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Self Compassion - Dr Kristin Neff really has a point

I have just been watching Dr Neff's very acessible TED talk,  in which Dr Kristin Neff outlines the difference between self esteem and self compassion.  She points out how self esteem is often so much at the expense of others how we are doing in relation to others.  And, as she points out, we can't all be above average.   (Even if it does feel good).  She talks about an epidemic of narcissism sweeping the US (and presumably here too) as we all need to be seen to be wonderful.  And quite honestly, most of us are pretty ordinary. Human even.

I think the most compelling argument she presents in the video is that a focus on self esteem separates us from others, whilst a focus on self compassion brings us together, recognising that we are human, we are on this earth together and we are only alive in this moment.  And it is this connection and acceptance that is key to our sanity, and indeed to the future of our planet.

That really resonates with me, even if I need to practice being self compassionate before I can really walk the talk.

You can find the talk here:

What do you think?


"Still Alice" – how storytelling contains the terror  

I have just been to see the film “Still Alice”, the powerful tale of how Alice Howden, a successful academic, discovers she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and shows her gradual disintegration.  It is very real.  The pain for both Alice (played by Julianne Moore) and her family is vivid and tangible, especially the scenes with the daughter who discovers that she also carries the gene.

There are many moving and powerful moments, and I would encourage anyone interested to go and see the film.  I went because I had a particular fear of early-onset Alzheimer’s, having experienced a colleague contract this and been shocked by her moving rapidly from having a few difficulties organising her papers, to being unable to communicate or recognise anyone.  Gone but not gone.

 I found in the film that my terror was recognised. Alice goes through this horrendous discovery, and knows what she will face, and at the start it seems unbearable.  But then, as she tells fellow sufferers, she learns the “art of losing – losing things, losing memories, losing all sense of who she was”.  She learns about ”living in the moment – it’s the only thing I can do” in a way that brings a whole new meaning to that phrase for me.  And in that she seems to find some salvation. As the story nears its close, it is sad, poignant, difficult, but somehow bearable in a way that might have seemed impossible at the start.

 Standing back, to me this shows the power of story-telling, and how we can use narrative to heal.  The film takes an extremely difficult human experience, and tells the story from beginning to end, showing and sharing the experience in a contained way.  It is very sad, and I cried many times while watching it, but shows a triumph of love and acceptance over fear and control, which ultimately is a challenge each one of us has to face. 

 As a therapist it shows me how important love for my clients is, and how healing it is to hear someone’s story through from beginning to end, to provide a containing space where it can be heard and accepted. As a therapist, I accompany each client on their journey through their story as it unfolds, and by witnessing their journey, can help the story to emerge, to be questioned and reshaped as needed, to settle, and ultimately to be accepted as their own.

 If you haven’t seen it, check out the trailer:


Does Art help Mental Health?

I have recently acquired a beautiful mobile from Ilkley sculptor Juliet Gutch to hang in my consulting room.  One of a series of musical motifs, this one is entitled "Dolente" or "Sweet sorrow" and I was entranced by it as soon as I saw it.  To me it talks less of sorrow, and more of hope and movement, the energy of being human that enables us to experience and survive pain and sorrow.  In the gentle movement and flow of the mobile I experience calmness, acceptance, and the joy of beauty and I am very curious as to whether my clients will also experience a similar effect.  Or indeed whether they will notice it all.



Touching the Void - or is it?

In my darker moments, it seems that this is what psychotherapy is all about: looking into the void, venturing into the seemingly endless chasm that can open up inside when it feels as if the bottom falls out of our world – or more prosaically, someone has pulled the plug out. 

 Having been through my own therapeutic journey, I remember there were times when I felt great fear at approaching difficult feelings.  I felt that if I started crying I would never stop, that I would be overwhelmed and engulfed, that the pain would be just to big to encounter.  I’m writing this blog because I know for me, these moments, and finding a way through these moments, were really important in enabling me to grow and feel freer of my past.

 The film “Touching the Void” tells the true story of how the central character, Joe Simpson, and his partner are descending a mountain after Simpson had broken his leg.  In the descent he slips over a crevasse and is suspended in the freezing air.  His partner has to make the choice to die with him or cut the rope.  He cuts the rope, letting Simpson fall into the crevasse.  Simpson survives the fall, and decides that his best chance lies in going deeper into the crevasse, using what he has left of the rope to let himself down into the unknown.  He has no idea whether his rope will reach the bottom, but goes down as far as it will reach.  He does reach the bottom, and despite his injuries and the cold, eventually succeeds in crawling to the entrance, to emerge into daylight and safety.

 I’m not suggesting psychotherapy is quite as bad as this; though speaking from my experiences as a client, it has felt very difficult at times.  And sometimes, the only way forward is into unknown, uncharted, fearful territory.  Psychotherapy does require strength, perseverance and faith: for both client and therapist.

 And this of course is the difference.  There are two of us involved, all the way through.  In the film, the rope is cut: his partner makes the heart-rending decision to send his friend to almost certain death in order to save himself.  Joe Simpson is entirely alone, completely dependent on his own resources and determination to survive.

 In therapy, there is someone else there, even if, as I know from my own experience, accepting the therapist’s help at a deep level can be an excruciatingly difficult thing to do.  I learnt from an early age that I should look after myself, pride my independence and to be wary of showing any vulnerability.   So I found trusting someone who genuinely wanted to help and make contact was hard.  Psychotherapy helped me see how I needed to do this as a child to protect myself from wanting more from my mother than she could necessarily give, and the inevitable disappointment that followed this.  As children we tend to think that we are the problem, that if only we were a bit more “right” we would be more lovable. 

 As an adult I have been able to re-assess these beliefs.  But doing so involved touching the pain and sadness that I had protected myself from all these years:  the unbearable pain of not being understood, feeling unloved, feeling rejected or somehow not good enough to deserve the parents’ full attention and love.  Touching these feelings as I started to trust the therapist did feel like entering the abyss.  But the difference was that the rope was not cut.  I was connected and held as I looked over the edge and saw the feelings from a different place.  The grief and pain was there, and there were certainly tears, many tears, but they did stop, because I was no longer in that place. I was looking back to it, and recognising where I had held this pain in my body through these years. I could see how I had protected myself against the pain of connection and vulnerability.  I could see what this had cost me in my relationships.  Now I have a great deal more choice.

Light in the Darkness: Skyspace in Salzburg, James Turrell

So I do believe there is hope, and surprising strength, even in the darkest, hardest times.  Therapy brings a connection, a rope that is strong and will not be cut, unless we choose to make this happen.  Once one rope is in place it often helps us to see that there are in fact other ropes connecting us to other people.  We are less alone than we think.   Our sense of connection may take many forms: it might be a ladder that appears, that enables us to climb out of a deep pit, or a suspension bridge that takes us across a gorge. There are many potential ways in which we find connection with others once we start on this route.  What are yours?



Recovery - slow and tedious or a time for learning?

My frozen shoulder isnt quite so frozen any more.  In fact it can do all sorts of exciting things like digging holes and cycling up hills, and waving at people.  But there are still loads of things I cant do - and after some enthusiastic digging my osteopath suggested that I had probably put my recovery back by a few weeks. That is the frustrating thing about any recovery journey.  When things get better we want to leap into action and do all the exciting things that we havent been doing, we want to feel fully well again, and all that patience and acceptance from my last blog just goes out of the window!

It can be very frustrating to accept that the path to recovery, whether emotional or physical, can be a long and often slow road.  It is so tempting to take the advice of friends who advocate painkilling injections or other apparent quick fixes.  I would love a quick fix, and I also want to stay connected to what is happening in my body.  I dont want to numb my feelings, and I really value the information my shoulder gives me about my emotional state and that of my clients.  There is an NLP principle about honouring the positive intention of something that feels like an obstacle.  Once we start to see the problems that we face in this way it is possible to let the issues and pain that feel like stumbling blocks gently transform themselves into stepping stones leading us forward.