Valentine’s Day, Counselling Work and Brexit
Many people will have favourite phrases which are often repeated in conversations whether with friends or in a work situation. Therapists are not immune from that behaviour and I am certainly aware of a couple of phrases which I will use in my counselling room in Chichester.
When responding to clients who are having to wrestle with incredibly difficult personal dilemmas I will sometimes wonder about the possibility of trying to become more ‘comfortable with feeling uncomfortable’ as an alternative to continually searching for an unrealistic perfect outcome. Perhaps another more demanding variant of that phrase is about looking to ‘tolerate what is intolerable’.
These comments suggest something to do with being prepared to face life as it is together with all the challenges that can bring. That is not to propose giving up the struggle too quickly but more about adopting a realistic stance about what is happening in life.
Both of those phrases come back to me now as I look at the way in which various dramas are unfolding in our national life. The unending debates over Brexit seem to have reached an impasse. There is no meeting of minds and no obvious way forward. This deadlock seems to be echoed elsewhere. For example in the US, Trump’s battle with Congress with regard to the funding of the border wall, appears to have reached a similar stalemate.
These political challenges seem insurmountable in the moment. Nevertheless the reality is that a way forward will eventually be found. It may not meet the requirements of all those involved. There is likely to be disappointment, sadness or even anger from some at the outcome but nevertheless a resolution will be found. A course of action will be adopted. That is the case for these weighty political issues but it is also true of the seemingly insurmountable challenges that we sometimes have to face in our personal life.
I am not suggesting adopting that well-worn cliché of ‘time heals’. That phrase can be unhelpful. The reality is that on occasions if certain issues are left unresolved, time may not heal. Indeed the emotional wound may fester and become toxic. Instead these ideas of being ‘comfortable with being uncomfortable’ are about accepting rather than denying. They encourage facing issues and not ignoring them.
With promises broken and election pledges unfulfilled, the political class has a reputation for being at best disingenuous and at worst simply untrustworthy. Examples can be found across all the main political parties. Nevertheless a move away from a stated aim or long held position is sometimes necessary for the wider good. It may be that it is the politician who demonstrates a willingness to change in the face of opposition who deserves respect. The phrase ‘when the facts change I change my mind’ is often attributed to the economist John Maynard Keynes (although this is not what he actually said!). Whatever the origins, the phrase has much merit even if that change may be unpopular and carries a personal cost
If we look away from politics and into our individual lives perhaps there may be occasions to apply that approach to personal issues. For example retailers and restauranteurs are about to remind us through a cascade of advertisements that Valentine’s Day is approaching. The focus will be on soft lights and romance. Yet this may inevitably cause some people to reflect critically on the state of his or her relationships. Perhaps there may be some difficult truths within a relationship that at least one in the couple is thinking about how to tackle.
To consider inviting a discussion with a partner about the relationship and ‘where we go from here’ can be very uncomfortable. To acknowledge that there may even be questions to be raised about whether to continue together or not, can feel intolerable. That latent threat to the very fabric of a secure personal life may feel overwhelming.
Yet if we can acknowledge the feelings of distress and accept the sense of apprehension, we may then be in a better position to decide what to do. Are we prepared to take action and find a way forward despite the possible consequences? Our internal decision making process can sometimes be helped by a quiet talk with a trusted friend. It may also be useful to work with someone outside of the personal loop such as a counsellor, whether this is a therapist specialising in relationship counselling or individual therapy.
Whatever approach is followed, the starting point is to accept that what comes next is likely to be uncomfortable but it can be done. Perhaps the mantra is that ‘I will be able tolerate these difficult feelings because the path I have chosen is the right one for me’.
For those who like labels and definitions, this type of methodology combines mindfulness where we try to stand back and observe, CBT where we work with the interplay between thoughts and actions and stoicism with a focus is on enduring what is difficult. It can be a particularly challenging approach to adopt. The alternative however is to keep ignoring that which is demanding attention in the full knowledge that the issue is likely to eventually erupt in the future and in a way that may be really hurtful and destructive.
Taking control and deciding to follow a difficult path is not about finding a magic solution. It is however a way to acknowledge that you can tolerate those uncomfortable feelings; and recognising that you do have the strength to endure what was previous thought of as unendurable. You can find a way forward which will work for you!