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Does Self-Help Always Help?

When is it right to ask for help and to seek support?

Magazines, social media, well-meaning friends; all have advice on how to feel better, calmer, more positive etc. But does this advice work? Can you walk, meditate or superfood your way to happiness?

I’m going to give a typical therapist answer here – It depends who you are to begin with and how you are at the time.

You don’t have to be an expert to see that it’s a good idea to take care of yourself mentally and physically. And there’s good evidence for the benefits of some popular remedies such as gentle exercise, time spent outdoors or breathing exercises.

At the same time, encouragement to help yourself can feel much the same as an instruction to ‘pull yourself together’, if in gentler language. And sometimes we have issues to deal with that cannot be resolved in such a way. We may, for example, be stuck in grief or suffering ongoing depression or having to deal with unresolved trauma.

Self-help may also set unrealistic goals for us such as ‘feel better in fourteen days’. It can also make us feel that we must feel good all the time when that is neither natural nor healthy. And, for people prone to drive themselves too hard, self-help can be just one more punishing routine alongside the others.

It is perfectly normal for human beings to feel tired or down every now and then. Indeed, sometimes the best thing to do is live with the unsettling feelings for a little while and maybe view this as a clue to whether we have a bigger problem to resolve.

So please, feel free to try some self-help but don’t feel bad if it doesn’t work for you. And remember that sometimes the best way to help yourself is to ask someone else for help.

Us an Dem

Are you tired of people treating you differently? Do you feel you are being picked on? You may be being othered.

At the heart of othering is the thought that I am being made out to be different and the feelings of discomfort and alienation that such thoughts this may bring.

From our earliest days we are told that some people are like us and that some are not. In such ways we come to hold one group of people to be our group and the other groups of people to be different to us. All of which makes sense in helping us to work out and to understand our place in the world.

There are however ways in which this process can become harmful. Our group may come to view itself as superior in any number of ways – healthier, more intelligent, clean or virtuous – and likewise we may come to label certain other groups as inferior in any number of ways – sick, stupid, dirty or immoral.

We may be told that we are a member of a superior group of people and that we are not like the others in the inferior group of people. In this way, the difference between us and the others becomes a distinction between the desirable and the undesirable, between the acceptable and the unacceptable, between the good and the bad.

In this way we may come to view these other people purely on the basis of what we have been told about them. Worse, we may come to judge them to be undesirable, unacceptable and bad purely on the basis of this prejudice.

Then what can happen is twofold. First we may act out of our prejudice to penalise these ‘othered’ people. This may be officially by passing laws against them and it may be unofficial by making up rude and demeaning names for them or worse by physically attacking them. This leads to the second part, whereby those treated in this way cry out against the injustices they are being made to suffer. They may do this formally on a case by case basis. They may seek justice and redress top from their oppressor while understanding that this is often asking the oppressive group to act against its own members. Or they may act informally. They may politely ask the people concerned to stop making rude and offensive remarks. They may be less polite verbally or they may react with violence against their oppressors property or even attack their oppressors physically.

Stop for a moment and think how this came about. The natural process of separation and individuation developed into a distinction between those who are like us and those who are not. This distinction was used to create a distinction between our group and other unlike group. And this distinction was exploited to create divisions with the intention of gaining advantages for members of our group over and against members of the other group. It is this exploitation that lies at the heart of what is wrong about othering leading, as it does, to prejudicial injustice.

There are many well-known examples of othering such as men othering women, white people othering non-white people, rich people othering poor people (‘the poor’). In each case one group holds an advantage which they exploit to take from the othered group what is rightly theirs.

And what may this be? What is it that people rightly have? Well, good jobs and possessions certainly. But also dignity, self-respect, independence, freedom of thought and self-determination. And aren’t these the very things that psychotherapy seeks to help individuals achieve?

So in this sense, psychotherapy may be seen as the opposite of othering. With psychotherapy you can bring the disparate parts of your life together in a way that makes sense to you and feels comfortable for you. In time you can come to experience wholeness in yourself and togetherness with your family, your friends and the world around you. And in this way psychotherapy represents a process of togethering.

In Spite of Everything

What can I do to stop being spiteful?

To spite someone is to intentionally annoy, hurt or upset them even where there may be no apparent gain, or even where the spiteful actions may cause actual harm. For psychotherapists spite is viewed as a form of self-harm based on a series of negative interactions. This is often related to anger and to withdrawal.

Spite has a negative impact on our relations with those we are spiteful towards. Being spiteful stops us from enjoying ourselves by preventing us having the positive actions we may desire or even crave. This means that spite is corrosive. It will corrode your relationships and lead to superficial or plastic interactions.

There are a number of reasons why you may feel spiteful:
You may feel they have wronged you and want to get back at them – revenge. You may resent the person while being afraid of being open and honest with them. You may feel it is too difficult to talk openly and honestly to them about you’re your feelings. This may be because they are closed, indifferent, hostile, aggressive or abusive. You may be scared to confront them directly. Or you may feel that you are in the wrong and you don’t want to admit this or be held accountable for the consequences of your actions.

Psychotherapy can help you to explore what motivates your spiteful actions. People may come to be spiteful because of their childhood. An overbearing parent or a school bully may have left you feeling that you have no other option than to be spiteful towards them. People may choose to be spiteful because of their position at work. You may be having bad experiences with your colleagues such as arguments about milk, sugar, coffee and tea. You may hold someone to be not pulling their weight, swinging the lead or sucking up to the boss. These may all produce negative thoughts and lead to spiteful actions. And then there are managers or other authority figures who may put their own needs before yours, take credit for your work or regard your time as their own.

Psychotherapy can help you to find a more reasonable and productive course of action. Talking to a psychotherapist can allow you to voice different, possibly shameful yet genuine feelings and thoughts. Talking to a psychotherapist can allow you to work through issues that you don’t want to share with those close to you such as your life partner or those with power over you such as your line manager.

Your psychotherapist will evaluate your circumstances and help you to address your issues by going to the roots of your unhelpful behaviours. Your psychotherapist will help you to understand why you are behaving in these damaging ways. They will suggest strategies to help you change and adopt positive behaviours. One such strategy is to keep a journal that sets down your hurts, your anger and even your shame in words and pictures. Over time you will learn to be assertive in appropriate and effective ways. In this way you need never be spiteful again.

“Once you start psychotherapy you never stop”

Myths about psychotherapy: Number 4

The Importance of Contracting.

One of the first questions clients ask about their psychotherapy is ‘how long will it take?’ Well, people suffering anxiety or depression often begin to find some relief within the first two to four months of psychotherapy. And people with deeper issues such as trauma, relationship issues, or sexual problems often require longer.

So, given that psychotherapy works to the completion of a psychotherapeutic contract, the question then becomes when this completion should be. Well, your psychotherapist should always have a contract. This contract sets out your goal for psychotherapy and sets a date for completion or review. When this contract is met, you will either wish to come out of psychotherapy or to set a new contract. When you first enter psychotherapy, you may not be clear what your contract is. In this case you and your psychotherapist will work on this and agree your contract together.

Now, psychotherapy depends on frank, probing and revealing discussions that raise deep and sometimes troubling feelings. To allow these discussions to take place, your psychotherapist will provide a safe space for you to hold these discussions and for you to have your feelings. In this safe space you may come to express yourself more clearly than ever before. You may come to get in touch with and to understand your true feelings. In time you may, in this safe space, work out how to use your understanding together with your true feelings to bring about healing.

Taking all of these considerations into account means that as you proceed with your psychotherapy you should be evaluating where you have reached and whether you are close to meeting, or have met, your agreed contract. And, of course, your psychotherapist will help you to do this. You should always feel able to ask them how things are going and to talk about how far along the road you are.

Once the concerns that prompted you to start psychotherapy are under control and once the concerns that were bothering you are no longer weighing you down then it may be time to think about ending your psychotherapy. If you are feeling confident about your life and now have tools that work for you, then it is probably a good time for you to end your psychotherapy.

And please, if you have had a successful outcome, make sure the end of your psychotherapy is a positive experience. Just as everyone’s psychotherapy is different, so every ending is different. Together with your psychotherapist, acknowledge your release from what was troubling you. Psychotherapy can help us to be free, to belong and to get along. If this has happened to you then why not share this with your psychotherapist?

The Question of Freud

How are we to account for Freud the thinker alongside Freud the human being?

The place of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) in relation to contemporary psychotherapy is, to say the least, interesting.

Freud and Josef Breuer (1842-1925) trained in medicine and became interested in the phenomena of the human mind. Together they developed psychoanalysis as a method for treating mental illness based on their studies of human behaviour. Though Breuer’s interest waned, others joined Freud in developing a psychological model of mental illness. In this way the psychological, as opposed to the medical, means of treating mental illness came to be called ‘psychotherapy’.

For Freud the events of our childhood continue to influence our behaviours as adults. For example, traumatic childhood experiences cause and may be used to understand anxiety in our adult lives. Though we may no longer be aware of these childhood events they may nevertheless be causing difficulties in our adult life. In such cases the role of the psychotherapist is to bring these events to our awareness. This will allow us to resolve the trauma and be released from the anxiety it is causing.

In this way Freud may be viewed as a practical-minded scientist who used all he had available to explore the operations of the human mind. To do this he collaborated with others to develop new theories and to improve contemporary practice. This ‘Good Freud’ shared his findings among the research community, while practicing his latest methods in order to help resolve the anxieties of his patients.

However, Freud’s behaviour has been described at various times and by various people as secretive, possessive, dishonest, sexist, patronising, and abusive. This ‘Bad Freud’ hid important developments from those he regarded as competitors. He withheld and ignored results that contradicted his own thinking. He took the ideas of others for himself. Worse still he regarded women as objects for his own use and he abused those who dared to disagree with him.

This leaves us both with a Freud who is a genius of modern science and a Freud who is a despicable cheat.

All of which may be so but is this any more than a historical debate? Well, certain aspects and techniques developed by Freud are still considered to be important and are still in use. Elements such as a client talking confidentially one-to-one to a therapist who listens attentively come directly from Freud. The idea that there are things about our lives of which we are unaware and which influence our present thoughts, feelings and behaviours is something explained and developed by Freud. The belief that these things may be brought to our awareness and in this way our issues may be resolved comes to us (at least in the West) from Freud.

Indeed Freud’s ideas have spread and grown, though not without much debate and disagreement.

Some analysts such as Melanie Klein (1882-1960) adopted Freud’s approach and developed his ideas, making them their own. Whereas others have rejected Freud’s ideas as false, misleading and damaging. So, in the time since Freud first set out his ideas there have been several schools of psychotherapy directly related to his thought and some significantly different. And importantly Freud’s ideas continue to be discussed and debated often using Freud’s own frames of reference.

For myself I find that Freud is neither all good nor all bad. Uncomfortable it may be but while I acknowledge Freud’s remarkable contribution to psychological understanding and therapeutic method, I cannot – indeed must not – excuse his inexcusable behaviours.

And Never Brought to Mind

The run up to the New Year is often seen as a time for recollection, for looking back on the previous year and on past events that have impacted your more recent life. Spending time with these memories brings up a range of emotions attached to a range of events.

Some of these positive emotions are attached to events and experiences that can make you feel happy and enriched in the present moment. Recalling them is good for you and is something you enjoy doing. You may enjoy sharing this happiness with your family and your friends.

Some of these negative emotions are attached to events and experiences that may still be stressful for you to recall. To remember what happened may even be traumatic for you. With such memories and recollections you may find yourself reliving the past stress and having the painful feelings this brings up.

The sad fact is that you may experience these past events as traumatic in the present and you may come to understand that the pain felt in the past is still with you as the pain you are feeling now, in the present.

So what can you do? Clearly you have a choice to make. You can try to ignore what happened and reject these hurtful emotions. This may push your feelings down and leave them for another day. Or you can recognise them and have them in the present. You can acknowledge the trauma you have suffered and the post-traumatic stress that you are now suffering.

You may decide to talk to your partner, your relatives, or to close friends about the stress that you are having. This may lead you to live your life differently. For example, you may decide to do more exercise, to go to bed earlier, to stop smoking, to drink less – or stop drinking – alcohol.

You may decide that your new understanding requires an appointment with your doctor who will offer advice, support and who may decide that medication is appropriate.

As you pursue your chosen path, your concerns and yes your worries about your future may lead you to decide to talk to a professional psychotherapist. Your psychotherapist will help you to be open about your experiences of trauma, to express your worries about and around this, to examine your current situation and your unfolding desires and plans for your life.

In this way your psychotherapist will help you to form a realistic view of where you are that will allow you to decide on a plan that will enable you to lead a future life free from the stress of past trauma and previous hurt.

It’s up to you. Talk to someone and give yourself the opportunity to live life in the present or stay silent and go on trying not to think about these things.

All I want for Christmas

Happy Christmas – How do you feel when you hear these words? Let’s face it, they are everywhere, all around us at this time of year. And then there’s: Have you done your Christmas shopping? Have you wrapped your gifts? Are all your Covid arrangements in place? And so on and so forth … so no pressure there then!

Christmas is a job, a task that you must do so that you can be happy over the holidays. Or is it? Is Christmas just one huge pressure, an impossible task and – yes – a right royal pain in the backside? And how do you feel about this? Maybe you’ll put up with this yet again because it’ll all be worth it. Maybe you feel you’re bound to fail and it’s just a question of how far you fall short of perfection? Or maybe you just feel sad or frustrated or angry or plain depressed about it all.

If this is how it’s going for you then what are you going to do about it? Nothing? Talk to a friend who feels the same? Find other people who hate Christmas just as much as you do? Well, if Christmas is nothing more than a corporate exercise in extracting as much money as possible from as many people as possible then why not? Be realistic. Pull yourself together and have a damn good moan together.

Then again maybe this isn’t you. Maybe you want to feel better about Christmas and maybe you want to feel better about yourself. Maybe then you feel you could enjoy the festive fun. If this is you then maybe you need to understand what is going on with your desire to set yourself an impossible task while insisting both that you want this hell and that this hell is fun.

Well, we all want to feel good about ourselves and we all want to have fun at Christmas, don’t we? And if we don’t then surely we should do something about this. Sure, friends can help and maybe that’ll do the trick. Have a good moan about how Christmas gets more and more expensive, expectations go up and up, and people are less appreciative year upon year upon year. Then, this year, add on top the tragedy of Covid and the incompetence of those in charge. And finally, share a glass of something and wish each other the merriest of festive seasons.

Or maybe not. Maybe there are deeper needs here. Maybe Christmas brings up things you’d rather not think about and emotions you’d rather not feel. Maybe these things have little to do with Christmas itself. Maybe it’s just that Christmas brings these damn things up year after year and nothing you do can make them go away.

If this is you then you have a further choice. You can do nothing and sit with these awful feelings. You can suffer in silence. Or you can choose to seek help and find support. And the good news is that there is lots of help out there. There are books, internet resources, courses, and self-help groups all available to help you.

And there is psychotherapy; one-to-one personal support, designed to help you get from where you are to where you’d like to be. And there are all sorts of psychotherapists out there waiting to help you. Most will set out what they do and how they work. Some may offer a low or no cost introduction where you can talk to them about what you want from your psychotherapy. And there’s a psychotherapist for everyone. If you don’t like the sound of one psychotherapist then simply try another.

Happy Christmas? The choice is yours.

“Psychotherapy is too risky”

Myths about psychotherapy: Number 3

Why doesn’t everyone have psychotherapy? Is it because some people are suspicious of, or even hostile to, psychotherapy? I think the answers to these questions are based on misunderstandings.

I sometimes hear people say that psychotherapists “mess with your mind”. Well ok, it is true that psychotherapists seek to bring about changes to harmful thoughts, hurtful feelings and damaging behaviours. But in every case the person doing the changing is the client not the psychotherapist.

Another concern is that psychotherapists follow ‘crackpot’ theories that at best do nothing and at worst cause harm to the very people they are supposed to be helping. In their training psychotherapists learn to evaluate a range of approaches. In doing this they find out what is useful in these approaches, and to recognise and avoid potential pitfalls. At the end of their training psychotherapists tend to adopt one or two of the approaches studied following certain figures and practicing particular psychotherapeutic techniques.

Related to this is the fear that psychotherapy is a waste of time. This is sometimes expressed in the form “All that time and all that money to just talk about my problems” or “I’ve given away all my secrets for nothing”. At the surface level this may seem to be true. You will spend a lot of time talking about very personal things. Yet psychotherapy is not simply talking. Psychotherapists are trained with people like you in mind. They are trained to know what they can and what they cannot do. Their knowledge expands and deepens with experience.

And they are aware of the risks. Your psychotherapist will begin with an assessment session to judge whether they are the right person to offer you psychotherapy. You will then spend some time discussing the issues you are bringing to your psychotherapy. From this, you will together agree a plan for your sessions.

You will always be in charge and should always feel in charge of your psychotherapy. To make sure this happens your psychotherapist will check-in with you at the start of each session. They will also check-out with you at the end of the session to see how you are feeling and to ask if you want to say anything further.

Where your psychotherapist thinks there could be beneficial changes to your sessions they will suggest these changes in advance. They will ask whether you agree to the proposed changes and if you don’t agree to adopt these changes then they will not be adopted. Your psychotherapist will remain open to your views throughout your time together. They will hear you and keep your psychotherapy safe.

Claude Steiner

How to live free from script

Claude Steiner (1935 – 2017) developed Transactional Analysis (TA) to include more of the social aspects of our experience and the ways in which how our life history affects the way we interact with others.

In “A Warm Fuzzy Tale” (1969) he used a fairytale format to explore the impact of different human interactions. When people give each other “warm fuzzies” (Berne’s positive strokes) they flourish. When fuzzies are withheld, rationed, or replaced with plastic fuzzies (e.g. giving a child sweets instead of attention) or “cold pricklies” (negative interactions) people, and the societies they live in, are damaged.

In “Scripts People Live” (1974) Steiner explored how the messages we give ourselves (or are given by others) in childhood (such as “I am boring” or “I am more intelligent than other people”) can be carried through the years and become part of their “life script” forming important parts of their self-image and affecting their personality.

These script messages may no longer be true – if they ever were – yet people may go on believing them and behaving in accordance with them. This can damage relationships. For example, the message that “strangers are dangerous” may help keep you safe when you are young but can be unhelpful when you are an adult forming mature relationships.

Recognising when we are following a script and learning how to stop following the outdated messages enables us to move into the present. In this way Steiner’s approach helps us understand how we may have become anchored to the past, how we can learn to move into the present, and how we can make a future for ourselves that is happy and fulfilling.

Steiner’s last words were “Love is the answer”.

“My friends can give me all the help I need”

Myths about psychotherapy: Number 2

Nurturing social support from loved ones and friends is an important part of maintaining our mental health. Our needs, however, sometimes go beyond these relationships. When they do, we can benefit from professional assistance.

Psychotherapy may seem similar to friendship. There are however some important differences. Like your friends, your psychotherapist will listen to your feelings about your current concerns. Unlike your friends, psychotherapists are trained to talk with you in ways that will help you to acknowledge your true feelings and to find positive ways forward. In doing this your psychotherapist will be empathetic and non-judgmental. They will not tell you what to do or offer to do it for you.

In friendship your friends’ needs and interests are as important as yours whereas your psychotherapy is all about you. Everything your psychotherapist does is directed towards helping you.

Friendship does not need a plan or purpose beyond enjoyment. So, with your friends, you can relax, have fun, play sport or visit different places. In contrast, psychotherapy is planned and purposeful, moving towards one or more mutually agreed ends. And with your psychotherapist, you can only do psychotherapy. Your psychotherapist may be friendly, but they are not your friend.

Some of your private thoughts or feelings might appear hurtful or shocking if they were said to a friend. A psychotherapist is a trained professional who understands that we all have unpleasant thoughts and feelings. They know that talking about them in a safe space is important and helpful. They will not judge you.

Sometimes you may not know what you truly think about someone or something. Your friends may assume they know your thoughts already and rush to find quick fixes. Your psychotherapist will sit with you, listen and help you to clarify your thoughts so you can come up with the right solution for you.