It’s the natural way of things that most people coming into psychotherapy are not feeling emotionally balanced. They may have suffered a life event or situation that has knocked them, perhaps a bereavement, relationship challenge, work stress or family difficulty. It could be that there has been a traumatic event. It may be that years of just about managing have run out and long term symptoms are no longer sustainable. Clients may be overwhelmed and very emotional, or in contrast cut off and feeling very little, stuck in their heads.
The work of therapy very often is to help clients come to a position of compassion, always for themselves, and sometimes for those they love too. Compassion and kindness are the stuff of healing, we do not get better when we’re at war with parts of ourselves, or busy trying to push away or minimise the symptoms that appear to be bothering or hurting us. Steve Gilligan describes symptoms as ‘spirit waking up.’ He means that the symptom is calling our attention towards something that needs our attention and love, it is an attempt to heal and grow, however painful it may be in its expression right now. Symptoms are attempts to elicit compassion and love.
Deb Dana makes the observation that it is not possible to be either compassionate or self-compassionate if we are not grounded in our calm, present ventral vagal state. Ventral-vagal is a technical term for a bodymind state where we are calm and emotionally regulated. This is the state of being where you will eat, engage with others socially, or copulate (sometimes called the breed and feed state!). It’s that comfortable place where we feel somehow full and content, where all is well. In short, it’s when we feel safe.
If your cup is not full, it is very challenging to flow out to others. The first task of psychotherapy is developing the ability to be emotionally regulated, and to feel calm, relaxed and safe within your own body. Sometimes this is simple and quick, and sometimes it is not. Always it is essential. From a place of safety, Dana notes that both/and thinking make the world one of possibilities and choice. In this world it is comfortable to be compassionate to ourselves and others, because we do not perceive that we are being threatened.
When you find yourself being mean, either to yourself inside your head, or to others internally or in your speech and action, check out how your body feels. Are you calm? Do you feel safe? Are you comfortable and expansive? Odds on, you will not be. The most powerful thing you can do in that moment is to breathe, to ground, to emotionally regulate yourself in whatever way works for you. It’s pretty difficult to be mean or angry when you are connected and feel safe, it just doesn’t fit. ‘Accept the person, judge the behaviour’ is a key principle here. We’re not always at our best, but we always have the capacity to shift state and be more authentically ourselves. Take a deep breath, soothe yourself, and then try relating once more.
For psychotherapy that sponsors all that you are and helps you attune to your authentic self, get in touch.