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 crying. Why do I cry so much?

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So, I have been crying lately. Often. So what?

Anyone who knows me will know that this is not unusual. I am a tearful sort of person. I cry very easily – my tears appear to be (literally, figuratively, both… who knows?) on tap. My friends and family laugh at me about it. I find something to cry about within virtually every film, tv show, book, song, piece of art, that I come across.

In my case, tears can really be for any emotion; sadness, happiness, frustration, exhilaration, anger, fear, determination, hopefulness, grief, you name a feeling – it will usually make me cry.

What a soggy mess! How – with this spectrum of tearful triggers – do I, or any of those around me, know what I am feeling, exactly? All that can be seen from the outside is a red puffy face and leaky eyes! To which I answer them back with a question – do you need to know? Do ‘they’ – they being the outside world – need to know? Do I want ‘them’ to know?  Well, isn’t Isn’t that what tears are supposed to be for? Letting the outside world know that there are big feelings going on inside?

Perhaps…Sometimes, for me, anyway… It is most important is that I know, surely. The thing I do seem to know, is that the tears seem to flow for me when I generally don’t know what my exact feeling is. Not only that – sometimes, i know that I am not necessarily crying entirely for the thing that started me off. Sometimes, I think, I have just hit old feelings, and triggered the tears again. Sometimes I’m not even really sure if that is the case, even.  Sometimes I’m not sure that the tears are responding to MY feelings at all. Maybe they are someone else’s? Mothers will recognise the feeling of wanting to cry when their child gets hurt. That feeling that they want to deal with the pain for them. Is this a similar bodily response to that?

Hmmm… complicated…

After many years of trying to get to the bottom of this, after having worked (as a client) with many different therapists who used many different psychological approaches, it felt that none of them managed to dive deeply enough into the place my tears originate from. I never really understood why I was such a ‘cry-baby’.

It took a long time (and needless to say, many tears), but I finally found one therapist who was unafraid to not just dive, but to hang around around and tread water with me and my tears. This was something absolutely nobody from my personal life could do. Think about it – could you just sit there and let a person you love cry and sob, and sob and cry, without trying to stop them and make them feel better? Its not a failing on the part of my people – it’s just the kind of messy thing that only a therapist (or someone else quite separate from one’s life) can help a person with (and in my experience, not all of them can do it, either). Thankfully, this one wasn’t afraid to.

So, by observing this very process, I slowly discovered that I have a tendency to unconsciously use tears as a defense mechanism. They tell those around me to stop, slow down, don’t push any harder; “Look, I’m upset, I’m crying, do you want make things any worse?”

The tears are my body and psyche working together to find a way to keep me protected from pain; “Look how fragile I am already – don’t go deeper, I can’t take it!” Possibly another ‘ancient caveman’ reason why children cry more easily than adults (apart from the more obvious and often discussed social conditioning which they have not yet received, telling them to ‘be strong’) – because their little bodies are not only more fragile, but their emotional muscle has not yet developed – they need protecting.

In my case, this actually makes a lot of sense. I was quite a physically poorly kind of kid –  I hit most branches of the childhood illness tree, had some health conditions that I sense made other kids wary of me, even a little afraid, at times.  My Mum has often told me of the times she was worried about me not making it through with this, that, or the other condition. As an adult – yes, I still am physically, the proud owner of several ongoing health issues (which I manage, on the whole, quite successfully), and am also proud to say that I have had some really close calls and have ‘cheated’ death several times. Another time, another blog post for that stuff… The point I am getting to, is that, although I may still physically be a bit on the delicate side – emotionally I know I have built muscle on muscle over the years. I am not ‘bigging myself up’ when I say I know I know how to cope with a lot of mental weight. I have simply been well trained for it, is all! (There is a very good reason it takes a long time to train for this profession!)

So, as anyone with a basic knowledge of psychology will tell you, the problem with defense mechanisms is that they sometimes outgrow their usefulness. Our preprogrammed self automatically goes to the standard response, regardless of how suitable it has now become to our current circumstances. Is this what I am doing when I cry? Am I reverting back to the pre-programmed self of my youth? Keeping my (what my brain thinks is) ‘still developing’ psyche safe from whatever assault is about to be thrown at it?

Yes. Partly. Although this does feel sort of right, it also doesn’t feel wholly correct. Because if this were the case, why do I still cry when I’m on my own sometimes? (Yes, I do – I’m owning that here on this public forum!)

These tears, these solitary tears, actually feel more confusing to me than any others. These tears have no direct antagonist, only myself and my inner world. These tears feels more tangly and mixed up than any others to me. They are harder to name feelings for, and often, the feelings and the tears pass through me so fast and with such fluidity that I can’t hold onto them for long enough to work them out.

What I do know about the tears, is that they hold those feelings – those uncertain, unnamed and unnameable, indescribable yet very very real and felt feelings – and they help them to move through me. They stop me feeling trapped in an unnameable hard to understand place. I shed the tears, and often (mostly) I shed the feeling. And that feels good.

Moving through feelings is a sign of emotional health. When we feel stuck in a feeling, we feel stuck in our life. Many of my clients seem to echo the ‘stuck’ feeling when they first come for treatment. So many repeated behavioural patterns can be manifestations of this ‘stuckness’. Addictions, behaviours, compulsions – they can all be ways our bodies and minds  sometimes work to overcompensate for an outgrown defense which is keeping us stuck in an area of our life. My job is to help them through whatever is causing them to feel stuck. To get the feelings flowing again.  Because once that starts happening again, we generally begin to start feeling better.

I guess that is why I love crying. And I love that therapist for letting me cry with her, for never trying to stop me. Because letting the crying happen is the only way to move through and feel better. Sometimes it takes a lot of tears because there is a lot to move through. I guess that could be why I am still crying, years later? Maybe I am crying my way through the old stuff, maybe I am crying for new things I am picking up along my way, and maybe I have no idea why I am crying at all? And that’s okay. It’s definitely okay to cry. In fact, more than okay – positively great to cry.

 

On my relationship with myself

 1 IGyM1JKzspP6hgHCuUv2jwSo, here I am, writing (again).

This time it is different, though.

This time, I am not anonymous. I have chosen to put my name to my words. In the past, I have not done this.

I am not really sure why not; was I always that afraid of letting people I know see how I process my thoughts? Perhaps…But time has passed, I am now older (42 this year! Wow, how did that happen?), I have spent a lot of time in recent years getting to know myself, and learning to like, value and respect myself.

Nowadays, I quite like myself.

It’s a short sentence, but a powerful one for me. The concept of ‘quite liking’ myself is that of applying a positive judgment  – a previously alien concept to me. So many things about that are hard for me, and scratch against the values I held throughout earlier phases of my life. We all struggle with reconciling the conditions of worth pushed onto us in childhood with those of our authentic selves. The self that marries our head, our heart and our gut; our three ‘centres of feeling’ that don’t always work in alignment.

For me, my ‘centres’ have rarely worked together in the past, leading to a lifelong feeling of internal dissonance. One that has manifested itself in many detrimental ways; most notably – ongoing chronic illnesses (mental and physical), and a struggle to achieve satisfaction in relationships and life choices.  No wonder I chose to hit the STOP button, right?

I reached my breaking point about six years ago. I let go (threw away, violently, actually) an old way of life. You name it, I either lost it or threw it away. I was exhausted, broken, and I wanted no more of anything. I wanted an end to it all. No metaphor there.

I shut down. I hid. I slept a lot,and ate a lot, cried a lot. I entered therapy a year later, made my first breakthrough (it’s breakTHROUGH, not breakdown!) a year later still , started counsellor training a year after that, and ever since, I have continued slowly and steadily with the therapy, the training, the learning  the ‘breakthrough’s (and the crying – I love the crying – please don’t let the crying ever stop!) Throughout that time my pace has changed – sometimes I move slowly, sometimes I move quickly. The interesting thing i that even when I feel as though I am standing still, the earth keeps turning and so – by default – I keep moving.

And so my relationship with myself has moved (as has my relationship with sentences that begin with ‘and’ — after a previous aversion I quite like them nowadays, can you tell?)

The main part of my work – in my personal therapy, in my psychology training, in my professional practice – the really REALLY hard part of my work (way harder than academic work, than business sense, than any of the other stuff that goes into creating a ‘career, as such’) – has been the job of bringing myself into balance, into an alignment of sorts. Of listening to myself and really hearing, really tuning in to the real song. It has been harder than I can find words for.  It is also an ongoing job. One I will always be working on.

It is not an easy thing, getting in touch with yourself. For me, it has taken a lot of learning, and takes a whole of practise, and truthfully – I still have a long way to go in my relationship. But I use a variety of techniques to connect me, and to keep me connected – therapy, meditation, artwork, listening to music, walking… just as in our every day lives we use so many different ways of staying connected to each other, our families, our colleagues – talking, touching, phones, online communication,being busy together, being peaceful together etc…

So I guess that this is another one of them. Writing. Publishing myself online, for all the world to see. For me, it feels as though it’s a step onwards from journalling.

My natural introverted self has journalled for a long time now (it forms a major part of the therapist training – thank goodness for such a valuable learning tool!). Over the years I have both loved it and hated it, but have always found it incredibly useful for keeping myself connected to a place where I can be open to myself.

So now I am reaching a point where I am ready to invite some of the world in to that place. I don’t feel I need to keep the feelings so private. Am I losing some of the shame and embarrassment I have always felt about being me?

I think that maybe I am. I think that maybe my client work has taught me that we all have more uniting us than separating us; and that being brave, baring ourselves in our truest form is how we nurture that connection. The connection with each other that we all (yes, even the most solitary of souls) need.

So here I am. I extend my hand and my heart within this new blog. I hope you choose to take it.