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We Are Phoenix

When people come for therapy, it is always because, on some level, something needs to change. Whilst it is true that there are often external influences in our lives that hinder our ability to thrive, to change what is outside of ourselves, when possible, can only go so far. The real transformation, the lasting change, comes from the internal shape-shifting, re-storying and realignment that we do. These are the changes that build resilience, that lead us to value ourselves, and relish without shame, the unique combination of strengths and flaws that make us who we are. For like the mythical bird, the Phoenix, there is only ever one of us.

There are legends spanning continents, religions and cultures that refer to a glorious bird that symbolises renewal, resilience, starting afresh. The earliest version belongs to the ancient Egyptians, who called it Bannu, and it was the ancient Greeks who named it Phoenix, closely linked to the Phoenicians. What links all versions of the Phoenix are its strength, long life, sparkle and wondrousness. But there always comes a time when it knows it needs to be “reborn” and so it builds a special nest where the old version of itself burns and from the ashes a new, stronger and breathtaking Phoenix emerges. At any one time, there is only one Phoenix.

As humans, like the Phoenix, we sometimes need a “nest”, a safe space, in which to stop what we are doing, take stock and rebuild ourselves. Unlike the Phoenix, we do not need to set ourselves on fire, nor, indeed, die, in order for this transformation to take place. And, as humans, we have the chance to share our safe space with another, or others. That might be someone close to us, who can help support us through troubled times. It can also be a therapist, who will sit with us, explore with us and help us work out what is truly ours to carry forward, and what needs to be shed in order to live as our most resplendent selves.

We inevitably pick up dust in our feathers, along the course of life. Sticky bits that slow us down, make going about our lives tiring or painful, create a sense of not really being ourselves and make us anxious. Therapists, irrespective of what model they practice, aim to help us understand what is truly ours and what we have picked up or been given to carry along the way: habits; ways of thinking; unhealed wounds etc. Therapists set out to create a safe space in which we can shake out our feathers and watch the dust cloud settle, be with us as we get used to the new feelings and mourn the loss of what was familiar, despite not being wanted. Above all, therapists want to help us rise from the ashes of our suffering and, along with our scars – for they are part of our uniqueness, leave the nest refreshed, enlivened and true to ourselves.

Why might I feel worse before I feel better when I start psychotherapy?

There can be many different responses to starting therapy. As many responses as individuals who are doing the starting. However there are also patterns, or similar ways of responding that can be loosely formed into a theory.

One common response is that I begin to “feel” more. And if what I am feeling is painful, that might lead to an idea that I am actually feeling worse. However it might not be “worse” but different.

Mental distress such as depression and anxiety that often lead someone into therapy can be understood as a symptom of somethingthat the person seeking therapy is not aware of. This something may be a belief (such as I should be strong), a feeling that is blocked, an action (such as tensing the body in order to stop a feeling emerging) or a behaviour.

Working with a psychotherapist, it is possible that I can begin to understand and experience whatmight be out of my awareness and howI am keeping this out of my awareness.  For example; howa feeling is being blocked (usually by some tensing in the body) or a belief not attended to and how this is influencing my present experience.

This process of gaining awareness can take time and requires support as often this “keeping something out of awareness” has been a way to psychologically survive difficult and traumatic experiences.

Mental Health and Ill Health

Ruby Wax recently complained  that  now “everybody is mentally ill”.  In the past her signature piece was about her mental ill health, but now that mental illness  is more commonly spoken of, she feels that she is no longer unique in this respect.  Which is good.   It is important that the stigma attached to mental illness has been reduced.   The young royals have contributed towards this.

But there is still an assumption that either you are mentally well, or you are mentally ill. A sort of either/or.  Whereas in fact mental health is on a spectrum along which we all travel.  With physical health, sometimes we are well, sometimes we are not so well.  Similarly with mental health. Sometimes we feel good, content, resilient and solid, whereas other times we feel shaky, upset, distressed, depressed, anxious and/or fragmented.   This is normal.   Life events can shake us up and make us feel more vulnerable.   Close relationships with significant others can help us to feel strong, but when these break down, we can feel our emotional balance being upset.

Having said that, it is also true that some people are more vulnerable and less resilient emotionally than others.  This may be due to disturbances in their early lives, and /or simply different genetic make up.    We are all different and we all have different areas of vulnerability.  Whatever our childhoods were like, they will have contributed to our resilience, or lack of resilience.  When something disturbing or traumatic happens, are weable to cope with it, feel what we feel, and ride with the emotional turbulence rather than sink beneath it?  This would be resilence.  How we deal with our emotions can be a bit like surfing: wobbling, skimming, flying over, or falling down and feeling submerged by the waves.

Are we able to talk to anyone when we feel low and vulnerable, or do we hide away and try to pretend that our emotions are not bothering us, or that they are not there?

How we relate to our feelings is of critical importance in terms of our mental health.   Many people, learn, as young children, that they should be in control of their feelings and keep them in check.  This can lead to a negative self image and an attempt to repress feelings rather than befriend them, understand them and express them.

Therapy can help change our relationship with ourselves and with the world.  When we can accept ourselves, we are stronger and more able to allow others to see us, to get close to us and to support us.  We do not need to be ashamed of our feelings and our vulnerability.  We do not need to be afraid of what is inside us.    It is a strength to be able to acknowledge and own our weaknesses.  That is where resilience lies.