What to do if your partner or child is seeing a counsellor.

What to do if your partner or child is seeing a counsellor.

It is natural to be curious about what your partner or child discusses with their counsellor.  It can be helpful for the person to share what they are discovering with the person closest to them, BUT (and it is a big “but”) it can completely destroy the counselling if that person probes into what was discussed the moment their partner or child leaves the counsellors room.  Any conversation about the counselling should come from the client, not their partner or parent.  There are two reasons for this.

The first is that counselling is an isolated, confidential relationship.  Because of this, your partner or child should (hopefully) quickly feel safe revealing anything and everything.  If they know that you are going to demand to know what was discussed, they are placed in the position of either not revealing something important or helpful to the counsellor, or lying to you.  Neither of these are good options so while you may want to know what was spoken about, you will be interrupting the work if you ask anything beyond, “Did you have a good session?  Is it helping?”

The second reason is “gestation”.  Gestation is the time it takes for something to develop.  Often in counselling clients arrive at new ideas about something…they may have been carrying a sense of unworthiness and in the space of a session have let that go and become ready to adopt a belief in themself.  But that new idea is fragile and needs time to migrate around the brain, re-author* old memories and settle.  This is one reason why counsellors tend to see clients weekly, not daily.  Time  is needed between sessions for ideas to settle, to be made sense of and believed on a deep level.  Probing can disrupt that process and the client stays stuck in their sense of unworthiness.

*re-authoring is a process of looking at old stories of your life through different lens.  Stories of bullying can be a story of weakness but can equally be a story of resilience and courage.  Stories of “naughtiness” and rejection (eg “teachers belittled me so I used to skip school and I failed my exams”) can equally be a story of justice and defiance (“school couldn’t keep me safe and/or engaged so I carved my own path”).  Through re-authoring clients can see themselves differently and become “heroic” in their life rather than “victims” or “villains”.  Counsellors will often focus on one of hundreds of memories and this triggers a process of bringing up other memories (sometimes unconsciously) which can carry on for days or weeks.  People can often feel tired or unsettled while this is going on.  One client had a mild headache for two weeks after discovering something about himself that meant every memory he had was inaccurate. His brain was using a lot of energy re-authoring his life.

“Are you talking about me?!”

When I work with couples, or individuals who are struggling in a relationship, something that inevitably seems to come up is the question of, “who is being talked about?”

If we are having an argument and I talk about you and all the things you are doing wrong…serious crimes like you always leave the toilet seat up, you squeeze the toothpaste tube the wrong way or, most heinously, you never put the remote back in its place, I shouldn’t be surprised if you attack me with a list of my crimes or reasons why your crimes aren’t crimes at all…I’m just being overly sensitive.

Problems in a relationship are only problems because one of the partners is adversely affected by the behaviour. “All you do is sit around the house! You never want to go out and do anything!” is only a problem because I want to go out and do things. If I wanted to sit around the house too…no problem! However, when I make you the problem by only talking about what you do or don’t do, chances are, we aren’t going to reach a good resolution. If I do get what I want it will be given with resentment and reluctance and the relationship can become “transactional” – I’ll do this for you if you do this for me.

You can change this by talking about yourself, instead of your partner. “When we sit around the house I feel like life is slipping away, and like what I want doesn’t matter.”

It is hard to argue with someones feelings, especially when you aren’t being attacked or put down.

In order to speak about yourself, you firstly need to get a bit reflective and figure out what it is about the behaviour that bothers you. Is it respect (when I see the toilet seat up I feel disrespected)? Is it a sense of your worth (when I see your wet towel on the floor I feel like a slave)? Is it your values (I hate waste, so when I see day old bread being thrown out…)? Is it fear (I used to get hit by my father for squeezing the toothpaste tube like that so when I see it I get scared)?

When you talk in this way you take blame out of the conversation because you are telling the person that they aren’t the problem….if anyone squeezed the toothpaste tube that way I’d get upset.

For most of us, this is a new way of sorting out problems. It can be scary because we are revealing vulnerabilities but it is worth trying. When our only tool in an argument is to attack the other we are simply building up resentment and creating minefields in our relationship…areas we can’t talk about because we always come out of those discussions angry and hurt.

While it is great if both parties in the argument can take this approach, one might not get it or slip into the habit of blame and attack. If the other person can hold onto who is being talked about, rather than getting into a crimefest they can diffuse things by using questions, rather than justifications or alternative accusations?…”What is it about the toothpaste tube that upsets you?” “How long has this been bothering you?” “How important is this to you (maybe on a scale of 0-10)?” “How upsetting is it (on a scale of 0-10)?” “I wonder why it is a 2/10 in importance but upsets you a 7/10?” By exploring a bit deeper into what makes things a problem several things might happen. You might change your behaviour and start squeezing the toothpaste tube differently, they might stop caring because they feel that their concerns have been heard and thus they have been seen by you (perhaps the reason the toothpaste tube upset them is they are feeling neglected because the household has become busy), or together you may com up with a simple, creative solution…two toothpaste tubes!

Ka kite anō

Steve

Have a great summer break!

In New Zealand we are fortunate in that Christmas marks the beginning of our summer break. I say we are fortunate because, as a counsellor, I see many people for whom Christmas is not a happy occasion for various reasons, but summer for most of us is a time to take a break, get out, get in the water and have a bit of fun.

Once again it is going to be a different time, as we face various changes in the way we holiday and celebrate due to covid. We might use this time to reflect on what was important but can’t be at the moment (being with family) and develop new ways, new traditions. An example might be playing an online game together, doing quizzes or something of that nature to share an experience when you are miles apart.

However you decide you are going to “do” summer this year, I hope it is a good one and refreshes you for the challenges and opportunities ahead

Ngā mihi

Steve

Sometimes it feels like this

Mr. Grumpledump’s Song
Shel Silverstein, 1930 – 1999

Everything’s wrong,
Days are too long,
Sunshine’s too hot,
Wind is too strong.
Clouds are too fluffy,
Grass is too green,
Ground is too dusty,
Sheets are too clean.
Stars are too twinkly,
Moon is too high,
Water’s too drippy,
Sand is too dry.
Rocks are too heavy,
Feathers too light,
Kids are too noisy,
Shoes are too tight.
Folks are too happy,
Singin’ their songs.
Why can’t they see it?
Everything’s wrong!

Uh oh…here we go again

Lockdown 2.0, eh? Here’s some bits of absolutely unproven advice to help you through lockdown

DON’T BINGE! if you can restrict yourself to one episode of something you want to watch every day, then every day you have something to look forward to tomorrow. Seems very simple but it gives you one little bit of meaning to your day.

Dont binge news. Check in once a day at most.

Laugh. Sadly, Sean Locke, a wonderful english comedian passed away the other day and I’ve been enjoying a few of his moments on Youtube (eg. “carrot in a box”). Laughing lifts your mood, so it really doesn’t matter what tickles your fancy, as long as you tickle it.

Try to do something productive. Again, the internet is a great resource for learning a new skill, no matter how small. It maybe something you can’t apply until after lockdown (like a new ski technique) but learning and practicing it now will slow lethergy setting in.

Slow counselling hits the spot

I get massage fairly regularly.  I had an interesting conversation recently with my masseuse about “hard massage”.  She told me that men often come along wanting a hard massage.  When she asks them about their history of massage she learns they have never had one or had one some years before.  She told me you cannot leap straight into a hard massage.  Your body is unfamiliar with that touch and experiencing that pain and your body will fight it.  You will tense up, resist the pressure and instead of getting massaged you will just get bruised.  It takes time and practice for your body to trust and relax and accept the pressure (and pain) so that the massage can actually release the tension, rather than exacerbate it.

Tough conversations can be exactly the same.  I work with those who have been traumatised through sexual abuse. Some come along to the first session having mentally steeled themselves to reveal their horrific past.  We don’t do that.  We dial it back and start softly.  If we leap into the trauma all that happens is we re-traumatise the person and they don’t come back, and feel that they are unfixable.

We start slowly, working in the clients current life to see how the trauma from years before “plays out” in their life at the moment. We look at meanings about themselves came from the trauma, and how those meanings (such as “I’m powerless”, “I’m disgusting” “I’m unsafe”) affect how they react to things in their life. We look at how various relationships are impacted by the trauma. For many living with the trauma of an assault, their “normal” is anything but. It might take a year or more before we can begin to go towards addressing the traumatic memory.

By taking things real slow, we can work our way towards undoing the damage of a traumatic experience and those people can begin to accept and love themselves, feel safer and enjoy better relationships.

Soft words to come back together

When we fight, we push each other away. It can often feel like there is a massive gap between us, and neither of us knows how to reach across that gap.

We are both stuck, staring at each other across the void, kept apart by hurt, resentment, anger, and fear that anything we do might push us further apart.

This is the time for soft words. The purpose of these words is not to fix anything, not to try to figure out the fight or come to any resolution, but simply to reach across the gap and say, “Hey, I’m still here.” The message of these words are hope and regret. They are not apologies, promises, explanations, and they don’t need to be explained or expanded on. They stand alone. They are words to simply be heard by the other. Here are a few suggestions of some soft words you can share:

“I wish that fight didn’t happen.”

“I hate it when we hurt each other like that.”

“I hope we can get back to being close soon.”

“I miss the us when we are in a good space.”

Words like those are invitations to heal the hurt. They are a great place to start the to journey across the gap to each other.

Ka kite anō

“That man is suffering from memories!”

Sigmund Freud is attributed with stating that well over a hundred years ago. Our memories of the past are wide and diverse, the proverbial “another country”. Some are beautiful places we like to visit and rest and rejuvenate ourselves in, moments of happiness, pride, joy. Others are darker, shabbier places that we go with with shame, regret, sadness or loneliness.

for some of us there are worse places in our mind…places of raw terror. Memories so painful that even a glimpse of them over the horizon is enough to have us trembling.

Often, in our present we stumble across a landscape that is familiar and, unconsciously, we believe that we know know where we are going….that we have been there before and it is familiar. I struck this with a client recently. He realised that in some of his interactions with his wife, he felt trapped and powerless. I asked him how old he felt when he was in these difficult times and he reported feeling like a teenager. When we explored these a bit deeper he realised that they resembled a difficult time of his childhood when his mother was “dumping” on him and he felt trapped and powerless. He experienced a “resonance”…echos of a difficult emotional time. He was drawn back to being a powerless teenager.

There is a very helpful book titled, “The body keeps the score” by Bessel van der Kolk. This book dives into the somatic experience of things. Somatics are the sensations we feel, as distinct from emotions. Often when we are triggered by something happening now, into a painful or traumatic memory, our body reacts and floods us with adrenaline and cortisol and we feel anxious….and we react out of that anxiety, shutting down, flaring up or running from the situation. Sometimes the way out fo this triggering is simply to notice and acknowledge that somatic reaction, and put it in the past where it belongs…however, “simply” can take a bit of training and work.

This says it all

I was recently at a workshop and the tutor read this poem by Jeff Foster which, I think, says a lot that many of us can identify with.

HOW I BECAME A WARRIOR

Once, I ran from fear 
so fear controlled me.
Until I learned to hold fear like a newborn.
Listen to it, but not give in.
Honour it, but not worship it.
Fear could not stop me anymore.
I walked with courage into the storm.
I still have fear, 
but it does not have me.

Once, I was ashamed of who I was.
I invited shame into my heart.
I let it burn. 
It told me, “I am only trying
to protect your vulnerability”.
I thanked shame dearly, 
and stepped into life anyway,
unashamed, with shame as a lover.

Once, I had great sadness 
buried deep inside.
I invited it to come out and play. 
I wept oceans. My tear ducts ran dry.
And I found joy right there.
Right at the core of my sorrow.
It was heartbreak that taught me how to love.

Once, I had anxiety.
A mind that wouldn’t stop.
Thoughts that wouldn’t be silent.
So I stopped trying to silence them.
And I dropped out of the mind, 
and into the Earth.
Into the mud.
Where I was held strong 
like a tree, unshakeable, safe.

Once, anger burned in the depths.
I called anger into the light of myself.
I felt its shocking power. 
I let my heart pound and my blood boil.
Listened to it, finally.
And it screamed, “Respect yourself fiercely now!”.
“Speak your truth with passion!”.
“Say no when you mean no!”.
“Walk your path with courage!”.
“Let no one speak for you!”
Anger became an honest friend.
A truthful guide. 
A beautiful wild child.

Once, loneliness cut deep.
I tried to distract and numb myself. 
Ran to people and places and things.
Even pretended I was “happy”. 
But soon I could not run anymore.
And I tumbled into the heart of loneliness.
And I died and was reborn
into an exquisite solitude and stillness.
That connected me to all things.
So I was not lonely, but alone with All Life.
My heart One with all other hearts.

Once, I ran from difficult feelings.
Now, they are my advisors, confidants, friends,
and they all have a home in me, 
and they all belong and have dignity.
I am sensitive, soft, fragile, 
my arms wrapped around all my inner children.
And in my sensitivity, power.
In my fragility, an unshakeable Presence.

In the depths of my wounds, 
in what I had named “darkness”,
I found a blazing Light
that guides me now in battle.

I became a warrior
when I turned towards myself.

And started listening.

– Jeff Foster

“She’s asking for it!”

I work with women (and men) who have experienced sexual abuse. One of the things that leave them confused and with a deep sense of worthlessness is the inevitable question, “What did I do wrong to deserve this?”. Victims of abuse frequently blame themselves…they suspect that they did something to attract the assault so somehow the assault it was their fault.

Sadly, as a society, for a long time we have endorsed this thinking, particularly with women. That we allow lawyers to ask questions like, “what were you wearing?”, “How much had you had to drink?”, and to probe a woman’s sexual history, as if that somehow made the assault justifiable, locks into our social thinking that women are responsible for being raped.

The list of things women shouldn’t do is endless. What they shouldn’t wear, how they shouldn’t behave, where they shouldn’t go, what they shouldn’t say, how they shouldn’t look at a man. These notions underpin the thinking that, “she was asking for it”.

If we want a just society we need to unequivocally endorse all women’s right to be safe and this starts with upholding the statement that there is nothing a woman can do to “ask for it”. Judges need to stop lawyers from asking any question that suggests the victim was responsible for the crime.

While this is a deadly serious point, these guys have taken a fun look at where that thinking might go, if we took it in the other direction.

A point of clarification – at the outset I said I see both men and women who have been sexually assault. While there are similarities in the trauma of being assaulted the societal meanings differ. Men face their own, distinct challenges of identity around sexual assault which lead to a similar sense of worthlessness. Sexual assault destroys lives. It’s something that many people don’t recover from and struggle to deal with. The time to tolerate or justify it has long past.

Ka kite anõ