Change happens when you stop trying

All humans face the pain of our imperfection. We are flawed and we don’t like it. Above all we want to avoid our flaws being visible. We try very hard to suppress them and change, yet no-one notices. We get disheartened and frustrated. We give up. If we are really lucky, someone presents us with a really compelling reason to keep going. And yet, even the most enormous effort hasn’t paid off so far. There is the nub of the problem. Trying to change often gets in the way of just changing. I’ve learned two really key messages about the process of change.

Lesson 1: Change happens because we are able to perceive the world differently. If we didn’t, we couldn’t change. But our perception changes in quiet ways, usually when we aren’t looking. It’s like that elusive word, on the tip of our tongue when we search for it, but presenting itself when we stop looking. The same thing happens with change. It needs time to sit in the unconscious and work unseen and unspoken. There is a quiet, still place in each of us that holds the capacity to shift and then the change is on its way. Most of us reach for our ‘to do’ list, planning change actions as if we could force ourselves to do it differently. And for some people that’s possible. But deep personal change doesn’t usually work like that.

Lesson 2: Change happens when we have the courage and self-kindness to make friends with our flaws and see them as our teacher. Suppressing them is the surest way to keep them. Sitting with the discomfort, pain, sadness or aggravation of our flaws is our data, our opportunity for insight. It is the most powerful tool for change.  Self-insight comes with the ability to stay with these feelings and watch how they work. It is the observing, the noticing and the perceiving of them in new ways that provides the seed and the momentum for change. A committed, gentle, precise attention to what is happening can mysteriously make room for something new.

How about an example. An ambitious, successful client with a cutting intellect and an uncompromising analytical focus was frustrated at an inability to achieve promotion. Over the years, people dismissed her as unempathic and selfish, which she described as ambitious and single-minded. This had been key to her success and although she wanted people to see her differently, she couldn’t really see how to change them. In the course of our work, she moved from stuck frustration to curious inquiry, which I admired. I was open in my admiration and we built some trust as she started on a long journey together.

She wanted to change others’ view of her, since it wasn’t the view she had of herself. And there it was. I saw her empathy and warmth and, in wondering why this was not how others saw her, we had the seeds of new perception and a new reality. If she couldn’t force change to happen with intense cognitive analysis and a plan of action, perhaps allowing it to creep up on her would be worth an experiment.

The moment she agreed she would stop trying she began to slow down and observe. She chose two things to watch over the course of a month. The insight that comes from simply noticing, emerged without effort. There was nothing to do, no action, no task list. Just quiet, intentional observation. Nothing else.

A few sessions in, she had already seen a difference in her responses to others. She began to find a lighter, more humorous touch that softened the tough, uncompromising edge and made her easier to be with. She started to see her ambition for what it was and found it shifting; her urgency was blended with a sense of inquiry about what she wanted from life. Her inner awareness was translating to an outer discernment that slowed her down and made her ask more questions. Her sharp mind was supported with a new understanding of her own inner process. The world started to look a bit different. She was looking at herself from a new angle; imperceptibly, quietly and without fanfare. She didn’t try to change herself. She allowed herself to feel what was needed.

She changed.

Is counselling the same thing as psychotherapy?

Whilst some people feel strongly about these words, they are now often used interchangeably. A commonly cited distinction is that psychotherapy may go on for longer and may go deeper. They both cost about the same though and it is more important that you feel comfortable with the person than what they call themselves. Both counsellors and psychotherapists offer ‘talking therapy’ to their clients; I think the term is self-explanatory.

A couple of years ago I did a bit of informal inquiry into several different approaches to understand if the particular way of working had more success or produced greater satisfaction. I took a specific issue (the importance of goal setting in therapy) and I asked peers of mine working with different models of counselling/therapy (Gestalt therapy, Person Centred Counselling, Mindfulness Based Therapy, Transactional Analysis, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Psychoanalyst) about the way they work and what it feels like to be a client in this work. I included myself as a respondent: I’d experienced Transaction Analysis, Psychoanalysis and Mindfulness Based Therapy.

Whilst my respondents were indeed my peers, not necessarily current clients, they had also experienced their own modality as a client – some of them for many years so I felt satisfied that I could draw informal conclusions.   Of course, the limited size and lack of formal measurement of this ‘study’ means it has no inherent validity, but it offers a good enough starting point for a hypothesis.

What I found was that the particular modality and the title (counsellor, analyst or therapist) had little bearing on the individual’s experience, progress and satisfaction as a client. The biggest differentiator was the quality of the relationship, the safety that the practitioner offered and the trust that emerged between client and practitioner over time.

In mindfulness based psychotherapy the underpinning intent is to be deeply attuned to what is happening for both therapist and client, to work with how things are in the present moment and to offer clients deep respect, warmth and safety. There are times within my practice where a cognitive behavioural therapeutic approach slips into a session, or a nod to transaction analysis. I concluded that other modalities use my approach just as I used theirs. Moreover, although I think the mindfulness based therapeutic approach is very particular, I found that there were person centred counsellors and psychoanalysts who would describe their own process in very similar terms. In short, I found it was the practitioner themselves, not their named working model, that resulted in client satisfaction and progress.

So, how does this help you, if you are a client, looking for a counsellor or therapist? Well, it means you might wish to take some time over your decision about who you want to work with. Ask around for referrals. Take time to have a look at websites and get a bit of a feel for the practitioner. Test out two or three; many will offer a free/low cost first session for this reason. Ask how they work and explore for yourself whether you feel safe enough in their practice room. Don’t be afraid to say no if it doesn’t feel right.

All that said, it is worth knowing that whoever you are working with is a member of a certifying institution, like the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), which is my governing body, or the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). This means that, at the very least, you know they have had a solid training, work within a recognised ethical framework and are appropriately insured to work with clients. After that, it is all about the relationship.

Do you ever get hijacked by your inner critic?

Your phone buzzes in your pocket.  You take a look and realise from an incoming text you forgot to make an important call.  You have let someone down. This is a pattern you wish you could break as you hate letting people down.  You flush with embarrassment and anger at yourself and anxiety flares up at how others will judge you.  Before you know it, you’re beating yourself up using language you’d never use to others.  The voice is poisonous and spiteful, not just the expletives or criticism it deploys, but even the tone of voice can cut you dead.  And you know that voice is right.  It’s always right.  You supress the feelings as quickly as you can so you stop feeling bad, and you get on with the day. Still, the trace of the experience remains.  This is not just people who come to me for therapy. This is all of us.

There are so many important things in this story.  There is the bad feeling you suppress, and the pattern that needs to be changed, and sandwiched in the middle there is the pernicious voice.  Where to start?

Wherever you are, is the only answer.

We spend so much of our time trying to be something else, get somewhere else, achieve something else that we forget just to be here.  The process of change is subtle and starts when we can truly accept things the way they are now. As your perception of a situation becomes clearer, less cluttered with judgements or emotions, things start to emerge that we may not have noticed before and change begins.

When you next have one of those moments, try the following four easy steps

  1. Find space:  somewhere where you can be alone, maybe outside in the fresh air, to a window where you can see the sky or the green, or just to the toilet so you can be private.
  2. Breathe: inhale and exhale deeply a few times, noticing how it feels and which parts of your body you are aware of.  Allow yourself to tune back into that difficult experience you just had.  Keep breathing and notice what is happening in your body.
  3. Pay attention with curiosity and kindness: Whatever comes up – whether it’s pain, rage, self-defence or something else, don’t get caught up in the story and don’t suppress it either. Just invite it to be there with kindness and curiosity.  Observe it as if it were an old friend.  If you can, smile at it and welcome it.
  4. Drop it: Breathe deeply and let it go.