My first guest blog post!

I have been asked to write a regular guest blog, which you can find at the excellent website counsellingtutor.com about life as a masters level counselling student.

The website is a superb resource for students of counselling and psychotherapy.  Be sure to check out their “lecture theatre” for learning resources and the “counselling café” forum to meet like minded people.   Don’t forget to also take a look at their youtube channel and twitter feed.

“Counselling Condemned” – a poem

poppyToday I wanted to share with you a thought provoking poem, taken from the book “Healing the Hurt Within” by Jan Sutton.  There are still too many people who think this way…

Counselling Condemned

Take my advice (why don’t you ?)
Go and get a life I say
Just tell your hurt to go away
I don’t like it when you are low
I want the ‘old you’ back, you know.

It’s not healthy to be depressed,
You’re getting really self – obsessed,
Get out of the bed and face the day,
Put on a smile; it’s better that way.

There, there, dear, I know how you feel,
But it’s all in the past so what’s the big deal ?
Go find a job; you could learn how to knit,
I think that you should stop dwelling on it.

Aunt Maud says her neighbour Miss Wood,
Thinks all the counselling really does you no good,
And my friend Beryl (her sister’s a nurse),
Says she’s read in the paper that they just make you worse

And I’m not being nasty, but can you not see
How your nervous breakdown is worrying me ?
You know that I love you, you know that I care,
But I really do think you’re being unfair.

And then there’s the children, they still need their Mum,
So pull up your socks and get off your bum.
I know what you’re thinking, I’m nobody’s fool,
Emotional blackmail’s a powerful tool.

So take my advice and block out the past,
Live for today and put on your mask,
Try not to cry, try not to feel,
Who really cares if you’re not being real ?

What does it matter, what small price to pay,
To take who you are and lock it away ?
So please stop this nonsense, do it for me,
I know that you’re hurting, but I don’t want to see.

What if happiness is not the goal?

Oak tree in summerIn the American Declaration of Independence it lists the “pursuit of happiness” as a human right.  Who could argue with that?  But what does it even mean, anyway?  Happiness is frequently listed as the ultimate goal by people – “I just want to be happy”, “when I’ve lost weight I’ll be happy”, “if I meet Mr Right I’ll be happy”. To be honest, I think it is the use of the term “happiness” that is part of the problem.

Statements like this make happiness seem like some mystical destination with big welcoming gates.  Once you’re in, you’re in.  Well done, you are officially happy, you can stop trying now.

Most people I know would say that they have been happy some times and sad others, myself included.  Ask people what caused this uplifting state and they may mention big life events such as marriages and births, or they may talk about moments of fun – parties, concerts or winning the FA cup.  One thing is for sure, life moves on and at some point we will all encounter periods of sadness, no matter how wonderful those events may have been.  In other words the effect is transient and speaking for myself, the thought of trying to fill my life with lots of moments of hedonistic pleasure isn’t a fulfilling one.

I prefer the term “emotional wellbeing” to happiness.  Admittedly it doesn’t quite trip off the tongue in the same way but it has a feeling of strength and permanence.  It is that underlying feeling of self acceptance, of autonomy in your own life without having to control every little part of it.   When I think of emotional wellbeing, I imagine a big solid tree with deep roots, unmoveable, whilst happiness is the leaves upon that tree.  In summer time the tree is blessed with lush, green foliage but in winter it is bare and desolate.

Every tree must experience both summer and winter, but if the trunk and roots are weak and broken, the winter may just prove to be too much.  If the tree is strong however, no matter how bad the winter, it will endure until the summer comes again.  And it will come again….

What does happiness mean to you?  Is happiness the right word?  I’d love to know your thoughts, so feel free to leave me a comment.

 

 

Book Review – “Sane New World” by Ruby Wax

Library_Book_CartI love to read books about anything related to psychology and counselling, often to the exclusion of everything else.  It seemed a good idea to put all this reading to use and let you know what I think of the books that I read.  The first such book is “Sane New World – Taming the Mind” by Ruby Wax – and yes, I did say Ruby Wax.  If you aren’t already aware Ms Wax has recently completed a Masters Degree in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy at Oxford University and a degree in Psychotherapy, so she really does know what she’s talking about.

I’ll start with an overview of the contents of the book and will then go on to tell you what I liked and didn’t like, and my overall verdict.

Overview

The book is essentially a discussion of Ruby’s own experiences with depression and her journey to find a way to deal with it, which eventually led her to mindfulness.  However, far from being just a series of anecdotes, it is a detailed and at times quite technical discussion of depression and the options for treating it.

The book starts with a discussion of why people are affected by mental health problems, in particular how our emotional wellbeing is affected by 21st century life.  She distinguishes between what she calls “normal-mad” and “mad-mad” – essentially those of us struggling with daily life, and those suffering with diagnosed mental illness.  I think she gets away with using such terms as “normal” and “mad” because she is talking about herself most of all – it has the feeling of being an in-joke affectionately told.

She then goes on to discuss at some length the biology and biochemistry of the brain, drawing on the latest research using imaging techniques.  In the final part of the book, Ruby discusses her favoured answer to these issues – mindfulness, as well as looking as some of the other options, well she says this is what she does but she really just talks about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

At the end of the book there are also a number of exercises you can try to get some idea of how you can use mindfulness in your own life.

What I liked.

One of the key concepts in the book is the idea of “self regulation” of your own emotional state – essentially becoming aware of your own internal state and being able to manage it.  To me, this is an essential skill to learn and quite frankly should be taught in schools from a young age, so I’m glad to see the importance placed on it here.

The book is written in a light hearted, chatty style – you can almost hear her talking to you.  This makes the book an easy and enjoyable read.

The book is peppered throughout with segments of “My Story”, where Ruby talks very candidly and movingly about her own experiences of depression.  There is no ego here and she is willing to be open and vulnerable.  The world needs more, much more of this.

I also loved the discussion of the biology of the brain.  This is a subject that fascinates me and it is written in that chatty style I discussed above, not an easy feat to pull off!

What I don’t like

Okay, I’ve got to get this one out there first – her over simplistic description of person-centred counselling rather irritated me.  Although she says she loves person-centred counselling it felt like she was being slightly mocking.  It really is about so much more than just “parroting back with love” what the client has just said (her words, not mine).

The only other negative point I would like to make is about the use of the mindfulness exercises at the end of the book.  They did seem to be just thrown in there one after another, almost as an afterthought.

Verdict

Overall, I do think this book is well worth reading.  The tone in which it is written and the honesty with which she describes her own experiences make the book a warm and compelling read.  For someone suffering in silence it could be a real insight and a first step towards facing up to their own difficulties.  It is not, however the best book to read if you want a comprehensive beginners guide to mindfulness.  A much better book for this is “Mindfulness – a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world” by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, which is a full 8 week introductory programme with a guided meditations on CD.

If you have read the book yourself, or have any other recommendations, leave me a comment – I’d love to know your opinions!

 

Need inspiration? How to generate thousands of ideas.

Roll on deodorant was invented in the 1950′s.  It was inspired by the design of a ball point pen – some bright spark thought it would be a great way to distribute deodorant.  I think this is what we would call “thinking outside the box” which is just a business-speak way of saying creative thinking.

Lightening bolt striking

Don’t just wait for inspiration to strike.

So many people think that creativity has nothing to do with them, or they’re just not that good at it.  Whenever the tutors on my counselling course bring out the crayon box I break out into a cold sweat and panic at the thought of showing my “drawings” to anyone.

The thing is, we all have problems to solve, work to do, we all dress ourselves, cook meals or arrange social events.  In short, we all need to be creative and we can’t just wait for inspiration to strike.  The good news is that it is something you can learn and develop and there are techniques that can help with this.  I’m going to introduce one such technique here, which is so simple it’s ridiculous, but which can be used to generate literally thousands of ideas. This technique is called:

The Morphological Matrix

I know it sounds boring, but stick with me here…

This technique was invented by Fritz Zwicky in the 1960′s.  In business you could use it for design ideas or finding new markets.  In your personal life you could use it to plan a child’s party, create new recipes or come up with new blog posts (really must try this one…)

Know your objective

As with all creative projects, start with your objective – what are you trying to achieve?  I’m going to come up with lots of recipes for stew.  To be honest, this was inspired by Jamie Oliver’s mix and match approach to stews described in his ”Ministry of Food” book, which lends itself perfectly to this technique.

Be nice to yourself

This also applies to any other creative thinking exercise.  Don’t judge yourself – nothing is guaranteed to stem the flow of creative juices quicker than that inner voice saying “that’ll never work, that’s a rubbish idea”.  Just put an idea out there and move onto the next one.  At the end you can decide which ones have legs.

Morphological Matrix for creating stew.

Figure 1

The technique

  1. First you need to decide on the component parts of your problem – known as attributes (or parameters).  In our stew these are the stew base, protein source, root veg, other veg and herbs.  Try to have at least 3 attributes.
  2. Write the names of these attributes in columns at the top of your chart.
  3. For each attribute, list the options you have e.g. for protein we could have various meats, fish or vegetarian options.  Try to come up with 10 options.  You should have a table that looks something like figure 1 (above).
  4. The next part is the fun part – you just mix and match one from each of the columns.  By the way if you have 3 columns, you have 1,000 combinations, 4 columns gives 10,000 options and my 5 columns gives 100,000 different types of stew.  Enough to keep my hubby and I fed for a very long time!

Obviously, some of the ideas won’t work.  Shellfish in beer with parsnips, okra and tarragon anyone?  I don’t think Jamie Oliver would be inspired!  Seriously though, don’t judge, just play.  There are plenty of good options.

If you were using this for a child’s party, the attributes might be location, food style, music, dress theme.  For finding new markets for a product they might be geographical location, new use of product or route to market.

I’m sure you can think of lots more ideas – I’d love to here them, so leave a comment and tell me how you get on.

Source used : Creativity for logical thinkers. in The Mind Gym (pp.255-265). London, United Kingdom: Time Warner Books.

The power of vulnerability

Vulnerable tortoise in the road

We all feel vulnerable sometimes.

If you look up the word “vulnerable” in the WH Smith Concise English Dictionary (no plug intended!) you get the following meanings:

  • capable of being physically or emotionally wounded or hurt.
  • open to temptation, censure, etc.
  • exposed to attack.

This begs the question – why would anyone want to show vulnerability?  Who wants to expose themselves to attack or hurt?  Could there really be any benefit?  Let’s look at a hypothetical example.

Angela and James are work colleagues who do the same job at present, but a couple of weeks ago they were informed that there is a promotion opportunity for one of them.  Since the announcement the relationship between them has deteriorated and they are now barely speaking unless it relates to work matters.  Here’s what is going on for them both:

Angela’s view

God, I always thought that James was alright, we used to have quite a good laugh, but ever since he heard about the promotion he has really changed.  He’s polite and professional, but that’s it and he’s become such a brown nose.  He’s been working really late every night – until about 9pm and is spending a lot of time in HR, no doubt putting his case forward.  There’s no way I can work those kind of hours with a couple of young children and  I’ve never been one for pushing myself in that way.  Well, two can play at that game, so I’ve stopped making an effort in the last few days.

James’ view

I’m finding things really hard at the moment, my marriage is falling apart and I’m an emotional wreck.  When I go home the atmosphere is horrible and although I know it’s not the answer I end up staying here later than usual just so that I don’t have to face it.  Mind you it’s just as well I’m staying late because I find it so hard to concentrate at work so everything takes five times as long as normal.  The company have been really good though – HR have been offering me a lot of support and I’ve been able to talk to them about it every day.  It’s a shame that promotion has come along when it did, but I’ve got too much on my plate at the moment to even think about it.  I reckon Angela would be great at it though and I’ve already told HR that, but I don’t want her to know I’ve said anything.  If she gets the job she’ll be my boss and I don’t want her to think I can’t cope, I really need this job.  She hasn’t been her usual chatty self in the last few days, I suppose she’s trying to put some distance between us for when she’s the boss.

barrier blocking view

It’s hard to see the full picture through a fence…

Okay, so I know this is just a simple, somewhat contrived example but if only Angela and James felt they could tell each other how they really feel then things could be quite different.  Instead, they do what we all do sometimes and erect a wall of strength and bravado around us.  The thing with barriers though is that they tend to be two-way.  Whilst we protect ourselves from attack we also prevent ourselves from being experienced for who we really are.

In his 1967 book “On becoming a person” Carl Rogers (the founder of person-centred counselling) suggests that

“the major barrier to mutual interpersonal communication is our very natural tendency to judge, to evaluate, to approve or disapprove, the statement of the other person, or the other group.”

If this is true, then by not showing people who we really are, these judgements by others will inevitably be incorrect or incomplete.  In my own personal experience it is impossible not to feel compassion for someone who says “I’m struggling, I need help”, yet it is such a hard thing to do when you are in that position yourself.

Let me know your thoughts on this by leaving a comment.  Are you able to be vulnerable in front of others, or do you tend to put on a “brave face”?

“Be kind, for everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about” – Plato

Taking the plunge…

“To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing” – anonymous

Diver taking the plunge.

Sometimes you just have to take the plunge…

It’s quite difficult knowing what to write as a first blog post.  An introduction?  You can read that here.  I decided to start by looking at what scared me most about starting a blog and no, it wasn’t my somewhat limited computer skills! (To be honest I’m still basking in the disbelieving glory that this even looks vaguely like a website.)  Far more scary than the techie stuff was the thought that people might read my blog and think something along the lines of the following: “this blog idea is a bit silly” or “she’ll soon get bored and stop”.

This raised a few questions in my head:

  • How has this sort of thinking affected me in the past?
  • What might help or inform me now?
  • If people do think I’m silly etc., so what?  And will I ever know anyway?

I’m very familiar with the sort of thoughts described above – they tend to lurk, ready to pounce whenever I dare to try something new or “put myself out there”.  The result of this is that I have tended to play it safe or given up without really trying, thereby avoiding the discomfort entirely, but also maybe missing out on some life enhancing experiences.  So what might be behind this type of thinking and can it be helped?

Theories

There are many theories about how personalities are formed that I can turn to for guidance.  It would be a very long blog if I looked at them all, so I’ll just look at two for now.  In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) different “errors in thinking” are identified.  Two types of errors seem to fit with the thoughts described above:

  • Fortune telling – predicting something will happen and worrying about it.
  • Mind reading – assuming you know what someone else is thinking.

In the case of fortune telling, CBT suggests you could deal with it by testing the prediction and seeing what will happen e.g. write the blog post and wait for the torrent of abuse to commence.  In the case of mind reading, we are encouraged to challenge the thought by thinking of other explanations for a situation e.g. if no-one comments on my blog I might assume that everyone thinks it’s rubbish but is too polite to say.  In reality, they may just be busy or shy.

As a trainee person-centred counsellor I try to apply my learning to my own experiences.  This approach talks about a person’s “locus of evaluation”, which can be internal or external.  Do we trust our own judgement (internal) or rely on the opinions of others to guide how we act (external)?  A spell in counselling myself about five years ago has helped me to trust my own judgement more and become more confident about doing what feels right for me.  I suppose the very fact that I am writing this blog in spite of the doubting thoughts is a sign of that.

Of course there are two other possibilities: (a) people will actually think it’s rubbish or (b) no-one will even read the blog anyway!  When I come to think about it, if either of these possibilities came true, I know I would cope just fine.

So I suspect the doubting thoughts will always be there whenever I push myself to do something new, but I could just close my eyes and jump…

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.  So throw off the bowlines.  Sail away from the safe harbor.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore.  Dream.  Discover.” – H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

Are you bothered by what other people think?  Do you let it stop you?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on this so feel free to leave a comment below if you wish.