Conversation with Karolina Jobson (Budzińska) - Polish psychologist who lives and works in England
Karolina - Before we start, I would like to emphasize that by accepting your invitation to this conversation, I would not like to act as an expert (only because I am a psychologist and I work as a therapist). I accepted your invitation - with pleasure and curiosity, as I am - a woman who, like everyone else, has experienced losses and, of course, as a psychologist who talks to people, watches them and accompanies them. So-called expert voices can be important because they usually name and organize something, but I also think listening to them should not be a way to run away from yourself. Sometimes it's just worth considering the true importance of what I really feel and how I experience it all.
Kasia - On the one hand, you can actually speak from the perspective of the knowledge you have gained and your professional and private experience, but on the other hand, it may not have anything to do with what someone else feels and how they experience losses or other difficult situations. So thank you for emphasizing this at the very beginning.
Ever since I started talking loudly and openly about death and grief, I've noticed that people have a need to talk about it and are eager to open up to share their experiences. Treating it as a taboo topic is not good for the human condition, so why, from a psychological point of view, since loss is so ubiquitous, do we not give ourselves this space to talk about it too often, very often being left alone with this experience? Why are there so many inhibitions, shame and awkwardness in us?
Karolina - From what I see, when I observe the world and people (including myself :)), we often forget that in a conversation it is enough to listen or ask a question, or even not ask any questions - and just be with the other person. It seems to us that when we speak to someone who is grieving that we need to comfort, fix, or even take this pain away and do something about it. And that's when the essence of the conversation disappears. When we experience something difficult, for example the loss of a loved one, we may want to share our pain with someone, but we often feel that no one is listening to us because everyone gives good advice or simply runs away.
In your conversations, you invite people to express themselves, give them space, open them with questions. I see in you that you are ready to listen and that it won't be about you. There is a mechanism in us humans, where we listen to someone, very often we make it our story by talking too much or by bombarding them with advice. I think it is mainly because we feel pain and helplessness and we find it hard to bear it. So we pretend that we are not helpless and that we will do something about it. But because of this, the conversation starts to be about how bad I feel with what you feel, how difficult it is for me to listen to you, and that now I have to do something about it to help myself. Then a strange dance begins, where the person who is in this suffering and pain very often simply disappears because they see that no one is listening to them. During the conversation, it is worth asking, listening, or possibly saying something about yourself, sharing something that is common to the story we are listening to.
Kasia - And without commenting on how this person is dealing with it.
Karolina - Yeah, but in order to have a conversation like this, you have to be able to listen very well. You have to hear this person, hear what they say and what they want to communicate. And if necessary, you can mention your experience in the conversation, but without judging, advising, or fixing. Because through such behaviors we send the message 'don't feel this way'. Saying to someone stop feeling like that is like saying stop having blue eyes.
Kasia - When I think about it, it is very cruel especially in the context of the loss.
Karolina - And very exclusive. Because what does it mean to stop feeling that way ? It means there is no place for your feelings and emotions here.
Kasia - It seems to me that we communicate with each other a lot, without thinking why we do it. As you said, when faced with difficult conversations, we enter into the action mode which makes it more about us than about the person we should listen to. But on the other hand, I think that people who need to be listened to and supported are also unable to communicate their needs, because no one has taught us to do so. Maybe if someone we are asking for support hears: 'I just need to talk, don't give me advice, I don't need to hear your opinion, I just want you to listen to me', maybe it would be easier for two people to have a meaningful conversation?
Karolina - What you have just said is very important and difficult, because in my opinion it is about the responsibility we should have for our mental life. Let’s look at it this way: I am responsible for my wellbeing, so I need to think now about what I need in the context of what I am going through and how I can help myself. To do this, you need the courage to face the truth about yourself, your emotions, pain, anger, sadness - at the same time giving up defense mechanisms and various compensations.
Kasia - And what are the benefits of talking openly about how difficult the loss of a loved one can be for us?
Karolina - Probably everyone benefits in a different way. I think that above all, if we can express ourselves openly, we have the opportunity and the conditions to meet ourselves. We have space to touch, name and express what is in us, everything we experience and feel. After all, it is often said that simply examining a problem is healing - because something has been expressed and named. It is also often recommended to write journals, writing down streams of thoughts and feelings. Stopping, noticing, and expressing yourself - that's what an emotion needs.
Recently, I've been wondering about the emotions we pretend we don't have. We pretend that we are not in pain, or that we do not have a sense of failure, or that we are not ashamed and everything is fine. When you enter a room to attend a meeting and someone says something to you and you turn your back and pretend you don't hear this person, that is very rude and very socially unacceptable. So why do we do this to our own emotions so often?
Kasia - To our emotions and ourselves.
Karolina - Emotions stand in front of you and say something to you, and you turn around and ignore them. They will be standing there and if you keep ignoring them, they will start to pinch or kick, so one day your stomach or head starts aching. When we feel a certain emotion we should try to name it, stop and reflect on how we experience it, and eventually respect that it is our experience.
Kasia - I remember our first conversation when you shared with me what your lecturer told you about losses we experience in life. There are many losses in life - the death of loved ones, breakdown of relationships, loss of job, illness, or even loss of self-concept. Loss occurs every day, making decisions, you gain something and you lose something. And we still do not give ourselves space to fully experience it. Why are we so harsh with ourselves, pretending so often that everything is fine?
Karolina - Yes, I remember this lecturer’s words very well. She said that in every decision made, there is a part of us grieving for the one that was not made. It was striking to me. The word bereavement is a very big word, sometimes even traumatizing, so maybe that's why it is so difficult for us to come to terms with and accept it? But I don't know where it comes from, probably everyone is like that for a different reason. I guess that we've learned that life is always supposed to be great. I used to run a kindergarten and parents of preschool children sometimes reported to me that their child did not know how to lose. I asked them then, when they come home from work, do they sometimes say that they have failed in something? Or that they ruined the project or their boss asked them something and they didn't know what to answer. Or the client complained about them and was right? Many of us still believe in this narrative that we should be fine all the time. But I have to say that this is changing gradually, even on Instagram we are not so beautiful and smart anymore. But somewhere out there someone drove into our heads that we should only be successful and happy. The second component of our life: suffering, pain, loss and losing, it is as if it was not there. And I would bet there is at least half and half of that.
Kasia - Loss can be a very complicated mechanism. However, not all loss processes are so complex and require space for conversation, crisis or psychological intervention. When is it crucial to seek this professional help and what can be gained from this form of support?
Karolina - A crisis situation, such as the death of a loved one and cessation of their existence in the current physical sense in our life, is an example of a situation in which our coping mechanisms stop working. Our competences and the developed way of life are not enough. We are in a new situation and old tools are not working here. We feel that a glass of wine with a friend, sport, crying, travelling - what the psyche has developed so far as a "corrective system" is not enough anymore. And this is a good time for psychotherapy.
Psychotherapy is a process that can be very unpleasant and difficult because you sit down to talk to someone who is trained to have a conversation only about you. There will be nothing about the personal experience of a person you're talking to, comparing yourself to them, doing as they do, because you know very little about that person.
I sometimes say to my patients that my role is to be a mirror. It will be a conversation with themselves, and the psychologist's support is based on the fact that the patient will be helping themselves, looking for an answer in themselves, not in me. I am prepared and trained to support in this process and ask questions that will work and help. At the end of the therapeutic process, you find out that everything you need is within you. It's just that you've learned somewhere that you shouldn't trust yourself, that you're not enough, and that you can't deal with difficult situations. From childhood, we learn to respond to the needs of others instead of our own. It's worth trying to find out what I need, what can help me, what makes me feel good, who I am, what I feel and how I feel it. And - as we mentioned before - take responsibility for our own mental life.
Kasia - And how can you soothe your fears before meeting a psychologist for the first time?
Karolina - I think it is worth accepting this fear and telling yourself that it is normal and natural to feel this way. You can wonder why you are afraid, go to a psychologist and talk about it. Even on the first session.
Kasia - I would like to go back to experiencing various types of losses in our lives, and in particular how we experience the death of people close to us. The five stages of grief model postulates that those experiencing grief go through a series of five emotions: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Many specialists are slowly moving away from this model as it seems to be inaccurate and unidirectional, focusing more on the four tasks of mourning model proposed by the psychologist William Worden. He proposed 4 tasks that a grieving person should ‘complete’ in order to go through this process in a natural and healthy way. These 4 tasks are 1) accepting the reality of the loss, 2) working through pain and grief, 3) adjusting to the new environment without a loved one, and 4) finding a bond with the deceased while moving forward with life. How can such models help us in our grief?
Karolina - I would say that each model has its advantages and disadvantages. Any model is good, if it helps you, supports and works for you. It can also be bad if it is going to be an escape from yourself and your true feelings and if you are going to use it as a carbon paper for how to mourn. I would say that the best model for you to experience your loss is your own model. Just to give you an example, many people feel better after receiving a psychological diagnosis. Hearing the diagnosis very often brings relief, because suddenly it turns out that the patient has a right to feel this way. This is often the moment when the suffering the patient experiences becomes legitimized. This puzzles me because it is as if simply feeling something were not enough to respect it. It shows that the mere suffering that you experience, which only you know best, is not enough to respect it and to give yourself the right and the chance to seek help.
Karolina Jobson (Budzińska) is a Polish psychologist who lives in England where she runs a psychology practice http://therapy-on-sea.co.uk . She works online, mainly supporting Polish people who live abroad.
Translated from Polish by Kasia Borowczak
Corrected by Jen Fearnley