Category Archives: Confidence

“But I have already talked about it. What good will it do to talk about it again?”

It is a common belief that once someone has talked about a traumatic event, they should not need to talk about it again. And I can completely see why it feels that way especially if they felt better or gained some relief from doing so. It feels as if the first time should have been enough, and in some ways it does feel like it is enough. And yet there are always instances in which those traumatic events, large and small, still follow the person into the present day.

I urge anyone who has had any sort of trauma in their life to challenge the belief that once is enough. It is important to give yourself the space to process any lingering emotion as many times as is needed. There is simply no ‘expiry date’ for such things. We need to be more compassionate to our trauma and how we are feeling.

In some ways, children show us how it could be done. They are prone to repeating stories endlessly – and it is so important that they do so. It is their way of processing what happened, and a way of organising their thoughts. Without the repetition and attentive audience, they are unable to properly remember what happened or to move past it.

To assume that because adults are older and wiser they do not need the same experience of repetition is detrimental to our emotional health. We owe it to ourselves to share the trauma and experiences as many times as we need.

As with children, it allows us a chance to organise things properly and to make sense of things. There is also the potential that something new is discovered along the way, with a slightly different perspective offered as a result of sharing again. With the right listener, whether that is a counsellor, friend or family member, the right questions will be asked that allows the person to reflect on their experiences. To make it even more meaningful, there might even be meaningful reflections that allow the person to feel safer in the present and looking towards the future. It might allow the person to feel more secure in themselves if they know how to prevent a similar incident from happening again.

Exploring past events more than once allows a space to empower ourselves so that we feel more in control of things, rather than feeling like our memories and feelings control us.

Give yourself whatever is needed so that you can move into the next chapter.

Photo by John T on Unsplash

“We Don’t See Things As They Are, We See Them As We Are”

This has been credited to Anaïs Nin, but supposedly found in other, earlier texts, too. I like it because it captures something fundamental about ourselves and the world. It reminds me that we see everything around us through a subjective lens, which has become such a part of who we are that we rarely reflect on it, let alone question it.

Part of counselling is about increasing our awareness of how that lens (or how our set of beliefs) affect the way that we interpret the world and see people’s actions. I often use the example of a friend walking past me and not stopping to talk. I could interpret that as my friend not liking me (if I believed I was unlikeable, or that others only spend time with me when it is convenient for them), or I could interpret it as them being so busy they didn’t see me (if I believe other people to be fundamentally good, and that I am not always at the forefront of people’s awareness). Same event, different interpretations.

How we interpret things is based on what happened to us when we were younger. Counselling is where you can identify those beliefs but it is also possible to do at home. The beliefs can be grouped into three areas.

The first set of beliefs is how we see ourselves. We can explore this through completing statements such as:

  • I am… (good, kind, bad, a hindrance)
  • I deserve… (good things, bad things, to be ignored, to be hurt, to be loved)
  • I should… (always try my hardest, come first place, love myself, put my feelings first)
  • I can… (do anything, try harder)

The second set of beliefs is about other people. Think about things such as ;

  • Other people are… (untrustworthy, reliable, unsafe, unpredictable, mean)
  • Other people should… (leave me alone, put my needs first, trust me)
  • Other people will… (let me down, betray me, see that I’m a fake, get it wrong)

The third set of beliefs is about the world and is more abstract – there is also a lot of crossover to the other areas. It’s best to reflect on the views of ‘the world’ without any specific statements or restrictions. It could be that the world is safe or terrifying; predictable or chaotic; confusing or reassuring; neutral or biased; free or determined. It might be that karma features in how the world is perceived, or that actions have consequences; it could be that the world is interconnected or completely separated. This helps to put context to the behaviour of the people in it, especially if there is a significant overriding ‘rule’ or set of expectations.

Once a set of beliefs has been established, it is worth spending some time looking at each of them and deciding whether those beliefs are helpful or a hindrance; healthy or damaging; accurate or outdated/biased. Focus on those three areas.

Questions you might ask could be;

  • Is this helpful to me / my well-being? Is it in my best interest?
  • What is this based on? Is there any evidence for this belief?
  • Is this my belief, or have I internalised this from someone else?
  • Was this true at one point but now needs updating / changing?

You will then have a set of beliefs that you are happy to maintain, and a set of beliefs you want to let go of or uproot. This is your plan of action. Work at it in whatever way suits you. You could focus on the positive ones, and keep repeating them; keep doing things that reaffirm those beliefs; give yourself mantras to repeat throughout the day. Or you could notice every time you think something that triggers one of the unhelpful beliefs, and ask yourself those questions – is this thought or belief helpful, accurate, healthy?

Counselling can be about exploring where those beliefs came from and it can be about challenging and replacing those sets of beliefs that are holding you back. I believe each and every one of us has the ability to choose how they would like to live by increasing awareness of how we live and taking small actions that move us closer to feeling better.

As always, get in touch if you want to talk about how counselling can help you identify those beliefs that are unhelpful, or to introduce more helpful beliefs.

Take care.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Struggling to reach a goal? Be SMART

As far as I know, the idea of having SMART goals came from the business world, and has found its way into other areas. Lately, I have found the concept of making our goals SMART more and more useful. And the more I speak to people in the counselling room, the more I find that using even one of the criteria is helpful in getting them closer to where they want to be.

You can search online for slight variations of it, but generally I use the following approach to setting goals.

Specific – make sure that what you want to work on is narrow enough that you can give your time and attention to that one thing. I often find people wanting to be ‘better’ or ‘healthier’, but often set themselves up because it is too broad. Being healthier could mean running 10 minutes three times a week; eating more vegetables; sleeping more. Feeling better could involve reaching out to friends; having a better work/life balance; engaging regularly with a chosen hobby. Counselling can help narrow the focus so that you make better use of your time and energy.

Measurable – it is important to measure your progress because you are more likely to release dopamine (the chemical in our body that gets released when we are doing the right thing). It is important to give yourself evidence that you are progressing and achieving something. This makes it less likely that you will lose motivation! There are plenty of apps to do this, or you can just resort to a pen and paper (or a whiteboard) – be proud of your achievements, mark them down and keep track of how you are moving forward!

Achievable – I like to push people to work just outside of their comfort zone! But think about baby steps. I can’t run 10km but I am more likely to achieve a 5km run. And then I will build up as I get better each time. Similarly, someone might not be able to manage their stress but could manage to focus on their breath once a day. Improving relationships could be about practicing being more honest or assertive. I often ask people, “if that feels too difficult, what feels achievable right now?” and build up from there. We fall short when we set our expectations too high and when we don’t reach the goal that is too difficult, we lose motivation. So it is important to be more realistic (and caring)!

Relevant – It happens too often that other people give us something to aim for, and in doing so we don’t develop that internal motivation. In the counselling room, it seems to be far more helpful if the person sitting opposite me comes up with something on their own. I might say, “OK, so what do you want to focus on?” rather than “it might be useful to focus on meditation to help with your stress”. Of course, I am there to offer guidance if needed but it is important to find the internal motivation or the thing that is most personal to you. This is better than allowing someone else to push you somewhere that isn’t meaningful. You know what direction you need to head in.

Time bound – rather than making the goal too restrictive (achieving it by next week) or too loose (no end date, or too far in the future), it is important to work out a date that you want to achieve something. You might even link it to a specific event (by the time your birthday comes around, or by the time the end of term happens). Having a fixed endpoint can help to focus some of the attention, and help you to aim for something concrete. And it allows you not to drift, or to not take it seriously – after all this is your happiness or well-being!

So to recap:

  • Narrow your goal down so that you know what to focus on – don’t waste time on a goal that is too broad.
  • Keep track of any progress you make – it is important to recognise how far you get.
  • Work at something realistic – it could be slightly outside of your ability or comfort zone but within your reach if you push yourself
  • YOU need to decide what is a meaningful goal – this increases your chance of keeping at it, rather than feeling like you are being told to do something.
  • Give yourself an endpoint to work towards – this avoids becoming too relaxed or too rigid

If you need support with achieving your life goals or to create a plan that works for you, reach out and see how counselling could help.

Take care.

How Meditation Reminded Me We Can Start Again

I am a big advocate of meditation and have tried a number of apps over the years. I have settled on a couple that I use regularly, interchangeably, depending on which ‘narrator’ or theme I fancy that day or week. Sometimes I practice a Loving Kindness meditation (Metta); sometimes I find a great deal of usefulness in being guided to focus on my breath; sometimes I focus on the ticking of the large wall clock behind me.

Recently, when I have meditated I have been reminded of two things – one of which I will write about here. It is not a great epiphany, nor is it an original thought. But I have connected the dots between meditation and the idea of starting again.

One of the meditation apps includes discussions on meditation, and reiterated the idea that – if focusing on your breath – if your attention drifts to something else or you notice yourself thinking… you just bring your attention back to the breath. And, most importantly, start again with no judgement. Each time we find ourselves focusing on what to cook for dinner, or thinking about the deadline we have coming up, it is a reminder that we can simply bring our attention back to the breath. Each time we notice it, it is a chance to start again. No judgement.

This is a simple, yet overlooked mindset that we should apply to our personal lives. It is incredibly powerful to realise and remind ourselves that at any point we can start again. Or, arguably, we can simply start.

One of the common obstacles in the counselling room is the judgement that the person cannot start again with that goal they had; they can’t just change how things are; they do not allow themselves to do something differently; start again with a new project. The list is long. And I always notice – as does the person sitting opposite me – how much better things would be if it wasn’t for the judgement of starting again.

Yes – there might be practical elements to consider when starting again. And I do not minimise the struggle of doing so. What I argue for is challenging the idea that starting again is a negative thing, a sign that we have failed or that we are not good enough.

Some of the conversations that I have are about challenging the ideas and beliefs that someone might hold that prevents them from growing, moving forward, or being happy.

We create obstacles that, with a bit of prompting, we realise only we can remove. Counselling helps to challenge those beliefs and find a new way of being, and gives you permission to step into a new life – one that is free of judgement and constraint.

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Reparenting – What We Missed As Children

It is important to stress that this is in no way a criticism of anyone’s parenting – this is about acknowledging what we missed when we were young and finding a way to give it to ourselves. It might even be about giving ourselves permission.

It is also important to stress that parenting is difficult at the best of times – the simple act of managing the logistics and practical side of things, let alone making sure that we are addressing the emotional development of someone who is fragile, who depends on us for everything… is not a straightforward task. And that is why it is very likely that our parents (and we will) get things wrong.

In doing the best we can, and in putting our energy into a select number of things (we only have limited time, attention, energy), we are inevitably going to forget to do something else. Sometimes that means we forget to reassure our children; sometimes it means we forget to give them unconditional love; sometimes it means we scold them more than we would like. The list will grow the older they get. Similarly, our parents would have done the same.

Unfortunately, in doing what they thought best – in trying as hard as they could – they neglected a few things. And those things stick with us over time, and become our beliefs about ourselves (e.g. we need to be a certain way to receive praise) or others (e.g. people are unreliable). Until it becomes an issue, we don’t always have the space to question those beliefs, let alone choose new ones. And so we go through life compromising our values, giving in to those insecurities and needing approval of others; or we never allow ourselves to accept or receive love; or we pretend to be something that we are not.

Once we acknowledge what we didn’t have as children – which is a difficult task in itself – we can see patterns in our current behaviour. And from here we can start to make real changes. It is then about finding a way to give ourselves the very things we didn’t get as children – emotional warmth, praise, reassurance, acceptance, comfort, safety, love.

Counselling is the space to explore what we experienced as children from a compassionate point of view – it is never about blame. It is important to process the feelings that come up and then move towards giving ourselves that very thing we missed. What can sometimes manifest as unhealthy or unhelpful ways of coping, is simply our younger selves doing whatever it takes to get our needs met. With a new awareness, we can work through healthy and helpful ways to give ourselves those things we crave. There is often apprehension or resistance, but with practice it becomes a new belief and way of being.

It is vital that we pay attention to those feelings, those needs, and find ways to give ourselves permission to heal and feel satisfied and happy with who we are.

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.

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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.

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