Loving What Is

Loving What Is

People who come to psychotherapy largely fall into two groups. They are people in crisis who have finally decided that some outside help would not go amiss or they are people who are interested in growth and discovering more about themselves. People in crisis are, of course, much easier to help because things can only get better for them. This is where listening really is the most helpful thing to do. Just being there and giving permission whilst they let the confusion or the grief or the rage pour out seems to make a difference. Eventually we both come up for air and see what the world looks like now.

Sometimes, once people are over the worst they begin to get interested in the process itself, just like the second group. Then it all gets more complicated.  So often these are great people, fascinating people, intelligent and kind people and all they need to do is relax and enjoy being themselves and that is just what they are unable to do. The urge to improve oneself, to make the planet a better place tends to get in the way. What is more it can lead to all kinds of plans for improving others too. Often my work with them is all about killing the urge to improve. Lie down until it passes, is my advice.

When I first went into therapy myself I was diagnosed as a picture-straightener and that was pretty fair comment at the time. My eye goes straight to the place where a little tweak would make everything just that bit tidier and boy, is that an unrestful experience.  Today I have learned to relax a little and I have stumbled upon a simple truth. Our work here on earth is to love what is at a very deep level. Love is the medium of change and the more we can surround ourselves with it, the more a natural unfolding can happen. This is a million miles away from that mean little voice which criticises us and tells us we should be in the gym when we’re walking on the beach or on the beach when we’re in the gym. (Have you noticed it is literally never content with us?)

The Buddhists talk about ‘accepting what is’ and ‘gratitude’ is also a big seller but for me, even acceptance and gratitude come with a big, unattractive ‘should’ attached. Immediately I feel negative and ungrateful. Loving what is feels different and more possible. Let’s be clear, it doesn’t mean we have to like what is. Loving life is a very different ball-game from liking the details. When we think about eating more healthily or reading more or taking up swimming or volunteering with sick animals, we can do it from a place of love or we can do it from a place of ‘trying to be a better person’. I bring you a shocking thought which will change your life today. What if you don’t need to be a better person? What if you’re fine just as you are?

The sunshine breakfast in the picture is a shining example of how easy it is to love things. You can make a smiley face with yours. You can arrange your fruit on porridge or you can stew it and eat it with ice-cream and biscuits. IT’S ALL GOOD. You can do it your way and won’t that be great?

Who is the fairest of them all?

I said I would come back to the lot of stepmothers and during the hair-shirt month of January seems like a good time. It is a gift, being a stepmother. See if you have the courage to open this gift.

Some Unwelcome Facts

  1. The hardest part about being a stepmother is not your stepchildren.
  2. The hardest part is confronting all those undigested unpleasant feelings within. Loneliness. Hatred. Fear. Jealousy. Rage. Those old chestnuts.
  3. These feelings are not to do with your stepchildren and I bet yours are the worst stepchildren in the world, okay.

Step-children have a habit of bringing to the surface all the old jealousies and insecurities that we don’t like to be reminded of. They are hang-overs from our own childhood when it didn’t feel safe to express them. Here are three examples of how that happens.

  • A new baby arrives and everyone is telling us how lovely it is and how we’re going to be a wonderful big sister, it may not seem acceptable to say just how we feel. Lonely. Hateful. Rageful. Jealous.
  • A sibling or parent is seriously ill or handicapped and all the attention is taken away from us. There may be unbearable pressure on us to be ‘good’. How can we be jealous or angry when we are the ‘lucky one’?
  • Mummy or Daddy is gloriously happy with a new partner and all they want is to include us in their new family. We may smile instead of saying how lonely and hateful and full of rage and jealous we feel inside. 

    The behaviour of your stepchildren may be outrageous. You are not losing your mind. Your new husband may not be doing his bit to parent them because he feels so frightened they won’t love him any more.  These things may well be true. But that’s not where your vile feelings come from. Those feelings are all yours and you need to be very kind and delicate with them so that they can finally be digested and you can transform into an adult human being.

When you feel that outrage, that jealousy, that falling-apart feeling you are reliving some earlier traumatic event which may have been no more unusual than the birth of a sibling or your own parents’ divorce.

If that feeling is overwhelming it is time to offer yourself the space to express it wherever that may be done safely and privately.  Therapy, writing a letter (not to be posted) to the parent or sibling who caused so much grief, speaking or shouting out loud (in your empty house or stationary car or on a long walk) all your grievances, however infantile, can be very cathartic. (I do not advise driving while you do this because you will find the speedometer up in the hundreds very quickly.)

Frequently as children love was withheld until we stopped being angry or jealous but people who are angry and jealous need more love, not less. See if you can feel how much love and holding you need as you really allow yourself to experience these terrible feelings. You have my permission to offer yourself that holding and love even when you are full of rage and venom, especially when you are full of rage and venom. Just imagine being lovingly held until you relax.

This is not a one-off cure although once you start on this path it will have immediate relieving effects that you will notice. If you are able to relieve the rage within you will find it much easier to tolerate your stepchildren’s behaviour which is likely also driven by rage. Their rage has awoken your rage. Sometimes you may notice you feel no older than they are. Do not shame yourself for this. Take steps really to own your rage and express it well away from your family. You will be amazed how much less annoying you will find them and you may also note the first stirrings of compassion for them and for their father.

From this place you will find it easier to help everyone and you will be suffering a lot less inside.

Wicked Step-Mother

Splitting is a recipe for mental health that we learn before we can speak. It is a normal healthy strategy the human psyche employs before reason arrives. We imagine there’s a good mother that comes and feeds us and a bad mother who doesn’t come. We imagine there really are two separate people. The good mother is happy and smiling and loving. The bad mother is Mother on an off day, in a bad mood, grumpy, tired, fed up or maybe when she just needs five minutes to herself! It’s a convenient ‘pre-conscious’ behaviour which enables us to hold conflicting experiences in the same tiny heart and mind before we can ‘understand’ or rationalise what is happening. And before you tell me it wasn’t like this for you because your mother was always there, let me clarify. For an infant lying in its cot and feeling miserable, Mother feels hateful even though she’s just finished feeding you and fallen asleep next to your bed because she’s exhausted.

It is too confusing and produces bad feelings if we ‘think’ bad things about mother. (It is too difficult for many of my adult clients so no wonder the dependent infant has problems.) How will we love her again if we really feel these bad feelings about her? And how will we survive if we don’t love her? We need her.

Let me say this with flashing lights and siren accompaniment : this is about the normal infant with the more than adequate mother. All mothers fail their infants every day and they need to so in order that children can learn to handle anger, disappointment, fear without cracking up (or as we hygienically call it,trauma.)

By the age of about two we are ‘supposed’ to have developed what they call ‘object constancy’ which means you can just about tolerate knowing that wonderful Mother, whom you adore, has off days and is the self-same harridan that handles you roughly and burns the toast and yells or puts on her best dress and goes out for the evening leaving you with a babysitter. Trouble is most of us don’t seem to reach that integration by age two and some of us still don’t get it by age fifty-two. Some of us feel the only safe way forward is to hang on to that ideal mother in our heads and guess what happens to the horrible hateful feelings we’re not dealing with?

You’ve read the title to the post and you’re way ahead of me. Enter the wicked step-mother who is purpose built for all those negative feelings we can’t allow ourselves to feel about Mum. If you’ve ever read a fairytale you can’t help noticing that stepmothers get a bad press. They are murderous, greedy, manipulative and fatally attractive to innocent men. Snow White’s stepmother actually plots to have her killed, Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother sends them out to starve in the forest. These iconic monsters of children’s literature represent a safety valve for kids to hate their mothers in an entirely healthy unconscious way. But hey, if they’ve got a stepmother in their lives they can keep all their good cosy feelings for Mum and channel all those bad, ugly feelings towards That Horrible Lady Who Has Stolen Daddy. And Mum is superhuman if she doesn’t encourage this splitting. Who wants to be the villain? (As a mother and stepmother myself I have some experience of being the Good Cop and and the Bad Cop and I know which is nicer.)

But this naturally occurring splitting also points to an unhealthy split that many societies (yes, and religions) make between the good female (self-sacrificing, sex sanctified by reproduction or abstained from) and the bad female (autonomous, dangerous, sexual and unapologetic). Mixed feelings about sex lie right at the heart of this and the impossible question : how can my saintly, pure mother whom I love also be a powerful sex goddess? Many of us wall up the sex goddess in the garage the minute children arrive because we just don’t know how to combine those roles. The paradox of the Virgin Mother is one we are still wrestling with. Stepmothers embody all those unmotherly female attributes that the world finds just too powerful to feel comfortable with. The wicked stepmother is beautiful but not maidenly. She is sexual and autonomous. She is in touch with her own sexual desire but not as a means to procreation! She is in a mothering role without any of what we euphemistically call ‘mothering instincts’ (for which read ‘biological investment’). Wow! No wonder she’s hot stuff.

This is the first in a series of posts about parenting and step-parenting and in the next one I shall be addressing how as mothers and step-mothers we can cope with the horrible feelings coming up in ourselves and the horrible feelings coming towards us from our step-children. And don’t worry! We will be asking an all-too-unasked question, Where Does Dad Fit In With All This?

Happily this experience is not the same for everyone but I encounter many women for whom this is a really painful area and not much talked about with love. Look out for my next post but meanwhile there is support for stepmothers here and it looks really good.

Recipes are taking a back seat today but more soon.

 

Cooking the Fridge

One of the things I love about leaving England to drive back to Italy for a while is what I call Cooking the Fridge. Despite my careful planning, two days before leaving I find myself with a fridge full of things I don’t want to throw away. Follows an enforced cooking session as I empty the fridge and stash things in the freezer for when we return which leaves me feeling frugal and virtuous and stores up treats for later. Win, as they say, win.

This time my fridge yielded the stock from a beef casserole which happily went with a glut of carrots and onions (how many did I imagine I needed?) to make carrot and onion soup. The beef casserole was a proper daube with lardons flamed in Cognac before a long slow cook so the stock is pretty impressive. I’ve added water to make enough liquid for the soup but it still socks you in the mouth with its taste.

I’ve chopped the unending celery, onions and carrots  and all the herbs in the garden for a mirepoix ready for osso bucco or lentils in December. And the entire bag of shallots lurking in the salad drawer has made a single jar of caramelised onions for an onion and goats’ cheese tart in December. Just cook the slowly with a dribble of oil and a spoonful of dark brown sugar. Add a dash of salt at the end.

Then there’s some broccoli which has fallen through the net until today. I have whipped it into edibleness by roasting it with nuts and spices and covering in a rich cheese sauce. I find roasting it first really adds to the flavour.IMG_0817

 

Potatoes and eggs have succumbed to an ad hoc gratin with the remains of the cheese.

IMG_0815 Cooking apples have been stewed (in the microwave) against future porridge delights or Winter crumbles.

So why not look in your fridge now if you have a slow day and cook the lot. Let me know what unusual things you make!

Here is the happy outcome of the day.IMG_0818

The Mrs Tiggywinkle feel of putting things in jars is unbeatable. And that reminds me of the fermentation I promised a while ago. Sandor Katz is the god of fermentation and once I had heard him on the radio and seen him on youtube I just had to have a go. As you can see I have experimented with pickling French beans, tomatoes and cabbage and it had already begun to bubble before I left. I’m new to this so I don’t know what state they will be in in four weeks time but I shall report back.

If you would like to learn about fermentation you could do a lot worse than listen here and look here for instruction. Great news : fermented foods are now fashionable as health foods because they replenish the healthy bacteria in your gut, keeping your weight down and your digestion working well.

Feel the love

brownie

‘When we arrive in the world after a taxing journey into the unknown, the comfort of another human being awaits each one of us. Warmth, holding, safety, love if we’re lucky, are accompanied by and communicated through food. This is our first act on earth. ‘

This is how my post called ‘Comfort Eating’ began nearly a year ago and I want to revisit this intimate connection between food and how we feel inside because it lies at the heart of our obsession with food. It is implicated in the psychological knots we tie ourselves in about what we eat and what we should look like. If things go well in our earliest days, eating and love and the comfort of contact with another become inextricably bound together in our brains as they grow. This becomes part of what we call reality and however bad your childhood was, if you’re reading this you somehow got enough food to get by and you likely got enough love to get by as well … and maybe more. We are very good at feeling wistful for the love we yearned for and didn’t get. It is often difficult to feel the love we did get because we are angry and sad about what was missing.

Early on babies do not distinguish between love and food and what we learn about love and food we mostly learn unconsciously when we are newborn babies. Small wonder then that when we need love many of us look around for something to put in our mouths. There is no right or wrong here, just observation. This is how being human works. If we can stop punishing ourselves for eating the ‘wrong thing’ or ‘too much’ and just notice how much love we really need, that can help. If we can pledge to provide it for ourselves we take a big step towards forgiving the person who didn’t give us enough.

Promise yourself right now that whatever else you do you will not shame yourself around food and weight. That is a huge step towards bringing love and self-control into the same room. Refusing to shame yourself can liberate you from the tyranny of food : what should I eat, how much, have I ‘earned’ it? We don’t eat because we ‘deserve’ to. We eat because we need to. The more we listen to our bodies with an open mind the easier it is to find out what we need to eat and when.

We are not here on earth very long but long enough to find out how to feed ourselves with kindness. Does that sound like a good plan?

Ultimate Chocolate Brownies (adapted from Gary Rhodes’ recipe)

10 ozs caster sugar

4 eggs

8 ozs unsalted butter

3 ozs cocoa

3 ozs plain flour

8 ozs plain chocolate

4 ozs hazelnuts or pecans, chopped

4 ozs white chocolate in chunks

Whisk eggs and sugar. Melt the butter and add. Then add flour and cocoa. Melt the plain chocolate and add that. Then the nuts and the white chocolate.

Grease a shallow tin and bake at 180 degrees for 25 minutes. Cool before cutting into very small rich cubes. Eat with creme fraiche and raspberries adjusting the ratio of cake to fruit according to your situation.