When Family Hurts

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Family relationships hurting

There is a deep need in all of us to belong, to be part of people we can call home. Generally, ‘home’ is our family, those individuals we are connected to by blood. Within a good enough family, we are supported, loved, protected, comforted, and celebrated. There is an experience of reliability and dependability within this unit of family.

But what happens when this is not our experience? When our family unit hurts? When we are deserted and manipulated. When loving us is conditional, and no one speaks up for us. Often it is the denial of these experiences, by significant others, which causes more pain than the actual events.

This is a family theme which often presents in my counselling room, and people trying to survive these family units, can range from ages 16 to 80 years of age. People can live their entire lives trying to get a family member’s love, approval, recognition, or an apology for injuring them emotionally or physically. The first step is recognition and validation; these painful experiences happened, and to sit with the reality of this, can be painful on so many levels.

The next step is to consider the stages of grieving we experience. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler brought us an understanding of the stages of grief in their book On Grief and Grieving. These stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. We may not go through all the stages, or necessarily in this order, however, it is important to recognize and validate which stage/s we are experiencing. Mourning the stage/s we are in is essential for our healing. Let’s walk through each one of these stages together:


We can be in this stage for many years when it comes to the painful and unfulfilled relationship we have with a family member, especially a parent. Denial allows us to pace the absorption of the reality of our relationship with such a family member. We often cannot swallow this painful experience whole, and must digest it little by little.


This is our protective emotion; when we are trying to protect the painful, underlying emotions of not feeling worthy, not being good enough, being vulnerable, and ashamed. This anger can be directed at the individual family member, at others who stood by and did nothing, and often this anger is directed inwards, which could lead to symptoms of depression.


Wanting our experiences with a family member to be different, we often embark on a bargaining journey, which can take years. If I please him or her, or change myself into what they want me to be, buy my way into their hearts, and do everything they want me to do; surely then will I have what I need. The truth is, at some point, we need to stop bargaining, and say enough now. This means we recognize we are powerless in the face of what a family member is not willing, or cannot give us, for whatever the reason may be for them.


I mentioned earlier in this post when we grieve, we often turn our anger inwards, in other words we become angry at ourselves. We ask questions such as: ‘What’s wrong with me?’, ‘Why can’t dad just accept me for who I am?’, ‘Why am I unlovable?’

This can become a contributing factor to our experience of depression, and we need to be gentle with ourselves. With any experience of depression, it is vital to seek the support from a medical professional, trained in mental health and well-being, for an expert diagnosis, and taking a collaborative approach to professional support, such as counselling. The reason for this encouragement, is over the years I have seen many clients misdiagnosed with depression, when indeed they are processing a grief experience.


This stage of the grief process does not necessarily feel good, or even mean we are okay with it all. It is about acknowledgement, and validation that the situation hurts, and is unfair. We have lost out!

It does mean we let go; not in anger or vengeful thinking, because this will keep us attached to the family member in a negative way.

There is an old saying: ‘Unforgiveness is like drinking poison, and waiting for the other person to die’. Forgiveness or letting go is about us, not the other person. It is freeing up emotional energy to invest in our own life, and the family unit we build in the future. Don’t allow the past to continue to take away from you now, and in the future.

To find out more about our service please call Newlands Counselling on 1300 001 220
Copyright Sandra Bowden


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Marriage Counselling

Marriage counselling has been a place of great learning, not just for my clients, but for me as a counsellor. It is not about what I think, and understand about marriage after years of education and training, but what I know, because of those couples who have been willing, and brave enough, to present the difficulties they are facing.

It is not easy to talk about the difficulties in a marriage. It is painful when we start facing the truths we are living with, both within ourselves and our marriage, and the reasons we stay. Despite not being valued, honoured, supported, and often being lied to, we can devote so much time, energy, and effort to someone who neither honours nor values us.

Does this mean a marriage is doomed and over? Not at all. It is important to acknowledge your marriage for what it has been, and still is. Take a moment, and focus on the experiences of joy and happiness which enhanced your connection with each other, such as your first date, your wedding day, the birth of your children, a treasured holiday, and any other moments when you felt united. Focus on the strengths of your marriage during the times of crisis, such as a work stress, unemployment, health issues, and family relationship stress.

Now ask yourself the following three questions, and answer truthfully. Who have you been in the marriage? What do you imagine it is like living with you? Who are you committed to becoming? Truthfully answering these questions are essential. You may find there are life experiences, such as a painful childhood, a previously failed marriage, and/ or years of resentment which still shows up. These can contribute to who you have been in your marriage, the impact on your partner, and who you’ve became.

Honesty is the lifeblood of any successful marriage. It cannot be based on infatuation, and the attraction to certain qualities alone. Mature love commands a deeper sense of who you are, and an understanding you will both grow, transition, and develop during your marriage together.

The two people who presented on your wedding day, made a commitment to love and honor each other. If this is no longer present in your marriage, it is time to answer the three (3) questions presented earlier honestly, and find out if your marriage can be a place worthy of you both.

Intoxicating or Toxic Relationship

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Intoxicating or toxic relationships

There is nothing quite like starting a new relationship. It is fun and exciting. It seems everything changes for the better, and life feels intoxicating to say the least.

But what if the relationship starts off on a foundation of conflicting values, different levels of commitment, betrayal, and denial? These potentially toxic factors could predict the relationship will not make it in the long run, because it starts with dishonesty, and can cause both partners a great deal of emotional distress, conflict, and anxiety.

Dishonesty is often more about the individual, rather than the other person. We are often dishonest in an attempt to deny, or hide from our own emotions. In other words, our own truth is not good enough. Other reasons for dishonesty could be wanting to protect the other person, fear of being abandoned, or to avoid conflict.
When we are dishonest about our values, and the level of commitment we can offer, we betray not just ourselves, but the other person. This could indicate a lack of self-acceptance; of who we are as individuals, our emotions and needs. Denying and avoiding our own truth, is just another way to not face what must be done; working on self- acceptance and communicating honestly what it is we want from a relationship.

A power imbalance is often present in such a relationship, because one partner wants more than the other is willing, or able to give. One partner may want a commitment of marriage in the future, and the other partner does not value marriage, one partner may want children, and the other partner may already have children, and not interested in becoming a parent again.

A relationship can be amazing, and change everything, when it is entered into with honesty, integrity, and a willingness to invest with our true selves. If not, we need to ask: “Where is this going?”

When your life and my life matters

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Changes in a relationship

It seems the most common cause for the failing of marriages and partnerships is change. Change is inevitable; like the passing of time, change is going to happen. We evolve as people individually, so in turn our relationships will evolve, or not.

We fall in love, we get married, make a commitment to one person, become parents, change careers, become unwell, experience the stresses of daily life. For some of us we face unimaginable challenges, which demands nothing less, than significant changes to be made.
People often feel betrayed by change. ‘You’re not the person I fell in love with!’ ‘You’ve changed!’ Somehow there is a belief the person we make a commitment with, is a complete package, and perhaps therein lies the problem. We are never complete; we are in a constant place of transition, and transformation, with different versions of who we are. Nostalgia; that sense of longing to go back to safer, happier moments, is perhaps what drives this almost resentment, towards change.

We never encounter a place where we can say ‘I am done changing’. Part of the process of being married, or in a partnership is change. When life happens, and the initial romantic feelings leave, and passion is no longer the most important thing, we need to show up as adults, and find ways to be more content with the different versions of ourselves first, and then embrace the changes in our partner.

Imagine what can happen when we embrace change; when my life, and your life matters, and our lives together matter, and we take a moment to be awed by the man or woman we have invested in. How much more time together could we get?

A new normal

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How life changes for new Mums

A few days ago I had a conversation with a young woman who recently became a parent.  As most new mums do, she talked easily about the joys of parenthood; how amazing her body is for being able to produce this perfect little human being, falling in love as she could never have imagined she would, and the joy of seeing her family members instantly tumble into a place of devotion and adoration upon meeting their newest family member.  After a pensive moment she hesitantly reflected on the sadness she felt alongside her joy; her awareness that life, as she knew it, has changed.  No longer is she the ‘spur of the moment’ young woman, who at a moment’s notice could arrange an evening out with her friends, snuggle into the hook of her husband's arm on a Saturday night in; just the two of them.  She talked about her struggle to find some normalcy in her life; a life which has become chaotic, with significant changes day to day, constantly reminding her, her life will never be the same again.  Finding herself oscillating between moments of wonder and joy, and periods of exhaustion and trepidation.

She reflected on her guilt for feeling this way, and we discussed the importance of recognizing her sadness did not need to cancel out her joy; she could experience both joy and sadness at the same time.  Her life changed when the decision was made to become a parent, and when her baby was born.  This is an experience of the natural loss of growing up and maturing, and like with any loss, she is allowed a period of grieving and transforming.  Allowing herself this process of grief and transformation, means she is living her life to its fullest, accepting every consequence of living; that she will indeed experience change, joy, chaos and sadness at those pivotal moments of her life.  These experiences are all part of the celebration of life, and it will demand of her to shift, cope and adjust as she attempts to find her new normal again and again.

Tell me the truth!

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Importance of truth in a relationship

Over the years I have heard this phrase many times in couples and family counselling. Often made me think about the 1992 movie, A Few Good Men with Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise, when Nicholson’s character, Colonel Jessep, yells out in court “You can’t handle the truth!” It is one thing asking for the truth, it is a whole different thing hearing it, or even being willing to consider it.

Being in a relationship and/ or part of a family, we need to be prepared to consider our participation in the dynamics which occur in the unit of relationship and/ or family. Do we truly listen, or simply hear the voice of another, just waiting for a moment to say our piece? How do we manage the feelings and emotions accompanying our inner experiences? Are we able to acknowledge when our behavior caused upset, discomfort and distress in those around us? Are we prepared to convey to others when our boundaries have been disrespected and overstepped?

The truth is often not straight forward, and can bring with it a great deal of emotional pain. It can highlight areas of our lives we have been unwilling to confront or challenge, because we are fearful of the results of doing so. We may need to grieve for what we lost as a result; a lack of relationship with a now adult child, the ending of a marriage or long term relationship, a lifetime of ‘putting up’ with another’s poor behavior which cost us our self-esteem, self-worth, and slowly chipped away at our sense of self.

Before we demand the truth from another, we need to prepare a space within ourselves to truly hear from the other person. We may be confronted with experiences, beliefs, values and circumstances we would never otherwise have known about. We may need to face the possibility of having our world, as we know it, to be shaken up and left hanging. It could test everything we ever believed to be true. The truth could color our world grey; rather than black or white, create a curiosity; rather than a standpoint of right or wrong.

Considering the importance of our thoughts

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The importance of our thoughts in a relationship

Thoughts….we all have them, and they do impact our lives emotionally, behaviorally, and within our relationships with those around us. Many experts in the field of counselling and psychology have researched this topic in depth, to bring us new ways of understanding and managing our own thought patterns. In many instances the focus is on how to change our thought processes to have a different emotional outcome, or even bringing about a change in our attitude towards a particular situation, experience or person.

However, in all my years of working in the field of counselling, my clients have taught me, as human beings, we are not just a mind with a thought process. We are in fact a whole being (mind and body); with thoughts, emotional/physical experiences, beliefs, values, culture, and religion/or spirituality. The concept of change often saw clients coming in for 1 or maybe 2 sessions only. Perhaps because change implied hard work, or a previous way of doing and being in the world to be somehow flawed? In shifting the word change to shift; driven by the question how this way of thinking and being is helpful or unhelpful, seemed to create a curiosity to explore, rather than avoid or shut down.

In the process of curiosity, it is essential not to judge or criticize our thoughts or emotional experiences which comes into our awareness, as it tends to shut the process down. The practice of mindfulness brought us the skill of observation. So instead we observe; when I think a particular thought/way, what is my emotional experience, what is the belief supporting the thought, what is happening in my body. Instead of reacting (out of an unknown place) to a situation, person, event, experience, we learn to shift into a response (out of a known place).

In the process of curiosity much can happen. We may need to review our beliefs to ensure these are serving us well. Are they in fact our own, or did we borrow them from others. Our beliefs are important as they are often the very foundation from which we live our lives. When we ascertain certain beliefs are self-limiting and dis-empowering not just to us as individuals, but those we love and care about, we need to question whether we will continue with these beliefs. It is not about our beliefs being right or wrong, rather do they serve us lovingly. When our beliefs are working for and nurturing us, we can also respect opposing and different beliefs.

Thoughts are real and very powerful. Thoughts create our life pattern of how we are in the world, and in relation to those around us. Our thoughts come from deep within, connected to what we belief, our values, and what we have experienced in our life thus far. When we take time to observe and pay attention, not just to our mind and thoughts, but also our body sensations, we become better informed about where the shift needs to occur.

The gift of time

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How we feel when we lose our job

I was sitting in a cafe nearby my home office the other morning, enjoying my morning coffee, when I overheard a lady talking with a friend about losing her job.  One of the concerns she mentioned before I respectfully moved away from their conversation, was her fear about having all this time on her hands now, and not knowing what to do with it.  It got me thinking about time and what we generally do with it.  We work, study, take care of our families, have some downtime, sleep, prepare meals, take kids to school, and many other activities.  However, do we ever consider time as a gift?

In the instance of losing a job, could we consider the time which follows as a gift, to reflect on what has happened, how we were let go, the reasons behind the decision made, how we have been impacted, and what could be next?  The loss of a job can impact our identity, our sense of security and our routine.  Not being grounded in this daily routine can leave us feeling displaced, disconnected and impact on our sense of belonging.

With any loss experience, we need to take the time to work through our emotional experiences and thought processes.  This process is vital for the integration of the thoughts and emotions, allowing us to move through our loss experience.  Letting go of what was, and exploring what is left.  Loss in any form is an experience of transitioning, and in this is both a loss and gain component.  We need to grieve the loss, let go, and embrace the gain.  Time is a gift; take it, work with it, make it count.

Family Relationships

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The importance of relationships within a family

On a recent trip to Europe, we had a few days in London, and on the morning we flew to Dublin, we hailed a cab to take us to Gatwick Airport.  It was a cold and beautiful sunny morning in London, and our cabby was very chatty.  He talked about his upcoming 70th birthday party which was going to be celebrated at a local pub, with family and friends.  In conversation he mentioned the loss of his wife a few years before, and how this impacted his life.  He spoke very lovingly about his relationships with his adult sons and his two teenage grandsons.  Clearly he enjoyed these relationships.

In the background he had music playing by Lionel Richie via his smart phone, and he would choose different photos from the album on his phone, and keep these images for a few minutes each, before changing to another.  Many were of a young bride and groom, and from the fashion they were wearing, it appeared these were taken in the 60's.  Other photos were of a young family at different life stages, celebrations and other significant times in their lives.

He was reminiscing, looking back, and I was doing some of my own thinking.  Family is important, and so are the relationships we have with these significant people in our lives.  We invest so much of ourselves in these relationships, and especially with our children, investment needs to start very early.  We are a society getting used to quick returns on the investments we make.  However, some investments do not pay off until much later.  Our cabby was being sustained by the investments of unconditional love, care, compassion, commitment, and being positively present in the lives of those he was entrusted with.  In this late stage of his life he is not only enjoying this sustenance, but being appreciated, loved and enjoyed for the man, brother, husband, father and grand father he is.

As we bid him farewell at the airport, and wished him a very blessed birthday celebration, this experience reinforced for me the importance of the relationships we have with those significant others in our lives.  Whether we are lucky enough to reach and move through the final stages of our lives, or not, our relationships are the only investments we make during our lifetime, which can truly provide us with a sense of meaning that life is worthwhile.  The rest; careers, jobs, money, material possessions becomes a byproduct.  When we say the final goodbye, we want to be surrounded and embraced by those we loved and loved us; whether they are physically present or the memory of them are kept in our heart space.