and how on earth did he know that I was such a lover of cheeses? He laughed, and told me that our therapy sessions hadn’t just been about me getting to know him – it had been just as important for him to get to know me, so that he could trust me properly.

He said that he had noticed my eyes widening every time he mentioned cheese in a recipe (he was a real food-lover, and had often discussed what he planned to cook that weekend) and that it had felt important to him knowing that I shared his enthusiasm for this. He explained that he knew that I was not supposed to give too much away about myself, but that he also sensed that I was a bit of a maverick, and that I would probably not mind him breaking the rules on this one harmless instance. That too was an important quality for him to find in a therapist, as he wanted therapy to be a place where he could find his own way in his life from now on, and not be encouraged to necessarily tow the line and keep the status quo.

What had I learned from this experience?

Firstly, that I have clearly got an extremely expressive face (!) and that I am not always aware of what it is doing. (You can take the girl out of drama training but you can’t take the drama training out of the girl, it seems)

Secondly, sometimes things come out sideways for a reason, and that may be because the client finds it important to know certain things about their therapist. Sure, it is most definitely THEIR space, and the disclosure should be kept to a minimum, but it is often important for the client to know they are working with a human being. Even if that human being is a bit (ok, a LOT) of a cheese fan.

Thirdly, when information isn’t given, sometimes the client will fantasize about their therapist, and make up stuff. Ok, so on this occasion my client was right. But, more importantly – there was relevance to his imaginings. He had needed me to be this non conformist for a really good reason, and thank goodness we got a chance to discuss it – albeit in his final session. I would have liked to have spent more time with it, but these things sometimes go like this.

 

I had learned all right. This experience had stayed with me, and (thankfully) helped me to ease up on myself a little. I stopped feeling quite so self-conscious, and a more natural ‘Katrina-type’ counselling style evolved, and continues to do so to this day.

In fact, when I look back on the period between now and then, there have been many, many, factors  and opinions that have contributed towards my therapeutic style, and my way of being with my clients. Discussion, work and experience  with many other therapists: colleagues, trainers, organisations,  clients and supervisors have all helped me to have confidence and belief in myself and both my skills and intuition. They have helped me to understand that I am the tool to be used in the process of change, and that I should trust how effective I am in it, in that moment. Usually if it feels right, there is a reason.

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Which brings me right back to being present, and the here and now in my own private practice. ME working in the way that feels most right for me and the client. My client, who has chosen me from a vast selection of other private therapists in the area, and who is paying quite a lot of money to make use of ME. So what do I give them, for their money? What else? ME. The real me. Sure, the fifty minutes paid for is their time, and is completely about them, but I do make it clear to them that I am ME in the room with them. I  intermittently choose to share little snippets of information about myself that allow my clients to know I am really human, that I have lived a life that provides me with a broad frame of reference, and if I feel that snippet helps them I am happy to give it.  I do feel that I am working with them for them.  I always have empathy for them. I feel other feelings with them, sure – sometimes for them, about them, always for the benefit of THEIR process. I work humanistically, primarily. This means I am a human being working from the present moment using feelings to understand experience.

So this is where my supervision session led me, and where I led my supervisor. I explained to her that I do put myself out there for the purpose of my therapy practice. That I have a regularly updated website, that I use social media regularly, as I feel it is extremely important for me to do so. That I blog about my experiences and disclose on here. That this is how I run my practise, and that it seems to work for me and my clients. She listened, and we agreed it seems that the clients I attract choose me for who I am, and respond to this way of working – in fact, that this is almost certainly why they have been drawn to me in their choosing of their therapist. It can only be, after all – I don’t advertise anywhere else, it’s either online or word of mouth.

Yes, we agreed that maybe it is a little unorthodox in comparison to a traditional way of conducting therapy, but that times are moving on, and that we have to move with them. Modern as the concept seems, I knew that it wasn’t really as new as we thought. When I got home, I found myself revisiting the great Carl Rogers (founder of person centred therapy), and his core conditions, written in 1957 and 1958.

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He stated that there are six necessary and sufficient conditions required for therapeutic change:

  1. Therapist–client psychological contact: a relationship between client and therapist must exist, and it must be a relationship in which each person’s perception of the other is important.
  2. Client incongruence: that incongruence exists between the client’s experience and awareness.
  3. Therapist congruence, or genuineness: the therapist is congruent within the therapeutic relationship. The therapist is deeply involved him or herself — they are not “acting”—and they can draw on their own experiences (self-disclosure) to facilitate the relationship.
  4. Therapist unconditional positive regard (UPR): the therapist accepts the client unconditionally, without judgment, disapproval or approval. This facilitates increased self-regard in the client, as they can begin to become aware of experiences in which their view of self-worth was distorted by others.
  5. Therapist empathic understanding: the therapist experiences an empathic understanding of the client’s internal frame of reference. Accurate empathy on the part of the therapist helps the client believe the therapist’s unconditional love for them.
  6. Client perception: that the client perceives, to at least a minimal degree, the therapist’s UPR and empathic understanding.

 

Of course, he summed up succinctly, in 6 phrases, what it has taken me 1500 words and a jam-packed hour of supervision (plus processing time afterwards), to say. But I think he says it quite perfectly, so I have repeated it on here for you to read. It’s how I work, and why I choose to self disclose from time to time.

Because I’m me.

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On how therapy can make things move

Firstly, let me begin by explaining why I haven’t blogged recently. I have moved house, and have been experiencing all of the upheaval and stress and fun and drama and exhaustion that goes with it. That thing that they say about birth, death, weddings divorce and moving house; yes, yes, yes and yes! Never again (although i am quite sure I said that last time, too)

Anyway, the whole moving process has made me consider how I regard the space around me, and the stages I have had to go through to create the space I want and need. It has been stressful, at times chaotic, definitely cathartic and ultimately therapeutic – in many ways, reminiscent of the counselling process. It’s been a period of massive change.

I suppose it began with me having to make the decision to move house (kind of reluctantly, after finally facing the fact that I really needed to), and having gone through the whole dilemma of choice in where to move to, and the crisis of confidence as to whether I could summon enough strength to face the process. I knew it was going to be intense, tiring, stressful, but hopefully – worthwhile Sound a bit like the pre- therapy process? Reaching the decision to seek therapy, facing the choice in the type of therapy and therapist, embracing the idea that change is on the horizon, and wondering if it is going to be painful, if so – how painful? How long will it take? Can I cope? Can those around me cope too? Yep. The questions that I always ask my clients at the beginning; just how uncomfortable are you in your life, for you be ready to face being even more uncomfortable whilst we sort this stuff out? Are you realistic about the distress that it can involve? All felt applicable to this process.

So, aims and anxieties considered, it was time for the hard labour to begin. I had to pack.

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Piece by piece, I went through every single object in my (and my family’s) home and made decisions on whether or not I should bring these objects with me to my new place. Do I need them? Do I love them? Do I have space for them? Do I want to make space for them? The meat and bones of therapy; let us look at your life, at all the components of it? Do you need them? Do you love or even like them? Do you have space for them and do you want space for them? Are they enriching your existence in some way, or maybe – having once been useful, they are now a hindrance to you?.

I found that that breaking my packing down into rooms, areas, helped me feel that my task was more achievable. Sometimes a whole room was too much for me in one go. Sometimes I needed help. Other rooms seemed much tidier, and more straightforward for me to approach. The days that felt easiest were the days that I let friends and family come and help me, and I felt sure that they were the most enjoyable and productive. Regardless of how quickly or slowly I progressed, as anyone who was in my immediate circle at the time will tell you,  there were times I was emotional and upset, as I went through it all. Looking at objects from the past can trigger a lot of repressed and associated memories and feelings. Sound like the therapeutic journey, again? I think so.

Whilst going through this process, I had to keep check on myself. As someone who suffers with a chronic health condition, I had to make sure I wasn’t overdoing it. If I pushed myself too hard, regardless of any urgency or deadlines I felt were looming, I would set myself back further. I had to keep a tighter rein than ever on my self-care routine.  Although my long (sometimes arduous) ‘object review’ sometimes felt liberating and exciting, I had to occasionally stop myself from running too fast, knowing that slow and steady wins the race. I had to explain to those around me that I would have to work in my own time, at my own pace. I had to learn to lay down strict boundaries along the way, in order to keep myself well. It wasn’t always easy, but for the most part, once I explained my situation, most people understood and were compliant to my needs. By keeping people around me informed and sharing my process with them, they helped me to see when I was losing sight of my own wellbeing; something that is easily done. Also sound a bit like therapy?

I have a very dear friend, who has moved house many times, and is a bit of an expert at it. She has been there and gone through so many of the trials and tribulations that moving brings that she is not daunted by it – she is prepared for being unprepared, unafraid of being afraid and fully understands and embraces the idea that things rarely go to plan. She has helpful hints and tips that smooth the way for parts of it that she knows are sometimes riskier. She has label makers and the right knowledge of moving services, that give her the knowledge and tools to guide me when I want and need her to. Despite all this, I knew that at the end of the day, she could not move house for me. I had to do it myself, but she was there to help in whatever way she could. I found myself telling her again and again how much I appreciated her, and how valuable her help was to me, and how she should really start advertising her services as a professional moving assistant, as it is such a useful service to provide, and I knew I couldn’t have done it without her help. Her reply; “It’s always better when you’re not alone”. Just knowing she was there for me helped. She was definitely my ‘therapist’.

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Now here was the thing that I forgot about, and I am thankful for being reminded of. Once moving day happened – stressful and crazy as that was – and I had the slightly surreal feeling of seeing my little world all packed up in front of me and moved from one place to another, I found myself in my new place. It was an empty shell piled full of boxes. It had nothing familiar or comforting about it. In fact, I found that I didn’t even want to live in it for the first week or so. It was strange, new, smelled different, had different sounds and a different feeling in the air. I was upset – had I made the right decision after all?

I had to start from the beginning all over again. Walls, floors – from the ground up, it was scary and intimidating – another mammoth task ahead of me! I was just unpacking all the stuff I had so carefully considered and questioned, I was completely reframing where they sat. Did this still belong in the living room? Would it be better in the bed room, or maybe tucked away in a cupboard for now? Did I still want to look at it, with this new light, context?

Again – therapy. That feeling, when things change, when WE change, that maybe it was easier before? It was certainly more comfortable. It often is quite uncomfortable for quite a while, as one gets used to a new way of living, a new way of being. It is also uncomfortable for those around you, as they struggle with the changes in you, and the changes in the way they have to adjust to living with the newer grown version of you. Sometimes they adjust with you, sometimes they can’t cope with it. Change is always a struggle. It is never easy. But if it is a growth, as we work for in therapy, it is almost certainly worthwhile and worth suffering through it. Most people would agree that the most valuable things in life generally are.

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So, slowly, I am getting settled, fixing things up around this place so that they suit me, unpacking my old stuff into the new space, and taking the opportunity to introduce some new things too. Some of them are things I have been considering for a long time, feeling like now is the right time to introduce them. Others are more impulsive. Some have been mistakes and some have been brilliant, and have made my life so much better.  It has been a bit of trial and error, with varying degrees of success. I have learned new skills, and discarded old ways of doing things (note to self; upcycling can be fun and successful, just don’t ever try to rush it and paint over old paint without sanding and priming first! Understand your own limitations – sometimes it pays to get a professional in when it comes to laying floors! Etc…)

All in all, the process has been liberating, exciting, scary, uncomfortable, exhausting and very, very, creative. Therapeutic – even (!) It has taken me to a new place, hopefully a better one. One where I feel happy and comfortable – a space I want to live in.

To me, this mirrors the ultimate aims of therapy. We all have the power to create our own space around us (even if that is not a visible space that we place objects in, and decorate to our choosing) Although we may sometimes feel powerless and daunted, we can and do have a marked impact on the space around us. By looking at ourselves and how we feel and behave in our space, by noticing our processes, and make adjustments to the ways we use the space, we can have more control over the levels of that impact. We can trust our therapist to hold a safe space for us, whilst we chew over and contemplate how we want and need our everyday living space to be.

Therapists can support us whilst we go through this period of change. They can give us objectivity, comfort, ideas, insight – hopefully, a good therapist will see what we need and intuitively provide exactly whatever that is. Our needs might – probably will- change as that process goes on. At times it may feel that progress is fast and powerful, at other times slower and gentler, but it almost inevitable that change will happen. The willingness of our participation in it may vary, but one thing is certain – we never end up in the same place we started.

So here I am in my new space. Maybe I can help you find your new space too?

On how we sometimes use long complicated words to describe ideas that we all understand and think about

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Existential.

That’s the word I’m talking about.

When I was young, it was a word I used to sometimes hear floating around in ‘adult conversation’. To my childish ears it sounded terribly grand and intelligent, and the kind of word that glamorous sophisticates used. It was a word that described something I knew nothing about. I simply knew that I didn’t have a clue what it meant, and hoped that one day, when I was a ‘proper grown up’, I would. In fact, I hoped to not just comprehend it’s meaning, I wanted to be one of those adults that was clever and refined enough to throw it around carelessly, with the ease of a word as well integrated and understood as ‘crayon’ or ‘cat’ (bear in mind my tender age when thinking these thoughts).

Of course, there is a vast difference between a word describing an abstract philosophical concept, and a simple noun.  I knew that, and I knew that I had a long road to travel before I really ’had’ it in my wordbank. As such I didn’t really stress myself too much, or make any huge efforts to try to understand it (the internet did not exist in those days, don’t forget)

I have no witty story culminating in a hilarious calamitous event that caused me to suddenly realise that I was an adult who didn’t really know what it meant. To be honest, when getting engrossed in life, work, family, living, there isn’t a whole lot of time left for contemplating the concept of ‘existential’?

It really wasn’t something that my conscious thought had a lot of time for until I started spending a lot of time really examining my own thought process, in therapy. But that’s what therapy does. It gives us the time and space to look at our memories, our hopes, our fears, our aspirations and so much more besides– our consciousness.

So somewhere along my journey of looking at myself, of looking at all the events and micro-events, and seminal events, and inconsequential events, and ‘wished for’ events and ‘thankfully dodged’ events…and making senses of how all these pieces have contributed, impacted, made me who I am, and how I work, I came across the word again. Existential.  Now is probably a good moment  to introduce the dictionary definition of it.

Existential ˌɛɡzɪˈstɛnʃ(ə)l/2770380

Adjective adjective: existential

relating to existence.

 

 

I know. That’s it. That’s all it means. It means it is.  My long introduction to it…my youthful apprehension of it… the generally fearful and (a little dismissive) public perception of it as a word suddenly all seem a bit laughable. It is a word that describes a very simple concept indeed. One which every single one of us knows and is intimately familiar with. What it is to be.

By giving it an adjective, it makes an incredible internal process (a process so deep within that it is mostly unconscious to us) the ability to be looked at externally. I guess that is where the concept of it becomes a bit high brow. ‘Objectively looking at the existential’ is traditionally the realm of philosophers, and for me the very word ‘philosophy’ has always oozed intellectualism. But the truth is, we all have the capacity to be a philosopher. By that I mean that, given the time and space to consider, we all have thoughts and views on what is to be.

Which leads us on to the term ‘existentialism’ –  an intimidating word on first impression. I think it has a scholarly reputation because of it’s association with the philosophical movement associated with Nietzsche, Camus, Kierkegaard, Sartre and the like, and the(often) lengthy, wordy tomes they wrote about it. Well, let me tell you – since making friends with the term, and dissolving my fear of it, I have made it my mission to read most of those books. They are complicated, and for a good reason. Because life, being, existence, is complicated. (Do the words used need to be so complex? Hmmm. That is definitely up for debate, but another time for that…)

The existentialists posed the idea that in order to fully look at life, and understand it, we have to break it into smaller chunks. They call this concept ‘the four givens’, and these are;2

Death

Isolation

Freedom

Meaningless

Now, for me – personally – I very much like this and wholeheartedly appreciate that they came up with this great framework for me to use when I consider what it is to be. After all, ‘being’ is the heftiest subject I can think of (and I challenge you to think of one bigger!), and to have it broken into these (still extremely hefty) sub sections makes it feel much less daunting for me.  When considering the double edged swords that they can all present, and noticing our own feelings about them, what it means for our values, our spirituality, our morals and our entire way of being – it certainly does seem that it gives us a very deep insight into ourselves.

For me, when training as a psychotherapist, learning about the four givens gave me my ‘a-ha’ moment. It illuminated a road that I wanted to travel along, and it excited me so much that I knew I would always want to encourage and accompany anybody else who chose to walk down that road with me.  It was a crazy, unexpected by- product of that epiphany, to realise that this meant I understood what ‘existential’ meant; that I was finally that elusive idealised adult that I used to fantasize about being when I was a child. A wonderful by-product, I hasten to add, one that boosted my confidence enormously on one level, and dissolved a myth on another.

On reflection, I feel it is healthier to have that myth dissolved. I guess that is why I am writing about it, and trying to convey how simple yet complicated the concept of existentialism is.

Because life, being, existence, is something we ALL do. We all cope with. We don’t always understand it, and we don’t always feel that we are necessarily managing it well, or with the agile dexterity we would like at times, but we all do it, and think about it on some level or another.

Counselling gives us space and time to contemplate the existential. That is, to look at what it is for us to be. For some it makes more sense to go for smaller bite size and more easily digestible chunks. Perhaps six weeks of therapy is enough to work with, for a few years.  Whereas others prefer to make a long term commitment to it, and go for a long term deep analytical type approach. (A deep hefty Sarte book vs a web page that just seems to hit the spot that resonates, perhaps?)

Both are fine. Neither approach is right nor wrong. We are all individuals with differing capacities for concentration, absorption, ways of learning and being. But one thing we all have in common, is that we all are, therefore we all have the capacity to look at the existential. We just have to find the approach that suits us, and in therapy – it is the therapist’s job to help us do that.

Please visit my main website to find out more about my work as a counsellor psychotherapist, and how I apply this existential approach to my work.