The impact of a trauma in childhood depends upon how it is met by those close by, most commonly parents or siblings. If a child's traumatic experience is missed, or mocked, or ignored, or drowned out by someone else's bigger trauma, or in some way unattended to, then it remains with that person through time as unexplained and unsettled and somehow still active.
Traumas are traumatic because, at the time they happen, the traumatic event feels unsurvivable either physically or emotionally. This is both literally by outer physical death; or by the inner emotional extinction of betrayal, rejection, unloved-ness, humiliation, loneliness, shame, even embarrassment. The quality of emotional extinction is that it feels more than can be lived through -- unendurable because annihilating of longed for and essential safe connection
Childhood traumatic events have to be explained to lose their power, reassured to become settled, and grieved at a feeling level to become less active. This has to occur in a safe, survival-enhancing environment both physically and emotionally. After this they have to be, and can be, endured. Without this, they accumulate, as it were, and influence a person's ability to process either another traumatic event; or even a usually manageable present-time event such as having children, or a seemingly ordinary difference turning into an argument.
It is difficult to begin to work through the feelings that childhood trauma arouses. It can feel very frightening and overwhelming. To begin you can send me an email describing what is happening to you and I will reply as soon as I reasonably can with my initial thoughts and responses. ALL ENQUIRIES ARE CONFIDENTIAL. Click here to read more about confidentiality.
Alternatively you can phone me and I will be pleased to have an initial discussion with you in person. The objective of these methods of initial approach, both of which are without cost or obligation, is to gently prepare the ground for later face-to-face sessions.
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Past Sexual Abuse
This is a difficult subject to write about because any kind of generality about it risks insulting the particular distress that any one person holds within them as a result of it. One thing does stand out though : Many people make their therapist the first person they ever mention this to. So it's kind of on the radar... But it's often not immediately obvious.
However, it's in the nature of psychotherapy that as voluntary exploration of a person's experience takes place, layers of understanding, even memory, are peeled back and what was unseen becomes visible in some form or other. As children we interpret the behaviour of adults through immature and trusting eyes; and it is only when these events are reviewed (literally re-viewed) as part of a discussion about adult relational difficulties that the truth of what actually happened long ago reveal itself.
Shame and guilt are the lead protagonists on the stage of sexual abuse; with unexpressed anger in the wings; and fear is big too... fear of powerlessness, fear of not being believed, fear of being blamed. Very often the abuser is a member of the family or the immediate social network and it can feel unbearable to expose other family and friends to the truth. Threats made to children about keeping secrets can live on in the minds of adults in ways that are immobilising and still terrifying in present time. The privacy of the therapy room can be a safe beginning; and whatever develops in the work is always in your control and subject to your preference.
It is common for people to 'hold' their experiences for a long time in secret; and it is equally common for that 'holding' to become more and more impossible as life rolls on. 40 years is the statistical median age for disclosure by adults of past sexual abuse in childhood; and relationship difficulties are frequently the symptomatic context for the need for this issue to be confronted and worked through.
In our community at the moment there is a strong presence of the need for justice and punishment for abusers. I agree with this. However, it is my experience that the judicial process does not do the whole job : even though the abuser has been called to account, the survivor still has to meet in themselves the internal consequences of their experience. I feel this to be profoundly unfair, but it is nonetheless life's reality. The work is often about the rebuilding of a natural readiness to trust others, and in particular, lovers or spouses.
In my 19 years as a couple therapist, helping people through issues of past sexual abuse has become a very meaningful and important part of my work. It can be the hardest thing to turn your attention to; and it requires great courage to do so; but great distress can be relieved by making the brave move to talk about it. The word that makes most sense here is "release". The effect of past sexual abuse is to "lock up" the Self; and the main work is to release you from the lock into the personal and sexual freedom that was always your birthright.
I am happy to receive emails from anyone about this as a private beginning to the work. I assure you of complete confidentiality; and I will reply within 48 hours at the latest. You can also phone me on 0422 187189.
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Gender and Sexuality.
Concepts of gender have widened to match the variance being expressed in society. But there is still massive prejudice within families and institutions, often showing as not taking seriously people's feelings that their sex doesn't match their gender to some degree. What the mainstream accepts as quintessentially feminine or masculine traits may be unreal or unacceptable to you. How you construct your sense of gender has a massive impact on who you feel yourself to be; and with whom you want to have relationships; and what form you want those relationships to follow.
We are all sexual beings; and sexuality in some form or other accompanies us throughout life. This is a hugely important part of human experience; and we imbue it with meaning like no other phenomenon. Many of us are scared of it; some of us are addicted to it; sometimes it is just too confusing to know where we are with it. Relationships are full of it, even if that presence is actually an absence!
I think of sexuality as one of the screens upon which we shine our Selves. How life goes from childhood to the grave constantly introduces changes to who we feel ourselves to be; and who we are at any time shines a light into our sexuality and how we express it. Explorations of sexual feelings open up insights into our Selves like no other subject; and offer the possibility of internal authenticity and a sense of rightness about who we are.
There is nothing about sex that is unwholesome. Problems with sex only arise when it becomes attached to unresolved needs or anxieties; or when it is used by more-powerful-others for their own ends. When a person's needs or anxieties remain unmet or unresolved that becomes expressed in sex. By this means sexuality becomes a mirror for what is running in the background of a person's being. Freud said that dreams were "the royal road to the unconscious"... I say that sexuality is the red carpet to the door of the Self.
Psychosexual exploration requires attention to the nuances of preference and behaviour in a very detailed way. Just as what is in the background can become foreground through exploring sexuality, so careful experimentation with sex in a safe relationship with your lover at home can feed back into the Self the life changes and freedoms that a person desires.
Sexual difficulties often have shame at their foot. Shame creeps unseen through many families and institutions, where it is often developed by the more powerful to control the less powerful. Emergent sexuality all too easily gets caught up in these dynamics; and it is often only in adult love relationships that the consequences become apparent. See my section on Past sexual abuse for more information.
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Relationships are the crucible in which so much human difficulty is smelted; a kind of collecting place for all those experiences that we have not been able to understand or resolve or complete... I have been doing couple therapy for more than 19 years.
The first reason I was drawn in 1998 to train in Systemic Couple Psychotherapy was that it seemed to me that whatever is difficult for human beings, whatever is most pressing and complex about ourselves, it shows up in our relationships. And the second reason is that love relationships seem to be hugely important to humans of all ages and backgrounds and we place the highest stakes on them because we are wired for contact and we thrive (or falter) in connection with others (See neuroscientist Matthew Liebermann’s 2013 book “Social” in which he coins the phrase ‘the social brain’).
I would say that we only know ourselves through our relationships (or our absence of them).
Relationship counselling is not easy. Relate in the UK reported recently that their success rate was only 11% even if the criteria included amicable separation as a successful outcome! Sadly it is all-too-human to come and see someone like me when relationship difficulties are acute; and I understand this well and with compassion. The explanation for this low success rate is in my view that many therapists don't intervene when habitual relationship behaviour shows up in the room - circular arguments; blaming; put-downs; dominance; collapse or withdrawal... I say there is no point in doing here what you can do at home for free and I request, even demand, something different! If I can't get it, then my model of work, which is based on established strategy for working when there is physical violence, is to start to see the partners in the couple individually to find out what is going on in the background. In my view, relationships are often verbally and emotionally violent (David Schnarch in his book "Passionate Marriage" talks about normal marital sadism). In other words the stakes in relationships are often so high that it brings us to war with our lovers. When your erstwhile lover is sitting opposite you in full enemy mode, and the therapist asks you to tell them things that are held deep in your heart, it is just too dangerous to do so So I have a model in which I switch to seeing each party separately to coach them for future couple sessions.
This has the added advantage of interacting with each partner, and the image of each partner held by the other, without the disturbing influence of cortisol (see my section on Arguments) which tends to dominate couple sessions just as it dominates each person's brain! My objective is to re-establish the possibility of empathy in each for the other. In my training in with Hedi Schleiffer inEncounter Centred Couple Therapy (ECCT) I learned a method of structuring what had always been my main activity in a couple session -to get each party deeply understanding themselves and the other and from there re-establishing trust and compassion. There are three factors in achieving this : first is seeing the relationship as existing in its own space The Relational Space which is created by both and can therefore be polluted by either. The second is The Bridge which is a metaphor for the means by which each partner can visit the experience of the other in order to understand them. And the third is The Encounter where, through the first two, each partner deeply, and with empathy unaffected by their own issues and agenda, meets the essence of the other. Click on the .PDF Icon below to read more about ECCT.
Click here to see Hedi Schleiffer's TED talk about her ideas. Afterwards click on your browser back button to return to my website...
The aim of separate sessions with each partner is to avoid the violence and to build the capacity in each partner for the renewal of empathy and a readiness for renewed passionate encounter between the essence of each person.
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When an affair (or an event similar to an affair) happens everything that was previously held as certain falls away. This can be true as much for the one having the affair as for the one not; and can be very shocking for both. In committed relationships and in civil or religious marriage ceremonies significant emphasis is given to vows of fidelity, and in most cultures moral judgements about infidelity are strongly censorial. These cultural attitudes are passed into individuals as "I am (or s/he is) bad" or "I am (or s/he is) insufficient". Struggling to recover from the emotional pain of affairs from either of these positions is usually futile and frustrating.
Instead, and to meet the disruption of an affair more hopefully, I follow two very important guiding principles : the first is to adopt an attitude that is curious rather than judgemental; and the second is to seek an explanation. Both psychodynamic and systems theories assert that an affair is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. This idea is hard to take on when it is happening all around you, but I would say that an affair is the consequence of a loss of intimacy and connection between partners and not the cause.
In terms of our unconscious experience it's important to understand that unfinished or unsatisfactory child/parent relationships return in adult sexual relationships either as desirous yearnings or as antipathy. Unmet childhood needs for love and affection feel (and are!) insatiable, but often they direct in adults repetitive attempts to gain sexual satisfaction as a hoped-for fulfilment of the lost love. The work is to separate frozen and unattainable childhood needs from present-time adult relational needs; and to meet the former internally in the self whilst bringing the latter to the relationship for enjoyable satisfaction.
In another approach, from a systems perspective, interruptions to sexual intimacy and relational connection can be thought of as arising gradually and almost unseen. In the material world these increments show up as external events apparently dictating the terms : a promotion that increases workload; a building project; re-location; sporting ambitions... However it is the emotional counterparts that are driving choices here, feeling states that allow, almost enable, external events to have such power: unexpressed anger, over-expressed anger; low self esteem; loss and loneliness... These can be lifelong mood habits that colour one's world view. A metaphor is that life events are the "bricks in the wall" of growing apart; and mood states the "mortar". The work becomes to dismantle the wall, make choices about the bricks; and then to rebuild it with conscious explanations and mutual understanding as the mortar - to make the wall a structure upon which connection can stand, rather than a wall which is a barrier between the partners.
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Arguments and Anger.
Arguments are very dangerous to love relationships. Arguments are verbal fights; and can escalate into physical fights. Arguments are different to discussions or debates in terms of the intentions behind them : in arguments one is looking to overcome the other by any means - ridicule, insults, confusion, judgment, emotional wounding, "pressing each other's buttons..." Each partner is angry, which also means usually that each partner is scared.
Recent neuroscience research has shown that when angry and arguing a person's brain is flooding with Cortisol, a hormone produced in the adrenal cortex in response to stress. It is normal to produce Cortisol, but excessive quantities lead to aggression getting a dominant grip in the functioning of the brain. Cortisol can be released into our systems in large amounts very fast (0.25 of a second!), you may recognise the surge of energy that outrage brings. Cortisol is important in enabling us to protect ourselves when being attacked, but it turns our love relationships into war fields. Some say that a good relationship should be able to withstand a good argument - or words to that effect. But I say that this is a bully's philosophy; and that arguments are primitive and useless, damaging to trust and safety and to be curtailed and transformed as soon as possible to preserve love, appreciation and understanding.
The remedy for arguments is two-fold : first the development of Empathy, where each partner seeks to understand what great issue the other is bringing to the argument, that feels so important to them that they are willing to fight (even their lover) for it. And second is Self Awareness, where each partner seeks to understand what their own great issue is that they are willing to fight (even their lover) for it.
It is vital to understand that whilst we all produce Cortisol very efficiently, it takes us a lot longer to clear it out of our systems - some neuroscientists think it takes up to 25 minutes! Once you're in an argument then you're producing more Cortisol with each step in the escalation. I call this having a "Cortisol Dump"; and it is akin to experiences that people describe of losing control, the famous "red mist comes down". And it is accurate : the Cortisol effectively "takes over" control of you, it becomes the dominant neurochemical in our brain. "I don't know what came over me..." - well, it was the Cortisol! Cortisol does not remove choice : in arguments we are somehow cooperating with the Cortisol. This is shown in circumstances which in privacy would lead to an argument, but which in a public place do not. We always have a choice...
So the vital strategic move to make whenever an argument breaks out is to choose to stop. This may be very difficult indeed to do. You both may be so "pumped up" (with Cortisol!) that stopping is the last thing on your mind - you want to win this argument! We become very binary in our cognitive process at these times (win/lose; good/bad; black/white; right/wrong); and to give up the urgent need to come out on top requires a lot of internal courage - far more than it takes to go on arguing.
A typical scenario might be that one of you decides to stop and walks away - and the other one follows and keeps going, "upping the anti" with more threats, mocks, and taunts. This is a potential flashpoint - the moment when one of you says something that is hard to forgive; or when one of you lashes out. You are both in the grip of Cortisol and you have to wait until it has been reabsorbed before anything else can happen. In between arguments make an agreement that either of you can call "a cortisol halt" - and stick to it.
Then you need a place and time to work on Empathy and Self Awareness. Click here to read a case scenario in which I worked on Empathy and Self Awareness with a couple. And Click here to return to the section on Relationship Counselling.
Note : Sometimes it is ill-advised to do couple work, if there is existing violence or a risk of it, for example. Then I am not shy of working with each individual in a couple, or even only one person - there is a lot that can be achieved from exploring one person's (or each person's) experience separately. Often separate work is necessary as a preparation for later couple work. In my section on Relationship Counselling I explain more about the differences in working individually rather than with the couple. Click here to read about this.
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Depression and Anxiety.
Depression is very common -- much more common than most of us believe -- and relationship issues often become the context or the trigger for a bout of depression.
The longer that I work with people with depression the more solid grows my conviction that loss of some kind lies at its foot -- not as a lineal cause, but as a setting-off point -- and often the loss is historic and its consequences are embedded in a person's pattern of thought and feeling. Loss of safety, loss of love, loss of innocence-before-time. Many other contextual factors in a person predict and assist it but broadly speaking, depression is a response to loss. The work of psychotherapy is to identify the original loss; and to learn to meet it differently in present time.
In relationship terms, old losses can easily be sparked off by present day events, such as the death of a parent, which can re-stimulate childhood feelings of separation anxiety or abandonment; and a bout of depression arises as a habitual response. It can be very confusing for a partner when their lover responds to a real-time event with a past-time depressive episode - just when you feel you really need support, your partner "disappears" into depression. Understanding the origin of this and acting upon it differently, can be a relationship-saving experience for both of you.
Anxiety is the bedfellow of depression : these two swirl around each other in an often desperately frightening way. As feelings of anxiety arise, depression serves to control them. As depression diminishes, anxiety floods back in... I see both anxiety and depression as signs that something needs to be attended to. The immediate, and medical model, response is to try to control the moods. But a more enduring remedy is to respond to the underlying losses that have not been attended to, mourned or resolved.
To discuss beginning to work on your depression email me. I will be pleased to have an initial discussion with you without cost or obligation before setting up appointments.
To read a longer article by me about depression and anxiety and how I work with it, click on the .pdf icon below and it will open in a new window. After reading it, just close the new window in which it opens and you will return to my website.
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In relationship terms, Attachment is the Name of the Game. The first break in attachment comes with the separation of the baby from the womb at birth. This is now almost the ultimate Freudian joke - but it actually has absolute primacy of position in the academic literature : how birth and immediate post-natal experience go has a lot to do with how a baby's brain develops. Children's brain development works like compound interest - what's there already affects how the next bit grows! It also seems highly likely that experience inside the womb has a similar impact, since so much significant growth happens before birth itself.
Further breaks in attachment follow : the most natural is weaning; but there are many other levels of separation that lead to the development in a person of an Attachment Style. In 1958 John Bowlby, an English psychiatrist, began to develop his theories about the deep influence that early childhood experiences of separation and loss have on adult life. For Bowlby, as a hospital psychiatrist, he first got his ideas from watching the response of kids separated from their mothers when hospitalised (we don't allow this any more, thanks to Bowlby). Other separations include adoption, early death of a parent, neglect, abandonment (physical or psychological) and abuse. These are the extreme examples... But in every family and in every life all the needs of a child cannot be met in full; and all of us encounter losses and separations, or attachment wounds, which affect the way that our relationship brains grow; and which have surprisingly profound and dramatic effects in later life and especially in love relationships. I say that attachment wounds resurface in the intensity of an adult love relationship because they mirror the unmet needs of a child for love and satisfactory connection.
Knowing your own separation experiences, and the attachment style that follows from them, is a very enlightening way of understanding how you and your lover behave with one another especially when difficulties with intimacy arise. After all, the original love relationship is with your mother; or your father; or possibly with another significant adult in the absence of a parent. Do you know in response to whom you developed your attachment style?
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Self-confidence and self-esteem.
Where Freud is reputed to have interpreted human behaviour as the product of primal sexual feelings, many humanistic family therapists since the the 1890's such as Virginia Satir (1916 to 1988) concluded that self esteem - or the lack of it - plays at least an equal part. Children exposed to undue criticism develop a self image such as "I'm no good at anything"; and this is surprisingly common. Those exposed to undue expectation develop a self-image based on success; and inevitable, even small, failures lead to a crash of self-esteem. This is even more common because for every winner there are numerous losers and it is a profound flaw in the competitive system of assessment in our culture that the majority in any competitive activity end up as losers. Hear the pejorative ring that we attribute to this experience!
It is easy to imagine that the remedy for low self-esteem is high self-esteem. However this is at least as great a problem, since overly high self-esteem develops into arrogance, grandiosity and conceit which are equally unreliable positions for a human to hold; and arguably are the basis for the development of narcissism . Additionally, high self-esteem is often a cover, or defence, for low self-esteem; and when it inevitably crumbles it leaves a person really quite disabled, without a sense of self with which to support their lives.
The remedy for both conditions of self-regard is, first and foremost, insight through discussion about internalised belief systems. This has to be followed by real world experiments in social and familial settings (in other words, in your personal and public world, imagining yourself into a different self-image). But it is also deeply philosophical and subversive. Try this : all people are equal, if different; and nobody has more entitlement than anyone else to anything, be it material or spiritual, on our spinning planet. Stop for just a moment to really think through your response to this statement. Do you agree? Hmmmm... I think this idea is absolutely revolutionary, both for those with deflated self-esteem (they come up to equal); and for those with inflated self-esteem (they come back to equal). However, the social belief systems in most cultures, and in the institutions of those cultures, including the family, do not often genuinely rest on a principle of relative equality. This incongruence between principle and practice is the reason that we have massive self-esteem problems in our world.
This way of thinking is also a good example of how psychotherapy differs from psychology! Read more here about these differences to help you decide in which direction you want to go for help.
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