Day in the Life Mags Bowen (Photo by Christopher Dunne)
It's a New Year, so are you looking for a new you? How many of us spend January promising ourselves that this year is going to be different. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to kick start the New Year as the perfect version of ourselves. We question ourselves, our life patterns, our paths and our diets.
I made one resolution this year and it is 'to do better, not perfect'. It's a little nugget I took away from a ‘managing stress from a body and mind perspective’ course I went on last November with Psychotherapist Mags Bowen and Wellness Guru, yoga & Pilates instructor Imelda Norris. So join me in this two part interview/journey with Mags and Imelda, who share their toolkits to a happier you.
This week I chat to Mags about the unrealistic expectations we put on ourselves, especially on the dawning of a New Year. She gives some tips for parenting and managing unhelpful patterns of thinking (particularly negative self-talk).
Let me introduce you to Mags Bowen – she is originally from Sheestown in Kilkenny. She holds a Masters in Child & Adolescent Psychotherapy, a Degree in Psychotherapy, a Diploma in Human & Social studies, and is qualified to work with children and loss. She is also a qualified group facilitator and is trained in the therapeutic use of Mindfulness.
Mags moved to Dublin in 1990 and worked for the Eastern Heath Board as a community welfare officer for the homeless and traveller units. She moved back to Kilkenny in 2001, and for the past ten years runs a psychotherapy private practice. Mags also works with a local secondary school, bereavement services, third level organisations and facilitates support groups for bereaved parents.
Mags is married to Richie and is a mother of three teenage sons. She loves what she does, especially when it comes to working with teenagers. She plays tennis and cycles which in addition to enjoyment, forms part of a well structured self care plan. Here is a glimpse into Mags world where you might pick up a few helpful tips for the year ahead.
Mags, why become a Psychotherapist?
I started training in 2004 when my youngest child was a year old. I suppose it all evolved from my own personal circumstances - I had three kids under five, and I had taken a career break from a job that I loved. However, I felt it was important to acknowledge the emotional and physiological challenges that we are face, that I was facing, I felt lonely and at times overwhelmed. That is not always spoken about. I realised the importance of needing our own space and having someone that we can talk to whom we trust.
What's a Day in life like for you in your practise?
Morning - I am up at 7am. I have to get my two younger sons up for school, eat some breakfast which is either porridge or fruit. Then there's the challenge to entice a healthy breakfast in teenagers! We are out the door at 8.15am for the school run.
I generally have appointments in my private practise or I work in a local secondary school or in with third level students. Each week falls into a similar pattern but no two days are the same. I have a day/half day with each organisation I work with and then work in my own practice. This brings a nice balance between meeting colleagues and working alone.
Lunch - I generally have lunch alone or sometimes time permitting meet a friend.
Evening - Sometimes I have group facilitation or evening appointments. Dinner is approximately at 7pm because my hubby works in Dublin, we wait for him to get off the train to eat a family meal together. I play tennis twice or three times a week at 8.30/9pm. It important for me to play it, as much as it is for the enjoyment and fitness factors, it is also part of a structured well self-care programme that is required to fulfil an ethical and safety requirements for my profession.
So how do you cut yourself off from the day's traumas when you are home with your family every evening?
It's only human to absorb a certain amount of what you hear. It's extremely important when you hear a story or a trauma, that you have the ability to almost step into the person's shoes, whilst having a deep understating of your role. Some stories and individuals will impact you more than others, especially when working with children but this is where self care and regular supervision and again a deep understanding of your role keeps you and those you work with safe.
Tell me more about importance of supervision of your wellbeing in your job.
When I started out as a trainee, there was supervision visits to your superior every five hours. After that, it increased as you qualified, up to the point that you met up to 30 hours as an accredited therapist. I am extremely fortunate in having am incredible and gifted supervisor, whose experience, wisdom and skill I truly value.
My supervisor told me years ago, when you work in this profession, through listening we absorb some of our clients experiences. If as a therapist this is not understand, it is like jumping into a swimming pool and expecting to come out dry. I always think of this analogy and try to remember if you do emerge dry, you have not entered the world of your client appropriately, equally if you emerge so wet you are weighed down, you equally have not tended to your role safely or professionally. The balance is struck when you enter into the clients world whilst leaving one hand on the safely rail in the pool.
There are themes of issues that emerge every few years in our cultures. What the most common that you have seen?
I recognise the difficulty of rearing children and particularly managing the teenage years. Many parents feel stuck and isolated in dealing with various difficulties. Also many teenagers feel isolated in their difficulties. It's so important to "normalise" many of the dilemmas faced during teenage years. Many parents feel uncomfortable in discussing with their friends, how they find some situations difficult. Equally, the child/teenager at times feels "I'm the only person who can't manage this situation". It is wonderful to witness the effect, not just on the young person but at times the whole family when difficulties are discussed openly. Once parents are empowered and supported during difficulties, huge benefit is gained.
We go on marriage courses, but we don't go on any parenting courses. Should we?
Probably. I think there's a healthy sense of fear and judgement that if my child is experiencing a difficulty, it means I as the parent am doing something wrong. Many parents are feeling lost and that fear of judgement or not knowing what to do makes the experience even more lonely and scary
When I was on your course, you told the story about 'standing at the kitchen sink', that I think every parent can relate to. Can you share it again please?
Yes, I use this approach to deal with unhelpful thinking. when we are worried or stressed, our thoughts are very active. We are continually trying to push away what we don't want to hear, for example "you will never manage this situation".
My approach is to imagine you are at the kitchen sink, a young child comes to you and starts tugging at your clothes to get your attention. In an ideal world, we would bend down and respond to the child "I know you are there, then relate to the child, "I am going to finish this task, then I will be able to give you my full attention”. As a result of this approach the child will be emotionally regulated, respected and know that he/she will be heard.
By doing the opposite and ignoring the child, the voice will become louder, the tugging on your clothing more insistent and a tantrum may well occur. If we attended to the insistent tugging or niggling of the unhelpful thoughts in a similar manner, we would gain mastery over our stressors. By sitting with the thought, acknowledging its existence and then choosing the time, we will explore this thought we are managing very well.
So we need to own our pain?
Yes, quite often the fear is worse than the reality. It's the most difficult task of grieving or dealing with an emotional difficulty, but by sitting with our pain and recognising it's source, its effect on our lives, the consequences of the this pain, we are giving ourselves a space to process our pain. We also need to give ourselves a space to step out of the pain. But by continually not being able to encounter the pain, it makes coping very difficult. Of course, there are different situations and experiences for everyone and people have to be supported kindly, safely and patiently through this process.
What's your approach to work life balance?
I read a book once called 'Buddhism for Mothers' and it explored the notion of the good enough approach. Every morning, I say I'll do my best and if I can say at the end of the day I did my best, despite the results of the day, that's good enough for me. I tend not to second guess any decisions or regret past mistakes. As a result of this approach, I have a clear rationale for doing what I did and why I took that action. If we truly try to do our best each day, we cannot expect more from ourselves or others. Of course, there will be times that the work/life balance is difficult to juggle, but good enough is what I strive for.
Tell us about your philosophy about letting the ball bounce.
I totally believe in the concept of space, in providing a space between ourselves and our stressors. In my practice and personal life, it's a phrase I use a lot...'let the ball bounce'. If we try to react and catch every stressor in our lives, like the ball coming at us, its far more stressful then taking a step back and telling ourselves that the ball can bounce. It's response versus reaction that enables the space.
Talking about stressors, we’ve all had a lot of them over the Christmas. Maybe with family members, pressures of festive outings and not saying no enough.
As well as that don't forget parenting teenagers - sitting on your hands until they come home late at night! Yes, Christmas brings a lot of stress as well as joy.
It's important to break down "Stressors" into what the situation is we are dealing with and what is our response or reaction to that situation. Ask yourself, What happened? How were you thinking or feeling? What was good or bad about the experience. How are you judging the situation, could you have done anything differently? If this situation arose again, how might you deal with it. These questions inform you quickly how you reacted to the situation and what really caused the most difficulty.
What is ‘wellness’ all about?
Wellness is the product of good self-care, it should come as naturally as brushing our teeth. We should keep self-care simple, give yourself permission to read the book, take a walk, meet a friend. Treat yourself like you might a good friend, particularly in how you speak to yourself.
Any tips on how to combat negative thinking, especially for those of us who have failed at our New Year Resolutions already?
Everything that we are begins with a thought. Environment is huge. We all have environments where we feel truly comfortable and those we don't. It is much easier to stay positive and focused on a goal or task if we are comfortable within ourselves. For example, a student who has decided for their new years resolution, they will study harder this term is struggling after the first week. Look to the rest of the students life. He or she may be gifted on the sports field, in the gym, music, art etc. Generally, we all perform better in tasks we are confident in. Highlight where the student does really well and speak about that environment. For example, how do you focus so well in the gym, but are easily distracted in the study hall. By breaking this situation down, you are promoting a conversation which will highlight boredom, lack of confidence, fear etc. Recognising what makes the comfortable environment pleasurable is gathering information which can be transported to the less pleasurable environment. eg, prepare a study plan which reminds you of a gym training regime. Environment influences our thinking which in turn affects our feelings and behaviour.
What is your New Year's resolution?
I honestly don't have any. I will continue to be good enough and some days that will be better than others. But if I try my best each day with the circumstance that surround me that's good enough.
Is there anything that people may be surprised to hear about you?
Maybe not surprised, but over the years despite all my training and qualifications an approach which is not taught and brings wonderful results is Kindness. To work with people effectively, you must be interested in people and of course like people. I am very fortunate to be working in an area I truly love. By demonstrating kindness in our work lives, does not show weakness or lack of professionalism, it demonstrates a desire to reach the person in front of you as a fellow human being. Particularly, when working with children, it is so important to remember that the child may not remember what you say but will always remember how you made them feel.
What would you could change in mental health system in Ireland, if you had the power to?
Waiting lists for Counselling/Psychotherapy to reduce.
If you would like to talk to Mags, you can find her at her private practise on 086 3843792. Bowen Psychotherapy.