Last weekend I went to a workshop run by Mick Cooper, Professor of Counselling Psychology at the University of Roehampton, author, researcher, therapist and Chartered Counselling Psychologist. During the day Prof Cooper told us about his schedule which, apart from university work, included extra academic research, preparing and running workshops and conferences, an arduous commute, family life, physical exercise and writing 2,000 words a day.
The workshop was an introduction to Existential counselling, a form of counselling that I trained in and use a great deal in my own work, and which I see interpreted in ways that I find increasingly concerning. Therapists, not just those actually trained in existentialism, often quote Viktor Frankl the founder of a form of existential analysis, as a way of saying 'Pull yourself together' something I've written about often, especially here.
Strangely, absolutely no one is saying that one must be immersed in rabbinical and Talmudic texts, as Frankl (and so many other therapists) was or that one must establish a kind of monomania about ones spouse, which Frankl did, an obsession he credited for keeping him alive. His work is only used as a way to tell people they're not good enough.
It's always been very popular to tell people they're not good enough and to pull themselves together. When we do it we place ourselves directly opposite losers, people who can't (or more likely, the lazy pigs, just won't) get their act together. The contrast makes us feel successful and positive, consistent, resilient, focused, leaning in - whatever other buzzwords are being thrown around today.
And so my invitation to you is to just get a grip and reproduce Mick Coopers' schedule. He has children so that's no excuse for you not to. Prepare and educate yourself, reject chaos, double down, strive for excellence. Get on with it. What are you waiting for? Why are you procrastinating? What the hell is wrong with you?
I don't know Prof Cooper but I can tell you two things about him:
And whilst energy can be cultivated there is only so much that a person can do. Mick Cooper can do all these things and you can't. I can't. Most people can't. Which is the single best reason why you and I and the huge majority of people aren't a professor and the author of 10 books.
There are some people who are consistently incredibly productive, often for decades. They get cancer and they work through it and fight it and beat it. Their child dies and they produce their magnum opus. They're exiled for 14 years and return to become the leader of a nation and Time's Man of the Year. Good for them.
So because they can do it, people who die from cancer are losers? Selfish, too, for not fighting hard enough and burdening their families? Bereaved parents who can't move on from this catastrophe, they're just workshy or weakminded? I know a number of people who are disabled and who run successful businesses - other disabled people have no excuse? Viktor Frankl survived concentration camps so all those lazy arses who died have only themselves to blame?
All of my clients are, by anyone's standards, very successful. When they feel that they're not doing as well as they have done in the past ask for help. And the ones who excel?
They're competitive but not vicious or scared. They work to their strengths whilst valuing and respecting aspects of their personality that aren't geared towards making money. They know that status within their employment is just another facet of personal success because they know endless numbers of peers who are rich and exhausted, cynical, addicted, burning out, psychopathic and phoney.
Ultimately, they are concerned with what is meaningful for them and don't try to be what they're not. Frankl, like the other Existentialists, understood that meaning gives flavour and satisfaction to life. Here's one of his quotes that is plundered much less often:
“Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success,
like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal
dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself.
Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.
I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge.
Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had
forgotten to think about it”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
Just by being themselves they're being (not doing) what the Harvard Business Review recognises as resilient. Not fighting anything. Not surviving a terrorist attack. They're taking the time to discover what is important for them and doing just that.
This is a great description of the process of accepting and submitting to emotional pain in order to address it. Go and visit Bethany Webster's page to see more about her work.
Posted on September 13, 2014
Sitting with our pain is such a simple act and yet it can be one of the hardest things to do.
Feeling our pain and not rushing in to fix it, numb it, avoid it, or cover it up takes enormous courage. This is where surrender comes in. We reach a point in our healing where we’ve read all the books, consulted all the gurus or tried all the fancy techniques and all that is left is the last thing we want to do: Feel our painful feelings. Ironically, sitting with our pain is precisely what will eventually bring us all the things we were looking for through avoiding it.
A major key to healing emotional wounding is the willingness to endure discomfort for the sake of transformation. This willingness is essential to truly coming out the other side of childhood wounds.
Discomfort can come in many forms:
To an unhealed inner child, the only way it knows how to soothe itself is to act in accordance with the patterns that were imprinted by the family of origin, but usually those are precisely the patterns that are causing the pain. This keeps us trapped in a loop. The answer is to cultivate the skill of mothering and soothing our inner child while we make new choices that better reflect our true desires and needs. This inner bond is what helps us to effectively separate from family and cultural patterns that cause suffering.
For most of us, growing up involved a series of self-betrayals in which we had no choice but to create an inner split in order to survive. The split usually involves some form of numbing our feelings and rejecting ourselves in order to be accepted by our families. Healing involves the recovery of our ability to fully our feelings and thus, to feel and express the truth of who we are without shame.
While we are surrounded with messages to avoid our pain, both externally in the culture and internally through early coping mechanisms, it is through being present with our own pain and allowing our feelings to flow that healing really happens.
Truth is found outside our comfort zone. Outside the comfort zone is the space in which we separate from dysfunctional patterns that have been ingrained in us by our culture and families.
There are two main phases of learning to endure discomfort for the sake of transformation. Each phase may overlap at times, but generally we move from resistance to surrender.
Here we usually have a great deal of aversion and avoidance of looking at the painful feelings we experience. We may seek various ways to numb out or repress the truth of what we are feeling. Resistance can take the forms of self-sabotage, forgetfulness, overwhelm and addictions. Sometimes resistance can be helpful as an inner boundary of slowing things down until we are ready to fully see something. And sometimes it can be avoidance of what we know we must face. It takes careful self- examination to see which form of resistance is operating. We may experience some resistance at each new level of healing, but as we grow, we can better recognize resistance and more easily move through it.
Most of us surrender simply because the pain of resistance becomes too great. We eventually cross a threshold where we’ve learned to trust that embracing pain rather than running from it is what provides relief. We fully taste the joy and freedom that come from being in contact with the REAL within oneself. There is nothing like having moved through the pain and into the joy of feeling ONE within yourself. The peace of inner alignment: feeling and expressing your authentic feelings without the need to defend them.
There dawns a harmony between your personal imperfections and your irreplaceable part in the greater perfection of life.
Eventually the longing and hunger for living your truth overshadows all other desires, including the desire to be free of pain. It is seen that this hunger for truth is trustworthy and will lead you to what you need in each moment. And sometimes what you need is to embrace is yet another level of inner pain. The moments of relief and bliss that open up through having embraced your pain makes it all worth it. Over and over we learn that the act of embracing and being present with our pain is what connects us with the larger truth of who we are.
I think that one of the reasons why the crucifixion is such a powerful, pervasive symbol in the western world is because it symbolizes precisely what can be profoundly difficult: the willingness to accept and be present with our painful feelings.
A new inner space is created where you have permission to live from the REAL.
As we do the inner work, eventually a conviction arises; a quickening, a hunger and fierce commitment to living one’s truth. A desire develops to live from each moment from within the fire of your original self. Each moment begins to represent a new, fresh opportunity to live from simple, open, awareness of what is.
We see that awareness itself is an embrace.
We start on the painful periphery and as we become increasingly skilled in enduring discomfort and the uncertainty of the unknown, there lies the potential to merge with the holy presence that lives at the center of our pain and realize that is the truth of who we are.
Many of us have a feeling of homesickness deep within. A nameless longing and aching grief. Many of us experienced this as children in relation to our mothers, a feeling of being groundless and adrift. Embracing the homesick feeling within the mother wound leads us to eventually come to a place where we realize that we can never be truly abandoned. This becomes possible by becoming a loving inner mother to our inner child as we embrace her deepest despair.
In that despair is a door; a door to our source, the unified consciousness in which we are one with all.
In this way, our pain is a messenger. A messenger telling us it’s time to come home; to the primordial home within, which is the realization of our true identity as consciousness, the knowing that we are spirit and can never be truly harmed or abandoned because we are one with all. I recall moments in my own healing process when I would process layers of grief within the mother wound; the sense of worthlessness and wanting to die. And in that willingness to simply feel the full scope of that incredible despair and grief, I knew that this was the bottom. There was no pain deeper than that. That pain was the ground. And by standing on that ground and being present with my deepest pain, I was free.
Feeling our pain frees us from it.
By sitting with our pain, we begin to recognize that the pain we have felt is not the truth of who we really are. We begin to see that the open, loving presence that we embody as we embrace our own pain is who we are, our true identity underneath all our other identities.
The culmination of living as a “self” is to live as the “no-self”; the vast, loving space that lovingly witnesses our pain and embraces it completely. This is what a healthy mother does for her child. Author Rupert Spira has said that awareness is like the space in a room, it unconditionally accepts what happens in it. Likewise, in order to develop optimally, a child needs a mother who is unconditionally present and accepting of her. However, mothers are human beings with flaws who make mistakes. All of us receive some degree of wounding from our mothers.
Through that primary, holy wound, we are called to become that loving mother to ourselves…and to all life.
As we embody the unconditional love of the inner mother, we become re-connected to life itself. We become re-connected to the birth-less and death-less center that is constantly born and dies in countless forms. This is the evolutionary step that lies within the pain of the mother wound.
As women, we grow up believing that a holy power lies outside of ourselves and in the healing process, we start to realize that what we most desire, that which is most holy, eternal and pure is inside of us and has always been there. In fact, it is us. Not just in one or some of us, but it lives equally in all of us, in all of life.
Because we are all connected, each time you lovingly embrace your own pain, you activate the power of oneness in all.
© Bethany Webster 2014
Some words of wisdom from a colleague in Harvard. We talk a lot about healing and cure but we also know that it's not always possible and that this is not always a failure.
"I think we've lost our way, young therapist. In following our culturally prescribed roles to be powerful healers we've forgotten that not everything we touch can be restored. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we cannot put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
I'm not even sure it is important that we even try."
If ever you get some time to listen to someone with a mental health diagnosis, particularly someone who is young, listen hard to what they have to say. Be aware that between you and them is a huge filter that their words have to pass through to reach your brain, a filter that distorts your perception and understanding of the world around you, so that you find yourself unable to comprehend or recognise very straightforward concepts.
Todays Observer draws attention to an important but overlooked change to the classification of delusion in the DSM. Now, “You needn't be wrong to be called delusional.”
Until now, a defining feature of delusion was that a fixed belief had to be incorrect. Recognising that a great many people who have been diagnosed as insane have actually been speaking the truth, to the point where political enemies have regularly been imprisoned in asylums, this is a subtle but vitally important change to our understanding of madness.
“History is littered with such examples but sadly there are enough contemporary cases to illustrate the point. In a controversy currently rocking Germany, evidence of money-laundering at a big bank has become a huge scandal, not least because it was dismissed as delusional seven years ago when the accuser was diagnosed with mental illness.
Closer to home, when the NHS whistleblower Kay Sheldon reported failings in the Care Quality Commission, the first response was to suggest she had a mental health problem and to commission a psychiatric assessment.”
My experience of a great majority of the many mentally ill people I’ve met is that they are a great deal more sensitive and empathic than the people around them. What often distinguishes them from others is that they have refused to or been unable to blunt their senses, to compromise their ethics or submit to the dominant discourse. Endlessly, in every region of unhappiness, it is easier to ignore or treat them with contempt than to engage with them. This phenomena is so well known that it has a name, Gaslighting.
Gaslighting drives people insane. We may not know we’re doing it but when we deny that a persons experience has actually happened we contribute massively to their distress.
"In the years after Martha Mitchell had been dismissed as delusional, it emerged, contrary to her claims, that she was under the care of her own psychiatrists, drinking heavily and, at times, suicidal."
Was Martha just born ‘weak-minded’ or might she have been driven to despair by the need to numb her feelings? She knew she’d have to deny her previous illnesses to be taken seriously. Interestingly, a good number of those people who are dangerously psychiatrically ill can do very well in the world: narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths are well represented in senior management.
The bedrock of psychotherapy, across models, is empathy. If a person tells you that they’ve lived on the moon it can an illustration of their feelings of isolation, or of how their truthful statements have been considered insane so why stick to the truth? There’s no point saying “But there’s no air on the moon,” you’ll often be dismissed as someone else who's not interested and they’ll know you can’t or won’t imagine their experience.
What separates some people whose sensitivity seems to be unmanageable from people who remain sensitive but functional is the ability to walk the thin line between swallowing our feelings and expressing them, between getting our own needs met and expending energy in helping others meet their needs – even if that need is just to be heard. This goes a long way towards explaining why the people most vitriolic about the State-supported poor seem to be the working poor. (Why someone who lives a life of privilege feels hatred for the poor is another matter.)
Delusions are often a matter of status and power. At last, the mental health industry seems to be cottoning on to what the abused have been saying for as long as abuse has occurred.
Petrūska Clarkson has been on my mind all this week. “One of the most significant figures in the history of Gestalt therapy in England," therapist, lecturer, academic author, creatrix of the Systemic Integrative model, Clarkson killed herself in the summer of 2006. You can read more about her incredible list of achievements here.
I never met Petruska Clarkson but along with colleagues noted her death and then never spoke about it again. Her death will have had a much greater impact on her personal friends, colleagues, students and of course the many clients with whom she worked over the years but somehow I missed any obituary other than a letter in Therapy Today. A personal and heartfelt forum for people who wanted to remember her is here.
As far as I know there has been no professional debate over what her death, particularly her death by suicide, might mean to psychotherapy. Having spent a day combing the internet either I’m searching in the wrong places or there has been no discussion.
This morning I was very sobered by the realisation that I’d forgotten her name and searched for her under ‘psychotherapy’ on Amazon where she emerged on page 6. Then I searched for the Physis Institute, the training organisation she founded (as well as being a founder member of Metanoia) and came across a good number of therapists who have called their practice Physis with no reference to Clarkson, but was unable to find anything about the Institute.
How can such an important person disappear so completely? Is this a partial clue?
“I insist that there be no funeral, cremation or memorial service of any kind held for me. Instead I wish sincerely that all those who have valued my work just continue to ‘help the people’ in the spirit of Physis as they are”.
Jason Mihalko, a US based therapist, has written about the impact of a client suicide:
"My patient who killed herself told me once that when she died she wanted no obituary, no service, no tomb stone--no marker of any sort that made mention of her life. She wanted there to be "no memory that my sad life ever existed on this planet."
This is an endlessly complex matter and I hesitate to draw parallels between two people I’ve never met who had very different lives. But there is something profound about erasing oneself not just by suicide but also in the insistence that routine death rituals be put aside. Even people with no friends, family or money get their name mentioned by a priest as part of their paupers’ funeral, they’re not simply loaded into the cremator or fed into the earth. But Petruska Clarkson and the anonymous client (and any number of other people who kill themselves) insist that just this be done for them.
Perhaps, just as we could not fulfil the needs of people in life who are adamant that this lack of fulfilment be brought to their death rituals, we may need to ignore their needs in death. Jason’s writing about his experience with one particular person has offered a great deal to his readership over a year, probably extending into many more years. I’m very wary about treading on the broken hearts of people who knew Petruska Clarkson or offering them any offence: speaking for myself I’m disturbed that her desire for erasure seems to have been taken all too seriously. In death, she has yet more to offer psychotherapy.
There’s a great deal more to be thought about here, but perhaps it’s good to end this entry with Jason’s wise words, words that echo Clarkson’s final wishes:
“Treat people like they matter.
It's the most important thing you will ever do.”
A bubble has burst and the banking system is reeling. Since the early ‘80’s we’ve all been in awe of the City, convinced that we’re too dumb to know what this mythical place was up to.
People in banking know that ‘The City is a massive cesspit,’ as Vince Cable said yesterday, or that it is, as the Governor of the Bank of England described it, ‘excessive, shoddy, deceitful and manipulative.’ The Governor of the Bank of England, Chairman of the Monetary Policy Committee and the Financial Policy Committee might have had authority but he had no power to address the everyday corruption that everyone knew about.
This Cycle of Corruption, of money, power and policy all feeding each other, is not new and the turning of this current cycle is very far from over. Bankers are not alone in choosing personal gain over gains for all, we are all of us more or less happy to allow people we don’t know to struggle. We know that if only the poor had made different choices they too could be wealthy, if only the homeless weren’t so lazy and self indulgent they could be kings of the world.
And of course we know this is nonsense. The tension between what we know in our hearts and what we say we know can make people judgemental, bitter, aggressive and even slightly mad. The comments section of any online news outlet demonstrates this perfectly.
Recalibrating our values can be difficult especially when it can effect what we earn, how we support or are supported by people we value, and most especially our status. But ultimately it's about how we want to be related to and remembered. Success is so much more than the size of your bank balance.
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