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Discussion Individuals

How our childhood needs can persist into adulthood

Someone may come across as an intelligent, accomplished, confident person and yet in their close relationships they feel consistently let down.

Whoever they find themselves with there is a strong probability the other person will disappoint them.

Often when I talk with clients about their childhoods they may describe an environment in which their material needs were met but where one or both  parents were a little distant, or absent, or critical.

“It’s ok,” they may say, “my parents did their best”.

And it may be true that their parents did their best and we should not underestimate providing food, shelter, birthday presents, holidays and all the other things many parents give their children.

But, as Austrian-born psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut pointed out, children need more than to be fed, clothed and receive material comfort from their parents. 

One of the fundamental needs of all children, believed Kohut, was for one or both parents to ‘mirror’ the child. By this he meant to take delight in the child and to communicate that he or she is wonderful and special. 

Of course, no parent can provide this mirroring all the time and, in fact, it’s good for the child’s development that there are times when it does not happen, as the child can then draw on the experience of parental mirroring to soothe themselves. 

But when there is not sufficient mirroring – perhaps because a parent is depressed, insecure or was not sufficiently cherished by their own parents – the child’s development is affected. 

He or she may then feel a gnawing lack of self-worth and seek to compensate in a variety of ways. These may include by over achieving and needing to be ‘special’, in other words we continue to try and get others to provide for us what our parents failed to.

One of the interesting aspects of this view is the suggestion that even as adults we continue to try and get these childhood needs met, even though we may not be aware that that is what we are doing.

Many of us believe that, as adults, we need to ‘put away childish things’, as the bible says. But actually, it is about recognising the continued influence of our childhood’s unmet needs.

The more we can make these unmet needs conscious, the more chance we have of not being dominated by them. This is, of course, a process that takes time and one that may include grieving over what we didn’t receive. Therapy is one place where we can be supported in this grief process.

The grieving process allows us, in time, to make peace with ourselves and, hopefully, our parents or caregivers. By allowing ourselves to grieve we can also, gradually, develop the capacity to give ourselves the love and empathy that can help us let go of the need to try and manipulate others into meeting our needs.

Image creative commons licence at pixabay.com, https://tinyurl.com/8ay6mjsc

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

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Discussion

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.

Image Creative Commons license courtesy of pixabay.com, https://tinyurl.com/376zvcfk

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

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Discussion

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

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Discussion

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

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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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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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Discussion Individuals Uncategorized

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

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Discussion Individuals

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

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Discussion Individuals

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.

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Discussion Uncategorized

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.