All tagged Focusing

Courage Is ... Taking A Deep Breath To Take That First Step

I’m so grateful for one of my clients for this beautiful and moving definition.

When I asked him about what he meant by courage – he was talking about working up the courage to break up with someone – he went away thoughtful. When he came into the next session, I could tell he wanted badly to tell me something.

That was when he shared this definition.

I love it so much because it’s not just a definition. It’s also a meaningful description that conveys the depth of how he experiences courage within him.

It’s almost like he had to fill himself up with energy to take action. Or he had to take in a deep breath to exert himself, working up the force to complete a difficult action. Like doing that last leg-press.

He needed to gather all of himself, marshal all of his resources into that one point. So he could take that first step. From there, everything will gather momentum, fanning the flames of his courage to propel him further.

It got me thinking – for me, what is courage? Was it the same?

For me, it felt more like holding my breath, perhaps. Or like having to take a deep breath so I can release it and let go of or break through all that is holding me back. Pull all the stops.

Yes, as I’m writing this, it feels right in a physical way.

Also, I do know that my lack of courage, when it had failed – where I’d taken that breath but only held onto it without pulling the stops, had resulted in me living in a kind of unfulfilled, tentative existence.

Maybe that is why sometimes I have experiences where people don’t take me seriously. Because without that fully released courageous energy, I come across as unconvincing, hesitant, unsure of myself and even “weak”.

Killing Hope - One Way To Truly Let Go

“I’m I afraid we’ll have to kill it.”

He nodded, looking defeated. “I suppose….?” Then, with a resolute snap. “No, there’s no other way.”

I felt sad, resigned. The kind of feeling you get when all options narrow down to the one choice. The one we’ve both been secretly hoping not to have to take.

“So,” he rubbed his hands on his pants legs a bit restlessly, brisk with tension. “When do we kill my Hope?”

“Now.”

---
And we proceeded to look at the relationship that he had worked so hard to salvage. The ex-partner who had ultimately left him without any clear reasons why. The failed, one-sided attempts at reaching out to this partner, like throwing notes folded into paper airplanes into an empty void. There were no more answers….

The “Why?” drove him into my office, and we started many sessions trying to get to the bottom of the need to answer it.

It ultimately came down to Hope.

“If I knew the answer to ‘why’, then I would KNOW what I did wrong,” a pause. My eyebrow rose expectantly, a hook for more. A crack in his voice. “And then maybe we can get back together.”

The Danger Of Quick Fixes

I happen to be born in an era where the latter half of my life was marked by a tidal wave of dizzyingly fast technological changes happening worldwide. I felt that I was a lot less anxious growing up until my teens only to become progressively more flustered subsequently.

The anxiety was a dreaded sense of not doing quite enough and never quite getting there yet, wherever “there” might be (See my post on The Busy One Inside). There was always something to catch up with and if I stopped, I felt that I would slide back down the river of progression and never catch up again.

Part of these rapid anxiety-provoking developments means too that the whole attitude towards how we approach problems have changed. We come to expect collectively quick fixes and magical elixirs to our problems. The urge for quick fixes have also invaded the sphere of emotional health.

Some of these quick-hurried-miracle cures seem to work (for the moment) so we start to apply them to all our emotional struggles with great hope. The sad thing is that most often and ultimately do NOT work.

It’s like expecting a band-aid to be able to fix a broken leg.

Cooking Together: The Wonders of Being Affected By Another Person's Experiences

(GETTING AN EXPRESSION OF INTEREST)

The moment I closed the door, Lester’s (pseudonym) façade of nonchalance fell off his face, revealing a palpable fluster. He sat with an arm draped against the sofa while his other hand nervously scrolled his phone where he had a prepared list of topics that he wanted to talk to me about.

It felt like he was trying to set structure and contain his difficult experiences by putting them down as words, and then pinning them down with bullet points. Yet, there was a palpable sense of straining panic that came from behind the muted and measured tones of his voice. There was as I came to know, more than one layer to the façade that he had come to carry with him in his day-to-day life.

As he detailed what was on his mind, I began to struggle with making sense of what was going on for him. I also began to feel flustered and lost. I know that I am by nature (or nurture or both) an anxious person and now the undercurrents of emotions between us was sizzling and passing onto me. There was a strong urge within to contain the turbulence of feelings. A strong desire to interrupt his teeth-achingly measured narrative as he droned from his phone. An urge to ask him to slow down so that I could understand, or even just to keep up. I confess that I felt more and more disoriented and discomforted by his narrative.

Or perhaps it was not his narrative that mattered, it was something else that was came directly from what he was feeling at the moment, hitting me in my emotional core. Perhaps he was showing (not just telling) me what was happening for him RIGHT NOW. Strangely this realization and the wondering that came unbidden to my mind helped me to calm down significantly and quickly.

What, I wondered, happened if I were to listen deeply to MORE THAN what Lester was saying? What if I allowed myself to immerse in the emotions that came forth in our interaction together, instead of trying to contain (and inevitably foreclose and shut down) Lester’s emotions? What if I focused (or Focused) on JUST the emotions and not what he was saying?

Why Doesn't It Last? The Garden of Our Psyche

Often after a client and I have come a certain way into our psychotherapy or our joint Focusing sessions, the question would float up from them. There it hangs, shimmering and ephemeral, implied but clear as day.

“Why doesn’t it last?”

Why doesn’t the sense of relief, release, insight, progress and flow after a session of Focusing last? Why do I fall back into anxiety or depression or anger or self-loathing?

I’ve often asked myself this question in the past too, for I too spent years working on myself and some little time in my own psychotherapy.

Were we doomed forever to do a one step forward but two steps back dance? Was maintenance all we can hope for and in which case, we should just settle for changing our expectations about our self-growth?

I was worried because the implications can be so devastating. It would mean that growth, improvement, becoming better or stronger (or whatever words you want to use to capture the spirit of the meaning) is an illusion.

Stopping and Starting: A Reflection on Taking Feelings at Face Value and Big Picture Thinking

I've dabbled with Focusing since 2010 but have learnt it formally in 2014. Since then, I've tried as much as possible to incorporate it into my life and more importantly, my work.

And yet, there are times when the whole process can be frustrating. I'd be able to get a physical sense of a feeling, but it just stays...stopped. Nothing else comes from it. No stories, nor images.

And then there are days when it just seems to snap into place and the physical sense pulls with it so many stories and images, freely forming and flowing. Things started, and moved, and I felt better.

What, I wondered, was the difference between when things Stopped and when things Started?

I prodded at this idea for a long time, and then one day it hit me. Rather, 2 things hit me.

1. Focusing for some is a process of both Starting and Stopping. There will be stops in the process and there will be starts. When it is stopped, and if I try to force it to start, it gets stuck. Similarly, when it starts and I try to force it to stop (usually with pre-conceived ideas about why I was feeling a certain way), then it get stuck as well.

Rather, if I went back to the bare basic principles underpinning Focusing - taking every internal physical experience as it is, at face value, with no urge to change it; then I have a way forward.

How does this play out in practice?

The Busy One Inside

“How have you been?” my client asked me as I closed the door and took my seat, iPAD in hand. 

“I’m a little sick,” I replied and shrugged my shoulders, preparing to focus on my clients and their experiences.

“Sam,” he said, “you’re always sick when I see you and I have been seeing you for 2 years!”

“I know right!” I quipped.

I have been sick on and off – at least once a month for the past 2 years. And this has had me wondering what was going on? Was I ageing before my time? Was it stress?

“You’re working yourself to the bone,” another client said poignantly, echoing my parents. She was of course right. Astutely so. I have, in the last few years worked progressively harder, extending my hours, seeing more clients, pushing my limits and complaining all this time that “I’m exhausted!”

“Perhaps you should see less clients (not me though)?” suggested another client. “Then you will have more time to rest and relax and vege out!”

“I know!” I said, and started to fantasize about the weekends of waking up late and doing nothing much in particular. Perhaps I would roll around on the floor and stare at the ceiling! Yet, when weekend does swing around, I would often find it really quite difficult to sit still and vege out. My weekends are filled with (no prizes for guessing) more work activities or chores. 

A Guide To Surviving Life For The Chronically Stressed And Anxious

Recently I’ve been asked this question really frequently by various people.

“I’m always stressed out or anxious about various things that are happening in my life! How do I become less anxious?”

Often, what people really mean by this question is: “Is there a quick fix to get rid of stress and anxiety because I really, really hate it! Plus, I want to keep doing things the way I’ve been doing them, even though I know somewhere in the corner of my mind that it’s what’s slowly killing me.”

I’ve usually hmmm’d and haaaaah’d over these questions because the answer is not simple. In fact, the answer to these kinds of questions is…bulky.

So I got to thinking about how to explain the answer (and solution) to people. It starts with an explanation, so brace yourself.

Ahem.

One feature of anxiety is about trying to predict and control the unpredictable and uncontrollable – an endeavor set to fail. We end up in a pattern of predicting and planning that provokes more anxiety, which in turn drives us to plan and predict some more.

It becomes an Orob-Orus Worm forever biting its own tail.

Another way of looking at anxiety is that it’s a futile and excruciating way of trying to control the Whole of Life. No prices for guessing how that’ll turn out.

A (Maybe) Better Way
Instead of trying to control every aspect of life, let me offer another approach based on what I’ve learnt from my clients and on my own. I’ve searched for a way to put it together and something from my home island of Singapore seems to do nicely.

For those of us “privileged” to be drafted into the Singaporean military services, we would be extremely familiar with the acronym: F.B.O.

It’s an acronym for Full Battle Order (not read as “FOB” please!) and is the soldier’s best friend. What it is, is a basic and personalized pack of tools and resources we carry with us, enabling us to be agile, mobile and survive in really, really tough conditions.

The Change Triangle - A Useful Map To Deep Emotional Change

I recently gotten my hands on a wonderful book by Hilary Jacobs Hendel called:

It's Not Always Depression: Listen to the Body. Discover Core Emotions. Connect to Your Authentic Self.

Hilary is has had an interesting career - trained as a dentist, she re-trained to become a psychotherapist - simultaneously studying to be a classical psychoanalyst and an emotion-focused psychotherapist.

In this book, she presents the core of her method to help her patients truly change their stuck emotional patterns such as chronic depression, anxiety, anger and problems experiencing emotions (a.k.a. feeling nothing).

She calls it The Change Triangle. (Those in the know might know it by it's technical name: The Triangle Of Conflict). This is a useful map and tool distilling the insights from psychoanalysis, emotion theory and the clinical experience of many psychotherapists.

I've found it to be extremely powerful in helping some of my clients get to very deep levels of their emotions and to transform these emotions. As a result of this work (Hilary calls it Working the Triangle), some of my clients have (to my pleasant excitement), arrived at a deep clear state of calm, compassion, curiosity and clarity. To be honest, this is the deepest kind of effect my work has had on anyone.


On Being Space

I've recently had some thoughts, thanks to the very astute questions from my clients, about various things including:

1) How I think psychotherapy (or at least the form of it Sam and I practice) works,
2) How does Focusing (which is the heart and soul and center of our psychotherapy) works
3) Mindfulness 
4) Interpersonal relationships
5) How to live (or how I aspire to live)

And I thought to share it here. It was during a particularly engaged and deep interaction with one of my clients that the common or underlying theme tying these 5 areas together came to us. It lies in one word.

SPACE.

"Huh? What the hell do you mean, mate?" I hear you ask.

Let me explain.

On Losing A Sense Of Ourselves

More and more, I've come to realize that a lot of emotional problems (we can call them our hedgehogs) such as:

1) being easily stressed out, 
2) struggles with relating to people assertively and confidently, 
3) anger, 
4) and even some physical issues with no medical causes (such as IBS, sleep problems, fatigue, headaches, etc.);

have at their soft underbelly a quiet core of anxiety. This is not your dramatic panic attacks or even your conscious worrying.

Instead, this is really an overall sense of...unquiet.

It can feel like being restless, or always on edge, or having the engine always running, or even just a general discomfort in your own skin.

If we look even deeper into the core of this type of deep anxiety, we can often find another subtler sense. The best way I know how to describe it (thanks to one of my very creative clients), is to call it a "Loss of a sense of self" or "Losing Myself" for short.

I learnt something that was very interesting, but first a bit of background to set the stage. For the longest time, I've been subtly striving to fix any uncomfortable feelings I have. One of the most powerful ones is a deep undercurrent of desperate boredom. It always feels the same, a feeling of spaciousness, filled with absolutely nothing else. Like a cavernous empty room with no furniture, decorations, windows or doors.

Needless to say, I've attempted many times to do Focusing with it, and against the central Focusing attitude of NOT striving to change anything, subtly trying to force this feeling to shift.

I realised that despite all these years of Focusing practice and work, I still hold on to a part of me that wants to push away uncomfortable emotions. While I knew that striving to force change in a feeling is the very thing that stalls the Focusing process, I still couldn't help it. I also recognize that it might have something to do with a lack of trust in the Focusing process, of wanting to stay in control of it.

More on mindfulness and the true spirit of mindfulness:

"It may look like we are doing nothing when we sit....but actually we are exposing ourselves to ourselves." Brad Warner, (Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped In Chocolate)

A lot people believe, including those who offer the scientific/ program-based mindfulness training, that mindfulness involves being able to create space away from our thoughts, sensations and emotions while staying tuned to the present moment. And that's about it, end of story.

Focusing is about tuning into our inner sense of a life situation, in that space of awareness where we can experience our bodies concretely, to allow it to guide us to live that situation to the fullest.

Sometimes, a life situation happens closer to home - in our very own bodies. If we treat the state of our body at any one time like any other situation we encounter (say an interaction with someone, or a piece of writing you're struggling with, etc.) then it is not surprising to use it as an object of our Focusing.

What do we Focus on? We can Focus on anything within our bodies - pain, tension, a knot, a stuck gut, a certain posture and much more. We notice treat one of these like a Felt Sense, or as if it were a felt sense and explore it.

Our emotions can sometimes not make sense to us. Particularly when they are a confusing mix of complex feelings. This often prompts us to put our emotions into the "too hard to handle" basket and dismiss them, only to experience a lingering sense of dissatisfaction and for our need to know what is going on with ourselves to be unmet.

From a Focusing perspective, finding out the relevant life stories behind our emotions helps give meaning to them. They start to make sense and we realise why we feel the way we do. So how do we go about finding our emotional stories?