The truth about family holidays

I’ve noticed  that two of my busiest periods for new clients contacting me – both individuals and couples –  is the end of the summer and the beginning of the year. Both of these are times when people have spent significant periods with their families and/or partners, without the usual distractions of work, school, etc.

In this post I’d like to focus on the family holiday and the ambivalent attitude many of us have towards it.

A bit like having a new child, having a holiday with our family or partner is something most of us look forward to and we project lots of positive expectations onto it. But, also like having a child, we can often fail to anticipate the downside – the stresses it can place on relationships.

We tell ourselves the holiday will be relaxing, it will give us a chance to bond with children or re-connect with partners, it will be a break from work and the humdrum. All this may actually be true but it is also the case that holidays can bring to the surface tensions within the couple or family relationship. And unlike most of the year, there is little escape from these stresses when you’re spending nearly all your time with these people.

Balancing needs

My own experience gives me an insight into why so many new clients seem to contact me at the end of the holiday season.  I nearly always look forward to a family holiday and it is usually a  genuine break from work and I return feeling refreshed. But at the same time I sometimes struggle with balancing my own needs and wants with those of other members of the family.

At home it is easier for achieve this balance because I have time away from my partner and children, I have other activities such as work or other social contacts. On holiday we are all thrown together for a week or two and that can be challenging.

I find it helpful looking at this through the perspective of the inner child. The inner child is a metaphor for the part of us that can sometimes feel vulnerable, afraid, angry and is very sensitive. It is also the part of us that can be playful and joyful. Being aware of, and acknowledging the needs and wants of this inner child is very important, but we must not let it rule our lives.

I have an internal ‘little boy’ who can sometimes feel overlooked or unwanted.

Neglecting our own needs and wants

On holiday much of the focus is on what my children need or want, or my partner, and the danger is that I neglect my own needs and wants. This leads to my inner child feeling neglected and I begin to feel irritable and run down. This is all made worse because we tell ourselves that on holiday we are “supposed” to be enjoying ourselves and so if we’re not we can feel we’ve failed in some way.

On the other side of all this, of course, is that family holidays do also help me feel more connected with my partner and children because I get to spend more time with them and can share that time without the usual distractions of work and routine.

I don’t believe the tensions or arguments that surface on holidays are necessarily a bad thing because I see them as inviting us to look at elements of our family or couple relationships that may need attention. In that sense, tensions on holiday can play a positive longer-term role in our relationships.

It can also be helpful to adjust our expectations of holidays and to begin them with our eyes wide open. If we remind ourselves that some tensions are likely and have an idea where these tensions may emerge, we can prepare ourselves for them.

Is it ‘selfish’ to have needs?

Clients will often seem puzzled when I ask them what their needs are in life. Some will even deny they have needs at all or regard it as somehow selfish to acknowledge them.

Those who find it difficult to recognise their needs are sometimes those who spend much of their lives focusing on others, on trying to keep everyone else happy.

But I would say that having difficulty in recognising our needs and getting them met in an appropriate way applies to many of us – not just people who have been brought up to deny their own needs.

This is an important issue because we all have legitimate needs and just because we ignore them they do not disappear. In fact, when we ignore them or are unaware of them these needs will still be directing our behaviour at an unconscious level.

Beyond the very basic needs of food, shelter, safety, warmth and so on, our needs include:

 

  • Physical touch and affection
  • Sex
  • Time for relaxation
  • Understanding
  • Respect
  • Belonging
  • Intellectual stimulation
  • Fun and play
  • A spiritual life/sense of meaning
  • Friendship/companionship
  • Love

I think the reason many of us find it hard to identify and express our needs is because this was dangerous for us as children. We may have got the message, implicitly or explicitly, that our needs and wants were a bother to our parents.

For women there is also society’s message that they should be giving to others and be putting others’ needs (children, family) before their own.

 What happens when we fail to recognise or communicate our needs?

As stated above, if we ignore our needs they do not just disappear but will come out in unforeseen and often unhealthy ways.

For example, the person who doesn’t feel they have the right to ask for some down time when they get home from work may end up snapping at his or her partner or children.

Psychologist Pia Mellody describes how a child whose needs were not met appropriately can grow up into a “too dependent’ adult or an “anti-dependent” adult.

The too-dependent adult expects other people to take care of their needs and wants and does not take responsibility themselves. The anti-dependent, however, is unconsciously afraid to ask others to help meet her needs because that would make her feel vulnerable. She thus finds it difficult to be in a truly intimate relationship.

In her book Facing Codependence, Mellody says: “Not tending to one’s needs and wants appropriately is often connected to a feeling of low self-esteem (shame).”

The solution to this is gradually becoming aware of one’s needs and wants and finding ways to communicate them to others. As part of this process the individual will need to tackle the toxic guilt or shame that may arise when he begins to value his needs.

 

 

What is sex addiction?

Sex addiction is a term that can invite scepticism – you may think of the movie star who cites it to explain his numerous infidelities. “It’s not my fault – it’s the addiction,” he protests.

While there may be some people who use the idea of sex addiction as a way of avoiding responsibility, there are many more who feel caught in a self-destructive but seemingly compulsive behaviour. It is a behaviour that can wreck relationships, drain bank accounts and even destroy careers.

For these individuals, more often men than women, an addiction to sexual acting out of some form is a sad reality. It can take the form of internet porn, the exchange of sexually explicit photos and messages on social media (sexting), paying sex workers, endless affairs or sex with strangers.

In this context “acting out” refers to sexual behaviour that has become a way of unconsciously avoiding painful feelings. In other words, the sexual behaviour has become a defence mechanism to deal with underlying pain, in the same way that an alcoholic uses alcohol or a gambling addict gambling.

What makes it sex addiction is the individual’s experience that, even though they recognise the behaviour is damaging their lives they feel unable to stop.

Sex addiction is a growing problem.

Never has it been easier to use sex to escape difficult problems or emotions. There is an almost infinite supply of free online porn of every kind, while the internet also makes it much easier to research and contact sex workers or find others to engage in sexually explicit chat or the exchange of images.

Psychosexual therapist Paula Hall, in Understanding and Treating Sex Addiction, identifies three kinds of sex addiction.

  • Trauma-induced – this includes sexual or other forms of abuse. It also includes major losses, such as the death of a close family member.
  • Attachment-induced – this happens when the child lacks a secure attachment to parents or caregivers. When attachment is problematic the child can grow up feeling insecure and find it difficult to soothe themselves when difficult feelings come up. There may be attachment problems if the parenting of the child is too harsh, too emotionally distant, abusive or neglectful. Or if the child is separated from parents for long periods.
  • Opportunity- induced – this refers to addiction that is not necessarily rooted in early trauma or attachment problems, but caused by easy access to internet porn, cyber sex, etc. The much greater accessibility of these, thanks to the internet, has led to an increase in this kind of sex addict, says Hall.

There may be an overlap between two or more of these categories.

The key issue in all this is that the individual realises that his or her use of sex is causing major problems in their life – and they can’t seem to stop. Frequently, the problems they bring to therapy may be about anxiety or depression or about how the use of sex has damaged closed relationships.

Although sex addiction has almost certainly been around for centuries it is only in recent years that it has become more recognised. “Advances in brain research and neuropsychology have helped us understand the nature of both chemical and behavioural addictions and appreciate the links with childhood experience and trauma,” says Hall.

 

 

The value of allowing conflict

Most of us are taught from an early age to avoid conflict. We are taught to be polite, to be sensitive to others, to hold back any “negative” feelings.

Of course, it is generally good to be polite and to think of others. But if this becomes a habitual way of avoiding any conflict or disagreement this way of living can drain us of passion and energy.

This is particularly true in close relationships, where a desire to not upset our partner or friend, can leave us sitting on uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. This can lead to an underlying resentment.

Danaan Parry, author of Warriors of the Heart, says that we have got the message as children that conflict is not okay, it is dangerous and should be avoided: “ Furthermore, we are taught that if you avoid it, if you pretend there is no conflict when there really is, then it will all ultimately, ‘go away’. “

The problem is that conflict, when ignored, does not just “go away” – it goes underground and festers.

I often see couples in which one or both partners is holding back difficult thoughts or feelings because they don’t want to “rock the boat”. But when certain feelings or thoughts become taboo it can affect the entire emotional quality of the relationship and passion can begin to slip away.

I often hear clients say they avoid conflict with their partner, or with others, because they are worried they won’t “win” the argument, that they are not articulate or clever enough to justify their feelings.

But part of learning to allow conflict is letting go of the need to be right. It is getting away from an “I’m right, you’re wrong” perspective and moving towards a more open, less judging stance in which we are both allowed to express strong feelings and feel heard by the other.

As Parry says, it is only when we let go of the need to be right at all costs, that we can genuinely listen to the other person. But it is very difficult to let go of this need to be right because in some sense we feel identified with our opinion or feeling and that we must defend it or else look stupid.

In allowing conflict in our relationships we also need to allow ourselves to be emotionally touched by the conflict.

That may mean acknowledging that we may be feeling some sadness, fear or vulnerability, as well as anger. It may mean acknowledging that we have a range of different, sometimes conflicting, feelings.

Trying to find a solution too quickly can detract from the value of simply allowing these different feelings to be present. When we can lean into this emotional uncertainty, instead of resisting it, something new can emerge.

John Welwood, author of Journey of the Heart, says that recognising these different parts of oneself can be difficult to do: “Yet if I can stay on this edge where I don’t know what to do, without falling back into some old pattern – such as blaming her, justifying myself, or denying my anger – then for a moment my awareness flirts with new possibilities.”

How we can unconsciously treat others the way we were treated

The biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs reveals him as an extremely talented but complicated individual. This was true as much in his personal life as his business career.

Jobs was adopted as a baby and knew very little about his birth parents. His birth father was 23 when Jobs was put up for adoption. Although Jobs did not know much about his birth father, when he himself was 23 he seems to have unconsciously repeated this emotional wounding, by fathering and abandoning a child of his own.

The story suggests that history can repeat itself, often without us realizing. One of the goals of psychotherapy is to help individuals stop repeating the same old patterns of behaviour – patterns that may have been absorbed in some way from childhood, or even from earlier generations.

In simple terms this means that we often treat others the way we were treated. If we were raised by parents, or caregivers, who did not show us real empathy and love it will be difficult for us to treat our own children – or ourselves – in an empathic and loving way. And that can have very serious knock-on effects when it comes to sustaining close relationships in adulthood.

At the extreme end, parents who are aggressive and hit their children often produce individuals, particularly young men, who are prone to using violence. In Why Love Matters, psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt points out: “The child comes to expect violence from others and doesn’t hesitate to use it himself. He attributes hostility to others even where there is none because he has become highly sensitised to expect violence.”

This theory extends to other forms of treatment. If we are criticised a lot as children we will often become critical of others (and ourselves) as adults. Similarly, if our vulnerable feelings are dismissed or devalued as children we can grow up suppressing these feelings in ourselves and criticizing others who show them.

Ultimately, the response to this predicament is not about blaming our parents, although we may need to give a place to legitimate anger and sadness over what we did not receive. It is more about taking responsibility for our own lives but in a compassionate and loving way rather than a “stop whingeing” stiff upper lip way.

In psychotherapy it is the relationship between therapist and client that can help in this process as it enables individuals to get in touch with, and accept, feelings that were dismissed or crticised when they were growing up. This supportive approach can help the individual understand that they are not fundamentally flawed and have the capacity to develop new ways of behaving and relating.

As Gerhardt points out, the therapeutic relationship can help the client rebuild neural pathways in the brain that affect emotional experience, although this process is a lot slower for and adult than it would be for an infant.

“It is not enough to organise new networks in the brain by offering new emotional experiences,” she says: “For these networks to become established, the new form of [emotional] regulation must happen over and over again until they are consolidated. But once they are….some degree of real healing can be achieved.”

 

 

 

 

 

Subpersonalities – who is driving our bus?

Many of us see ourselves as coherent, unified individuals making our way through life.

But, when we really think about it, we may recognise that actually we are made up of many different parts that come into play in particular situations and which sometimes seem to take over our normal personalities. We may sometimes wonder who is really in charge, or ‘driving our bus’.4055369011_500bb75fc1

These ‘subpersonalities’ can play a very important role in our lives without us realising. But the more aware we can become of them, the more fully we can live our lives and be present in relationships.

For example, we may have an inner exhibitionist who comes to life when we sing karaoke, an Incredible Hulk who suddenly erupts when we lose our temper over something trivial, an inner martyr, saboteur or perfectionist.

A common example is the man who is domineering at work but henpecked at home, or vice versa. Then there is the meek person who becomes extremely aggressive when behind the wheel of a car.

The idea of subpersonalities is similar to, but takes further, Freud’s idea of ego, superego and id (or Berne’s three ego states in Transactional Analysis).

Disowned or unconscious parts

Often subpersonalities represent disowned or unconscious parts of our personality. If we have been brought up to be well behaved and respectable we may try to avoid letting ourselves go, but then find we have an inner hedonist when in certain situations.

Subpersonalities can help us in areas of our lives where we are struggling.

I sometimes suggest to clients who find it hard to acknowledge their angry or assertive side that they imagine an animal to represent this. They come up with lions, tigers, panthers and so on, which can then be developed into subpersonalities and find a more conscious place in the individual’s life.

A client may then say, “When I was asking my boss for a rise and felt nervous, I imagined the panther we’d talked about in therapy and that gave me the courage.”

It can help to give names to our subpersonalities and to imagine them as particular characters. What do they look like? Sound like? A rather quiet and serious man I knew had a subpersonality called Paulo,  who was a South American womaniser and adventurer. Paulo would appear very occasionally in this man’s life and the man was rather afraid of this part of himself. Giving a name to it helped him to get more in touch with his disowned exuberance and spontaneity.

Accepting our subpersonalities

It is important that we learn to accept all our subpersonalities, even though we may feel more comfortable with some than others. There are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ subpersonalities as all are legitimate expressions of our being.

In fact, subpersonalities only become harmful when they control us and that is usually only the case when we are not aware of them.

As well as these subpersonalities there is the part of us that can observe, sometimes called the aware ego.

It can be helpful to work with subpersonalities in therapy. The therapist can facilitate the client to have a conversation with a subpersonality, perhaps using an empty chair to represent the subpersonality. Or different subpersonalities can even ‘talk’ to each other. This can be a great way of helping heal inner conflicts.

Further reading

Subpersonalities:the people inside –  John Rowan

Embracing our selves – Hal and Sidra Stone

Photo from Multicriativo at Creative Commons, Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/multicriativo/

Resisting the pressure to be ‘happy’

‘Tears are words that need to be written.’

– Paulo Coelho

We live in a culture where there is often an unspoken pressure to be happy, upbeat or positive.

Sometimes this message is explicit, as in ‘You just need to think positive!’ or ‘Don’t feel sorry for yourself, cheer up!’ We may even hear this kind of exhortation after the death of someone close, if we have not bounced back to normal after a couple of months – ‘You just need to let go and move on!.’

I think there is a danger that, in following this cultural norm we disconnect from legitimate feelings that do not fit in with this belief, such as sadness, grief, emptiness or melancholy.

Yes these ‘negative’ feelings are part of being human. The risk is that if we disconnect from these, uncomfortable, feelings we also feel less connected to all our feelings, including those of joy or excitement.

We are using record levels of anti-depressants, not to mention alcohol, food, TV and other substances/activities to distract ourselves from darker feelings.

In his book Against Happiness, Eric G. Wilson criticises the modern Western culture of striving for happiness. He points out that much of the world’s art and creativity has its origins in dark feelings.

“I am afraid that our…culture’s overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life.”

This is not to say that there are not times in life when it may be necessary or helpful to ‘think positive’ and Wilson stresses that he is not trying to romanticise clinical depression, which is a deeply distressing condition. Nor is he questioning the importance of joy, exuberance or satisfaction in one’s life, which often arises spontaneously.

His target, rather, is the superficial notion of happiness which seeks to exclude any troubling feelings and instead try and create a world where only ‘positive’ feelings are allowed.

My training is in transpersonal, or ‘soulful’ psychotherapy. This is a therapy that takes a holistic or spiritual perspective on a person’s experience and does not see pain as something to automatically try and eradicate.

James Hillman, an American psychologist and author who built on the ideas of Carl Jung, argued in favour of soul in his essay Peaks and Vales. According to Hillman it is our soul that connects us to the messy realities of life, including failures, defeats and difficult feelings. Soul also makes itself felt through our psychopathologies – our obsessions, addictions, depressions and other symptoms.

While we may want to get rid of these ‘problems’, if we can pay attention to them, look beneath them, we may discover that they are communicating something to our conscious selves about a part of us that needs to be honoured or acknowledged.

Similiarly, feelings like sadness, grief or emptiness can spur us to make a bigger place in our lives for nature, art or human connection. Or these feelings may simply need to be felt, with no obvious outcome sought.