Me and my Psychology (losing my religion) – career reflection by Upasana Papadopoulos

Image from catstobrats.wordpress.com

Image from catstobrats.wordpress.com

 

I have taken a break from my work as a Psychologist. It has been almost one year since I have worked full time in the field. I guess that at age 49 I was due for a mid-life work crisis and I certainly got one. I came late to Psychology, being a ‘mature age’ student at the ripe old age of 28. I ran away from my home and family after another developmentally well-timed crisis (marital break up) and decided to study Psychology.

I can’t say that I knew what Psychology was. I was aware of Psychological therapy, but at that stage counselling in Australia was a foreign concept that inspired all kinds of snide opinions about the ‘American-isation’ (or New York-isation) of our culture. I was drifting in life and felt that Psychology would give my life some sort of inner and outer discipline to follow. It seems to me that I often do not know the true intention of my life decisions until I am immersed in them. Only by entering into academic study and the field itself did I really begin to understand why I was so suited to and satisfied by the field of Psychology.

It is said that most people begin the study of Psychology because they wish to gain some insight into their own family of origin or adult relationships and into the confusion of their own thoughts, feelings and patterns. Many a counsellor has been motivated by the hostility, coldness or entanglements that existed in their relationship with their mothers or fathers. I can see that my baffling relationship with a loving but wounded mother most likely ignited my ambition to work in the field.

But I think that the reason why I felt so fulfilled and ‘right’ in my choice of work was because I have always felt a hunger to relate more deeply with people than every day life allowed. I have never understood social small-talk or the protection and deflection devices that people use to guard their inner lives. I have noticed that with protection, inevitably there is a castration of the ability to access spontaneity, expression and joy. I have loved my years in the counselling room because for me that room represents a place where humans can meet in all of the truth of the human experience. It is the place where people learn not to be afraid of their sadness, loss and anger, and to separate unquestioned fallacies regarding issues such as aloneness, separation, death, ageing from their more liberating reality.

I never became a rockstar counsellor and my style of therapy is not for everyone, but I have always kept in touch with my integrity whilst working as a psychologist. I had a particularly good university education in which I was encouraged to see research as more than statistics and evidence for pre-existing theories. I was encouraged to question, to observe, to take a perspective, to notice problems with theories and to point them out. In short, I was trained to think as a scientist and psychologist, not just to follow yesterday’s best practice methods or to blindly digest new research without first giving them informed, reflexive consideration.

As many counsellors know, it is difficult to find validation within our field. Validation from clients can often fit into a complex relationship of transference. Also, there are times when the discomfort of entering into a process of self-witnessing is so strong for a client that they are not left with a positive experience of therapy. Much of the healthy validation or support in this field comes from our colleagues. They may not be able to observe sessions, but they are able to get a sense of each others’ philosophies, techniques, or even a simple sense of each others’ insightfulness, compassion and kindness.

In my work as a Psychologist in the various not-for-profit services I have been employed at, most of the stress of the position has come from tensions and unjust practices occurring within the workplace; never from the behaviours or experiences of my clients. And it seems that this is the experience of many of my peers. The employment of managers and supervisors who know nothing of the field of counselling or the needs of its practitioners and certainly nothing about how to create healthy, creative, happy teams seems to be the norm. The ubiquitous micro-management styles, over-supervision and lack of access to external supervision goes unquestioned. Further, managers and supervisors often are not trained or willing to identify how vicarious trauma can materialise within the dynamics of the workplace.

I have been placed in the position of trying to speak out within the workplace and to navigate the, for me, frightening process of professional assertiveness. Although there have been some moments in which I have been acknowledged for my strength and intelligence, for the most part I have failed to stand up for myself and others in the workplace. And I allowed these failures to get the better of me. In March last year I decided that if Psychologists and other therapists do not have the ability to self-reflect; if therapists must endure bullying and ridiculous acts of jealousy, competitiveness and power-play often at the hand of fellow therapists, then it was a field that was not capable of practicing what it ‘preaches’.

So except from some contract work, I have stopped identifying myself as a counsellor and psychologist. I have begun retraining in another area. I will write more about that at some other time. It has been invigorating and I have been amazed at what happens to me when I dare to begin learning again; bringing all of my experience and training and applying it to a new field.

But life has not really let me move on. I find myself still engaged in discussions about therapy, best practice, the place of contemporary Psychology in the world and so on. I have not really found work elsewhere.

My work as a relationship therapist has taught me that the decision to end a relationship often occurs just as the opportunity to move into a deeper, richer phase of relating reveals itself. The moment of emancipation is often confused with failure. Irvin Yalom has described his role as a relationship therapist as that of ‘love’s executioner’ for this very reason. The idea of love often needs to die so that the truth of love can finally be born. The sexy glamorous notion of love ends, but maturity begins.

Last week I recognised that my time as a therapist has not ended. Not yet and not like this. Not in trauma and anger. Not in burn out. Not as a victim of ignorance and vindictiveness in the workplace. I am ready. I can’t be sure that the disillusionment I felt will re-emerge as illumination and maturity in my work, but I am prepared to find out. I have no idea of what will be different: in my workplace choices or in my way of being ‘in the room’; I am really travelling blind. Just the kind of journey I have always loved.

What I have learnt about being sad

watercolour byAbhilasha Singh

watercolour by
Abhilasha Singh

I was speaking to myself in my car today.

I usually process in written form, but I was driving and didn’t have my journal handy.

I was thinking about what I have learnt about being sad.

Now that I am 47, I have been reflecting quite a bit on what I have learnt in the journey so far and this question of what I have found about being sad feels important to me. I spent way too long as a girl being sad. I consider it one of my greatest achievements that I am not any where near as sad any more.

Here are the five things about being sad, or more specifically, what helps me not to be.

1. That the things I think I know about other people are so very often not true at all.

The brush off; the short reply; the lack of eye contact; the unanswered text; the forgetting of dates that matter to me; the far too hasty interaction in the street; the tone of a facebook comment; the strained trace of a smile when I try to be witty and light hearted in my repartee…

I used to think I was good at reading people and reading their intent. But I’m not. I’m sometimes emotionally illiterate in the non verbal language of others.

I get it wrong. Getting it wrong has made me sad many times in my life. Now that I have finally- FINALLY understood that my guesses are often the most pessimistic interpretations, I guess less often. I let myself expect the best rather than the worst when I try to imagine how others see or judge me.

It has been a daring step but it has made me happier.

2. Sadness is a feeling that I experience in my body and if I let myself feel it as a physical sensation, I can then watch it pass through and away.

I can wait for the peak of the pain and then I can watch the pain ebb away. Then I can experience the return of the lightness. Just like hitting my thumb with a hammer, or hitting my funny bone, or having one of those calf muscle cramps. It passes and there is very little that I have to do but let it.

If I don’t let myself experience sadness in my body, then I tend to look for it in my mind. Then I create stories and interpretations; conversations and replies. I begin fighting the other person and looking for allies and enemies.

I like to leave it to my body to process as much as I am able to. My body seems to process things more efficiently, without taking hostages.

I tend not to get so scared of emotional pain any more. I don’t fall for the fear in me that says that it will never pass. I tend to look for ways to open up the channels and let it go.

Image frompinestreetartworks.com

Image from
pinestreetartworks.com

3. My beautiful blue bowl.

I have a lovely blue bowl that my friend Forbes made for me and I decided to turn it into a worry bowl. So I have little cut up bits of paper at the ready and if I have a worry, I write it down and ask the bowl to hold the worry for me. That way, I can forget about the worry and let some other vessel carry it. I have often had a falling out with someone and written down the wish that one day the trouble between us would be resolved. Or I feel remorse for something and wish that one day I will feel forgiven.

All of the wishes I have put in that bowl have come true. Some sooner than others.

And when they have, I have simply taken that wish out of the bowl and made the bowl a little lighter.

Most of my problems get resolved sooner or later –  and that never ceases to amaze me. It is often really just a matter of time.

4. Asking for help can be a challenge.

I do feel the need to talk things over when my mind is overloaded with feelings and thoughts. I hate the idea of being alone in it sometimes.

However, I also know that when I am overwrought, I am impossible to deal with and usually inconsolable.

How often have I called someone to arrange to speak things through, only to feel frustrated that they could not possibly understand the intricacies of what I am feeling.

Or else, I will feel them pull away or try to change the subject or obviously feel burdened by what they see as negativity.

Nothing anyone ever says when I’m in that state seems to really hit the spot for me. I always wish I could just morph into two people and counsel myself.

This need to be comforted by others, coupled with a tendency to push the others away is the paradox of sadness for me.

I think the one who addresses this paradox better than any other therapist I have encountered so far is David Schnarch. You may have read his book ‘Passionate Marriage’, or if not, you may like to. It really is a wonderful book. What I love most about it is what Schnarch writes about leaning on other people. He says that in life, we tend to all lean on one another so much that the responsibility for holding ourselves up is almost always given to someone else. The someone else we entrust our care to also looks elsewhere to be held. He writes:

“The ability to self-soothe and to hold onto yourself, and the willingness to self-confront, are important to increasing your differentiation. These involve calming yourself down, not taking your partner’s behavior personally, maintaining a clear sense of yourself, and facing your own unresolved personal issues.” (Schnarch, 1998)

He teaches that if we could learn to hold ourselves emotionally first and then ask for help, then we have some chance of getting what we really need. We steady and ready ourselves to be able to receive the answers and inspiration we most need.

Learning to ‘hold myself’ is no longer something I do in loneliness or in a spirit of resignation, it has actually become a joy and an honour.

5. The inner child.

The inner child model of therapy is the one I keep looking back to. It’s the one that makes sense to me in my own life and experience.

So many therapists have used and developed this model of understanding: Jung; Berne; Bradshaw…

To explain this in my own words I would say that the child that we once were does not disappear. The girl that I was still exists in me in the form of what I would call ‘my heart’.

When I am sad, it is usually she who is feeling it and trying to communicate it to me. The adult part of me wants to soldier on and look brave, clever and sophisticated. She, like any child in the world is not good at faking things. She is too true for that.

All of the things that used to hurt me as a little 7 year old girl are still the same things that hurt me now: rejection, abandonment, insensitivity, confusion, change, loss, fear.

I can not travel back to the 1970s to protect the little one I was then, but I can care for my heart now. I can love myself, listen to myself, trust the things she is trying to communicate to me. I can be parent to her. I can say all the things to myself that I would want to say to my own daughter. Or that I wish had been said to me. I can stop calling myself a liar; I can stop taking the side of the other. I can tell her that all will be ok. I can even rock her to sleep if I want to.

That for me is my lesson in self love. The promise that I will never abandon her again. Never abandon myself again to fit in, to seem cool, to be tough, for whatever reason.

It’s not an end to sadness, but it is a taste of the kind of love that is its salve.

It may not be true in a scientific sense, but by taking the time to hold myself as I would a treasured little daughter, I have learned something about how to be kind to myself.

Image from: life.paperblog.com

Image from: life.paperblog.com

These are some of the things I have learnt. There are actually many more. Many of these tricks and understandings and sleights of hand I have learnt from others – including my clients.

I would love to hear what you have learnt.

Origins and Manifestations: An Interview with John Mason, Chinese Medicine practitioner.

Image from 'thebridenextdoor.fr'

Image from ‘thebridenextdoor.fr’

Upasana:  John, can acupuncture address issues that people experience such as stress, anxiety and depression? Does it conceptualise these things differently to how a field like medicine or psychology would, in your opinion?

John: Rather than talk about acupuncture specifically I would prefer to answer your questions in terms of Chinese Medicine of which acupuncture is a treatment method.

In my opinion and experience one of the strengths of Chinese Medicine is the effective treatment and management of stress, anxiety and depression and related disorders, either as a stand-alone therapy or in conjunction with Psychology and Western Medicine

To answer the second part of your question, the largest difference between Chinese Medicine and Western Medicine in this respect is that Chinese Medicine holds that there is no dividing line between mind body and spirit when considering disorders of the person. Signs and symptoms of psychological disturbance are seen in the same way with the same origins as somatic disorders. Psychological signs and symptoms almost always have concurrently identifiable and associated somatic signs and symptoms. In the Chinese Medicine context, this concurrency of signs and symptoms helps in differentially diagnosing and treating psychological disorders.

Accordingly, ‘anxiety’ is not a specific diagnosis in Chinese Medicine. The diagnosis may well be ‘heart yin and blood deficiency’ presenting with signs and symptoms such as panic, tachycardia, dizziness and spontaneous sweating.

In stress, anxiety and depression it is also essential to identify and assess the emotions involved. For example, one stressed person can be predominantly experiencing emotions of anger/frustration, while emotions of worry/fear may dominate in another. Each requires different treatment considerations and strategies.

Moreton Bay Fig Study byMalcolm Pettigrove

Moreton Bay Fig Study by
Malcolm Pettigrove

Upasana: could you explain how Chinese Medicine can work on something like anxiety?

John: In Chinese Medicine diagnosis, a key principal is the concept of ‘ben’ and ‘biao’, that is ‘root’ and ‘branch’. In Chinese Medicine pathology, disease is seen as have a ‘root’ origin and a ‘branch’ manifestation. That is, a particular disease (branch) can be coming from one or more different ‘root’ pathologies.

In order to effectively treat an issue such as anxiety we need to look at the person and their signs and symptoms picture as a whole in order to differentially diagnose the root cause. Anxiety usually arises from disharmonies in one or more of the liver, heart and spleen organ systems so effective treatment is reliant on accurate assessment and differentiation of the overall signs and symptoms picture.

Chinese Medicine generally uses a much wider and less specific set of signs and symptoms than Western Medicine and consequently looks at a much bigger picture than Western Medicine. Accordingly there are often many factors making up a therapeutic program for someone suffering anxiety, including acupuncture, Chinese Medicine herbs, counselling and lifestyle and dietary changes.

At a basic biophysical level, using acupuncture needles in specific combinations and techniques, stimulates endorphin and enkephalin release which in turn act as a GABA antagonist, allowing the release of dopamine into the brain, thus immediately ameliorating symptoms of stress and anxiety. This amelioration is a temporary effect but become stronger and longer lasting with subsequent treatment. But this is only a part of a treatment program.

In an effective treatment program, not only does the client’s anxiety improve, but so does their overall state of health. This is because, very often, we have to fix other things in order to get a lasting improvement in the signs and symptoms that we call anxiety.

This is not to say that psychological therapy and drug therapy are not effective as well, it’s just that those approaches are not my field. I do know from experience that amazing results can be achieved in the field of mental health when all three modalities work together in consultative integration

Upasana: is there a ‘counselling’ component to your work?

John: Counselling is a huge component of my work although I would see my counselling with clients in terms of Chinese Medicine and not Western Medicine. What I do with clients certainly could not be called counselling psychology although it does have many similarities with concepts used in mindfullness techniques and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

In my work, counselling is not limited to psychological disorders. In Chinese Medicine the aetiological factors of disease, disorder, imbalance, however you would have it, can be very deep and broad. In my counselling I help the client to understand and recognise the contributing factors. Experience and classical psychological thought tells me that once a person understands the factors involved in their illness, they are immediately moving towards solution resolution.

At a psychological level, the counselling techniques I use with clients usually involve working to recognise factors, both internal and external, that contribute to the situation in which they find themselves. Also, as I mentioned before, I help them to recognise and analyse emotions that they feel. Difficult, complex or dangerous emotional states are referred on to Western Medicine assessment for stronger interventions, but once the person’s mental state is stabilised I have found that he or she almost always benefits from conjunctive Chinese Medicine therapy.

I have rarely found difficulty in establishing trust with a client. I find that it is critical to be up front with them in what you are about and your system of ethics, as well as your qualifications and experience and limits of same.

I have found that clients very quickly make their own assessments of a practitioner’s integrity and capability as well as the capabilities of Chinese Medicine itself.

Image from spabeautyschools.com

Image from spabeautyschools.com

Upasana: How are Australians going in our acceptance of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine? Are they still considered alternative therapies? Or is there more confidence in this field now?

John: I have never liked the connotations attached to the term ‘alternative therapy’.   Medicine and healing is what it is all about. To set up notions of mutual exclusivity amongst medical disciplines is, I believe, at best counterproductive, and at worst, highly unethical.   It seems to me that such notions have been fostered by the arrogance of western scientific thought. Nobody has all the answers but answers can be found anywhere.

People vote with their feet. They don’t need double blind placebo controlled tests to tell them that they feel better. Chinese Medicine is well established in the western world now.   Outside of Asia acupuncture is second only to orthodox Western Medicine as the most commonly used form of medical treatment. And I use the term ‘medical’ despite Western Medicine’s attempts to own it.

In my practice, the average age of my patients is 50.9 years. I see Mr and Mrs Average and I see their parents, children and grandchildren. Repeatedly.

In my thirteen years of practice I have had many clients, both in suburban Melbourne and rural Far North Queensland, who have trusted me to assist with their care and well-being even though their death was imminent. I think that says volumes for the acceptance and trust in Chinese Medicine that Australians now have.

Upasana: Do you find that in your role, you teach people a new way of understanding their health and well being?

John: As a health care practitioner I believe that it is essential that a person has as full an understanding as possible of their condition and the factors that contribute to, as well as heal, that condition. For most people the concepts of Chinese Medicine are initially a foreign language and have to be explained and unfolded by the practitioner.

But most people find the concepts to be common sense in harmony with the laws of nature. If I had a dollar for every time a client said to me, “That makes a lot of sense”, well…  I couldn’t retire, but I reckon I could take the family to Europe for a holiday.

As an example, take a man suffering migraine headaches and extreme stress as a result of hating his job. It is necessary for effective long term results that he understands how an overload of the emotion of anger/frustration has a deleterious effect on his liver system which then causes the migraines and sends him into a downward spiral of emotionally based depression. He also needs to understand how alcohol, fast food and lack of exercise negatively impact on the liver. When treatment and changes he makes start to have positive effects he is inspired to continue his positive path.

He is more inclined and more able to take responsibility for his own healing because he understands why and how it works.

Image from'thejetmd.com'

Image from
‘thejetmd.com’

Upasana: Was the discovery of accupuncture a pivotal turning point in your own life? could you tell us a little about why it became your path?

John: I had been 16 years in the same career and I was bored. I had always wanted to be a doctor as a kid and so I naturally turned to medicine when I needed a career change.

Although I have always been a fan of Western Medicine I felt it was not the path for me for a number of reasons, so I decided I had to become a doctor (i.e. teacher and healer) in another medical modality.

The concepts of Chinese Medicine resonated with both my material and spiritual self and studying it just made me plain excited. I was also strongly drawn to the hands on and surgical nature of acupuncture needling.

I love what I do and I am both proud of and humbled by the medicine itself.

Image from 'portdouglasacupuncture.com'

Image from ‘portdouglasacupuncture.
com’

John Mason can be contacted at: http://www.portdouglasacupuncture.com/

Lauren, Remote Health Supervisor, NT.

Lauren.

Upasana: where do you work and what is your role?

Lauren: I work for Remote Health in the Northern Territory. I am the Clinical Supervisor for the Remote Alcohol & Other Drugs Workforce which supports 27 mostly local Aboriginal workers in their remote communities. My clients are essentially the workers, but sometimes I will see community members as part of assisting the workforce members. I work in 17 communities across the Top End & Arnhem Land and all the way down through the Barkly to the border of South Australia, but I myself live in Alice Springs. My role is to provide support and supervision in a culturally-appropriate framework. I consult on a weekly basis with Aboriginal Elders, adopted family, friends and colleagues for cultural advice in order to do my job effectively. I also have a very small business providing supervision to human services workers here in Alice.

Upasana: How do you work with people?

Lauren: I utilise a strengths-based framework which is the basis of all our work within our Workforce. Research has found that in the NT that strength’s based rather than deficit models are most successful with Aboriginal people. Strength’s based work means focusing on what is working for the client or community, rather than what isn’t working which generally Aboriginal people don’t appreciate. (see attached resource for example). I spend lots of time building relationship and rapport with the workers. I am friendly, but always firm, honest and talk straight, as I find generally that Aboriginal mob can tell whether you are genuine or not very quickly, and are excellent judges of character.

U: What are the things which have most informed your practice?

L: Cultural knowledge undoubtedly the most important thing that informs my work.

U:  What is a good day at work?

L: A day on community, spending time with the workers and community members, laughing, being on country, sharing stories and supporting each other. A good day is full of unexpected joys like playing on the beach with children, 4wding across the desert, flying over Kakadu and the islands of north-east Arnhem Land, or fishing off Gove peninsula. A really good day is providing supervision that is so fulfilling for us both, that in that moment, nothing else matters.

U: What are your challenges?

L: Working with other organisations that don’t share the same values, that talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. Dealing with high level issues, such as impulsive suicide attempts and supporting workers who are often dealing with constant death, grief and loss, and clients who are their family members. Managing my own self care as I travel up to 6000kms per week! Trying to retain pieces of Aboriginal languages and knowledge of the community and kinship structures etc in each area I support workers in. And working in drug and alcohol and Aboriginal health are highly political environments, and is challenging for a mperlkere (whitefella)!

U: How has your work changed your life?

L: My work has transformed my life, I feel I am living and working a life few dream of. I have the blessing of being welcomed by local, tribal Aboriginal people, experiencing cultures that few have the opportunity to experience, and sadly few even want to experience. Each and every day I am constantly confounded by the depths of their culture, so different to mine, and how little I know and understand, and how much I want to understand it. I experience cultural challenges at that at times frighten me in their magnitude, and at other times leave me almost breathless, with such gratitude that I should be so fortunate to experience, and will remember for the rest of my life. My work stretches me, and I hope, makes me more flexible and able to flow like the rivers, bend like the desert oaks, and shift like the sands. I don’t lose my ‘whiteness’ but I hope let my otherness be my strength. My love of Aboriginal culture and people help me to find our common ground without losing sight of our differences. My grandfather (see photo) who adopted me here in Alice Springs has taught me language, culture, kinship and Tjukurrpa (Dreaming) that helps me as an outsider have a small level of understanding that I utilise in my work every day. He tells me I am Aboriginal inside, and that while I am a whitefella, there is a part of my spirit that makes me Aboriginal. My work, my life, makes me a richer person in my spirit, and inside and out, in makes me laugh, cry, sing and dance with joy. People tell me I work too hard. I tell them it’s not work, it’s love. I love too hard.