Category Archives: Uncategorized

Thinking Outside Gender Binary

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07kq5sv

This Radio 4 programme made me think about how very much we are still engaging from a binary perspective; that people are encouraged to decide either/or. In my experience as a psychotherapist, people tend to identify as male, female, both or neither; whilst this is oversimplifying that there are potentially as many genders as there are human beings.

From the moment a child is born they are presented to their parents as “it’s a boy/girl”. How can we know this until the child has told us how they feel about themselves? Babies are often put in gender binary clothing, given binary names, and expected to express the characteristics of their assigned gender. By the time they go to school they are conditioned as to what male and female roles ‘should’ look like. This is all based on what’s between their legs. No wonder there is so much confusion, fear, and shame.

Until we can simply allow children to express their gender identity as they are experiencing it, we are creating heartbreak. For an individual who identifies as trans, non-binary, gender fluid etc. it’s a very confusing world. For those that don’t identify in this way it can be equally confusing to relate to those that do. Couldn’t we help society as whole if we facilitated children just being that; to explore, to play, to express? This way each person could evolve naturally into who they are, male, female, both, neither and express themselves in a way that is natural for them. In the Radio 4 programme, one of the parents voiced that their child who was assigned female at birth had played with dolls, wore pink etc. so they had no idea that the child identified as a boy until a 12th birthday party ended in tears. 

We are not taught that boys and girls can wear whatever they like and be interested in whatever strikes a chord with them. Maybe parents who don’t see it are not looking for anything outside the small box that gets passed from one generation to the next? If we are told ‘this is a girl’ and have a fixed idea of what ‘girl’ means we project all this onto the child without asking them what their idea of being a girl might be. What feelings are evoked in us if we meet someone who identifies in a way that appears to challenge the male or female binary? Does this projection of gender binary expectation mean  some trans people think they need major surgery? Clearly, for many people, surgery is the only answer but I wonder if some feel they have to physically transition in order to be accepted, perhaps at the expense of being supported in discovery of their own unique gender identity. Maybe not all would need to if we embrace the idea of gender uniqueness.

Whilst sexuality is different to gender identity, there is a similarity here too with many lesbians being told they “don’t look gay” simply because they have long hair and are wearing a dress or no vest and tight trousers for gay men.

I wonder if the crux of this is fear. Historically, it was important to segregate men and women so they each knew who was the oppressed and who was the oppressor. This fear belongs to us all and it could help everyone if we could be brave and think it through in a safe, yet challenging, environment. 

In an educated world, I’d like to think that we could enable people to simply be people, wear whatever they feel comfortable wearing, using names and pronouns that they feel most comfortable with, doing jobs and hobbies that make them feel fulfilled, loving whoever they happen to love.

If you would like to explore your thoughts about gender identity in a safe environment please get in touch by whatever means is most comfortable for you. 

US Election 2016

As we woke up to the news that Donald Trump had become the next president of the United States of America, I thought about the impact on so many people across the world. For some, it will be a time for celebration. For others it will be a time of fear and despondency; not unlike post-Brexit here in the UK. One thing is certain for all of us; that we are living in a time of great uncertainty. America is a big place and has influence on the rest of the world.

Fear was already very present post-Brexit and now post-election. Both elections have been heavily influenced by fear of difference rather than consciously finding a path forward for everyone, irrespective of where they are born, what’s on their birth certificate and how much money they have.

Uncertainty brings with it anxiety and so I am mindful of the damage that can be caused when we act out that anxiety. We saw a rise in hate crime following the EU Referendum and much of this is about acting out those fears.

I wonder if we can all be more mindful of what we feel and why we feel it so that we can engage with people who hold different, sometimes opposing, views to ourselves. The more we can be aware of our place of privilege, the less hurt we cause to those oppressed by our privilege. For both the US Election and the EU Referendum, race has been at the heart of the results. The thing is that when we are in a place of privilege we are often not aware of it so it takes some honest thinking about. It takes putting ourselves in a vulnerable position.

So, following the US Election result, can we be more mindful of who will gain from the result and who will likely be negatively impacted? Can we find more compassion for those in need? Can we hold them in mind alongside thinking about our own needs? Can we make choices that enhance equality, inclusivity and diversity? Can we collectively focus on humanness rather than race, gender, sexuality, dis/ability, wealth?

If you have been affected by the election and would like someone to talk to, please do get in touch.

Manchester Terror Attacks

Many of my clients (none are identifiable here) have voiced, since the recent attacks in Manchester and London, their concerns about being in a world where they feel under threat from terrorists’ actions. 

As news regarding the attacks unfolds I am mindful of how potentially unhelpful the gratuitous, detailed and repetitive reporting can be. I wonder what we can each do that would have a more helpful impact both on those immediately affected, those around us and ourselves. 

There are also many attacks that go virtually unreported in other territories; are their lives less important because they are not British or American, ?

Some of my clients are not British nationals and fear, even more post-Brexit, that they are no longer welcome here. It’s incredibly frightening to no longer feel welcome in a place you have lived and worked for many years and to live with uncertainty about whether you will be asked to leave.

Some of my clients are Muslim; a number of whom are now extremely anxious of being under attack themselves even though they have no affinity with the attackers. There has been an increase in hate crime post-Manchester attack and this saddens me greatly. Here in Leicester there are reports of heightened racist and homophobic incidents. Humanity and integrity seems to be difficult to hang onto whilst retaliation is so much at the forefront of the mind. 

Many of the people I work with are very different to me. I may not share all or any of their beliefs but I only need to look into their eyes to see their pain. We connect on this most basic level even if our histories do not cross over in any other way.

I am mindful that in spite of intolerance and avoidance I stand firm in my belief that, as humans, we have far more in common with each other than we have differences. My belief, as a psychotherapist, is that talking about our experiences and our differences can give us much greater understanding both of ourselves and others, so that we can become more compassionate with those around us, whoever they are and whatever their beliefs. 

Tracey’s reflections on mindfulness

What is mindfulness?

The Oxford dictionary definition is:

“The quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.”

So why are Gwyneth Paltrow and Jonny Wilkinson interested in it?

There is a lot of evidence that mindfulness practice can

  • reduce pain;
  • improve sleep;
  • reduce the impact that stress has on the mind and body;
  • improve concentration; and
  • increase happiness.

So a lot of people are interested in at least one of those things for themselves.

How did you discover the practice of mindfulness?

I read a book to understand the science behind it and get familiar with the available evidence for its benefits (Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Piatkus 2013). I then went on an introductory course run by Shehzad Malik (mindful-monkey.com) and followed a six-week guided meditation programme of 45 mins per day, six days per week using Kabat-Zinn’s book and his Guided Mindfulness Meditation CD.

How difficult was it to begin with?

In some ways the guided meditation part was easy, all I had to do was sit with the CD and pay attention. In other ways it was tricky, my mind kept wandering off as human minds do. During one particular practice (the “body scan”) I would always fall asleep and I wondered whether I was getting any benefit from doing it. However, I found that this six week guided practice gave me a good grounding that allowed me to develop my mindfulness in everyday life.

What difference has it made for you?

The first thing I noticed was that my memory functioned more effectively. Instead of remembering that I “should have” brought something with me five minutes after leaving home, the item would pop into my mind in the moments before I left, so I had time to pick it up and bring it with me.

I no longer feel frustrated by short delays (in traffic, in a queue, waiting for someone) and I take the opportunity to use one of the practices that I have become familiar with.

I notice the difference most in conversations. I am better and more often able to take a “third position” where part of my brain can observe myself and others from outside myself and gain a different perspective than the one I have from inside me looking out.

A friend of mine believes that my reactions are quicker and I am better at catching things – but this hasn’t been scientifically proven!

And now?

I currently use guided meditation podcasts (such as marc.ucla.edu/meditation-at-the-hammer) which vary in length from 3 min to 30 min to fit in with the time I have available, such as while food is cooking or when I am a few minutes early for an appointment. I also practice while cleaning my teeth and washing up.

And what about the sleeping?

I have always slept well so mindfulness didn’t have any space to improve my sleep quality. However, the learning from falling asleep during every “body scan” has incentivised me to change my bedtime routine and I am now hardly ever tired.

Do you use mindfulness techniques within your work as a therapist?

The adoption of the “third position” fits well with my therapy training and supports my focus on the client within a therapy session. Part of the way I work is to try to help clients increase their awareness of their thoughts and feelings so this fits nicely too.

How do you see mindfulness benefiting clients, particularly those who experience anxiety and depression?

Some of my clients have discovered the benefits of mindfulness for themselves while others have tried it and it hasn’t made sense to them at the time. It can be helpful for people suffering from anxiety or depression as it can help them put their habitual thoughts into perspective. People suffering from panic attacks can find it particularly helpful in understanding their body sensations and giving them back a sense of control.

What do you feel are some of the contributory factors for needing mindfulness

Like drinking plenty of water, having sufficient sleep and taking regular exercise, I see mindfulness as helpful to everyone. It seems to be especially helpful to people who feel bombarded by the number of things coming at them in the modern world and who want to reduce the amount of stress that this induces in them.

How can I find out more?

Check out the NHS guide to mindfulness:https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mindfulness/

Resilience to engage in dialogue

In my work with the BACP Ethics team I wonder how many complaints or threat of complaints could be resolved by simply having open dialogue. In the hearing and telling of each perspective we get the opportunity for greater understanding of ourselves and others, though this does require a level of bravery for all involved. 

As therapists we need to have done enough work on our own emotional development so that we can truly tolerate hearing clients tell us that we have got something wrong. Reacting without retaliation, but with compassion and understanding is hopefully our goal. With an apology we can often bring in challenge where it’s needed so that we can help clients to see what part they may have played in the situation as well as check out our own responses.

Therapists often have a dual role (and it’s these dual roles so often at the heart of conflict) so it’s also really important to be able to voice our concerns, disappointment, frustration etc. with our therapist, supervisor or manager. Without that open dialogue, ruptures go unrepaired and the roots of the conflict (envy, anger, frustration, misunderstanding etc.) are left unchecked and can fester into something much bigger than was originally there. We understand that sometimes clients need to run away from dialogue to (un)consciously generate a repeat of previous unresolved conflict.

Our aim is hopefully one of providing the opportunity for a different sort of ending or response than has been experienced previously. We can only provide that space; the client then choses whether they can take the risk for a new experience. The same space is provided for supervisees and colleagues. In having more than one role we need to develop the resilience to engage in those difficult conversations. If we don’t have the resilience to engage in dialogue the relationship can break down and potentially result in unresolved conflict. 

In my own experience, across my roles of client, therapist, supervisor and manager, I have seen the benefits of open dialogue in bringing about change both for myself and others. 

Homophobic attacks must stop

Two dear friends of mine were on the receiving end of a homophobic verbal assault over the weekend as they walked arm-in-arm through their Leicestershire village. Two young men shouted at them from the safety of their car – a cowardly act. In these kinds of situations the young men feel entitled to use another person’s (assumed) sexuality for their entertainment, often with misogynistic overtones if not hatred.

First, I’m sad and concerned for my friends. People shouldn’t have to put up with this kind of behaviour from others. It has the potential to induce shame and make those on the receiving end shrink into silence and erasure – which is why I am speaking out on their behalf.

It also made me wonder about the state of mind of the two young men hurling the abuse. Similar thoughts crossed my mind regarding the two recent nationally reported cases of homophobic attacks on women. How in control, powerful and overpowering might they feel? Why the need to express their feelings in such an unfiltered way? Equally, how inept, insignificant and inadequate might these young men feel to carry out such a cowardly act? As a society, how can we protect the vulnerable, those who are oppressed or marginalised? How can we also help to educate those in the majority that they also harm themselves in the process of attacking those different to themselves?

As you can see, I have far more questions than answers. Some of my concern lies within the context of the current political landscape where tolerance and cohesion are seemingly being rejected in favour of power-play and one-upmanship. Since the EU Referendum there has been an increase in hate crime and sadly we are not seeing it decline any time soon. So I add my voice to those speaking out and declaring that it’s not OK to verbally, physically or mentally abuse another person simply because they are a bit different to you and you feel intimidated by this difference.

Death By Shame

In the aftermath of another celebrity suicide death I have been thinking about the consequences of internalised shame…

All too often the shame simply becomes too big to survive. There are so many situations where we can internalise shame…not feeling like we fit into a group such as not appearing British enough, woman enough, man enough, trans enough, white enough, black enough etc. We are given so many signals growing up and into adulthood as to what is socially un/acceptable and if we happen to fit the ‘wrong’ category the shame carried can be fatally toxic. Finances is often another big driver for suicide; the ultimate cost being the life of someone who feels shamed that they have failed their family. 

The internet is great for helping those in marginalised groups being able to find information, community and support. 41% of trans people will have at least one suicide attempt in their lifetime. I’m sure the sense of community provided online helps to keep the number from being higher than this. It’s too high though. Shockingly high. One of the contributory factors…social media. So the internet both helps and hinders. People so often find their voice of hatred whilst protected behind a technological screen…some have little thought for the consequences, others post in the full knowledge and hope of causing distress. What readily gets missed is that hatred is so often fuelled by fear, fear of difference, fear of change, fear of our assumptions being shown to be incorrect, fear that we will be shown to be lacking in some way. . 

The language we use around suicide also has an impact. The term ‘committed suicide’ is rather outdated now and harks back to an area where it was illegal to end one’s own life. More recent terminology such as ‘taken their own life’ or ‘death by suicide’ have a less stigmatising effect both for the individual and for those left in grief. 

And then, of course, there are those left behind. Suicide loss is a bereavement like no other. It’s incredibly difficult to process and integrate into life. There are so often more questions than there are answers; questions that inevitably can never be answered. It leaves a particular scar, often laced with shame and so the cycle potentially continues.

So, the next time you take to social media, take a deep breath and ask yourself what the impact of the post might be. It’s OK to challenge, to disagree but it’s so shaming and wounding to be targeted by hatred. We need to each own our fears about things we don’t agree with or don’t understand. The cumulative effect could be an end to a life. 

Boris Johnson and the burka

Boris Johnson’s recent comment about Muslim women wearing the nicab, hijab or burka, and his stance that an apology is not needed have got me thinking…I’m left with some deep concerns:

1. That as a person in a position of authority and in the public eye he hasn’t learned some skills that involve thinking before speaking. Freedom of speech has limitations depending on our role;

2. That his words show a troubling lack of awareness of how he might cause offence or even care that he might have caused offence;

3. That many people in positions of authority, particularly within politics lack understanding of their own place of privilege and therefore do not understand the place of oppression for others. Latest reports are concentrating on his remark being a “joke”. I doubt ‘skills’ as a comedian were on the job spec;

4. That many people in positions of authority, particularly within politics have come through boarding school education. Whilst they may have experienced superior education, the system of ‘privileged abandonment’ of boarding school often causes a shutting down of the child’s emotions which are rarely recovered without the aid of therapy. Subsequently, responding to others’ emotions also proves too difficult. What this generates within the political system, for example, is a severe lack of empathy both for self and others in less fortunate or different circumstances.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t speak out on a political issue; I’m ever mindful of my role as a psychotherapist and the boundaries that maintain safety for both those I work with and myself. This story has got me thinking though, when is enough enough? When do we learn to tolerate difference of race, faith, gender, sexuality, ability etc.? When do people in places of authority learn to respect others as fellow humans rather than to de-humanise? On the other side of the political fence, Jeremy Corbin refuses to accept a definition of anti-Semitism approved of largely by the very people who have felt the blows of injustice. Why not listen and learn instead of imposing from that place ‘authority’? We don’t all have to share the same views; surely there are ways in which we can communicate our differences of opinion without ridiculing each other or inciting hatred?

Given that tolerance, compassion, and compromise are not often filtering down through the political parties and beyond, I’m wondering what we can do in the therapeutic community to foster these characteristics in a way that impacts wider society so that freedom of speech can be honoured in a more humane way?

The more we can understand our own places of privilege and oppression, what this is rooted in and how this develops, the more we can educate ourselves to be open-minded, tolerant, and empathic to those who are different or hold different views to ourselves. In the end we are all people, we all hurt, we all cry, we all laugh. As a people we would work so much better united than constantly pointing out that some else does it differently to us and is therefore wrong.

Face coverings in the therapy room

At the beginning of lockdown I was adamant that face coverings within the therapeutic space would not be a good thing and that I’d rather not offer face-to-face sessions if we had to wear them. Five months on and I’m having to think again. Whilst many of the people I work with are content to remain on online or phone platforms, a few are keen to get back into the room to meet face-to-face. So I’m doing what we have to do when changes occur…adapting to the situation. Meeting face-to-face won’t be mandatory but it feels important to begin to offer this platform to those who would really benefit from it as long as we can do this in a safe (enough) way. I imagine a flexible attitude towards session platforms whilst maintaining the therapeutic frame in other aspects.

I’m sure many therapists have had conversations with their clients and supervisees about how different each platform might feel to each individual and I imagine having those same sorts of conversations in the coming weeks regarding the mandatory use of face coverings. Some won’t want to try it, some may try it and revert back to online work, others will simply be relieved to be back in 3D however that can happen. What feels key to me is that we honour diversity in all its forms. Whilst I can’t imagine being able to cope with wearing a face covering all day, particularly during the summer, I am prepared to try it and see what it feels like both for me and the other person in the room with me. I will be assessing how each client feels about it, but also how I experience it. Can I maintain my standards behind/looking at a face covering as this is not something I am used to? How will I know? 

A few days ago I ventured into the bank in town. It was one of my first trips out since lockdown began. It dawned on me, emotionally, wearing a face covering and sat opposite someone wearing a visor and gloves behind a screen that this is what the ‘new normal’ was going to look like and that I had to engage in a huge shift mentally if I was to adapt to the change in the sad reality we find ourselves in. 

So, here I am having discussions with people about whether they would prefer to stay online or try face-to-face sessions with face coverings. Of course, some people will be exempt so individual conversations will need to take place. This raises a question for me about exemption rules: I will not be asking for proof of exemption. I will explain the exemption rules and trust that the people I work with know themselves better than I do and don’t have to prove who they are. Many of the people I work with already have to prove they are using the correct toilet, that they are disabled enough, that they are trans enough, so I won’t be adding to the indignity of requesting proof of exemption.

In the safety of home it has been possible to pretend, albeit momentarily, that the pandemic was simply a nightmare and all will be well tomorrow. But here is the reality: COVID-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future and we need to find ways to continue with living and working rather than putting life on hold until it’s all over. 

Weathering The Storm

Will Davies 24 July 2020

Weathering the storm – 3 tips for not letting lockdown take you down

Change is an essential part of our lives, there’s just no getting away from it and as a counsellor, it’s a common thread that runs through my work. Often a client is seeking counselling to elicit change in themselves or their situation but what’s stopping them is their relationship with change, and it’s this that forms the basis of the work. So, after working as a counsellor for a number of years now, you think I’d be a dab hand at change myself, and being honest, I thought so too, but that was until the lockdown in Leicester got extended.

2 steps forward 1 step back

If you’re not aware, in late June, the government, having identified a surge in cases of Covid-19 in the east of the city, extended the lockdown in Leicester and a number of outlying areas. It happened quickly, announced Monday and implemented Tuesday, with the main message being stay in your home as much as you can. I think it’s fair to say that the fallout of this decision was felt by everyone in Leicester and the surrounding areas. In some cases, there was a feeling that we were being singled out and in others, a sense that the rest of the country saw us as pariahs. My own emotional response to the extension was an overwhelming sense of anger and frustration, specifically at having to take an enforced 1 step back after a very much needed 2 steps forward, (out of county trips were planned, my mother was due to visit that weekend). In addition, I also started to catastrophise that things might not improve and we might never get out of lockdown. Of course, I knew that these responses to the change weren’t ‘mature’ or ‘rational’, but they were real to me and so there was a need to address and try to overcome them.

Nearly a month later, I have found the following three ‘tips’ to be the most beneficial in coping with life in extended Leicester lockdown:

1. What can you change?

In terms of my anger, I identified what I could actually change about the situation myself. Alas, government decision making is out of my control, as is whether someone else chooses to break the lockdown and go on holiday, but what I can do is commit to reducing my negative feelings through regular exercise (yoga and walking) and regular instances of self-care (journaling and cooking comfort food). I also consciously decided to talk openly within my social circle about how I felt and admit that I was unhappy. The release of these thoughts and feelings was met with empathy and made the ‘load’ feel a lot lighter.

2. Dial it down

I made the decision to turn my back on the profusion of lockdown related news, updates and social media that had previously kept me up till the early hours. I’m not an expert on virus transmission, so why was I feeling the need to know everything? What purpose was it serving other than overloading me with unnecessary information? So I dialled it down, took a step away from the town square and instantly began to feel much better for it.

3. Take the smooth with the rough

Lastly, rather than dwell on what I thought I was missing out on due to the extension, I started to refocus on enjoying the benefits of lockdown again. The ‘threat’ of having to do a commute and return to an open plan office for one of my roles, was no longer there. The money I would usually be spending in bars, pubs and cafes is still in my bank account and so for the first time ever July and August are not coming in wildly overbudget. More lie-ins, more Netflix, hello Disney+, more times with the family and now that the school summer holidays have begun, no need to try and dredge up the memory of what a quadratic equation is. You might think I was naively looking on the bright side, but in making myself try and turn the lemon that is lockdown into lemonade, I feel able to keep going, keep working and carry on until the next announcement.

Be prepared

Everyone is different of course, so I realise that some of these tips might not work for you. However, I do think that starting to develop your own healthy coping strategies, for when more inevitable Covid-19 related changes happen, will be time well spent. That way, you won’t be caught on the hop like I was, without an umbrella.