Deborah Hill Cone
Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: What I've learned on the couch

Before forking out for hours of therapy, take some notes from Deborah Hill Cone's hours of experience on the couch. Photo / 123RF
Before forking out for hours of therapy, take some notes from Deborah Hill Cone's hours of experience on the couch. Photo / 123RF

I've had 550 hours of therapy. Maybe more since I've been going Mondays and Fridays for the past three years and never miss a session. No no no! Don't add up the cost, please! Has it all been worth it? Well, if you don't feel inclined to fork out thousands or are a bit wary of being on the couch, this is what I've learned so far.

ONE I don't believe in much (music, libraries, dogs, beaches, crackers and cheese) but I do believe in being curious. Instructions for living a life: "Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it." (Mary Oliver). Sometimes just asking a question is a tiny act of personal greatness. I don't mean Google's most asked questions (what is dubstep, what is gluten, how to solve the Rubik's cube). To start a process of awareness and investigation rather than avoidance and control, ask more daring questions.

TWO Sometimes we can't find a different kind of relationship with ourselves - get a "sparkly new" feeling about life, or a lovely just-tucked-in-feeling - on our own.

To overcome suffering and discomfort we must first have accepted they exist within us. There is considerable resistance within us to doing that - it hurts! - which is why we sometimes need help, another person to hold space and make us feel safe enough to face the pain, bit by bit. (This is called titration). And a box of tissues.

THREE I took my kids to the zoo this week. (The trick is to get there really early. Sorry, horrendously off topic). We stood for a while, quietly watching the sea lion lying in the sun on a rock itching its head in a most satisfying way with its tail. It looked relaxed and at ease. I've come to realise joy comes from trying to be more like a sea lion than trying to be, say, Gwyneth Paltrow.

A sea lion's bliss at chilling out in the sun is oddly enviable.  Photo / 123RF
A sea lion's bliss at chilling out in the sun is oddly enviable. Photo / 123RF

FOUR Clinging to what is pleasant and condemning what is unpleasant often compounds our problems. This is how we set ourselves up for compulsions. Reward-based learning (the scary-sounding "operant conditioning") teaches us to deal with stress in ways that ultimately perpetuate it rather than release us from it. Weirdly, I've found doing a jigsaw puzzle is one good way to help remember this. (Facing three hundred pieces of pale blue sky; it teaches you to tolerate frustration).

FIVE Abandon everything. Abandon all that you know. Abandon abandon abandon. And don't be afraid to be left with nothing, for in the end it is nothing which sustains you. (This comes from Christophe Andre's masterpiece about finding mindfulness through art, but could be about the paradoxical process of trying to feel better about yourself).

SIX One of the greatest addictions you never read about in the papers because the people who are addicted to it don't know they are. It is the addiction to thinking. (Thanks Eckhart Tolle). That was me! If thinking could solve my problems I would have solved them years ago.

I've come to realise joy comes from trying to be more like a sea lion than trying to be, say, Gwyneth Paltrow.

SEVEN Sometimes you simply need to let yourself off the hook. You can't control everything. Nietzsche called this "amor fati" - loving one's fate. Too much of a sense of control can be crippling whether the sense is accurate or not. A sense of control works best for minor stressors (and needless to say, for middle-class privileged people); when a truly big bucket of shit falls on our head thinking we could have controlled it just causes us to become stuck in self-blame.

EIGHT Go gently. Progress is slow. You still lose yourself again and the old thoughts arise, but gradually you gain awareness; a sort of "whoa-ing". Compassion is the change agent. It's okay that this takes time. There is a sort of dignity in being patient, although that is not something you tend to hear about or get rewarded for out there in the hustle-bustle real world which wants to fix everything right now.

NINE Develop a healthy suspicion of "shoulds". What do you actually want? Abandon brute force methods to try and make yourself do what you think you ought. Don't bully yourself. ("My mind remains a bad neighbourhood that I try not to go into alone" - Anne Lamott). It is most important to become aware of the enemy within; your anti-self. You are not "that" internal voice. You are the awareness of the voice.

TEN Facing facts is always empowering. You don't have DO anything. Just accept. You don't have to like it. Or agree with it. Or understand it. Or think it is fair. All you have to do is accept what it is.

See? Simple as toast! Well that's the view from the sunlit uplands today, anyway. You're welcome.

- NZ Herald

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