Whilst my clients come to me with very different presenting issues and reasons for being there, fundamentally the first issue I have to deal with is getting the client to stop and sit with themselves. Because it is here that lies the problem.
When a person is encouraged to look at and be with themselves they invariably don’t like what they see....it may be an emptiness, a void, a sense that there is something dark and demonic inside of them, or a general discomfort and need to flee from themselves. Because of this they have strong protective processes which leads them to suffer the issues they are presenting, such as an addiction to fill the void, eating disorders, OCD or other controlling behaviours to stave off those demonic feelings, self harm to express repressed feelings or function predominantly with their cognition to avoid feeling.
So, instead of focusing on the presenting issue, which of course we need to respect and give time to otherwise we cannot gauge any change, I focus on helping the client to feel able to be with themselves sufficiently enough to let go of their protective shield so we can see what is really going on.
However, this is not any easy process because what they think they are seeing is themselves when actually what they are seeing is a constructed protective processes, there to defend off any perceived threat they unconsciously believe they have. As defenders these are pretty nasty, viscous monsters who have done a pretty good job in protecting us (and I don’t exclude myself from these experiences) from a perceived sense of harm. We’ve all grown up hearing these phrases - “You’re just being silly”, ”You need to toughen up and get on with it”, “you don’t need to cry”. These are our parents way of trying to protect us from our true feelings, to ease our pain, distress, sadness, jealousy, fear, confusion etc. But what they are then doing is constructing a negative belief system towards all of their feelings so as to avoid truly connecting with them ie; “I’m being silly if I cry” is interpreted as “I’m being silly for feeling & expressing my sadness that is real to me”.
My first role is to teach them that they are not ‘silly’ for expressing their feelings and any feelings they have are valid to me and them. To build a more healthy construct towards the expression of feeling.
When a client gets to a point that they can attempt to really sit with themselves, having understood and worked through these negative constructs, and look at what is going on for them inside, what they invariably describe is a void, a black hole, an empty box or such metaphor. This does not mean that there is nothing there, but that they have not been encouraged to have a look in that box, just to put the lid on it, and so it is initially being perceived as ‘nothing’. Aswell, if you have been protected against this box or hole for so long you come to believe that there must be something really scary or bad in there. So when asked to look into it without knowing what is in there it’s a daunting place and easily avoidable by going back to old ways of ‘feeling’, avoiding, or controlling ‘feeling’. But this ‘feeling’ they reconnect with is their negative constructs to protect themselves, not their true self, which leads them back to defensive behaviours and the issues initially presented to me.
When we are able to recognise these as being our protective processes rather than our real internal selves we can let go of them to find out what is really going on in the ‘self’...and invariably it is not as scary as our protective processes will make us believe. When we can dare to really look inside our black hole or the empty box there may well be some nasties in there but there will also be some goodies. But to get to the goodies you also have to face the baddies, they can’t come separately. We are made up of good and bad feelings that are there to support each other, to strengthen, to teach, to inform and to protect. In the process of facing our nasties we can start to feel stronger, braver, and more proud of ourselves. From this place we invariably find that the symptomology, the presenting issue, resolves itself or becomes manageable.
One way to do this is not to see these processes as evil demonic monsters fighting and defending everything around us and within us. But to see them as our friends and companions who recognised we sensed harm or distress and did what they could to protect us. So, actually they are pretty good friends and companions to us. Unfortunately though, as with an over protective parent, at some point they are going to have to let us go and trust that we are strong and brave enough to face whatever is was that we were scared off.
Because of how this ‘black hole’ is experienced it is presumed that something really bad must have happened to us to match the feeling. Most likely it was a perceived sense of fear or distress from something that happened developmentally to us through early childhood, but something very simple and of no fault to any parent/carer/sibling. As a child we did not have the intelligence to help rationalise the world around us and we come to construct our experiences from an egocentric position. For example, when something ‘bad’ happened around us ie; somebody shouted or was upset, as a child we will come to believe it was because of us because as a child we are the centre of the universe and everything revolves around us. However, as an adult we can revisit that place from a rational viewpoint, to reconstruct the situation to something more realistic, so that we can rationalise our perceived fears or distress and allow our internal parent to soothe and repair the egocentric child within us.
My role in this process is firstly to identify the relationship they have with their feelings and their ‘selves’ and reassure them that all of them is acceptable to me. I can then encourage them away from old thought processes and towards their inner selves. By safely trusting it is ok to feel will enable other feelings to emerge that will support the nasties they are fearing. By being able to describe their void tells me they are connecting with the real parts of themselves. They may continue to duck and dive to avoid them but the more silent and still they can be in this place the more I know they are feeling able to tolerate themselves. Once here they can explore themselves further, to then find what true feelings are really in there, their true self. By no longer fearing this place they can draw on their own resources from that place to cope with the nasties, rather than avoid and find external and maladaptive solutions, their presenting problem.
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