Why is my relationship with my counsellor so important?
I only know one thing about all counselling clients before I meet them: they are human. As humans, we are 'social beings'. This means that relationships, our social groups and our ability to get on with others, are vitally important to all of us. They make us who we are, even if – or perhaps especially if – we appear to have none. For all of us, sometimes relationships with others can seem to be problematic.
We can be surrounded by people, and yet still feel isolated; lonely. When that is so, an open and honest relationship with a counsellor can be invaluable in beginning to appreciate some of what may be happening in those other important relationships, with friends, family members, colleagues and loved ones. The relationship between you and your counsellor, acts as a microcosm of your relationships with others.
We all only see ourselves from the inside; we have always lived here inside ourselves, and know it so well that it can feel like the only way of being; 'this is how I am, take it or leave it'. The counsellor, without the baggage of history, without any self-serving motivation (other than to help the client) can be honest and genuine in a way that family and friends possibly cannot. He or she is in a great position to be able to mirror back to clients, what others may see and hear on the outside. Often, these two perspectives – our intentions from the inside, and what others perceive on the outside – do not entirely match. We can feel that we are saying something from a position of kindness, but it may 'come out wrong', or be misinterpreted, and be heard as something else altogether.
A chance to learn how those words may have been heard by others, together with the opportunity and space to explain how they were meant, can help us to see and hear a little more of what others see and hear from outside of ourselves. This can give a greater, fuller understanding of ourselves, and can also start to help us to recognise how those relationship problems can sometimes become so fraught with misunderstanding.
Equipped with this new insight (perhaps that should be 'outsight'?), we now have choice where before we had none. This does not mean that you need to 'become someone else'; it actually gives you the opportunity to become more the real person that you are. Those words, intended from a position of kindness, can with new understanding be reconsidered, and altered so that they are more in tune with what was really meant. New relationships can then begin from this position of 'congruence' (words and actions being in tune with thoughts and feelings), existing relationships can ease, and sometimes, even the relationships that have been battered and wounded with misunderstandings, resentment and hurt, can be revisited and renewed.
It is mutual trust, openness and honesty that enables these vital changes to occur. This is one reason why your relationship with your counsellor is so important.
Autumn reds, yellows ...and blues?
The beginning of September often brings changes – especially (though not only) for children and others in, and affected by the education system. For them, the start of the academic new year will mean a new teacher, class, or job.
For some it will mean watching their children enter school for the first time, start a new school, or go away from home to study in another city or even country. For some, the changes that happen at this time of year will be exciting, liberating, representing a new beginning and will bring with them a sense of opportunity. For others, they may feel more like an ending, leaving a sense of emptiness.
The kind of changes that happen at this time of year are reflected in the changing of the seasons too; the autumn months can bring with them a sense of ‘winding down’. In literature ‘autumn’ can be used to symbolise ageing and this winding down sense can also bring with it a lead-in to gloomier times; the lack of sun-hours having an effect on us that is physical as well as psychological.
Summer is for many associated with holiday and freedom, and the return to ‘normal’ routines, whether school or work, can feel like a resuming of constraints to that freedom. It can also highlight issues within our lives that we managed to push aside, temporarily hidden by our enjoyment of our leisure time. We know that everyone is experiencing the end of summer, so probably don’t feel we have a ‘right’ to complain or express sadness. If there is something else there, however, that was only temporarily masked by the holiday, there is a fair chance that it could re-emerge now.
Change is something ongoing that we all experience pretty much all the time, and we mostly adapt to it without even noticing that we are doing it. Other changes however, are more dramatic, and it can appear that something happening externally, is reshaping us internally. That can sometimes feel daunting and a little alarming; like a loss of balance. When this happens, we can find ourselves under stress; perhaps reacting in an uncharacteristic way to things and this can be a sign that we need more support and understanding than usual.
There are of course plenty of things we can do to try to help the sense of gloom; walks in the beautiful autumn colours and positive thinking about warming up with hot cocoa and roasting chestnuts may help. Good communication of how we are feeling can also help; if you have family and friends around you, talking openly with them could be enough to explain stressed and erratic responses, which in turn can relieve and ease the pressure. Being open to hearing how others feel can also help, enabling us to feel less isolated with our increased stress, or gloomy feelings.
If you do not have that support, however, or if you find that underlying issues – that were also taking a holiday – return to work when you do, or if the changes that are happening now are too great for you to manage, you may start to feel isolated and alone with your problems. When this is the case, seeking help from a counsellor can be one way to progress. The right therapist will help you to discuss your problems; new or old, and to find ways of adapting to changes that can help you to regain your sense of balance. Having the space to fully express the way you are feeling is a rare commodity and being offered that space, can in itself feel like a brief return to that lost freedom of summer.
The essence of a good story ...is you
Everyone has a story. Your story may seem mundane, or dull to you. That’s probably because you’ve lived it; once when it happened, and maybe hundreds, thousands more times when you reconsidered… What happened? What did I do? What did I say? Why did I react that way?
Research shows that each time we remember an event, we actually re-invent it. That could mean that we embellish a little, to make the tale more exciting. It could be that we do the opposite; if we have low self-esteem, there’s a good chance that we could downgrade our offering, diminishing our story making it sound as dull and uninteresting as we feel to ourselves.
But everyone has a story. You have experienced an entirely unique set of events and you have responded to those events in an entirely unique set of ways. Each story and each memory is now a part of who you are today, right now. You could not be the person you are now without those events and memories. The therapist who is right for you, will hear your stories and will connect with them and in so doing, will connect with you.
One of my favourite birthday cards last year, was a cartoon of someone struggling in the water, a Collie looking on, and the person shouting ‘ LASSIE! GET HELP!!’ The next frame shows Lassie lying on a couch, a Freud-like character sitting at her side taking notes with plenty of certificates on the wall. Lassie got help. I love this card because aside from its simple pun-intended representation of therapy, it is a great reminder of one of the greatest reasons for therapy; communication.
An essential of human life, communication comes in many forms, speech being just one. For many signing is their primary method of communicating, and for all of us our bodies form a large part of our communication, even when the movement in it is limited. A famous example being Stephen Hawking, who is almost entirely paralysed, but is able with his facial expression to communicate a huge amount to supplement his equally famous electronic voice.
Our language is so full, and nuanced, and rich that it can be easy for us to assume that we really understand what is being said. But that assumption can find us left alone in deep water when actually, we have got it wrong or have been misunderstood. One of the jobs of a counsellor is to ‘reflect back’, working with your language to ensure that s/he is able to understand what you are really saying and most importantly your feelings, as closely as possible. Reflecting back does not necessarily mean just repeating your words to you; it is honing, homing in, refining and finding out precisely what is – and also important, what is not – meant by the words you have used. It is getting as true an understanding as possible, of your story; of you.
Achieving that understanding with another, is one way in which we can start to feel less alone with our problems, or simply less alone.
“Lassie get help” 2012 – 2015 Danny Shanahan.
Another season change is on its way. Although it isn't yet quite warm enough to sit out (up North at least), there are sunny moments, and flowers and a very definite feeling of spring is in the air. For many people who have suffered through the cold and darkness of autumn and winter, this will be the time when they start to ‘come back’,
to re-emerge, the time when life seems to begin to flow again. Some will have tried to find something to help them through those dark wintry months – perhaps looking for counselling or psychotherapy to talk out their pain – while for others, that was a step too far. Too much to take on while in the depths.
For those people, springtime could be a great time to take that leap. Just a small burst of energy - that can be increased by being outside in the lighter evenings, by daffodils blooming and birds singing - may be enough to help you out of that darkness.
The winter cold and darkness outside do not usually cause your despair, but may both trigger and highlight it. Cold and darkness outside may mirror the feelings that lie deep within; forcing us to be touched by them; simultaneously enveloping us and overriding any efforts to ignore or hide them. Hibernation can feel like the only option. In spring, as the external environment alters, so can the internal one. Energy can return, giving us more strength and the feeling that we can cope again. The pain within can seem to melt away, masked by the light.
When that is the case, there's a chance that the cause is still there, just hidden. It is tempting to get the most out of what could be an all-too-short burst of light and warmth, by taking this alleviation of pain as a sign that all is well; to once again try to forget the gloom and to live while the going is good. The late and beautiful Robin Williams said: “Spring is nature’s way of saying, “Let’s party!””
Springtime could also, however, be precisely the time to make a bit of hay, using the sunshine to face and understand some of the pain that has kept you locked away. The renewed energy could be just what you need to sustain you through the processes of finding someone to share your pain with; asking for help; starting to look within… just what you need to sustain you through the process of bringing to light what lies behind the winter despair. And the slight distance from that despair that the spring light has presented you with, can help you with a perspective that is both manageable and helps you to see with a greater clarity.
In seeing clearly, in understanding your pain, you are then in a better position to appreciate where you have choices about your life, and to be able to start to exercise those choices. Making hay now, could give you a better chance of partying through the summer, and long into - even beyond - the autumns and winters to follow.
Ageing and invisible? Time to be seen... and heard
As a woman in my 50s, I am – like many of my generation – beginning to face issues of ageing. I am not yet ‘elderly’, but I am, almost unavoidably, heading in that direction.
Of course, we are all ageing, all the time. We may well receive birthday cards with ageing jokes on them long before it feels like a relevant issue to us. And for some, it may never feel problematic. Getting older can bring wisdom, and a comfort within ourselves; a greater confidence, a heightened sense of freedom. For many, however, the simple fact of our increasing years can bring about concerns, worries and feelings that may be difficult to process.
Those concerns may be about concrete elements of our lives: work – or its lack; caring for parents – or other older relatives; increasing poverty and debt – our own, or our children’s. With the advancing years, comes wear and tear on our bodies, that may lead to illness, disability or just a general physical tiredness; a weakening of our energies. And our emotional lives will also carry the weight and scars of those years; few people reach old-age, or even middle-age, without experiencing a number of losses.
Death of those we love from older generations is immensely painful. And the sense of loss can have additional dimensions to it when those we lose are increasingly of our own, and even younger generations. These bereavements can bring issues of immediacy regarding our own mortality; a reality that can seem impossible to grasp, and even harder to accept.
When we look in the mirror, we may see one of our parents instead of ourselves or just someone who is not us, bringing a loss of identity. And that is a feeling that can be exacerbated by an increasing sense of invisibility when out in the world. These could all be considered the routine conditions of ageing and for many, confusing feelings of a lack of purpose are also common following retirement, and with grown-up children.
This all sounds terribly bleak, and for those who are absorbed by their own ageing process, it can feel that way too. Chatting and sharing concerns with friends and others who are at a similar stage of life can help. There are practical things we can do too; looking outwards towards others and offering time; new pursuits (yes ok, ‘hobbies’); physical activity. These all have a good record for increasing positivity (and are recommended by the charity ‘Age UK’).
But what about when you are stuck? When you can’t even get as far as knowing what the problem is, you just know that those unfunny jokes on birthday cards now irritate you in a different way, and you certainly are not ready to look at charity websites… but still you cannot fully identify where the problem lies. It could be that a few sessions with a counsellor could help.
No counsellor, (nor scientist, nor anyone in history) has ever been able to stop or take away the facts of ageing and all that comes with it. They could however, help you to feel visible; seen. And heard too. And in being seen and heard, you could start to gain some clarity, to begin to accept where you are in your life, even to understand more about your life’s purpose. Then, you may feel ready to move forward into the next phase of that newly appreciated, ageing life.
Knitting your life
I love knitting. A somewhat bland and perhaps incongruous statement to start an article on counselling, but please bear with me, and hopefully, some clear pattern will begin to emerge.
After a long gap, I have recently taken up knitting again, making scarves for family and friends. This has, I have found, a number of functions. Aside from providing relatively inexpensive (and you could cornily add, love-filled) presents for others, it has helped me to distance myself from social media (previously a life-sapping distraction for me and perhaps itself the subject of a future article).
There is plenty written and understood about the value of 'hobbies' and how they can help with a whole range of issues – from tackling boredom to focusing and calming the mind to increasing self-esteem. While knitting this morning, however, I realised something about the way I understand those letters and numbers that make up a knitting pattern, that to a non-knitter could appear an inexplicable, senseless jumble of nonsense. They are simply an algorithm.
‘Algorithm’ is one of those words that until recently, I rarely (if ever) heard. Now, however, with the increased influence of computing, it has become relatively common. While I know nothing about computers, I feel I have gained a new understanding of that word today, through knitting and my musings on it. Algorithms and patterns are all around us, and they always were.
In looking at the algorithm of my knitting, together with the knitting itself – the picture the knitting creates – I am able to learn how to effect change in those pictures, that pattern, to make a slightly altered version of it. This basic (perhaps obvious) realisation felt at once mathematical, philosophical and quite enlightening when I started to translate those ideas from being about a jumble of letters, numbers and yarn into being instead about the patterns we create in our relationships.
In counselling, it is common to hear the words "why does this keep happening to me?" and that is a fairly sure sign that actually, that thing that keeps happening, is to some extent, and probably unconsciously, in the control of the person asking the question. We create the patterns in our relationships with others, ourselves – often without even being aware that there is any pattern there at all.
When relationships feel like a tangled jumble of yarn, numbers, words, and painful emotions, it can help to stand back and look for the patterns. This can be very difficult alone, and someone who is not tangled up with you can very possibly see the patterns more clearly. They can then point out to you where you may be working on an algorithm that is creating a picture you don’t like, or where you have dropped stitches along the way that you need to complete a picture. In seeing the picture and the pattern more clearly, you can then start to consider which parts of it you do like, and which you don’t. And with that new clarity, that understanding of what you are actively doing to elicit the responses you are getting, you can find yourself in a new position of control. You can go back to the algorithm, and you can tweak it to change the picture slightly (or even substantially) to suit you.
Because life isn’t actually a scarf, you can’t undo all that has gone before, but you can perhaps start to improve it; to make a new pattern that fits the way you live your life now. And with this new understanding of yourself and the way you relate to, and with others, you can add and drop, in ways that make you – and those who are important to you – feel good about the pattern of your relationships as they are now.
Flying the nest
September and October are months that bring plenty of change in many lives; for parents taking their child to school for the first time, and their children negotiating that new world; for children starting new high schools, and their parents adapting to the altered dependence that can bring. And then further along the line, for young adults having left school, these months herald a new chapter; working, or studying and for large numbers, moving out and away from home.
Leaving home can bring a great mixture of emotions for everyone involved; excitement, relief, apprehension, sadness, joy and fear. The cliché is that the young can’t wait to go, while the parents are left and bereft. And perhaps it is a cliché for a reason; for many of those moving away, the adaptation takes a little time, but the positives of starting out on adult life provide a great balance that helps the process along. Similarly, parents often need time to adapt to this new way of life, and in seeing their children thriving and growing, earning and/or learning, they gain a pride that can help to balance the sense of loss for them.
Sometimes though, our feelings about going, and about watching our children go, are more confused, and less easy to understand. There may be contradictions that are hard to come to terms with and these can leave us wondering why we don’t fit that simple cliché.
Growing up and becoming an adult can bring stressful questions about what to do, and how to do it; who to be, and how to be it. Sometimes finding the right balance between being our unique, individual selves, and ‘fitting in’, can be a challenging process that can start or become more urgent during this time of change. The lack of direct contact with family can be both helpful (allowing a freedom to express) and daunting, leaving pangs of unease about having no one there watching-over and caring.
So what about those parents and carers left at home? This can be a time of upheaval and stress here too. The emptying-nest can similarly provide a contradictory mix of emotions; perhaps excitement about a return to freedom, mixed with worry and an incomprehensible sense of abandonment. This too is a new stage; for many, parenting and caring for children has been a long and intense focus of life, even ‘life’s work’. We may wonder: ‘How do I continue to do my life’s work when the object of that work is miles away?’
The years our children spent in secondary school and college will have helped us to adapt to not knowing where they are every minute of the day. And not seeing them at all (and often not hearing a word either!) for weeks or months on end can actually allow us to let go of the anxiety, but for some it can intensify it.
There are many things that can and will help both young adults, and their parents and carers going through the adaptations that come with growing up and away; sharing your experiences with family and friends who have already learnt to manage these changes can be of enormous benefit, and for most this anxiety will be short-lived and a manageable part of young people’s development and a naturally evolving stage of parenting.
Occasionally however we can become stuck in the anxiety, feeling that everyone else has got it right, but for some reason we can’t. And when that happens, it is easy to become resentful, believing also that all those who ‘got it right’ just don’t understand how it is for us.
There is of course, as with any other set of complex human emotions, no right or wrong way to feel. But when we do get stuck, finding someone impartial and objective to listen may enable us to find ways to regulate our anxiety and start to move on. And while this can be important for young people starting out on adult lives, it can be just as valuable for the concerned family members they are moving away from.