I just want to be happy – Hannah’s Story

Seeking help from a Counsellor

People who come to therapy for the first time, often arrive with a real sense of desperation and hopelessness but can also struggle with internalised guilt or shame about what it means to seek help from a counsellor. There is often uncertainty too about what the process will involve or what it might offer.

Coming to therapy for that first session then, can be pretty nerve-racking and take a lot of courage but it is the first step in a process that can really make a difference in your life. In this article I illustrate through a illustrative case study how the process worked for a client I will call Hannah.

Hannah’s Story

Hannah was an attractive woman in her early forties. Slim, with long brown hair and dinner plate eyes she had all the apparent trappings and outward appearance of a very successful professional woman. Arriving in an almost new cabriolet BMW X3 she came into the room with a confident demeanour wearing a well tailored business suit and carrying the kind of handbag which was clearly expensive but not in an ostentatious way.

She sat neatly in the chair opposite mine, her legs crossed at the ankle, her hands on her lap. As we went through the necessary housekeeping before commencing our work she looked composed and at ease as I went through the basic terms and conditions applicable to our counselling arrangement.

As someone skilled at handling business meetings she was very much in her ‘work mode’ as we started our work, but gradually her demeanour changed as we moved on to explore what had prompted her call.

I looked up at her, took a moment to take in her facial expression, and asked,

“So tell me, what’s brought you to therapy at this time?”

“My life’s a mess and nothing makes me happy,” she said. “You probably think I’m a really bad person coming here and whinging about how bad my life is when there must be loads of people who have it loads worse than me but I had to come – I just can’t go on.”

“It’s that bad, you can’t go on?” I noticed her eyes welling up: her body posture changed as she slumped into the chair.

“Yeah, not like this: I’ve had enough, it feels like I’m living a lie, a false life; someone else’s life. I’ve done everything I was supposed to do – work hard, get good qualifications, get a good job, get married, have kids, get the nice house but you know – I should count myself as lucky but you know, apart from the two children, none of it makes me happy.

“And I can’t even enjoy them because I’m so stressed and exhausted and I can find myself being snappy and irritable with them and then I beat myself up for being a bad mother. I hate it, I hate myself, I hate my life.”

“So you are angry with yourself: you are telling yourself that you should be happy, grateful even for what you have, but actually you don’t feel happy and you are worn out trying to meet everyone else’s needs?”

“Yeah, you got it.” She pressed a tissue into the corners of her eyes, pushing back the tears lest they escape and betray the illusion she promoted of being composed and in control.

“OK, so tell me, what does make you happy?”

“Well, that’s the thing, I just don’t know. I can’t remember. I work ridiculous hours for a boss that is totally ungrateful, to get home to a husband who expects me to pretty much do everything around the house and then there are the two children to look after, sorting them out and getting their stuff ready for school the next day.

“I’m constantly on the go and don’t get to stop until 10:30 or 11pm and then it’s like my day is over, no time for me and I’m just exhausted. It’s driving a massive wedge between me and my husband and we are constantly bickering with each other these days. I can’t go on like this.”

“So something’s got to change. Life is not working out the way you expected and you sound really disillusioned. What would make you happier?”

“Well, I dunno, [she paused for a while] more support from my husband would be nice, he sees me struggling but doesn’t lift a finger to help. He can see stuff needs doing, but he just sits there being useless – it’s just laziness on his part.”

“You sound very resentful towards him for not helping you. Do you ask him to help you out?”

“Why should I have to? They are his children too, it’s like he lives in the house too, he makes mess. He can see I’m exhausted he just doesn’t bother doing anything to help. I shouldn’t have to ask -and I don’t want him thinking he’s doing me some big favour if he does like one thing and then expects a pat on the back for doing it. And then there’s his mother!”

I noted she was connecting to underlying anger and resentment and becoming more animated in her presentation.

“Okay, so it seems clear that you need more support from your husband but you seem reluctant to actually ask him explicitly for help…. And then there’s his mother?”

“She hates me, she’s always hated me from the day we got together – thinks I’m not good enough for her precious boy. She puts in little digs when she comes round. She did everything for him when he lived at home – and she thinks I should do the same.

“I think she spoilt him and like yeah, on the rare occasion I have asked him to do something he treats it like he’s doing me a massive favour mostly because he seems to think he shouldn’t have to – as he’s the man of the house.”

She went on to explain that for the first few years together, particularly before the children arrived their relationship had worked well – she could manage with running the home and holding down her job and she and her husband enjoyed a good quality of life, with foreign holidays and nights out in nice restaurants a regular occurrence.

Now, she couldn’t remember the last time they’d had a night out and going on holiday seemed more aggro than it was worth as her Blackberry would be pinging all day with emails from work, even if she was on the beach.

They’d put off having children until they were both in their mid thirties and well established in their careers. Although they planned both pregnancies with almost business like efficiency they had underestimated the impact having children would have on their relationship and their existing lifestyle.

Hannah had always prided herself on working hard and being successful, whether at school, university or now in her career. Her hard working and conscientious approach had clearly paid off to some extent but what she discovered was that as her career had taken off, and she’d become more successful and gained a series of promotions her work became more demanding, the expectations higher and the hours longer and since a new manager had taken over her department she was now feeling devalued and unappreciated.

Suddenly work no longer gave her a sense of satisfaction or achievement and she started to dread the drive to work. With so much pressure on her at work, she would arrive home frustrated and agitated and argue with her husband over seemingly petty issues to the point where she now even dreaded driving home in anticipation of an evening of tension and conflict.

Everything frustrated her and she mourned the fact that she barely managed an hour with her children before it was their bedtime and she worried that she was missing out on seeing them growing up. As the primary breadwinner in the family she felt under intense pressure to be a good provider financially and was terrified of not meeting her targets at work and being ‘performance managed out of the business’ – which was how her company would get rid of people without recourse to appeal.

As we unpicked the elements of her story we could see how she came to feel so negative about herself and her life. Here was an attractive, intelligent woman with a well paid job and successful career, two beautiful children and despite his failings, a loving husband. And yet the reality of her experience was that the pressures on her to meet other people’s needs left no time for herself and the whole Disney dream (marry the handsome prince, live happily ever after with the 2.2 children) had turned into a Grim nightmare.

Emotional well-being

Sigmund Freud, the famous psychoanalyst posited that the key to emotional well-being could be summed up in the phrase “Leiben und arbeiten”. Literally translated it becomes love and work, but properly interpreted it has much deeper and richer meaning.

In the notion of Lieben ‘love’ he is referring to the idea of meaningful and enriching relationships – and that would involve us being connected to a network of people in our world who care about us, treat us with respect and admiration and value our contribution to their lives. Reading this, you might ask yourself how much ‘leiben’ do you have in your life just now.

We may have a hundred friends on facebook but how many people in our world are interested in enriching our lives, genuinely care about us; genuinely value us as we really are, can honestly say they enjoy our individuality and personal quirks? Hannah felt estranged emotionally from her husband, despised by her mother in law and so overloaded with work and the pressure of being a mum that she had lost touch with her network of girl-friends. For her there was a significant absence of ‘Lieben’.

Gaining satisfaction

The second part of Freud’s saying ‘Arbeiten’ translates literally as ‘work’ but again what he means here is the idea of gaining satisfaction from meaningful and productive endeavour – and this can be in any number of spheres. It’s good when the day job is satisfying and personally rewarding but rather than have all our eggs in one basket it is helpful to gain satisfaction from other things too.

If we have a portfolio of interests, which can include employment and raising a family, but can also usefully include other elements such as hobbies and personal pursuits such as gardening, cooking, sports, leisure. The list here could be almost endless, the idea is that we find things that give us a sense of satisfaction and make sure we have time set aside for them.

Hannah got little satisfaction from her job these days and at home found that housework was a thankless and soul destroying task since no matter how hard she tried she could never get on top of it.

Creative life force

In losing her connection with the things that made her happy and enriched, Hannah had slowly lost her passion for life, here Frued’s other key tenet – ‘Libido’ describes this. Libido was crudely translated as sex-drive but is much broader than this. When considered properly we see that it refers to the idea of a life force that is creative, not just procreative.

It’s about how we find time to create things that are satisfying, that give us a sense of achievement. Hannah used to love spending time with her friends, she used to love good food, she loved drawing and craft but since having the children had not done any of these. Indeed, she remarked with a sigh of resignation, that her art things were shoved deep in a cupboard somewhere, inaccessible and out of sight. This it seemed was a good metaphor for Hannah’s true self which had somehow got lost in a dark recess somewhere, almost inaccessible.

The way forward

For Hannah the way forward involved a series of changes that helped her get back a balance in her life and regain her sense of self. In the first instance she recognised that her time at home was too valuable to be spending caught up in chores so she outsourced the ironing (saving four hours per week) and got a cleaner to come in twice per week since both she and her husband worked hard and he was equally resentful of spending precious time off doing work he didn’t enjoy.

Getting a cleaner in meant that they both could now enjoy spending time at the weekend engaging with and playing with their children rather than doing housework, and both could now set aside time to follow personal pursuits. Her husband benefited from resuming his passion for mountain biking and for Hannah just having a hour in the bath without interruption seemed like a major achievement for her, lifting her spirits.

With less resentment and more time for personal pursuits they now started working better as a team and Hannah found her husband was willing to be more supportive than she gave him credit for – she just needed to ask in the right way. Hannah also recognised through the process of therapy that a significant barrier to her happiness in the marriage was that she felt tremendous guilt about the idea of leaving the children with a baby-sitter so that she and her husband could have a night out.

As the other changes she and her husband made were implemented she was able to let go of the idea of guilt and she found that setting aside a regular date night helped her and her husband feel like a couple again. She even had the occasional night out with her friends.

Emotional health

Hannah’s job continued to act as a toxic element in her emotional health and over time she came to see that she needed to move to a different employer but recognised that her current managers constant negativity and criticism had eroded her self confidence and left her doubting her ability to apply for other jobs and or represent herself well at interview.

Therapy helped her overcome this self doubt and after a few months she started applying for other jobs and it was not long before she had secured a job with a better employer and was quickly settling into her new role, feeling more content and back in control of her career.

Hannah’s final challenge was to accept an uncomfortable reality: that her mother in law did not particularly like her, and the solution to this was not to try and please her (since this would be impossible and she’d spent eight years trying to do this without success) but to let go of the need for her approval.

Hannah and her husband ultimately agreed that he could visit his mother without her, perhaps also taking the children and thereby leaving Hannah to have some time to herself – this was a win-win on all fronts. Hannah even found time occasionally now to take up sketching again.

Gaining personal empowerment with therapy

Therapy is a complex process where you can talk freely about problems without the fear of disapproval and where the unspeakable can actually be spoken, heard and acknowledged.

Therapy is often times about helping you give yourself permission to do the things you know in your heart of hearts you need to do but deny yourself because of unhelpful internal rules, fear of the disapproval of others and negative self-beliefs. Therapy is about gaining personal empowerment.

Counselling Caerphilly GlamorganAbout The Author

Alex Drummond is a fully qualified Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist and Counsellor located near Caerphilly Glamorgan. His clients come from Cardiff, Newport, Ebbw Vale, Pontypool, Cwmbran and the surrounding valleys.

For more information about Alex’s work visit his GoToSee profile page here


Visit his website www.talkmebetter.com

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