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Self Care #3: Little Wisdoms (in Yellow)

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Hello room service? This is Marge Simpson. I’d like a hot fudge sundae… with whipped cream!… And some chocolate chip cheesecake!……… And a bottle of tequila!!

Self care can come in many guises, and so too can the inspiration for it. When I was a child and teenager I was pretty much obsessed with The Simpsons, and though I haven’t watched a new one in a long time, I can still recite bits of countless older episodes word for word. I recently re-watched an episode from 1992 called ‘Homer Alone,’ in which Marge has a nervous breakdown and checks in to the aptly-named Rancho Relaxo to recuperate. The put-upon workhorse of the family finally has some nourishing me-time and she takes full advantage of the rare opportunity, culminating with her scoffing ice cream in the tub while watching ‘Thelma & Louise,’ bottle of tequila at her side. It sounds decadent but this is a quintessential moment of glorious self care. With that as a foundation, here are three more instances from the show that have helped remind me to look after myself.

 

#1

‘Trust in yourself and you can achieve anything’ (from Lisa VS. Malibu Stacy, 1994)

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In this episode the ever-plucky Lisa takes on Malibu Stacy, the Simpsons world equivalent of Barbie. Disgusted at the disempowering rhetoric to emerge from the new talking edition of the doll (‘Don’t ask me – I’m just a girl! *giggle*), she tracks down the product’s hermetic creator and together they launch a more enlightened talking doll with feminist leanings called Lisa Lionheart. Aside from reminding girls that they can keep their own names if they choose to get married, the doll also includes the wonderful little affirmation of ‘Trust in yourself and you can achieve anything.’ In times of stress it can be very useful to simply take a moment to step back, breathe for a minute and try to not get overwhelmed. Going further though, how about actively reminding yourself that things will probably be okay, even if they look like a mess right now? Obviously some situations are more grave than others, so it won’t be universally applicable, but I’ve found it personally useful for traversing those little everyday stresses that seem to accumulate.

For example, I was on a bus recently, mentally calculating the seemingly insurmountable number of work items I had to check off before going on holiday. Not unsurprisingly, I then became aware of a feeling I think most of us have some experience with – that anxious sense of defeated helplessness that at its core represents a doubt in one’s expected ability to cope. It is very easy in such situations to go along with that inner voice and feel overwhelmed to the point of believing that things won’t work out. It may also be tempting to engage in avoidant behaviours that temporarily assuage the anxiety, but may then boomerang back as evidence that, yes, you were right to think you wouldn’t be able to cope and now look at the amount of stuff you still have left to do and you have even less time to do it! Argh! On that bus, I suddenly found Lisa Lionheart’s words comforting and empowering. ‘Trust in yourself and you can achieve anything’ – this brings us from a place of creeping self-doubt to one of pure self-belief, and the knowledge that we are often our own biggest obstacles in achieving our goals. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to couch this sort of reminder as a small form of self care/compassion – as in, I care about myself enough to not let any self-defeating thoughts get in the way and succeed in convincing me that I’m not the worthy, capable person I know I am. I will get the job done. Even from a linguistics point of view the shift here from passive to active (‘It will get done’ versus ‘I will get it done’) is an empowering one. Things won’t just magically realise themselves- you will be the agent of their completion, and that needs to be acknowledged! So, I stepped out of that anxious mind frame and simply trusted that I would be able to get it all done – and I did. As odd as it might sound to attribute such meaning to not just a cartoon, but a cartoon talking doll, Lisa’s affirmation of self compassion was instrumental in letting this happen.

 

#2:

‘Just do a half-assed job!’ (from Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala-D’oh!-cious, 1997).

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In this episode the Simpsons acquire a Mary Poppins-esque nanny called Shary Bobbins. In one scene Shary entreats the children to tidy Bart’s room, to familiar moans and groans. Shary’s solution? To tell them (through song) that:

If there’s a task that must be done

Don’t turn your tail and run.

Don’t pout,

Don’t sob,

Just do a half-assed job.

Now, this is obviously not meant to be taken as universal life advice, however I do think that it speaks to the wisdom of knowing when ‘good enough’ is indeed good enough, instead of constantly seeking perfection in all things. The latter may become such a fundamental imperative to a person that their bar is raised so impossibly high that nothing they do will ever be truly good enough to them. This can be a frustrating, exhausting and lonely place to inhabit, crippled by dissatisfaction and lack of self-belief. Offering oneself the compassion to not be perfect is also a display of great self care – like saying, ‘I don’t expect you to push yourself to the brink this time – you can just do a good job.’ Naturally this is going to be much easier said than done for someone who has got so used to striving for the upper echelon of achievement in everything they do, but with some self-exploration and mental restructuring, it is not impossible. I suppose one of fundamental questions here would be, ‘What would it mean if you didn’t do this thing perfectly?’ – getting to the root of one’s perfectionistic tendencies, and how this interacts with our core sense of self, may be the first step towards a place where the idea of doing a ‘half-assed job’ doesn’t sound like such a dreadful transgression. Incidentally, this idea may work quite well in tandem with the previous affirmation of trusting in yourself and your ability to achieve anything – even if that means achieving it imperfectly.

 

#3

‘Just don’t look!’(from Treehouse of Horror VI, 1995)

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In this Halloween episode, one vignette (‘Attack of the 50-foot Eyesores’) sees Homer inadvertently unleash a parade of gigantic, disgruntled advertising mascots on Springfield. As they proceed to destroy the town Godzilla-style, Lisa teams up with singer Paul Anka to persuade the townsfolk that if they don’t pay the monsters any attention they will, like all ineffective advertising, disappear. Their chosen medium? A catchy jingle called ‘Just Don’t Look.’

How one earth does this relate to self care? Modern technology! The ability to be constantly connected to the world absolutely has its up sides, but this is being increasingly marred by a sense of mental overload and fatigue. I frequently hear people talk about the double-edged sword of mass communication – the yearning to switch off (figuratively and literally) and not be involved for even a short period of time, tempered by a seeming need to keep connected, often typified by the wonderful acronym FOMO (‘Fear of Missing Out’). In the same way that one is conditioned on some level to answer a phone if it rings, many people are now becoming similarly wired to engage with each and every alert, whether it be an email, text or Facebook update, instantaneously, seemingly without any semblance of free will to actually decide if one wishes to be updated or not.

It may sound melodramatic but I truly believe that this can constitute a threat to one’s mental wellbeing. The ability to simply be is already hard enough to cultivate, and technologies that function to keep us permanently connected to the outside world intrinsically work against this. A possible solution? Just don’t look! I have started playing this jingle in my head when, for example, I see a work email notification come in on my day off. Previously I may have given in to curiosity and decided that it was no big deal to ‘just see who it’s from’ but more often than not this simply served to distract from moments of rest, relaxation or personal nourishment, such as spending time with a friend or loved one. These self care moments are compromised when we are drawn back to another mental state (for example, the dutiful worker, family member, caregiver, citizen, etc.) and because we spend so much of our time fulfilling these other roles, it can be difficult to simply park and go back to fully enjoying what we were doing before. Mentally humming ‘Just Don’t Look’ has proven to be a simple but effective reminder that the external world is generally not making me engage with it – most often I still have a choice as whether to do so or not, and deciding not to has been very rewarding. The next logical move beyond not looking is actually to turn the phone OFF or to go out without it – an increasingly alien concept but one that can be extremely liberating, if a bit disconcerting at first. Why not try it out?

Simon 

The Creativity of Therapy

Beach House meadow pic
Beach House

Several months ago I became aware of a niggling feeling that my life was lacking in a sense of creativity. Corresponding with an actively artistic friend in the US, I lamented that the most tangibly creative thing I had done in what felt like an age was compiling the mix CD I was shortly going to post to her. Now don’t get me wrong – I put a lot of time and care into that mix CD and actually got a great amount of pleasure from listening to it myself afterwards, but somehow it didn’t seem enough. I was reminded of a feeling I had in my late teens – while a large portion of my friends were busy displaying their creative chops in various bands, I occupied the more sedentary position of musically-ungifted music-obsessive. You could ask me anything about Björk’s latest offering or the hot new band to come out of New York (this being the post-Strokes early noughties), but in more actual terms my creativity on that front was seemingly confined to the curating of, again, mix CDs. It seems this vague sense of ennui had persisted on some level since then – dissatisfaction at being the perennial audience member but never the creative driving force.

More recently, however, I have been reassessing this somewhat one-sided view of things, opening my mind to the wider scope of different ways one can be creative. For example, writing this blog is creative, but so is making up a nonsensical song in the shower. Chief among these explorations was the realisation (and something I had never concretely conceived of before) that therapy, as a process, is a deeply creative endeavour – and this is something I engage in with other people every single week. I was inspired to this thought after reading an interview with one of my favourite bands, Beach House, in the aptly-named article:

Beach House on creating your own world

Equally apt was the fact that it came from The Creative Independent, a Brooklyn-based initiative whose goalis to educate, inspire, and grow the community of people who create or dream of creating.’ That’s a whole lot of creativity going on.

Like the typical therapeutic relationship, Beach House is made up of just two people, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally. Starting with that principle, I was struck by some of the similarities between the pair’s musical and songwriting partnership and the partnership I aim to establish with my clients – one of equality and respect that is also constantly evolving. As Legrand elaborates,

It’s always changing and it’s also always surprising us, too. I think we are still finding new ways of working together. It’s not something predictable. Yesterday we were talking about this, I was saying, “Isn’t this funny how we’re doing this now?” Or, “This is different than it used to be. I like this. I’m glad we’re doing things this new way.” I think you never stop getting close to somebody. In any partnership it’s a lot of hard work, but when you get past the fact that it’s hard work, there’s this nice oasis where it does feel effortless and you get these little surprises.

To me, this is very much akin to how the therapeutic relationship gradually deepens over time, from early days possibly characterised by a sense of optimistic apprehension to a freer sense of shared intimacy, where being oneself with another feels more comfortable, less scary. And this is creative. Therapists help their clients to explore, challenge, accept, adapt, plan, move, and so much more. We can aid them in reassessing a life situation, give perspective on how they can reform or reject the status quo, and then bear witness as they reshape their pasts into a more satisfying present. Doing so is not as simple as merely sitting across from someone and asking them how they feel (in spite of the enduring therapist stereotype). It requires curiosity and creativity from the practitioner, and an equal dose of the same from their client – after all, what could be fundamentally more creative than forging a new or more authentic path for oneself? As Legrand expands, from a musical standpoint:

It’s really just a journey for each individual… Maybe you’ll discover through music that you’re actually a painter, so maybe you should do that instead of trying to be a rock star. Maybe you’re something else. I think that it’s just about asking questions, but also producing things and making stuff. It’s the only way, really, to find out who and what you should be… Being creative, making things, figuring yourself out—that’s never a waste of time.

Ultimately, the spirit of creation and creativity, of embarking on a journey into the unknown, of asking questions and figuring things out, or, to paraphrase David Bowie, turning to face the strange (ch-ch-changes), is really at the heart of the therapeutic encounter. Now all I need to do is create a mix CD that sets these ideas to music… Suggestions?

Simon

Beach House’s latest album, B-Sides and Rarities, was released in June of this year. Listen to its lead single below:

Beach House – ‘Chariot’

To be or not to be (an openly gay therapist)?

Joe Caslin Marriage Equality mural Dublin
Joe Caslin’s iconic Marriage Equality mural on Dublin’s George’s St, April 2015

Firstly, this is a reflection based on my own experiences and is not intended in any way as a judgement towards other therapists in a similar position, nor is it intended as a didactic call to arms for mass change. I would simply like to share my thoughts and potentially start a dialogue.

So, I was recently invited to contribute a short biography for inclusion on the Insight Matters website. For continuity, I decided to go to my Nozomi website and basically copy some of the main points I had written there about me and my approach to therapy, and thus offer a summary for anyone looking at my bio on the IM site. I came to the part about the kinds of problems I have helped my clients with, and as usual I mentioned that I have worked with sexuality, identity and LGBTQ issues. As I breezed past this element of the list, however, I became aware of a feeling of dissatisfaction with the phrasing – something in me wanted to make more explicit my connection with the final part of that trio. So I removed ‘LGBTQ issues,’ replaced it with simply ‘sexuality/identity,’ and then formed a stand-alone sentence (written in the third person, as is the norm for these kinds of things) that read something like He is especially interested in mental health issues that affect the LGBTQ community. Then I stopped and considered how this might read to someone who has never met me, either personally or professionally – someone who is simply reading my bio on a website and has no prior knowledge of me whatsoever.

So, why is this guy especially interested in mental health issues that affect the LGBTQ community? As a concerned citizen? As a curious outsider? As a professional who maybe just has a lot of gay clients, regardless of his own sexual orientation, and has decided to specialise in this area? Or, is it because these issues are actually part of his own story? For me, the most honest answer is the final one – so I found myself wondering, what would it be like to make that clear? On this blog I have made my love of music and nature plain for all to see. Conversely, though I have also done posts about Gay Pride and my thesis, which centred on gay and lesbian experiences, I consciously fell short of definitively saying, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m gay.’ As this thought came to me I felt a conflict that has resonated in me on some level for a long time, even though I came out many years ago. I have lived nearly my entire adult life as an openly gay man, and yet something in me, every now and then, still makes me stop and say to myself, ‘But do they really need to know that about you?’

When I open this question up (as Panti did in her fantastic Noble Call speech in 2014), I can see all sorts of traces of shame and embarrassment that have lingered on in me from the days when I actively worked to hide my true identity from the world. It’s not a nice feeling. Having got through those times when universal concealment was second nature, I now strive to uphold the principles of honesty, openness and being yourself. Yet there was still a part of me that looked at that contentious sentence and said, ‘Ah sure, it’s grand.’ But it wasn’t. For me (and just for me), leaving that sentence as it was felt like I was somehow colluding with that feeling I had when I was younger that told me to keep quiet and not ‘bother’ anyone else with my sexuality. After all, it doesn’t define me, does it? No, but being gay is part of who I am, and I don’t necessarily want to keep that under wraps.

Now, there are many schools of thought in the world of counselling and psychotherapy about how much or how little a therapist should self-disclose to their clients, and clearly this is an extremely important boundary to maintain. Obviously if the therapist habitually reveals inappropriate and irrelevant details of their private life to the client, then that is wholly unprofessional. But to me, stating that I am gay in a public forum is not inherently inappropriate or irrelevant. If I am meeting the client as I am, simply as another human being (albeit one who has training and experience in a specific helping profession), then putting a blanket over the potential for them to find out that I am gay because of a desire to maintain a certain professional distance or perhaps even a personal fear of judgement/disapproval would be somewhat incongruent – if I am to assist someone, of any sexual identity, to work towards fully becoming themselves and being proud of who they are, for what they are, then I feel it would be a shame for me to cover up my own personal appreciation of the difficult journey they are undertaking.

On a more general note, if someone sees the ring on my finger they might assume that I have a wife, and though statistically speaking this isn’t an unreasonable assumption (after all, most men in Ireland who wear a wedding band do have wives), I don’t want that to always go without correction – not because the idea of having a wife or of being thought of as straight is fundamentally intolerable, but simply because it’s not the truth. I don’t have a wife – I have a husband. That is the truth. So I changed the sentence. It now reads, He has a particular interest in mental health issues that relate to the LGBTQ community, being gay himself. I altered the phrasing a few times, shifting the ‘gay’ bit here and there until I settled on the above – and it felt right… Yet, I still have this kernel of doubt questioning whether the move was altogether too daring or somehow improper!

At any rate, here is a link to a 2015 doctorate thesis I found on the topic (by coincidence, it shares a similar title to this entry):

To Disclose or Not To Disclose? The LGBT Therapist’s Question

It is by Adam Harris of the University of Lincoln, with pages 53-82 comprising a journal paper authored by Harris, David Dawson, Roshan das Nair and Dominic Davies (of UK-based gender and sexual diversity therapy organisation Pink Therapy) that offers a good overview. I wholeheartedly agree with one of their concluding statements, that ‘it could be essential that non-heterosexual therapists are encouraged to discuss, explore and reflect on the potential psychological impact that having to conceal their sexual identity is having upon them and their clinical practice’ (p.76). It was in the spirit of discussion, exploration and reflection that this blog entry was written.

Any and all thoughts welcomed.

Simon

‘I don’t think I understood how dangerous hopelessness is.’

Hayley Williams The Fader Jason Nocito
Photo by Jason Nocito

Continuing with this blog’s focus on articles that link music and mental health, I recently read an interesting interview from The Fader with Paramore front-woman Hayley Williams:

Paramore’s Hayley Williams discusses depression, redemption, and adult angst

I’ve been aware of the band for several years but am not really familiar with their music – as such, the article gives a good overview of their evolution from emo icons to current Talking Heads-enthusiasts. More relevant to the world of counselling and psychotherapy, however, is Williams’ discussion of her mental health difficulties in recent years. Early in the article she says:

For the first time in my life, there wasn’t a pinhole of light at the end of the tunnel. I thought, I just wish everything would stop. It wasn’t in the sense of, I’m going to take my life. It was just hopelessness. Like, What’s the point? I don’t think I understood how dangerous hopelessness is. Everything hurts.

I particularly like this quote because one of the main reasons I chose the name ‘Nozomi’ for my practice was its link to the idea of hope. As Williams says, an absence of hope (for the future, for one’s situation, for change) is dangerous, and once someone goes down that path it can sometimes seem insurmountable. The instillation of hope that things can get better is often instrumental in getting someone back on track.

Later, the piece takes an interesting turn when the interviewer, Alex Frank, is confronted with the fact that his questions on a previous day of speaking with Williams ‘triggered’ her to the extent of having a panic attack. I admire Williams’ honesty and openness on this front, and indeed this is the reason why I am so passionate about the idea of public figures discussing mental health issues, and particularly their own struggles – the more people talk about it, the less scary it seems.

This is especially true for younger people like 28 year old Williams – role models for a generation that are embracing that idea that looking after your mental health is not something to be ashamed of or afraid of talking about. On the contrary, it should be applauded, or even just seen as par for the course when confronted with difficulties that can’t be dealt with on one’s own. Here’s hoping this shift in societal perception and the stigma attached to seeking counselling and other forms of mental health aid continues apace. We’re not there yet, but things do seem to be moving in the right direction.

Simon

Paramore’s latest album, ‘After Laughter,’ was released in May of this year.

Self Care #2: The Basin / Kenrokuen

Blessington Street Basin

Continuing on from last month’s music-related Self Care post – another commonly cited method of practicing self care is walking, though to me the exercise is usually incidental to the feeling that one can get from simply being outdoors.

Viktor Frankl suggests that people can find meaning in their lives through many diverse avenues, such as personal creativity, the attitude we take towards things, and the experiences we have with the world. These experiences encompass not just interactions with other people but meetings of any kind that we perceive as deeply enriching or meaningful – and this can include something as simple as sitting and observing a scene of beauty, whether it be natural, man-made, or a mix of both.

On this front, I am a particular fan of what people often dub an ‘oasis of calm’ – that kind of park or space in a big city that somehow retains a sense of peace and seclusion in spite of its immediate surroundings. One of my very favourites in Dublin that I feel is definitely under a lot of peoples’ radars is the Blessington Street Basin, a short walk from O’Connell Street in the direction of Phibsboro. I have been lucky to work near this self-contained reservoir and its surrounding paths for several years, and particularly enjoy watching its transformation from a relatively barren rectangle in winter to a thriving burst of sound and colour by summer, with the green island of foliage pictured above as its centerpiece. That said, this winter they fixed fairy lights onto the trees, resulting in an augmented version of nature that looked beautiful in its own way as dusk approached…

 

There is a good little article on the Basin here:

http://builtdublin.com/blessington-street-basin-dublin-7/

..and should you ever find yourself on the outskirts of town going in the direction of Dublin 7, I would encourage you to take a peek.

Incidentally, some people have asked me about about the flower-in-water picture that forms the banner image for the Nozomi website, and it may not come as a surprise that this too was taken in a favourite park of mine – a garden in the Japanese city of Kanazawa called Kenrokuen (兼六園). It is famed as one of the three most beautiful gardens in all Japan, which is no small boast considering the number of beautiful gardens the country contains! Below is a selection of photos I took there, and looking at them I am reminded of why the great outdoors feels like self care to me – when all the right conditions are in place, I can experience a deep sense of connectedness with something much bigger than myself, where peace and tranquility stand side-by-side with the thrill of exploration. This harks back to the childhood joys of uncovering every nook and cranny of our local park and climbing the trees in the green near our house, so there is a sense of nostalgia there too. Altogether, a truly meaningful encounter, and a great way to recharge.

I wonder if any parks/gardens/forests or other places of beauty have had a positive effect on your life?

Simon

‘Dearly beloved – we are gathered here today to get through this thing called Life.’

Prince-Purple-Rain

Above, the opening line to Prince’s ‘Let’s Go Crazy,’ which also kicks off his iconic 1984 album ‘Purple Rain.’ Last week saw a lavish remastered reissue of the record, the main draw for fans being an excellent bonus disc of previously unreleased songs that plays like a long lost album. In celebration, here is a link to an article of mine that was previously published on PCI College’s website:

Disenfranchised Grief and the Music Fan

I discuss the concept of disenfranchised or unrecognised grief, and how this connects with fandom in the context of the above-average number of celebrity deaths last year. Grief and loss come in all shapes and sizes – all should be respected the same way.

Enjoy – purple crushed velvet optional…

Simon

‘I never want to contribute to the corrosiveness of wanting someone to stay hidden.’

Gay Pride flag

The final article posted to coincide with LGBTQ Pride comes from musician, writer and actor Carrie Brownstein. In a particuarly poignant excerpt from her memoir, Brownstein relates the story of her father, who came out as gay at the age of 55:

Carrie Brownstein: ‘No Normal’

I think this is a beautifully observed snapshot of the effect coming out can have not just on the person themselves, but also on family members and loved ones. Furthermore, the context is still more common than many realise. On the first Thursday of every month, Gay Switchboard Ireland provide a confidential Married Men’s Group, ‘a peer support group for men who are, or have been, married or in a long term opposite sex relationship and who identify as gay, bisexual or feel attracted to other men.’ Further  details are available here:

GSI Married Men’s Group

I particuarly like the line:

The truth was a satellite, the picture getting clearer, circling and homing in, and then he was close enough to touch it.

I think this could be applied to any number of peoples’ experiences of therapy, regardless of what has led them to it – the sense that the process of exploring and being supported in that exploration is slowly unravelling a mystery or knot in the client’s life. Though initially confounding, ultimately her father’s decision to come out allowed Brownstein to finally meet him at a core level that had previously eluded her. Being true to one’s gender or sexual identity is far from easy for many people, but when Brownstein says ‘Now there is someone to know’ of her father, she reminds us of the huge rewards that can await if we have the courage to step into ourselves.

Wishing all readers a happy Pride!

Simon

Carrie Brownstein is a founding member of seminal art-punk band Sleater-Kinney, as well as co-writer and star of hit TV show Portlandia. Her memoir, ‘Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl,’ was published in October 2015.