Anxiety and Criticism


Anxiety and Criticism.

As Oscar Wilde once said, “Criticism is the only reliable form of autobiography.” It tells you more about the psychology of the critic than the people he or she criticises. Astute professionals can formulate a viable diagnostic hypothesis just from hearing someone’s criticisms.

Put another way the critic is projecting their own beliefs, attitudes and world view on to others. So it can tell you more about the person being critical than is does the person being criticised.

This is not to say that the comments made towards another many not unfounded but there is something about fault finding and destroying a perfectly good enough relationship through destructive criticism.

None of us are perfect, we all have our faults and foibles and part of the psychological maturation process is to allow these imperfections to be as they are and not make it your mission to change the person or to change yourself in line with how others want you to be. As said in the bible “take the plank out of your own eye before trying to remove a speck in another.”

And of course there is the monster of our own inner critic which is directed towards ourselves. This is the daemon that will try to undermine, rule and derail our lives and sense of peace.

Criticism can be a way for people to feel better about themselves. If they perceive that others are wrong then they will feel they are right and justified. It is a way of defending the ego, which for many critics, comes from a deep place of insecurity.

Critical people will often have been criticised themselves in childhood from caregivers, siblings, friends and school teachers. They themselves received the message “I am not good enough” “I am not lovable” “People don’t like me”

Young children are not able to process the distinction between behaviours being unacceptable but they themselves are still loved. The child hears “You are a bad boy” Not “I love you but what you did was not good behaviour” And often, a criticism is given with a tone of voice that delivers displeasure or anger leaving the child the only option to hear it as “Mummy doesn’t like me” or “I am a bad person”

In psychological terms the child internalises these criticisms developing a sense of unworthiness and turning it inwards towards themselves, resulting in the birth of the inner critic. It is safer to tell yourself you are no good, not lovable or stupid than have feelings of rejection and hurt when others criticise you.

By the time these children turn adolescent they may have become highly self critical and either turn this outward towards others and/or more firmly inwards towards themselves. Every mistake or wrongdoing will be evidence that you really are no good, stupid or incompetent; constantly feeding the inner critic voice.

One of the things I have noticed as a counsellor is the strength of the inner critic is an indicator of the level of anxiety a client is experiencing. I hear it in the language the client uses towards themselves. “I am so scared of getting things wrong” I want to get it right” “Awful things keep happening to me” “Trouble follows me around” “I don’t know why they bother with me” “I hate myself”

The tone is one of self loathing and lack of self trust and kindness. Clients can feel so scared to try anything new or meeting the world openly for fear of failure or providing further evidence for the inner critic. Life becomes narrow, unfulfilling, fearful and anxious.

Fear of living is like being locked in an inner prison. Always on the alert for comments from the inner critic or from others; a word, a look, an attitude, an event, things going wrong etc. Each forming evidence that the world and the self is not good or safe.

But let’s look at the reality of this fear.

It comes from the past, through the conditioning received as a younger person and growing up. It is the resulting emotions that make the body feel uncomfortable and closed up; muscles become tense, the heart beats faster, the throat feels closed up, the mind is scrambled, the stomach cramps, thoughts make up stories to fit the belief pattern, there is a single focused attention on the problem and a loss of peace and stillness. This is the embodiment of fear; a barrage of neurological reactions in the mind and body.

But does it have to be this way? Do we have to be controlled by the past? Do we have to believe the thoughts and the stories we tell ourselves? I firmly believe not.

Experience has shown me in my own personal life and those of my clients that we can change the inner critic and the negative belief patterns. Through counselling you can discover yourself afresh by looking at these negative thoughts and beliefs, discovering how they developed, how they have played out in your life, learn some tools and methods to deal with the inner critic, learn to be kind and compassionate towards yourself and towards others.

I see people change and go on to have fulfilling, braver and resilient lives, with the tools they need to deal with difficult times, the inner critic and old belief patterns that destroy peace, happiness and acceptance.

Anxiety and Expectations

Anxiety and Expectations

The Collins dictionary says; Your expectations are your strong hopes or beliefs that something will happen or that you will get something that you want.

Or; A person’s expectations are strong beliefs which they have about the proper way someone should behave or something should happen.

How much do we depend on our expectations being delivered? What kind of expectations do we impose on ourselves and others? How much strain and stress do those expectation cause? And are we expecting too much from ourselves and others?

Are our expectations realistic?

Our expectations will affect the way we live. Some will say that these expectations set a high standard of behaviour. Positive expectations or goals are of course healthy. Others will say, like Ajahn Brahm a Buddhist monk and The Psychology of Expectations by John A Johnson, PhD that these expectations can place stress on ourselves and others; we are trying to make others be what we want them to be, rather than allowing others to be who they truly are. And of course we apply that same principle to ourselves. As we grow up we are asked to conform to parental, educational, societal and cultural expectations. And this is useful as it helps us get along with each other with normative standards of acceptable behaviour. Unfortunately these standards can come with a heavy price tag of blame, guilt and shame when we are found to be imperfect or fail to meet the required levels of expectations.

Each person will view expected standards differently depending on upbringing, personality and context.

As we filter behaviours through life experience we may or may not agree with or uphold a generally accepted expectation. For example there is a film called Billy Elliot, which tells a story of a young boy and gifted dancer who came from a coal mining community whose father forbade him to dance. It was not proper for a young boy to dance! It was just not acceptable! His father and brother thought he would be considered gay if he became a dancer. However Billy continues to dance behind his fathers back and finally wins through and attends the Royal Ballet School.

How does failure in getting our expectations satisfied cause anxiety?

It all seems to be in the neurochemical pathways that pumps out cortisol under stress and dopamine when calm. Cortisol makes the body ready for fight or flight. Muscles contract, the heart beats faster and the brain focuses only on the danger. There is difficulty in accessing the reasoning mind. In this state there is only reactivity. There is an unpleasant emotional sense of fear, anger, resentment, disappointment or even betrayal. Imagine Billy Elliot’s coal mining father and his reaction to his sons desire to dance. Imagine the thoughts and feelings as cortisol flooded his mind and body.

How does getting our expectations fulfilled make us calm?

Using the Billy Elliot story let us explore his internal desire and expectation of dance. He knew that dance excited him, his teacher saw his talent and he hoped to become a dancer. His internal hope and belief was to dance. And with that internal expectation he achieved his dream despite his fathers different expectation. He was true to himself and must have been satisfied and happy with the outcome with dopamine flooding his body and mind.

Anxiety often comes with negative thought patterns such as; I am not good enough, I can’t cope, I am a failure, I fear saying the wrong thing, I must not make a mistake, no one really likes me and I am not worth it. Each thought causes stress with resulting physical tension, butterflies in the stomach, tightening of the throat and chest, rapid and shallow breathing and increased heart rate. Cortisol is being pumped around the body and brain. There is an expectation that failure will happen. Experience tells the anxious person so. They will be looking for evidence to show that their thinking is right. A neural pathway is set up and the brain is wired to fail in some way, say the wrong thing, not cope or recognise not being liked. This is a vicious cycle that needs to be understood properly, adjustments made to expectations of yourself and others and bring a sense of kindness into everyday life and relationships.

With the help of counselling or talking to a wise friend or someone who has been through this experience can help you discover your story, how expectations have affected your life, rediscover yourself in a new way and move forward in the way you want.

Anxiety and the call to wake up

Back in the 70’s my own awareness around (anxiety/stress) body tension began way back when I was a district nursing sister having taken on a student district nurse and responsible for showing her my work and giving her supervised practice.

It was, in my experience, the time when nurses were being made aware of listening skills to help improve communication with our patients.

We were invited to attend a meeting for a listening skills workshop. During this workshop the speaker took us through a relaxation technique. And at the end I was astonished to find how tense my body had been. I guess I was woken up to the fact that my body held tension and it was not a pleasant discovery because now I was aware of tension and tiredness taking this student around with me during my rounds. Basically I was experiencing stress.

Over the years since then I experienced short episodes of anxiety/body tension caused by life changing events, difficulties, demands, personal issues that arose from my childhood, buying a house, giving birth, becoming a mother, giving up the job I loved, coping with family commitments and so on. Layer upon layer of normal life handing me both challenges and opportunities.

However my body and mind were not at peace.

I had taken the childhood metaphorical “knocks and bumps” and identified them personally as “Not good enough” “Had to try harder” “I am not liked” “I can’t do it” “I have to be seen to be busy” “I have to be seen as managing well” “I can’t admit I am having difficulties” “I must get this right” This was the mind state that took me through school and into nursing and on well into my life in some shape or another. It has been said that nurses seek that profession to heal themselves by healing and caring for others. Nurses were also said not very good at self care. And I guess there is truth in that. Our focus of attention is on the other to distract from our own issues and not on ourselves.

But there is a price to pay for lack of focus on ourselves particularly around the feelings of anxiety in which I will lump physical tension, scattered mind, distorted self and world view, distorted beliefs, autopilot behaviour, fear and anger and often depression.

In my experience not waking up to this in myself stopped me from being a real person. To avoid feeling this anxiety/tension I put on a facade of coping and managing while nursing and then in motherhood and as a wife and a young mother. The face of competency, boundless energy, getting on with it all, not being aware that I had a right to have my needs met or that indeed I had had any needs that I would let be known to myself or others.

Then came a final break in me when I could not go on the way I was. As Eckhart Tolle said “I could not go on doing this to myself” while in the deepest despair of depression when he woke up with this statement. Who is I and who is myself? This led to his wonderful teachings that started with “The Power of Now” where he explores in depth the workings of the mind and body states.

It took me a while to discover that to be a more real person requires not believing all the lies I was telling myself. And not believing what others told me either, because often whatever they said about me in a critical way could say more about them than me. I had to discover that the childhood subsequent beliefs I internalised and took on as “me” is not who I truly am. For example criticism and impatience from my teacher while being helped to learn maths led me to believe I was useless at maths. I have since learned via an online course that I actually can do maths! And I have met many a budding artist who at an early age had their work condemned and so never set brush to paper again believing they were no good at art!

So we are conditioned by our parents, care givers, society, culture, religion, schools, workplaces, in an effort to socialise us, make us good citizens or be a part of groups and get on with others. But that conditioning means that it is conditional. The process requires that we conform and it teaches us that to receive approval we must do or say or be something that others want us to be. We then divide ourselves into good and bad, right and wrong, nice or horrid, loved or unloved. And by then we have lost our true selves and disconnected from that inner place of goodness, peace and stillness and sense of inner security.

And this is the call of anxiety. Anxiety is pointing to a new way to look at life and self. It is asking us to take a good inventory of our purpose and meaning, our values and what is important to us. It is asking us to challenge distorted thinking patterns which will often have their root in our past conditioning, We need to learn about how we are in our daily lives; to really know how and why we are thinking and behaving in the way we are. Without that insight or knowledge we are only on autopilot and sleepwalking through life. Anxiety is a call to wake up and reconnect with our inner place of goodness, peace and stillness.

The Older Client

Over the past 5 years I have been working with the older person between 65 and 85 yrs of age. There used to be a common misconception that the older person was not suitable for counselling and their ability to change was limited. I do not believe this to be so. My special interest is with the concerns, challenges and indeed opportunities that increasing age can bring. I have found a real commitment to change in the older client and have witnessed the benefits that counselling has made to many older people, some in their late 80’s.

The British Association for Counsellors and Psychotherapist (BACP) have been reviewing counselling to the older person paying attention to its efficacy, appropriateness and practical delivery. I believe the outcome suggests that we need to pay close attention to an increasingly older generation who were the baby boomers post 2nd world war. They were the product of trauma and deprivation experienced in their families and communities and for themselves from both the 1st and 2nd world war. This generation also experienced the massive social, political and material changes that took place in such a short time in the world.

All my clients have their own special story about these trauma’s and changes. And many feel stuck in the past having not had the education or experience of the psychological material available to the younger generation today. They seem to have been a product of the stiff upper lip, the attitude of putting up with things as there is no alternative and certainly none or little engagement with emotional expression.

But once counselling begins and there is commitment to the process it is wonderful to see how much clients can learn about themselves over and over again. And in that learning, part of which is psychological education, clients become empowered, resilient, empathic, grateful and discover new choices. They begin to live more conscious lives, thinking things through, reflecting on their lives and opening up to family and friends in a real and authentic way. They feel happier and more able to manage the ups and downs of everyday life.


Telephone Counselling

Today I attended a day’s training on Telephone Counselling. It has been a demanding day addressing the implications, both positive and negative, for engaging in telephone counselling. Traditionally counselling takes place face to face in the counselling room either privately, with an agency or charity but increasingly the telephone is being used, along with email and video calling. GP’s are also offering consultations over the phone and the Samaritans have been operating since 1953. We also have Childline and many other such helplines addressing many area’s of need. Look at this link for some idea of how many helplines are available.

So it is not a new concept and increasingly being offered to give help to people as our population and demand for help increases.

There are of course some particular issues with telephone or distant counselling with regard to the what we, the counsellors speak of as the therapeutic container. This is the space in which personal material is divulged and discussed. The container involves the room, privacy, confidentiality, timing, the regularity of sessions, the sense of safety, and payment in which the relationship between client and counsellor is developed. It is a space that is separate from everyday life and as such is valued by both client and counsellor. It is the space where you find yourself and learn new ways to engage with life.

Today has been about addressing the practical and psychological aspects of re-creating this container.


I woke up this morning

Do you wake up some mornings and feel a bit blue or perhaps a bit flat? I did this morning. There is no specific reason I can think of, it is just there. I take our dog out for a walk and get my body moving and blood circulating but when I get back it is still there. Like some pervasive mist colouring my view.

I started a practice called morning pages many years ago while going through a particularly difficult time after coming across a book called The Artists Way by Julia Cameron. One of the exercises was to sit for a specific length of time and simply write whatever comes to mind without censoring, correcting or thinking. We call it the stream of consciousnesses in psycho babble. We all have that constant stream of thinking, sensations, images and emotions which mostly go unnoticed as we go about our busy day. Writing down your stream of consciousness helps you get in touch with your mind, body and emotions. It helps you feel more connected to you. More present and grounded.

So this is how it goes for me. “I don’t know what this is all about but I do feel a bit blue and flat this morning. Long pause staring at the wall. But I suddenly see a screw in wall as if I have just woken up and then all the things around me in my office, and now I am aware of my body sitting in the chair as I write, the pressure at my back against the chair, the fingers on the keyboard, the sound of the computer, the rain falling on the patio table. Then I am aware that I am here in the now. The blue flat feeling is still there but it is lifting. I am now thinking of what I am going to be doing today.” Julia Camaron talks about writing 3 pages but I just write for as long as I need to.

Here is a passage written by another morning pages user. “I have a daily practice of longhand pages done first thing on awakening, hence, “Morning Pages.” The pages clear my head and prioritize my day. I think of them as a form of meditation. There is no wrong way to do the pages. You simply keep your hand moving across the page………”

Try it for yourself and see what happens if you like.


Living more consciously

I notice that to create a rainbow both sun and rain are needed. Looking at this moody and bright image I can see a reflection of life in its darkness, brightness and all the shades in between.

The words from the song “somewhere over the rainbow” spring to mind which suggests that getting over the rainbow will make things seem clearer and brighter and your dreams will come true.

However ……

Life is full of challenges. And each challenge offers an opportunity if you can rise up to meet it and not feel defeated by it. Sometimes though life can just seem too much, especially when the challenge bucket is full to the brim and spilling over. The mind and body can get so tired, with resilience and tolerance levels getting low. This is the time for self care. A time to take a closer look at how you are living life; your daily habits, relationships, support network, beliefs and attitudes and what is really important to you. In my personal experience and those of some of the clients I work with this step is not taken. Life just keeps on going in the same old way and before you know it you are anxious, depressed, lacking in energy and the world can look pretty grey.

Life is not about getting over the rainbow but about engaging with conscious living. Making informed and considered decisions about what, how, when and where you are doing this life thing. The only person who is going to find the pot of gold at the end of your rainbow is you. You are the one who will gain the gold of experience, discover your strengths, find new perspectives, learn new strategies and make new choices.

And this is something that counselling or a life coach can help you with. Or you can find a good friend or family member who is wise and will listen to you. You can also use a journal or write a blog. Speaking out your feelings, stresses and challenges is one of the best ways to find a way forward.


The way you cope

One of my favourite quotes is from Vaginia Satir. “Life is not what it is supposed to be, it is what it is, it’s the way you cope with it that makes the difference”