Thursday, 29 November 2012

Leveson - free speech,responsibility and the 'Reality Principle'.

The Leveson Report came out today, raising discussion on a number of issues including free speech and responsibility. How do we strike a balance between, on the one hand, free speech; and on the other hand, on protecting members of our society, particularly the most vulnerable, from inappropriate and intrusive behaviour. This seems to me to touch on very basic values, both politically and for us as individuals.

Stepping stones across the water.On an individual level, freedom and responsibility can be difficult to balance, just as difficult as they are in our society at large. If I do whatever I want, then how does it impact on you? Therefore if I want to act responsibly, I need to consider how my actions will affect others. This then limits my individual freedom to some degree. How far should these limits on our freedom go? How do we best protect both ourselves and others?

We use rules and regulations to limit our behaviour - some from outside of ourselves, such as rules in our society, and some self-regulation. We need some rules or framework for our lives. These can give us guidance, including ways of behaving ethically and appropriately - part of having a social conscience. We take these rules in, internalise them, and use them in our own judgements and ways of behaving with others.

We therefore interpret our society's rules in our own individual way. We have our own individual social consciences and these can at times do battle with the part of us that wants to have the freedom to do whatever it wants. In Freudian terms, this is the 'superego' versus the 'id'. The superego may be said to voice our social conscience; while the id voices our individual desires and needs. These two therefore come into conflict with each other.

There is however a third part of the internal dynamic, according to Freudian theory. This is the 'ego', the part of us that tries to manage the internal conflict between superego and id; and beyond this with the outside world. The ego then is the part of us that looks at what is 'realistic' for us as individuals for ourselves and in relation to others, as members of society. Freud called this the 'Reality Principle'. We try to be realistic in our perspective and how we behave.

How we interpret rules and react to them therefore seems to me to be quite a fundamental part of human behaviour, part of our individual personalities. Some of us are quicker to follow outside rules than others; some like to position themselves more as outsiders or perhaps as rebels; others as more like campaigners wanting to bring about change - to modify existing rules.

Looking at how we react to changes in rules and regulations in our society therefore can say something about ourselves as individuals. Aren't human beings interesting?

Lin Travis Counselling Services

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Bereavement - loss and the process of grief

In our society, we often don't give much space to the grieving process. After a bereavement you may be given a few days off work; and then you 'should be' ready to carry on as usual. Other people may ask how you are, but perhaps you feel they are expecting you to say that you are OK now, even if that's not really how you feel inside.

Stepping stones across the waterGrieving takes as long as it takes! It isn't something you can hurry; nor is it something you can just 'do' to fit in with a busy work schedule. However you may feel the pressure to show others that you are 'back to normal,'  when in fact you're still grieving. There is no 'right' way to grieve. We do it in our own time and our own way.

I feel that this is important in itself - the fact that we all have our own individual way of grieving. If a loved one dies, those who were close to that person may all grieve in different ways. This can have various consequences.

You may feel that you don't want to 'burden' others or perhaps that you need to be the 'strong one' and put your own feelings to one side in order to be there for them. Therefore you keep your feelings to yourself, maybe even burying them. Sometimes it may seem that there is nothing else you can do. At some point though, these feelings are likely to re-emerge, perhaps when you're least expecting it. They come back to bite you.

One way of thinking about this is that feelings may re-emerge when you have the space and the capacity to deal with them. I'm saying this because people may feel that they 'shouldn't ' have feelings of grief after 'all this time' - maybe years after the bereavement. It tends to happen though because these feelings were put to one side. They need to come out at some point. It's part of the grieving process - part of healing. You do it when you are able.

Another consequence of a bereavement is that while you may be grieving yourself, and your family or partner is grieving too, at any one point in time, your feelings may not correspond. Therefore you may feel out of tune with others. Why do you feel sad, when they are angry? Why do you feel angry, when they are feeling sad? Why does someone feel numb and others highly emotional?

These differences can cause feelings of isolation. It can be hard to understand each other - just when you need each other most. This is a normal experience in grieving. It makes things more complicated though - an extra stress.

Accepting that other people will be grieving in their own way - just as you are - can ease the process. Some people may very openly express their feelings, while others keep it in. But they both could be hurting just as much as each other. Some people may just feel numb. That doesn't mean they don't care but that it is hard for them to take it in all at once - a kind of self protection. We take in what we are able to. It takes time. 

Allowing each other the space for your own processes is therefore very helpful. You may not entirely understand how others feel, but acknowledging and accepting the difference can still help. It's certainly a good starting point.

I've mentioned anger, sadness and feeling numb. There may be one particular feeling at any one time, but it can also feel like a mix of conflicting feelings battling it out.  Again, although difficult, this is normal. Accepting that you are experiencing a mix of feelings, however much you'd rather not, can be helpful.

Counselling is an option for exploring these complex feelings, when it's hard to sort them out by yourself. Having a space to talk about how you feel can help untangle and make more sense of these feelings.

These are just some brief comments about bereavement and loss, particularly focusing on our individual differences and acceptance of this. Finally, I'd like to say that grieving is a process.This means that however idiosyncratic, it does have a beginning, middle and end, however complex it may seem. Working through your difficult feelings, as grieving allows you to do, gives you a chance to heal. It isn't just time but the healing takes place in time. Having patience and compassion for yourself and others can help with this process of grief.

Lin Travis Counselling Services

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Telephone counselling - increasing access to therapy in the UK

When thinking about the possibility of therapy, have you ever considered telephone counselling? While it may not be be suitable for everyone, it can have certain advantages.

Stepping stones across the water.For instance, if you live in a rural area, where there is no easy access to a local counsellor, it may be that telephone counselling could be a viable alternative. It could also be that you would like a particular type of counselling, that is not generally available in your area. Therefore telephone counselling might give you more choice in terms of type of therapeutic approach. You can choose someone from anywhere across the country.

Even if there are local counsellors available, perhaps you are unable to travel. Whether you have a disability that prevents you from easily travelling; or because of family or work commitments, it could be that you just can't get there.

When you have limited time with a busy lifestyle or a range of demands on your time, actually making time for therapy can be a challenge in itself. Yet often, feeling that you have too demands on your time is stressful...  So when you need it most, you are least able to access therapy! Telephone counselling means no time travelling to appointments and so can be more easily fitted in.

While regular weekly appointment times can be the most effective for counselling, flexible times for those unable to keep same time appointments each week can be easier to arrange with telephone work. It is worth checking if your intended counsellor is able to do this and whether they think variable appointment times would be appropriate for you.

What can you then expect from telephone counselling? In many ways you may find it not so different from face-to-face work. Generally it will be at a regular time with each session lasting maybe fifty minutes or an hour. The counsellor usually asks you to call them at the pre-arranged time on their landline.

While some people may find it difficult at first to feel comfortable talking over the telephone, others may find it almost too easy. An experienced telephone counsellor should be aware of this and do their best to help individuals feel comfortable and secure enough to work safely and effectively.  In this way work can proceed at an appropriate pace with time to reflect and process difficult feelings, as it would in face-to-face work. Of course, this is not to say that telephone counselling will be suitable for everyone. Some may need the added security of the face-to-face environment.

While telephone counselling may not appeal or be suitable for everyone, it can be a viable choice for some who might otherwise not be able to access therapy.  Increasing access to therapy seems to me very worthwhile.

(NB I am writing specifically about the UK.  Some other countries, or particular states in other countries, may have regulations prohibiting offering therapeutic services out of their jurisdiction area. My comments therefore are directed at UK individuals thinking about telephone counselling, though those in other countries may find the general points of some interest.)

Lin Travis Counselling Services

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Death on exhibition

There's a new exhibition just opened at the Wellcome Collection in London called Death: A self-portrait. The exhibition explores the image of death in a wide variety of forms. While this might not not be everyone's cup of tea, perhaps there's something about it worth reflecting on.

Stepping stones across the water.In our society, death tends to be something not talked about a great deal. If we are impolite enough to mention it, then we may use euphemisms like 'passed away,' rather than come straight out and say 'dead.' I'm not meaning to be harsh, but I think it can be helpful to name it - to call 'death' by its name. 

Death is part of life - the end of the process of life - and however much we don't talk about it, it is unavoidable. This is a fact we all have to face at some point, for ourselves and for our loved ones. It is painful and sad, that our lives have an end. However, because we have a limited life span, that, in my mind, makes it all the more precious. If we only have so much time, (and who knows exactly how much), then shouldn't we make the most of it, valuing what we have?

I don't mean this as an argument for hedonism but for living a life in the best possible way, whatever that means for you - a life that is as worthwhile as you can make it. I'm not thinking about having to do amazing things, or having spectacular results. I'm thinking more about having good intentions and living your life in a way so that when you look back, you can feel OK about it, knowing you've given it your best shot. That's all any of us can do, isn't it?

If we could choose, would we really want to live forever?  I don't think that would be that great. Wouldn't we just put things off for another day or year or decade? And wouldn't we lose our enthusiasm for life, if it just went on and on forever? Knowing our life is finite gives it an intensity it wouldn't otherwise have.

There's no one way or 'right' way to think about death though, is there? I might have my ideas about it; and you will have yours. It's complex as well as emotive. That's why I think it's good to have an exhibition that brings it into the public domain - it encourages us to talk about death and to think about it from a variety of perspectives. Let's acknowledge death and then get on with living.

Lin Travis Counselling Services


Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Managing stress - from superhero to good enough.

The weeks running up to Christmas can often be particularly stressful. Whether it's financial worries or family issues or just how you feel in yourself, Christmas can be difficult. At the same time, you may feel you should be enjoying yourself - another pressure! Pressure piles on top of pressure; and it can be hard to see beyond it. How then can you best manage stress?

Stepping stones across the waterThere is so much pressure 'out there', on TV, in our culture etc. to buy more and to do more than perhaps is realistically possible. If we take this outside pressure on, and then use it on ourselves, we are adding to it, making it worse for ourselves. Our stress levels increase.We can so easily set ourselves impossible targets; and then be down on ourselves for not achieving them. Being realistic in what you can achieve is therefore an important part of managing stress, I feel. You can accept that there are outside pressures without adding to them unnecessarily. Why kick yourself when you're down?

We can all kid ourselves at times that we can do more; while at the same time, deep down we know it's not really possible. On top of our original pressures, we are then also battling with ourselves, trying to somehow make ourselves do the impossible. As a strategy for managing stress, trying to do the impossible doesn't work! This might sound ridiculously obvious to say, but we are all guilty at times of trying to do the impossible, aren't we? We try to be superheros rather than human beings. It can be surprising how liberating and empowering it can be to admit to yourself that you can't do the impossible. It leaves you with what is possible. (Not quite Occam's razor but...)

Certainly there is something illogical about trying to make ourselves do things that we are not capable of doing. But then there's a lot more to human beings than just the logical! While our logic can influence actions, so can our emotions. Not that that makes our emotions 'bad'. We need them to motivate us. Perhaps though, it's a case of where do we apply the brakes, so that our enthusiasm doesn't run out of control and cause us stress? It's a case of balance.

Sometimes a tendency to perfectionism can cause us to have expectations of ourselves that are unhealthily and unrealistically high. Think about what you really can do, as opposed to what you might like to do in an ideal world. Having goals that motivate us is one thing, making them unachievable is another.

Prioritising is also an important part of managing stress, I feel. What needs to be done now and what can be done at a later date? I don't mean just putting things off, so you feel they're all piling up on you. Rather I'm thinking about planning ahead, so that you have a strategy for dealing with things in a timely fashion. That way you are reducing the feeling of being overwhelmed by competing demands, feeling pushed and pulled in all directions. You know you can't do it all at once. What can you reasonably do later, (given that we have already established that you can't do the impossible)?

Again this is logical, common sense, but often we need to give ourselves permission to prioritise. If it feels like a kind of defeat to admit you're not superwoman or superman, think about how being realistic will allow you to gain some control and manage the situation. - to feel more like you're coping. That's good isn't it? Maybe even good enough?

Also helpful in managing stress is developing the ability to recognise and accept when there are things that will be difficult whatever you do. It can sap your energy trying to change what you can't change. Accepting what you can't change gives the opportunity for limited supplies of precious energy to be directed where they will have most effect.

I'm not saying anything new here, but I'm not apologising for this. Despite knowing these things, we all as human beings have a tendency to think this all applies to other people, and that somehow we'll manage to do what we wouldn't expect from others. Tendencies, however, are habits - and habits can be changed.

Lin Travis Counselling Services

Monday, 19 November 2012

Wellbeing - mental keep fit.

My practice includes 'wellbeing' as well as counselling services. There may be people who don't feel counselling is appropriate for them; however perhaps they would like to have an opportunity to focus on their wellbeing. You could think of it a bit like going to the gym. You exercise in order to improve your physical wellbeing. There may also be things you could do for your psychological wellbeing too.

Stepping stones across the waterMindfulness can be something that might appeal to those looking for some kind of training for their minds. These mindfulness techniques and ideas can help with mental wellbeing and maybe improving concentration, helping manage stress and reducing levels of anxiety. It can also help you feel better physically.

The mind can affect our physical health in so many ways from an upset stomach, a bad back, headaches, insomnia, reduced resistance to infections... and so on. So wouldn't you want to keep fit mentally as well as physically? I'm not saying that mental wellbeing is a cure all but it can certainly make a difference, be beneficial, just as working on our physical fitness can be beneficial. Isn't that worthwhile?

It doesn't have to be about mindfulness. There could be particular things you would like to focus on that are not working as well in your life as you would wish. It can be a kind of life coaching. The difference here between wellbeing and counselling, as I'm presenting it, is that counselling deals with emotions in depth. It needs to have a regular structure generally to be effective and feel safe. Wellbeing is more focused on the practical side of things and as such does not necessarily need such a regular regime to be safe and effective help.

What both wellbeing and counselling services can provide is a space to explore and work on your concerns in a safe and creative way. As a counsellor, I feel that it is worthwhile offering both services, giving people the opportunity to find the approach best suited to them.

Lin Travis Counselling Services

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Chuang Tzu's useless tree

In the writings of the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu, there is an anecdote about an ancient tree that people called 'useless'. It had a knotted trunk and twisted branches; so nobody wanted to cut it down - its wood couldn't be used for anything. The tree was therefore left to grow undisturbed. It could just be a tree and continued to grow year after year. It flourished.

Something about this story fascinates me. Not that I think being useless is good in itself; but rather that we tend to think of things mostly in terms of how we can use them. We buy things that are useful, we value things for being useful. Nothing wrong with that, but isn't there something beyond this?

There's something special about seeing things as being fine just as they are without wanting to do something to them or with them - a beautiful sunset, a walk in the woods...  plants and animals too - an orangutan in the rainforest, a wild orchid in an undisturbed habitat....

When it comes to people though, our expectation may be that they have to be useful to us. How much of an insult is it to say to someone that they are 'useless'? Would we accuse an orangutan of being useless? Probably not.

I'm not suggesting that it's bad to do useful things, far from it.  However it seems to me, that there is something beyond this usefulness that is important too, something we might need in order to flourish ourselves.  Sometimes in our busy lives, we might lose sight of it.

Lin Travis Counselling Services

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Adoption issues, individual narratives & the importance of listening.

In Adoption Week in the UK, I wanted to write something about adoption issues. This is not about adoption itself as a process, but about those who may have been affected by it and still have issues around it.

We don't normally hear much about adoption in the press; and I feel people often don't know how to react or respond to the subject. For those affected by it, this can feel quite alienating. It can feel like nobody understands. I'm not pretending here as a counsellor to be all knowing and understanding. That's the point, how can I or anyone understand unless somebody tells us what it's like for them?  

Both in life generally and in counselling, I've met quite a few people affected by this issue. What strikes me most is that everyone has their own story, their own particular narrative. There is definitely not a 'one size fits all' account.

The circumstances around adoption may often be complex; and adoption has happened for a wide range of reasons. Individuals react differently, even when circumstances appear to be similar. The only way we can gain some understanding is to listen - to hear someone's story.

This could apply to other circumstances, not just adoption, but I do feel that adoption issues can be particularly multi-faceted; and people's responses can be complex and often conflicted. This is normal. Complex situations are likely to produce complex responses and feelings.

If we can listen, if we're interested in what the other person has to say, then we provide an opportunity or space for that person to be heard - whatever their story.

Lin Travis Counselling Services

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Counselling and politics - hopes and dreams in context.

On the day of the US elections, I've been thinking about politics and what it might mean for ordinary people. How relevant are politics in our everyday lives?

As individuals, we have hopes and dreams for ourselves and others. How these play out is in part determined or limited by ourselves, and in part limited by the society in which we live. In counselling, we can take a look at ourselves, maybe discover there is more to us than we previously supposed. This can be hopeful and empowering; but where do we go from here? To pretend we can do anything we wish is patronising.

Whatever we may be capable of achieving, there also need to be opportunities within our society in order to realise these ambitions. I am not arguing for a 'nanny state,' where we are passively looked after, with no responsibility for ourselves. I do feel however that we need to care for each other in a co-operative way. This can work at an individual level and in the way we are as a society, including its politics.

Of course politicians can make all kinds of promises which play on our hopes and dreams - it gets votes.  Being able to deliver on these promises is another thing. With limited resources, we may not be able to do everything we want. This means making choices we would rather not have to make. In politics, there have to be choices and therefore priorities, although what is the priority may change over time.

In prioritising one thing, we may have to face the loss of some other possibility. Just when we choose something really good, at the same time we are not choosing something else. We can feel sad at the same time as feeling good. We feel conflict within ourselves. This can make us stuck and go round in circles, not wanting to make decisions. This happens for us as individuals and in the field of politics. Nobody wants to say 'No we can't do that, even though it's a good thing to do.'

However, accepting the potential losses in difficult decisions can allow us to become unstuck and move forward. It can be painful and challenging; but it is also liberating. It means that we can get on with our lives. We can make plans and look forward to the future in a realistic way.

Lin Travis Counselling Services