My Experiences

A common negative perception of counselling is that talking about problems won’t fix anything.  I completely align with this concern; unfortunately a lot of counselling isn’t effective and simply doesn’t help.  Having worked in the field for 24 years and having 48 years of lived experience, I believe I have found key elements that can be transformative in addressing and entirely overcoming trauma, psychological, relationship and family problems, addiction and behaviour difficulties as well as problematic inter-generational patterns. These ideas work for children, adolescents, adults, couples and families.

 

So how is it possible that one approach can be transformative across such a wide range of areas?

Well, the answer is simple yet complex at the same time. Our relationship with ourselves, usually without our knowledge, drives everything we think, do and say. Once we make our relationship with ourselves great, we start unknowingly driving function rather than dysfunction. Without even trying, everything quickly and easily transforms. However, without addressing our relationship with ourselves, all the attempts in the world to change will either not work or will be shallow and fleeting; or possibly even make things worse.  This article outlines what I have found to be truly and deeply transformational and what I share with clients, friends and family who are stuck and looking for change. 

 

On my journey, as well as my training and experience working with counselling clients, I had two pivotal experiences that strongly guided me in understanding transformation and change.  The first one was an unexpected and very under-planned trip to a small village in a third world country.  When I arrived, I saw people who were seemingly facing much bigger problems than us (that is, people living in Australia with their basic needs being met), living in true poverty, in a part of the world where people generally die younger than us, have more health problems, have no running water and a lack of basic sanitation- yet they were quite obviously filled with a lot more peace, joy and happiness than us.  This is an experience echoed by most people who have also visited remote villages in the third world. I told the interpreter what I noticed. I also told him that I work as a counsellor in Australia and that many people in Australia experience anxiety and depression and lots of problems with relationships and their families.  Not only could he not relate to what I was talking about, he did not even have a word for anxiety or depression or a translatable concept.  I became very curious about what was different in that part of the world as it flipped the assumption that we need to fix things or overcome things to be happy and at peace. 

 

Long story to it, but it struck me that the people living in this village did not have western cultural ideas of who they were meant to be imposed on them: they were highly expressive, were comfortable with their vulnerability and lived in constant close connection with each other.  They seemed to be more authentically who they were and were freed up to more truly be themselves.  At the end of the day, while they clearly faced hardship and many challenges we are not confronted with in the Western world, I saw their happiness in spades.  While this was a staggering experience, it didn’t really give me any way to do things differently.  Of course they have their own culture with nuances I could not possibly fully understand while visiting, but what it showed me was essentially that our Western cultural ideas and practices are not serving us and that the way we are living is making us very unhappy.

A few years later I attended a silent retreat. The idea of a silent retreat terrified me, but I was open to it.  A summary of what happened was that I saw for the first time how I was with myself.  Until this time, I had been focused on other people and what had happened to me but how I was with myself had flown entirely beneath my radar of consciousness.  I spent a week getting in touch with how I felt about and treated myself to move from self-hate to self-love. The whole world seemed to quickly, deeply, joyously and easily transform.  The harsh reality even to myself- I discovered that all my problems were not caused by what other people had done to me, but rather were being perpetuated by the negative messages I had taken on and now perpetuated all on my own. I was supported to replace self-hate with self-love and everything changed. I felt like I came to life and things were incomparably better.

 

The approach below gets to the heart of how we unknowingly drive and attract our dysfunction. It unlocks the capacity for liberating, peaceful and (counterintuitively) effortless change.  In some ways, it is really simple and in other ways, like giving up an addiction, it can be incredibly hard. By addressing these, the problems people face can resolve and sort themselves out more easily.  Without addressing these, problems and patterns are likely to stay stuck or get worse as people attempt to fix them. 

As well as incorporating my personal and professional experience, this approach incorporates gestalt therapy, somatic experiencing, internal family systems and mindfulness practices.

The 5 Points to Master

1. Developing presence to yourself and your relationship with yourself

 

Most people are completely out of touch with how they relate to themselves. This is usually unconscious and so deeply habituated that our sense of self either just seems unquestionably true or it operates unchecked out of consciousness (a fish can’t describe the water unless it’s been out of the water!).  Somehow it can entirely dominate us but hide at the same time.  Unless we are attuned to our internal state, the way in which we perceive and relate to ourselves hides in plain sight. The way in which we experience ourselves is established very early on unless we successfully learn to nurture it. It can take some time and a lot of practice to develop this awareness; often when people first try to get in touch with it, it evades people and they can’t see the forest for the trees.  The first step is actually not to address or change anything- but to learn to listen. To become deeply aware of your feelings, your thoughts and how you are with you.  It is also very helpful to become aware of the different ways your body responds in different situations. It’s not so much the stories that you tell yourself that are important, but more the act of becoming present with how your body feels, your emotions and most importantly how you feel about yourself. 

As you do this, it is important to avoid analysis or judgement but to stay with observation- kind and compassionate observation.  We as people are intricately complicated and have developed defence upon defence that we usually don’t understand.   The critical first step is kind presence and observation.  None of us really understand ourselves (and we don’t really ever need to) so make a very active choice to notice and feel everything without solution, analysis or purpose.

 

How we feel and react is all about us.  Our whole personal history can join with us and influence the way we respond when we think we are reacting to something in our current world.  While difficult and often confronting, it is important to stop thinking of how you feel and react as being driven by other people and to know that we unknowingly drive everything from deeper within.  Your whole personal history; the wins, losses, traumas, ugliness and beauty, lie within your responses.  When you tune in well, they are all there and need to be heard and acknowledged for what they are really about and what they need from you.

To do this, you might want to sit still, meditate, breath slowly and consciously, journal your thoughts and feelings or do anything that helps you get in touch with yourself. That could be gardening or getting out to the park with the dog. Become aware of your feelings; prejudice, addictions, patterns and sensations within your body and kindly and without judgement notice them.  They are there for a reason and they came from somewhere. Get to know them.

 

2. Choose vulnerability

 

The true source of human suffering is often not the things that happen to us but the (usually instinctual) ways we cope that can make things worse, develop their own dysfunction and often are the basis of difficult behaviours and characteristics.  A key adaption of people not feeling safe or ok to truly be themselves is to avoid vulnerability.  Vulnerability is the capacity to be with parts of ourselves that feel weak and usually afraid. Although it sounds counterintuitive, the less able we are to acknowledge the weak or afraid parts, the more they grow to become bigger and more intimidating than they are. Tending to these parts of ourselves can in fact more accurately ‘resize’ them. While it’s easy to say, many people would have absolutely no experience of what it is like to be known for just who they are – to many it’s a terrifying prospect, or something not possible to even imagine.  If we are not vulnerable, we are usually just reacting or operating out of our defences and we can never grow to become a deeper more true version of who we are.

 

When people can comfortably get in touch with their vulnerability (which we all have) things often quickly change or even resolve for people.  It’s the opposite of the unconscious bracing and protection that keeps people stuck.

 

It is all about leaning into and honouring how things are for you while embracing your vulnerability.

 

3. Developing authenticity

 

Most people don’t mean to be inauthentic but so much energy goes into fitting into culturally ascribed expectations, conditioning from family and coping mechanisms learnt as a kid. There is literally almost no more space left for people to turn up just as they are.  We are hemmed in by essentially acting out who we think we are meant to be, which is shaped significantly by our culture’s ideas of our gender, age, nationality;  who we have learnt we are in the families we grew up in and how we adapted to traumatic or negative experiences along the way.  

 

As much as possible, be who you are.  It is often liberating for men to give voice to and be ok that they are often scared and don’t know what is going on and often women can be liberated by being ok that they sometimes feel angry and spiteful.  There is a lot going on and to be deeply honest with yourself is a liberating experience.  When we learn to give full expression to our true selves, we often start just knowing what to do, become less reactive and more peaceful within ourselves.

 

A good way to look at this is an iceberg analogy.  Above the water line we can see all the feelings and parts of ourselves that we are comfortable with, that we are able to be present to and that we allow other people to see.  It’s different for everyone but what we are comfortable to be present to will be shaped by gender, culture, our family history and how we have coped and adapted to the challenges in our lives.  Below the waterline are the parts of ourselves we are not comfortable with, embarrassed by, think are unacceptable or ashamed of and tend to ignore.  Or maybe those parts of ourselves that we are not even aware exist. It’s not that we need to act on or believe these parts of ourselves under the water line but they need to be known, expressed and acknowledged for us to be a fully integrated human. 

 

The opposite of this is hiding away and being ashamed of parts of ourselves, which significantly drives dysfunction without our awareness.

 

4. Expression

 

This is not about insisting on your perspective or imposing your thoughts on others but, instead, leaving concepts of right and wrong behind and giving expression to your feelings and how it is for you.  Remember that how you feel, see things, react and the choices you make are really about you and how you are usually processing your experiences, trauma, coping adaption, brilliance and are all about you.  With this view, without agenda, choose to express your feelings, thoughts and ultimately you. Some ways people do this is through talking, writing, painting, dancing, moving your body, singing, poetry.  Anything to give voice or expression to the instinctual part of yourself just as you are.  This part of you is more honest and real than the stories people tell themselves which are usually just a layer of self-hatred or how people justify themselves.

 

Don’t believe or disbelieve.

 

Just be.

 

5. (The kicker and the main point) Addressing your relationship with yourself and creating self-love

 

Most people really feel uncomfortable with this one and it sounds vague and icky.  Without addressing this, it’s unlikely anything else will change and when you change it, in conjunction with the above four points, everything else can change easily. 

 

Whilst the above four points are essential to stop running away from yourself, developing a good relationship with yourself and self-love is truly transformational.

 

Warmly and lovingly embrace yourself just as you are.  This doesn’t mean that you are perfect, better than other people, are always right,  don’t have destructive coping mechanisms or destructive habits or haven’t been violent or harmful.  We all get it wrong at times and make mistakes. Like the rest of us, you need love. When you embrace all of yourself and have love and compassion toward yourself, the whole game changes.  Imagine having a friend that spoke to you like you do! You were born into the world as a vulnerable baby needing care and love and nothing has changed.  When you cease your coping adaptions of self-rejection and aligning with the negative views of yourself that you most likely took on as your own, while respecting these strategies for how they served you when you needed them,  and replace it with self-kindness and self-love, the whole thing changes.

 

Self-hate or self-loathing is also often an unconscious, complex and counterintuitive attempt at self-protection or survival.  It’s kind of like ‘if I align with these people and negative messages, I strangely feel a bit safer or at least a bit more in control of things’. Sometimes it makes you feel safer to be the first one to think the worst things about yourself before others can, so you’re not caught out unaware and ashamed .This is another reason why so many people straight up refuse to consider this powerful step.  If you can’t go there, yet, kindly trust yourself and focus on the first 4 steps and maybe settle for being kind to yourself or nurturing self-respect and see how it goes.  Choosing to love and respect yourself is a very brave step.

In considering this process of doing things differently, I encourage you to take an approach of being deeply kind to yourself, your past and your future.  We develop the coping strategies that end up causing harm as the best possible way we could come up with to survive and get by with the information and resources you had at the time.  While they may cause harm, they also served you at a time.  Being hard on them won’t help. So, respect their intent while looking at opportunities to grow and develop where they may no longer be needed or may have less of a hold on you.

 

Please also note that I intentionally use the term self-love rather than a more comfortable term for many people like self-respect or liking yourself, even though many men see this term as effeminate and it is probably particularly uncomfortable for people with negative family histories or victims of childhood sexual abuse.  Of course something like self-respect is better than self-hate or self-loathing, but the game changer is when you can get to the point of actual love for yourself.

 

From here, there is no need to try to fix or address any specific issue or relationships and trying to will probably just cause frustration, result in more of the same anyway or possibly make things worse. If you invest in the above, your mind will intuitively process your experiences more easily and you will find peace; it reactively settles. You will return to a more natural state, similar to before we were impacted by unhelpful cultural ideas or by your adaption to your difficulties. You will just know what to do and feel great because you have yourself back and are there for yourself.  If you stick with this in the long term, you will become increasingly and more richly truly yourself through the years and decades.

 

The opposite of these five points is what I call the unconscious cover up.  This is what we instinctually do to fit in, get by or to avoid what feels difficult or unbearable.  When people do this, it’s not that people are doing anything wrong or bad or mean, but it does keep people stuck.

 

Where I see counselling fitting into this is not for the therapist to solve problems or to listen like a priest in confession but, instead, to guide and support clients through the blocks and barriers to addressing the above elements.  This takes incredible courage and it often flies in the face of how people cope.  For many people, self-love seems a ludicrous and impossible concept.  If so, think of a new baby and it usually becomes clear that we all need love and that we all deserve it.

 

The journey of adapting these ideas has peaks and troughs.  At times you feel magical and liberated and at other times you can feel aware of old habits and overwhelmed. If you stick with it, you will effortlessly know what to do.  Things will just fall into place no matter what turns up in life.

 

Be nice to yourself. No, seriously do.  Tune in, listen, choose love and empathy and the whole thing will seemingly magically, joyously, beautifully easier from there. 

Marcus Andrews

Marcus Andrews

Marcus Andrews is the founder and director of Life Supports, which was established in 2002. He has extensive professional experience working as a counsellor and family therapist across a broad range of issues. The core component of his role at Life Supports involves the supervision of other counsellors, including secondary consultations. Marcus has worked in many sectors, including private, government, non-profit, health, forensic and community practice.

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