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.”
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.