Hitting a Moving Target, Blindfolded!

Normal, what on earth does that even mean? In so many contexts, it’s not only a flawed baseline, but clumsy and quite misleading.

This post could branch off in any direction, ‘normal’ behaviour, ‘normal’ levels of mood, ‘normal’ job and ‘normal family’. Normal and average are interchangeable and very beige. I am reigning this in to talk about ‘normal’ relationships, in terms of the work I do with families and individuals, but primarily couples and relationship challenges.

The ‘normal’ benchmark of relationships is so distorted within society that when reality kicks in we panic and react. The only normal in relationships is there isn’t any such thing, and the sooner we acknowledge the difference and celebrate what diversity brings to our relationships, the sooner we get to experience a deeper and more fulfilling relationship. Many academics and seasoned therapists past and present suggest 3 phases to a couple’s relationship. This contrasts a fair bit to the romantic notion of love and how that is what love looks like from the very start to our passing days.

relationships2The Romantic phase. You can’t help but love this phase. Colours are brighter, the bird song serenades your effortless skipping through each moment and day. Time apart is unimaginable, thanks to endorphins flying around your body. That feel good sensation is fuelled by the brains ‘high 5’ of approval through the release of dopamine and norepinephrine. An awesome duo of neurotransmitters that bathe the body in a sense of wellbeing. This is a period, both conscious and unconscious, where we put our best foot forward…we wear aftershave and everything! Now, this phase can last for seconds to a couple of years, and has to come to a transition point at some stage. It’s at this point we navigate towards the second phase, being the power struggle. This is usually around the time of a definite commitment, such as getting engaged or moving in with our partners. Now, this is like enjoying life as a fun runner, in dress up and face paint to leaping into an Olympic event. They certainly don’t hand out Speights (beer) and a sausage at the end of these big shows (I imagine this is something quite unique to Kiwi events).

Harville Hendrix, suggests ‘it’s like the wounded child takes over. I’ve been good long enough to ensure this person is going to stick around, now lets see the payoff’. The expectations of each partner well and truly step up a gear and the performance each is giving steps down. Being attractive, clever and fun-loving aren’t enough. Partners are now expected to satisfy unmet childhood needs, complement lost self parts, nurture and be forever available.

“Seldom or never does a marriage develop into an individual relationship smoothly without crisis. There is no birth of consciousness without pain” C G Jung. The power struggle sets the stage for growth and the third stage, conscious love. Here the how, why and when’s can’t be done justice within a few sentences, so if this flicks a switch for you check out one of the many texts by Harville Hendrix.  At this stage we-ideally- move from, ‘what can I get from this relationship?’ to ‘what does the relationship need from me?’ It’s a bitter pill to swallow, as holding on for dear life to the romantic phase of the relationship, sits far more comfortably in the sphere consumed by the me, myself and I. Rather than being a hindrance, it is only after you pass the romantic phase do you start to explore and nurture a deeper, longer lasting relationship and love. The key is to send the mantle of relationship expectations based on a perceived social norm on its sweet merry way. It is essential that we embrace, not fear difference and begin celebrating each others uniqueness. As it is this uniqueness that has been unconsciously hand picked to continue your personal growth and emotional maturity, through a relationship. Many folk search tirelessly for a mirror reflection of themselves. Time is better spent looking for someone that extends our strengths and reduces our weakness and vice versa. Much of which is informed by past scripts and our experiences of our own caregivers. Some refer to this as an Imago match. I learnt this lesson over a decade ago in my second year of counselling. Whilst at a colleagues retirement dinner I was genuinely fascinated when I found out he had been happily married for 42 years to his first love. Fresh to life as a married man myself I wanted to know the secret. Straight off the bat his response to my question was ‘we have similar interests but very different hobbies’. I’m sure he undersold the ingredients fully to his impressive marriage, but he didn’t harp on about how they finish each others sentences and have been tennis partners since school, as this was far from the case, it was they acknowledge and support each others differences but their values and beliefs bring them back to a central point of connection.

I scribbled this down recently when talking to folk about identifying potential relationship matches. The first image being what many of us think is a good match and the second is quite often the best match.

There is no secret as far as I know, some folk are making a pretty penny from what amounts to little more and a short lasting pep talk. However, what I would say is that it can offer a huge shift to simply acknowledge difference in your relationship and ignore any thoughts of pursuing ‘normal’. Celebrate the wonderful uniqueness each person brings to the party. Know that difference isn’t as alarming as it may feel or incompatibility, but in fact the foundations for growth, personal and relational. Unsettling at times, but you will do well to embrace it with open arms. I must add that, just in case it may not be obvious, i am in no way including abusive relationships, and I hope this is a context that will not be diffused or associated within this post.

I don’t see these three phases as lineal, but cyclical as we navigate through life and all the highs and crappy bits. There will be conflict, whether overt or covert, it’s making a conscious commitment to the relationship and developing communication that continues to strengthen relationships and enable growth.

Taking Your Meds: Mindful Movement

Coping through Grief: The beginning and the endish…

The most common reason for not hitting the trails is I’m too busy and haven’t got the time. In terms of our wellbeing, especially mine, I can’t afford not to, and when I’m tired and busy that’s exactly the right time to hit the trails and recharge.

Imagine a little white tablet (in fact dissolvable with a taste that adjusts to your own preference…I’m thinking Banoffee Pie), that has seemingly limitless evidence to support its ability to prevent and manage; heart disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, dementia, stress, depression and anxiety. This very same tablet boosts happiness, sleep, strength and flexibility, self-confidence, memory, energy levels, immunity, creativity and relaxation. Oh, you’ll also live longer and it’s free. Well, these are just some of the benefits that come with regular exercise.

I am not one for labels and it may or may not resonate with you when I say Trail Running is my medication. Not, running, the gym and certainly not cricket, but quite specifically trail running. For me the mix in my meds that ‘rocks my boat’, is a steady dose of about 12k, with a smidge of beach and a mass of bush trails and a healthy portion of hill.

Keeping it up, but knowing when to up the dose.

Three years ago, almost to the day my family suffered a big loss. The grief was to put it mildly, painful. The day after and in the midst of making arrangements, without much thought I put on my running gear and grabbed my cash card before I stepped out of the house and started to run. Not as a mad man, or one being chased by a rabid dog, just one foot in front of the other. My journey started from Whangaparaoa and finished in Mission Bay after a swim (more of a less dramatic wade) across Wade River and a quick ferry trip from Devonport.  Needless to say this was far from my usual route or distance. The physical pain was a welcome distraction, as was the opportunity to step out of my thoughts and feelings. I was not running away from my problems by any stretch, I was coping with it as best I could. I had taken my ‘meds’ and the best therapy I could have asked for right then and there.

The endish… well that came from an unexpected source and time! This breakthrough was on my now less than trusty mountain bike. A few weeks ago my seat snapped clean off the post whilst sitting back into an awesome descent. When the seat gave way my crotch embraced a fast moving and well treaded bike tyre. With no feeling of pain at all, I assumed I was in shock, that was the only explanation for the lack of pain that I would have expected from the equivalent of a belt sander on my crotch. Turns out it was more of a glancing blow and my imagination was being overly dramatic. The bike mechanic who only 2 weeks earlier who had repaired the seat was the sole target of my inner rage.

A couple of weeks ago I jumped on the bike for a quick training ride. A tad nervous after my recent experience I couldn’t help but question if it was possible to get impaled on my own seat post, if the seat was to make a break for it again. Then my imagination floated unhelpfully to how would someone treat such an injury.

Anyway, the first few pedals in the bike was making all sorts of weird and wonderful noises. I would love to say it was groaning under the strain of the immense power I was exerting on my humble stead. The bike wasn’t happy, kept jumping gears and making a damned annoying banging sound. For this I allocated blame firmly with another bike mechanic.

The final straw to my ride was when I was peddling up hill, sounding like a one man band, with all the banging and scraping noises. A gent who, in my minds eye, had no physical right to overtake me, was doing so, whilst checking his Strava and eating a muesli bar. The cheek of the man to then smile politely as he greeted me good morning. The blame for this rested firmly with my work, as it took my time and energy away from exercising, whilst also still holding an unhealthy anger directed toward the two bike mechanics.

Well, the seat post incident, I knew the seat angle was off when I picked it up. I also knew this put too much pressure on the pin and was a matter of time before it would snap. It would have taken less than 30 seconds to fix this problem. I didn’t, so mechanic number 1, I’m sorry, my fault.

The banging and scraping noise, I had been told by mechanic number two that the chain was slack and needed replacing. This can and did do all sorts of damage because I chose not to act and ‘it’ll be right’. Mechanic number two, apologies my fault.

As for the fella that overtook me, apologies, my bad again, less chocolate and more exercise, simple.

The relevance of this may or not be obvious, but it was like a sledge hammer at the end of the last ride. I had externalised my grief and therefore power rested outside of myself and I became a spectator in my own process. With all my knowledge, training and experience in the very field of trauma, grief and loss I couldn’t seem to apply it to my own experience. I was blaming anybody and everybody, whether it made sense or not. As soon as I took back control and responsibility for my own wellbeing it is a very empowering mindset indeed.

For many reading this you too will have your own highs and lows throughout your own lives. You too will also know what running or being active means and does for you. It feeds and nourishes us physically,  mentally and spiritually. Keep taking your meds, its way better than any pill, it can get you through and you will be okay.

The Silent Partners of Counselling (SPOC’s) and how SKOOPER can help

You won’t struggle to find advice, apps and bits in between to help those reaching out for support, such as counselling. But what about the family and friends outside of counselling, you won’t find much if anything at all.

As a counsellor I’ve seen thousands of individuals and families over the years. When they are sat in front of me they are the all and everything of that space. For most of the counselling conversations it will be a deep processing and the development or strengthening of ‘positive seeds’, ‘food for thought’ or ‘reflection’. Whatever you want to call it, a huge amount goes on outside of the counselling space in between sessions. What is it like for the family and friends who are seemingly along for the ride? Kind of like a silent partner in business land, they have a huge investment, commitment and role in the whole deal but may feel shut out from the whole thing.

Every relationship and individual is wonderfully unique, so what works for one may be useless for another. However, SKOOPER may offer guidance on how to manage time as a SPOC (Silent Partner of Counselling).

skooper-for-spocs-1

SAFETY of self and others is paramount. Know that if the counsellor has concerns over their safety this will be communicated to the right people after consultation with the client. If you have real concerns about the safety of your loved one then have a plan or at least a contact.  This would be knowing the contact number for the crisis teams specific to the age of the client, so in New Zealand it would be either the adult or adolescent team and the respective after hours process. Of course there is always 111 or the emergency service number of your country.

KNOW counselling and what it is and isn’t. Do your homework. I’m finding increasingly that this is becoming the case, and when folk first call me they have already checked my website out, read a few posts and really had a think about making sure they get the right fit for them or their loved one. This is just my point, being a part of such an important decision is incredibly powerful for all parties. The first session is reasonably stock standard in terms of contracting and getting a feel for the space and what counselling is and/or isn’t. This is usually a good conversation to have for those connecting with a counsellor for the first time, especially before moving on to the next point.

OPEN and honest conversations. Have a chat and agree what, when and how conversations will be approached post session or as it goes on. Do I ask questions and how do I approach them? That is best figured out between you, up front and honestly. People do all sorts and I’m fortunate in where my office is located, lots of café’s, restaurants and beaches. One example is a couple who meet up after one of our sessions (I will have seen one of them). The kids are with a child minder and they go for a meal. The first 10 mins is reconnect time, 20 mins is a bit of counselling reflection time and then they are pretty strict about the rest of the time being non-counselling related and them time. An example from a teenage client involved a toy. Children and teenagers are more than capable of expressing how they feel, if anything they can teach us a thing or too. What is sometimes a challenge is how to initiate it. Well, when they wanted to talk about something important the toy that was kept on a shelf would be turned around as a sign for their parent. Once spotted the parent would always say the same thing, “I spotted Bert, how about smoothie in 30”. The point is make a plan for what this period of time (whilst having counselling) may look and sound like for your family.

Be OKAY with the not knowing. If your partner will only give you ‘ít’s alright aye’ and then moves on with their day, then take a breath and respect their choice and let it go. One strong response could be ‘fair enough, know I ask because I care about you, but if and when you do want to talk about stuff, just let me know and we’ll do just that’. Trust the process and trust your partner or family member.

Remember it’s not PERSONAL. Counselling should never be gossiping and an opportunity to have a real moan about your partner, family member or boss, it simply doesn’t go like that. Counselling will largely centre around whoever is in the room itself, not talking about folk that aren’t.

Ease up on yourself. It can be a heck of a rollercoaster and pretty draining being immersed in your partners reflections and ongoing processing. So, look after yourself too. Keep connecting with those you want to spend time with and doing those things that you love to do. Protect times where the deep and meaningfuls are off-limits. Only last night I was walking with my family on the beach, when I started talking about some work I needed to do the following day. My wife calmly turned to me and just said, “Be present” with a smile. First time I have had one of my own blog posts used to bump me back on point. it’s okay, if not essential that you can just say ‘not now’.

Reflective Listening.  Post a session there is usually a fair bit of momentum still going on and words and language used may be a bit different from what you are used to hearing. Reflective listening does two things affirms your partner that they have been heard, but also invites them to expand further if they want and feel able. Using the same words simply reflect it back.  I intentionally left the question marks off the response, you simply reflect what they may have said and if they expand further, then great, if they don’t then that’s okay too. Phil Dunphy from the Modern Family gives it a go.

Lastly, say what you see and hear. If you notice positive changes, no matter how small, let them know. We all need to hear at times that we are on track, and it also just as good for you to catch the good stuff and how it makes you feel.

These are just a few points to think about, if you can think of any more then let me know, even if they won’t work in an acronym :-).

Hope its helpful and at the very least prompts thought and discussion.