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An Internal Moral Compass.

Counselling — admin @ 8:02 pm

Here at Counselling Connections this week we have been trying to identify some of the influences that form part of any decision making process. The dilemma presents itself when someone comes to us saying that they cannot come to a decision about some problem that is facing them. At times this can cause such a build up of frustration that even a decision that is ordinarily quite straightforward becomes difficult. We can lose confidence in our ability to make good choices and this can make day to day living more of a challenge than it needs to be. There are many ways of looking at this issue and this week we want to address it by posing the question: ‘where is your moral compass?’

Straight away we are getting into the murky waters of what exactly is understood by moral. There are understandings of morality from psychology and from religion. What we want to consider is the influence that these forces exert on the individual and what weight we put on them in our decision making process. A conflict between aspects of our personal moral code may leave us in the indecisive position which we are trying to help clear up. In therapy this involves reflecting on the origins of our sense of right and wrong and how these were taught to us.

The first kind of moral influence we want to discuss is what we are calling a vertical moral influence. By this we mean simply that it appears to come from above. Our first authority figures are our parents. It may happen that a sense of what is good or bad is expressed slightly differently by either parent. In fact it might be possible to identify rules that are generally enforced by mother which differ from those of the father. Here we might find the first source of conflict as we try to bring together these separate influences. If each parent is giving a similar message and trying to create the same kind of parameter then there is less space for confusion.

If childhood rules are too strictly enforced; if there is no room for interpretation or manoeuvre we might find that this creates rigidity of thought throughout life. An individual may find this vertical kind of moral code very difficult to challenge in their adult life. A vertical moral code is informed by the rules of the society we live in; by the law of the land and by religion. Generally speaking these are widely held beliefs about a good or ethical way to conduct ourselves for the sake of the common good. But they may not take into account the experience of the individual.

There are other influences that we will call the horizontal moral code which can exert just as much pressure on the individual. These kinds of things we learn from peers and have to do with the cultural norms of whatever group we belong to. It is extremely difficult for a single person to stand alone in opposition to their group and take a stand against what is considered normal. Indeed to consider taking such a position is to face the possibility of losing the support and even membership of whatever group we happen to belong to at a given time. These are informed by a phase of life that we pass through as we navigate our teens and our early twenties. How we relate to a work or new family arrangement will be informed by how we responded to these horizontal conventions.

Both the kinds of things we have described might be described as external influences. Although they are intended to be for the common good they may create a pressure which the individual experiences as oppressive. Indeed it could be argued that some of these social mores do not necessarily pay as much attention to ethical considerations as they do to what is simply the way things have always been done. And these kinds of things are ever changing. Without losing sight of the individual’s place within a family, work or social group some of the answers to moral dilemmas might best be found by tuning in to an internal moral compass.

It is usually possible, after considering the ways in which our moral code was taught to us, to develop an improved sense of our own aspirations, separate from given norms. The hope is that this would facilitate the growth of our own way of being in the world. This does not mean that we only take our own needs into account. We always have to consider our relationships with others when making big decisions. In order to feel that we are living an authentic life and in order to feel assertive and sure of our decion making we may benefit from this examination of where our moral compass is located and how it got there. We are then freed up to make choices which help maintain a sense of balance between our real self and our external world.

Counselling Connections, Dundalk.

Counselling for Survivors of Child Sex Abuse.

Here at Counselling Connections this week we have been discussing aspects of counselling for survivors of child sexual abuse. We are sometimes asked by people who are considering undertaking counselling to outline how it works in practice. To consider coming to counselling to talk about sexual abuse is a very difficult decision to make. Survivors often say to us that they put off the decision, sometimes even for years because the prospect of beginning to talk about it is so daunting. It is easy to find lots of reasons to avoid it. This week we want to take a look at some practical applications of counselling work for adult survivors of sexual abuse.

One of the first conditions of therapy for child sexual abuse is trust. It might seem like stating the obvious but you have to feel that you can really trust your therapist. We are very aware of this requirement and we feel strongly that it important not to rush things. If you have been sexually abused you will know what it feels like to have your wishes, your rights and your personal space disregarded. This happens in a psychological way in abuse in addition to the violations of your body. It is crucially important not to do anything in therapy that might cause you to feel re-traumatised. There are so many feelings associated with this that it is hard to know where to begin. So we say that the starting point is in establishing trust in the therapeutic relationship so that you do not feel obliged to disclose anything that you don’t feel ready to talk about.

We understand that revealing details of past abuse has to be a gradual process for a number of reasons. First among these reasons is learning to trust your therapist. Another reason is related to the ways in which trauma affects memory. It is not uncommon to have only snippets of memory of the things that happened. You may also have partial memories of events that you don’t feel sure about and can’t swear whether they happened or not. You will be able to learn to distinguish between these. Additionally, when you come to therapy and start to deal with some of these memories you may gradually begin to remember more detail. This can feel quite disconcerting to experience but it is perfectly normal. Our unconscious mind stores memories away in different ways in order to try to protect us from the trauma we experienced. Unlocking memory is a gradual process that can be dealt with in therapy, sometimes over a number of years.

The issues of trust and of memory raise the question of being believed. This is the third aspect of counselling for survivors of sexual abuse that we want to talk about this week. One thing above all others that prevents or delays people from coming forward to talk about their abuse is the fear that they won’t be believed. Child abusers often plant ideas in the minds of their victims about what might happen if they ever tell. These might be threats against you or your family. Or it might be that they have suggested to you that the abuse was somehow your fault or that you colluded in it. It takes an enormous leap of faith to tell about your abuse for the first time. You will be watching very carefully for any reaction or doubt on the part of your therapist. We understand the difficulty this creates especially in the light of what we have said about the effects of trauma on memory. We will listen to what you have to say with openness and without making any judgement of you.

There is a lot more that we could write about abuse and the legacy it can leave. It is a subject we will return to again in our journal. For this week we just wanted to discuss those three points. Firstly, building trust in your therapist and not rushing to disclose detail. Secondly, to understand how trauma affects memory and learning to trust your recall of what happened. And thirdly is the experience of being believed in a safe and non-judgemental setting. Then we can continue with the therapy and work towards coming to terms with child sexual abuse.

Counselling Connections, Dundalk.                    

Communication Between Couples.

Relationship Difficulties — admin @ 6:12 pm

Here at Counselling Connections this week we have been talking about talking. Or to be more exact we have given some time to a discussion around communication between the sexes. It seems that at times men and women are speaking different languages. And maybe they are. It is often expressed in couple therapy as a feeling of not being listened to or understood by the other. It can be a frustrating experience and if you can’t find a way to improve communication a couple can find themselves drifting apart. One can switch off from the other and effectively end up leading a separate life. Working on ways of communicating will help to keep a relationship healthy.

One of the surprising things that can come up when a couple come to counselling is just how little they are in the habit of checking in with each other. It might seem obvious but it is a good first step to ask your partner how they feel about what you do in the relationship. When we work with couples one partner might begin by outlining all the things they do. In this view of the relationship various tasks are done for the other. A person can come to believe that they are putting a huge amount of work into the relationship but find that their energies are misdirected. It is important to check in with each other and develop an understanding as to what each of you wants from and values in the other. We can neglect emotional needs in favour of busying ourselves with running a house.

One point of discord that comes up in relation to communication is a difference in what men and women might be looking for when they sit down to talk. Again and again women tell us that they just want to be heard; that they just want to talk something through. A woman can become frustrated if her partner just looks for solutions. A man might be paying close attention to his partner and attentively listening for cues as to what the nub of the problem might be so that he can set about fixing it. He might feel pleased when he identifies what needs to be done. And he might reassure his partner that a solution is at hand. A woman might come away from this encounter feeling that she wasn’t heard at all. She just wanted to talk and to be heard. If each of them can learn to understand this process it ought to lead to fuller communication.

Sometimes we can find that conflict in a relationship feels intolerable. This can lead to avoidance and denial. If we go about avoiding an obvious source of disagreement we are not really communicating well at all. It is important to understand that there will be disagreement some of the time. This may mean that we have to learn to live with a little tension. It is a healthy thing in a relationship when we can continue to be close with our partner in spite of our differing on some issue that seems important at the time. We cannot write that without pointing out that a good deal of the time a couple cannot recall exactly what it was that started a big row. If you can’t remember what you started to argue about it might be a good idea just to cool down and have a think about it. This usually means that you are really arguing about something else and that maybe you need to take a deeper look at your relationship.

Communication between couples means continuing to work at the connection you have between you. It involves making sure to devote some time to each other on an ongoing basis. This can prove difficult when the demands of daily life are taken into account. It is a sad fact that some couples emerge from years of mutual child rearing to find that they have drifted apart and grown into separate people. To continue to grow together involves consciously working on communicating with each other. It is also important to bring some good humour to these things. A little kindness and understanding is a wonderful thing to give and receive. If you can find it in your heart and, among the pressures of daily life share it with the one you love you will be going a long way towards maintaining a healthy relationship.

Counselling Connections, Dundalk, 15th March 2012.

Renewal after Depression.

Depression — admin @ 8:35 pm

Here at Counselling Connections this week we have been continuing our discussion about aspects of depression. In particular we have been focusing on the processes involved in coming out of depression. We don’t subscribe to a quick fix solution to depression. Nor do we believe in a ‘one size fits all’ approach because we see depression as being personal to each individual who endures it. Whereas there is an understandable demand for solutions or tips for recovery our view is that we must begin by reflecting in a deep way on our life and influences in order to begin a process of change. Often, a lasting recovery from depression begins with this period of deep personal reflection; a looking back in order to begin to look forward.

Even the very concept of recovery is the subject of discussion within our group. To recover means to get something back or to get back to a previous position. In that regard the purpose of therapy for a person with depression is not to recover but to change. The task is one of transformation of the self rather than of going back to the way things used to be. If the first task is to figure out how we got to the point of depression the latter is to map out a view of how we would like things to be in the future. This process is very personal to each one of us.

It is not a simple task to unlock the secrets of depression. We have described previously how self reproach plays a part in this. Continuing the process of working through the reasons why we become trapped in this cycle involves looking at the ideas we might have about the way we would like to be. We do have an idea within us somewhere of what kind of person we would like to be. Comparing our current life with how we imagine things ought to be undoubtedly contributes to depression. We may not be able to live up to our internal ideas of an ideal version of our own self. This can become a punitive sort of comparison.

Our image of a potential self is likely to be influenced by our idealising significant figures from our earlier years. We may identify with certain traits or characteristics which we find admirable in family, friends or teachers. We may secretly strive to attain some similar virtues in our own lives. This can become a personal project which we dedicate our lives to; but meet with frustration when we come up short of our ideal. Personal change following a period of depression involves trying to recognise these identifications in our self. We can then become conscious of their appropriateness and of what prevents us from achieving them. We can decide if we want to renew our efforts in a particular direction or tear up the plan and draw up a new one.

In examining our past we may discover impediments which caused us to deviate from or abandon earlier ideas of our own potential. Some of these may relate to unrealistic early ideas of where our life may take us. But we may also discover that family or other external influences caused us to hesitate before considering possible ways of being. We may realise that we turned away from a kind of life that actually accords well with our real self. The transformation involved in a sustained renewal following a period of depression will involve our working out how to proceed towards our own personal view of how we would like to be. Once we have become aware of how to do this we can change again and continue to adapt to life in a way of our own choosing.

Counselling Connections.

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