Can therapy on its own deal with addiction?

I sometimes work with clients who have addictions, such as alcohol or pornography. A question I’ve had to ask myself is whether one-to-one therapy alone is sufficient in dealing with addiction.

While I think psychotherapy is extremely useful in helping clients learn about the underlying causes of their addiction, I believe that usually the individual needs extra help in coping with the day-to-day challenges of addiction.

An obvious source of such support is a 12-step group such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous or Sex Addicts Anonymous. These are called 12-step groups because their model has 12 steps that that individual is encouraged to complete as part of the recovery process.

I know that some therapists discourage their clients from 12-step groups, perhaps because they disapprove of the spiritual aspect or see it as a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

The advantage of these groups is that there are many of them dotted around the country, especially AA, and they are free or only ask for a small financial contribution.

Of course, not everyone takes to the 12-step model and some people struggle with the spiritual aspect. There are other support groups for addiction that do not adopt the 12-step approach, but these may sometimes be harder to access.

Either way, the advantage of being in a group is that the individual learns that they are not alone, that others are facing the same challenges. The individual can also find inspiration from hearing others’ stories and experiences. 

Social circle

One of the main challenges in many addictions is the addict’s social circle – he or she often finds themselves socialising with others who have the same addiction. A benefit of a 12-step group is that it offers a new community of like-minded people and therefore reduces loneliness and isolation, which in itself can be a trigger for addiction.

I don’t see any competition between individual therapy and 12-step groups –  I think they can complement each other. The aims are the same – to help the client stop a damaging addiction. 

I like the emphasis in 12-step groups on taking responsibility for one’s actions and accepting that one is powerless in the face of the addiction. Accepting the power of the addiction over one’s life is a key part of making positive changes.

Where I think therapy can help in particular is the individual relationoship the client makes with the therapist and the changes that can emerge over time through that relationship. Meeting with the therapist every week can help the client, in particlar, work through some of the early childhood experiences that may have contributed to the addiction.

One of the things some people struggle with in 12-step groups is reference to a higher power. I understand that for some this is difficult but I think it can be understood not in a conventional religious way but rather as a recognition that there is a greater meaning to our lives, one that is beyond our ego.

Another teaching of 12-step groups, that one is powerless in the face of the addiction, represents the paradox that in addmitting this powerlessness a person can actually be taking an essential, first step towards freeing oneself.

Overall, therefore, I believe that 12-step groups offer a lot for people with addiction and that their model can complement individual counselling or psychotherapy.

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More information at http://www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

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.

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

When sleepiness enters the therapy session

Like Sleeping Beauty awakened by the kiss of a prince, the therapeutic process can be seen as a process of awakening or making conscious what has been unconscious.

Which makes the topic of sleepiness in therapy sessions interesting. I sometimes find myself feeling unexpectedly tired in a therapy session. I may even suppress a yawn.

When this happens I usually feel a little embarrassed and may try and hide my sleepiness from the client. After all, who wants to see a therapist who seems like they’re about to nod off?

But I’ve discovered, over many years, that sleepiness is often an indicator that something else is going on in the session at an unconscious level.

First of all, I’ll ask myself if there’s any external reason for me feeling like this, such as having had a bad night’s sleep. Usually this is not the case.

Having eliminated other possibilities I can then turn my attention to what is happening with this particular client and what is going on in the session.

I’ve sometimes tried to hide my sleepiness from the client but have found that the nature of therapy is that each person is continually picking up subtle and non-verbal information from the other. Hiding a yawn or dropping eyelids is almost impossible.

What I’ve discovered is that when sleepiness arrives it signifies that something is being repressed or “squashed” in the session. It is usually a powerful emotion such as anger. 

I think the reason for the sleepiness is that if we are unconsciously repressing a strong emotion such as anger it has an effect on the energy in the room. I sometimes think of this as being like holding a beach ball under the water – the effort required in holding the ball under the water is a drain on the rest of the body.

In the same way if a powerful emotion like anger is being “held under the water” it has an effect on the energy in the room and that can translate into me feeling sleepy.

This can also happen in the individual’s own life – disowned anger can lead to a kind of energy-sapping depression.

When I acknowledge my sleepiness and begin a conversation with the client about what might be going on, often the sleepiness disappears. Naming what is going on has an effect on the energy in the session.

We can then explore whether the client may have other, less conscious or less “acceptable” feelings about the topic they are discussing. We don’t need to somehow resolve the issue but instead we enquire into what may be happening. 

Having that discussion can open up new perspectives about the client’s experience and relationship with his or her emotions.

Image Creative Commons license, courtesy of Tomas https://www.flickr.com/photos/tma/2438467223

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

‘The green-eyed monster’ – dealing with jealousy

Jealousy is the green-eyed monster that doth mock the meat it feeds upon.’

From William Shakespeare’s Othello

While writing this blog on jealousy I looked up ‘jealousy quotes’ on the internet and almost all were negative – the main message is that jealousy is something aweful, something to be judged and condemned, something to feel shame over.

That coincides with my experience with clients, where typically a client will feel some embarrasment at disclosing jealousy about a partner.

I’m using jealousy to descrive the unpleasant feeling that someone, or something, will take away someone we love. So, a child may feel jealous if their sibling is getting more attention from mum. Or you may feel jealous that your partner seems over friendly to their work colleague. 

‘Jealousy’ by Edvard Munch

You may even feel jealous about the attention your partner gives to their social media account or mobile phone.

Of course, jealousy in its extreme form can be an awful experience for both the jealous person and their partner. It can lead to controlling behaviour and destroy relationships. 

Jealousy as a teacher

But rather than always being a negative emotion I think there’s another side to jealousy. From a soul perspective, where everything has a place, jealousy can be there to teach us something about ourselves or our relationship. It can be pointing to something in our lives that needs attention.

First of all, jealousy may be signalling that our relationship needs attention. Perhaps we have been taking our partner for granted and so he or she, unconsciously, begins to show a lot of interest in someone or something else. 

Our jealousy shows that we care. It represents our passion. If we can use the feeling as a starting point for a discussion about the state of the relationship then something good can emerge. 

It can also be asking us to look at whether there are sufficient boundaries in our relationship. By communicating my jealousy I’m also beginning a conversation about  what kind of boundaries I would like. By being willing to have an uncomfortable conversation about jealousy and boundaries I am also communicating that I value the other person and our relationship.

Jealousy can also point to something within ourselves that needs attention. 

For example, it can show us qualities within ourselves that we may have suppressed. If I am afraid my partner is attracted to someone who seems more confident, or more entertaining than me, that can be a sign that I am suppressing the part of myself that is confident or entertaining.

In other words, the jealousy can be an invitation to look at myself and the parts of myself that I may have disowned. Many of us have disowned our passionate or wilder parts, in order to fit in, but that suppression comes at a cost.

Projection

In all kinds of relational issues we can find ourselves projecting things onto the other other person. With jealousy, the obvious possible projection is that it is not our partner who is unhappy with the relationship but us. 

We may be dissatisfied with our partner but reluctant to admit that to ourselves, or not wanting to have an uncomfortable discussion. So what happens is that unacknowledged dissatisfaction is projected onto them, so that suddenly they are the person who we fear will leave us.

The jealousy can actually create huge problems in the relationship, so that they do want to leave us, thus confirming our original fear.

Another form of projection in jealousy is when something from our past is being re-created. This is often a triangle from the past, such as having a sibling who seemed to receive more attention from mum or dad than we did.

Those old feelings can re-emerge in adult relationships so that, what may seem a minor issue, becomes almost unbearable because it ignites the intensely painful feelings from childhood. Unless we are aware of what is going on we can find ourselves dominated by the jealousy without ever realising quite why.

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

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.

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For more information visit www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

How soul likes our imperfections

Part of allowing soul into our lives is accepting the imperfections in others, and ourselves. That doesn’t mean we’re complacent and that ‘anything goes’, but that a soulful approach to therapy (and life) is to hold our judgments a little more lightly.

Many of us seem quick to take offence and this tendency is exaggerated by social media. When we read about something controversial that someone has said or done, it can be easy to react from a place of judgment. 

Hieronymus Bosch – The Last Judgment

Judgment is not necessarily ‘bad’ or wrong, and people need to be accountable for their actions. At the same time it can be helpful to remind ourselves of the complexity of human beings and of how most of us are a mixture of different qualities, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

It’s good also to be aware of our own history and how certain behaviours in others can trigger our judgment.

Jung described the parts of us that we hide, repress or deny as the Shadow. The Shadow is often constellated by how we perceive ourselves. For example, the more I like to see myself as helping others the more the opposite of that quality gets put into my Shadow. I may then find myself acting out the Shadow in an unconscious way by being unkind but in an indirect or covert way.

Psychologist Thomas Moore in Care of the Soul applies this in his writing on the family. While many people, especially conservative politicians, present the family in an idealised way, it is in reality a whole mix of ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

“In my own family the uncle who was my ideal source of wisdom and morality was also the one who drank excessively and who scandalised the rest by refusing to go to church…when we encounter the family from the point of view of the soul, accepting its shadows and its failure to meet our idealistic expectations, we are faced with mysteries.”

I think one of the attractions of judging others is that it’s so pleasurable. When I think of how superior I am to those stupid/bad people who hold the wrong views I get a self-satisfied hit of pleasure. It’s even better if I’m with others who share my view and we can validate each other’s judgments.

This highlights the dangers when we strongly identify with a particular group because we can then, without realising it, seek to defend our ‘in group’ against an ‘out group’. We can project all the ‘bad’ onto the out group, while preserving our membership of the in group.

What’s needed is for us to bring consciousness to these beliefs and behaviours, so that we are able to recognise the parts of ourselves that we criticise others for. We can also learn that we, other people, and the world are imperfect. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to improve the world but that we let go of an idealised image of how things ‘should’ be.

For more information 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.

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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.

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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

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