How can talking help?

psychotherapy-chair-vintagePeople often ask, “how does talking help? It can’t change anything can it?”  Well, actually, it can. It is true that no amount of talking can change the fact that you were made redundant, had a serious operation, were bullied at work or lost someone dear to you.  However, according to the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus  “it is not so much what happens to people that causes suffering, but the view they take of it.” Imagine, for example, that it rains on your much-needed day off, so that you cannot do what you had planned. You could get depressed and say, “oh, no, it is raining, now what am I going to do?”, and sit around moping for the rest of the day. Or you could curl up with a good book, go to the cinema, visit friends, have a good old sort out and tidy up, etc. In other words, there are a thousand and one enjoyable things you can do.  Focussing on the one thing you can’t do is not going to make you feel good, and closes down your options to all other possibilities.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) helps people to recognise such unhelpful thinking habits and develop more positive ones. It can be seen as a kind of mental hygiene, a good spring clean of unhelpful thinking habits.


However, we also have a lot of habitual ways of understanding and reacting to the world of which we are not conscious. It is these unconscious habits that frequently sabotage our relationships and that are impossible to change without first becoming aware of them.  So, although CBT is useful in helping us to challenge unhelpful habits and ways of thinking, it functions mainly at a conscious level. Some of our habitual ways of thinking and reacting are so deeply rooted though that most of the time we are unaware of them, in other words, they are unconscious.

Talking with a trained and experienced Relational therapist can reveal the roots of such unconscious patterns that often originate in childhood. Young children tend to assume that bad things happen because they are bad. So if, for whatever reason, a child did not experience sufficient warmth, love and attention, she may assume that this is somehow her fault. For many of us such early conclusions and assumptions form an unquestioned backdrop to our lives that continue to impact on our self-confidence and relationships.

Research carried out within the last few decades, however, has shown that if people can create a coherent story of their lives, and realise that although ‘bad things’ happened to them, they themselves are not ‘bad’, such out-dated patterns can be transformed. This is what is meant by ‘processing’ or ‘working through’ our experience.  As these patterns have been there a long time, this is not a quick fix that can be completed in just a few sessions of therapy, but requires commitment from both client and therapist. 

As I have discussed before, such ‘working through’ also helps to rewire (as it were) our brain by the creation of new, healthy neural pathways. So, no matter how painful or neglectful your early experience has been, it is possible to develop the emotional security that was missing in childhood, and have good relationships with your own children and others.



Further reading:

 Relational Child, Relational Brain: Development and Therapy in Childhood and Adolescence (Evolution of Gestalt Series) by Robert G. Lee and Neil Harris (Ed.)


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Money for nothing, values for free

money out voters inThe turnout for the recent local elections was poor. When a young woman was asked why she had not voted she said, “Well, it makes no difference does it?  They’re all the same.”  How did we get to such apathy? Is this what the suffragettes fought for? How come that many of us, not just the young, think that there is no point in voting?

According to the political philosopher Michael Sandel there is something very wrong with our current society.  When he spoke in Bristol recently, as part of the annual Festival of Ideas, Sandel made the point that over the last three decades a significant change has taken place: we have gone from having a market economy to being a market society.

The consequences are insidious as, according to Sandel, the market is not neutral but implies a certain value – that money is the measure of everything – whilst corroding and undermining other values.

For example, how would you feel if that incredibly moving speech your best man made at your wedding had been bought online? Or if your friends would insist on being paid in order to spend time with you?  These were examples Sandel gave of how money changes not only the value of things, but also their meaning.currencypile_business_desk

Have we, by implicitly accepting this view, that money is the measure of everything, also allowed the creation of value and meaning to be outsourced to the market?

Politics has become a matter of managing the economy without any debate about deeper values, meaning or purpose.  As a result, for many people, voting in an election appears to offer only an irrelevant choice between different technical approaches to tinkering with the status quo.

loveOur lives are worth living not because they have market value!  According to the psychiatrist and Jungian analyst Derry Macdiarmid, our deepest purpose is to love. Reconnecting with our capacity to love will therefore give our lives more purpose than any amount of money.

Derry Macdiarmid (author)  and Sue Macdiarmid (Ed.) (2013) Century of Insight: The Twentieth Century Enlightenment of the Mind. London: Karnac.

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The power of story

Psychotherapy is also known as ‘the talking cure’.   However, people often ask ‘how can talking about something help?  It doesn’t actually change anything, does it?’


Well, actually, talking about what bothers us, what hurts, what is difficult to come to terms with, can help. It can help in that when we talk with someone who really listens, we are no longer alone with it, as we can share what is going on inside us without fear of being judged or being told what to do.

The value of being listened to in this way is not to be underestimated. Left alone, our thoughts may go round in ever decreasing circles that lead nowhere except stagnation and depression. But once we truly share what we think, feel and experience there is the possibility of the ‘new’ or, as it is sometimes called, ‘news of difference’. When this happens people may say ‘I’ve never thought of it like that before’. It means that we look at ourselves from a different angle and consequently find ourselves telling a different story.

We can change the stories we tell ourselves and thus change our lives.


For more on the power of story see this video of Nigerian author, Chimamanda Adichie:

To read more about ‘news of difference see Bateson, G (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind. London: Paladin.

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Snow and transformation 2

As I walked in the snow-covered park I came across a group of young people building an igloo.  Some were busy filling black plastic recycling boxes with snow; others picked up the boxes and carried them over to someone inside the structure who carefully placed this latest block in position. No one appeared to be in charge, yet they worked perfectly as a team. When people enjoy what they do, I thought, they don’t need someone to oversee or manage them; they just get on with it.

P1030124 Apart from teamwork, snow also clearly brings out creativity and playfulness in people as more and more snowmen and snow sculptures appeared in the park. I came across one snowball so large and heavy that it must have taken at least four people to move it. Perhaps, I mused, the different perspective on the world afforded by snow gives us permission to play, have fun and try things out, without a care for what others may think or whether it is a useful or sensible thing to do. Most of the sculptures I saw must have taken quite a bit of effort and time to create – yet none of them will last. We all know that snow will melt – in this part of the world sooner rather than later.

P1030140But that does not matter, when the snow is here now, in this moment, we can allow ourselves to enjoy it and have fun. What’s more, being creative and working with others is therapeutic in itself; it reconnects us with the innocent child inside us, the part that wants to relate, have fun and play. It also integrates the two sides of our brain – the left side that is concerned with rationality, and the right side that is concerned with creativity, emotion, intuition and forming relationships.

A good book to read on this subject is:

Iain McGilchrist ‘s The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

See a review of the book at:

(I heard Iain McGilchrist speak in Bristol last year; he was absolutely fascinating).





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Snow and Transformation 1

When I got up the other morning the world was transformed by a blanket of thick snow. No one appeared to have gone out in it yet and everything looked pristine and beautiful. Walking among the trees and shrubs in the park felt magical and I just had to take some photos, as I wanted to share all this beauty.  It was still early, so most of the snow was still completely untouched and my footsteps were the first to appear.


When I came back to the same area a few hours later I noticed that several paths had appeared in the snow that already looked well trodden. This reminded me of the neural pathways that we create in our brain when we practise a skill, or indulge in a habit. When we try to change something about ourselves, we literally create new neural pathways; not unlike walking in the snow for the first time.  The more people walk along the same snowy path, the more others will follow, and the path becomes clearer and clearer. Similarly, as we practise doing things differently (whatever that may be) we strengthen the new neural pathways, so that eventually they become the pathways of choice: like the well-trodden paths in the snow.

P1030134 So transformation can happen both suddenly and gradually. The blanket of snow made everything look different, however, underneath the snow there were the same streets, trees and cars. Similarly, through counselling or psychotherapy we can come to view our life differently.  However, for things to change longer term we need to put in the practice.

The more we walk the new path, the clearer it will become.

(See the following articles if you would like to read more about this):

P1030160 P1030162

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Is it wrong to feel bad?

Crying babyThere seems to be a trend at the moment that everyone is supposed to feel great all the time. Never mind that you have not had a good night’s sleep for what seems like forever because your youngest child is teething, or that there is a threat of redundancy at work, or you have just got divorced, you are supposed to portray a sunny, energetic, enthusiastic and positive persona.  Feeling stressed or down seems to be regarded as a personal failure, to be cured by drugs or CBT.  While there is nothing particularly positive about feeling miserable, it does not help, indeed is made worse by the general assumption that when you are not smiley smiley all the time there is something wrong with you.

rose gardenWhere does this idea that we should be happy all the time come from? Life is life, stuff happens. As Sandy Shaw sang in the 60s ‘I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden!’  Scott Peck’s well-known book “The Road Less Travelled” starts with “Life is difficult.” How true!  This does not mean that life cannot also be exciting, fun and joyful, of course it can. But we have to take the rough with the smooth.  Whether it is sooner or later, one thing is certain, we will all have our share of rough times.

Feeling upset or unhappy when someone you love is terminally ill, for example, is normal. It does not mean that there is something wrong with you. To the contrary would it not be strange if you were not affected at all?  Whereas there is certainly a place for all kinds of help, I worry about the over-medicalisation of normal life. When bad things happen we may feel bad for a while. Of course looking for help to get through a difficult patch is a good idea. However, expecting someone or something to take all our pain away is tantamount to avoiding life.

As far as I am aware, we only have one life and should live it – whatever it brings.

winter tree

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