Archive for empathy

The Yes Brain Child

In my experience as a therapist Mother’s Day raises all kinds of questions and emotions for my clients.  Frequently their own childhood experiences of being mothered will continue to impact them and is affecting how they are in their current relationship.  Equally too it will raise questions about their own parenting skills and, in some cases, the parenting skills of those closest to them.  To take one example – nowadays many older people are helping out caring for their grandchildren on a regular basis and this brings the challenges of seeing them being parented in a different way.  Likewise parents can struggle with feelings stemming from not having their own way of parenting respected and valued by the older generation.

In that context a book that I have found helpful to a number of parents in recent months has been ‘The Yes Brain Child’.  Its authors, Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson, who specialise in the fields of psychiatry and paediatric and adolescent psychotherapy, are fascinated by the ways in which the brains of children develop.  

Beginning from the hopes that most parents want for their children – happiness, emotional strength, academic success, social skills, a strong sense of self and more – they argue that there are ways in which any parent can help their child to develop a ‘Yes Brain’ – a brain that provides a perspective characterised by 

Balance: the ability to manage emotions and behaviour, so kids are less likely to flip their lids and lose control;

Resilience: the ability to bounce back when life’s inevitable problems and struggles arise;

Insight: the ability to look within and understand themselves, then use what they learn to make good decisions and be more in control of their lives;

Empathy: the ability to understand the perspective of another, then care enough to take action to make things better when appropriate.” (Welcome page x)

The book is written in a way that is very readable with its concepts made easily to any reader, by outlining strategies to help in its different areas. 

One of the models, which I find very helpful, is the focus on the three zones your child may experience at any given moment.  When the child is in balance they are in the Green Zone – but given a conflict or something not going their way – they may move into the Red Zone and lose control, or move into the Blue Zone and shut down.  The aim is, of course, to widen the window of the Green Zone and to help children build resilience and find strategies for maintaining their balance within it.

Although the book is written for parents or grandparents, there are of course applications for these tools in our own adult relationships.  How often do we move into the Red Zone (and fly off the handle) with our partners or retreat into the Blue Zone (and withdraw)?  When we want to ‘have a go’ at our partners – rather than just being the ‘player’ in a fight, can we learn to stand back and with insight become a ‘spectator’ and make a different choice to communicate our frustration or disappointment.

If you are interested in finding out more, then I would encourage you to give yourself or your partner or a friend a copy for Mother’s Day – its good effects will last longer than flowers or chocolates or even breakfast in bed!

Sarah Fletcher

Self Care – looking after number one

We need to allow clients, whether coming as a couple or individually, the time and space to better understand, and have empathy for, an other whose opinions or outlooks they don’t always share. This can often be can be a real challenge.
One of the primary factors referred by clients as a reason to need therapy is described as ‘bad communication’. And observing them finding new empathy is a rewarding part of the work.
But an often overlooked factor can be how hard it often seems to find this same level of compassion and understanding within ourselves.
It’s a given that on every airline safety procedure, we are asked to put on our own oxygen masks in advance of attending to others.
Before we can look after those around us, we need self care, and it can be tricky to better understand why we can sometimes be so critical or judgemental of our own thoughts and responses.
Self compassion needs to be seen as completely different to self pity which victimises the self. Here, we’re looking at coping strategies to overcome very human feelings of shame and self punishment.
How much easier is it to listen to a good friend, or someone we really care about, and find ways to explain and forgive traits or mistakes that we should dwell on if thinking about them in the context of our own experience.
How often do we reflect on long-gone situations and still feel twinges of shame or embarrassment.
Wikipedia suggests that ‘we need to recognise that suffering and personal failure is part of the shared human experience’
See? It’s not only you….
we can’t eradicate our feelings, thoughts or past actions but we can learn to look at them with a more gentle and thoughtful mindset. Making a bad call on some decision doesn’t make you a bad person. Doing the right thing when you can, and giving yourself permission if you slip sometimes, is key.
Most spiritual beliefs centre around a concept of a universal love.
Self-criticism while being thoughtful towards others outside, makes for false distinctions that can only bring isolation. Buddhist thinking suggests that the way of relating to the self is with kindness – not to be confused with arrogance or conceit which can be an indicator of a lack of self love.
Learn to love ourselves unconditionally isn’t easy but here’s India.Arie doing it her way.

An empty or depressed sense of self will look externally for ways to find validation. Feelings of unworthiness can mean depending on others to fulfil us. Sadly, this is likely to lead to disappointment. We can’t ask another person to complete us – we can only ask that they accept us.
There are tried and tested ways to self nurture. Mindfulness, therapy, and the ability to allow ourselves to be good enough.
Remembering that Excellence is the enemy of the Good.
If we strive for perfection then ‘good’ will never seem enough. Giving ourselves permission to make mistakes at times and understand that others have felt this way too.
Small treats, time outside, space to think and the confidence to explore creativity will all help,
Good, empathetic therapy that can give the time to further explore all this shows a real degree of self compassion.
Take a little time to treat yourself with as much care as you would give to a good friend, partner or child. Support yourself with as much kindness as you would offer a loved one. Compassion for our self is often a forgotten element of our busy lives. Go on – give yourself a hug, no-one is watching.

Christina Fraser

Illness and the Relationship

Tough times are likely to invade all relationships at some stage, and unexpected challenges can come upon us very suddenly. Life will sometimes deal unforeseen blows that appear with shocking suddenness.
When ‘Sickness/Poorer/Worse’ replace the ‘Health/Richer/Better’ options that we hoped would be our lot, we need to find fresh skills and understanding in order to learn how to cope in any new situation.
A sudden diagnosis of illness in one partner can prove a serious challenge to even the most solid of relationships. Resilience will be needed by any couple faced with the prospect of having to cope with unexpected adversity. The person with the diagnosis may well react strongly to the changes they are experiencing, some of these changes may be temporary, although it may seem a mighty mountain to climb when the process is being endured.
The supporting partner needs time to adjust to what may seem a situation unfairly imposed upon them, too.
Loss of control around the established pattern of our lives is a situation likely to bring difficult emotional responses of helplessness and unfairness leading both partners, at times, feeling trapped and out of control.
It’s so vital to talk to each other, to exchange feelings and reactions, to listen with empathy to the world in which the other is now caught. The traditional family patterns will need to adapt. A turnaround in established roles may mean they now become a patient and a carer. It takes time to discover how habitual ways of relating could be now at odds with the new needs of both parties. 
Tricky feelings left unexpressed will stick and it’s easy for grievances to spiral. Remember that the frustration is with the illness or impairment and not with each other. Keep ‘the enemy’ on the outside, it’s so much easier to fight this in tandem than allowing it to come between you.
Talk and explore together, take time to find out how each partner feels, learn as much as you can about the situation you face – information gives feelings of control. Knowledge in this, as in so many other places, is power.
It’s very easy for couples to get locked into a cycle of competition – who is the most hard done by – and get enmeshed in the feeling that neither can ever truly understand the burden the other carries.
Illness and impairment can be lonely and isolating. Unfairness rankles and anger is an understandable response. It’s normal to be sad or overwhelmed and both people will need to find outside places to talk and offload a little.
New contacts or fresh interests can emerge from a need to sometimes break free and it’s possible to believe that we can still enlarge a life that might start to feel smaller and more insular.  It is so important to find new connections, as well as nurturing existing relationships.
It may be difficult at first, but explore groups, local resources and ideas that fit in with the different pattern of your lives.
Reach out. People, even those closest to us, often just don’t know what could help, so never be afraid to ask. We have no influence on what happens to us, but we do have choices around how we respond to these changes. Resilience is not a static situation but a life long and ongoing project. 
Facing adversity is a big challenge and needs some self-compassion. It’s easy to for couples to neglect themselves when life overwhelms. Always remember to look after ourselves as well as each other. Treats, sleep, good food will all help, but are easily pushed aside when we struggle. The patient and the carer both need to make sure that they know how to find, and use, all resources open to them – physical, emotional and spiritual.
After the sudden death of her husband, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg put her energy and grief into the book ‘Option B’, a good resource for anyone experiencing loss. Here she explains how it took a painfully long time for her to face the dreadful truth that what she yearned for, the normality of her life, was just not there any longer. 
She offers up her truism that:
‘if option A is no longer available, then let’s kick the shit out of option B’
Change is inevitable for us all, and will bring loss. There may have to be substantial adjustments in all areas of couple life. But the best defence is to change our defences and adapt to new situations.
Find that option B and use it to the best advantage of your new selves. Accepting the new normal takes time, and it’s sometimes hard to hold onto hope, but try defying gravity, and don’t let adversity bring you down.

Christina Fraser

Depression and the Couple Relationship

Like many I was impressed with the way in which Prince Harry talked so honestly about the struggles he has had since his mother died and how he came close to a complete breakdown on a number of occasions. Last week’s Mental Health Awareness Week has also made more people aware that in England one in six people will be affected in any given week by a common mental health problem such as anxiety and depression.

Therapists, whether working with individuals or couples, are very familiar with the way in which depression in particular can be the trigger that brings people into our consulting rooms. Historically if you were feeling low and that life wasn’t worth living, you went to your GP who would prescribe anti-depressant medication or counselling or indeed both. The patient might then seek individual counselling or therapy for their malaise. However in working with couples part of the challenge is to explore how the depression as a presenting problem is worked out in the couple relationship – in other words whose depression is it anyway?

Of course the origins of depression are complex and varied. As therapists we are aware of the differing contributions that biology, genes, hormones, seasonal factors, personality, stress and social triggers can make to the onset and maintenance of depression and the fact that these may vary from patient to patient.

Over the last five years, after NICE identified the potential role of couple relationships in triggering, maintaining and resolving depression, an integrative behaviourally based 20 session model has been developed, which is now being made more generally available in IAPT services in the NHS.
What studies have demonstrated is that, in cases of mild to moderate depression, where couples are treated together in therapy, there are significant levels of relief from the depression in the depressed partner. It may be hard for the non-depressed partner to recognise that anything they are doing is making matters worse, but what this model does is to highlight the interaction between the couple as being potentially a contributing factor rather than identifying one of the partners or the depression itself as the problem. By doing this it breaks the vicious cycle that couples find themselves stuck in and often find it impossible to break.

Couple therapy explores how each individuals early attachment patterns and how they learnt, or did not learn, to be close, together with looking at some of the ways in which emotions and feelings were dealt with in their families of origin. Communication skills are then modeled and facilitated. As each partner learns to understand and be curious about the other’s emotional world, the couple develop empathy and acceptance for each other and move towards each other rather than being polarised. They can begin to see the ways in which they miscommunicate and misunderstand each other and how this leads to increased stress in their relationship and to each of them feeling unsupported.

Working with both partners to help them to find some positive caring behaviours each can do for the other generates an increase in positive feeling in their relationship and can help to address the focus on negativity.

Both clients and doctors, and indeed society in general are quite wedded to the idea that there is very much an identified patient in couples where one of the partners is depressed. From my experience of both working with couples and as a supervisor of practitioners working with this model, I have found by adopting this approach and alleviating some of the distress in the couples system, it often goes a long way towards lifting the more depressed partner and increases the well being of their couple relationship.

Sarah Fletcher

This blog has been adapted from an article originally published by BACP in the Private Practice Magazine in March 2017.

Feeling stuck

Couples often come into counselling feeling frustrated and stuck. They feel trapped and confused at certain painful and negative patterns in the relationship. They know it seems counter-intuitive not to just change the reactions which are causing such distress, but it is not that simple.

Therapy can offer a couple the space to reflect on the emotional tangle and gain insight into the dynamics of their particular ‘couple dance’ of hurt and resentment.

Often a set of ‘limiting’ beliefs is uncovered. These are beliefs which influence the way we think about ourselves and our partner, the way we understand the world around us, and affect our reactions to events and situations. A limiting belief is not always obvious. Like the fish who says, ‘Water? What is water?’ we do not realise we are swimming in it – but the evidence is in the stuck interaction. Their ability to accommodate, change and develop has become inhibited and stifled.

Each of us has sets of values and beliefs that we absorbed in our early years, and that are shaped by experience, but sometimes we assume they are human ‘Truths’. We tend to discount information that challenges our ‘Truth’, and focus on information that confirms our belief. We feel reassured by a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, if confronted by our partner’s contradictory and opposing belief, we feel disturbed and unsettled. We may feel betrayed. We may feel disconnected.

For example, in one family anger flares and is expressed loudly and vociferously, but then swiftly repaired. In another family, anger is suppressed and internalised, raised voices met with strong disapproval. A couple can get drawn into arguments about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, both feeling absolutely right, and a fractious and brittle relationship develops. The couple assume polarised positions and negotiating the difference seems impossible.

They engage in what Buddhist writer Stephen Batchelor describes as the ‘Walking the Devil’s Circle’. The limiting belief is the ‘Circle’. The couple walks, and keeps walking, convinced they are on the road to somewhere (convincing the other of what is right/wrong). But then, when they look down, they see the same footsteps going round and round in a circle. Because the interactions and counter-reactions have been repeated and repeated, there is no forward-moving path. Now there is a well-worn, and deepening, groove of a cycle which is difficult to escape and which makes the habitual patterns even more difficult to break.

However, the counsellor can support and encourage the couple in the challenge of thinking creatively about their differences. Counselling can help couples explore what it is that they experience as threat. What do they imagine they will lose by compromising? Why do they become so defensive with the person they love the most? When faced with difference of opinion, why does the relationship suddenly feel so vulnerable and insecure? When there is love and connection at other times, what happens in those moments of disagreement?

Empathy allows a flow of well-meaning understanding. The couple can experience ‘togetherness’ again. There is a mutual engagement in managing the difference. It is a relief to learn alternatives to the sticky web of distress, anger and destructive criticism. A softening of attitude establishes generosity and compassion and a process of turning towards instead of turning away. An alternative mind-set can take root and the stranglehold is broken.

Kathy Rees

Competition and Compassion

The discussion of testing even very young school children has been topical recently. We are also nearing the summer GCSE and A’Level exam period – and concepts of success and failure abound. It seems we live in a competitive world. We set up value systems where we rigidly grade, compare and measure our own and others’ worth. What do we understand by ‘successful’? How much money do I have? How thin am I? What promotion have I achieved at work? How many friends do I have on Facebook?

Counsellors in Coupleworks often see clients overwhelmed by the pressure to succeed. The bar is set high and the focus is on achieving fixed goals. People can get caught in a loop of the ‘must-do’ and ‘having-to-do’, to the extent that lives are exhausting and can lack balance. Problems can occur when things do not quite work out to plan and people can become judgementally self-focused and develop a harsh inner voice. They become their own worst critics with their sense of self-worth and self-esteem becoming increasingly fragile. Unhappy couples, too, often come into counselling when they get stuck in a negative, critical loop of relating.

The media sells visions of glossy perfection and we all hold an idea of a ‘good’ relationship. Couples can fear their relationship may be broken when it is not meeting these standards. When expectations are challenged, when a partner has a different style or opinion, it can feel frighteningly disappointing and a hostile, attacking pattern of interaction can emerge. Even the sexual relationship becomes ‘performance’ orientated and be judged ‘not-good-enough’.

Often a couple can become competitive about who feels the most abandoned, not cared for, not listened to, the most taken for granted. They keep count of the slights and the hurts until the loved partner becomes the one most resented. Compassion is driven underground.

In therapy, considering what a ‘good-enough’ relationship might be, can relax things to such an extent that concern and generosity can flourish. Creating a supportive, caring relationship means building empathy. It means the appreciation of each other as flawed, quirky, unique, and lovably different. The couple can then revel in feelings of being accepted, valued and safe.

The psychologist Paul Gilbert, founder of Compassion Focused Therapy, says that ‘Getting unstuck is re-examining your values, recognising that your relationships are the most important things to help you feel happy’, and proposes that the secret of success is the ability to understand that mistakes and failure are not a catastrophe. As Nelson Mandela said, ‘I never lose. I either succeed or I learn.’ In order to manage our feelings of anxiety and vulnerability we need to explore and comprehend the dread. What really is the worst? Can we think laterally, more flexibly, and change and adapt? Gilbert compares it to judo where, in order to do well, we have to learn how to fall and roll with the punches. We, and our relationships, are often more special, valuable and resilient than we thought.

Kathy Rees