Coronavirus – how will you use this time?

In light of the current Covid-19 pandemic I have recently found myself wondering how our drastically altered lifestyles are affecting us all at an emotional level. And I don’t just mean the obvious anxieties we hold around our employment, finances, housing, food access or health either.

My thoughts are turned more towards what happens when we remove our go-to coping strategies which occupy much of our time; our work, spending, shopping, socialising, leisure time and all other forms of distractions. I recently read a comment by a psychoanalysist who suggested that we will all project our biggest fears onto this virus, and from observations in my daily and clinical life I tend to feel this is a fairly accurate statement.

I am witnessing a great number of individuals in unhappy or unsatisfying relationships being forced to spend time with one another, with no means of getting away or consciously dissociating from their problems.

We are being called upon to tackle our elephants in the room.

In my view, this gives us a number of options to consider. Do we fully address the personal and interpersonal challenges in a constructive way, abandon ship, or continue to put our hands over our eyes and ears pretending everything is normal? Undoubtedly this incredibly trying time calls for each of us to pull on our inner and outer resourcefulness and compile an emotional and practical stock-take of all the things that serve (and no longer serve) our needs.

There has never been a better time to get the psychological house in order, utilise our time wisely, reflect, and plan for the future. Are you happy? What do you need? Where do you want to be? These are all areas of our lives which require (and deserve!) our attention as we contend with taking the difficult immediate steps to ensure our current safety and survival.

Perhaps some good can come of this crisis, that we may find an improved version of ourselves, focused more inwards on our spiritual and emotional well-being, rather than reaching for endless distractions to unsuccessfully plug the hole.

I hope you stay safe and wish you well.

Take care,

Steph x

How do you support your partner when you both have mental health issues?

Contrary to what some might have you believe being a registered Counsellor and Psychotherapist doesn’t make you any less vulnerable to human suffering than anybody else. I’ve been very vocal about my recovery journey from complex PTSD which I see as something I will need to manage long-term as opposed to eradicate completely (wishful but unhelpful thinking!).

Whilst I’m now much more adept at managing my difficult periods and taking immediate action (self care, reducing commitments, listening to my needs, reaching out) what happens if your usually supportive partner is also dealing with some heavy stuff?

Depressive and anxious episodes in others can sometimes feel triggering if you already have a sensitivity towards experiencing those states. Trying to be an anchor for your loved one when you’re in a dark space yourself can feel frightening and overwhelming. Here’s my top-five tips for riding out the storm together.

1. Be there for yourself

Whilst this might sound counter-intuitive in helping your partner, trust me, it’s not. As the old saying goes, ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ and it’s essential that you find healthy ways of getting your own needs met without depending on your partner. Draw up a list of good friends you can talk to, reach out to a group, a wider mental health community or therapist if you can afford it. This will help you in the long-run by allowing you to hone your recovery independence skills and help prevent your relationship from falling into co-dependent habits.

2. Set reasonable expectations

When you can hardly get out of bed in the morning it’s fairly unlikely that you’ll have the energy to invest in your shared responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, shopping or planning. When both of you are struggling it can help to co-write a list of key essential tasks that need doing and mutually agree responsibilities, essentially playing to your strengths as a team. But never expect more from your partner than you’d be able to give yourself. If neither of you can manage your responsibilities think creatively – shop online, ask a friend to help with chores, contact a volunteer or caring centre, ask a neighbour to walk your dog. Every. Little. Helps.

3. Show up for your partner

Although you might not have the energy to speak or even think clearly, you can still show up. Cuddles, hand-holding, a surprise cup of coffee, running a bath, hair-stroking – these are all non-verbal ways to show you care and that they’re still in your heart. Sometimes simply being quiet together can be just what the other person needs – no stressful conversations, no trying to ‘fix’ things, just being present.

4. Team Black Dog

Feeling at rock bottom can seem like the loneliest place in the world. Being at rock bottom together means that you already have someone to empathise and share your experience with. Try taking conversations in turns using this active listening technique:

  • Person A shares what’s going on for them
  • Person B listens and clarifies what they’ve heard
  • Person A responds to person B’s interpretation (making it even clearer), and finally –
  • Person B clarifies again and asks how you might work through this together.

Then swap over and repeat the exercise.

This method can really help to deepen an empathic connection and perhaps even allow you to come up with some positive solutions.

5. Remember, This Too Shall Pass

When you’re in the thick of it it’s difficult to keep perspective and remember a time when the relationship wasn’t as hard. You might even find yourself questioning your partner or blaming them for your unhappiness. Remember that their current negative feelings aren’t who they are. Write down the things you value about them the most. Own your own emotions (it’s OK to be hurting) without judgement and try to hold on to the fact that this period will pass – it isn’t how it is, it’s just how it is now.

@StephJonesMBACP

How to Prevent Christmas Arguments

The majority of couples I see in my therapy aren’t here to work through the big stuff in life – the infidelities, financial pressures or complicated family stuff. Believe it or not most of them are arguing over the trivial stuff like who does the housework. But a partnership at odds over who takes out the rubbish or feeds the cat aren’t really locking horns over the specific tasks, it’s more about what the tasks represent mixed in with unhelpful communication skills and difficulties in accepting personality differences.

Here’s my top tips to avoid domestic blowouts and romantic meltdowns.

Negotiate

So, you’ve found the perfect partner and compatible in every way? Research tells us that the main thing couples tend to bicker about are domestic chores. And why wouldn’t it be, after all what we’re really talking about here are our personal standards, expectations and priorities.

Most clashes occur when our partner doesn’t match up to who we expect them to be but once we make a decision to share our lives with someone we need to learn the art of compromise and negotiation. If not you’ll forever be competing with one another.

Get real, name it

What’s the real meaning underneath the clash? What are you fighting over? Is it about not being heard, seen or valued in a relationship? Do you feel taken for granted? Is one or both of you going through a difficult period of stress, depression or anxiety? The eruption on the surface is usually a symptom and not the cause. Sitting down together and being courageous enough to be authentic will be a huge step in restoring a sense of harmony.

Learn to communicate

Despite most of us thinking we’re good listeners research tells us we’re not. A vast majority of people listen to defend their own position, or even more frustratingly, pretend to listen whilst thinking about the next thing they want to say.

Be honest and ask yourself whether your communication style is empathic and solution-focused or critical and defensive. Are you passive, aggressive or a combination of both?

If you feel yourself getting worked up try some deep breathing techniques or even take some time out before you resume discussions. Rarely is a helpful solution found in the heat of the moment. Own your feelings and avoid any temptation to attack.

Avoid distractions

Many of us fall into the trap of being easily distracted at home (think smartphones, devices, juggling family and work). The result is we don’t stay present. You’re unlikely to be heard (or feel heard) without your partner giving you their full attention.

Try setting aside weekly time to tackle the trickier elements of the day to day. Sitting opposite one another and taking turns to talk and listen can really help to create a safe space.

Remember you’re on the same team

What are you going to gain by fighting over the small stuff? A sense of power, control, pride? If left unchecked this kind of toxic in-house combat can turn even the most healthy and functional of relationships into a cesspit of frustration, anger, bitterness and resentment. Keeping a mental score-sheet of who did what? Learn to let it go.

The root of all conflict arrives from our feelings of separateness – that is that we reduce the other person into an object simply blocking our path. Remember the objective is about finding a way forward together not trying to beat your opponent.

Set clear responsibilities

Play to your strengths and set some clear roles and responsibilities which you mutually agree feels fair. Once you have agreed on this avoid the urge to project manage your partner into getting things done your way. Nobody wants to be micromanaged and it will likely be interpreted by your partner that you don’t trust them. So whose stuff is that? Theirs or yours?

Reach Out

By making a few changes and learning to communicate better most couples can start to see an immediate improvement in their situation. Disagreements should never cross personal boundaries and verbal or physical attacks are completely unacceptable. If you feel your relationship may benefit from external support reach out to a qualified relationship counsellor who can help get to the bottom of your issues and help you work on your communication skills.

Steph Jones (MBACP PGDip BSc Hons HND) is a Registered Counsellor, Psychotherapist and a freelance Writer. Steph offers individual and relationship therapy to adults at her private practice.

www.stephjonescounselling.co.uk

@StephJonesMBACP

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.

 

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”.

(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