25 March 2014

What is Beauty?

by Amanda Williamson

Well for starters, beauty isn't clean shaven armpits and Botox-frozen foreheads, not in my opinion. But you wouldn't think that was the case from all the crap we are bombarded with in magazines/on the internet/billboards.

I am supposed to be writing my accreditation essays this morning. Yesterday, when I was in full flow on the longest of the four pieces required, my butterfingers ended up flinging the last dregs of tea onto my keyboard. It broke. I couldn't fix it and am now behind where I wanted to be, essay-wise. So here I am with a new keyboard, with a free few hours, and ready to go. Except I need to get something off my chest, and it's been a long time coming.

Madonna's Armpit Selfie

The first contributing factor (besides growing up and spending years of being being faced with cultural expectations of "beauty") was Madonna's so-called Armpit Selfie that she shared on Instagram. I have only seen a fraction of the onslaught of comments and whilst I'm not surprised it has caused an outcry (I mean, what a slut, deliberately flaunting it) I continue to be disturbed by comments such as "It's as bad as not washing" to "I just vomited".

I also saw an article from The Independent tweeted which is in some respects very silly (Beyoncé really isn't that inspirational) but also makes some important points about natural hair.

My Armpit Selfie

In the heady days of MySpace being The Social Network to be using and cruising, I changed my profile picture to one of a woman's arm and torso, showing one hairy armpit. It wasn't mine, but wow did I get some vehement responses from a LOT of people. Some blokes I didn't even know telling me how disgusting I was. Wow.

What are we doing to our kids?

Having three children of late primary and high school age, the topic did come up fairly recently. I asked them what they thought about women having hairy legs or armpits. Two were ambivalent. One (male) said that it seemed stupid and pointless to remove it. I inwardly glowed. These are the kids that do not like clothes because they are fashionable, they like clothes in colours and fabrics that please their individual tastes. My daughter cannot understand the obsession with people trying to look younger - "What's wrong with looking your age? What's wrong with wrinkles?". Good questions. Which leads onto the next piece of crap I saw this morning, via the internet: "Celebrities who are Aging Horribly".

*sigh* I am actually getting really fed up of seeing actors Botoxed and Filled up to their eyeballs. Where are their natural expressions? It looks fake and weird and spooky to me. How is that beauty? I first noticed it in The Golden Compass where the then 39 years old Nicole Kidman's forehead was smoother than her 11yr old co-star Dakota Blue Richards (as well as totally frozen). Weird.

and also…"30 Fairly Shocking Pictures of Celebrities Without Make-up".

I suppose we did have the recent phenomenon of the no-make-up selfie where hundreds of thousands of women bravely dared to go bare-faced (a few of those with a hint of Instagram photo make-over).

I am disappointed in this aspect of society because I want people to love me and love my children and love the people I love, because of who they are. Because of their uniqueness and quirks and flaws. Is love insisting that your girlfriend shaves down below? I'm not blaming men here, we're all at it, we're all responsible for this, and things are getting worse for men too as more and more men seek cosmetic surgery.

Junk food for the Ego

Seeing evidence of celebs' cellulite and plastic surgery makes me feel fleetingly better about myself, but feeding the ego such a rubbish diet leaves a post-crap-consumption crash.

I gave up reading fashion magazines years ago. But now I have this garbage injected into my psyche by simply using Yahoo email and having a Facebook.

I saw this amazing slam poetry video a few years ago and it stays with me. The message haunts me, because she's right and she eloquently, and bluntly at times, highlights what is so wrong with our cultural ideals of beauty and why we are missing out on what's really important:

(if you can't see the video on your device click here:)

I was having a chat about related subject matter with a friend last night and I explained that I find beauty in what is inside people - in the way they talk, move, live, love and express vulnerability. Refusing to age seems to me like a pathetic attempt to put off the inevitable. Death. Why cling on to youthful looks so desperately? Leave youth to the young. We can grow old and maintain a youthful demeanour, a vigour for life and if our experience and wisdom is reflected in the way our eyes crinkle when we smile,  or our brow folds when we cry and if more of our hairs turn silver as we continue the privilege of living another year..well…what's so bad about that?

And finally, here's a picture of 2 actors that I thought about in relation to this. Not a shred of Botox in sight.

Amanda Williamson is a BACP Registered Counsellor working privately in central Exeter, UK

11 March 2014

Top 6 books for Personal Development

By Amanda Williamson

Here is a list of the books that influenced me, that helped me grow as a person, at various stages of my life, pre and post counsellor training.

I first came across this book in my mid 20's. I was staying at an uncle's house and working my way through his popular psychology books. The first one I read was Families and How To Survive Them by John Cleese and Robin Skynner, which was fascinating to me at the time, but I would not recommend it because some of the theories are very out of date, and I object to their theory of homosexuality (it's all to do with the parents' dysfunctions…apparently). I'm OK - You're OK is similarly very dated, first published in the States in 1967 but, I feel, more useful.

I'm OK - You're OK is a basic guide to the branch of integrative psychotherapy known as Transactional Analysis (TA). I have had a love-hate relationship with TA since first reading this book, going from thinking it's the best thing ever to help make sense of the subconscious games that people play, to then by my 30's and when training as a counsellor, really turning off TA because it seemed to try and put everybody and their interactions into neat boxes that don't always make sense. I do have an aversion to reductionist approaches. TA also seemed to attract a fairly zealous following and I also find that off-putting. I don't believe that any one person, philosophy or approach has all of the answers to the undeniably difficult task of being a human.

But, as I started practising as a counsellor, I found that there are basic elements of TA that help encapsulate the dynamics of dialogue so clearly that once shown the fundamentals, a client can start making shifts in their less functional relationships quickly, sometimes immediately.

The book describes the fundamentals of TA and the Parent-Adult-Child ego states, each of which is a potential source of dialogue with another or with ourselves. The more consistently functional of these being the Adult ego state (responding to the here and now), with the Parent and Child being our presenting past. This book is a great starting point for trying to understand unhealthy relationships.

Follow on read: Games People Play by Eric Berne - a useful (if somewhat dated) exploration of the series of transactions that constitute psychological, subconscious games.

This is a book I read when I had an early mid-life crisis in my early 30's. I had lost myself to being a parent of young children and life had been a blur of obligation and others' needs. The youngest had started playgroup and as well as squeezing in voluntary work at the local school and learning to drive, I started to explore philosophy. Had I been introduced to the concept as a youngster I have no doubt that I would have followed an academic path involving philosophy. I recall my internal dialogue as a pre-schooler, laying awake for hours at night, thinking about how to understand what other people feel like, and whether they see the colour blue in the same way as I. I just thought that I was a weirdo and I didn't believe that anybody understood my way of thinking.

This book is a great, practical introduction to how the concept of philosophy can make life better. It is divided into 6 areas of life's difficulties providing philosophical consolation for Unpopularity, Not Having Enough Money, Frustration, Inadequacy, A Broken Heart and Difficulties. 

I really value the way in which Alain de Botton writes. I had previously enjoyed his books The Art of Travel, Status Anxiety and Essays in Love, and his TV series The Perfect Home (based upon another of his excellent books - The Architecture of Happiness). His style is straightforward and there's a warmth as it would appear that Alain writes somewhat subjectively which I personally find much more valuable (and brave) than attempts at objective writing - always rather dull and clinical I find.

Follow on read: When Nietzsche Wept by Irvin Yalom - breathtaking, exquisite exploration of a fictional birth of psychotherapy that incorporates some existential philosophy. Also The Age of Reason by Jean-Paul Sartre - again, fictional but much easier to digest than the ideas presented in Sartre's non-fiction tome on existentialism "Being and Nothingness".

This book is flawed - I don't see eye-to-eye with everything Oliver James has to say in the field of psychology, but this was a very useful read to me which I read a few years prior to commencing my training. I suppose it is a sort of updated Families and How to Survive Them (without the cartoons and jokes) in that it looks at our development from birth and the influences, mainly parents and schooling, that can shape us. I found it quite a fascinating read and recommended it to many who also got real value from reading it. However, Oliver James does seem to be more from the "nurture over nature" school. Modern psychology seems to be swinging back to giving nature more credence than previously granted. That said, I found Oliver James more readable than current "nature over nurture" pusher Steven Pinker and am struggling to get through his rather dry The Blank Slate. This gets me wondering, how important is the personality behind the ideas…

I was given this book by a fellow student on my counselling diploma course who is now a very dear friend. He thought that I'd love it and he was right. I have always been interested in the scientific component of counselling and why it works. This book is one of three which inspired my first year presentation. We were to do a 20 minute talk on something related to counselling. Not one to restrict myself to a closed issue such as a certain approach or technique I decided to explore the very open-ended question of why change is hard. I did a handout to go with the talk which can be read here; Emotions and the Chemistry of Change.

I also mention Evolve Your Brain in this post I wrote about martial arts and psychotherapy. This book really did help me to understand why it is difficult to change certain behaviours as well as how to continue to develop ourselves and maximise our potential. As part of that presentation I compiled some clips from the movie What The Bleep Do We Know! into a short video, only two and a half minutes but  a very useful synopsis. Your browser may allow you to see the clip below but if not it can be accessed by this link.

The book also offers insight into how not to turn into your parents and to forge your own path beyond middle age. 

This book is also why I sometimes ask clients to try brushing their teeth with the opposite hand to usual…or to remember when they learned to drive and how clunky it felt. Change is hard but with rehearsal and commitment it can happen...

Follow up read: I am going to pre-recommend Joe Dispenza's next book, You Are The Placebo, in the hope that it is better than his last offering Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, which whilst decent enough, was quite repetitive and perhaps best read as a precursor to Evolve Your Brain. 

I also read this during my first year of training as a counsellor having found it in the bathroom of a fellow student. It is not so popular as Tolle's more famous The Power of Now, which attracts me to it all the more. If the Power of Now is about mindfulness, then A New Earth is more about understanding   our psychology with a language different to that of Transactional Analysis, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and other approaches to psychology but similar in that it provides a blueprint for understanding the fundamentals of our nature,  incorporating the presence of our emotional scars and how the ego is formed and kept alive.

It was a few years ago that I read it and I really must read it again. There aren't many self-help books that I can say that about.

I regard this book as helpful for people who are facing the last bastion of therapy - non-acceptance of self and I think of those cheesy chestnuts such as "love begins with oneself". We can gain a lot of insight and understanding about ourselves through therapy and/or self-help books but often, in my experience, many of us carry on clinging onto a concept of ourselves that gets in the way of self-actualisation. That concept includes facets of our self that we deny or are ashamed of. The Compassionate Mind explains how we are wired a certain way - to feel anger, shame and other "negative" emotions. Moreover, we have competing "systems" that make it difficult to us to act in the way we want to at all times. I review the book more extensively here

It's a hefty book but there are decent, scientific-ish explanations for our struggles and can help towards embracing ourselves in our entirety, warts and all. 

Follow on read: Falling Upward - A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr I'm only part way through this but enjoying it. It is written from very spiritual point of view but this does not jar with my personal approach to spirituality (pantheistic rather than monotheistic).

My hope is that someone, somewhere will feel inspired enough to give one or more of these books a go, and that reading it/them will have a positive, beneficial impact in the same way they have on me.

Amanda Williamson is a BACP Senior Accredited counsellor working in Exeter, Devon

3 March 2014

Is counselling necessary for trauma? - A pussycat analogy

By Amanda Williamson Reg MBACP (Snr Accred)

I have a very clear idea about what I believe are the answers to these important questions and I think that by sharing my thoughts you can get a little idea of the kind of counsellor I am and how I work.

Would everybody find some benefit in counselling?

No, I do not think so. The very idea of counselling is abhorrent to some so how would it possibly benefit them? I know counsellors, and people who have had counselling, who say that everyone should do it because it has been so helpful for them.  I get this, as having personal counselling was very effective and powerful for me, so much so that I decided to train in it. However, it is my belief that it is only helpful to those that believe that it might be helpful for them. It is certainly not for everybody. Some people really have no reward in talking to a stranger about their innermost thoughts and feelings. Some find it hugely helpful. There is no right or wrong here, just different ways of being in the world.

Do we have to talk about our traumas to be able to move on from them?

Hmmm. This is quite a contentious issue. Somebody might have an awareness of a traumatic incident such as abuse. Is it helpful for that person to go over it in therapy? Possibly... to a point. But it depends...

Looking at trauma work, and post-traumatic stress recovery, it is understood that talking about a traumatic incident and simultaneously expressing the associated emotions can help the brain relegate the event to the past. Until this stage, of the trauma being 'processed', the brain flags the incident as 'current threat' and the trauma can infiltrate the here and now through flashbacks and extreme anxiety (a great book for this topic is Babette Rothschild's The Body Remembers). So in these circumstances it may well indeed be in a client's best interest to explore the traumatic event within a therapeutic relationship to facilitate the processing, if there are signs that the trauma is affecting the here and now AND, and this is most important, the client believes that it might be helpful for them.

However, traumatic incidents do not always wreak havoc with people's lives. Is it always essential to poke around in the past and reopen old wounds?

I did have a therapist once try to dredge up some old alleged trauma that he believed I had encountered. This was highly annoying because the fact was, I had no recollection of said trauma, and in fact, was not exhibiting any symptoms of PTSD. What he might in fact have been doing is a very dodgy thing referred to in therapy as false memory syndrome. This is very dangerous territory and one of the reasons I believe that therapy should be regulated. Unfortunately there are some therapists out there that believe that they know better than their clients and highjack the therapeutic space with their own agendas. This I believe is akin to the gay-conversion therapy that has been in the press recently, and, quite rightly, is not tolerated by the vast majority of therapists.

So what about the pussycats?

Well, once I had two cats from the same litter, a boy and a girl. The male was robust and the female was the runt - slightly frail, undersized, poor sense of balance and prone to infection.

When the cats were approximately 8 years old, I noticed that Leo, the male, had some sort of injury, There was a wound on his back and he was clearly in pain. I took him to the vets and was told that it appeared he had been shot by an air-rifle in the back. The vet suspected that it was quite some time ago, and that the bullet was working it's way out. Later that night, I inspected his sister, Lili, and found that she had a lump in her back. I wasn't quite sure how I had not noticed it before, but it felt like an air-rifle pellet under her skin.

I took them both back to the vets. Leo was not responding to the antibiotics and the wound was getting worse. The vet said that the best thing would be for him to have it surgically removed. She inspected Lili and said that she was certain that it really was quite a long time ago that both of the cats had been shot. Lili's pellet was causing her no problems whatsoever, and the safest thing to do would be to leave it alone. Leo's body however, was struggling and causing a bit of a mess trying to purge itself of the pellet.

And so, it is my belief that some people suffer trauma with self-limiting effects, and others are affected more profoundly. It just depends. As it happens, with the pussycats, it was the robust one that suffered the most with this particular trauma. It just goes to show that you can't necessarily predict who will struggle more.

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