Patterns – A Beautiful Way of Thinking

Fractal ImageFractals

For as long as I can remember patterns have fascinated me. From simple designs like parquet flooring and tessellation to radial patterns of nature’s fractals, all offer a representation of our world and known universe that support understanding and for me a degree of comfort.

Splicing Media

Whilst listening to Invisibilia, The Science of Success, Two Guys On Your Head podcasts and watching The Alienist Netflix show, links below, a thought struck about the need for pattern recognition. The interest for me seems to span from an aesthetic (how things look) to the psychological (how our minds interpret information). Questions arise about our need to rapidly recognise patterns and what use we then make of the recognition. The Two Guys episode does well to explain and expand on the idea.

The Invisibilia episode reviews a woman’s attempt to change her life pattern and asks if we too are able to stop and make different choices that support growth and positive outcomes for our lives.

The Science of success episode shares insights on nonverbal communication, micro expressions, and how as humans we can be better at detecting lies with columnist Vanessa Van Edwards.

The Two Guys on Your Head podcast, the doctors of psychology discuss the problems that can arise from seeing things in our minds and not just with our eyes. In essence they reference pattern matching in an artful way.

Art Meets Science

The Alienist has fascinated me too, I started watching the show in late April. I find myself keenly interested primarily as the protagonists are using patterns to solve crime. The show demonstrates how forensic science and forensic psychology may have come into effect. Albeit in a fictionalised 19th Century New York. Here too a pattern seems to emerge as a team search for clues and hidden meaning of their own behaviours and of that of the person responsible for the young men’s deaths. The aim of casting the search net so wide is to understand and stop the person responsible with all accessible means at the investigators’ disposal. What also interests me is that this depiction of late 19th century New York which appears to be a close representation of our modern 21st century lives.

Patterned Living

The realisation that we are living amongst a number of forming and reforming of continual patterns such as algorithms has had me in a state of wonder ever since I read Eric Hoffer’s True Believer in 2008. Themes appear in all four of the media samples mentioned above which include: attraction, guilt, authority, liberty, sexism, addiction, class and passion. History has a habit of repeating itself as Eric Hoffer has suggested.

We tend to use patterns to help us recognise things as diverse as migration, seasons, crop cycles, stock and share prices, rhythm and bpm, music, clothes, travel, festivals, meals, traffic, weather, sleep and waking cycles and psychological patterns marking the stages of life we all pass through. There are a possibly a million more patterns of life that I will have missed.

Counselling Patterns

As a counsellor the pattern of therapy I find, is similar to that of a story, there usually is a beginning, a middle and an end. At times the beginning and ending can happen in a single appointment. Caleb Carr’s Kreizler series I am intrigued to start reading, as it has inspired the Alienist TV series. Usually the book is read first then I watch the adaptation later. Here I am able to witness a break in my own pattern of behaviour.

Pattern Matching

On a common level we interpret a number of cues to inform ourselves about our lives that include; faces, sounds, smells, tastes, all call upon our ability to make use of a range of stimuli. A face that smiles we could view as friendly, a loud screech of tyres helps us recognise that something on wheels either was braking or accelerating, pleasant aromas of food or scents could alert us to a range of pleasing experiences. We recognise these as a result of experiencing them before and unconsciously process and store them. Once recalled, through action or thought we pattern match and behave almost automatically, almost without thought.

Pattern recognition is a way of interpreting information to support our understanding of what is likely to occur. My fascination with simply being aware of patterns enables me to make more informed choices. To make use of the patterns mentioned what would it be like to become a detective/scientist/artist for a while, curious enough to find out the patterns that involve your life and make sense and meaning from them.Triangle Pattern

In essence I am enjoying the psychological battle unfolding in the Alienist (episode 5 at the time of writing) as the characters recognise their strengths as a team and some of their weaknesses. The attempt to solve the mystery of the serial killer is a case of playing field chess in fog. It is a game, it is baffling and unseen players could move pieces that inspire the win and also the loss. As in life, the aim is to live well amongst a seemingly ever unfolding pattern.

The List

The Pattern Problem by Invisibilia. https://www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/597779069/the-pattern-problem

Lies and Body Language http://podcast.scienceofsuccess.co/e/the-secret-science-of-lies-body-language-with-vanessa-van-edwards/

Seeing and Perception with Two Guys on Your Head http://kutpodcasts.org/two-guys-on-your-head/seeing-and-perception

The Alienist https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q9867sT-Y1M&feature=youtu.be

A pattern that has us at once confused and often bemused with a sense of knowing of the way we are still to travel and yet be hopelessly, laughingly and completely lost.

Is Counselling a Good Thing?

Argentine Tango

If it leads to dance… Possibly

‘As Counsellors and Mental Health professionals our role could be seen as Judge Jury and Executioner I shared with a group of Introduction to Counselling students at University of Greenwich in March’

The idea came as an afterthought to a slide which shared the below idea…

Psy-professional dominance

“…the psychiatrist, along with his psychiatrically orientated satellites, has now usurped the place once occupied by the social reformer and the administrator, if not indeed the judge…”

(Wotton,1959.pp.17)

Judge

The idea that we do not judge our clients for their actions, thoughts and circumstances of their lives is mostly I believe true. However as therapists we do make assessments and with that comes some degree of judgement.

How willing are we as therapists to engage with clients and the narratives they share of their lives’? By proxy we are judging! For me the idea is an uncomfortable reality, however it undoubtedly appears as a truism. The wise, and flexible in thought Irvin Yalom in his book ‘Loves Executioner’ shared views about 10 clients he worked with. Wherein lies sometimes excruciatingly honest judgement from him about clients. For example: Penny in the chapter The Wrong One Died was so affected by her past that elements of it were forgotten. Penny’s story stood out for me primarily because her ascent was incredible.

I did however make judgements, about her realisations and towards the end of her story the surprise was tear provoking, moving and surprising as she began to accept what therapy has been able to deliver. A truth well hidden (suppressed) – once seen (recognised) and the pain associated with it had chance to be released the experience offered Penny chance to grow!

As therapists we hold a non-judgemental line with our clients, that attempts to not judge choices of clients but circumstances that they are found within. To this end we judge vicariously choices made and the set of circumstances clients find themselves in. Penny is a great example of judgement by proxy.

The Jury

As Jury we sit, stand, walk and run with clients for hours, inviting them to make more informed choices about themselves. The deliberations seem never ending, the 2nd guessing, the moving ever backward, sideways, and forward before the breakthrough and release. We as therapists prepare the case, a case, our case, formulate the reasoning behind the whys of what lead circumstances to be as the client finds themselves embroiled within, and prepare, re prepare, and wait and hold and offer possible other ways of seeing a set of circumstances.

What we wait for is the lights to come on and the internal glow of re-framing, reclaiming and enlightenment. As an integrative therapist, these moments are worth the wait and the clients patience, as a testament to their resilience and outward growth. They are hard fought for – similarly in the jury’s quarters where arguments ensue, the fight and wrestle for a client is an internal and elemental battle. As therapists we enjoy the battle and the multiple defeats as I view that just further along, the small reprieves and then the striking of gold await. Leaving the jury’s quarters with a verdict whilst hard won, are so so precious.

The Final Act

Executioners execute and we do, for we let die old ideas a client holds of themselves, relationships, careers, family, money, their pasts, identity, food, love, self-esteem, weight, culture, age, sex, and country. We cease the battle once the client begins a journey anew – renewed.

Faith in self – restored, assuages the pain of growth. I have been fortunate enough to witness the act of resilience many times. This is the therapists chalice. This be the raison d’etre of why we do what we do. We resolve something with each struggle, every fight, every loss and every victory. As long as we remain true of ourselves, (congruent) to the work, to the process and to the client – we as a team ultimately win.

A brief tale of The Argentine Tangoist. I had a client a few years ago that I enjoyed working with. They were a trained psychotherapist and could share with me the approaches I was using to support them as we worked. I viewed the work like a daring dance! The dance was like none other that I had been involved with before. It was quick and slow and brief and intricate. I was lost to the spin at times as were they. The work with the Tangoist lasted just over 10 sessions and then as quickly as the work started it ended. Poof! Just like that over. It was chess of the highest order (I am a beginner) and I lost and won and was amazed by their skill. The sense of growth and loss has become a new narrative of mine. One that I have a grapefruit sensation – lingering. As executioner we too can be opened up to the unknown. Here too lies learning…

I have clients where the battle has raged for a while and then peace bursts forth once a realisation or a truth is found. Undeniably the light is perceived by the client – growing from obscurity to clarity and thus, battle weary but ready, strike new ground with renewed faith in their victory. After many years of searching as an artist, poet, basketball coach, youth worker, learning mentor: Counselling and Psychology found and claimed me.

There is something about this work I love – for it blends art with science and the unknown.

The Artist

jm-basquait

Jean Michel Basquait

An early memory from primary school, was of drawing frequently. I loved drawing, painting, sculpting and running sprint races. I had dreams of becoming an artist. I knew nothing of art or of the art world then.

Risk

I remember sharing with my mum in year 3 that I wanted to become an artist and she in her infinite wisdom, said something along the lines of “Artists don’t make that much money.” Re-remembering this experience I’ve come to realise a few truths,

  1. The aim of life, in my mum’s world, was to make money. I would add she was not materialistic, more a pragmatist.
  2. Becoming an artist was a dreamer’s activity (guilty as charged – I was a dreamer, what child isn’t?), and as a result could not be for me. Our world (mine, my mothers, my sisters) was made up of hard realities.

To give context – the time I had my epiphany in year 3, was in the late 70s and money was scarce. We lived on a council estate in North London and didn’t have much. We lived on the top floor of a block of flats. Often the lifts did not work as a result of vandalism, and the council not repairing them. Aged 7 I had thoughts that I could engage in an artistic career. Earning a good living was not an issue I had previously thought much about. In my mother’s view of the world money was a constant concern.

Everywhere we could see was a panorama of concrete. Mum worked as a nurse. Dad was between two worlds. London and Ghana. He worked as a civil servant, and a representative of a Ghanaian political party. He was often away in Ghana for long periods of time. Life from my mum’s perspective was a disillusioned experience, difficult and practical. There was little space or time for the aesthetics of art and appreciations of creativity.

tangmereThe conversation about becoming an artist had a profound effect on my idea of what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I was to have further conversations with my mum about what I could do with drawing as a profession. We came across Architecture as a possible profession that utilized my creativity but could offer me a long and productive career. I imagined what life as an Architect would be like; Drawing buildings and spaces in a range of techniques, using different perspectives to show my vision. I knew little of the technicalities of what being an architect was, but knew that drawing was a part of what an architect did. I wanted to do that. Draw!

Fast forward to September 2016

There have been a number of experiences I’ve had over the past couple of months that have helped me to begin crystallising my identity as a counsellor. One of those experiences was watching a show called the Chef’s Table. The first episode in this series on Netflix observed a man by the name of Massimo Batturo a famous chef in Italy. I was able to witness a remarkable journey. Massimo’s transformation is so different in places to my own story. The multiple successes and failures so rich and complex that in parts his story resembles my own. So much so that I could see myself on his vibrantly filled exuberant passage . A light that I was unaware of, switched back to on for me. This illumination was a warm pleasant and welcome surprise.

Waiting for me

As I have travelled along this path of becoming a counsellor/psychotherapist I have looked for moments that could take me home, to a warm embrace from my life partner, to a large bowl of pepper soup by my elder sister, to a big A-ha moment where I recognise like in moments of de ja vu that I have been here before, or that I remember a particular profound and beautiful experience: such as witnessing a colleague break into a smile after tasting a slice of one of my home baked loaves of bread. Moments like these are not lost on me.

chefs-table

With Massimo I recognise the inner child and the sense of wonder at the world and all that there is in life to uncover. I feel the same way about working as a counsellor/Forensic Mental Health Practitioner for Together for Mental Wellbeing and as a visiting lecturer at Greenwich University as an experiential group facilitator. The feeling of discovery in each of these moments I will describe as like that of a prospector or an alchemist finding gold. The gold I am looking to uncover with a client or a group is their light switching to on – when they say “I can see it now!”

For Massimo hiding beneath his grandmother’s table as a boy away from his brothers teasing. Watching her cook and learning from her, started for him a journey of innovation within the field of cookery and chef mastery that honed his craft like few others before him: his gold. Chef’s table observed his travels and uncovered his passions, the struggles and how things began to coalesce in his life once he returned to Modena. Happy accidents like dropping a lemon tart started in him a journey of exploration-to find the thing! (My words not his). The ultimate, the zenith in his mastery of cooking experience.

Enter art

Massimo and Lara Gilmore visited art galleries in New York at which Massimo was indifferent to. He made me laugh as he described the pigeon piece which in one moment an installation changed Massimo’s idea of himself, arts and his life’s work.

Completing my G.C.S.E.s and leaving secondary school I went to an art college in Wisbech. I attended with the view of completing a spatial design BTEC course. My view of becoming an artist had changed to that of becoming an Interior Designer. My wish to become an architect changed as a result of a conversation with my secondary school’s careers advice service. The conversation observed my lack of mathematical skill that would be necessary for becoming an architect. The careers person also observed that I was good with my hands (even though they had not seen me in Design Technology). Becoming a carpenter would be an equally rewarding career. This conversation disillusioned me further and invited me to think in terms of achievable goals. My final shift of career paths was to become an interior designer.

This from a boy who grew up on a ziggurat in North London. Attending art college was fantastic. It brought me into contact with new ideas, a wider group of artistic people, art history, photography, set design and a new appreciation to design in my life.

I knew little of the arts before I attended Isle college. I was invited to think about composition, texture, light, colour, depiction, balance, true representation, balance, organisation and frame. I developed an affinity for landscapes and fell head over heels for J.M.W. Turner’s work my favourite piece being the fighting Temeraire.the-fighting-temeraire

I believe my trajectory on this psycho-therapeutic path has been pointing me to a distant experience: Art. Massimo helped me arrive at this realisation. I had wondered when and if this moment would ever arrive.

What next?

I feel that the next part of my journey is already unfolding in unpredictable and thought provoking ways: Walk and Talk Therapy, Baking Therapy, Basketball Therapy. Often the work of a counsellor/psychotherapist bursts with so much life, complexity, colour and difficult experiences clients share. The effect of which can be fractious jarring and uncomfortable. The work can also be heart-warming, hilarious and humbling.

By viewing my work with clients as a canvas that is an ever changing palette of colour and texture I feel that I am closing the gap between where I am within the profession of psychoanalytic thought and my original goal of becoming an artist. The work then is a compositional piece that lives, breathes and carries itself forward in new and exciting ways long after we have stopped working together, with it’s many layers and qualities continuing to develop, separate, coalesce and define the self. I am attracted to the living art of working in a way that explores the unimaginable, bravely and without compromise.

The prospect of living and working as an integrative therapist holding an idea of myself as an artist could be seen as a threat to what came before, however I am witnessing a sense of discovery to approaching my work as a collaborator to a human canvas that is ever changing.

When asked who I am, my answer…

 

…I am an artist,

 

…I became what I was meant to be…

 

…eventually..

 

…Poetry.

Wishing you well.

Waking up into a thought can be a refreshing experience. Recently my thoughts ran onto members of the  Experiential Group I had facilitated for 22 weeks. My thought was simply this: I wished them all well. I also wanted to thank all of the group members.

I have described in an earlier blog what the function the experiential group had and what my role was. What I have not given is a facilitators perspective on how the groups development was and why I wish the members that attended well.

1st Meeting September 2015

The first meeting of the group was interesting. They came into a room that was ill prepared for any therapeutic endeavour. Chairs and tables were hurriedly arranged in a heap towards the back of the room. I entered the room and found a seat and sat towards the front of the room. Members of the experiential group came in after me and found a chair and placed it in a loose formed elliptical shape and then took to their seats. Other members were already in the room and either stayed in their seats or chose the lesson change over time to stretch their legs and take time to wander into the corridor and chat with other students. They would return in time for the beginning of the next lesson and again take their seats.

Sitting at the ‘front’ of the group became my habit for at least 5 of the first meetings. I would later change my position in the room which caused slight ripples of discomfort amongst the group. Comments included “why has Michael changed where he used to sit?” Not providing an answer and allowing the group to give reason for the slight change presented them with a new reality of me their facilitator.

Changing something small

Being a mischievous person altering my seating position in the room and not sharing as to why I had moved from the front of the class to the side or sometimes the back of the room gave the students an opportunity to appreciate change within the therapeutic space. Initially I moved as I wanted to test the group. Would moving to the left or right of the front of the room change the dynamics of the room?

The change represented difference and I feel that a number of conversations occurred in relation to the subtlety of my movement. The group responded by discussing differences of opinion about the course, each other, perspectives on race, religion, sex, counselling, spirituality, profession, age, family, the why of this career as opposed to any other. Identities for the group became a little more defined, roles the members played changed from week to week: the information bearer, joker, quiet one, challenger, agreer, arguer, dismisser, lecturer enthusiast, social commentator, pessimist, optimist and realist changed from week to week. Which offered the group a chance to simultaneously grow individually and together.

Time and Timings

There were a number of boundaries that were initially presented as trigger points which the group  agreed on or raged against. The clock on the wall in the space we used was roughly 3 minutes faster than real time (my watch). By the 3rd week I had identified that my start and stop times were out of sync with the clock on the wall and members of the group were agitated by this discrepancy.

I chose to raise the timing of the start and end time with the group to gain perspective on whether clock time or watch time would be best to use for the timing of the experiential group hour. On reflection the group decided that they would like to use the clock on the wall to time the beginning and the end of each experiential group.

By the 4th week the timing of the start had slid to coincide with my ‘watch time’ and so I naturally chose to adjust the timing of the experiential group to allow for a later start. Challenge to the timing of the Experiential Group became a frequent issue in the 1st few weeks of the group being run. No sooner had I either raised my hand or indicated that our time together had come to an end, students were making their way to the door. I found it curious. It was like something had gone wrong with the work. Their exit provided them with an abrupt end to a difficult experience. At times this may well have been the case.

Challenge

Describing the purpose of the experiential group was something I had not spent a lot of time reviewing before the group started. In short I said to the 11 members how I perceived the space could be used and said ‘Welcome to your first experiential group. How has your first day been?’ I was promptly informed that the group had started the course a week ago and that this was infact their 2nd week.

Ah, the facilitator gets it wrong! But can he regroup? Internalised thought

I then said something about the idea of safety and that I wanted to provide a safe environment in which all students could share things in the room and be heard. The other idea that was put across to the room was that they needed to be authentic as their professional logs would be marked on reflection of what they had shared in the room.

Challenges came from the group in terms of not fully understanding the purpose of experiential group, or what my role as facilitator was, and questioning if the material that was discussed would disrupt the fragile new alliances that were being formed amongst the group. I took up the gauntlet and attempted to manage the groups development as I had with other groups I had supported previously, which included the Skype group of counsellors that I met with every month and the various basketball teams I had coached.

Experiential Group as a Catalyst

If a person could take a picture of themselves before joining a group experience and then another at a mid-point of a course and then another picture near the end of the course they may well be able to perceive subtle changes about themselves.

Things like their stance whilst sitting or standing, as they talked and expressed ideas to a group of peers. When being challenged by another on a point, they would not try to slink away and hide nor become defensive but seek an empathic understanding of why the question or challenge came when it did.

The picture of themselves in the last experiential group would present them with their growth. By journeying with peers, subtle and significant changes will have occurred. For me as a facilitator all students appeared to have hewn from the granite of the course an identity of who they were and where their counselling journey was to lead them to next.

Good bye and Thanks

I have mentioned in a previous blog that saying goodbye to this first group of counselling students was bittersweet. We were able to develop a closing experience of the group that seemed to resonate with all members that attended.

At one point my voice cracked as I shared that I was going to give up ‘Fear’ and what I was going to take was ‘All 11 of you’. The closing of the group had been mentioned as an idea roughly 9 weeks prior. It was similar to the ending of the Roda when I attended Capoeira with the London School of Capoeira 1999-2001. A completing of a good dance with fellow capoeiristas.

I considered all I had worked with, as a facilitator of this years Experiential Group, ready to move on to the next stage of their journey, capable of fulfilling their roles as mental health practitioners/counsellors/psychotherapists/students.

My thanks are largely due as a result of the group’s patience, resilience, trust and belief that I could facilitate the room and support the group to hold each other and the issues discussed with sensitivity warmth and compassion.

What a ride! I look forward to my next group of students, going again and supporting learning and development.

I wish you well.

Belonging v Fitting In

Confusion 2015-05-25 15.32.10

There are many reasons that I have wanted to write a regular blog. Mostly to share a perspective on things I experience from bewildering and conflicting perspectives. These perspectives include myself as a thinker, a past time of mine since I was a young man.

  • A black male psychotherapist, three words that cause me to pause and reflect on the meanings that are associated with each and how these three words interact with each other and with the social fields I come into contact with on a daily basis. I suspect a blog about being a black male psychotherapist is to be written in time.
  • Being a father of 2 young black boys the responsibility I am presented is to support their development in being able to simply just be. With Janelle Monáe’s Hell you Talmbout I recognise that my involvement with my sons’ lives is of primary importance and one in which I am invited to be an educator, coach, listener, artist, co conspirator, chef, journey planner and Doctor. Ta Nehesi Coates speaks and writes well on this subject in his book Between the World and Me.
  • Some of the other roles I engage with are; as a member of a mental health organisation working alongside probation and with service users, as a husband, as a lover of jazz, a reader, a former interior designer, youth worker, comic book reader, movie goer, longboard rider, podcast listener, basketballer and coach, friend, walker, facilitator and multiple sclerosis sufferer. This list is not exhaustive and there are probably at least 5 or more subjects I could add.

Fitting in, Belonging

For this blog I wanted to discuss an awareness I sensed but hadn’t fully brought into full consciousness until I came across it whilst reading Brené Brown’s ‘Daring Greatly’. One of the concepts she was able to describe was a simple concept of either fitting in or belonging. At the time of reading ‘Daring Greatly’ in Oct – Nov 2015 I was experiencing what it meant to either ‘belong’ or to fit in.

2014 into 2015

Working for a large organisation with a group of people one knows vaguely who each have slightly differing roles and responsibilities to yours, there can be points when you are offered a chance to either fit in, or if lucky to choose to belong. When I joined the organisation I attempted to go with the flow and fit in.

Fitting in often does not cause great offence to others ‘no boats are rocking’. Perhaps in oneself the effect is of losing grip on what is important – oneself and one’s reality. Losing sense of oneself can be unsettling and what could be worse is not realising that your way is lost until you are saying and doing things that you don’t recognise.

In December 2014, I left an experience of belonging to a staff team in a high security prison and joined the organisation I currently work with in January 2015. The mental health team I left consisted of Psychiatrists, Social Workers, Nurses, Counselling Psychologists, counsellors , an EMDR counsellor who was also my line manager and supervisor, Occupational  Therapists, and counsellors on placement.

HMP Belmarsh’s mental health team was a robust co-operative, co-ordinated group of professionals that met every week to discuss mental health referrals. It took me 2 years to get used to the quick fired nature of the referral process and dissemination of potential clients to departments within the mental health team. In the last 2 years of working at Belmarsh I gained a sense of how valuable these differences amongst the mental health team were as Social workers would have a different perspective to Psychiatrists or CPNs another opinion to Occupational Therapists and counsellors to counselling psychologists.

With these differing opinions in relation to treatment options, barriers for individuals seeking treatment were overcome and mostly resolved. The experience I had was of belonging to a staff team who were willing to work together for the greater good of those seeking mental health support. I was able to recognise that differing viewpoints can be supportive rather than only negative, that can appear to slow or block progress.

A reminder

Whilst training as a counsellor 2008-2011 I had experiences that were of not being able to neither fit in nor belong. I was one of a few minority ethnic people on the course and one of only 3 males that completed year 1. Struggling alongside 18 other students on a bewildering counselling MSc course, I would have thought would generate a sense of belonging or camaraderie. My experience was that of being outside of a group of people who were able to exist in a quasi-understanding of fitting in with each other.

I made a choice in October 2015, which was supported by Daring Greatly, that fitting in was not going to be how I operate whilst working with others. Belonging was a better coat to wear. I had been in a number of previous working experiences pre Belmarsh were belonging was a part of the fabric of the organisation.

Currently I find myself reminded of my training to be a counsellor and the discomfort of attempting to fit in amongst a student populace that I was to belong to, but was different from.  The knowledge of being an outsider from a group is not a new one and has the possibility of offering me an internal conflict which can lead to personal growth.

Reality

The reality is that the experience of belonging or fitting in will repeat in whatever work context I find myself involved with. The interesting thing for me is that I will attempt to gain a sense of belonging wherever I work. The cost of attempting to fit in I find too great. It’s the experience of not sharing your perspective on subjects you care about, of fearing that you will be ostracized by people you work with, finding that you stand out and being uncomfortable with this.

Belonging

Being amongst a group of others I would find it important to relate and talk about any number of subjects on a number of different levels and not be judged or ridiculed in my sharing. Depending on a person’s background and family of origin the aim could be to gain a sense of belonging similar to that of a family system. Perhaps without some of the negative aspects of a family group. For me it’s about the feelings that come with the experience of recognising that one belongs. Which feels very different to fitting in.

I would liken belonging to hearing a favourite song by chance whilst out doing something innocuous. The song I would be happy to hear would be Ooh Child by the Five Fairsteps and something like love spreads throughout your system like you’re in a hot bath.

My experiences of belonging are many-fold, for example attending my first BAATN mens group and mentioning that unlike Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man I WAS being seen and heard by the group, and that I also belonged. Coaching basketball in a number of settings was the epitome of gaining a sense of containment attachment and belonging for every team I coached and for all that attended. My sense of the Experiential Group even though I was the facilitator, I felt part of the group not apart from it, lastly, when my family get together we express our love in volume but each member receives that warm bath feeling…

Belonging.

Endings and New Beginnings

2015-07-05 14.47.16In September 2015 I began facilitating a group of year 1 MSc Therapeutic Counselling Students at University of Greenwich. My role was to sit with 11 students in something called Experiential Group.

Group Aims

Perhaps explaining what the group is to do and the aim of the Experiential Group would help to frame what I have enjoyed about the experience and why I am sad to see the group come to a close. The Experiential Group is essentially the last component of 4 or 5 sections of training to be a counsellor. Other training providers and universities may have a range of different modules for training counsellors. At the University of Greenwich the course is comprised of; Theory, Skills, Case Discussion and Experiential Group and this was the running order of the day when I attended 2008-2011.

In Experiential Group, members discuss topics that have arisen in the course of the week and share these with the group. The space is infused with dynamism, ideas, emotions and rememberings . My role is to sit amongst the group, and notice what is happening in the room and offer insights and reflections for reflection and application to the conversation. It is a role that I feel is as challenging as that of an orchestral conductor without a pre-designed, pre-aranged outcome or destination.

Facilitate?

At the first meeting in September 2015, the group asked what my role was, ‘Like what do you do?’ I smiled in response and did not offer much as an explanation. The 11 members of the group as one, looked perplexed, as if I were holding back some valuable information. I eventually offered that I facilitate the space.

Different yet the same

I can reflect on joining my experiential group in 2008 with 15 unknown people in the room and feeling at odds with 2 conflicting ideas. The first was that my previous counselling skills course at Morley College had offered a similar collective learning experience but was termed either a check in or a check out. The ‘Check ins’ were at the beginning of the course and the ‘Check outs’ came at the end. I had some knowledge of what the experiential group was about. But did I? Really?

Framing

I can remember in 2008 that I wanted to suggest we check-in and check-out. This would have given me a frame to work within for every group meeting. It may have provided others with a ‘have to’ which could have been prescriptive and not as comforting. Great for me, perhaps not necessary for everyone else. After attempting to make check-ins a part of our experiential group meetings the idea was phased out after 2 meetings. At the time I was not happy about this phasing out but looking back I can see the reason that check-ins were moved past.

The second thought at the time was, there are other people here and they may know more about counselling than me so I should listen and follow their lead as I don’t want to make myself look inept and out of my depth.

Growing Awareness

Looking back on my need for structure then, I can witness a need to control and pace things in a measured way. What happened with this year’s year one students, was apart from time boundaries there were little imposed rules for the group to hold on to. They managed well with little to guide discussion or rules for the group.

The purpose of the experiential group as identified in an article in Therapy Today (Peer supervision and collaborative power) , which is not in the course hand book but a suspicion on my part, is to grow the counselling experience and the counsellors awareness of self and other in the 28 x 1 hour appointments. I have found this group process remarkable, confusing, frustrating, hilarious, as a way of engaging student counsellors works to hone inherent skill development.

Differences

It works because of what each member brings to each meeting. There are differences of opinion, differences in thought, seeing aspects of counselling and psychotherapy in a wide number of perspectives, a collaboration of suspicions, they share successes and failures, difficulties are offered as talking points for the group to reflect. The aspect that makes me wryly smile is that the energy of the room sways and motivates discussion in surprising ways. Pop culture and Pop psychology is often used to hang uncomfortable and indigestible components of counselling and psychotherapy on. Humour was often used to smooth away the cracks that appeared in a discussion that encountered difficulty or a differing opinion.

Appreciation

The group then use the experiential group and components of the course as well as their placements to write 2 professional logs. The professional logs are informed by personal notes taken throughout the year. These notes observe how each participant has used/observed themselves and material from the course in describing themes relevant to them, their progression on the course and relating this to skills, placement (counselling skills application), case discussion and the experiential group. With each professional log, students grew their awareness and their roles as counsellors in each particular setting they practiced their skills in. It was a privilege to sit amongst the group and witness these nano changes, that were in fact gargantuan.

My excitement wanes as I acknowledge that I won’t have this 1st again. These 11 students go on to year 2 or elsewhere to continue their journey in a way that is outside of my knowledge, experience and guidance.

With this said, I am invited to look at what lies at the horizon and begin my walk toward this…

Bon chance.

Daring Greatly

Admitting defeat.

Ignore

Be so

In September 2015 I spent a few days reading a book by Brene Brown called Daring Greatly. The book offers the idea that owning our vulnerabilities makes us stronger, or better at not fearing our lives. Daring greatly as an idea has struck several chords for me as I have lived in fear of discovering that my disability might prevent me from doing my job well enough.

I have spent the last 6 years developing my craft as a counsellor and Mental Health professional; working in the community in private practice, at a University as a Student Mentor, in a prison as a counsellor / psychological wellbeing practitioner and as a Forensic Mental Health Practitioner for Together. I thought I should aim to be better than good. Better than I thought that the disability would somehow stop me from being. In the profession this type of thinking is identified as over compensating. I can put my hands up own that I do that.

I have Multiple Sclerosis. It is a disease I have struggled to live with for 6 years since being diagnosed in 2011. I can remember the day that my doctor at Moorefields Eye Hospital reluctantly told me. I felt huge waves of anxiety lift. I dreaded that I might have a terminal disease like brain cancer. I might not be bright enough for that. I was also intensely angry and sad. As I imagined that my dreams of being a brilliant professional had dimmed due to my understanding of what Multiple Sclerosis is.

My struggle has been, I have not wanted to admit to myself or anyone that, I have an incurable disease. A disease that has enabled me to take a good look at myself and reflect on the past 30 years of my life. Over the years there were signs of the disease which hinted at a serious nervous system malfunction, that just wasn’t identified after multiple misdiagnoses. The most frightening was at 22-23 I suffered with a 6 month experience of the left side of my body going into spasm after exerting myself. A doctor I saw identified that I might have an inflammation in my lower back that flared up when over stimulated this part of my body. He requested that I hold my breath through these episodes and either sit or lie down until the spasms had passed. The humorous thing for me was this was a sign of MS and it was missed but his advice worked.

I looked into the mirror on a particular morning in October 2015 and said to myself “I am going to have a great day.” On this particular day I struggled to make it to work on time and tripped and fell hard on pavement, partly due to the fact that I was rushing and partly because of my balance and co-ordination and tiny calculations in gait and flagstone pavement height that I struggle to compensate for felled me. This morning was not what I had in mind as a “Great day”. But a day is 23 hours and 59 minutes and 59 seconds long, I just had to wait for the rest of the day to unfold. It did get better.

For 6 years I have wondered about not letting my secret out as I had not wanted to give others insight about my weakness. But as the book ‘Daring Greatly’ describes, admitting where you are weak is a strength that is indescribable for what it offers: release – a sense of liberation. It feels like for a long time I have lived in a cell with a high barred window. I could hear and smell the seasons change and birds chirping, but the scant amount of daylight that entered my cell was not enough for me to grow strong. I have hidden my illness as a result of how I believed others who may never meet me might judge me. Now I am beyond the cell, and striding into sunlight.

On the day in October where I said to myself “Have a great day”, I attended training at the head office of the organisation where I work. The training was on motivational interviewing and I was invited to share a real story with a colleague about something I had wanted to stop doing. I mentioned that I wanted to stop living in fear of this secret of my MS secret getting out. My colleague EK allowed me to think about what changes I could implement. Owning my flaws, my weakness, bearing to be vulnerable could actually be my biggest ‘to do’.

It scares me as to what this may mean for me and my family, my business and my future. However I already realise that by writing this and then sharing this a huge boulder that I have been pushing much like Sisyphus is now gone. I no longer need to hide it. I have accepted that I have a disability and it does not define my star’s ascent.