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Mindfulness and Psychotherapy – A therapist’s Perspective.

Counselling — admin @ 10:22 am

When mental health Minister Kathleen Lynch got stuck in a lift with the Minister for Health James Reilly, she assured the media she was not stressed during it as she was practicing her mindfulness. Was she in a state of profound calm or just trying to deny a mounting panic or discomfort?

And this is how mindfulness can be. It can be used and mis-used. Today it is a real buzz word and seen as the new answer to all ills. Vietnamese Zen monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, warns against this kind of mis-use in his writings on ‘the better way to catch a snake’. If we grab a snake by the tail or the body, it will bite, but if we use a fork at its head it is safer. Similarly if we approach mindfulness the wrong way we can get bitten.

The original practice of mindfulness is based on the Buddha’s teaching in the ‘Sattipathana Sutta’, or ‘The Great Discourse on the Establishment of Mindfulness’. In a nutshell, it is a balanced and relaxed observation of the processes of our body, our sensations in our body, our feelings and thoughts.

The clever thing about mindfulness is stepping back from ourselves and seeing the process of ourselves unfold. Like watching a river flowing or clouds drifting across the sky you see your body just as it is, seeing our thoughts and feelings just as thoughts and feelings…’this is a thought, this is a feeling’…seeing them arising, staying for a while and then subsiding. Seeing their changing nature we don’t get caught in them and can let them go.

However, this includes seeing and staying with the unpleasant feelings, thoughts and sensations which is a little more difficult. But watching them in the same way as the pleasant aspects of ourselves is also mindfulness. An old teacher realised this when he said: ‘there is no reason to believe that when we discover the truth it will turn out to be interesting.’

So Kathleen Lynch was practicing mindfulness if she was able to observe her unpleasant feelings and thoughts as they are; or was she, like most of us would do, wrestle with the thoughts and feelings trying to push them away or getting caught up in them and following the drama.

The benefit of mindfulness is this stepping back from ourselves and attending to ourselves. In a way we are giving ourselves the space to see how we are and take care of that which is a good thing. It also allows us to calm down, this soothes us. We can get in touch with a peacefulness in us that is a real resource. This gives us perspective and space.

Mindfulness also has it limits. As a psychotherapist, I have seen clients who rely excessively on mindfulness. It can contribute to a lack of involvement in the world and feed an isolation in their lives that has its roots in their own past isolation. Psychotherapist Arnie Mindell describes it: ‘The secret desire for nirvana (enlightenment) is a shortcut to death itself as it cuts off individuation from a failure to interact with life’.

It can also be used to run away from our feelings. If we learned that our sexuality or our anger is ‘bad’ we can turn to such spiritual discipline to expunge these aspects of ourselves. This never works and the battle with ourselves can keep us very stuck in our lives.

But most importantly, mindfulness does not see the huge value in relationship and relationality – the value and profound contribution a second person can make to this practice of self observation. Our planet has two poles, north and south; batteries need two points to work. Similarly, we work best in twos. And this is why counselling and psychotherapy works best when there is two people. The importance of expressive speech and a listening, reflecting other is a hugely important and healing part of counselling that is not in mindfulness practice alone.

Also, ironically, in my experience, the use of mindfulness in a psychotherapy session can take a client to a real depth in themselves that they do not experience from their own individual mindfulness practice. For me, mindfulness in the therapeutic relationship has a real power that is life changing.

In summary, in the question of whether to use mindfulness or counselling, it might be both.

This is a guest blog by friend of Counselling Connections Thomas Larkin. Thomas is an integrative psychotherapist/counsellor, supervisor and trainer based in Dublin city centre.

Bereaved by Suicide Support Group.

Counselling — admin @ 3:27 pm

Bereaved by Suicide Support Group.

We are very pleased to announce that the Support Group for people bereaved by suicide will be starting up again next month. The Group will be facilitated by experienced counsellors. It is intended as a safe forum for people to come to talk about their loss with others who have had similar experience.

Venue:           Counselling Connections, 27 Seatown Place, Dundalk.

Date:               Thursday, Oct 3rd 2013 and every Thursday until Dec 5th 2013.

Time:              7.00pm to 9.00pm.

Cost:               €15 per evening.

It is an open group; anyone who has lost a loved one through suicide is free to attend.

For any further information feel free to get in touch with us here.

Foundation Counselling Course.

Counselling — admin @ 7:32 pm

Counselling Foundation Course 2013/14.

We are taking applications for a Foundation Course in Counselling and Psychotherapy.  The course will run from early October 2013 through the academic year to May 2014.

There will be twenty evenings totalling 60 hours of training. It will include practical counselling skills and theory.

The Course team are experienced Tutors and Facilitators.

The cost wil be €650.00.

To apply please contact us at

Or download an application form:

Foundation Course Application Form13


Counselling in difficult financial times.

Counselling — admin @ 3:30 pm

Here at Counselling Connections this week we were listening to news bulletins of the latest problems with banks. People often ask us in a humorous kind of way whether the bad news in the economy is good for our business. It is not of course but the question points to an understanding that families and individuals are really struggling financially at the moment, and that this places additional stress on them. There are many losses involved in this and we discussed them between ourselves focussing in the end on the stress and challenge to the person who is going through financial difficulties. Banks had been regarded as august and respectable institutions. We grew up believing that we could put our trust in the bank. The local bank manager was a well regarded person in any local town and had a position of trust and authority. These things have changed and bad banking practice and the crash from an over-heated economy have conspired to leave many ordinary people struggling to pay bills.

One of the aspects of this that we highlighted in our discussion was how being up to date with our bills is something that can become part of how we define ourselves. When we look in the mirror and ask questions like ‘what am I?’ or ‘who am I?’ we can begin to think of ourselves in terms of the various roles that make up our day to day life. We may be a mother or father. We might be a parent. We may live with a friend, a partner or a flatmate. Or we might still live with our parents. In whatever capacity we live we have financial demands on us. How we respond to these demands can become a big part of how we define ourselves. Being able to meet the basic bills with which we are faced becomes an important part of the place we hold in our own household and in our wider social circle. In these challenging economic times lots of people have found that their discretionary spend is a lot less than previous and money is tighter than ever. Many who are in work are finding perhaps for the first time ever that the basic housing and utility expenses are almost beyond reach. And many who had never faced financial difficulties find themselves out of work and really struggling financially.

When money starts to get tight in a home all sorts of trimming of expense has to take place. Earners have to make sacrifices and let go of things which they had previously enjoyed. If this situation persists over time, as weeks become months and months become years with no sign of improvement it can cause real problems. We are faced with existential kinds of questions about what our work and our effort is for, and who it is for. There is a real danger of a disconnect opening up between ordinary individuals and the state itself. Our impression is that the difficulties faced by many ordinary people are not recognised, acknowledged or understood by policy makers and government.  This is not good for the mental health of the nation. It also threatens to create a new generation of young people for whom civic involvement and a sense of belonging are lost in a society which doesn’t care. Young people who queued overnight to buy houses and are now faced with negative equity.

These are wider societal concerns which are perhaps the backdrop to the financial struggles that families face. More and more are having to face the difficult reality that there isn’t enough money to go around. There is advice available to help people deal with banks, mortgage lenders, utilities companies and others to whom money is owed. A general rule of thumb is to work out reduced payments on a pro rata basis and to agree these with the lender. It is important to engage with them and to discuss your financial situation openly. The goal here is to try to manage the debt as well as possible until things improve and in the process to manage your own levels of stress. It can be humiliating to have to face these things and there is no doubt that suicide has been considered by many who did not feel that they could get on top of their financial situation.  Feelings of dread about what the postman brings or what phone calls might come in from debt collectors can be alleviated by facing these things and making revised agreements with lenders. To do this may involve having to change our own view of our self.

We spoke earlier about how paying our way can be an important part of how we define ourselves. We may have to learn to loosen up on this personal characteristic and adjust it to a point where we have to satisfy ourselves with the knowledge that things are bad financially but that we are doing everything we can about it. That seems to be the key to surviving financial difficulties. Cold hard financial facts; Euros and cents and lenders trying to enforce credit agreements can appear like a relentless and unforgiving force. We may have to come to terms with the fact that we can only do so much and lenders may have to come to accept that our best is going have to be good enough for the moment. We have to cope too with feelings of injustice when we read of the appalling behaviour which contributed to this economic crisis. In the first instance the solution is to survive on a personal level and get though as best we can. In the longer term there will be a good deal of rebuilding required for individuals, for families and for the wider community and civic society. We hope that we can all begin to feel part of that process and that ordinary hard work and personal responsibilities are nurtured and become prized once more.

Counselling Connections, Dundalk.

Gdansk, the Fields of Athenry and football; a psychological perspective.

Counselling — admin @ 10:58 am

Here at Counselling Connections this morning much of the discussion has surrounded the football tournament which is taking place in Poland at the moment. Something notable happened there last night which has ignited debate here at home in the media and on social media. The context is a football match where the Ireland team came up against the European and World Champions Spain. Somewhat predictably and despite earlier hope and optimism the Spanish team proved too strong and won the match well. With seven minutes left to play Spain scored a fourth goal and with it any faint hope of a miracle comeback were extinguished. And then the Ireland supporters began to sing.

It is this singing which generated much discussion last night and this morning. Many have been genuinely moved by the off the field performance of the supporters. Some of the debate has been fuelled by the comments of football pundits, many former professional football players who felt that the result was the more important thing. Some were a bit cross about the emphasis on the performance of the fans. We are a group of therapists and have no expertise or knowledge of football formations or tactics but we do understand a little about people and we feel that some commentators may have missed the significance of what was happening before their eyes. It was a people telling themselves stories about themselves. It is about a people defining themselves in a public forum and saying to the world how they would like to be regarded.

For the last seven minutes of the match and for some minutes after the final whistle the Ireland supporters sang the ballad ‘The Fields of Athenry’. This is a song of two young lovers, parents who are parted because the father stole food from the local landlord to feed their starving children. His punishment is deportation to Australia and the couple dolefully reflect on brighter times when their love was blossoming. This song has become something of an anthem; its throaty chorus lends itself well to renditions in football stadia. It has become a staple not only of the Ireland football team but of rugby teams as well as club teams in England and Scotland. It has been heard over and again so many times that it risks losing its meaning. But there seemed to be something special about the circumstances and the way it was sung last night.

It is the context of the current social, political and economic environment that brings a special resonance to the performance of the Ireland supporters last night.  Like a child looking to a parent to give it something to be happy about many Irish people are looking to this football team to give some cause for optimism or celebration. The team clearly came up short in that task last night to the extent that the supporters took it upon themselves to create that hope and feeling of well being that people back home are desperately seeking. A wider context is the memory of what previous football tournaments, notably in 1988 and 1990 allowed us to say about ourselves. In the days before the Peace Process on this island symbolism of the flag of the Republic underwent an evolution. It became associated with celebration and most importantly with non violent behaviour. In the world of international soccer which has had difficulties with different hooligan elements the Ireland fans became associated with nothing other than bonhomie and good times. The tacit understanding which every supporter was aware of was to behave in a way that would only draw positive comment from observers.

The context of these times is that of national shame in the light of the loss of economic sovereignty with the financial bailout that our country has had to avail of. The budgetary austerity which we are told is what is required to pay for this bailout is causing a lot of pain and uncertainty and no little loss of confidence in the future. Many, many people are faced with difficulties meeting mortgage repayments on homes which they feel stuck with because they have fallen into negative equity. Many decent, working people have seen much of their aspirations and the fruits of their hard work depleted because of a financial downturn which has dented the value of their homes, savings and pensions. Indeed some who have travelled to Poland have probably done so in the knowledge that these financial challenges await them when they return home. So when a group of people stand to sing a ballad about past times they are telling a story about themselves. They are telling a story to foreign observers and to Irish people watching at home and around the world. They are writing another few lines in the evolving story of what it means to be from Ireland.

Nobody is deported to Botany Bay in this day and age for stealing food to feed hungry children. But many young people have left our shores to find work in Australia, Canada, America, Europe and further afield. Our economy is in a bad way. Our football team has tried their best but is clearly not up to the standard of the opposition. And we rise and we join together and we sing and in doing so we create something bigger than the result of a football match. We give a nod to the relentless forces of austerity and the unshakable logic of the markets. We pause to say out loud that we are hurting. We are hurting but we are in it together. We are hurting like we have hurt in times past. Much of the story of Ireland is about hunger and poverty and hurt. We will not fall into masochism or self pity. Nor will we simply ignore the problems and throw a party. An opportunity for a great national coming together is created with these football tournaments. We may use this one to find something positive in ourselves which we can identify with and which we can harness and use to transform our situation from despair, through hope and beyond to better times.

Counselling Connections, Dundalk.

Different roles, hidden pain and inner strength.

Counselling — admin @ 4:49 pm

Here at Counselling Connections this week we got to talking in an informal way about the different worlds that we inhabit as we go about our daily business. We had just come back from a walk up the street to call into the bank. We found it very interesting to observe the differing roles of the people we met along the way. We met a woman coming out of an insurance office. She was holding several sheets of paper which we gathered were related to either a car or home insurance transaction. She might have just called in to make a premium payment. Maybe she was filing some paperwork relating to a claim. And we wondered what story might be involved in that. At the bank there were lots of customers waiting either for the cash desks or for customer service. The customers played their roles and got their business taken care of and the bank staff looked professional and dressed appropriately and went about their work with the relaxed formality that their role places on them.

When we got back to the office we spoke about the different roles that people play and how even ordinary day to day business can seem to follow a script with participants like characters acting parts in a play. It struck us how different many of these roles are from the roles which people describe to us in our work. The contrast between the commercial and occupational activity of the main street and the personal dramas of people’s ordinary lives seems stark. People who come to our building set aside some of the formality of their day to day roles. Here we have a space to explore roles that might be regarded as more fundamental. Instead of commercial or other systems people talk about love and life and loss. Among the roles talked about here are those of mother, father, son, daughter, lover or friend. The struggle is to set aside the outer world and get in touch with more personal, internal scripts and to begin to consider rewriting them.

It is hard to tell when we meet someone in their outside role whether they are happy or not. At times someone might not even have a good awareness of whether they really are happy where they are at in life. It may not occur to someone that there is anything that can be done about it. At other times in life we can be quite aware that there are stresses and difficulties which affect us badly and make everyday life a struggle. It is very striking for us when we see someone trying to maintain their public persona while dealing with private pain which is hidden from view.

The task in therapy is to set aside the roles we play in our outside lives and get right down to the basics of what makes us a person. The work requires that we delve into the vulnerability that lies behind the self that we show to the outside world. It is our privilege here in Counselling Connections that we meet people at this level every day. It is by looking at our real self that we get to better understand the influences that make us what we are. It is through this journey that we come to appreciate the ways in which the outer world can weigh on us and cause us to struggle in our day to day life. Therapy can strengthen our ability to respond to the demands of the roles we are placed in by consolidating the inner self that is the bedrock of our public persona.

Counselling Connections, Dundalk.

The process of change; roadblocks and transformation.

Counselling — admin @ 7:32 pm

Here at Counselling Connections this week everybody is a little put out. There are road works taking place outside our building and our end of the street is closed to traffic. Counsellors and clients alike have to make adjustments to their normal routines to work around the road closures. It has left a few people running late and coming in to us feeling a little stressed and harried. That’s okay though because stressed and harried is part of our stock in trade here; we can manage that. What the whole thing has highlighted is the difficulty we experience with any process of change.

The changes to the road system here are to facilitate cycle lanes. You would think that the outcome of these changes could be a positive addition to the locality. That is not how people are experiencing it. One of the aspects of this that is of interest to us is the apparent disconnect which leaves locals feeling that they have no part in the planning process. There is also the question as to the appropriateness or otherwise of spending taxpayers’ money on cycle lanes in these times when there are so many areas of the public budget which might be of higher priority. The sense of decisions being made far away that have no relevance to local needs feeds on this. This can leave people feeling that they are placed in a position like that of a child in relation to the planner who can take the position of parent. And this can bring up all sorts of frustrations form our early lives.

Feelings of disenfranchisement that are expressed in relation to a planning matter like this are also mirrored in how we experience change in other areas of our lives. Whether we are in relationship with a romantic partner, a business partner or employer we will from time to time be faced with changes that are not of our choosing. A first reaction to a proposed change is often resistance. Indeed, we can dig our heels in and became stuck in this part of the change process. One of the things that may lie behind this is a sense that we can never quite gain control over our own destiny. A new change proposal that leaves us with feelings of dread that we have felt over and again in our lives might be a sign, ironically, that we may need to make some changes ourselves. This is something that can be worked on.

The prospect of change can cause anxiety if we feel that we will not be able to respond to the additional challenges that the change may bring. This is a natural fear and one which is eased by some practical consideration of the new working arrangement. A partnership approach is hugely beneficial here in bringing people together and gaining agreement about a way forward. Real agreement involves taking on board the feelings of the other party. This is not often modelled well either in business or in matters of the heart. It takes a level of openness on the part of the person proposing the change and relies on their integrity and honesty about what they are hoping to achieve.

Each party in a process of change will have their own motives. For all that a period of discussion in advance of a process of change may succeed in alleviating some fears there will always remain some apprehension about the outcome. The disruption that change brings to our lives can really leave us feeling quite unsure. This can lead to a situation where somebody’s motivation can evolve into a resistance to any change. It can feel safer to avoid the upset at the disruption that change can bring. Sometimes it requires a little trust and a leap of faith that the outcome will be a positive one. And at other times change is painful and messy and calls for an amount of determination and endurance in making the transformation a better one.

Counselling Connections, Dundalk.

Coping with a Cancer Diagnosis.

Counselling — admin @ 7:32 pm

Here at Counselling Connections this week our discussion has been about counselling for cancer. There are many different aspects to this but this week we will confine what we say to coping with the diagnosis and aftermath of a cancer diagnosis. To be told by your doctor that you have cancer is initially very shocking. One of the first things you are faced with is your own preconceptions of what a cancer diagnosis may mean. It may have been regarded as the next best thing to a death sentence and you may have to work hard to overcome your own fears in this regard. Our experience is that modern cancer treatment is very effective and that a return to a full and active life can happen quite quickly. The shock to your system of this whole experience may linger and it is this aspect of counselling for cancer which we want to address this week.

Cancer awareness and in particular the importance of early intervention has increased with public information campaigns targeted at particular sets of risk factors and types of cancer. We still probably believe, however, that it will never happen to us. We can therefore become quite worried when we find a lump; a swelling of some sort or a pain which causes us to go to our G.P for assessment.  A temptation towards denial is a feature of serious illness especially cancer. It is important to try to overcome this and seek treatment as soon as possible. Denial is a psychological aspect of illness and it is useful to try to understand it.

A cancer diagnosis may be experienced initially as a serious threat to our self. This will set off a natural process in us as we are programmed by nature to respond automatically to threats. This different with illness is that the threat is internal and we have to face it in order to receive treatment and meet the threat. There is a paradox here whereby the natural defence of denial may actually increase the threat is we choose to ignore it and delay treatment. It is easy to understand this when we think of it abstractly but it is experienced in a very immediate and frightening way when it happens to us.

Like a lot of things in life a cancer diagnosis is something which we imagine as only happening to other people. In order to receive treatment we have to cope with this initial shock and set aside our fears and face into the treatment. These fears may be put to the back of our minds to be dealt with at a later stage and that is where counselling is especially helpful.

Sometimes there isn’t much time between diagnosis and the beginning of treatment and one of the things that you may have to deal with during this time is letting others know. There was a sort of denial present in the public discourse around cancer which we think is changing. It may have been referred to in abstract terms as ‘The Big C’ and spoken of in a kind of hushed or reverential tone reflecting the fear which a cancer diagnosis evoked in people.

Our experience with people diagnosed with cancer is that it is possible to speak about it openly and to say what kind of cancer it is and what the treatment is likely to be. We are sure that this healthy attitude to talking about cancer can also help a person come to terms with their own diagnosis.  The public awareness campaigns which we spoke of earlier have made this task easier. It can put an additional strain on the patient at the same time in that they are put in the position of having to deal the reactions of others and to become a sort of advocate for cancer treatment and care.

Information is a critical tool in gathering your strength for dealing with talking about your cancer diagnosis. There are many organisations and support groups available to offer assistance. Our experience is that oncology specialists and nursing teams are an excellent source of strength and support at this time passing on their in-depth knowledge and valuable experience. This knowledge and the openness which comes with it help to engender a sense of confidence which will help you fight your cancer.

There is so much more to be said about counselling in relation to cancer. We could only cover a couple of points this week but it is a subject we will return to again. For this week we just wanted to say a little about the shock and denial and also about the beginnings of a fighting spirit which is in no small way helped by openness in talking about a cancer diagnosis. Our experience has taught us that sometimes it is only after treatment and a return to normal life that a person can really engage at a deep level with what it means for them. The fears and feelings that are put aside in the initial shock can be dealt with in counselling at a later stage. It is important to understand that this is a natural process. Our minds are designed to save us from having to face for example the fear of our own death. But if these thoughts remain buried and are not dealt with they may leave us feeling fearful and not living life as full as we can. In these instances we find that counselling can be very beneficial when coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis.

Counselling Connections, Dundalk.

The Titanic and the Psychology of Tragedy.

Counselling — admin @ 1:24 pm

Here at Counselling Connections this week we have been talking about the Titanic. This week marks the centenary of the sinking of that great ship which was built just fifty miles up the road from us here. The tragedy of the loss of the Titanic still attracts our attention a full century after it happened. We wonder what it is about it that generates so much interest. There is something about that tragedy which seems to resonate within us at an unconscious level. Maybe we can identify with the human failings that are at the heart of it.

The story of the Titanic is grounded in the spirit of the age in which it was conceived. One of the most striking things about even the design of the ship was the way it reflected the class divide that held sway at the time. The ship reflected the confidence of the time; in modernity, in engineering and in mankind’s mastery over the Earth. We wonder who we identify with when we look back at this. Is it with the upper class that enjoyed opulence on a scale never seen before on an ocean liner? Or do we imagine ourselves in the bowels of the ship with the steerage passengers.

That class divide is also reflective of the attitude that sent thousands to their deaths in Flanders and The Somme only two years after the sinking if the Titanic. In what was supposed to be the War to End all Wars thousands died heroically but needlessly following a dream that failed to take account of the realities of what became an obsessive conflict. The unsinkable ship ended up at the bottom of the sea because of the human failings of a society that dared to dream. Those dreams failed to take account of worldly limitations and obstacles ably represented in this story by the bulk of an Atlantic iceberg. We all have dreamed. And we all have met with icebergs which have threatened to hole us below the waterline and leave us floundering.

The personal stories of those lost in the sinking of the Titanic mirror those of any time. People set off on that journey hoping to find work or to make a new life. The very name of the ship reflected the scale of the hope of that time. It was Titanic, meaning it was enormous in scale. Named for the Titans of ancient Greece who ruled in the time of the Golden Age it was representative of the Edwardian dream of a new Golden Age. Therein lays some clues about our ongoing fascination with the tragedy of the loss of the Titanic.

Each of us passes through phases of childhood which leave us on the cusp of launching into adult life. We may dream big; indeed our dream of what life holds for us may be titanic. We may put doubt to the side and steam ahead in the belief that nothing can stop us. And we may come across real world difficulties and obstacles that force us to stop in our tracks. We can find analogies for life in the story of the loss of the Titanic. Blame and reproach at the loss of a dream can leaves us becalmed in the waters of depression.

Moving on means finding some understanding of what it was we were trying to achieve and how or where it went wrong. It means understanding the scope of the dream and maybe even forgiving the dreamer for the scale of their wish. No great advancement is ever made without first being represented in a dream. Sometimes the dream is not fulfilled because of our own failings. Then perhaps the best course is to tweak the dream, take account of the obstacles and set sail again. Taking on board the mistakes of the past means being able to mourn the loss of unfulfilled dreams and then moving on with new ones.

Counselling Connections, Dundalk. 13th April 2012.

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.

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