When life has got us down, moving forward into a more positive future always requires a balance of two contrasting elements.
Firstly, it’s important to fully acknowledge our experience, which includes accepting all our feelings, however painful they are (and however inappropriate we may believe them to be) as valid.
Secondly, it helps to take positive action in the world, despite our difficult feelings.
Both these aspects are equally valuable. However, as a counsellor I often provide space for people to explore difficult feelings which they can’t express anywhere else, in a society which likes to “accentuate the positive”.
This is, perhaps, why psychological therapies have a reputation for dwelling on problems and deficits. In fact, I also use a powerful “solution-focused” approach which pays attention to people’s strengths, capabilities and hopes for the future.
This is not simplistic “positive thinking” or “getting on with things” however. That can backfire when we, or those around us, have unrealistic expectations of what we can achieve.
I recently came across the phrase: “We cannot see the wind someone is walking into, we can only see how it forces them to lean.”
While this is a good reminder not to judge others by how they appear (that’s just an indicator of what they are struggling with), I think we can often underestimate the “wind we are walking into” ourselves. That sets us up for failure and harsh self-judgment.
Rather than set ourselves goals which might lead to a feeling of overwhelm, we can notice what’s already working, using the “Three Questions for a Happy Life” identified by Belgian therapist Luc Isebaert. It takes just a few minutes to answer them at the end of each day, perhaps in a journal. They are:
1. What did I do today that I am happy with?
2. What did someone else do that I am happy with or grateful for? And did I react in a way that could help this person to do something like that again?
3. What did I see, hear, feel, smell or taste today that I was happy with or grateful for?
Karen Bray (MBACP) is a counsellor with a private practice in Bath. Her website is at www.karenbray.co.uk.