Someone needs to talk about TOWIE… a therapist’s response

A few years ago I was reluctantly cajoled into watching a single episode of The Only Way is Essex (ITVBe) by a friend who found it mildly amusing. The lives of Brentwood’s nouveau riche brat-pack seemed a world away from my own but over time I started to become familiar with firm favourites like Gemma (GC) Collins, Arg, Chloe Sims and Bobby Norris. As the seasons ticked by I became unsuspectingly (and secretly) hooked, finding myself giggly, excitable and perched on the sofa for my double-weekly dose of perma-tanned drama. But where are we now as TOWIE (not be be confused with the Bridge-like card game invented in 1930’s Paris) enters its 22nd series?

This Sunday an episode was aired which sent shock waves out through the nation raising some very interesting debate about where we draw the line at ‘light-hearted entertainment.’ The show exploded back onto our screens and featured long-time standing cast member Lockie (James Lock) seen yelling a string of intentionally abusive expletives at his young girlfriend in front of her friends, whilst she said nothing to either instigate or antagonise his four-letter-word outburst.

In fact it was her apparent silence (during a conversation between her friends and Lockie; expressing their concerns about the way he talks to her) that seemingly caused his disproportionate, misdirected, and utterly unacceptable behaviour.

Boys will be boys?

For some time now (perhaps always) there has been a dark and sinister undercurrent of societal-accepted chauvinism lurking beneath the semi-scripted surface as we witness the young women of Essex regularly tolerate unwanted comments about their physical appearance (either ogled or cruelly criticised), be cheated on/ played (yet rarely observed as walking away first time around), and bearing the brunt of misogynistic aggression in which their Alpha-males feel it is acceptable to lambast them with controlling and manipulative logic which would make the average feminist vomit all over the screen.

There appears to be an uncomfortable message being perpetuated which isn’t immediately obvious unless you become attuned and aware of the bigger picture. The girls and women of TOWIE are often heard celebrating ‘girl power’ but sadly it is an empowerment which speaks primarily of condition-based acceptance and conformity. A notion which suggests that if you look attractive and well-groomed (certainly don’t flaunt your intelligence) that you are somehow powerful and have access to increased social status and romance opportunities. That is, that your inherent power as a woman can be only be accessed and demonstrated through visually compliant sexuality.

The men of the show lap this up- it gives them pack kudos to ‘bag a sort.’

Are these women exercising real choice in the way they look, or are they simply exercising a choice from a minuscule rail of peer acceptability which centres around their desirability to men?

On TOWIE we don’t see women actively selecting partners, perhaps with the notable exception of Gemma Collins who relentlessly pursued Arg for around 8-yrs, endlessly waiting for him to realise that she is The One. Part of his decision for avoiding the inevitable was the shame, humiliation and embarrassment he experienced (and vocalised) from his peer group who constantly attacked (bantered) her weight.

And we don’t see women being selected as partners based on personality, intelligence, ability, standards or aspirations either; we see men assume the role of choice-maker, with their object of desire waiting patiently until said males have either slept with them (gotten bored and moved on) or finally after months of ‘casual not-bothered-anyway (emotionally avoidant) dating’ make themselves ‘exclusive and official.’

Unfortunately this is the kind of toxic message that we’re sending out to young women all over the country- that it’s OK to be treated in a derogatory manner (because we’re a passionate couple and he’s hot-headed) and ‘boys will be boys.’

Week after week I see young women experience nothing less than obvious emotional abuse and the insidious demise of their own inner-confidence masked only by a fake veneer of pouts, boob-jobs and selfies.

As a therapist if I had any of those young women walk through my door I would be interested to hear about their real motivations, beliefs, thoughts and feelings; helping them to draw clear emotional boundaries and set important standards for what they deem to be acceptable behaviour towards them.

I hope the show starts to utilise its position of cultural influence by celebrating real women everywhere- putting across the message that real empowerment involves self-respect, self-love and self-confidence (which is found within and not down the MAC aisle).

#TOWIE

@StephJonesMBACP

Time to Talk

Someone asked me the other day what time of clients I worked with- whether it was people ‘just’ dealing with problems in their relationships, jobs or families, or whether it was people who had ‘mental health issues.’

What is the distinction? Is there one? What is ‘being well’ and how do we define it?

There seems to be some confusion as to what mental health actually is. So let’s put this in simplistic terms.

We ALL have mental health, just like physical health and it exists on a sliding scale.

If you’d sustained a physical injury you would need time to heal. Willing your bones to knit back isn’t going to have much effect. Similarly if you’ve sustained a psychological wound – a loss, a pain, a shock, a stress factor, an environmental change- your mental health will need time to process, reflect, find acceptance and heal.

It really isn’t any different.

The problem in society is that we can’t SEE the mind. We look at others and think, ‘Well, they LOOK fine’ without being able to experience their inner pain. Let’s face it unfortunately modern society is geared around productivity- governments contribute vast sums of money into the system in order to support individuals struggling with mental health issues, but why? Out of the goodness of their hearts? Because they’re full of integrity and compassion? No, because people who are struggling are not able to contribute to profit generation, in this sense mental health is a ‘problem’ to be dealt with.

Clinician ‘experts’ focus on treating pathologies; human beings are given labels and diagnoses which pigeon-hole them into treatment ‘pathways’. Understanding what brought the person to that current state of being is typically undervalued- CBT for example isn’t particularly interested in listening to the underlying meaning of how you came to be in this moment, it’s more interested in looking for ways to ‘fix’ your mindset- to turn your negative thoughts into more healthy, positive and ordinary ones. But what if your negative thoughts simply reflect reality, that your life and environment are difficult and painful?

Animals caged up in zoos suffer psychological disturbances- consider the pacing tigers, the birds which over-groom and pull out their feathers- when we cannot live how we want to live, we become stressed, ill, anxious and depressed. It could be argued that these are natural responses to hardship.

But the system demands that much of our natural response anxieties and depressions are reduced to false red flag triggers which must be psychologically reconditioned and banished. Medication largely helps abate the internal anguish by numbing out the power of the triggers and re-balancing depleted serotonin levels. But what happens when the flag ARE real? When you’re skint, in diabolical housing, have poor self-esteem or little motivation to go on because every day makes you feel utterly worthless?

The NIMHE Guiding Statement on Recovery talks about, ‘changing one’s orientation and behaviour from a negative focus on a troubling event, condition or circumstance to the positive restoration, rebuilding, reclaiming or taking control of one’s life.’

But this begs the question- how much control do people have over their own lives? Through no fault of their own, millions of people find themselves in dire socio-economic circumstances leading to deep unhappiness and poor mental health.

Carl Rogers, the father of Client Centred Therapy, talks about the internal struggle of incongruence- that is, by not living in accordance with your true self this leads to all kinds of psychological conflict. For the most part poor mental health doesn’t arise out of the blue, it’s typically linked to some unexpressed or unprocessed part of yourself.

Today we all have a golden opportunity to talk about how we feel, to share our stories, our fears and hopes, and bite back at those who suggest you can ‘think’ your way out of mental health struggles.

Telling someone to ‘think positive’ when they’re in a dark and scary place is as bloody pointless as asking a diabetic to control their insulin by mind power alone.

Yes, we can all do things which will support good mental health and get endorphins whizzing around (exercising, socialising, eating well, moderating toxic loads on your body) but let’s be realistic and stop heaping blame and shame onto the suffers.

Smash the stigma and raise the empathy stakes, we’re all human and deserve compassion and support

#TimetoTalk

A therapist with mental health issues.

This blog was originally posted in January 2018 and later published in the BACP’s professional journal magazine (March 2018) – Therapy Today

Expert by experience

Steph Jones argues that personal experience of mental health problems can add to a counsellor’s skills

I was recently thumbing through a back issue of a psychology magazine and came across one of those ‘short interview with a therapist’ articles. The therapist in question had only decided to retrain after he reached retirement age; his motivation was, he said, to ‘give back to society’. As I continued reading, I felt more and more unsettled. The interviewer asked, ‘Have you ever been in therapy?’, to which he replied, ‘No, I’ve never needed to be.’

This spun me back to a lecture on my own counselling training course, where our professor uttered these words, now permanently etched on my brain: ’Never trust a therapist who hasn’t had therapy.’

In my late teens and early 20s I struggled like hell. I grew up in a single parent household, and my mother battled (although mostly in complete denial) with alcohol. Sofa-surfing and jobless by 17, I found drugs, boys and alcohol were fun alternatives to escape the crushing pain of abandonment and rejection (Mum left me for a violent and abusive man who shared her passion for alcohol. Both are now deceased due to their addictions.)

I remember my early childhood as being a very confusing time. Mum would lavish me with love and attention, but fly off the handle for no particular reason. She would talk to me like an adult friend after she’d downed a bottle of wine. I had absolutely no boundaries. I was obsessively washing my ‘contaminated’ hands by age seven, a latch-key kid by nine, and hauled into the GP’s surgery aged 10 by my hysterical mother demanding to know what was wrong with me. She later gave me hell for not showing the GP my ‘real behaviour’.

I first went for counselling when I was 25 and had accepted that, although my life was by then relatively stable, something didn’t feel quite right. My counsellor (a trainee CBT practitioner) didn’t seem all that interested in my journey of abuse and neglect, my presentation of emotional instability, attachment issues, no confidence or self-worth, major depression, anxiety, frequent panic attacks, dissociative states, some self-harm, impulsivity, maladaptive behaviours and evidence of substance abuse. Instead we focused on what he deemed to be the main problem: why I didn’t have the confidence to talk to a guy I had a crush on.

It wasn’t until several years later that I had 21-sessions of cognitive analytic therapy, through an IAPT service, with a kind, funny, attentive and authentic male counsellor. Each week I would pour my heart out as we did ‘the work’. Together, we painstakingly collaborated in trying to make sense of my life and helping me learn the art of self-acceptance. I screamed, I got angry at him, I wept in grief and anguish; I projected all the unresolved dysfunctional toxic material from my relationship with my mother into our dyad, and he held it securely, compassionately and patiently. He made me realise (much to my initial resistance) that I was in a relationship with an abusive narcissist (I was), and that I was making excuses for his terrible behaviour because I could understand where his pain came from: ‘Jones knows her onions,’ my therapist said.

One afternoon he remarked that he thought I’d make a good counsellor, and I admitted that I’d previously looked into it but hadn’t pursued it, ‘because… reasons’. At that moment, I realised all my ‘reasons’ were in fact fear-based excuses, and within the next few years I had qualified, with a postgraduate diploma in counselling and psychotherapy on a BACP-accredited university course. I worked 60-hours a week to achieve my goal, and burned out on several occasions, collapsing under the strain of the essays, and feeling incredibly alone. But I stuck with it. All we trainees did.

Through the mill

Over the years, I have had around 70-sessions of counselling of different types with different practitioners: some good, some bad, some bloody awful (one therapist told me that he communicated with aliens to help him in his practice). It may seem like a gross over-generalisation, and I know many skilled counsellors who have travelled the academic route, but, in my experience, those that have been bang-on-the-money in terms of their awareness, observations, communication style, interventions, empathy and guidance had all been through the mill – they had lived the syllabus; they spoke from a place of core wounding and subsequent healing.

What is that about? How does my own mental health experience shape me as a professional? What exactly is the special ‘thing’ that I bring into the counselling relationship to help the work? When I attempt to solve this riddle, I realise just how difficult it is to quantify. But maybe that’s the point – it is almost impossible to capture in words an intuitive skill that extends beyond the five recognised senses and is, therefore, in the eyes of science, situated somewhere in the realm of Woo-Woo. Isn’t this part of the problem – that, in our Western culture, we seek to dissect and label all we see in order to ‘understand’ though our limited senses? A shamanic culture, by contrast, would take interconnectivity and acute empathy as a given, without the need for any scientific research to make it ‘real’ or true.

This is my humbly offered attempt at an answer. I believe pain and suffering allow us a glimpse of the truth. I’m suggesting that, when you’ve experienced a high degree of pain and suffering in your life, you naturally cultivate a wider emotional spectrum.

Perhaps, at a biological level, this is about having an over-stimulated sympathetic nervous system, and learning to manage this effectively enough (adapting) so that the world is no longer perceived as a constant threat. I sometimes visualise this as a kind of variation on the window of tolerance – that, when you’ve done enough work on yourself, a hyper-aroused state can be cultivated so that your senses become cat-like, useful, and not just unpleasant.

Could it have something to do with the brain’s mirror neurons – could therapists who have personally experienced mental health issues simply be picking up on strong and familiar subliminal clues, even before the client has verbalised their concerns? By this same token, having been to the depths of despair yourself might suggest that your transference receiver is already finely attuned to the suffering experience – a bit like a sniffer dog checking for explosives in an airport check-in queue.

This exquisite sensitivity used to frighten me – I used to consider it a ‘weirdness’ and try to hide it away from others, but I now regard it as a magical power in my counselling toolkit. To put it another way, therapy is hard work, my experience of mental health issues has given me the tools to be an empathic badass, and you don’t learn that in class.

Two-way street

My decision to write this article was met with some concern by one of my peers. ‘I’d feel really uncomfortable disclosing that, Steph. What if a client read it?’ Their comment (although well-meaning) highlights something that I think lurks in the background of our profession. Many of us come to the work as a ‘wounded healer’, yet there seems to be a tangible undercurrent of shame and embarrassment at the mere suggestion that we were (or are not) ‘100% mentally healthy’. I know countless practitioners in the caring profession who pour themselves into helping their clients but secretly cry their eyes out in the bathroom over lunch. But we’re fine, aren’t we? Nothing to see here, people – just dust in my eye.

I’m not suggesting for one moment that we ‘reveal’ ourselves, ‘warts and all’, to a client (of course, boundaries are critical), but that we use appropriate self-disclosure, and that we seek support to understand our feelings of shame or inadequacy when anyone (client or colleague) ‘finds out’. The more we dismantle the concept of the ‘expert therapist’, the easier it will be for our clients to trust us. In the words of another peer, ‘Vulnerability helps even out the power imbalance a bit more.’

I once worked with a highly-regarded doctor who had been through a great deal of psychoanalysis to deal with his own childhood issues. He talked about how his experience enabled him to ‘feel’ the psychological pain in another person, and really ‘lock into the source’. He believed this made him a better clinician, and we often talked about how whatever happens in the patient–professional transaction does so at a level of meta-cognition – an unspoken communication that says: ‘I can see you’ve been there too.’

But it’s not pain-by-proxy, that’s for certain. I am deeply and consciously aware of whose material is whose, and have a passionate and curious supervisor who works with me to help ‘sift out the lumps’. Nor is it about personally identifying with their experience (the all-unhelpful, ‘Hey, I know how you feel’), or an unprocessed desire to heal vicariously through the work.

For someone who is lost in the dark, perhaps it provides comfort that their therapist has not only been into the darkness but has come out the other side. There’s a famous quote from the film Good Will Hunting that seems to encapsulate my point. During an intense therapy session, Sean, the therapist, says to Will, his client: ‘So, if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the Pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling, seen that.’

High empathy is beyond the observed, assumed or inferred. It is beyond cognition – it is existential, intuitive and instinctual.

No shame

When a client walks into my office I am not assuming the role of a perfect professional. I am flawed, just like everyone else, and I am honest about that. In retrospect, every ‘Eureka!’ moment in my own personal therapy arose from the therapist spontaneously disclosing their own private pain, and so demonstrating to me that this pain could be overcome through blood, sweat and tears. They were the proof, and now I am. Of course, we ‘wounded healers’ are never fixed. Life-long, hard-wired patterns of negative behaviours and processes do not vanish in a puff of smoke just because you’ve got a string of letters and qualifications after your name. In times of stress my pure-O OCD will make itself more apparent. I like to nip this in the bud by visualising a bloody big red stamp smashing out the thought and then making myself a cup of tea. These days my anxiety has become a manageable and endearing shyness (even though I’m viewed by others as a fun-loving extrovert) and my severe numbing depression gives way to occasional low days (I self-care the shit out of low days).

I have learned to accept my past, overcome the stigma and shame, and not let it define me or my future. I am now a very happy 38-year old, with an incredible partner and a fluffy feline familiar. I let go of what doesn’t serve me (jobs, friends, situations), and I practise what I preach.

I would personally be extremely cautious of any counsellor who hadn’t sat in the client seat at one time or another. It offers a world of valuable insight to integrate into practice. A client whose therapist claims ‘I’ve never needed therapy’ should perhaps have a good long think as to whether they’re the right person for them. For me, that comment smacked of ‘them and us’, which certainly does nothing to equalise the power imbalance in the therapeutic relationship or help reduce the overall mental health stigma. I guess that is the whole point of sharing this piece – to proudly shout that I’m human, imperfect, messy, authentic and bloody good enough.

About Steph

Steph Jones is a BACP registered counsellor and psychotherapist supporting individuals and couples at her private practice in Stockport, Cheshire. She is a former Executive Board Member of Mind Manchester, and a radio presenter, musician and journalist. She writes for a number of wellbeing publications, is currently working on a book, and lives with partner Mike and Ziggy the cat.

 

I’m on Twitter!

Hello there!

Well, I might be ‘slightly’ late to the party (biggest understatement of the year so far…) but yesterday I joined Twitter!

I’d like to say a massive thank you to all of you who follow this blog and my Facebook page- I feel incredibly grateful and it genuinely doesn’t go unappreciated.

If you’re a Twitter kind of person you can find me at https://twitter.com/StephJonesMBACP

Currently I have twenty followers. Kim Kardashian eat your heart out.. 😉

Thanks everyone and big love in 2018.

Steph x

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

The Christmas Survival Guide (or how to avoid a meltdown)

It’s that special time of year again where we are bombarded by cosy television adverts featuring ‘perfect’ happy families enjoying ‘perfect’ magical scenes eating ‘perfect’ celebratory lunches. Back in reality though it’s also that time of year where we often find ourselves rushing around like headless chickens trying to compete with such manufactured scenes, and feeling somewhat disappointed that our ‘big day’ doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Our spouse wakes up in a grumpy mood after too many tipples left out for Santa the night before, our children squabble over suspicious smelling sprouts and retreat into a world of smartphones, and oh dear, the roast potatoes are burned to a crisp. Is it any wonder so many of us go into seasonal meltdown?

A 2014 study shows that just over one in four women feel stressed about Christmas preparations, whilst one in three people in general are worried about the financial strain it brings. Gideon Skinner (Head of Political Research at Ipsos MORI) said:

Christmas is meant to be a time for sharing – but our survey suggests the burden isn’t shared totally equally between men and women. Women are twice as likely to say they feel stressed about their Christmas preparations, while nearly a quarter of men say they haven’t done any of their Christmas shopping so far.”

At this time of year from a counselling point of view I see a sharp increase in the number of clients feeling very worried about Christmas with many reporting worsening stress, anxiety and depression.

Are we taking on too much or simply blowing things out of proportion?

It’s no joke that rushing around the high street, queuing up for lengthy periods and over-facing yourself with military-style duties is going to increase your blood pressure and with many of us having such limited time to get things done it can become incredibly easy to succumb to a sheer sense of panic.

So what can we do? Here’s my top five list of things to help you beat the winter frenzy and keep your cool when the kitchen’s hot.

RELAX It might seem glaringly obvious but a quick grounding in yourself will help snap you back into the present moment and stop you feeling caught up in the external chaos.

I recommend you find a quiet spot wherever you can (even if it’s the public loos if you’re out and about) and concentrate on your breathing – inhaling deeply through the nose for a count of five and exhaling slowly through your mouth for a count of seven. Keep your eyes closed and put a hand on your chest to connect you with your heartbeat.

Repeating this process for even just a few minutes will immediately decrease your heart rate, encourage deeper breathing (goodbye tight anxious chest..) and start to relax the tension in your muscles.

PRIORITISE Rome was not built in a day and spoiler alert… there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ Christmas. Believe me, I’m sure Jamie Oliver and his wife bicker over the washing up and Nigella buggers up the sprouts. Don’t be fooled by the mass media whose sole purpose is to encourage you to spend, spend, spend.

Remember that what you see on TV is completely fabricated and staged. The happy family you are watching likely only met each other that morning and aren’t even related.

Work yourself out a schedule (or even just a basic list) so that tasks get broken down into manageable chunks. Shop online if you can and make sure you leave yourself lots of time so you aren’t panicking at the last minute.

And be sensible. Do you really have time to arrange a three-course meal for fifteen relatives? If the answer is no you might want to ask yourself why you are going to such lengths. Duty? Obligation? Remember, this is not your responsibility to deal with alone which leads us nicely to…

ASK FOR HELP – For the love of Christmas, remember to delegate! Any successful project manager will ensure they utilise every possible resource at their disposal, so be smart and play to everyone’s strengths. For example – if you have a colleague who is nipping out over lunch to pick up a few things, why not ask if they could also collect some things for you too?

By all means make sure it is a fair swap and return the favour – maybe Carol in Accounts could be responsible for your food shop whilst you pick up all the smellies for her Book Club? Team your time wisely and chant the mantra – Bite. Size. Chunks.

JUST STOP – Now I know that if you want to feel more efficient then taking a break will probably seem counter-productive, but seriously it will help and there’s an important science behind this.

When we are operating within our normal parameters of stress (the day to day stuff) we can function reasonably well and process all the bits of information coming into our brains. But when we become exposed to too much stress our bodies go into a state of either hyper-arousal (the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ response – hypervigilance, anxiety, panic) or hypo-arousal (the parasympathetic immobilised response – numbness, freezing).

In either case the stress hormone cortisol will be flying around your bloodstream causing all kinds of mischief (memory loss, inability to concentrate, confusion, irritability) making everything seem like an uphill struggle.

It can seem all too easy to be seduced by the internal anxiety which screams, ‘BUT I’VE GOT TOO MUCH TO DO’ but that’s your primal adrenal glands talking – not your common sense. You are not in danger.

To regain control over your central nervous system try taking a nap, walking the dog, listening to music, doing meditation, yoga or Tai Chi. You will be amazed at just how much clearer you feel after taking a short break and remember – subjecting your body to anything which puts your health in potential jeopardy is really not worth it in the grand scheme of things. And lastly…

ENJOY YOURSELF – This is your time too. Don’t kid yourself that you’re responsible for everything, learn to let go. So, run yourself a bath, pour a glass of wine, and ease yourself into the festive spirit. Nothing needs to be perfect (and besides, nothing ever is) and this is not the end of the world. Applying the basic time-management and grounding techniques mentioned here will free up some headspace for you to have fun.

Christmases come in all shapes and sizes and some of the best ones I’ve ever had have been where I’ve switched off my phone, barricaded the door and spent some quality time alone. You are certainly not obliged to do anything you don’t feel comfortable doing.

Christmas can be a difficult, lonely, nostalgic and sad time for many and there are no right or wrong feelings to be had. Feeling a pressure to ‘switch off’ any present negative feelings simply because it’s Christmas will only make you feel worse (fighting the feelings/ keeping up a façade) so please allow yourself to just BE and go with the flow. Doing what feels right for you isn’t selfish – it’s basic self-care.

Wishing you all a very peaceful, merry (and stress free!) holiday time.

Steph x

Steph Jones (MBACP PGDip BSc Hons)
BACP Registered Counsellor and Psychotherapist

Counselling for Stockport

(Drumroll…) Good news! I’m Writing for Keia!

Hi all!

I just thought I’d let you know how thrilled I am to be part of the editorial contributors for Keia – a brand new website dedicated to promoting wellness at your fingertips.

As one of their featured counselling practitioners I am delighted to be contributing tips and advice on a range of therapeutic issues and welcome your thoughts and suggestions for topics you’d like covering.

From complementary and alternative medicines to massage therapy, from stress management and relationship counselling to haircare and aesthetics, find the wellness service you need on Keia.

For more information visit Keia and start treating yourself!

Featured contribution can be read here: Keia blog

Best wishes,

Steph x

The Judging Mind

I recently attended a fantastic course on object relation theory and transference presented by Helen Rowland. Aside from the practical teaching, casework examples and supervision, the group held some really interesting discussions around whether people really ever do ‘get fixed’! 

The group consisted of a wide range of professionals- some who had just completed training and some with decades of senior position experience. Interestingly enough the unanimous response was: No, we as humans never get fixed! You might be wondering then why anyone might want to enter into counselling!! 

Well, the first important thing to consider is that we’re not actually broken. We are not faulty parts of a machine which needs putting back together properly. We are all completely unique and have experienced different things in life- both the beautiful and the challenging. For someone besieged by painful intrusive thoughts, a heavy depression, crippling OCD or distressing PTSD symptoms, it might be easy to assume that it is the people “out there” who are “normal” (whatever the heck that word means!!). In therapy we would look at this in the way that your current behaviour is the way your body found to cope with the stress it experienced. Your anxiety for example, served a purpose. It made you sharp and aware. Maybe it saved your life at one point, but now isn’t so helpful in the day to day. 

Our life scripts begin early on and get regularly updated and revised as we move through life. Many times in therapy I hear things like: I’m just like this. And yet rarely (if ever) do I hear people say: I’m just like this and I accept myself as I am. The resistance from not being at peace with yourself creates and reinforces the inner psychological pain – feeling a need to constantly push ‘it’ away so you can be ‘normal’ (I hope we’re starting to all hate that word by now!!) is actually unhelpful and counter-productive. 

So, as the group of therapists sat in the room agreeing that ultimately people can’t be ‘fixed,’ now I respect and understand that even more deeply. We might be cut to the core by our pasts but we are not broken – even if we feel like it. We are survivors, maybe tired and weary, but still powerful, strong and courageous. It’s true, we can learn to change our behaviours and adapt with a greater sense of perception- we can also widen our field of awareness and teach ourselves to sit with the feelings, but we can’t magic the bad times away. Over time we can learn to embrace our emotions (both the good AND bad) from a place of authenticity, wisdom and truth.

We are who we are and we are good enough as we are- perfectly imperfect.