Counselling in Wokingham – Past, Present and Future

Paul Cockayne – 07791

Welcome to my counselling blog. You can find more information about me by clicking one of the links at the top of this page

People come to counselling for many reasons, some with a focus on dealing with past events, some to deal with present problems, others to think about the future and what that may hold.

These three time “divisions” – past, present and future, are intertwined. Our past experiences influence us in the present and shape our view of the future, obviously. But the future also influences the past – not the events of the past, but our view of the past, our interpretation of past events. If we feel optimistic about the future, bad experiences from the past will seem less significant – which will leave us feeling happier in the present and in our vision of the future.  If we are looking at the future with foreboding, that will tend to mean that past events take on more significance, perhaps even leaving us with a feeling that we lack control over our future because so many things have gone wrong in the past.

The present can be overwhelming.  If things are going badly, if we are under great stress, it can be hard to think about anything except how awful things are.  It’s a bit like a horse wearing blinkers, it can only look at what’s immediately in front – it can’t see anything to either side.  And for us, the present can become all-consuming.

Often when clients first come to counselling they are totally absorbed in their present issues.  I remember one client telling me that she couldn’t think more than about one minute ahead.  Life was simply about surviving into the next moment.  It rather put me in mind of soldiers in the WWI trenches, forced to survive in such horrendous conditions that the only way to cope was to take things one day, or one hour, even one minute at a time.

As I worked with my “one minute ahead” client, she started to find her time horizon extending to a day, a week, a month, and we used this as a way of gauging the progress she was making.  Survival was certain, the future was in view, change was possible.

Exploring these three time divisions, and how they interrelate can be an important part of counselling….it can be a very rich and surprising experience!

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Counselling in Wokingham – Stalagmites and Avatars

Some years ago I remember working with a couple who both, at different times, had had affairs. The woman seemed ready to forgive and move one, whereas the man did not. His blockage was that he had put his partner on a pedestal – he saw her as “perfect”, and he was struggling to adapt to the obvious truth that she was not really perfect, she was flawed, as we all are. Which reminds me of another client who much admired a favourite uncle – he was someone she looked up to, her role model. It was horrendous for her to discover that he was a paedophile.

People are not always who we think they are. But when people are important to us, we create an internal representation of them, like a sort of avatar, and we carry that around with us. This is handy, because we can turn to them for comfort, or advice, or love, when they are not actually there. Without us necessarily realising it, their avatar provides us with support.

When there is a clash – when we discover something unexpected about someone – we have a choice. On the one hand, we can ignore what we’ve learnt – we can deny it refuse to believe what we’ve seen or heard. But if we choose not to do that, we will need to change our avatar to include the new information.

Changing the avatar is tough. This is partly because it is all quite subconscious, and partly because of the way it is created. When we get close to someone – when we fall in love, it tends to be a slow process. Bit by bit we get to know that person better. In small steps, we gain trust in them. Slowly, slowly, the avatar is growing in importance and assuming a solid shape. It’s like a stalagmite forming in a cave, one drip at a time.

For my client who’d seen his wife as perfect, his avatar was destroyed, ripped out of him. He was experiencing shock and a huge sense of loss. His avatar had been a false one, and had been exposed as such in an instant. His stalagmite had been shattered by a single hammer blow.

In other cases the avatar is not destroyed, but is changed. It changes shape in a significant way, so that it no longer fits comfortably inside us in the way we are used to – in the way that we need it to. For example, I remember working with a couple where the man had suffered a long period of depression. His partner had come to see him as someone she needed to look after. Her avatar, once a representation of a strong, independent man, had become something she needed to care for, a dependency, a duty. As her partner emerged from his depression, he was feeling stronger but she was struggling to see that. He was changing, but her avatar was not – or it was changing much more slowly.

When things go wrong for a relationship, recovery can be slow and difficult. Probably both of the couple need to make changes, and those changes will most likely affect the relationship only very gradually. The avatars needs to reform, and that happens only slowly, one drip at a time. The drip from the stalactite cannot be rushed.

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Counselling in Wokingham – The Meaning of Life

Paul Cockayne – 07791

Welcome to my counselling blog. You can find more information about me by clicking one of the links at the top of this page

Often I don’t think of a title for my blogs until I’ve finished writing them. Today, I’ve started with the title. As titles go, it’s a bit on the daunting side, especially given that usually I write only about 500 words. How many thousands – millions? – have already been written on the subject? And is the answer really 42?

For many centuries, going back into pre-historic times, man has sought a meaning to life and for all that time religion has sought to provide some answers. There are many different religions, different gods, different ways of living, all seeking to provide mankind with an answer to that big question, about the meaning of life.

As individuals we are all exposed to religious ideas and may find a certain faith rings true for us : if a particular religion feels right, we are likely to adopt it and it can give us the answers we are looking for. But for many people, religion doesn’t really do it and the question “what is the meaning of life?” remains unanswered.

This leads us to an existentialist viewpoint, that there is no big answer (not even 42). But this does not mean that there is no purpose – rather, it means that we have to find our own purpose, to make our own lives meaningful. It’s a personal thing rather than a cosmic thing.

What matters? What’s important? It’s different for all of us : making the most of ourselves, helping others, creating something beautiful, doing something perfectly, being thoughtful, winning, experiencing intense emotions, fighting what we believe is right, being happy. This list can go on and on.

It’s about finding things that matter to us as individuals. Many different things will be important, in different proportions for each individual. We don’t ever necessarily write a list down and tick things off. It is a very instinctual process for most of us, I think. We find a way of life that works – practically, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually.

And I don’t think that this is really different for people who “have religion”. It’s just that those people are choosing a religion that matches their own personal list of meaningful things, again often instinctually. It’s like cooking from a recipe rather than just taking some raw ingredients and making something up. It’s still food.

If I were forced to live off a diet of beetroot and rice pudding I would not be happy (though others might be). I am fortunate to be able to choose the food I eat and so too I am able to choose what meaning I ascribe to life. It’s very much a matter a personal choice, life can mean whatever we want it to mean.

And in less than 500 words, too….

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Counselling in Wokingham – Fake News

Paul Cockayne – 07791

Welcome to my counselling blog. You can find more information about me by clicking one of the links at the top of this page

The phrase “Fake News” is much in use at the moment, and it set me thinking about how we interpret the news we receive.

fakenews1Some news is patently fake, of course, like the Sunday Sport’s famous “World War 2 Bomber Found On Moon” headline. But no news outlets, whether newspapers, TV or the internet are wholly reliable. To start with, things are left out – can any story ever include all the facts, all the background, the complete context? Stories are “spun” a particular way, certain points are emphasized, so that however hard any particular media outlet tries to present a balanced view, the particular prejudices of the journalists or editorial staff will influence what we are presented with. There is always another side (or many other sides) to every story.

But perhaps our own prejudices are more significant than those of the press. I think that most of us are attracted to news that reflects our own point of view. Our choice of newspaper, TV station or internet site will be influenced by our existing view of the world. A news item that challenges our views will most likely make us uncomfortable or angry whereas something that reinforces our views will seem much more comfortable. We will naturally prefer to read the news that makes us comfortable. Very few people will have the time or energy to read everything written on a particular topic in an effort to develop a completely balanced view.

So I think we gravitate towards interpretations of events that leave us feeling comfortable, and just as we do this with world news, so too do we do it in our personal lives.

fakenews3Everything that happens to us is interpreted in some way. Our experiences exist only in their relationship to us. Our memories do not record events in an unbiased way – the things that happen are mixed with our reaction too them. The things we best remember, I think, are the things that have an emotional effect on us – the things that matter to us in some way. So sometimes others will remember things that we cannot recall at all. This doesn’t mean that they are delivering “fake news” but that their memories are different to ours.

fakenews2As well as our memories being selective, our interpretation of the memories we have, and the events we experience, is biased. We will tend to read the newspaper that best reinforces our existing viewpoints, and similarly we will also interpret events in a way that reinforces our current view of the world. For example, a few years ago I worked with a couple, let’s call them Bob and Anne. Bob used to drink heavily and would sometimes get very angry and occasionally violent after drinking too much. He had managed to give up drinking for a few months and, slowly, the relationship was improving, Anne’s trust was returning, Bob was finding it easier. But one day Anne heard the dreaded sound of a can of lager being opened in the kitchen. She flew off the handle, telling Bob how stupid and useless he was and stormed into the kitchen, all guns blazing. She was met by the sight of a rather shocked Bob standing with a can of Coke in his hand.

We can easily create “fake news” by making assumptions or incorrect interpretations. So before leaping to the conclusion that there’s a bomber on the moon, it’s worth stopping and thinking. It might just be a can of Coke.

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Counselling in Wokingham – Are you selfish enough?

Paul Cockayne – 07791

Welcome to my counselling blog. You can find more information about me by clicking one of the links at the top of this page

The word “selfish” has a bad press – how many times did our parents tell us “Don’t be selfish!”. The implication is that it is wrong to put ourselves before others, that our own needs are less important than those of others.

selfish2I think that we are inherently a selfish race and so it is important for us to learn that other people matter as much as we do, that their needs are important too. Hence the “don’t be selfish” message from our parents. It’s important to be able to look at the big picture, to see things from different perspectives, understand what is going on for other people as well as for ourselves.

But alongside that, we all need to look after ourselves, to make sure that our needs are met. People who are never selfish tend to end up being taken for granted and feeling used. So in the sense that selfish means “looking after myself”, selfishness is a good quality – indeed, an essential one. Often, those messages from our parents leave us feeling guilty about being selfish when actually we should be proud of being selfish – to the right degree.

I remember reading a piece once from a writer who coined the word “self-ful” in an attempt to describe the act of looking after oneself in an appropriate way. Thinking about one’s own needs whilst being mindful of others, I suppose.

selfish1Some people seem never to think about themselves, or if they do, it is only to remind themselves that other people have more urgent or more important needs to be met. And there is reward to be gained from such an attitude, a bit like those ascetic monastic orders who deprive themselves of all worldly pleasures. It is a sort of martyrdom, but often one which is not expressed, so that other people don’t necessarily appreciate the sacrifices that are constantly being made.

What I’ve seen from some clients – very unselfish clients – is that their needs seem to build up to the point where, like a caldera, they need to find an outlet. This can, like a volcano, be a violent eruption. People can suddenly leave apparently happy relationships after 20 or more years, or splash out thousands of pounds on a sports car, or adopt a new career that represents a complete lifestyle change. Sometimes the outlet is not a volcanic explosion but a gradual seepage – a secret activity conducted over many years – a long-term affair, grabbing a cigarette in private when the opportunity is there, using pornography, transvestism.

selfish3Whether it’s an eruption or a seepage, the discovery of the outlet usually causes shockwaves in a relationship. “I never realised that you were unhappy” is a common reaction from the unselfish person’s partner. But in the aftermath of the shock, comes the opportunity to do things differently. The relationship can be re-set, and the words “I want….” might even be heard.

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Counselling in Wokingham – Alternative Facts

Paul Cockayne – 07791

Welcome to my counselling blog. You can find more information about me by clicking one of the links at the top of this page

facts1The White House spokesperson this week presented what she called “alternative facts” about the crowd size at Donald Trump’s inauguration. That’s an interesting expression and one which may well enter the dictionary of euphemisms in the next edition.

In my work with couples, I am often presented with what might be called alternative facts. “We had a big argument on Tuesday” : ”No, it was Wednesday” or “We never have sex any more” : ”Yes we do, we had sex in October”

There can be battles in the counselling room to establish who is the more reliable witness. Who is telling the truth and who is presenting “alternative facts”? The Trump administration seems to be embroiled in a power struggle with the press, and so too I find that my clients can be battling with each other to establish who is the more truthful, the more reliable, the more right.

facts3I suppose they are trying to convince me, hoping I will pass judgment. Or maybe they aim to convince their partner, hoping to subjugate them. But perhaps mostly they are trying to convince themselves, to justify their feelings and opinions – a defensive reaction which maybe is what we’re seeing from the Trump camp too.

While there are interesting parallels to be drawn, there are of course differences too. The crown size at Trump’s inauguration is (approximately) measurable by looking at recordings, but not all statements can be proven or disproven in such a clear-cut way. Conversations are not recorded, sex acts are not diarised, and so what clients present to me as facts are often opinions or even codified feelings, for example:-

  • “We had a big argument on Tuesday” could mean “I am still feeling really upset by the argument we had this week and I’d like to talk about it”
  • “No, it was Wednesday” equals “I am scared that things will blow up again, let’s not talk about it”

The battles to establish the truth, the power struggles I witness are never constructive. If we establish that an argument happened on Wednesday rather than Tuesday, what difference does it make? Does it establish who is the better person? Does it mean that you are always right and your partner always wrong? Does it mean that your partner is never again entitled to disagree with you?

facts2Battles can end in stalemate – a balance, an equilibrium of sorts – but such endings are unstable, resentments simmer, war is liable to break out again without warning. It’s far better to negotiate a proper peace settlement where both parties can get what they need and work together in co-operation, in partnership in the future.

I very much doubt that Trump is capable of doing that, and his battles for power will continue. I rather hope that clients I see are capable of more.

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Counselling in Wokingham – The Spider’s Web

Paul Cockayne – 07791

Welcome to my counselling blog. You can find more information about me by clicking one of the links at the top of this page

Some people come to counselling with enthusiasm, eager to explore a particular issue, keen to find out more about themselves. Most people, particularly if they are attending counselling for the first time, arrive feeling rather nervous, wondering what will happen, not knowing what I will be like to work with. A few people attend unwillingly, “sent” by a friend or family member, or “dragged along” by a partner who sees couple therapy as the only way forward.

web2Sometimes people enter counselling with a feeling that talking about things can make it worse – that some things are best left unsaid. This can apply equally in relationship counselling or in individual work…”let’s draw a line under the past and move on”….”I don’t what to think about what happened in the past, I want to concentrate on the future”.

The danger of taking this line is that the past lurks. It sits there, in the background, and then comes back and hits you when you are not expecting it to. All our experiences – happy or unhappy – as an adult or a child – influence who we are today and how we might behave in certain situations – and sometimes this can be unhelpful, both to us and to those close to us.

web3We cannot simply ignore the past or pretend that it never happened. Every single experience we have shapes us in some small way. We learn from our past – not in a conscious way, necessarily, but unconsciously. We learn from observing others, from interacting with others, from books, from TV. It’s not a logical process or a controlled one, but largely a matter of trial and error, I think. We absorb stuff and then mash it around into some sort of coherent structure – our beliefs, our values, our feelings.

I remember talking to a client who didn’t normally show his emotions, but who would find himself dissolving into tears if he saw a distressed animal on TV. There are reasons why people experience road rage, or are scared of spiders, or hate silences. All these things are connected in some way to our past experiences, although it may not be obvious how or why.

web1Our brains are incredibly complex things, full of connections that we don’t fully understand, like a spider’s web. If we ignore the past, the connections remain static –they retain their power to kick in unexpectedly and cause us to react in inappropriate ways. Exploring the past is not about changing what has happened but about changing the connections in our brains, so that we can choose how we react to situations, rather than having the secret spider’s web of connections choose for us.

We never stop learning and counselling can be part of that process. Understanding the links between our past and our present gives us more power to do things differently.

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