Category Archives: self-esteem

Can therapy really help to change your life? For anyone out there who is suffering and feeling hopeless

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In my previous blog I spoke about our deep-seated fear of change. Change, in many ways, is akin to dying since it entails ‘dying’ to our old beliefs, our old ideas and ways of being. But change is also about rebirth. Just as in fairy-tales and myths, where frightening monsters are faced and conquered, the descent into our own underworld equips us with the special powers, skills and knowledge needed to make changes in our everyday life.

Most people who decide to try counselling and psychotherapy (or EFT and other forms of therapy) express their doubts as to whether this would work for them. These doubts and scepticism are very natural, normal and healthy. Indeed, how would you know if therapy can really help to change your life? If you have been struggling with depression, anxiety, lack of confidence and relationship issues for a long time it may be difficult to imagine (even if this is what you want) how they can metamorphose into joy, contentment and fulfilment.

Embarking on a therapy journey does require a leap of faith and commitment. It is similar to growing a flower: it takes time, nurturing care, and patience for the seeds that you’ve planted in the earth to bring forth their shoots and eventually blossom. This growing process is subtle and changes can be almost imperceptible until they become visible.

Therapy is not an exact science. Its effectiveness is evidence-based, and from there you can take your faith: if it worked for other people it may work for you. Below I share a ‘real-life’ story told by a client of mine, a young professional woman, with whom I have worked for over two years. It just shows how much things can change, how one’s life can heal and unfold in wonderful ways. I hope you find it as encouraging and inspirational as I do.

For anyone else out there who is suffering and feels hopeless…

My journey in self discovery and healing started almost four years ago when I felt I had reached rock bottom and had almost become unable to do the most simplest of tasks let alone run a business or deal with the family and relationship issues that I was faced with.

I had trapped myself in such negative situations, thought processes and beliefs after suffering great losses, hurt and betrayal, that it felt like I was in a prison I’d never be able to escape from. I was no longer able to trust in the world and people, and had lost considerable hope and belief in myself. I couldn’t see a solution, yet was continually trying so many things to ‘improve myself’. My physical and mental health had become so weak and fragile I felt it would be next to impossible to feel ‘normal’ again and have ‘normal’ friendships and be able to cope with the challenges of life and a demanding career.

This is where I turned to therapy as my last resort. After an incredibly challenging year of conventional counselling I sought out Ludmila because I have heard that EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) was very efficient in helping people recover from trauma.  I will admit it took a tremendous amount of effort, dedication and perseverance on both my and Ludmila’s part but, as with most things in life, the hard work eventually started to pay off and I slowly began to heal from my mental anguish, fear and trauma. And little by little, small, almost imperceptible changes have lead to several major breakthroughs in my life, which I can only fully appreciate now, looking back to where I started…

The biggest breakthrough but also challenge was accepting and forgiving my mother. It was very painful to acknowledge through therapy that my mother was actually a very damaged person. She loved her children very much but was, unfortunately, unable to give us nurturing care because of her own traumatic childhood experiences.

I was always so conflicted about my mother… On the one hand, I knew she loved me and my brother, and she tried her best encouraging our education and cultural development, acquainting us with film, art and performance, ensuring that we got to a good school and later supporting financially my university studies… After the divorce from my father she has been on her own and also juggling a full time job. I appreciate all that very much and I don’t want to wrong her and do her injustice by focusing on the negative things, and yet sometimes it was more than often unbearable growing up with her.

I was living in constant fear that she would blow any second at the smallest thing and scream and shout at me. I became an emotional punch-bag for her unresolved pain which had effectively formed into a severe mental illness. This manifested in constant criticism and resentment towards me, as well as extreme negativity and distrust of life and most of the people she knew or met. Constant mental instability, switching from a seemingly rational and wonderful person to a completely irrational, made her very frightening.

Growing up I was unable to fully understand this, I just tried to keep safe within the emotional war-zone my brother and I lived in by forming effective coping mechanisms. These coping mechanisms consisted of continually ensuring my mother’s needs were met, however irrational or unfair they were. I placed them before my own in order to keep the peace and try to manage her behaviour as much as possible. I effectively looked after her emotionally in exchange for a home, food and education.  I was unaware at the time that this was abnormal, that I was just surviving and not really coping at all…

It only started to become apparent for me years later when all the trauma of those years and subsequent experiences just became too much to bear. Those learnt coping mechanisms no longer protected me, instead they became undermining. I had been living a life driven by the need to please others and putting others’ needs before my own to severe detrimental effect. I didn’t know how to enforce healthy boundaries and was almost unaware of my own feelings and needs, allowing myself to be exploited and never feeling happy or fulfilled.

Acknowledging and confronting this was painful, but also empowering. It has been essential in re-establishing a new healthier relationship with my mother and other demanding characters in my life. Coming to terms with the fact that I am not the cause of their mental anguish, and that it is not something that I am able to resolve for them, was very healing.

I learned to assert my newly-found boundaries and realized that it could be done in a non-aggressive manner. The wonderful outcome has been that my mother and other similar characters in my life now treat me with more respect and no longer seem to unleash their demons on me as much. Or – more importantly – if they do, I no longer feel responsible for their irrational behaviour.

It was very difficult for my mum initially but over time she has adjusted and it has actually brought us closer together although, sadly, we will never be really close and I will always remain on guard in order to protect myself. Nonetheless are relationship is healthier than it has been since I was a teenager, which has benefited every aspect of my life.

I came to forgive my first love for his betrayal and abandonment. Hard as it was, I came to terms with the devastating illness of my father. I also succeeded in reconnecting and repairing my relationship with my partner and learned to stand up to bullies in my professional life.  Even though it seemed almost impossible to achieve, I managed to overcome my huge fears of exam failure, shame, ridicule, exposure and guilt in order to complete my education and become a fully qualified professional in my field.

But, most importantly, I came to forgive myself for all the criticism I constantly gave myself, for not being good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, successful enough, cool enough… the list goes on… I began to acknowledge that I am not a bad person but am worthy of love and goodness in my life.

Looking back at my life four years ago, I have come such a long way, and it’s sometimes incredible to believe the changes I have made in both my personal and professional life. I don’t believe I would have made it without Ludmila’s help, for which I am so grateful. Her strength, conviction and dedication, her compassion, encouragement and faith in me have been truly transformational.

I haven’t by any means come to the end of my journey, but I am now on the right path and feel able to trust in life again and feel secure acknowledging and accepting my hurt and emotions. For anyone else out there who is suffering and feels hopeless, as painful and difficult as it might be, try not to give up on therapy. It can sometimes feel impossible to ever recover from great trauma and despair, but I truly believe we are all capable of healing and great change with hope, dedication and perseverance – together with a therapist you trust.

Homelessness and homecoming

Have you ever felt homeless? I don’t mean trying to imagine yourself living on the street, without a roof over your head, but the inarticulate feeling inside you that would resonate with the word “homeless”?

For many years – night in and night out – this has been a recurrent motif of my dreams. However their main plot had varied, that motif remained constant: in every dream I wouldn’t have a home of my own. I would stay at an hotel, perch in a corner of somebody’s sitting room among their busy life, sleep in half-deserted dormitories… It was the resonance with this feeling that drew me to take part in Crisis at Christmas when a friend told me about this large-scale volunteering initiative in the UK.

Crisis at Christmas

During the Christmas week the organization called Crisis (www.crisis.org.uk) hires empty schools and colleges and turns them into the residential and day-centres for people who are homeless. Some of them sleep rough, others live at squats or manage by the so-called “sofa-surfing” at their friends’ or acquaintances. At Crisis’ centres the guests receive three home-cooked meals a day and have an access to a wide variety of free services: medical checks, dentist treatments, haircut, clothes alterations, legal advice, massage, reflexology, Reiki, meditation, arts and crafts, drama classes, creative writing – you name it. And just having a chat with some friendly people also means a lot! During last Christmas (2014) 10 centres in London welcomed over 3,600 guests. More than 10,000 volunteers took part in the event, and I had a privilege to be one of them. It was my second time at Crisis at Christmas and, as the year before, it was a very profound and intense experience, which shook me and stirred many feelings and thoughts. I’d like to try and share some of them here.

What is homelessness?

What does it mean to be homeless? Is it a social phenomenon, psychological conundrum or existential condition? Or perhaps – all of those. On my way back to Cambridge I had a chat over a cup of coffee with a friend who teaches philosophy. He evoked Heidegger, the German existential philosopher who spoke of our “thrownness”: we are being “thrown” into this world, without asking for it, without choosing the circumstances of our birth and upbringing, isolated in our uniqueness, struggling to make some sense of all this.

There are levels – and layers – of homelessness. Heidegger’s is the most basic – existential level – a human condition that we all share. Some of us may experience it sharper than others, but we all experience it at some point and have to come to terms with it. Interwoven with it and, partly, evolving from it is the next level: psychological homelessness. By this I mean our needs and feelings of belonging, of being appreciated and needed, of being accepted for who we are.

From the chats that I had with the guests at Crisis I formed an impression that it is when things go badly wrong at this level that leads to the actualized homelessness when a person has no safe place of their own, neither physical nor social. They are literally thrown out: of their homes and of other people’s lives. These are people whose families rejected them, who lost their jobs, their homes, their faith in themselves and in others – and found themselves in emotional and social isolation.

Where does it begin?

As I am writing this, letting my thoughts spin, I am beginning to see the basic experiences of family and social bonding as a buffer that stops the fathomless waters of existential thrownness from crushing through the walls of human psyche and swamping it. I spoke to a young man who grew up in an orphanage; a couple of years ago he managed to track down his mother. She was now living with a young daughter, married to a wealthy man and didn’t want to know of him… I encountered a man in his sixties, who attempted suicide twice, and he has grown up children who hold good jobs and earn decent money… I can’t stop wondering what will become of these people – will they make it through this winter? And the following one?..

My initiation into Crisis has endowed me with a “survivor’s guilt” that I have to learn to accept and embrace. Yet this guilt comes together with the gift. It is a gift of hope. The hope that healing is possible. Of course, it is my own healing too that I’ve been seeking when volunteering at Crisis at Christmas. And I believe I have found some answers – at least for myself…

Naked humanness

One of the most remarkable things about Crisis at Christmas is that it is a place where people (even volunteers between themselves) don’t ask each other about what they do in the “outer” life. The usual questions that dominate most social gatherings, implicitly or explicitly, are rendered irrelevant in this context. Suddenly it doesn’t matter what your job is, how much you earn, what car you drive, what are your degrees, position, status, and so on. People get to know you from an immediate experience of you – through what you give and how you give, through how you interact with others. They get to know you by your smile, by the tone of your voice, by how you listen and how you share. It is the essential qualities that matter and on this level one is able to experience the rare moments of true equality: because even the most deprived person, outside of the very margins of society, still carries the light of his or her personality within them.

We hold on so tightly to external attributes which we believe add to our value. When we lose these attributes (even just some of them) we suffer and feel worthless. But it is when we are stripped naked of all our decorations that our humanness comes forth, shining in its vulnerable beauty. I have already discovered this simple truth through my personal journey as well as my work as a therapist, but it was my experience at Crisis that really helped it sink in.

Giving and receiving

It is very important though that in such critical moments of your life someone will be with you who can appreciate this beauty and reflect it back to you, so you can begin to appreciate it for yourself. And here I come to another crucial notion: the openness of heart. Probably the worst thing that can happen to a person who had been deprived of love and caring is that they deem themselves beyond hope and turn away from help that is being offered. Kierkegaard (to mention yet another existential philosopher) called it “shutupness or “in-closure” (Indeslutte) and deemed it the worst kind of despair.

In order to heal one has to be able to receive. And in order to receive one has to have courage to give their trust to somebody who offers them compassion and a helping hand. So the giving and the receiving are really the one thing – like yin and yang – flowing one into the other and engendering one another. I have fully experienced it at Crisis.

This year as well as the last year I have being working alongside massage and yoga practitioners, giving Reiki. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, Reiki comes from an ancient tradition of healing by laying on hands. It is a very simple pure kind of touch (although some practitioners do it without physical contact) that promotes a deep sense of relaxation and helps rebalance emotions and restore physical health. It was truly amazing and infinitely moving to witness how people who sleep on the street could so totally entrust themselves to your hands, how they allowed themselves to be held and attended to. What beautiful, slightly shy smiles I’ve been greeted with when they opened their eyes re-emerging from a few moments of peace and calmness! The gift of warm-hearted child-like gratefulness generously offered. It was a healing gift for me too for at these moments I transcended my own existential homelessness and experienced a profound sense of connectedness – from heart to heart. I wasn’t alone any more, the world had meaning and my life had meaning.

Homecoming

After so many dark nights of the soul, after all my wanderings through the endless tunnels I feel that I came to be more rooted in my heart, feeling safe and comfortable there and happy to open it to others and to life. It is a wonderful and joyful experience of Homecoming.

And, in conclusion, I want to share with you a song performed by The Choir with No Name – a choir of homeless people. One of the guests at Crisis told me about them and said that singing at the choir is what kept him going. Please listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJjTe5DmGso

Self-love and selfishness

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When I speak of self-love many people say “But isn’t it selfish to love one’s self?”

When I first came across the concept of self-love my reaction was exactly the same.  It took me years to really grasp the difference between selfishness and loving one’s self. I believe the confusion stems from the complexity of the idea of love, in general, as well as from a common distortion in our upbringing.  We are taught to respect other people’s needs and feelings but are not taught to respect or even understand our own. This is because much of our upbringing aims at creating a person who would conveniently fit into society, rather than at helping one to become a fulfilled, self-sufficient, independent individual.

Thus, for instance, when a boy of four runs around in a supermarket the mother scolds him for disturbing other people. While it is true that the comfort of other shoppers ought to be respected, the disciplinary “lesson” often takes place without consideration of the physical and emotional needs of the four-year old. Perhaps it would be better not to take him shopping at all because at this age he is unable to stand still in a queue or walk quietly alongside his mother. In reality, however, this is not always possible. And thus the suppression of the natural needs of a child begins, and his subconscious begins to pick up a message that there is something wrong with him, and that the needs of others should be respected while his own natural needs do not deserve the same consideration. This message, reinforced many times in diverse situations, becomes ingrained in a child’s psyche. This child then grows into an adult who believes that his or her inner needs are of no importance, in comparison with the needs of other people.

This is just a small example, but it allows us to trace how imperceptibly, without any major trauma, our ability to recognize and respect our inner needs can be undermined. Sometimes this happens through the lack of differentiated psychological insight in parents. For instance, in my childhood I was repeatedly told by my father that I was selfish when I refused to share sweets with my little sister, a year and a half younger than me, or would not play with her instead of my friends. When as a young adult struggling with self-esteem I confronted my father about this, he replied: “Yes, I told you that because I did not want you to grow up selfish.” This was, apparently, his preventative care. And such well-meant measures may affect us for years to come.

So what is the difference between selfishness and self-love?

Through my many attempts at explanation, I have found it helpful to draw an analogy between caring for one’s self from the point of view of a child and caring for one’s self from the point of view of a loving and supportive parent. In the examples above I have highlighted some mistakes commonly made by parents. Presently, I would like you to think of an ideal parent model; of a parent who is a psychologically aware, mature and caring individual able to offer a child unconditional love combined with healthy boundaries.

Selfishness in this analogy is similar to a child’s idea of fulfilling his/her needs (for the sake of brevity I will continue to write using the masculine gender). As a child’s awareness of his needs, in a holistic and long-term context, is not sufficiently developed, he will frequently confuse gratification of his desire with what is good for him. For example, he may want to eat half a kilo of ice cream. That would be taking care of his craving, but not of the actual needs, of his health and wellbeing. Or imagine a child of five or six who takes a toy from a friend and does not want to give it back because he has taken a fancy to it. In the short term, this child may fulfill his desire, but in the long term – especially if he continues to behave in this way – he risks losing his friends.

I hope I am making my point clear. I am trying to say that being selfish, in my perception, amounts to the inclination to obtain immediate gratification of our desires, regardless of the long-term consequences for our emotional and physical wellbeing. And while striving for this gratification we can also hurt other people. While I don’t yet have children of my own I have been spending a fair amount of time with children of my friends.  This has given me plenty of chances to observe their thunderous struggles with their “I want it NOW!”

I often empathize with them as I recognize it within myself, even though at a different level. More often than I would like I recognize the little child within me who screams “I want it NOW!” And it takes the mature, parent-like part of myself to help that child realize what attitude or action would really be in her best interests.

Now, the caring parent who is aware of his/her child’s needs may sometimes say no to the child for the sake of the child’s health or emotional wellbeing. This restriction, however, would be based on the understanding of the child’s developmental needs, challenges and desires. It would also come with an expression of acknowledgment and an appropriate explanation in a form the child will understand. If such a parent has to reprimand the child for some misbehaviour, she/he would make it clear that it is the behaviour that is being “bad,” not the child himself. And, of course, discipline would be followed by forgiveness, so that the child would stay confident that his parent’s love is always there and that it is ok to make mistakes, because this is how we learn. And making mistakes does not make anyone a bad person; it only shows us the direction in which we need to develop.

When parents take care of their children in this way they validate the children’s feeling of self-worth and create a nurturing environment in which children are free to grow as persons, gradually developing the awareness of their own needs, of the needs of others, and how these two sets of needs interrelate.

Parenting our selves in such a way is what I would call self-love. This love is a form of caring that is based on the recognition of our value as a human being and as a person; it presupposes the acknowledgment of our needs, desires, wants, challenges and struggles; it knows how to forgive and how to encourage; it appreciates our individuality and tries to create conditions that would be best for our personal growth and wellbeing.

Love yourself… as your neighbour

As Christmas approaches and people are rushing around doing gifts shopping and arranging family meetings, I find myself reflecting more and more about one of the central themes to this holiday: love.

We all are longing for love. Aren’t we? And when I say this I don’t mean only romantic love, but love expressed and experienced in different forms: through human companionship, acceptance kindness. In my therapy work (as well as in “real life”) I constantly meet people who talk about how they suffer from isolation, from the lack of real connection and appreciation. They express the deep-felt desire to be listened to, cared for, acknowledged. Paradoxically, however, we often expect that all these things must come from the outside. That they should be expressed and given to us by other people. It is as if we had no right to give these very gifts to ourselves. As if there was some part within us that forbade us from accepting, acknowledging and nurturing our selves. Yet, this part appears to be always fighting another part, the innate part that tries to assert – sometimes in a whisper, sometimes in a stifled scream – its birthright for love.

For some people the conflict between these two parts is very bitter and poignant, so that at times they really feel torn apart. This is certainly how it used to be for me… But how does it come about?

The topic is very complex indeed. It can by no means be even partially covered in this short article, but nonetheless I would like to say a few words and thus to open the discussion. In a very simplified form, it appears to me to be a conflict between “nature” and “nurture.” It appears that the sense of self-value, the sense of our own uniqueness and our right to be happy is something inborn in us. Otherwise we wouldn’t have ever felt offended or wronged. These emotions can only arise if that inborn sense has been impinged on. Even small children would cry sometimes “This is not fair!” Even animals can feel it! And I believe that this perception of unfairness comes from the deep-rooted, almost instinctual sense of justice intrinsically connected with the feeling of self-worth.

However, much of our upbringing and education aimed to make us fit for living in a society works through suppressing, reframing and restraining our instinctual urges. And – to a certain extent – it is, of course, a necessary thing and something that makes us self-conscious humans. What happens though is that the “baby gets thrown out together with the water.” It is as if from the old biblical saying “love your neighbour as yourself,” the second half has been chucked away, so we are left just with “love your neighbour.”

As we are constantly admonished to be sensitive to other people, to be considerate and care for others’ needs, we often get little confirmation that our needs and feelings are equally important. That being in tune with our feelings and needs can actually also help us better care for others. Thus we end up growing with the underlying sense of guilt and self-denial; unable to distinguish between being “selfish” and being in tune with our needs.

These issues are intrinsically connected with self-esteem. The more we have been denied as children the proper care and nourishing love that validated our inborn sense of self-worth the lower will be our self-esteem as adults, and the more acute would be the conflict between the craving for love and a suspicion that we somehow do not deserve it. Because the craving is strong and cannot be easily overcome we may end up demanding love from others. But others can never give us what we do not want to give ourselves! By which I mean that even if somebody loves me very much, if my self-esteem is low, I will constantly doubt their love and demand further and further proofs that would somehow never be enough. At the end this makes us totally dependent on other people for validating our self-worth and often undermines the relationships.

People I work with in therapy often ask me: but how can I love myself? How can I give myself love?

These are the questions I have been asking myself too for a long time. Is it possible to feel love for yourself in the same way you experience it towards another person? Could it be possible that your heart would suddenly be washed all over with that sweeping warm wave of tenderness that at times engulfs it when you are looking at your child or at your beloved? I must admit that I have never experienced it quite as strongly. However, I had a definite experience of the change of my feelings towards myself as a child. In fact it has been a really dramatic change. From deepest self-loathing to very warm acceptance, compassion and, well, I may say – love. Therefore I know that it is possible. And I have witnessed similar transformation in people I had the privilege to work with.

In my future articles I will discuss in more detail some specific techniques and skills that may help you find, adopt and nurture the wounded – and yet utterly precious – child within you. Here I would just suggest something very simple. And this is taking your time – even if just five or ten minutes a day (or whenever you can) – to simply stay quietly with yourself. Noticing how your body feels; whether you experience tension or discomfort in any part of your body. Noticing your emotions. What are you feeling at the moment? Are you content? Are you sad or angry? Notice how you feel without judgment. It is almost like stepping away from yourself and offering yourself the attention and empathy that all human beings deserve. By doing that you will gradually begin being more attuned to yourself, more in touch with your intuition and creativity, more self-aware and also more able to create fulfilling relationships with others.

Ludmila Gin