New Zine! Staying with feelings

A topic I’ve written about on here quite a lot is the idea of ‘staying with’ feelings. After the Pixar movie Inside Out I wrote all about how important it is to get in touch with all our emotions. I’ve also written about the value of noticing how we feel with kindness and curiosity, and about how to stay with other people’s feelings.

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In this new zine I discuss both why we get so shut off from our feelings in a wider culture which values some emotions far more highly than others, and how we can go about shifting our patterns of avoiding and fighting some feelings, and craving and grasping for others. It covers both therapeutic and spiritual practices for staying with our emotions.

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You can download or read the zine here.

 

New vids: Key ideas in therapy

The excellent folks at the Open University have just helped me and a couple of colleagues – Naomi Moller and Andreas Vossler – to put together these three animations of key ideas in therapy.

We all teach on the counselling course at the OU, and we wanted to capture some of the most important things about this topic for people who don’t know much about it. When we’re struggling many of us turn to a counsellor or psychotherapist, but often without knowing much about what they do, or why.

The research that has been done on counselling has found that the most important thing in determining how successful it is is the therapeutic relationship. It doesn’t matter so much what approach the therapist takes, or what training they’ve had, but whether there’s a good rapport between them and the client. That’s why it’s always a good idea to shop around for a counsellor you feel you could develop a good relationship with.

Another thing that research has found is that clients who do well in therapy often pause and check in with themselves before telling the counsellor what’s going on for them. This is a kind of being present with their experience. Approaches such as mindfulness and focusing try to help us to cultivate the capacity to be more present to what is going on with us, and to stay with difficult feelings rather than running away from them, or acting out of them.

Finally, a lot of western psychotherapy has focused on individual people: working with clients one-to-one. One problem with this is that it can give us the impression that any difficulties or mental health issues that we have are completely internal: caused by problems within us that need to be fixed. Systemic therapists have pointed out that many of our struggles are much more about the dynamics between us in our relationships, families, and communities, and about the messages that we receive from wider culture.

I hope you enjoy the videos and find them a useful way in to understanding a bit more about counselling and psychotherapy.

Inside Out: Getting in Touch with Our Emotions

This weekend I saw the new Disney Pixar movie Inside Out. I’m a big fan of Pixar already, particularly because their previous films have explored huge existential themes like death and the meaning of life, and because they often celebrate friendship and chosen families rather than the romantic relationships and biological families that so much mainstream media focuses on. That’s a big deal in a set of films that are also massively accessible and entertaining for children and adults alike.

When I saw that the main characters in Inside Out were a person’s emotions I knew that I absolutely had to go see it. I wasn’t disappointed. In fact several times I was moved to tears by how familiar the experiences were, and by this hugely important, complex, and rarely-expressed message being communicated so simply and profoundly in a ‘kid’s film’.

If you’d rather not be spoilered for the movie then please do go see it before reading the rest of this post. Also do be aware that it may well tap into lots of different emotions as you’re watching it – if you’re anything like me – not just the joyful ones. As we’ll go on to see that may not be a bad thing!

The rest of this post is divided into three sections:

  • Experiencing all of our emotions
  • Shutting down our emotions
  • How to sit with our emotions: A practical guide

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Dealing with the tough stuff: The value of noticing

This blog post has been bubbling away for a while. I want to write about the process that I’ve found helpful when struggling with difficult feelings. This week it’s been so useful that I almost wanted to give this post a ridiculously bold title like ‘Noticing: The answer to everything!’ but I restrained myself because I’m aware that different things work for different people at different times and it might not be for everyone. I’m putting this out there now in the hope that it could be useful to some readers as something to weave into your life, or as a way of thinking through what you’re already doing.

I’ve come across different versions of this process in a number of places. It forms the basis of several therapeutic approaches (particularly many existential, humanistic and psychodynamic forms of therapy) and it’s also fundamental to the Buddhist mindful approach which I find so helpful, and to various other kinds of meditation. But I’ve also noticed that many friends and clients have developed something along these lines more spontaneously, without necessarily following a particular approach.

I would summarise the process something like this:

Noticing -> Understanding -> Engaging

The core idea is that before going on to attempt to understand a situation, or to engage with it, it is important to fully notice it. Another way of putting it is that any time you find yourself struggling, you just go back to noticing.

Why is noticing so important? One of my favourite authors, Pema Chödrön, uses the metaphor of a glass of dirty water. This one particularly connects with me because I often start my days watching the Thames, which is, as we know from The Kinks, a ‘dirty old river’! I imagine a glass of Thames water in front of me. It is murky and unclear because it’s all churned up with mud and silt and rubbish. We can’t see anything clearly when it’s like that, so what we have to do is to let it be still for a period of time. That allows the dirt to settle at the bottom of the glass and the water on top to become clear.

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Pema suggests that part of why we often don’t want to allow this to happen is the fear that we have of what we might see once it all settles. I imagine that the bottom of the Thames is a pretty scary place with all the junk and slime and probably even skeletons that have accumulated there over the years. What might loom at you out of the murky gloom if you gave it the chance? But the point is that any kind of understanding of our own accumulated mess – and the things we’ve tried to bury in there – is only possible if we allow the water to settle.

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Other People’s Feelings

Something that has been a live issue for me recently – both in my own life and in conversations with friends – is how we relate other people’s feelings.

It seems like many of us have a default way of relating in which we feel responsible for how other people feel. A major alternative to this that has been put forward is the idea of ‘owning’ our emotions. This is the notion that people are only responsible for what they, themselves, feel.

I’m going to argue that both of these ways of seeing the situation are limited. An alternative would be to practice being with our own feelings and those of others (without trying to deny, avoid or escape them, or taking all the responsibility for them). This involves recognising that we are not completely separate selves, but rather that we are intrinsically connected with others.

‘You made me feel…’
It seems that a common taken-for-granted way of understanding feelings is that we cause other people to feel things and that we should take complete responsibility for this. People often say ‘you made me feel angry/scared/good/happy, etc.’ and we rarely question the truth of this.

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A common extension of this is that if somebody expresses a feeling in relation to something that we are involved with we feel entirely responsible for them having that feeling. Given that we tend, also, to divide feelings into purely positive and purely negative emotions we may then approach the world in a way which attempts to create only positive feelings in others and no negative feelings. We may feel wonderful if those around us are happy (to the extent that we put pressure on them to be so) and distraught if they are not.

Owning our emotions
Perhaps in response to the problems with this common way of viewing other people’s feelings, several authors on topics like assertiveness, relationships and conflict management put forward the alternative approach that we are not at all responsible for other people’s emotions. The idea of owning our emotions suggests that nobody makes us feel anything except ourselves. We can choose how to make sense of other people’s behaviours, and thus we are in control of any emotional response we have: it belongs to us. An extension of this idea is that we would certainly reject any accusation that we had made anybody feel anything.

I am cautious about this because it feels like a pendulum swing to the other extreme: from the idea that we are entirely responsible for other people’s feelings to the idea that we are not responsible at all.

Either completely responsible or not at all?
There are two problems that I have with this either/or approach: one theoretical and one more pragmatic.

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