Body Wars

Sometimes when our bodies let us down, through illness or as a result of an accident, it can feel as if we are at war with ourselves. But are they really the enemies they seem to be?

Sometimes, we can see our bodies as separate from ourselves, as objects in which we travel around the world, much as we might see a car. So, when they aren’t working as well as they might, we feel as we would feel if our car were broken down, frustrated, disappointed and let down. Only more so…we can’t trade our bodies for a newer model.

And yet our bodies are so much more than a vehicle. Think of how many functions our bodies carry out without our conscious input. Often, we can take what our bodies do for granted.

There is a school of thought that physical pain and illness reflects some emotional disturbance within us, and is the body’s way of communicating that something is wrong. So next time you feel let down by your body, next time you experience pain or illness, or have an injury, ask yourself what your body is saying to you.

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Are you Good Enough?

In the film X Men First Class, a group of teenage mutants struggle with self acceptance. Raven, a blue skinned young woman with shocking red hair who can assume the form of anyone or anything, disguises her unusual form as a beautiful blond. Hank, a genius with hands instead of feet, works to produce a serum that will change his feet-hands into the more normal variety.

The fantasy is a metaphor for anyone who struggles to come to terms with their perception of themselves and the judgement of others, and tells the story of all of us. Each of us is a mutant in our own way. We are each one of a kind. We have all adapted to our surroundings, by developing some areas of ourselves at the cost of others. Each of us has areas of our personality or our bodies that we are less than happy about. Like Raven, we cover our true selves in something that we perceive will be more attractive to others. Like Hank, we hide the parts of us that are different, and pretend we’re the same, so as to fit in.

Whether it’s our physical shape (too fat, too thin, too tall, too small, the shape of our nose or hips, the way our hair curls etc), our personality (too accommodating, aggressive, demanding, needy), or perhaps achievements, we tell ourselves stories of why we’re not good enough just as we are.

Very few of us are without some level of artifice. Manners and social customs are taught from an early age, before we have time to question them. Those who are different are seen as threatening or in some way to be of curiosity value. As a society, we have love-hate relationship with those we perceive to be different. Often, we project onto others the fear and loathing we feel towards some aspect of ourselves.

In fantasy land, someone whose opinion is important to the heroine, makes some remark that changes their perspective completely. At the end of X Men, First Class, Raven, embracing her blueness, and echoing the words of her lover, says defiantly “Mutant and proud.” Sometimes it’s like that. Sometimes the right words spoken at the right time can indeed create a huge change in the way we see ourselves. However, it’s often not that straightforward.

Often, the experiences of our childhood have so ingrained the “not good enough” belief that it takes on the certainty of fact. We believe we are not good enough, and walk through life seeing events in that way. We interpret everything that happens to us through the lens of that belief.

The question arises, good enough for whom? If we allow others to be the guide as to what is and isn’t good enough then we are subject to their whims and fancies, to their moods and colours. And whose opinion do we listen to? For no matter how wise, how exalted, how powerful another person might be, their opinion is always going to be just that, their opinion. We may listen and learn from others, but we can also discard their view if it doesn’t fit for us. The “not good enough” belief has as it’s core assumption that our value or worth is what others agree it to be.

Their view is very important, you might say. Perhaps it is. Or perhaps not. Maybe they’re wrong, and maybe they’re right. It’s your life, you get to choose.

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Are you Waiting for Something or Someone?

There’s an old saying that “Everything comes to those who wait.”

Waiting can be hard work. Waiting for the right job to come along, a buyer for the house, the right relationship, an improvement in our health, exam results, even waiting for the bus, or to be served in a shop. It can be difficult to wait, and hard to know when to wait and when to move into action.

Does waiting have any purpose? It so often seems to be dead time, doesn’t it, providing us with nothing more than frustration and impatience? And yet, if we look at nature, time seems to play an important role in moving from one state to another. An acorn may take many years to grow into an oak tree. It may lie dormant under the soil of winter before pushing its new shoots above ground in spring. These changes are slow and often imperceptible, and yet change is occurring, even if we can’t see it.

Is anything required of us in that winter of waiting for what we want? Perhaps the delay is telling us that a change is needed in us too, before what we want can emerge.

In “Ask and It Is Given” by Esther and Jerry Hicks, it is proposed that all that stands between us and what we want in life is our resistance to allowing it to be. Whatever we want is out there, if only we are open to it. Anyone who has suffered ill health, or financial difficulties is likely to find this a difficult idea to take on. Why would anyone want to continue in ill health, or poverty, or indeed any other form of hardship? If it were as easy as allowing it, then surely we would all have all we want already. The Hicks agree, and are quick to point that out. Their view is that most of us are unaware of how much power we have to create our lives, and as a consequence remain stuck in a powerless victim place, believing that our lives are shaped by events and the actions of others that happen to us, and independent of us.

Our resistance to allowing what we most want in life can take different shapes. For some it may be a question of how we see reality. It may be a lack of focus on what we want, or to put it another way, a focus on what we don’t want. It may be a fear of what we might lose if we were to get our deepest desires.

For example, in these recessionary times, when many are experiencing financial stress, some may fear that being successful would set them apart from those they love, who may not be doing so well. This fear may be buried deep, but may influence our decisions in a subtle way so that the isolation of being different doesn‘t arise. Misery loves company so they say!

Another reason why we may unconsciously be resisting what we want, is that we make others responsible for our happiness and well being; “I’ll be happy when I’ve met the right person,” or “I’ll be happy when I have the right job,” or “If only my boss didn’t have it in for me.”

We can become so focused on what is wrong, that we are oblivious to what is going well and supporting us in our lives. If I have a pain in my elbow, I may be so conscious of it that I am unaware of how well the rest of my body feels, and how strong I am in other ways. The Hicks’ view is that in focussing so much on what we don’t want, we are blocking what we do want from coming to us.

Yet another aspect of this is not being clear about what it is that we DO want. Many people are surprisingly vague about their desires, even about small things. They may complain about what upsets or bothers them about their current situation, but have never actually given thought to what it is they would like instead. How will they recognise it when it is within their reach if they have no idea what they want?

Another form of resistance is to deny our own wants, or to hold negative beliefs. For example, we may secretly want to have that red sports car, but are afraid that we might be judged as materialistic or selfish, so we tell ourselves we don’t want it, and in time, we come to believe that. Or we mat believe that we don’t deserve to have an easy or comfortable life while others may have less than us. As the Hicks point out, we wouldn’t say its not fair that I’m well when others are sick, so I’ll just be sick for a while to give them a chance to be well.

If we believe that wealthy people are worldly and dishonest, we are unlikely to take action that might bring us nearer to prosperity, for fear we may turn out like them. If we have been told that it’s harder for a camel to get through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to get into heaven, we may resist any opportunities that might improve our financial situation, in case we mess up our chances in the next life. Even if we do not consciously believe these things, they may have been absorbed at a deeper level during our childhood.

In Esther and Jerry Hicks book, “Ask and it is Given,” they suggest 22 ways of bringing yourself closer to getting what you want in life. These include:

Appreciating what you like: noticing what’s good in your life and in your environment and taking time to appreciate its existence, and the impact it has on you. Sitting in traffic the other  day I noticed a pink helium balloon in the shape of the number five floating up into the blue sky. It was a magical sight. Look out for what pleases you, and what makes you smile. Collect pictures of what you do like, whether it is a thing, a situation or a feeling. When you see something you don’t like, turn it around, ask yourself how you’d like it to be, and focus on that instead. Over time, this will help you to clarify your desire.

Take the time to imagine how you would like things to be: Your unconscious mind can’t tell the difference between fact and imagination. If you can focus on how you would like things to turn out, how, for example, you’d like a work meeting or interview to go, how you’d like to feel in it. (I am feeling confident, competent, in harmony with my colleagues etc.) The energy you create in your imagination will flow with you into the situation and oil the wheels. Take the time to look at your relationships, your work, your home and your body, and ask yourself if you could have anything you wanted, what you would like to have. Be specific. I want to be a healthy weight. I want feel loved and valued.

Trust your feelings: They can tell you whether what is happening in your life is in alignment with what you really want. When you know what you don’t want, you can easily shift to what you DO want. Many of us were taught to deny or shame our feelings, particularly “negative” ones such as anger or rage or jealousy. Indeed many were taught that wanting or desiring things for ourselves was selfish. These feelings can be an invaluable guide to what we want, and where our lives don‘t measure up, but if we‘re covering up our deeper reactions with more socially acceptable ones, we may be losing touch with our real wishes and desires.

There are many fears about acknowledging our negative feelings (for example, our anger towards someone who has hurt us), that it will make us a bad person, or that we won’t be liked if we are selfish or feel jealousy. In my experience, the opposite is true. Feelings pass, and with their passing we are free to grow stronger and more authentically.

The 22 processes set out by the Hicks include ones that can be used in different situations according to how we are feeling. They are simple and straightforward, and there are lots of examples about how they can be used. Try them for yourself. See www.abraham-hicks.com.

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Ghosts of Relationships Past

There’s an ad on TV at the moment for a fabric freshener in which a garlic clove and a fish are hanging around the house and are eliminated with a spray of this wonder product. If only it were so easy to eliminate the odours of past relationships!

We are all the product of our experiences and the meanings we have made of them, and while we may not be aware of it, how we relate in the present has much to do with what has gone on in those previous relationships.

We absorb our values and beliefs at an unconscious level growing up. These include our beliefs about every aspect of life, about people, about money, about health, about expectations and more. These are often so ingrained that we are not aware that they are beliefs, but may consider them to be facts. Take health for example. Some years ago I worked with a man who had a family history of heart disease. He used to say that no male for several generations in his family had lived past the age of 60. He believed it to be a fact that he too would not live past sixty, and took little care of his health as a result, saying there was no point as he was going to die at an early age anyway. His belief took no account of changing life styles, or advances in medicine, or that he was different from others who had gone before him.

The way our families relate to each other as we grow up becomes our model for future relationships too. For example, if gender roles were very clearly divided in our family, we may come to our adult relationships with similar expectations. If we had a father who was hard working and provided well for the family, but expected his wife to do everything in the home and with the children, we may find ourselves attracted to similar or opposite traits in later life. If we grew up believing that because our mother was critical, that we weren’t good enough, we may find ourselves attracting criticism in the work place or from our spouse.

In my work, when I ask people to finish the sentence “Men are…” or “Women are…” it’s amazing what they say. They are often surprised with what comes to them, to realise that they believe, for example, that men can’t be trusted, are irresponsible, or can’t talk about their feelings, or that women are devious and manipulative, or can’t change a tyre or read a map. Undoubtedly some women and men do display these characteristics, but it is not a rule. Unconsciously, we may have absorbed beliefs that because this was what we experienced growing up, that all men, or all women are the same. And because that is what we expect to see, we may be blind to all the other men and women who aren’t like that.

Love relationships that haven’t worked out can often leave their scars in subtle ways. We may be cautious about committing ourselves again, sabotaging any potential chance of future happiness. We may tell ourselves stories about how we just can’t find the “right” person, or how “all the good ones are gone.” We may believe that we are unlovable because we are fat, thin, tall, short, ugly, pretty, scary, angry, boring and so on. We can find endless reasons why we might not be attractive to others. Rarely do we recognise that it is not that others see us that way that prevents us from finding a relationship that works, but that at some deep level we don’t want it to work (because of the fear that we may be hurt.) I should stress that much of this goes on beneath the surface.

How we perceived our parents relating with each other may also be a model for what we expect in life. If our parents were loving and caring towards each other, then that will give us a positive model for what we might expect. If on the other hand, they were cold, or angry, or dismissive with each other, or with us, or clearly stayed together out of obligation and duty, at a deep level we may fear making a commitment to any relationship, in case it repeats the pattern. We may consciously want to attract a relationship that will work for us, but our unconscious fear may lead us to sabotage any chance we might have.

In his book, Radical Forgiveness, Making Room for the Miracle, Colin Tipping provides a clear and straightforward explanation of how we take our unconscious fears about our own shortcomings and failings, and rather than seeing them in ourselves, project them onto those we come into contact with. Rather than blaming the other for their part, he says we have received a gift from those relationships we have most difficulty with. By highlighting where we may be acting out of past relationships, the most difficult situations give us an opportunity to identify, heal and transform our past hurts into a future of love and peace.

Colin has a series of processes for healing situations and relationships, with others or with ourselves. They are simple, practical and they work, whether you believe in them or not. None of them require you to condone or excuse the behaviour of others.

Each of the processes follows a similar pattern. The first steps are to tell the story, and to feel the feelings, and the hurt involved. Next the process looks at how our beliefs and judgements may be colouring how we are seeing the situation. (For example, if someone criticises something we have done, we may experience this as being rejected and interpret their comments as meaning that we are not good enough, rather than seeing their criticism as feedback that may help us improve.)

The next step is to reframe the story, by shifting our perception to the gift that may be in the situation (in the example above, the criticism may help us to heal an old wound of believing that we’re not good enough), or if we’re unable to see it, being willing to accept that the situation is for us, rather than against us. And finally, we integrate our new understanding into our body, usually through breathing or movement.

See his website www.radicalforgiveness.com for details, much of which is free of charge.

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Saying No!

Do you have a problem saying “no”?
When your boss asks you to work late, and you’d rather go home and watch TV with a glass of wine, do you say “yes” when you mean “no”?
Do you find it hard to directly refuse a request for help or for money from a family member, your mother or your children?
Do you feel the need to justify yourself if you want to refuse a request? Do you find yourself making excuses (or lying?) rather than giving a downright “no”?
If your partner wants sex and you don’t, do you go ahead anyway?

Many people find it hard to be direct in refusing a request. While everyone is different, some of the things people commonly say about saying “no” include:

  • If I turn this down, I mightn’t be offered another
  • I don’t want to doesn’t seem like a good enough excuse
  • I’ll offend them
  • It’s rude
  • I really should say “yes” because they are (fill in the blank…family, a child, old, sick, needy, the boss etc)
  • They won’t like me
  • If I say “no,” I won’t be able to ask them next time around
  • It seems petty, it’s such a small thing
  • I don’t want them to think I’m selfish, inflexible, uncaring or unhelpful
  • X thinks I should do it, so I can’t really say “no”

In her classic book about assertiveness, A Woman in Your Own Right, Anne Dickinson suggests the following steps to help you say “no” when you want to (they apply equally for men):

Listen to your gut feeling. Yes feels up-lifting and enthusiastic, no feels reluctant and draining of energy.
If in doubt, give yourself some time to decide. Tell them you’ll come back to them later, and sit with it for a while.
Ask for more information about what it entails. There may be advantages or disadvantages for you that might not be immediately apparent.
Practice saying “no” clearly and directly. Try it out with a friend. Consider using “no” as a complete sentence. Often the refusal can get lost, and come across as “yes.”
Take responsibility for saying “no”, rather than blaming someone else or making an excuse. This can be hard, but is more effective, and will garner more respect from others. Allow the other person the space to express their feelings. If you have been saying “yes” when you mean “no” for some time, the others in your life may take some time to get used to the refusal. It may help to start by talking to those who matter most to you about the changes you are making, so that when you do say “no” it doesn’t come as so much of a surprise to them.
Acknowledge your feelings. If it’s hard for you to refuse them, it may help you to say so. This helps you to keep your communication clear, and can help to reduce your anxiety in saying no.
Don’t hang around. If you have said “no” and heard what their response is, and it’s a little awkward, rather than trying to make it better (which you can’t), just leave them to deal with it themselves. Staying on gives the other an opportunity to get you to change your mind. You can always talk about it later, when the dust has settled.
You may wish to compromise.  But remember to listen to your gut.
Remember you are refusing the request, not rejecting the person.

When we say “yes” but we really mean “no,” the no can come out in other ways. We may feel resentful towards the other person, or not do what we were asked as well as we might have done if we were really committed. You may turn up late, or accidentally forget about the task. You may feel sick on the day (maybe your body saying no for you!) On the other hand, you know when someone is doing something but they don’t really want to, or when they cancel at the last minute with a lame excuse, and it doesn’t feel good.

Saying NO gets easier with practice, but you may have to live with the guilt for a while!

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Mr Strong to the Rescue

The teenager was almost past me when I read the caption on his tea shirt, “Mr Strong to the Rescue.” He was thin and of average height, hardly the stereotypical picture of strength.

What does Mr Strong look like to you? And what of his counterpart, Mr Weak? If someone can lift a car, does that make them strong? Am I weak because I can’t run for as long or as far as a marathon runner? If someone has been ill all their life, are they weak compared to someone who has never suffered a day’s illness? If one person can be wiped out by someone’s criticism, when it is met by laughter by someone else, does that make them weak? The thought of public speaking makes many people quake, does that make them weak when compared to someone for whom it’s a piece of cake?

For many of those I meet, and perhaps because of the work I do, strong seems to have a particular meaning that we should be able to meet any challenge that life sends us with no emotional pain at all. Men and women of all ages seem to have a belief that they should be able to meet anything that happens with total equanimity, whether it be illness, conflict, or even the death of a loved one. Culturally it seems, many of us have the expectation that nothing will touch us! It’s okay for others to need support and care, but we must be strong at all times.

The sub-text seems to be “I should be bigger than this!” Perhaps that’s true. However, I’ve never found it terribly helpful. If I’m feeling sad, then telling myself I shouldn’t feel like that doesn’t ease my sadness, it adds a sense of rejection, isolation and dismissal to an already painful situation.

Being strong seems to be a widely accepted ideal to be aimed for, but little guidance is available on how to achieve this nirvana. If we’re physically out of shape, we can train until our stamina and agility are improved. But how do we build emotional strength? The answer many people have to this question seems to be to put their feelings aside, and in time they’ll go away. Again, I’m not convinced. Ignoring emotional clutter is no more effective a strategy than ignoring any other type of clutter. It doesn’t go away on it’s own!

If I had a broken leg, I’d probably have to rest it for a while to let the healing occur. Yet many of us expect ourselves to recover from emotional wounding with no time for healing. For example, most employers give little, if any, time off to employees who have suffered the loss of a loved one. A couple of days, which in many cases is insufficient to cover funeral arrangements, is all that’s available. I’m not criticising employers here by the way, merely pointing out that as a society we are slow to recognise that emotional pain can be as devastating as physical pain. No one would say to someone with a broken leg, “Oh, get over it,” or, “Just suck it up,” and yet that’s what we often say to ourselves about grief, or anger, or a broken heart.

We all have our share of skills, we all have things we’re good at, and things we’re not so good at. Often though, when we measure ourselves, we put our worst against the best of others. We fail to take into account that we have developed different aspects. Few people excel at everything, and few have no strengths at all.

And there is no need for us to be strong at everything. One of the advantages of living in a community or society is that there is room for specialisation. We can choose what we want to learn and develop in ourselves, and concentrate on that, if not for our main occupation, then just for the joy of it.

We can forget that life is not so much a competition as a journey. All of us can learn from others who have perhaps faced the same problems we are facing now. (In education it’s a process known as proximate development. The teacher learns something then passes it to the student, who in turn becomes the teacher and passes it to someone else.) So it is with help and support. We are all both strong and weak. In areas that we are strong, in our skills, knowledge and ability, we have the capacity to pass it on to others. In areas where we are weak (or as I prefer to think of it, awaiting development) we can learn from others.

We can limit ourselves by labelling ourselves as “weak,” or we can get around it in another way, by learning from others, or by asking for help, or allowing others to support us. Labelling ourselves as weak keeps us in the victim, powerless place. Reframing it as “yet to be learned,” “yet to be developed,” “work in progress” or even “not on the agenda for now” allows space for something to change in the future.

In his best selling book, Think and Grow Rich, Napolean Hill describes his unfailing faith that a way would be found for his deaf son to hear. It took 20 years, but he did indeed find a way. Deafness from birth would be considered by many to be a weakness, but Hill refused to see it as such, preferring to hold the hope that things would change and they did. His son went on to use hid deafness as a platform for a successful career in a new form of artificial hearing devices.

And perhaps in the same way, what is often perceived to be weakness, feeling what we feel, expressing what we feel, is a strength in the making too.

It’s all about how you see it, isn’t it, Mr Strong? Or is your name Mr Weak?

Jude Fay is a psychotherapist at AnneLeigh Counselling and Psychotherapy, Naas and Celbridge

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Bullying

We hear a lot about bullying in schools, most recently in relation to Kate Middleton’s experiences as a young teenager. Many parents are aware of the possibility that their child may experience bullying, and schools are required to have procedures to deal with the problems that arise.

Bullying in the workplace is also well recognised, with many firms having documented policies and procedures to deal with it.

Such safeguards may help prevent bullying occurring by raising awareness, by reinforcing the message that it is not to be tolerated, and making clear that such behaviour will be treated with the seriousness that it deserves.

The impact of bullying on its victims can be severe, undermining their self confidence and self esteem, raising anxiety and giving rise to feelings of insecurity. It can often be dismissed by those who have never experienced it, and because bullying is often carried out in secret. Others who are not themselves bullies can align with the bully out of fear of receiving the same treatment as the victims, leaving those who are bullied isolated and without support. In extreme cases, bullying has been cited as a factor in some suicides.

While bullying in schools and workplaces has been well recognised, its less obvious counterpart is bullying that goes on in the community and in families. It can happen in sports and social settings, in committees, among so called friends. Spouses can bully spouses. Parents can bully children and children can bully their parents, and their siblings.

These forms of bullying are spoken of less often, but their effects are no less damaging for those on the receiving end. Their victims can be left baffled as to why they have been singled out, and if the bullying continues, they can come to believe that they deserve what is happening. The emotional scars from childhood bullying can still be making themselves felt in adulthood.

Bullying can start innocently enough, a joke, some friendly banter, a little light teasing. It can start with a comment about someone’s appearance, or some gossip about someone who might be seen as different. I’m not suggesting that all banter and teasing leads to bullying, of course not. However, in my experience those accused of bullying can often be shocked that their behaviour has been interpreted in this way. And we all have a responsibility here; to question our attitudes and beliefs, to question our own behaviours and desires, and to question the temptation to join the herd response.

Bullying can ruin lives. We all have a part in changing that.

If you have been affected by the content of this article, please talk to someone about it.

Jude Fay is a psychotherapist with AnneLeigh Counselling and Psychotherapy, Celbridge and Naas.

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Death and Disappointment

Disappointment – Who hasn’t experienced it? The job we wanted that went to someone else? The creative urge that faded before it reached it’s apex. The family member who lets us down. Life is full of disappointments, large and small; all preparing us for the big one – death.

Ageing moves us in gradually. First the outward signs, the sagging muscles, or broadening midriff, the wrinkles, the aches and pains. Retirement from work of whatever sort, children moving out, heralding the end of the intensity of that role of parent. The increasing number of medical conditions that need to be managed. The loss of friends or family or pets to death. And then we’re looking at it in the face – the possibility of our own demise.

Depressing or what?

With the possibility of so many disappointments staring us in the face, it would be easy not to bother at all. Why try, when it is so painful to fall on our faces. We could fail, so by not trying we avoid that possibility completely. We avoid making relationships, or trying new things. We avoid stepping outside our front doors for fear of what’s out there. Only to find, when the pearly gates are in sight, that in avoiding what might hurt us, we have also managed to avoid what might have helped us to grow and develop, or what might have nourished us, or what might have given us joy, or excited us.

Or we could say, yeah, some of this is going to go pear shaped. But the value in trying is not just about the end product, it’s not just about getting what we want, although that’s important. It’s also about what we learn on the way, and the experience of the journey itself. Going for a walk is not just about getting to our destination, it’s about the fresh air, the exercise, the sights and the smells, and who you meet on the way.

In relationships, losses, hurts and disappointments unacknowledged and unhealed can lead us to take protective action, often without our realising it. We can avoid situations where we might suffer another hurt or loss. We can avoid relationships all together, or we can hold back part of ourselves from the others in our lives, holding our wounds close, and building a protective shell where no one can hurt us again. And it makes sense in a way. If you’ve been burnt, it teaches you to keep your hand out of the fire.

However, our hurts can have as much to do with our past experiences, our perceptions and our expectations as they have to do with the facts of the current situation. If my trust has been damaged in the past, I may find it hard to trust in the present, and may for example interpret an innocent comment by a loved one as a threat. If I have lost a loved one in the past, I may pull away from the others in my life, fearing that I will lose them too.

While these solutions may be useful in the short term, to give us room to heal, in the long term they may be more harmful to us than our original wounding.

We can’t avoid hurt and disappointment, but we can avoid hurting ourselves further. Sometimes we need to take action to protect ourselves, but sometimes that protection may cause us more hurt than it prevents. Think about it.

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Differences in Relationships – How do You do Yours?

When you have a difference of opinion with someone in your life, how do you deal with it? Do you blame the other person for their narrow mindedness? Do you dismiss them as wrong? Do you tell yourself it’s not important, but build up resentment underneath?

At a recent seminar I attended on the subject of relationships, the tutor, Bob Resnick, a couples counsellor for 40 years, suggested that perhaps as few as 10% of couples are truly happy in their relationship. When you take out the number of divorces and separations, and the hoards who are living in silent misery, few relationships, he suggested, are truly satisfying for both parties.  He suggested that part of the reason we have so much trouble with relationship, is that we don’t know how to deal with our differences.

Much of the conflict in relationships comes from differences, in values, in beliefs, in expectations, and in communication styles. Our assumption is often that if others are different, they must be wrong. And believing the other is wrong can ultimately lead to the relationship ending. For example, we may have an expectation that of how our partner will behave, and that will probably be based on the picture we have in our heads, usually formed in our own families as children. We may expect our partner to stay in when we want to stay in, to come out when we want to party, to be understanding when we need solace, or when we want to watch the football. Funnily enough, the differences that seemed so appealing during early courtship can become those very points that become the death knell in later years.

Resnick proposes a model for relationship that allows for all the differences that may exist between a couple, a model that allows for the impact those differences have on the people involved, and brings a focus instead on acknowledging and respecting the other for who they truly are. Sounds simple doesn’t it, though perhaps not easy.

Many people avoid conflict in order to preserve the relationship and to keep the peace, and in so doing, sacrifice some of who they are. Much of society’s focus on manners and appropriate behaviour comes from a desire to minimise conflict and preserve harmony. There are many good reasons for this. As a society we are organised, and that organisation needs some co-operation. We depend on each other. A desire to fit in goes back to our primitive selves, when the tribe needed to stick together for survival. Not fitting in, or going against the community might have resulted in exclusion from the tribe, greater hardship, struggle and perhaps death. Of course, we are no longer so dependent on the tribe, if we fall out with our plumber, we can find another, but in our primitive, reptilian brain, which influences many of our deeper feelings and thoughts, those old habits live on.

Is it possible to be who we are, and for the relationship to survive? Is it possible for us to express who we are and be met by our significant other? The risks are evident. If one person has a strong value around how birthdays are celebrated, for example, and the other doesn’t, (a small example you might think, but one which is surprisingly common) can both values be respected? Or does one have to give way to the value of the other? Resnick’s view is that neither person need change who they are, that neither needs to compromise their position, but that through expressing how it impacts them, and where it lies between them, something new is created in the relationship. Seems a bit far fetched to say that something new can emerge from talking about birthdays? Well it can happen.

Two people I know had totally opposing views on birthdays, which each tried in vain for years to ram down the other’s throat. A funny thing happened when they talked about it. For her, birthdays were one of the few occasions in her life when she had experienced the sense of being loved and wanted. As one of a large family, her worries and problems were rarely the most important, and from an early age, everything she owned had to be shared with her siblings. But on her birthday, she was made to feel as if she were the most important person in the house, with cards, presents, and cake. For him, birthdays had never been a feature in his family life, there was never the money to spend on them, and for many of his birthdays, his father’s illness and subsequent death had overshadowed any pretence of celebration. When they heard the background to the other’s values, something changed. She still likes birthdays, and he still doesn’t, but there’s a softness in their difference now, an acknowledgement of the pain behind the positions, and that makes all the difference.

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Changing Plans

I think it was John Lennon who famously said that life is what happens when you’re busy making plans. Maybe he too was feeling the frustration that can arise when our world is turned upside down by the unexpected.

So many of life’s frustrations and disappointments come from our vision of how things should be, don’t they? And when they should be.

Planning is an essential tool. It helps us to create a picture of the future we would like, and to create that future by putting in place the steps that we will take to achieve it. It helps to transform a dream into a reality, breaking the vision into the practical tasks that move us forward. Without a plan, or a direction, we could move along aimlessly from day to day without purpose or priority.

And then life intervenes. Over the past few years, the voice of that intervention has been loud and harsh, reminding us that not only can we not foresee the future, but that the extent of our control over the world we live in is both frighteningly large and terrifyingly small. The illusion of the extent of our power has been well and truly shattered, while our ability to destroy the world we live in has been demonstrated beyond doubt.

We were so proud of our Celtic Tiger, that we had the secret to avoiding economic fluctuations, that our strategies and policies would keep us in an un-ending cycle of growth and prosperity. Until the butterfly (in the shape of an obscure bank in the US no one had ever heard of) flaps its wings and the world’s financial systems start to shake in the face of the storm.

When we think it can’t get any worse for our beleaguered little nation, the weather steps in, bringing the country to a standstill, reinforcing how vulnerable we are in physical terms. Further afield, the shocking events in Libya and Japan remind us that lives can be irrevocably shattered in an instant, and the picture we have in our minds of how we thought our futures would look can change very quickly.

We can make our plans, if we want, but life can disrupt them in the blink of an eye. Our world is showing us how little we know. As a race, humans have achieved extraordinary things. We can put men into space, we can perform miracles of medicine, we can communicate around the world in seconds, but we do not and cannot foresee all the consequences of our actions. And we do not control the actions and reactions of others. In Ireland, we believed that we had succeeded in economic terms where other countries had failed, and we were shown the folly of our assumptions.

We can plan, we can visualise, we can create. But until we learn that we are not in control life will continue to challenge our hubris. And perhaps the lesson for us in this, is not how to prevent it happening again, not perhaps to refine again our vision of how things should be, to put in place more controls, more rules for ourselves to control our environment, but is perhaps to look at our assumptions about ourselves and our lives, to look at our beliefs about ourselves and the limits of our abilities. And to ask ourselves what are we being shown in this?

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