Addicted to Outrage?

Can we be addicted to negative emotions? Such as outrage, anxiety, fear, anger, depression, guilt or feeling ‘hard done by’?

We normally associate addictions with more or less positive things. Substances and behaviours that make us feel good or better in some way. Alcohol, helps us to relax, or feel happier or intoxicated. Cannabis can help us to chill, calm down or get lost in the music. Amphetamines can makes us feel confident, energised or ‘on top of the world’. Porn can makes us feel powerful, in control and aroused. All these things can help us to forget or distract us from pain, discomfort or relieve stress in some way. So it would make sense that some of us could get ‘addicted’ (attached to if one goes by the old definition of addiction as I discuss in an earlier post Why is the word addiction so controversial?to these sorts of things. However, it has recently occurred to me that perhaps we can also become addicted to negativity in some way.

You may balk at the suggestion. Anxiety feels awful. Depression is terrible. Why would anyone want to continue with such negative emotions? I guess one needs to look at the pay off. What does one get by continuing with these emotional states that make us feel bad or worse in some way. Or, another way to look at it is, what do you get out of doing by continuing to feed the negative emotion?

Let’s take anxiety as an example. What does anxiety stop you from doing that you might otherwise do. Drive a car? Get a job? What do you get to do by not doing those things…. well you get to avoid the discomfort, fear and the possibility that you may get hurt in some way. You get to feel safe. You get to avoid uncertainty. And you get to avoid having to change. And, ever notice how the more you give in to your anxiety, and the more you allow depression to weigh on you the bigger and heavier they tend to get? It’s as if you are carrying around a heavy load or burden around with you…

Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, spiritual teacher and all round amazing human often talks about the concept of the “pain body“. The concept of the pain body is a strange one to get your head around. It is, according to Tolle, made up of all the slights, painful experiences and unfinished business that you carry around with you in your body, unconsciously. Any painful experience or trauma memory that has not been adequately faced or resolved at the time it occurred becomes part of our pain-body. In a healthy person, it may lay dormant most of the time, but some people live entirely through and completely identify with their “pain-body”.

Your pain-body can be awakened or ‘triggered’ by anything – an event, a person, an argument, a situation. Often it is awakened by something that happens to remind us of a past trauma or event. The current painful event awakens the pain-body and in that moment we become the pain-body. That is, we identify with our pain-body 100%. In ACT we call that “fusion“. Fusion is when we are so caught up in our beliefs, thoughts, memories, or pain that we believe those thoughts and are overwhelmed by the emotion generated that we in a sense, stuck to those thoughts, so much so that we become those thoughts.

The pain-body wants to live, according to Tolle, like any other entity, and it feeds on negativity and pain. And, the more we feed it, the more it wants and the stronger it gets. When we are living through pain, or in our pain-body, it can seem as if everything and everyone is against us. We see the world in terms of black or white, us vs them, good and evil. When we are in pain, we often lash out at others, and want others to be in pain too. We want to be right about our pain and therefor unconsciously seek more pain in order to prove ourselves right about how bad everything really is. The more we live through our pain-body the bigger, stronger and more dominant it becomes.

When we identify 100% with our painful thoughts and memories, we can sometimes act in ways that are unhelpful, hurtful to ourselves and others and are generally unpleasant to be around. We can act in ways that take us further and further away from our goals, values and true self. When we act in the service of our pain-body, we may think that we are doing something about our pain, but we often act in ways that bring us more pain. I am reminded of another famous quote by Eckhart Tolle is,

addiction starts and ends in pain.

We can also become so used to being in our pain-body that we may come to prefer it. We may become more comfortable being angry, depressed or outraged that we no longer remember what it is like to not be those things. In essence, we can become addicted or attached to our pain because for some of us, that is how we identify.

But there is another way to be. When we realise that the only power our pain-body, or our trauma history, has over us is the power we give it then that is the first step towards becoming free of our free-loading pain-bodies. Often in therapy, at some point in time clients often say they feel lighter, more at ease, or as if a weight has been lifted from them. Maybe, this is their pain-body dissolving? It is worth a thought.

A positive affirmation to help dismiss or weaken our own body of painful experiences:

The only power the past has over me is the power I allow it to have.

I allow myself to be free from the past,

I release all pain, resentment and anger,

I am at ease with who I am today,

I am free to be me.

What’s it like living with a “porn addiction”? Lonely, according to the results of my research.

Exploring the Lived Experience of Problematic Users of Internet Pornography– A Qualitative Study is a research project I conducted as part of the requirements for the Master of Counselling & Psychotherapy course I have recently (finally) completed. While it’s soon to be published in the peer reviewed journal Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, published by Taylor & Francis, in this post I reflect on what it was like to research this topic and I share some of the responses I received which highlight, to me, the seriousness of this emerging problem. I will post a link to the peer reviewed article here soon as it is published but I have uploaded a preprint version to Research Gate which I have linked to above.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In 2019 I completed the last few subjects of a Master of Counselling & Psychotherapy course I had started in 2016. As a qualified counsellor, working as a clinician in a youth mental health service at the time, I decided to take my time and just work through the units one subject at time. With a couple of semesters off here and there, three years later I was happy to see the end in sight with the last hurdle being the big research project which took up 4 out of the 12 units I needed to pass to complete the course.

I decided to do my research project on sex “addiction”, specifically, problematic use of internet pornography (note, there is no DSM diagnosis of sex addiction, to date, however, the ICD-11 now has a diagnosis of Compulsive Sexual Behaviour (CSB) disorder, which covers problematic sexual behaviours.) Having encountered several young male clients through the youth mental health service I worked at who were experiencing problems with their porn use, as well as previous experience with a partner who disclosed his own struggles with porn use (which I initially discounted as nothing to worry about!) – I thought there was something to this issue which needed to be looked into further. At that time, (2015 ) when I first started to research the literature on problematic internet porn use, I was completely unaware of the extent of the problem. In my informal research, however, I found the website www.yourbrainonporn.com and Gary Wilson’s now infamous TED talk (The Great Porn Experiment) and other TED talks on the subject, which was a wealth of information as well as an eye-opener. In my academic research I found some very interesting papers, including A. Cooper’s prophetic 1998 paper: Sexuality and The Internet: Surfing into the New Millennium which described some of the ways the internet was having an effect on human sexuality. In this paper, which has been well cited, Cooper highlights three aspects of the internet which he predicted, accurately it seems, could transform human sexuality. These were access, affordability and anonymity. The results of these three factors has resulted in an explosion (pardon the pun) of pornography on the internet and to give you just a drop-in-the-ocean statistic, Porn Hub boasted a whopping 42 billion visits in 2019 alone. And that’s just one website. That figure alone is staggering. (In my literature review which forms part of my research report I provide an extensive overview of the literature for and against the conceptualization of problematic porn use as an addiction.)

But despite these numbers and the overwhelming amount of academic research I found, including this 2019 review which did a pretty good job of summarizing the research and some of the controversy surrounding the, still ongoing, debate on sex and pornography, there are some who insist on downplaying the issue. Despite the inclusion of CSB disorder in the World Health Organization’s ICD-11, I found articles which went so far as to say Sex Addiction and Porn Addiction “do not exist”, or were not “real” or a “myth” and that believing you are addicted to porn is the cause of your symptoms, not the result of engaging with porn itself. I noticed pretty quickly that these authors tend to selectively quote studies which support their position, whilst stating that there is no “scientific evidence” to support the notion of sex or porn addiction (I found plenty). These types of articles all seem to share common themes; that religious beliefs or morality play a big part in why people struggle with porn use, and that those who voice any opposition or concern about the effects of excessive porn use are “anti-sex” moral crusaders, puritans or religious prudes. Granted there is the understandable concern that the term “sex addiction” is problematic in that it could potentially pathologize activity that is just a normal variant of a natural human behaviour, but their contention that porn addiction does not “exist” is “harmless” or is beneficial to society is itself problematic. Granted, there is evidence that moral conflict about pornography plays a part in users’ distress, (how could it not) however, it is a factor only, there are others. Rarely do they mention the potential effects of exposure to extreme pornography on children, the extreme and highly concerning content available to anyone, the links between internet pornography and sex-trafficking and rarely do they take into account the ocean of anecdotal evidence from users themselves. If anything, pro-porn advocates actively dismiss the growing tide of anecdotal evidence to be found online.

So, what’s the real story here? Are users getting addicted to internet pornography use, or not? Or are we too hung up on semantics? Does it really matter whether we label something an addiction or not anyway? In the end I suspect not, however, to blanket deny that there is an issue is the height of irresponsibility, somewhat delusional and invalidating in the extreme for those who self-identify as problematic users of internet pornography, or “porn addicts” – for want of a shorter term. Perhaps the issue is the word “addiction” and what can and can’t be called an addiction, medically speaking. Well, that is a topic for a whole other post, but if we can get over the linguistics for a moment, surely, what really matters here is that people, men mostly and their families, are suffering. Why, in this age of #metoo am I so interested in men’s suffering? Because, as a society, we cannot afford to ignore men and their suffering because men who suffer often affect others around them negatively too. Children, partners, other men and society in general. We all have a stake in this issue. That is why, for my research I wanted to find out why there are more and more people turning up on internet forums and sub-reddits, such as nofap and reboot nation to name two of the most popular ones, complaining of their struggle to give up porn and related problems, which they attribute to their ongoing and excessive use of internet pornography and masturbation.

Qualitative research is used in the social sciences to describe something in detail and more depth. It mainly uses words rather than statistics and is not meant to be generalized, but rather a deep dive into a particular topic. It is specific and often descriptive. So, my study took the form of an online anonymous survey of 20 open ended questions which asked participants who self-identified as problem users of internet porn, to write about their experiences. The questions asked were general and required participants to write out answers in their own words. There was no word limit, so I got a broad selection of answers, some short and to the point and some lengthy and detailed.

The survey was live for around 6 weeks and altogether 53 participants took the time to answer all 20 questions and submit their responses. I remember reading the first few survey responses as they came in, and immediately started highlighting and taking notes of what I was finding. I was firstly surprised at the level of apparent openness and honesty of some of the answers. It soon became apparent to me that these participants, (99% men), had clearly struggled with an issue that was bigger and more formidable then they had first thought. Concerningly, many reported first accessing online pornography as children, and the youngest said he was 6-years-old the first time he viewed internet pornography:

I must’ve been aged 6, I was laying in bed—alone—flicking through channels, & from nowhere came, well, porn. I can distinctly remember being: traumatised, intrigued, disgusted & aroused. My innocent infantile mind couldn’t process it.

At the other end of the scale, one man reported first finding online pornography at age 40. As you can see, quite an age range. Yet, the average age of first-time-viewers of porn on the internet turned out to be 14.89 years. I put together some super-simple stats that came out of the study below.

  • 36% (19) respondents mentioned erectile dysfunction (ED) or weak/flaccid erections or inability to maintain an erection during actual sex.
  • 70% (32) respondents report engaging with online porn instead of doing other important tasks, such as going to school, university or work
  • 88% (46) reported their porn tastes changing or escalating to more extreme porn over time.
  • Only 9 mentioned seeking professional help for this issue.

Whilst my study was very small, only 53 complete responses, the answers were far richer and more detailed than I had even hoped for. It was overwhelming to be honest. After painstakingly coding and collating the codes into themes, I slowly built up a picture of what it means to live with a pornography consumption and masturbation problem. And while I ended up with three main themes, the one overarching feeling I personally got after reading through answers could be summed up in one word: Loneliness.

Loneliness, disconnection, isolation, feeling cut-off from other people and society, an overwhelming inability to engage with other human beings, and ultimately the Self, in a positive, meaningful, joyful or authentic way. The spectre of porn addiction appears to cast a long, diffuse and murky shadow on its followers, and it looks to be one that many users struggle to get themselves free of. Comorbidity is a factor (as it is in substance addiction) however, that does not discount the specific issues reported that seem to be directly related to these users’ excessive porn use.

But enough from me, the whole point of my study was to essentially let the data speak for itself. I will certainly post a link to my study when it gets published, but in the meantime, in order to do justice to the participants who took time out of their day to share their experiences, I thought I would post a “sampler” if you will of some of the particularly poignant responses I received, of which there were many. Too many to post here.

Selected responses from Exploring the Lived Experience of Problematic Users of Internet Pornography: A Qualitative Study.

“After 16 years old, after my tastes escalated, I was very sad (nearly depressed). I had low self confidence, ashamed of myself and some social anxiety.   I had no concentration also, porn may be related.   I had no love or desire to search someone other than to have sex or for the social benefit of it (bragging to friends). So I had no relationships during highschool, I think porn impacted it deeply.   In the beginning of college, I was alone in my appartment so I could watch when I wanted. Then I developed a very strong social anxiety, I was very stressed. I was very depressed as well, it occurs a lot when I drank alcohol. I still had friends but no love relationships.   No erection without porn.   Less ambition.   I was more introverted and not very open to people.”

“I have never been in a serious relationship. My sex life is non-existent and I have an unhealthy sexual ideal. I have noticed mental, emotional and physical symptoms similar to the high and crash from drugs/alcohol. During the time in adolescence that I should have been learning and building social skills and healthy connections, I isolated and defaulted to porn and video games as well. Instead of pursuing real sexual relations and healthy friendships with women, porn has served an easier, quicker solution.”

“Guilt. The sense that I continue to let myself down, and let others down. The fact that it has any kind of hold over me is disconcerting. Then there is the sheer amount of time I have spent viewing internet porn rather than doing something constructive.”

I’m lonely and depressed. I’m scared of trying to connect with women and commit to stopping because I’m ashamed of being inexperienced.”

I’m not doing well in life, i barely have sex i love fapping ive become an under achiever and have achieved nothing worthwhile i entertain too much i dont sow but wish to reap a huge crop.” 

“For a very long time I have been dealing with depression, anxiety, loneliness and isolation and it’s difficult to determine what is the relationship of my porn use to these problems. On the one hand, porn has brought me relief and even a better mood in many difficult moments. On the other hand, porn might have influenced my view of women in a negative way.”

“It took away my ability to process the world with any emotion. My porn use put me into a state of emotional and social withdrawal in almost every aspect of my life, and because of that, I suffered significantly socially, romantically and academically. I lost many years of my development because I could not feel any pleasure and I could not make sense of the world – my mind was in a state of constant turmoil.”

“I never had a partner because porn kept me from even looking for one. I was scared to interact with someone in general but then also having to slowly bond with them and constantly working on maintaining a relationship seemed like too much of a struggle and not worth pursuing. Porn was a way easier “fix” for my loneliness.”

“I don’t really have relationships. That’s why I view internet porn. But a couple of times I’ve come out of short-term relationships and felt a sense of relief that came from knowing I was free to go back to internet porn, and I know that that can’t be a good thing.”

The above are direct quotes from the survey responses I received as such they have not been edited. As I said, these are just some of the answers received to my survey. I just want to take the opportunity to say a big thank you to all the participants who took time to complete the survey. I was humbled by their honesty, vulnerability and willingness to participate. I wish anyone struggling with this issue healing, connection and encouragement to seek help and support. Some resources are listed below. I am currently taking on a limited number of private clients (via Zoom only) for individual therapy. My counselling website is www.francescapcounselling.com

*

Lifeline: 13 11 14 / http://www.lifeline.org

Mensline: 1300 78 99 78 / http://www.mensline.org.au

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636 / http://www.beyondblue.org.au

Mantherapy: 1800 2738255 / http://www.mantherapy.org

http://www.yourbrainonporn.com

 

 

 

 

Why is the word “addiction” so controversial?

Addiction-slider-702x336

At the time of writing, there are now numerous studies including several reviews of internet pornography use, which indicate that compulsive use of internet pornography, like drugs or alcohol, is addictive. Yet there are some researchers, scientists and even clinicians who refuse to accept that sex or internet pornography can become addictive. They are a relatively small group but, as the saying goes, small does not mean quiet. In-fact, they are very vocal with their assertions and are often cited in the general media as “experts” in the field. One of the more prominent ones even offered therapy advice via an internet pornography cam site. In-fact a casual search on the internet will net you many articles claiming to ‘debunk’ the ‘myth’ of sex and/or porn addiction, citing a select few researchers and studies which support their “porn is harmless” stance or to explain the reported negative effects as the “belief” that you are addicted to porn that is a problem, not your viewing habits themselves. There also seems to be a current and ongoing Twitter battle for the hearts and minds of anyone who cares to listen on what can and cannot be called an “addiction”.

Why is this so? Anyone who cares to do their own actual research into the matter will find many studies and a growing number of systematic reviews of the research (a systematic review is when you do a search of a topic, collate all the studies you find, and attempt to come to some consensus of what the studies are reporting). However, Gary Wilson of the website Your Brain on Porn has a very thorough job of collating a long list of reviews and studies on the effects of porn which you can access here – if you have a free week or so to wade through them all! One thing I can tell you at a glance is that these studies are all primarily peer reviewed research articles and some are reviews of the research. It is hard to argue against the sheer volume of literature out there now on the topic, yet the T’war (Twitter War) rages on. There are even legal proceedings underway indicating that what started out as an academic debate is now getting real-world serious, with a number of individuals filing defamation suits against one particular researcher who seems to have taken things very personal indeed.

My own thorough review of the literature, which my own study supports, is that the research on problematic pornography use is leaning towards the classification of this phenomenon as a ‘behavioural’ addiction. Meaning, the person is “addicted” to an activity or behaviour, rather than a substance. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has already included one behavioural addiction in its category called “Substance Use & Addictive Disorders” (APA, 2013). However, interestingly, the terminology of the DSM-5 does not use the word “addiction” to describe any of the diagnoses in this category, despite the use of the term “addictive” in the category heading. In fact, as Richard et al. (2019) point out, they specifically state that the use of the word “addiction” has been removed because of its “uncertain definition and its potentially negative connotation’ (APA, 2013, p. 485). Despite its seemingly awkward welcome/not welcome guest status, the word “addiction” refuses to leave the party graciously. It continues to hang around in common usage and in both academic and social media circles, lurking about like the friend that no-one wants to admit knowing.

So why is the word “addiction” so controversial?

At the centre of this academic and social media tempest seems to be the word “addiction” itself. In order to make some sense of the passionate debate that is still raging as we speak, I thought it might be time to take a closer look at this currently unfashionable, problematic yet persistently sticky word “addiction”. Firstly, I shall look at some definitions, then I will attempt to look at the history of the word and finally I will add my own, humble, opinion at the end.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction broadly, as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviours. Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioural control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviours and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.”

The Centre on Addiction’s definition of addiction is similarly broad, “Addiction is a complex disease, often chronic in nature, which affects the functioning of the brain and body. It also causes serious damage to families, relationships, schools, workplaces and neighbourhoods. The most common symptoms of addiction are severe loss of control, continued use despite serious consequences, preoccupation with using, failed attempts to quit, tolerance and withdrawal.”

Popular psychology website, Psychology Today states that a “person with an addiction uses a substance, or engages in a behaviour, for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeat the activity, despite detrimental consequences. Addiction may involve the use of substances such as alcoholinhalants, opioids, cocaine, and nicotine, or behaviours such as gambling.”

The APS defines addiction in terms of criteria for diagnosis relating to substance use disorders, and only mentions gambling and internet gaming as examples of behavioural addictions in line with the DSM it publishes.

Of course, there are others but I’m sure you get the idea. The common theme seems to be this: Addiction affects the reward centre of the brain, which causes the addicted person to want to engage in the activity or use the substance repeatedly, which in time causes the person to be unable to stop or reduce using the substance despite wanting to, and in the face of increasing problems caused by the addiction. But what does the actual word “addiction” mean and where does it come from?

Etymology of Addiction

According to Richard et al., (2019) the word addiction has a long and interesting history. It originally appears in the early Roman republic. The latin root addicere, was used as a legal term meaning “to speak to”. In the later Roman period, it was also used to describe indebtedness, usually in relation to gambling debts. In Roman times the person (addictus) who owned a gambling debt was in a sense, attached or enslaved to his debtor until the debt was paid. By Elizabethan times it was used to describe an intense attachment to some person, cause or object. Mostly the word “addict” was used as a verb, as in to attach or devote oneself to something. Attachments could be either positive or negative, so the use of the verb was in itself neutral. Richard et al. (2019) argue that it is the flexibility of the word addiction and its ability to be used to denote either an extremely negative or positive attachment which has led to its longevity and popularity in common usage, as well as causing diagnostic ambivalence.

The connecting of the words addiction and attachment makes a lot of sense to me clinically. While running a substance-use recovery group for offenders, I would often start the group with an activity which involved various definitions of the word “addiction” in order to facilitate discussion. There were various definitions, including some medical, some from official sources such as the DSM and some quotes from famous ex-users. I would then ask the group members to choose which quote they felt mostly described their own experience. Most often the users chose a quote by Dr Patrick Carnes, (who specializes in treating sex-addiction and has written several books on the topic including, Out of the Shadows ) in which he describes addiction as a “pathological relationship”.  That this quote, written by a sex addiction specialist, was the one that these men would choose most often is interesting to me. They would then go on to describe their relationship to drugs as the most intimate, reliable and consistent relationship they had experienced. Their attachment to their drug of choice was very real and often, it had been the only thing they could turn to for comfort. Most of these men had histories of dysfunctional, abusive family lives, and most often they were let down by the very people you and I expect to be able to trust, again and again. No wonder their attachment, their addiction to their substance was so hard to give up. Carnes goes on to say that the pathological relationship with sex is a replacement for a healthy relationship with people. The same can be said for excessive substance users, problem gambling and those who consume pornography compulsively, which is what my own research documented:

“I don’t really have relationships. That’s why I view internet porn. But a couple of times I’ve come out of short-term relationships and felt a sense of relief that came from knowing I was free to go back to internet porn, and I know that that can’t be a good thing”

If we take the word “addiction” to mean simply an attachment, devotion, or enslavement to something, whether it be a substance, like alcohol or drugs, or an activity, like gambling, gaming or internet pornography, then the term addiction does seem to fit, at least as a descriptive term if not a diagnostic one. Any negative connotation to the word may well be attached to the substance or the behaviour which becomes problematic in that case, not the word “addiction” itself. Furthermore, those headlines claiming that porn addiction “does not exist” or is a “myth” because it is not listed as a diagnosis in the DSM are technically correct, because, in the current DSM there is no disorder with the actual term “addiction” listed at all. They are all disorders attached to the substance or behaviour, as in Alcohol Use Disorder or Opioid Use Disorder etc. – even though all these disorders fall under the umbrella of Substance Use & Addictive Behaviours.

Goodman (2001) made a, still, convincing case for the term “sexual addiction” to describe the phenomena of sexually related behavioural problems. He noted the similarities between substance use disorder and sex addiction and found them to be almost identical. In the proceeding 20 years, advances in neuroscientific imaging have shown these similarities are observable in the brain. So, if the term “addiction” where to be removed from the debate what would we be left debating? That excessive and compulsive use of sex or pornography does no harm? That people who describe themselves as addicted to internet pornography are delusional or wrong? I don’t think that’s helpful at all. The fact is, problematic use of internet pornography and sex exists, and is a real problem for many. Those that are experiencing this phenomenon firsthand no doubt care less for what you want to call their affliction, but more about getting help, recovery and healing from this issue, whatever it is called. As a counsellor, it is not my job to debate with clients about whether or not their issue is a “real addiction” or not. My job is to listen, to help facilitate change and to support my client create a better life for themselves and loved ones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

American Psychiatric Association. 2013. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: Author.

 

Goodman, A. (2001) What’s in a name? Terminology for designating a syndrome of sexually driven behavior. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity. 8:191–213, 2001. DOI: 10.1080/107201601753459919

Richard J. Rosenthal & Suzanne B. Faris. (2019) The etymology and early history of ‘addiction’, Addiction Research & Theory, 27:5, 437-449, DOI: 10.1080/16066359.2018.1543412

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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.

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!