If people look externally at my life at the moment, it seems to be a stress-free paradise. My clients see my face on a computer screen in various time zones every other week. I work on international research projects that address educational psychology and intercultural learning. Sounds great. At the same time, I have been wondering why I usually end up in the very last row on the plane, in the middle seat and obviously right next the toilet. On the surface I exude an aura of an accomplished professional with a luxurious job who is conquering yet another continent. Scratch the surface and you’ll see me crashing on the couch at a friend’s place, making choices between a bus ride or a coffee and counting my coins at a random cafe. And I love it! This is what I wanted for now, to push the boundaries of my day-to-day life to become someone else. We all face a critical point in our lives… when we decide to follow a deep-rooted dream, when we have to do something that is absolutely necessary to become fully ourselves. It may involve various possibilities such as learning to knit or starting to grow your own vegetables, having a child or divorcing, moving or staying put, running a business or getting that dream job. You choose. In these moments I often think of death… How come? Well, because death is our greatest teacher, it reminds us to let go of what doesn’t matter, to seriously consider what we hold dear. When investigating my client’s life purpose I have a question at the back of my head.
What do you need to die in peace?
It may sound harshly cruel and yet we all deny to some extent our mortality. We often live each day as if time were never-ending. I feel somewhat anxious writing these words and I know that it is an inescapable reality. Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis, said that we need to live every hour of our life as a work of art.
If your life were a piece of art, what would it be?
Then again, do you feel pressurised when considering this question? I do… I feel as if lying on the couch was some great transgression and I should strive for something greater in every waking moment of my life. This is magnified by social media that invite us to present a flawless version of ourselves. On the other hand, we may be lying on the couch and maybe this is exactly what the artistry of our current life situation needs. It seems to me that the elder inside you would be able to make that judgement… The part of you that knows intuitively what is right and when.
Throughout this blog I wish to demystify the boundary between clients and helping professionals by showing some parts of myself. I have been travelling for about two months now, carving a trajectory between Sydney, Mumbai, London and New York. I am very grateful for every experience I had along the way. I know the world is divided between those that can and those that cannot… for various reasons, be it economic, cultural or psychological. There are limits to what therapy or coaching can achieve globally. Professor Peter Kinderman from the University of Liverpool, challenges the way we define mental illness and states that “everybody’s crazy but nobody’s ill” He normalises the emotional difficulties that we face and urges us to accept them as a part of life. We will have bad days at times, we will leave some projects unfinished and it doesn’t mean that something is wrong with us! On the other hand, we should not entirely hold people accountable for the distress they feel as it may be a result of external circumstances. Prof Kinderman points out that depression increases as a result of societal and economic adversity. Well, it’s not rocket science. People will struggle in response to having low salaries and living in a crime filled environment. The trick is to strengthen individuals so that as a society we become more resilient. I will be coaching Guatemalan teachers in counselling skills and I need to tread carefully. This country was torn for over thirty years by a civil war that left many communities in pieces. I cannot come with my bag of tools and say to them “Hey, you just need go through a process of learning and you will expand your potential!” This would be insensitive, stupid and ineffective. I need to create conditions for real contact, when we mutually impact each other, when we relate truly. Addressing power imbalance and approaching people with keen interest are prerequisites for any helping relationship.
There are several projects in my pipeline… and when I arrived to Guatemala I had this sense of anxiety and foreboding. I shut myself in my room, scared of engaging with the world. I felt overwhelmed by the many initiatives I am taking. I also felt alone and sort of jaded with being the person who knows, who is supposed to have the answers. I sat down and asked myself: What would you say to a client in similar circumstances? When finishing a piece of therapy or coaching, I want to ascertain what new and autonomously driven behaviours will support a client to maximise their wellbeing. For me, it meant getting in touch with a couple of dear friends. First, I called John and asked him for some counsel. He said: “Why don’t you use this experience to model vulnerability to the folks who read your blog?” Wow, I thought, what a good reminder that I can be a person who is lost at times. This is really the point: as therapists or coaches we should challenge the idea of absolute and perfect mental health. This is exactly what Professor Kinderman is talking about. In a neoliberal world we are treated as units of productivity that should maximise their output for the purposes of some undefined greater good. I am no exception! Several lines before I talked about “maximising wellbeing”. I hope you noticed this and realised that I lacked congruence in this instance. I hope you appreciate that maintaining awareness and caring for one’s mental health requires an ongoing effort. This applies to everyone.
I remember that before training as a counsellor I believed that helping professionals were a superior human race. The fact is that it is a continuum you move on… or better like a walk through the woods. The more you discover your inner landscape, the better you will become at defending yourself from the monsters (i.e. your fears and anxieties) lurking in the darkest caves of your psyche. It’s not just about defence and survival. Once you see clearly your inner map, you know where to go to thrive, to move towards greener pastures that will reward you with self-actualisation, joy and intimacy, be it with friends or a loved one. You also need time. My other friend Jenny, a fierce psychoanalyst, pointed out: “You’ve been moving so much and now you’re staying put. No wonder you’re feeling anxious because you’re starting to think, you have time to really think!” Real thinking, as opposed to shallow, repetitive and predictable substitute thinking, can happen only if we delve deeply into our total experience. This means acknowledging the unwanted thoughts, feeling the menace of the unknown and having difficult conversations with ourselves, both internally and externally. There is no magic in therapy or coaching. It’s about inviting people to connect fully with their experiences, so that they can plot a more accurate map of their inner landscape. This means starting to feel and think in ways that enable growth. It’s hard but I guess it’s the only way to adapt to a changeable world.