Monthly Archives: Jun 2020

The Allure of the Easy Option

We are presented with options throughout our daily life – whether to hit the snooze button (again) or to tell the truth; whether to have another piece of chocolate or to ask that friend for that money that they borrowed. These may be small decisions or we could perceive them as significant. We could perceive them as non-threatening to our wellbeing, or we might fear that they are going to have an impact on us that we would rather avoid. Without thinking about it, we weigh up the option of doing or not doing something; of doing it one way or another. And it is a skill, to critically look at something and think – really think – about what the options mean for us, and why are those options made available and nothing else? We have a very subjective and narrow perspective on things, which means we interpret things in a very specific way, based on our own experiences and beliefs – and the truth is we are very prone to getting things wrong.

We do not always think or behave in our best interest. And this is one trick to making better decisions – we need to ask a better question.

We tend to ask questions like, “What do I want right now?” and often the answer is The Easy Option.

What we often want, in the moment, could be more food; to sleep in longer; to avoid that awkward conversation; to stay up later and play games; to check the lights are off one more time; to just watch one more video; to leave revision to the last minute; to not get ready until the last minute; to avoid going to that party.

Giving in to these primal needs often confirms the anxiety that we are trying to battle (avoiding something because it feels awkward or makes us feel anxious), or it allows us to give in to instant gratification and immediate needs (I’ll have one more piece).

It is often easier to have ‘one more’ than it is to refrain entirely or to eat in moderation. It is often easier to leave revision to the last minute than starting a few months before an exam. It is often easier to just avoid meeting new people than to put ourselves through the stress and anxiety of introducing ourselves and risk getting it wrong or being laughed at.

“What do I want?” often allows us to take the easy option, and avoid pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone; it does not give us the chance to flex our social skills or to develop our abilities along the way (resisting more biscuits, tolerating the discomfort of NOT checking the lights again, sitting with those awkward feelings). Because the truth is that we can sit with those feelings. Choosing the easy option fools us into thinking we are weaker than we actually are. Each time we avoid something, we trick ourselves that it really is that scary; each time we reach for that extra biscuit we confirm that we could not have resisted it. And the cycle continues.

So what can we ask ourselves if not “What do I want?”. I think healthier and better questions to ask ourselves are, “Is this helpful?” or “What do I need right now?”. Immediately, it bypasses the instant want for more sugar, less work, more social isolation.

What I want

VS

What I need / what is helpful

To stay in bed until the last minute

VS

To get ready with plenty of time so that I am not stressed

To have more biscuits and chocolate

VS

To moderate what I eat; to actively choose what I eat tonight

To avoid socialising or meeting new people

VS

To remind myself that meeting new people is good for me, and not that bad

To stay quiet and not ask for help because that would be embarrassing

VS

To reach out to that friend; to call someone; to ask for help.

To tell a lie, to tell a half truth, to avoid confrontation

VS

To be honest; to be assertive; to be true to myself

So is it as simple as changing the questions we ask ourselves and things will magically change? No. But it is a simple trick that will refocus our attention on something that is more useful. It allows us to focus on what is important rather than giving in to the anxiety or the instant ‘need’ for something that is not necessarily going to help us.

Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with another biscuit or having a lie in (I’m prone to both), but if we can be more reflective, it will allow us to consciously choose behaviour that is in our best interest. We need to find moderation, develop compassion, and be our own cheerleader and coach. Especially when times are hard.

It’s about finding a balance between forgiving ourselves and about challenging ourselves. So next time, just pause and ask yourself if what you are about to do is in your best interest, if it is helpful and what you need in that moment. As always, small steps.

Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

On Being Fragile Together

I stumbled upon this poem the other day and it’s made me think a lot about our individual and collective situations – especially at the moment with social distancing and some lock-down measures still in place.

Fragile – Nic Askew

Not only am I fond of the aesthetics of the poem, but the message resonates deeply with me, and I see it all the time in the counselling room. We are prone to feel that we are suffering alone or, more often, we think others are happier and more successful. This is not a new idea, but the words of the poem put it so succinctly and beautifully. I wanted to look at a couple lines in particular:

“Though we act strong” — this speaks to the part of us that is drawn to putting on a front, a face, that says that we are doing just fine. We do not feel ready or vulnerable enough to share our innermost struggles and feelings. We fear that, if shared, we would be telling everyone that we are not not good enough, that we are failing. But the truth is quite different – if we were to share with others how we are feeling, we would normalise it so that others can share; we would be creating a space to receive guidance and help; we would be creating a more honest and useful dynamic between us and others. It is being vulnerable that people struggle with, and there is an art in learning how to do just that so that it does not feel too damaging, too scary. Bit by bit, we can learn to not act at all, but to bring our authentic self to the conversation. In being authentic, we also feel more at ease with ourselves and others; others, too, can begin to share their authentic selves, rather than trying to reach a certain ideal.

“If we were to turn to each other” — although this speaks more of turning our attention to others and seeing their fragility, too, I like to think of it in the sense of connection with others. If we can learn to reach out to others, learn to be vulnerable and share how we are feeling then we can also experience a deeper connection with others. Often, people speak in the counselling room about a superficial connection with others that they are desperate to change; or they share experiences of relationships that don’t satisfy them, that don’t give them that satisfaction. One of the reasons for this is that we sometimes learn to relate to others in a way that keeps our authentic self hidden, and we do not risk connecting to others in meaningful ways. It is too risky, and requires us to be vulnerable. But the truth is that, once learned, it is a powerful way of being – to connect to others in authentic and meaningful ways allows for our needs to be met because we are able to communicate with others. We can recognise how we are feeling and we can tell others. In doing so, we enrich our relationships and the lives of others.

Counselling is a place to do both of these things. It is a place to recognise how we are feeling and find the courage to express those thoughts and feelings to others, so that we are living in alignment.

When our inner thoughts match our external voice, we tend to find less conflict and more harmony. It feels terrifying but it can be learned bit by bit. In being more authentic we also allow others to be more authentic.

We are social beings, and it is important that we recognise the importance of connection with others. We need to cultivate meaningful connections through authenticity and being vulnerable in those moments that don’t feel too overwhelming.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Equipping ourselves to deal with the pain of others.

There is a seemingly endless list of commentary on current events and I cannot claim to be clued up on the nuances of what is happening. I cannot claim to relate to the experiences that are being broadcast across our screens either. I do, however, want to comment on something with which I am familiar. It is something that is becoming quite obvious to me and not yet talked about enough. It is the experience of being traumatised or triggered on a daily basis.

I want to make it clear that I am only commenting on the psychological and emotional effect as a result of what we are witnessing regardless of background or race. I am concerned that a vast majority of people do not have the resources to deal with it. What is worse is that because of lock-down measures we are not equipped socially to deal with it. We are not allowed to reach out to family or friends for comfort and support, to get that much needed hug or physical contact. We are being triggered, traumatised, and being refused that vital care and comfort from those most important to us.

Of course, this does not compare with the trauma that has been experienced by the black community for generations – and it will be them who experience the worse second-hand trauma. What makes it worse is the sense of helplessness and uncertainty, of not knowing if it will end. And it is that combination of things that concerns me – the trauma, a sense of powerlessness, the lack of support, an unending sense of uncertainty.

The question that I am concerning myself with is how do we arm ourselves with the right skills and self-care so that we can witness what is happening without burning out or, perhaps worse, becoming desensitised to violence and death?

I am not commenting on the event itself, nor the wider experiences of racism and violence. There is a lot to be said about those topics already and I am far from an expert. I am not commenting on the media nor the political handling of the situations – I am no expert. I am focusing on the emotional responses we are all having to the very real, very distressing experiences happening to other human beings. I am worried that we are not equipped to deal with it.

We need each other now more than ever yet we have – until recently – been unable to seek comfort in the most primal way. How, then, do we ensure we can keep going? We need to ensure that we remain engaged in the conversations and the experiences of others without burning out. We need to remain grounded whilst actively seeking out others to support and challenge. We need to keep calm whilst allowing the passion and motivation to remain. We need to witness the pain of others – and have empathy for others – and ensure we care for ourselves. This is a phenomenal shift in the collective consciousness and the importance of engaging in conversations and changes in behaviour cannot be overstated.

Of course I am advocating for counselling being that space. I am equipping myself to have an increasingly wider range of skills to deal with topics that I have previously been unfamiliar with. I am learning, and I am determined to support those that are burning out, fearful or unsure how to deal with things. We are at risk of becoming overwhelmed with information.

I cannot relate to any abuses or violations as a direct or indirect result of race or skin colour, but I am learning how to help others through those exact experiences. I am equipping myself to help those who are witnessing trauma on the news, on social media, or in conversations with friends and family. I am determined to equip myself so that I can help others to equip themselves to deal with first-hand and second-hand trauma. Whatever your experience, it is necessary to seek care and comfort if you – if we all – are to keep going. As I have heard many times already – this is a marathon, not a sprint. We need to ensure we have the resources to hold onto that passion, to keep engaging in conversations, and to witness the suffering in others without burning out, becoming uninterested, or feeling numb.

Photo by Irina Anastasiu from Pexels

Big Anxiety, Little You

Anxiety can affect people in different ways, and this analogy might not work for you but I believe it will work for a lot of people. I’ve always been fond of understanding anxiety as a sort of miscalculation of two things – the perceived or potential threat; and of yourself. It seems to be a fairly consistent narrative, that whatever it is that is causing the person distress (or anxiety) is presently understood as a BIG threat, and that the image of the person is that they are small and incapable, especially in dealing with the threat. I am not trying to over-simplify the matter (as anxiety can often be crippling and all-consuming) but if we can work out how to adjust the perception of both those things then I believe we can reintroduce a bit more control and stability into your life.

One of the things that we can explore is your self-image. How you see yourself can play a big role in your level of anxiety. If you believe yourself to be untrustworthy, unreliable, incapable, ‘not good enough’ then you are quite likely to feel anxious at the idea of tackling a problem. These messages might not be something you actively choose unfortunately, but nonetheless are messages you carry. They may have been given to you, or forced upon you, by others – this may be intentional or not. The messages may have been given to you by the media or the culture you grew up in. Regardless, it’s important to address the beliefs you have about yourself. It is important to develop a more realistic and positive sense of self. You might not be aware of those thoughts, in which case we can look at your inner, deeper beliefs about yourself of which you may not be consciously aware. These deeper beliefs affect all of us in endless ways, and it is important to be aware of our own beliefs if we are to ever live more honestly and in the present.

A lot of counselling can be about self-image and how you see yourself, and challenging those statements in a non-judgemental way. And that’s important – it’s done so in a supportive and encouraging way so that you don’t feel attacked. It’s about bringing awareness to the unhelpful, unhealthy ways in which you may see yourself. The deeper work, if that’s necessary, can be about exploring where the beliefs came from and introducing other beliefs – that you are capable and have managed things this far.

Another part of counselling is exploring the perceived threat – what about that thing is so scary or overwhelming? What makes that thing so intimidating? Where did that idea come from? Is there another way to look at the thing, the object, the event? Or, is it simply a matter of problem solving, and working out a way to tackle the problem head on. Through counselling, it is possible to develop your confidence, your problem solving skills and, with a little practice, your resiliency. The latter refers to moments when it might go wrong but you acknowledge it and try again – there is often a fear around those things that cause anxiety, a fear that says that it’s not worth trying. And when we don’t try something, we reaffirm that belief that we are incapable, that the threat – the thing that causes us anxiety – is, in fact, threatening and impossible to overcome. It is a slow and steady exposure to the thing that causes anxiety, to failure, that reminds us that we are alright, despite what the anxiety is trying to tell us. That if we fail, it’s ok and we are safe and things are going to be alright.

Counselling for some forms of anxiety, can be about

  • Exploring and addressing how you see yourself
  • Developing your self-esteem and confidence
  • Challenging beliefs that you have of yourself, and introducing healthier ones
  • Exploring and dissecting the event or thing that causes anxiety
  • Identifying strategies to manage the anxiety or navigate the event/threat
  • Gentle and appropriate exposure to the event or thing to demonstrate your abilities

There will be other ways to develop the way you manage anxiety, including mindfulness and being more present, rather than getting stuck in a future of potential ‘worst case scenarios’. Once the anxiety is talked about, it slowly becomes less present, less significant and you can realise your potential to manage things without an overwhelming sense of not being good enough.

Photo by Sven Huls from Pexels