There is no better time than now to be a brutally soft person.
I know how it is to be in your shoes. To be in the position of deciding whether or not we go and speak to someone about our problems. To search "counsellor near me" or "therapist nearby", then close the browser screen. To repeatedly type out an email and ultimately save it to our draft folder. To hover our fingers over the last digit of the contact number and then not press call. To tell ourselves that tomorrow will be better and we couldn't possibly tell a stranger all of the thoughts we have and describe just how low we have been feeling. How lonely we feel.
It then seems like a gargantuan task to finally press send, to call, to make contact with this person whom we have never met. That we know little about, that we don't yet trust. We ask "How can I be vulnerable with this stranger?"
I know that this is a difficult time of year for some people. If we are struggling with low mood and depression then the dark nights and gloomy days can wring out from usthat last bit of optimism - the bit that had been keeping us going through the weeks leading up to winter.
It's the time of year where conversations with friends and family members whom some of us have spent the year avoiding suddenly loom into view. We might have to socialise with someone who has hurt us in the past - perhaps physically or emotionally - and we were never able to share just how much damage they did - or how they really shouldn't be in our lives.
It's a time of year where money can be tight - even if throughout year we have managed to get by in this time of economic uncertainty - tradition often demands that we buy gifts for others - often people we don't really "know". That we spend money on nights out, drinks and dinner, not a cheap prospect in Bristol I know.
Sometimes we have to arrange stressful visits to far flung family and friends, accommodating the unreasonable demands of people who have issues with others and cannot overcome their grudges. We might have children who are ill, or are struggling in other ways, and our friends don't understand how we can't drop everything and join in their exciting new year's eve plans - then take offense when we make the hard decision to say no.
I know how hard it is. I'm a therapist, and I am a human being. And I say this to reinforce the idea that the issues and problems that many of us have are not always unique to us. That many others share or burdens. I might even share some of your experiences. Sometimes that can be really useful. Sometimes it has little bearing.
So when I hear people say "how on earth can I go and talk to a therapist? I can't be that vulnerable". I think "and that's exactly the reason that person really should go". We are taught as children to be strong, brave and to package ourselves up so that the inevitable knocks of life don't hurt us. That we can cope, manage, get by. I don't know about you but my aspiration in life is not to merely "cope".
I want to thrive. I want to experience everything - and in doing so that includes the good and the bad. We cannot be selective in how we experience life. We can't filter for only the good, or only the things that we know won't harm us. I'm not saying here that we should seek hurt - far from it - we need to be prudent and aware that we do not put ourselves into situations which will knowingly damage us. But should we run away from vulnerability? Absolutely not.
To be vulnerable in this sense is not to lay ourselves open to those who might take advantage of us - instead it is to show our true selves to another - someone whom we deem to have our best interests at heart - be that a doctor, a therapist, a lover whom we trust, a sibling - to show someone who we really are with all of our hurt and flaws (be reassured, we all have them - thankfully) and to share how we have come to be the person that we are today - with all of our problems and fears - that is the best kind of vulnerability.
And in my opinion vulnerability can be learned. We can undo some of the lessons of our early lives where we focused on presenting only the best of us to the world, the filtered, curated best side of our face. Those kind of barriers are never going to allow us to feel truly loved. How can we expect someone to fully know us (and love us) if we only show them a selection of what we have to offer them?
The work which I do with my clients encourages vulnerability when the time is right, when trust is built and it is directly in service of your development as a person. If the idea of showing yourself to the world - flaws and all - is scary, then may I gently encourage you to lean into this discomfort. It's the space where growth can really take place - and there is no better time than now to do it.
You can contact me to work through any of the issues which I mention above - or anything else which is giving you cause to be here reading this, be emailing me at email@example.com or submitting a contact form on my homepage.
I look forward to working with you. The real you.
How do I manage change in my life? Is this fear rational? Can I face it?
"Change is scary"
"I hate change"
"I don't *do* change"
These are the top three phrases that I hear when clients talk to me about change. Sometimes its almost like its a dirty word. The mere idea of change is frightening - or incomprehensible. Yet it happens all the time. Small changes happen every day and we don't notice. Much like when we are entering a period of poorer mental health. Often we don't notice the small things that we do or little changes that we make which influence the way that we live our days. Perhaps we decide not to go out today, it seems too much. Then the next day we decide not to take the dog for a walk, or cancel coffee with a friend. We stay at home where we feel less exposed, more safe.
These small changes can impact us longer term - say we stop getting changed out of our pyjamas in the morning - we can convince ourselves then that we can't possibly go out. We have put a barrier between ourselves and the outside world. We have subconsciously created obstacles that allow us to retreat into ourselves.
This is change.
What we are often really saying when we say "I don't like change" is "I don't want to be challenged" - and sometimes that's okay. If we are struggling with depression or low mood and cannot face giving a talk to 300 people in the job we hate - maybe today that's a step too far. Its okay to take care of ourselves, to keep ourselves safe.
The challenges which I'm talking about are those we feel a slow and creeping resistance to - like consistently telling ourselves that there's no point in applying for another job because we aren't good enough. That there's no point in dating or meeting people because no one could ever love us just the way that we are right now. That there is no reason to make contact with an estranged sibling because you'll never see eye-to-eye again. These are complex ways in which we talk ourselves out of change and into isolation.
Are there things which you would like to change about your life or the way that you live it? What stops you from doing it? Is it a physical barrier or emotional? Could you work on overcoming it?
Do you dislike change or fear a challenge? Its worth considering.
How can I tell this stranger all of my thoughts!? What if I don't like it??
Those are a few of probably the most asked questions of those who are new to counselling. If you've never been before, how are you meant to know? It's all confidential - so no one talks about it. What's the etiquette? What if I cry? What if I don't cry? Are they judging me?
There are a lot of strong initial feelings that we experience when we go about arranging that first session with a counsellor. Sometimes we might email them in a low moment, and then feeling a little better the following day, ignore the counsellor's response and go back to our routines. Then suddenly, three weeks later something happens and we feel low again. Really low, and we need to talk to someone. We dig out that email from the counsellor and reply, excusing ourselves for taking so long to get back to them (the counsellor won't mind, honestly) and ask for an appointment. Then somehow, you're there - in the chair and someone is looking at you expecting you to say words. Words!
I'm writing about this as I've had so many new clients start work recently, and many of them are coming to counselling for the first time. This is really exciting for me but I do empathise - as a counsellor who was required to undertake a hefty amount of personal therapy as part of my training, but also as an individual who experienced issues that my life to that point hadn't prepared me for. Things happened to me as a young woman that I wasn't equipped to deal with, and I found myself in therapy. It was the success of that therapy that inspired me to leave my previous career and build this practice.
I'm guessing that if you're reading this then you've experienced a similar thing bringing you to consider talking to a counsellor - or are in therapy currently. That's the thing - problems are a great leveler. There is no one particular type of person who comes to therapy. We all have the capacity to suffer - but I hold the opinion that we all have the capacity to look at ourselves, look at how we have come to the point we have - step back and analyse what brings us to do the things that we do, and decided whether we want to continue to do them. To allow ourselves to heal and forgive those who might have wronged us. We can still flourish despite of all of those things - like a neglected plant, we just need to be given the right environment to do so.
And this is where I come in. After making contact through one of the many channels by which I can be reached - be this Facebook, email, Twitter, the contact form on my website, someone passing on my number, seeing a business card somewhere - no matter where the person comes from or the issue they bring I will always be prepared to hear you and tell you there and then whether I think that we can work together. So many people are looking for answers when they come to counselling and the answer can sometimes seem vague. There's a reason for this, allow me to enlighten you:
You already have the answer within you, I'm just here to help you find it.
So if you're reading this and wondering whether or not to make contact - please may I urge you to do so. If you chat to me on the phone and decide it's not for you, then you will have scratched that itch. If you email me and you don't like my tone, you can delete my email and go on with your day - I promise not to be offended. It's the trying that counts, the making contact. You have the autonomy to decide what does and does not work for you. If you decide to take a risk and come along to an introductory meeting I will ask you whether you want to go ahead and work together. It's not assumed. I don't assume to know you just because I'm a therapist. You are unique, and I hope to learn more about you.
Documentaries on mental health are everywhere right now, are you watching?
As a therapist I'll admit to enjoying more than my fair share of mental health focussed programming - be that on the BBC in the form of documentaries or via podcasts, programmes on other channels or reading up on the latest mental health research in the magazine which I receive monthly as a member of the BACP (British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy): Therapy Today or more mainstream magazines such as Psychologies. But lately I've noticed an upsurge in the kind of programmes that focus on specific mental health issues - Louis Theroux recently making an important and empathic documentary called Talking to anorexia - if you haven't seen this yet I highly recommend it.
And this focus - in my opinion - can only be a good thing.
The more we know about mental health issues, the more we see others like us with their stories and their struggles along with their messages, negative or positive, the more I think that we as a society come to know, acknowledge and comprehend the similarities between us and our fellow humans. The stigma falls away when its something that we become used to - and we really should get used to it since so many of us have or will suffer with a mental illness at some point in our lives.
The World Health Organisation posted a report stating:
"One in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Around 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide."
It also goes on to say that two thirds of those who have a known mental health issue never seek help from a health professional.
Can we look at this with the same model that we apply to physical medical issues for a moment? Imagine a world if you will, where two thirds of those who have an illness or physical medical problem do not seek help. Someone has a broken arm. Its incredibly painful but because they're afraid of the stigma and judgement that they expect to receive if they seek help that they decide not to go to a hospital. They think that if they take care if it at home, keep it a secret because they're ashamed of whats hurting them, that it will heal and eventually go away.
Now lets trade that broken arm for anorexia. For PTSD. For addiction. There is no more shame in seeking help for a mental health problem than for seeking help for a physical malady.
I could go on (I won't).
What I'm trying to say here is - there but for a poorly timed run-in with a bus go us all, with a trip to the hospital and a broken rib. On another day we might find our partner has decided they no longer want to be in a relationship with us, so with a bruised ego and sadness in our heart we go to a therapist and work out how we will live our lives in a new way.
I think that I as a counsellor have a duty to let people know that the work which I do can be a route to healing ourselves if/when they need to. To support managing stress, for dealing with overwhelming emotions or chaos not of our making.
That's a little of what I'm trying to do here and in my other counselling blog posts.
Laura is an online talking therapist and writer specialising in working with millennials and the LGBTQI+ community.