CHANGE

It was nerve-wracking, going it alone.

After twenty-odd years working in university counselling services, leaving the education sector felt huge. A glance at the personal timeline would reveal almost the entire length connected with education in some form or another. Kindergarten through school, several stints at uni, first Student Services jobs, Counselling, lecturing… Who was I if I wasn’t attached to an institution of learning?

It was time to find out, though I didn’t exactly go cold turkey.

Resigning from the University Counselling Service was a much-needed wrench—it was several years since I’d been happy there as micromanagement undermined the excellent work we used to do with, like, the actual students. But I kept the teaching gig at another uni for several more years until the absence of any sense of appreciation or satisfaction ground a resignation out of me.

And that was the point at which I realised I was now, despite the pretensions inherent in my professional title, a small business. A very small business.

So I sent out letters of introduction to a score of doctors in the vicinity of my modest consulting room and waited for the referrals to flow.

Which they did not.

In fact the only General Practitioner who invited me to visit was so odd I concluded she invited me in just to talk to another living soul. After a slightly bizarre conversation, during which she continuously fingered a medallion at her throat and made eye contact precisely zero times, I muttered an excuse about an imminent appointment and beat a clammy retreat. Walking back to the office, I wondered what sort of referral would come from such a practitioner. None did, so I needn’t have worried.

Someone said having a website was important, so I knocked up a basic one using the application that came with my computer. Bought a domain name and waited for clients to ring the number. A couple did, but not many. Was my home-made website just too basic? To impersonal?

A second version followed, where I made myself a little more visible. After all, as a humanistic therapist, it seemed reasonable to offer something with a touch of personality. I even knocked up a list of presenting issues I thought might help overcome the natural reticence about seeking help that we all have. It was an A—Z of issues. Should that be issues with a capital Ish? Don’t know, I rather loathe the word. But I do know that starting with topics I was personally familiar with got me three quarters of the way through the alphabet.

When it was done I was satisfied enough. A few inquirers mentioned it when they rang and I’ve since seen remarkably similar lists on the (much flashier) websites of other psychotherapists, so perhaps it tapped into something, even though what I was really saying was, “We can talk about anything that’s troubling you.”

Anxiety
Behaviour change, including substance issues and gambling
Communication and relationships; Connection; Creativity
Depression
Effecting Change in your life
Family of origin; Feelings
Grief and loss; death and bereavement
Health: chronic health problems; Ageing
Intimacy, Closeness
Jealousy and trust
Knowing yourself better
Life changes, transitions, crises
Mood swings; lowered mood
Not knowing, confusion, lostness
On-going personal development
Perfectionism; Procrastination; Parenting
Questions of meaning (and loss of meaning)
Relationships; Relaxation
Stress; Sexuality
Transitions and ageing; Trauma and recovery
University: adjustment and success; Study and Motivation
Values and priorities; life choices
Work-Life balance; stress
XYZ. . . anything else that feels important!

The practice did build to a satisfactory size, mainly due to former clients seeking me out and a handful of doctors who seemed to like the way I worked (or were convinced by their patients it was worthwhile). I’ve never updated the website, and it shows. That’s fine, I’m not seeking clients. But if I did review the content, I reckon I could reduce it by about 90% and the ‘issues’ list to only one letter.

Based on almost thirty years of practice, this is what it boils down to.

What do people want?

To feel happier; to be deeply heard.

What do you do?

Try to be with the person opposite me as fully and authentically as I can.

Connection and happiness. Is there anything else?

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THE ART OF APPRECIATION

As I walk towards the Assembly Hall the feeling of unease comes up instantly, unbidden. In through the cyclone wire gates, along a pitted asphalt drive towards the large, squat orange brick building. State efficiency and sixties design.

Not quite belonging, not quite understanding the culture, not knowing what to expect but tense because it isn’t relaxing. That’s what my gut is saying. Why did I come to this reunion? It’s unlikely I’ll meet anyone I want to talk to, let alone connect with. It’ll be just like school; competition and suspicion, tribalism and isolation.

The reality is both better and worse than anticipated. Better, in that I now have a vague idea of who I am and thus little enthusiasm for antler-locking or displays of plumage. I can drift around, having repetitive shallow conversations with people I didn’t know well twenty-five years ago and have little in common with now. Like the buildings themselves, the people are the same but different. I suppose I am too.

A flicker of disappointment that my notional list of who I’d actually like to see remains stubbonly devoid of ticks. Would have been nice to hang out with a mate. And the fantasy of two girls I actually liked (but was much too shy and socially incompetent to ever talk to) showing up and being available for a conversation (I can do that now, if I concentrate; almost like a real grown-up) was dashed. Still, I raise a plastic cup of wine to their memory. To Julie Gill and Deborah Roberts: may your lives have unfolded richly. Salute.

The outsider feeling was strong. They say you turn into a teenager as soon as you step into your parents’ house. Applies to high school too, it seems. I wandered outside. A man who was a smart-arse with a smear of bully walks up to me as I pollute the cool summer air with a roll-up cigarette.

What are you doing these days?

It’s more a challenge than an enquiry.

Now this is tricky. If I say “I’m a Psychologist, I work as a counsellor” people can get spooked. Some primitive fear of mind-reading or instant analysis, I guess. Sometimes I used to offer reassurance by observing I was currently off duty and anyway I charge quite a lot. This usually did not have any helpful impact. Often the reverse. Plonker.

Feeling disconnected does not support empathy.

I’m a psychologist, I say.

Still on the front foot, he smiles. Or sneers.

Huh. People become psychologists so they can work out their own shit.

Yes, I say. Good, isn’t it?

He wanders off.

And it is good.

I learn from my clients. Sharing others’ struggles has made me a better man (and incidentally but happily, a better therapist. Or so I delude myself). I’m regularly moved by the stories and inspired by human resilience. It is awesome (ie: evoking awe) to witness the pull towards healing that is often revealed in our most vulnerable moments.

Sometimes my own shit gets prodded, but I’ve learned to notice and put it aside. Later I’ll reflect and maybe find something to take to supervision or my own therapy. (Still bountifully flawed, you see). My task is not to have worked it all out but to be able to recognise when something pulls me away from the person I’m with. Increasingly, my goal is not to do anything but to be with someone; the other …thou. Irvin Yalom and a phalanx of therapists helped teach me that.

But sometimes a little bit of concrete action is helpful.

A chap I’ve been seeing for a while is struggling with seeing over the wall of negativity that has grown around him. Not surprisingly, the thick foundations were laid in childhood and time and setbacks have added stone.

This week I remembered an exercise I was commanded to undertake by a mentor way back at the beginning of my career when negative was the only terminal of the battery I knew.

You have to practice, she admonished my miserable self. Regularly. Get a notebook, write down three blessings every day.

Blessings?

Oh for goodness sake, she snapped, call them Appreciations. Call them Enjoyments, call them Noticings. Just do it.

And I did. Partially because I recognised a truth in her robust sermon, and partly because she was a little scary.

Did it work? Hard to say. All change is incremental, and we all have to fake it until we can make it. Still, I’ve not forgotten that task in thirty years, and it came to me as I sat with my client. So I proposed the exercise, gently, and volunteered to send him a text to prompt action. Nothing wrong with a nudge now and then.

I sent the message. It was a photo. I thought I could benefit from leading by example. After all, we teach best what we most need to learn. Perhaps he will get something from it too. I hope so.

So thanks, Tony, for helping me remember that, in a shitty world, it’s worth noticing gleams of light, no matter how ephemeral or transient.

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PS. The middle one is a cricket reference. Ashes cricket, no less.

Another PS.  I had to share the friend’s photo with Tony, and I feel the same compulsion here. (Venice Biennale)

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