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

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

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 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

 

Developing a healthy ‘internal leader’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Milliachamp, there are several ways:

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

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

When staying positive can become a negative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does our psyche want now?

I recently attended a talk by the American depth psychologist and author James Hollis, whose books I had long admired.

James Hollis

James Hollis

“I often ask my new clients if they they think they have a soul and what it may be asking of them,” he said. That made me think. Hollis did not mean soul in the Christian sense, but rather the part of us that is separate from our ego, that is part of our unconscious and that has a connection to something larger than ourselves.

In the traditional religious meaning, soul is opposite to body, but in depth psychology soul refers to the Greek word psyche. Rather than being this ethereal, floaty thing that many of us imagine, in this sense soul is closely connected to our human experience, particularly our deep emotions, our longings, our joys, our mystery. This was an idea developed particularly by the archetypal psychologist James Hillman.

By ego, I mean the part of ourselves that we are aware of and which we think of as ‘us’, but which is only the tip of the iceberg and does not encompass our unconscious. It is our ego that tries to control our lives, and our environment, and which is constantly on the lookout for threats.

We need our ego to run the business of life, but if its needs dominate then our psyche/soul may need to make itself felt through neurosis and painful symptoms.

Writing in his book What Matters Most, Hollis says soul is a metaphor to describe our essence: “It is the energy that blows through us, that enters us at birth, animates our journey, and then departs, whither we know not, at our passing.”

Soul, by its nature, is actually impossible to fully define. While it lives in the unconscious it is constantly making itself felt in our conscious lives, through our emotions, dreams and imagination.

The reason Hollis asks his clients if they think they have a soul is because he is wanting to get away from the assumptions many people bring to therapy; that they have a ‘problem’ and that it is somehow the therapist’s job to get rid of this problem.

Depth work is not about solving the problem but about recovering the life we’ve somehow lost along the way, he says. Clients often come with a symptom, such as an addiction, a depression, an anger issue or a relationship problem, and they want the therapy to eradicate this symptom.

But depth therapy does not “cure” people or eradicate symptoms. “We don’t solve these problems, we outgrow them,” says Hollis. But to outgrow them may mean exploring what the meaning of the symptom is, what is our psyche trying to get us to pay attention to in our lives?

Mostly we are governed by our egos and we think we know what we want or what we need. But the psyche/soul may have a different idea of where we need to go. It is our ego that desperately wants to get rid of the symptom.

Some approaches, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), try to get rid of the problem the client brings. CBT can help, and I use some CBT  approaches in my integrative therapy. But my experience is that often CBT can seemingly get rid of the symptom, only for it to re-appear in another form. If the underlying issues are not dealt with this is always a risk.

But how do we know what our psyche is asking of us? One way of exploring this is through therapy with a practitioner who has experience in working with the unconscious. Other ways in include noticing our dreams and what they may be telling us.

As palliative care doctor, and therapist, Michael Kearney says in his book Mortally Wounded: “My own personal and work experience has [shown me]…that soul is connected to depth, to death, to the imagination, and that it brings with it a sense of meaning.”

 

Further reading

By James Hollis:

Swamplands of the Soul, Inner City Books, 1996

What Matters Most, Gotham Books, 2010

By Michael Kearney:

Mortally Wounded, Morino Books, 1996

Are parents responsible for how their children turn out?

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.

Kahlil Gibran

“I blame the parents”, is a common judgment, often muttered under the breath when in the presence of a badly behaved child or young person.

This kind of judgement highlights why being a parent can bring up a lot of anxieties, when it comes to what sort of person the child develops into.

And it can be a heavy burden, if a parent believes that he or she is responsible for “negative” character traits or behaviours, or for a child’s seemingly unhappy disposition.

But sometimes I believe that parents can take too much responsibility and can even beat themselves up for not being good enough.

Donald Winnicott, a pioneering paediatrician and psychotherapist, came up with the idea of the “good-enough” parent. This referred to the parent who provides a good-enough environment in which the child feels loved but is also given healthy boundaries.

It’s important to recognise that this does not mean parents can’t make mistakes. Making mistakes is inevitable – perfection is not possible. The idea of being good enough gives us permission to be imperfect and to be compassionate towards ourselves as parents.

I remember one mother, who was distressed when she saw her daughter behave in an insecure and “needy” way, convinced she had passed this onto her. Even if there was some truth in this, it would have been passed on in an unconscious way. We cannot help but pass on messages to our children through our own behaviour.

But judging ourselves harshly as parents is not the answer, I believe, as long as we have done our best given our own conditioning.

In any case the kind of person a child develops into will depend on different factors. Good-enough parenting is one factor, while inherited characteristics will be another. As the child gets older, peer pressure will play an increasing role as will the values in the society or culture the child grows up in.

But I believe there is also something else at play, which is harder to describe or measure. I’m thinking of the mysterious force which makes each person the unique individual they are.

Sure, we can look at children and make sense of their characters by referring to how they have uncle John’s creativity or mum’s dancing ability. But in his book The Soul’s Code, James Hillman talks about the guiding force that all humans are born with. He uses the analogy of the acorn becoming an oak, arguing that every person arrives in the world with a possible calling or destiny.

Hillman argues that modern psychology has become reductionist, attributing a child’s obsessions or “pathologies” to poor parenting or genetics.

A different response would be to welcome the uniqueness of each child, even the parts that cause us pain or discomfort as parents. Perhaps we could then trust that the child will find its way in the world, following its own calling or destiny.

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.