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

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

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.

The myth of the idyllic childhood

Very often when I ask a new client about their childhood they reply that it was happy or even ‘idyllic’.

When I hear this I’m sometimes tempted to say, ‘People with happy childhoods don’t usually end up in therapy’, as  an old supervisor of mine used to say.

Usually though, I prefer to allow their story to unfold over the coming sessions.

Typically, those people responding that they had a happy childhood will refer to material things, such as ‘we always had nice holidays’. But they far less frequently talk about the emotional aspects of their families and whether their own emotional needs were met.

Sometimes, I pick up a rather defensive message from these clients, that everything was fine in their family growing up and they don’t really want to take about it further, These are often the clients who want a quick fix solution or a ‘strategy’ to deal with whatever painful experience it is that has brought them to therapy.

Emotional challenges

But if they stay long enough, as I get to know the client better, it often emerges that they struggled with some quite deep emotional challenges when they were children.

Perhaps they had parents who were unhappy with each other, an emotionally distant father or a mother who was critical. Or perhaps a sibling who outshone them or who bullied them. They may have been the family ‘star’, who was pressured to succeed, or the ‘responsible’ child who was not allowed to have their own needs.

So, why the desire to present an image of happy families?

I think in most cases it’s not an intentional misrepresentation but a story we tell ourselves. We love our parents and don’t like to feel disloyal, so it’s understandable we would try to preserve their images, in our own minds and also with others.

It is also often the case that we forget, or play down, the bad times when we look back. It’s not uncommon for people who have had very difficult childhoods to have memory blocks for much of that time.

Cultural messages

There is also a cultural message many of us receive that it is wrong, unfair or childish to blame our parents and so we can take on a persona of the ‘well adjusted’ adult who takes responsibility for their life. 

While I agree that personal responsibility is important, it is also important to be able to acknowledge what happened in our childhood that may have affected us and how we relate to the world.

My belief is that none of us had a ‘happy’ childhood. By that I don’t mean that we necessarily had an unhappy upbringing or that our parents were cruel to us, just that, as well as providing lots of good things, it was impossible for our parents not to let us down in certain ways. 

Our parents were flawed human beings, as we all are, and how they responded to our emotional needs as children will have been influenced by their own childhoods.

When we can acknowledge what emotional wounds we may have received growing up and find a new way of relating to those wounds, something inside us can begin to shift. It may involve feeling grief and/or anger. It is a process that takes time.

Ultimately, it is embarking on this process that allows us to give a place to those early wounds and to come into a different relationship with ourselves and, over time, our family of origin.

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

Image from Pixabay, Creative Commons licence, https://tinyurl.com/1q6kvlbl

The value of the therapeutic ‘action replay’

I find one of the most effective techniques when helping people look at their behaviour is the ‘action replay’.

 A bit like how football pundits on Match of the Day examine a dramatic incident on the pitch, the therapeutic action replay looks in detail at an incident in the ciient’s life.

In the TV action replay there may be different camera angles showing a different perspective on a disallowed goal or alleged foul. In the same way, the therapeutic action replay can sometimes reveal different meanings.

For example, a client may talk about an argument with their partner, a family member or friend, how the other person was being unreasonable or selfish.

 I’ll invite the client to try and remember exactly what was said by both parties and how he or she felt at different stages of the interaction.

Drilling into the detail

Drilling down into the detail is important.  When we have an actual interaction described with what was said and felt, it comes to life much more than when we say, “I could tell my boyfriend was annoyed with me so I told him where to get off!”

The quote above contains judgments – how did the person know her boyfriend was annoyed with her? Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. Without checking it out with him it’s hard to know for sure.  

When we’re able to break down the argument into its different parts we can often she new light on what might have been going on for both people.

It can sometimes mean the client is able to see things from their partner’s point of view, or perhaps see themes in the incident that link to other things we’ve talked about in the therapy.

For example, when slowing down an incident it may become clear that the client has made certain assumptions about the person they’ve had conflict with. Their partner may have said or done something that the client interpreted as a criticism. The client then reacts to that perceived criticism and escalates the argument.

The assumptions we make

In intimate relationships a common situation is where one partner is quiet or withdrawn and the other partner interprets this as anger and feels that they are being blamed for something. This can lead partner two to say something like, “Why are you so miserable?” Or “You’re always annoyed with me about something.”

This reaction then leads partner one to feel judged or misunderstood and they then react with irritation.

Helping the client see that they made an assumption that the silence was a sign of anger or disapproval is important. They can then hold the possibility that their assumption was incorrect – perhaps their partner was just tired or worried about an unrelated matter. 

A further level to this kind of interaction could be that the client had a parent who would become quiet or withdrawn when angry with their child. 

Again, this is the kind of theme that can be explored in the therapy, thanks to the information provided by the action replay.

I think one of the reasons the action replay can be so helpful is because so much more is going on in our everyday encounters than we realise. Much of our behaviour in relationships is automatic or unconscious, so looking at an incident in detail allows us to bring deeper feelings and assumptions to conscious awareness.

Photo creative commons licence, https://tinyurl.com/3hh5sd3b

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

The dangers of spiritual bypass

I’ve had quite a few clients who have a spiritual practice but who are finding that that is not enough to cope with some personal challenges. 

They may meditate or pray regularly, and perhaps attend a church, Buddhist centre or some other spiritual group. And yet they do not seem able to shake the problem that brings them to therapy – which could be a relationship issue, anger management, addiction, depression or some other problem that seems intractable.

It sometimes turns out that these clients have had a ‘spiritual bypass’. This phrase, coined by psychotherapist and Buddhist John Welwood, applies when a person seeks to avoid dealing with unresolved personal  issues from the past. Instead they use their spiritual practice to try and be ‘above it all’ and strive to be good, kind, generous, forgiving etc.

Obviously there is nothing wrong, and in fact a lot to be praised, in being kind, generous or forgiving. The problem arises, however, when these become ‘rules’ or positive injunctions.

In that case we can end up suppressing the ‘non spiritual’ parts of ourselves – our anger, jealousy, envy or even sadness.

In an interview available on his website*, Welwood says: “We often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalise what I call premature transcendence; trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it.”

A common aspect of people with a spiritual bypass is compulsive helping or rescuing. This is because many spiritual texts, whether of an established religion or ‘new age’ type beliefs, promote putting others first. Believing too rigidly in this teaching can lead people to devalue their own needs and feelings, in favour of helping others.

But this kind of helping or caring can actually cause indirect problems, both for the helper and the person being helped. The helper may feel resentment if their help is not being sufficiently appreciated, while the person being helped may pick up on this expectation and feel patronised.

Another common  problem is attitudes to anger. While many of us, spiritual or not, struggle with how to relate to angry feelings, it can become a major issue for people who have been taught that anger is somehow unspiritual or unloving. 

Of course, unthinking or chronic expression of anger can create many problems and we need to reflect on what may be underneath these feelings. But viewing this emotion as somehow a problem in and of itself can lead to negative consequences. 

One of my favourite books on the tension between spiritual values and the messiness of everyday life is Jack Kornfield’s After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. In this he quotes an advanced Buddhist practitioner, who returns from a long spiritual retreat.

“Some months after [my spiritual retreat]…came a depression, along with some significant betrayal in my work. I had continuing trouble with my children and family too. Oh, my teaching was fine, I could give inspired lectures, but if you talk to my wife she’ll tell you that as time passed I became grouchy and as impatient as ever.”

For such people it can be difficult to acknowledge that their spiritual practice may not been enough to tackle some of these recurring problems and that they have somehow ended up using their spiritual practice to maintain their neuroses.

None of this is to say that having a spiritual practice is at all unhealthy – the opposite in fact. It’s more about the way that we engage with a spiritual practice. It can be tempting to think that now we have a road map to meaning and fulfilment, that all we have to do is give ourselves fully to this practice and our problems will be solved. 

The reality is that we also may need therapy to help us in some of those areas where our spiritual practice doesn’t seem to have the answers or may have, in fact, made the problem worse.

*www.johnwelwood.com

Kornfield, Jack, 2000, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, Random House, London.

John Bradshaw – championing your inner child

This is a great talk by psychologist John Bradshaw about the inner child, in which Bradshaw talks about the importance of “championing” that part of ourselves. This idea is developed in his book Homecoming, published in 1990.

Bradshaw, who died in 2016, was from Texas and has the style of a Southern preacher in his public talks.

In this talk Bradshaw talks about the importance of doing what he calls, the “original pain” work in order to move on from the the pain of the past. In other words, we need to grieve it.  By grieving our past pain we can begin to reconnect with the inner child and then to champion it and parent it.

Part of this process of personal growth, says Bradshaw, is often finding a support group. For him it was a 12-step group. This group is almost an alternative family but it needs to be a non-shaming place.

Developing a healthy ‘internal leader’

My way of working with clients involves seeing them (and myself) as made up of different parts. While we may think that we are unified, coherent personalities, when we pay attention to what is going on inside us we often discover a collection of many different parts, or sub-personalities.

These may include a part of us that criticises or judges us (the inner critic), a vulnerable yes often playful part (the inner child), a part that tries to win approval from others (the pleaser), a part that can feel defeated or powerless (the victim) and many others.  These sub-personalities are connected to the idea of archetypes (universal patterns of behaviour and being) developed by psychologist Carl Jung.

But what kind of internal leader do we have who is in charge of these different parts?

According to therapist Stacey Millichamp, in her book Transpersonal Dynamics, our personalities can be compared to political regimes. We may have an internal ‘dictator’ who orders the rest of the psyche to behave in a certain way.  These kind of clients tend to be very controlled, even uptight. 

Milliband says: “Honesty is suppressed and freedom from the regime must be found through covert, secretive means…[there is a] fear of punishment, disallowing spontaneity and creativity.”

Such clients can be hard to work with because they often keep secrets, fearing that if they are honest in therapy it will be used against them in some way.

A different client may have a fragmented psychological regime in which there is a lack of internal leadership that can create a frightening and chaotic internal world for the person.

Part of the therapist’s role is helping such clients develop a strong internal leader who speaks to them in a firm but compassionate way. Such a leader can allow the difference parts of ourselves to be expressed in an appropriate way.

The internal leader is a bit like having an ally who we can rely on, who is on our side but who will also tell us the truth about ourselves. 

So, how do we develop such an internal leader or ally?

According to Milliachamp, there are several ways:

  • think about a historical or present day leader who inspires you and describe in detail what you admire about that person
  • develop self-talk that is evidence based and encourages getting reality checks about situation’s in your life.  This is because often we have fantasy scenarios in our heads that are based on negative ways of seeing the world and our place in it.
  • spend time with people who embody the leadership qualities you are seeking. This may be in person but could also include attending workshops or reading books. 

The client may also look to their therapist to model positive psychological leadership and I have had clients who have said things like, ‘When I found myself in that situation I heard your voice in my head and that helped me decide what to do.”

When staying positive can become a negative

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We live in a ‘think positive’ world, in which people are encouraged to hide or deny their vulnerability.

But this can come at a cost, as shown in research published this week by the charity Macmillan Cancer Support*. The research showed that this ‘think positive’ attitude among people with cancer, espcially those with a terminal diagnosis, was preventing honest conversations about end-of-life care.

More than a quarter of people surveyed said they found it hard to talk honestly about their feelings around cancer and a similar number said they felt guilty if they could not remain positive or portray themselves as a ‘fighter’. Health and social care professionals were generally reluctant to bring up the subject of end-of-life care with patients, the survey found.

The result of this was that many people with cancer were not having vital conversations until far too late and were dying in hospital against their wishes.

I believe this research has wider significance and shows the down side of an excessive focus on ‘thinking positive’ or being a ‘fighter’.  There is an important place for these qualities in life, but when taken too far it can become denial and a way of avoiding vulnerability.

When we adopt a think positive attitude too rigidly, we can easily slip into viewing ‘negative’ emotions such as vulnerability, fear, sadness and anger as somehow wrong or things to be battled against.

Miriam Greenspan talks about this in her book, Healing through the dark emotions. By ‘dark’ emotions she she doesn’t mean they are bad but rather that as a culture we have kept these emotions in the dark.

“In the throes of grief, fear, or despair, we generally believe that giving feelings like these too much space in our psyches is a sign of emotional weakness or breakdown,” says Greenspan.

She describes this attitude as ‘emotion phobia’ and says that while we can push these feelings away for much of the time, sooner or later we experience a major loss, shock or trauma and our habit of pushing away dififcult feelings no longer works.

In my work as a psychotherapist I often have clients who have got the message, usually from childhood, that their feelings (and particularly their ‘difficult’ feelings like sadness, vulnerability, fear or anger) are not okay.

These are the clients who want me to make such feelings ‘go away’. Instead I encourage them to try and name the feelings they are struggling with, to locate where in their bodies these feelings live, to see if they can allow these feelings to be present and to trust that there is a purpose in these feelings.

My experience is that there is always a reason for particular feelings in our life. If we can shift our perspective away from judging the feeling (and ourselves for having it) to being willing to experience it we can begin a different kind of ‘conversation’ with the feeling.

We can then begin to explore what this feeling is trying to draw our attention to in our life, or pehaps to  something in our distant past that needs to be given a place.

* https://www.macmillan.org.uk/aboutus/news/latest_news/fighting-talk-can-leave-cancer-patients-unable-to-talk-about-death-and-dying.aspx

The truth about family holidays

I’ve noticed  that two of my busiest periods for new clients contacting me – both individuals and couples –  is the end of the summer and the beginning of the year. Both of these are times when people have spent significant periods with their families and/or partners, without the usual distractions of work, school, etc.

In this post I’d like to focus on the family holiday and the ambivalent attitude many of us have towards it.

A bit like having a new child, having a holiday with our family or partner is something most of us look forward to and we project lots of positive expectations onto it. But, also like having a child, we can often fail to anticipate the downside – the stresses it can place on relationships.

We tell ourselves the holiday will be relaxing, it will give us a chance to bond with children or re-connect with partners, it will be a break from work and the humdrum. All this may actually be true but it is also the case that holidays can bring to the surface tensions within the couple or family relationship. And unlike most of the year, there is little escape from these stresses when you’re spending nearly all your time with these people.

Balancing needs

My own experience gives me an insight into why so many new clients seem to contact me at the end of the holiday season.  I nearly always look forward to a family holiday and it is usually a  genuine break from work and I return feeling refreshed. But at the same time I sometimes struggle with balancing my own needs and wants with those of other members of the family.

At home it is easier for achieve this balance because I have time away from my partner and children, I have other activities such as work or other social contacts. On holiday we are all thrown together for a week or two and that can be challenging.

I find it helpful looking at this through the perspective of the inner child. The inner child is a metaphor for the part of us that can sometimes feel vulnerable, afraid, angry and is very sensitive. It is also the part of us that can be playful and joyful. Being aware of, and acknowledging the needs and wants of this inner child is very important, but we must not let it rule our lives.

I have an internal ‘little boy’ who can sometimes feel overlooked or unwanted.

Neglecting our own needs and wants

On holiday much of the focus is on what my children need or want, or my partner, and the danger is that I neglect my own needs and wants. This leads to my inner child feeling neglected and I begin to feel irritable and run down. This is all made worse because we tell ourselves that on holiday we are “supposed” to be enjoying ourselves and so if we’re not we can feel we’ve failed in some way.

On the other side of all this, of course, is that family holidays do also help me feel more connected with my partner and children because I get to spend more time with them and can share that time without the usual distractions of work and routine.

I don’t believe the tensions or arguments that surface on holidays are necessarily a bad thing because I see them as inviting us to look at elements of our family or couple relationships that may need attention. In that sense, tensions on holiday can play a positive longer-term role in our relationships.

It can also be helpful to adjust our expectations of holidays and to begin them with our eyes wide open. If we remind ourselves that some tensions are likely and have an idea where these tensions may emerge, we can prepare ourselves for them.