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

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 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.

Couple therapy – making sense of emotions

Recognising and naming what we are feeling is a valuable part of couple therapy, but it’s not something that comes easily to most of us.

It is important to learn how to recognise and name what we’re feeling because, in one sense, we are what we feel.  It is often through our feelings that we reveal ourselves to others, that they get an understanding of what we want, what we’re passionate about, what moves us. And that helps create intimacy.

Identifying what we are feeling is also essential for us  as individuals in terms of knowing and understanding ourselves.

But unfortunately many of us are not fully aware of what we’re feeling and, even when we are, we may be reluctant to share that with our partner for fear of appearing silly or being judged. 

This can apply, in particular,  to emotions such as sadness or vulnerability, as many of us are brought up to see these as examples of weakness. Similarly, for many people acknowledging anger is very uncomfortable because in many families the children are given the message that it is not acceptable to show anger. 

There is also a very strong problem-solving attitude in our culture. One that says, “it doesn’t matter what you’re feeling, just focus on the solution.” While that may be an appropriate response in some situations, in couple problems it doesn’t work because usually part of the “solution” is working with the emotions that are present and allowing them to help point us towards a new experience of being with our partner. 

As couple therapist Robert Taibbi says*, part of the therapist’s job is to draw out new emotions: “Your job is to change the communication, to stir the emotional pot. You’re moving toward the holes, looking for what they are not saying. This is where their anxieties and, ultimately, the solutions lie. “

Often in couple there will be a mirroring – one partner may be rather emotionally contained and the other “over emotional”. While not always the case, in heterosexual couples there is often a gender aspect, with the man finding it harder to name what he is feeling.

When I’m working with couples I’m often trying to get them to be clear about emotions. So, rather than “upset”, I ask if they mean “upset angry” or “upset sad”, as there is a big difference between the two. 

I may also introduce “feeling” language into my comments in the session. For example, “I’m wondering if that was annoying for you when Jill said that?” Or, if a client seems to be wiping away imaginary tears, I may offer the suggestion that they may have been feeling sad. 

For people who are rather detached from their emotions it can be difficult when they are asked questions about how they are feeling, so I sometimes offer the idea that there are four primary emotions – fear, sadness, joy and anger – and ask which of those primary feelings is closest to what they are feeling. This can help open up something new in the conversation between the couple. 

When we are able to say what we are feeling and have our partner acknowledge it, we can feel validated. This is something that a couples therapist can help with, encouraging and coaching the one partner to simply acknowledge the feelings of the other partner.

Acknowledgement is not agreement. We are not saying that because parent A is angry that means partner B is in the wrong. We are instead saying that partner A is angry and partner B can acknowledge that reality without immediately feeling the need to defend themselves. A further step can be taken in the therapy, whereby partner B not only acknowledges the other person’s anger but also is able to understand why they my be feeling angry. 

For clients who really struggle to know what they are feeling I may suggest they keep an emotions diary between sessions. This is something that can be easily done using a small notebook or mobile phone, just jotting down several times a day what they are feeling at that moment and (if they know) why they may be having that feeling. 

Part of the process of identifying emotions is understanding that sometimes we use one emotion to hide another. This is particularly so with anger and sadness. Some people major in sadness and find it very hard to acknowledge anger, perhaps because that was a taboo in their family of origin. For others it’s the opposite – they can get angry easily but sadness is taboo. Helping these individuals acknowledge and feel the underlying emotion can be valuable in creating a more authentic connection within the relationship. 

Doing Couple Therapy, Robert Taibbi, 2009, The Guilford Press.

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

 

Why detaching from conflict can kill a relationship

Many people believe that fighting is bad in a relationship and of course that’s true if the arguing is toxic and non productive. However, for a couple therapist the worst indicator for the relationship is  when one of the partners seems to have given up.

This partner may have got to the stage where everything seems to hopeless that they detach from the relationship – they no longer even care enough to get angry.

This roughly equates to what couple therapist and researcher John Gottman describes as stonewalling and he argues it’s the most damaging pattern in a relationship.

It is when one partner withdraws from interaction with the other, as he or she is feeling overwhelmed or hopeless. When there is a problem in the relationship the woman will sometimes insist on long talks late into the night to try and resolve it but this can leave the man feeling drained. If he withdraws emotionally in this situation, his partner can then feel she is not being valued and she in turn begins to withdraw.

I’ve seen this pattern often in couple therapy, especially if there has been a betrayal by the man and his partner wants to go over the details again and again. She has a need to try and understand as much as possible about what happened but he feels interrogated and is afraid of not remembering something important and getting into worse trouble.

According to Gottman’s research men are much more likely to stonewall than women. They may try to avoid arguments, perhaps because they don’t believe the arguing is helping, but the net result can be that the woman begins to detach and this can be a major indicator that the relationship is dying.

When one partner is angry about something in the relationship it shows that that person at least cares, even if it is uncomfortable for both partners. When one partner emotionally checks out it is far more damaging because it suggests that they have given up believing that things can change.

Part of the answer to this conundrum is not to remove conflict from the relationship – as if that were possible – but to learn how to handle conflict differently.

Couple therapy can help the partners learn ways of expressing their thoughts and feelings in a way that the other person can truly understand. It can help the couple express underlying feelings, such as vulnerability or grief, rather than sticking to anger and judgment. Allowing in these unacknowledged emotions can shift the dynamic. 

Couples can also be helped to understand whether there is anything in the current situation that echoes what may have happened in their childhood. Frequently, we unconsciously bring unresolved issues from the past to our adult relationships and untangling this knot can help lessen the emotional temperature.

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].”