‘Being Positive’ and ‘Finding Joy’ are different

Trying to be positive and ‘better’ to make others feel better is what I’m giving up for Lent.

‘Being positive’ has to be one of my pet peeves. Finding joy, however, is my absolute favourite thing. Can you tell the difference?

I feel I can only write about finding joy if this is within the context of a true acknowledgement of illness and suffering. Otherwise I would simply be contributing to further oppression of sick people.

Some people cannot understand that their insistence in urging sick people to be positive or to get better soon or to not focus on their illness, is akin to oppression, such as homophobia.

I have to admit I’ve been ignorant in many ways about disability until recent years. But disability phobia, is like homophobia: ‘Your pain / illness offends my world view, please don’t display it in public.’ There is a taboo about complaining.

Well, to those people I would answer, ‘Some people are disabled, get over it’.

When someone is ill or disabled and they are told to hide their suffering, their complaints and their distress and to focus on the positive, this can really feel as if they are being told to hide away their authentic and true identity because it distresses others. If one’s condition is long-term or permanent this is very isolating and cruel. For many of us it means we can limit our socialising to days when we feel more acceptable. This is pretty harsh if we are in a situation where those days are few far between.

The implication is that the ill or disabled person is not ok as they are and needs to change to be acceptable. And it builds stress and dissatisfaction in the person who is ill or suffering.

What if…? What if it’s ok to be ill? What if pain and suffering is ok? Part of being human, part of living a life? What if we are not all designed to be the same, to have equal measures of health? What if health is measured by the healthy, and their standards are ‘normal’ because they decide what is normal? What if how I AM is normal? Ok even?

What if you allowed it into your awareness as an aspect of your own self? That you too suffer and are ill? And are likely to suffer and be ill again? What if you could stop interfering with my being and love it as I am learning to?

Are we allowed to accept our illness without accusations of being negative and defeatist and without a legion of people opposing this thought with their ‘vision boards’ and ‘thoughts become things’?

I actually knew a family where one partner left the other because the person who had fallen off a roof and broken their spine would not trust in Jesus enough to stand up out of their wheelchair and walk and believe they were healed. This sounds appalling, does it not? And yet non-religious people still push this type of ‘mind over matter’ ideology onto me with no more kindness than such faith healers!

What if I let you into my world and how I am surviving? Let me tell you about ‘The Hole’.

I have fallen down a deep hole, and I initially spent a lot of time and energy scrabbling up the sides of the hole getting more and more distressed and ill and ashamed about my inability to get out.

Now I am sitting in the hole and enjoying what I can in here. I try not to think about the places I cannot go and the activities I cannot do. I enjoy the comfort and warmth of the hole, I appreciate the hole is more comfortable than some. I enjoy a cushion or a vase of flowers or a book down the hole. It’s is horribly disappointing to have fallen down a hole, to have lost the freedom of my life on the surface, but these things happen to many, more people than you’d expect, you don’t see them but they are there, down other holes.

It’s quite isolating down the hole and I can’t join in things or travel as I’d like. I’m in a smaller space and can’t see ahead. But this I have control of, how much pleasure and enjoyment I can find down here, or conversely how much I get in a tizz about being down here.

Yes, maybe one day the floor of my hole will begin to fill up and I might get nearer the top, I might get out. I know. It could get better, stay the same or get worse. I have choice about how I am in the hole, not whether I’m in it or not.


Down the hole and making it comfy is more peaceful, healing and healthy than stressing and nurturing dissatisfaction. As you know if you have read my previous posts I can find joy in all sorts of things from socks to teacups and sunshine.

Stop nurturing dissatisfaction, don’t get caught up in this is a bad thing and needs sorting, that you need to urge me to get better. If you or I nurture dissatisfaction I end up thinking about what I wish I could do and ought to do and should try harder to do. I am doing something huge and that is relaxing my muscles, switching off my stress, allowing my body to reset calmly and know there is no danger.

Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all. When there’s a big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may just be the beginning of a great adventure. Life is like that. We don’t know anything. We call something bad; we call it good. But really we just don’t know.” Pema Chodron

Acceptance is the most courageous part of living the best life possible. Fighting to be ‘better’ is counter productive and exhausting. If you can be loved as you are and if you can love yourself as you are then that IS better. Better than most people able bodied or not.

Others who urge positive thinking need to examine their urges for us to be better because is not experienced as loving but critical. It implies there is something wrong with who and where we are and that we aren’t trying hard enough. So it’s victim blaming.

A big step for me has been to separate out my current illness and the cancer that led to it. Currently I am in pain all day and night. I have sharp nerve pain and cramps, pins and needles, aches, muscle spasms, burning joints, scar tissue, hernia pain. I have 24/7 nausea and little appetite though I still eat because the people who love me are great feeders and good cooks! I have to be near a toilet all morning and that morning process is tiring and difficult for 3 hours a day. I am so fatigued I usually have to be helped to dress and don’t always dress, I cannot drive and need assistance showering or bathing. I can only do minimal housework and use a mobility scooter and walking stick (not at the same time).

Has it happened yet? Have you read that and wanted to change my reality? Have you wanted to cure me? Or to suspect me of exaggeration? Have you wanted me to stop listing my complaints? Have you wanted to send me an article or a supplement? Have you wanted me to be positive? Have you harboured the thought that I’m not trying hard enough? Have you wanted me to move on to talk about the good stuff? It’s only natural to feel and think those things but please think carefully before you act on them. Is it to help me? Or you?

And now the easier bit – phew!

It is all bearable. I am alive. I have reframed my experience, I tell myself many times a day that I am not in any present danger and nothing bad is happening, i tell myself that my body is different and disappointed, I try to avoid the word ‘pain’ unless I’m at the hospital and I tell myself my body is different, it feels different and its horribly disappointing for it to be so different I can’t walk. Disappointing does not stimulate stress like the idea of illness or pain. I do find joy down the hole. And I have visitors.

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5 of my favourite women (18 of us were at the charity yoga)

The last couple of weeks have been especially lovely. I have had several female friends who have helped me, and my partner who is usually sole carer. Imogen and Ruth have come and stayed in the last week and I spent the previous weekend with others. Several women put pain ease cream (which Nicola first bought for me and which another friend had collected from Hunky Dory for me) on my very sensitive feet. Cups of tea. Hand holding and cuddling I’ve had loads of! Imogen became quite expert at appearing beside me and dropping cbd oil into my mouth twice a day! All my women friends taught each other how to ‘burp’ the hot water bottle and when they drank wine I had a hot chocolate with squirty cream. We all got together for a very special women’s yoga class with Phillipa who nurtured our heart energy. We all raised money for charity (women down ‘holes’ worse than my own). We had a lovely time at Justine’s house sharing food and warmth. I love that female nurturing energy.

Thank you to all my women friends who ‘showed up’ when I fell down the hole and during my time down the hole. You came and joined me without judgment and made it so lovely and warm. I can’t get out of the hole, so you joined me in it. You are all goddesses to me.

We raised £240  Luleki Sizwe and £100 for Nepal at at charity yoga class run by Phillipa from Oakwood Yoga.

Please feel free to donate to either of these charities.

Luleki Sizwe offers shelter and support to lesbian, bisexual and trans women in Cape Town where there are regular rapes and murders of women due to their sexuality. https://www.luleki-sizwe.com/

Phillipa co-ordinates Derbyshire Unites for Nepal a charity formed after the earth quakes four years ago, we are currently raising money to help fund teachers for a school.

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Is it helpful to talk with clients about the psychological aspects of their pain?

I am a psychotherapist, with a specialism in trauma over the last 30 years, who has long been fascinated with the mind-body link and how we can encourage ease of physical movement with psychological and physical experiential exercises. I am also currently living with chronic pain since multiple abdominal surgeries, cancer and chemotherapy. Recently I was involved in a discussion with those interested in pain about how and whether people working with clients in pain should educate the client or patient about the psychology of pain as it is such a big part of understanding and treating pain.

I cannot disagree that education is good. I’ve run Body-Mind workshops in recent years with Alexander Teacher Imogen Ragone. I’ve written about the ideas we share with participants on our workshops in my blog here and of course have used some of my thinking in one to one sessions. I am working on a blog expanding this theme at the moment.

But I’m interested in what happens when the psychological components of pain are mentioned directly to a person in pain, who is seeking help and pain relief. Does it help or could it make things worse? Are there better ways of communicating this information?

IMG_0030In this article I want to examine how the power of a helping relationship to reduce pain can be enhanced or hindered by ‘educational’ interventions. I want to discuss how feedback can in itself be perceived as ‘threat’ and explore the wisdom of making psychological interventions (whether trained in psychotherapy or not).

Is being kind more helpful than being right?

Physical pain (including unexplained pain) is real and the pain of not being understood, the pain of not knowing why you have pain and the pain of trying to interact with others about the whole situation is real too.

If we accept that psychological factors are part of pain then we also have to believe our interventions contribute to psychological wellbeing or distress.

I want to caution you that being kind to your patient is sometimes more important than being right in the eyes of your colleagues. And as a side effect, kindness promotes the psychological well-being that aids pain relief.

While I absolutely believe my pain is ‘real’ and life altering. I accept that psychology plays a part and stress hormones are to be avoided as part of my recovery plan.

What you see is not the whole of my response

I am a therapist who accepts and understands this nontheless I am invariably upset by comments from medics or professionals about the psychological side of my pain. The only thing more unhelpful is new age thinking about how I ‘invited this’ or discussion of the lessons I must need to learn. Such unthinkingly cruel comments show a real lack of understanding of the psychology of pain, the impact of unkindness on pain (it makes it worse) as well as being extremely ableist – the assumption is that your symptom of pain means there is something wrong with you, rather than that pain is a normal part of human experience and we all experience it and cannot guarantee that however much spiritual alignment we have that we will avoid pain. I speak elsewhere about the spiritual path of pain. So leaving the out of touch, ableist, discriminatory new-agers out of it, should a body worker or doctor mention psychological factors in the experience of pain?


I love the theory, so when anyone mentions the psychological aspect of my pain to me, if YOU did, you’d see me nodding and agreeing with interest. ‘Oh, yes!’ I will say, and even provide an example. I am cognitively and rationally engaged.

I will not show you that I feel blamed, that I feel your explanation for my pain translates as, ‘it’s all your own fault because you’re not thinking about it correctly’. My feeling is irrational and I know it, so I won’t tell you about it. I will go away and deal with it on my own. Sometimes I will never return to see you and if I do I might not discuss these issues with you.

Criticism, or perceived criticism, is processed quickly and crudely – due to being a threat. My sophisticated brain is smiling and nodding, my primitive brain is experiencing threat, hurt and wounding. You might think this is unnecessary, and indeed it is, but logical, hippocampus processing is always slower than the amygdala flight or flight process that has just been switched on because of a perceived threat.

Being told something is my own fault has 50 years of history

Remember that being told something is my own fault has 50 years of history, hundreds of examples. A psychotherapy session may be a place to explore this, but this process is present, fixed and in place and not going to magically disappear in your clinic because you, or I, think it unnecessary. Self responsibility is often entangled in victim blaming that it isn’t easy for someone to grasp the concept without touching their pain about something else.

This is what I’m attempting to say. You may be right, I may cognitively agree with you. But push an emotional button that makes me feel blamed and misunderstood and the emotional reaction takes place. I can limit it somewhat with my logic but I can’t stop it. The stress hormones are released and this doesn’t help pain.

Does an explanation help?

Society demands explanation of pain. It doesn’t like inexplicable discomfort in any shape of form. Thus your patient demands an explanation of their pain and you may feel pressured to provide it.

But is it the explanation they want? Or do they want a way of answering all the people who are commenting on their pain and asking for explanation? Maybe an explanation will get society off their backs? Or maybe an explanation will show them that you believe them? Or maybe the explanation will give them hope that the pain can be lessened? Do they want an explanation or do they want to be believed, offered hope, have a justification for their need for soothing and special care?

“Who cares why?” I sometimes think, “I just want to be believed and want the pain to stop”. I have an oncologist, a neurologist, a rheumatologist and a GP and bear in mind that each time I visit one of these the odds of me seeing someone I’ve never met before are more likely than not. They all have theories on my pain – and they all contradict each other and themselves. It’s interesting but it’s not helpful to me. Occasionally their theories are just plain wrong and ill informed, most of the time I already know what they are telling me. (I don’t bother communicating this as I don’t want to prolong the chat, I’m just waiting for them to stop talking and start doing.)

I’m just waiting for them to stop talking and start doing

Whether it’s nerves trapped from adhesions, an autoimmune response to cancer, nerve damage from the platinum in my meds, muscle damage from steroids, fibromyalgia or a psychological response to trauma… I feel better when I receive kindness, gentle attention (ideally with touch) and feel validated as a human being and relaxed. The training of my wellness team is various including acupuncture, osteopathy and reflexology. But I don’t believe it is the explanation of their theory or the depth of their training that helps me. I believe it’s their attitude. And let’s face it even the surgeons don’t think they can fix the adhesions and scar tissue and surgical hernia. I don’t expect people to fix me. Theories are fascinating but they change.

IMG_1315When people ask me why I can’t walk more than a few steps at the moment, it’s hard to say, ‘I don’t honestly know’. I want a good answer and reasonable theory, but I feel a bit hopeless and scrutinized, people don’t find it easy to accept that I am in genuine pain and I can’t explain the cause. I believe this is due to their inability to accept my discomfort, their problem with life that can at anytime bring unexpected pain and loss.  It’s too awful to contemplate that there might be no explanation for my pain, worse, no cure. So they will push for explanation, suggest wise, magical or ridiculous cures and be critical if I don’t comply. When I get a label from a professional, my first response is relief that now I have something I can tell people who badger for explanation! However, I don’t think that this type of explanation for my pain lessens my pain, it might lessen the pain in the neck of all the questions from people.

…they will push for explanation,

suggest wise, magical or ridiculous cures

and be critical if I don’t comply…

My experiences have also taught me that whatever is believed now may easily be disproved later. Current theories are only there to be improved upon and developed or even discredited. The doctors are often wrong and contradictory, as are the researchers and the body workers. I’m grateful for good intentions but wary of any theory that sets itself up as fact.

So the explanation of how my psychology affects the situation, may not be a fact, simply a theory, given under pressure to make everyone feel better. It could bring relief but it could cause stress. If someone who does not know starts to discuss the psychological aspects of my pain, it’s too contaminated for me with victim blaming, dismissal and the smugness of the well, to be neutral in terms of psychological impact. I am interested in your theories of my pain, but a hint of blaming me? Not matter how logical I am, no matter how much I am interested, it sets me back a long, long way.

It’s been very hard work for me as a patient to compassionately allow the truthful narrative, ‘I really don’t feel good can you help me feel better?’. I feel as if I ought to, need to have a clear diagnosis in order to gain treatment. This isn’t true though.

I have experienced euphoria at having my pain explained (the doctors looked very worried, ‘does this woman realise she has advanced cancer?’) but this was because the explanation of my pain went hand in hand with, ‘we are going to DO something about this’. Remember in the 6 months prior to diagnosis I had been a good and compliant patient, going to pain clinic, practicing relaxation, continuing my meditation practice and self-hypnosis. I had had ‘unexplained’ pain for a long time and the cancer explained it and (woo hoo!) that felt less stressful than unexplained pain. It was an end to all the theorising. This is an example of explanation relieving pain but was it the explanation or the hope offered by the treatment plan and the confidence of the doctors?

The cause was a tumour, not my wrong thinking. I was feeling better because I was believed and I was offered hope and help. As soon as you enter the world of cancer, kindness is all around you. No one blames you. For my time in treatment, I just relaxed and let go.

The psychological element you wish to educate your client in is a theory and you do not know how it exactly it applies to them. You could be over or under emphasising it, you could be delivering it in a helpful or harmful manner.

The cause was a tumour, not my wrong thinking

If you’re an effective practitioner you are already affecting your client in a psychologically beneficial way through your current treatment of them. You are often not trained in psychological intervention and you don’t need to add anything to a practice that is working.

Let’s look at the psychological work you are doing. You are providing space to understand and space to be believed, you are valuing the idea of exploring and finding one’s individual truth. You have the client’s trust as a kind, safe, wise person who will help. Do you want to jeopardise that by adding in ‘educational information’ that may push the ‘threat’ button (may feel like criticism) and set a cycle of stress hormones off?

You are already affecting your client in a psychologically beneficial way

Never underestimate the power of the healing relationship. The therapeutic alliance, brings about healing and change, and you have this with your patient. The healing relationship of trust and good intention is one of the most valuable parts of treatment and I’d hate for that to be compromised simply because the practitioner wants to tell the client something that they learned on their last workshop.

Two ways that are not going to push the threat button are experiential exercises and learning, which have no right or wrong outcome, where the curiosity is shared between helper and helped. And secondly, generalized information that is not given in a specific way to the client, such as a book or a video link that may be of interest, ‘see what you think’.

IMG_1478Having a third party deliver some of the education is useful. If the client’s esteemed practitioner tells them something it’s harder for them to critically evaluate and accept or reject. It’s less loaded from someone they don’t know on YouTube. The client can watch and think and come back and give a truly honest response to the clip. It wasn’t their therapist on stage doing the TED talk, and the talk wasn’t about them, it was about pain and psychology. As a patient it’s always enjoyable to feel the experience of a practitioner treating you like a colleague, a fellow detective on the case, sharing ideas. Educating a client assumes we are right and that the client needs educating, how much more helpful to engage in discussion together and to let the client educate you.

‘creative adaptations’

In psychotherapy I like to call what some might call, ‘neuroses’, ‘creative adaptations’ instead. Just as our bodily habits adapt to protect us from threat of pain and remain stuck, our neuroses do the same, it’s the best job someone can do with their body and mind at present. Trying to straighten out someone’s head is just as foolhardy as straightening out their body. It’s a balanced system with a lot of creative adjustments, all interconnected. In psychotherapy we work slowly, slowly, believing a person cannot remove a supporting wall without some preparation!

By all means underline their own understanding of the psychological side of their pain, such as their expression of feeling better when they are happier. But be wary of offering psychological explanations, I’ve had 12 years training and 30 years experience as a psychotherapist and I don’t offer psychological explanations.

On the workshops we run, and in one to ones in the therapy room, I might do fun exercises with people include inviting them to think a thought such as, ‘I can’t do it’ or, ‘I must do it’ and see if they can experience how their body responds to doing a physical task while they think that thought. If you do this, don’t make it personal to the individual.

My favourite intervention for my own pain at the moment, is a Restorative Yoga class where we gently move and experience movement. My teacher talks about mapping the movements as ‘options’ and ‘choices’, she talks about not moving in a way that hurts but always with ease. We work minutely with little movements, stopping and assessing and noticing. I absolutely love it and learn each week about new tensions I haven’t noticed I am holding. I’m open to receiving this information because the teacher isn’t directing it at me personally and the set up is that of no right or wrong, no goal, just exploration.

As a psychotherapist I would often have a stunning insight, years of training and decades of experience meant I could not help it. Sometimes I would say, ‘does the situation with A feel at all connected to what you’re now telling me about B?’ They would pause, ‘No’, they would say. Months later they would say, in all innocence, ‘I’ve always thought that A and B quite obviously connected and no-one, not even you, has seen it!’ and I’d go back to my notes, yes, I had seen it and I had mentioned it months ago. They had not heard me. They had rejected it. This was not because I was wrong but because I was ahead of where they were.

The thing is I LOVE psychotherapy and if I’m honest I do like a good ‘whodunit’ and the whole mystery of a person’s complexity. But solving the mystery before the client is not helpful, it’s about my own excitement and my own ego.

Create an environment of enquiry safe from judgment and therapist ego

When you are teaching someone chess, the thinking necessary for them to win can’t be magically planted into their brain by you. Its best to give little pieces of info as you go along when certain things happen. The person builds up the mindset and develops the skill of seeing the game. You also have to let them win without saying, ‘if you do x, y and z you could have me in check mate’. All that does is show YOUR knowledge and skill, not develop the new pathways in their brain.

Teaching is not about telling someone information. The more it is left to the student the more truthful and useful their conclusions will be. Therapists have to be very careful about their power to give conclusions to clients deliberately or accidentally.

The only way that works in teaching chess, in psychotherapy or in explaining pain, is to create an environment of enquiry safe from judgment and therapist ego.

 

 

 

 

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Pyjamas and Pearls: Enjoying life with all we have

26815233_10155752474581355_6097017042725250857_nI used to do a Wednesday Morning Breakfast Interview in my blog, with various practitioners or teachers. You may remember Julie Creffield from The Fat Girl’s Guide to Running or Phillipa Wilson from Oakwood Yoga to name a couple (full list at the end).

As I have so many kind enquiries asking how I am, I thought I would do A Day In The Life of Me, this week, I’m hoping that my reflections and writing will help others find balance. Pyjamas and Pearls is about the mundane and the beautiful and how they co-exist. A beautiful life is not a perfect life.

Our expectations of how life ‘should’ be and how we ‘should’ be cause so much sorrow. It feels very important to me to be honest about how life is for me. The people living inspired lives everyday must be few, for most of us it’s the mundane plus moments of beautiful. I want to promote awareness of this truth so that rather than having aspirations about how you want to be, you can realise you’re already there.

Pyjamas and Pearls is a fond joke that I often wear pjs and pearls together, because on a majority of days getting dressed might be a bit too much, but wearing the lustrous moons gathered from the sea in a string around my neck, is possible, and stands as a metaphor for how life with small beautiful possibles rather than big ambitious impossibles is happier and how the incongruous can be worn, or lived, side by side.

I have settled into a gentle recovery programme, which has as its central objective, enjoying my life. I believe that my recovery depends on it. I’ve spent my life working very hard, working long hours and running a household and family and multiple projects and now none of my systems work, and I don’t work anymore. Striving, perfectionism, drive, goals and objectives are useless to me now and I am relearning living. I feel like someone learning to talk again after a stroke, learning to do familiar tasks but through a different part of the brain. It might never be as it was.

Switching off the ‘red alert’

If I enjoy my life, I am reducing my stress hormones, I am putting less strain on my knackered adrenals, and I am reprogramming my brain so that it is not constantly on alert responding to stress signals. I am switching off the ‘red alert’. How lucky I am that I have made such issues my area of study for my whole adult life. Now I have the chance to put all this into practice for myself, to rebuild with laughter and joy and relaxation.

This is not about being positive. Enjoying life is not about only having positive experiences. For me it is fully experiencing, savouring being alive. I don’t ignore my physical pain and my experiences of grief or reactions to loss of control. For me my life at present is about connection and relationship. Sometimes the connection is with people or nature, sometimes with my emotions or my body, and sometimes, as you will see, is with inanimate objects.

A Life in the Day

It must be the pain that has woken me at 5.30am. My cat, Midnight has come and is lying right on top of my tummy in the place where much of the pain is – it’s pretty intense at the moment and I’m just breathing and practicing mindfulness. I visualise the breath, as I learned in yoga, travelling in a triangle coming up my left leg to my eyebrow centre and down the right side of my body and then in reverse, I’m noticing my legs, where the pain is throbbing and noticing awarenesses about flow and energy and breath and reconnecting with part of my body that I often cut off from, the part below all the scar tissue, the part that isn’t working too well.

It’s 6.30am, I can’t concentrate any more, the pain’s too distracting, I give up, I’m going to get some help and wake my partner.

You might think I’m unhappy at this painful start to the day, but I’m not, it’s not unusual or a big deal and I awaken in a good mood and happy place.  Soon the long, 3 foot hot water bottle, (such a treat and which can bring pain relief to my stomach area and legs), has been filled and is lying across me alongside the cat and I’ve taken my codeine and two paracetemol. The blind is open and I fix my attention on the outline of the tree against the sky.

Savouring being alive

My first drink is always hot water and a slice of lemon in my Mackintosh china mug. Mugs and cups are important to me, they must be right so that the drink conveys the maximum amount of pleasure. It feels beautiful, it looks beautiful, it tastes good and it smells lovely. I’m a very mindful drinker and I spend time watching my tree as I enjoy my drink. There are a few leaves left and some of the birds rest on the smaller branches while eyeing up the feeder below. I expect one of those fat squirrels is hogging it at the moment. I know this tree in great detail, it doesn’t just change daily, sometime it changes within hours.

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Having a favourite mug and bowl to start the day matters

A bird flies over the park across a blue sky, patterned with branches of the many trees. The sunlight is good this morning, this flat is very light and airy. The sunshine is inside and bathing the walls and the bedsheets. There is a rainbow beside the cat. I watch all this and then check on my phone. I leave my phone in the lounge overnight as a discipline to help my health. Messages, emails and facebook are all checked, silly animal videos are giggled at and now the codeine has worked and I can manage sit up and have my breakfast. I usually have it in bed, though on a good day I may be up and on the sofa after having put the laundry on and sorted the dishwasher. But I always have my breakfast brought to me, which is a luxury of this phase of my life, and I’m hugely grateful for that. Today it’s strawberries, blueberries, nuts and yoghurt in a small bowl. Small things please me, the little bowl with the blue pattern on makes me smile.

Time to get onto my yoga mat ready for the day ahead. I have a large bedroom with a yoga space at one end. And even on bad days, I lie on my mat and either just lie there (that IS yoga) or do gentle movements or physio exercises, depending on which is wisest and most attuned).

Mornings are slow

Mornings are slow, I need frequent rests and I have to be near the loo for a couple of hours. I’m exhausted already, so now is a good time to write. I currently have three blogs on the go, two chapter proposals and some book outlines I am working on and I don’t know which order to start on them, and really I should organize more of my laptop files for my PhD meeting next month. The indecision (and my daily nausea) have too much say, so I get involved on facebook instead discussing psychological implications of brexit and then I check my messages and send good morning texts to my daughters and discuss clothes, swap several photos of our pets and the news that Malorie Blackman has a new book out.

Eventually after much time wasting, I jot down the idea I had for a blog on why it’s hard to receive praise, from a chat with Imogen yesterday, and then begin this blog though I spend most of the time looking at the changes in light behind the tree and being distracted by the pain in my legs.

IMG_1097My brother texts to say he is driving by and do I want to go to the spirituality centre where he has a short meeting? I’m cross I didn’t pick up the message sooner and dither as I’m not dressed. I decide not to go and then feel frustrated. But at least I’m motivated to get dressed and get out. I’ve not consulted my things to do list and only just remember that I need to order a repeat prescription. This is good, I wasn’t able to manage that this time a year ago as it was too overwhelming. It’s quickly and easily achieved today. After my shower I have to lie down for nearly an hour with my eyes closed but I’m still dressed, with a bit of help, by midday.

Racing a mallard

Today we are trying out the mobility scooter to see if it can cope with some of the Sheffield hills. Most importantly can I get to and from the café by going through the park? More opportunity for pleasure in small things, I wear a blue and white scarf that Sarah sent when I was having chemo and blue and white earrings, a birthday gift from a friend some years ago, bought at the Findern Garden Centre. I can’t stop squealing as the scooter shoots off and down the road, let’s face it, this is FUN! I must’ve missed the snowdrops last year as I was so ill, but I can see them today. It’s a brain workout to go outside, even on a scooter, there are sounds and sights and wonderings, adjustments. The unpredictability of a small outing, stretches and uses my brain and it feels good. And there are DOGS, I can’t help but smile at all the dogs as I meet them. I see a moorhen climbing up a tree, I have not seen that ever before, I exclaim. This is the place I saw the kingfisher last year. By the duck lake, a mallard decides to race me, we are eyeballing each other, he really is quite a fast swimmer but I win this time.

IMG_3715Anna sent me this painting

This is my best time of day and I smile at the bus driver who waves me across the zebra crossing and now I’m on my way to the café. I’m with my partner but I haven’t spoken much, except about the moorhen and how pleased I am that I’m out, it’s not increasing the pain and how good it is I have a scooter. I am so excited to hear the birdsong, it’s completely different to a couple of weeks ago, it has the sound of spring, I can hear and smell the promise of brighter days.

I’m quite zonked from the codeine and the pain. I think my parking of the scooter is quite accomplished and admire it myself! No body here knows the person I was before so I’ve not got upset about not being able to walk today. Deciding to get the scooter was just awful, I hated the idea, I hated accepting it and felt silly and ashamed as if I was giving in and not trying hard enough, but today the rewards are here, I am getting out and I’ve had more exercise than being stuck inside.

Afternoon tea

With all that excitement and exertion I’m tuckered out when we get back to the flat ten minutes later, but I can hang the wet washing before I settle down for the afternoon. I kiss the cat hello and have a chat and then with help I am on the sofa with the necessaries, legs lifted up and warmed. This is a cup of tea time. My second drink of the day is usually green tea – there’s some evidence it helps with cancer prevention but as I was at a café I indulged in a cappuchino and now I’m straight into my afternoon drink of earl grey tea. I don’t mind which mug today, but my favourite thing is when I have a teapot, tea-cosy and my special china harebell cup and saucer.

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The sound of tea being poured, the smell of tea, the taste, the pretty cup, the lightness of a cup to hold: I can relate to the concept of tea meditations and the Japanese Tea Ceremony

So I’m here under The Royal Blanket (this is what I call my heated blanket which is a rich soft red one side and a white teddy bear fleece on the other), propped up with big cushions, with this over my legs I’m keeping my muscles as relaxed and warm as I can. Without moving I can charge my laptop or my phone, heat my blanket and put on my gentle, deco lamp which gives a soft warm light and much pleasure. What absolute luxury! I have the remote controls for the TV but I never watch telly before dark. I have my new Echo, which means I can ask Alexa to play my book or my choice of music. I’m listening to Pema Chodron on audible “The Things That Scare You”, I can’t listen for long as its one of those things I need to hear and then think about and then apply to my life or my writing and then listen to a bit more. I usually listen to female jazz singers, never tiring of Ella Fitzgerald’s Blue Skies – it’s such a mood lift.

If I have to do admin jobs (which I still find very difficult) I make it more amusing by saying, “Alexa, play Star Trek Bridge Sounds” and then it feels epic rather than stressful. “Malfunctioning TARDIS” is also better than the ‘on hold’ music if I’m on the phone. I’ve not looked at my to do list today so I’m living dangerously. Challenging my own rules for living! I listen to a podcast about pain by a surgeon who found that only 22% of surgeries for back pain worked. He gave up operating and looked at a wider picture of what helps with pain. It’s a 40 minute podcast and I have had to pause it after ten minutes. I will listen to it in 4 bursts I guess.

Yoga

I like to write in the afternoon and if I’ve no visitors or admin jobs or urgent demands of life, I may get a bit done. Thursday afternoons is my Restorative Yoga Class which is across the park with Rebecca. I’ve learned a great deal at these classes, about mapping movements on my brain, moving in a way that comes from within, always being comfortable and not doing things that will be perceived as ‘threat’ on a bodily level. It’s ups and downs for me and some weeks I am not well enough to attend even a class that is predominately lying and relaxing on a mat with some experimental, positive movements, but the input and support is great and I have both Rebecca and Phillipa (Oakwood yoga) on CD for yoga nidra (a form of relaxation where the body lies still) at home.

Connection with people has always been central to my joy, but my need for quiet, alone time has increased in recent years, it might not be related to illness and may be more to do with mid life and an increased interest in the inner rather than outer world. Still I love it when a visitor is here and for a couple of hours I engage and live quite like my old self as the stimulation of company gives my brain and voice a good work out! I might fall asleep the moment they walk out the door but it’s very important I have those visits, even though I have to limit them. If there isn’t a real life person, there is post, the lovely things I get sent, paintings, socks, books, flowers there is hardly a week goes by without a surprise and a connection to remind me I’m lucky and loved.

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 Things arrive in the post!

Jenni hand knitted these gorgeous socks for me

My view from the sofa, with my feet up and The Royal Blanket warming me, is of a big picture window on my right and the sky is very different in the afternoon. I find it more achy, though equally beautiful. I can almost feel the time slipping away. It’s funny how differently the afternoon sky feels to the morning sky. My morning optimism and happiness is not my afternoon mood. I’m not sad but I’m more wistful by the time the sun is beginning to leave. Maybe it is reminding me that another day has passed, and it’s taken a lot of effort to achieve very little. Maybe I’m simply tired. Maybe daylight really matters. But it’s sort of a yearning feeling. I’m more likely to be aware of loneliness and isolation, of loss and disappointment as the day closes and the opportunities for the day have passed and are over.

 Accepting the inevitable

After some writing, usually something I wasn’t intending to be working on, I will put my laptop down and close my eyes and just watch the sky listening to music or in silence. I like to let it get dark. It’s practicing accepting the inevitable. Then I listen to a bit of my book. If I’m not in a good place this will be a time when I have a weep. I no longer find it necessary to push my mood into more approved shapes. It seems a perfectly reasonable occupation, and as I’m not stuck in weeping or attached to it, it just arrives and leaves.

I’m pretty much done with the day by this point. I suppose I do spend most of my life at the moment in bed or on the sofa. But the evening will bring dinner, sometimes a bath, I do love salt baths, it’s the closest I can get to being in the sea at the moment and as I consider myself to be a mermaid, it’s utterly soothing for me. I will be helped into pjs. Sometimes we binge watch TV while we scroll through facebook, other evenings it doesn’t get switched on at all and we might read, talk, or do meditations. I am happily partnered with someone tender and kind and with whom I spend a great deal of time laughing. Sometimes we have lovely evening interacting. Other evenings I will be completely out of it, either exhausted, asleep, in pain or drugged up. I’m learning that it’s ok and normal and balanced and I do not expect to live a perfect life.

 

A Day In The Life Of Me:

Is it a wonderful life?

It’s certainly a life with some wonderful moments each day. They might be small, they might be short, but they are abundant and endlessly arriving.

 

 

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Yoga Nidra or a relaxation:

part of my every day, enhanced by a matching bolster and eye pillow!

Recent blogs:

‘A Paradox of Neuroses and Wisdom’: reflections from my yoga mat

To Boldly Want

This year you do not have to be good

Poking death with a stick, being a goddess and related activities

 

Older interview blogs can be found in my blog archives or through google.

Blue Skies Wednesday Breakfast with:

Julie Creffield: The Fat Girl’s Guide to Running

Will Parfitt: Psychosynthesis and Kabbalah Writer and Teacher

Phil Greenfield: Core Alignment Therapy

Phillipa Wilson: Oakwood Yoga

Louise Edington: Astrologer

Imogen Ragone: Body Intelligence / Alexander Teacher

 

 

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Same Is NOT Equal: why being non-judgemental does your LGBT clients a disservice

imgresI had [a therapist] that said being gay was “no big deal” to her. She was trying to comfort me that she wouldn’t be judgmental but when you’ve dealt with homophobia you also want it to be a big deal to your therapist. I was trying to talk about how it wrecked my life and I felt it was dismissive.

Once a respected person centred counsellor and teacher said to me that we didn’t need rainbow flags at our training organisation, “because that is just paying lip service, this can be better addressed by treating everybody equally and listening to everybody’s story as an individual and with unconditional positive regard (UPR).”  I had googled the course I was teaching on and organization I was teaching for and there were no indications of it being LGBT friendly. I was looking at it through the eyes of someone considering training with us as a therapist and imagining them considering, ‘will I be safe here?’ ‘will I be putting myself through unnecessary stress?’. These are important questions for all trainees and I thought that we could show that this was a safe place to train if you are a member of the LGBT community. The response I got seemed to be that going through the rainbow flags and Stonewall logo process was a bit excessive and unnecessary. That people would know when they met us that we were safe.

To be honest, my heart sank and I didn’t bother arguing. I had been shut down with the weight of the person centred creed. I knew however that this would put me, and many people, off and limit the diversity of the therapists being trained and perpetuate an exclusive cycle of recruitment and continued inaccessibility to therapy for a large section of the population. This article is my, better late than never, response.

We should listen, not take a straight person’s privileged perspective

I was unable to verbalise this to my  (straight) colleague, at the time. There are many deeper reasons for feeling silenced, but it is no small reason that the creed and ideology of person centred therapy is often seen as complete, effective and unquestionable.

UPR = therapy abbreviation for Unconditional Positive Regard, is a central tenet of Person Centered Therapy yet, I think some therapists use it as a lazy ‘covers all’ approach to intersectionality.

We have to question the training group’s replication of privilege in society

My initial therapy training was a three year counselling diploma in person centred therapy (with bereavement and loss as a specialist focus). I also undertook a four year training in gestalt therapy in the 80’s and 90’s. (postgraduate diploma); a Masters degree in humanistic psychotherapy, a two-year clinical supervision course and later a two-year certificate in psychosynthesis. In addition to this over the last 30 years I have been on additional CPD trainings and workshops in various therapeutic forms, much of it in body psychotherapy, but until I actively sought it out, none of my core training, which led to multiple accreditations, covered racism, sexism, or homophobia. As a trauma specialist, of course, much of my work was as the result of oppression, but it seems that some consider UPR to magically remove the oppression.

As a trauma specialist … much of my work was as the result of oppression

Offering unconditional positive regard (UPR) to clients is a central to person centred therapy, one of the three core conditions which if present in the relationship, create an environment for psychological change. By offering positive regard to all clients regardless of who they are, the therapist hopes to remove harmful “conditions of worth“ (ie all the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ that we are raised with that tell us how to be and that we are defective if we are other than these rules), and to allow the client simply to be their authentic self. Such simple theory is indeed, in my experience, undoubtedly powerful in its capacity to free the individual to become more at peace with themselves.

These groups … are predominantly white, heterosexual, middle-class people

I’ve seen many, many times, in my training groups and my client groups, profound healing from offering the core conditions. Just one thing though, these groups of people are predominantly white, heterosexual, middle-class people, while they will all have suffered threats to their authentic self and learned to adapt to others’ expectations, I have to consider, what is preventing others from training in therapy and accessing therapy? Is being accepting, enough? Surely we have to question the training group’s replication of privilege in society?

Unconditional positive regard does not go far enough, because equal is not the same. Because no matter how compassionate and unbiased the therapist is, both the client and the therapist come from a prejudiced world and an unequal society. The ideal of the therapy room being a space where society’s conditions of worth are left behind, is simply that, it is an ideal. Soceity comes into the training room and into the therapy room, the prejudice and assumptions are never fully left outside the door, because we would have to leave ourselves outside the door. Therapist and client are saturated with assumption and prejudice. Of course we are trained to leave that outside but it’s not possible to be conscious of all our bias. If we are fully compassionate and empathetic, therapists have to listen more closely to the experiences of oppressed minority groups that they do not understand.

Prejudice and assumptions are never fully left outside the door

I love person centred therapy, I see it as radical and as turning society on its head. But it is not enough to revere and follow the philosophy written by an old, dead, white man in the 1950s/1960s. Natalie Rogers wrote in Emerging Woman about her experience as a woman, and the impact of sexist societal assumptions on her. She can show the limits of Rogerian theory due to the privilege of her father, and so can we.  As therapists we don’t have to, I don’t want to, toe the line or conform to a principle or a philosophy that may not have had the full facts or the full understanding when it was devised. There is a lot of controversy and infighting in the therapy world between people who are pure person centred counsellors and therapists; purism is sometimes worn as a badge of honour. I view any purist view with suspicion if it shuts down challenge. I don’t understand how following the party line can be person centred, how unwavering and unquestioning agreement can be authentic. To have such hierarchies about pure form and to stick to something inflexibly, is not the heart of person centred philosophy, nor is it therapeutic.

Therapists have to listen more closely to the experiences of oppressed minority groups that they do not understand

To not be proactive in getting oneself trained and well read in LGBT issues is like a therapist saying ‘I don’t see colour’ when working with black clients. To just ‘accept’ your client is gay is to completely and utterly MISS their experience. Being gay, is not a one off event, ‘I realised I’m gay and came out’, all sorted. Simply treating these clients ‘the same as everyone else’ doesn’t acknowledge the world we live in and the ongoing, daily process of being gay.

It’s not good enough to be not trained enough

When we don’t know, we are simply ignorant, not malicious. The number of mistakes I made in my own practice due to ignorance are shameful, and rightly so. It’s not good enough to be not trained enough. Therapy training is woefully inadequate, but it’s not an excuse. It is out there if you look. Assuming UPR is enough is offensive to people who suffer horrendously due to ignorance on a daily basis.

Because of this, and because of a complete lack of training in all those decades of training I took to become accredited and qualified, I have sourced my own training in working with LGBT clients and other minority/disadvantaged groups.

In 2016 I went to the WPP training Institute in Cardiff to attend a workshop on working with LGBT clients. This was run by Helen Rowlands as part of a wider scheme in association with Pink Therapy. As with all my training this was self sourced and self funded, no one ‘sent’ me, no one paid for me.

One of the training exercises that we used was a bit like the children’s game ‘Grandmother‘s Footsteps’. We all stood at one end of the room and were given an identity on a piece of paper, (gay, trans, straight, female, male, different ages and ethnicity). Helen stood at the other end of the room and read out statements. If we could agree with the statement we could take a step forward, towards the therapist at the other end of the room. If we couldn’t agree with the statement and we had to stay standing still.

The statements were various, along the lines of: ‘I have never had to worry about holding my partners hand in public’; ‘I have never had people at work use the wrong pronoun for me or for my partner’; ‘I have never felt I had to hide the gender of my partner’; ‘I have never been concerned that I may not get a promotion at work due to my sexuality or gender’; ‘I have never felt in physical danger due to my sexuality’; ‘I have never been ridiculed, misunderstood or isolated from people because of my sexuality’; ‘I have full and unconditional acceptance from my family for who I am’; ‘Most of the people I work with have the same sexuality as I do’; ‘I have never been in a country where my relationship is illegal or my marriage is not valid’ or ‘When I go to a new place I do not think about sexuality and whether it will disadvantage me’. You get the picture.

The exercise resulted in a very visual demonstration of accessibility to therapy. Some people with privilege could get there easily and others would probably never get there.

The … mistakes I made in my own practice due to ignorance are shameful

Here are a few experiences of mine, of friends, and of clients that I would like to share to explain why UPR, or perhaps empathy, does involve rainbow flags Stonewall logos and active inclusive practice.

Empathy has to extend to being proactive and informed to make extra effort to walk in the clients’ shoes. Reading these people’s stories is an opportunity to increase knowledge.

“Every time my job sends me to work in a new office, I feel wary, I have to think about whether to hide my sexuality. This is on top of the usual anxieties about starting in a new workplace. The last office I went to, my new manager had an LGBT ally rainbow poster up and there were pride flags, subtle but present, on desks and noticeboards. I heaved a big sigh of relief and relaxed, there was a lot I needed to learn but I now had one less thing to worry about.”

“I truly don’t know if there are straight therapists who really “get” the coming out process—not on that deep level.”

“I have a therapist who’s known me for 27 years. She is fantastic with the divorce, … helping me to survive a breakup, my burgeoning sexuality, my parenting and kid issues, but she doesn’t understand the intensity of lesbian relationships, the wearing down and frustration and “otherness” that sets in when you live among primarily straight people… she doesn’t understand that lesbian breakups are different.”

“I have had several women reach out for me for support because their therapist does not pay enough attention to their coming out. They are respectful and kind, but they simply do not understand the significance of this process.”

I came out to my GP in an appointment, she listened and acted very supportive in the moment, and then gave me a referral to what she called a local support group for people going through what I was going through. I only realized after leaving the appt and doing an internet search on the group she recommended that it was actually “a ministry for convicted criminals looking to rehabilitate themselves and people looking to rid themselves on unwanted same sex attraction”. All it takes as an LGBT person is to have one experience with one bad seed in any segment of the medical community to make us extremely careful and cautious about any care provider we add to our team. In my case, at the time I had literally no gay friends, and I hadn’t come out to any of my family members, most of whom are quite religious. That feeling of being judged and alone is bad enough, but to also feel as though your caregivers may make your situation worse is even more personally threatening and isolating in my opinion.”

“Everyone at yoga just assumes because I have kids that my partner is a man. I’ve been going for a year but it’s just easier to nod when they use the wrong pronoun as I go there to relax not to go through another coming out process.”

“[my therapist] has saved my life … and helped me immensely … She doesn’t truly understand that homophobia, internal and external, is ever-present. I feel that she thinks being gay is one and done. Becoming gay is a process, and being gay is a life alteration.”

Examples from my own experience are scrolling through the list of therapists trying to work out from the photograph, their face, their clothes, if they are likely to be homophobic or not! As a therapist I have had clients who have told me their housemate is a friend and then spend the next six sessions wondering how when and if they should tell me that their friend is their partner. The mistakes and assumptions I have made over the years, were not a lack of empathy and unconditional positive regard, they were born of ignorance. And therapists can deal with their ignorance, this is extending empathy into activity outside the therapy session, working endlessly on exposing our own assumptions including our own internalised homophobia.

Many good naturedly accept it as ‘that’s just how it is’

When clients have to deal with kindly meant ignorance or homophobia at work, at the shops, at the dentist and the doctors, every single day, then having the resilience to find and then contact a therapist is not always easy. To find a therapist and then to be in the position of having to educate the therapist (far more than other people) into the particular issues they face adds insult to injury. Many good naturedly accept it as ‘that’s just how it is’, but is that good enough?

Therapists can deal with their ignorance

I don’t think it is. I want to urge therapists to be more actively accepting and confirming of clients who are having to make extra scary steps to even get into therapy. It’s too complacent to think of UPR exempting us from this task. Of course one person’s experience doesn’t inform us about the next person’s experience but if gay people say they relax and feel safer if there is evidence in the room of active LGBT support, then we should listen, not take a straight person’s privileged perspective that rainbow flags are unnecessary.

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Increase your experience of your LGBT clients’ world through training and reading and listening. Decide to be not just ok with LGBT clients but affirming (I cannot express how different this feels but it removes a whole layer of danger) and put this in your promotional literature. When a client comes out to you, you don’t need to say you’re ok with it or it’s no big deal, just ask with warmth and kindness, ‘how do you feel that has affected you so far?’ That is enough for your client to know their sexuality IS important, and you know it’s significant. Let them tell you how it is for them, while knowing that you’re trained enough not to reinforce any distress or trauma caused by society’s homophobia.

 

 

 

 

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‘A Paradox of Neuroses and Wisdom’: reflections from my yoga mat

संकल्प

‘I am well, I am happy, I am peaceful and at ease’, I said to myself, three times, focusing on my heart. I say this three times before my yoga nidra practice and three times at the end. Its called a Sankalpa in yoga, and means a positive intention or focus that you wish to bring about in your life, stated in the present tense. (You may recognise that mine is derived from the meditation of loving kindness.).

As I lay on my mat and said the words, on Thursday, I noticed is that each one of these intentions was absolutely true within that moment. ‘I am well!’ I thought, I checked my experience and my sensations and there was nothing to indicate an absence of wellness. ‘I am happy!’ I agreed, in that moment nothing impinged on my happiness. “I am peaceful and at ease.’ I lay on my mat, peaceful and at ease.

My Sankalpa was not far-fetched, I was not going to have to strive, it was all true in that moment.

It hadn’t been true that morning, with lots of stressful, annoying and upsetting  difficulties happening on the same day. And a few hours later it didn’t feel very true when I lost a valuable possession. But it was true when I was on my yoga mat.

What I aim to practice is not denial or suppression of feelings, but to allow changes in focus, and shifting attention. When I fixate on a problem, a difficulty or a loss, I can feel the consequences of that fixation: increased adrenaline, anxiety, rumination, even distress and tears. In this state we build the story, this sad thing happened because [fill in the gap with your favourite narrative, ‘I’m stupid’; ‘the world is a dangerous place’; ‘my parents didn’t treat me right’; ‘the government’]. We cannot change facts or contexts, we can only choose our focus. When we allow but don’t dwell we have a better chance of peace.

I’ve been thinking about contradictions and how we like to define everything as good or bad, including ourselves and our actions and other people around us. I feel a little uncomfortable when I get positive feedback because it’s one aspect that’s being seen and I’m not always calm or ‘inspirational’, I can be super stressy and neurotic too. I don’t like it if only my neuroticism is focused on and pointed out either, and can feel angry or hurt that the person seeing this and mentioning it, that they haven’t seen or mentioned other qualities.

I’ve spent a lot of time engaging in yoga and meditation over the last 30 years and at the end of this post I will include a breakthrough I had one day as a result. I’ve also read a lot of books, gained multiple qualifications and been on probably a hundred training workshops. To balance that out I’ve spent more time messing about on Facebook than reading and doing yoga and meditation combined. Paradoxes, contradictions, real life, real people.

Something I like about the type of yoga class that I attend is a practice where we listen to all the sounds around us, and further away, we don’t judge or label them as ‘annoying’ or ‘distracting’ or ‘pleasant’ (like birdsong). We just allow the sounds to be. We notice smells and tastes and bodily sensations, that might be uncomfortable or painful, we notice temperatures, we notice the touch of fabric on the skin and the shapes and colours behind our eyelids. We notice the breath in our nostrils, its coolness going in and its warmth departing. In this interesting practice we let our awareness land lightly on one thing and move to another. It is such good practice for not making anything bigger than it is, yet without denying it or making it smaller than it is. The sounds and sensations can co exist while I focus on my breath.

Later on we sometimes are encouraged to let our body feel ‘very heavy’ as if we are a sack of sand, and quite soon after to let our body feel ‘as light as a feather’; to feel cold and then to feel warmth. This is allowing our brain to practice registering different experiences, not just a limited few. It expands our recognition. Often in life we begin to ignore and not register certain experiences that don’t fit our story or our narrative.

 Often … we .. ignore … experiences that don’t fit our story or our narrative

What is most important is suspending judgment about what is good and bad. A person centered therapist tries not to say ‘good’ or ‘well done’ but ‘how do you feel about that?’ instead. If we introduce a system of good and bad, then the client will adapt to preserve the relationship, just as they did as a child, (or they leave therapy). I don’t think being non-judgmental all the time is helpful, but I do think we can extend and expand ourselves and our perspective if we practice it more.

 everything just was what it was.

A year ago I had a day when my experience was enlightening, in the sense that I felt lighter:

“I just had quite an interesting experience. I was sitting here in bed trying to bring my focus onto my gratitudes (morning has arrived, I have a cup of tea, toast, hot water bottles and codeine, there is light arriving behind the trees) and away from negatives (I’m in a lot of pain, feel sick, wonder when my CT scan is, worried there is something wrong, finding it hard to swallow, it’s dark and cold and I’m scared). And I felt myself moving between the ‘positive’ emotions to ‘negative’ feelings and then I thought, ‘you don’t HAVE to be grateful’. And once I stopped pushing it, my toast and peanut butter became more delicious but I stopped feeling grateful and a need to recognise my gratitude and just noticed as I continued to be aware of the toast and the pain and an aching heart and a memory that floated in (of cold, January, Monday mornings, making myself get up and it still being dark when I took the dog out) and my current endeavour to feel into my body and see if I can work out ahead of the scan what they might find and the sound of the central heating and the feel of my socks and wondering how many days I’ve worn these pyjamas, the heat from the hot water bottle going deeper and the quality of light from my salt lamp and then something happened. For a good few minutes I lost the capacity to divide these experiences into positive and negative, to judge what I was grateful for and what I wished was not happening and everything just was what it was.

Of course I have known the theory of this for decades and ‘practiced’ this too for a long time. But just now it was effortless and made more sense than anything has for a long time. I’m liking it and I don’t know how long it will last but I’m not invested one way or the other. “   Just an unexpected Monday morning experience in January 2018. A year ago.

Those studying meditation know that as enlightening as such an experience may be, we shouldn’t fixate upon it or grasp at it, trying to achieve it repeatedly or believing that this is proper meditation, and true enlightenment. We practice moving from this state into discomfort and our thoughts wandering and dissatisfying meditation, not valuing one above the other but just bringing our focus back to the breath, the now, the what is.

So I was quite struck by a phrase I heard listening to my book yesterday, it was about us being ‘a paradox of wisdom and neuroses’ and I laughed when I heard it because I liked it so much. And I looked at the books at my feet, one was a self help book, one was a book against self help and one was about acceptance. I liked that all three were sitting there together, lovely in their own way, loved by me without me having a preference for one model or another.

I am well, I am happy, I am peaceful and at ease

I am also a paradox.

Life is good, happy, easy and peaceful, as well paradoxically not always being so.

Sankalpa (Sanskrit: संकल्प) means an intention formed by the heart and mind — a solemn vow, determination, or will. In practical terms a Sankalpa means a resolve to focus both psychologically and philosophically on a specific goal.

संकल्प

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An assortment of my

paradoxical and contradictory reading

co-existing on my sofa.

With Thanks to Elaine, Phillipa from Oakwood Yoga and my current teacher, Rebecca Allen in Sheffield.

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Dads are cool, Mums are like literally so stressy: Why mothers often get the worst of teenagers

I have been privileged to have been in the position to support many mothers having difficulties with, and experiencing pain in relation to, their teenagers over the years and in spite of being retired from psychotherapeutic work after 30 years of practice, this involvement has continued informally to a much larger degree since retirement within social contacts and support groups to which I belong. I’m currently housebound so I thought I’d write about the most common themes friends are messaging about.

Men have difficulties with their teenagers too, (though these are not the issues that my male clients tend to bring to therapy). This article is particularly about mothers’ difficulties, it may be helpful to fathers though I’m currently working on a follow up article Team Teenager (see end of this article) which is less about the ‘why?’ and more about what to do and addresses the whole team of adults involved.

Quite a lot of people I talk to want to know why their teenagers prefer hanging out with dad while their main interaction with their mother is to have intense rows.

As I worked on the commonalities that mothers face, often in competition with dads that the children prefer, I wasn’t simply seeing this from the perspective of a mother, but also as a daughter. Was it possible, I wondered, that my irritations and attitudes towards my own mother were not all her ‘fault’ and were, at least in part, to do with societal roles fuelled by unconscious misogyny and sexism and inevitable biology?

However liberated [we] are, we are raised in sexist cultures.

Every situation and every family is different and I can’t do justice to such diversity in this short article. I am going to be discussing families that, on the spectrum of gender role conformity, conform to an average or an extreme level, simply because they provide clearer illustration. I’m also using a heteronormative model, because I think that the inequality in the teenagers’ battles with mum more than dad, are rooted in the heteronormative society and the influence it has on the whole family’s behaviour. Typically most readers who are interested in parenting probably don’t conform to extreme stereotypes so please take what is useful and adapt for yourself, while also bearing in mind that everyone is affected by their culture’s societal norms, at least mildly or moderately, and however liberated any of us are, female or male, however much we challenge gender roles and heteronormative constructs, we are raised in sexist cultures.

Sexism plays a part in mothers drawing the short end of the stick when children move into the … rebellious stage…

So excuse my generalisations and adherence to stereotypical norms for the purposes of raising some points about how sexism plays a part in mothers drawing the short end of the stick when children move into the individuation or rebellious stage of personality growth.

I have three areas to discuss in this post:

1) The purpose of adolescence (and how menopause interacts with this)

2) The intensity and frequency of contact between a parent and their offspring

3) The belittling and ridicule peculiar to women who become mothers

The mother-child relationship is symbiotic

Let’s start with the relationship of a mother and babies. During pregnancy and the first year or so of a baby’s life, the relationship isn’t merely supportive, between a mother and her baby, it is symbiotic. The two are pretty much one, and the baby’s survival is their joint purpose. The mother is being trained and becoming practiced in putting her child’s needs first and in muting the volume on her own needs. Her personality alters, her activities and her skills set broaden and she becomes a specialist in tiny detailed information irrelevant to anyone else (how to get her baby to latch on, what different pitches of cries mean, the most satisfactory way to carry this infant). Such are the biological predispositions and supportive hormones that make such love possible. We can add to this societal expectations that increase the learning curve in that it’s often a mother’s job to know how to convert the pram to a pushchair or to a child seat, how many pounds the baby should gain, the correct temperature for the nursery, the best local preschool and so on.

This is also the beginning of opportunities to sew the seeds of insidious self-doubt and mother-blame in the newly-vulnerable woman. Was she confident and competent before motherhood? Did that annoy you a bit? Don’t worry, now’s your chance to kick her when she’s down: Wait till she’s several months sleep deprived with a crying baby and night feeding and then drop in a, “well babies with stressed mothers do cry a lot”, or, “you are letting that child rule you by picking it up every time”, or, “and you said you wouldn’t change!”.

The child is learning … that they can argue with their mother without … losing her

The next, quite lovely, but all-consuming, phases of mothering children, are the pre-school and school years, again the mother becomes an expert in multiple and assorted skills and in the particular child, often championing them through difficult situations where the courage to face teachers, medics or other adults is necessary, and learning their own child’s psychology, how to encourage them and teach them. The first challenging behaviours are faced but usually successfully and skillfully with the help of parenting books and other mums. Multitasking while simultaneously becoming extraordinarily well versed in how to fill a party bag, the mother won’t notice her capabilities expanding and her incredible versatility. Society won’t encourage her to notice, because sales of books and magazines and products all depend on her growing certainty that she’s not getting it right for her child. However her capability is on a par with Wonder Woman, just stop for a moment and look at the mothers you know with pre-adolescent children, what is there not to admire?

Through these stages the child is learning to trust their mother and that they can argue with their mother without risking losing her and that their mother will put their needs before her own. Many children are loving and affectionate throughout these stages but they don’t usually perceive any vulnerability or need in their parents.

Flying the nest: they need to not care!

The purpose of teenagers is to separate and individuate from their parents as a task necessary to eventually live independently as an adult. Biologically their brains actually reduce their capacity for empathy and develop a more selfish orientation. How could they possibly push their parents away without this adjustment? No they need to not care (‘whateva!’; ‘speak to the hand!’) especially about their parents. They focus on building their place in the world and are mainly interested in their friendship group. They develop a distaste for their parents’ views and attitudes and perceive them as old and out of date. Can you see how well this fits the purpose of flying the nest?

The more involved (in intensity and frequency) the more the parent will experience the brunt of the un-empathic dismissal. The involved parent will be experienced as the most annoying, the one most in need of being shaken off and pushed away. Being seen more by the teen means this parent’s flaws are seen more, not their love or their wisdom or their sacrifices even. It is their mistakes, their foibles and idiosyncrasies which are known intimately and all to be disliked, ridiculed or dismissed.

The more involved parent will be experienced as the most annoying

The parent the child is most secure of not losing will be the obvious parent to practice the separation from; a parent they have already practiced this with earlier on and successfully fought without being abandoned. Add to the mix a few unconscious sexist beliefs: mum has hormones; mum is very emotional (and this is linked with her lack of intelligence because sexism would have us believe that you can’t be emotional and intelligent); mum doesn’t know much. The work mum does in the home is invisible, devalued and dismissed. The teenager is affronted to be asked to partake of demeaning, thankless tasks but unaware that their acceptance that their mother should do these tasks is a contradiction. The mother’s career or job is often at a grade or three below her expertise, because she is a woman first of all and secondly will have made sacrifices, such as going part-time or self employed in order to fit their work around putting the children first.

It’s not always possible to distinguish normal teenage rebelliousness and lack of empathy from the unconscious sexist beliefs they are picking up around them. Recognising these issues is not a suggestion to mention them to the teenager, as we will discuss later, raising issues of oppression is a nuanced art. Being right versus harmonious living has to be addressed with wisdom.

At some point many mothers too, will desire that their child leaves the nest, though the timing of this is not always a perfect fit for the societal constraints: she may get the pushing urge a few years earlier or later than age 18 of her offspring. Her own life processes mean that the ‘happy hormone’ of oxytocin (produced during that early symbiotic phase and sustained by close and involved contact), that hormone is decreasing in the mother. As this happens the ability to put up with shit and to engage in repetitive, unskilled, unpaid tasks, decreases. Some women (myself included) feel the veil falling from their eyes as a rapid experience and may experience shock and anger about seeing with fresh eyes how they have lost out and been diminished by a role that they and their partner have colluded in creating. Their kids are being shitty and their husbands are elsewhere and their happy hormones have run out. ‘When are you leaving home?’ They ask their teenager (or husband).

oxytocin is decreasing in the mother

Women with teenage kids may be hitting an urgent stage in their own life process, a desire to individuate, find their own self expression and a growing need to make their mark in the world. The adolescent hormones of their teenagers clash with their own menopausal hormones and are worsened considerably by the context of sexism. The purpose of the teenager is to individuate and their brain function adapts specifically to prioritise this task, at the same time their mother has some unfinished self-definition work to pick up where she left off, pre children.

When she becomes a mother, the ‘feed on demand’ philosophy being dominant and breastfeeding being promoted (both of these I agree with), immediately brings about a situation where the child’s needs set the behavior of the mother and they demand a high frequency and intensity of mother – child interaction. Biology determines this for sure, but hetero-normative assumption and sexism continues this expectation beyond breastfeeding where having breasts makes the mother suitable for a greater role than the father, way beyond infancy and right into teenage-hood more than a decade after weaning. By this point, if the sexist expectations of the mother were unquestioned, everyone has forgotten that this was not inevitable.

the child’s needs set the behavior of the mother

I see my involvement as a mother as a full immersion experience, a (chosen) loss of self to engage in the role and then (chosen) re-emergence in midlife, in order to redefine and re-invent myself. If we drew this involvement with my children on a graph there would be a sharp rise at their birth, a big peak and long plateaus of years, while gradually easing off. A father may have a lot of involvement or not much, but whichever intensity it is, his line on the graph is pretty steady. It doesn’t rise as steeply. His involvement never has the same intensity and he doesn’t experience a loss of self in the same way. The father doesn’t need to work on extricating himself at the other end. His concerns of empty nest syndrome are usually more about the emotional changes in his spouse than himself. His declining involvement is less noticeable to the teenager than hers, mothers often report getting texts from their teens, ‘Where are you?’ ‘When will you be home?’, when it first comes to their attention that mum may be having an independent life. The very questions that the teens hate being asked, are now sent to mum. There is often an annoyance in the teen about mum’s independence, a resistance. They don’t want you to be involved but they don’t want you to go away either. This push-pull scenario may increase loneliness (sitting on the sofa alone while everyone else lives their lives) and guilt (when the mother decides to peruse her own interests).

Mothers often get a raw deal because of a fluctuation in the type of involvement they have with their children: first intensely involved and then extricating.

Pushing … away indicates their confidence in their own capacity

To my kids I represented a dependent relationship. They didn’t want that, they wanted to be independent so when all was well, they rejected me as a sign to themselves of health. Pushing me away indicated their confidence in their own capacity. When they are vulnerable, even now, they might use a more dependent tone of voice, they jokingly use the words ‘mummy’ or ‘momma’ more and they will ask for old rituals, such as ‘, ‘I want a hedgehog cake for my birthday’. My adult kids know that ‘mummy’ is always on standby to handle regression without judgment.

Mothers may get a raw deal because they are the boundary setters for more hours per day. If I had an upsetting or difficult situation with my teens during the day, when their dad returned, he would say, “I’m not getting involved“; “it’s between you and them”; “I’m staying out of it“. A willingness to play with them and put them to bed and change nappies when they were little, did not translate into a willingness to boundary set or to deal with the individuation process. To him this seemed a wise stance and much easier. Less stress. Maybe it paid off in terms of his relationship with his kids, but each re-enforcement of this attitude re-enforced the isolating divided roles, experience for me.

Staying out of it is a very clear indication of devaluing maternal / paternal involvement, devaluing the parent who is involved, and insuring, by default, one’s position with the teenager as the more comfortable parent to be with. It makes it clear that one parent is not willing to share the task of parenting but wishes to divide it in a way, along historically oppressive lines, to favour the father. To disengage from and show no interest in the primary work of your partner, has an impact on the adults’ relationship. Making a mother’s work into some imagined and co-created problem that one is unwilling to help with, makes her invisible and isolated and in dismissing her hints of sexist assumption.

there is no biological reason for the divisions of parenting along sexist lines 

We can’t cover all the variables in this article, though I am writing a ‘sister article’ to look at the support that other parents (including step parents) can consider engaging with. As a catch-all for now, when parents separate out the combined roles needed to support teenagers, those of support and space, dividing the roles between them as ‘his’ and ‘hers’, rather than sharing both equally, the boundary setting parent will become increasingly isolated and feel scapegoated in her own home. Mum will feel that she has all the battles and dad has all the fun. Or her teen will naturally complain, ‘I want to go back to dad’s house’, if you are living separately.

when parents separate out the .. roles … of support and space … the boundary setting parent will become increasingly isolated

The more parents share both roles, the more kicks the fathers gets and their easier it is for a mother to pull herself out of symbiosis, trusting it isn’t always her turn to get involved. If the father sidesteps the boundary setting with teens, the mother becomes the odd one out in the household. This need not be the case, there is no biological reason for the divisions of parenting along sexist lines.

The Boundary Setter is caught in a Catch-22, either she holds the boundaries and is seen as “bad cop“ or she gives up on the idea of boundaries and has to be content with being walked all over in her home, watching her children become brats. Some swing uneasily between the two polarities, battling with integrity and a genuine need to be loved and to be part of the family. I don’t believe this is wrong, it’s a natural outcome of an unequal division, an adjustment because no one can tolerate being the outcast the whole time.

Added to this, mothers are often under the constant pressure from society, their own mothers, or mother in laws and the insidious devaluing of all they do, while the secretly feeling they’re also doing a worse and worse job in their place of work.

The assumption that if there’s a problem between mum and kids it must be of their own making is convenient for a society or a dad who just doesn’t want the hassle. It’s also damaging for young women and men as it is not teaching them how to listen to the distress of someone who is telling a story of oppression. It is teaching them the oppressor’s way, of defending oneself from challenge by gaslighting the victim, making out that it is she who is the real problem, not the behaviours causing the distress.

As with all minority groups, the more ‘fuss’ made about the injustice, unfairness, and the more emotion showed, the more the oppressors point is proved, that you are unstable, unworthy, exaggerating and generally unpleasant to be in the company of. A process I had to address writing this article was that while I can give personal examples, I have to think carefully about it. Speaking out about my own oppression as a woman is not wrong, stating facts about what was said and how I felt about it is not wrong. But is it wise? Sometimes people get angry with someone who raises issues of their oppression. It can backfire into victim blaming and people feeling sorry for or protective of the person behaving with privilege. I have been hesitant, feeling the importance of raising these issues but feeling wary of a ‘second wave’ of dismissal of my story and provoking anger for speaking about my experience. All I can say about this is that in my personal situation the acceptance and perpetration of sexist assumptions in parenting were the responsibility of all the adults involved, myself included, and rippling out into the society surrounding us. My kids’ parents were born in the 1960′s to parents who were born in the 1930′s. Each generation has improved the expectations of women and I only hope to do my part in releasing my generation’s mistakes so that my children’s generation can do better than we did.

I only hope to do my part in releasing my generation’s mistakes

Remember the comment made to a new mother that implied the baby was crying because the mother was stressed rather than the other way round? This process now gets replayed. The mother is withdrawn from and ignored for being emotional and (in my household) ‘inappropriate’. It is never acknowledged the emotion stems from being isolated and gaslighted. When dad pronounces that mum’s protest about the role division, her upset and anger, is ‘inappropriate’, who is there to question why he is the expert and pronouncer of what is and isn’t appropriate? It took me a long time to realise that it wasn’t my fault and that ‘inappropriate’ was just code meaning others didn’t like it and didn’t want to address my complaints.

And how does a teenager learn how to treat a mother’s upset? They watch role models, sexist media input and they watch what the father does. For all teens it is vital that they see respect for women and their work and roles. The witty jokes and put downs, I even laughed along, and shared them with others: wasn’t it funny when I was asking my teenager to ‘centre’ and for us all to ‘take a breath’ and ‘focus on our positive energy’ and the best way of communicating, wasn’t it amusing when their dad interjected, ‘and now YOU are starting to get on my nerves!’ because I was sounding like a hippy? I wasn’t aware, he wasn’t aware, there wasn’t malice, but that doesn’t mean it was harmless. I now try to avoid sharing menopause jokes on social media, but still unconsciously do. As women, raising our own awareness is the place to start.

Small misogyny inflated … once my kids were teens

If the father of our children isn’t going to help with this task by modelling respect towards the teenagers’ mother thus teaching appropriate behaviour, then we have to find how we are going to survive during times when respect is not forthcoming. Self respect is a good place to start.

To help yourself, remember your child’s forming stage is over and they are now breaking away. You can’t control whether they like you or give you respect, but you can begin by acknowledging their life stage, your life stage and by attempting to be a parent who keeps a life line for their kids no matter how old they are.

Due to the intensity of the childhood relationship, the mother has a lot more adjusting to do than the father, she will be helped and helpful if she can untangle a little and become less involved but it is different for the father because the basis of relationship is and always has been support not symbiosis.

Whatever your degree of entanglement, however loosely or tightly the parenting tasks of support and challenge are run along traditional lines, you can, as a mother, help the teenage individuation process (and your own comfort) by untangling yourself a little more.

It is unnecessary for me to tell my kids to not leave their drinks unattended or to book an orthodontic appointment or to get more sleep. They don’t need me to remind them, and our relationship would be enhanced if I stopped saying those things, but that involves a process of extrication from old habits that takes time and it’s about finding the level of tolerance in both parties.

Practise … not asking a question you’d normally ask

Untangle as much as you can. If you’re lucky your own impatient thoughts of, ‘when are you leaving home?’ will arrive (I was utterly surprised by their arrival, as an ‘earth-mother’ type I assumed I’d always want my kids in the bosom of the family). If not, ‘fake it till you make it’! Practise every day, not asking a question you’d normally ask. Reduce asking their whereabouts to essential times. See what happens if you don’t ask if they’ve done their homework. Don’t remind them of tasks they already know, e.g. to brush teeth etc. Stick to safety essentials but let them feel the consequences of getting their homework in or not.

The more entangled you are, the more scope for mistakes on your part; for rows and the more aggressive cutting of tangles they will do. Gracefully step back and pick your battles. Always pick safety battles over appearances, for example. What they wear is not worth the loss of relationship, getting home safely is worth discussing.

hating and loving are not mutually exclusive

Part of our job is to sit back and watch our young adult kids make a wrong decision or waste their time. Ask yourself – how much time did you waste when you were their age? It’s part of life. If we’ve not wasted time then we will never feel the horror or regret of that. If we’ve not chosen the wrong career path or partner then we are either lucky or unenlightened as yet!

 

So in response to a mother’s anguished message, ‘Why do my teens prefer their dad to me?’:

1) Don’t take it personally. It is your child’s process to suddenly lack empathy for you, to need to separate and disagree strongly with you and to feel these things are of primary importance. Reflect on your experiences as a teenager, remember your feelings towards your parents, yourself and your friends. Engage your empathy for the process of being a teenager.

2) Untangle as much as is wise. The less involved you are the less kicking you will get. Trust that you’ve done a good enough job and let them prove it.  You get the brunt because you have had intensity and frequency of contact. It’s a good sign they are kicking. Accept that if you want to be a parent rather than a friend, it is part of the deal to get a rough time of it.

3) Address and redress any slippage of respect for women. Be vocal (or ‘volcanic’ as my autocorrect just said), about your feminism and forge your own individuation and freedom from any stifling roles you’ve taken on. Have fun with that one, your kids will find whatever you do ‘embarrassing’ but may be secretly proud. You cannot make the teenager have respect for you through argument, punishment or logic (it’s completely counter to their essential life process), but you can have self respect. Don’t waste time trying to convince them they are putting you down, put yourself up!

Their hatred of you is not related to their love for you. It is necessary to for them to hate their ‘nest’ in order to leave it. The bond established in childhood will remain as long as you do not attack them, or lose your position. Their adolescence may last into their mid twenties and you have no control over that lengthy process. They may dislike you but that doesn’t mean they won’t respect and admire you. The best way of ensuring their respect is to check – do you have self-respect? Use their lack of empathy to kick-start your own independence. Remember hating and loving are not mutually exclusive, your children will want to love you but it can’t be demanded.

 

Coming soon….

 

Team Teenager: Supporting mothers helps everyone

 

This is a follow up to my article about why mums often get a worse time with teenagers than dads, and it addresses some of the things that a father of teenagers could re-think, as well as looking at step parenting by men and women who partner mothers of teenagers.

In my previous article I wrote about the processes behind the difficulties we often have with teenagers. Here I want to look at a few ideas of how mothers and their team can handle the issues…

 

 

 

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To Boldly Want

How often have you been told “I want doesn’t get”?

Today I want to talk about wanting and needing. And the importance of saying and of knowing, “I want“.

That opening phrase, is problematic because it already hints at the fact that we should feel ashamed of wanting and even more so of expressing it.

So what do many of us do? Instead of wanting we learn to “need“ instead. We can justify better having what we want if we need it.

I was journalling this morning about my ongoing battle with needing to rest and noticing and recognising how I get in my own way, because of the negative feelings I have around stopping and non-doing. I’m working a lot on developing a deeper graciousness towards those who help me and kindness and grace towards myself. I’m doing moderately well, it’s probably one of the biggest pieces of personal work I’ve done for decades so I slip back often.

Excerpt from my journal:

I can’t “make myself“ relax, I can only observe and recognise that it’s a battle to let myself rest. It seems related to the part of me that hates being dependent. I need to be gentle and kind to the me that needs to rest.

And so what if I didn’t or couldn’t justify a need but it was just a desire??

Am I allowed to let go of needing, just forget about needing, go boldly, straight for what I desire?

How would it be to desire help? To not justify it as a need but to just follow my deepest feelings, the one underneath a shame? What if I said, ‘sod it, just look after me while I do virtually nothing?’ Would that be okay?

I’m wondering about the concept of “needing“. Are we using it to justify actions? To bypass shame? Do we say, “I need a break“ instead of, “I want to stop now“? or “I’ve lost interest for now“? Is needing help somehow easier to say than wanting it?

“Need“ seems to justify anything from drinking a glass of water to spending money.

Do we say, “I need a break“ instead of, “I want to stop now“?

How about if we confront ourselves more directly and honestly? “I want to drink, I want to spend money, I want to rest… “ (yes, really, really I do, but I’m too ashamed, guilty, busy, to be bold about it).

No wonder “neediness“ is disliked. It is indirect and contains unspoken complexity; it invites anyone listening into a complicity of needing to justify actions that one feels ashamed of.

‘Wantiness’, wanting, is an untangled neediness and joyously direct, like an unobstructed breath!

Wanting is no guarantee of getting, it is, however, a prerequisite.

Once we take the neediness out of the situation and return to the want, then we can look at the shame head on and decide whether this is an appropriate obstruction or to be disregarded. To elaborate, we may want to buy something we can’t afford or do you something harmful to health, and the shame maybe a healthy notification from our psyche that this want is in conflict with other wants (such as staying out of debt or staying healthy). On the other hand the shame may be inappropriate, archaic and unhelpful, such as my own shame and fears about being lazy.

Today’s exercise:

Get your journal, notebook or even the back of an envelope.

Write in big bold letters at the top, ‘I WANT’.

Underneath, write at least three statements, (but you can keep going until you run out), “I want…, I want…, I want…”

Let’s get ourselves used to saying, “I want”. Let’s say this forbidden and shameful sentence so many times that we purge the unhelpful belief that ‘I want doesn’t get’.

How often have you been told “I want doesn’t get”?

Yet as I’ve said many times to my clients, ‘but how on earth would you get it if you don’t know and say that you want it?’

While wanting is no guarantee of getting, it is pretty much a prerequisite! We won’t get everything we want but knowing what we want and wanting it helps us work with competing wants (the chocolate and the jeans zipping up) and unobtainable wants which we need to grieve and come to terms with over time.

Wanting, is an untangled neediness and joyously direct!

By reframing my actions with ‘I want’ today I’ve already discovered a couple of surprising things. One was that I actually WANT to get my tax return done (I want it done and the dining table clear once more) and also that I want to take a bit longer over my green tea right now even though the clock is ticking. I want to just sit. That’s what I want. I’ve no idea about and no interest in whether I need to or not!

IMG_1046
Journalling in Bed:
I wanted to at the start of my day.

 

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This year you do not have to be good

“This New Year decide to accept nothing you don’t deserve”.  I read this week in a jauntily, much shared, quote on Facebook.

As a gestalt therapist I found this statement so disturbingly unhelpful, trite and shallow and I had to ponder for several hours how I wanted to respond. I decided I wanted to respond in my blog.

Before I get started on the call to not accept things, let me first begin with the concept of “deserving”.

Does anyone feel better, is anyone helped, by the idea that they deserve better things than they have? An initial boost, certainly is a possible outcome as we treat ourselves to a massage or an outing or as we walk away from toxic conversations and involvement. But we can do all those things without needing to borrow from the problematic and troublesome concept of “deserving”.

The system, life, does not run on reward points like you get for shopping at Sainsbury’s. People do not get what they deserve. We are not entitled to positive experiences. Bad things happen to good people (if indeed there is such a thing as a good person) and villains can win the lottery of riches or health. Evidence for some supernatural or divine points system is not borne out in our lives. Deserving has nothing to do with anything, and simply compounds our distress when we say that we are not getting what we deserve or brings into question whether we can really be deserving, leading to self doubt.

‘You do not have to be good’, says Mary Oliver in her poem, Wild Geese, ‘you only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves’.

The way the world runs does not work on a simplistic reward scheme, either there is a more complex design that is beyond mere human conception or life is simply random, either way deserving has nothing whatsoever to do with the outcome.

By all means in 2019 resolve to not to prolong your own suffering not to get involved in things that inevitably will lead to suffering and not to cause your own suffering. But this is no guarantee of avoiding all or any suffering. If we are suffering, knowing that we don’t deserve it does not help at all. We can go over and over how much we don’t deserve what is happening, we can blame ourselves and blame others we can look for cures and try and find ways of changing what it is, but all this is simply to keep ourselves away from being fearless, from being able to be where we are and live in the reality that we are in.

Such courage is hard, it involves giving up concepts of deserving and of simply not accepting.

Human beings do not like giving up these concepts, I don’t. I love the idea that if only I do so-and-so, or try so-and-so that I need never be at the mercy of life’s random nature. Solutions are only temporary because nothing is permanent, the smile on your face, the relationships you have, will come to an end in minutes or in years.

Gestalt therapy is very much about being with what is, allowing the self to be curious and open to the experience, without judging. Great courage is required of those who are willing to sit with what is and the best therapists still struggle at times not to try and solve their client’s pain with advice and wisdom.

But to be with ourselves and our truth and to sit alongside people in their reality, with courage and to not quickly jump to the solace of a simplistic archaic belief system of deserving or karma, is very hard.

Great courage is required of those who are willing to sit with what is.

I’m not saying that karma doesn’t exist or some divine plan is rubbish – these beliefs are ok, it’s using them to avoid the courage of self knowledge to believe yourself exempt from suffering and to blame those who suffer for their misfortune. Karma may exist but it is not for us to judge others or decide these issues.

A story in the Old Testament, that to me seems to indicate that the deserving concept is not fit for purpose, is that of Job, of a good man and faithful servant of God. He does everything required of a good person, and yet loses his family, his livelihood, his animals and his health. Many people have puzzled about the purpose and point of this story making the final cut to be included in today’s modern Bible. I think it makes the cut because it is addressing the question:  why have these bad things happened to this good man? His well-meaning friends, those who give rise to the saying, “Job’s comforters”, come up with all sorts of reasons as to how he has brought his suffering upon his own head and how he has caused it. But when God finally answers Job’s question as to why this has happened to him, God answers ambiguously, “look at the hippopotamus”. God points to the wonder and complexity of life and the importance of not seeing life from an ego centric, human centric perspective. ‘It’s not all about you and your limited world view’, this story seems to say.

I believe it is our job to be in this life. That things will come along that are neither good nor bad but uncomfortable or painful or challenging and that living life is about having these experiences and being as fully present to the experience with compassion. Not as much fun as the high energy quote ‘Say no to suffering! You deserve better!’. But life is an invitation to go deeper than these avoidances. Say ‘hello’ to the present moment.

So when something comes along that we don’t like, pause stay with and don’t rush away. Concepts like deserving really are red herrings. Instead we can think, “how do I want to be with this uncomfortable thing?“ Or, “what sort of response could help this situation?“. There may indeed be things that we can do in response that will lighten or ease things. But the pause, then full experience (sensation) followed by reflection (awareness) leads to far better action.

Being non-judgemental, we can simply observe all the different ways in which we struggle to make life fit into our simplistic concepts of getting what we think we deserve. We can watch the thoughts come and watch them go. We don’t need to dismiss them or disallow them but can perhaps step back and wonder about the purpose they serve, and what such a compulsive rumination is helping us avoid.

The second part of my response is about the suggestion that we do not accept what we don’t deserve. How would it be to accept what befalls us, without even considering whether we deserve or don’t deserve it?

I’m not suggesting that we purposefully stay around people who mistreat us. However if we don’t get paid enough at our job, or if we suffer some ill health this year, the answer is probably not ruminating on the fact that we don’t deserve it or deciding not to accept it. In 2019 I am inviting us to stop worrying so much about what we deserve and what we don’t deserve, and to find out what happens when we stay with ourselves and our experience with gentle acceptance of what it is.

Say ‘hello’ to the present moment.

To be able, even for a few moments, accept, this is who I am and this is what is happening, and to be kind and open and curious about that experience, can lead to more growth than constantly rejecting and running away from what life offers. What life offers is seldom bad or good, it is comfortable or uncomfortable and above all it is constantly changing and to me interesting.

My truth today has been of utter pleasure putting on new socks, tears of pain, warm soup, Christmas lights, listening to stories and debilitating exhaustion meaning I sit and stare in to space unable to move. As I type I’m smiling to connect with you and wincing at pain in my feet and ankles. I’m quite happy and content. Some moments today I have reeled to be faced with the huge changes in my health over the last couple of years. Simultaneously I feel alive and huge gratitude to live this multi faceted, real life experience.

This New Year stay a little longer with your truth. Live the life you have, and stop distracting yourself with the idea of the life you deserve. Life really is beautiful even when it’s not nice.

IMG_0709A photo of the park on the road where I now live. I saw a kingfisher here and frequently see a heron. I have an owl that lives in the tree outside my window and saw a badger in the garden a few nights ago.

 

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Top Tips for December

 

I have dedicated December as ‘Look after yourself month’ at Blue Skies.

MIND – as a psychotherapist I know December is often a very stressful month for people with most of my referrals coming in January (straight after Christmas). Loss is experienced more acutely too. Family tensions and expectations, being busier at work and socially can all add to stress. The ending of the year isn’t always easy. I have some tips for soothing your mind in December.
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BODY – many people are pushing on through tiredness and viruses trying to tidy up loose ends or create what I call the ‘airbrushed Christmas’ when their bodies are crying out to stop. When we do this I believe we are fighting nature, that’s nature’s way is there around us, seen in the plants and animals. I have some tips about going with this natural flow rather than fighting it.
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SOUL – This time of year is also a time for many religious and pagan festivals. As trees are bare, lakes freeze over, darkness is around us, we naturally turn inward.  In Chinese 5 element theory this is a time of deep reserves, of purification, in other traditions there are miracles of light in the darkness, of new birth and new cycles and beginnings. These are the profound reflections of winter time.
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Today I am on the sofa under a soft, Christmassy blanket, looking out the window at the bare tress and blue skies. I am enjoying my Christmas decorations of snowflakes in the window, catching the light and making the room sparkle.

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Miriam’s 7 Tips for December

1 Perspective in Goals

Start by deciding what you want December to be. Look for the goal and write it down. What is this about for you? Is is family? Giving? Rest and recharge? Spiritual reflection? Friends? Make sure you are clear what is important to you here, because as sure as anything you are going to have to make some compromises to the perfect picture and this will help you see what the important things are. Remember, “The main thing, is to keep the main thing, the main thing.” (Stephen Covey) so be clear what the main thing is.

2 Stop Comparing

This is important all year round and at Christmas a lot of pain is caused by these comparisons. The TV ads do not help, all those perfect family scenes which don’t take account of the bereaved, the estranged, the dysfunctional families. Everyone smiling and laughing doesn’t reflect tired, sad, sick people with real life problems. I strongly recommend not watching the ads at all. Don’t dwell on what you imagine everyone else has and you think you don’t. The increase in comparison thinking in December, in my view,  has a great deal to do with the winter blues.

3 Health Resilience

Pay extra attention to health and don’t overload your system with stress, chemicals, alcohol and food (at least not until the end of the month). You will need stamina to meet your goals.

4 Follow Nature

When you can, remember the trees going within and not producing, remember the bear hibernating. Nature knows what to do now. It’s a completely different energy this season, honour that and you will feel better. I’m usually a super-busy, super-productive person. Some years ago I noticed a my sudden and acute depletion of energy when the clocks went back. Two things helped for me: the first was not fighting this tiredness,  but hibernating, going with the flow being quieter. For the times I really needed to be productive, a light lamp worked to temporarily boost my energy.

5 Slow Down

Pause and breathe regularly this will help us remember to look back at our goals and to take action to boost our immune systems. Sing along to the Christmas songs, take a moment to look and wonder either at nature or decorations. Stop to breathe, stop to look, stop to listen and feel. Pause to smell, to taste, to experience what is around you.

6 Connect

This is naturally a time to go inward, we may experience inner darkness at times, we may look for hope, lack hope or contemplate light in the darkness or at the end of the tunnel.

The dominant religion in the UK, Christianity, celebrates God becoming human.

Winter gives us time to connect with what is within, whether we see that as God, our true Self, Source or our feelings. Say hello to the deeper you when prompted. Going within is about resourcing (returning to Source) ourselves ready for spring.

7 Ho ho ho

“Ho ho ho”, is an excellent exercise for all of the above. Laughter boosts the immune system, turns off the stress arousal system and helps us regain perspective. It encourages us to not sweat the small stuff. In my Laughter Yoga and Happiness Group we laughed as we imagined receiving an awful present, and we laughed as we received a perfect present. We can laugh at burnt potatoes, we can laugh at spilling drinks, this helps us remember we can choose our responses and to keep the main thing the main thing! It will enhance other people’s moods, as well as your own, and the atmosphere around you and everything will become easier if you add some Laughter Yoga principles in (this is not sweeping things under the carpet, it’s keeping things in perspective).

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“keeping the main thing, the main thing” (Covey)

For me this means being with those I love and being rested enough to enjoy it. The compromise will be no Christmas cards sent and party invitations declined this year. I don’t like the compromise but I have to choose so I choose this.

My Lesson

I have huge amount of empathy for those who like me have learned these lessons the hard way. We all need to learn them more easily!
I am doing an intensive look after yourself December – for myself and sharing it with you. I will rest and also feed well,  do some gentle exercise and rest some more. I’ve been addicted to being superwoman in the past and I am learning to break this habit and walk the talk!
Today I am on the sofa under a soft, Christmassy blanket, looking out the window at the bare tress and blue skies. I am enjoying my Christmas decorations of snowflakes in the window, catching the light and making the room sparkle. I’ve some admin to do on my laptop, such as revamping this old blog for 2018, and after a nap I shall watch a Christmas film. I know this is in many ways easier for me than most of you, as you have to work or meet external demands, so I can be grateful (though it’s difficult at times) that it’s not a choice for me, it’s what has to be. It’s not unpleasant, so much to be seen and appreciated. I’m very excited because my home help who comes to get me my breakfast etc has fetched in some ivy from the garden and revamped last year’s Christmas wreath, which is now hanging on the front door. I’m smiling because there is a basket of presents under the tree for my family. I have seasonal music playing. There is much to enjoy. I am managing to be focussed on what is making me smile by staying with my senses in the moment. What I see, hear, smell and the touch of the blanket and taste of my tea. If I want to feel worse I can think about how long it is since I managed to get out in the sunshine or worry how long it will be before I can get back to work… So staying in the moment with taste, touch, sound, smell and sights means even when I’m quite debilitated by illness, I can be happy.
Enjoy this moment, even if you just lift your eyes to look out the window or to enjoy the Christmas lights on your way home. Happiness is now, and waiting till such and such to happen and ‘then’ we will be happy, is not very helpful to many of us.
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Being gentle, lying on the sofa, watching it go dark.
All is quiet.
This blog is likely to have grammar and spelling mistakes because I decided to keep the main thing the main thing and share and connect with you, and not to sweat the small stuff – ha ha ha!

Look after yourselves, please, and have a wonderful December! There are tips, support and encouragement on Facebook.

 

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Surviving Overwhelm or Exhaustion

Let me introduce the 3-2-1 Survival Method©, which I have developed over three decades of working with clients with depression, anxiety, chronic illness, and in emergency situations of overwhelm and stress.

While I have been in my own situation of illness I have been able to put this method into written form so that I can share it with you. This post is about the Survival Method, the emergency prescription you can give yourself in a crisis. Ideally you are already, or can arrange to be, signed off work. It’s likely you have had a sudden health or mental health crash and given yourself quite a fright with the symptoms. I will blog next time about the Maintenance Programme for those who haven’t yet crashed and are beset with external demands of work or other people, or those who have recovered enough functioning to appear back to normal but now know that their health is not to be taken for granted.

Do you feel that you have reached the end of your tether? That the last straw happened about three straws ago? Paralysed by the amount of stuff that you need to do but are unable to make inroads into? Pretending you’re coping but too fatigued to get up the stairs to bed?

If you are treading water just to keep from drowning, then the 3-2-1 Survival Method is probably just what you need in its ease and simplicity. In an ideal situation you could use this method for a few days or a few weeks, I will talk another time about being able to use this method for longer term and chronic situations.

Let’s get straight to the method.

You wake up, you are lying in bed and for what ever reason the day ahead looks impossible. Maybe you are depressed, maybe you are in physical pain, maybe you are exhausted, maybe there is no point to anything.

Today you only have to do 3 things, but you do have to do these 3 things. They are your 3 Essentials: move; eat and rest. That is it, that is all you have to do today. Make them the first 3 things you do. You have limited time, motivation or energy so the trick is to do it quickly and easily so you can definitely achieve them before you use all your energy.

The definition of movement, eating and rest is up to you. The key component is that you can definitely achieve these 3 things today, with the energy you have today. If getting dressed and going out of the house is going to be beyond you today, then you may count as today’s ‘movement’, the act of getting out of bed, and stretching or staying in bed and circling your ankles. This is just how it is some days.

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Resting in the Sunshine

I know you are an intelligent and informed adult, and you don’t need me to tell you about the recommended amounts of daily exercise, the health benefits of exercise, healthy weight averages, graded increases and the importance of daylight and sunshine. If you can, I am sure you will incorporate as many of these pieces of information as you can into your movement today. If you can, of course, you will go outside and walk or run, but if you can’t it is really important that you feel satisfaction as you can put a tick by one of the 3 essential things to be done today. You can only work with what you have, you can only be where you are. You are making movement into a priority and will attempt to do that before other things. When you undertake your movement you need to be aware of what is too little for you and what is too much and how you can easily and comfortably get a nice, big, satisfying tick against this essential today.

Usually I am able to follow good advice and have the blinds open to let the light in by 7.30 or 8am. Sometimes it takes me till 9 or 9:30am to get from my bed to lie on the yoga mat at the foot of my bed. But when I have done my simple yoga exercises I can know I have done my movement for the day. If I am having a better day there is nothing to stop me getting dressed, going outside, going swimming and doing more movement later on, yet I do not need to feel like a failure if it’s not that sort of a day. This program is for survival. If you stick to the 3-2-1 Survival Method, you are doing all you need to do to keep your head above water and to manage. This is your emergency prescription for hard times. It is essential that we can meet these three goals every day.

Rest is so important, especially when you are stressed or exhausted. You need some introverted, quiet time without stimulus and without people. Facebook time, TV and having a coffee with a friend are NOT rest times. Lying on the yoga mat listening to a meditation CD, having a long bath, gazing out the window at the clouds and being asleep ARE rest. Again you are a sensible adult and know that if possible it is best not to be asleep in the format of a lie-in but to get out and if necessary go back to bed later on. There are lots of studies on the best way to nap and as each of us is an individual, you need to find your own way. But if I am going to nap I set an alarm so that I do not nap for longer than 90 minutes. Some people find that having a coffee just before going to sleep or eating a square of dark chocolate just as they wake up is helpful to stimulate a wakeful state.

I might sit on the edge of the bed after a shower for half an hour before I can move to get dressed. The choice to feel frustrated by this or to see it as an achievement of resting is mine. Sometimes I fall asleep with about 30 seconds notice in the middle of the day! With 30 seconds I try make sure that my sleep will be as physically comfortable as possible and that I have an alarm set. Other times I structure in an afternoon rest, even if I don’t feel desperately tired. I have a fantastic range of meditations, relaxations and yoga nidra CDs and know how to engage with Constructive Rest as explained in Alexander Technique. I try to ensure I utilise these methods of rest several times a week.

So you now have two big ticks against 3 essential tasks for the day: movement and rest. I like to have all 3 of my essential tasks done before midday. So after my time on my yoga mat I just need to eat a small bowl of fruit, yoghurt and nuts and I have now attended all to all 3 essentials. There is nothing more I have to do today!

If I want to do more resting, eating and movement, I am free to do so with no pressure.

Making these 3 things the priorities when we have little time or energy or motivation is helpful as we won’t be defeated because we expect too much of ourselves. We can be successful! Furthermore achieving these things are likely to boost our mood and wellbeing. Even if they don’t, they help to prevent an exacerbation of our difficulties. It’s a way of practicing kindness towards ourselves, but not complacency. Creating a middle ground between pushing too hard and giving up. A daily act of commitment towards ourselves, with hope and active participation in our lives.

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Homemade Soup

Sitting in Bed

Before I have completely run out of energy (motivation, if your problem is depression), it is time to do 2 Worthwhile Things. This is the next part of the 3-2-1 Survival Method.

I have survived cancer so far. Being debilitated by the side-effects of my treatment is not just frustrating, it can be very depressing if I’m not sure why I have survived, if all I can do is lie around in bed all day! I need to know that life is worthwhile, that I survived for some reason and that my courage each day to keep going is worth the effort.

Everyone’s reasons will be different but we all have reasons for living. Mine are love, creativity, ideas and beauty. If I message a friend or FaceTime with one of my kids, then I have done a worthwhile thing today. If I write a poem, have an idea for a blog, feel moved by a film or a play at the theatre, then my day has been worthwhile. One day last week I was able to plant some iris bulbs in a pot, they will flower in the spring, that was worthwhile. I message with my three best friends and my two daughters most days. I tell people I love them every day, I spend tender, quality time with my partner, and these types of connection use some energy but not over much. I love exciting times when I meet and talk with friends and I like to have lunch with my dad and speak to my mum and spend time with my brother and his family. I can’t manage many of these types of occasions. There’s so much more socialising I want to do than I can do, more messages to return than I can manage and that’s a wonderful problem to have.

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Irises Planted in a Pot

Think about what makes life worthwhile and take time each day to do 2 worthwhile things, whether they are big things, such as visiting a place you’ve always wanted to go to, painting a canvas, or small, like sending a text or adding flowers to the grocery shop.

3 Essentials, 2 Worthwhile Things, and finally, 1 Job. Sometimes I call the jobs ‘structural tasks’, because these tasks help keep the structure that supports us going. They might include banking, repairs, bill paying, and often include annoying things such as trying to make an email and a password match, or being ‘on hold’ for ages! I hate doing these things but they are important in terms of contributions to a secure base. Having an organised, smooth running, beautiful home, especially if you have to spend a lot of time in it, is important as is having balanced finances.

Naturally, 1 Job / 1 Structural Task is not enough to make our homes beautiful, when the list of these jobs that need doing is endless. I know that and there are reasons the 3-2-1 Survival Method asks you to do only 1 Job and that it’s done after the 3 Essentials and 2 Worthwhiles.

When people are in survival mode it can go two ways: one is to be so overwhelmed that the person can achieve nothing and they bury their heads in the sand, and the other is to frenetically engage in multitasking, trying to achieve all the jobs and not experiencing the satisfaction of completing one task.

I am guilty of the latter. I can feel extremely stressed by all the jobs that I have not been able to complete. This stress is really bad for my physical health and recovery because I cannot get to the bottom of my list. In fact even when I was well and healthy I could not get the bottom of my list!

Prioritising our Essentials and Worthwhiles helps us feel healthier and happier in spite of not achieving everything and the 3-2-1 Survival Method even helps us to feel SUCCESSFUL!

So 1 Task is all I have to do today. What’s more difficult is that we have to leave the other tasks. Learning to let go, learning that we cannot stretch our time and energy to do everything is a very important survival skill. Finding peace with it is a major life lesson. Surviving is the real job in hand. If you were in a stormy sea, in a life ring, none of those jobs on your list would be worrying you.

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Beautiful , Worthwhile View from Stanage Edge

Ideally, we prioritise the jobs into the most urgent. Often it is hard to choose as so many tasks feel pressing. So I have a my own rules: I have no more than 5 tasks on my top sheet of ‘Things to Do’ and don’t have a long list of jobs visible; medical issues take priority over financial issues and financial issues take priority over organisational issues. Sometimes prioritising, in order for our sanity or energy to be in tact by the end of the day, results in extra costs, for example this week I will have to pay a parking fine rather than appeal it because I am going to prioritise a scan at the hospital and I can’t manage both. That is the cost of my recovery program and my sanity. Stress, as well as being useful and stimulating, reduces my physical resilience so I have to choose my battles wisely.

That is why I have invented, and why I use, the 3-2-1 Survival Method. This helps me clarify my priorities: 3 things that are essential for survival; 2 things to make survival worthwhile and 1 job to strengthen my secure base. The beauty of the method is that anyone can use it, no matter how tired, sick or depressed, because it’s about what you can manage. If you get to the end of your 3-2-1 tasks and think, ‘what next?’, this simply means that you’ve underestimated your capability today, that’s wonderful! So go back, eat, rest, move, do a couple more worthwhile things and tackle something else on your jobs list. You will find that the better you get at reading yourself, the more accurate you become in estimating your ability that day. Eventually you will move from Survival Method to Maintenance Programme.

As a way of holding a middle ground between success and defeat, action and inaction, the 3-2-1 Survival Method is an excellent way of treading water, neither drowning by passivity not drowning by over exertion. Keeping afloat is the aim. Hanging in there.

What I’d love to hear are your stories and experiences and feedback when you try this method for yourself. Your feedback and questions help become clearer about what is most helpful and who is most helped. So please don’t just try this for yourselves, let me know how you get on. And if you really like it please share my article with people who will benefit.

Much love to you all. Writing to you today is my ‘Worthwhile’.

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Resting:

Looking at the Sky, Sitting in the Car

 

 

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