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.

 

 

 

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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 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.