Therapy and Improv

Growing up I used to do a fair old bit of acting. I joined the Northern Kids Theatre Company in my teen years and even did an audition for Children’s Ward (big time league, right there). Sadly, Jane ‘Corrie’ Danson got the main part and my acting career was relegated to that of a more supportive nature (walking past a child faking an asthma attack).

Part of the reason I never pursued the footlights is because I am not a natural extrovert. Whilst I love singing, dancing and all things comedy I don’t really like being watched.

Whilst training to be a therapist, like many others, I shuddered at the idea of observational skills development class. All those beady eyes with the potential to judge. I nursed myself through this awkward period knowing that real-life therapy situations don’t involve having an audience grade you and put it all down to newbie nerves.

However thousands of flying hours later I still have the same mild dissociative feelings before I meet with a client even if we have a well-established long-term relationship. It quickly vanishes once we get into the soup but breathing exercises and grounding techniques do nothing to help (rather bloody annoying given this late stage in the game).

The more I pick this apart the more I see the links between therapy and improv. The counselling room is the stage and the two people sat facing are the actors. Neither one of us knows what will come up in the next hour and there are no edits. This stuff is real. Things could and will and have to get messy. 

Directional and manual-based practitioners may be missing out on these kind of heady pre-gig nerves with their plans and scripts but for me it is a constant daily theme. I’m comfortable sharing this experience with my clients and find that being appropriately honest about my own human-ness, vulnerability and dismantling the therapist-as-expert myth can really help to deepen the connection.

I’m curious to see how many other professionals feel something akin to stage anxiety and discover how they deal with it in everyday practice. Not speaking the name of the Scottish play does little to reduce my thespian (therapian) jitters.

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.

 

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

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 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. 

Mental Health in the Workplace

A recent survey carried out on 3,000 workers suggests that 60% had experienced struggles in their mental health as a direct consequence of their job.

Sound familiar?

Alarmingly, only one in ten felt they could discuss their work-related mental health concerns with their line manager.

It’s important to remember that like physical health, we ALL have mental health on a sliding scale. Struggling with stress, anxiety and depression in the workplace doesn’t make you ‘weak’, ‘incompetent’ or ‘incapable’- it means your emotional state has reached its limit and needs to be addressed.

All too often we ignore these internal warnings and convince ourselves to “stop complaining and get on with it!” Not exactly an effective long-term strategy!

Make sure you are doing all you can in work to look after yourself- wherever possible take regular breaks, eat lunch, interact with others (on non work-related topics!) and prioritise and delegate what you can. If you still haven’t got time to do everything you need to get done, speak to your management- it’s certainly no reflection on your capabilities- after all you’re not a machine on overdrive!!

 

Banish the Winter Blues!

As we hurtle towards the dark nights and impending frosts you might start to feel as though you are slowing down too! A lack of sunlight affects our internal body clocks and our serotonin levels start to drop, which can leave us struggling with energy levels, mood, sleep and motivation. Whilst these kind of feelings seem to affect most of us to a certain degree, for around 10% of the population this may be medically diagnosed as something called Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD for short).

SAD is basically considered a sub-type of depression and like all mental health issues should be taken seriously. As difficult as it might seem when all you want to do is hibernate, the benefits of maintaining regular social contact, keeping active, eating well and trying to get as much sunlight as you can are all powerful tools in keeping the winter blues at bay.

For more information on SAD and tips to keep well, please visit http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/Pages/dealing-with-winter-blues-sad.aspx

Borderline ‘Personality Disorder’

Thanks to Hollywood and general negative press, individuals with BPD tend to get a pretty rough time. A quick Google search on dating someone with BPD brought up these nuggets of wisdom:

“Ultimately no matter how attractive she is, dealing with this type of crazy is not worth it.”

 “I would never date a girl with BPD,
they’re way too clingy and needy.” 

“Walk (RUN) away!”

According to the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), someone with BPD is said to have ‘significant impairments in personality functioning’ including instability of goals and aspirations, compromised empathy for others, problems with intimacy, anxiety, depression, takes excessive risks and is persistently antagonistic and hostile.

In both my personal and professional life I have encountered many incredible people dealing with this diagnosis, many of whom feel as though they have been labelled as having a ‘bad’ personality.

One particular individual I know could be considered highly-functioning and works within the field of psychotherapy. She uses her tools of intuition, insight and sensitivity to support others, and has a tremendous capacity for compassion because she can directly relate to complex and powerful emotions. From this perspective, I would deeply argue that people with BPD lack empathy.

It is however true that people with BPD are exquisitely sensitive which goes some way to explaining why certain accompanying behaviours may manifest as negative characteristics. Imagine that you had burns all over your skin. The slightest gust of wind or drop of rain would hurt you. And in a world full of people with ‘thick skins’ you might begin to think that you were impaired in some way. You’re battling with old emotional wounds and have a core belief that you will be rejected or abandoned by those you get close to, so frightened in fact that it feels safer to push them away in order that you feel less vulnerable.

Sophie* (32) tells us how it feels in her relationship with Jamie*.

“I hate the way it makes me feel about myself, like I’m a bad person. Although I work really hard to remember that people aren’t all good or all bad, my mind feels like it’s breaking when I try to find the middle ground. I love Jamie so much – he’s amazing, kind and so supportive. But it could be a little thing, not kissing me before going to work as an example. Rationally, I know it isn’t the end of the world – and he might have been in a rush, or stressed or whatever, but the feeling – the gut response which is separate to my intellect – can suddenly change my perception of him.

The inner feeling grows into anger, and all I can see are his lesser strengths until the positive traits he has completely vanish. So when I’m in this place, I feel like we’re not right for each other, that he is this or that, and lose sight of the wonderful and amazing man he is.

It can drag me down into depressive episodes, because the negative feelings are so strong and seemingly real. Then he can do something, perhaps look at me in a certain way – which pierces and breaks the spell – then I’m back in the room and everything is fine again.”

What Sophie is referring to is the BPD phenomenon known as splitting. In her case, we discussed how the trigger of Jamie not kissing her was being internalised at a chain-reaction emotional level. When we react to something, the processing can be so quick that we don’t really understand why we’ve responded in such a way until much later. Sophie was able to explore her interpretative chain reaction.

He doesn’t want to kiss me >
There’s no intimacy or connection >
He must have gone off me>
He doesn’t find me attractive>
I feel angry at him >
The relationship is doomed >
We’re not right for each other anyway >
We’re so different >
I can’t stand these attributes of his >
I don’t like him and don’t want to be with him.

Now let’s break this down a bit further and try to understand this.

Stage 1: activating trigger perceived as a rejection/ abandonment
He doesn’t want to kiss me

Stage 2: false negative assumptions made
There’s no intimacy or connection > He must have gone off me > He doesn’t find me attractive (projection of poor self-image onto another)

Stage 3: emotional reaction
I feel angry at him

Stage 4: reconstructing thought processes to protect against perceived abandonment
The relationship is doomed > We’re not right for each other anyway > We’re so different

Stage 5: new perception reached
I can’t stand these attributes of his > I don’t like him and don’t want to be with him

In breaking down these stages, we can see that Sophie’s processing and subsequent vilifying of Jamie is all based around a fear of loss. The mind constructs a new version of reality to replace the old view (I love Jamie and want to be with him) in order to protect her from feelings of pain and vulnerability. For many borderline sufferers, there is often a sixth stage which involves acting out on feelings (causing a row, getting into a fight, turning to self-harm/ drugs/ alcohol).

She explains:

“When I try to re-balance the thoughts and feelings, it’s just so hard to get back. To put it into perspective, imagine if I asked you to hate the person you loved the most. You’d find it impossible. That’s why you can’t just ‘think’ your way back.
The feelings seem to just generate negative thoughts and convinces me they are the truth. If I’m feeling depressed or numb, my mind can trick me into believing he is the source of my bad feelings.”

People with BPD can learn to catch these triggers and neutralise them before they snowball out of control but it’s a challenging process and takes hard work and dedication. One of the things I recommend is that people learn to communicate openly with their partners, in real time if they can. And whilst it might feel tough to start a type of conversation such as: Jamie, when you didn’t kiss me then, it made me feel that you don’t love me – the results can be profound in terms of deepening the connection and reaching a higher level of understanding.

The other key area for overcoming BPD is to learn to sit with the negative feelings without acting out. For someone with BPD, stage 6 can feel almost compulsive – to get relief from the bad feeling – but in reality this doesn’t actually help. Sitting with the emotional pain and distress can feel overwhelming but paradoxically this is where emotional growth and resilience comes from.

So for the ill-informed out there who view people with BPD as stroppy, irrational and ‘crazy’ perhaps try to exercise a little compassion and understanding as to what drives people’s behaviour. Behind every angry outburst lies a deeper pain or a need for protection.

 

* Names have been changed to protect identities