bell hooks on self-love.

copy of bell hooks all about love

Love is action. This includes self love.

For anyone familiar with bell hooks, you will know that she was a social activist, writer and professor, who offered blazing and vital critiques on class, race and sexism. Her work is brilliant, though provoking and necessary.

In ‘All About love’ she critiques the passive notion of romantic love, and a society wide lack of knowing how to love well, and offers a working model of love based on positive action.

The whole book is brilliant, and here I wanted to write about a chapter called ‘Commitment: let love be love in me’ which is about self-love. Some of her ideas in this chapter have also been influenced by the book ‘Six Pillars of Self Esteem’ by Nathaniel Branden.

hooks says that love is not a passive act. It is a commitment to a series of actions that we take on our own behalf, or on behalf of another that promotes spiritual growth and wellbeing. She says that rather than seeing love as a passive set of spontaneous feelings, we have to be able to see love as a commitment to treating ourselves or others with a combination of trust, commitment, care, respect, knowledge and responsibility.

So how would it come to be that we don’t love ourselves? These quotes from the chapter on internalizing negative messages from others give insight:

“People who think they are unlovable, have this perception because at some point in their lives they have been socialized to see themselves as unlovable by forces outside their control.”

“We can develop a constant negative voice. And that voice enjoys the indulgence of an endless negative critique. And because we have learned to believe negative is more realistic, it appears more real than any positive voice”

I love this framing of critical voice, that we learn to give more weight to the negative, so it appears more real and like the ‘truth’. The positive voice then is less real and easier to dismiss. I think we can all relate to that.

Themes of low-self esteem, self-confidence, self-like and self-love come up often in counselling. Understanding how we feel about ourselves, and where this has come from is really useful. So is getting familiar with our own negative voice and all the particular things it likes to tell us.

hooks makes a point that while understanding the roots of our self-hatred is useful, it can only bring us so far. The ideas in her writing aim to bridge the gap between the place of understanding why you feel this way about yourself, and being able to take action to do something about it. Giving tangible steps and actions to take so there is some sort of forward momentum.

I think her critique of the limits of the passive idea of love, as an organic, spontaneous feeling that we just have to wait to arise, is really important. We might think that we need to already feel good about ourselves to be able to treat ourselves well. Afterall it can feel impossible to want to treat yourself well if you don’t like yourself.

In reality, it’s the other way around. If we can find a way to do the actions of love- treat ourselves with care, respect, trust, responsibility, even and especially when we cant look ourselves in the eye or feel like we are a hideous monster then gradually, overtime, we will hopefully start to like, or even love ourselves.

When we feel unworthy and unlovable, this is exactly when we need to double down on the commitment to treat ourselves lovingly. Even if we don’t want to, even if we don’t feel it. We have to find a way to do it. This is the commitment part of hooks’ working model of self love.

So to summarise bell hooks’ working model for love, including self-love. And I reiterate, if you feel like a hideous monstrosity right now, this is exactly the right time to get on with the actions from the working model of love.

Making a commitment to yourself that you will do the actions of love even when you are struggling to feel any kind of way positive about yourself.

To treat yourself with care (what would that look like for you? Is it physical care, tending to sleep and nourishing your body, and also is it be emotional care, accepting and expressing how you feel, not denying yourself.

Treating yourself with respect, including boundary setting, acting with integrity & dignity.

Developing self-trust, through understanding what you want and making decisions based on this, in testing and trusting your resilience. In getting to know the landscape of your inner world.

Self responsibility, owning what’s yours, working on your shit, exercising choice and free will in your life.

I’ll finish this post with a final and favourite quote from the book:

“One of the best guides to self loving is to give ourselves the love we are often dreaming about receiving from others”

Take care, N.

Healing with the help of a community.

Over New Years, I attended a retreat for gay, bi, queer and trans men. It was a really challenging and powerful experience.

Since returning home, I have been thinking alot about the role of a community in healing an individuals emotional pain.

We (In the Western world) live in such an individualistic society and increasingly live separate and isolated lives because of how society is evolving. We can find it hard to trust people or other humans can be difficult to be around. But I think it can be really easy to slide into a mindset that says we don’t need anyone. This can be especially true if we have been hurt or rejected by people. It can feel like self-protection to withdraw and close the doors to ourselves.

But we do need people. And people, the right people, can be integral to helping us heal from our pain. I think of something I read once that said “we hurt in relationships, so we can only heal in relationship”. Basically meaning that most of our emotional pain is relational, and so it can only be healed by having an opportunity to have a different kind of experience in relationship (and by relationship, I’m not talking about romantic relationships, though it can include that. I am talking any circumstances in which you are connected in someway to another person or people.)

The relationship between client and counsellor is at the heart of counselling, and it’s a place, where if the conditions are right, a person might have a healing relational experience.

But bringing it back to the retreat. I observed 3 ingredients present at the retreat that seemed to be integral to the healing to take place. (If anyone reading has any experiences/thoughts/observations to add, I would love to hear them in the comments section). The first was the holding of the space by the facilitators. The second was the willingness of the people attending to trust the safety of the space and to open up and talk about their emotional pain and experiences. The third was the witnessing of the emotional pain and experiences of the person sharing by the other participants on the retreat.

All three elements needed to be present for the healing experience to take place. The facilitators on this retreat were obviously very experienced and had also done extensive work on themselves, to be able to own their own feelings and create a safe environment for the sharing to take place. In counselling we sometimes call the safe place, or the feeling of safety where feelings can be shared a ‘container’.

There was a very strong container on this retreat, and because of that, there was a feeling that you would be safely held if choosing to talk about difficult experiences or express painful emotions.

The third element of witnessing by others is really important on a couple of different levels. Often we can feel shame about things we have done, things that have happened to us, or things that live in the darkest recesses of our minds. To share those things, to have someone (or many someones) witness them and not run away from us in horror (as we often expect will happen) can be incredibly healing. It can reduce the level of shame we feel around the thing. There is also a powerful experience in community witnessing. Having your community hear your experiences, emotions or fears and knowing that they are there to hold you can be incredibly healing. I think this is why the queer, lesbian, gay, bi and trans communities exist and why being connected into these communities in this way (if they are safe, which is another topic) can be really beneficial.

There were many people on the retreat, and the experience was very much about healing and processing in a group setting. But these elements of containing (creating the safe space), the feeling of safety enough to share experiences and emotional pain, and the witnessing is also (or can be when it’s working at it’s best) present in the 1:1 counselling relationship. We are doing the same thing.

I suppose the experience on this retreat really gave me an insight into what healing can feel like when the conditions are right in a group setting with a supportive community that is ready to witness your life experiences and hold you while you heal.

Queering Psychotherapy

Really looking forward to getting stuck in to this.

The perspectives of LGB, queer and trans people working as counsellors & psychotherapists is invaluable in questioning, challenging and rethinking the counselling profession for the better, for everyone.

Mainstream counselling training, and the counselling profession overall, has historically not accounted for, accounted for negatively or mis-understood gender and sexual diversity. Therefore there is a gap in the learning taking place on training courses. Books like this (and the ones that have come before and along side it; the OG Pink Therapy book by Dominic Davies & Charles Neal, Wild Desires and Mistaken Identities by Noreen O’connor and Clinical Encounters in sexuality by Noreen Giffney to name a few) are very exciting and important.

“Shall I compare you to a Summers day-Bashtaalak sa’at”

Queer, arab polyamarous film poster

Still thinking of this beautiful film ‘Bashtaalak sa’at’ ‘Shall I compare you to a summers day’ from Outburst Arts Festival. A queer, Arab love story about a group of men trying to navigate a polyamorous relationship. Beautiful, funny & touching.

I think about how important those representations of the wide variety of ways people can love and configure relationships that are not often accounted for in mainstream TV and film. How do you develop a positive sense of self if you don’t see yourself (your race, your gender, your relationship style etc) reflected in society.

If you get a chance to see this film, I really recommend it.

ADHD in the Therapy room with Aspire Autism Consultancy.

Therapy for ADHD, slide from training presentation on ADHD

I have recently finished some enlightening training on working with ADHD in the counselling room with the lovely Deborah & Ruth at Aspire Autism Consultancy. I have done alot of training courses over the years, and this has felt like one of the most important.

I often work with queer, trans or LGB clients who either have diagnoses or identify with the traits of ADHD and Autism.

Mainstream counselling training does not often account for neurodiversity in the same way it doesn’t account for sexual and gender diversity and so my process over the last few years has been one of un-learning and re-learning.

One thing I was really struck by is that (according to the training) adults can often be mis-diagnosed with things like Borderline Personality Disorder or bi-polar disorder because there is an overlap of traits between these conditions and ADHD. For some of the people who shared their stories during the training, finally landing on the more accurate diagnosis of ADHD and access to the right treatment brought a sense of life finally making sense.

I am not so much interested in the diagnoses element, but rather my interest in doing this course is to better support my clients, to understand how traits of ADHD may come into my work with clients so I am able to adjust and be flexible around a clients needs.

More information on Deborah & Ruth’s work can be found on their website:

Dr Meg-John Barker-Fear/Shame & the anatomy of a trauma response.

  As I have mentioned before in earlier blogs, I am a big fan of the work of Dr Meg-John Barker. Their website contains many useful writings and resources that can help with understanding our identities and the mental health challenges we humans can sometimes face. They are a queer, non-binary psychotherapist, lecturer, author and zine maker and I feel their contributions to the field of counselling, psychotherapy and mental health in general benefits greatly from their perspectives on life.   

I wanted to share this recent piece of writing from their blog entitled ‘Fear/Shame and the Anatomy of a trauma response’. In it they discuss how when something has set off their flight, fight, freeze, fawn response, they have noticed that the underlying feeling is a combination of fear and shame in response to feeling like their either have to choose between themselves or other people.

You can find the blog post here. It’s well worth a read!

Internalized homophobia

Internalized homophobia (or queer, bi, and transphobia) is a phenomenon that effects LGBTQ people in varying degrees. Internalized homophobia is ‘internalizing’ of negative messages from the environment around us (media, politicians, family members, schools, religious figures) and turning this negativity towards ourselves. It is what happens when negative voices that start outside ourselves are absorbed and turn into something that sounds like our own internal voice. This voice is critical and unkind, can make us feel shame about who we are and can manifest in shame driven behaviours.

I have some things to say on internalized homophobia, and in particular how counselling can help shine a light on the shame and help clients untangle their sense of self from it, which will follow in later posts.

For now I want to share this great resource from Revel & Riot on where internalized homophobia comes from and what can be done about it.

Why learning to be a better friend to your self might be the best thing you can do for your mental health…

This article originally appeared in GNI magazine May edition, link below:

Mental Health week, which runs from 9-15th May each year, is an opportunity to reflect as a society on how to increase good mental health and wellbeing and look at some of the things that contribute to poor mental health in our population.

As counsellor, I am always interested in the most useful and effective ways to help my clients.  There’s an idea that I have become increasingly interested in that feels relevant to promoting good mental health, both for individuals and as a collective society. I have seen it make a positive difference in the lives of some of my clients, and it is also has a body of research and evidence behind it backing up its effectiveness.

The idea? Self-compassion

I was introduced to the idea of self-compassion by Art Therapist Lisa Kelly while working on a Therapy group for LGBTQ teenagers at The Rainbow Project. Self-compassion is not a new idea, in fact it’s been around for a long time. Self-compassion, like Mindfulness which has become a popular concept in mental health over the last couple of decades, has its roots in Eastern Buddhist philosophy. In today’s world, self-compassion it is gaining traction as an effective tool in increasing wellbeing and good mental health thanks to the work of Dr Kristin Neff. Neff is a US based researcher, professor and self-described ‘pioneer of self-compassion’. Neffs work has also been elevated into public awareness by author, shame researcher and all-round legend Brené Brown (and what’s good enough for Brené is good enough for me!).

So what is self-compassion?

To understand what self-compassion is, we first must understand compassion. Think of a time when a friend has come to you for support. Imagine, for example, that they made an of error of judgement of some sort in their job or relationship that had a negative outcome.  When your friend comes to you, you will (hopefully) respond with kindness, support, and reassurance. You might tell them that they aren’t a bad person, that what happened to them could happen to anyone, that we all make mistakes and so on. Ultimately, you want to help reduce your friends suffering in their time of need. This is a compassionate response.

Simply put then self-compassion is treating yourself with the same gentle, accepting, supportive kindness that you would give to a friend.  

This can be harder said than done. Often our go-to response in our more negative moments is self-criticism and judgement. Being imperfect and having flaws is what makes us human and we can understand this when it comes to our friends and loved ones, but sometimes we can struggle with applying this to ourselves.

An important element of self-compassion is identifying our ‘critical inner voice’.  This is that little voice in that back of our minds that’s ready to jump in with the criticisms and judgements anytime we put a foot wrong (It might sound like “I can’t believe I did that, I am so stupid”, or “no one will want to listen to what I have to say, I am not interesting” etc.). Understanding the types of things we are saying to ourselves helps when it comes to practicing being kinder to ourselves (when doing this work with clients they often remark that if they spoke to their friends the same way they spoke to themselves they might not have any friends left!).

We all have a critical inner voice to varying degrees and it often comes from our experiences in childhood or as teenagers, or from other difficult life experiences.  For LGBTQ people the critical inner voice can come from internalizing negative messages from society, school, unsupportive families etc. We may feel we have to hold ourselves to higher standards to prove our worth and so therefore can be more self-critical.

This is why I think self-compassion is especially important for LGBTQ people. Neff describes self-compassion as a radical approach, and I completely agree. To treat yourself with kindness, love and acceptance for all that you are in a world that would have you think otherwise is both powerful and empowering.

Self-compassion is good for our mental health. I have seen first hand the positive difference it can make when a client begins to be a little more kinder to themselves. But it’s not just anecdotal, the research backs it up too. People who introduced more self-compassion into their lives were shown to be less critical and had less experiences of anxiety and depression which lead to greater life satisfaction overall. Self-compassionate people were also more likely to be optimistic about the future and experience better mental wellness. In a study that focused specifically on the experiences of LGBTQ people, self-compassion was linked to increased mental resilience in the face of stigma and minority stress. This really is important stuff.

So what can you if you want to introduce more self-compassion into your life?

A good place to start is to try and get into the habit of treating yourself like you would treat someone you love. In those moments when the go-to is usually self-criticism for something you have done, try to take a moment and think of how you might respond to yourself in a kinder way instead.  

You might also want to spend some time trying to identify that critical inner voice. This can be helpful to do in the safety of the counselling environment where you have the support of a counsellor.

Neff’s website ( has many useful resources including the ‘Self-compassion scale’ for measuring levels of self-compassion and breakdown of what self-compassion is and what it isn’t. There are also guided meditations and journaling & creative writing exercises designed to help increase levels self-compassion.

One idea I really like is the ‘compassion-break’-checking in with ourselves to see if there is anything we need when we are going through something negative (Am I hungry? Am I thirsty? Do I need a change of scenery?).

Being self-compassionate is more of an ongoing practice than a one-time deal. It is like a muscle that needs to be built and maintained. If you stop the exercise, you lose the muscle. So it’s about trying to introduce a little more self-kindness each day, building it up until it becomes second nature. Also, you might not do it perfectly every time, and that’s Ok too. The good news is that the more we practice the easier it becomes. And the more we start to treat ourselves kindly, the more we will want to continue to treat ourselves kindly.

One final thing to say is that it is not selfish or self-indulgent to start treating yourself better. As Neff says, being self-compassionate is the opposite of selfishness because it improves our mood and feelings of wellbeing. This means that self-compassion is more likely to open us up and expand our capacity for the other relationships in our lives, whereas self-criticism will shut us down. It just makes sense that if we are increasing how compassionate we are to ourselves, then we are also going to be more compassionate towards other people.

So this mental health week, maybe try to think about how to introduce a bit more self-compassion into your life. As the saying goes, the relationship we have with ourselves is the longest one we will ever have, so we may as well treat ourselves like the beautiful, unique, fallible beings that we are.


“When I get to be myself I belong, if I have to be like you I fit in”.

Belonging and connection are themes that are often appear in counselling. It sometimes feels that most often at heart of what clients bring to counselling are feelings of not belonging and not connecting. This can be with themselves, with their families or with the world at large. This is a common feeling for many people, not just clients in counselling. Disconnection is almost the defining feature of our time. The more I work with themes of belonging and disconnection, the more I feel it is an underlying force in self-esteem and self-acceptance and overall satisfaction in life.

We are a social species, with a hard wired need to form groups and be included by others. But we are also hardwired to need deep feelings of belonging and acceptance for who we are. Sometimes those two things can be in opposition to each other.

I read something recently about belonging in Brené Brown’s new book Atlas of the Heart which really blew my mind and has made me rethink the whole concept of belonging.

Brown discusses how belonging and fitting in are not the same thing. In one section some primary school aged children are asked to describe the difference between belonging and fitting in. The answers are the kind of honest, simple insights that can only come from kids. This one really stood out…

“When I get to be myself I belong. If I have to be like you, I fit in”.

Brown goes on to say that experiencing deep feelings of belonging contributes to feeling healthy, happy and satisfied and can reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness. But here’s the rub; we can only experience deep feelings of belonging when we are free to be ourselves. If we are changing or editing our behaviour, acting in ways that are not true to our selves and our values in order to fit in, then we cannot experience deep feelings of belonging. Changing ourselves to fit in is a blocker to true belonging.

I just think about how much we can fall into the trap of editing ourselves, in small or big ways, because what we want is to belong. This is something we learn in school, be like everyone else, don’t stick out. To be socially excluded in our primary and secondary school years is the worst thing that can happen to us. So we learn that to be our individual selves is dangerous and might leave us vulnerable to exclusion and isolation. And I think this carries over into our adult lives.

And this is what I am taking away from Atlas of the Heart: That we have a want and need to feel like we belong. But sometimes in an effort to feel like we belong (to a group of people, a club, our families) we will change our behaviour, so that what we are actually doing is fitting in. And we cannot experience deep feelings of belonging while simultaneously changing ourselves to fit in.

This is why I feel it is so important to find your tribe. Find those people, or that one person with which you feel most comfortable to be yourself. Where you know you can let it all hang out and you will be celebrated for who you are. Work out who those people are, and where they hang out. It is also about trusting that you can bring your whole, unedited, messy self to the table and that it will be ok. It can take time for this trust to build and that’s ok too.

We all deserve to belong, and not just fit in.

Hell Yeah Self-Care; a zine by Dr Meg-John Barker

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare”-Audre Lorde

I am a big fan of the work of Dr Meg-John Barker. One of the things that they do really well, that I love, is taking abstract or difficult to understand academic concepts on philosophy, psychology and mental health and turning them into really understandable and relatable comics.

This one, Hell Yeah Self Care, is one of my favourites, and I wanted to share it on the blog. The link to access the Zine is below:

Other zines and resources can be found on Dr Barkers website