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18th January 2018 

Why is it so hard to stick to New Year's resolutions?: January 2018

It's that time of year again when a third of us will have made a New Year's resolution. One person I know who will not have done is a good friend of mine, who several years ago made giving up New Year's resolutions her New Year's resolution. Unlike most of us, she has not given up on it.

The truth is that most of us do not stick to our New Year's resolution. According to a 2007 study from the University of Bristol, nearly 90 per cent of people who made a New Year's resolution had given up on it by March.

So why is it so hard to stick to our best intentions: what stops us from setting a goal and resolutely committing to achieving it? That question got me thinking about the similarity between New Year's resolutions and the process of psychotherapy.

Many of the clients I see come to psychotherapy because at one time in their lives they adopted a way of coping with a situation that they experienced as profoundly upsetting, even intolerable. It may be that they started smoking to deal with acute social anxiety, it may be that they started making themselves sick to deal with the pain of their loneliness at boarding school.

These "coping mechanisms" then took on a life of their own, becoming habits wired into my client's neural pathways.

One of the challenges of the work we do is to change those habits.

As a psychotherapist, I start at the beginning when I encounter habits that work against my clients. Gently, and thoughtfully, we probe those difficult early experiences, finding ways to dissipate the pain and understand, at a deeper level, the connection between the emotions and the behaviour that was used to avoid them.

So it is with New Year's resolutions: unless we understand why it is we reach for the cigarette packet we are going to find it hard to stop repeating the habit.

Once I have worked with my client to figure out the link, we then look at what prompts the behaviour in the present. I ask my clients to do the detective work of determining what is happening in the moment that they get the overwhelming urge to reach for a cigarette, or eat the 15th biscuit in a row. To do this, I ask them to slow down, and pause, right in the middle of the urge.

In my experience, it is in that moment that we can detect the emotion that is driving the habit: be it grief, despair or just plain boredom.

Then, comes the hard work of tolerating that emotion. It is in sitting in the crucible of our emotions that, it seems, the alchemical process of transformation occurs. We learn that we can be consumed with an emotion, and that if we don't shift, move away, and reach for our habitual relief, it fades away.

What I have experienced with my clients, is that if we practice this enough times, the habit no longer has its grip over us.

So far, so good: but how do we find the motivation, and the courage, to shift our habits?

When asked to choose between the carrot and the stick, I am often surprised by how many of my clients proverbially reach for the stick. There seems to be an ingrained belief that we need to browbeat ourselves into subservience when we are changing our behaviours, or breaking a long held habit.

The problem with that is that our internal bullying tends to land us in the state of mind that prompts the habit in the first place.

So what happens is that for one reason or another, we slip up and, despite our best intentions, we take a step backwards and repeat the habit we are trying to break. So often our first response is to berate ourselves, and to chalk it up as a failure.

Say, I am bulimic, and I make myself sick when I feel overwhelmingly ashamed. If my first response to slipping up, is to turn on myself, and shame myself, then I am back at the place I started.

This is where the work of Kristin Neff comes in. She writes very eloquently about self-compassion, which is the art of extending compassion to one's self when we see ourselves as inadequate or somehow failing. In other words, she writes about the carrot.

What her work does is illustrate how we can learn to find an inner compassion that supports us as we change our behaviour. Rather like a mother who gently and repeatedly helps her child on to its feet as it takes its first steps, we need to nurture and support ourselves as we learn better ways to cope with our pain.

We reach for the crutch of a bad habit when we are hurting, ashamed or in pain. It therefore makes sense that if we frame our motivation from a place of support, gentleness and compassion, we are more able to tolerate our set-backs, and less likely to repeat our bad habits.

Think of it as a virtuous circle. If I am cultivating a place of inner compassion, I am much less likely to beat myself up if I slip up -- and, consequently, much less likely to do it again.

If you are struggling to stick to your New Year's resolution a few weeks into the year, here are some thoughts for how to keep going:

+ Think about why you started this habit years ago: what were you trying to avoid? Is there some emotional baggage to this habit? Can you write down a few of the emotions that were swirling around in your life when you started smoking, or binge eating, or whatever habit you are trying to drop? Can you understand the link between your bad habit and your emotions?

+ Now think about the bad habit now: when does it tend to happen? Watch out for the urge, and then slow right down and pause. How are you feeling? What emotions are under the surface? Dig around a bit, what is hurting? Then make a conscious choice to sit with that emotion until the urge passes.

+ If you are starting a new habit, like going to the gym, what are you planning to gain from it? Try writing down three of the benefits of your new healthy habit. Putting them on paper can help make them feel more concrete, and real. Imagine yourself in the new guise of a healthier, fitter you. Visualisation is a powerful ally.

+ Do you tend to beat yourself up if you slip up on dropping an old habit, or picking up a new one? Try to find a place of inner forgiveness. Experiment with changing your inner voice from an exasperated one to one that gently supports your efforts. Remember that we use avoidance to get away from pain: so try to replace your pain-inflicting inner voice, with a gentler one.

And remember, if you are struggling, there are 365 days of the year when we can restart our resolution.

The practice of cultivating joy: November 2017

Why is it that as a society we are convinced of the correlation between exercise and good health, but seemingly only just waking up to the notion that we also need to put time and energy into taking care of our mental health?

In this series of posts, I am arguing for a step change in the way we think about our mental health.

Below, you will find 8 strategies for doing just that. Some of them require hard work, all of them require commitment -- in the same way as we need to commit to going to the gym, or running, each week, to stay fit.

But not all of them are hard work. Indeed, good mental health is as much about noticing and appreciating the moments of joy in our lives, as it is about “sitting in the shit”, as I put it to my clients. (That is acknowledging, and experiencing, the painful emotions that we habitually avoid.)

As we work together, I encourage clients to concentrate, too, on the moments of joy in their lives, and to spend time focusing on them. Think of it as the steam room after a hard work out.

I have written about mindfulness in my previous post (see September’s blog). This is a type of absolute presence to what is, right here, right now. We do this by bringing our attention to what is happening in the present moment, in a non-judgemental, neutral way. It’s a very useful way to quieten a noisy, chattering mind.

We can also use it to focus on what is termed present moment joy. What I do with clients is ask them to focus specifically on what pleasure they can find in the present moment. It might be the soft touch of a fabric on your arm, the smell of fresh coffee, or the taste of a buttery croissant.

It means looking for the small joys in the everyday: and spending a moment to savour them.

So how about taking a moment, right now, to think about:

* What can I see around me that is a pretty, or beautiful, object (it might be a lamp, or a cushion, or a chair, or a tree or flowers), and how is it to just gaze at it, and enjoy the simplicity of its lines, or the colours in it? Simply drink it in, and focus on experiencing its beauty.

* What does the air feel like on my skin? Is it warm, or cool? Does it feel gentle? Savour the feeling of the air on you.

* How is it to stand up and move? To stretch your back, or your arms. What is the sensation of your muscles, as you move them, and twist them? Can you move in a soft, relaxed way, that eases your body?

I find that successful therapy expands people. Clients become more aware of what the renowned psychoanalyst Carl Jung termed their “shadow”, their darker, more painful feelings and emotions. But, in doing so, there is more space for their lighter aspects: the joy, the peace, contentment and happiness.

It is not unusal to feel gratitude for these blessings as we become aware of them. And a lot of studies on happiness show that gratitude helps us to become mentally healthy.

In a series of experiments in a 2003 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that daily gratitude exercises gave participants a brighter outlook on life, and a greater sense of positivity.

Some of my clients decide to write a gratitude diary to remind them of their blessings and to balance out the grief or pain they are experiencing.

The ancient Egyptians had a belief about death, that when their souls got to the entrance to Heaven, a guard would ask them two questions.
The first was “Have you found joy in your life?”, and the second “Has your life brought joy to others?”.

Making a practice of cultivating joy in our lives, not only makes us more mentally healthy, it also helps to spread joy to others. We are warmer, more positive, and more relaxed when we are feeling more mentally balanced.

We are also in a better place to help others. And helping others, in turn, has been proven to increase our happiness levels.

A study in Social Science and Medicine, found that a person who volunteers weekly, is 16 per cent more likely to report being very happy than someone who does not volunteer at all.

The Egyptians believed that answering yes to both of the questions at the gates of Heaven guaranteed you entry. Perhaps so, but there is a wealth of evidence to show that it makes you happier on Earth.

Learning to accept who we are: September 2017

If you want to stay fit and healthy, you go to the gym, right? Well, yes, but in this series of blog posts, I am arguing that good mental health requires more than working out on a pilates transformer or a step machine.

Think of taking care of your mind in the same way you think of getting and staying physically fit. It’s something you have to put effort into to get some reward.

In my last post, I talked about our relationship with ourselves, and how a good relationship with ourselves is central to mental good health. I talked about the need to talk to ourselves in a supportive and loving way.

What, then, if you really don’t at a fundamental core level believe you are worthy of being loved? Or supported? Or nurtured?

This is where something called mindfulness can come in very handy. You may have read about mindfulness in the media, or heard it talked about as being used in schools and workplaces. Indeed, it has become something of a mental health mantra: be mindful and be calm.

So what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is the ability to bring one’s attention to experiences that are happening right now, in this present moment. The classic example is the breath. In mindfulness, we would sit and observe the breath, how it rises and falls, and how it comes and goes from our lungs, through our airways and out through our nostrils.

But mindfulness is also the ability to observe what is happening around us, how the orange autumn leaves flutter to the ground, or listening to the sound of the wind rustling in the leaves before they fall. It is a type of absolute presence to what is, right here, right now.

So what’s the big deal about being able to do that? And how does it help us to stop berating or belittling ourselves if we habitually do that?

One aspect of mindfulness is the idea that we all have inside us a sort of neutral observing self: a part of ourselves that is able to watch what is going on – without judgement. It’s the part of you that says “I don’t feel very well, perhaps I’m sick”. Or “I’m getting really het up about this I wonder why?”. It’s a sort of watching narrator feeding back information to us about our state of mind, or how we feel emotionally or physically.

In mindfulness, we use this observing self. For instance, when we watch the breath in mindfulness we simply watch it, we don’t comment on it, we don’t assess whether it is good or bad, we just observe it rise and fall. And if a part of us does comment on it -- “oh, that breath was crap, I’d better try again” -- we just watch the thought come and let it go.

Mindfulness does not attach to any thought, it simply watches it come, and then lets it go.

This observing self is enormously helpful when we are thinking about how we talk to ourselves. Because this observing self does not judge us. It simply watches us. And in not judging us, it does something very powerful: it accepts us.

It accepts everything about us: it accepts our anger, it accepts our sadness, it accepts our jealousy, our kindness and our joy.

Think of it as a way to side-step your critical self. Indeed, mindfulness, even accepts your critical self. It watches it come and watches it go, but it does not make the mistake of thinking, I am my critical self. I am a bitch. It simply, and with complete acceptance, observes that aspect of self.

The science of the observing self is that it is function of the prefrontal neo-cortex, which enables us to be conscious of who we are and what we are doing.

But the magic of the observing self is that once we begin to practice observing ourselves from a neutral position, from a place of acceptance, we automatically begin to support ourselves.

We are no longer beating ourselves up: but we are watching ourselves with acceptance.

And, gradually, as you do this you will find that self-acceptance feels a lot like self-love.

I think of psychotherapy as being similar in some ways to mindfulness: we, the therapists, are neutral observers observing our clients. We may challenge, but we do not criticise or belittle. The best psychotherapy is an acceptance of the client’s struggle. A belief that in being free to be themselves – in all their darkness, pain and, also, their joy – clients grow and evolve and find their way through to self-acceptance.

The irony is that as we begin to accept ourselves, we are then much more likely to be able to praise and support ourselves. Somebody else’s praise no longer makes us feel like a sham, but feels like something we can absorb. And as we learn to love ourselves, we feel more able to reward ourselves with kind words and nurturing.

I find the use of mindfulness very helpful in my practice if a client is stuck in a self-critical pattern. If you want to learn more about mindfulness, there are a number of courses you can attend, such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. Or you can download an app called Headspace, which teaches mindfulness and meditation.

The importance of me time. July 2017

In this series of blog posts, I am arguing that a simple exercise regime, while it is an important cornerstone of mental health, is not enough on its own.

It requires more thought and commitment than that.

Not more thought and commitment, you are probably groaning. And I hear your pain. I know I have talked a lot in my last few posts about the emotional heavy lifting required to keep yourself mentally healthy, and you’re probably thinking you’ve heard enough. Well the good news is, that it’s not all hard work.

Indeed, taking care of your emotional health can be a joyful and deeply rewarding experience. Think of it as the trip to the steam room after you’ve lifted weights for an hour.

In my last post, I talked about reaching out to others. But another corner-stone of good mental health is, ironically, creating space for yourself or as I call it “me time”.

When I talk to clients in the therapy room about this, I am often met with a barrage of responses: I’m too busy, there is too much to do, or simply, isn’t that a bit selfish?

I know that most of us lead busy, over-stretched lives. There is the constant social media connectedness, the long work hours, the 24-hour nature of our modern society. We put pressure on ourselves to be doting parents, loving partners, loyal and sociable friends and hard working employees.

Well, I’m arguing that for some time each week we should just stop. Pause. Breathe. And spend time with ourselves.

Because if we don’t, we risk getting overwhelmed, frazzled – and ultimately burnt out.

And then we are no use to anyone.

It can help to remember this when we feel that “me time” is self-indulgent. If we are burnt-out, exhausted and miserable we are not in the best position to support and care for others. If we feel healthy, happy and energised, we have so much more to give.

One of the reasons we avoid “me time” is that we can find it really hard to sit with our own thoughts and feelings:

Do you compulsively check your phone rather than sit with thoughts or feelings that are uncomfortable?

Do you turn on the TV and tune out rather than tune in to your emotional world?

Would you rather pour a glass of wine than deal with the stresses of the day?

In an earlier post, I wrote about how learning to sit with our thoughts and feelings is rather like going to the gym: we need to start with the smallest weights, and build up over time. So it is with “me time”.

At first, it can feel uncomfortable and difficult. You may be berated by a critical inner voice, or troubled by a gnawing sense of sadness. In my last post, I talked about the relationship we have with ourselves, and how the quality of that relationship is the most important one we have in our lives.

When you spend time in “me time”, it is the ideal time to learn to befriend that inner critic, to be gentle, nurturing, loving and kind to that part of yourself, as well as to all the other aspects of yourself that you find hard to love.

Not only that, but by prioritising “me time”, you learn to just sit and “be”. You can learn – just for half an hour or so -- to leave behind the compulsive “doing” that drives our society: the compulsion to check your emails, tick off another thing on the to do list, climb the corporate ladder or drive your children to another after school activity.

In the silence of alone time, you can get to know yourself better. You can tune into your emotional world. You become more self-aware, and more open to self-growth.

So how do you go about creating “me time”?

There is no one-size-fits-all for this: some people find that yoga or meditation nurture them, for others it is walking in a wood, reading or writing poetry, or listening to relaxing music.

The most important thing is not what you do: but the intent with which you do it.

And that intent is to be open to finding something that nurtures you, something that lifts your heart and makes you feel good inside.

How is your relationship with yourself? June 2017

Many of my clients are in what I describe as a bad marriage with themselves.

We all know that healthy, functioning relationships make us happier. But what we often don’t realise is that perhaps the most important relationship of all is the one we have with ourselves.

Take a moment to ask yourself: what goes on in your head?

What sort of conversations take place?

When you tune in or your inner dialogue are you faced with an inner bitch or bastard, or is the conversation more gentle and supportive?

Do you constantly berate yourself for your failures: or do you focus on your successes?

Do you see failure as a personal failing, or do you see it as a learning experience?

Many of us are in a bad relationship with ourselves. Our inner critic is constantly attacking us, and belittling our achievements. It can tell us that we’re not good enough at work, that we are physically ugly and out of shape, that we are a lousy parent, a bad partner or a useless friend.
Imagine for a minute if that voice was coming from outside yourself: if that was your spouse or partner talking to you. You would see yourself as being in a really bad, possibly even abusive, relationship. And yet we tolerate this talk from ourselves.

So why do we do that?

Psychotherapists believe that we internalise the voices we hear as we grow up. It may be that you had a parent who was sharply critical, or a teacher who undermined you. It may be that you were bullied at school.

As a child, we are busy building a representation of reality: and so when we hear those messages, we build them into our reality. On a childlike level, we believe they are true. And those voices can hang around into adulthood.

Such internal messages can undermine our confidence, even leave us with a shattered self-image. And they contribute to mental ill-health. Not only can they lead to depression or anxiety, but once we are mentally ill, they can make recovery much, much harder.

Good mental health means paying attention to these conversations, and replacing the attacking voice with a more supportive voice.

It means calling yourself to account: and saying, I will no longer live in an abusive relationship with myself.

It means painstakingly replacing each negative message, with a more positive, nurturing and supportive one.

This takes practice, and patience. It means experimenting with how you do treat yourself. It can take humour to turn this voice around.

Here’s some ideas gleaned from my clients on how to turn that voice around:

Say the criticism out loud in a stern, angry voice, and then ask yourself: is that how you want to be spoken to?

Look in the mirror and speak the criticism: would you say that to a friend?

Think of yourself as a child, and ask yourself how you would speak to a child: now try talking to yourself like that.

If you were reading this post and thinking yes, that’s me and you spend some time trying out a new voice and find it hard to do, you might find it helpful to see a psychotherapist, to get to the bottom of how and why your relationship with yourself is not working. A good psychotherapist can help you to rebuild the relationship with yourself.

And the rewards for our mental health are as positive as being in a good marriage with someone else: it will boost your happiness, free you to live a contented life and may even make you live longer too.

The power of connection. May 2017

In part 4 of my blogs on taking care of your mental health, I look at the importance of reaching out to others.

I’m sure you’re aware that having friends and building relationships is a good thing.

But were you aware that relationships, from friendships to life partners, can actually make you live longer?

A recent review of 148 studies found that people with strong social relationships are 50 per cent less likely to die prematurely – that’s halving your chances of dying early.

What all the research points to is that having good, nourishing relationships, improves not just your physical health, but also makes you happier, more fulfilled and more emotionally resilient.

Why is this?

The number one reason for this is that humans are relational creatures. It’s an incredible thought but as babies we require love and affection to actually build the circuitry of the front part of our brains. Love literally wires us for love.

This ability to empathise, and relate, that we grow as babies, then sets us up as social creatures who are hard-wired to connect with each other. That’s why we can find such comfort, joy and delight in other people’s company.

And why loneliness can be a catalyst for mental illness.

It seems that everyday now when I open the newspaper there is some new statistic on how many people in our modern society feel lonely. And I see it in my client base, the fact that busy careers, and the rise of social media, can leave people feeling very cut off from others in their lives.

We seem to spend so much time connecting virtually, and seem to have so little time left for connecting over a coffee, or over a shared convivial meal.

So what’s going on? Why is it so hard to connect, see friends and meet people?

While there’s no single reason as to why it may be getting harder to nurture friendships and start new relationships in modern life, I think that part of the reason may be logistical: we are trying to cram more and more activities into each 24 hours. From gym sessions, to round-the-clock careers, to looking after small children, to catching up on the latest box set, each of these eats into time for hanging out with friends and partners.

I think this has a potentially detrimental effect on our mental health: because friendship – and close relationships of all hues – can give us so much. They give us the opportunity to be emotionally vulnerable, and opening up our true selves to people we can trust allows us to feel met, seen and accepted in a deeply nourishing way.

But I also think it is because for some of us making friends and intimate relationships can feel like a hard, and scary, thing to do.
While being hard-wired for relationships is one of the greatest things about being human, it can also go awry. As we grow up, as tiny toddlers, and then older children, we naturally mimic the behaviour and emotion of those around us. And we use this information as templates for our later relationships.

This works really well if the relationships we grow up around are reasonably normal and functional: but if they’re not, we can see relationships as dangerous things to be avoided and end up finding the thought of reaching out to others threatening and frightening.

If your nodding your head as you’re reading this, resonating with what I’m writing, thinking that you do have some resistance to reaching out to people, I invite you to reflect on a few of these questions:

Do you make time for friendships and relationships in your life?

Do you trust that your friends and partners will be there for you? Or are you frightened you will be rejected or let down?

What emotions come up for you when you think about reaching out to people in your life?

How do you nurture the current friendships and relationships that you have in your life?

Do you use excuses – such as I’m too busy -- to prevent you from reaching out to make new friends or be in touch with old friends?

If any of these ring true, it is worth exploring how you were taught to relate as a child, and how that has impacted on your ability to reach out and connect as an adult. If this feels over-whelming, it might be worth speaking to a professional psychotherapist, to explore some of the reasons for this.

It may also be that – because of your encoding as a child – you can find yourself in toxic and difficult friendships and relationships, that can be harmful to your mental health. If this is the case, learning to reach out to others, can also mean learning to withdraw, or decrease contact with, relationships in your life that feel painful, challenging and unsupportive.

Like lifting weights, you can build emotional resilience. March 2017.

Click here to see my blog on taking care of your mental health.

You go to the gym, but do you look after your mental health too? March 2017

Click here to see the first of my blogs on taking care of your mental health.