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.

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.

Is it ‘selfish’ to have needs?

Clients will often seem puzzled when I ask them what their needs are in life. Some will even deny they have needs at all or regard it as somehow selfish to acknowledge them.

Those who find it difficult to recognise their needs are sometimes those who spend much of their lives focusing on others, on trying to keep everyone else happy.

But I would say that having difficulty in recognising our needs and getting them met in an appropriate way applies to many of us – not just people who have been brought up to deny their own needs.

This is an important issue because we all have legitimate needs and just because we ignore them they do not disappear. In fact, when we ignore them or are unaware of them these needs will still be directing our behaviour at an unconscious level.

Beyond the very basic needs of food, shelter, safety, warmth and so on, our needs include:

 

  • Physical touch and affection
  • Sex
  • Time for relaxation
  • Understanding
  • Respect
  • Belonging
  • Intellectual stimulation
  • Fun and play
  • A spiritual life/sense of meaning
  • Friendship/companionship
  • Love

I think the reason many of us find it hard to identify and express our needs is because this was dangerous for us as children. We may have got the message, implicitly or explicitly, that our needs and wants were a bother to our parents.

For women there is also society’s message that they should be giving to others and be putting others’ needs (children, family) before their own.

 What happens when we fail to recognise or communicate our needs?

As stated above, if we ignore our needs they do not just disappear but will come out in unforeseen and often unhealthy ways.

For example, the person who doesn’t feel they have the right to ask for some down time when they get home from work may end up snapping at his or her partner or children.

Psychologist Pia Mellody describes how a child whose needs were not met appropriately can grow up into a “too dependent’ adult or an “anti-dependent” adult.

The too-dependent adult expects other people to take care of their needs and wants and does not take responsibility themselves. The anti-dependent, however, is unconsciously afraid to ask others to help meet her needs because that would make her feel vulnerable. She thus finds it difficult to be in a truly intimate relationship.

In her book Facing Codependence, Mellody says: “Not tending to one’s needs and wants appropriately is often connected to a feeling of low self-esteem (shame).”

The solution to this is gradually becoming aware of one’s needs and wants and finding ways to communicate them to others. As part of this process the individual will need to tackle the toxic guilt or shame that may arise when he begins to value his needs.

 

 

What is sex addiction?

Sex addiction is a term that can invite scepticism – you may think of the movie star who cites it to explain his numerous infidelities. “It’s not my fault – it’s the addiction,” he protests.

While there may be some people who use the idea of sex addiction as a way of avoiding responsibility, there are many more who feel caught in a self-destructive but seemingly compulsive behaviour. It is a behaviour that can wreck relationships, drain bank accounts and even destroy careers.

For these individuals, more often men than women, an addiction to sexual acting out of some form is a sad reality. It can take the form of internet porn, the exchange of sexually explicit photos and messages on social media (sexting), paying sex workers, endless affairs or sex with strangers.

In this context “acting out” refers to sexual behaviour that has become a way of unconsciously avoiding painful feelings. In other words, the sexual behaviour has become a defence mechanism to deal with underlying pain, in the same way that an alcoholic uses alcohol or a gambling addict gambling.

What makes it sex addiction is the individual’s experience that, even though they recognise the behaviour is damaging their lives they feel unable to stop.

Sex addiction is a growing problem.

Never has it been easier to use sex to escape difficult problems or emotions. There is an almost infinite supply of free online porn of every kind, while the internet also makes it much easier to research and contact sex workers or find others to engage in sexually explicit chat or the exchange of images.

Psychosexual therapist Paula Hall, in Understanding and Treating Sex Addiction, identifies three kinds of sex addiction.

  • Trauma-induced – this includes sexual or other forms of abuse. It also includes major losses, such as the death of a close family member.
  • Attachment-induced – this happens when the child lacks a secure attachment to parents or caregivers. When attachment is problematic the child can grow up feeling insecure and find it difficult to soothe themselves when difficult feelings come up. There may be attachment problems if the parenting of the child is too harsh, too emotionally distant, abusive or neglectful. Or if the child is separated from parents for long periods.
  • Opportunity- induced – this refers to addiction that is not necessarily rooted in early trauma or attachment problems, but caused by easy access to internet porn, cyber sex, etc. The much greater accessibility of these, thanks to the internet, has led to an increase in this kind of sex addict, says Hall.

There may be an overlap between two or more of these categories.

The key issue in all this is that the individual realises that his or her use of sex is causing major problems in their life – and they can’t seem to stop. Frequently, the problems they bring to therapy may be about anxiety or depression or about how the use of sex has damaged closed relationships.

Although sex addiction has almost certainly been around for centuries it is only in recent years that it has become more recognised. “Advances in brain research and neuropsychology have helped us understand the nature of both chemical and behavioural addictions and appreciate the links with childhood experience and trauma,” says Hall.

 

 

The value of allowing conflict

Most of us are taught from an early age to avoid conflict. We are taught to be polite, to be sensitive to others, to hold back any “negative” feelings.

Of course, it is generally good to be polite and to think of others. But if this becomes a habitual way of avoiding any conflict or disagreement this way of living can drain us of passion and energy.

This is particularly true in close relationships, where a desire to not upset our partner or friend, can leave us sitting on uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. This can lead to an underlying resentment.

Danaan Parry, author of Warriors of the Heart, says that we have got the message as children that conflict is not okay, it is dangerous and should be avoided: “ Furthermore, we are taught that if you avoid it, if you pretend there is no conflict when there really is, then it will all ultimately, ‘go away’. “

The problem is that conflict, when ignored, does not just “go away” – it goes underground and festers.

I often see couples in which one or both partners is holding back difficult thoughts or feelings because they don’t want to “rock the boat”. But when certain feelings or thoughts become taboo it can affect the entire emotional quality of the relationship and passion can begin to slip away.

I often hear clients say they avoid conflict with their partner, or with others, because they are worried they won’t “win” the argument, that they are not articulate or clever enough to justify their feelings.

But part of learning to allow conflict is letting go of the need to be right. It is getting away from an “I’m right, you’re wrong” perspective and moving towards a more open, less judging stance in which we are both allowed to express strong feelings and feel heard by the other.

As Parry says, it is only when we let go of the need to be right at all costs, that we can genuinely listen to the other person. But it is very difficult to let go of this need to be right because in some sense we feel identified with our opinion or feeling and that we must defend it or else look stupid.

In allowing conflict in our relationships we also need to allow ourselves to be emotionally touched by the conflict.

That may mean acknowledging that we may be feeling some sadness, fear or vulnerability, as well as anger. It may mean acknowledging that we have a range of different, sometimes conflicting, feelings.

Trying to find a solution too quickly can detract from the value of simply allowing these different feelings to be present. When we can lean into this emotional uncertainty, instead of resisting it, something new can emerge.

John Welwood, author of Journey of the Heart, says that recognising these different parts of oneself can be difficult to do: “Yet if I can stay on this edge where I don’t know what to do, without falling back into some old pattern – such as blaming her, justifying myself, or denying my anger – then for a moment my awareness flirts with new possibilities.”

How we can unconsciously treat others the way we were treated

The biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs reveals him as an extremely talented but complicated individual. This was true as much in his personal life as his business career.

Jobs was adopted as a baby and knew very little about his birth parents. His birth father was 23 when Jobs was put up for adoption. Although Jobs did not know much about his birth father, when he himself was 23 he seems to have unconsciously repeated this emotional wounding, by fathering and abandoning a child of his own.

The story suggests that history can repeat itself, often without us realizing. One of the goals of psychotherapy is to help individuals stop repeating the same old patterns of behaviour – patterns that may have been absorbed in some way from childhood, or even from earlier generations.

In simple terms this means that we often treat others the way we were treated. If we were raised by parents, or caregivers, who did not show us real empathy and love it will be difficult for us to treat our own children – or ourselves – in an empathic and loving way. And that can have very serious knock-on effects when it comes to sustaining close relationships in adulthood.

At the extreme end, parents who are aggressive and hit their children often produce individuals, particularly young men, who are prone to using violence. In Why Love Matters, psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt points out: “The child comes to expect violence from others and doesn’t hesitate to use it himself. He attributes hostility to others even where there is none because he has become highly sensitised to expect violence.”

This theory extends to other forms of treatment. If we are criticised a lot as children we will often become critical of others (and ourselves) as adults. Similarly, if our vulnerable feelings are dismissed or devalued as children we can grow up suppressing these feelings in ourselves and criticizing others who show them.

Ultimately, the response to this predicament is not about blaming our parents, although we may need to give a place to legitimate anger and sadness over what we did not receive. It is more about taking responsibility for our own lives but in a compassionate and loving way rather than a “stop whingeing” stiff upper lip way.

In psychotherapy it is the relationship between therapist and client that can help in this process as it enables individuals to get in touch with, and accept, feelings that were dismissed or crticised when they were growing up. This supportive approach can help the individual understand that they are not fundamentally flawed and have the capacity to develop new ways of behaving and relating.

As Gerhardt points out, the therapeutic relationship can help the client rebuild neural pathways in the brain that affect emotional experience, although this process is a lot slower for and adult than it would be for an infant.

“It is not enough to organise new networks in the brain by offering new emotional experiences,” she says: “For these networks to become established, the new form of [emotional] regulation must happen over and over again until they are consolidated. But once they are….some degree of real healing can be achieved.”