Sunday, 28 October 2012

Connecting with others

I was just  reading some comments about 'solipsism'. The solipsistic viewpoint suggests that it's not possible to prove the existence of anything beyond your own mind. This may seem extreme or silly to most people, just the province of philosophers in their ivory towers, tying themselves up in knots. Good luck to them! But don't we apply something of this perspective in everyday life?

Stepping stones across the waterIf not logically, then perhaps from an emotional point of view, we may not always feel that closely connected to others. We can have a sense of our own thoughts and feelings, but not so much of how others think and feel -that can seem less real to us. However doesn't connecting with others in a meaningful way involve seeing at least something of their point of view? Doesn't it involve seeing them as people separate from us - with their own mind, own way of seeing things, own way of feeling things?

It isn't always easy to understand where others are coming from. We can tend to expect that they think about things in the same way that we do. Of course in many ways, this is the case, we share the same culture, have many things in common - but how we think and feel about it may not be exactly the same.

The point I'm trying to make is that understanding other people's point of view can be an enriching experience for us. It can help us feel more connected to others and feel more a part of the world, rather than on our own, seeing others from a distance.

There may be times when we feel distressed and unable to take in other people's point of view so well. This seems to me fair enough. It's important to look after ourselves. However to listen to others and to try to understand from their perspective can help us get closer. That in turn can also be helpful for us. In feeling more securely connected with others, we may feel better in ourselves and more part of the world.

Lin Travis Counselling Services

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Freedom and the chains of the unconscious

I heard someone quote the first line of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's book, 'The Social Contract,' the other day. While Rousseau was  discussing people in relation to their society, it seems to resonate in other ways too. The line is,
Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.
 I started thinking about this in terms of individuals, how we are in ourselves. We can often feel weighed down, unable to do the things we'd like to do. Something seems to prevent us. What are these chains?

Stepping stones across the waterIn psychodynamic therapy we look at how the past affects us in the present, interfering with our ability to get on with our lives. We can feel that in some way we are sabotaging ourselves....yet again! We can feel that we are unable to be the best we could be, to realise our potential. In this way we can feel that we are in chains.

From this psychodynamic perspective, I would say that at least some of this goes on at an unconscious level. We may be aware that 'something' is sabotaging us, but we can't work out what it is. Even loosening these chains then, let alone getting rid of them, can seem a daunting task.

I guess though the first step is to recognise that the chains do exist. We have to have some understanding of what we're up against. Perhaps we can notice them indirectly. The things we 'forget' to do. The things we say by 'accident'. The feeling that things are much more difficult than we might expect them to be. These might be signs of the unconscious at work.

Psychodynamic counselling and therapy can help us explore and untangle our past; and perhaps shed some light on our unconscious at work. If we can do this, then we can increase our understanding of ourselves.

As long as we don't see the chains, we can't change anything. We can feel stuck, compelled to act as we do. Whereas if we have more understanding of ourselves, then we can make freer choices as to how we live our lives. We can perhaps at least loosen the chains.

Lin Travis Counselling Services

Saturday, 20 October 2012

From badgers to couples counselling - blaming or working together.

Reading again today about badger culls and TB, it made me think again about blame versus responsibility. If there's a problem, there will be some people who find the easiest way out is to point the finger, saying 'It's their fault, nothing to do with me.' In this case, the 'solution' proposed by some has been a badger cull.

Stepping stones across the waterIt seems a simple solution, but life is often more complex than that though isn't it? In this example, there are badgers with TB; and there are cows with TB. Killing some badgers seems to me unlikely to 'solve' the problem. However as long as the 'culprit' is out there, a perception of 'them' and not 'us', then this type of tactic is likely to be proposed. 

Surely it makes more sense to say that there is a problem and ask what we can do co-operatively to find the best way forward? I'm using the badger issue as an example, as I think it shows just how easily we tend to take sides and to blame and perhaps even to want to punish.

Even to talk about 'solutions' as such can be unhelpful sometimes when dealing with complex situations. Sometimes we have to work on what might be good enough; and manage risk; and find the best way forward. It all sounds very woolly, doesn't it? Dealing with uncertainty can feel like that sometimes but is probably much more realistic. Life can be very uncertain and unpredictable; and there may not be obvious 'solutions' to all our problems. Does this mean that we have to pretend that we have all the answers, or that we can allow ourselves to be uncertain at times?

Uncertainty allows a space for more open-minded exploration and may be more likely to find a productive way forward - much more likely than easy answers that may be ill-considered. Blaming can leave us feeling angry, empty and powerless. Thinking about co-operative ways forward opens the door for a broader view and more creative ideas.

This more open-minded, co-operative way of looking at difficult issues can be applied to badgers; to politics; and also to ordinary individuals trying to relate to each other. For two people, (for instance in couples counselling), to say 'we have a problem that we would like to work on together' is very different to saying 'I think it's his fault!'

The open-minded co-operative approach immediately allows a space to think about what's going on. Without blaming, we can feel comfortable enough to do this, even if it's not easy. This can be really helpful in couples counselling. It may seem like we've come a long way from badgers here, but the same basic processes are involved.  This is about how we relate as human beings whether to other creatures; to other people generally; or in our closest associations with our loved ones.

In fact the closer we get to others, the harder it can get. We can feel more defensive; and when we feel more defensive, we attack more and blame more. However in choosing not to take 'blaming' as the default position, we can take a step back and think about working co-operatively with others. We can work together on the problem and we are no longer alone.

Lin Travis Counselling Services

Friday, 19 October 2012

Anxiety, mindfulness & purple elephants with pink spots on.

General anxiety can be difficult to shift. Thoughts can go round and round and give us no peace. We may feel unable to relax enough to get a good night's sleep; but not alert enough in the day to focus. It can be a vicious cycle.

One way of tackling this however is through mindfulness practice. It can help give us some distance from these difficult thoughts. This is not to say that I think we should avoid our thoughts or try to suppress them. They tend to have a way of either not going away or coming back to bite us somehow. If I say 'don't think of a purple elephant with pink spots', what is the first thing that comes into your mind? The chances are that it's a purple elephant with pink spots!

Rather than forcing thoughts to appear or not, mindfulness helps you gain control of your thoughts in a more healthy and gentle way. In the elephant example, you might allow the thought of a purple elephant to come in to your mind and then let it fade away of its own accord, neither forcing nor trying to stop the process.

Another example would be to imagine that your mind is the clear blue sky, and your thoughts are like clouds going across it. You can't stop them appearing or disappearing, but you know they will go of their own accord.

The problem with our own thoughts, as opposed to clouds or purple elephants, is that we worry about them. In fact we worry about worrying! This in itself raises our level of anxiety. Perhaps we worry about worrying as we think there might be something wrong with us.Why are we worrying like this? Other people don't seem to get like this ...Actually though it is very common, easily done, a vicious cycle. A cycle however that can be broken.

Mindfulness practices have helped many people with these problems. Being practices means that in order for them to help you have to practise rather than just think about them. If you're stuck with nagging thoughts though, it can be a relief to be able to focus on things beyond these thoughts.

How about going for a brisk walk at lunchtime, just five or ten minutes round the block? Focus on your body and how it feels as you take each step. If your mind wanders to your thoughts again, just gently bring it back to the sensations in your body as you walk. If you did this each day, you would be beginning to train yourself in a new and mindful way that could help you tackle your level of anxiety.

Lin Travis Counselling Services

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Be mindful...have a cup of tea.

There are so many ways of being mindful but often it's the simple things that are the most effective. One of my favourites is 'have a cup of tea'.

Stepping stones across the waterThe idea is to focus totally on what you are doing - the complete opposite of multi-tasking! Pour the tea into your favourite cup, notice the colour, the warmth of the cup in your hands, the weight of the cup. Sip it slowly and notice how the tea tastes and feels in your mouth.  Enjoy each sip and concentrate on just that.

If you find your mind wandering, then notice that this is happening. Then gently bring your attention back to the cup of tea. That's it!

It's that easy and that difficult. Generally we do several things at once and our minds flit about - planning, (or is it worrying about), the future and looking back on, (or fretting about), the past. The cup of tea gives you something physical to focus on and it only takes a few minutes of your time.

It may seem difficult to keep your mind focused but think of it as a kind of mind training. If you went to the gym for the first time, you wouldn't expect to perform as well as if you'd been training for a while.

Of course it doesn't have to be tea. It does help though to keep it quite simple. You can then observe yourself and how your mind reacts to this exercise. You can see how it wants to drift off into random thoughts or keeps returning to a particular worry. You have a chance to take a step back and observe your mind in action, gently returning it to the task in hand each time it wanders off.

Learning to focus your mind in this way can have both calming and energising effects - unlike multi-tasking...

Lin Travis Counselling Services

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Does pointing the finger help? Fault versus responsibility

In therapy, the subject of blame often comes up. We can feel reluctant to talk about things causing us distress for fear that it seems we are blaming others, especially those close to us, those we care about. It can seem disloyal and that it's better to say nothing, to keep it all to ourselves.

Stepping stones across the waterIn psychodynamic therapy and counselling, we often look at the past and our upbringing - the influences and events as we were growing up. Are we just blaming the previous generation - stirring up bad feelings and making things worse? Perhaps we should just forget about the past and focus in the present.

However, we can still find difficult  and distressing things in the present. Do we ignore these too for fear of blaming? On the other hand, would it then be better to blame and get it out of our systems - point the finger and have done with it?....

Yet if we do point the finger, we may well feel empty and powerless - after all it's 'their' fault, nothing to do with us. It must be up to 'them' to do something about it. Therefore if we focus on blaming or not blaming others, we can go round and round in circles and feel tied up in knots - stuck. Where does that leave us?

I feel that the way out of this can be to see it from a different perspective. If we can think not about blame but rather about responsibility, then things can begin to shift. We can't take responsibility for what other people do, but we can take responsibility for how we react to them.

While we blame others, we are focusing on what we would like from them. We feel powerless. However if we instead focus on our own thoughts and feelings, this is likely to be much more useful for us. We can't take responsibility for others' actions, but we can take responsibility for how we feel in the situation. Accepting how we feel can be powerful. It gives us a starting point, something we can work with. Maybe surprisingly, taking responsibility for how we feel doesn't mean staying stuck. Quite the opposite! It seems to act as a release and allows us a focus and space to reflect from our own perspective and to make sense of things.

Putting how we feel and think into words, and using words to make sense of these thoughts and feelings, changes the emphasis.We get to know ourselves better and to have more understanding of ourselves.  We are no longer focused on everyone else and waiting for them to do something. We begin to get some sense of control and personal meaning in our lives.

Lin Travis Counselling Services

Friday, 12 October 2012

Why don't we do what's good for us?

Stepping stones across the waterThere are all kinds of things we can do to look after ourselves. We can try to have a healthy diet, take exercise, get enough sleep, do things we feel are worthwhile and good for our wellbeing...We all know this but sometimes we just don't do it.....
Looking care of ourselves is an obvious thing to do. What stops us? There may be a variety of reasons why this is the case, and some beyond our control. We may not have much money. We may have busy and demanding lives. It may therefore seem that there is nothing we can do..... Perhaps though there are some things that are in our control or could be.

I'm thinking about our attitude towards ourselves. How much we value and care for ourselves, or how little. In our society, we are taught to think of others and that's great, but we are important too. In looking after ourselves, we can be good role models for our children and others around us. Setting a good example seems to have more effect than saying 'do what I say, not what I do'. It also seems much more authentic!

This is still however about the welfare of others. What about valuing ourselves for our own sake? We can sometimes find this so difficult. I feel this in itself can stop us from eating the 'five-a day' or taking exercise or getting round to giving up smoking, or whatever else we know would be good for us. We need to think we're worth it.

When we can believe that we are worth it, we will take care of ourselves, eat healthier, exercise etc. It won't be a problem then. We've known all along that those are good things. It's just that perhaps we couldn't apply them to us. Having a good opinion of ourselves or 'good enough' opinion can make such a difference.

Of course it's not easy. We can't just flick a switch and change our attitudes. However we can begin to challenge them. We may feel it's the right thing to do to challenge attitudes in society that are judgemental, overly critical and discriminating. Yet as long as we continue to devalue ourselves, these judgemental attitudes remain and are perpetuated in our culture.

No human being is perfect. We may all have things that we think of as our 'faults' , but does this make us unworthy of compassion? Valuing ourselves, having compassion for ourselves, being just plain kinder to ourselves, don't we all deserve this as human beings? If we would want this for others, perhaps we can learn to want it for ourselves.

Lin Travis Counselling Services

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The black hole of depression and the light beyond it.

Depression can be debilitating. It can drain our energy and take away our enthusiasm.  When it is severe, it can feel like it has taken away even our hopes and dreams. It can be hard to think about anything good, anything positive. Depression can be so destructive..... Then someone comes along and asks 'why don't you just pull yourself together?'.....

It seems to me that the feeling at this level of depression has similarities with a black hole. I'm thinking about how light cannot exist in a black hole - not does not exist but cannot. It can feel as though the depression has somehow destroyed anything good or the ability to be aware of anything good.

These two things are quite different though. It may feel that nothing good exists any more. Perhaps though, it is that what we have temporarily lost is our ability to be in touch with the good. Just as light exists beyond a black hole, so a sense of the good may exist beyond the 'black hole' of depression but we feel unable to get in touch with it.

This may however gives some hope though. Abilities can change. If we can visualise ourselves in a black hole, then perhaps we can think about the possibility of there being light beyond it. In this sense, depression can be like tunnel vision and in finding a way to be able to take a step back, we may be able to see the light again, even if at first it is just a glimpse. We have broadened our perspective or at least seen light at the end of the tunnel.

Woodland in the springI feel that mindfulness practice can help with this process of taking a step back and seeing the bigger picture. When we focus in and get tangled up with negative thoughts and feelings, our view may be restricted or tainted, and we do not get the full picture. Perhaps this is one reason that depression and loss are so often associated. We lose sight of the good and lose heart. I want to say though that I believe that the good stuff is still there but out of our view. This can be something to hang on to, and to give hope.

This idea of a black hole seems to put the good outside of ourselves and it may well feel like that. However while it may feel like that, perhaps the good stuff is closer than it seems. I would suggest that it is still within us but somehow obscured.

If it is obscured by the black hole of negativity, then perhaps processing the negative or difficult stuff can clear the way to seeing the good again. We can come to realise that the good stuff, the positive feelings and thoughts were still there all along. It was just that we had our 'black hole glasses' on, and they were distorting our view.

In times when we feel in a black hole, it can seem that that is how it 'really' is. We can then have the thought that 'We were kidding ourselves that life could be okay'. What I want to say is that it is the black hole feeling that causes us to think that there is nothing beyond it. We can get drawn into this, and our negative thoughts and feelings reinforced. It cons us into a distorted sense of how things really are, limiting our view and blocking out the light.

However, we are not our thoughts or our feelings. These can come and go, and we can be affected by them, but they are not us. If we can see ourselves as observers of our thoughts and our feelings rather than being consumed by them, we have begun to take that step back. We also can begin to understand why it is that we may feel so bad at times.

In seeing that the black hole as just a limited, and so distorted perspective, we can begin to move beyond and glimpse the light again. Describing hope as a light at the end of the tunnel seems to me very apt.

Lin Travis Counselling Services

Empowering qualities in counselling

Coming to therapy, and asking for help, can seem like a big step. People may feel that somehow they should be able to cope or at least muddle through on their own. They should be able to do this and they ought to be able to do that. Sometimes though the 'shoulds' and 'oughts' aren't enough - that's just not how you feel.

The counselling room in Stroud, Gloucestershire
The counselling room in Stroud, Gloucestershire
Having a space to talk about what bothers you and to reflect on your concerns can in itself be helpful. This is a place where it is okay to talk about you and how you feel. That can be a relief. We are not generally used to having that space just for ourselves. It's a space where you can talk and that means also a space where you are listened to. What you say is heard and considered.

This therapeutic space can also be containing. To come along each week, and talk for a set amount of time, and then stop, can help contain difficult thoughts, anxieties, and painful feelings.Talking in therapy and learning to contain these thoughts and feelings can help us gain a healthy control of them. This can be an empowering experience.

I feel that empowerment is an important concept in therapy. It has sometimes been said that counselling or therapy can create a dependency. However I feel that effective counselling does the opposite. It empowers people by helping them gain more understanding of themselves and in attaining a more healthy control of their emotional life. In that way they may be better equipped to deal with any difficulties, not only in the present, but in the future too.

Lin Travis Counselling Services

Monday, 8 October 2012

Attacking the most vulnerable in our society

Saddened today to hear both about a journalist attacking those who want to raise awareness of mental health issues; and a politician planning even further welfare cuts. It seems to me that  they are both targeting some of  the most vulnerable in our society.

When you are in a position of power, is there not some obligation to use that power in a way that is not abusive?

Friday, 5 October 2012

Would Freud have blogged?

Having started this blog just a couple of days ago, I've thought about what I might write as a counsellor - what was OK to write. Then the thought occurred to me today as to whether Freud would be a blogger if he was still around.

Stepping stones across the waterAs a psychodynamic counsellor I've been taught that in the counselling room I should be pretty much like a blank screen - it's not about my stuff, the focus has to be my client. But then while Freud and those coming after him may have advocated a blank screen or tabula rasa stance for the therapist, that did not mean they didn't publish a variety of papers and books concerning their theories and therapeutic work. I'm not about to publish some marvellous new theory, nothing that grand I'm afraid! I just wanted to have a space to talk about topics that interest me concerning my work.

Mindfulness was the first topic that came to me to write about, perhaps because there has been a fair amount written about it recently from a cognitive behavioural, (CBT), point of view. As a psychodynamic counsellor I wanted to say that while the CBT approach is fine, it's not the only way to do it. Psychodynamic counsellors, therapists and analysts have used mindfulness in their work for many years.

Dreams are another topic that interests me. I find them fascinating! I guess these are two quite different topics and how this blog will develop, I'm not sure. I hope though to make it about subjects related to therapy or counselling and the approach I use myself - particularly the psychodynamic approach.

Ways of communicating have became increasingly sophisticated since Freud's time. We can use different media and connect with others worldwide in an instant. I wonder where this will lead us in terms of therapy?

Lin Travis Counselling Services

Dreams - are they worth investigating?

Dreams have always fascinated me. Sigmund Freud saw them as the 'royal road to the unconscious'. How interesting is that? The unconscious, a part of us that we cannot know directly, is there to be explored by looking at our dreams. Freud saw the unconscious as being populated by repressed parts of ourselves, bits we have found difficult to face.

Stepping stones across the waterCarl Jung on the other hand has had a broader view of the unconscious. For him, the unconscious contains a 'shadow' side; but is also the source of our spirituality and creativity. The unconscious in this view is a vital and creative part of our selves and our personalities. Doesn't that make our dreams worth investigating?

There are books where you can look up dream objects and find out what they mean. This may be interesting and a starting point; yet it may tell you little about yourself. The objects in our dreams are our own creations and so may have meanings particular to ourselves. These individual, idiosyncratic, particular meanings can give clues to previously undiscovered, unexplored parts of ourselves.

This view of dreams seems to me to open a door to not so much another world as to another side of ourselves, another perspective that can be useful for us in our everyday lives. Therefore, while fascinating in itself, looking at our dreams can broaden our perspective, unblock our creativity and help us out there in the everyday world.

Lin Travis Counselling Services

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Mindfulness and Counselling

I haven't had a go at blogging before, so it may take me a while to get the hang of it! I'm not brilliant at IT, but I wanted a space to chat about counselling and related issues. Right now I'm thinking about #mindfulness and how useful it can be in counselling, wellbeing... and life!

Stepping stones across the water
Stepping stones across the water
I feel that there are many ways in which mindfulness can be used to good effect. There are some useful CBT techniques for instance, but that doesn't necessarily tell the full story. Mindfulness has been around for thousands of years - it's certainly stood the test of time. People can use it in so many ways - to help relax, to improve focus and concentration, to meditate, to relieve stress, anxiety or depression. It can be used to help people with long term pain problems. It can be quite a powerful tool. You can see that I'm a fan!
I've used it myself personally for over forty years; and in recent years with clients / patients in therapy. It's not everyone's cup of tea but in my experience it has real therapeutic value both for those in distress and also to increase wellbeing.

There are many ways of learning to be more mindful. Perhaps the most important thing to say though is that it's not about doing it 'perfectly' but about having a go. You can read about it and think about it, but it's the actual doing that's the most important.Wrestling with what makes it difficult is being mindful.

In a way it's so simple and yet so difficult at the same time. Perhaps that sounds really vague. Here's an example...go for a short walk and try to focus on just walking, your body and how it feels, putting one foot in front of the other. You'll notice that your mind soon begins to wander. That's OK but just gently notice what thoughts come into your mind and then go back to focusing on the walking. That's it!

What that exercise does is to begin to train your mind to focus rather darting about - as minds usually do. It's a gentle kind of control not forced  In doing this you can learn to take a step back from your thoughts rather than getting tangled up in them as is so easily done.....Kind of coming out of tunnel vision and seeing the broader view. This can be very therapeutic.

Another way I find useful to approach mindfulness is through #gardening. Seeing the colours, smelling the scents, doing something physical can all help us focus in the present moment, How many people have found themselves 'lost' in the moment while pottering around the garden. We're involved in using our senses and that helps us keep in the present moment, rather than being bothered by the past or worrying about the future.

Just smelling a favourite flower or herb can have that effect - getting us out of our thoughts and aware of ourselves in our physical surroundings - the smell of honeysuckle after the rain, a favourite rose, a pot of jasmine on the windowsill. These are some of my own examples, others will have their own....what are yours?

By Lin Travis