Is the value of self-esteem exaggerated?

We often talk about self-esteem as an essential part of leading a fulfilling life – but what exactly do we mean by self-esteem and is it as important as many of us have been told?

A new book by American author Jesse Singal* describes how a lot of the research findings on self-esteem from the 1990s were exaggerated and he questions the value of promoting self-esteem.

He describes how in the late 1980s and 1990s John Vasconcellos, a California politician, became convinced that poor self-esteem was the reason for all kinds of negative outcomes, ranging from addiction to crime. He claimed that raising self-esteem would improve outcomes across society. 

He set up research studies which apparently confirmed this belief and set in motion a state-wide campaign to raise children’s self-esteem, which then spread to other parts of the USA and globally. One of the advantages of this idea was that it seemed to offer a relatively cheap way to fix major problems in society.

The only problem was that a lot of the research was over sold, it subsequently emerged, and did not prove what Vasconcellos claimed. 

So, does this mean that we should forget the idea of self-esteem?

I don’t think so, but I do think this issue raised the question of what exactly we mean by “self-esteem”. I think the problem is that there is a difference between healthy self-esteem and narcissism but sometimes the two can be confused.

Narcissism

When people were talking about self-esteem in the Vasconcellos research they were asking individuals to rate themselves on their abilities and we know that people who rate themselves highly may turn out to be rather narcissistic. 

I’d say that in those cases we’re not talking about genuine self-esteem but rather a defence mechanism against deeper feelings of inadequacy. Sometimes, if someone feels inferior they will put on a show of confidence or arrogance. This can become so automatic that they no longer are pretending but actually believe themselves to be superior.

Psychologist Kristin Neff, in her book Self Compassion, describes the pressure many of us feel under to be ‘special’ or to over achieve and how this can give rise to a tendency to over value our abilities. 

She argues that self compassion, in which we accept ourselves as flawed but essentially worthwhile individuals, is a better way of relating to ourselves than self-esteem (at least in the sense of telling ourselves we are good at something even if we’re not).

Self-compassion

In self-compassion we try to not judge ourselves as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but to treat ourselves with kindness, even when we mess up.

Neff says: “Unlike self-esteem the good feelings of self-compassion do not depend on being special or above average.”

I think that what Neff calls self-compassion could also be described as healthy self-esteem. By this I mean someone who accepts themselves on a basic level as being an okay person, not necessarily better than others but also not worse. This would be someone who makes mistakes, who can sometimes be unkind, but who can also forgive themselves and try to do better.

I believe this kind of ‘healthy’ self-esteem is an indicator of ‘success’ in life, whatever we mean by that. It could mean having meaningful relationships, developing resilience when things aren’t going well and being able to appreciate the good things in life.Singal, Jesse (2021), The Quick Fix, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York.

*Singal, Jesse (2021), The Quick Fix, FSG, New York

** Neff, Kristin (2011), Self Compassion, Hodder & Stoughton, London

Image  creative commons licence by Kiran Foster, https://tinyurl.com/yp9vxdk9

Can therapy on its own deal with addiction?

I sometimes work with clients who have addictions, such as alcohol or pornography. A question I’ve had to ask myself is whether one-to-one therapy alone is sufficient in dealing with addiction.

While I think psychotherapy is extremely useful in helping clients learn about the underlying causes of their addiction, I believe that usually the individual needs extra help in coping with the day-to-day challenges of addiction.

An obvious source of such support is a 12-step group such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous or Sex Addicts Anonymous. These are called 12-step groups because their model has 12 steps that that individual is encouraged to complete as part of the recovery process.

I know that some therapists discourage their clients from 12-step groups, perhaps because they disapprove of the spiritual aspect or see it as a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

The advantage of these groups is that there are many of them dotted around the country, especially AA, and they are free or only ask for a small financial contribution.

Of course, not everyone takes to the 12-step model and some people struggle with the spiritual aspect. There are other support groups for addiction that do not adopt the 12-step approach, but these may sometimes be harder to access.

Either way, the advantage of being in a group is that the individual learns that they are not alone, that others are facing the same challenges. The individual can also find inspiration from hearing others’ stories and experiences. 

Social circle

One of the main challenges in many addictions is the addict’s social circle – he or she often finds themselves socialising with others who have the same addiction. A benefit of a 12-step group is that it offers a new community of like-minded people and therefore reduces loneliness and isolation, which in itself can be a trigger for addiction.

I don’t see any competition between individual therapy and 12-step groups –  I think they can complement each other. The aims are the same – to help the client stop a damaging addiction. 

I like the emphasis in 12-step groups on taking responsibility for one’s actions and accepting that one is powerless in the face of the addiction. Accepting the power of the addiction over one’s life is a key part of making positive changes.

Where I think therapy can help in particular is the individual relationoship the client makes with the therapist and the changes that can emerge over time through that relationship. Meeting with the therapist every week can help the client, in particlar, work through some of the early childhood experiences that may have contributed to the addiction.

One of the things some people struggle with in 12-step groups is reference to a higher power. I understand that for some this is difficult but I think it can be understood not in a conventional religious way but rather as a recognition that there is a greater meaning to our lives, one that is beyond our ego.

Another teaching of 12-step groups, that one is powerless in the face of the addiction, represents the paradox that in addmitting this powerlessness a person can actually be taking an essential, first step towards freeing oneself.

Overall, therefore, I believe that 12-step groups offer a lot for people with addiction and that their model can complement individual counselling or psychotherapy.

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More information at http://www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

The power of the victim

Have you ever spent time with someone who was so sensitive to feeling hurt that everyone fussed around them to make sure they were feeling okay? 

This person may have expected you to read their mind about what they wanted and then got annoyed when you failed to. They then make it your fault – ‘But you should know that that upsets me!’ Or ‘How could you have done that when you know how it makes me feel?’

You may then feel guilty at how selfish or thoughtless you’ve been and try and make it right.

That’s the power of the victim. 

I’m using the word ‘victim’ here in a particular sense, to describe the way that someone can use that role to gain power in their relationships, often unconsciously. Of course, there are many victims in the world who have experienced abusive or damaging treatment and who have legitimate grievances.

But sometimes a genuine experience of victimhood can develop into a way of getting our power needs met in an indirect and sometimes manipulative way.

This may be particularly true for people who find it hard to be assertive and ask for what they need, but rather communicate their ‘hurt feelings’ and try to get other people to rescue them and take responsibility for their lives.

This can be seen with the Drama Triangle, a psychological model that shows how we can alternate between the roles of persecutor, rescuer and victim in our relationships. We may tend to be drawn to one role but can sometimes occupy a different role in the triangle. 

In many couples there will be someone who tends to be the ‘rescuer’, who takes a lot of responsibility for the other person, and someone who tends to be the ‘victim’, who struggles in their life.

When couples become too rigid in these roles then problems develop and each can expeirence the other as the ‘persecutor’. In this case both partners are feeling like the victim and that’s often where, in a sense, we feel most comfortable. It’s much better to regard ourselves as a victim and the other person as the persecutor. 

But it’s important that we recognise our tendency to gravitate towards being the victim. It’s only when we become aware that that’s what we are doing that we have a chance to change things and take appropriate responsibility by asking for what we want rather than using indirect and manipulative methods to get it.

In therapy I see part of my role as helping people see when they have been mistreated or abused, perhaps as children, and how that may have influenced the way they see the world and relate to others.

So, it’s important to validate when people have been victims. There may be legitimate anger towards those who mistreated them, and deep grief surrounding the experience. Giving those feelings a place in the therapy is important.

But sometimes we can become stuck in that victim place and that can keep limit our options as well as negatively affecting our relationships.

Image Creative Commons license, courtesy of https://www.thebluediamondgallery.com/wooden-tile/v/victim.html

For more information about my work visit http://www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

When sleepiness enters the therapy session

Like Sleeping Beauty awakened by the kiss of a prince, the therapeutic process can be seen as a process of awakening or making conscious what has been unconscious.

Which makes the topic of sleepiness in therapy sessions interesting. I sometimes find myself feeling unexpectedly tired in a therapy session. I may even suppress a yawn.

When this happens I usually feel a little embarrassed and may try and hide my sleepiness from the client. After all, who wants to see a therapist who seems like they’re about to nod off?

But I’ve discovered, over many years, that sleepiness is often an indicator that something else is going on in the session at an unconscious level.

First of all, I’ll ask myself if there’s any external reason for me feeling like this, such as having had a bad night’s sleep. Usually this is not the case.

Having eliminated other possibilities I can then turn my attention to what is happening with this particular client and what is going on in the session.

I’ve sometimes tried to hide my sleepiness from the client but have found that the nature of therapy is that each person is continually picking up subtle and non-verbal information from the other. Hiding a yawn or dropping eyelids is almost impossible.

What I’ve discovered is that when sleepiness arrives it signifies that something is being repressed or “squashed” in the session. It is usually a powerful emotion such as anger. 

I think the reason for the sleepiness is that if we are unconsciously repressing a strong emotion such as anger it has an effect on the energy in the room. I sometimes think of this as being like holding a beach ball under the water – the effort required in holding the ball under the water is a drain on the rest of the body.

In the same way if a powerful emotion like anger is being “held under the water” it has an effect on the energy in the room and that can translate into me feeling sleepy.

This can also happen in the individual’s own life – disowned anger can lead to a kind of energy-sapping depression.

When I acknowledge my sleepiness and begin a conversation with the client about what might be going on, often the sleepiness disappears. Naming what is going on has an effect on the energy in the session.

We can then explore whether the client may have other, less conscious or less “acceptable” feelings about the topic they are discussing. We don’t need to somehow resolve the issue but instead we enquire into what may be happening. 

Having that discussion can open up new perspectives about the client’s experience and relationship with his or her emotions.

Image Creative Commons license, courtesy of Tomas https://www.flickr.com/photos/tma/2438467223

For more information visit http://www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

‘The green-eyed monster’ – dealing with jealousy

Jealousy is the green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feeds upon.’

From William Shakespeare’s Othello

While writing this blog on jealousy I looked up ‘jealousy quotes’ on the internet and almost all were negative – the main message is that jealousy is something aweful, something to be judged and condemned, something to feel shame over.

That coincides with my experience with clients, where typically a client will feel some embarrasment at disclosing jealousy about a partner.

I’m using jealousy to descrive the unpleasant feeling that someone, or something, will take away someone we love. So, a child may feel jealous if their sibling is getting more attention from mum. Or you may feel jealous that your partner seems over friendly to their work colleague. 

‘Jealousy’ by Edvard Munch

You may even feel jealous about the attention your partner gives to their social media account or mobile phone.

Of course, jealousy in its extreme form can be an awful experience for both the jealous person and their partner. It can lead to controlling behaviour and destroy relationships. 

Jealousy as a teacher

But rather than always being a negative emotion I think there’s another side to jealousy. From a soul perspective, where everything has a place, jealousy can be there to teach us something about ourselves or our relationship. It can be pointing to something in our lives that needs attention.

First of all, jealousy may be signalling that our relationship needs attention. Perhaps we have been taking our partner for granted and so he or she, unconsciously, begins to show a lot of interest in someone or something else. 

Our jealousy shows that we care. It represents our passion. If we can use the feeling as a starting point for a discussion about the state of the relationship then something good can emerge. 

It can also be asking us to look at whether there are sufficient boundaries in our relationship. By communicating my jealousy I’m also beginning a conversation about  what kind of boundaries I would like. By being willing to have an uncomfortable conversation about jealousy and boundaries I am also communicating that I value the other person and our relationship.

Jealousy can also point to something within ourselves that needs attention. 

For example, it can show us qualities within ourselves that we may have suppressed. If I am afraid my partner is attracted to someone who seems more confident, or more entertaining than me, that can be a sign that I am suppressing the part of myself that is confident or entertaining.

In other words, the jealousy can be an invitation to look at myself and the parts of myself that I may have disowned. Many of us have disowned our passionate or wilder parts, in order to fit in, but that suppression comes at a cost.

Projection

In all kinds of relational issues we can find ourselves projecting things onto the other other person. With jealousy, the obvious possible projection is that it is not our partner who is unhappy with the relationship but us. 

We may be dissatisfied with our partner but reluctant to admit that to ourselves, or not wanting to have an uncomfortable discussion. So what happens is that unacknowledged dissatisfaction is projected onto them, so that suddenly they are the person who we fear will leave us.

The jealousy can actually create huge problems in the relationship, so that they do want to leave us, thus confirming our original fear.

Another form of projection in jealousy is when something from our past is being re-created. This is often a triangle from the past, such as having a sibling who seemed to receive more attention from mum or dad than we did.

Those old feelings can re-emerge in adult relationships so that, what may seem a minor issue, becomes almost unbearable because it ignites the intensely painful feelings from childhood. Unless we are aware of what is going on we can find ourselves dominated by the jealousy without ever realising quite why.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, https://tinyurl.com/6awu25fw

For more information visit http://www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

Why being ‘caring’ isn’t always a good thing

“Rescuing [in therapy] is often not much more than a way of rescuing oneself from an unbearable experience.”

Patti Owens*

You’d think, as a therapist, I’d be a big fan of caring for other people. And I am. Caring about the welfare of others is an essential quality in a therapist, not to mention for nurses, doctors, social workers and others.

Caring for others is an undervalued quality in our culture, which places greater value on material success, independence and individualism.

But there is also potentially a shadow to being caring, which is when we use caring for others as a way to feel good about ourselves or control others. I’m using ‘shadow’ in the Jungian sense, which means the part of ourselves that we hide, repress or deny because it contradicts how we would like to see ourselves.

This shadow side of caring is sometimes understood as embodying the rescuer archetype. A good way of understanding this is the drama triangle, a psychological model that describes relationships in which we may find ourselves occupying the rescuer, victim or persecutor role.

If we are in the rescuer role it’s very difficult to be present with someone else in pain without needing to try and fix the problem. 

This is because the rescuer has often not come to terms with his or her own pain. They may have suppressed their own wounding and instead regard themselves as mature and competent and in a good position to help or advise others. 

But the caring of the rescuer is not just coming from a place of care, but rather from a superior position. It is also controlling in that it needs the vulnerable person to behave in a certain way and to feel grateful for the rescuer’s caring.

People are sometimes attracted to become therapists, nurses and social workers because they are themselves wounded but the way they cope with this wounding is by projecting it onto other people and ‘helping’ them.

The therapist with a rescuer complex can find it difficult to simply be present for a client who is in pain. They can seek to resolve the problem by giving advice or they may collude with the client by agreeing that everyone else is to blame. They may also find it hard to hold boundaries in the therapy because to do so may feel ‘unkind’.

In its extreme form being too caring can lead to codependent relationships, in which the ‘caring’ partner enables the alcoholism, addiction or dysfunctional behaviour of the other person. I explored this in a previous post. In this situation the caring partner may complain about the other’s behaviour but is still, at a deeper level, invested in the behaviour continuing.

Image creative commons licence, courtesy of http://www.procpr.com, https://tinyurl.com/522mvhhj

For more information visit www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

Why conflict-avoidant couples are heading for trouble

“Every relationship needs an argument every now and then. Just to prove that it is strong enough to survive. Long-term relationships, the ones that matter, are all about weathering the peaks and the valleys.” -Melchor Lim

It used to be thought that couple therapy should focus on increasing harmony between the partners, but these days there’s a growing recognition that being able to have healthy conflict is really important.

Of course, some couples fight a lot and that can corrode the relationship if partners end up feeling attacked or disrespected. But in many relationships there is a fear of allowing too much conflict and that, in its own way, can be equally corrosive as when there is a high level of conflict.

There’s a great interview here with author Ian Leslie,  discussing his recent book Conflicted* . The interview begins by looking at conflict in rock bands, such as the Beatles, but it you’re mostly interested in the couple relationship stuff you could begin from about the 20 minute mark.

Leslie says there used to be an assumption that arguments should be avoided. But it’s actually the couples who are willing to argue about something that is important to them that tend to be happier: “[For those couples] it can get quite heated and it can get quite passionate and it’s not always super pleasant, but it’s seen as part of the rhythm of the relationship and it doesn’t signal some terrible flaw.”

In 2008 New Zealand academic Nickola Overall, began filming couples discussing a problem in their relationship. The study,  cited in Conflicted, returned to the same couples a year later and found that those couples who were more willing to argue had made most progress with the problem.

For many couples, however, they can find themselves repeatedly arguing about the same thing without ever resolving it. This is where couple therapy can help because the therapist can introduce a different perspective and help them see the issue in a new way.

Another key point  is that it’s not just being willing to argue that is important but how a couple argues.

If we’re angry and we’re just out to shame or insult our partner that’s going to end badly. Equally unhealthy is a kind of constant, low level bickering that saps the joy out of any relationship.

I think it’s about us being willing to show we’re annoyed about something that’s important to us and to allow things to get heated. It’s about allowing in passion. We may sometimes say the ‘wrong’ thing in these arguments or feel uncomfortable because we’ve got angry, but that’s ok.

By expressing our frustration, or even our anger, we have allowed our partner to see what’s really important to us. In a strange way, by allowing ourselves to be in confllict we are also communicating to them that they, and the relationship, are important.

  • Leslie, Ian. (2021), Conflicted, Faber & Faber, London.

For more information visit www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

Why ‘mistakes’ can actually help the therapy

I thnk some people view therapists as ‘together’ kind of people who always know exactly what they’re doing, both in out of the counsulting room.

If there are therapists lke that out there I’d be very surprised. It certaintly doesn’t apply to me!

Of course, it’s important that therapists are able to bring enough calm to their work in order for the client to feel contained. And I’d hope that after a long training and many years’ expeirence I’ve learned a few things about human behaviour and how to be present with my clients.

But – spoiler alert –  therapists are human with thier own flaws and limitations. Sometimes they even make mistakes.

For those of us working in a relational way the mistakes we make can be about more than simple human fallibility.  They can also be an opportunity to deepen the therapeutic relationship and can be a reflection of something that is relevant to the client’s history.

The kind of mistkes I’m thinking of include forgetting something significant the client has said, expressing myself in an overly challenging way, or forgetting/double booking, a client appointment

When I have made these kind of mistakes I’ve often felt shame initially. But when I give the shame a chance to settle I recognise that the mistake can actually be helpful to explore with the client. For example, how did it feel for them that the therapist made a mistake over their appointment time? 

For some clients when I make a mistake they almost appreciate it, especially if I am uncomfortable, because it shows my vulnerability, It shows that I’m not this perfect expert but a human being with his fallibilities. 

While it can be helpful in the early stage of therapy for some idealisation of the therapist to occur, it’s also important, as therapy progresses, for the client to begin to see the therapist in more realistic terms. Mistakes can help that happen.

But there is also a deeper reason why mistakes are important and that is because they enable the client’s wounding to come to the surface in the therapeutic relationship. 

We have all been wounded, to one degree or another, in our early relationships. It is often relationshp problems that bring people to therapy. When a mistake occurs that  impacts on the therapeutic relationship it gives an opportunity for some of that early wounding to be activated.

A mistake that leaves the client feeling unimportant, forgotten or misunderstood can bring those early feelings into the therapy room in a very real way. If they can be experienced and talked about in the therapy then there is the possibliity for a change in the way the client relates to their own wounding.

If I, as the therapist, can genuinely empathise with their feelings of hurt or anger, that can represent a different response to the one they would have got as a child. Being ‘seen’ and understood in their pain can open the door to greater self-compassion.

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For more information visit http://www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

How soul likes our imperfections

Part of allowing soul into our lives is accepting the imperfections in others, and ourselves. That doesn’t mean we’re complacent and that ‘anything goes’, but that a soulful approach to therapy (and life) is to hold our judgments a little more lightly.

Many of us seem quick to take offence and this tendency is exaggerated by social media. When we read about something controversial that someone has said or done, it can be easy to react from a place of judgment. 

Hieronymus Bosch – The Last Judgment

Judgment is not necessarily ‘bad’ or wrong, and people need to be accountable for their actions. At the same time it can be helpful to remind ourselves of the complexity of human beings and of how most of us are a mixture of different qualities, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

It’s good also to be aware of our own history and how certain behaviours in others can trigger our judgment.

Jung described the parts of us that we hide, repress or deny as the Shadow. The Shadow is often constellated by how we perceive ourselves. For example, the more I like to see myself as helping others the more the opposite of that quality gets put into my Shadow. I may then find myself acting out the Shadow in an unconscious way by being unkind but in an indirect or covert way.

Psychologist Thomas Moore in Care of the Soul applies this in his writing on the family. While many people, especially conservative politicians, present the family in an idealised way, it is in reality a whole mix of ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

“In my own family the uncle who was my ideal source of wisdom and morality was also the one who drank excessively and who scandalised the rest by refusing to go to church…when we encounter the family from the point of view of the soul, accepting its shadows and its failure to meet our idealistic expectations, we are faced with mysteries.”

I think one of the attractions of judging others is that it’s so pleasurable. When I think of how superior I am to those stupid/bad people who hold the wrong views I get a self-satisfied hit of pleasure. It’s even better if I’m with others who share my view and we can validate each other’s judgments.

This highlights the dangers when we strongly identify with a particular group because we can then, without realising it, seek to defend our ‘in group’ against an ‘out group’. We can project all the ‘bad’ onto the out group, while preserving our membership of the in group.

What’s needed is for us to bring consciousness to these beliefs and behaviours, so that we are able to recognise the parts of ourselves that we criticise others for. We can also learn that we, other people, and the world are imperfect. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to improve the world but that we let go of an idealised image of how things ‘should’ be.

For more information visit http://www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

How to reduce defensiveness when things get heated

There’s so much confrontation around these days, often fanned by social media, but often it just leads to people sticking in their own bubble and not really hearing what the other side is saying

And that often occurs also in couple relationships. Each person feels misunderstood and not really listened to and so defensiveness enters the interaction and feelings escalate.

Confrontation is sometimes necessary. But, generally, for things to improve in the longer term it’s important for both sides to feel respected and heard.

This struck me when listening to a BBC Radio Four documentary about reducing escalations when police officers are questioning someone. In the programme Robin Engel, a University of Cincinatti criminologist, says that what seems to work is when police are trained to slow things down and build rapport with the person they are questioning.

When officers take a bit of time to build rapport with someone they have stopped by, for example, using the person’s name or adopting a friendly tone, there is less likelihood of violence. 

It turns out that when someone stopped by police feels they are being treated in a respectful way, they are less likely to become defensive and more likely to be cooperative. 

This is a finding confirmed by Ian Leslie in his book Conflicted*, which argues that the beginnings of any potentially challenging interaction are extremely important. When, at the beginning, an attempt is made to connect with the other person, it is far more likely to result in a constructive discussion even if there are important differences between the two people. 

Leslie says: “Humans have a deep rooted tendency to respond to each other in kind”. He adds that we take our cues from the person we’re talking to. If they seem interested in us and our ideas, we will tend to treat them in a similar way. If we feel they’ve made their mind up about us and we feel judged, then almost inevitably we will be closed and defensive.

I think much of this applies to couple relationships. When our partner does something we don’t like it is common to want to tell them what they’ve done ‘wrong’. Frequently, this then leads to a familiar argument in which both partners try to show they’re right.

What happens in couple disagreements is we often find ourselves in a power struggle. We’ve moved away from a disagreement towards a zero-sum ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ position. By that point both partners have given up listening to the other person.

What can help build rapport in couple therapy is reflective listening. In this approach partner A says something that they feel is important. Partner B just listens and then repeats back to partner A what they heard. Partner A is given the opportunity to correct partner B’s summary is anything important has been missed out.

It sounds simple, but it’s a lot harder to do. This is because we are so used to only half listening to our partner, especially if they are saying something critical. Reflective listening forces us to listen and take in what they are saying. For both partners, being listened to in this way can break the logjam of poor communication and enable the building of rapport over time.

*Leslie, Ian. (2021), Conflicted, Faber and Faber, London.

For more details about my psychotherapy practice visit www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk