It’s over…

For some this festive period may have been fun, relaxing, and for others, something to be survived, and full of dread. And now it’s over (although of course the emotional impact may not be).

At this time of year I often reflect on the year which has passed with its ups and lows, the learnings and the losses… and think about some gentle movements I may like to make in the year ahead. They are definitely not resolutions, more ideas and thoughts which if important may stick around and grow to be helpful to me.

There’s no reason why reflection has to happen now (or at all), but it seems as good a place as any for me, so if it feels it might be helpful to you (sometimes it might not be the right time if festivities have taken their toll on you) here are some questions I asked myself (inspired by this article here):

  • What was a moment I was most proud of in 2017? What does that tell me about what I want to spend my energy/time/money on this year?
  • Did someone enrich my life somehow in 2017? If yes, in what way? Is there someone I am wanting to get to know better in the year ahead?
  • What did I resist most effectively? What did I surrender to?
  • Who did I feel most jealous of (or inspired by) last year? What is that person up to that I want to bring more of into my own life?
  • When was I most physically joyful in 2017? How can I get there more in 2018?
  • What is one question that I found myself asking over and over again last year? What version of an answer am I living my way into?

I hope the year ahead is a time that gives you the space to find what you want and need….

Image Credit: The image above is by East of Fukushima by Mayako Nakamura an example of automatic drawing, which is a way you could use to encourage creativity whilst reflecting on the answers,…. or y’know doodle…   

Bending, Breaking & Other Acts of Bravery

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then . . . . I contradict myself;
I am large . . . . I contain multitudes.

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

I met a woman recently who described how she’d never felt so vulnerable, open and strong; how she cries more easily than she used to. I saw a truth in her, and I (re)learned something I had, at some level, always known: that embodying every version of yourself, the selfish and the kind, the joyous and the fearful, in fact every apparent contradiction; creates an ever expanding space for the strength of the many. This strength is not in spite of your anger, sadness or the person you were, but because of it.

Strong can mean impervious, a stronghold where nothing can breach the walls. This is the strength of castles and machines, not of the vastness of the natural world. Human strength of survival means adaptability, being open enough to let that which will change us in so we can continue to grow. The alternative is to live our lives in stasis–in our shells, where our potential will never be expressed.

This is not to say that there isn’t a kind of strength, too, in staying firm–in fighting for what you believe in or what you need to hold onto. It is to say the strength is various, though it seems our society holds aloft the strength of fight, of remaining unmoved. What if strength is a spectrum, a duality between hardness and growth? On one end, we stand facing the storm, stand our ground and remain true to ourselves or another. But the other end, where we allow ourselves to be moved by another? Where we allow ourselves to feel pain and to risk the unknown? Well, sometimes that’s the bravest thing I know. Sensitivity is a strength, because it enables growth. As we move into the fearful emptiness inside of us characterised by our “negative” emotions, we find the space for growth.

What does not change / is the will to change

The amorphous range of what we feel creates our whole self, and without the balance of our dichotomous feelings/selves our growth will always be unsteady. The more we close down our emotions or have them closed down by others, the less space we will have to grow into. And if we can’t grow, we become weak: always using energy in defense of the status quo, without the benefit of enlargement.

Pain – the empty burning of love lost, for example, as big as it feels, pushes the boundaries of how much you can feel. When the hurt has passed, you have more space to contain the multitudes of everyone you’ve ever been and everything you’ve ever felt. You grow into the space the pain has scoured out inside of you.

If you are highly sensitive, I have a feeling that those around you have continually pleaded with you to “toughen up,” and I have a feeling that it just doesn’t work. This is because you are stronger than you realise. This is because you are primed to grow. That which you feel does not make you weak. Your fear, anxiety and hatred are part of the human system of growth. When the time is right, if things are safe enough, you can begin to rely on these deep emotional roots and grow from your depth.

Protection & Growth Work in Relay

We need to move through incarnations of protection and growth throughout our lives. Like a seed in stasis, at certain points you have an absolute need for a hardened shell, but for you to grow that shell has to break. That is, you must take a well-timed risk if you are to flourish. You must risk the unheld hand in order to be met. However, we can only grow if the conditions are right: if you are in a hostile environment, revealing your vulnerable self just leaves you open to pain. In a good enough environment, though, insulation can become a trap. We need safety to grow, but walls can become prisons.

Breaking and moving are essential to vital processes at every scale, from the metamorphosis of a butterfly, to processing your own feelings. From learning to bear confrontation to plate tectonics:

We’re lucky because of these [tectonic] processes, where the plates separate and crack…[because] as a consequence of that, magmas form at deep levels in the Earth. They are brought to the surface, and they bring not only nutrients, but also water. And that is the essence of life.

– Jelle de Boer, geologist: a leading expert on volcanoes and earthquakes from On Being

A life is the constant flux enacted between movements of protection, reaching in and out for connection, letting things in, holding still, bursting open. Sometimes we get stuck in protecting ourselves (and thus not growing) because our past leaks into our present–because quite psycho-logically we have learnt what the world is from our formative experiences. Maybe it’s safe for you to open a little now, maybe not, but it might be worth checking…

To reteach a thing its lovelinessbud

What if you are this plant, and all that we allow ourselves to see is how vulnerable you are in this moment? How, so easily, you could be picked or knocked down. In this view, we fail to recognize that it was the strength of your growth which broke through. Stasis was part of the process, but you did not remain unmoved. You risked living. We sometimes need to be re-taught and reminded of all we have survived. All the beautiful striving we’ve done, despite the surrounding indifference.

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing

Galway Kinnel, “Saint Francis and the Sow”

To shift from protecting yourself into growing, you need to feel safe enough to share how you feel in the world. You need to be seen as you are, and be retold you are lovely (in words or the unspoken). Then, cautiously, you can touch the boundaries around you, see if they can slide a bit further this way or that and let that which will change you in…

My affinities are infinite

Once I grieved for someone and, for a while, I did everything I could not to feel the crushing imploding empty space. But as I learned to stay with this grief, feel it, fall into it, I learned how much I can love. I feel fierce when I love someone, and I love often. I’ve sometimes stopped caring if someone loves me back – quite simply because I’ve realised that I love the part of me which loves fiercely. And when I love fiercely, I have strength, and it burns in flame and warmth. This strength is only possible through sensitivity (not exclusively the domain of HSPs), to allow what is near to become close.

We are equipped to learn, grow and step into new spaces where things are unknown again. If we allow our roots – our incredible range of past and present emotions – with us, we can step forward with the rich wisdom of all our incantations steadying our way. There is no fixed way of being, only rest and change.

I am involved with the palpable
as well
as that impalpable,

where I walk, mysteries catch at my heels
& cling
like cockle-burrs.
My affinities are infinite, & from moment to moment
I propagate new symmetries, new

hinges, new edges.

Ronald Johnson, “Letters to Walt Whitman”

Should I feel differently?

Sometimes we can all feel we shouldn’t feel the way we do. You might feel deeply sad, angry or terrified but feel as though you these feeling are not allowed or not right.  It might take various forms:

  • You might be aware that from the outside it seems as though everything is fine, you have a nice home, a good job etc. nothing is ‘wrong’, but really it feels as though everything is wrong.
  • You might think that you have no right to feel the way you do, as other people have suffered far worse. They are the ones who have the right to feel depressed or anxious – not you.
  • You might feel that you are wallowing or indulging in self pity, that again you have no right to feel negative. Other people seem to manage, you might think; and a scary thought might emerge that perhaps you are broken or no good and that’s why you feel the way you do.

Thinking you are broken or bad for feeling as you do can be painful. It adds more suffering and can lead to an experience of amassing misery on misery, compounding feelings of worthlessness.

I believe the very act of being alive involves for every single one of us, terror, anguish, pain. There are no exceptions. I don’t say this to bear bad news, but to say, you are not wrong or bad for feeling the way you do, simply human. What you feel is as real as you are – there is a depth and a complexity to all that you feel.

Lots of people are frightened that accepting the existence of pain in life will cloud everything else out and all that is left will be pain. We can all fear that the act of ‘giving into’ the feeling will annihilate us. For me when I am able to accept how I really feel I have felt freer amongst the pain and have somehow been more able to feel  my joy and happiness too.

Everything is fleeting, and the eventual aim of accepting how you really feel can create space in yourself to feel more than your sadness, anxiety or anger. You are not wrong or bad, but you feel deeply, and there is beauty in that.

Does Counselling work?

In my first session with clients a question that comes up is: will this work for me? This probably comes from a completely understandable anxiety to get the right help and not waste time or money. The answer, however, is not a simple one, because it depends…

It depends if the person is ‘in the right place’ for counselling and, of course, if the Counsellor is any good. This answer can sound pretty unhelpful, but in reality it’s true; and at the same time my client’s have spoken of burdens being lifted and massive personal changes taking place. Personally I know it works if people are in the right place, and I know it worked for me.

I also know it to be true that if I can:

  • develop a relationship with my client so they feel able to share all those thoughts and feelings they ‘shouldn’t‘ have, and
  • share with them that I understand what it might be like to feel that way and be alongside them when times are really overwhelming and painful

then something sort of magical happens…

  • clients feel a massive relief that they are not ‘crazy’ or ‘bad’ but completely understandable.
  • The feelings they were trying to hide from are now being acknowledged, and this then allows something to shift**.
  • Once this new feeling is brought out into the open they can see it truly for the first time and can begin to accept and understand it. Like everything in life, if you keep pushing something it will push back, but now because we are no longer fighting against it, it can morph and change, and stop overwhelming us.

This change and acceptance is difficult and can be painful, and it is the only way I have ever experienced how to change things for good.

There is scientific evidence about how effective counselling can be, but as always this is about people in general, not you, not the client sat in front of me. So yes, it is a risk, and with the right Counsellor, at the right time, perhaps one of the best risk you’ll ever take.

*  I use the word acceptance, but I don’t mean it in an airy fairy way, it could be accepting the anger or rage which is beneath the surface or a deep sadness which follows you around.

** This is also called the paradox of change

The petulant side of living in the moment

Leisure time can be stressful, for me at least, simply because it’s not meant to be: I’ll have some glorious spare time on my hands and recently I’ve not quite known what to do.

I’ll look inside myself and feel what my true desire is: “Excellent”, I think “what I most want right now is be near trees and water”; so off I’ll head on a walk somewhere. Problem is, five minutes into my walk I’ll feel a teeny tiny amount of anxiety (a sure sign that all is not 100% well), you see now what I most want to do is to write, or be in a coffee shop, or have a nap. Whatever I have embarked on doesn’t match what my shifting, sliding self wants, and I’m finding it problematic.

During my training to be a counsellor I really learned to hone into this part of myself and trust it, but to be honest this central part of my being is a bit scatty. On the whole it serves me well to be able to encounter a myriad of dichotomous feelings, but it’s not very relaxing to respond to this petulant self, and as I say a bit bloody stressful.

So how do I keep listening to myself and find a way to relax a bit? Well, I guess, it’s a bit like any decision in life. There’s never an absolutely perfect decision, it’s not so simple as right and a wrong.

Oliver Burkeman in a recent article wrote about a research paper, Decision Quicksand. It states that we confuse the complexity of a problem with the importance of it in our lives. My inner world is complex, deep and unrestricted by practicality; and let’s face it, whether to have a nap or go for a stroll is very trivial. So it’s simple isn’t it? I just choose to carry on walking and accept that where I’m heading won’t be the perfect way to spend my time; but maybe if I can accept this then magically my leisure time will suddenly become, low and behold, really quite relaxing.