Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Making peace with myself

I'm told that, when I make a contribution during the class, what comes across to the rest of the group is a wealth of knowledge and depth of understanding.  It's also been said that I don't seem to realise how much I help people.  What I've heard from some of the people I've supported, whether informally or in my work, is that they've told me things they would never tell anyone else.  Occasionally, people go as far as to tell me that I've been good, that I've helped them, and they feel a weight has been lifted from their shoulders.

I should be able to accept all this positive feedback.  I think it's now reached the point where I really should accept it, because a failure to do so would suggest that either I don't trust the judgement of the people saying these things, or I believe they are being dishonest.  Actually, that was never the problem.  The problem was that I was suffering from impostor syndrome - a feeling that I really shouldn't have been there, and certainly not getting praise for it, because doing so only meant that I had successfully pulled the wool over the eyes of a lot of people.

I'm at an age where I've started to question everything that's happened in my life so far - the journey, as it were - and try to understand what it all means.  Hopefully, by asking ourselves these questions, and finding the answers, we reach a state of congruence, self-actualization, self-acceptance, or whatever it may be called in the school of psychology or belief system to which we subscribe.  I prefer to look at it as being at peace with who are, because I believe that reaching this state brings us peace and, if we are to make peace with the outside world and the people in it, we must first make peace with ourselves.  I also believe that, in trying to achieve this inner peace, we are, to some extent, aiming at a moving target.

I realise that a piece of writing such as this could be seen as a narcissistic drone, but I sincerely hope it doesn't come across as such.  If you see it in such a way, it is easy enough to stop reading.  Maybe you'll see something that applies to your own situation, though, and reading my self-absorbed waffling will help you in some way.  Has that been my intention all along?  I'll leave that for you to decide.

If we accept that a sense of inner peace is a moving target, how do we achieve inner peace?  Some people find it through religion or spirituality.  Some people find it through finding a sense of purpose.  I hear that some find a certain contentment in family life, whereas others like to travel and learn about cultures that are different from their own.  One of the things I find wonderful about us humans is that we are all so different.  It stands to reason that a sense of inner peace will look different to each of us and, as I have said, is likely to be something that changes over time.

I started by talking about my inability to accept positive appraisals of my ability as a counsellor.  I regard this as an obstacle on the path.  I feel that achieving a sense of peace within ourselves requires many of the same elements which are needed to make peace with others: patience, understanding and, most importantly in my eyes, acceptance.

We change and, hopefully, we grow as individuals.  So, a sense of inner peace is largely a moving target.  As much as we change, however, key aspects of us remain the same, or were there all along, and we were barely conscious of them.  We could see these as the core, or fundamental, truths of who we are.  In person-centred therapy, this is known as the organismic self.

Abraham Maslow spoke of a hierarchy of needs, where basic physical and safety needs must be met first, before a sense of belonging and self-esteem lead the individual further along the path towards what he termed self-actualization.  Maybe there should also be a hierarchy of acceptance, where we first accept the fundamental truths about ourselves, then the things about us that will change, before we are able to practise acceptance of the wider world and the people in it.

My own path is currently leading towards me becoming a counsellor, and stands in stark contrast to where I was being led by my earlier career and academic endeavours.  Looking back, I can see how I ignored the fundamental truths about myself or, as Carl Rogers might have said, I was in a state of incongruence.  What I would say is that, although I still struggle to accept positive feedback, I'm on a path where I feel more at peace with myself.  Should I say I'm in a more congruent state, or I'm further along the path to self-actualization?  I'd argue that those are equally valid, but those who know me will be aware of the effect that Zen philosophy has had on the way I see the world, and may be more surprised that I didn't refer to the path of enlightenment.

My reason for talking in terms of peace is that what I see are a great many people who aren't at peace with themselves.  Am I, through simply listening, without making judgements about them, able to help people find a way forward and feel more at peace with who they are?  I truly hope so.  I don't consider that I have any great skill or wisdom: I just listen.  If you've made it this far through my ramblings, then you have effectively done the same for me, and I offer you my most sincere thanks for that.

Monday, 23 May 2016

The true self

For the last few months, I've been attending two dance classes and continuing with my study of counselling skills.  What I haven't been doing - and it's a change that was forced upon me - is attending lessons in wing chun.

Before my temporary break from martial arts practice, a number of things had pointed the way to feelings of which I was barely aware.  Some of the other students, and one in particular, had said that I was one of the more defensive fighters in the class, and didn't seem particularly eager to attack.  More tellingly, my performance in sparring sessions was poor.

As recently as six years ago, when I was a student of jujitsu, my performance in sparring sessions was anything but poor.  I'll say no more about that, because I take little pride in it now.  A few minor incidents outside of my time in the wing chun class also showed that I was more than capable of applying what I'd learned, if needed.  A sparring session with some mixed martial artists convinced me that I'd built up a great deal of skill.  So, why the poor performance in sparring and chi sao?  Why was I a defensive, rather than attacking, fighter?


The way that I came to learn to dance could almost be described as an accident.  I was at an outdoor concert, and one of the ladies present mentioned that she was going to give a dance class about which she'd heard a go, if someone would go along with her.  Eventually, it became obvious that I was the focus of her request that someone go with her to the class.  I agreed, with the warning that I probably wouldn't enjoy it.

I was wrong about not enjoying it.  I was learning a new set of movements, and none of them had anything to do with combat!  How could I be enjoying it?  Around this time, in the counselling skills class, we were learning about the concept of the organismic, or true, self.  The theory is that we try to mould ourselves to fit in with the expectations of others but, as much as we try to hold it back, the truth of who we are will eventually make itself known, to some extent, in a way that even we may not be expecting.  The real me likes to dance, apparently.

Things change

Now, the time has come for me to go back to wing chun, and taking a break from it has changed things.  When I tried to run through the forms again, I noticed that some muscle groups had been neglected, through not training, but dancing had developed other muscle groups.  More importantly, I'd had time to analyse my relationship with martial arts, and come to terms with it.

I've come to realise that violence, and the threat of violence, have always been a part of my life: sometimes in the background, and sometimes very much to the fore.  My response was to commit much of my time to attempting to make myself a one man army, so to speak.  On that journey, however, I became more interested in Zen and the other elements of philosophy behind the combat arts I was practising.  Again, this was a very clear sign that my true self was gradually becoming known to me.

A little bit of self-reflection, courtesy of my study of counselling skills, put the final piece of the puzzle into place, and revealed something that I really should have known all along.  I have no interest in fighting, and it's likely that I never did.  I've seen too much violence, and taken part in quite a bit of it myself, and I have no wish for that to continue being a part of my life.  I'm going back to wing chun, but with a different focus, or maybe the same focus that I had all along, if only I'd been able to admit it to myself.

I was reluctant to take a break, because I feared that a temporary break would become permanent.  What happened, though, was that the break became a chance to check my motivation, to ask the questions that weren't being asked.  The result is that I'm returning to something I love, but now it's different because, this time, I'm going as myself.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

No one's first choice

We all have things that we believe about ourselves, about others, and about how we are to interact with the wider world.  For example, we probably have some idea of how others see us, though this will inevitably be affected by how we see ourselves.

When someone I know came to talk to me recently, I pointed out that she didn't have to.  She'd arrived at the venue with her friends and, due to a problem between me and one of her friends, I sat alone.  The last thing I wanted was to create further problems, so I'd assumed that she would remain at her table, with her friends, and I would remain at mine.

When I said that she didn't have to come to talk to me, it wasn't that I didn't want her to talk to me.  I was simply thinking of the ongoing stand off between another person at her table and myself.  The reply was that she was there because I'm her friend.

It might be useful, at this point, to list some of my core beliefs about how people see me:
  1. No one really wants to listen to me.  It's best if I don't talk too much about myself, and that could also come across as me being self-absorbed anyway.
  2. If people want to talk to me, they'll talk to me.  If they don't come to talk to me, it's because they don't want to.  Approaching someone, or initiating a conversation, might mean I'm forcing a conversation they don't necessarily want to have.
  3. I'm no one's first choice of friend.  I'm there in the absence of other options.
When I list them in such a way, they sound very negative, and they are.  The incident I've mentioned highlights the negative and presumptuous nature of these beliefs.  I'd made assumptions about how another person saw me, and it seems that I was wrong.  Those core beliefs told me that I was simply someone she saw at dance classes, and nothing else.

Point number 3 is the important one.  I never feel that I'm particularly important to anyone although, even as I write it, I'm aware that it's more likely to be a self-esteem issue than an accurate evaluation of my worth.  I know that I often present people with difficulties, however, because they've been quite open in telling me that I'm difficult.
If you can see the image, and you're wondering what the letters INFJ signify, it's a personality type.  More accurately, it's a personality type described by the Myers Briggs Type Indicator.  Unlike a lot of personality tests that are available online, the MBTI, as it is often abbreviated, is based on genuine psychological theory.

Now, we should be careful about attaching labels to people.  The whole point about the MBTI, and Jung's personality types, upon which the test is based, is that these traits are apparent to a greater or lesser degree, and we must always see someone as an individual, rather than a type.  People are inherently complex, and psychological theory barely scratches the surface of that complexity.

Where those types are useful is in understanding how we see the world and the people in it.  If it wasn't clear before, it is now crystal clear that each of us sees the world in a different way.  I can't tell you, with any certainty, that the generalisations about the INFJ personality type are accurate but, in my case, they seem to ring true.

The first picture suggested that I keep a lot of myself hidden.  I've heard people say this about me.  On one occasion, someone noted that she'd told me a lot about herself, but knew next to nothing about me.  A good friend has commented that I'm a very private person.  There are so many other examples, but I'm sure you get the idea.  I realise I'm doing it.  What about the charge that people tell me a lot about themselves?
It's been said that people feel the need to fill the silences that I leave.  That's fair.  I listen and observe more than I talk.  I express myself better in writing, like I'm doing right now, but I still leave a lot of myself closed off from the world.  As the image above suggests, people tend to get the best response from me when they are showing me who they truly are, beneath the layers of pretence that they often use to protect themselves from the scrutiny of others.

Does this mean that I can tell when people aren't showing me who they truly are?  Do I have the ability to see whether someone is being genuine or not?  Is that my superpower?
I'd hardly call it a superpower.  It might sound like a good thing to have, and I admit that it's saved me from embarrassment a few times but, in terms of interacting socially, it's a nightmare.  You quickly realise that people present many different faces to the world, are different things to different people, and all of it is absolutely essential to the smooth functioning of social interactions.  You can see behind the façade, however, and it makes it difficult for you to deal with people.  If they stick around long enough to give you a chance, they eventually come to realise that they have to be genuinely themselves in your company, that you won't judge them for it, because you already know who they are.

The bottom line?  Most people don't like feeling so exposed and vulnerable.  You can count the people with whom you will develop a close friendship on the fingers of one hand, but those friendships will be sincere and meaningful.  The people who turn their backs on you either can't accept a fundamental aspect of who you are, or wrongly assume that you won't accept a fundamental aspect of who they are.
You're probably thinking I could put on a pretence myself, to make social interactions easier.  I can't.  What you see is who I am.  The only trick I have in the bag, so to speak, is to limit how much of myself I show.  This can present itself as me being cold, distant or reserved and can frustrate anyone who is trying to get to know me.  I can't be different things to different people.  I can only be myself.  That feeling of being exposed and vulnerable, which people often feel when I get to see behind the façade they've chosen to put up?  I feel that all the time.  I can only protect myself through being silent, keeping things to myself, and pushing down a lot of powerful feelings.

When Halloween comes around again, if I attend costume parties, I'll choose a costume that allows me to cover my face.  I believe a face like mine really should be covered, but that's a whole other issue.  If I have the chance to be present and still hide myself from view, I'm a whole lot more comfortable.  Like I said, it's the only trick I have in the bag.

The likelihood of me being the first person someone thinks of when asked to name a friend of theirs is remote.  If we've known each other for some time, however, they genuinely know me, and I know them.  I may not be the first friend they think of, but I'm a true friend.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

The problem of a crowded room

I always try to arrive early, before there are too many people in the room.  It doesn't always help, and it can only ever be a temporary fix.  More people will arrive, and the usual problem will soon present itself again.

The problem is empathy.  Without any conscious effort, I seem to pick up on what other people are feeling, and that feeling can affect me.  If I'm talking one to one with a friend, it's okay.  Actually, talking one to one with someone makes me feel a lot better.  If I'm picking up on the individual feelings of a room full of people, it's a different matter.  It can be overwhelming.  If I'm not feeling particularly good, it can be impossible.  At its worst, I feel like I need to get away and not be around other people for a while.

It seems to be a question of focus.  When I'm sat alone, and everyone is talking to someone else, I can't help noticing the greater number of people in the room.  If a friend comes to talk to me, I can switch my focus to just one person, and temporarily shut out the other people in the room to a certain extent.  I know they're there, but I don't feel their presence, or what they're feeling, quite so much.

There's a positive side to it, and I'm thankful for that.  If I'm approached with something that needs to be dealt with sensitively, I'm well placed to do that.  I won't tell anyone to pull themselves together, or that things could be worse, because I can see how they feel about this thing that's troubling them.  I can hear it in subtle changes in their tone and in non-verbal signs that all is not well.  I listen to how their problems have affected them, and imagine what it must be like for them.  Alternatively, someone might tell me they're feeling good, and that's great.  If someone's not being genuine, however, it doesn't work for me: I can tell.

I'm aware of the impression I must give.  Someone recently said they thought I didn't like other people, and I suppose it can seem that way.  From the outside, I'm the quiet guy sat in the corner, trying to avoid making eye contact with anyone.  Everything about me says I don't want to be there, that I don't want to talk to you, that you shouldn't approach me.  Well, I'll gravitate towards a corner, or the outer edge, of a room.  I'm the opposite of an attention seeker: I really don't want to be at the centre of things.  I can't stress that point firmly enough: I don't want to be at the centre of things, and getting too much attention makes me feel uncomfortable.

Maybe I seem strange, and maybe it's hard to understand, no matter how I try to explain it.  I guess I'm just different, and I have to accept that, but it would be great if I could feel that the people who are important to me accepted it too.

Do I want to be there?  Should you approach and talk to me?  Yes!  I'm not being unsociable.  It takes a great deal of courage for me to be there, knowing how it might make me feel, and if I didn't like being with people, I wouldn't put myself through it.  I might just be feeling a little overwhelmed, but your company is always appreciated.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Salsa, modern jive and other partner dances

The subject of leads who show off advanced moves, throwing their partners around and potentially making them very dizzy, has reared its head again.  As it came up on a group dedicated to salsa, and I'm very much a beginner in that style, I didn't feel confident enough to comment in the group.

The feedback I receive, as a beginner, is that keeping to the basic rhythm of the music and giving clear signals are far more important than whether the moves are basic or more advanced.  This makes sense to me.

I see dancing as a form of personal expression, rather than a purely technical exercise.  I always try, when dancing with a partner, to give her the space to express her own particular style.  Believe me, every woman has her own individual style and, for me, getting to see her express herself through dancing is a joy.  Why would I deprive her of the ability to express herself, and myself of the privilege of seeing it?

So, manhandling her into position is not something I want to do.  My task, as a lead, is to give a signal - a suggestion - of what will happen next, and her task is to interpret that how she may.  As one partner said to me, if she has a smile on her face, you're doing it right.  Really, it's just having some consideration for your partner.

Thought for the day: this isn't what I expected

I always thought, as time passed by, that I'd become more world-weary and cynical.  Strangely, the opposite seems to have happened.  I sometimes feel frustrated; I occasionally feel anger towards someone or something; I might feel a great sadness about the state of the world.  I clearly have the capacity to feel those things.  What I feel less and less, however, is hatred.  I truly believe that people are fundamentally good, though sometimes misguided.  With that in mind, how am I supposed to feel hatred towards them?

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Thought for the day: a fundamental truth

She stood in front of me for a moment and, briefly, our eyes met.  I remembered how she'd said - wrongly - that I was controlling, manipulative and a narcissist.  I remembered how she hadn't so much closed the door on her friendship with me, as slammed it shut and nailed boards over it.  Looking at her, I knew that something was wrong.  There are times when I curse my ability to see how someone is feeling, and this was one of them.

The look in her eyes; other little signs in her facial expression; the almost imperceptible trembling of her hand; the gathering tears that she refused to let fall - I saw all of them.  She wasn't okay.  I didn't know what had made her feel that way: only that she felt it.  I wanted to ask her if she was okay, although I could clearly see she wasn't, and tell her that she could still talk to me, if she needed to, at any time.

I didn't say any of those things to her.  I held on to the memory of how little regard she'd had for my feelings, how she'd completely misunderstood my intentions, and how she might take any kindness from me as a sign of a weakness to be exposed and exploited.  I remained silent.  The moment had passed.  In an instant, she was gone.

If you ever hear me saying that I don't care, about anyone or anything, you're hearing a lie.  I care about everyone and everything, as much as I sometimes wish it weren't so.  It's a terrible burden, but it's who I am.