Carl Rogers, the founder of Person-Centred Counselling, writes of the importance of establishing an empathic relationship with the client, and describes
‘my human fallibility in understanding that client, and the occasional failures to see life as it appears to him, failures which fall like heavy objects across the intricate, delicate web of growth which is taking place.’
This reminds me of a well-known poem by WB Yeats:
The Cloths of Heaven
Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light;
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
As counsellors, we have to tread a fine line between active enquiry and gentle watching, and developing an understanding of the person who has come to see us. It’s easy to nudge people off course by asking inappropriate questions or interrupting a silence.
One of the things I most enjoy about my work is watching relationships develop. Client and therapist are reaching out, tentatively, and the initial connection can be as delicate as a spider’s web. But once one or two anchoring threads, understandings between client and therapist that provide a sense of safety, are in place, there is scope to construct an intricate web of meaning. Apologies if this sounds pompous or silly! It’s a metaphor that works for me, and might not work for you (especially if you don’t like spiders!).
I’m always amazed by the beauty and intricacy of spiders’ webs – and they’re remarkably strong and resilient, too. Barely visible, but there, and strong – that’s the relationship between the counsellor and the client.
Behind the mask
‘Man is least himself in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.’ – Oscar Wilde
Nina Conti recently appeared on the BBC’s ArtsNight programme (http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b06zyhzf/artsnight-series-2-19-nina-conti) to talk about masks, and how wearing them can free us to speak our minds – or to be somebody else.
I see the point that was being made – yes, behind a mask you can be somebody else – or another, unexpurgated, uncensored version of yourself.
But going into counselling, for me, is more like taking a mask off. It’s about entering a space where you don’t need the mask. Perhaps entering the counselling space sparks a similar sense of stepping away from life, absenting yourself.
Still, for me, the relationship with a counsellor is best when you feel safe enough to take the mask off altogether.
I can understand how you might need to hide your face if you are in a situation where the people receiving your message will tend to judge you, based on your face. Especially if showing your face will undermine your message or make you vulnerable to attack because your message is unacceptable in the setting where your face is acceptable. Masks have a use, for sure.
But a secure counselling relationship allows you to safely take off a mask, to show your face.
It helps if the counsellor is ‘congruent’ – the term used in Person-Centred Counselling to mean ‘honest’ or ‘real’. Some counsellors hide behind the mask of being a ‘counsellor’ – essentially, playing a role, following a method. For me, building a relationship in counselling requires both people to take off their masks and meet each other properly. That may be a challenge for both the client and the counsellor – but I feel that masks have no place in counselling.
All this will pass…
I heard a great little story recently.
A young man is struggling to become a Buddhist monk. He complains to his teacher:
‘You know what? I’m never going to be any good at this. I can’t meditate, my mind is all over the place, I have no confidence that I’m doing the right thing, I keep reading the teachings but nothing seems to feel right any more. I feel so dejected and hopeless!’
His teacher replies:
‘All this will pass.’
A week later, the young man returns to his teacher, looking radiant. He says:
‘You were right, of course. You are so amazing. All my fears and troubles have passed. I’m finding my meditation easy and it feels wonderful. All the teachings ring true, and my studies are fascinating to me. Life couldn’t be better.’
And his teacher replies:
‘All this will pass.’
I love this story because it reminds me about the mutability of life – things are changing all the time. There’s something essentially human about being able to bend with whatever arises, finding ways to carry on regardless. I’m reminded of the trees you sometimes see which have grown around obstacles – and I think humans are like that, too. We grow. We can’t help it. It’s what being alive means.
Ups and downs
When did it become taboo to feel sad? It feels as if somebody has created a kind of cult of happiness – everybody wants it, all the time, the more of it the better, and if you’re not happy, nobody wants to know. But in reality, life’s just not like that.
Feeling down feels even worse if you suspect that it’s not ‘normal’ – nobody else feels this way, why is this happening to me? Am I weird? And of course, the next thought is, something’s gone wrong, how do I fix it?
In my experience, people sometimes confuse depression with sadness or grief. Depression is that flattening, deadening, sinking sensation that makes you feel exhausted and disinterested in the world. It can come out of nowhere. But sadness and grief are different, and we often have very good reasons for experiencing them. Loneliness, betrayal, loss and fear…
People often have strategies to avoid sadness, throwing themselves into sports, hobbies and socialising in an effort to ignore something that’s gnawing away at them. Manoeuvres like this can certainly help you feel better, but they might not make the sadness go away, and that can lead to an uneasy feeling, as if there is a pit beneath you and you might fall in.
I find it useful to think of life as a journey across territory that is sometimes rough – there are sunlit uplands, to be sure, but there are also ravines, spiky rocks and muddy bits. If you invest your energy into constructing a rickety rope bridge, maybe you can keep yourself above life and never have to really explore it. But if the bridge gives way underneath you, you stand a good chance of crashing into unknown territory.
Life, inevitably, has its ups and downs. That’s nothing to be scared about – in fact, we can benefit from exploring the ‘downs’, allowing ourselves to experience the feelings that arise, and achieving some sort of ownership. There’s some peace to be found in simply accepting that it’s OK to be sad, sometimes. You can be sad, and still be OK.
The best-laid plans
John Lennon wrote a song which included the line:
‘Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.’
(I’m not sure if it was his original thought. As a well-read therapist, I probably ought to know who said it first. I choose not to beat myself up about that.)
I occasionally meet people who are feeling distraught, because they’ve been running their life according to a plan, but things have gone wrong. They feel as if they’ve fallen off the edge, that they’ve failed. They have all-or-nothing thoughts – nothing will go right ever again, there’s no way forward now, it’s all hopeless.
There’s a lot to be said for having plans and goals – life coaches swear by this sort of thing. Daily goals, weekly goals, career goals, life goals and bucket lists. After all, how do you know you’re winning if you’re not keeping score, right?
But flexibility is a life skill too. There’s so little about our lives that we can really control. We can’t control other people. We’re kidding ourselves if we think we can predict the future. And yet we get thrown if something unexpected happens!
It’s one thing to have some hopes and dreams, and to be taking steps to try to make them come true, but it’s quite another thing to create a ladder for ourselves to climb and to be mortally afraid of falling off it.
Life throws experiences at you, whether you like it or not. As we develop from children into adults, we learn that we can cope with all sorts of unexpected occurrences. Accidents, break-ups, job losses, deaths and betrayals happen, and we go on.
It’s only by experiencing the tough times that we learn what we can cope with. In turn, we can work on developing a core belief that we will be able to cope with more or less everything, and that if things get really bad, we will be able to ask for help and get it. Knowing the ‘bottom line’ can take away a lot of fear, and wipe out some of our inclination to try to impose an illusion of control on this utterly unpredictable, uncontrollable ride we call life.
A space of uncertainty
In this month’s edition of Therapy Today, the journal for members of the BACP, therapist Sally Brown looks at the impact of online social networking upon our mental wellbeing. Not surprisingly, there’s evidence that excessive use of social media ‘can create feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier and more successful lives’, and that girls and women who have used Facebook, even for a short time, report more body-image concerns than non-users. Less predictable are the University of Pittsburgh research findings that the more time you spend online, the more socially isolated you are likely to feel.
I was particularly struck by the views of Rebecca Kirkbride, who has written a manual on counselling young people. She points out that social networking provides us with a wealth of contacts we can turn to for advice, and suggests that we may be seeing a generation of young people who are less able to manage their own emotions. With hundreds of ‘friends’ available day and night, ‘young people now are less likely to reflect on their difficulties and find solutions alone than previous generations were.’ Perhaps this is the flip-side of encouraging people to share their feelings – we are now more ready to ask for help than we are to spend some quiet time with ourselves, connecting with what we are feeling and thinking, and why.
So how might this affect what goes on in a counselling session? If young people are used to accessing support from a wide circle of friends, who might be delivering their opinions in the form of very ‘black-and-white’ advice, they might arrive in the therapy room with a lot of answers, and without having spent much time really thinking about the questions. Sally Brown wonders, ‘are they more likely to expect miracles from their counsellor, and outsource to us the responsibility for feeling better?’ Rebecca Kirkbride suggests that ‘What we might find is less familiar to them is when the therapist says, “How else might we think about this?”, so creating a space of uncertainty, rather than coming up with, “This is what I think, or this is what is right”, which they may be used to hearing from their online networks.’
I’ve realised that I am a big fan of the ‘space of uncertainty’! (And it’s one of the few things that is well nigh impossible to get online.) Both the counsellor and the client are facing the possibility that it’s actually OK not to know what comes next. Not knowing what’s next is part of the human condition. Accepting that is surely a positive step towards resilience.
I’ve been doing some work lately on how creative writing can have a positive effect on mental health – for both the writer and the reader. I thought I’d share a few poems that I thought were saying something useful…
THE WELL OF GRIEF by David Whyte
Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief,
turning down through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe,
will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering,
the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else.
The Guest House by Rumi
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
The Journey by Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.