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.

How to Cultivate Emotional Intimacy? Correct the “4 Horsemen” in Relationships.

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The positive signs of a consummate relationship are: intimacy, passion and commitment, as mentioned in our previous post. Also mentioned in the article:

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.

Emotional intimacy is the shared psychological experience most encountered by the couple on a daily basis. It is the space where the couple share how their days went, the troubles they had and their deepest hopes and dream. It is also the space where the couple talk about how they feel about each other and about the relationship in general. Emotional intimacy is the ground to hold such conversations, so it is important to ensure this ground is fertile for growth.


 

Key Notes:

  • Destruction vs. Construction
  • Criticism: Correction of blame placement.
  • Defensiveness: Correction of rejection and nonacceptance.
  • Contempt: Correction of overt judgment and condescension.
  • Stonewalling: Correction of escape.
  • Lean towards authenticity, vulnerability and solution-focused conversations.

Cultivating emotional intimacy is largely a communication process – verbal and non-verbal. In the discussion of the following destructive behaviours of relationship breakdowns, bear in mind these behaviours involve what is said, observed and felt by each person.

Classic relationship research has shown that relationship/marital dissatisfaction and separation/divorce can be predicted by the presence of these “4 Horsemen of Relationships”: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling. These destructive processes have the tendency to degrade the quality of the relationship, restricting authenticity and personal vulnerability from showing up – leading to emotional withdrawal. Nonetheless, these behaviours are commonly observed in relationships because their negative effects are seldom thought upon. Effective couples promptly deescalate such processes, while ineffective ones feed on each other and involve furthermore of the other listed behaviours.

Each of these processes are explained and suggestions for more functional reactions are provided to cultivate emotional intimacy.


1.Criticism

Criticism is about blame placement. Blame in a relationship can be placed on the problem or the person. Criticism is when the blame is placed on the character of the person, such that the person can feel devalued and rejected. When the core of a person is judged, the person will naturally feel the need to defend and protect the sanctity of one’s character, which leads to the next destructive process: defensiveness.

Solution: Refocus any blame on the problem, not the person. If there is a problem, comment on the problem and how the problem affected you, and describe what could be done better to help you in the relationship next time. And check-in.

Do this, “When you arrived late for dinner just now (problem), I felt worried and scared that something could happen to you, and I also waited for a long time (effect on me). I’m thinking if next time you can inform me that you’re coming late so at least I can have a peace of mind (suggested solution & effect). Do you think that is possible? (check-in)

This is a constructive process to create space for empathy and ideas for improvement. Both can work on the problem, and the receiver is less likely to take it personally. Eventually, the relationship will function better for both.

Rather than, “You are late again, same as last week. I wish you can be less inconsiderate.”

Steer away from character judgements, such as “you are inconsiderate/ illogical/ unreasonable”, and absolutes, such as “you always…” and “I’ve never…”. Such usage will only attack the other and close the conversation down.


2.Defensiveness

Defensiveness is about nonacceptance and rejection. Defensiveness can occur for legitimate reasons, such as when unfair comments are made about us, or non-legitimate reasons, such as not willing to take ownership for our contribution towards a problem. But the issue here is not whether it is legitimate or not, it is whether defensiveness is destructive or constructive.

Defensive actions imply “don’t put all this on me”, telling the other person “you might want to take a look at yourself”, and “I’m not listening to you now”. You can imagine how easily criticism can spawn defensiveness. The process of mutual understanding and constructive conversations will cease. Resolution to this conflict is to depersonalise the comment and refocus the issue from person to problem.

Solution: Explore the rejection and nonacceptance, instead of rejecting at the outset upon making assumptions about the other. When you feel the need to defend, comment on how you are affected by the comment, check with the other is that what was meant. Then, refocus the comment on the problem, and discuss what could be done better.

Do this, “When you said that I was inconsiderate (criticism), I felt that all that I have done for you were discounted, and I felt devalued in this relationship (effect on me). Is that what you meant? (Check-in). I know that you’re unhappy with me being late (refocus comment on problem), what would work for you next time if I’m late again? (discuss solutions)?

The receiver redirects the conversation from person to problem, and begins the constructive process by offering understanding and empathy for both.

Rather than, “You know that the traffic is always heavy after work. After going through all that, now I’m being blamed. If you can just be a little less demanding…”

Steer away from reacting to the emotional trigger to defend, and express the feeling underlying that defense, before the trigger (e.g., hurt, devalued).


3.Contempt

Contempt is about overt judgment and condescension. It carries heavy judgment on the disliked qualities of the other, and shows up as disrespectful behaviours, such as name-calling, ridicule, sneering and eye-rolling. It also connotes a “I am better than you” message, forming a distance of higher-up of self and lower-down of the other. Contempt immediately breaks the equality and trust in the relationship, whereby one attempts to degrade the other, by imbuing verbal and non-verbal judgments.

Solution: Resolve the core of such strong judgments. The opposite of judgment is curiosity. Usually, in a relationship, each person presents some qualities that can be challenging for the other. Be very aware of this list of qualities that gets to you. When they show up, be curious about how it is showing up in the other and let the other know how it affects you. It will begin the process for you to come to terms with it, or to effect some positive changes. Heavy judgments to degrade is unlikely to shift such behavioural patterns.

Do this, “You know I have a problem with you being late in the past and it shows up repeatedly these days (negative quality), I would like to understand what you’re struggling with recently, it must be straining for you (curiosity & empathy). This consistent pattern just makes me feel like you’re not interested in how it affects me (consequence of quality). Can we talk about how to make this better?

Rather than, “Well the traffic is apparently more important than me (eye-roll). Seriously, not even a text message? I would have done better if I’m late.”

Steer away from acting on the judgment triggers. Reduce any behaviour to widen the relationship gap. Stay with curiosity and explore the internal judgment.


4.Stonewalling

Stonewalling is about escape. It is about withdrawing any further physical and/or emotional interaction from the other. Stonewalling is usually one of the last resort when the interaction is spiraling downwards for too long, and there is no hope in further discussion. While its intention could be to prevent further damage or resistant to change, stonewalling cuts the relationship metaphorically into two – neither one is able to communicate with the other. Stonewalling places the relationship on eggshells because neither party can hold the space for constructive problem-solving.

Solution: Stonewalling is about escape and experiential avoidance of the negative processes. For certain, the previous three processes would have been showing up repeatedly unaddressed. To resolve stonewalling, both parties have to stop, cool down emotionally, and re-address the damages they have done to each other. Use the above-mentioned solutions to go through each of them. Both parties were hurt, and each party has to be given the time and space to clarify and explore the hurt.

Do this, “We have been hurting each other with no end in sight. What I am feeling right now is to end this conversation and leave. But I know it will hurt us even more. Nobody wins here. Can we take some time to cool down and talk about how hurt each other all this time? I think we need to work this out.”

Rather than, “There’s no point talking further. Just go away.”


Final notes

These 4 processes are known as the “4 horsemen of relationship apocalypse” because they have huge destruction value. To correct each of these processes, the common thread is to lean towards authenticity, vulnerability and solution-focused conversations. Showing up as being real creates the space for both to empathise and care genuinely, while having solution-focused talks help to progress the relationship, rather than dwelling on the negatives. Working through these processes may not be straightforward, it is almost a new skill to acquire. I strongly believe these processes apply to any relationship and not just intimate ones. Come back to this post to be reminded, and keep practicing to cultivate emotional intimacy.

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.