Why ‘mistakes’ can actually help the therapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why goal setting is more complicated than you think

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert A. Johnson

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

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

And there’s a lot more like these. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Creative Commons, www.snappygoat.com

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

Love’s disappointments

“In promoting expectations of unending bliss and security, the dream of love sets us up for shock and disillusionment.”

John Welwood

 This is a blog post about the other side of love. This is not the ‘heart skipping a beat’ of early passion or the merging of lovers in the belief that they are ‘soul mates’.

It is, rather, those feelings we may have after the honeymoon period and in the years following. The times when we feel unappreciated or misunderstood by our partner. The times when we may question if we’re with the right person at all. They seem more interested in their work, the kids, their friends, the TV, than in us!

I think feelings of disappointment in our partner are almost inevitable. This is because it is impossible for them to carry all the expectations, conscious and unconscious, that we bring to intimate relationships.

But it is in dealing with these disappointments that we can, potentially, grow and develop. It gives us the opportunity to create a love that is more realistic and authentic.

As psychologist Thomas Moore says in Care of the Soul*, “Many of the problems people bring to therapy involve the high expectations and the rock bottom experiences of love.”

When we embark on our intimate relationship we feel passionate and excited. This person seems to love us for who we are and we find them delightful. They make us feel complete.

Of course, both partners are probably showing their best side, or what they think is their best side, in the early stages of love. Sooner or later, usually within a couple of years, things begin to change – perhaps accelerated by moving in together or having children.

No longer charming

Those qualities that we first found so charming may begin to irritate us. They leave their socks on the bedroom floor, they love that awful TV show that we disdain, they’re more interested in football/shopping than in us. 

When kids arrive these tendencies may continue, especially if the couple have different parenting styles and new frictions emerge.

But I think it is important that our early expectations of being uniquely understood and accepted by our partner are punctured. This puncturing may lead to feelings of disappointment, anger or depression. We can become critical of our partner or withdraw.

As Moore says: “Our love of love and our high expectations  that it will somehow make life complete seem to be an integral part of the experience.”

Without meaning to sound glib, however, through pain can come learning. 

There is the chance for us to come to terms with these disappointments and see them not as an indictment of our partner but rather as a natural process in relationships. It is the recognition that our partner is an individual with their own qualities and flaws, like the rest of us.

The question is can we learn to let go of the expectation that our partner is going to look after us and heal those wounds we suffered as children? Can we let go of the idea – often unconsciously held – that they are the perfect parent we never had?

* Moore, Thomas, Care of the Soul, 1992, Piatkus, London.

Image Creative Commons from pixels.com, https://tinyurl.com/46yrphh7

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

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

How strong emotions bring meaning to our life

I’m a big fan of meditation and mindfulness. Being able to introduce a feeling of calm, when we feel buffeted by our emotions, can be really valuable. 

But perhaps we have not sufficiently valued the intense emotions we sometimes experience – both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ – in shaping our life.

Intense emotions sometimes get a bad press. They are somehow seen as extreme or dangerous and a threat to our ‘rational’ selves. Many of us may feel uncomfortable being around someone who seems very sad or angry. For some of us even intense feelings of joy can feel uncomfortable. 

Research published in the Journal of Positive Psychology finds that people reported intense emotional experiences as being extremely important in giving their life meaning.

Previously, some people had argued that it was positive experiences, such as a wedding day, that were most important. While others believed that negative experiences, such as battling against a personal challenge, were most influential. The study on intense emotional states showed that it was not whether an experience was good or bad that was important, but rather the intensity of the experience.

I think this shows the importance of our emotions in shaping who we are and how we see ourselves. While it’s important to be able to question what we are feeling and not allow our feelings to be our only source of information, at the same time it is our emotions that shape who we are.

It is these intense emotional experiences that can lead us to reflect on our life and how we are leading it. In some cases these experiences can enable us to drop our defences and become more open to relationship with others.

In my own case I can think of experiences where I’ve allowed my vulnerability to be seen by others and, while this has often felt scary it’s also enabled a feeling of connection and being ‘seen’ . 

It also suggests to be the importance of being willing to step outside our usual environment. Many of us create an environment where we can feel in control. While that keeps us feeling ‘safe’ it may also smother excitement and unexpected experiences. While we may need routines and the familiar, we also need the challenge of the unexpected or of a different environment where we feel less sure of ourself.

I need to stay aware of this because I have a tendency to stick to the known and predictable. If I’m feeling in my familiar environment I feel safe, but after a while it can feel a bit too safe and even verging on the dull.

I don’t think we need to start doing extreme sports in order to achieve these intense emotions, but we could begin to allow ourselves a deeper emotional range. Noticing our judgment of our emotions is one place to start. 

As psychologist Robin Skynner says of sadness, though it could apply to other strong emotions also: “When we’re sad it’s a rich deep emotion and it makes us feel very alive, even though it hurts.”

That quote sheds some light on the value of deep emotions. They may sometimes feel scary or uncomfortable  – even, for some of us, the ‘positive’ ones – but they play an essential role in our development as human beings and our sense of  meaning.

Image, Creative Commons, https://tinyurl.com/1uq0u8zk

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

The power in therapy of ‘talking to yourself’

One of the revelations that many who enter therapy experience is that the process becomes not just talking to the therapist but also, in a deeper, way talking to themself.

This was highlighted recently by artist and cultural commentator Grayson Perry, in the BBC Radio Four programme Start the Week. (see link at bottom of this post).                                                                                                                                  

Grayson Perry

Perry, who went into therapy in his late thirties because of anger issues that were threatening his close relationships, says that up until then he was suspicious of therapy: “I used to take the mickey out of it and I found it a little bit irritating but then gradually I met a lot of my wife’s therapist friends and thought ‘these people are really nice to talk to’.”

Once he began the process, he says, he found the sessions cathartic: In a way you’re doing therapy on yourself. I used to say I’m going to therapy now to talk to myself.”

This made me think about how part of the power of therapy is not getting the observations or thoughts of the therapist, but actually hearing yourself speak out loud the thoughts that have been rattling around your head in an often unformed way.

Clients often say to me: “Having this space once a week, where I can speak all this out loud, makes things seem clearer in my mind and I get to see more of what’s really going on.”

But while therapy may be, in some ways, a conversation the client is having with themselves, I strongly believe that this also depends on the presence of the therapist. It is the fact that there is another human being, who is interested in your experience and who is listening, that helps create the conditions for the client to really open up.

And when we have the space to open up we are often able to see patterns of behaviour in our lives and may ask ourselves, ‘Why did I make that choice?’

Through the relationship with the therapist the client is able to gradually deepen his relationship with himself. He learns that his feelings are important, that there are often deeper emotions he may not be in touch with and that much of his behaviour is underpinned by unconscious patterns.

Start the Week, BBC Radio 4

 

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.”

Is there a hierarchy of grief?

I recently attended a talk given by Julia Samuel, a grief psychotherapist and author of Grief Works, Stories of Life, Death and Surviving.

Julia Samuel

She talked about a ‘hierarchy of grief’, in which certain kinds of loss are deemed to be worse than others. For example, when someone dies we mostly assume that those most affected will be the person’s close family – especially spouse and children.

But this can sometimes end up with others who were very close to the deceased not feeling they have the right to feel bereaved or to grieve.

 For example, Samuel worked with the brother of a young man who died suddenly. In that family the mother claimed that she was the person most affected by the death. The brother, who had a very close bond with the deceased, took it as his role to support his mother in her grief and downplayed his own feelings.

Even worse, in that particular family, was the that surviving brother was expected to step up and take a more active role in the family business, following the death, which made it even more difficult for him to allow himself to grieve.

That is why siblings are sometimes known as the ‘hidden mourners’, says Samuel. 

She added that sometimes we can try to get over grief too quickly and that this can cause its own problems. She worked with a woman, who had received the message from her mother that it was important to ‘forget’ and ‘move on’ from major losses. So, when her mother died this woman tried to do just that. 

After being encouraged to bring in something of her mother’s to the counselling session, she brought a scarf. Holding the scarf close to her, she became very emotional as it still smelt of her mother. Her body’s reaction put her in touch with all the grieving feelings she had repressed because she’d thought she ‘should’ be over them.

Counselling can help people who find themselves in a stuck place when dealing with grief, she argues, because when you are on  your own, or even in a couple, you find yourself circulating the same old thoughts ‘like a washing machine’. Having a third person present can bring in new ideas and help introduce new strategies.

Samuel points out that , as a society, we still don’t talk much about death. This is despite the growing media coverage of celebrities, such as Gary Barlow or ex-footballer Rio Ferdinand, who have experienced the unexpected death of a close family member.

In a kind of magical thinking we seem to believe, she says, that if we talk about death we will somehow hasten its arrival for ourselves or someone else. “We think that if we deny it, it won’t happen. But then when it does happen it is much worse [for having been denied].”