Turning towards

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Blogs by their nature are exercises in navel gazing. And I’ve never kidded myself that my blog had a wide appeal, mostly I ramble on about things that interest only me/hair.  But this post is so incredibly narcissistic that I give you my regular reader aka mum complete permission to skip this post.

But I have to write about turning towards. Because this revelation has been so fundamentally important in my life that to not mark it here feel wrong. Maybe this might help other people struggling with the same thing. Plus when I inevitably forget this lesson, before the universe slams my head against the wall again I can re-read this post again and tell myself turn towards doofus, turn towards.

As I hinted in my beginning of the year post for the past six months I’ve been struggling. In short:

There are two things I really want. I’ve been doing anything I can think of to accomplish these goals. And running face first into the universe’s indifference as I realise how completely out of my control everything is.

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In response, I’ve felt very sad, hopeless and useless. I don’t like feeling sad, hopeless and useless  – these feelings bummed me out. So I would do whatever I could to make myself feel better. I have *takes deep breath* journalled, gone to therapy, cleaned, seen friends, isolated, eaten chocolate, meditated, drunk many fruity cocktails in different shades, gone on the holiday of a lifetime, distracted myself with books and TV.  I even whisper it exercised. That is how desperate I was 😉

And all of these things worked. I’d feel better for an a hour, an afternoon, a week. But inevitably because I want things, and those things aren’t happening, I would feel very sad, hopeless and useless again. I flipped so fast between hope and despair I gave myself emotional whiplash.

Even worse the negative thoughts began: ‘you’re a trained counsellor. If you’re so good at fixing your clients, why can’t you fix yourself. What’s wrong with you?’ So in addition to feeling crappy, I then beat myself up for feeling crappy. It was if I imagined after gaining my diploma that I’d be teflon coated never suffering again. Fellow counsellors, I’ll give you a moment to stop laughing at me.

This cycle (feel sad, try to make self feel better, while beating self up for feeling bad) might have continued ad infinitum. If not for one weekend when something happened.

During the break in a experiential counselling group (think a therapeutic group for counsellors) I took a walk. It had been an emotional day and I’d connected with an old wound from childhood. I felt off, like a small animal was scritching a hole in my breastplate. I needed… something. I went into the bookshop and stared at my books, my drug of choice and familiar companions. No, that wasn’t it. I went into Waitrose and stared at sugary things, hoping they could satiate my pain. Nope, not it. I walked scrolling through my phone desperate to find somebody who could help take this feeling away.

In that moment I would have done anything, taken anything for the momentary cessation of that scritchy feeling.

Instead I did something different. I sat down on a bench and (in my head) I began to talk to myself. ‘OK’ I said to myself. ‘What up with you?’ I turned towards those feelings blossoming within me like a dark flower. And I felt it all the sadness sloshing inside of me bigger than any ocean, the anger juddering like tectonic plates moving and there at the base of it all a raggedly old wound that never healed.

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It took almost everything I had to not turn away from those feelings. Instead as each feeling emerged I acknowledged it. I tried to name the feeling: was it grief or despair that I was drowning in? I put my hand to where the feelings where located and breathed through it.

Was turning towards those feelings pleasant?

No.

It felt like shining a light into my soul and seeing creatures wiggle in the darkness. It was intensely painful but mixed up in that pain was a relief at those feelings being heard. An ‘Ah yes, there you are!’

In that moment I drew on a couple of ideas that had inspired me but I’d struggled to integrate. Buddhist notions of acceptance, vulnerability from the work of Brené Brown, and techniques from mindfulness and focusing. I accepted those feelings. I embraced my vulnerability instead of turning away in shame. I open myself up to my current experience whatever they were.

I knew from my counselling training that feelings need to be heard. But I had been ignoring mine and worse telling myself that what I felt wasn’t valid.

Let’s get all metaphorical for a minute. It felt emotionally I was in Hull but I really wanted to be in Brighton. It was almost as if for the last six months I spent all my time either distracting myself or being self critical that I wasn’t in Brighton. Neither of which actions got me anywhere. If I ever want to get to Brighton I need to accept I’m in Hull.

I need to accept the reality of my current emotional experience before it can change to make way for something new. 

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For years I’ve had this quote pinned to my fridge. ‘The only way out is through’ by Robert Frost. The thing is going through our feelings hurts, it’s uncomfortable, the terrain is unwieldy. Wanting to avoid pain is human nature. It’s in my nature. But when I avoided my pain it only reinforced my secret fear that my pain is bigger than I am and I am not resilient enough to handle it. By trying to shut of my pain I’d limited my ability to feel pleasure. By turning towards I remembered that there are no shortcuts, the only way out of a feeling is through.

So for the last month I’ve been practising turning towards my feelings. I can feel the ripples spreading. I don’t know where I’ll end up but this feels huge and revolutionary.

For the first time in months I’m feeling like myself. I feel… better (she says tentatively eyeing the skies for more thunderbolts).  Nothing externally has changed but I’ve changed. I still want things that aren’t happening. I still feel sad, useless and bummed out. But instead of ignoring those feelings or telling myself I’m not allowed to have them more often than not I turn towards them. ‘Who are you?’ I ask. ‘What do you need me to hear?’ And whatever I hear and no matter how uncomfortable it is to bear I try to turn towards.

Smelling the flowers

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I’m gloriously happy at the moment, happier than I can remember being for a long time. My cynical alter ego is squinting up at the sky waiting for it to start falling but the rest of me is enjoying lying back and smelling the flowers. In some ways it’s not a big surprise:

  • I qualified with honours in my dream career and, perhaps more importantly, got my evenings and weekends back;
  • I celebrated my first wedding anniversary with the love of my life HWSNBN;
  • I’ve recently returned from an awesome honeymoon trip to Cuba – full blog, when I can be arsed soon;
  • I’m working on a new novel;
  • Plus there are a couple of exciting and TOP SEKRIT projects on the horizon.

Any one of these events would be enough to account for my happiness. What makes this different and blog worthy is that a couple of my closest friends are struggling through some very difficult times and I am so desperately sad for them. But although that sadness is present and I am mourning for them I also feel a surge of deep joy for myself and neither feeling lessens the other.

I can see some of my well-adjusted readers shrugging as they read this: ‘doesn’t everybody emotionally multitask?’

But this is very new for me. Two years ago I would not even have been able to register the thought of being happy when people so close to me weren’t. Like a human sponge, I had so little boundaries I found it difficult to separate my feelings from the people I loved. Can you say enmeshed, fucked-up and unsustainable? Last year I would have been able to acknowledge my happiness but only momentarily before the guilt would set in. How could I be happy when others were suffering?

It has taken two years of counselling but I have finally learnt the difference between feeling empathy and responsibility. I can finally let go of feeling like I don’t ‘deserve’ to be happy because people around me are struggle. It is one of the horrible secrets of life that if you look hard enough, somebody around you will always be struggling. It seems like such a minor change but for me it has been fundamental. If I lived by my old rules, it was never OK for me to be happy.  So I am able to not only recognise but revel in how amazingly lucky and blessed I am at the moment. And I am fully conscious that this too shall pass and it will be my ‘turn’ soon enough. But until it does I am going to enjoy every moment. As my bestie Kurt says:

“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point “If this isn’t nice I don’t know what is.”
– Kurt Vonnegut

And in case that quote gives you the mistaken impression that I am cultured innit. Look, cat fonts!

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Loving myself

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Over the next couple of days I will be posting my three new years resolutions in the hope that declaring them publicly will give me an incentive to keep them!

The first is deceptively simple (and a little hippy dippy): work on loving myself. However, I expect that this may be more of a lifelong struggle than a one year blitz.

I know I am not alone in having trouble with this. At the end of my first counselling session with a new client I always set them a task. To do something during the week, just for themselves, that makes them feel good. It shocks most people that they cannot think of something. Most of us spend our lives focused externally, never considering how we can best take care of ourselves.

One of my favourite meditations metta is focused on offering up loving kindness to groups of people. First you visualise loving kindness surrounding your loved ones, then acquaintances, strangers, enemies, all beings and finally yourself. Always I struggled with the last part of the meditation offering myself the same love and respect I easily offer up to other people; even my ‘enemies.’

Throughout my adolescence and through my twenties, I hated myself. And I was really good at it. No matter how hard I tried I was never good enough. I would compare my insides to other people outsides and always find myself wanting. I had to hide away that sad, bitter, angry, jealous, judgemental side of me because if other people saw they would never accept me. But I knew that shadow self was there: an empty void I would do anything to hide.

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I strongly believe that loving and accepting ourselves improves our relationships with everybody we encounter. If you hate yourself and are constantly striving to hide aspects of yourself how can you possibly connect authentically with others. If you do not respect yourself, how can you reinforce boundaries and ask for what you need. If you cannot love yourself how can you ever love another. As the Buddha said ‘You could search the whole world over and never find anyone as deserving of your love as yourself.’

Counselling is an ongoing process of learning to accept myself.  Falling in love with HWSNBN was a great healing process . I love him and respect his opinions. And if he could love me unconditionally then surely I could try too. I suspect loving myself will be something I always struggle with but this year I really want to work on getting rid of self hatred and start loving and respecting myself. Here’s how I am going to do it.

Be kind
Act as if you love and respect yourselves and your thoughts will begin to follow your actions. Take care of yourself: eat well, move your body, give yourself the time and space you need. Make sure you do something you enjoy everyday.

Silence your inner critic
Often we catastrophise, ‘I am such an idiot, I always get it wrong.’ Stop. Take a deep breath and reframe the thought. ‘I did an idiotic thing. Sometimes, I get it wrong. But that’s OK.’ Daily affirmations can help replace the inner cycle of negative thoughts. For example: I am always learning and growing. I am good enough.

Be honest with yourself
If you are sad or angry or frightened, acknowledge it. Feelings are not good or bad, they just are. And they are all valid.

Forgive yourself
When I client is being particularly self critical I ask them to flip the perspective. ‘If your best friend was telling you this story what would you think and feel.’ It is much easier to extend kindness to others rather than ourselves. Reframing allows us the distance to examine our actions.

In one of my favourite chick flicks Bridget Jones Diary, there is the following exchange:

Mark Darcy: ‘I like you, very much.’
Bridget: ‘Ah, apart from the smoking and the drinking, the vulgar mother and… ah, the verbal diarrhea.’
Mark Darcy: ‘No, I like you very much. Just as you are.’

When she tells her friends they are amazed ‘Not thinner? Not cleverer? Not with slightly bigger breasts or slightly smaller nose?’. ‘No just as I am.’

Like Bridget, I am worthy. I am good enough. Just as I am. And you are too.213217363578654495_1af7TTu6_c

Comfortably numb?

I am really enjoying the process of studying to be a counsellor. I love reading the different theories about why people are the way they are. The other people on my course inspire me with their generosity and willingness to share their experiences. And its indescribable how fulfilled I feel when I work as counsellor.

But, it’s hard too. Although I believe training to become a counsellor is one of the best things I have ever done, I am finding it incredibly tough. It’s not just the practical considerations of taking a massive pay-cut and fitting study and placement hours around work. What I find difficult to bear is the constant emotional upheaval. It’s not like studying engineering. As part of the course, we have to be self reflective, picking every thought and feeling apart. Some aspects of myself I was already so familiar with they seemed like old friends like my inability to say no and pathological need to make everything better. Others blindsided me, you mean everybody doesn’t spend their life in a constant battle to not feel so shit about themselves? Self analysis is uncomfortable at best, painful at worst and some days I just want to exist on the surface not down in the murky depths where darker memories lurk like sea creatures waiting to gobble me up.

Before I started this process I was comfortably numb, under rigid control. Now like opening a Pandoras box feelings are emerging I’ve buried for years. I don’t like feeling this vulnerable and shaken. As if the foundations on which I have built my life are cracking and now I’m wondering what, if anything, I can save from the rubble. A fortnight ago as I was preparing to go to personal counselling I was so over it. (As trainee counsellors we have to be personal counselling throughout the duration of the course. Thank God!) In the past I had always started counselling at my nadir and talking made me feel better. But this time I started counselling when I was in a great place emotionally and digging up the past had started to make me feel worse. I just did not want to talk anymore. Then a friend sent me a link to this Ted Talk by Brene Brown on vulnerability.

And I knew I had a choice to make. I could continue to try to shut out my pain and inhibit my ability to feel joy. I could continuing existing, never really living.

Or I could trust the process and keep going. Accepting that paradoxically my vulnerability was my greatest strength.

So I have. One foot after the other, and again and again. I keep going because I don’t want to feel comfortably numb anymore. I want to be present, inhabiting every inch of my body. But, when shutting certain feelings out has become habitual how do you start listening to yourself again?

Well, on the advice on my counsellor I have been ‘checking in’ with myself. Yes it sounds very hippy dippy but stick with me. (Plus, with a name like Rowan, what else would you expect?) We use check ins at the beginning of our practical workshops at University. The rules are simple we go round the circle and you may share in a short sentence or even a word where you are today. The idea is that you can quickly gauge the emotional weather of the group. And also it’s really helpful to be mindful of what you feel in each moment.

Albert Camus, graphic via Pinterest

So for the past week I’ve been checking-in with myself. Am I angry, sleepy, frustrated, cold, hot, happy, hungry, sad, tired, excited or overwhelmed? Mostly I’ve learnt I’m hungry and sleepy 🙂 Ah January, thou art the cruelest month. Joking aside, I’ve noticed that there are certain emotions that feel more familiar and comfortable (sadness) than others (anger).

The challenge for me has been simply noting what I feel and not doing anything with that feeling. Burying myself in activity is much easier than sitting with my feelings. If I feel something I need to, no have to change it.  One of the paradoxes of change we learn about in counselling is only through acceptance does true change occur. But at the moment acceptance is a step too far. One day I hope I will be able to accept the things I don’t like about myself but for now naming and identifying those experiences is enough. Baby steps 🙂