Suzanne Foster Counselling Counsellor for Battersea, Clapham & Balham

November blog

'Divorce is like scaling a series of mountains. With the right counsellor, the mountains can become molehills'

I had been with my partner for about 15 years. We have no children. Over time, for numerous reasons, our relationship became more toxic. I realised that divorce was the appropriate option for me; the relationship was no longer working.

Initially I was OK with the process. My work took me away from home, so we didn't have to be in the same town even. However, not long into the proceedings, my contract ended and I had to return to our shared house. At this point, my own stresses and anxieties began to increase. I felt guilty about initiating the divorce and increasingly anxious about what the future held. Being a man, I told myself I could cope. Counselling was what weak people needed, not what Alpha males did.

Yet I knew there were problems. My sleep was all over the place - I would lie awake, churning over possibilities in my head and not really resolving anything. I was increasingly rowing with my family and overreacting to ordinary life events. Minor setbacks would send me into the doldrums; minor victories made me overly celebratory. I could see that I was swinging back and forth across the emotional spectrum and had lost sight of 'me' in the midst of the maelstrom.

My first counsellor was a bit of a disaster. She came froma CBT perspective and I found her approach too prescriptive, too harsh. I felt she took me in directions that were not helpful; that she was trying to trammel my thinking into a very narrow channel, mostly dictated by her own interests rather than what I needed to unpack.

My second counsellor took a person-centred approach. She initially offered video-counselling via FaceTime, and I knew from our first contact that she would be right. She listened, explored and allowed me to work through some of the pain involved in ending my marriage. What I needed was active, reflective support, not to be beaten into submission. This second counsellor gave me exactly that and enabled me to work through the trauma at my own pace.

Before my counselling, I was facing the wrong way in the starting blocks; in fact, I wasn't even sure what direction the race was meant to go in, so I kept running into walls and getting angry that I wasn't making any progress. We are now eight months on. I've progressed from baby steps to huge strides and am now sprinting through the last stages of the divorce process, with the finish line in sight. I wouldn't say I am ready to compete in the Olympics, but things are much better. I am more rational, less stressed, calmer and better able to deal with life's turbulence than I have been in both recent past and the medium term.

In truth, an unhealthy relationship took its toll on me and 'fixing' stuff will take a while longer. I still see the counsellor, but now, rather than firefighting, she is helping me construct a better future from the rubble that is left.

Men tend to bottle things up; we tend to fall back on our own stereotypical expectations of ourselves. It doesn't have to be this way. Divorce is like scaling a series of mountains. With the right counsellor, the mountains can become molehills.

Extract from article published in Therapy Today: November 2019; Volume 30; Issue 9. The author wishes to remain anonymous

October blog

'I wondered what it was like for him, playing with his shoes. So I gently asked him. After a few moments, he looked up at me and smiled. "They were spaceships, he said" '.

Many years ago, when I was a youth worker in a school, I worked with a boy who had been referred to me over concerns about his behaviour. His teachers believed he was 'not fulfilling his potential'. I introduced myself and went over his referral notes with him, and then I asked if he knew what the word 'potential' meant. I was surprised by his answer - really surprised. In fact, it changed my life. 'It's stored-up energy, Mike,' he said.

He had learned this in his science class - that potential energy is stored-up energy.

I had thought I knew what 'potential' meant. But it was only when I heard it described as energy, and was introduced to the notion that energy could already be stored up inside us, just waiting to come out, that I really conneted with its meaning. It struck me as so clearly the best way to describe what had previously been indescribable, yet so familiar to me. At that moment, I began to realise what motivated my work with children and young people. It was my wish to help them grow and make the changes they wanted in order to have a better life. I had trusted, from my own experience, what Rogers tells us - that we all have the potential to change and grow.

I a now a counsellor with children and young people, and I still see our potential as energy stored up inside us. Having this belief can open up so many more possibilities in therapy.

More recently, I had a client who told me some horrific stories about his childhood. There was one incident that stands out for me. He described being regularly locked in a room as punishent, with only his shoes to play with. He was still upset and angry about this. I remember breathing and just being silent. I felt some anger, and also great sadness, and was unsure how best to respond. Then I wondered what it was like for him, playing with his shoes. So I gently asked him. After a few moments, he looked at me and smiled. "They were spaceships", he said. And then he beautifully mimed these imaginary spaceships flying above his head.

I learned from him that day about his resilience, and, indeed, my own; we had perhaps touched on the essence of potential - that is always there, and that, when we look for it, or even just imagine it, it will always find ways to emerge. Both stories still have great meaning for me and continue to inspire me. With every client, I see their potential for growth and change sotred up inside.'

Article by Mike Moss who is a counsellor for children and young people at West Lothian Council. He is also a trainer and has a small private practice offering supervision in Edinburgh. First published in Therapy Today:September 2017:Vol. 28. Issue 7

September blog

'Even though I was working with the "whole" client, these two sides were always in the room'

'We live in a world where these days the 'authentic' self has so much to contend with, including constant bombardment with images and information on social media. As the potential for more and more conditioning surrounds us, is it any wonder that so many young people are suffering with their mental health? I see living an authentic life as the antidote towards this conditioning.

In training, we are taught about the uniqueness of our clients. Yet, in my early years as a counsellor, I started to see a pattern with all my clients. I found this commonality intriguing, I even watched the Gloria Films (training videos of Carl Rogers, Albert Ellis and Fritz Perls counselling 'Gloria', a female client) again, to see if it was there - and it was. Over time, I realised that what I was witnessing was a direct conflict between the 'conditioned self' and the 'true/authentic self'. These two powerful dynamics are pulling the client in opposite directions. The conditioned self wants to maintain the status quo, because it feels safe and familiar, but the emerging true/authentic self is fighting to experience itself. This inner conflict can cause so much anxiety and depression in clients.

I became intrigued by the whole process, because it seemed to me that, even though I was working with the 'whole' client, these two sides were always in the room. They had their own characteristics and needs and I knew I had to acknowledge both. Once I understood this dynamic, I was better able to understand why clients sometimes present in contradictory ways. These contradictions are the result of the 'push-and-pull' dynamic caused by both sides. The process can also create resistance with clients. Hence, a client may take big strides forward, only to revert back to old patterns of behaviour. Fully understanding this dynamic answered so many questions for me.

For instance, why do clients get stuck sometimes? Why do clients sometimes present in a very confused, disjointed way? Now I understand it, I am more in tune with my clients.

The 'push-and-pull' dynamic can swing from one extreme to another, from moment to moment, in just one session, in direct response to the dynamic between the two sides. The disparity and contradictions between the two sides is where much of the therapeutic work takes place. But overall, the driving force behind both of these sides is the actualising tendency. These two sides are necessary as they act as a measuring tool towards self-actualisation. As clients move towards self-actualisation, it is inevitable that they start to live a more authentic life.

Over the last 10 years, positive psychologists have revisited the work of Maslow and Rogers and there is good evidence that being able to live authentically leads us to a happier, more fulfilled life. However, living an authentic life can seem increasingly difficult. That's why, as a therapist, I try to facilitate and enable clients to work towards this. Being part of this whole process is such a privilege; it's the reason why I am so passionate about my work.'

Extract from article by Tracey Revell a person-centred and REBT therapist in private practice. Her passion is helping therapists deepen their understanding of incongruence within clients and how this understanding helps facilitate change towards authentic living. Published in Therapy Today; April 2019: Vol 30:issue 3

August blog

'We all benefit when the roaring two-year-old grows into a roaring, assertive young adult'

'I'm not a darling, I'm a lion.'

This is the response I received from a two-year-old child recently, when I called her 'darling'. And how ruddy fabulous. Such a clear statement of identity. So strong and assertive. So healthy, in my view. I'd love to hear more like this from my (adult) clients.

Then I reflect. Would my two-year-old friend still roar regardless of who she was with or the context in which she was was roaring? Or was it that she felt safe enough to do so with me? I'm beginning to think the latter, and that I had better start being more cognisant of my responsibility as a listener to what is communicated.

I think of Meghan Markle's words: 'Women don't need to find a voice; they have a voice'. She argues that what stops women from speaking out, from occupying their potential, is not their individual failings but that the rest of us - society, social structures and systems - aren't hearing them. Similarly, Zoe Krupka notes the framing of 'difficult experiences of therapists as deficits, rather than seeing them as organisational and systemic challenges. A recent article in the Guardian illustrated the ubiquity of this individualisation of responsibility when it criticised the assumption that mobile phone addiction is all about the inability of users to take care of their own wellbeing. It argued that placing the responsibility for wellbeing solely with the individual masks 'deeper structural issues within the tech industry'.

So often, in the Western world, this is how it goes.

This isn't just about my role in relation to my counselling clients or supervisees. Taking a systemic view means accepting we all benefit when people are able to assert themselves - it doesn't just benefit the individual. One such advantage is clear communication; another is that it is generally easier to be direct with someone else who is direct, supporting a virtuous circle of communication. So, responsibility for nurturing this rests with all of us.

But, to bring it back to the counselling room, I want my clients to feel free to express themselves clearly and decisively - fiercely even - if that is how they feel. A starting point for nurturing this mode of expression is - as ever - unpacking my unconscious prejudice. For instance, do I unconsciously welcome assertive communication from some individuals more than from others? Answering such questions stretches far beyond supervision; it reaches to my everyday experiencing, including films, books and conversations.

This heightened appreciation of shared responsiblity for communication sharpens my empathy too. Working solely on a client's assertiveness, for example, may 'miss' the kernel of their experience: the resolution for an overworked client may not be to stand up to their employer. If we were to focus in therapy on that, it could be damaging, implying that the client is responsible for their distress.

Acknowledgement that the client may not have been listened to establishes empathy with the client's world. It recognises power structures and their impacts. It demands that we as counsellors are alert to catching their communications sensitively and accurately. Not to do so risks colluding with oppression and disempowerment.

For me, this means getting comfortable with sitting with my clients' sense of powerlessness; respecting the limits of what they can work on, and acknowledging the influence of institutions, systems, cultures and technologies, however subtle. This is the most respectful and authentic stance I can offer, and I strongly believe that this itself is an empowering experience for clients.

Given the growing pervasiveness of systemic power imbalances, it seems likely to me that some clients aren't roaring to their heart's content. And we all lose in that scenario. I may be adding to the problem by not consistently honouring my share - the listener' share - of the responsibility for what is communicated. I'm primed to think more in individual rather than collecting terms; I have my unconscious biases. Being alert to all of this deifies my respect and empathy in the counselling room. Roar.'

article by Rakhi Chand a person-centred psychotherapist, supervisor and trainer (MBCAP Snr. Accred) published in Therapy Today, July 2109. Vol 30. Issue 6

July blog

'I understand now why people say recovery isn't linear. It's taken more than 10 years of slowly peeling back the layers'

"I am adopted and, as the only brown child out of three siblings, I have always looked different. My parents wanted me to be independent and individual, but all I wanted was to be like the rest of my classmates. My emotions were so huge I felt like no one could handle them, so I shut them away and an ache in my chest began to grow. I went completely off the rails as a teenager and ended up having some very traumatic experiences, which I cannot fully remember. I coped by wearing a mask and being a different person depending on whoever I was with.

It's been ten years since I first stepped into a therapy session. During that first appointment I described the confusion I felt in my mind. Driven by fear and embarrassment, I explained to the therapist as I was leaving that I probably wouldn't be coming back. I did go back, religiously, every week for the next six months. It was a slow process of unravelling and challenging myself to grow. During those sessions I laughed, I cried and I began to learn that I wasn't a hideous monster who no one would ever love, but just your average human being who needed to learn to look after herself. I felt a million times better and it gave me this feeling of euphoria every time I made a choice to do something differently.

I finished therapy feeling like I was cured. I began to live a happy life with friends who loved me and I started to care about tomorrow. I met a man, fell in love and a year later we married and now we have two beautiful sons.

I thought that was it, that the hard days were over; I could love and I was loved. But things were slowly unravelling in my head and the ache in my chest was growing again; the mask was back and I was living two very separate lives - one that looked perfectly functional from the outside and the other a deeply sad struggle behind closed doors. I tried therapy again but it didn't have the same magical effect as before. I was using it as a dumping ground and only getting a brief feeling of relief each week. I didn't tell the therapist about the mood swings, how I was seeing smoke in our flat, the way the walls felt like they were closing in, that I lay awake at night because I was terrified of ghosts and thought the neighbours hated us.

Last year I was referred to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed me with emotionally unstable personality disorder, prescribed medication and suggested I find a cognitive analytic therapist. I finally felt like I had a plan. I've been seeing my therapist once a week for the past seven weeks and it's very different from the therapy I've done before. We've been talking about the scary things that happened in the past, which is an incredible thing. For days after each session I've felt drained and find my dissociating increases tenfold. CAT works by looking at your cycles of feelings, thoughts and behaviours and helping you find better ways to cope with negative feelings by having alternative exit strategies.

I really understand now why people say recovery isn't linear. It's taken more than 10 years of slowly peeling back the layers. Now that I'm in a safe place with a good support system, I feel ready to do this intensive work. This time I am not feeling euphoria but the beginnings of self-acceptance. Healing, in my experience, has happened in stages, and with this stage I see it's more about learning to be me, just as I am, with my big moods and vulnerability. I am a child who feels she doesn't fit in, a teenager who is feisty and protective, a victim who is angry and self-destructive, a zooned-out girl, and finally there is the me who was built through love, great therapy and hope for the future. All these parts of myself deserve love, understanding and compassion.

I've been climbing this mountain for the past 10 years and it's been a really tough journey, but I am really looking forward to seeing the summit."

Extract from article published in Therapy Today:July 2019: Vol. 30: Issue 6

June blog

Relationship counselling

'My partner and I went to relationship counselling for about eight months last year. We did it for a whole bunch of reasons, all of which could essentially be summed up as 'We couldn't remember how to be nice to each other'. I was so wrapped up in my own self-pitying anxiety that I couldn't understand why he didn't pity me too. He was so convinced that my sadness was a weapon with which to hurt him that he didn't pay much attention to the reasons I was sad.

Then we went to relationship counselling, and now I'm an evangelist. Here are some of the reasons (there are more) why I think it worked.

One, it gave us a set time and place each week to talk to and about each other. If you need a nudge to actually do what you say you're going to do (as we both definitely did), then having that appointment each week is a great way to make sure you do it.

Two, counsellors ask questions you'd never have thought to ask yourself. When we sat down with a counsellor, one of the first things she asked us was "What were the primary romantic relationships you saw when you were growing up?" We each talked through our family history - parents, step-parents, grandparents - and the ways in which each of these couples modelled love. Discussing it in this way, led by a counsellor probing with all the right questions, gave each of us a much deeper understanding of where the other one was coming from.

Three, relationship counselling teaches you how to argue. All relationships will include conflict at some point; it's how you navigate that conflict that really matters. Relationship counselling gave us the skills we needed to talk about things effectively, in a way that is kind to each other and doesn't dismiss what the other one says.

Four, relationship counselling gives you time to breathe. This is the most important point, and it's the one my other half wanted me to hammer home in this article. He wants other people to get the same feeling he did: that big wave of relief when you accept you've got a problem, and you take the first step towards fixing it. It was no longer 'me versus him', but 'us versus the problem', and just the fact that both of us admitted there was a problem made a significant and valuable difference.

Five, you get to become and expert on 'you'. If the person you love really is a significant love of your life, you probably think about them a lot: in good and bad ways. When those conversations and thoughts are all I n your head, it can be tricky to get perspective because we have no one to bounce those thoughts off, and we're also adding our own layers of interpretation to every action they take. Relationship counselling gives you the opportunity to examine these assumptions - led by someone who can call you out when they spot you doing it - and become better acquainted with what your partner actually thinks.

Relationship counselling might not help in exactly the way you expect, but it will buy you the time and the headspace to really explore what's happening with your relationship. It can teach you new skills for listening to and understanding your partner - and these skills aren't just useful inside romantic relationships, they can help you outside those relationships too.

When we first walked into the counselling room, we knew we still loved each other, but in a powerful but abstract way. Relationship counselling reminded us that 'love' is a verb, and we have to practise it every day.'

Extract from article in Therapy Today. June 2019: Volume 30:Issue 5.

May blog

'I didn't walk out that day feeling "fixed" or free from my pain, but I did walk out with more wisdom and perspective'

On 13 October 2107, my 30-year-old brother David died peacefully in his sleep. He went to bed the night before and just never woke up. It was a complete shock and so very painful.

As soon as I arrived at my parents' house and my dad blurted out what had happened, I saw him in a way that I had never seen him before - so broken and vulnerable. At that point, I instinctively told myself that my parents had to come first, my emotions came second: I needed to do whatever was needed for them.

As you can imagine, the following days, weeks and months were very difficult. I was at my parents' house every single day for the first month, doing whatever was needed. For the most part, I kept strong - on the outside at least. I made teas and coffees. I tidied up, I went shopping. Keeping busy meant I didn't have to stop and absorb what had happened.

At home, I tried to remain composed in front of my children but would crumple every night in my husband's arms. He was really good. He would always ask me if I wanted to talk about it, but I never did, so he just held me while I sobbed.

I've always found it difficult to verbally express how I feel, but after my brother died this only intensified. I didn't feel that anyone could understand my pain. Yes, we had all lost David, but no one else had lost their brother. No one else had to watch their mum and dad broken and in pain and know that there was nothing they could do. So, like many of us, I buried it deep.

As you can imagine, the pressure was building. I know this is a metaphor, but there were times that I swear it felt physical. My dad had been seeing a bereavement counsellor and kept suggesting that I do too. After months of declaring 'I'll be OK, I can deal with it myself'. I gave in. I put myself on the waiting list to speak to someone out loud, truthfully, about how I felt.

When my first session was booked, I vowed to be completely honest. There was no point doing this if I wasn't going to do it properly. I knew that speaking to someone external and impartial would be better. I just wanted to be heard. I didn't want to be interrupted or given the 'It'll get better with time' dismissal that essentially invalidated my emotions.

I went into that first session not knowing fully what I was going to speak about or where to start. I had an idea, of course, but the lady I saw was amazing. She let me lead the conversations but gave me prompts when I struggled. She also told me that I didn't have to fill the silences - that I could just sit with how I felt until I was ready to speak. She gave me permission to be honest without having to worry that I would be judged. She listened to how far I had come and the coping mechanisms that I was currently using and suggested ways to build on what was already working for me, as well as some new ideas. She helped me realise it was OK for me to speak to my loved ones about how I was feeling, and about my brother - silly things he said how he made us laugh, and how much I missed him. Because I was no longer struggling to push my emotions down, I felt lighter and liberated and had space in my own mind for new and exciting things.

I didn't walk out that day feeling 'fixed' or free from my pain, but I did walk out with more wisdom and perspective. That was my first and only counselling session, not because it wasn't helpful but because the counsellor made me realise that no one can 'fix me'. I realised that I didn't need a specific day and time to speak about how I felt. I realised I have the power and the tools to help myself.'

Extract from article published in Therapy Today, May 2019, Vol 30, Iss. 4. The author, Rhiannon Jones is a writer and trainee life coach. Her book 'The Web of Grief', is available on Amazon.

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