Counselling could well be the boom industry of the new millennium. Increasing numbers of people see a counsellor or therapist at some point in their life for a wide range of reasons, while many more join group therapies for issues such as alcoholism and bereavement, telephone counselling helplines such Samaritans or ChildLine or buy counseling-related self-help books. In the media, therapy is now to be found everywhere from celebrity interviews to the plotlines of soap operas. Given the complexity and demands of modern life there’s every reason to believe that it’s here to stay.
As a result, people generally have a better idea about what counselling involves than they did 20 years ago. However, it is still common for people not to realise how many kinds of therapy there are or to assume certain rigid conventions – such as being expected to lie on a couch and talk about their dreams or childhood, as depicted by cartoonists for generations – still apply. (It’s also no longer obligatory for counsellors to wear bow ties, sport goatee beards or charge their clients in Guineas.)
Much counselling and psychotherapy suggests that suffering is rooted in how we perceive our world. It has been argued that this focus risks denying the real problems – such as poverty, alienation and unemployment – that people may be experiencing. Regardless of whether people can do little about such situations or whether their own choices have contributed to them, counselling can provide a way of seeing these matters in a different light. Blame and responsibility are often mis-apportioned. A therapist can’t provide a magical solution for this or any other issue but can help a client take a fresh view of a problem and so hopefully allow them to come to some fresh conclusions about it.
The weekly hour slot is, for some people, the only time they get to talk about themselves honestly to someone who will listen empathetically and regard them with unconditional positive regard no matter what they say. All sessions are confidential (save if the client reveals that they wish to cause harm to others or themselves) which allows a freedom to let rip about anything and everything. The therapist’s role is to listen and sometimes gently challenge what has been said. The therapist can clarify situations or issues and reflect these back. Above all the client sets the pace. If they want to sit in silence for an hour, they can. In some circumstances even this can have a value.
Counselling can help us get to grips with what and how we are thinking, feeling and doing. This in turn helps us to gain insight, self-acceptance, knowledge of the environment, responsibility for choices and the ability to connect with others.
In general, we talk about our feelings rather than re-experience them. The process is thus disconnected from the original feeling and, moreover, assumes whatever structure we might have put in place to create a version of the emotion that we can more easily accept. In normal social situations, describing an emotion without too much re-enactment (where it is mentioned at all) is normal and natural. Without such restraint, life would become far too intense.
A therapist, however, will take a different view. To explore the emotion it’s necessary to help a client step back and contact their experience with vividness and immediacy. Rather than talking about being angry and hurt as a child, for example, the client becomes that hurt, angry child and revisits it as though they were living it in the now. That stage having been reached, the incident can be seen in a different light. The past cannot be erased or re-written: but it can be re-interpreted and our reactions to it, and thus to ourselves, can be re-defined and made sense of. This can mark the start of a positive change in our behaviour and outlook.
It’s often said that four witnesses of an incident will give four different versions of them. Often the differences are so great that it’s hard to believe they’re describing the same event. Our reactions to something in which we are more directly involved can be even more varied and unpredictable. Therapy allows us to understand how each of us will attach different meanings to an experiences based on our particular life history.
And so we come, inevitably, to the old cliché of the profession, the question ‘how does that make you feel?’ To some this is the proof that therapists, as well as revealing nothing about themselves, answer every question with another; decline to commit; refuse to engage. Well, yes and no. With this dispassion also comes another overwhelming advantage: they will not judge. We are all judged every day, sometimes fairly, sometimes not: sometimes by others and frequently by ourselves, with much confusion and unhappiness often following as a result. This is not the role of a therapist. Someone who can listen without prejudice, and sometimes gently probe or challenge, is a rare presence in anyone’s life. So too is that calm detachment which we would love to be able to apply to ourselves but so rarely do. A therapist can provide these things. Now – how does that make you feel?
Maria Carver Counsellor, BSc (Psychology). Email: [email protected]