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.

How to be a Dad when you only see your children at weekends.

And where is Dad in all this? I see a lot of step-family members in the work I do, sometimes as couples, sometimes as adult survivors, most often as stepmothers blaming themselves. So let’s take a common situation and just for today let’s concentrate on Dad. We’ll call him Geoff. Let’s say Geoff’s marriage to Lorna was rocky. Geoff meets Babs and falls in love. The rocky marriage becomes a shipwreck. Geoff leaves and lives with Babs. He has been honest. He pays proper maintenance. He has ceded the family home to Lorna and his children and now lives in reduced circumstances. Geoff should be able to look himself in the eye, shouldn’t he? So why isn’t everything okay at least for Geoff?

Geoff is not okay because he is trying to leap over the stage where he feels a lot of pain in response to the pain he has cause his children (and yes, even Lorna). He knows his children are hurting and angry with him. Why does he choose this moment of all moments to step down from doing some proper fathering just when his children need it more than ever? I’ll tell you.

Geoff is not doing much fathering because fathering includes being the bad guy and saying no and have you done your homework and you can’t speak to your teachers like that and I’m not buying new trainers today and of course you can’t smoke in the house and on and on and on telling them all the stuff they don’t want to hear. Parenting involves being super unpopular and Geoff can’t afford to make himself even more unpopular because he’s already the bad guy.

Geoff sees less of his children than he used to, less than he would like. The children do not like his new flat with no garden. They tell him so. Their weekends with him are boring and yet they have to be ‘special’ because their time together is limited. How can Geoff risk his children sulking during their one weekend a fortnight with him by denying them what they think they want? The last thing he wants is for them to go back to Lorna and say they don’t want to visit Dad again. So he capitulates and buys them stuff, takes them to MacDonald’s, let’s them stay up and watch unsuitable TV. In fact Geoff begins to behave like a mate and not a Dad. Lorna feels he tries to buy his children’s love and that she doesn’t have the funds to compete. In addition Lorna now feels like the only parent because Geoff is taking a break from parenting. A bad situation has become truly horrible. And children with a living breathing father are trying to parent themselves because their Geoff feels too bad to do it.

You see Geoff isn’t trying to make his kids feel better by indulging them. He is trying to make his own horrible feelings go away, the horrible feelings he has when he sees his children in pain. (The only person who can see this clearly is the luckless Babs and of reasons we will come to, she is not a good person to tell him.)

What does Geoff need to do? What can Geoff do? It’s really simple. No, not easy, but simple. Geoff needs to be honest. Starting with himself he has to admit that his new life and his new love are happening alongside the terrible pain he feels in seeing his children in pain.When Geoff sees his children showing him how hurt and angry they are – fighting, demanding stuff, treating him like dirt – he needs to remember that what they are telling him is how hurt and angry they are. He can safely ignore the content of the demands. Instead, Geoff can explain to them in simple words that he feels terrible that he has hurt them and he knows they feel terrible and he is sorry. He can normalise their anger and hurt. He can demonstrate that he accepts that this is how they feel. This means  that they can accept that this is how they feel. This acceptance is a process not an event. It may take 12 months. Geoff may encounter a lot more hurt and anger in the shape of bad behaviour before the children settle down again. Children recognise the truth immediately as we all do. Although they may be hurting and angry at least they are not utterly bewildered by their feelings. Dad has made sense of them and honoured their bad feelings. He hasn’t tried to lie to them and make the bad feelings go away.

They may kick off but they have’t lost their Dad. He is still recognisable as a father and for this they are relieved. If Lorna still has a charitable heart, she will also know that Geoff is doing his bit and not leaving her to be the only parent.

Next time I promise we will address the step-mother caught up in this maelstrom. What can the unfortunate Babs contribute to this situation and what is she going through?

 

 

 

The Search for Honey

This is another story that tells of turning away from our habitual defences and the courage of trying something new. See what happens when we tread a different path : this is really the whole of psychotherapy.

 

At last I can wait no longer and I put on layers of clothing and open the door. I have to take off my gloves again to force the door which sticks and I hurt my hand getting it open. The wind near tears the door off and outside the bleak landscape is uninviting. My mouth is full of yearning and cursing; the hunger is insatiable now. My house was built long ago with wood from the tree of wilfulness and I leave it as little as I can. The tree still grows outside my door. Its fruits are bitter but I use the wood for the fire. It makes a poor fire but the wood is plentiful.

I venture out onto the hard beauty of the tundra and after a wearisome walk of some hours, encumbered by the thick clothes woven from pride, I find a small parcel of honey in a ruined building. I hurry back to the safety of my mean home where I give the honey to the children of my need and take some myself. The sweetness of giving the little ones honey gives way, when they are asleep, to the relief of filling my own mouth with what is left. The small fire has gone out. I fall asleep in the cold, bundled in most of the clothes I own, with sugar on my lips.

But sooner or later pride and wilfulness are not enough to keep the need at bay and I must brave the journey once more. Each time I must go further. Each time there is the fear that all the honey is gone. Each time the children cry harder.

And then, after years of such journeys a different thing happens. One day the needing takes me further from home, further into the cold than I have ever been before. The fear is great. I may freeze before I get home again to the cold comfort of the drafty hut and the smokey fire. I worry even more about the children.

My steps are heavy in my old boots and I pass the many ruined buildings where I have found sweetness in the past. These ruins are my friends and lovers of old and I pass them quickly for they hold nothing for me now. Their sweetness is exhausted.

After miles of slowgoing I can see another barn or such like ahead. Out here I am so far from the settlement that it is unlikely already to have been raided and my spirits lift with unbearable hope. My breath is short and my steps quicken. I do not feel the cold; I can see already the smiles of my children as I hand them the honeycomb later tonight; I can feel the stickiness on my tongue, the fullness in my mouth, the brief orgasm as I swallow. Don’t think about that.

And I am in luck. In a forgotten corner of this hay-barn is a jar of the sweetness I so badly need, the sweetness I do not know how to make. There is a relaxation within as I know that the need will shortly be assuaged, that my mouth will be full. I secure the jar in my top coat, tighten my scarves around my face, put on my gloves and step outside once more.

This way lies home. But see, the other way, the snows of make-believe autonomy and wilfulness run out and the bare earth is showing. I have never seen the earth before lying naked and unprotected by the snow. Here it is not frozen to stone as it is where I struggle every year to plant the terrible vegetables we must live on. Here there is mud instead. I am fascinated and I walk a little further away from home to see what I can find.

But the mud turns to mire. A man-made hell of unwanted rubble and shit emerges. Junk lies in dark oily puddles and there is scarcely anywhere to put one foot after another. I will never get my boots clean again. This is where I keep my blackest thoughts, thoughts of shame and murder and revenge and hope and self-harm. It is ugly here beyond imagination. This is why I live in the pristine snow where the suffering is less. 

I am pondering this long-forgotten decision when, beyond the mud, I see a fence. It has no doors or gates in it but it is a temporary fence such as builders erect around their work to keep out trespassers. The panels of the fence are not solid, nor are they heavy but every metre or so they are held in place by metal blocks of unimaginable weight. Each panel bears a picture of me and in every weight I see a refusal to forgive. I stand in the black mud and worse and contemplate the fence. Each weight had to be forged from the metal of unforgiveness and dragged into position. I remember each instance with an effort, each instance where I closed my heart with deliberation and turned away from forgiveness, away from the awful suffering of compassion. 

The sad work of erecting that fence took years and I called it growing up. 

Eventually I think to lift my eyes from the ground at last and I am overwhelmed to see, above the fence, the pink and gold domes of San Marco. The warmth, the pleasure, the plenty of Venice awaits there, within sight. I can hear music and laughter, like a party. Venice is like a party and I recognise that this is my heart, my journey’s end. The pink and gold domes sparkle in the sunlight with an inexhaustible supply of honey and I remember that within it is dark and private. Inside the cathedral there is the glimmer of the everlasting flame reflected in the ancient, gold mosaics which celebrate the deeds of the saints. There is the jewelled altar screen and an eternal holy singing and the smell of incense as the Blessed Sacrament is offered for adoration.

I begin to pick my way through the mire towards the singing.