Read through my latest blog posts and feel free to comment on them if you like.



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Erich Fromm saw from first hand experience in Germany before WWII what authoritarianism and state-condoned oppression looked like. He asked the question of what it means to be 'sane' when the norms around you are 'insane' - oppressive, prejudiced and cruel. See his book The Sane Society, 1955

He felt that too often the individual or the minority group is labelled as dysfunctional.

It has certainly been my experience as a therapist that people frequently come to me regarding themselves as having a problem, when quite often the problem has been socially created or constructed. We need only think of all the people who have been treated, and even sought 'treatment', for their sexuality to see how this can work, and how forms of difference can be pathologized.

So many people have come to me, for instance, with feelings of alienation or dissatisfaction with their lives and, yes, there is an individual component to this, but it always occurs in a particular social context - this might be the workplace or within a particular social group or situation. So, before we can understand what is going on we need to be willing to look not only at the individual but the pressures and demands of the overall situation.

Our tendency, too often, is to blame the individual and to require them to become more resilient or better adapted.

I have nothing against resilience or being able to adapt to the demands that we face, but, along with Fromm, I do not see it as always being the case that the individual needs to change when the social demands upon them are unnecessarily repressive or restrictive.

It has certainly been a theme in my work with clients that we are faced with the question of how we finding a balance in our lives that involves choosing when and where we may need to adapt and when and where we may wish to find ways of honouring and expressing ourselves in our difference and particularness.

A lot has been written about the benefits of mindfulness practice in recent years and I certainly go along with its potential benefits, especially when I'm working with people who are stressed, anxious, depressed or dissatisfied with their lot in life.

The way it is being pitched, though, concerns me, along with other practitioners.

As a counsellor and therapist working with individuals, I guess it's understandable that I largely focus on individual factors and help people consider what steps they may take as individuals to improve things. I do try though to keep an awareness of the situations/cultures in which my clients' issues are occurring, as it is often aspects of a situation that serve to hold a problem in place.

For instance, I've worked so often with people suffering from stress who have internalized the idea that they are failing in some way or are indadequate. When we've looked at the situation, though, we often find that there are external factors, such as an unreasonable work-load or a boss-from-hell, that play a key part in the stress.

Yes, mindfulness and other practices are likely to help us in such situations but they don't necessarily address the whole picture and may even attribute 'the problem' where it does not belong, to the individual.

I'm aware that some companies with unreasonable expectations of employees occasionally throw a mindfulness or reslilience training their way to help them cope better, without addressing their working conditions!

Such led Maurice Neale to coin the term McMindfulness, in which, as Ronald Purser writes, 'Mindfulness, like positive psychology and the broader happiness industry, has depoliticised stress. If we are unhappy about being unemployed, losing our health insurance, and seeing our children incur massive debt through college loans, it is our responsibility to learn to be more mindful.' 

The problem, along with the solution belongs to the individual alone.

As a therapist I work with individuals but am not happy with the above picture. It misattributes so much.

That said, practices like mindfulness (if they are used with a mindfulness of context etc.) can be very helpful.

One book on mindfulness that I've recommended before is Maitreyabandhu's Life with Full Attention. It steers clea, to my mind, of many of the pitfalls of particularly the US literature on mindfulness, and is much less 'happy clappy'. It is not a Buddhist religious text, btw, though the author is a practicing Buddhist. Mindfulness itself, though itself secular, is derived from Buddhist meditative practices.

As an aside, I went off to do a mindfulness training for counselling practitioners some years back. There was a Buddhist nun in the audience that day who had over twenty-years experience of meditative practices (including practices that are now labelled mindfulness) and of teaching meditation. I remember one of the certificated mindfulness practitioners there explaining to her that if she did their ten-week intro to mindfulness, she could be certificated too! Kerching!


Developing a 'Self Contract'

Posted on 6th June, 2022

I often encourage people to develop a Self Contract, which initiatlly can seem a bit strange to them. 'Why would I want to have a contract with myself?'

I've found that often we don't really treat ourselves well or fairly - we may apply 'rules' to ourselves that we would never think of applying to others. We may treat ourselves without the respect we offer to others.

Obviously, this doesn't apply to everyone! There are plenty of folk out there with a very well developed sense of entitlement and importance. However, even they might benefit from reevaluating how they see and treat themselves.

The starting point for a Self Contract is to begin brainstorming our needs.

I suggest that people get a new notebook and on page one write, 'For me to be well, happy and fulfilled I need ...'

Over the period of a week or so, pull out the book when you have a chance and jot down whatever comes into your head. It might be 'an infinite supply of chocolate', or 'to be five inches taller'. Don't critique at this stage, just put it down. It's food for thought, even if it gets ditched further along.

It's important to spend time thinking about the different aspects of our lives: physical (diet, rest etc.), social, career, sexual, relational, recreational etc.  This isn't a test that we've got to get right, just an opportunity to reflect on what we need from our environment and from ourselves.

For some clients, I've asked them to think of themselves as a plant (yes, truly!). 'How would you tend this plant? What type of soil and environment does it need to thrive and grow?'

From the ideas that come up we can begin to pull out some things that we are willing to make an initial commitment to.

My own Self Contract includes some stuff on exercise, meditation and a few other commitments I make to myself. If these begin to slip, I know something is going awry. with me. Perhaps because of stress, work-load or other external demands.

The initial commitments don't need to be iron-clad rules. To begin with they can be tentative. Something to trial for a few weeks, to see how they fit and then review.

One word of advice - don't take on too many changes / commitments in one go and make them bite-sized and manageable. They might involve SMART goals (more about these in a future blog entry).

When reviewing, ask yourself whether these commitments are helping, whether they are sustainable/reasonable etc., or whether they need to be modified or ditched.

Eventually, you'll come up with some core commitments that are important in caring for yourself and maintaining your wellbeing.

Some thoughts on anxiety

Posted on 31st May, 2022

In my experience of working with anxiety (and experiencing it myself) counselling can be very helpful, but it needs to run alongside the person making some changes in their lifestyle and learning how to cope with certain situations differently.

The things I've seen help people the most are grounding/mindfulness techniques - this would include things like regular meditation and/or yoga. Things like this help our brains and nervous system to reset. Over time they reduce the stress hormones in our bloodstream, such as cortisol and norepinephrine and even alter our brainwaves.

Yes, we're just a bit more chilled and 'in the moment' if we have a regular practice like this in our lives.

One book on mindfulness that I often recommend to clients is Life with Full Attention, by Maitreyabandhu. He is a Buddhist monk himself, but this book does not ask you to become a believer and uses standard mindfulness and cognitive behavioural techniques.