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Moments of compassion

22 Apr

Work was hideous today. I felt like I was banging my head up against a brick wall, trying to get heard about ‘risk issues’ I am professionally responsible for communicating but powerless to act on. Lots of phone calls, dead ends and defensiveness. My heart raced and I exploded in a mess of tears in the office stairwell.

On returning home I wanted to skip karate, order a 14″ pizza, drink 2 cans of cider and pass out on the couch.

I found my self ruminating over all the crap that I had encountered during the day.

I stopped and noticed what I was doing.

As an experiment I tried, instead to notice all the compassion I had encountered through out the day:

The positive, inspirational blogs I read on the loo this morning.

Bronwyn returning her ball to me during our walk.

My colleague listening to me and supporting me.

The team secretary who decided not to bother putting through non-urgent calls.

The colleague who filled up my coffee cup without asking.

The colleague who contained me in the stair well.

The lady from social services who took me seriously.

My husband who took a panicked phone call from me at work. And listened.

My puppies who delighted in my return from work and licked my weary face.

All the people who liked and followed my blog ūüėČ

Me, who despite tendencies towards the unhelpful took herself off to karate.

My karate sensei, who caused me so much pain I forgot about all the mental stresses of the day.

It worked, I feel better, I feel supported and emotionally regulated.

Thank you ūüôā


Going ‘Off Plan’

20 Apr

It’s been a stressy week. I have not managed to take time back.

I have worked overtime, over time that I won’t be paid for and probably won’t manage to claim back.

I figure that I need to start giving clients a set number of hours per week and sticking to it! I have been pulled into various meetings about clients and have still felt it was important to go and see them, write their notes and analyse data about them. This just isn’t feasible! (unless I can get my caseload down to two!).

Anyway, yesterday (Friday) I was driving around Thanet between a session with a client and a case conference about a different client. I realised I had a hour to spare; not enough time to get back to the office; too much time to go straight there.

I realised I was driving through broadstairs and it occured to me that I could take a lunch-break yes a friging lunch break. I had heard that Broadstairs is nice, and I suddenly felt like I might have the opportunity to do something totally unpredictable to even myself.

I felt as I were being somewhat reckless as I parked my car on the high street and walked down the hill towards where I imagined the sea might be. To think that no one in the world knew where I was or what I was doing, nor could they guess felt alien and exciting to me.

I felt as if I might have managed to go off plan; to have demonstrated my own free will and independence of thought.

I walked down the road and identified that Broadstairs was indeed, middle class, with an old-fashioned bakery, haberdashery and butcher on the high street. A funeral parlour with the tag line “today is a good day to plan your funeral” gave me an idea of the demographics of the town, yet strangely, the only young people I could see were teenagers. Not British teenagers, but French, in fact, the only language I could hear being spoken was French. I wondered if I might have accidentally entered into a rift in the space-time continuum, or maybe just, absent mindedly driven through the eurotunnel into France.

As it began to rain I realised I was indeed in Britain, and like a true Brit, carried in regardless down to the beach.


I walked along the pavement by the beach huts and identified a picnic bench to venture across the sand for. Wearing a full length woollen coat and my red-leather work shoes I suspected that should anyone have noticed me they might have thought me rather odd. Indeed, in my psychologist outfit, I felt more removed that usual from nature and less able to be connected with the outdoors. I fantasised about taking my shoes off and running across the beach to paddle in the icy sea. I noticed this urge and reflected that, had I have not been in psychologist mode I probably would have gone with it. I comforted my self with my flask of coffee and a cigarette.

I was aware of this chap sitting in the bench next to mine:

I’m not a fan of seagulls but he stayed put, looking at me and talking to the other seagulls. He reminded me of a dog, or rather dogs when they whine at each other. On making this association, I paid him some more attention. He seemed wise and grounded. I wondered if he had an understanding of the universe and realised that, on a level, he did. Not a cognitive level, but on a practical, behavioural level, and perhaps, an emotional level. Looking at him made me feel as if he had a sense of mastery over his world, a complete understanding of all he perceives, or at least the feeling of understanding of all he perceives.

I reasoned that I had a fairly good, practical understanding of the universe and my place in it, but there is no way I will ever have an understanding of it all on a cognitive level. Even if i had infinite mental capacity to understand all the knowledge in the world, the facts are still unknown. I wondered if I could ever understand it all on an emotional level and fairly quickly dismissed that as too time and energy consuming.

I wondered, however, whether I am missing a level or two?

I started to get cold and wet and retreated to my car, dissatisfied with my attempt to be reckless but satisfied that I had achieved some thinking space of my own.

I felt a sense of achievement as I arrived at my next meeting with wet hair and sand in my shoes.

Also, at the meeting I apologetically informed my colleagues that I would not be present the week after next for two consecutive weeks. They surprised me by seeming genuinely pleased for
me to be getting a holiday. I walked away realising that I had fallen into a trap of thinking my presence is more important than it actually is.

I drove home after the meeting feeling a little bit free…

Learning from Containment

6 Jan

About a year ago I had a valuable life experience. The problem was: I didn’t really want a valuable life experience! I was too busy trying to get through to appreciate new learning possibilities. This post will describe just one of the many lessons I learned from this experience. For obvious reasons It has taken me a long time to get round to writing it but I hope it will make some of the others easier to write.


During my training I had some opportunity to chose my clinical placements. I expressed an interest in working with people with life threatening or terminal illnesses. We had received some excellent teaching on working in the area and I felt that I could make a real difference to people at an incredibly difficult time in their lives.

As my year long placement in Learning Disability Services drew to an end I received notification that I was to be placed in a General Hospital’s Oncology Service.

My previous supervisor expressed concern that, without a spiritual framework for understanding existential issues I would find working in this area incredibly difficult. I was aware of her own spiritual framework and it’s importance to her, but was somewhat dismissive of it’s applicability to myself.

The Experience

Arriving on placement I spent some time sitting in on sessions with my new supervisor. I realised quite soon that, in order to cope with my recent dog-bereavement and the demands of a doctoral course, I had shut off all of my emotional self. This had not been a serious problem when advising care teams on how best to prevent and respond to ‘challenging’ behaviour. I saw, however, that in a 1:1 therapeutic situation, much empathy was required.

In order to provide containment for people in a state of emotional desperation and existential crisis you have to allow yourself to feel, at least a little, of what they are feeling. Or, at the very least, acknowledge that it is possible for you to feel it. If you are terrified of what someone else is feeling, you can not effectively communicate that their emotions are acceptable, manageable and containable.

I spent my first supervision session in tears. I explained that I had realised I would have to allow myself to feel sad in order to connect with the emotional lives of my clients and that I didn’t really want to feel sad. My supervisor was familiar with this experience, from both her clients and (I interpreted) her own experience. She taught me about Mindfulness and about Compassion Focused Therapy, she suggested I use these techniques both on myself and with my clients.

I felt I was managing quite well, until a month into the placement, I had my own Cancer scare. Fortunately, this has been resolved without further issue. Unfortunately, I was unaware of what the outcome would be until sometime later in my placement. While I wouldn’t usually have shared this news with a supervisor I felt I had no choice.

I expected my supervisor to give me a way out of the placement, to agree that it was just too hard and that I probably couldn’t cope. Looking back I believe I also suspected she would find my emotions unbearable.

Funnily enough, my supervisor offered me containment. She was empathic but boundaried. She understood I was having a hard time but didn’t think I should give up. She thought my emotions were difficult but not unmanageable. She offered me tissues and a chocolate, but didn’t send me home.

The Lesson(s)

I learned that

  • Even at their extremes, my emotions are bearable.
  • If I stop pushing my emotions away, they stop being so scary.
  • The human body can only sustain an extreme emotional state for a short period of time. Yes, that emotion will probably come back, but you have already learned about your ability to cope with it and that your world will not end through allowing yourself to feel it.
  • Judging my emotional experience is not particularly helpful.
  • Noticing, acknowledging and accepting my emotional world makes it feel more manageable.

As a result of these lessons I was able to sit with clients who filled the room with their sadness and desperation. Clients who felt unable to show those emotions to their families for fear of hurting and losing them.

I hope that, in doing so, I was able to teach them that their emotions were acceptable, manageable and containable.

Alice’s Adventures in Perfectionisim

30 Dec

Perfectionism is a cognitive distortion or thinking error. It is characterised by wanting to make something perfect. The problem being, of course, that there is no such thing.

We all fall into this trap, to a greater or lesser degree, at some point. It is normal. Whether it is trying to lose weight, bake a cake, entertain others, work out, or write an essay. There will have been a time in your life when you strove for perfection.

Plenty of people have built successful careers, fine works of art and even relationships by striving for perfection. Are they happy?


Why not?

Because their standards are so high, they will never meet them. The task will never be ‘finished’, they will never manage their ‘best’.

My Father was once accused of being a perfectionist, he responded with the following statement:

“I’m not a perfectionist, if I were, my work would be perfect”

His family talk about perfectionism as if it were something to strive for, a desirable characteristic.

While I understand the logic, I also find it difficult not to be seduced by the idea of being a perfectionist. To me, it sounds like an ideal, a self-sacrificing commitment to excellence that I wish I could achieve. If I am ever described as a perfectionist, I can’t help but cringe. I fear I give up too easily, don’t try hard enough, can’t find it in myself to keep pushing for perfection.

And there it is: my own error. I believe that it is possible to deploy a perfect level of effort. A level which I can never achieve. Leading me to believe I am basically lazy. Which unhappily leads me to be judgemental towards others; those who deploy less effort than myself: They must also be lazy.

When I am criticised for having standards too high I fear the person accusing me just doesn’t care enough. If I am accused of having standards too low I feel terrible, as if I have failed in every way possible.

In an attempt to manage parts of ourselves we find unbearable we identify them in others and attack them for having those characteristics. I attack others for being lazy. As a passive person (who dislikes even passive aggression) I find the desire to attack others quite unpalatable.

So, what is the answer?

Drop those standards.

Not all the way. But maybe just down a notch or two. It is hard to find the right level and perhaps that’s what causes us to aim too high in the first place. For me, and for now the aim is to try ‘hard enough‘ and to be ‘good enough’, I feel this is the best marker for the ‘middle ground’ I can find and I think it’s okay to put in a little more effort than this without having set standards ‘too high’.

I am working on this one and will keep you posted!

Puppy love

7 Nov

Bronwyn and Odin are dozing in the lounge. They are not in the same bed, but they are touching paws.

Like all mammals, dogs are hard-wired to build affectional bonds or attachments with other members of their community. So long as they have eaten and are not under threat of any kind this is a priority for them. Evolution has made this activity biologically reinforcing with the hormone oxytocin. So when dogs groom each other they experience a calming of their heart rate and a feeling if connectedness in the same way humans do when they are caring for each other.

I think just looking at them like this gives me an oxytocin boost!


To Cope or Not to Cope

30 Jun

So this post has been a long time in the making.  I have been thinking about it a lot and wondering if any one will even read it, being as it has taken me so long!

So, life is busy…

It’s crazy…

As I write I’m aware I don’t want this to sound like a sob story I’m aware that I am a very lucky person with lots of things to be grateful for…

But I am stressed!

I am writing a Thesis, which should have been finished months ago,  this is largely out of my control as I wait for data to come in.  Deadline is end of July.

I am planning a wedding,¬† Did¬†I mention we are getting married? No?¬† End of August!¬† This was meant to allow plenty of time between Thesis and Wedding as Mr Thesis was due at the end of April.¬† I was meant to be spending this time solely¬†on WEDDING PLANNING¬† sadly,¬†it didn’t happen, now I am doing both.

D and I are buying a house, In Rochester… This is awesome… We both have jobs to move into and are finally going to own a house together… but…. see above(!).

I am also holding a full case load on my new placement.¬† My current clients either have a Dementia, Huntington’s Disease¬†or Brain Injury.¬† I like them.¬†I like the placement.¬† I just don’t have the time or the head space for it!¬† Some of our clients have forensic (i.e. offending) histories so are in locked or secure wards, this doesn’t bother me. However, my supervisor and her colleague are both pregnant so are no longer allowed on the wards.¬† This means that I am taking on (some of) their case loads in addition to my own.

So… Something had to give….

It’s ended up being my evenings.¬† After a period of dread, followed by a period of bereavement.¬† I have gotten over this.¬† I realise that if I’m going to work, write my thesis, plan a wedding and sort stuff out for buying a house as well as the usual housework, dog walking, cooking etc there is NO space for anything else.¬† There isn’t really space for all of the above.

And that’s where the Coping Question comes in.

Can I cope?

I have historically had  a belief that my ability to cope was somehow inferior to that of others.  I would become tearful, depressed, stop eating, maybe hurt myself and ultimately STOP doing the things I was meant to be doing.

This changed during my degree,  I realised, somehow that, if I kept going, ate what I needed to, resisted hurting myself and was relatively kind to myself I could keep going, and going, and going.

This was a useful lesson. It taught me that for me, coping was a choice. Jung  (I think) once wrote that mental illness was an escape from legitimate suffering.  And in my own personal (not professional) experience it has been.  and here we have the difference (for me) between Stress and Depression.

At the times I have become depressed, the suffering has not been worth the end goal.

At the times I have been stressed, the suffering may have been just as bad but there has been a tangible end goal that looked worth the bother.  This has kept me going despite the suffering.

And this is why I chose to cope.

Because if I get through this I will have a proper, well paid job, doing something I am passionate about.  I will have a beautiful wedding. I will be married to the man I love, who loves me for who I am, despite my current foul mood.  We will have a three bedroom house near the river, a reasonable income, maybe some foreign holidays. We will have a guest room , with no other purpose other than to always be ready for house guests, there will be matching towels and saucepans with copper bottoms. We will walk the puppies on the nearby nature reserve.  I will make the garden beautiful. I will plant a magnolia tree.  I will crotchet dog coats and lace curtains.  We will stroll down the river in to the town, where there will be proper pubs serving real ale, Pimms and bar food.  I will cook delicious, nutritious meals, bake cakes and brew beer.  We will try for babies, we will decorate a nursery and enjoy our time together.

And this is why I am lucky, this is why I chose to cope, because any amount of suffering is worth it for those things.

I am mindful that I also¬†have more support now than I ever had in the past.¬† My family, D’s family, my friends including my course colleagues are fantastic. D is a rock.¬† The puppies are so beautiful I could cry.

I chose Life, I chose suffering

The two are not exclusive.

I chose, one day soon, just to be. To hold back on all this ‘striving’ and be in the moment. Not living for the future. For things that might happen.

But for now I need to look six months ahead to an easier time.  I need to take the small stuff where I can. I need to do whatever it is I need to do to make it.

I need to remember:

Crying at work is OK! Psychologists aren’t meant to be scared of emotions! Just having them and carrying on.

Letting D do whatever he is able to take on around the house.

Not being perfect. HELL –¬†my mind is on so many things I’m barely in one place at a time, I’m not going to be my best.

Not caring what other people think (today I ran down the street in my pyjamas after the post man).

To eat! whatever it is! Without worrying about it… there are more important things.

To have compassion for my self and for everyone else.

To plant some daisies in the back garden.

To walk the dogs.

To drink some Pimm’s (just not during the day).

To keep dreaming about the wedding, the house and the future. Just for now.

Unfinished Adventures in Crochetland

1 Apr

Good evening and welcome.

I wanted to take this opportunity to document all the projects I hope to complete once my thesis is out-of-the-way.¬† However, in taking photos ready for this post, I have realised there are far more unfinished projects than I imagined…

It turns out I am REALLY GOOD at planning and starting things….but finishing…meh!

(I wonder if this explains, to some extent, why the thesis is SO hard)

Any way,  I am aware this could turn into an exercise in self-criticism so I will try to keep it sweet, perhaps by starting with something I actually finished!?


Here he is:

Augustus, the Italian Greyhound with thanks to a pattern I found here.¬† Augustus was my therapy project after Annie died. I wanted to give him to a friend with a similar looking dog for her birthday…so he was a Time Limited Project.¬† He was also the only thing I made myself do after Annie, I wasn’t up to much but knew I¬†should do¬†something.

Augustus is what I did and I loved him so much I almost didn’t give him up!¬† coincidentally- he does look somewhat like Odin don’t you think!?

The Beach Bag

Another technically finished project, just not particularly sucessful.

I used the attic24 flat circle¬†as a base and then stopped increasing stitches when I thought it was big enough.¬† I wanted it BIG…

Well… I got greedy

It was HUGE

Furthermore,¬† I didn’t line it- so as soon as you put anything in it, it just drags on the ground.

Not a total failure but at best unfinished, pending lining!

So here are the real shame-inducing finds from my project box…

That Japanese Flower Scarf…

Oh I fell in love with this pattern BIG TIME and convinced D to buy¬†me the¬†yarn for my last birthday (almost a year ago).¬†I want to finish this baby but I think it needs my full attention, that wool is pretty special and I REALLY don’t want to mess it up

…SO this is as far as we have come.


A related project involved the same pattern but with cheap acrylic yarn.¬† I did better with this, perhaps because it didn’t matter if I messed up; it was ‘just an experiment’.¬† This one has been much more fun, although I’m not sure what it will be when finished..

(I have bizarre ideas about using it as a curtain (yeah I know…. they don’t make curtains out of wool…and there is probably a really good reason for that)).

Still, I think I may actually finish these two.. I Really Want to get back to making them ASAP!

Twine Bags

After my bag failure (see above), determined not to sew I thought I would try crocheting bags out of tougher stuff.  I looked in various garden shops for coloured twine without much joy.  Then, randomly, on holiday in devon (last September) found this stuff in a little gift shop:

I think it will make lovely bags…if only I can get it on my hook!

Ahh time will tell!


Having not made the twine bags I had intended to, last December I went out and bought wool to make christmas-present-scarves with.  I even learned to knit! (a teeny bit!).

Sadly, despite buying enough wool for four scarves, just one, lonely scarf got made.  It went to a very good home and, on a positive note means I have next xmas sorted (ha).

My final confession is this one:

The Baby Blanket

My Friend told me she was pregnant with her second child in December 2010.¬†¬† I started to make her (at that point gender unknown) baby a flower blanket using a pattern¬†D’s mum uses regularly with fantastic results.¬† I used blues, pinks and yellows, thinking it would be gender neutral.¬† I think the trouble¬†was that¬†I never really liked the colour combinations enough. As a result I’m not convinced it would ever be good enough to give to someone!¬† My friend had a beautiful baby girl in the end and I¬†wish I had just made a proper girly one…maybe I still will.¬† However, as D keeps pointing out, the longer I leave it, the bigger the blanket will need to be…hmm… maybe she would like a flower scarf?

    Oh the shame!

On a slightly removed note, I have been writing this¬†while keeping the pups entertained with chewy toys.¬† This does require fairly regular breaking up of fights over whose chew is whose but on the whole makes for a peaceful evening.¬† I observed these pups ‘being in the moment’ with their chews, happy and not worrying about what they should have done, should be doing or will do in the future.

It occurred to me that while they were chewing their new chews they also have a big box of ‘unfinished’ chewing projects.

I couldn’t help myself.¬† I had to point this out to them, happy in their little chewy world.

Did it cause them anxiety, guilt, frustration, longing or despair?


They took what they liked best from the pile and chewed it.


They didn’t even argue.

The Sling Doctor

Babywearing Consultant & Clinical Psychologist

Attila Ovari

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