Our approach to psychotherapy integrates Self-Compassion, Psychodynamic Psychotherapy, Mindfulness, Existentialism, trauma-informed approaches, including EMDR and somatic approaches, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and working with addictions.
Just as we all have the capacity for shame and blame, we also possess the ability to reflect on our experiences and relate to ourselves with compassion and acceptance.
By inviting a sense of curiosity toward what it means to be fully human, we can dissolve the bonds of shame and self-criticism that keep us locked in cycles of emotional distress and destructive behaviours.
Research indicates that giving ourselves support and encouragement rather than harsh judgment when stress and challenges arise in our lives engenders resilience, healthy coping, and improves our mental and physical health (Neff & Germer, 2022).
Dr. Kristen Neff describes three components to self-compassion: Kindness, Common Humanity, and Mindfulness. Being kind to ourselves does not come naturally to many of us - it's common to feel empathy and kindness towards loved ones and yet respond to ourselves with harsh judgement when we struggle. By responding to ourselves with loving kindness, we can generate feelings of comfort that can actually help us cope with the hardship we are facing. It's also common to compare ourselves to others, believing that others are doing mostly well, while feeling alone in our struggles in contrast, leading to feelings of isolation and deep loneliness. Common humanity helps us appreciate that 'I am not alone in my suffering', and that suffering is part of the human experience, which can be deeply de-pathologizing, relieving, and facilitate feelings of connectivity to others. Lastly, mindfulness can help us cultivate an awareness of the thoughts and feelings that are contributing to our suffering. It's common to avoid or push away difficult experiences, which actually can perpetuate struggles; by facing them with loving-kindness and a sense of common-humanity, we can facilitate healing and movement.
Simply put, self-compassion is a gateway to healing. Integrating compassion into psychotherapy means relating to oneself from a compassionate stance when exploring our experiences, past and present.
Our senses are constantly bombarded with a variety of stimuli, however we can only consciously attend to a few things at a time. Life events have been impactful in shaping our sense of self, nervous system, our trust in ourselves and others. Much of this content lies behind the scenes in what we call the unconscious. Our lifetime of experiences along with unspoken values from our family and culture, influence us in ways we may not be consciously aware of. It's the things we often forget about, whether intentionally or not, that remain in our unconscious that drive our conscious experiences, thoughts and feelings. Our past experiences are held in our unconscious mind and affect what we attend to and how we make meaning of ourselves, others, and our experiences.
When you notice yourself overreacting to a present-day experience, you may not be overreacting to what is happening right now, as you may be partly responding to a past unprocessed distressing experience that is unresolved. You can’t cut yourself off from your experiences, memories or associations, no matter how long ago they happened - they shape who you are and how you relate to yourself and others. A safe, non-judgemental relationship with a therapist will foster curiosity and compassion towards the impact of past experiences on your present life, facilitating healing and integration of past and present. When we put the past in the past, it loses its grip on our present day self, allowing you to make different meanings and choices in the present moment.
Facing stressful life events can provoke questions about life and death, life’s purpose, spirituality, meaninglessness, the absurdity of life and suffering, the experience of emptiness, as well as hopes, dreams and passions. Anxiety can be a reaction to these unanswered questions. Exploring these questions and inner conflicts can be an important part of psychotherapy.
“He, who has a why to live for, can bear with almost any how.” - Friedrich Nietzsche
Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as our awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom. Mindfulness can be practiced through meditative practices, such as breath practices, body scans, and progressive muscle relaxation. It is also a foundation in psychotherapy as we bring non-judgemental awareness to our moment-by-moment experience in therapy as well as invite this awareness into our lives. This way, we can cultivate a more accurate appraisal of what is actually happening within us at each successive moment of our experience. When we let-go of judgements, we create space for compassion and acceptance which can lead to healthier choices and habits.
Trauma-informed approaches, including Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) (https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/)
Using a trauma-informed approach, we understand dysregulation in mood, perception and behaviour as stemming from past traumatic events. We understand how trauma has impacted our nervous system and can lead to coping behaviours that may have helped us to survive the traumatic events, but continue to interrupt our lives. We practice grounding tools to bring a sense of safety in the here and now. We learn how to calm our nervous system when hyper-aroused, and bring movement and mobilization when frozen or numb. We cultivate adaptive beliefs about ourselves in the face of uncertainty, and we cultivate healthy emotional boundaries and responsibility, because relational trauma intrudes on our boundaries and distorts our sense of responsibility.
EMDR helps to reprocess traumatic experiences, lowering the intensity of distress and increasing one’s feeling of safety and agency related to their experiences. Using dual awareness - processing past trauma in the context of the safe therapeutic relationship while simultaneously engaging other parts of the brain through bilateral eye movements, tones, or taps, EMDR promotes healing, emotional stability and symptom reduction.
Traumatic experiences are mainly held in the body. When triggered, we may not consciously associate the past with the present, however our body may re-experience those memories in the form of nervous-system activation, and so we may re-experience fear, hypervigilance, numbness, confusion or overwhelm in the present. Bottom-up approaches to soothe and calm our nervous system when in a state of panic, or mobilize our body when in a state of frozenness is an important part of our approach to psychotherapy and to assist you with building resilience in your life.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
Integrating CBT into psychotherapy means being curious about how we make meaning of ourselves, others and our experiences and how those meanings impact how we feel, our body sensations, and how we behave or cope. We can get stuck in patterned unhelpful ways of perceiving things - sometimes called “distorted thinking”, and this can drive cycles of anxiety, depression or anger. Some examples of distorted thoughts, “I’m a failure; I’m an imposter; I’m unloveable; it’s never going to be OK; I’m defective; I’m powerless”. Unhelpful ways of coping or behaving, such as avoidance, withdrawal or shutting down, can perpetuate these distressing thoughts and feelings as well. Using a CBT approach, we start to bring awareness to these unhelpful cycles and start to cultivate healthier, more adaptive meanings of ourselves and others, as well as take risks to face our fears, instead of avoid.
“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection” (Yohan Hari).
Addictive behaviours often start out as a solution to a problem: using pleasure or numbing to escape overwhelming emotional, mental or physical pain. As the addiction progresses, what started out as a solution becomes a frightening problem. Shame and isolation fuel the engine of addictive living, leaving the suffering individual completely devoid of self-compassion and insight to the true nature of their predicament.
Within the safety of the therapeutic relationship, you can be supported to look at the cycles of thought, feelings, and behaviour keeping you stuck in addictive living, as well as bring curiosity and compassion towards those experiences that have led you down the path of addiction. Identifying and working with triggers and old patterns, you can begin to integrate healthier ways of coping and connecting with others, building your resilience and freeing you up to live your desired life.
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