Learning how to manage unpleasant emotions

ACT – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can be summed up in three key skills or processes. Be present, open up and do what matters. Being present means taking a moment to moment, curious and mindful approach to our experiences as they happen. Being present simply means noticing. But what happens when our present moment experience is unpleasant, uncomfortable or distressing? Well I came across a short Ted Talk this morning which I thought explained how to manage these unwanted emotions in a clear and helpful way and which I’d like to share with you.

Credit: Act Made Simple by Dr. Russ Harris

 

Our ability to stay present, and fully experience uncomfortable or unpleasant feelings is important to our ability to move through the world with more comfort and ease and is the key to achieving our recovery goals or just simply feeling happier, and more comfortable in your own skin.

 

There are 8 key unpleasant emotions (which we like to think of as negative or bad but are not, they are simply unpleasant but necessary guides to what really matters to us, protection from dangerous others, reflections or echoes from past negative experiences). However, if we can learn how to be fully present for, not avoid or distract ourselves from, but fully present when these sorts of emotions arise within us – we can handle pretty much anything that life throws at us.The eight core unpleasant emotions are:

 

Sadness

Shame

Helplessness

Anger

Vulnerability

Embarrassment

Disappointment

Frustration

Our emotions are created by our brain and bodies working together but are felt in the body first as a bodily or physical sensation. A biochemical rush that last approx. 60-90 seconds. In the case of unpleasant feelings, it is this physical response that we are trying to distract ourselves from or move away from. Thing is, all emotions are necessary for healthy functioning of our entire being, not just the pleasant ones.

 

This too shall pass

 

Emotions (like urges) come in waves, they peak and then they subside. That’s the key thing to remember. Emotions always subside, both pleasant and unpleasant. The key to managing these emotional waves is to stay present whilst the wave is moving. Usually, after the wave subsides, new insights often emerge. New conversations can be had, relationships can be mended, a sense of relief is often felt and over time learning to embrace and experience all our emotions, mindfully and non-judgmentally, can ultimately lead to more self-awareness, peace and understanding of ourselves and others.

 

Listen to Dr Joan Rosenberg’s Ted talk https://youtu.be/EKy19WzkPxE

 

 

 

What are Existential Givens and Why Should You Care? A Layperson’s Guide to Existential Therapy

In 1980 Irvin Yalom, wrote his most famous text Existential Psychotherapy. In it, he proposed a new type of therapy which would allow for what he considered to be the “existential givens” of life to be brought to the forefront and dealt with head on, rather than being dodged, circumnavigated or just plain ignored, which he said had been the case in therapy circles thus far. So, what are existential givens anyway? Well, funny you should ask!

Existential ‘givens’ are essentially those things (and/or events) when we cannot change. Things such as the details of our birth, or the act of being born, or simply be-ing for that matter. Oh, and the process of dying and consequentially death, that’s a big one too. These are two main events which are common to all humans. Those are pretty much two of the biggest in-fact, but there are others, equally immutable if not as final as death or as cruelly insistent as being seems to be.

In fact, in his text Yalom (1980) narrowed it down to four big givens of existence, which he called ultimate concerns, and for the purposes of this limited exploration we shall focus on these four and how they relate to therapy and counselling. These are, in no particular order, (although one may argue that death always has the final say!): freedom, death, isolation and meaningless.

Freedom

Image result for freedom

Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology (Sartre, 1943), is perhaps existentialism’s greatest and most profound extrapolation on the notion and meaning of personal freedom.

We, (human beings) are essentially like a blank canvas, and unlike something like a chair, for example, we have the choice to be-come whatever it is we want to, within limitations of course. We get to paint whatever we want to on the blank canvas which symbolizes our life. Thing is, says Sartre, this freedom thing, (free will if you like), doesn’t seem like the great gift it is for many of us, in fact, it terrifies us mostly. “What, so we get to make our own decisions!?”  Wait, what, …we have to make a choice??! Sounds great, to a degree, however this thought understandably can be quite overwhelming when one then considers that with choice comes responsibility. Yes, the gift of freedom to choose our destiny means that we are more or less responsible for our own outcomes in life. For some of us, this realization is often fraught with anxiety and can sometimes plunge us into deep, dark moods and depressions. For to choose how to live your own life is a heavy, heavy burden to bear at times.

So heavy, that it is understandable that much of the time the temptation to live a life defined by what others have decided is the life you should be living, is too great to resist. Sometimes, it is really just easier to go with the flow, or to hold on to beliefs we have become so accustomed to wearing, (hand me downs usually) even though they no longer fit so well. Anything it seems, seems easier than having to shake yourself out of your stupor and utilise the freedom which is and always was our birthright.

However, once the tightness of ill-fitting beliefs become too uncomfortable to bear, or those sedimented systems which we have become so used to carrying around with us become too heavy, we start to feel uneasy. And the longer we deny the call of freedom, the more uneasy and nauseous we become. Sartre (1943) talks of the nausea that is created by the realization that we are, after-all, nothing. Nothing but the choices we have made and continue to make. Freedom of choice is sickening, overwhelming, and often unbearable. No wonder we cling, for so, so long, to the walls that stop us from falling down into the dark, unknowable void in which nothing is known and certainly, nothing is certain.

As Van Deurzen (2005) explains, “terrific loss in involved in the process of letting go of the things that determine our identity” (p.6).  Accepting freedom essentially means accepting that if nothing is holding you back, nor is it holding you up. And that, is a pretty frightening concept. One of the goals of existential therapy is to help a client be-come more comfortable with this concept of freedom, or nothingness, and to reduce the anxiety associated with it and perhaps even replace it with something more like enthusiasm, courage or even excitement. Something like the excitement felt, for example, by a painter faced with a blank canvas, on which he knows he will paint his master work. To become one’s true self seems to be the goal of freedom then, or one’s best self, one’s authentic self. But what the hell does that mean? How does one know when one is being authentic??

Authenticity

Not all writers and philosophers assume that authenticity is or should be the reward of freedom or its goal. In-fact, one writer has said that, “Heidegger’s ‘authenticity’ is a simulacrum, a vacant totalitarian formula echoing the nostalgia for the power of a god that once was – before being slain at the altar of modernism and post-modernism” (Bazzano, 2010, p.53).  (Heidegger is considered the OG of existentialism.)

Thus, are we to be thrust once again into a world of absolutes, with authenticity being the goal of freedom? Perhaps so, if as Sartre thought, inauthenticity, or bad faith is viewed as a condition of existence and we are continually striving for or from or teetering on the edge of authenticity and inauthenticity as we move between birth and death. Because if nothing is certain, then neither is authenticity, and we can never really be certain we are being authentic, but, we can at least try.

This brings us to the next existential given to examine, and that is death.

Death

Image result for death

Death is that unpleasant certainty that is forever in the back of our minds, even if we choose not to consciously think of it. Awareness of death can cause existential guilt and anxiety, a certain amount of which is healthy.

Existential guilt is brought on by a feeling of “not having done enough” or of not having lived to your full potential. It is caused by an awareness, sometimes sudden or sometimes gradual, that one has been living their life at half-mast, so to speak. Or to use a more modern analogy, that they have been coasting along in second gear and that time, which once seemed infinite, is precisely not that. Existential guilt is that psychological rude awakening that keeps you awake at night or disturbs you from your otherwise peaceful slumber so that you sit, bolt upright, anxious and sick with the realization of your own finiteness, smallness and helplessness . Nausea once again ensues.

In order to live authentically with the knowledge of death and the anxiety this produces takes “tremendous courage” (Hoffman, 2009).  Controversially, to live in denial of these ultimate truths is to limit your capacity for living, loving and experiencing life fully, because simply if overly stated, “Living is dying” (Van Deurzen, 2005).  The experience of existential guilt in therapy offers the client a positive opportunity to re-direct their life and reach a place of ‘reconciliation’ with the absolute unknown, which is death (Jacobson, 2007).

Isolation

Humans are, if nothing else, walking paradoxes. The one existential dilemma that is perhaps the driving force behind countless romantic novels and movies, and which has caused the online dating industry to become one of the fastest growing businesses of the post-modern, technological era, is the existential anxiety which is prompted by the realization of our inherent isolation. Our aloneness. We are born into this world, as a single unit and we will exit the same way.

However, we do not exist in complete isolation, but in relation to others. In truth we could not exist without others. One of the dilemmas of living involves resolving the paradox of… How can I be my authentic self, whilst relating to others in a meaningful, compassionate and fulfilling way? (Jacobsen, 2007). The question of intimacy and love brings up issues which can cause anxiety in an individual struggling with the paradox of their inherent isolation and the need for intimacy.

The practice of mindfulness, a concept borrowed from Buddhism and incorporated in current existential practice offers something like an answer to the concern of isolation. The anxiety produced by the desire for intimacy, for close relation to another human be-ing for….o.k. let us call it, love, is often founded on the all too real fear of its eventual loss. For implicit in loving another human being is the ultimate loss of that relationship, whether through natural entropy, conflict or death.

Claessens (2009) wrote of the four noble truths of Buddhism and related them to existential dilemmas, such as fear of isolation/intimacy; “We crave permanence, never-ending,  never changing love, eternal youth, certainty and total safety and we recoil from confronting our decay and vulnerability and the passing of joy” (p.113).  Therefore, in isolation we shiver, so we crave the closeness and the warmth of another being, and yet we fear losing the comfort before we even experience it fully.

Once again existential therapy can help, in terms of resolving this conflict, by encouraging clients to learn to appreciate and experience the joy of everyday pleasures, including love, without having to hide behind false illusions of foreverness and perfectness, which ultimately results in unnecessary emotional pain (Claessens, 2009).  Thus, as living involves dying to a degree, loving involves losing. One of the goals of counselling then could be to help the client with acceptance of the paradoxes inherent in truly living and loving.

The fear of intimacy is also linked to the notion of identity. One fears losing themselves to another, especially if their sense of identity has been freshly, or painfully carved out. But what if finding yourself involves losing yourself to a degree? (McGinley, 2011).  Is it possible that in isolation, we are not truly able to be ourselves anyway, and that it is only in relation to others that we are able to distinguish our own unique silhouette?

Yalom (1980) spoke of three types of isolation; interpersonal, intrapersonal and existential isolation. The latter refers to “the reality that we are unable to ever fully overcome our isolation” (Hoffman, 2009).  In therapy, clients may feel the force of this paradox when dealing with issues involving their personal relationships. Because while the fact of isolation may be terrifying to some, the prospect of fully relating to another being as your ‘authentic self’ involves an entirely other set of hazards. For in relating to someone as your authentic self, the possibility of being rejected involves deep, emotional risk. No wonder, many people hold a part of themselves back, even in their supposedly most personal relationships. And wonder furthermore, why they feel the ache of isolation even when they are in company.

Existential therapy talks about different ways of being in relation to others. One can choose to share a carefully selected version of oneself, and to relate to the other as less than a whole being as well, the I-It way of relating. Or one can choose to both be their authentic selves in relation, and see the other in their entirety as well, the I-Thou relationship (Buber, 1970 as cited in Hoffman, 2009).

A therapist may help their client to examine their relationships and question the types of relationships they have chosen so far, and if they are unhappy with them, to explore other ways of being with others. This is a very important aspect of life as relationships are among our most important sources of meaning in life. Without meaningful, authentic relationships, human beings are like plants without water and sun, we cease to exist in any meaningful way.

Meaningless

Which brings us to the dilemma of meaningless. If one clings to old ideals, beliefs, ways of being as if for dear life, then there must be a very good reason. Because the problem to be tackled, with the help of the therapist, lies in not just helping a client to discard old, no longer useful belief systems but in facing the inevitable question which then arises which is, What now?!  It is not simply enough to discard the old self, without, at least having some idea about what this new self is going to be. Of course, this is not always possible and thus, a person can experience a period of time in which they must exist without the (some might say illusory) solidity of a definable set of values, beliefs, goals, and/or meaning. What the existentialist Victor Frankl termed an existential vacuum (Corey, 2009).

So, it is not surprising that in counselling a person may resist facing making those choices which will eventually lead to the change they may say they seek. A counsellor may help their client, not by telling them what they ought to do, but by helping the client to face their own personal void or existential vacuum with strength, courage and purpose. Interestingly, meaning as such is like the holy grail of existence. In that, as cited in Corey (2009), meaning is quite often found by chance and not by direct pursuit. To pursue meaning as an end in itself is often a fruitless, frustrating and pointless endeavour.  Both Frankl and Yalom (1980) are in concert with the assertion that, “finding meaning in life is a by-product of engagement” (p.151).

Perhaps, as Claessens (2009) describes in her article, Mindfulness and Existential Therapy, the answer to the resolution of the dilemmas of existence and living within the existential givens as outlined above lies in what Buddhist teaches as the middle path. That is, not allowing either spectrum of the paradoxes we face to have undue influence but by consciously acknowledging their existence and proceeding, with mindfulness and compassion, anyway.

This middle path, whilst sounding quite mundane with its connotations of middle-of-the-roadness, is actually quite revolutionary when used in therapeutic application for “the middle path lies between the suppression and the venting of emotions” (p.116).  It offers acceptance and relief from the anxiety of  the question of living with dying, of existing in isolation and in relation to others, of living with the self that you choose and the self that you shed, of accepting the freedom of living on the edge of the void and finally, finding meaning in living, loving and being.

In counselling the existential therapist has three main goals they hope to achieve in order to assist their client. Helping the client find their own truth, helping the client find their own perspective and meaning in relation to their life, and to support the client to absorb these reflections and discoveries and in doing so construct a more authentic way of being in the world.

Acceptance of the givens of existence, like the four described above, can go a long way towards achieving these ends for the client. With a focus on the therapeutic relationship, being present with the client, taking a non-expert, non-judgmental and compassionate approach,  an existential counsellor attempts to help facilitate change in a client that can be truly revolutionary and long lasting. Whilst not focusing on symptoms and behaviours can seem counterintuitive to today’s therapist, existential therapy aims to address the underlying truths or facts of existence, which can be extremely liberating and healing.

 

 

 

REFERENCES

Bazzano, M. (2010). A True Person of No Status. Existential Analysis: Journal Of The Society For Existential Analysis21(1), 51-62.

Claessens, M. (2009). Mindfulness and Existential Therapy. Existential Analysis: Journal Of The  Society For Existential Analysis20(1), 109-119.

Claessens, M. (2010). Mindfulness Based-Third Wave CBT Therapies and Existential-Phenomenology.  Friends or Foes?. Existential Analysis: Journal Of The Society For Existential Analysis21(2),        295-308.

Corey, G. (2009). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education.

Geldard, D., & Geldard, K. (2012). Basic personal counselling: A training manual for      counsellors (7th ed.). Sydney, Australia: Pearson Australia.

Hoffman, L. (2009).  Existential Therapy: A General Overview. Sourced from: http://www.existential-therapy.com/General_Overview.htm  Retrieved 10.4.14.

Jacobsen, B. (2007). Authenticity and our basic existential dilemmas: Foundational concepts of existential psychology and therapy. Existential Analysis: Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis, 18(2), 288-296.

McGinley, P. (2011). The Question of the Self in Existential Thought. Existential Analysis: Journal Of The Society For Existential Analysis22(1), 2-15.

Nanda, J. (2010). Embodied Integration. Existential Analysis: Journal Of The Society For Existential Analysis21(2), 331-350.

Oliveira, A. (2012). Significant Events in Existential Psychotherapy: The Client’s Perspective. Existential Analysis: Journal Of The Society For Existential Analysis23(2), 288-304.

Sartre, J.P. (1984). Being and nothingness : a phenomenological essay on ontology. Translated and with an introduction by Hazel E. Barnes. New York London Washington Square Press, 1984

Van Deurzen, E. (2005). Philosophical background. In E. van Deurzen, & C. Arnold-Baker (Eds.), Existential perspectives on human issues: A handbook for therapeutic practice (pp. 3-14). Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

James Bugental’s Existential-Humanistic Therapy

 

 

Note from the author. This blog post was originally an essay written as an assignment whilst I was completing my Master of Counselling & Psychotherapy course. Now that I have completed the course, I am going through some of my favourite essays and am going to re-write them and reproduce them here. This essay on James Bugental will kick things off. James Bugental was an American existential-humanist therapist who very much championed the importance of the individual and felt that our journey towards authenticity was the most profound and healthiest things we could hope to achieve in life. He wrote several books including one called The Search for Authenticity. He is not so talked about these days but he was a big influence on my development as a therapist. Hope you enjoy.

 

James Bugental on Existential-Humanistic Psychotherapy

 

In the 1960s in California a new type of therapy was born: Existential Humanistic therapy, heralded by James Bugental, a psychology professor who thought that being human meant becoming an authentic individual. Unlike his contemporary, Irvin Yalom, Bugental’s writings and practice did not focus as much on the existential facts of life, the limitations or what Yalom refers to as the “givens” or ultimate concerns of existence, (Yalom, 1980) but more on the problem of self-alienation. Bugental saw growth as an individual responsibility, and that we make our own choices and are responsible for much of our own sense of happiness. This is a directly opposite view to much current day thinking, which emphasises social factors, such as patriarchal oppression, identity factors such as race or gender, and which generally encourages a wounded mind-set. Existential humanism places the individual at the centre of well-being, rather than external, social or environmental factors. For James Bugental, however, the core issue which hindered the individual’s natural inclination to develop fully was self-alienation.

To be self-alienated is living without an awareness of one’s own inner nature and true essence. It is like being essentially split off from your true self. In other words, you are a stranger to your self. But, more than that, Bugental believed that living with the split-self was like living with a tyrannical boss. One who constantly watches, micro-manages and critiques your every move, (Bugental, 1978). This creates anxiety, depression, and in extreme cases schizophrenia and splits us off from our authentic selves. Bugental believed that until we turn towards our selves and begin the process of getting to know who we really are, we will continue to live less meaningful, fruitful and fulfilling lives.

Bugental understood the self as process and in progress towards becoming a fully functioning human being, with all the resources required to do so on board. This is not dissimilar to what Rogers referred to as a person’s “tendency to self actualize” (Tudor &Worrall, 2006). Bugental’s conceptualization of the self could be summarised as, “subjective awareness continually in process” (Bugental 1976, as quoted in Krug, 2009). He has also said that the human essence is essentially no thing, or nothing.  Existential therapist Bazzano (2010) also talks about the concept of being a true person of “no-status”, which is a concept borrowed from Zen Buddhism. In this context, “No status indicates the uncertainty and transient nature of life and its groundlessness”.  In other words, we are pure awareness, everything else is illusory. Not that we will ever truly achieve this transcendental state while we are embodied in human form, but it is necessary to understand this if we are to achieve anything close to happiness in this life.

Bugental saw the therapist’s work as helping a person become aware of this phenomenon (of self construction) and ultimately aware of the way in which we continuously construct our world, moment by moment. And of how we unconsciously block our progress by “avoidant or distortive” actions (Krug, 2009).  With this awareness though comes freedom to choose and with freedom, responsibility.

Of course, one cannot speak of choice, freedom and responsibility without mentioning the seminal work of Jean Paul Sartre, and what some have called the “bible of existentialism,” Being and Nothingness, (Daigle, 2005). In this heavy work, originally published in 1943, Sartre investigates the concepts of being and consciousness, freedom and responsibility, authenticity, “bad faith” and finally the relationship with others. These are all themes which Bugental as well as other existential humanistic therapists aim to explore. However, it is Bugental’s focus on present moment awareness and experience which stands out as his intervention of choice. He aims to chip at the layers of self construction in order to extrapolate that underlying essence.

Bugental’s focus on process and what is happening in the room and in the “now” during therapy evokes Sartre’s position on I am vs. I become statements. To state that “I am” is in Sartre’s worldview an act of “bad faith,” for we are only ever playing at being authentic. Bugental understands this notion and sees the psychotherapist’s role as helping the client to attend to his or her own acts of bad faith, as they occur, and in doing so attempt to acheive internal wholeness and Sartre’s state of authenticity.  Of course, Sartre is never clear on what a state of authenticity would actually look like. No doubt this imposing question was in Bugental’s mind when he wrote his first book, The Search for Authenticity (1965).

For Bugental, existential humanistic therapy aims to make the split parts of the alienated self into a whole. In his own words, it is to help the client discover their sense of “I-ness,” (Bugental, 1976). Some writers have questioned existential humanism therapy’s focus on authenticity (self-actualization or wholeness) altogether,  perhaps because of its quasi religious overtones, claiming that it has “relied for too long on Heidegger’s idea of authenticity, a notion which reinstates idealist philosophy and monistic notions of ‘Truth'”, (Bazzano, 2010, p.51). Perhaps it is simply necessary to have something to strive for in therapy and the notion of authenticity/wholeness/gestalt fits this purpose perfectly. Perhaps, the warm, free thinking west coast of the USA in the 1960s was a time when notions of authenticity, individuality or a yearning to be “truly alive” (Bugental, 2005) actually seemed possible.

In Yalom’s classic text Existential Psychotherapy, he gives a brief history of existential psychotherapy and lists James Bugental as a member of the “flashy American cousins” branch of the “extended existential family” (Yalom, 1980). Yalom insightfully points to the difference in schools as being rooted in the “zeitgeist” from which they arose. Humanistic existentialists arose in a relatively new continent, during a time of cultural and economic expansion, America in the 1960s. As opposed to previous European existentialists from the ‘old country’ or continent, which has experienced more history, more conflict and more exposure to the limiting realities of existence; war, famine and the like.

With this in mind it is hardly surprising that when Bugental was made president of the newly established (1961) American Association of Humanistic Psychology he wrote the existential humanistic manifesto, of sorts, and came up with five basic postulates of existential humanistic psychotherapy practice in the 1963 article, Humanistic psychology: A new breakthrough, which I shall summarise very briefly (replacing the word “man” for the word human in line with gender neutral language):

  1. Humans are more than the sum of their parts
  2. Humans exist in context with other humans
  3. Humans are self aware
  4. Humans have choice
  5. Humans are intentional and look for meaning, purpose and value in life

The five postulates above clearly articulate the existential humanistic world view in context of 1960s American idealism – a much more positive stance that allows for hope, optimism and the freedom to ‘be what you want to be’ vibe that is so evocative of the sixties. Perhaps the biggest contribution of the humanistic existential approach to psychotherapy is the sense of hope, purpose and the mystery of humanity that it allows for.

To an existential humanist like James Bugental, human beings are not a just a set of cause and effect actions and reactions that can be reduced to a formulaic, mechanistic set of interventions which can be administered with clinical precision based on a set of diagnosable presentations, which much modern evidence based psychology purports to be. Perhaps this is why, as quoted in Bradford (2009) Bugental declares, “Psychotherapy is not a learning to adjust; it is a facing of infinite unadjustability,” (p.325).  For Bugental, this involves continually attending to our present moment inner experience, thus enhancing our “inner guidance system” which points us in the direction of authenticity.  In session you see Bugental continue to steer his client in this direction, from thinking to experiencing, intellectualizing to feeling, from narrative to presence. Cooper (2003) acknowledges Bugental’s contribution to psychotherapy as bringing attention to “here and now” awareness within the counselling session as a primary therapeutic tool, “the purpose of which is to illuminate here and now processes within the therapeutic encounter,” (Krug, 2009).

Bugental aims to bring his clients’ self-awareness or inner awareness out by bringing clients awareness back to the now, as he does with Marie in his Existential Psychotherapy in Action demonstration video.  It is in-fact, the very first thing he says to her after she offers up some narrative; “How is it with you right now?” and once again after she explains the anxiety that she is feeling in relation to her father’s illness, “And it’s there now?” In fact, in almost every interaction with Marie, Bugental attempts again and again to bring her back to the present, using the word “now” or phrase “right now” over 20 times. This reflects Bugental’s philosophy of present moment awareness being the doorway to effecting personal change. That Bugental is only partially successful in getting his client to be present to her moment by moment experience is obvious to anyone watching this encounter. Marie appears carefully and meticulously dressed and sits quite stiffly throughout the session. Her carefully constructed veneer of control is barely scratched by Bugental’s gentle insistence in asking her, time and again, but how is that for you, now.

However, as he noted in the pre-session commentary, this was not your typical therapy session which would involve just two people. Present in the room were cameramen and a quite a few observers. It would be difficult to allow oneself to truly ‘let go’ in such circumstances. Bugental acknowledges this and also mentions that in a real therapy session he might not be as insistent or as pushy, and he specifically mentions being conscious of trying to balance the purpose of the video as demonstration with respecting the needs of his client.

In my own practice I have found the existential humanistic practice of using the here and now in session as a way to help clients access their own inner experience and get in touch with what is happening for them, right now very helpful. In conjunction with mindfulness and ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy), existential humanistic philosophy gives me a foundation from which to return time and again in sessions with my clients, many of whom have never had another person engage with them in such a way before. I use a lot of mindfulness-based interventions in my own counselling practice. However, over and above the use of apps, handouts or psycho-education tools, a central feature of my approach is to incorporate mindfulness practice as a way to help manage anxiety and mood. This approach models in-session presence by bringing my clients attention to what they are feeling or experiencing in the here and now, as they are talking about something that happened to them then. I have found that this is the most useful way I can demonstrate a mindfulness stance to my clients.

It is my experience that existential therapy and mindfulness work very well together. Existential therapy’s focus on self as process is similar to the mindfulness concept of acceptance of the “transitory, fragile and contradictory nature of existence,” (Claessens, 2009, p.114). Acceptance forms the basis of the Third Noble Truth of Buddhism from which the practice of mindfulness has been borrowed.  The connections and similarities between existential humanistic therapy and mindfulness are beyond the scope and purpose of this article. However for the purposes of reflection, I have noted them time and again, as have other practitioners, (Claeseens, 2009). I have used both quite successfully in my own practice, and they seem to me to be a natural fit.

Bugental’s version of existential humanistic therapy and his optimistic human centred philosophy of believing in each and every person’s “potential for richness and fullness of living” (Bugental, 2005) reminds me of how important it is to be present during sessions with clients, and to remember to see them as completely and utterly individual human beings. Not as a set of symptoms, behaviours or diagnoses. It also functions as a reminder to myself, as I go about the business of constructing my own moment by moment experience and facing my own journey towards authenticity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

REFERENCES

 

 

Bazzano, M. (2010). A True Person of No Status. Existential Analysis: Journal Of The     Society For Existential Analysis21(1), 51-62.

Bradford, G., & Sterling, M. (2009). The Journey Is the Goal. Journal of Humanistic        Psychology, 49(3), 316-328.

Bugental, J., & Darley, John G. (1963). Humanistic psychology: A new breakthrough.      American Psychologist, 18(9), 563-567.

Bugental, J. F. T. (1976). The search for existential identity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bugental, J. F. T. (1978). Psychotherapy and process. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Bugental, J. F. T. (1981). The search for authenticity: An existential-analytic approach to

            psychotherapy. (Exp. ed.) New York: Irvington.

Bugental, J. F. T., Yalom, V., Douglas, M., Sapienza, B,. (Bugental Video Project & Jaylen         Productions). (2005). Existential-humanistic Psychotherapy in Action a      Demonstration.

Cooper, M. (2003). Existential therapies. London: Sage.

Claessens, M. (2009). Mindfulness and Existential Therapy. Existential Analysis: Journal Of      

            The  Society For Existential Analysis20(1), 109-119.

 

Daigle, C. (2005) Sartre’s Being & Nothingness: The Bible of Existentialism? Philosophy            Now. Retrieved from,             https://philosophynow.org/issues/53/Sartres_Being_and_Nothingness_The_Bible_of_      Existentialism

Duncan, B. L., Miller, S. D., Wampold, B. E. & Hubble, M. A. (2010). The heart and soul

            of change: Delivering what works in therapy (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American

Psychological Association.

Krug, Orah T. (2009). James Bugental and Irvin Yalom: Two masters of existential therapy         cultuivate presence in the therapeutic encounter.(Report). The Journal of Humanistic         Psychology, 49(3), 329-354.

Sartre, J.P. (1943).  Being and Nothingness: A phenomenological Essay on

            Ontology. Trans. Barnes, H.E. New York: Washington Square Press.

Tudor, K., & Worrall, M. (2006). Person-centred therapy: A clinical philosophy. London/New York: Routledge.

Yalom, I. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.

 

Truth. An opinion piece

 Truth, fact, opinion. They are all words which are often related but they differ fundamentally. Everyone has a right to speak their truth and to have an opinion but just because in your opinion something is “true” does that give you the unfettered right to speak that opinion without reservation, and without consideration of the facts…all the facts? Never mind the effect on others.
Especially where other people’s lives and emotions are concerned, it strikes me that a reasonable person’s aim should be to offer an opinion with humility and unless one is in complete possession of all the facts, temper that opinion with a disclaimer.
The problem as I see it, some people confuse opinion with truth, and truth with fact,thinking all three are interchangeable.I took the liberty of looking up a few definitions from www.dictionary.com to hopefully increase clarity. With all these opinions floating around, (my own included, of which this entire blog consists of when all is said and done) it is sometimes helpful to go to a neutral source such as the humble dictionary:Fact
[fakt]
noun
1.something that actually exists; reality; truth: Your fears have no basis in fact.
2.something known to exist or to have happened: Space travel is now a fact.
3.a truth known by actual experience or observation;something known to be true:

Truth [trooth]
noun, plural truths  [troothz, trooths] Show IPA.
1.the true or actual state of a matter: He tried to find out the truth.
2.conformity with fact or reality; verity: the truth of astatement.
3.a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, principle, or the like: mathematical truths.

O·pin·ion   [uh-pin-yuhn]
1.a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty.
2.a personal view, attitude, or appraisal.
3.the formal expression of a professional judgment: to ask for a second medical opinion.

Ok so fact and truth can sometimes seem interchangeable.. depending on your point of view of course. Truth is however not quite as black and white as fact. Point in question. It is a fact that the sun exists. It is a visible phenomenon, we can feel the sun on our face we know it’s there. So, it is true to say the sun exists and we know this to be factual.

Truth is sometimes not that simple. Facts are indisputable. Truth is often relative. Especially when we are dealing with humans and their emotions.

An opinion is something held by one person ‘which is not based on ‘verified’ facts or ‘insufficient grounds to produce certainty’. That is, you are not entirely sure but you have an opinion anyway but most reasonable people are always ready to qualify, this is only my opinion but…

One has to be careful when uttering what they deem to be truths, because truth telling is rarely without consequence. Especially these days it seems. Truth and increasingly fact is not a defence when someone’s feelings are at stake. And when truth telling is based not on facts, discernible, provable facts but on evidence which is at best piecemeal or one sided, incomplete or just unclear then one begins to play a very dangerous game.

Telling the ‘truth’ is important but that truth has to be based on fact not assumptions. Just as the giving of opinions should be tempered with humility and deference to a wider picture and another person’s right for self direction. However, today simply uttering an opinion on someone else’s reality could land you in a lot of hot water. Although it does seem to me that the lines between fact, truth and opinion seem to be entwined so much these days that I would hate to be in law enforcement as more and more people use new laws designed to protect the truly vulnerable to attempt to force their truths on another’s reality.

So here are another couple of definitions for you to ponder:

Goss.ip

1.idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others: the endless gossip about Hollywood stars.
2.light, familiar talk or writing.
3.also, gos•sip•er, gos•sip•per. a person given to tattling or idle talk.

Slan•der
[slan-der]

1.defamation; calumny: rumors full of slander.
2.a malicious, false, and defamatory statement or report: a slander against his good name.
3.Law . defamation by oral utterance rather than by writing,pictures, etc

Those of you who brashly speak what you call the “truth” and are offended when no one thanks you because of it may be well advised to remember these little paradoxes:

One person’s truth may be another person’s lie.
What is true today, may be false tomorrow.
Opinion is not fact. Facts are facts, the truth may lie elsewhere.

Anyway, that is just my opinion

Top self-help books I recommend as a therapist and some that have been recommended that I have yet to read…

You can heal your life
Louise Hay

You Can Heal Your Life

Louise Hay has been called the queen of self help books. In-fact this book was originally published as a pamphlet in 1979 before Louise developed it into the best-selling You Can Heal Your Life in 1984. This book is well loved and has sold up to 30 million copies. It is available in a variety of places online or free as a PDF, or you can find a copy at any second hand book store more times than not.

I recommend this book as a non-scientific spiritual read which should be read with an open mind and heart. It is not evidence based in the way that some other books are that I recommend but it is a book that helped me greatly when I was at one of the lowest points of my life. The premise of this book is quite simple. Our thoughts create our experience of reality. Change your thoughts and you can literally change your life. This is basically the premise behind CBT as well, (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) but written in beautiful, simple and yes, I guess slightly woo-woo language. So, for that reason it may not be for everyone. Louise states her beliefs at the beginning of the book and clearly states, these are her beliefs which you, the reader, can either agree with or not. For example, she believes that we choose our own experiences, our parents and even when we are born. I don’t believe this myself. I don’t know that we choose our parents or time of birth, or our early childhood experiences when we are too young to have any influence on our environments. However, I do believe that we choose our responses to events that happen to us as we grow older, and in consciousness. That is simply my belief.

Regardless of what you choose to accept or not, the book has a powerful message of self-love, belief and self-empowerment which is why I recommend this book to friends, family and clients alike.

The happiness trap
Russell Harris

The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living

The Happiness Trap is written by Russell Harris who is an ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) therapist and trainer. He has written numerous other texts and self-help books based on ACT principals. The Happiness Trap is one I recommend as it is simple to read and has a lot of practical activities throughout. It is a great adjunct to therapy if you are seeing an ACT counsellor.

The basic premise of ACT is simply that life involves pain and suffering, but by accepting our reality as it is, not struggling with it, judging or allowing it to overwhelm us with emotion we can empower ourselves to mindfully take meaningful action in the present to create a more positive, meaningful and fulfilling life in the future. The aim of ACT is not necessarily to get rid of symptoms, such as anxiety or depression, but to learn how to deal with life’s challenges more effectively, so that when challenges or conflict arises, as it will do, we are able to manage them in a way which is more in line with our values, goals and abilities. Bad stuff will still happen, but we can learn to not let the bad stuff affect us so much. ACT uses skills such as mindfulness, reflective awareness training, acceptance and self-compassion to enable us to deal with challenges more effectively and reach our goals sooner.

You can purchase a copy of The Happiness Trap here or at your local bookseller.  For the full range of Russ Harris books and access to his online courses you can go to the Act Mindfully website.

Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world
Mark Williams & Danny Penman

Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world

This is my go to book to direct clients to who are interested in exploring mindfulness more fully as a practice. The book is basically a home-based version of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who also writes the forward to this amazingly easy to read and follow guide. The title actually does a great job of explaining what the book is. It is a very practical guide, light on theory and jargon but packed with wisdom and knowledge. The hard copy, which I have, actually comes with a CD of the 8 meditations used throughout the book, read in Mark William’s incredibly soothing voice, in my opinion anyway!

The book is actually more of a course, based on Kabat-Zinn’s eight week program. Each chapter is basically a week in the course and there is a meditation to go with it. You can approach this book in one of two ways. You can simply read it as a book, there are lots of interesting stories and anecdotes and information to keep it interesting but to get the most out of it, you can approach it as a guide or course in mindfulness which will basically do what the title says it will do – guide you towards more peace and awareness regardless of what is happening in your external world. I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in finding out for themselves what this whole mindfulness thing is really about.

You can grab a copy here. If you just want to listen to the meditations they are available on You Tube or on the Frantic World website.

Mindsight: Change your brain, change your life
Daniel Siegel

Mindsight: change your brain and your life

Mindsight is possibly one of the less accessible books I recommend to my clients. It does however, have some detailed and thorough explanations of the science of emotion, attachment, relationships and self-integration. I tend to recommend sections of this book rather than the book as a whole. Daniel illustrates his concepts with case studies which is helpful for understanding how awareness of what is happening in our brains can translate into improvements in mental health and functioning. I tend to use his ‘hand model of the brain’ section quite a lot as well as his section on attachment theory as well.

This book is divided into two halves. The first part is theoretical and explanatory and the second is illustrative. If you are interested in learning about the neurology of the brain and how it is organised then you will find the first half fascinating. If you are someone that likes to learn from others’ examples, the case studies which make up the second half of the book will be most helpful.

I personally enjoyed this book from a therapists’ point of view and recommend it to clients who are more scientific in orientation and who become interested in learning more about how our brain works. The book draws heavily on the science of neuroplasticity, the idea that our brains continue to change and develop as we get older based on our experience and interactions with our environment. This means that change is possible throughout the lifespan, which gives us hope at any age.

 

The body keeps the score: Brain mind and body in the healing of trauma
Bessel van de Kolk

 

 

 

 

Dr Van de Kolk is one of the worlds foremost specialists in trauma. He was instrumental in the development of the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. From his experiences as a young doctor working with returned veterans, he saw first hand the results of trauma experienced by these men and the effects on their brains, memory and bodies.

This book is a very good read. It is both anecdotal and scientific. You will learn a lot about how trauma impacts our brain, mental health and how, ultimately it lives on in the body. If you are a trauma survivor of any kind, I highly recommend this compassionate, liberating read.

You can grab a copy here.

Books I’ve yet to read

As I have been trying to complete my master in counselling and psychotherapy whilst working full time, there are a heap of books on my reading list which I’ve yet to get to. I am just a few weeks away from finishing however, so when I get around to reading them I will post them here. First two on my list are Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life and Russell Brand’s book on Recovery: Freedom from our Addictions. Oh and, Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. That should keep me busy over the summer months!

If there are any self-help books you recommend I read please comment below.

The difference between self-blame and self-responsibility

I was moved to write this post because a client stated one session that he used to blame others for his problems but now he blames himself. I had to challenge his use of the word ‘blame’. No one is to blame for your problems and neither are you, however, you can take responsibility for your part in things and that is empowering. Blame is disempowering. Read on to learn why…

There is a difference between self blame and taking responsibility for your actions

This is because true healing requires forgiveness of self and others.
Without forgiveness, there will always be pain. Blaming yourself for everything wrong with your life is as much of a cop out as blaming everyone else. Forgiveness is the selfish act that sets you free from blame. Blaming yourself is debilitating and only leads to stagnation, depression and despair. Blaming others allows you to stay stuck in the victim role. Self-responsibility coupled with forgiveness allows you to separate what’s yours from what’s not. Because when you work that out, you can work out how you can change your own actions in the present to take control of your future.

True healing requires forgiveness of self and others.

The idea of self-responsibility as a tool for change is not new. Irvin Yalom speaks of it in his text, Existential Psychotherapy. In it, he discusses what he calls the four existential givens which every human being must come to terms with at some time or other. These were Death, Isolation, Freedom and Meaninglessness. Freedom is to responsibility what Yin is to Yang. You can’t have one without the other. Freedom means we are, to an extent, free to live our lives how we see fit. That we make certain choices each and every day which lead us down different roads. That while our past shapes us, it doesn’t make us who we are. It means we create our future by every thought, every word and every action moment by moment. So, with freedom comes responsibility. If we are free to choose how we go about our lives then, we are also responsible for a great part of how we experience our lives, and for what happens to us.

This is sometimes hard to hear. Some people, especially those who have suffered at the hands of others reject this notion of responsibility and may, understandably, feel angry at the suggestion that they are somehow responsible for a wrong that was done to them. That is not what is meant by self-responsibility. You are not responsible for what happened to you as a child at the hands of a damaged or dysfunctional adult. You may not be responsible for the abuse that someone else targeted you for, but you are responsible for how you respond and what you do afterwards as an adult. You are free to respond in any number of ways to a situation that may not be to your liking but exists none the less. For example, you lose your job due to company restructuring. This is something that may be out of your control. However, how you handle the fall out is entirely within your control. You can choose to be angry, bitter, frustrated, despondent and anxious or you can choose to be pragmatic, hopeful, proactive, creative or stoic. Each of those choices will equate with an entirely different experience. The decision you have to make, then, is what kind of experience do I wish to have? A bitter, hopeless and frustrating one. Or, a meaningful, hopeful and interesting one?

Self responsibility is empowering.

Once you realise that you can choose your thoughts, words and actions you are free to choose thoughts, words and actions that will bring you more joy, peace and love. As opposed to choosing actions that will bring you more of what you don’t want…anger, depression, anxiety, shame… So take your power back and choose wisely. Choose what you want to focus your attention on, the negative or the positive. There is always more than one way to look at things. We have the power to take our lives back, one thought, word and action at a time.

We need only to accept our power.

Three rules for empaths – an antidote to abuse

Three Rules for Empaths – an Antidote to Abuse and a Guide to Healthier Relationships

Jordan Peterson is an infamous psychology professor and author whose recent book, “12 Rules for Life – an antidote to chaos,” is an acclaimed best-seller. Throughout this book Peterson espouses the wisdom he has gained from his years researching and engaging with clients. This wisdom is distilled into 12 epitaphs which he calls ‘rules.’ Whilst I have not yet read the entire book (it is on my reading list), I thought I’d borrow his format with this post which I have entitled Three rules for empaths – an antidote to abuse.

I am suggesting that three important rules to consider are boundaries, honesty and self-love.

These ‘rules,’ if followed, will go a long way towards protecting you from abuse, toxic relationships or mere awkward interpersonal interactions.
If you are an empathic, highly sensitive person, a ‘co-dependant’ or even just an every day person who simply thinks that ‘most people have the best intentions’ or someone who tends to ‘see the best in everyone’ then this post is for you. Or, perhaps you have just come out of an encounter with a toxic person, and unhealthy or abusive relationship and you are looking for answers, then this post is for you.

The reality is that there are damaged people out there, many of whom have their own histories of abuse and trauma perhaps, but whether consciously or unconsciously these people wreak havoc in their relationships and on society at large.

This is because it is (often) the case that you directly allowed the narcissistic/toxic/unhealthy person into your life or allowed them, at any rate, to affect you negatively. This may not be the case for children of narcissistic parents or if your boss turns out to be a narcissist, but even if this is your situation, the below three rules will go a long way towards either helping you heal from an encounter with one of these toxic people, or towards dealing with this person in your life. If you practice the following rules, such that they become a part of who you are, you will be less likely to be 1. Attractive to narcissistic/toxic or abusive people as they will pass you over for a ‘softer’ target, and 2. Easily sucked in by one in the future as you will be more grounded and sure of yourself.

Now, let’s go through them one by one.

Rule 1: Boundaries. Boundaries. Boundaries!

white and red wooden house with fence
Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

Rule one could actually be all three rules combined. Because, if you get rule one right, you most likely won’t have to worry about rules two and three. However, rules two and three are essential for healthy relationships. After all, healthy relationships (and by healthy, I mean positive, fulfilling, respectful and joyful relationships) are everything a toxic or abusive relationship is not.
The first step to living within your boundaries is knowing them. Yes… knowing what your boundaries are is the key to protecting them. Sit down, have a think and write some things down that are important to you in terms of values. What do you value most? What sort of person do you want to be? How can you live your life in such a way that you sleep soundly at night? What sorts of people, relationships, activities do you want in your life? These are the sorts of questions it is well worth asking yourself from time to time. One way is to get a blank piece of paper and draw a line down the middle so as to make two columns. At the top of one column you write the word, “YES” and at the top of the second column you write, “NO”. Then simply fill out both columns with a list of what you will say yes to and what you will say no to in your life. It is your life after all, just as it is your body and your time. No-one has the right to tell you what you should feel, think or do. Knowing your boundaries is the first step towards protecting them. Once you are clear on what you will say yes and no to it becomes easier to tell when someone else is trying to encroach on your boundaries.
Note: Be aware that toxic people will often be quite subtle in their boundary violations, especially in the beginning. They will often start with small, seemingly insignificant requests which may not seem like that big a deal, but they will still make you feel uncomfortable. These are often used to ‘test the water’ so to speak, to see how you react. If you give in on a small boundary violation, they will then push things a little further next time, and so on. This is just something to be aware of, which is why the next rule is also very important.

Rule 2: Honesty

Some toxic personalities become very skilled at getting others to unwittingly break their own boundaries in often subtle, covert or even devious ways. Some (especially sociopaths, psychopaths and some malignant narcissists*) will purposely say all the right things and act in such a way as to project an image of healthy normality, or of who they think you want them to be. Often this involves a period of romanticising and idealising you, the target. They will tell you what you want to hear. They will mould themselves into your perfect other, reflecting your needs and wants seamlessly. Thus, you may let your guard down at first with these people. However, sooner or later the mask of perfect normality will slip. This will usually be in the form of getting you to ‘bend the rules’ in some way which usually involves breaking a small but significant boundary. If this happens it is important to check-in with yourself often. It can help to monitor how you feel after spending time with a certain person and to honestly reflect on whether this person makes you feel supported, respected and valued, or whether you feel anxious, unsure or somehow ‘less than’ after being with them. Do you find yourself questioning your own reality or version of events? Are you being accused of saying or doing something you know you didn’t do? Is this person trying to emotionally manipulate you in some way, guilt trip you or become overly emotional when they simply do not get their way, until you give in to their request and they become as sweet as pie again? Do you feel drained emotionally, physically and even spiritually after you spend time with them? If so, you need to be honest with yourself about the effect this person is having on you. To be able to see what is rather than what you hope something to be is a skill worth cultivating.
Now, being honest with yourself doesn’t mean you have to be honest and upfront with everyone you meet. If you choose to be honest with a toxic person, be prepared for some heavy-duty backlash. As I mentioned above, they do not take well to criticism. The best you can do is be honest with yourself and then be direct, clear and steadfast in your NO; No, I don’t want to do that, No, I cannot drive you on Saturday, No, I won’t lie for you, etc. You don’t owe them a reason. Saying no should be good enough for a reasonable person. If you love and respect yourself, then saying no to a narcissist/toxic person becomes easier to do. This brings me to rule number three…

Rule 3: Love and accept yourself, just the way you are.

Self-love is the key to tying it all together. I have written about self-love before and have mentioned Louise Hay, the queen of self-help who advocated for self-love as fundamental to self-improvement and healing. But how do I love myself, you may ask? There are many things one can do to love and accept oneself. There are affirmations, there are acts of self-care, honouring your needs and feelings, being truthful with yourself and others are but some of the ways. However, I think a simple rule of thumb is to attempt to treat yourself as if you were someone you really cared about and wanted the best for. In other words, be your own best friend, mother and even lover. Show kindness, love and even affection for yourself in all things. Consider yourself a unique, worthwhile and valuable individual who is deserving of love and acceptance, just the way you are. Check out my summary of Brene Brown’s The Power of Vulnerability for more about what it means to have a sense of worthiness.
But let it be said that those who have a healthy sense of worthiness, self-love, acceptance and compassion for themselves are less vulnerable to anything a toxic or abusive person may conjure up. When you value yourself, it acts as a natural repellent or barrier that protects you from unsavoury characters who may cross your path. The best part is, if you take these three ‘rules’ to heart and practice honesty, self-love and keep proper boundaries then you don’t need to do anything other than be yourself. You will naturally attract people that value, accept and love you for who you are into your life, which will leave little room for narcissists, abusers or the like.

I hope you found this post helpful. If  you are in an abusive relationship, help is out there. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or 1800respect if you are in Australia – or  your local domestic violence support service in your country.

 

*I am purposely using non clinical terms for the sake of readability here.

The Worst Thing Ever – reflections on Leaving Neverland

Sometimes life has a way of serving you up what you fear the most.

For me, it was the fear that people would come to know about my abusive relationship; that they would find out that the fairytale my life appeared to be was far from true.

Because for me, at that time, I erroneously thought that it would be THE WORST THING EVER if people were to find out.  I believed that it was more desirable to live a life which consisted of walking on eggshells, bearing the occasional blow-up, waking up every day feeling sick to the stomach and depressed, than it would be to face the knowledge of everyone finding out how foolish I had been. I had made my bed, I thought, and now I would have to lie in it forever. That was some time ago now.

But I was reminded of this long-ago state of being as I was watching the recent Leaving Neverland documentary. For years, Wade Robson and James Safechuck kept their secret and lived with shame and secrecy for fear of ‘everyone’ finding out. Both of them even testified under oath that Michael Jackson never acted or touched them inappropriately, and this is one of the ‘facts’ that Jackson supporters bring up often. They lied for so long, how do we know they are telling the truth now?

Well according to some statistics, only about 30% of child sexual abuse victims disclose their abuse, and many wait a long time for doing so. The reasons for this are varied; the fear of retaliation by the perpetrator, a fear of not being believed, and feeling as if they were somehow complicit or even to blame for the abuse are all thought-processes which can silence a child well into their adult years. However, I personally think the core factor keeping victims of sexual abuse silent is shame.

Shame enters from an external source from significant people in our lives and becomes internalised

According to www.intothelight.org.uk , “Shame enters from an external source from significant people in our lives and becomes internalised.” The shame of the sexual abuse of a child is somehow flipped over from the perpetrator- who seemingly feels no shame -to the abused, who carries the burden of shame for both and for always. And the best receptacle for shame is always silence and secrecy.

This shame can then become generalized by the survivor and can manifest in different ways resulting in symptoms and behaviors which may seem unintelligible to an observer unaware of this person’s situation or history. The main effect which shame seems to have on a person is to constantly feel as if they are wrong or inconsequential. That things are somehow always their fault and their responsibility to fix; that it is absolutely essential that others are not put out by them, because they don’t count. Shame can result in behaviors which may look from the outside to be ’self-sabotaging,’ such as addictions and compulsions. Relationships become tricky because the shame infused person can never feel as if they are equally deserving of love, care, attention or that their needs are as important as anyone else’s. This can leave them susceptible to further abuse, manipulation and being taken advantage of. They may have a seemingly pathological fear of saying no. They may feel unlovable and therefore resistant to relationships where they are loved and respected. These are but a few of the examples of how shame and silence can impact a person throughout their life and cause them to act in ways which may make little sense until they are seen through the lens of trauma.

So for those questioning the validity of the claims made by Robson and Safechuck, citing their previous silence and lies as proof of the incredibly of their stories – do some reading on the long term effects of child sexual abuse and trauma in general, (including the trauma that comes from living with an abusive partner) and see what you come up with.

Sexual abuse and violence create shame which in turn breeds secrecy and silence. The best way to combat silence, is to break it. To speak your truth, perhaps quietly, tentatively at first and then, in time without shame. Shame may appear to be THE WORST THING EVER, but if you are lucky your worst fear may turn out to be the path that leads to your best self ever.

Here are some links to get you started:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/matter-personality/201210/why-dont-child-sex-abuse-victims-tell

http://www.intothelight.org.uk/core-issues-of-abuse-anger/

https://www.blueknot.org.au/ 

https://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/sites/default/files/file-list/Research%20Report%20-%20Principles%20of%20trauma-informed%20approaches%20to%20child%20sexual%20abuse%20A%20discussion%20paper%20-%20Treatment%20and%20support%20needs.pdf

 

 

Tasks of Recovery

For the last 16 months I have worked as an AOD Counsellor (AOD stands for Alcohol and Other Drugs) and during this time I’ve come to notice certain reoccurring themes that keep presenting themselves in both my individual and group sessions.

I started to write these down and have come to a formative model of recovery which I liken to Kubler Ross’s stages of grief model (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). Kubler Ross published a book in 1969 called On Death & Dying in which she described the common phases or stages that patients diagnosed with terminal illnesses went through after their diagnosis. The stages are not necessarily linear, however there does seem to be a process of change happening, and this is something I have also noticed in my work with those recovering from addiction. I am not talking about the well used Stages of Change model well used in AOD treatment services since its inception in 1983 by Prochaska & DiClemente, which identified that change is a process that individuals go through involving a series of stages or phases that ultimately lead to lasting change.

Like the stages of grief, the below themes are not in any particular order, except for the first one. In my observation, a true and real commitment beginning the process seems to be a first important step, as it is in the 12 step model:

We admitted we were powerless over our addiction and that our lives had become unmanageable.

Sometimes, it can take many attempts to even get this far. As with the 12 step model, often the first step towards change is often the biggest leap to take.

accomplishment action adult adventure
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Below are some of the themes or Tasks of Recovery as I have observed them. All the themes mentioned below need to be reckoned with at some point in the journey of recovery in order to get from the action stage to maintenance stage and towards real lasting change. I just want to say that it doesn’t matter what your addiction is, alcohol, drugs, porn or gambling, the following themes I think are universal and can be used alongside other therapy models often used in addiction treatment such as CBT or Motivational Interviewing. The following themes also feature heavily in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy so those of you who are familiar with ACT may recognize some of the concepts.

 

Commitment 

Decide that you want to make a change and commit to doing whatever it takes to staying on track. Russell Harris, author of The Happiness Trap has a great quote on commitment that I love. It really embodies a mindful, compassionate stance on recovery:

Commitment doesn’t mean you never make a wrong move or take a detour, and it doesn’t mean you stay on track 100% of the time; that’s unrealistic. It means even when you keep going off-course, you keep catching yourself and then getting back on track again

Connect with your values, meaning, purpose and spirituality. Use this self-knowledge to empower and motivate you to make the best decisions you can make, starting from now, that will help you to create a future now that is better than your past. Better doesn’t mean perfect, but better as in more real, honest, richer, meaningful and more colourful. A future present that contains more contentment, joy and inner peace.

Acceptance

Acceptance of the past and present means accept what has already happened. Doesn’t mean you like it or approve of it or wanted it to happen. Accept your current situation. Doesn’t mean you like it either or want it to be this way. However, struggling with non-acceptance of past and present is a futile exercise. It is a waste of time and energy which could be better used elsewhere. Don’t let your past dictate your future. This is what happens when you refuse to accept reality or practice avoidance. You are destined to repeat past mistakes. Acceptance releases you from this repetitive pattern. Acceptance means just “dropping the struggle“. This frees you to direct your attention and energy into doing what you need to do, in order to improve your life.

Lying & Honesty

Address lying and practice honesty in everything you do. Stop lying to yourself and others. Start speaking your truth, in a compassionate way. Be authentic, transparent and congruent. Make your word your bond. Turn up on time for appointments. Don’t say yes to something unless you are really intending to follow through. Don’t hide how you feel. Pick one person besides yourself that you can be 100% honest with. This can be a therapist, friend, partner or priest! Doesn’t matter who as long as it is someone trustworthy. Embrace the truth, it may not always be pretty but it really will set you free.

However, learning to be honest with yourself and others can be difficult if you are not used to it. Here is a simple strategy for practicing honesty which I call NOTE.

N – notice your thoughts and feelings. Take a breath and just sit with whatever is going on for you at that moment.

O – own it. Own your experience, don’t try to rationalize with yourself, or judge your feelings as right or wrong, good or bad. Just acknowledge that this is how you are feeling at the time.

T – take a breath. Take at lease one deep breath in and let it out. This allows your emotions (or energy in motion) to settle.

E – explain your reality. Start speaking. You will be surprised at how much easier it is to speak openly and honestly when you have given yourself a moment to check in first.

Forgiveness & Compassion

Forgive others for what they had done wrong to you. Forgive yourself for things that you have done. Simple as that. Like acceptance however, it does not mean that you are O.K. with it or like it. Doesn’t mean you approve of what was done, however, forgiveness is essentially a selfish act. Forgiveness frees you from negativity and resentment. Resentment is the cause of most dis-ease according to Louise Hay. Release resentment and be free of negativity. You will feel lighter and more at ease. Forgiveness is necessary if you are going to practice self-acceptance and love. There is no love without forgiveness. To err is human, to forgive, divine.

Guilt & Shame

Own up to any wrongs you have committed in the service of your addiction and address any lingering shame. It’s important to look at shame as a relapse prevention strategy as it is the most likely cause of lapses and relapse. Shame operates like an invisible suit of armour that keeps us safe yet apart from others. Shame keeps us from making real connections with people who might otherwise love and accept us. It is really important to separate guilt from shame. Guilt is feeling bad because of what you have done. Shame is feeling like you are bad. Remember, we are not our mistakes. It is important to address guilt, make amends if you have to (unless to do so would cause further harm) but remind yourself that you are always only ever doing the best you can with what you have at the time. In the past, you did not know this. Now you do. 

 

That’s all I have come up with for now. If anyone has some others that they think I have left out or any feedback relating to the above please feel free to comment. I’d love to hear it!

There is no self love without forgiveness – a tribute to Louise Hay

I recently found a copy of a book that I can honestly say changed my life when I came across it many years ago.

The book is called “You can heal your life,” by Louise Hay.

It was first written in 1984 and has sold more than 40 million copies world wide. 

Louise Hay is known as the ‘queen of self-help’ and was ahead of her time in many ways. She was the first therapist to popularise the notion that your thoughts and feelings are directly related to your life outcomes. That everything in your life today was created by your thoughts, emotions and actions to date, and furthermore that at this very moment we are creating our future selves by the thoughts, emotions and actions we choose today, moment by moment. I still recommend this book to friends and clients who are struggling with any mental health issue or addiction or who are just going through a rough patch. 

I have had many copies of this book since the first time I read it 10 years ago, I can never seem to hold on to a copy for long. I am forever giving them away but nowadays you can download a copy for very little on Amazon or pick up a copy at most second hand bookshops. That’s where I picked up my latest copy from. 

As I was reading through the first chapter today I was reminded of her core message which is so simple it is often considered overly simplistic to be of any real use to people. I disagree as most truths are simple, it’s our humanity that’s complicated. 

Louise’s basic message is “Love yourself” and everything will fall into place.

She states, 

Self-approval and self-acceptance in the now are the keys to positive changes, (p.9).

While this sound simply wonderful and it is, in reality simple does not necessarily mean easy. Whenever I speak to clients of self-love and acceptance I see and hear doubt and resistance. Often they will agree with me in theory but often the how escapes them. How do I love myself? They ask, sometimes with tears in their eyes. 

In her book Louise outlines some clear instructions on what to do to start ‘loving and accepting yourself’. She is a big fan of saying positive affirmations daily as one way to retrain your brain to start thinking in a way that will begin to create the changes you want in your life. Do positive affirmations work? I believe they do, as I have used them in my own life to positive affect. When you learn a little about how the unconscious mind works, you can clearly see that if you have been programming your brain with negativity and thus creating negative experiences for yourself, it makes sense that by changing the internal script by thinking more positively, it can have the opposite effect.

An example of the above is constantly feeling unloved and misunderstood. This combined with negative self-talk such as “no-one will ever love me”, “I always get abused”, or “everyone always takes advantage of me” will certainly create more of the same. However, when you start choosing more positive thoughts or even more realistic thoughts such as, “I am loved and supported”, or “most people mean well” or even “everyone is doing the best with what they know,” then the script changes. Science now has an explanation for why this works which is called “neuroplasticity” and which I have written about before. However Louise Hay has been saying much the same thing, albeit in much more simplistic and metaphysical terms for decades. 

If affirmations aren’t your thing then there are other ways to love yourself more. One simple thing is to treat yourself well. Put yourself first. Listen to your body. Eat food that nourishes you and is good for you. Care for yourself as you would care for a dear friend. Give yourself a break. Let go of perfectionism. Try to be compassionate to yourself for past mistakes or perceived failings. Be your own best friend. These are all simple but effective ways to care and love yourself more. 

However, there is something else that Louise talks about which is even harder to do than loving yourself and that is forgiveness. She writes, 

We must release the past and forgive everyone, (p.9).

Woah. Hold up a minute there. Everyone? Everyone??

I remember struggling with this one caveat when I first read it 10 years ago and I must admit, I still do. Forgiveness of self and others unfortunately goes hand in hand with self-love and compassion. Until one is willing to forgive or at least release resentment for past wrongs (done to and/or by you) healing will always be slow going. Like constantly picking at a scab deters the healing process and leads to scars, attempting to love and accept yourself without forgiveness of self and others only slows down the healing process. 

I know this is something you don’t want to hear. Often we hold on to our hurts and resentments like dysfunctional friends whom we no longer even like all that much but can’t bear to cut loose. They are a drag but at least they are company. They keep everyone else away but are always around to light your cigarette, pour you a beer or pass you that tub of ice-cream. Louise says, 

Resentment, criticism and guilt are the most damaging patterns, (p9).

They are the most damaging because they are the most sticky. They like to stick around and feed our bad habits and negativity in order to keep us around. Almost like a codependant relationship. 

The truth is that unless you can kick out those freeloaders, Resentment, Criticism and Guilt and their cohorts Shame, Blame and Anger or at least be willing to let go of them true healing and self love will always feel just out of reach. 

Finally, it is never too late to start making positive changes, or begin to think differently as Louise was also often fond of saying,

The point of power is always in the present moment. 

Louise passed away in June 2017 at the age of 90.