Shopping for Counsellors

Choosing a counsellor is an important process. However it’s one that we often don’t get to have, or one that perhaps we don’t feel we can do.

Counselling is a deeply individual process, and much of it’s success depends upon the therapeutic relationship between counsellor and client. It has to be a good “fit”.

We very rarely buy clothes or shoes without trying them on to check the fit and how we feel in them, yet how often do we allow ourselves to have introductory or initial sessions with a number of counsellors to see how we feel with them? Even if we are in a position to do so. If our counselling is via the GP, or NHS, then a choice of counsellor may seem impossible. But it’s still important.

We rarely continue friendships with people we don’t feel comfortable with, we don’t open up to them in the way we do to others – so why think a therapeutic relationship with a counsellor would be any different?

It can feel odd to “try someone out” and then reject them and choose someone else. We’re kind of taught that that’s not really a nice thing to do in relationships – even one where we are paying someone to listen to us and entering into what is essentially a business relationship. We aren’t making a new friend here, even if the counsellor may end up knowing up better than most of our closest friends.

If you have the opportunity, take introductory sessions with counsellors. Some do this face to face, some over the phone or skype, often at a reduced rate, occasionally even free. Maybe this would be useful even if you’re entering into a situation where you don’t get to choose your counsellor – it can give you a sense of what type of situation and person works for you.

Try counsellors of different modalities, unless you know what modality is your cup of tea. Psychodynamic is very different to Gestalt, open-ended person-centred is different to short term Solution Focused.

You need your personal unique fit, to your emotional curves, bumps and dimples. How you feel with that person is important. Do you feel safe, do you trust them, can you be honest with them, can you allow them to challenge you, can you be vulnerable with them?

What is your instinctive feeling during that first session?

Sometimes we just like people, or dislike others. Sometimes they remind us of someone, and this can help or hinder the process. Sometimes we can’t pinpoint where our feelings of yes or no come from, but it’s important to listen to and take notice of.

One counsellor does not fit all.

It’s okay not to get on with one and want someone else.

Don’t run an emotional marathon in ill fitting shoes.

Donkey and Pride

Friends know about my “slight” obsession with task lists and getting things done. There’s a reason for this.

Living with anxiety goblins, I need weapons with which to fight them. I need an array of weapons. They are sneaky clever fuckers, and they learn to fight back. They have over 40 years of my life with which to attack me with and they wield my dark moments like pros.

It was while studying counselling and psychotherapy (and being the client, and being the therapist) that I learned I wasn’t a failure at life, I had an anxiety disorder. I’d spent most of my three decades up to that point comparing myself with the people around me and wondering why apparently inconsequential things knocked me sideways, why I just couldn’t seem to cope with life as well as most, and why fear seemed to rule me and be my initial response to pretty much anything.

I’d attempted to cure this by staying away from situations that caused fear. Seemed a reasonable response… but it made my world so very small. I self medicated for over two decades to numb the overwhelming physical symptoms of anxiety – until it became a habit and addiction that was deeply entwined with my sense of self. And the fear remained, attached itself to other things, attacked me with the coping mechanisms I was using and I eventually realised this just wasn’t working. I needed to change. I was dying from the inside out. Existing but not living, surviving but not thriving.

So slowly, so very slowly, I started facing things, pushing back the boundaries of my comfort zone, doing things just because they scared me (tandem skydive for one! Singing solo in public for another), but choosing them carefully, building up slowly.

Starting to study counselling was one of these things. I didn’t consider myself particularly academic after failing my A levels (forgetting the huge personal and mental health issues I had going on at the time). I gave myself a hard time. I struggled to give up the habits and addictions holding me in place.

Another thing about me, relevant to this post is that I work in images, in stories and characters. If I can frame something with a character and story then I can understand it better.

And thus we get to the point of this post.

While studying what ended up being half a Masters Degree in Integrative Counselling and Psychotherapy, I came across a part of my brain that seemed utterly set on sabotaging me. I had to deal with this, I’d invested a lot of money that I didn’t have in this course and wasn’t about to lose it just because part of me wasn’t playing the game.

I investigated this part of me and eventually found an image that just fitted. At the bottom of all this, hiding under the Sabotage and the Fear was Stubborness. There was some part of me simply, firmly, consistently saying, “NO”.

No, not going to do that, not going to look at that, no no no you can’t make me.

The more I tried to force the issue, the harder it stuck, like a psychological finger trap. I realised I needed to be clever. The image that I discovered was that of a donkey digging it’s back heels in.

stubborn-mule

Pulling and pushing at the donkey just made it worse. I realised, in an obvious epiphiny, that I needed to motivate it. I needed to find the right carrot…

And for me, that carrot was pride. The Golden Glittery Carrot of Pride (because making something slightly silly is fun!). I thrilled in getting praise from my tutors, from getting good remarks on my essays, for having work done by the deadlines and research ready to show the group. I suddenly realised that I’d rarely felt proud of myself before and it was a powerful intoxicating feeling. One I wasn’t willing to give up.

I thought long and hard and about what made me feel proud – and it’s an ongoing process. I am by no means a workaholic, but I do like achieving things. I have discovered a very competitive side; with myself.

The question isn’t “What makes me feel proud?”, rather it’s “What will make me feel proud TODAY?”

Because it changes. Sometimes it changes throughout the day. And that doesn’t matter. What matters is developing an honest and congruent conversation with yourself about what’s needed, what’s possible, and what, if this is something that will assist you as well, will make you proud. Doesn’t have to be work, or studying. It can manifest in any and every area of your life and activities.

Sometimes it’s going the extra mile. Sometimes it’s just getting out of bed. Sometimes it’s having that self-care day and staying in bed with movies. Sometimes it’s reaching out to people and sometimes it’s riding out that dip on the rollercoaster.

Getting that donkey onside is a powerful weapon against the brain goblins.

So that’s why I have a constant task list. That’s why I put things on there just to tick them off. That’s why I sometimes say that I can’t rest, I can’t get that treat until after that thing. Because I need and crave that feeling of Pride. Which luckily doesn’t manifest by overdoing it, that’s Stupidity, not Pride. There’s no pride in running yourself into the ground, there’s only exhaustion. Pride is working within your means, and discovering that your means stretch just that little bit further that you initially thought.

As the hashtag says, #thisgirlcan. (please adjust for gender identity preference of your choice)

And there’s only one way to find out…

Toddler brain

My anxiety can often be like a toddler having a tantrum.

I write this in full acknowledgement that I’m not a parent. But I’ve been around enough toddlers to see them melt down over the most random of stuff. And my anxiety does that too.

Unsurprisingly my anxiety is in storm force mode currently. It’s whirling around trying to find something to focus on. It’s amazing what you find when you’re looking for it.

Thinking of my anxiety symptoms like a toddler has helped me develop coping strategies.

1. Logic and reason. I can see parents shaking their heads already. Yes. This rarely works. But it’s always worth trying first. Acknowledge what’s going on and what’s being felt. Make a show of checking for monsters under the bed. Acknowledge not finding any. The reasons why we are safe. Sometimes it works. I can talk myself down. Often it doesn’t and we move on.

2. Love and hugs. Treats. Blankets. Time off. Bubble baths. Wine. Whatever this is for you. Yes it often involves spending money which sometimes means it can’t be done. It involves time which we don’t always have. If you can, give yourself a treat you won’t give yourself a hard time for later. Totally guilt free. Get cuddles from someone who won’t try and fix anything. Talk to yourself to find out what you need and deliver it. Be your own nurturing loving parent. After all we still love our toddlers even when they are throwing a tantrum and sometimes cuddles stop the tantrum. And sometimes they don’t.

3. Distraction. Ooooh shiny! Mindless TV, games, craft projects, books. The trick is something entertaining and engaging enough to keep the attention but not difficult or stressful. Again they his takes time which sometimes we don’t have so…

4. Time out. Sometimes we just have to get stuff done. We’ve tried everything else and it’s just not working and the job has to be done, the bills have to be paid. Sometimes I have to put my anxiety on a virtual naughty step and just let it cry it out. Breathe through it, wipe those sweaty palms and do the job. Later, when there’s time, there will be a prize. And it can be anything you like (that is feasibly within your ability and budget to get) because you’ve had to tough it out.

This are my coping strategies. Yours may vary 🙂 these work for me. They don’t go in order. I don’t go from 1-4. Often I know which one to pick but sometimes I don’t. Sometimes a tried and tested technique fails. Sometimes they all fail. But only sometimes. Like with toddlers, consistency is important, following through is important. Don’t promise yourself a treat and don’t deliver. Don’t have a treat then give yourself a hard time over it!

The toddler in our heads may not grow up. But at least it won’t become a teenager!

Gratitude

Gratitude can be difficult when we’re struggling with anxiety issues, the world can be a scary place, our brain chemicals are going haywire, often our bodies are achingly tired and being aware of anything other than perceived threats can take an effort we don’t feel we have the energy for.

Gratitude can also be a spiritual tool to beat ourselves up with as passive aggressive meme’s suggest that we wouldn’t be in the state we are if only we were more grateful for what we have, reminding us that many in the world are worse off than we, so how selfish are you to be struggling? Not useful, not kind, not actually spiritual in my little corner of the world.

Your experience is your experience and someone else being better or worse off has absolutely zero impact on how you perceive and interact with the world. Also, being grateful that someone is worse off than you isn’t actually gratitude – it’s comparison –  and that won’t have a positive effect on the brain…

Yet, despite it being misused sometimes, gratitude is a good habit to get into, and this is backed up by neuroscience (SCIENCE BABY, YEAH!). It doesn’t matter what we are grateful for, it doesn’t even matter if we can’t come up with anything, the act of looking for something to be grateful for can be the trigger to a happier brain over time. Google the neuroscience of gratitude and see what you find, there have been various studies done on the matter.

Over the years I’ve kept several gratitude journals for various periods of time, and I’ve learnt a few things.

1 – Don’t wait for the perfect notebook/pen etc. Don’t think, I’ll start this when I’ve bought a nice book to write in. That’s just procrastination, you’ll rarely if ever get around to buying the “perfect” book for your journal, it’s just a way of not starting the exercise. You doubtless have some form of paper and pen/pencil lying around. Use that. It doesn’t matter what you write on or even whether you keep it. The act of doing it is all that matters. You don’t even need a pen and paper, if you’re reading this, you likely have an electronic device you can write on. Use that! By all means get a nice notebook if such things make you happy, but don’t use that as a reason not to start. Start, then get the notebook as and when you can.

1(A) – On that note – don’t worry or give yourself a hard time about finding a certain number of things to be grateful for or even doing it each day – all that means is it’s easier to give up if you can’t achieve your certain number or you miss a day. Try and make it a habit (keeping it by your bedside for example) but if you miss a day, so what? Just pick it up again the day/week/month/year after. It doesn’t matter when you don’t do it, just when you do. Of course all these things are better when done regularly, but doing them at all is more important.

2 – Writing or thinking about WHY you’re grateful for that thing works wonders if you have the energy to do this. Once, many years ago, I was grateful for a random phone call from a fellow student. I wrote that down. Then I thought about why, and realised how isolated and lonely I’d been feeling in class and how that phone call had helped me feel a little more connected and part of the group. Suddenly I was even more grateful for the call and happier when I got back to class. Writing all that down takes effort, I know. You don’t have to, just thinking about it works too.

3 – It doesn’t matter what you’re grateful for. We all have days where all we have to be grateful for is our bed/sofa, blanket/duvet. Be grateful for those things, they matter.

4 – There’s always something to be grateful for, even if it takes some searching. If you’re reading this, you likely have the first layer of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs sorted.

Maslow’s Updated Hierarchy of Needs

You likely have access to the internet and a device to access it on. You likely have a roof over your head and something to eat and drink that day. Hopefully a toilet that works. Someone you could interact with if you chose to. Clothes to wear if you wanted to get dressed. Sometimes paring back to the bare essentials is necessary, but these are still things to be grateful for. You can climb up the pyramid another day.

5 – It doesn’t matter how begrudgingly grateful you are! There are days you just don’t want to be damn well grateful! The world flipping sucks and why should you be grateful for anything damn it?! And that’s fine! Do the exercise anyway, allow the frustration and anger to be there as well. Looking for things to be grateful about doesn’t mean you have to not feel upset, sad, angry, frustrated and whatever else you’re feeling. You can feel those as well. Feelings are just feelings. We prefer some to others, but they all have their place and a right to exist. We can be angry and still grateful the bus arrived on time. We can be sad and still grateful we have a cup of tea. We can be utterly fed up with every single thing, and still grateful there’s an episode of something distracting to watch. We are manifold and we can contain many and conflicting emotions at once and that’s fine.

6 – Gratitude doesn’t have to be kept to a journal. This ties in with saying thank you to compliments. Say thank you to your loved ones, let them know as much as you’re able to how much you appreciate them. Say thank you to the bus driver or the shop assistant – why shouldn’t we be thanked for doing our jobs? Express little bits of gratitude whenever and wherever you can and gradually they work to make us feel better and the world less scary.

Thank you for reading this 🙂 Whether you’re a stranger or a friend, I’m grateful you took the time and if I do know you, thank you for being in my life, you give me lots to be grateful for.

Slipping

I was planning for my next post to be a crafting catch up, but that’s going to wait a little while longer.

I’ve become aware of something over this last week, something that my friends (as ever!) have been more aware of than me it seems. But yes, here I am struggling with the contents of my own head again.

I can feel the slipping, the sliding, the slight panic as I realise I’ve run out of cope earlier in the day than expected and planned for. The pull toward introversion, desiring to spend time alone, irritation at the world for impinging on my solitude, annoyance that people are wanting me to interact with them, and burgeoning guilt at such feelings. The dislike and distaste of it all, a feeling of ‘really? what again? now? do I really have to deal with this again now?’

And the answer is yes, yes I do. I’ve had my cheerful months, I’m only allowed so many, and then I need to tend my mental garden again, do some weeding here, baby bio the plants over there. And I resent it deeply.

I don’t want to be struggling. I’ve got too much to do, too many plates to keep spinning, too many things stating that they need more from me, more attention, more care, more time, more energy, and I feel like I’m bouncing between them all, never quite getting the balance right. If I haven’t got enough energy to deal with all the things I currently have on, how the heck am I meant to find yet more for dealing with mucky mental cupboards too?

I’m fretting over things, things said or unsaid, things done or undone. Doubt creeps in, slowly, like water under a door, until I’m up to my knees in doubt and wondering how I didn’t notice earlier. The vicious circle starts, it gets more difficult to eat, sleep and rest properly and this, of course, eats away at what energy and cope I have. Sulky thoughts are easier and more accessible and these thoughts aren’t telling me to make a proper nutritious dinner.

So, here I am writing this in order to tell myself that I’ve realised, I’ve caught myself, I’m feeling scared again – the familiar fear of not being sure that the world is how I’m experiencing it, and here I lay it out and promise to do something about it.

I WILL cope, because I want to. I’m a bit stubborn that way. This post is the first step.

The next step is, at some point over the next few days, have some time where I just lay out the contents of my head to my Hubby. I think part of why this is happening now, is that I’ve been alone for a lot of the last couple of months and while my Introvert rejoices at this, I don’t look after myself as well as I do when I’m looking after him as well. I don’t talk things out and even if I do, I stop before the mucky mental cupboard is completely clean, so some dirt remains, clogging up my thoughts. So a big brain dump on the one person who can’t get away coz this is in the small print of our wedding vows 🙂

Pride is an important factor. Developing awareness of what will truly make you proud that day. Not setting ridiculous goals that you have no hope of meeting, but looking at what will make you proud. Sometimes my list is doing some chores at home, getting something creative done, making contact with someone, starting or finishing something. But it’s important that it’s realistic and achievable. I used to make two lists, one my ideal and the other the bare minimum to get done. Of course I’d never finish the ideal list, but I would get everything on the bare minimum done and then sometimes one or two other things as well. These days (apart from having no concept of how long things take to be crocheted) I have a much better idea of what I can reasonably achieve.

Nuture is something that so easily slips and can seem like a burden sometimes. But it’s needed and it’s vital, so I must make effort to nuture myself, eat and sleep well.

And constant deep breaths, throughout the day, a deep breath and a second to remember, this too shall pass, ultimately everything is fine and every second that passes is one second closer to this dark cloud disappating.

Thoughts from the Dark Side

I remember writing about Anxious mind v Rational mind a while back. I wrote that post while being rational. Currently, I’m not so much. So I wondered what it would be like to write from this side, so here is a post from the darker corners of my mind.

It’s very hard to currently maintain a rational mind. I can’t do it today and I’m just rational enough to recognise that I’m not really and should abstain from big decisions.

I’ve been trying to stay rational, looking after myself best I can. About a month ago I had a really tough couple of draining weeks of not enough sleep and too much pollen, the final straw being when plans to buy a home fell through leaving us back in limbo unsure of other options. Too complicated to go into and I don’t really understand all this financial stuff so I doubt I could explain it.

I had a day or so of bad headspace, then pulled myself together, ensured I booked some time off over the work placement weeks, and returned to work this week chipper and full of cope.

Then over the last week I learned the situation I’d been dreading at work was happening. My new Team Leader won’t be going for the permanent contract for reasons that I know and understand and support.

However, this plunges me back in the deep end of the anxiety pool.

I feel deflated, hollow, empty, dull and hopeless. I feel “whats the point” and “who cares” and “just leave me alone” – well, I feel those with a few choice swear words thrown in.

I feel scared, overwhelmed, stuck, don’t want to go through this again, can’t go through this again, it’s not fair to ask me to go through this again.

The first four months of this year ended with me on meds again. The fact that I’m still on the meds means I should have some more defence against the world, but I detest that this should be so – oh Tania will be okay she’s still on her happy pills so she’ll cope better this time around! Fuck that! Where’s the easing off of pressure that allows me to come off these damn things!

Meds – They do their job, I don’t have a problem with taking them, but like painkillers – I’d just rather not be in that much pain to begin with! When I’m on meds in order to deal with my job… well, that’s not good… leave the job… but I can’t just leave without having another job to go to, so I’m stuck.

I am looking for another job but the UK job market is horrific at the moment and all the time and energy I’ve put into applications this year have given me nothing, no acknowledgments, no interviews, no feedback as to why that is. I don’t know if I’m just unlucky, if I’m doing something wrong on the form or just being outshone by others. Plus I’m not completely certain what I want to go for, which means my doubts creep in to every nook and cranny of the application form.

I doubt every job I go for, both that the job will be what I need and that I will be able to do the job. With every letter I type onto a form, I feel myself cringing, doubting, pulling away. I tab out to facebook, then berate myself for wasting valuable time – don’t I know I’m on a deadline here? After getting nowhere with several applications there is also huge resentment piling up – all this time and energy and for what?! If I don’t get a reply from that job I exceeded expectations for, why should anywhere else give me the time of day?

My anxieties are running wild – after we had an intruder in our downstairs hall recently, I no longer feel safe. Last night I had a panic attack thinking someone was trying to get in – the noise was from the shop downstairs and next door and I KNEW that!! But that didn’t stop the panic rising and overflowing. I’m scared about my Hubby going away for possibly the whole of August if I panic that much over one night.

My sleep is broken, I’m more jumpy since the intruder, more aware of noise, and this leaves me even more susceptible to the insidious drip of anxious thoughts during the day.

I feel heavy, as if iron shoes are on my feet making them hard to lift, a weight is on my shoulders pushing them down and the air is thicker than usual, taking more effort to move through.

I have to take a moment to remember how to converse normally with people and not to just open my mouth and pour my grumpy shit all over them. How do people do smalltalk?! It’s a skill that doesn’t exist in this headspace.

I know that I’m performing below par and I want to scream at people to make them understand – 85% of my effort is going into holding all these thoughts back, stopping them from overwhelming me, keeping me at work and not running away, biting back each and every first response because it’s irrational and emotional (and often unfairly rude) and looking round that to see what normal replies are there, holding back the tears and keening that wants to break loose each second and I can’t let that happen at work. I don’t want to let that happen at work. That leaves 15% to talk and act normally, do my job, remember all the things that need to be remembered and try and look after myself so I don’t get worse – as I will without certain safeguards in place (basic things like eating more or less sensibly and not blotting it all out with some substance or other, sleeping and being as nice to myself as I can – or failing that letting my Hubby be nice to me!).

Is it any wonder I had a bad day at work?

So why am I writing this crap? Well, as ever, it’s cathartic for me to get it out, but also, I do hope that by sharing what I go through, it may help others who are still struggling or coming to terms with their headspaces. If you recognise yourself in my words then know that you’re not alone. If I feel it and you feel it, then many others will feel it too.

Know that this headspace doesn’t last forever – it just feels like it – that accepting this headspace doesn’t mean we agree with it or condone it, it just makes for a bit of an easier time than constantly fighting it. Who has the energy for that?! It takes all I have to stop inflicting it on others, I can’t fight it inside my head as well!

No, I give in to this headspace, I put on my “sulking like a toddler” onesie, curl up on the sofa and don’t wash the dishes. I accept I have a right to my feelings and this is what they are right now and that’s okay. Feels like shit, and that’s okay. I hate feeling like this, and that’s okay too.

Tomorrow I’ll get up and Cope. I’ll do what needs to be done to make things better. If I find that’s impossible tomorrow, then I’ll surrender again and try on Sunday. It doesn’t usually take long these days and I think that’s because I accept it more readily now. Mostly because fighting it for twenty years didn’t work so I thought I’d best try something else.

Now, what the fuck are you doing in my grumpy headspace, sod off out of here and stop making a mess!

An Adult Attitude

I’ve been doing some thinking today.

I woke up in a foul mood today, didn’t sleep enough, was grumpy at my Hubby (coz it was all the fault of him breathing heavily…), dropped my bacon filled breakfast on the pavement, forgot my iphone so couldn’t listen to music, felt gritty with hayfever, my muscles are screwed meaning I’m in low level constant pain currently (really low level and all my fault, don’t give me sympathy!) and there were shouty people on my morning commute.

Oh how I suffer eh?!

So in the past, this start to the day is enough to set me off, the day is ruined, the world owes me and I’m foul company until the next morning.

Underlying this old behaviour was an odd thought pattern/belief that someone (knight on a white horse?) would come along and do all the work for me/give me permission to leave work early/otherwise laud me for carrying on so bravely in the face of such obvious fuckwittery.

That never happened.

All that did happen was I would get in a fouler and fouler mood as I alternately got angrier at the world for not playing my game and angry at me for instigating and continuing it.

It’s different if my bad mood has a real cause, sometimes a good old wallow is a perfectly acceptable response to the universe shitting on you from a great height.

Today isn’t one of those days however. Today is the inside of my head having a toddler style temper tantrum because it’s not allowed to wear superhero pants on it’s head at school and there is no white knight on a glowing steed to take me away from this place to one where everyone wears superhero pants on their head.

The day has to be got through and I’m now old enough to know that the day will go better and quicker (in that bizarre mental manipulation of time that we all do) if I cheer the hell up and engage.

So treats are promised for later for coping well.

The belief that I CAN and WILL cope is reinforced (mainly by reminding myself of the truly shitty times I have endured)

I let those that need to know how I am and what I need (which is vastly different from what I WANT and not to be confused…) then I step through the day from moment to moment swallowing back the toddler responses (and where did my inner toddler learn such foul language?!) and replacing them with Adult responses.

It is indeed very Transactional Analysis! The Parent, Adult, Child model. My Child is going bonkers, my Parent is screaming at it for misbehaving which just makes the child worse (kinda like the people on the train this morning) and the only way out is to ignore the pair of them and place the reactive self firmly in Adult mode.

After a while, it’s easier and the good mood I’ve been pretending actually filters through and I feel better. My Child calms down realising it’s actually safe, my Parent calms down having nothing to critisise and the deposit account for Coping receives a few more pennies. Like everything else, Coping gets a bit easier with practise and honest awareness.

This post has obviously been stimulated by the inside of my head, but also by this – http://blastr.com/2012/06/kid-from-darth-vader-ads.php which I saw linked on facebook today. There was one quote, put below, which welled me up with emotion as it connected so strongly with my attitude toward myself today. Except I’m not facing operations for a heart defect and I’m a few decades older than this little lad and he’s got all this stuff sorted in his head already! I’m not wanting to imply that today for me is the same as what this little lad is facing, it’s not at all, but this quote below can fit many situations and that was the point I am hoping to make.

“I don’t have a choice. I have to go through it. I don’t like it and it’s still scary—but I have to. So I think I might as well go through it with a good attitude.” – Max Page, 7 years old

Anxious Mind Vs Rational Mind

Wow, it seems I connected with quite a few people with my last post about anxiety and my journey in getting more comfortable applying that label to myself.

So. I thought I’ll continue and post again on anxiety as I am just a tart for the attention… *cough* … hoping that through explaining how it is for me, it might help some other people either not feel so alone, or understand a loved one better.

I’m also procrastinating writing an essay for my PTLLS course and if I procrastinate by writing an anxiety post, well, that’s almost work isn’t it…. 😉

Writing this is helping me clarify my own process as I try and turn it into coherent sentences. Which makes me feel better if no one reads this! The next thing I wanted to ponder and write about was the split I feel between the anxious and non-anxious me. But as irony would have it, I’ve been too anxious since the last post to write properly! Work is just a bit mad at the moment, I have far more responsibility and pressure than I signed up for and have been navigating my way through anxious waters. However, what I’m interested in writing about and exploring here is how I change when moving between rational and anxious mindsets.

There are two versions of me (at least!). This is something that was said many years ago, a friend’s experience of me in the late 1990’s was that I possessed two personalities – so much so that she actually wondered for a time whether I did have a multiple personality disorder! At the time I was at Drama School in London and suffering so badly with anxiety and paranoia that to this day I wonder how the hell I made it through. Stubbornness obviously has a lot to answer for!

And you know… she wasn’t actually far wrong in her assessment of me. While I don’t suffer from MPD or anything remotely close, there are two me’s where my anxiety is concerned and when I am in one state, it is very difficult for me to understand or be empathic toward the other state – or even accept that the other state exists! I wanted to experiment in this post and write from both states of mind. So far, (as far as I can tell!!) I’m writing from my rational state. However, whenever I tried to write from my anxious self… well, maybe I’ll expose that at some point, but not here. Each anxious word makes me cringe and second guess and I have to delete it.

There is the rational me, the me I like to be, the me I aspire to be as much as I can. Rational me isn’t unemotional or possessed of Spock-type logic, just able to understand and deal with the world better. Take things in my stride, not let setbacks put me on my arse, and generally keep on keeping on. This is what I tend to think of (these days at least) as the usual me, the normal me, the me I should be (as much as I detest the word ‘should’). It’s just occurred to me that the fact I see this as my usual and normal self speaks volumes about the journey I’ve been on. Five years ago, I’m not sure this was the case.

Then there is the anxious me, the me that worries, that sees the potential dangers in everything, that will find a ‘but’ to every helpful suggestion you make, the me that can’t cope that isn’t strong enough, the me I feel ashamed of, the me I have hated and despised for so many years, the me I failed to keep hidden and secret from the world no matter how much I tried, the me that made a mahoosive crisis out of the tiniest drop of spilt milk.

Blimey – even in writing that I can’t help but judge the anxious me… look at that… the anxious me, a drama queen, making a fuss, being a crybaby… that’s how it feels. That’s how my rational self judges my anxious self.

Even now, having just come out of an anxious state, I find it difficult to empathise with the emotions I felt while there. It’s been a tough week for me, and several times I came home from work drained and upset and in tears, my ever-supportive hubby there to be the sounding board for all my anxious thoughts and fears. I confided in him that I felt just rational enough to recognise that I wasn’t being rational at that point. I didn’t know which, if any, of my thoughts and reactions and emotions were a reasonable response to the situation and which were a product of my anxiety triggers curling round and piling up on themselves. A voice in my head wants to insist that maybe I was overtired, overreacting (a word I heard so often growing up), and I’m what… 48 hours out of that state? It’s really hard to maintain empathy for the anxious state – and I experience it! What must it be like for someone who doesn’t experience anxiety to maintain empathy for a loved one that does?

I know I struggle hugely to maintain empathy with myself (and others at times), the temptation to snap “will you just snap out of it and get a grip!” is unbearable at times!

My anxious state finds it impossible to believe that this will end. Even last week I was constantly having to remind myself that (as the saying goes) “this too will pass”. Even retaining rational thoughts through the anxiety, it was a struggle to keep my rational thoughts placed above the anxious ones, while still giving the anxiety the space it needed to be acknowledged, accepted and moved through – even if there’s not a rational basis, the anxiety is still there and trying to push it away will just cause it to push back harder.

The anxious thoughts were so much shinier! So much louder and brighter and easier to believe and give in to! I could give any amount of “evidence” to the anxiety. I was pretty much having to accept the rational thoughts on faith… It was almost an experiment…

Now of course… I clearly see the rational thoughts as absolutely true, they have been backed up by my colleagues and boss and proven by a number of means. The anxious thoughts now hide, ashamed, in my head. Did I really think that, feel that? Really? What… me? Good old organised control freak me?

And I need to remind myself that I did. I need to remember the struggle so that when this switch happens again, I can hang on to those rational thoughts again. This time, there will be evidence instead of pure faith. I will remember having done this, and being an experiential learner, next time will be easier.

It’s my hope that like muscles, this gets easier and stronger with practise. It’s only through practise that we get better. Sorry to any who wish this, but there is nothing that will *bing* make it all better forever without you having to do any more work.

It’s always a process, a continuum through which we move, hopefully mostly forward, but usually quite erratically. Nature isn’t that keen on straight lines, and I try and remember that as my path curves and twists!

I guess then, maybe what I’m ultimately hoping for is a synthesis between my rational and anxious states? To have both exist at the same time rather than this light on/light off business. Or at least to maintain an awareness of both, instead of constantly having an argument in my head like an anxious/rational version of a believer/atheist. One knows it exists and sees no evidence for the other. I think, cautiously and optimistically, that I’m starting to get this now after 20 years.

I’ve pondered on this split state that I feel between my rational and anxious selves. It’s like… a light being turned on and off in a room. With the difference that you cannot conceive that the light could be any different, you cannot remember what the room looked like when lit – because to that state, it was never lit – when the light is off, well it was never on, it just pretended to be on to lie to you, to lead you to the middle of the room and then strand you there while darkness fell. When the light is on, well… what’s all the fuss about, you can see everything, you can see where the door is to leave… what on earth is there to be worried about?!

And never shall the two states meet.

It’s like a train. Rumbling down it’s tracks until somehow a switch gets thrown and the train shunts onto a different set of tracks… and the original ones vanish in the dust…. were they ever there?

I’m still not completely clear on what causes this switch. Sometimes, like my recent situation at work, it’s fairly obvious and clear. Sometimes, it’s sudden and unexpected and I flounder in the dark until my eyes get used to it. Sometimes I don’t realise that my state has changed and I try and carry on as normal until I realise I’m completely lost. Sometimes, it’s slow and sly and creeps up on me in tiny increments you can’t see until weeks later I look around and wonder how the hell I missed the signs that lead me here!

The anxious me feels like a much younger part of me, sometimes even down to a little toddler screaming the house down coz their mum just left the room to get their sandwich… It’s as strong, as earth shattering and as irrational as Separation Anxiety.

Actually, that’s a very good analogy. To a baby going through separation anxiety, all they know is their mum just walked away from them. They don’t know you’re back in a minute with a snack, they don’t know the other side of the door is just as it’s always been and not transformed into a pit of lava. The world is a strange place with confusing rules to a child, rules that sometimes change just as they think they’ve understood them. The world as we get older withdraws it’s treats from us more and more. Babies get (hopefully) everything they need – their tummy’s feel hurty, they cry, they get warm milk in their mouths. As we get older we are taught patience, delayed gratification, to tolerate the world not giving us what we demand. We have to learn that we don’t get everything we want as soon as we want it. This is a vital lesson, but a very painful one.

Am I the only child who thought that if I just stared hard enough at the toy in the display cabinet, someone would see and buy it for me? I think for years I stared at a me without anxiety, but no one bought it for me.

I don’t know if everyone who feels anxiety experiences this split state thing? Is it common? Is it just me?

I didn’t even know I did this until my counselling training brought awareness to the process, helped by the observations of a trusted friend who pretty much saw my brain switch from one state to the next to back again over the course of 48 hours due to some situation or other that I using to bolster that “I’m really a crap excuse for a human being” belief.

As another trusted friend continues to tell me when I need it – your brain lies to you. And it does. The trick is remembering which brain you’re in at the time.

Owning my Anxiety

In a way, this post has been over 20 years in the writing.

That’s how long I’ve experienced the physiological and emotional effects of anxiety in my life. That’s how long it’s taken me to get to this point, where I freely admit to having an anxiety disorder to anyone who cares to know. I’ve let my workplace know (I’m lucky that I work for a “Mindful Employer” with a commitment to supporting those with mental health issues) and am getting more and more comfortable with identifying myself this way. Whether my anxiety is predisposed or inbuilt into my genetic make up or purely a reaction to the environmental factors around me isn’t important to me any more.

It’s not easy… I’d rather not stick this label on myself, but dealing and living with my anxiety symptoms has become steadily easier the more comfy I get with this label. Some think (and I don’t disagree) that labels are confining to people, but I’ve found this one has freed me. At least so far. I guess it depends on how the label is used. If I start waving that label in people’s faces and using it as a reason to not engage with life, to not challenge myself and push back the boundaries of my comfort zone, then it is confining. Not only that, but I’d be betraying all those who live with anxiety and don’t use it as a reason not to try. So far, I’ve used this label to ask for the help and support that I need to function at my best. It’s allowed me to recognise my limits, to accept that I’m human, not super-human, and to counter the decades old voice in my mind that still judges me for my anxiety.

For twenty years, I’ve surfed the waves of anxiety. It’s not a constant condition, it’s not (often) a severe condition, although there have been at least 4 times that I can easily bring to mind where my anxiety stopped me functioning pretty much altogether and it took a lot of effort from a lot of friends to start me moving again. Consider that those 4 times would have had at least a year of chronic anxiety and stress to get me to that point and took at least a year to recover from each time, and that there were many times where the anxiety lingered but didn’t get severe enough to stall me so I limped along best I could not accepting that I was in need of help because, well, “it wasn’t that bad”. I hope you can start to get a sense of how much of my life has been spent in this state. In some ways it became normal…  and it’s only years later looking back that I realise it wasn’t normal to spend so much of my life in that way.

This made it easy to see it just as me being weak, failing, not being strong enough, not coping with things that other people find easy. With that attitude toward myself I fell into the old traps of being harsh on myself, expecting even more of myself and berating myself terribly when I just couldn’t cope. I couldn’t accept these emotions that I didn’t want, I relied heavily on my husband to accept them for me, and I fought as hard as I possibly could to push these feelings away. Of course that didn’t work, and they just fell on me when, exhausted, I could finally fight no more.

My first breakdown at 17 created a critical voice in my head that through psychosynthesis therapy I labelled Horrible Harry. HH would drip poison in my ear, telling me my anxiety was a sign of the bad person that I really was inside. The bad person that I hid from the world, but that everyone would see if they just scratched deep enough. The bad person that would get out if I wasn’t careful enough, if I let myself slip up somehow. My friends would stop being my friends if they only knew the real person below the “act”. I wasn’t anxious, I was lazy, this was just my way of getting out of things I didn’t really want to do.

My fearful and negative thoughts were the real ones, the strong ones, and they drowned out the thoughts that told me how hard I was working, how much I was overcoming, how deserving I was of love. How deserving I was of support and help.

Through therapy, I discovered that Horrible Harry was actually a terrified little part of me, it was such a stunning breakthrough to realise that this vicious poisonous voice that I’d been swallowing whole-heartedly and believing for years was like a terrified toddler screaming angrily at the world to keep it at a distance where it couldn’t hurt any longer. It was far easier to be angry at myself rather than scared of the world. And I was scared of the world, for a very long time. The world had done some mean things to me, turned my life upside down at times and generally proved itself unreliable and untrustworthy.

Another stunning breakthrough was when I studied Attachment Theory and read my personality and the reasons why I was the way I was in the pages of a book that John Bowlby had written several decades before! That allowed me to start letting go of the harsh judgements of myself and start accepting me just as I was (instead of making my friends and husband perform that duty for me). Was that’s saying again… what we resist, persists… when it comes to emotions, that’s so true. Resisting your emotions just keeps them around. You may hide them for a while, drown them with substances, distract from them with activities, but ultimately they will be there once the lights are off and the noise has stopped, and they are “magnetic” – they draw other emotions to them until finally, feeling ANYTHING at all will link to the painful stuff you’re trying to avoid. We can’t avoid ourselves, and eventually we run out of strength and it’s at this point we experience some kind of breakdown where normal life has to stop for a while until something changes.

So here I am, twenty years after my first breakdown, having gone through several more since then. Actually, the trigger for writing this post is having actually just gone through a couple of weeks of severe anxiety due to work pressure – but this time… it’s fine.

Yes, I was so anxious I could barely breathe, eat or sleep for a week, but not once did I tell myself off for not coping, not once did I think I was a bad person for not coping. The feelings were still there… I was scared, I was panicked, I was overwhelmed, I was a rabbit in the headlights, I broke down and sobbed that I just couldn’t do this to my ever-understanding husband – but as CBT states, just because I feel it, doesn’t make it true. A single day later and I’m singing along to the theme tune of the “Big Bang Theory” happy in the knowledge I got through the week and my emotion now is pride! That one I’m going to take as I’m feeling it AND it’s true! 😉

I was able to separate my feeling state and my rational recognition of a situation that was no one fault, but was too much pressure for me to deal with. Plus, unlike previous times where the fear is that the feeling state will last FOREVER without surcease, I knew this would end and I knew ultimately that I would cope (coping here means getting through and still being in that job weeks later when things had calmed down), I was coping as well as I was able within the limits that my anxiety sets for me. And gradually, through working with rather than fighting, I get to extend the limits of what my anxiety will let me do.

I wrote this for me, to recognise what a big step this was, to mark this moment in the hope that it’s not just a step forward, but it’s a corner turned, a corner that stays turned forever.

I wrote this for you in case you’re someone living with anxiety to try and offer some hope through my story.

For you in case you’re someone who maybe doesn’t really understand anxiety but tries to support a loved one through it.

Or maybe you’re one of the people that has walked with me for some of the past twenty years, maybe you pulled me to my feet when I’d stopped moving, reminded me time and time again that the inside of my head lies to me, or provided a map when I lost my way. If you are… there are no words to express my gratitude at your patience and love. Just know it worked…

Attachment

I haven’t planned for all my counselling posts to start with A…

Attachment here refers to a counselling approach developed mainly by John Bowlby in the 1950s. It seems like common sense now as that’s how much it’s integrated into the way we do things, but it was revolutionary then.

You may have heard of or seen a tv program about different approaches, one being the strict routine where you didn’t pick the baby up if it was crying but not the time for cuddles/feed. That was the norm for Bowlby’s time. Children would go stay in residential nurseries when their mother had another child or needed a hospital stay. Parent’s wouldn’t stay with children in hospital. Long periods of time apart was normal and people didn’t really think anything of it – except the children of course, but no one was really listening to them until people like Bowlby started to.

One of my college peers, a lady in her late 50’s, could remember that happening and it was the only time I saw her cry when she told that story. Although she knew why she had been placed in the residential nursery and knew it was the only choice for her family at that time, although it was over 50 years ago, the emotions were still so strong that they overwhelmed her every attempt to keep them back.

That moment showed me how powerful attachment issues were.

This isn’t a complete history of the topic so I will be missing names and events and important things about attachment as I try and get the general idea across. If you want to know more, just google attachment theory and john bowlby and you will get more links than you can read in your lifetime!

Attachment forms a foundation for the counselling approach I practise. I believe that it’s the relationship between the client and counsellor that’s where the important stuff happens, the work, the change, the challenge. Although this is simplified so much as to be almost untrue, I see counselling as a reparative relationship and a re-parenting relationship. The counsellor models the behaviour they want their client to adopt – acceptance of things, willingness to explore, tolerance of frustration and pain, patience and so on – in the same way a parent models what they want their child to pick up and children pick up lots from their parent’s whether it’s planned or not!

Often a client becomes dependent on their counsellor, perhaps can’t imagine coping without their support and that space, and then the work turns toward reducing that dependence and allowing the client to stand more and more on their own, as I imagine parenting is. Again, that idea is so simplified as to almost be a lie.

Most of us are lucky enough to grow up with a Secure Attachment. Our parents loved us and would support us, encourage us to explore and be there when we got hurt/scared. We had a Safe Base to return to (mother’s arms for example) that was always there when the world got scary, but that wouldn’t restrain us when we wanted to explore it.

Some of us are not so lucky. Our parents weren’t there for us, either physically or emotionally.  We were neglected. Or our parents caused harm and we were abused. With no Safe Base, the world is a freaky strange scary place indeed and we must be careful for there’s no safe place to go to if we get out of our depth, so people treat more cautiously or perhaps decide not to explore at all for fear of what lurks in the shadows.

We can create our own Safe Bases. For those with Secure Attachments, we do this in our friends and partners easily, they are the ones we return to for comfort and security. It’s our home or town. It’s where we feel safe and supported and protected from the world. We Securely Attached people are also able to move our attachments. If we move home or lose a friend, we grieve the loss, but we move on and attach to someone or somewhere else. We tend not to see it as a loss of self or identity.

Secure Bases can also be created from things and substances. Computer games, drugs, a clean house, an immaculate work record, A* in every exam – all these things can be safe bases but… what happens when an exam is failed, hobbies or substances start being misused rather than used. An Insecurely Attached person will put too much into their Secure Base once they’ve created one. I’m sure you know someone who can’t be without a partner. They only seem to exist in the reflection of someone else’s eyes. Put them alone in a room and they have no Self. Without the Safe Base they have created, they are vulnerable babies abandoned in the world.

If you have ever experienced anyone seeming to overreact to something ending – say, a relationship break up means the end of the world! A house move shakes their entire world. A failed exam means the end of all their future chances and a breaking of their self worth. This might be an explanation as for why.

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