The power of the victim

Have you ever spent time with someone who was so sensitive to feeling hurt that everyone fussed around them to make sure they were feeling okay? 

This person may have expected you to read their mind about what they wanted and then got annoyed when you failed to. They then make it your fault – ‘But you should know that that upsets me!’ Or ‘How could you have done that when you know how it makes me feel?’

You may then feel guilty at how selfish or thoughtless you’ve been and try and make it right.

That’s the power of the victim. 

I’m using the word ‘victim’ here in a particular sense, to describe the way that someone can use that role to gain power in their relationships, often unconsciously. Of course, there are many victims in the world who have experienced abusive or damaging treatment and who have legitimate grievances.

But sometimes a genuine experience of victimhood can develop into a way of getting our power needs met in an indirect and sometimes manipulative way.

This may be particularly true for people who find it hard to be assertive and ask for what they need, but rather communicate their ‘hurt feelings’ and try to get other people to rescue them and take responsibility for their lives.

This can be seen with the Drama Triangle, a psychological model that shows how we can alternate between the roles of persecutor, rescuer and victim in our relationships. We may tend to be drawn to one role but can sometimes occupy a different role in the triangle. 

In many couples there will be someone who tends to be the ‘rescuer’, who takes a lot of responsibility for the other person, and someone who tends to be the ‘victim’, who struggles in their life.

When couples become too rigid in these roles then problems develop and each can expeirence the other as the ‘persecutor’. In this case both partners are feeling like the victim and that’s often where, in a sense, we feel most comfortable. It’s much better to regard ourselves as a victim and the other person as the persecutor. 

But it’s important that we recognise our tendency to gravitate towards being the victim. It’s only when we become aware that that’s what we are doing that we have a chance to change things and take appropriate responsibility by asking for what we want rather than using indirect and manipulative methods to get it.

In therapy I see part of my role as helping people see when they have been mistreated or abused, perhaps as children, and how that may have influenced the way they see the world and relate to others.

So, it’s important to validate when people have been victims. There may be legitimate anger towards those who mistreated them, and deep grief surrounding the experience. Giving those feelings a place in the therapy is important.

But sometimes we can become stuck in that victim place and that can keep limit our options as well as negatively affecting our relationships.

Image Creative Commons license, courtesy of https://www.thebluediamondgallery.com/wooden-tile/v/victim.html

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

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.

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

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.”

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

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.

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.”