GAINING PERSPECTIVE

“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” Bertrand Russell

Having not long returned from a summer holiday I have been struck by the importance of getting some distance from one’s life and climbing out of the rutted track that the daily routines of life forge into the psyche.

Away from what has become habitual, a new awareness emerges about simple day-to-day activities. Eating was something I could take time to enjoy. Wandering aimlessly through sleepy Spanish back streets, without a deadline to meet, I could actually take in what was around me, heightening my awareness of how, in the day-to-day routines of my working life, I move so quickly and efficiently from one place to another, marshaling all my physical and psychological energy to steer the most effective path from tube to street, street to office. The habits that form the structure of a busy working life appear somewhat ridiculous from a different perspective.

Stepping off the ‘hamster wheel’ of one’s life at regular, even if only brief intervals, ensures that the neural circuitry of the brain is not becoming welded into narrow paths that lead to us living life on autopilot. It is true that we need routine and structure to provide stability, but conversely we also need variety and spontaneity so that our lives do not become too predictable and rigid.

“Why not seize the pleasure at once? How often is happiness destroyed by preparation, foolish preparation!” Jane Austen, from ‘Emma’

WORLDS APART AND COLLIDING

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HOW DIFFERENCES CAN MAKE AND BREAK RELATIONSHIPS

In her book ‘Mating in Captivity’ Esther Perel writes, “in our efforts to establish intimacy we often seek to eliminate otherness, thereby precluding the space necessary for desire to flourish”.

In my work as a relationship therapist I often see couples struggling with the differences which, during the first stages of romantic love, were the magnetic forces which drew them to each other. It is a baffling irony that the very same traits and qualities of a person initially desired so compellingly, can induce irritation, frustration and a general sense of discord where harmony once prevailed. Quite suddenly it can begin to feel that it is the differences in a couple that are more apparent than the similarities.

We come into a relationship as two individuals with our own personal history, ideas and expectations about relationships. This beginning phase is necessarily loaded with projections and fantasy so that we see the in the other what we want to see and are somewhat blinded to anything that might be less appealing. The ‘opposites attract’ adage is true here in the sense that often what we are seeking in the other is that which is lacking in ourselves. Phrases such as “It’s like we’ve known each other all our lives” belong to this intoxicating and rather addictive stage of romantic love. This strength of attraction is needed to counteract the powerful fears and insecurities that might prevent anyone from ever taking the risk to fall in love – not helpful where procreation is, in evolutionary terms, the required outcome.

As the couple get to know each other and the need to feel merged and ‘as one’ gives way to a more sustainable dynamic the original differences begin to reappear, but this time without the excitement and novelty of the beginning phase. The couple must somehow recover their sense of being individuals who enjoyed different interests and a separate world-view before they met. This is the point at which relationships can hit their first major obstacle as your partner’s habit of leaving their used underwear on the floor, which once seemed faintly amusing and charmingly different to the way you operate, begins to feel annoying and even disrespectful. Other, more profound differences of culture, interests and taste can also feel more prevalent once the initial gloss has faded.

To return to Esther Perel’s quote, these differences can create the necessary tension needed to maintain the desire so easily available during the early stages. As she says, couples will tend to seek intimacy through feeling close to one another even if it means trying to change or manipulate their partner into a more palatable version of who they really are. To turn this on its head and focus on really wanting to understand a partners’ difference and embrace this sense of the couple as two interdependent individuals can feel counter-intuitive but could provide the lifeblood for continued desire, attraction and a livelier relationship.

Feeling accepting and even energized by your partner’s uniquely different way of seeing the world could liberate you both from the patterns that might have become embedded into the fabric of the relationship through trying to negate the difference between you.

For more information on Couple counselling and invidual psychotherapy in London call 07740 535399

ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE

andews-sister

You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between

There is something quaintly naïve about the opening lines to the 1944 song ‘Accentuate the positive’ made famous by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, from an era when Gene Kelly gave us ‘Singing in the Rain’ and the film South Pacific featured the song ‘Happy Talk’. The innocence of such a simple message feels a little like blind optimism in an age where some degree of cynicism helps us to survive a low-level, pervasive sense of doom on all fronts: ecological, economical and societal.

But Bing and his colleagues were singing about a simple truth, the importance of which is being understood now through increased knowledge of how the brain and nervous system functions, namely, that making a conscious effort to Œlatch on to the affirmative¹ is important for our psychological well-being.

Take a moment now to try to recall some recent positive experiences from daily life. Trawl back through the memory bank of everyday experiences to see what you find and as you do so notice what you feel. It might be a meal you enjoyed, a compliment paid to you, something you felt a sense of achievement over. When you¹ve done that try recalling some recent negative experiences. For example; a critical comment made to you, an appointment you arrived late for, a task at work which didn¹t go well. As before, be aware of what you¹re feeling as you do so.

The chances are that the negative experiences held more of an emotional charge than the positive ones. They are likely to have lingered longer in the memory and there¹s a simple evolutionary explanation for this as Rick Hanson points out in his book ‘Buddha’s Brain’. Humans have evolved to prioritise avoidance over approach ­ when survival is at stake the need to avoid that which induces fear trumps the need to move towards what could be of value.

Our hunter/gatherer ancestors needed to learn from the traumatic experience of running away from a charging Lion or disappointment of failing in the days hunting expedition more than recalling the pleasant experiences of finding food that tasted good. That way they’d be more likely to take evasive action or improve their hunting skills and therefore their chances of survival. In short, our brains are hard wired to latch on to the negative. It explains why we can be so punishing to ourselves when we get things wrong. Most of us will at times subject ourselves to the kind of abuse we wouldn’t dare to direct at anyone else, for having made a simple mistake at work, burned the toast or missed the train.

This is problematic for modern life where such basic survival strategies are unnecessary. We are not living under the constant threat of attack from neighbouring tribes or fierce wild animals and food is plentiful, for most of us in the developed world, at least.

How can we consciously overcome this instinctual response by ‘accentuating the positive’ and accepting the wisdom of lessons learned when things don’t work out as we had hoped. Allowing pleasant, nourishing experiences to permeate our being requites awareness. It’s not just a simple case of deciding to be more positive.

It’s the simple everyday experiences that will make the difference. Here’s a suggestion to experiment with: Cast your mind back to the last holiday you had. Set the scene by remembering a pleasant and positive moment in detail; laying on a beach for example. Notice how it feels to recall the colours, sounds, smells and textures of this experience. The feeling of the sand and the sun’s warmth on your skin. The sound of the waves, the intensity of the colours of the sea and sky, immerse yourself as fully as you can into the memory. Really take it in. and notice how your body feels as you do so. Registering the slightest shifts in mood, the way you are breathing, to tensions in your body; every slightest resonance will mean you are making what is called an implicit memory. One that is embodied because you have taken the time let it fill your mind, body and spirit.

Not messing with mister in-between is a less helpful message. On the contrary, peaceful states of indifference, neutrality and generally feeling just OK are the most healthy and sustainable mood states for the majority of our waking hours. Over-excitement or prolonged states of euphoria are intensive on energy consumption both physical and psychological. Once the fuel runs out, a state of deflation will likely follow. As with gravity, what goes up must come down. Such pendulum-like mood swings are not conducive to a sense of balanced well-being and anything we can do in our day-to-day lives to maintain this grounded state (attention to breathing, for example) is considered good ‘mental hygiene’.

A more helpful lyric might be: Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative and don’t be afraid of mister in between!

For more information about psychotherapy in London with Simon Jacobs call 07740 535399

WELCOMING AN UNINVITED GUEST

rumi

“This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent as a guide from beyond”.
Rumi – translation by Coleman Barks

The relatively recent incorporation of mindfulness into therapeutic treatments for depression and related anxiety, draws from Buddhist thinking dating back 2,500 years. Described by The Oxford English dictionary as: “The state or quality of being mindful; attention; regard”, mindfulness can be a powerful tool to help combat the negative thought processes such as rumination, cathastrophising and self-criticism that are common to sufferers of depression. It helps to ground a person in the here and now, accepting what is, without avoidance, judgement or interpretation. To be mindful takes a certain discipline. For most of us, moment-to-moment awareness is a fleeting experience. For others it feels like a completely alien concept. it is actually a very human quality and refers simply to the act of becoming fully conscious, aware of our breath, our sensations, our feelings, and most challenging, our thoughts; not lost in thinking but aware of and slightly distanced from the busyness of the mind.

Rumi’s inspirational poem invites us to go further than merely becoming aware of our feelings, but to welcome them, even if they are ‘a crowd of sorrows’. This can seem perverse to those who come into therapy seeking to get as far away as possible from difficult emotions such as sadness, anger and fear.

Through our feelings and emotions we experience ourselves in the world and can orientate ourselves towards or away from what we want, love, despise, are enchanted or repulsed by. When primary emotions are layered beneath or complicated by thoughts and interpretations about, for example, sadness, then secondary emotions such as disappointment, despair, misery, gloom, the sort of moods often associated with depression, may become prevalent.

In depression the sufferer who feels sad will more than likely start thinking negatively; ‘I hate feeling this way’, ‘I am weak’, ‘I have nothing to feel sorry about – others are much worse off than me’, ‘who wants to spend time with a miserable so and so like me?’.

These self-reproachful, internal dialogues that perpetuate a sense of feeling down trodden and stuck are what needs to change as part of the process of combating depression.

Getting to know really know your emotions; these guests referred to in Rumi’s poem; acknowledging, inviting and even welcoming them, is an act of self-acceptance that can bring peace and reconcile the conflicting forces locked in an internal civil war. ‘Each has been sent as a guide from beyond’ the poem states. You did not invite these guests, they simply come as a natural response to what happens around us or have lingered in the unconscious for years, surfacing only when triggered. They are our essence, which, if turned away from the door, avoided or denied, will leave us feeling detached and empty.

Think of them as cartoon characters, animals, mythical figures… whatever helps you build a relationship with them based on interest and curiosity rather than judgement and self reproach. They may not all be pretty, but by welcoming and befriending your unexpected visitors, you can bring harmony to this guest house, to this being human.

For information on my London psychotherapy practice contact 07740 535399

 

THE MEN’S GROUP – 7 YEARS AND STILL CHUGGING ALONG

The men’s group I run in central London is in its 7th year. I think of it as a heavy, rusty, solid train that has seen years of reliable service. It stops at stations where those passengers who have completed the journey get off and those starting theirs, get on. Over 100 men have taken a journey on the train, some travelling only to the next station while others remain on board for the long haul. All these passengers are part of its story; men of different ages and cultures who want to understand and explore themselves; their lives, relationships, feelings and thoughts in the company of other men.

What’s the use of a men’s group and how could a man benefit from joining? Let’s take an example, fictitious but based loosely on the stories of men I have worked with. Steve emails me saying his wife, who has uncovered his affair with a colleague has given him an ultimatum, start therapy or our marriage is over. It transpires when we meet that this is not the first affair and that he is drinking and using cocaine. He has young children and doesn’t want to lose his family.

In this scenario I might suggest he has some individual sessions with me then joins the group. A man like Steve will have few friends who really know him. He doesn’t talk to his drinking buddies about what’s really going on in him and because of the secret life he has cultivated, he tends not to tell his wife what he’s feeling and thinking either  At out first session Steve realises how isolated he is as he hears himself say “no one really knows me”.   I would go further to say that he doesn’t really know himself. His adult life has largely been spent in autopilot mode. Doing what he thought he should without reflecting or questioning what is right for him. Existing in this numbed state he starts transgressing boundaries and self-destructive, or what he might refer to as risky behavior. It’s the child-like rebellion of a man who is unaware of how resentful he feels about a life he hasn’t really chosen. And each time he gets away with it, the more addicted he becomes to living on the edge.

Men come together in the group to discover the parts they have hidden and denied; to dare to confront the aspects of self that have been long buried for fear of how they’ll be judged, disapproved of and rejected by others. Steve has been doing this for decades. He starts making connections, piecing together his disjointed sense of himself, recovering feelings he learned to suppress as a child in the face of a mother who loved him conditionally and reinforced by a wife who wasn’t let close enough to see the vulnerability and insecurity lurking beneath a polished exterior. Jung described these denied aspects of self as our shadow. In many men these dark places host a wounded soul which can operate out of awareness, reeking havoc for himself and those around him.

In the men’s group this part is encouraged and welcomed. Once sufficient trust has been established, some light can be shone into these dark places of the soul. It can feel exposing because it is, quite literally, an exposure. Learning to tolerate the discomfort of being fully seen by others in this contained environment is the healing process. The man who commits to this process knows himself more fully and can finally be himself, a more integrated person who understands his motivations and can take responsibility for his actions.

This story is of course not representative of every man who joins the group, but it’s a familiar tale and if there is a common thread running through most men’s stories, it is the sense of isolation, not being known or understood by others and by himself. 

03stations1

The men’s group I run in central London is in its 7th year. I think of it as a heavy, rusty, solid train that has seen years of reliable service. It stops at stations where those passengers who have completed the journey get off and those starting theirs, get on. Over 100 men have taken a journey on the train, some travelling only to the next station while others remain on board for the long haul. All these passengers are part of its story; men of different ages and cultures who want to understand and explore themselves; their lives, relationships, feelings and thoughts in the company of other men.

What’s the use of a men’s group and how could a man benefit from joining? Let’s take an example, fictitious but based loosely on the stories of men I have worked with. Steve emails me saying his wife, who has uncovered his affair with a colleague has given him an ultimatum, start therapy or our marriage is over. It transpires when we meet that this is not the first affair and that he is drinking and using cocaine. He has young children and doesn’t want to lose his family.

In this scenario I might suggest he has some individual sessions with me then joins the group. A man like Steve will have few friends who really know him. He doesn’t talk to his drinking buddies about what’s really going on in him and because of the secret life he has cultivated, he tends not to tell his wife what he’s feeling and thinking either  At out first session Steve realises how isolated he is as he hears himself say “no one really knows me”.   I would go further to say that he doesn’t really know himself. His adult life has largely been spent in autopilot mode. Doing what he thought he should without reflecting or questioning what is right for him. Existing in this numbed state he starts transgressing boundaries and self-destructive, or what he might refer to as risky behavior. It's the child-like rebellion of a man who is unaware of how resentful he feels about a life he hasn't really chosen. And each time he gets away with it, the more addicted he becomes to living on the edge.

Men come together in the group to discover the parts they have hidden and denied; to dare to confront the aspects of self that have been long buried for fear of how they’ll be judged, disapproved of and rejected by others. Steve has been doing this for decades. He starts making connections, piecing together his disjointed sense of himself, recovering feelings he learned to suppress as a child in the face of a mother who loved him conditionally and reinforced by a wife who wasn’t let close enough to see the vulnerability and insecurity lurking beneath a polished exterior. Jung described these denied aspects of self as our shadow. In many men these dark places host a wounded soul which can operate out of awareness, reeking havoc for himself and those around him.

In the men’s group this part is encouraged and welcomed. Once sufficient trust has been established, some light can be shone into these dark places of the soul. It can feel exposing because it is, quite literally, an exposure. Learning to tolerate the discomfort of being fully seen by others in this contained environment is the healing process. The man who commits to this process knows himself more fully and can finally be himself, a more integrated person who understands his motivations and can take responsibility for his actions.

This story is of course not representative of every man who joins the group, but it's a familiar tale and if there is a common thread running through most men's stories, it is the sense of isolation, not being known or understood by others and by himself. 

TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT….

When a person starts therapy they feel that something isn’t right; a depression, a dysfunctional relationship, a lack of self-belief. Some aspect of life feels out of balance and a desire to redress this prompts them to seek help. The therapist entrusted with this situation will need to agree with their client what the problem is before the process can unfold. This understanding of the situation is a critical aspect of the beginning of therapy and may require the client to confront painful truths about themselves and most importantly to know what they want from life. Without it therapy is in danger of becoming an aimless ramble towards nowhere in particular.

I am not making a case for solution-focused therapy per se, but more to underline the importance of a ‘brief’ for therapy; an understanding of a direction towards which a person wants to move in their life. This may include goals, behavioural changes, re-framing, widening of perspectives,significant life-changes and so on. But underneath it, the motivation will be a want/need.

The pressures to conform to the expectations of family, religion, class and culture so that we lose touch with or have not gained an awareness of our desires and values, make it surprisingly difficult to ascertain these essential truths about ourselves. A client who says they ‘should’, ‘ought’, ‘have to’ do something reveals a struggle in themselves with such expectations. It can be empowering just to hear oneself swapping these words for ‘I choose’, ‘I prefer’ or ‘I want’.  Knowing these wants and needs comes from an embodied sense of ourselves. They are not simply thoughts or ideas that spring from nowhere but are felt in the same way as when we describe knowing what’s right for us as a ‘gut instinct’. 

The wider field of psychological exploration seems increasingly to be incorporating an understanding of the body (including the brain) into its methodologies. The dramatic rise of mindfulness, a technique which requires awareness of mind, body and spirit, as a treatment for depression and anxiety, reflects this.

The exploration of this vast question, ‘what do you want?’, as a starting point for therapy, must then take account of what a person is thinking, imagining, feeling and sensing within their entire being. It is an approach that as a gestalt therapist, is at the heart of what I believe constitutes effective psychotherapy and coaching.

When a person starts therapy they feel that something isn’t right; a depression, a dysfunctional relationship, a lack of self-belief. Some aspect of life feels out of balance and a desire to redress this prompts them to seek help. The therapist entrusted with this situation will need to agree with their client what the problem is before the process can unfold. This understanding of the situation is a critical aspect of the beginning of therapy and may require the client to confront painful truths about themselves and most importantly to know what they want from life. Without it therapy is in danger of becoming an aimless ramble towards nowhere in particular.

I am not making a case for solution-focused therapy per se, but more to underline the importance of a ‘brief’ for therapy; an understanding of a direction towards which a person wants to move in their life. This may include goals, behavioural changes, re-framing, widening of perspectives,significant life-changes and so on. But underneath it, the motivation will be a want/need.

The pressures to conform to the expectations of family, religion, class and culture so that we lose touch with or have not gained an awareness of our desires and values, make it surprisingly difficult to ascertain these essential truths about ourselves. A client who says they ‘should’, ‘ought’, ‘have to’ do something reveals a struggle in themselves with such expectations. It can be empowering just to hear oneself swapping these words for ‘I choose’, 'I prefer' or ‘I want’.  Knowing these wants and needs comes from an embodied sense of ourselves. They are not simply thoughts or ideas that spring from nowhere but are felt in the same way as when we describe knowing what’s right for us as a ‘gut instinct’. 

The wider field of psychological exploration seems increasingly to be incorporating an understanding of the body (including the brain) into its methodologies. The dramatic rise of mindfulness, a technique which requires awareness of mind, body and spirit, as a treatment for depression and anxiety, reflects this.

The exploration of this vast question, ‘what do you want?’, as a starting point for therapy, must then take account of what a person is thinking, imagining, feeling and sensing within their entire being. It is an approach that as a gestalt therapist, is at the heart of what I believe constitutes effective psychotherapy and coaching.

KEEPING YOUR SHAPE – HANDLING PRESSURE WITH RESILIENCE

Playing tennis recently I had an insight which seemed relevant to some work I am currently involved with about emotional resilience.

I am fascinated by the different ways opponents manage their emotions during tennis matches. Cursing and swearing, outbursts of self-reproach, cold detachment or humour are some of the ways players deal with the tension that accompanies a desire to win. This tension also affects a player’s style of tennis during the course of a match. When a player is winning and therefore confident, the body is loose enabling a free swing and more power. When losing we tighten up, try to reduce the margin of error by playing more conservatively. If this works and you can scrap your way back into the game, all well and good, although you’ll struggle to improve your technique to a new level while constantly ‘fire fighting’. But more often than not, in desperation, players will resort to their old bad habits. Their technique is likely to fall apart and their state of mind with it. I have seen it happen and experienced it myself.

This could of course apply to almost any sport. Football commentators will point out how a team is ‘losing their shape’ when under pressure. Players lose the discipline to stick to the game plan as they lose trust in themselves and their team mates. And, of course, this applies to other situations, including work.

A literal definition of resilience is the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity, flexibility, pliability, suppleness, plasticity, durability’.

What I experience with clients who have come to therapy feeling burned-out and stressed is often not reflective of this definition. More likely they appearstoic, relentless, brittle and defensive. I am reminded of a metaphor I heard used in relation to business attitude, which was to approach conflict more like a judo contest than a joust. Jousting involves two people charging at each other, in full armour, one or both will be knocked to the ground or worse. In judo the contestants use each other’s energy, tune into ‘the other’ and sometimes go with the opposing force rather than against it, to disempower their opponent with skill and agility rather than brute force.

 My workshops on resilience focus on finding ways to maintain and support ourselves when external pressures are bending us out of shape. These strategies can enable us to hold perspective when a demanding job requires such intense application that our concentration and attention is narrowed and focused. They can also help to maintain boundaries to create the space to attend to one thing at a time so that a problem or challenge can broken down into achievable steps.  Most importantly, I have discovered that self-awareness at a holistic level, mind, body and spirit, enables us to better maintain the good habits, processes and structures which fall away when we are overwhelmed and under pressure.

Contact me for more information on Emotional Resilience workshops.

judoPlaying tennis recently I had an insight which seemed relevant to some work I am currently involved with about emotional resilience.

I am fascinated by the different ways opponents manage their emotions during tennis matches. Cursing and swearing, outbursts of self-reproach, cold detachment or humour are some of the ways players deal with the tension that accompanies a desire to win. This tension also affects a player’s style of tennis during the course of a match. When a player is winning and therefore confident, the body is loose enabling a free swing and more power. When losing we tighten up, try to reduce the margin of error by playing more conservatively. If this works and you can scrap your way back into the game, all well and good, although you’ll struggle to improve your technique to a new level while constantly ‘fire fighting’. But more often than not, in desperation, players will resort to their old bad habits. Their technique is likely to fall apart and their state of mind with it. I have seen it happen and experienced it myself.

This could of course apply to almost any sport. Football commentators will point out how a team is ‘losing their shape’ when under pressure. Players lose the discipline to stick to the game plan as they lose trust in themselves and their team mates. And, of course, this applies to other situations, including work.

A literal definition of resilience is the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity, flexibility, pliability, suppleness, plasticity, durability’.

What I experience with clients who have come to therapy feeling burned-out and stressed is often not reflective of this definition. More likely they appearstoic, relentless, brittle and defensive. I am reminded of a metaphor I heard used in relation to business attitude, which was to approach conflict more like a judo contest than a joust. Jousting involves two people charging at each other, in full armour, one or both will be knocked to the ground or worse. In judo the contestants use each other’s energy, tune into ‘the other’ and sometimes go with the opposing force rather than against it, to disempower their opponent with skill and agility rather than brute force.

 My workshops on resilience focus on finding ways to maintain and support ourselves when external pressures are bending us out of shape. These strategies can enable us to hold perspective when a demanding job requires such intense application that our concentration and attention is narrowed and focused. They can also help to maintain boundaries to create the space to attend to one thing at a time so that a problem or challenge can broken down into achievable steps.  Most importantly, I have discovered that self-awareness at a holistic level, mind, body and spirit, enables us to better maintain the good habits, processes and structures which fall away when we are overwhelmed and under pressure.

Contact me for more information on Emotional Resilience workshops.

WILL THE REAL ME PLEASE STAND UP

Perhaps the central task of psychotherapy is self-discovery, implying that the ‘self’ has been lost, buried under layers of something that is not ‘self’ or has not yet appeared. Often, the process of discovery requires an understanding of how an idealised self or ego has evolved over time. When we talk about egomaniacs we are referring to someone who is identified with the idealised self, and the power he or she can weald as a result of being able to  manipulate their environment through this channel.

A common reason for people to begin therapy is when they reach a point where this idealised self is no longer viable. The costs of maintaining the façade have become too great. It’s not hard to predict the possible consequences for someone who has grown up trying to be perfect, successful and self-reliant and whose self-esteem has become largely dependent on earning the approval and admiration of others.  The sort of person the corporate sector will often recruit. And while everyone’s story is unique, this one has a familiar ring to it. Becoming more and more stressed in their pursuit of the success and adulation the ego craves, they reach a state of burn out and under certain conditions, depression. All it takes is for their team to lose a contract and in this fragile state, he or she breaks down. The self-image as someone who must succeed to feel OK about themselves has been mortally wounded and the brittle confidence which got them were they are has given way.

Although this is often a terrifying situation, I can think of many clients of mine who, months down the line, have been able to look back upon this crisis as a critical and very positive turning point. For the self to be discovered, with all of its creative potential, vulnerability, strengths and weaknesses, the ego has to give way. Sometimes people begin therapy before that point, while others can only accept that change is inevitable by experiencing a full-blown collapse and ensuing pain and fear.

It is part of a natural development for the ego to develop in such a way. In his book “Towards a Psychology of Awakening” John Welwood describes the evolution of the ego during childhood as a control structure to help us impose constraints on our behaviours and better improve our chances of survival. A child whose cheerful and agreeable disposition seems to elicit the responses from others that tell her she is acceptable, is learning to kerb her true nature in favour of what will achieve a greater sense of belonging. It’s a sound strategy at that time and place. Later in life however, when the overriding need for approval might hinder her maturing into a healthily assertive woman we could see how an old strategy might have become unhelpful and obsolete. As Welwood puts it, the ego’s ‘developmental purpose as a kind of business manager or agent that learns and masters the ways of the world’, has exceeded its remit. It now believes it is the owner of the business, not just the manager.

The sad truth is that whilst we have been striving hard for recognition, doing what we think we should, ought, have to, we have been increasingly distancing ourselves from our true self – a more rounded, integrated person who, without the need for such a hardened carapace, can express him or herself in ways that truly reflect their potential and what they value.

 

multiple-faces2Perhaps the central task of psychotherapy is self-discovery, implying that the ‘self’ has been lost, buried under layers of something that is not ‘self’ or has not yet appeared. Often, the process of discovery requires an understanding of how an idealised self or ego has evolved over time. When we talk about egomaniacs we are referring to someone who is identified with the idealised self, and the power he or she can weald as a result of being able to  manipulate their environment through this channel.

A common reason for people to begin therapy is when they reach a point where this idealised self is no longer viable. The costs of maintaining the façade have become too great. It’s not hard to predict the possible consequences for someone who has grown up trying to be perfect, successful and self-reliant and whose self-esteem has become largely dependent on earning the approval and admiration of others.  The sort of person the corporate sector will often recruit. And while everyone’s story is unique, this one has a familiar ring to it. Becoming more and more stressed in their pursuit of the success and adulation the ego craves, they reach a state of burn out and under certain conditions, depression. All it takes is for their team to lose a contract and in this fragile state, he or she breaks down. The self-image as someone who must succeed to feel OK about themselves has been mortally wounded and the brittle confidence which got them were they are has given way.

Although this is often a terrifying situation, I can think of many clients of mine who, months down the line, have been able to look back upon this crisis as a critical and very positive turning point. For the self to be discovered, with all of its creative potential, vulnerability, strengths and weaknesses, the ego has to give way. Sometimes people begin therapy before that point, while others can only accept that change is inevitable by experiencing a full-blown collapse and ensuing pain and fear.

It is part of a natural development for the ego to develop in such a way. In his book “Towards a Psychology of Awakening” John Welwood describes the evolution of the ego during childhood as a control structure to help us impose constraints on our behaviours and better improve our chances of survival. A child whose cheerful and agreeable disposition seems to elicit the responses from others that tell her she is acceptable, is learning to kerb her true nature in favour of what will achieve a greater sense of belonging. It’s a sound strategy at that time and place. Later in life however, when the overriding need for approval might hinder her maturing into a healthily assertive woman we could see how an old strategy might have become unhelpful and obsolete. As Welwood puts it, the ego’s ‘developmental purpose as a kind of business manager or agent that learns and masters the ways of the world’, has exceeded its remit. It now believes it is the owner of the business, not just the manager.

The sad truth is that whilst we have been striving hard for recognition, doing what we think we should, ought, have to, we have been increasingly distancing ourselves from our true self - a more rounded, integrated person who, without the need for such a hardened carapace, can express him or herself in ways that truly reflect their potential and what they value.

THE STORIES WE TELL

Adam Curtis’ recent film ‘Bitter Lake’, exposes the disastrous consequences that have resulted from an acutely simplistic and agenda-driven perspective on the situation in Afghanistan and generally on the growth of violent Islamic extremism taken by “those in power (who) tell stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality…stories that are increasingly unconvincing and hollow”. What transpires from the film’s uncomfortable reality check is just how little is really known about this multi-faceted and confused situation which has become profoundly complicated by misleading narratives over decades and even centuries.

Watching this film, it occurred to me that it is human nature to tell stories about situations or events outside us and also about ourselves and those close to us which are simplified to help make sense of what is complex and difficult to rationalize. And these stories provide the basis for further narratives and beliefs about who we are and how life will turn out. A man says to his partner in couple counseling, “you always shout when you get angry”. This is a story. It is unlikely to be entirely true and whilst it maybe his experience that it happens often, when trying to resolve conflicts it is important to examine the actual experience of what is happening and not be influenced by the story.

Psychotherapy is a process which aims to promote growth in people who have come to a point where they feel stuck, unable to break from unhelpful or destructive patterns; or perhaps a shocking event has challenged them to find a new perspective on their life and they are unable to shift long-held beliefs which need to be shaken to move through and beyond this new life situation. No one is immune from developing blind spots so that they are unable to see a healthy path forward when life becomes a struggle. The struggle is often the symptom which brings them into therapy, underneath which lies a story they have about themselves – a story which inhibits choice and creativity, limiting the possibility to live more fully and with awareness.

Eric Berne, author of “the games people play”, developed a way of understanding these stories which he called ‘scripts’ – life plans that were laid down early in life which we are now unaware of, but which determine choices and decisions and how we feel about our world.The script has evolved from the infant’s relationship with parents whose ideas about the external world and most importantly about how that infant will fare as he matures through life, have been learned.  Cultures, religions, nations and communities all have scripts as do families, couples and individuals. They are both a necessary means of understanding the complexity of life and potentially an over simplification of a complex reality we would rather not have to understand. Scripts, as described by Berne, are a particular kind of story, with the (mostly) unhelpful function of protecting us from the uncertainty of not knowing how life will unfold. There’s a safety in expecting the worse but a price to pay for the comfort gained by protecting oneself from the uncertainty of the future.

As adults we have a choice to put aside our biases and look afresh at the world. To write a new script for ourselves based on our wants and needs, in the here and now. My job as a psychotherapist is to help people write a new story, which starts by uncovering the old one so that an understanding can be gained of how they were constructed and have become an underlying, unseen force in a person’s life.

imagesAdam Curtis’ recent film ‘Bitter Lake’, exposes the disastrous consequences that have resulted from an acutely simplistic and agenda-driven perspective on the situation in Afghanistan and generally on the growth of violent Islamic extremism taken by “those in power (who) tell stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality…stories that are increasingly unconvincing and hollow”. What transpires from the film’s uncomfortable reality check is just how little is really known about this multi-faceted and confused situation which has become profoundly complicated by misleading narratives over decades and even centuries. Watching this film, it occurred to me that it is human nature to tell stories about situations or events outside us and also about ourselves and those close to us which are simplified to help make sense of what is complex and difficult to rationalize. And these stories provide the basis for further narratives and beliefs about who we are and how life will turn out. A man says to his partner in couple counseling, “you always shout when you get angry”. This is a story. It is unlikely to be entirely true and whilst it maybe his experience that it happens often, when trying to resolve conflicts it is important to examine the actual experience of what is happening and not be influenced by the story. Psychotherapy is a process which aims to promote growth in people who have come to a point where they feel stuck, unable to break from unhelpful or destructive patterns; or perhaps a shocking event has challenged them to find a new perspective on their life and they are unable to shift long-held beliefs which need to be shaken to move through and beyond this new life situation. No one is immune from developing blind spots so that they are unable to see a healthy path forward when life becomes a struggle. The struggle is often the symptom which brings them into therapy, underneath which lies a story they have about themselves – a story which inhibits choice and creativity, limiting the possibility to live more fully and with awareness. Eric Berne, author of “the games people play”, developed a way of understanding these stories which he called ‘scripts’ – life plans that were laid down early in life which we are now unaware of, but which determine choices and decisions and how we feel about our world.The script has evolved from the infant’s relationship with parents whose ideas about the external world and most importantly about how that infant will fare as he matures through life, have been learned.  Cultures, religions, nations and communities all have scripts as do families, couples and individuals. They are both a necessary means of understanding the complexity of life and potentially an over simplification of a complex reality we would rather not have to understand. Scripts, as described by Berne, are a particular kind of story, with the (mostly) unhelpful function of protecting us from the uncertainty of not knowing how life will unfold. There’s a safety in expecting the worse but a price to pay for the comfort gained by protecting oneself from the uncertainty of the future. As adults we have a choice to put aside our biases and look afresh at the world. To write a new script for ourselves based on our wants and needs, in the here and now. My job as a psychotherapist is to help people write a new story, which starts by uncovering the old one so that an understanding can be gained of how they were constructed and have become an underlying, unseen force in a person’s life.

MENTAL HYGIENE

I have recently given talks to a gathering of GP’s and another to a bank on the issue of Mental Hygiene. As awareness of the perils of stress and burn–out grows, those responsible for the health of people working in highly demanding environments are needing to broaden their understanding of what can be done to limit the damage to the workforce.

The feedback from my talks with doctors, human resource and occupational health professionals suggests that more needs to be done to equip individuals and organisations with good mental hygiene awareness. According to the World Federation for Mental Health, the concept of optimum mental health refers not to an absolute or ideal state but to the “best possible state insofar as circumstances are alterable”. Mental health is regarded as a condition of the individual, relative to the capacities and social-environmental context of that person. Mental hygiene is the action we can take on daily basis and in more general ways over time, to improve our emotional and psychological well-being and mental health.

Mostly these are common-sense measures. Daily attention to the basics: sleep, nutrition, exercise, are a crucial part of maintaining good mental hygiene. We also achieve a balanced life from:
• A measure of social support – people need to feel a sense of belonging, whether within family, friendship groups, teams at work, membership of clubs and organisations.
• A sense of purpose (work, religion, causes)
• Perspective and humour
• Leisure time and time to relax

What strikes me most from what I have heard during these talks and what I encounter daily in my private practice is how people are finding it hard to achieve a balanced life. It requires a commitment to self-care; a moment-by-moment attention to detail to maintain the equilibrium needed for a healthy emotional and psychological life.

By regularly checking in with yourself to ask, “How is my posture right now?”; ”Am I breathing well, slowly, deeply?”; “When did I last drink some water?”, you’ll be taking some important steps to achieve good mental hygiene. People struggle to keep updating themselves like this when they become so focused on what they’re doing that without knowing it they have switched to autopilot. They have lost touch with themselves. It may at first feel rather mechanical and laborious to have to keep monitoring oneself but this is what it takes to regain control of a life which has become lost in trying to be constantly productive without any respite.

mental-hygiene_designI have recently given talks to a gathering of GP’s and another to a bank on the issue of Mental Hygiene. As awareness of the perils of stress and burn–out grows, those responsible for the health of people working in highly demanding environments are needing to broaden their understanding of what can be done to limit the damage to the workforce. The feedback from my talks with doctors, human resource and occupational health professionals suggests that more needs to be done to equip individuals and organisations with good mental hygiene awareness. According to the World Federation for Mental Health, the concept of optimum mental health refers not to an absolute or ideal state but to the "best possible state insofar as circumstances are alterable". Mental health is regarded as a condition of the individual, relative to the capacities and social-environmental context of that person. Mental hygiene is the action we can take on daily basis and in more general ways over time, to improve our emotional and psychological well-being and mental health. Mostly these are common-sense measures. Daily attention to the basics: sleep, nutrition, exercise, are a crucial part of maintaining good mental hygiene. We also achieve a balanced life from: • A measure of social support - people need to feel a sense of belonging, whether within family, friendship groups, teams at work, membership of clubs and organisations. • A sense of purpose (work, religion, causes) • Perspective and humour • Leisure time and time to relax What strikes me most from what I have heard during these talks and what I encounter daily in my private practice is how people are finding it hard to achieve a balanced life. It requires a commitment to self-care; a moment-by-moment attention to detail to maintain the equilibrium needed for a healthy emotional and psychological life. By regularly checking in with yourself to ask, “How is my posture right now?”; ”Am I breathing well, slowly, deeply?”; “When did I last drink some water?”, you'll be taking some important steps to achieve good mental hygiene. People struggle to keep updating themselves like this when they become so focused on what they’re doing that without knowing it they have switched to autopilot. They have lost touch with themselves. It may at first feel rather mechanical and laborious to have to keep monitoring oneself but this is what it takes to regain control of a life which has become lost in trying to be constantly productive without any respite.