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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.

Image Creative Commons Licence, courtesy of http://www.snappygoat.com

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

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Discussion

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

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Couples

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

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Discussion Individuals

The beliefs we hold about ourselves without realising it

“We can drive ourselves to be successful and realize later that we are further and further from ourselves.”

James Hollis

There’s a great story told by childhood trauma specialist Gabor Mate about a woman who has an awakening, after being diagnosed with cancer. 

It focuses on the internal beliefs of this person, formed when she was a child and which have kept her living a life trying to please others. When she begins to act more authentically, which means working out what it is that she wants, rather than what others want, things begin to change dramatically.

This story reminds me of how, as children, we’re always interpreting the world and making it about us. Children are, in a very normal way, narcissistic. What I mean is that children relate what is happening in their immediate environment, and particularly in their families, to themselves.

So, if their parents get divorced many children will feel in some way responsible. If they have a parent who treats them badly, children will tend to blame themselves. This is in order to avoid acknowledging that their parent is unloving as that thought is too overwhelming to a child who depends on the parent for survival. 

In order to keep the parent as ‘good’, the child must become ‘bad’.

Of course, none of this is conscious. The child is forming these beliefs at an unconscious level. But the beliefs are nonetheless very powerful in creating that child’s sense of self.

The beliefs may be things like, “There’s something fundamentally wrong with me”, or “I am not lovable”, or “I am only of value to the extent that I help others”.

As the child grows up these internal beliefs shape their personality. They may develop defence mechanisms, such as a need to succeed in their career, or even a ‘false self’, which means a personality shaped in order to win approval or validation. This occurs at an unconscious level, but there are clues that this has happened, such as a feeling of emptiness, flatness or disconnection from others.

Sometimes it requires a life shock in order for the person to realise that something is seriously out of kilter in their psychological foundations. This could be a marriage breakdown, a heath emergency, an addiction crisis, or a breakdown.

Then may come the slow, patient process in therapy of uncovering the beliefs of childhood and the formation of an inauthentic self. Over time, and with the help of the therapeutic relationship, the individual can gradually get to know themselves and work out what they really want and how they want to live.

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Uncategorized

Why goal setting is more complicated than you think

I’ve been thinking about goals – how having goals can sometimes make us feel we’re doing something important to ‘improve’ ourselves but actually, sometimes, goal setting can get in the way of change.

At first glance my comment may seem strange. After all, it seems to be a natural part of the personal development process to have goals, as it also often is in our work life or our hobbies.

But while goals can be a helpful way of motivating ourselves, they can also bring their own limitations. 

Think of new year’s resolutions – how often do we start out with great motivation but then gradually let them fade?

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear argues that goals have several limitations. These include the fact that they provide a temporary satisfaction, when we meet them, but don’t always change the underlying beliefs and assumptions that underlie the behaviour. 

He adds that goals also create an either/or situation, in which either I meet this goal and am a success or I don’t and I’m a failure.

While Clear argues that it is not goals but systems that are important in achieving improvements, I prefer viewing this subject through the context of values. In a way systems, in the way that Clear uses the term, are similar to values, i.e., the quality of action or behaviour that we are choosing to value.

Therapist Jenna LeJeune talks about this in her book Values in Therapy, noting that it is our values that determine our direction in life and that goals can be the milestones. But without values, goals can become arbitrary and sometimes even damaging, believes Lejeune.

She says: “Behaviour focussed on outcomes (goals) often has a more instrumental quality – it’s more of a means to an end. A glow such as working to obtain money or dressing a certain way to be admired often functions as a means to an end rather than something important in and of itself.”

For example, I have had a goal of getting up early to meditate and reflect before breakfast. It’s a useful goal and it has helped me develop a positive habit that nourishes me. But the goal emerged from work on my values. 

One of my values is giving myself space and time to connect with myself and to reflect. This helps me feel more centred and satisfied in my life. The goal of an early morning meditation is an expression of that value.

This means that on those days when I don’t achieve the goal I don’t beat myself up. Instead, I focus on the general direction of travel and may try and find a space later in the day for reflection. 

Despite the limitations of goals, I do find that they can be helpful in focusing attention and as a motivation in creating positive habits. We just need to acknowledge that they must be linked to deeper values or desires.

Image creative common licence, https://utechod.com/beyond-smart-goals/

LeJeune, Jenna, (2020), Values in Therapy, Context Press, Oakland, CA.

Clear, James, (2018), Atomic Habits, Random House

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Don’t try so hard to be your ‘best self’

“[Our] refused and unacceptable characteristics do not go away; they only collect in the dark corners of our personality.”

Robert A. Johnson

Striving for our ‘best self’ can set up a difficult dynamic

A brief internet search on ‘best self’ throws up articles such as these: ’10 powerful ways to be your best self!’, ‘The complete guide to becoming your best self’, ‘How to be your best self and get what you want in life!’

And there’s a lot more like these. 

But is this focus on trying to be your best self always helpful? I’m not sure.

Instead of trying to be our ‘best self’, why can’t we just allow ourselves to be…well, ourselves?

Of course, most of us want to ‘improve’ in some way, whether that means being kinder, less irritable, harder working or more patient.

But I’m wary that too rigid a focus on being our ‘best self’ can become another stick to beat ourselves with. For those of us with fierce inner critics, which probably means most of us, the ‘best self’ ideal can be another goal to struggle with, another thing to fail at.

There’s more than a hint of perfectionism in the ‘be your best self’ message. The implication is that the parts of ourselves that we don’t like (or that other people feel uncomfortable with) must be denied or suppressed.

But it leaves out our human frailties, the mistakes we make, the times when we are far from our ‘best selves’ – when we’re irritable with our children or partner, flop out on the sofa watching reality TV, or drink one glass of wine too many.

There’s a place for effort and striving in our lives, but if that takes centre stage it can also lead us to shame ourselves when we fail to live up to an ideal. 

For those of us who may have been criticised as children for not achieving, that’s a painful place to find ourselves.

In my view, a more interesting approach is to become curious about ourselves and our behaviour, especially when we find ourselves engaged in behaviour that negatively affects our relationships, work or self esteem. 

Rather than judging ourselves, can we instead reflect on (or get help in therapy) the behaviours that seem unhelpful. Sometimes when we take amore enquiring attitude we can understand why we behaved in that way. We may discover an unmet need that the behaviour was responding to, albeit in an unhealthy way.

With more awareness of ourselves and what underlies our behaviour we can find ways to honour the different parts of ourselves, including the parts that we find difficult. 

That honouring may take the form of expressing those parts in our relationships or it could be finding a way of honouring that is more symbolic and less about literal expression, such as working with our creativity. The important point is that we have an accepting attitude to the different parts our ourselves rather than a judging attitude.

Image Creative Commons, www.snappygoat.com

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