Common Misconceptions about Counselling

I was asked if I would like to write an article for the counselling service and the above title was one of the options.  It took very little contemplation for me to select it because, as a late, initially resistant, convert to the counselling process, I feel reasonably qualified to write about common misconceptions of it.

I was 47 years old before I entered a room with a counsellor and I only did so because I was desperate.  My sense of desperation was not something I had suddenly acquired at that age.  Looking back, I can see that I had suffered from quite severe bouts of depression, anxiety and panic for as long as I could remember, but it seems from a very early age that I had been trained, and had trained myself, never to display anything more than a kind of 'sang froid' when under pressure.  Very few people could have possibly guessed from my demeanour that I was struggling.  It was an 'act', and such a well-rehearsed one that even I was often taken in by it.

Confusion, depression and fear were, as far as I could tell, just part of my natural make-up and world and, if I was to deal with Life, then the best way by far was to just ‘Get on with it!’ and not cause a fuss.  The British Empire, though mostly lost by the time I was born, had not been built on such mollycoddling, self-indulgent nonsense as counselling, but on guts, determination and a stiff upper lip and, though of a generally liberal persuasion in my outlook, I had certainly swallowed down that particular viewpoint.

For some reason I had envisaged the process of counselling as a passive exercise in exculpation or ‘buck-passing’, as I saw it.  It’s not the remit of this article to examine where such a cartoon vision of this amazing activity of counselling emanated.  The fact that I could have retained it for so many years and been in the education profession at the time, might illustrate the deficit in perception psychotherapy suffered, and still suffers.

It was talking to a Youth Worker who was also a counsellor that made me introduce it into the school in which I worked, and its impact was quite extraordinary. Students who tended to behave in very disruptive, surly and unco-operative ways in the classroom seemed almost transformed once they stepped into the Centre we built to house the counselling rooms. They never missed an appointment, never behaved in a disrespectful manner and seemed calm and approachable.

I suspect that I was possibly witnessing what Rogers, years ago, described as ‘the tendency of the organism to move in the direction of maturation, as maturation is defined for each species’. It was observing the apparent benefits of the process on others that made me finally attempt it myself. The effects have been, and continue to be, life-changing.

So am I a ‘happier’ person since I underwent it?  People can sometimes be heard to say that they ‘only’ want to be happy. That’s an aspiration I can understand but it’s the word ‘only’ with which I would take issue. It’s a bit like saying I ‘only’ want to be brilliant; or I ‘only’ want to live for ever. Maintaining happiness in a world of change and other people, that can sometimes seem cruel, random and desperately unfair is not only something of a challenge, but probably flying in the face of reality, if for no other reason than the fact that Death, currently (who knows what future science might bring?), faces us all, and that change for good or ill is unavoidable.

Add to that the fact that a permanent state of ‘happiness’ might feel a bit like being on a rollercoaster where, although the ride is two hundred foot in the air, the tracks are straight and never dip or soar. Please understand; I don’t like the downward surprise of an unexpected bereavement anymore than the next person, but I do like the upward thrill of meeting someone I’ve missed seeing for years.

I don't think such events balance or cancel each other out, but they are an indication that we are alive and have access to some rich, as well as some painful, experiences. Counselling does not purport to deliver, or guarantee ‘happiness’, contentment or wisdom. I think, amongst other benefits, it can be relied on to facilitate a greater degree of clarity and authenticity in how one views things.

I would suggest that the process of counselling can feel fantastic because it enables you to see things more clearly, and that the process of counselling can feel awful because it enables you to see things more clearly. Re-evaluating aspects of your life that have always seemed reliable and set in a state of apparent dependability can hardly be described as a comfortable or comforting experience.

Whilst on the Iron Mill College Advanced Diploma course I had one, amongst a number of particular moments, of revelatory ‘Wow!’ insights. It related to the word ‘disillusioned’, which in my mind had always been yoked to the word ‘bitter’ and often referred to older men and women who seemed negative, antagonistic or challenging in their behaviour. ‘Disillusioned’ always had negative connotations for me. Indeed one of the dictionary definitions describes it as; ‘disappointment resulting from the discovery that something is not as ‘good’ as one believed it to be.' Perhaps it is time to re-evaluate it. What it seems to mean to me now is that one is no longer under as many illusions, and from the experience of my personal therapy, a number of those illusions were hard to let go of, and even harder to replace with something else as supportive.

I feel that counselling allowed me to see my life more clearly; that it allowed me to understand the forces that had shaped me as a person. I still wonder if I really heard this, but I have it in my mind that one’s’ life script’ is pretty well written by the age of four years old. Counselling offers the opportunity to re-evaluate that script, written when we were vulnerable, unknowing and highly dependent on the nurturing, occasionally over-controlling, sometimes whimsical attitudes peculiar to each of our parents or guardians.

I still find myself a little shocked when I confront one of the introjects I ‘inherited’ as a child and discover its essential arbitrariness. All old people are not ‘wonderful’; professionals should never have respect automatically attached to their occupation and ‘honouring one’s father and mother’ may result in us not being able to see them as real people, with issues and experiences which sometimes resulted in their not being the perfect beings we would have liked.

I think one of the most important experiences the counselling process facilitated was to break the circle of despair which seemed to plague much of my contemplative thinking. I liken it to a dog chasing its own tail. At my most depressed I would race through personal issues up in my head which just seemed to recur with monotonous regularity and became exhausting and frustrating and seemed incapable of resolution.

I was ‘stuck’, a state of mind which therapy views as a potentially very positive state in which to examine and address issues. I simply lacked the insight and techniques which would have enabled me to deal with them. Acknowledging how things made me feel was one of the most significant developments in the process, since it was then possible to admit that some things in my life were not what I was willing them to be, but altogether quite different.

I see many of these features in the clients I currently work with. The people who come into the counselling room are not weak, self-indulgent or looking for excuses for their lives or their behaviour. I find them hard-working, straining to be as honest as they can and genuinely courageous in wanting to confront issues that may have disturbed them for decades. What seems genuinely remarkable to me is that they have the means to promote far-reaching change, within themselves. The counsellor facilitates the change but they initiate it. It’s an absolute privilege to be part of and can be genuinely life-affirming to witness.

If I have an issue about my experience of counselling, it’s simply that I came to it so late in my life. I don’t imagine that I would necessarily have had a more ‘successful’ or ‘relevant’ life but I’m almost certain I would have savoured it more. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have found it at all. I just want other people to be able to share its experience as soon as possible in their lives so that they too can enjoy Life, rather than endure it.

DougDoug was an English teacher and then Headteacher in two state secondary schools in the North West before deciding to change careers.  He had witnessed first-hand how effective counselling could be and moved down to Devon to help his partner start up a cafe, whilst training as a counsellor at the Iron Mill College; one of the best careers decisions he's ever made.  Doug has been working as a volunteer counsellor at the Iron Mill Counselling Service for just over six months.

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