My morning’s dog walk could have been cold wet, dark and miserable. It was 7am, still very dark, raining, with quite a cold breeze.
Yet, it was really quite ok. As I made way around one of my usual routes I found myself thinking about how much our perception can change our feelings about an event or experience. If I had been feeling grumpy and determined to experience my walk this morning as cold, wet, dark and miserable then that is undoubtedly what it would have been. Instead, it was enjoyable walking the streets in the half-light as the sun was coming up. I enjoyed seeing who was also out and about. The rain felt refreshing. The air crisp and wintry.
Unfortunately some experiences we are faced with my be too difficult or traumatic for us to shift our perception of them. The recent floods in many parts of the UK, brought on by similar rain to that I enjoyed this morning, will be an example of this. Some people’s lives will have been dramatically impacted by what has happened.
Therapy for difficult memories
Sometimes experiences in the present can be too evocative of painful experience in the past. We may be unable to move past the significance of certain events without professional help of therapy. For example, significant anniversaries may be triggering past losses, day to day events may trigger anxieties about past traumas. If you have had an experience where shifting how you perceive it might be useful, therapy can often be very helpful in that process.
But this morning was happily one of those days when what could have been cold wet and miserable was refreshing energising and connecting.
In the midst of the celebrations and holidays, whether religious or otherwise, I hope that you have had the opportunity for good times spent with people you love and care about. Unfortunately for some people Christmas will have meant a host of family arguments, relationship problems, disappointments, painful memories, losses and grief.
Stress at Christmas
There is a tremendous amount of expectation put on us at this time of year. Expectations about spending time with people that we might actually not get on that well with for the rest of the year. Along with eating too much, possibly drinking too much and spending too much money. It undoubtedly can be one of the most stressful times of the year – Christmas stress. As a therapist I have spent several weeks in the run up to December 25th talking to many of my clients about Christmas. How they were feeling about it. What meaning did they attach to the event. Were they having the kind of Christmas they wanted? Or were they under pressure to meet other’s needs. How they might take care of themselves in the face of spending time with people where relationships might be difficult. Or deal with painful memories of events or of loved ones who are no longer here.
Improve your life
I’m also expecting an influx of calls following Christmas as many people reach the point of “this can’t carry on.” This is often the result of a miserable few days spending an intense amount of time perhaps with a partner or family member where things are not going well at all. Where with the stress of Christmas all the problems in the relationship become heightened.
I invite you to give yourself permission to do what you need to do to take care of yourself. This might begin by not adding extra pressure by thinking “but it’s Christmas, everything should be different.” Although Christmas is heralded as a time of year of goodwill, for some people in some situations that is not feasible or even desirable. If you need to do something different with your situation to improve your life then please don’t let the time of year stop you from taking action to change your situation.
It might also might mean contacting someone you’ve not been in touch with for a long time. Telling someone something important. Deciding not to spend next Christmas with family. Seeking out counselling for help with a relationship problem.
These last few days at the end of December can be lovely; with time for resting, celebrating in ways that are healthy and enjoyable, being with people you love and who love you. Making meaning and finding ways to mark the changing of the seasons and the time of year that aligns with your beliefs and values. If that hasn’t been your experience this year my encouragement to you is to reflect how you might have this for yourself next year.
I’ve been remembering some of my experiences of change. One that was very significant for me was a few years ago now. I had been walking my dogs first thing in the morning and I was reflecting on my internal sense of self and how I was feeling on a day to day basis. As I reached the front door, I had a profound realisation that I was content with myself in a way that I hadn’t ever felt before. I was amazed and astounded by this realisation. I found myself thinking but when did I change? How did this happen? As I thought about the difference I was experiencing I realised I wasn’t able to identify any particular moments of significance, but that what had been happening was slow, incremental moments and shifts and change that I had not been aware of until then.
So, how does change happen? There are probably 100’s of books that have been written on the subject, numerous blog posts and theory about how it all works. The impact on people, how we cope and deal with changes in our lives or how we make changes for the better.
Change in Therapy
Clients often talk to me about change during their therapy. If the desired change is something about self, what seems to be very common is a sense that we will know immediately when change happens. And that the desired change will happen quickly. There seems to be an internal expectation that people will immediately think about what they want to do differently and be able put that in place. I suspect this is often because the distress of the current situation is difficult and people want things to be different and for this to happen quickly. I see a lot of this with people I work with. I often find myself saying something like “you’ve been thinking/feeling/behaving this way for x number of years – it’s likely to take some more time for you to make the changes you want.”
The two aspects I’m noticing most as I’m writing this post are about our expectations:
about the speed of change and
that we will notice immediately when we do change.
My “how to support yourself” tips from this post are that we have to learn to be patient with ourselves. In some ways I often think this is one of the tasks of therapy. To learn to be more forgiving of ourselves, to be more patient with ourselves, to have more realistic and kinder expectations of ourselves. And notice the small stuff. I suspect that in my journey to being more content with myself there were numerous small shifts and changes along the way that I didn’t account or was aware of. If I had been I suspect it would have been very helpful in motivating and encouraging me that I was changing.
I’m going to give a couple of examples of what I mean by “the small stuff”. If I’m the kind of person who can’t relax until all the jobs are done I might find myself leaving the washing up until after I’ve watched that TV programme. Or, if I’m really nervous around people and find it difficult to interact I might find that I say hello to one of my work colleagues in the kitchen at work instead of being silent. So my final tip is take time to do a self check and notice those tiny shifts in thinking, feeling and behaviour. They are important and over time can add up to the significant change you are working towards.
Have you made big changes in your life that you would like to share? How did that happen? I’d love to hear people’s stories of changes they have made.