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Living on a spectrum.

We’ve all heard about people ‘being on a spectrum’ and the term is usually used to describe people with differences such as autism, OCD and dyslexia. But actually I believe we’re all on one – or more accurately, we’re all on loads of spectrums.

I talk about spectrums a lot in my counselling and physical therapy work and what they basically all come down to is the quest for balance in all things. Whether we’re talking about physical health or emotional, there’s a spectrum involved. It works a bit like this.

At each end of the spectrum we have the extremes of emotion or behaviour. You may be manically cheerful or cripplingly depressed. Most of us live somewhere between the two; we’re pretty happy most of the time and sometimes good things happen which make us happier and sometimes bad things happen which make us sadder. For convenience we label this mid-range ‘normal’, which rather implies that the ends of the spectrum are ‘abnormal’ – and if you experience them, they probably feel a bit like that.

Behaviours live on a spectrum too. Many years ago I went on a three-day personal development course and one of the first exercises we did was to line up across the room in order of how far in advance of the course we had started packing. At one end were people who had started picking out the perfect T-shirt 3 weeks ago. At the other were people who had thrown a few essentials into a bag just before leaving the house. In unison the people at opposite ends looked at each other and said ‘What’s wrong with you?!’

To the people who started packing 3 weeks earlier, those who hadn’t thought about it until an hour before they left seemed dangerously irresponsible and random. But to those people, it seemed neurotic and unnecessary to have packed any sooner.

Why does this matter? Well if you’re happy with your point on the spectrum, it doesn’t. But a lot of the time we’re not. Generally, being at one end of a spectrum is unpleasant either for you, or for the people around you (and sometimes for both). Finding the point on the spectrum where you and the people you care about are all comfortable is called balance, and I talk about this a lot. In fact I believe that counselling is all about the quest for balance.

I work with a lot of people who struggle to say No to others’ requests, even when they’re not actually asked to do anything. They assume someone needs something and make it their responsibility to provide it; they call this being nice but another word for it is exploited. These people are at one end of what I’ll call a Helpfulness spectrum. At the other end we have people who consider only their own needs and we call this selfishness. Neither of these are a good thing for anyone.

If you’re at the Exploited end of the Helpfulness spectrum, that middle point will feel like selfishness. And if you’re at the Selfish end, it will look like being a doormat. They will look equally bad. Because a position that’s a long way from yours, in either direction, feels very uncomfortable. We also tend to assume that if we move from one end, we will inevitably fix at the other.

The thing is that there’s a lot of space between Exploited and Selfish. The pendulum doesn’t have to swing all the way; and indeed if you poke it, it will gradually settle down in the middle – the happy, healthy medium. Another way of labelling this spectrum is the balance between the needs of others and the needs of oneself. The healthiest position is where the person gives their own needs and preferences the same respect and importance as they give to the needs and preferences of others. Appropriate adjustments for circumstances mean that sometimes one will take precedence over the other, but in general the two are in balance. If everyone did that the world would be a nicer place for us all.

Some of the other spectrums I see a lot of people on are Anxious-Reckless, Hardworking-Idle, Driven-Lazy and Angry-Accepting. You may see some of those labels as unnecessarily harsh or judgmental, and that’s okay. But rather than criticizing them, I’d suggest you look at why you think that; because it might tell you quite a lot about where you are on those spectrums and whether it’s where you want to be.

So one way of describing what I do is to show you the spectrum that’s most relevant to whatever is causing you distress or discomfort, helping you to identify where you are on it and where you’d be more comfortable, and how to make that shift. There might be more than one, in which case we can work with them all. What I don’t do is decide where on a spectrum you ought to be. If you’re happy at the Exploited end then that’s fine. If you like being at the Selfish end that’s fine too. Whether you want to move only a very little, or a lot, is your choice. But it can be hard to see how to move without some help, and that's where I come in.

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Caeredwen is a counsellor, coach and physical therapist based in Coleford in the Forest of Dean. If you would like to contact her in confidence you can reach her at or via her website at

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