Archive for acceptance

Autumnal Change and Uncertainty

Let’s start with the premise that change is usually unsettling. The human brain is generally not programmed to thrive on risk, so habits and learned ways of thinking can be a source of comfort in our daily lives.

The wise American philosopher William James stated that;

‘A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices’

This was written at the turn of the 19th century but could easily stand today as a shining observation of the overloaded list of social and political dilemmas in this strangely unsettling autumn of 2019.

It’s rare in my counselling room for world or national events to be a focus. Clients come for a variety of reasons,  usually needing a safe space to reflect on the issues that affect their own personal situations. Seldom do outside forces seem important enough to invade their personal session time.

During these last weeks, fear and external conflicts have caused disruption to so many of them and has now become a subject in itself that has impacted the lives of most of us in some way.

Theoretically,  we may try to understand that change is a crucial component of growth and evolution, but we also need to trust those who appear to be in control.

Without certainty, rumour, speculation and assumptions will thrive and leave us feeling understandably threatened.

It is inevitable that, at some point, we shall all experience change in our everyday existence.

Births, deaths, divorce, redundancy and separation are among the huge life events that mean major re-evaluation and adjustment, and these are often the presenting problems that bring clients to therapy.

All change will bring loss – even the most joyful shifts in our lives. Some of the more difficult personal events will feel shocking and unexpected, leading to anger and disorientation.

The current situation in the UK is now bringing up emotions described as nameless dread, fear and helplessness leading to real anxiety around the future, as clients contemplate their own experiences and then make links with the wider social and political situation that has overshadowed us all in recent months and left many feeling dispossessed and scared – both for themselves and those they care about.

This kind of enforced change can shift perspectives for us all and will alter our emotional landscape.

In our personal lives, tumultuous situations such as bereavement, health issues and job losses are always going to bring grief and fear. But compounded with the tenuous social and political  situation, many of us are feeling the chill of uncertainty and a range of complex apprehensions.

Therapy can’t change what’s happening in the moment, but talking feelings through with an impartial, empathetic listener in a place of comfort and safety can be extremely helpful for clients.

Adjustment to the altered state of our lives is a process that is helped by self-care and kindness.

Sometimes feelings of helplessness and frustration are exacerbated by the way they revive emotions that were experienced much earlier in our lives, bringing anxieties into sharp focus and making current responses even more vivid and upsetting.

Acceptance of a new state doesn’t mean forgetting what went before, but needs the ability to leave behind what we knew as normal and find a shift to our new normal.

Which again brings me – reluctantly – to the present state of our country. We all share this huge void of uncertainty even though we may be looking at it from different viewpoints.

Change can be exciting if it forces us to grow and look at things from a new and different viewpoint. It can teach us to be flexible and can challenge long-held beliefs leading to creativity and can help us develop new strengths leading to a boost in our self-esteem and strengthening our resilience.

As humans we need to accept that society has to develop and evolve. But change that feels forced upon us all and seems to benefit only some at the expense of many, can feel unjust and leads to the anger that comes from experiencing unfairness and the imposition of ideas that may conflict sharply with our own beliefs.

As the clocks go back leaving summer behind, let’s hope the autumn of 2019 is not remembered as a dark and gloomy place, but the start of a new opportunity for some beginnings of hope and reconnection.

We can’t change the past, so rather than regret what may have been lost, the way to feel more in control is to look at whatever we now can do to repair those past hurts and let’s now give an optimistic nod to the future.

As the great Sam Cooke wrote;

There have been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long

But now I think I’m able to carry on

It’s been a long, a long time coming

But I know a change is gonna come,

Oh yes it will.

Christina Fraser

Death the Avoided Topic: How to work with Loss

During the past year, I have experienced two close deaths (ok, one was a pet). It’s taken time to fully appreciate the impact this has had on me. I’ve learned some fundamental lessons throughout this process, and how some of my narratives about death have been informed by my background, and society’s expectations of the expression of death. Most importantly, it has allowed me to see that everyone’s experience of death is different, and there is not a right or wrong way to express grief. 

Working with recently bereaved clients has sometimes been a challenge for me as a therapist. Of course, I feel their pain, the pain that loss brings, and I hope I have been sensitive and compassionate. But, the truth is, my personal experience with death has been limited. 

It was only when my young cat died last summer followed by my mother in September that I started to fully appreciate the expression of grief. It is a complicated process, often confusing and sometimes very messy with no right or wrong way to express emotions and feelings.

It’s hard to write this, but my experience at the time was I felt more upset over my cat’s death than my mother’s. It’s not because I didn’t have a good relationship with my mother, in fact, we had an excellent relationship: I adored her, and she adored me. Was there something wrong with me? No. She was 93 years old, and she died; I accepted this fact and was grateful that she died quickly without any prolonged illness. 

Obviously, I felt sad and missed not seeing and speaking to her, but that’s it. That’s all I felt, and it holds true to this day. I mention this because after her death I had letters and conversations with friends saying how sorry they were and how upset and devastated “I must be”. This caught me off guard because it wasn’t how I felt, and I began to feel as if I was experiencing death ‘in the wrong way’. It was only when I was able to take accept my feelings that I was able to say “actually I don’t feel that way, I felt this way”, and this felt far more aligned to how I was feeling. 

This has undoubtedly helped inform me to think differently when working with individuals and couples. It reminds me to stop assuming anything and allows me to create more space with clients to encourage them to say what’s in their hearts or the unsayable. It has also taught me to know when it’s better to steer away from and when to gently push forward more difficult conversations. Most importantly, it’s taught me to honour one’s own process and never to judge or think there is a right or wrong way to get through grief.

Useful things to say/do after someone has died:

  • Be physically present, unless you are specifically told: “I don’t want you here”. 
  • Be attuned, be there to take care of the tedious things like cooking, cleaning, helping in what’s needed. 
  • Don’t ask for instructions (that takes energy); see what is needed and do it.
  • If you’re unable (for any reason) not to be supportive or present, address it with the person.  It’s never too late to talk about it and to heal painful and complicated feelings between friends or relatives. 
  • Talk about the person who has died. Tell amusing or meaning stories that you remember. Also, don’t compare your own experience with death but do say what was helpful to you at that time. 

As time passes, help bring them slowly back into life. Invite them out and understand if they need to cancel but always continue to ask. Do not expect them to be ok until they are ready to be ok. No judgement, just acceptance to, however that person needs to be.

Shirlee Kay

A Healthy Relationship involves Acceptance

Creating A Safe Couple Relationship with Your Partner Entails Finding a Way to Accept the ‘As Is’

(Ella Fitzgerald: ‘My Funny Valentine)   

 ‘You’re my funny valentine, Sweet comic valentine, You make me smile with my heart…

But don’t change a hair for me, not if you care for me.’

And yet, and yet…

How long does the sentiment that we would not change a thing about the person we love actually last? What happens when the unexpected intrudes with a rude awakening into our loved-up bubble? Life can suddenly seem disappointingly more ordinary when the pieces in the kaleidoscope shift and we no longer look through rose-tinted glasses. As we get to know more about one another we are faced with the full complexity of our partner’s character and there can feel a loss of a romantic innocence. Confronted with the reality of the person in full 3D we become aware of contradictions, irritations, disconcerting traits that had been missed. We have to widen our scope to now include a wide variety of previously unrecognised parts. After basking in the warmth of similarity, the realisation of difference can be unsettling and provoke anxiety. The relief that we had found someone ‘perfect’ can scarily become a fear that it was ‘hope over reality’ after all. We can reassure ourselves that, of course, our partner will change in the ways we want when they see it is important. We only have to point out the ways they can improve and what could be better. ‘If you really love me you would…’

 But what if, yes, you are loved, but these changes are not part of the deal?

Of course real deal-breakers do exist: the serious obstacles that get in the way of creating a trusting relationship and can break it.

‘A deal breaker is any matter that would disqualify a partner from a committed relationship despite other wonderful conditions’ (Stan Tatkin ‘We Do’). It could be abuse, where you live, children, sex, infidelity, lying, addictions, money, violence. Whatever the issue, it has to be confronted and negotiated or the couple has to part. But, ‘because human beings loathe to lose the potential for everlasting love, partners may be prone to overlook, defer, or bend reality to avoid a deal-breaker’ (Tatkin) – OR they protest and clamour to make the partner change.

However, both strategies can cause problems for the couple and allow for the possibility of hurt, confusion, distress, resentment and anger. The couple can become stuck in disappointment and disillusionment. Both feel a certain topic has become an unresolvable ‘no-go’ area and they are walking on eggshells. They begin to shut down and close off from one another and the pain of this is what often drives a couple to seek out relationship therapy. 

‘Our vulnerability is that we are susceptible to be wounded. It is part of our nature and cannot be escaped. The best the brain can do is to shut down conscious awareness of it when pain becomes so unbearable that it threatens to overwhelm our capacity to function…  Our automatic repression of painful emotion is our prime defence mechanism even though we know that it is better to feel than not feel. Emotions have a crucial survival value. They offer us vital information – orientate us and interpret the world for us. It is how we learn what is dangerous and what is benign. Imagine how disabled we are when we cannot see, hear taste, or sense heat or cold or physical pain. Emotional shut down is similar.’ (Gabor Mate)

When we avoid and flee from our vulnerability, when we are flooded with anger, or become icily withdrawn, we lose our full capacity for navigating relationships. 

 ‘How couples fight is as important as how they love and it is one of the most predictive factors for a successful relationship. All couples have conflict and will cause each other distress from time to time. There are two people with different brains, two different personalities, many different moods, and many different thought patterns… Yet there is a need move in tandem, as in a three-legged race. If not, you fall over, you lose.’ (Tatkin) 

James Cordova (‘Walking on Eggshells With Loving Steps’) suggests the couple embraces the idea of walking on eggshells as a positive strategy – not as a negative. ‘Because we invite each other into an extraordinarily vulnerable space in our intimate relationships, we are necessarily exceptionally vulnerable to our partners, and our partners are exquisitely vulnerable to us – sensitive, fragile, exposed, precious. And we have invited that space for good and loving reasons. We want to be our beloved’s safe harbour in a hurtful world; and in turn, we want for our partner to be our safe haven, the person with whom we feel safe in being our authentic vulnerable self.’

And so there is an urgent need to find a generous acceptance of the other ‘as they are’. A need to move with sensitivity, gentleness, compassion and care: ‘Even when we are in a hurry. Even when we are angry. Even when we are exhausted or hungry. Even when we are stung and hurt. We need to walk on eggshells!’ (Cordova). It is acceptance that can create the windows of tolerance where it is possible to stay engaged without feeling threatened. Understanding the situation ‘is what it is’ allows for a more flexible menu of options that enables both to benefit.

‘When a person is encouraged to get in touch with and express their deepest feelings in the secure knowledge that s/he will not be rejected, criticised, nor expected to be different, some kind of rearrangement or sorting-out process often occurs within the mind which brings with it a sense of peace…’ (Anthony Storr)

‘We are all a little weird

And Life’s a little weird

And when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours

We join up with them and fall in mutual weirdness 

And call it Love

 (Dr Seuss)

Kathy Rees

The idea of a ‘Normal’ Relationship

If it is true that there as many minds as there are heads,

Then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts’

(Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)

The recent controversy in Birmingham schools over sex and relationship education has exposed the belief, held by some, that there exists such a thing as a ‘normal’ relationship. In this case it relates to a group of parents preferring their children are taught that heterosexuality is the ‘normal’ sexual orientation. They object to their children being ‘exposed’, in particular, to knowledge of LGBTQ relationships and to an understanding of the concepts of diversity and difference.

Pleased that the government had introduced relationship education into the national curriculum, I now feel saddened that it has become associated with disagreement and division.

As a couple therapist I have found that the idea of ‘normal’ is often problematic and can cause stress and strain in a relationship when it relates to one person’s expectations of their partner. Difficulties can arise when a behaviour is judged inappropriate, or seems incomprehensible, or creates feelings of insecurity, and is ‘not normal’.

I take time to inquire what ‘normal’ means to each individual and explore the origins of these beliefs. How were they learned? Are some concepts considered universals and what are the shared and agreed assumptions of ‘normal’? I encourage the couple to agree on what is their understanding of normal for the two of them.

For some couples monogamy is essential, while others are polyamorous. While some couples live apart, others need close proximity. Some couples choose to try to start a family, while others choose to remain childless.

There can be differences within the relationship itself – with some couples reassured by close shared interests and interactions, and others accepting the place of different preoccupations or friendship groups.

However, more than such explicit normalities, what feels core to a healthy relationship is an acknowledged implicit normality: a shared understanding of the meaning of what makes for a good life together This must involve an acceptance and tolerance of each other’s similarities and differences.  In his book, ’The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work’, American therapist John Gottman says, ‘a culture can be created by just two people who have agreed to share their lives. In essence, each couple creates its own microculture. And like other cultures, these small units have their own customs, rituals and myths… Developing a culture doesn’t mean a couple sees eye to eye on every aspect of their life’s philosophy. Instead there is a meshing which is flexible enough to change as they age, grow, and develop… Conflict is then less intense and less likely to lead to gridlock.’

This is not about being ‘average’ but revelling in the richness that can come from a combination of each ‘otherness’.  In medieval times alchemists experimented with mixing different metals in the hope of creating gold. Similarly, there is something powerful in a synergy – where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – that can occur from two people in a relationship.

However, for a relationship to flourish and survive life’s vicissitudes, the couple must treat the relationship itself as a third – as a separate, living, breathing organism that needs tender care and concern. The special requirements of their own unique partnership will need to be identified and agreed – for without this attention it will shrivel and die.

Stan Tatkin, in his new book on pre-marital preparation, ‘We Do: Saying Yes to a Relationship of Depth, True Connection, and Enduring love’ explains that the seeds of building a ‘secure-functioning partnership’ should be part of a conversation from the start. The fine detail of what is involved when beginning on a life of ‘we do’, instead of ‘I do’, needs careful consideration and it’s important to talk.

Unfortunately, nearly half of marriages do end in divorce. But Chrisanna Northrup, in ‘The Normal Bar’, a book based on a survey of more than 70,000 people about their relationship satisfaction, identified five ‘high-five’ common behaviours that correlated with greater satisfaction. Good communication was the one that was valued the most. Understanding one another fully can lessen disappointment and soften judgemental criticism.

Gottman’s view is that we have to consider that certain differences will probably never be reconciled, and many conflicts will never be resolved, but an atmosphere of acceptance and tolerance allows a couple to live well and thrive. 

‘Cause all of me

Loves all of you

Loves your curves and your edges

All your perfect imperfections’

John Legend ‘All Of Me’

Kathy Rees

Adulting

The term Adulting has been thrown around on social media for the past few years and many of the definitions are often ladened with their own inference and judgement. One definition defines Adulting (v): to do grown up things and hold responsibilities such as, a 9-5 job, a mortgage/rent, a car payment, or anything else that makes one think of grown ups. Used in a sentence: Jane is Adulting quite well today as she is on time for work and appears well groomed. The Oxford Dictionary defines Adulting as the Practice of behaving in a way characteristic of a responsible adult, especially the accomplishment of mundane but necessary tasks: As Modifier: I finished all my Adulting requirements for the week.

‘Adulting’ over social media, for instance, seems to be at the heart of most people’s irritation with the young, fuelling their contempt, adding to the argument that the young are unable to cope with discomfort and struggle with the challenges life throws at them. I admit that I bought into this narrative for years. However, I have recently revised my opinion. Now I see willingness by this generation to admit their struggles and take steps to address the situation in a way that best makes sense to them: seeking help. This is important; going to a therapist translates, to some, as “not being able to cope” or more scathingly, “weak and pathetic”. It misses the point that the Millennials have different way of seeing things and a very different experience growing up from that of their parents. These differences, in themselves, are not the problem; it’s the acceptance of these differences. Parents don’t want to be judged by their children and neither do the young.

It’s easy to be disparaging about Millennials and ridicule them as they struggle to cope with the realities of being an adult. But this approach quickly becomes a cliche; isn’t it far more useful to take time to understand what is going on? I sometimes wonder if much of the cynicism directed at the young has more to do with the fact that they actually voice the feelings of how challenging being an adult can sometimes be because the reality is that most young people are hardworking and responsible adults. Perhaps it is the older generation’s need for the young to struggle in the same way they did. It might be more useful for that generation to take into account that the challenges of the young are very different from their own experiences.

The couples I see in my practice are hard working and responsible. Do they struggle? Yes, but what I walk away with is a sense that their struggles can be known, not hidden and ignored. They don’t feel as though they need to ‘suck it up’ and suffer in silence perhaps the way their parents did. Do they sometimes go on about it too much? Absolutely. But like all change, the swing of the pendulum sometimes sounds extreme. The secret might be to look at the grumblings as part of the process the young are going through. As most adults (finally) learn, acceptance is at the heart of being fully grown up!

Shirlee Kay

Mindfulness and sexuality

The brain is one of the key factors that contributes to a good sexual experience.  It can either help us or hinder us.  We can often have distracting thoughts  – a shopping list or work, or thoughts about our bodies or the need to perform.  To have better sex we need to allow ourselves to be actually there when we have it, letting go of what is going on in our heads.

Mindfulness is about self regulating your attention to become aware of your immediate experience and allowing that experience to be what it is, with acceptance and without judgment.

The benefits of practising mindfulness can include:

  •  Increased awareness of physical sensations
  •  Managing and reducing anxiety
  •  Change towards positive body perceptions
  •  Deepening of life experiences
  •  More connection and intimacy in partner relationships

The practice of mindfulness can be used to enhance sex, and is often used as a specific tool in treating various sexual difficulties.