unsplash-logoFlemming Fuchs

Am I the Only One?

One of the greatest causes of dissatisfaction in people is the popular misbelief that other people are doing a better job at life than they are. I see this over and over again, when we suffer we seem utterly convinced that we are the only ones going through this.

Sure, intellectually we may know that other people suffer from depression, have money problems or unhappy relationships but in the middle of our struggles, it usually feels like we are all alone and no-one could possibly understand what we are going through.

“Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

I love this quote. Most people come to therapy not because they are having a battle but because they believe they are losing their battle. They look around and it seems like everyone else is winning theirs.

But that simply isn’t true.

A couple of years after my mother died, a close friend said to me that she doesn’t believe she will cope when her mother dies, not like I did. She told me that she wasn’t strong like me. She believed I had coped well and kept it all together. What she didn’t see at the time was my broken heart, how lost and alone I felt and my descent into an eating disorder that made me not want to exist. She doesn’t see the waves of sadness, which still come occasionally, catching me off guard even years later.

My point is, we tend to hide our struggles and it is exactly this that creates feelings of isolation and aloneness, not the struggle itself. More people than ever are speaking out about their inner battles and this is exciting. There are now online support groups for almost anything you can think of. If you’re feeling stuck or alone, you are not the only one and thanks to people being willing to talk about their experiences, you can find someone who knows.

Suffering might be an unavoidable part of life but suffering alone definitely isn’t.

TA Tool kit - The Drama Triangle

Welcome to the next installment in the TA Tools series. In this series of blog posts I will introduce some of the basic teachings of transactional analysis (TA) and share how we might use these ideas to better understand ourselves and those around us.

Today’s tool is the Drama Triangle.

This gem of a tool is all about how we relate to each other and where we position ourselves in situations of conflict. It draws on the idea that we spend a great deal of time re-enacting scenarios familiar to us (a bit like Freud’s repetition compulsion) but it takes this further by helping us to recognise unhealthy patterns in our relationships.

DramaTriangle.jpg

So there are three potential positions in a scenario – Victim, Rescuer and Persecutor – and we tend to switch into different positions in predictable ways..

The Persecutor is rigid, controlling, blaming and critical.

The Rescuer places their own sense of importance on their ability to rescue others, they need to rescue so they can be the good guy. It isn’t really about genuine help, more to appease their own discomfort.

The Victim has learned to be helpless, powerless, unwilling to take personal responsibility or action. They will seek out Rescuers and Persecutors who will reinforce and justify the Victim’s position.

Common dramas include when a Rescuer is thwarted in her attempts to rescue the Victim, so she moves into the Persecutor and becomes angry and dismissive towards the Victim. Or the Persecutor meets a bigger Persecutor so they switch into the Victim position as they become the ‘done to’ person.

Note that the drama triangle is used to help us recognise when we are playing out a pattern, as opposed to reacting from a present and spontaneous state.

I don’t think I have met anyone who has managed to stay out of these roles all the time. The one thing each role has in common is that it expects someone else so be different before that role can be let go of so, as we stubbornly hold to our favourite positions, our patterns of relating to each other becomes more rigid and then we deny ourselves of the things we were chasing to begin with – security, connection and love.

TA Tool Kit - Strokes

Welcome to the first instalment in the TA Tools series. Over the next few weeks I will introduce some of the basic teachings of transactional analysis (TA) and share how we might use these ideas to better understand ourselves and those around us.

Today’s tool is Strokes.

We crave strokes from other people. Strokes are described as a ‘unit of recognition’, so this could be anything from a smile or a wave to an Oscar nomination or Olympic medal. These strokes don’t have to be positive either, a punch in the face is still a stroke, albeit a painful one but the person doing the punching has at least noticed you and has a story about you.

Stroke theory puts forward the idea that any stroke, positive or negative, is better than no stroke at all. This offers a possible explanation for why people may not remove themselves from abusive or toxic relationships. Being alone without strokes may be more frightening than tolerating violence or humiliation.

We want to know that we exist, that we have an impact on those around us. To be starved of contact with people can be a form of punishment; children get sent to their rooms when they are misbehave and prisoners get moved into solitary confinement. Many studies have shown long periods of solitary confinement can have a devastating effect on mental well being. We just aren’t very well equipped to deal with a lack of stimulation.

We all have our preferred strokes and we tend to be affected by what we allow to penetrate our ‘stroke-filter’, which means some strokes may just bounce off us. For example, someone who is convinced they are physically unattractive may not be able to hear a stroke offered by way of a compliment on their appearance. Likewise, if you are proud of your career achievements, an accolade in this area may go right in and light you up.

Quite simply, we pay attention to the strokes which match the image we hold of ourselves. This may be where we get stuck. If you are struggling with feelings of low self worth, you may only be able to recall the negative strokes you received throughout your life. Any recognition of your worth by those around you gets blocked out by the stroke filter and an opportunity to make a positive shift towards worthiness is missed.

One of the ways a therapist might work with stroke theory is by giving plenty of recognition to you as a person, where you are now. Recognising whether you are hungry for strokes is important. If you are not receiving adequate recognition, you may seek it out in destructive and unsatisfying ways. You get lost in a cycle of feeling hungry for something but being unable to satisfy it. This can spiral into addictions and other self-sabotaging patterns.

By learning how to obtain satisfying strokes, you bolster the way you feel about your place in the world and start to create a more connected, meaningful and happy experience of life.

The Last Supper Sabotage

The solution to excess weight seems very simple – don’t take in more energy than you expend over long periods of time or, if you have weight to lose, ‘eat less, move more’.

A 2016 study reported 48% of Brits had tried to lose weight in the previous year and this figure rose to 57% among women. With so many of us trying to shrink our waistlines, how is it that, according to NHS figures, 62% of people living in England are currently classified as overweight or obese.

If nearly half of us are trying some form of dieting every year, why are we failing in our goals for health? Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that we actually gain weight once we get on that cycle of dieting. To be clear, I’m not suggesting it’s the diet itself that causes weight gain but rather the diet mentality that is working against us.

Eating is the most important thing we do for survival after breathing. It is crucial that we are driven to seek out food. We have many physiological and psychological triggers which are driving us to eat and a diet mentality can confuse and stress these systems.

Just the mere thought of future deprivation can activate food-seeking behaviours. When you tell yourself you are starting that diet on Monday, your brain now tells you to eat, eat, eat now! Before the food runs out. They call this Last Supper eating, that final binge or overindulgence you are driven to have because you truly believe that you won’t be able to eat like this for a while.

The morning after an indulgence, your insulin sensitivity is reduced because of the overproduction of insulin required to deal with last night’s excess. Insulin has a very satiating effect but when your sensitivity is reduced, this satiating effect is muted, driving you to eat more and the diet is blown before 3pm. A new start time for the next diet is set and the Last Supper eating begins again and, before you know it, weeks have passed, you never did quite get into the flow of your eating plans, and you’ve eaten more than you would have if you hadn’t decided to diet to begin with.

We are more educated about food and nutrition than we have ever been, yet so many of us fell so out of control when it comes to our diet and health. With all the information available, losing weight should be a fairly straightforward process but our thoughts, emotions, physiology and modern lifestyles throw up obstacles, which creates conflict and confusion.

This is one of the reasons why many people turn to talking therapies. In order to change our relationship with food and our bodies, we need to change the way we think and feel about food and our bodies.

I believe in empowering my clients with a combination of therapy; to help them understand their processes, and psycho-education; to promote knowledge, understanding and self-compassion.

Sources:

http://www.mintel.com/press-centre/food-and-drink/brits-lose-count-of-their-calories-over-a-third-of-brits-dont-know-how-many-calories-they-consume-on-a-typical-day

https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/loseweight/Pages/statistics-and-causes-of-the-obesity-epidemic-in-the-UK.aspx

An Attitude of Gratitude

I'm not a big fan of giving my clients homework to do in between sessions but if there was one tool I would recommend everyone to try, it would be keeping a gratitude journal. In 2012, when I was at my lowest, I decided to trying keeping a gratitude journal after hearing about the potential benefits. If you are anything like me, when you try to implement something new into your routine, it needs to be easy and not take up too much time if there's to be any hope of it sticking as a habit.

I decided that before I went to sleep, I would write down 3 things that I was thankful for about my day and in the morning, I would write down 3 people I was thankful for. Sometimes, if I'd had a crappy day, it was difficult to find three things to be grateful for. In those situations, I would think bigger picture and write something like my job, home or living in a country where civil rights were protected. After filling a notebook of wonderful things and people, it has become a habit for me to drift off to sleep most nights with a thankful heart.

And it feels great.

You may be sceptical about the benefits of keeping a gratitude journal, after all, it's just a paper exercise but taking the time to make your mind search for the good helps to create new neural networks through your new thoughts. You are training your brain to find things to feel good about and, when you do this with some consistency, it starts to become automatic. It's not about creating a Pollyanna view of the world but rather, letting in a bit more of the good, which can often get crowded out by the frustrations, disappointments and pressures of daily life.

The Curse of Perfectionism

In our society today, perfectionism is often seen as a desirable trait. It conjures up an image of a person who works hard to get a job done right, so I think it’s important for me to differentiate between a person who is conscientious and thorough and someone cursed with perfectionism.

Let me give you some examples of the kind of perfectionism I’m talking about and see if any of them resonate with your experience:

·      You end up not doing something because you don’t think you will do it well enough, so what’s the point?

·      You give up quickly if you don’t see results.

·      You are very self-critical and have a sense of not being good enough.

·      You rarely experience a feeling of achievement.

Perfectionism can be a crippling condition. The majority of clients I see with disordered eating also struggle with perfectionism. We live in a world where we are bombarded with images and messages about what our lives should look like and how we should be experiencing life. It comes back to that dreaded word ‘should’, which I wrote about in my very first blog post.

People with a perfectionistic mindset get locked into their beliefs that if only they could get it right, then they will experience a sense of everything being right with the world. The problem is that we can’t always get it right, whatever it is, and how would we even know if we were getting it right? It’s all subjective anyway.

This is the exhausting cycle of perfectionism. It’s a lie because it suggests that perfection exists, so we are striving for something that isn’t even possible. No matter what you do, it is always possible to do it better, whether it’s cleaning a bathroom, or setting a new 100-metre world record.

Many of us want to feel special and important, so we look for evidence of this, which may be sought in how we look or our careers, relationships and achievements. If we can recognise and accept that we are all perfectly imperfect because we are human, if we can disentangle ourselves from the propaganda, which seems to show everyone else making life look easy and if we are willing to be more open with each other about our struggles, perhaps we can break free from the erosive belief that we simply aren’t being, doing or having enough.

Breaking Up with Your Therapist

So, you’re in therapy but you’ve been wondering whether it might be time to leave. Maybe you have got out of therapy what you wanted and it seems like the right time to move on.

You may wonder whether you will be ok without your weekly outlet.  Chances are you came to therapy at crisis point and the fear of going back to where you started can be terrifying.

Some people stay in therapy for years, others a matter of weeks. How do you know when to end, when to say ‘enough’? Sometimes the therapist’s assumptions that the ending is far away can be a bit of a barrier to that awkward conversation of ending your time together.

Rest assured, we therapists are used to people leaving us. The hardest endings can be the ones which are forced upon us by circumstances outside of the room, such as relocation or funding issues but I often experience a real sense of admiration when clients exercise their autonomy and bring up the subject of an ending on their own volition. Perhaps you may have needed to experience being able to depend on someone for a while but my role is not to foster an unhealthy dependence.

IMO the ultimate goal of therapy is to empower you to feel happier and give you a sense of personal agency in your life.

So leave me, live your life and be free.

How to Change Your Life Part 1

Most people come to therapy because they are unhappy. They want change and they want to feel better about life.

We get stuck when we fixate on wanting life to change in order to make us feel happier. So we decide on what needs to happen in order for us to feel ok. We can recognise we are doing this by looking out for whens and thens.

·      When I lose weight then I’ll feel confident enough to have a relationship.

·      When he starts helping around the house then my marriage can improve.

·      When I get that promotion then I can take time out to relax.

The problem with whens and thens is you put yourself at the mercy of your circumstance. The issue becomes something outside of you. This is frustrating and disempowering in equal measure because you are trying to control things, which have other influences acting upon them. This is most fruitless when we feel like we need people to start/stop behaving in a certain way so we can feel better.

By expecting things to change so we can feel a certain way can set you up for disappointment and, even if we get our whens, quite often the thens don’t quite fulfil their promises. I’ve seen people reach their goal weight and wonder why they don’t feel amazingly body confident and others work hard for that promotion only to have their workloads double and their eyes wandering to the next rung on the ladder.

If you accept what is first, then change can happen from a more inspired place. The desire to grow and be happy faces less resistance when we don’t hate what is. Therapy cannot change your circumstances but it can help transform your inner experience of your external circumstances. Over and over again I see that when people change their inner world, their outer world starts to shift anyway.

“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

-Wayne Dyer

I’m not saying you shouldn’t take action to make changes in your life, this isn’t about being passive and disengaged but ask yourself, are you placing hope that life can only be good when some big change has occurred? Is your unhappiness being attributed to things beyond your control? Are you placing a bit fat then after your when?

How to Support a Bereaved Friend

Over the last four years I have worked at Cruse Bereavement Care, supporting people struggling with the death of a loved one. I wanted to share some of the things I have learned about how you can help friends and family who have been bereaved. These are the most important discoveries I made through my work at Cruse and influenced by my own experience of losing my mother to cancer in 2010.

#1. You probably won’t say the right thing.

It’s hard to know what to say to someone who has been bereaved. For this reason, people often avoid the subject or, worse still, avoid the grieving person altogether. If you find yourself getting caught up in trying to say something useful, you are more likely to settle on a platitude or cliché. When you do this, you have moved into trying to ease your own discomfort about the situation and away from supporting the person.

The common clichés include ‘it gets easier with time’, ‘they are in a better place now’ and other vapid assurances that there is a greater purpose to their loss. There may be an element of truth in some of these sentiments but it is rarely helpful when people are suffering. By offering reassurances you are suggesting that they should be thinking and feeling differently to how they actually are. This can be very isolating for the bereaved person.

Sometimes the best thing to say is that you don’t know what to say but wanted to say something. It’s ok to admit that you can’t make it better for them but you wished you could. Acknowledge your helplessness. It’s ok to stop trying to get it right. Let them know, over and over if necessary, that you are there and you care.

#2. The Powerful Witness

When someone you care about is in pain, it’s natural to want to fix it. With most problems in life there are options and solutions to focus on. Not so much with grief. Someone has died and that can’t be changed.

This is why it is so challenging to be with someone who is grieving. This is why there may be a pull to hide from them or try to say something to make it a little better.

If you can put aside your discomfort, your presence with them can speak more than a thousand words. Listen, really listen, to what they say. It will be uncomfortable, this became easier for me when I saw how simply my presence can ease some of the loneliness of grief. It may not look like you are doing much for your friend/colleague/loved one but grief is not about doing, as there is nothing to be done.

We have a saying at Cruse: “You don’t do grief, grief does you”.

People who come to bereavement counselling are often isolated or surrounded by people going through their own grief. People can get stuck in the pain of their loss because it has nowhere to go. When this pain is witnessed and heard, it often starts to change form. This is the most exciting part of the work I do, when people start to change and reconnect with life.

#3. It’s Personal.

I see this one over and over in my bereavement counselling. When someone dies all those close to that person are going through their own grieving process and it can look very different from person to person. This often creates tension and confusion amongst the grieving; from the son who is angry at his mother for getting a new partner so soon after his father’s death to the disagreements about how to honour a memory.

When someone sees a fellow griever behaving in a way they couldn’t imagine they project their own ideas and meanings about why that person is or isn’t taking a certain action. Grief causes us to become very self-focused, with strong feelings can come strong beliefs and it’s common to superimpose this onto others.

Don’t assume they should be following a certain path or cling to an idea of what they should be doing. This is easier said than done, it involves letting go, respecting others’ journey of grief and simply offering to walk alongside them for a while.

To find out more about the work of Cruse please click here.