Reconnecting to the deep web of life

At it’s heart, counselling offers a way for us to to process our suffering and our distress – and to find meaning in it. There is an increasing amount of evidence that demonstrates that it’s the quality of the relationship between counsellor and client which is the main catalyst for this process of healing and growth. Something quite mysterious and transformative can happen when two people relate really honestly with one another. This is because our identities are not fixed. Our personalities are much like the surface of the ocean, constantly shifting and changing depending on the currents, prevailing wind and other factors. Our personalities adapt depending on who we’re relating to at any given time.

Have you ever experienced the strange and unsettling sensation of going home for a weekend to visit your parents and finding that you begin to regress into a adolescent or childish version of yourself? I certainly have! The relationship between children and their parents are so powerful they can often overwhelm the identities we form in our adulthood. The English language doesn’t even have a specific word to describe the relationship an adult has to his or her parents – we will always be their children!

Think about yourself at home with your partner, at the office, socialising with your friends, when you’re on your own. Does your behaviour change? In each of these different situations are you consciously acting out different roles or does your personality adapt and change to meet these different situations? Are you more confident around some people than others? Do you like yourself more when you spend time with people you love and trust?

Identity is relational – it is formed in relationship with others. It’s the meaning we create between us – the dynamics of our connection to one another – which really counts and which makes all the difference when it comes to personal change, not only in a counselling relationship, but in ALL relationships.

“When a partnership is based on growing, evolving choice, when it’s interpersonal politics is free of a desire to control, it develops in a unique, idiosyncratic way.”
Carl Rogers

We are not only independent, free thinking individuals making our way in the world, we are also interdependent – we need other people to help us make meaning in our lives so we can change and grow in healthy ways. We cannot do it alone. This understanding of our fundamental interconnectedness with one another is the cornerstone of radical ecology. It is an understanding which is sorely absent from the cultural story our modern society is acting out. This is a story of individualism and separation, one which perpetrates the myth that identities are isolated inside our skulls, that we are completely separate from everyone else. It is the antithesis of the kind of connection an ecological view of the world implies. It is important that we update this cultural narrative, which at the end of the day is only a story about what it means to be human that we have come to accept as reality.

However, changing this story is one of the hardest things we can attempt to do. We recognise that this story of separation is one which we, as children of our culture, have taken to heart. We can talk easily enough about the importance of connection but, more often than not, we keep our deep emotional selves hidden from one another, protected behind carefully locked doors in our minds. With our adult capacity to think rationally it’s quite possible to grasp the idea that we are all interconnected, but it is the child within each of us who needs to be convinced. This is the part of us that has been most wounded by our culture, long before we were mature enough to begin making rational sense of the world around us. The child does not understand rational arguments. The child sees things in black and white, responding to basic emotional expressions from others (love, fear, anger, sadness) with basic emotional responses.

This child experiences these feelings very deeply, but the scars of all those old injuries, so often unwittingly inflicted upon us by our parents, injuries passed down from their parents, act like a barrier to their free and open expression, and so often they’re pushed down into our unconscious or projected onto others because they’re too powerful to deal with. The child has swallowed whole the story of separation our culture has whispered in our ear every day of our lives from the moment of our birth. Most of us growing up in this culture cannot help but become traumatised by this story on a fundamental level long before we’re old enough to make any kind of meaningful choice about what we believe in. Although this child longs for connection, there is simply too much at stake to take the risk of reaching out to another with authenticity and vulnerability. The child’s greatest fear is of abandonment, which is experienced like a death. No wonder we keep this part hidden most of the time.

If we’re one of the lucky ones, there are places where we feel safe enough to invite this child to be witnessed by another. Counselling is one such place. Those of us who have experienced the healing and the acceptance that this kind of openness engenders have had a taste of the kind of connection that is possible with another human being, the blurring of the invisible, illusory boundaries which separate us, a fleeting sense of the interconnectedness of the human community. This kind of connection with others is all too rare, but with time, patience and the right conditions, an environment which is safe, stable and free of oppression, self-understanding and self-compassion develops. The child inside us naturally blossoms and helps us find the courage and the creativity to begin the task of finding out who we were to begin with before we swallowed whole the lie that we are separate and alone. With great relief we realise it does not need to be this way.

Brene Brown on vulnerability

This TED talk on vulnerability by shame researcher Brene Brown has been watch over six million times – and for good reason! Based on many years of research, in the video Brene explores the way in which our ability to courageously express our vulnerability in appropriate ways enables us to become more resilient to shame, develop clearer boundaries in our relationships and begin to experience what it’s like to live wholeheartedly.

We all start out knowing magic

We all start out knowing magic. We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible. Told to act our age. Told to grow up, for God’s sake. And you know why we were told that? Because the people doing the telling were afraid of our wildness and youth, and because the magic we knew made them ashamed and sad of what they’d allowed to wither in themselves.

Robert R. McCammon

Successful people

The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But she does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. She needs people who live well in their places. She needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.

David W. Orr, Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Wendell Berry

My counselling journey

Occasionally I’m asked when my journey with counselling began. In answer I often say it started in my mid-twenties when I read a book called The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck, the title of which is taken from a poem by Robert Frost. I think this was the moment I began to become more curious about my own psychology, when I first felt a desire to try to untangle the big confusing ball of knotted up thoughts and feelings that was my mind in those days.

However, having spent years teasing out those knots I now appreciate that ever since I was a child I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking carefully about myself and my place in the world and have always been empathic and sensitive to the feelings of the people around me, uncertain and slow to judge, so much so that I used to be frequently overwhelmed by how sure and certain of everything many other people seemed to be!

In a way then, I bring a lifetime of sensitivity, empathy and curiosity to my work as a counsellor – aspects of myself which have not always served me well at times in the past but are now qualities which I cherish and nurture in my work because they help me to create a safe and open place for clients to explore the things which really matter to them, and to eventually find the strength to embrace the uncertainty which is at the core of the human journey through life.

I am someone who cares deeply about people and deeply about the planet. It is this care which brought me, in 2011, to start working with young homeless people in Brighton, and soon after to realise that, with so much pain and trauma in the lives of so many people, I needed to find a way to heal my own wounds before I could help other people to heal theirs. This was around the time I was influenced by another book, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I hoped this practical self-help book would give me inspiration to write a book of my own, little did I know that it would launch me on an adventure that would eventually lead me to become a counsellor.

Like most people, my own healing journey has been long and difficult but it has led me to my belief in the founding principal of Humanistic counselling, that every one of us has the basic and inborn capacity to grow fully into ourselves, to become the person we were meant to be in this life, and that this is a life-long process. What this translates to in relation to the counselling I offer is that I know the clients I work with are the real experts. They are experts in themselves. Deep down we all have the strength, courage and wisdom we need to find the best way forward for us, but sometimes we need a guide to show us how to unlock this expertise. It is a huge privilege for me to be one of these guides, a witness to the potent healing energy which flows when people find a way to unlock their massive potential for change and growth.

Some different approaches to counselling

On the Counselling page of my website I explain a little bit about what Humanistic counselling is and include a list of five different Humanistic approaches to counselling which inform the way I work and which I bring together in a way which is unique for each new person I work with.

I thought it would be helpful to write a blog post which contains a bit more information about each of these approaches in order to give readers a better sense of the way in which I work. They are listed below, starting with Transactional Analysis, which is the core of my practice into which I weave these other ways of working.

Transactional Analysis (TA)

Transactional Analysis was initially developed by Eric Berne, author of the well known book Games People Play. Berne wanted to create a straight-forward and easy to understand approach to therapy, one which empowered his clients with knowledge and self-understanding. For this reason he utilised many common words to describe important aspects of his theories and ideas (e.g. games, rackets, scripts, strokes and drivers to name a few) in order to make them more accessible to his clients. However, he developed his theories in the late 1950’s and 60’s so some of the language he chose now seems quite outdated!

The deceptively simple models Berne devised for understanding human motivation and behaviour are in fact very sophisticated and powerful. These models are particularly useful for understanding the dynamics of our more challenging relationships and how we can take responsibility for changing these dynamics. His ideas have become so popular that they are now utilised widely by professionals working in the field of management training. Readers who have received this kind of training may be familiar with Berne’s Ego-state model which views communication between people as taking place primarily between either their inner Parent (critical or nurturing), Adult or Child (free or adapted).

Whilst acknowledging the importance of building a strong and trusting relationship between counsellor and client, one which is based upon the understanding that it is the client who is the expert in themselves, TA often takes a more didactic approach to therapy. This means that sometimes the counsellor takes the role of a teacher or instructor and so clients assume the role of pupil or student, learning tools and ways of seeing themselves and so hopefully enable them to change problematic patterns of behaviour which may have once been useful but which they have now outgrown.

Existential counselling

Existential counselling focuses on an exploration of the basic concerns of human existence. These are often referred to as the givens of existence: freedom of choice, responsibility, isolation, anxiety and death.

Many of us have experienced what we might call an existential crisis: a significant life event, like an illness or the death of a loved one, which rocks our world, shaking the foundations of everything that we’ve come to rely upon and often shattering our deeply held beliefs about ourselves and the world. At times like these, existential counselling can help to create new meaning in what can sometimes feel like a cold and meaningless world.

Existential counselling recognises the importance of anxiety as a guide to what it is that ultimately concerns us. Therefore the aim of existential counselling is to explore anxiety and get to the bottom of it rather than simply trying to make it go away. Despite the fact that anxiety is unavoidable, we all know that confronting it is a very difficult thing to do. Facing our fears is something which takes a lot of practice, which is the reason why existential counselling is sometimes described as lessons in the art of living.

Focusing-oriented therapy

Focusing-oriented therapy was created largely by the philosopher and psychotherapist Eugene Gendlin. It is often described as an experiential approach to counselling because of it’s focus on exploring how feelings and emotions are experienced in our bodies. Counselling often involves a great deal of talking and a great deal of thinking so it’s quite easy to forget the fact that all our experiences flow through our bodies as well as our minds. In fact, many people would argue that there isn’t really any way of meaningfully separating mind and body because they’re interconnected at such a deep level.

Focusing is a process which enables us to get in touch with what Gendlin calls our felt sense, a bodily process (often experienced in our stomach or chest) which underpins all our feelings and emotional responses. By making contact and exploring our felt sense of a particular situation (e.g. a difficult relationship with a friend or family member) we’re able to bring about movement in our feeling process and gain new insights into our understanding of what we’re really feeling deep down about the situation.

Gendlin’s 1978 book, Focusing: How to Gain Access to Your Body’s Knowledge, has sold more than 500,000 copies worldwide and has been translated into seventeen languages. Since the book was first published, Focusing groups and communities have been set up in many places around the world. With some basic training it’s quite possible for individuals to practice Focusing on their own although it’s also common to practice with a Focusing partner.

For more information visit the website of the Focusing Institute.

Gestalt therapy

Gestalt therapy has a particular focus on the client’s experience in the present moment in the therapy room, as opposed to trying to unearth important memories from their past. This is because the Gestalt perspective is that we live through our past difficult or traumatic experiences unconsciously again and again in the present. These are experiences which are somehow unfinished or incomplete because we were unable to fully process them at the time and so we are in some ways trapped by them in the present until they are able to find their full expression and we finally experience their closure or completion.

Often these trapped experiences can be accessed most directly through our bodies and so Gestalt therapy encourages the embodiment of feelings and emotions in a more active way than Focusing-oriented therapy, which has a few things in common with Gestalt, in that they are both experiential approaches to therapy. There are a variety of novel and dynamic ways in which Gestalt therapists help their client’s to access the important information stored (or trapped) in their bodies. Possibly the most well known of these is often referred to as the empty chair method, in which the client is invited to start a conversation with a significant person from their life (or an aspect of themselves) whom they imagine to be sat in an empty chair placed next to them. The client is then invited to swap seats and embody the other person in the conversation and to speak from their perspective.

As I’m sure many readers will appreciate, this can be a powerful as well as a challenging experience, and so it is very important that the counsellor is able to support the client in a way which enables them to feel safe enough to emotionally engage in the experience. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Gestalt therapy has been described as a safe emergency.

Person-centred counselling

The Person-centred approach to counselling is perhaps the most popular of the Humanistic therapies, and it’s originator Carl Rogers is arguably the most famous figure in Humanistic psychology. He was also a pioneer in the field of counselling research who set out to prove that it is the quality of the relationship which the counsellor offers their clients which is the single most important factor in the success of the therapy.

In his research Rogers identified six elements which are necessary in a counselling relationship for therapeutic change or growth to occur. Three of these elements are closely associated with the personal qualities which the counsellor brings to their relationship with clients. These are now famously referred to as the core conditions. The first of these core conditions is empathy, which has been described as the ability to feel what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, and is very different from sympathy, as this touching animation explains. The second condition is referred to as Unconditional Positive Regard (UPR) and it is perhaps closely related to unconditional love. UPR is connected to the counsellor’s ability to stay firmly alongside their client no matter what comes up, always keeping in focus the unique and loveable person, sometimes buried deep inside, who is striving towards growth and full expression. The third condition is called congruence, a profound and powerful honesty and authenticity on the part of the counsellor, an attitude which the client may have only experienced rarely in their everyday life.

Rogers’ research clearly demonstrated that the counsellor’s ability to embody these qualities as much as possible in their relationship with their client is a significant factor in whether the therapy is successful or not. For this reason, the Person-centred approach to counselling is full of warmth, acceptance, subtlety and nuance. Because of it’s wide appeal and proven effectiveness, many of Rogers’ theories and ideas have been significantly extended and developed since his death in 1987. Consequently the Person-centred approach to counselling is still very vibrant and alive.

What’s the difference between counselling and therapy?

Counselling1In response to my invitation to friends and family to feedback on the content of this website, someone suggested that maybe I could explain the difference between counselling and therapy. This was a timely reminder that I have all kinds of taken for granted assumptions about what people do or don’t know about the counselling process.

If you’re considering seeking counselling and are starting completely from scratch then this blog post is for you. In order to write it I will try to cast my mind back seven years to my first experience of counselling in order to recall the anxiety and confusion I felt as I approached it for the first time. It really is quite a complex and confusing area!

Firstly, it may or may not be obvious that when we talk about the difference between counselling and therapy we’re talking about psychotherapy – as opposed to things like massage therapy, physiotherapy or occupational therapy. Therapists who work in these important fields (and many others) will very often use counselling skills but they are not doing counselling or psychotherapy, for reasons which will hopefully become clear.

In fact, counselling and psychotherapy are very similar, so much so that a lot of people would say there’s no significant difference, but there is a great deal of debate in counselling and psychotherapy circles about this: other people would say there are important differences between the two things. Readers will have to trust me when I say that the finer points of this debate are not that relevant to people who are looking into counselling for the first time. However, one difference which is worth noting is that people who describe themselves as psychotherapists often (though not always) have done more formal training than people who describe themselves as counsellors and subsequently they often (though not always) will charge more per session.

What confuses matters even more is the fact that there are many, many different types of counselling and psychotherapy (often called theoretical orientations or approaches), some of which work well for some people and some of which work well for others. This is because we’re all so different from one another, we all have different needs and styles of relating to one another and so the number of different approaches reflects this.

I am a Humanistic counsellor which means I work in quite a different way to those who practice Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or Psychodynamic counselling, to name two other popular approaches. However, these three, along with most other orientations, have some very important things in common. In his book, Demystifying Therapy, Ernesto Spinelli outlines the key things that counselling and psychotherapy have in common.

  • They both involve quite a lot of talking.
  • As I’ve already suggested, they can both utilise a variety of different approaches based on theories and methods which often differ a great deal and sometimes even appear to contradict one another.
  • They both seek to help the client to clarify and resolve psychological difficulties they’re facing and in so doing give them a better understanding of the way they relate to themselves, to others, and the world in general.
  • They both require a particular, special kind of relationship (often described as a therapeutic relationship) between the counsellor/therapist and the client, which I describe in a bit more detail at the end of this post.

Warm and fuzzy or cold and hard?

The friend who inspired me to write this post described their own experience of counselling and therapy. They had this to say…

“I’ve been given the impression that in general counselling is warm and fuzzy while therapy is cold and hard. I’ve been to both. In counselling they smiled, in therapy they didn’t… maybe that’s the difference?!”

This is an interesting observation. In response I would suggest that how much smiling takes place in a counselling/therapy session is very much dependant on the personality of the counsellor or therapist involved. However, it’s also possible that my friend experienced two different types of counselling. The Humanistic approach is one in which the counsellor brings their personality fully and authentically into the relationship they have with their clients. This helps to foster a feeling of safety and security which creates the right conditions for change and growth. This may involve quite a lot of smiling if the counsellor is a smiley person! Psychodynamic counsellors and therapists do something quite different. By giving as little as possible away about themselves (e.g. perhaps by not smiling much) they hope to turn themselves into a kind of mirror in which the client will eventually be able to see their own process. Stereotypically this kind of approach can be perceived as cold and hard. However, as I’ve already said, it very much depends on the personality of the counsellor. Many clients might not notice much difference between these two approaches in relation to how they experience the therapy.

However, no matter what their approach, most counsellors and therapists now agree that ultimately it is the quality of the relationship itself which provides the key ingredients for change and growth. What this means for clients is that, whether they smile or not, it’s important that they trust the counsellor enough to risk being really honest with them. Inevitably counselling contains uncomfortable and challenging moments. If the relationship is strong then the client and counsellor will be able to work through these moments together. If the relationship is not strong enough then it’s likely that things will end up feeling stuck because the client does not feel safe enough to face their fears, which of course are often the very things which have brought them to counselling in the first place.