What to do with a Friend in Need? Hold the Space, then Allow what Comes.

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When we see people in need of help, we will want to help them. That’s natural, we have compassion built into us as social beings. But when we see people in need, especially when they start talking to us, what we think as helpful may not be helpful to them. The way we should deal with their upset is very different from the way we deal with our upset internally. For instance, when we experience trouble, we will try to find a way out, find solutions to match the problems. When it comes to other people’s issues, they first want to be understood, heard and seen, before any other process happen; rather than be problem-solved. I will detail a 2-step process to begin the helping relationship with a troubled friend.

Step One: Hold the Space

Be present, curious, understanding and compassionate. This is a skill we get drilled on repetitively in our training as therapists, counsellors or life coaches. We learn to hold the space for the other person to unfold. Think of the last time you were really interested in getting to know someone because that person intrigues you. You already know how to do this. These are some of the many strategies that we professionals use:

  1. Reflect the meaning – reflect the essence of what is being communicated as we experience the other person fully.
  2. Communicate empathy – let the other person know that we can relate to what he feels, because somehow we have encountered such feelings before. Contexts can be different, but feelings are universal.
  3. Be curious, don’t judge – ask questions to gather more about this issue and let the person tell the story.
  4. Show up and be real – be yourself skillfully, and disclose what you truly feel about the situation, but not to give any advice or judgments.

Through these strategies, the other person would know that we are genuinely concerned, and we understood them. And sometimes, this is all they need from us, just for one other person in this world to know that they are struggling – an immense therapeutic outlet.

Step Two: Let them Decide where to go from here

After holding the space for the other person, for more complex issues, the other person may need and will be receptive to a more involved conversation. Generally, these are the 3 ways the conversation could turn out:

  1. “I can handle it eventually” problems: For these problems, the other person just needs someone to talk to. If we hold the space well, that will clarify the person’s thoughts and give comfort to the person. We have done our helping role here. No advice needed, therapy done.
  2. “I’m lost, confused and torn” problems: In this context, the other person is probably torn between options or even have no idea how to move forward. But the problem is potentially manageable. In this context, advice may expected from us, before which we should always ask for permission to advice. Then, give your opinions and thoughts, some of which may be taken, others may not. Then disengage, while holding the space all the time.
  3. “This is totally hopeless” problems: Sometimes, people encounter problems that are too large to handle, and they give up hope. This is when people start showing self-defeating thoughts. Sometimes, we cannot see a way out for them too. In these situations, we help by shining positive light of hope, and trust that they have the internal resources to cope through. Highlight the good things they have been doing well in moving this problem and ask them what could they possibly explore from here (extracted from solution-focused therapy). Do positive reframe and highlight what positive outcomes they can perceive at this point, flip the problem to an asset (extracted from neurolinguistic programming).

Of course, there are a range of other problem types, which needs different strategies and some can be very complex to explain. Most importantly, bear in mind that in many conversations, if we are highly skillful in holding the space for the other, we can already see a shift in other person. That could be all they ask for.

Original writings by The Realist, inspired by encounters in professional work in life coaching, physical therapy and PhD research.

Life Coach, Counsellor, Psychologist or Psychiatrist: Which one to approach when distressed?

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Mental distress is a human experience that can range across a wide spectrum. It can be a depressive episode that comes and goes regularly, a relationship argument that triggers anger issues, or suicidal attempts to end all the struggles right now. When a person is struggling with such distress, it can be confusing to know who to approach to resolve these issues. In my work, I have seen clients who have sought each of these professions, and they turned out very differently, with horror and success stories. Hence, I write this post to highlight the differences between each of these professions, in the way they are trained, and the likely approaches they adopt to help. Share this post with people whom you know will benefit from this knowledge.


1.Psychiatrist / GP – The Medical Professionals

This is the most common go-to I see in my clients. When someone is in psychological distress, such as anxiety, insomnia, depression, they see a doctor, thinking that psychological and physiology can be treated the same way – through medications. Psychiatrists are trained first as doctors, through a typical medical degree, and specialised into mental health. The primary mode of treatment from the medical system is medications, such as antidepressants and mood stabilisers.

Pros: Medications are highly effective in reducing psychological distress on a biochemistry level. This approach is highly suitable when an immediate treatment is necessary, such as to prevent drastic self-harm or suicide. The medications increases the concentration of “feel good” hormones that balances the activity of the brain, so negative thoughts and behaviours get reduced.

Cons: Medication are just temporary stop-gap measures, with possible chances of forming dependency and addiction. I have clients experiencing severe mood swings and insomnia once the medications are reduced, which is not surprising because medications does not change the internal cognitive and emotional processes. The same patterns of thinking generating the distress will still happen once the biochemistry is reverted.

Indeed, research has shown that interventions using medications and therapeutic sessions have significantly higher improvements and less relapse rates, as compared to using medications alone.

I believe that a psychological distress is contributed by both biochemistry and dysfunctional patterns of thinking. And once formed, these 2 factors self-perpetuate into a negative spiral. Hence, the best way forward is to include therapeutic sessions. The latter three professionals are trained to provide these therapies.


2.Psychologist – The Scientist-Practitioners

My doctorate is in the field of psychology. Psychologists are first trained as a scientist of human experience, then a practitioner to help. Most psychologist have no practical experience in helping during the undergraduate years. Their orientation is to approach a client as a scientist-practitioner, and will be unethical to practice any therapy that has not been supported by science.

Pros: Any strategies adopted by a psychologist are backed by science and has been tested with many subjects. The chances of treatment success is high. Treatments are also highly based on scientific approaches, where pre and post-intervention assessment scores are systematically obtained and compared to determine treatment success.

Cons: Many psychological experiences cannot be generalised. What is supported by science may not work on the specific client. Under a psychologist, the client can only be treated with strategies that work on the majority of the population. There is a chance that the client can be better helped with an alternative therapy, which is hard to research on and so cannot be adopted by the psychologist – which encompasses many useful therapies other professions use (e.g., Hypnosis, NLP and Narrative Therapy). Counsellors and life coaches, as elaborated later, are not confined by these requirements.


2.Counsellor – Past & Present Orientation

Counsellors are getting to mainstream psychology. Counsellors are trained primarily as experiential practitioners, and less of being a scientists; hence, they are more flexible to attend fully to a client’s experience without the red tapes. They focus on helping an individual come to terms with life challenges by focusing on the past and present. They have wide access to many different approaches that have shown treatment success, which may or may not include those adopted by psychologists. Counsellors also treat milder levels of distress, such as time management, confidence, forgiveness, as well as tougher distresses, including mood dysfunctions and relationship problems. GP/psychiatrists and psychologists are more inclined to treat at-risk and near-clinical cases.

Pros: Counsellors provide a more personal touch to the treatment process. Some of my clients detest to the process of scientific measurements because those numbers do not represent how they really feel inside. A change in the numbers did not necessary make them feel okay to be let off the therapy. Some clients prefer a more personal approach.

Cons: Counsellors focus heavily in the past and present, including heavy exploration of the past. My experience as a life coach demonstrates that the conversation about a past problem is very different from the conversation about a positive solution-focused future. I have clients who relate to me counselling experiences that were so invested in past abuses, that they left the session not knowing how to move forward. And over time, it becomes a negatively geared therapy process. Life Coaching provides the “what now from here?” answer.


2.Life Coach – Present & Future Orientation

Life coaching is my preferred profession because I believe true treatment success has to be one that is unrestricted and authentically personal. It has to also include invested growth elements so that the clients not only improved from a -5 to 0, but also from 0 to +3. The client will leave being a stronger and more resilient person.

Life coaching has most of the skills and therapeutic knowledge a counsellor has. But a life coach focuses on creating a positive future, from a distressed past and present. The focus on moving forward is intense, and the client will be consistently challenged to be empowered. A frequent question we use is “knowing all these are happening or have happened, what is one small step you can take right now to change your future?”. Life coaching is a thoughtful and challenging process because the client has to truly show up authentically and start climbing up the rut.

Another key strength of a life coach is that we produce clients who can eventually self-coach. I see most clients not more than three sessions, with efficient treatment success, and little relapse rates because they know how catch themselves as they realised they are slipping.

Pros: A truly empowering and personal therapeutic process to restructure the thoughts and emotions to be more functional, without needing the use of medications.

Cons: Life coaching is not suitable for highly unstable or clinical clients, with a thick traumatic past.


Mental distress can be seen as mild or severe, and its treatment approaches can be taken from the medical or therapeutic processes. Also, both biochemical and psychological processes have to be accounted for, if applicable. Depending on what a client is experiencing, the right professional has to be selected to obtain the best care.

Share and spread this knowledge, and raise the global awareness.

Original writings by The Realist, inspired by encounters in professional work in life coaching, physical therapy and PhD research.

 

Position your Relationship. And how to make it better.

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“Relationships” is always a buzz word in coaching, more so the relationship with our other half. Many of us have a set of wants of how our ideal partner should be like. However, when examining our wants pertaining to the depth of a relationship, people begin to ask questions. Some of us may be facing these unfathomable questions “which of these criteria are more important than the rest?”, “what are the warning signs?” and “is it really about me or the other, or us when we come together?”. We talk about “being on the same page”, but what is on this page? This post will take on the traditional theory of love, added with an eclectic perspective, shedding light on the structure of love and how to improve our relationships.


Keynote:

  • Positive signs of a consummate relationship: Intimacy, Passion and Commitment
  • Intimacy – emotional closeness and connectedness, as a Secure Base and Safe Haven
  • Passion – beyond romance and sex into the energy and drive of the relationship
  • Commitment – a shared promise of a future and the vow to contribute consistently

Sternberg postulated that a “consummate” (ideal) love should consists of three components. I will expand each of these facets into factors with my thoughts that has a more encompassing meaning.

1. Intimacy is about emotional closeness and connectedness (emotional factor). As we displace our emotional attachment across age from parents, to friends, to an other half, the common thread is about displacing the target of this emotional space. From a broader view, an intimate relationship is also about other emotional derivatives such as emotional trust, respect and interdependency, which without will come with feelings of taken for granted, abuse and unfairness.

Like the Circle of Security with a child, an intimate relationship should have the Secure Base where each can explore and venture the world, and come back at the end of the day into a Safe Haven to recharge and gather strength.

2. Passion is not only about the romantic attraction and sexual drive (energetic factor). The idea that an ideal love relationship should be defined in terms of romance and sex is myopic and superficial. Albeit they are a driving component at the start of the relationship, it is not feasible to keep them at the same levels all the time. Do we then say the relationship has lost its passion?

In more general psychology terms, passion is about strong interests, energy and drives, associating with “thirst”, “hunger” and “empty if without”. Hence, to place passion in the context of love, it is about maintaining the strong interest being with the other, the energy in the mutual endeavours (e.g., dates, shared goals), driving the relationship with anticipated, exciting and desired experiences for both; rather than going into stagnation and holding at status quo.

3. Commitment (longevity factor). Commitment brings out the idea that both parties express mutual promise of a shared future. However, I will add that it is not just an expression of a long-term interest, it is also about the commitment of being able to work on the relationship at every step of the way. One can express long-term interest but not committed to contribute, that will make a huge difference to the longevity (long-term quality) of the relationship.

So where are you at? If you are in a relationship, use these criteria to evaluate where you are at. Knowing where you are at, use these factors to highlight the areas you would like to work with your partner. Have a meaningful conversation about how both of you would like to revitalise the relationship. If you are not in a relationship, use these criteria as feelers to evaluate whether these qualities will show up when both of you come together. Know that it is ideal for both of you to have some awareness and expression of these qualities at the initial period, in order to be “on the same page”.

Original writings by The Realist, inspired by encounters in professional work in life coaching, physical therapy and PhD research.

Honour our Emotions

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Some say emotions make us human, without emotions, we are only living processors. Emotions are inevitable, involuntary, powerful and possessive. If left unobserved, they can take over our mind and body. Yet, to put a structure around emotions is only elusive. When asked “what is the best way to understand and handle emotions?”, I think people have to inquire into the art and science of emotions. The concepts I cover in this article will only be brief, and each will be unpacked in future posts.


“Find the silver lining in experiencing each emotion.”


This is one of my favourite poems that artfully captures the existence of emotions. From this poem, I will draw out its relevant scientific discourse.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jellaludin Rumi

1. Emotions are meant to be temporary. Emotions are adaptive temporary experiences that are generated by external/internal stimulus, to help us or to communicate with us. They are to be picked up to be processed, and let go and be given the time to be released.

2. To know emotions, we need mindfulness. The poem is written under the spotlight of emotional awareness. It is only with awareness, can we begin to understand our emotional presence, and how it is influencing our thoughts and behaviours.

3. Emotions bear purpose. Emotions have messages for us. Feeling angry tells us we are first hurt, then seek to protect. Depression tells us we are internal dejected, due to perceived lack of control despite trying. Anxiety tells us we are not prepared, obsessed with control and full certainty.

4. Emotions are contextually functional. Having understood purpose,  when placed in context, we see their functions. Anger functions as defence, depression functions as prompts for us to rest cognitively and emotionally, then re-conceptualise and instil personal control, and anxiety functions as energy to react to unexpected changes.

5. Make space and accept them as they are. Emotions are meant to be felt. Make space and create a bubble of acceptance for them. Don’t judge them, we all know the experience of getting more angry for being angry, getting more anxious for being anxious. Understand these emotions at their core and leave it at that level. At the same time, don’t let them consume all of you, for they are only messengers. Commit to valued actions and behaviours, while making space for emotions and use these emotions if they are contextually functional. If not functional at the moment, open your grasp and let them go at their own time.

6. Positive reframe. Find the silver lining in experiencing each emotion. “He may be clearing you out for some new delight.” Most of the time, each message would have a positive meaning for us. We have to look for what is working for us in this experience, and what can we learn from this.

Original writings by The Realist, inspired by encounters in professional work in life coaching, physical therapy and PhD research.

Living the “Good Life” is about being emotionally stable

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At some point in our lives, we will come to ask ourselves “what does living the ‘good life’ means for me?” For me, this question comes at a young age – late adolescence, leading me to seek knowledge and wisdom from scientific and spiritual sources. For others, it can come at a life crisis, when latent dissatisfaction boils up to an unbearable level. For simplicity, many people would answer “to be happy”. Without deeper considerations, some people do take it literally – the pursuit of pleasure. The social construct of happiness gives people the expectation to constantly chase after happiness, and fear from negative feelings, and negatives are bad – a myth we should all probably bust after watching Inside Out. But still, why chase after the positives?


“I believe a good emotional system has similar patterns, having the traits of emotional adaptability and stability.”


Research. The pursuit of pleasure can actually be a negative experience. A study, published in American Psychology Journal Emotions, found associations between the high variability of positive feelings throughout a normal week and worse psychological health, including lower well-being and life satisfaction and greater depression and anxiety. Albeit having positive feelings are generally linked to positive psychological outcomes, when they start fluctuating drastically, it becomes a negative experience. This association can be interpreted in a few ways: (1) high positive emotional variability causes emotional turbulence, and (2) people who are poor emotional regulators tend to fluctuate more than good regulators. The constant pursuit of pleasure may be leading to this fluctuation. If constantly chasing after positive emotions do not guarantee us long-term “happiness”, then what does?

In my PhD research, I work with emotions to subtler levels. I was looking at one of my measures one day on happiness and was astounded. The sub-facets of happiness are feeling “happy”, “content”, “fulfilled” and “satisfied”. The previous research tested a huge normative population with pool of words associated with being happy, and these 4 words hung together to measure happiness. I was wondering what about other emotions like “elation”, “delight”, “joy”, “glee” – words that are of greater positive valence. The former 4 words suggest to me a rather neutral state of having enough and living a meaningful and purposeful life, without much infusion of the mainstream happiness. I start to think that the public associate the former more neutral states with long-term happiness, but subconsciously they want that jolt of positivity that has possibly no link to the idea of happiness captured in this research.

Like a  good heart. The idea of having an undercurrent of life contentment, fulfilment and satisfaction, with little fluctuation in positive affect makes me think of a heart. A good heart is one that is adaptable and has a low heartrate variability, which means when stimulated, the heartrate does not deviate too much from baseline, and can return to baseline quickly. I believe a good emotional system has similar patterns, having the traits of emotional adaptability and stability.

How we got it all wrong? The general public seems to get the idea of happiness wrong. My experience is that people think being happy as having a big night out, throwing party balloons and laughing over drinks. It seems like a staple for weekends, and if without, they feel disappointed. I think people should start thinking what makes them happy in terms of their life satisfaction, contentment and fulfilment, and taking a more stable and centred approach to encounter life experiences.

Original writings by The Realist, inspired by encounters in professional work in life coaching, physical therapy and PhD research.