A recent newspaper article got me thinking about how many people within their professional life find themselves wondering about whether a colleague or client is, in fact, in an abusive relationship? What if someone actually disclosed this and needed support or help? How many would know what to do ‘for the best’?
A whole range of emotions could be triggered including shock, surprise, fear, anger, sadness, trepidation, anxiety, worry or some may feel motivated to take action. Thoughts may include “What do I say?” “Did I hear that right?” “Could I make it worse by saying the wrong thing?” “What am I supposed to do with that?” “They’ve trusted me with that so what do I do next?”
The article I read was about the tragic death of a young woman who confided in her hairdresser about her partner’s aggressive and violent behaviour and threats to hurt her. Many of us develop trusting relationships with our hairdresser, barber, beautician, nail technician, often over several years; discussing families and relationships as well as the everyday chit-chat.
Research demonstrates that many people in unhealthy, and abusive, relationships will indirectly reach out to several people before someone recognises the invitation to help....but it’s a big ask if it isn’t something you know about.
I decided to offer a free information evening to the local hair and beauty professionals and will be running the event tomorrow night: I’m delighted that many have confirmed they are planning to come to help them feel more empowered to both recognise and respond appropriately. How many more people, professions and customer-facing businesses could benefit from knowing more; keeping themselves and others safe?
Watch this space for a follow-up!
Several times recently I’ve been asked why I named my practice “RealTalk Therapy”? To answer this, I first want to do a quick recap on ‘talking’.
One of the earliest developmental milestones for most of us is communication and more specifically talking – as a Mum myself, I remember the excitement of the first word my children spoke....even though it was classically ‘No’. From the very first interactions with parents, siblings and other significant people, we start to build both an internal word dictionary as well as an understanding of how to use these words to convey information but also to have a particular impact on someone or to have a need met.
The impact of language in relationships can be profound – good and bad. It can convey the deepest positive emotions and provide comfort. It can also cut and wound deeply – sometimes by design, sometimes through naivety, sometimes through carelessness. It can also influence how we define and value ourselves; the early messages and how we interpret them can often stay with us as adults.
Working as a Counsellor, you become aware of just how much internal conversation we engage in and whilst this can be very positive, this self-talk can also be damaging and limiting when the messages we have heard about ourselves have been negative. Replaying painful quips, jibes, spiteful and careless comments, cruel criticism and negative judgement from others .... can all become part of our internal dialogue, sometimes playing on a persistent loop. This is so often the case when working with survivors of domestic violence and abuse who, even free from the abuse and on the road to recovery, “can still hear the abuser’s voice in their heads” and this perpetuates their own self-blame and negative internal conversation. In addition, many have physically ‘lost their voice’ and are silenced; fearing having an opinion, stating a concern or asking for anything; denying themselves these rights for fear of further abusive retribution.
But this is not restricted to survivors of abuse. How many people feel unable to state their needs; question; challenge; enquire; contribute; disagree? How many feel unable to have ‘real conversations’ with themselves as well as others, even loved ones, because they fear it being perceived as conflict, inflammatory, mis-understood or rebuffed? How many simply don’t have a role model or a template for how to ‘really talk’ without these consequences ..... and indeed, others a template for how to ‘really listen’? How many won’t give themselves permission to be honest about their experiences, thoughts and feelings for fear it will shock, break invisible codes of acceptability, drive others away or simply be too much for others to cope with? How many can be confident they know they have the safe space and acceptance of a.n.other to ‘not know’ but to let it all fall out in an incoherent jumble or be supported in searching for what they don’t yet understand?
So this is why I call my practice RealTalk Therapy – I offer this space and this acceptance. I support clients in voicing these internal conversations, being curious about the how, the why, the alternatives. I aim to help clients reclaim their own voice and to dismiss those which hang around as unwanted echoes.
Many years ago, a client whom I was working with (in a community support role) was struggling so hard to make sense of the appalling emotional, psychological and financial abuse she had, and to some degree, still was experiencing. One day I arrived at her home to be met by a song playing on repeat, by a band who never made it ‘big’; but for her, it was life-changing.
For weeks I had been gently encouraging her to challenge her own defensive thinking and belief systems that this abusive, elusive, absent on/off partner was actually a ‘nice guy’ and that she was the problem. Listening to a song from this little known group, one line achieved where I had failed, becoming a catalyst for unraveling the massive web and knots of deceipt and trauma that she was drowning in.
”The reason you need me to change is so you can stay the same.”
I would like to be able to say that this client ultimately found all the answers and completed her recovery, walking into her future happy and restored but as we know, life is rarely like that. She battled periods of depression and suicidality but this one line gave her the belief that whilst she had to battle to recover from the impact of the abuse, she wasn’t responsible for it. We were finally able to talk honestly and openly about what had happened to her: Carefully, gently and safely we slowly named the abuse, we used the raw language, no more ‘he hurt me’ but actually exploring what was that hurt, how did it feel, how does it still feel, what was its impact? More important still, where to place the responsibility for this hurt. I couldn’t answer all the questions beginning with why ..... how..... could.... and in a community support role (not counselling) my remit and limited time boundaries didn’t allow me to explore these deeper, just ensure she was no longer at risk, that she had coping strategies that could sustain her through the darkest hours and people around her on whom she could call. I had to walk away feeling like I should have been able to do so much more.
I hadn’t thought about this client for some time but scrolling through some internet sites, the memory was prompted by this image and it struck a particular chord.
Working with literally hundreds of people who have experienced relationship abuse/dv&a (personal or familial relationships), I know each woman and man has their unique story: But there are often common questions, hurdles and milestones in understanding and recovery. An enduring theme is the pain and/or anger that simply through loving and caring for someone, they are now the ones left hurting and needing therapy to heal from its devastating impact whilst the majority of perpetrators walk away unhindered and unfettered to do it to someone else.
Whilst chatting to my Supervisor last week, we were talking through how Counselling can mean different things to different people and he asked me “so what does Counselling mean to you?” Before I tell you my reply, I put it into good old Google.
Google tells us that Counselling is the provision of professional assistance and guidance in resolving personal or psychological problems. Whilst I agree with Google, I see this only as part of the responsibility of Counselling. For me, it just doesn’t go far enough in explicitly talking about the ‘change’ as a result of the counselling…..what will the impact of resolving the problem be? How might this show itself in personality, behaviour, relationships? Does the change allow for dreams to become realities, or perhaps provide a permission to be or think differently about self and others……could the ramifications of this be a strengthening of ties and bonds, cause shock-waves in relationships with others or result in significant life decisions?
The goals and purpose of Counselling are often covered in the initial discussion as you explore and establish the Counselling contract but how these then translate into real life and how people engage in living differently after Counselling perhaps falls more in the Coaching arena.
So, I went back to Google which was initially keen to tell me about travelling by coach (honestly) but with a bit of tweaking, I settled on a simple definition from the Coaching Academy. It states Coaching assists a client to bridge the gap between where they are now, to where they would like to be far more effectively than if they worked alone. Other definitions included making changes looking at the here and now without reference to the past and yet the core of many emotional or psychological counselling issues are found in our pasts so maybe this is one of the boundaries between them.
So whilst I am passionate about the merits of Counselling for understanding, healing, restoration and personal growth, maybe I am also a closet-Coach, similarly believing that Counselling also has a responsibility to support clients in translating this positive change into real life steps towards the future they envisage for themelves. Welcome the Coaching Counsellor!
Those in the know often say blogging should start with an introduction to who you are and what the blog is to be about so I hope the following short, true, story will offer some insight - less about me but more of why I believe passionately in, and love to 'do what I do.'
I was attending the funeral of a long, dear friend's Mum (Bette) last week; sad but also a celebration of her 97 years' life filled with family, grandchildren, friends and love. I met the family at home and was made aware that one of Mum's friends, Mary, was also coming to the house to travel with the family as she was a very anxious lady and wouldn't know anyone else. I noticed Mary come in and how she tried to blend into the corner of the hallway almost like she felt she didn't belong here and wanted to be invisible. The truth is she belonged here far more than I did; whilst I had met Bette many times, my role today was one of support for my friend, Bette's daughter. Mary's grief and loss was founded on nearly 20 years of friendship with Bette, shared laughter and confidences and at 85 years herself, so much more profound.
I went to speak to Mary and introduced myself, explaining I wouldn't know anyone else from the family at the crematorium so it was lovely to meet one of Bette's friends who knew her so well. (Forgive my little white lie, it was true I didn't know most of the wider family but I did know well some of my friend's own support circle who would be there). Mary told me a little of her friendship with Bette and how they met and Mary's gentle, honest, goodness was evident. Mary also shared her apprehension and fear of coming to the funeral and that she feared being among 'intellectual' people'. Now don't get me wrong, my friend, her husband, children and their wider family are all lovely people but they wouldn't describe themselves as intellectual! I asked Mary if we could travel together and perhaps support each other during the service but she'd have to forgive my less than perfect singing of the hymns: Mary's relief was tangible and her agreement swift.
As we traveled and then stood in the beautiful unexpected February sunshine before and after the service, we talked about Bette and how she had been one of the phenomenal women who had worked in the munitions factories during the Second World War. Mary shared her experience as a Land-Girl but here she diverged from the stereotypical version of a rosy-cheeked, dungaree-clad young woman bringing in the crops in the English countryside with recollections of bullying, abuse, fear, put-downs and constant criticism. She fleetingly mentioned how this too had been the 'story of her marriage' but she'd finally ended that and brought up her four children alone but had 'never made much success of herself or been very clever'. I had a sense this was her own strap-line for her life.
So here I am, outside a crematorium following a goodbye service for a truly lovely lady, hearing and seeing in a matter of minutes, how another beautiful person's spirit and self-esteem has been blighted by abuse. I could feel the sadness and anger rise up in me in equal measure. We sat on a bench looking over the gardens and I quietly told her that I was so sorry she couldn't see in herself, the many things I was in awe of. How she'd survived as a young woman working so hard to support her country at a time of massive national threat and fear in conditions no-one should have to tolerate; how she'd been so strong, loving and loyal to survive a hard and damaging marriage and then found the courage to end it and successfully bring up her 4 children alone and at a time when support was practically non-existent; how she'd gone on to live a peaceful life with her family, grand-children and friends and still even now, facing her fears to come into a social situation which terrified her. I told her I truly thought she was amazing, with hidden depths and strengths, with the emotional 'cleverness' that many others with different intellects can only dream of and I really hoped she would take some of this to heart. I hoped she would know that even though we'd probably never meet again, I would always be glad I'd met her and remember her. She squeezed my hand, welled-up and simply said 'Thank You, I never thought of myself like that'.
Mary hadn't wanted to join the family and friends at the wake so left after we shared a hug and I thanked her for looking after me and again said that I'd always be glad that Bette had brought us together.
So this is why I do what I do. This is what inspires and drives me to work with people who have experienced abuse - what right does one human being have to so damage another who simply cares, loves and keeps giving? I love seeing survivors of abuse gradually releasing the invisible balls and chains that can often hold them back and impact on them, whether the abusive relationship is just ending, has recently ended, or whether it ended decades ago. We can't undo the past but sometimes we can demystify it, deconstruct and throw out the illusions, the lies, distortions and the sheer badness and find ways to celebrate and build on those strengths that always kept us going.
(Names have been changed to protect anonymity).