In life’s harshest times, for example during grief, loss, or betrayal, you have a choice to make.
On the one side is the pull of despair or anger.
On the other is the choice to accept the pain, and face life with love.
In Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line, a dead Japanese soldier speaks silently to an American: “Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?”
Goodness will not save us from suffering. In fact it will increase our vulnerability, while the narcissists of the world wall off their feelings with a callous shell. Yet the first way of living is full of meaning and offers depths of joy, whereas the second is an empty shell.
We need people who, when they suffer, will make the choice to accept their pain and to love, rather than taking the low road into despair or rage. We need you, when you make this choice.
When a person's world is shattered there comes a moment, deep within, when they must make the choice. I say a moment, but actually it is many moments. The choice must be made and remade. Which might sound exhausting, but actually it means you only ever have to deal with one moment at a time. After his wife died, Jack Gilbert wrote this poem about carrying the grief:
He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now
the man can hold underneath again, so that
he can go on without ever putting the box down.
What will happen in time is that those muscles will grow. We can learn to bear our suffering. We can also learn to use our suffering. Suffering is a great energy which can be turned to good. When you suffer you are faced with the essence of many things. And faced with them as living realities which you never fully understood. This can be a purification by fire. It is painful but you can come out better. Perhaps wounded or broken in parts - that's reality - but the core and most important part of you will be intact if you choose to face life with love. And it will slowly become the more dominant part.
In time your love will grow and encompass the pain.
"Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?” Your suffering will be different, I can say that with certainty. The suffering of rage and despair is radically different from suffering encompassed by love. A good person is deeply vulnerable, but they discover deep reservoirs of joy and meaning in life.
Make the choice.
In ancient Greece, people listened to philosophers in the same way that we attend church or practice meditation. It was much less about novel ideas and more about training the mind and heart. The Greeks understood that shaping ourselves required repetition. It was about becoming a better person through the repeated and deepening practice of inhabiting certain ideas. Ideas which weren’t mere theories, but rather expressions our best possibilities as human beings. What the Greeks called virtue - or excellence - which leads to a flourishing life and good character.
Three things happen through repetition. The first is that we are reminded of the idea. In order to be shaped by an idea we have to remember it often. We need to bring it to mind throughout the day, so that it sinks into us as a habit of thought, feeling, and action. This is why Marcus Aurelius kept a daily journal, and Seneca practised nightly reflections. It is why I advise people to design reminders in their daily life of their core ideas and practices.
The second effect of repetition is that as we go through different experiences in life and grow, we see these core ideas in different lights, and practice them differently in different contexts. So we deepen, and widen, and strengthen, and become more flexible, in our relationship with the idea.
Thirdly, these ideas are ultimately tools. Some people collect tools and never use them. Many people collect ideas, debate about them, but never use them. We on the other hand should hear, think, and talk about these ideas depending on the context, but ultimately we use them in our lives. We should live them, applying them in our thoughts, feelings, and actions. They then become a part of who we are.
If you read back over this reflection, remember I am talking about the ideas that represent our best possibilities as human beings, and as individuals. If we practice them through repetition then they shift from being mere theories and opinions, to becoming aspects of our character. And that’s pretty wonderful. This is true philosophy.
Many people lack a sense of direction or purpose in life. There are social and historical reasons for this, but they are out of your hands. What is in your hands is your own life. You can stop drifting and take control of your life through clearer direction and purpose. And to do that you need to clarify your strengths and values. Today we will focus on values.
What kind of person are you? What kind of friend, partner, parent, sibling? What do others admire in you - or what do you wish they admired in you? What gives purpose and meaning to life are values. This is often misunderstood so let me make clear what I mean: to have good, clear values, and to actually live them.
When you live by your values, and they are clear and good, you steer your life. When you fail to do this, life steers you. You don't know who you are, you go along with the crowd, you feel depressed or anxious. And before you know it, you wake up and life has passed you by.
I have qualified things by referring to clear and good values. Of course there are bad ones. Narcissism is a set of values and they’re mostly bad. But I find that the majority of people choose good values when they actually reflect and get clear. So let’s get to work on clarity. Because to have good values, to be clear on them, and to actually live them, leads to greater happiness, confidence, success, and makes you a better person for others.
So find a quiet spot, pull out a pen and paper, and let’s begin.
We’ll start with description. I have three questions for you. Write them down, reflect, and then write down your answers.
Your answers to questions like these tell you about your values. Maybe they’re right there on the page, or maybe you have to read between the lines and interpret. I’ll give an example. I am “proud” of the counselling I’ve done with bereaved people. The work has been really hard at times it’s low paid compared to my private work, but I know that I’m caring for people who need it. When I think on this I see that care and compassion are important values of mine. You can see how I interpreted care and compassion from my description, but that they are obviously there. Take you time with this reflection, and list all the obvious values you see.
Now, we’re going to get to your core values. How do we do that? Simple: you only get to keep five. Look at your list and delete different values until you get to the five that you cannot give up for the sake of other options. Go with your gut, with what resonates most, find five that you simply cannot sacrifice.
These are your core values.
Now rank them in order of most important.
You can get various insights out of this list. For example, see if they all fit together or whether some contradict; if they do clash, then this will be why some decisions are so hard. That's okay, however - life has contradictions written through it, and the important thing is to be lucid and act nonetheless.
Now you have a list of your core values. There are all sorts of things you can do to build your life around them, but for this week I want to keep it simple. Write the list down on a piece of paper or on your phone, and reflect on them. Get the list in your head. Know your core values.
Remember: to have good values, to be clear on them, and to actually live them, leads to greater happiness, confidence, success, and makes you a better person for others. Such clarity is the beginning of how you find direction and purpose in life.
A common ingredient in despair is the belief that you know everything. We usually define despair as the opposite of hope, which is correct, but there is also delusion in it. I have observed that people in despair often think they know how everything is, and how everything will turn out. True hope, on the contrary, does not always know in particular what it hopes for. The truly hopeful person waits for things to reveal themselves in time. Deep hope requires patience, endurance, fortitude.
This is why philosophers have always seen hope as a "cardinal" - or core - virtue. Modern research backs this up, showing that hope is vital for resilience and achievement. But I have another reason why you should cultivate it, and I can express it in different ways. You need hope in order to answer your calling. You need hope in order to find your purpose. You need hope in order to properly love those who most need you.
Let's take things down a few notches for a moment. In the 1950s a gruesome experiment was conducted on rats. They were dropped into buckets of water and were timed, to see how long they would swim before they drowned. The rats swam for an average of 15 minutes before giving up and drowning. Then, on a mere hunch, the experimenter tried something different. Just as a rat was giving up he would take it out of the water, dry it, give it a short rest, and then place it back in. The result? The rats who experienced this went on to swim without rest for an average of 60 hours before drowning. Yes, from 15 minutes, to 60 hours! 240 times longer. Effectively, by lifting the rats out at first, they had been trained to have hope. And the consequence of hope was 240 times more resilience!
Today I have a question for you that can instil hope, so you can keep swimming until the shore arrives. But this is less a tool for creating hope, so much as hope is a tool in the service of this question. Huh? I mean that the question points to something beyond hope, which will draw forth more hope.
I have suffered some painful and dark moments in my life and this question has guided me through. It has been like a resilience mantra for me. I have used it with suicidal clients, and have witnessed it have the same effect over time on them. I think it can help you. This is a question to ask yourself whenever you lose your sense of meaning and purpose, and are tempted to despair:
Who needs you up ahead?
Let me unpack that, by starting with the opening words of a poem by David Malouf:
Through all those years keeping the present
open to the light of just this moment:
that was the path we found, you might call it
a promise, that starting out among blazed trunks
the track would not lead nowhere, that being set
down here among wild lemons, our bodies were
expected at an occasion up ahead
that would not take place without us.
You are expected at an occasion up ahead that will not take place without you. Others are waiting there, and they need you. So I ask again, who needs you up ahead?
You may have an answer to this: your partner, your children, your wider family. Or maybe you don’t have that answer. In which case you are in waiting. This is a time for deeper hope. You don’t know everything - you don’t yet know who needs you up ahead. But they are there and are no less important just because you are currently ignorant. When the time comes and they are standing before you, will be have become the person they need? Will you have endured patiently, building strength through waiting, strength though practising deeper hope?
You don’t know them yet. Perhaps they are not born yet. But when the time comes they may need you to nurture them. Will you have the selflessness and strength to do this? They may need you to support and protect them. Again, will you have that capacity? Did you waste all those years between now and then brooding on your despair and growing weak? Or, when the day comes, will you have used these years to build the character they need you to have?
What is the world calling for from you? Perhaps you don’t now yet. Good, so this is a time of training and preparation. If you endure in hope you build the qualities you will need when the answer becomes clear. Stop being so short-sighted, as though the present moment is the only moment in life. Stop being so arrogant, as though you know it all and know what, and who, awaits you in the future. The question of your life is what your calling is. Where do your strengths meet the world's need? The needs of particular others in your life? And if that is as yet unclear, and only time can tell, and you must labour under the reality of time and wait, then what do you need to do to be ready when your calling, and the other's need, shows itself? Stop deciding everything, and learn to wait and listen. Who needs you up ahead? Are you making yourself ready for them?
We live in an age of unprecedented wealth, safety, and ease. In a sense, we in the first world have it all. And yet a lot of people lack purpose. They live in fear, confusion, boredom, depression, and retreat into distractions. At a cultural level our values are ever more banal or narcissistic. This is the world your children will be shaped by. Many parts of this problem are out of your control, but it is amazing what you can do in your own life, and for the lives of those your love, and for those with whom you rub shoulders. In your case things don't have to be this way. They can be much better.
For thousands of years in Western society there was an idea which made people into better human beings, and sustained them through thick and think. Then Baby Boomer culture threw it out, in favour of hedonism in the 1960s and “greed is good” in the 1980s. This idea - or value - is making a comeback among younger generations, who want something better and deeper out of life. I am talking about character.
Character is not some stodgy notion, some sexless nun, stiff Englishman, or rosy-cheeked boy scout. Rather character is an age-old notion which can be defined quite simply. It is:
Seeing what is best in us as human beings,
and best in you as a unique individual,
and bringing that out. Making it real and active in your life.
Look at it this way, if you are unfit and physically weak then you may decide to exercise, knowing that you have fitness and strength within you as a potential. By exercising you turn the possible into reality. This is how it is with character: there are greater levels of courage, wisdom, compassion, self-possession, and emotional and moral strength within you as potential. A person of character develops these (and other) virtues in their daily life. They do this by choosing to exercise them whenever they are needed. Stepping up to the challenge. For as the ancient soldier-poet Antilochus said, "You do not rise to the occasion, you fall to the level of your training." So the student of character exercises the required virtue in the moment by first getting clear on what virtues they need more of in general, and how to cultivate them in general. In time these good qualities become habits, ways of being. You become a person of character. It becomes second nature.
There are many benefits to cultivating your character. From day to day it gives your life more meaning. Want to overcome that low-grade depression which characterises modern life? Develop your character. And just as strength and fitness gives you physical freedom and confidence, character does the same for your interactions with others. (Character is the source of true self-esteem, that problem which the modern world obsesses over - you have self-esteem if you live in a way that you deeply respect.) Another ancient Greek wrote that "character is fate" and he was right: there is much that is out of our control, but nonetheless character makes your life go better. Character also makes you into a good person to know and be around. It makes you a nourishing parent and partner. A person of character sees challenges rather than threats - character makes you a player on the field of life rather than a spectator in the stands.
At the core of character is love. This is about loving life and loving others well. Not feeling love for others - every narcissist has such feelings even as they betray people - but enacting genuine love. This is about being and having the real thing, the genuine article, in a world of empty appearances.
In the West we have a profound 2500 year-old philosophical tradition which defines what character is and how to cultivate it. We can go back to Socrates and Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics, whose wisdom has sustained every generation up until the middle of the twentieth century. Add to this modern research and applied science through positive psychology, which studies character and flourishing through the lens of social science, and we have never been in a better position to develop this vital aspect of our lives. Let the Boomers mock it while counting their investment properties, character is making a comeback. Transcending the self in the service of others, doing the right thing because it is right or good to do, is coming into its own again. Living by deeper values and finding the grit and the heart to do so is the new black. Looking beyond oneself and one's own generation, to serve others and future generations, is the future. In fact it is the only future if we want to survive as a species.
I was tempted to call my work "character coaching." This is how important it is, however the work I love to do is broader than that, even if this is a passion. Of course this notion of exercising what is best in you as a human being and as a unique individual is core to everything I do. This is why I talk so much about strengths and values in the context of creating direction and purpose. This is not life coaching for narcissists, it is coaching to help good people become better. There is a clear philosophy and science here to guide you if you want it, whether through professional guidance like mine, or by your own steam. Either way, do it! Become the reason that some people believe in the goodness of others. Make your life deeply meaningful; there's no trick to doing that, no cosmic existential insight - it's more simple: develop the qualities that make for character, become a truly good person.
James had recently left the fundamentalist religion of his childhood and now felt lost. He had grown up thinking that outside his religion there was only materialism, but he needed something more. Over time he became dispirited, for without a greater purpose in life he could not see the point in pursuing anything. When he no longer found motivation to complete his university assignments his partner pushed him to see a doctor. The GP offered James anti-depressants but he refused, so they referred him to a psychologist.
The psychologist did not make a formal assessment but hinted that James was suffering a mild depression. She gave him cognitive-behavioural exercises to do at home, but as far as James could see these amounted to a cure by persuasion: that he should become content with pursuing his career, relationship, and fitness. She also signed him up for a mindfulness app which taught him to detach from his negative emotions, however James saw his angst as meaningful: it expressed the longing to go deeper. Something important was missing in all of this.
James is one kind of person who comes to philosophical counselling, a new field that combines philosophy and counselling. Their concerns are not psychological so much as philosophical. By “philosophical” I do not mean “intellectual.” I mean rather that the person's concern regards meaning, value, and perspective. What James needs is a perspective on life which is as true and good as possible. He needs a way of relating to life that satisfies his longing for depth and meaning. This can be found in religion, but it can also be found through philosophy.
Modern philosophical counselling began around forty years ago with people like Gerd Achenbach and later Lou Marinoff. These were academic philosophers who saw that philosophy could go beyond teaching and into a counselling format, to help people with their individual problems by reflecting on what philosophy has to say. This is part of a wider shift known as applied philosophy that has taken the discipline out of the academy. An example of this movement is the popularity of Alain de Botton and The School of Life. Many of these above examples involve the application of philosophical ideas and practices, such as critical thinking, to people’s situations. But philosophical counselling can be more emotionally-attuned also, as found in diverse activities such as existential therapy and Ran Lahav’s Philo-Practice Agora.
In many ways we are witnessing a reversal of history. Ancient philosophy met the needs of people like James. It was a way of living rather than a purely intellectual activity. A good example of this is Stoicism. When Christianity came along philosophy was pushed out of life, and only its intellectual practices were kept, to be used in the service of theology. Now with the demise of religion in the West, philosophy is once again taking up its old role as a guide to life.
Some weeks ago a friend and I went on a bicycle ride. We ended at a café on the grounds of the Abbotsford Convent, which is now a children’s farm and organic market. As we sat there eating the sugar and carbs we felt we had earned, on a beautiful Spring morning, we were pummelled by the cafe's sound system pumping out 90s dance music. I was puzzled but my friend, whose family once owned a restaurant, suggested that the staff had set the music to match their mood and not their customers'. They had probably been there since 7AM, were very busy, and so chose energetic music for their sake without realising how jarring it was for their customers. I think the same thing has happened in philosophical counselling. Academics, who are not always the best at stepping outside their own heads, have fashioned philosophical counselling around their own intellectual temperament, as though to use philosophy to guide your life means applying Immanuel Kant and formal logic.
Ancient philosophers, by contrast, were critical of mere academics. Philosophy was a deeply reflective and intelligent way of living, but what counted most was the "way of living" bit. Philosophical claims emerged from the heat of life, from the struggle to overcome adversity, to flourish, and to be a decent person. The best philosophers had fought in citizen armies like Socrates, or lived in slavery such as Epictetus. They knew real life and did philosophy from that place, as a flesh and blood activity that drew on the heart and mind.
That past way of doing philosophy needs to become its future too. The future of philosophical counselling lies in getting further away from academics. But I think it also needs to step away from counselling. Counselling is increasingly a mental health practice. Indeed many philosophical counsellors frame their discipline in those terms, as an alternative to mainstream mental health treatments. It is not unusual for them to do this by making crude and irresponsible criticisms of psychiatry. But philosophical counselling should not take that approach. It is not a mental health service, and they should leave that to the psychologists and psychiatrists who will always be far better at it than them. Rather, philosophical counselling is about perspective, meaning, value, about creating good lives and good communities. At the same time it needs a framework for practice and this is not readily found in academic philosophy. What about coaching? When philosophical counselling began, coaching didn’t exist, and when it did exist it was for a long time a superficial activity. These days however, serious coaching is more like applied science. It is the application of genuine expertise. I think philosophical counselling needs to shift into philosophical coaching. That removes it from the mental health field and is a much better fit. What James needs is philosophical coaching for his life concerns. As I show here, coaching can include the reflection that happens in counselling.
There is already a form of coaching which combines that art with positive psychology. Positive psychology coaching is an integration of those two disciplines, but I suggest a three-way integration as per the diagram below. This is a perfect fit for philosophy because positive psychology applies the lens of science to the same things that concerned ancient philosophy: flourishing, virtue, character, happiness, meaning and so on.
This is what I do: I draw on the depth of my counselling experience but increasingly take a coaching approach, and draw equally on philosophy and positive psychology. I am less inclined these days to call myself a philosophical counsellor because I take this wider approach, so I am happier to say that I am a counsellor or coach and then talk about what I help people with, and how I use philosophy and positive psychology to do so. The core vision still comes from philosophy, which is about opening our eyes to the meaning and goodness in the world, and crafting our lives to express more of that. My private motto in life is, Be the reason somebody believes in the goodness of others, and this is what philosophy has been challenging us to do since Plato first set put 'pen' to 'paper'.
Why focus on strengths?
I take a strengths and values approach to helping people. It is through these that we can create a what, how, and why for your life. It is how we create direction and purpose. But why should you focus on strengths rather than problems and weaknesses? Doesn’t that mean ignoring problems, and won’t it lead to more problems up ahead?
I invite you to begin this reflection by engaging in one of your own. Stop for a moment and consider these three questions, giving a minute to each.
What do you like best about yourself?
When were you at your best in life?
What are you most proud of?
These are some of the opening questions I might ask a new client. A vital part of my skills includes reading others strength’s and values, and helping them to understand and to use them to better effect. Questions like these are great for revealing hidden strengths.
But some people struggle at this point. One reason is that they don’t want to be arrogant, as though by focusing in their strengths they are praising themselves. That’s a good sentiment - there's enough arrogance in the world already - but people often go to the opposite extreme: false humility. If I say that I am a bad singer it is clear-headed humility. If Frank Sinatra says the same thing it is false humility. If it means that he never opens his mouth in song then both he and all of us have lost out. Clear-headed self-knowledge helps us to become better and happier and to contribute to the world.
Other people worry that a focus on strengths is naive positive thinking. This is not so. We need to address both weaknesses and strengths in life, but often we only focus on weakness. We become blinkered in the opposite direction. Imagine that you are sailing a boat and there is a leak in the stern. If you do not address it you will sink. It matters greatly to address important weaknesses in life. But what happens once you have sealed the hole? Nothing; you sit there idle, adrift. You need a sail to give you momentum, and this equates to your strengths.
Take this a step further: if the boat is flawed in many ways but functions safely, should you spend your time improving the faults, or focus on setting a sail and getting somewhere?
This is why we focus on strengths. I am writing this in 2017 and there is now a mass of scientific evidence that a strengths-focus is usually more important than a weakness focus. The movement known as positive psychology has been studying this since the late 1990s, subdividing into areas of research such as flourishing, happiness, performance, and so on. Positive psychology is a research focus that began with Martin Seligman when he was the head of the American Psychological Society. Second wave positive psychology now turns the lens on how we find strength and meaning even in protracted suffering. It is not pop psychology or naive positive thinking, rather it is science in the service of doing well amidst all the opportunities and challenges of being alive.
It is a major insight of this science that it is often more beneficial to focus on strengths than weaknesses, to help you move forward. This applies whether you are moving away from problems, or moving forwards toward positive goals. Speaking from my background in philosophy, we live in a cynical age that can be nihilistic, pessimistic, and depressing. Speaking from my therapeutic background, time and again I see that when people opt into that negative mindset they are giving into defense mechanisms; behind the bravado is fear. Speaking from all these disciplines, the truth is that life can be very good. It can also be terrible. Usually it is a mixture that lies in between. Looking about me in this lucky country (as somebody who grew up poor and faced abuse before leaving home early) I bet that there is much good in your life right now, and many wonderful possibilities to reach for. To recognise this is to express humility and gratitude at what is true. You don’t have a moral obligation to give up the goodness in life because others suffer; rather, if there is an obligation, it is to squeeze the goodness out of life for yourself and to share it with others. To create less suffering within yourself and others. If you ask what the point is to that, I challenge you to open your eyes and grow your heart. The world is full of people who need others. Be the reason that others believe in the goodness of life. In doing so you will also change your inner world. I know this from experience before I read a single page of research. Have the humility to appreciate the strengths in yourself; you did not create your life, or the world, but you can be a caretaker for your small corner of existence that has temporarily been given to you, to create a better world to the best of your abilities. To do this you need your strengths.
I have been doing this work for a decade now, since I switched from academic philosophy to counselling and coaching, and have been in private practice since 2011. I see about twenty five people per week for one-on-one work. My typical clients are both male and female and in their mid-twenties to late thirties. Their problems regard relationships, career, or emotional struggles, but behind the details is a lack an adequate sense of direction or purpose in life or a need to build personal strengths. In today's post I set out how I help people. I will categorise the process as three stages: challenge, promise, and proficiency.
People come wanting a greater sense of direction and purpose in life. They want need or want a clearer vision. They want help to make things happen.
Direction is about knowing what to do with your life. Should you have children? How will that work with your career and should you preference it instead? Should your commit to your current partner? Or perhaps your challenge lies in starting a relationship or finding a career in the first place.
Or perhaps everything has come together and yet "something is missing." Which leads on to the problem of purpose.
Purpose is about meaning. You are going to age and die. You are going to suffer or struggle at times. And even in the good times pleasure and wealth are not enough. What makes life worthwhile? How do you gain a deeper sense of satisfaction? How do you become the person you want and need to be? What will give genuine meaning and satisfaction to your life?
The consequence of a lack of direction or purpose is that people feel confused, anxious, or despairing. It is a recipe for distress.
I call this part the "promise" because it is about what we can make happen. I provide no guarantees because you need to do the work. What I promise is that I provide a framework by which you can create a substantial vision for your life - or some area of your life - based on your personal strengths and values, and guidance to make that a reality. You will have to do your own walking and carry your own pack, my role is as a skilled guide. What I offer works, and if you do the work you can achieve the result.
This is about moving from confusion, depression, and anxiety to clarity, purpose, and confidence...but those are side effects. They are emotional states that follow on as consequences from real change. The change itself is what's important. This is about creating a meaningful vision and making it real. It is about becoming a stronger, better person. It is about giving direction and purpose to your life.
I have spoken elsewhere about what I do and my background. What a profession like mine needs is both specialisation and breadth. Specialisation means that I don’t work with everybody under the sun, because a jack of all trades is master of none. I have a passion for the particular clients I serve and what I help them with: people in their 20s and 30s who are seeking direction and purpose and to strengthen their better qualities. I work to become an expert in my field, using a sophisticated integration of counselling and coaching, and philosophy and positive psychology.
My way of working is determined by what I help people with. I wrote here about the journey I have been on to reach this place. And I wrote here about how I integrate different disciplines and how my work differs from other counsellors and from clinical psychology. This blog aims to give you a strong sense of what I am about. Thank you for taking the time to read this and my other posts, I hope you can see that I am passionate about this field. I have spent my adult life dedicated to this work and I consider it profoundly important. This is about life well lived.
The goal of my service is to help you increase your direction and purpose in life. I do this by helping you to build a vision based on your strengths and values, and helping you draw on those to move forward. My way of working is defined by what best achieves those goals. I wrote here about my work, and today I offer a more technical break-down. I described how I came to counselling and later coaching from a background in philosophy here, and today I distinguish what I do from other forms of counselling and from psychology, and then set out in positive terms what I actually do.
Below I have drawn a diagram which distinguishes coaching, counselling, and clinical psychology from one another. It also shows areas of overlap between them. You can see that some counsellors work with issues that cross-over with clinical psychology. And some that some areas of coaching and counselling cross over.
Counselling is a discipline which focuses on insight, on understanding what is going on within you and around you. It is about navigating your emotional life and relationships. It can be relatively brief and practical in orientation - say a few sessions or a few months. Or it can be deep ongoing psychotherapy, weekly sessions for years to address structural psychological problems or deep trauma.
Clinical psychology and psychiatry treat psychological disorders, address trauma, provide assessments and diagnoses, and manage risks. They may involve counselling or psychotherapy as well.
In coaching people are guided to take stock of their life, clarify their goals, and pursue clearly-defined change. Coaching usually focuses on a specific area in which the coach becomes an expert helper.
As I mentioned, certain areas of counselling overlap with clinical psychology. Counsellors who work at that end of the spectrum are mental health practitioners. I am not a mental health practitioner and have little interest in that field. Nor do I engage in deep psychotherapy. Rather, my work has matured into what best serves the outcomes. I work in the zone covered by the green line below.
So what do I actually do? The are four key ingredients: counselling, and coaching, which constitute the framework in which I practice, and philosophy, and positive psychology, which I use to guide my clients and I.
How I work reflects the fact that the world has changed a lot in the last century.
A hundred years ago if you were struggling with some challenge in life you might go see a priest. As a good pastoral carer they would listen with empathy, help you to understand your situation, and use their training and professional experience to offer guidance. In our secular society the counsellor has replaced the priest, just as philosophy and science has replaced religion for many individuals. People come to me for a few sessions, or a few months, or say for a monthly reflection. They do not need a mental health practitioner nor deep psychotherapy, but they want to speak things out, gain insight, and create change. This involves a combination of my being directed by their perspective, and using my skills and knowledge to help them expand their perspective.
A century ago when Freud invented psychotherapy people had lots of will-power and little insight. Today the situation has reversed. It is easy to gain insight, for example through consultation with a professional, but harder to create change. This morning I attended my usual session with my strength and fitness trainer. He has the knowledge to guide me and working with him keeps me disciplined and accountable. He cannot provide me with will-power, but he makes it a heck of a lot easier. I view my coaching on similar terms. This is like personal training for your mind and heart, and for your life as a whole. I work with people who to take responsibility for their life and want to make something of it.
Counselling and coaching is the framework for what I do. The other ingredient is the content, the disciplines I draw on to guide people. I use philosophy and positive psychology.
I wrote about philosophy here and here. Philosophical counselling and coaching is for people who take an active stance toward life but need guidance to improve. Philosophy helps us develop our vision and our values. It is for people who want to experience a deeper sense of meaning, and be pulled forward by a better vision for their life. It is about living with purpose, creating happiness, and benefiting the world around is.
I combine philosophy with its scientific sibling, positive psychology. Philosophy provides the vision and positive psychology offers the what and how to get there. A core practice of mine which is rooted in positive psychology and philosophy, is helping people use their strengths and values to design a vision and make it real. The beauty of this is that the vision, and the energy to pursue it, come from within you. I am not imposing my own vision onto you, even if I challenge you at times. In a world that can be very cynical I am happy to say that: a decade of therapeutic work has taught me that there is more wisdom and goodness within most people than they realise. Positive psychology studies this and how we can draw more of it out. I find joy in helping people harness their strengths and values to create something wonderful.
So in summary I practice a combination of counselling and coaching - with the emphasis more on one, or the other, depending on a client's needs - and draw on philosophy and positive psychology to guide our work. People come seeking greater direction and purpose and wanting to become stronger, better individuals. Some are stuck in various ways, others simply have a positive desire. Those who are suited to my help are willing to do the work, and from me they seek guidance and support to make that happen. As with the artwork at the beginning of this reflection I cannot do the work for you, but if you are willing to carry your pack and walk the miles, I will be there alongside you, working hard with my knowledge and skills to guide you to your goals.
It’s not that people don’t try to work their way through this. They dream of living without fear or that horrible sense that they're somehow getting it all wrong. They dream of having direction and clarity, and feeling that in their bones.
Like any situation in which panic is tempting, it is important to remember that a lot of people are in your shoes. You are not alone, and there are ways forward. See this as normal and do the things that work.
In fact such a crisis can be a painful but an important part of your life. The heat of fear can become a smelter for forging something better. Perhaps you needed this? It is like a call, albeit a harsh one, that important decisions need to be made, and actions taken. And that it all needs to be done wisely. While you fear getting stuck on a bad trajectory, remember that this is the opportunity to create something wonderful. This is the time to determine a more profound direction for your life.
The way forward requires clarifying what really matters in your life, and how you are at your best. Strengths and values - a phrase you will hear me repeat often because it is so important. It is only then that you can focus on action, after you have clarified them and turned them into a plan of life. In hindsight you will discover that the angst drops away as you build a deeper sense of purpose. Treat this crisis as a welcome opportunity. As the forge for creating something substantial out of your life.
What if psychology stopped focusing on what goes wrong with life and instead researched what goes right? What if it put happiness, flourishing, resilience, and character to the test of science? And what if an applied science was built out of this, including coaching. Well in the late 1990s some leading psychologists asked this very question, and positive psychology was born.
From the time I discovered this field I knew I was among friends. Combine it with philosophy and you have the perfect recipe, with philosophy clarifying the ideal, and positive psychology showing how to how we make the ideal real.
There are two things in particular within you, which you need to cultivate to make your life go better and to have more meaning. These are your strengths and values. Your strengths enable you to find your place in the world and to make it work for you. They are the means by which you can flourish. And when your strengths meet the world's need, then you have found your calling. When your strengths make life better for those you love, then you have found your deeper happiness.
But strengths are not enough. They need to do good. To enable you to love better. To find beauty in life. Which is to say, you need value too. If your strengths enable you to find your direction, your values enable you to find your deeper purpose. What do you really care about? What would you die for? What really gives value and meaning to life?
People create direction and purpose in their lives through clarifying and using their strengths and values better. Positive psychology studies how to clarify these and utilise them, and studies the effects, and what works or doesn't. So the ultimate focus of this science is not theory but practice and change. This is why the field of positive psychology coaching is so effective. Positive psychology coaches use the outcomes of this science to help people to become more resilient, to succeed and flourish, and to develop their character.
There are a range of activities which positive psychologists recommend based on their research which can help you grow. Unlike the “homework” found in cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), these go beyond functioning goals – which leave people so uninspired that they fail to follow through – and draw on your deeper motivations. Which means they work. And many of these are deceptively simple but together they create a large impact, often creating a “positive upward spiral.”
A positive upward spiral is the opposite of a negative downward spiral. The idea gripped me two years ago after I had a motorcycle accident. I was hurrying to see clients one morning, travelling through Ascot Vale in the rain, when suddenly I braked hard on the tram tracks. In twenty years of motorcycling I had never had an accident but now I was flying through the air. Everything slowed right down and I felt like a collection of parts falling out of the sky: there’s my knee hitting the ground, I think that’s okay. There’s my shoulder hitting the ground, I don’t think that’s okay. There’s my head hitting, we’ll see…. The pain in my neck immobilsed me, so I was taken to hospital in an ambulance where I was ordered not to move and spent hours in a neck brace receiving scans. As I lay there I faced one of those nightmare scenarios. “Life could be very different from now on.” It’s a terrifying prospect. But I chose to face that, and I told myself that whatever was reality now, simply was reality. That I would live with it and create a good life regardless of what that looked like. Fortunately it emerged that I was fine, if bandaged and in pain for the next two months. Afterwards I chose to carry forward the momentum of that decisive moment, to choose life as it came and to make the best of it. A lot of things slowly changed for the better as I took this approach, with each positive change following on from the previous. It was as though they created their own high pressure system, where each improvement impacted the whole by lifting it further. As I say, it was a positive upward spiral.
At the core of this shift was a choice, but it was structured by many small activities. For example, as so often happens after a trauma, I began to get depressed within 24 hours. So I started immediately to write down what I was grateful for in my life, and kept that up every morning, and each evening wrote down what I was grateful for in particular from that day. Throughout the day I would make notes on what these were as they happened. This is a central positive psychology practice. I did not keep it up for more than a few weeks, but it worked. I also focused more than ever before on my vision of life, on what I wanted to become and do with my short time on earth. Which is to say I clarified my strengths and values and how they could fit better into the world. I also made up some exercises, drawing on positive psychology principles, for example I focused on picturing the kindness of the strangers who stopped for me in the faces of the strangers I passed in the street, which changed my felt sense of the world. These are just a few examples of what I did, each in themselves small, but combined they had a great impact, and I can trace a line in my life running from that accident to now, for which I am very grateful. People who know me well say that that accident was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
If you want to read about the field then I suggest beginning with Martin Seligman’s seminal work, Flourishing, and Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis. I have spoken here about how I used positive psychology exercises in my own moment of adversity, and the description that I give is very loose. To practice positive psychology coaching as I do involves a lot of care in attending to what the research does and does not show. For example positive envisioning of your ideal outcome can be beneficial when considering possible goals, but counter-productive when trying to make your goal happen. The fine-grained way that this science leads practice means we can proceed with confidence, going beyond hunches and folk wisdom to what really works. We all have this capacity to choose real change both within and without, and positive psychology is a highly important piece in the puzzle of how to do that. It has certainly become a vital part of my private life and professional work.
Relationship counselling can be pointless. Used properly it is excellent, and there are many excellent relationship counsellors, but often it is a waste of time because of how people use it. There are many people who go to relationship counselling with the pretext of addressing issues, when the real, hidden aim is to avoid those issues. They tell themselves that their problem is one of understanding. That they need more information, more insight, better techniques. But they are hiding behind these as a way of not facing their problems. Today I want to give a wake-up call to the most important thing, after love, for creating a good relationship or ending ones that needs it. I am talking about the C word.
It is important to get clear on what matters most, and what will lead to a flourishing life. But it is not enough to have insights; we need to apply them in our own circumstances, so that we can move beyond new ideas to new realities. We need to know how to apply them, to get specific and practical. 2500 years ago the great philosopher Aristotle reflected on the how a wise person deliberates and then acts, and he codified it. His insights are as true today as they were thousands of years ago. This is the art of practical wisdom, of using reason to create a good life. Based on Aristotle I will outline the basic components of practical wisdom.
As a counsellor I see a lot of people who have been knocked down and want to get back up. Their understanding of resilience makes a great difference to how they do that. There are a lot of unhelpful ideas around, so today I offer a picture of what resilience is. True resilience takes us beyond escapist fantasies of being bullet-proof, or egotistical fantasies of heroism. Genuine resilience shows itself in how we are toward others, and what we make of life regardless of our strengths and weaknesses.
The affliction of our age is to live without purpose. Its emotional effects are often labelled with that catch-all word "depression", but I am speaking of something which is not a mental illness. Too often we live without a clear sense of meaning, without something important to serve, with nothing to strive for. A blanket of deflation and despair then settles upon us. In this state, how does life become meaningful again?
Counselling and coaching are both wonderful arts that help us to understand and change ourselves. Prior to working in these fields I taught philosophy at tertiary level and I bring that depth to my work. It is through philosophy that we cultivate insight, clarity, meaning, and value. Of course many people see philosophy through the stereotype of the bumbling or brooding intellectual. Today I give expression to what philosophy really is, and why for thousands of years it has guided people through thick and thin.
How we think about resilience is vital to whether we achieve it. We need a realistic and helpful understanding. The trouble is that talk of resilience is often really a way of avoiding things. It becomes a mere mask. Genuine resilience connects with and serves deeper values, it increases the meaning we experience in life. But to cultivate it we need to start by getting clear on it.
Your feelings and actions stem from your perspective. This means that if you think in angry ways you will feel angry and act on it. It also means that your perspective on the value of anger changes the influences the how present it is in your life. So, should we accept our anger or try to move beyond it? One of the world's leading philosophers, Martha Nussbaum, argues a compelling case that anger is bad for our lives and that there is a better option.
130 years ago Nietzsche claimed we were experiencing unprecedented change: “Whither are we moving? [...] Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing?" The change was one of meaning and value. Nietzsche saw that a new age was rising in the Western world: the age of nihilism. With it has come new tendencies in depression.
People often have their generosity abused. One reason for this is that there are people who will abuse your generosity. But there is another; your vulnerability to such abuse is sometimes a consequence of your own lack of clarity. For we often confuse two different types of generosity: reciprocal versus unconditional. When you are clear about the difference you can protect yourself better and feel less hurt, while living according to your better values. The point of today's reflection is to clarify this difference.
F. Scott Fitzgerald: "It is in the thirties that we want friends. In the forties we know they won't save us any more than love did." Perhaps F. knew what it is like, when the inner world speeds up while the clock on the wall slows down. When the hours become mud, and tremors pass through the body. That bomb in us which only loved ones can detonate. Whether in romance or friendship, how do we live with betrayal?