You’ll Never Change

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We often can find ourselves in sticky situations. Places in life where we feel stuck. Perhaps a pattern of behaviour; or a relationship or career choice we regret; perhaps it’s through circumstances we didn’t choose for ourselves, but through no fault of our own, this is now our reality. When we find ourselves in these types of situations, for many of us hopelessness can set in. Particularly for pervasive problems that have been lingering around our lives for way too long.

You’ll never change.

How often have we heard these words spoken over ourselves or others we care about? When I used to work in Supported Housing, one of our residents once told me, “I’ll never be able to read, Debs, a doctor told me.” Firstly, how devastating that a professional, whose job is to help us with illnesses and issues we face, had carelessly uttered these words. Perhaps even without thought for their effect, over this young person. Turned out this resident had a form of dyslexia and with our help and other services, it turned out he was able to learn to read (if he then wanted to put in the hard work to do so), he just needed a different strategy for learning than he had been offered up to this point.

How often have we spoken words over others? Perhaps thoughtlessly. Or even maybe believing that others were without choice or hope because we could not personally see a solution. How different this is from the types of stories that typically inspire us? Movies, books, social media extracts, viral You Tube videos… stories of people who have overcome adversity and impossibilities to aspire to and achieve their form of greatness. Often people who have had life limiting rather than life expanding words spoken over them by parents, teachers, careers advisers and others in a position of authority. People who have had their dreams stomped all over, their hearts broken, and have been left in a raggedy reality believing that settling for a shallow form of existence is all they can possibly aspire to.

Is change possible?

I have a firm belief that there are not many situations or people who cannot change. I even believe this over some of the most extreme situations we can face. Our bodies and minds have amazing potential to achieve way beyond what we could ask, think or imagine for ourselves.  But I didn’t always think this way. I remember at times romanticising about the possibilities of change in people’s lives. I remember watching movies or reading books about it, but not seeing change in circumstances and people around me, this leading me to believe that good things happen to other people (not the people in my world). However, in recent years, and particularly since I’ve become a counsellor, I’ve begun to believe more than ever in the ability of people and circumstances for change. I’ve seen it in my own life and I’ve seen it in the lives of many of the people I have worked with.

So what’s the secret?

Is there is a secret (or a few secrets) to change? In the changes I’ve observed in myself and others, it’s this: We first have to change our beliefs about change. If we don’t believe we can change, then we probably can’t (or won’t). And then we have to be willing to change our behaviours. To do things that scare us. And to persevere and put in the hard work. It’s that simple (or hard! depending on how you look at it).

One very interesting thing I’ve discovered, is that most change isn’t the dramatic, movie type, overnight success story or overcoming impossibilities within a week! Most change is incremental. It comes in being willing to take a small step to do something that is scary, to do it afraid, and to become confident in that step. And then next time to push ourselves that one step further, to move forwards into a new level of freedom in that area.

I’ve seen this in relationships, in people overcoming anxiety, in people who have faced up to the realities of horrendous and horrific past experiences and walked away from them, no longer condemned to repeat their own personal history or family circumstances or be confined by them because they have chosen to change their reality. What areas do you want to change today? Maybe just take one small step towards change in one area of your life. You may be surprised at the results!

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A Conversation About Consent

Yesterday I attended training on the Psychology of Sexual Abuse with Dr Nina Burrowes. It was a really interesting event and extremely thought provoking. Much of what she said has been swirling around my mind today, but one thing in particular became engrained. As a parent of a teenager, the issue of the conversations we should be having with our children around consent and learning to accept healthy rejection.

She told the story of being asked by a parent, what age parents should start to talk to their kids about consent. Her response was that 6 years old was not too young to talk about consent. If a child is asked for a cuddle at 6, they have the right to say no. As soon as she said this, my mind went to my own son. I knew what I’d modelled would be what he had learnt, so I tried to think about my own behaviour in this respect. I recalled a memory of being stood in our kitchen asking my son for a hug, being refused, and then (partially playfully, but partially seriously) pretending to be upset, putting on the pouting face and puppy eyes, looking really sad and vulnerable, until he gave me a sympathy hug.

Now we have pretty healthy boundaries as a family, in fact it’s one of the things I’m most proud of. We encourage our son to have free choice, to spend his money how he pleases, to make his own decisions on how he spends his free time, who he hangs around with (for the most part), which career path he wants to follow, what instruments/ sports he wants to learn/ play etc. We give him agency to follow his own path in life, whilst (hopefully) instilling healthy boundaries, moral principles, and respect for self and others.

Yet immediately as I recalled this situation, I knew I’d (unintentionally) taught him to manipulate to get his own way when it came to intimate relationships. Of course, I would never advocate that he gives anyone (friend or otherwise) a hug (or more) without their consent, but I had unconsciously given him just that message.

So, when he got home from school, we had the conversation. I asked, “What would you do if you asked a girl for a hug and she said no?” He straight away made the sad face, the puppy eyes and said he would act sad so she would give him one. Aaagghhh!!! Parenting fail! I mean, I know we’re only talking about a hug, but one day, that hug will be more than just a hug. And that’s when it will be really important, that he can healthily walk away saying, “Ok,” and accept the decision.

I told my son I was wrong and admitted I hadn’t taught him well in this area. We talked about why it’s so important that we respect the choices and boundaries of others. Much to my encouragement he knew about the cup of tea media campaign. He quoted, “If I’m passed out, I don’t want a cup of tea,” “If I change my mind and don’t want tea,”… etc.

As hard as it might be to ask yourself this question. What are your natural responses to rejection? If it’s not controlling in a dominating or aggressive way, is it controlling in a subtle manipulative way? To my shame, some of my responses were. So I now have an opportunity to work on these and to respond in a more healthy way. Even if we’re just talking about a hug or a cup of tea! What about you? And those you’re influencing?

You May as Well Give Up… There’s No Hope

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How many times do we feel like a situation or relationship is hopeless? I certainly do.

There are times when I think it’s literally impossible to get along with a particular person.

And whilst that might be ok for some people in our lives, whom we can quite gladly walk away from (and probably should), there are certain others, whom we maybe ‘stuck’ with or for want of a better word are ‘paired’ with for life.

I’m not necessarily talking about a life partner here, although it definitely applies to these relationships. But there are certain people… employers, colleagues; family members; other people within groups with whom I choose to be a part of e.g. sport clubs, community-based activities, faith organisations, students at school/ on a course I choose to study; or maybe a person who lives on my street, whom I’m unable to (easily) get away from or avoid.

In my last blog, “These are a Few of My Favourite Things,” (https://freetobecounselling.wordpress.com/2016/03/29/these-are-a-few-of-my-favourite-things/), I talked about relationship conflict and a game changer for me, within my counselling, my discovery of The Disarming Technique (by Dr David Burns). I want to show you in this blog, how it can be put into play, to help in relationship situations we may be facing.

Before I carry on, I just want to say this technique is not suitable for all relationships. If there is abuse or danger, then it’s wise to get professional help or advice before trying out new relationship techniques. However, for those facing situations of conflict, that perhaps lead you to almost explode with anger, frustration, resentment or are just plain difficult, particularly those situations that occur on a regular basis, this technique could really help!

  1. Acknowledge the grain of truth

Firstly, acknowledge the grain of truth in what the other person is saying. Now this is the hard part, because it requires us to admit that we were (at least in part) wrong. It doesn’t meant we have to agree with the whole statement or accusation but it does require us to acknowledge that part of it is correct.

And it might be that you’re not quite ready to do this part yet. And that’s ok. But let me ask you a question. What is your goal in this relationship? Or conversation? Is it to be right? If it is, then who will win? If I’m right, do I win? Or do I potentially, ultimately damage the relationship by needing to be right?

It’s easy in a conflict scenario to see the other person as an enemy and to feel like their motives towards me are completely against me and to harm me in all interactions. However, when we take a step back, and think about it rationally, or when the situation has passed, we realise that this is probably unlikely.

2. Empathise with how the other person may feel

The second part requires us to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. To reflect back to them how they may feel in this situation. We could say something like, “I can see this may be upsetting for you,” or “I can understand if this would make you feel frustrated.”

It’s important to be genuine. If we just use the ‘technique’ to manipulate or get our own way, it’ll backfire. If our authentic goal is restoration of the relationship or maintained relationship connection, then we will use it in a way that leaves the other person feeling valued.

3. Introduce what you would like out of this conversation

The final part is the assertive part. To ask for our own needs to be met. It might be as simple as: “I really would like us to have a good relationship.” Or it may be a specific request, “I would like to do _____ . It’s really important to me.”

When we say things in a way in which the other person feels respected and valued, we are heard. When we say things in an accusing or arguing tone, generally, the other person puts up a barrier and the relationship is damaged, or broken.

These Are a Few of My Favourite Things

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One of my favourite areas of counselling is family and relationships. You know those things that make you truly come alive? The activities and interests that energise you? Your passions? The areas that inspire you? Give you a reason to get up in the morning?

For me, helping people resolve relationship issues and conflict is one of these. I’m passionate about seeing people make changes that have a lasting impact in their relationships and/or families.

I’ve always found relationships fascinating. And people’s behaviour. I love to watch people and just quietly observe. And not to judge. I strongly believe that as Mother Teresa said:

If we judge people, we have no time to love them.

I just love to get below the surface of why people do the things they do and to discover the person underneath. I have an avid dislike of fake, superficial relationships.

For over a year now I’ve worked as a counsellor in a secondary school with young people aged 11-18. And since October 2013, I’ve counselled young people living in supported accommodation, aged 16-25 with a variety of different needs and issues. (I’ve also done counselling with people over this age range too).

One theme that comes up time and time again, is relationships. Our ability to get along with those in our sphere of influence, has a monumental impact on our general wellbeing and emotional health. Many mental health issues are related to or at least contributed to, by relationship issues, past or present. Many times a person sat in front of me, describes an injustice, a hurt, an abuse, or a disagreement in which they have been wronged.

And in all of these encounters, I would listen, empathise and try to help my client to either come to terms with historical experiences, resolve current situations, or plan effectively for potential future events. Yet, I was finding over and again, a frustration, because although I could help my client change, I was unable to affect those with whom they interacted in everyday life. The real problem! Or so I thought.

That was when I discovered The Disarming Technique. This technique was created by Dr David Burns. He, not unlike myself had sat through story after story of conflict and issues in relationships and had found it difficult to know how to best help the person. Until he discovered a key element. That in all the scenarios, the person was only seeing the issue from their point of view. Each person was either unable, or did not realise, their own contribution to a conflict scenario.

So, one day in a groundbreaking session with a client, he discovered a technique which he calls, The Disarming Technique. This strategy, in essence, has three main parts to it, which I will go into in a later blog-post. But my discovery of this technique, for me has been a real game-changer in my counselling. I have introduced this technique to many of my clients, and not just because I think it’s a great technique, but because it’s been appropriate to so many situations which have come up.

I almost smile now when I first introduce this technique and a client says, “Oh I’ve tried that before and it didn’t work,” yet as we begin to apply it to real situations and conflict scenarios, reviewing how the outcome could’ve been better if this technique had been used, I’ve began to see a real change in the situations of my clients outside the counselling setting.

I’ve also tried it in my own real life situations. Usually not the first time! I usually play out the ‘discussion’ completely the wrong way first, and then come back and use the technique, realising I could’ve completely avoided things blowing up in the first place! But that’s the beauty of life. We make mistakes. We learn. We grow. We are constantly given opportunities to improve ourselves. And to create the relationships we would prefer. Rather than the ones we sometimes have!

Free… To Be What?

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Free To Be

I gave a lot of thought and consideration to naming Free To Be. I seriously wanted it to reflect the process of counselling and be something that everyone could relate to, no matter what issues they were facing, what background, financial status, gender, sexuality, age or any other characteristic they described themselves by.

Ideas such as ‘Be the Change’ and ‘Hope Restored’ in the mix, encapsulated some of what I wanted to portray, but just weren’t quite right. I can’t remember now which came first, the logo or the name, but I remember a moment of inspiration where I walked past the shabby chic birdcage sat on top of my piano and noticed the little cage door was open.

I had a moment of revelation, where I suddenly realised that for many of us, we can feel imprisoned in a cage of our past experiences, words spoken over us by parents or teachers; low expectations and broken dreams; actual physical or sexual abuse; or what can be equally as damaging, continued verbal abuse, co-ercion or controlling relationships. When in reality the door to our cage is open. We have the ability to fly on out, but we don’t have the self-belief, confidence or tools to actually do it.

You’ve probably heard or seen it before, the metaphor of a full-grown elephant tied to a small post in the ground, believing that it cannot walk further than its captivity because as a child it didn’t have the strength. Yet all of us know that a full-grown adult elephant could easily pull that small piece of iron out of the ground and walk free. Yet it never tries, because it doesn’t have the knowledge or belief that it can simply walk away.

And as human beings we can be the same. How often do we encourage a friend, peer, colleague or someone we know, that they can, ‘Do it!’ whatever ‘it’ is, but when it comes to ourselves we sometimes live by a different standard. We believe others are powerful and able, yet we often believe ourselves to be inadequate or not good enough.

And that’s where counselling can come in. My job as a counsellor, is to help people discover their own psychological ‘cages’ and to give them the skills to be free from them. Be that identifying and addressing negative automatic thoughts, or core beliefs about themselves, the world and others and by building new beliefs about themselves. Or by simply supporting them to discover the courage and tools within them that were always there, that they didn’t know existed.

I love watching people fly out of their cages. Free to be whatever they want to be. Free to be fully themselves, whatever they want ‘themselves’ to be. Free to live life however they choose. Free to fulfil dreams. To achieve goals. To do more than they ever thought possible. Free from the opinions of others. Free to re-create their world in the way they would like it to be. Free from fears, or at least to act in spite of them. To truly live and experience life.

Free… to be what? … Whatever you want to be!

The Truth About Me

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I recently saw this image on social media and it got me thinking. How many times do we jump to conclusions about people, situations or the world in general? For example, a person who is suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) may form a conclusion that the world is an unsafe place, or that people can’t be trusted. Neither of these opinions are completely untrue, but neither are they absolutely true.

The truth sometimes rests in shades of grey

There are times when the world is unsafe and some people cannot be trusted but it would not be true to say that all people cannot be trusted and the whole world is completely unsafe. This person’s viewpoint has been shaped by their experience(s) and their opinion of what happened.

Jumping to conclusions

When I counsel people, one of the tools I sometimes use is to look at common thinking errors. We all have these to an extent. Ways that we process information about ourselves, the world and others which leads us to distorted viewpoints and opinions. Jumping to conclusions is one of these. For example, a person we are friends with doesn’t call us when we are sick and we think, “If they cared, they would’ve called to make sure I am ok.” Which then may lead to a belief such as, “They don’t value me,” or if we also have the tendency to over-generalise (another common thinking error), we may think, “People don’t value me.”

Just ignore it?

In these types of situation, we have a choice to make. We can say nothing, but choose not to spend as much time with that person anymore. We can forget about it, dismiss it, but secretly be really annoyed and drop comments at opportune times. Or we may actually just dismiss it, give the person the benefit of the doubt and choose to think the best of them in this situation, such as, “They were just busy, and I know they care about me because they did that nice thing for me last week.”

Or confront it?

Or we could choose to confront them. We could come straight out and say, “I know you don’t value me because you didn’t call when I was sick.” Or we could choose to ask questions. Instead of making our own interpretations of why they didn’t call, and that they don’t value us, we could say something like, “I was ill last week. I was really hoping you would call.”

We are at war!

The first way of confronting usually creates conflict, we become like soldiers in a war who are just firing shots at each other. The accusation causes the other person to put their guard up and then to probably retaliate with a counter-accusation. The second way, gives room for explanation and understanding. The other person may say, “I’m so sorry I didn’t realise you were ill.” Or they may even say, “Yes I heard you were ill, but I didn’t call because when I’m ill the last thing I want to do is talk to anyone, so I didn’t want to bother you.”

Stay connected!

When we talk and ask questions, we can stay connected in a healthy way to our friends and family members without hurting or offending one another. We can value the differences between our different personalities and we can also know what is important to them. We can discover the truth about what we thought was true.

Remember Why You Started

Do you ever start things and not finish them? If you’re anything like me, you probably have a whole host of projects on the go at any given time. Some of which you will eventually get to and some of which will fall by the wayside. Either way, in life, the dreams, ideas and inspiration we have, can often outweigh the time, perseverance and determination it takes to actually make it happen.

In the digital social media age we live in, we are inundated with information. According to adweek.com, studies show that the typical social media user consumes 285 pieces of content daily, which equals 54,000 words. We can be inspired and vamped up and then give way to feeling overwhelmed all within a short period of time.

Turn dreams into plans

So often we have dreams and ideas, but they can sit on the metaphorical shelf of wishful thinking, of ‘one day when’, for days, weeks or years on end. I have many of these. Some big, some small. But one thing I’ve realised over time is the things I usually accomplish are the ones I do a few specific things with. This is not a formula or number of steps towards achieving your goals and dreams, but just a few things that have worked for me and may be useful to you too.

Write it down… somewhere!

You may not be much of a writer or you may love to write things down. But writing something down makes it more official somehow. It also means if you forget about it, you’re unintentionally likely to stumble across it at a later date. I love TimeHop! The social media app that shows you posts you wrote on Facebook, Instagram or other sites on the anniversary of the post. I love how it reminds you of a place, an event, a special occasion, or even just a random thought you happened to Tweet. You could Instagram a picture that reminds you of your dream and in a year let TimeHop remind you!

Talk about it!

There are some people I’ve told elaborate dreams and desires to that 10 minutes later I’ve deeply regretted. I’ve walked away feeling violated, exposed, humiliated and wishing I hadn’t bothered. The saying “Choose your friends wisely,” definitely applies here. I wouldn’t suggest telling just anyone, but tell people who are trustworthy and dream together. It always makes it feel more real to share thoughts with another person.

Physical reminders

If you’re not much a writer, or even if you are, pictures or physical objects around the home can be a great way of reminding yourself of your dream.

Just do it!

Finally, whether in tiny steps or one giant leap, just do it! I once read that according to sociologists, in a week, our biggest regrets are things we’ve done, but over a lifetime, our biggest regrets are the things we’ve not done. Life’s too short to live full of regrets, so I’ve decided I’m going to figure out my hopes and dreams and get on with achieving them! I hope you do too.

The Cage Door Is Open, So Fly On Out…

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I love to listen to people’s stories. To hear their experiences, good and bad. The way life has shaped and moulded them. Their childhood histories and life defining moments. I love to hear about their hopes and dreams. To be a part of the process of helping people discover their gifts and talents and begin to believe in themselves, when maybe life has told them otherwise.

I love to learn about people. People and their behaviour fascinate me. When I meet someone that speaks negatively or is a little stand-offish, I begin to wonder about their life experiences. What shaped their cynical outlook? What factors determined who they have become or were they merely born that way? Conversely, when I meet a person who ‘never’ stops smiling and can find a silver lining in the most adverse of circumstances, I am intrigued by their attitude. What drives them? Is it easier for them to be happy or do they make a conscious decision to let nothing faze them?

Is life easier for some people?

Do we truly live in a meritocracy, where people by hard work and effort can improve their situation, their education, finance, employment and lifestyle? Or are some people victim to issues of powerlessness, where culture, class and society have predetermined a harder reality than for others? Can we truly choose our identity, our class, our circumstances? Or do life experiences suggest otherwise? Does a child whose parents can hardly afford to feed and clothe them have the choice to engage in horse riding lessons or ballet classes? Can an employee whose income is at the living wage threshold have a social life of regular world travel, formula one racing, and a disposable budget for whatever leisure interests they enjoy?

These and so many other questions have been theorised, criticised and philosophised for hundreds of years with a multiplicity of explanations. And usually there is some truth in all of them. But one thing I know to be true, is that our own beliefs about ourselves, the world and others, are usually the Truth for us. Henry Ford said, “If you think you can, or think you can’t, either way, you’re right.”

“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view they take of them.”

Epictetus, a Stoic Philosopher over 2,000 years ago said, “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view they take of them.” There is power in what we believe. The Free To Be Counselling logo is a birdcage with an open door, because I believe often in life we can be restricted by our own thoughts, beliefs or patterns of behaviour when there is a way to live free from these limitations with a little help.

Part of the process of the counselling I do, is to look into the links between our thoughts, feelings, behaviours, and physiology; identifying the origins of dysfunctional patterns; what sustains them now; and finding ways to change them. A really useful tool I’ve put into practice both with clients and in my own life, is when you suddenly feel an emotion, e.g. anger, to ask yourself, “What thought did I just have?” And then to ask “What evidence is there for this thought?” It is then possible to find alternative explanations which can dispel the anger.

The cage door is open, so fly on out…

This metaphor is not to minimise the problems that any of us face. Many issues are engrained and can feel insurmountable. But with a little help, the issues we face can be overcome. The cage door is open, so fly on out!