New Year Resolutions and the Snowball Effect

With 2018 only a stones throw away some of you might be considering making New Year resolutions.

Might…!!

It’s a bit of a running joke really isn’t it? Each year we sit down all positive and well-meaning, coming up with new ways and strategies to improve our lives, relationships and health.

I will lose 14lbs… I will learn French… I promise to help my partner more… and yet by the second week of January the majority of us seem to have given up and relaxed back into the old habits we’d identified as not really serving us. So why is that?

It’s all too easy to simply laugh these things off but if you’re seriously attempting to make important decisions about your future and are struggling to focus perhaps you could do with a bit of a psychological MOT!

The science behind why we tend to ‘fail’ at learning something new is well-studied. In the way that you learn to write with a certain hand, speak a language, drive a car, or make a cup of tea, after a while we’ve committed it to memory and are largely working from automated programmes – we no longer have to think about it.

So despite you vowing to give up that second glass of wine with dinner or jog for half an hour every morning, we can often feel that the pull of the ‘old ways’ is too strong and we simply give up, perhaps rationalising, “well, what’s the harm anyway?!

Counselling isn’t just about helping people with stress, anxiety or depression, it’s also about helping individuals to know and accept themselves deeper than ever before.

This could equate to improving willpower, switching jobs, re-prioritising life, or dropping bad habits. You’re the one in charge of your future and only you can reach the goals you set for yourself.

So what are they? How are you going to get there?

If you feel you need a helping hand (heck, we all do from time to time!) then why not source a local therapist to see how they can support you?

Sometimes it just takes a little push of the proverbial snowball to create enough momentum for an avalanche, so let’s smash it!

What do you want to achieve?

Wishing you all a very healthy, happy and peaceful New Year with love, light and sparkles.

Steph x

Love

Love. That little four-letter word which apparently makes the world go ‘round.

When you think about love, what does it mean to you? Does it conjure up a warm fuzzy feeling or is it something which makes your top lip curl in cynicism? I often think about the potential links between psychotherapy and love, and wonder whether the crux of any therapeutic success is really down to the love that’s shared between the client and the counsellor.

I’m certainly not talking about an erotic love here – the special boundaried connection between a client and a therapist must never be sexualized, romanticized or even physical. Moreover I’m talking about the kind of love you might feel for a really close friend – deeply appropriate and platonic by nature.

When we look at some of the reasons people enter into therapy, for many it’s due to something going wrong with love. Perhaps they didn’t feel loved growing up, they’ve experienced a bad relationship, they’ve only ever received conditional love etc… When I meet clients who are struggling with issues relating to depression, anxiety, identity, loneliness or general unhappiness often we discover that the root issue is that they’re carrying some kind of love wound which needs to be healed.

There’s something incredibly profound to feel truly accepted at the core of your being by another person. All too often we limit ourselves – being too afraid to communicate our truth or needs in case we are ridiculed or rejected.

We hide behind a safe screen of what we consider to be ‘acceptable’ in the eyes of others.  

Throughout my training I studied many psychotherapy models, techniques and approaches but fundamentally recognise that in essence they’re all just helpful theories. The mind is too complex a beast and there’s no such thing as a perfect therapy algorithm to resolve client problems in the way you might fix a broken car! Even manualised therapies with a vast range of empirical results cannot definitively prove which ‘bit’ of therapy ‘works’.

Carl Rogers, the father of person-centred therapy, talked about something called ‘unconditional positive regard’ in his approach. He suggests that therapists adopt this personal attribute when working with clients – that is, prizing the person by being genuine, warm, respectful and compassionate so that the client feels it (and doesn’t perceive it as a cosy fake façade).

Is this just science-speak for offering love?

For all the complexities of delivering therapy, I personally tend to see it as something far simpler and yet greater than it is possible to effectively quantify. For the person who comes into counselling feeling incongruent about some aspect of themselves (they dislike this or that part of their lives or personality) then I guess it could make sense that to bring it into the counselling space and have someone else accept that ‘un-acceptable’ part of themselves may just dilute and potentially eradicate those feeling of self-hatred (hey, this person accepts me warts and all – maybe I’m not so bad!).

Self worth

As I was out shopping last week I noticed a little boy who looked extremely worried when mother told him he was, ‘a naughty boy and wouldn’t get any chocolate if he didn’t do as he was told.’ Fairly innocuous, right?

If you consider for a moment that everything we do is largely dependent on our conditioned responses (you’re only reading this from left to right because you once learned to…) it makes sense that some part of the little boy’s psyche will create a generalisation: if I am to gain approval from mother (be worthy), I must be compliant. And hey presto, here we have the foundations of conditional love!

But before all parents start to panic (!!) just remember that a caregiver who is mostly attuned to their child’s needs will help to create a healthy balanced emotional environment where the child can learn to express itself without fear of invalidation. Childhood is about curiosity and exploration – there is no right or wrong to a child. Worms in the garden aren’t ‘bad things to eat’ they are simply wriggling objects to be studied and stored in our memories as experience!

At my last clinical supervision my fantastic supervisor asked me what I ‘did’ with a particular client. I immediately felt a puzzled expression form on my face and noticed my silence fill the air. She let out a hearty warm laugh and said: Steph, it wasn’t meant to be a trick question! In that moment I had hit upon one of my own vulnerabilities and it reminded me of the time when my primary school teacher asked me to stand up and solve a maths question in front of the class! After I realised she wasn’t trying to trip me up (nor get me to recall every subject I had studied during six years of University!) I found my genuine answer:

I’m just me and I provide a space where my clients can just be.  

It felt so simple and childish to say – but it’s the truth! Theoretically I could dissect a session into a list of offered interventions, core conditions, propositions, introjects, conditions of worth, examples of incongruence etc… (you get the picture) but really, didn’t I just offer love to someone, who in turn felt it, and started to feel better about themselves?

Did the process spontaneously help my client to learn how to love themselves because they’d never been taught how to do it?

So whatever you choose to call it – a therapeutic alliance, unconditional positive regard, intrapsychic or interpersonal connection, transference/ counter-transference… for me, it all boils down to that four-letter word. Love. And in a letter to Jung, Freud did once famously write:

“Psychoanalysis is in essence a cure through love”.

Do you remember your first time?

I was recently reflecting on the different approaches used by counsellors in their initial consultation session. For the client this first meeting may be massively anxiety-provoking. Perhaps they have only communicated with their potential therapist beforehand via email or text and are so filled with things to say that everything rushes out at once!

It has to be said that first meeting can often leave you feeling as though you are going on a blind date!

I come from a counselling background of mandatory form filling, monitoring, and evaluation and often found myself abandoning organisations’ protocol in order to really listen and engage with the person sat right in front of me. Although there is certainly importance in building up a bigger picture of my client’s difficulties I often feel the approach of, “please answer questions 1, 2 and 3” could mean that the real answer gets entirely overlooked. That is, if I try to direct you to what I think might give me insight, we might end up setting off in the wrong direction!

What can I expect in my initial consultation? What do I say and do?!

Since that first meeting is usually slightly shorter I would recommend going in with a broad overview of your difficulties. Remember, it doesn’t matter if you forget anything important in the initial session- there are no right or wrong answers. Therapists are not like doctors and we aren’t listening out for a list of ‘symptoms’ in order to medically ‘diagnose’ you and prescribe a form of ‘treatment’. The process is more about working with your feelings and getting to the root of your problems.

Ask questions.

Feel free to come prepared (carry a list of questions and ideas if that helps) so that your therapist can help clarify things for you. A good therapist should be happy to answer any questions relating to their experience, qualifications and practice and you will be able to get a ‘feel’ for them too. Does it feel right? Do you feel comfortable with them? Do you feel unsure or rushed? Are they open or defensive, warm or clinical? Do you feel valued or unimportant? These are all incredibly valid gut reactions which can help inform your decision as to whether you’d like to work with them going forward.

What are your goals? How will you know when you’re finished in therapy?

It’s a good idea to have at least a vague notion of what this might be for example: I’d like to feel more confident, I want a better relationship with my partner, I’d like to feel less angry. By understanding and setting some goals it can help to steer the process but remember – sometimes clients come into the therapy room thinking they want to address one issue and as the layers peel back they realise the issue was really something else all along! I review regularly with all my clients to see if they feel on-track and are happy with our progress. One important thing to note is that sometimes it can feel as though you are ‘stuck’ in therapy- like you’ve hit a glass ceiling and things feel stagnant. That’s something to discuss together and can actually bring up very valuable material- it certainly doesn’t mean ‘it isn’t working!’

Find out about the process.

In my consultation sessions I might talk a little bit about our boundaries, confidentiality, session arrangements and frequencies, note-taking and ethical policy. As there is no obligation to sign up on the day I give all my potential clients a copy of my standard counselling agreement to take away and read carefully- if they wish to come back they can complete and return it on the first agreed session where we will revisit it and make sure it is understood clearly.

Be yourself! Warts ‘an all!

This isn’t a job interview and you don’t have to do anything other than be yourself. I have had many clients who ‘prepare’ or ‘rehearse’ what they plan to say in a session, only to realise that all that goes out the window when you’re deeply in the moment! Take some deep breaths before you come in and try to relax as much as you can- we’re here to help you, not make you feel worse! Be as honest, open and authentic as you are comfortable being- that will go a long way in moving the process along- and above all, trust in the process.

Good luck with finding the right therapist for you.

Steph x