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When one problem becomes two.
We get by alright most of the time. But sometimes things in life change unexpectedly, sometimes even without us properly realising. When this happens, we may lose something important. It could be contact with someone close to us, or loss of a job we were happy in, or a change in our status, or loss of hope or meaning - such a loss may take many forms. What is usually common to any such loss, is that we become deprived of something important.
Often this happens without us realising, or perhaps we do realise but we tell ourselves not to think about it, not to feel sorry for ourselves. So we carry on as best we can, knowing we don't feel right, pushing out thoughts and feelings which trouble us. Bit by bit we feel worse and begin to blame ourselves for feeling bad - this is where the second problem begins. We start to replace the initial problem of something missing in our lives (causing us to feel bad), with a much more personal problem of believing there is something WRONG with US! This second problem may overshadow the initial problem, causing us to withdraw, or develop unhelpful coping mechanisms. Eventually we may become disconnected, dysfunctional, unable to cope, as life seems to get worse and worse.
Sadly, our world doesn't do a very good job of teaching us to be self-aware and to harness self-compassion, which we could use to help ourselves deal with the changes and losses life brings.
Counselling can help untangle all of this. I work with many clients to address such situations, helping them to make sense of things, to understand that they have been undergoing a difficult change or loss, stripping back the negative beliefs and unhelpful behaviours which have taken hold. The goal is to restore my client to their former, healthy self, equipping them with new awareness, understanding and ways of coping with life’s changes and challenges as they go forward.
Who wants to be Happy?
Western culture promotes the idea of being 'happy.' It is promoted everywhere...
- Buy the shiny new car to be happy.
- Get the gorgeous partner to be happy.
- Live in the big new house and you'll be happy.
- Get skinny and you'll feel happy.
- Be rich and you'll be happy.
In truth happiness is a fantasy (phantasy). It is one of many fantasies we indulge in every day. We bounce between good and bad fantasies all the time. The good fantasies offer us all-consuming good feelings. The bad fantasies terrify us with unthinkable outcomes.
And in truth we they never actually happen - they are like magnetic poles between which we spend our lives bouncing.
Yet most of us at times look around and believe other people have it and we feel left out, denied, unlucky, jealous, resentful, sad as a result.
People do feel ‘happy’ when they get what they want…
A new job.
A new car.
A pay rise.
To give to someone they love.
To help others.
…the list goes on, but everything that makes us feel this way is temporary. The feeling is temporary. Happiness is this sense, is fleeting.
More lasting ‘happiness’ or ‘contentment’ comes from a sense that our fundamental needs are met…
To feel love and feel loved.
To have rewarding purpose in life.
…more elements can be added, yet whatever the list may contain, these are things which ebb and flow. Relationships wobble, jobs can be lost, plans can be ruined.
So forget the idea of a permanent state of ‘happy’. Instead accept that when your fundamental personal human needs are met you will experience ‘contentment’. Sometimes this will feel strong, at other times it will feel less so. Sometimes contentment may turn into distress when something fundamental is going wrong.
So – forget ‘happiness’ and consider ‘contentment’; a moving entity which can feel different depending on the week, day, hour or minute…
Start working to understand your fundamental needs and to get them met.
Stay aware and work to maintain the satisfaction of those needs.
Remember there’s only so much you can do to maintain the state of contentment, because contentment in life is like being in a boat on the sea, be accepting and realistic as you roll with the tide and current.
Who do you talk to the most?
Your partner? Your best friend? Work mate? Brother? Sister? Your kids? Your parent(s)? Social media? The answer - for all of us - is ourselves. It's called our internal dialogue and it occupies 99% of all of our conversations.
This often comes as a surprise to many people. We are not taught this. We are rarely, if ever, given permission to look inside ourselves with curiosity and interest at how we are responding to the world around us. It is the conversations we have with ourselves that govern how we feel and think. You've been talking to yourself all of your life - even before you had words. Even as a small baby you were responding to your environment purely with feelings – the conversation had begun and it has continued ever since.
As we develop and grow our inner conversations grow increasingly sophisticated and familiar as our identity and sense of self develops. These familiar conversations, composed of our thoughts and feelings, don’t always feel good. We learn to respond in familiar ways to the world around us. We tell ourselves we are bad when certain things happen.
Counselling and psychotherapy can help you develop your awareness of the conversations you have with yourself; your relationship with yourself; the familiar thoughts and feelings you experience within yourself.
Nobody can make you feel bad. Bad things happen to all of us sometimes - but it is the resulting conversation you have inside yourself, how you manage your thoughts and feelings, that decides how you feel in response to bad events.
Psycho-therapeutic counselling can help and encourage a clearer understanding and awareness of what happens within you. Higher awareness leads to choice - once we have awareness of what happens inside us we can begin to influence the moment-to-moment thoughts, feelings and actions which shape our experience.
Do you ignore your needs?
Do you sometimes stumble over the truth, but carry on regardless?
Winston Churchill: Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.’
Looking at my own personal experience, and that of my clients, I believe we all have a tendency to do this. We have moments of insight, or clarity; we see what we really need or want and what is standing in the way. But then we let it go. We go back to the comfort-zone of the status quo. It’s a lot easier to do nothing than embrace the uncertain.
These moments of ‘truth’ may capture our lack of fulfilment, our dreams, our relationship disappointments, our core-needs for love and attachment. They are a product of our natural drive to grow; to find meaning in life and relationships. But we are living the life we live right now for many good reasons. We are attached to our partner, our family, our job as they all meet our needs to some degree, but perhaps no longer as fully as we would like them to, because things have changed or we have grown or changed.
Counselling can help explore these fleeting moments of personal truth, to uncover our true needs and bring into awareness the difficulties we have in fully satisfying these needs. Psycho-therapeutic counselling can help and encourage a clearer understanding and awareness of what happens within us. Higher awareness leads to choice - once we have awareness of what happens inside us we can begin to influence the moment-to-moment thoughts, feelings and actions which shape our experience.
Do you want to change the way you are with other people?
Then get off the drama triangle!
In my training as a counsellor one of the many illuminating theories I learned about was The Drama Triangle. It was an idea conceived by Stephen Karpmann in 1979.
The idea is simple – imagine a triangle where at each corner there exists a special role:
Often in our relationships we take one or more of these positions on the triangle. The other person in the relationship takes one of the other positions. “Not me,” I hear you say! “I don’t do that!” Ok – let’s look at the roles:
Persecutor: This role involves an attack on the other person, perhaps verbally, perhaps through silence, perhaps through control. It involves being one-up on the other person, showing them they’re wrong or bad or weaker than you. Do you recognise any of your behaviour in this description? Or do you recognise someone else’s behaviour?
Rescuer: Do you ever feel a powerful need to do things for others? To make things ok for another person? Do you try to solve the problems of others? Or do you know someone who does this with you – perhaps even when you don’t want them to?
Victim: If you’ve ever found yourself unhappy of uncomfortable on the receiving end of a Persecutor or a Rescuer then you’ve been in the Victim position. Or if you are sometimes the Persecutor then you have been relating to the other person as a Victim.
Does any of this sound familiar? Do you ever find in your relationships you are drawn to one of these positions? Perhaps with your boss you tend towards the victim position fearing persecution? Perhaps with your some of your friends you feel a pull to rescue them? Perhaps with your husband, wife, partner you move between Persecutor and Rescuer? We are able to take different positions in different relationships without being consciously aware we are doing it.
Life is complex – sometimes it is right to rescue someone, be it emotionally, financially, physically and so on. Equally, sometimes it is justified to persecute someone for their wrong-doing and the hurt they have caused. But the question is – how much do we actually thrive on being in these positions?
According to Karpmann and his theory we all engage in lots of drama within our relationships. In fact he believes we each have a need to re-enact it based on how we’ve been shaped throughout all of our relationship history, particularly our early relationships with parents, family and other caregivers.
So what happens when we do become aware that we take one of these positions? What can we do with this knowledge and awareness? It depends on how your relationships are! If your relationships all feel healthy, equal, balanced and fulfilling then I guess you need not read on. Indeed, some relationships thrive when one person does all the rescuing. If on the other hand you find some of your relationships are not so good or are no longer working as well as they did, perhaps you could look at which positions are being taken by each person and consider whether the adoption of roles by some or all of the players could be why things are not going so well.
So what if you see that someone is persecuting you, or attempting to Rescue you without invitation? How can you change them? The bad news is - you can’t! The good news however, is that you can change your position.
If you choose to get off the triangle – to relinquish your position on whichever corner you find yourself, you break the drama and you are free from the relational dynamic which was affecting you. The persecutor no longer has a Victim. The Rescuer no longer sees a Victim in need of Rescue. Giving up on your need to Rescue, Persecute or be the Victim within any relationship will change everything. But triangle-getter-offers beware! The other actors in your drama may not want to change their positon and may try to lure you back. The Drama Triangle is a very lonely place to be when you’re the only one on there!
Meet the family - of Ego States
Many clients come to counselling struggling with their feelings and the power those feelings have over them. Many people struggle with unwanted feelings and thoughts for years, pushing them aside and carrying on regardless, either pretending they don't exist or don't matter, or masking them with temporary distractions. One of the key concepts I use with many such clients is Ego States, developed as part of Transactional Analysis by the late, great Eric Berne in the 1960s.
A tool for awareness...
I use Ego States to give my clients a framework for awareness - a mechanism they can use to identify what their thoughts and feelings are doing. Using Ego States it is possible to regain (and retain) awareness of what we are experiencing in any given moment - and to decide and control what happens next.
Modes of thinking and feeling...
Ego States are modes we go in to at different times. We can move rapidly between them or we can get stuck in a particular Ego State for some time. There are three main Ego States: Parent, Adult & Child.
Meet Your Parent...
Your Parent - is the mode you go into when you are responding to the rules and values you have learned in life. In your Parent Ego State you are likely to be controlling, critical or judgmental. Conversely while in your Parent you might be nurturing, caring or hospitable. There are two sides to our Parent ego state. Most people however haven't come to counselling because they're feeling too nurturing.
Meet Your Child...
Your Child - is the mode of pure feeling. You are in your Child ego state when you are sad, afraid, lonely or confused . You are also in your Child ego state when you're playing and having fun. There are two sides to our Child ego state. Most people however don't seek counselling because they are experiencing too much fun.
We are the sum of all of our ego states...
Moving into Parent and Child mode is a normal part of being a human being.
We move into Parent mode because we often need to take control of situations and other people in our lives. We often encounter difficult situations where other people behave in a way which conflicts with our rules and values. In those situations it is normal to judge, or feel anger or hostility towards others.
Meet your Adult...
Your Adult! The mode of the moment. The mode which engages you in the here-and-now. The mode in which you find the space to engage in full awareness of the thoughts, feelings and actions you are experiencing at this exact point in time. As 'normal' functional human beings we engage in Adult ego state often - when we are concentrating on a task, completing a transaction or solving a problem.
The pain of Parent and Child...
Many clients find themselves dominated by their Parent or Child ego states. While it is normal to 'bounce around' our ego states, it's not normal to get stuck in them. Some clients find they can't stop being angry - they are consumed by their Parent ego state, where criticism, anger or resentment burn strongly. Sometimes this Parent activity is directed inwards - manifesting as intense self-criticism, self-reproach or hateful self-talk. This takes huge energy and can result in negative behaviours as a way of letting off steam or trying to escape the energy-draining emotional burden.
Equally, many clients find themselves sunk into Child, swamped by feelings of hopelessness and despair - unable to escape or see a way to feel differently. This can become a downward spiral, interspersed only by periodic shifts into Parent mode to inflict negative and damaging self-criticism.
Use your Adult to set you free!
We're all different and nomatter how the above scenarios may manifest themselves in each of us - we all have access to our Adult Ego State; our internal voice of reason; our mediator; our logical processor of facts; our fairness-administrator. Accessing our Adult means engaging in the here-and-now, this very minute, and seeing what is real versus what is not real - what we really need to respond to versus what we are responding to through habit. It is about taking ownership of the package of thoughts and feelings which are happening within us right now, and putting them under our own spotlight for examination.
Our Adult will ask questions, such as:
* What am I feeling? Sad? Lonely? Jealous? Confused? Stuck?
* Why might this be happening?
* Do I know why?
* Can I be ok not knowing why?
* What do I need in order to feel better?
* Can I accept it's not my fault?
* Do I have to care what others may think of me?
* Can I challenge my beliefs?
* Can I do something different which might help me escape my stuckness?
* What do I want right now?
* What do I really want in this relationship?
* What do I really want in the next (however many) moments, hours, days, weeks, months or years of my life?
By engaging in this type of Adult questioning we can find counter-arguments to our repetitive and negative thoughts and feelings; we can shift our energy out of the pain of the past or dread of the future into all that really exists - the present moment and the choices that exist within it.
Further Reading: 'TA Today: A New Introduction to Transactional Analysis' - 1987, Ian Stewart, Vann Joines.
Love as a Bluetooth connection
We all love our phones and devices and we use this brilliant technology all the time, to link ourselves directly to the people and subjects we love. But such connectivity is not really anything new. In fact, being connected is ancient - it is hundreds of millions years old. Love (or 'attachment' as I prefer to call it) is like an ancient Bluetooth mechanism which bonds us to our significant others!
When we grow to love someone something inside us is created. A transmitter/receiver which is built solely to connect us to the other person. They too develop their own transmitter/receiver designed to work across our unique 'love' frequency. It is a 'pairing', like a Bluetooth connection which no-one else can join. Once it has developed it is always 'on' and we feel connected to the other person in a very special way. We are in love. We can't control who we attach to, and likewise, we can't just make ourselves detach from someone we've attached to.
But, relationships are vulnerable. Sometimes they falter and fail. When one person drops the connection the other feels it immediately and their internal device sounds a painful alarm. If the relationship breaks down and ends the internal transmitter/receiver doesn't automatically disappear. This part of us continues to live on, searching for the connection, hoping to be able to switch it on again. We can't make it stop - we feel the pain. It takes time for our body to grow accustomed to the lost connection and for the transmitter/receiver to shrink down. Perhaps it never fully disappears, which is why we may still feel discomfort about a person many years after the breakup occurred. A tiny bit of the attachment mechanism remains within us.
This ancient mechanism evolved as mammals evolved hundred of millions of years ago, as a mechanism to ensure that parents protected their young offspring until they were grown enough to survive by themselves. As babies we experienced this connection or bond, and as adults we have an automatic drive to re-create it with another adult, to become attached once again. This same ancient Bluetooth connection app has allowed the human race to survive to this point.
The Bluetooth analogy is a light-hearted take on human attachment. But, perhaps one day, neuro-scientists will identify an actual transmitter/receiver in the brain which does emit a signal to and from our attachment partners.