Tag Archives: counselling blog

BEING PRESENT TO OURSELVES, PRESENT TO OUR CLIENTS

Two of the most valuable workshops I’ve attended, to free myself more, both as a counsellor and as a writer, were two one day Nose to Nose Clowning Workshops, facilitated by the late Jackie Moore at the Blackthorn Trust in Maidstone. This experience led to my being able to let go of some of those expectations of myself that I had been carrying.

Once the red nose was in place, the most important lesson I learnt was that it was hard to be in the here and now, present to myself and/or present to an audience, when I was carrying a sack full of expectations on my back. The heaviness of fear, anxiety and those questions: ‘What do I have to offer?’; ‘Can I get this right?’; ‘Can I do this as well or even better than other people?’; ‘Why can’t I do this?’ needed to surface and then be eliminated. Jackie was a very accepting, compassionate and an enthusiastic facilitator. She knew just what it was like for us.

It was only when I allowed myself to be vulnerable to, ‘not know how to do this’, that a space opened up to a trust, faith and belief that anything might be possible and I didn’t have to know what that would be. I could just allow something or nothing to happen. This was not an easy thing to achieve.

We all grew in different ways and watching other people perform and free themselves to be creative was just as much a joy as realising I could ‘let go’ of expectations and be vulnerable too. It was only when I was able to open myself to just being in the moment that I finally relaxed into finding the clown within me. What I took away from these workshops was the realisation that we all have that clown within us, it is just about allowing it to have the space to be whatever it wants to be in that moment.

‘Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.’

Edgar Degas

The transferable skill that I took into the counselling room with me was the ability to trust and allow the counselling to unfold. Although I was responsible for managing the space in the counselling room, I didn’t need to control it or in any way make something happen. Counselling can be a gentle process of allowing that self expression and self awareness happen. Each of our clients is truly the expert on themselves and they have come into counselling to find something that they want. We can trust the client, ourselves and the process, it is a special relationship that happens, each of us with ourselves and with each other, allowing and freeing a process to unfold as it needs to. Counselling, like clowning is a creative process. I believe I became a better counsellor as a result of doing these two short workshops. They also involved a lot of laughter with and at the other participants which was in itself therapeutic.

‘Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.’

Victor Borge

The photo above is of Carol Thompson who is a Clown Facilitator and Laughter Leader working in London: http://dandeliontime.org.uk/past-events/day-play-workshop/  She’s also involved in a Therapeutic Service which helps children recover from past traumas, develop confidence and self esteem: http://dandeliontime.org.uk.  The main Nose to Nose website is: http://www.nosetonose.info and Carol’s page on that site is: www.ntncarol.blogspot.com

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LAUGHTER IS A SERIOUS BUSINESS

The Secrets of Chinese meditation (asblsima.be from Google free images)

I made a New Year’s resolution that if I had been talking to someone, reading or watching something that was distressing close to bed time, I would find something to do, watch or read that would make me smile or laugh, even if it was just for 15 minutes. It leaves a good taste from the day and my step is lighter up the stairs to bed.

I was lucky enough to have a mum who had a very earthy sense of humour and I could share any joke with her that I heard at school, really ANY joke. She would laugh, sometimes ask me to explain, and then if it was a bit too risqué, she would tell me not to repeat it to anyone else. When our family sat around the dining table and someone said something that could be taken two ways, she would suddenly look utterly fascinated by the garden. I knew she was avoiding meeting my gaze. If that happened, we would both end up with tears streaming down our faces in fits of giggles. I have been both blessed and cursed by occasional bouts of uncontrollable giggles, especially at times when it was least acceptable to show it. It was never cruel laughter but once or twice it did get me into trouble. There have been nearly one and half million viewings of the Hannah Sargeant, Funny Nativity, video on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihQuiyV-lXU

When we are busy with life, it can be hard to make space for laughter, for noticing the ridiculous in the everyday. I was listening to a comedian recently who was describing the ordinariness of his bathroom and because he was a great observer, it was surprisingly funny. I love to spend time with friends who I can laugh with. It ripples positive energy throughout our bodies and is such a release of those tensions and stresses that we absorb and can become so easily attached to. My husband, Chris and I are fortunate to share a similar earthy sense of humour about little things. This morning on a walk, a blackbird was pulling and pulling at a worm. We stopped to watch as he eventually won his rather too long and heavy prize. As he carried it across the path in front of us, he trod on it rather awkwardly and ended up with only a tiny fraction of the worm in his beak. He flew off in disgust as we laughed but we noticed that he did come back and retrieve it! When our children were young, it was a pure joy to hear them laugh out loud when we were playing games or watching something on television.

I read recently that the third largest reason for people seeking medical help is for depression and certainly when I was counselling, this was one of the largest categories of presenting problems. The pressures in schools and the working world of high expectations; lack of money; fewer jobs; expensive housing and seemingly less time for everything creates enormous stress. One important way of relieving this is to take the time to notice those things that lighten our load. In counselling, I would often use humour as a way of encouraging people to become self aware, notice repeat behaviours and be able to gently laugh at themselves for ‘doing it again’ rather than getting shameful, angry or self abusive because, like all of us, they were not ‘perfect’.

We all experience ups and downs and we need to accept and normalise the whole gamut of human feelings. However, we can find ourselves forming more attachment to negative outcomes rather than positive outcomes, we can become stuck for longer in negative thoughts and feelings. To lift ourselves out of this, it can genuinely help us to focus more on what makes us laugh. The balance we achieve in doing this enhances our good health and well being. Many of us are in serious need of a dose of laughter to lighten our lives on a daily basis.

How Does That Happen?

On a visit to St. Stephen’s Basilica Cathedral in Budapest, I found myself pondering some large questions: Why do we still go to war? Why do men abuse women and children?  As I stood looking at the beauty in that place, I found an answer that made sense to me.

Budapest Skyline

What came to me was perhaps obvious: that just as day and night, feast and famine, hot and cold are on a continuum, so are our capacities as human beings to be free to choose to be creative and/or destructive .  In that cathedral, created with such passion, there were exquisite carvings and paintings depicting both beauty and images of soldiers, swords and other instruments of war.  We are capable of every extreme of feeling, together with the imagination and ability to act upon it or not. The more power, strength and potency that we gain as human beings, some people will act with grace, generosity and creativity and others will act in a way that is mean, corrupt and destructive. Realistically, we all have some of both and certainly as I get older these two extremes seem less clear.  Sometimes we may think we are being honorable but can be driven by ego and sometimes we may make real mistakes that teach us and aid us to jump forward on our journey towards enlightenment. However, we are certainly helped on our way if we can temper our power, strength and potency with love, humility and wisdom which is easier to do if we have had an experience of ‘plenty’ and a loving family life. This poem grew out of these questions.

What It Begins With:

It begins with the welcome given to a baby;

the nurturing given to a child;

that spirit of love held in a family;

the friendship bonding a community;

a feeling of belonging to a country;

having a connection to the World.

There needs to be enough

for that baby and this world

to grow straight.

Then again, I have been humbled by the clients I have worked with who experience extreme deprivation and abuse and yet still choose to become creative, wise, loving, generous human beings, full of grace. How does that happen?

KEY ELEMENTS TO KICK START THE COUNSELLING

Pic du Carlit
Pic du Carlit

Counselling is a creative process and as each of us are the real experts on ourselves, anything that enables us to express ourselves in that process is fundamental to it. Self expression leads us to self awareness and that frees us to realise that we can continue as before or choose to do things differently.

I have never heard the story of a client that didn’t make sense to me once they explained their personal and family history. As we hear ourselves telling our story, and realise how we got to this place, it is then possible to explore what other choices we could be making. There are some basic needs that enable this process to work well:

  • A safe, calm, comfortable and confidential space, with an agreed confidentiality and time boundary managed by an ethical and professionally qualified and supervised counsellor.
  • We all need a counsellor who is encouraging and prepared to witness and listen to our story, in terms of how it is now and how it got to be like this for us.
  • Acceptance and understanding. (The word in Cherokee for Love is the same word for understanding – in the book ‘Little Tree’ by Forest Carter).
  • So many of us as clients come into counselling believing that there is something ‘wrong’ with us, because we have a high expectation of ourselves. It is vital to normalise that we all go through bad experiences, make mistakes, feel unable to cope sometimes. It is vital to normalise this and value the choices we may make as children to survive, which may not continue to suit us as we mature into adulthood. A common phrase I have found myself using a lot is: “Welcome to the rest of the human race”. There is a sense of all of us being in this place of grappling with what is and doing the best we can.

‘You did what you knew how to do, and when you

knew better, you did better.’

Maya Angelou

  • Something deeper – Compassion. It is hard to work with people and not feel compassion for that courage and indomitable spirit that moves us through some of our toughest times.
  • Specific counselling tools that stimulate self-expression: writing, play, role play, art, meditation, visualisation, a walk in a labyrinth (see post under Labyrinths) both in the counselling room and for homework, depending on what might interest and inspire us.
  • Encouragement for us, as clients, to think, imagine, visualise, dream how our lives can be and what we may want to do differently.

When is comes to empowering us to make different choices, I have used a few exercises which seem simple but can be effective in enabling us to make new choices.

  • It can be valuable for us to notice how we make choices about simple things. For example, if we go into a cafe, how do we choose if we want food or drink; something savoury or sweet; something hot or cold. Do we habitually choose the same thing? Do we go along with what other people want? Do we really ask ourselves what we want to have today, that might be exploratory and different? What happens if we sit in a different seat or walk a different way than is our normal habit?
  • It can be interesting for us to take time out to try on clothes in a charity shop but make an effort to see what we look like in a different styles, colours, shapes than we would usually do…something out of our comfort zone and notice how that feels. What might we learn about ourselves?
  • Also, it can be useful to spend a half day or a day on our own in an unknown city or town and discover what we might like to do that perhaps we don’t normally allow ourselves to do – that relationship with ourselves that is so important to explore.
A Conversation
A Conversation

GROUP ON TAKING OUR SPACE: WHERE DO I WANT TO BE

This is a hand out for the Group on Taking Our Space  but could be used as a handout or as a point of discussion with any client in individual counselling. It can help us to reach our goals and ideals by the use of visualization. It can help us to name our intentions to ourselves as well as  ‘putting out an intention’ into the larger world.  List your ideal goals in each of these main life areas below:

Clouds on Amherst Island

What would you like to be doing in two years time?

JOB:

 

 

PERSONAL LIFE:

 

 

What would you like to be doing in seven years time?

JOB:

 

 

PERSONAL LIFE:

 

 

Choose one of these, close your eyes and visualise yourself being in this position in every minute detail.  Have fun with it. If you picture yourself in a room, describe the room in detail to yourself: colours, shapes, scent.  Imagine the people around you in detail.  Make this visualization come alive for you.  You could do this for each of your goals.  Then with a friend or with your counsellor you could discuss what steps you need to make to reach these goals. Consider the small changes that you could make which could put you further forward on the path that you choose to be on.

Remember that whenever we choose to move forward positively in one area of our life it has positive affect on other aspects of our life.

 

 

FORGET YOUR PERFECT OFFERING

So often when clients come into counselling, they are distressed about the fact that things in their life are not going well, that everything is not ‘perfect’, that they are not ‘perfect’.  Despite the fact that this is a completely unrealistic expectation for any of us to have about ourselves or others.  Instead of which, it is so often the mistakes we make, the negative experiences that we have, the limitations that are placed on us by circumstances, ourselves and others that help us to change and become wiser. I used to keep this quote from Leonard Cohen on my counselling room wall; it is a useful hand out:

RING THE BELLS THAT STILL CAN RING

FORGET YOUR PERFECT OFFERING

THERE IS A CRACK IN EVERYTHING

THAT’S HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN

(Leonard Cohen)

NEW BEGINNINGS

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This wonderful poem by John O’Donohue is inspiring for any of us looking to start something new,a good one to share with clients:

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the grey promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the wages of turmoil rise and relent;
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plentitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening,
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure,
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Hold nothing back,learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

John O’Donohue

SEXUALLY SPEAKING

In 1977, I began my counselling training with the, then Marriage Guidance Council, now Relate.  It was a very thorough training, but there was one section I thought I had failed.  It was a session, entitled, ‘Sexually Speaking’.  Our group sat in a silent circle with no idea what to expect.  The tutor sat down, introduced herself to us and asked me to begin by talking for 5 minutes on Male Arousal.  My mind went instantly blank. My dry mouth attempted to mutter a few inane comments about things that might achieve an erection for a man. Then, I froze into four and a half minutes of silence.  As we went around the circle, most people seemed to manage to find something to say about different sexual topics, men being asked about what happens for women and women being asked about what happens for men. I was convinced I would be failed on this section of the course.  Near the end, someone was asked to speak about Impotence. After their allotted 5 minutes, I found my voice, saying, “I know exactly how that feels, because my fear of performance at the start, rendered me totally impotent”.  This seemed to be enough to redeem my poor efforts earlier and I came to appreciate these sessions enormously throughout the three years of my training.

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I believe it was important for us as counsellors to get used to hearing ourselves and others speak about all aspects of sex in a mixed group. We learnt a lot. I decided to create something similar, specifically for clients who acknowledged that they had never felt particularly comfortable about their sexuality and sexual relationships. It was such a valuable tool, especially for younger clients but many of us can feel inhibited about this, at any age!

This was not something I would do early on in the counselling until I assessed that it would be useful and that there was a high degree of trust in the client counsellor relationship.  I would explain what would be involved and if the client wanted to go ahead, we would put aside a whole session to focus on sexuality.  I don’t think there was anyone who approached it without some anxiety but rarely did anyone drop out.

I would begin by asking the client to tell me about how they learnt about sex, who from and what they had understood and felt about it.  I checked out if there were any questions they still wanted to ask, anything they felt unsure about or wanted to discuss. We would move on to how they had felt about the relationships between their parents, other family members, what information and messages they had taken on board about sex, love, relationships, marriage, separation and divorce.  The discussion would then focus on their own developing history, sexually, physically and emotionally, including their values. This would lead into what they wanted out of a relationship in the present; what might be holding them back; what their anxieties might be and most important of all what their strengths were.

I would never know how the session would develop and this would be led by what the client disclosed and discussed.  There were some times we would get into a discussion of flirting,  leading to a homework of watching how other people do it, for clients who were afraid to even look at people they were attracted to; other times it led to clients going shopping for clothes that felt more ‘sexy’ – one moving occasion was when an older client decided to buy some sexy underwear to express their sexuality to themselves, albeit that they had chosen a way of life that included celibacy; one young man asked what was meant by ‘the Change’, he’d heard his mother talk about it but hadn’t felt able to ask what it meant; another session resulted in a female client disclosing and accepting their erotic fantasies, about which they had been carrying an enormous amount of guilt –  they ended up buying and enjoying Nancy Friday’s book, ‘My Secret Garden’, a book reissued several times since then. There were other sessions when clients talked about sexual abuse or even a sexual attack that they had never previously spoken about to anyone.

What felt important about these sessions were two things.  The first was that this provided a space and permission to speak about an area about which some people feel inhibited. The second thing was that I noticed how clients became more confident and more comfortable from just using words about their sexuality, about every aspect of their body and about sex generally. I noticed how both their own use of sexual words and hearing me use the same language back to them gave permission and built an increased acceptance of sex as a natural part of life. I worked with clients from a variety of different cultures and backgrounds and for some of these clients, such sessions gave them an opportunity to talk about how they were affected by differences in sexual behaviour and sexual values living here in the UK.

Even in 2014, sex can be a daunting subject to talk about and I found these sessions helpful in my own training and most especially in my counselling. It was particularly helpful working with a young client group of university students who are not always as confident or informed sexually as we might assume.

 

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The Counselling Room

Pictures of the Counselling Service and Surround 018

The counselling room is a space that needs to be confidential, safe, quiet, comfortable and even energising, ideally a dedicated space specifically used for counselling. If this is not possible and it is shared with other agencies, it is hoped that the room is shared with compatible services. In counselling, we are often talking about situations that are traumatic, humiliating, angry making or anxiety provoking. It is not an easy thing to do. It is a risk for us to allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to talk to a stranger, albeit a professional, about our most personal feelings and private family life. The very least we can do as counsellors is make the space where this takes place as discreet and comfortable as possible.  The most important issue is the protection of confidential so that the client is not overheard or interrupted and is ideally not having to run the gauntlet of being seen entering the counselling service by the general public or people that they may know. Therefore the location of the counselling service is important and must reflect the value placed on the process of counselling and protection of the client.

Pictures of the Counselling Service and Surround 023

The process of booking an appointment needs to be sensitively and respectfully handled with appropriate training for reception staff.  I’ve had several office staff, who were extremely sensitive and aware of when a client needed to be seen urgently and may well have saved the lives of potentially suicidal clients. The waiting room needs to be welcoming, informative, confidential and a secure space.  It is important that there is an appropriate chaparone around within earshot of the counselling room to ensure the protection of both client and therapist and that a suitable space is left between appointments to ensure no overlap.

Pictures of the Counselling Service and Surround 024

The counselling room itself has to create a balance between, not telling the client too much about the counsellor’s own taste that could be distracting, but at the same time ensuring that it is not too impersonal.  It needs to be a well-appointed room with natural lighting, a suitable temperature, good quality comfortable chairs, an attractive decor and suitable soft furnishings so that the client feels valued and respected. It can be an advantage to have plants, suitably restful and neutral paintings, gentle lamplight, colourful rugs, a clock, candles (if using the same room for meditation) or natural stones. It is important to have a box of tissues on display and pens or crayons which may be useful in the counselling process. It would be an advantage to have a toilet within the service with a mirror and a source of water and a glass so that clients can have a drink of water if they’ve been upset.

I found that just having a few natural stones and crystals encouraged some clients to share rather more unconventional stories about themselves. They told me they had done so because they had seen something they considered as ‘alternative’ in my room.

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At one point, I did have my room ‘space cleared’ and the person doing it felt there was an underground stream underneath the building I was working in which created a turbulent energy in the room.  Once the energy of this stream was removed, I was actually less tired at the end of a day counselling. What amazed me most was that the first day of counselling after this was done, three of my clients and one member of staff told me how ‘different’ my room felt and two of them said it felt more peaceful.  I had not mentioned anything at all about it being space cleared to any of them!  I did find out later that there was an underground spring under the college I was working in at the time.

THE FREEDOM TO BE HAPPY

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I believe the purpose of our lives is the pursuit of happiness, joy, peace, love, wisdom and playfulness. Hopefully, we can achieve this with a degree of compassion, grace and gratitude. It is surprisingly difficult to free ourselves to be able to do just this.
It is a journey that is exciting, painful, creative and frustrating but worthwhile. We grow and blossom just like a flower. A time of growing, shining our brightest light in full bloom and a gentle fading when, if we are lucky, we are able to pass on to others what we are learning and eventually a closing down that leads us towards death.

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Three things that we have control over can limit our happiness:
Expectations: Having a goal or a dream can help us to find our way, but when it comes from a rigid place, the place of an expectation, it can limit our happiness. Fortunately we can free ourselves of rigid expectations and free ourselves to simply be, do and have the best we can instead. Expectations can create pressure, strain, stress, judgement and criticism of ourselves and others. Expectations can stop us from living in the present moment and being able to tap into recognising and pursuing what truly leads us to joy, peace, love, wisdom, playfulness and happiness.
Negativity: A positive thought, feeling, memory can flow through us so quickly, sometimes hard for us to hold onto. A negative thought, feeling, memory can hold us imprisoned for hours, days, weeks and months. Practice overthrowing a negative thought, feeling, memory with a positive one. At the very least we could give them equal time and space in our lives.
Attachments: When I use this word I mean those thoughts, feelings, behaviour, beliefs, relationships, often from the past, that we allow to dictate to us and that we hold onto in a way that limits our movement and ability to be our real selves. They become heavy and a trial at times. It is a freedom to build positive, compassionate and loving connections with people, places and belief systems, but connections you can tap into and tap out of again so that your thinking, feeling and beliefs are free to change, to move you on. Unconditional, positive connections are a lightness and a joy in our lives. They help us to belong and feel part of that ocean of life that we are all swimming in together. Attachments weigh us down, hold us back, limit our thinking, imprison our feelings and our freedom to be who we are.
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Photographs by Angela Barnes