Appeared in the March 2009 edition of Life and Fitness.
In the coming months I hope to write some brief articles on the many issues that cause distress to many people, which sometimes result in their resorting to counselling. In this first article, however, I would like to explain what counselling is all about, with a specific focus on humanistic counselling.
There was a time, and not so very long ago, when people felt ashamed of going for counselling. Their families almost saw it as a stigma. Thankfully, that has changed; and better still, more and more men now turn to counselling in times of distress. The person who comes to counselling is generally vulnerable, and it is important to stress that vulnerability is not a weakness, but one of the greatest strengths we have. It enables us to reach out to others.
Counselling is about helping people make sense of their lives. It creates a safe, confidential place for people to be vulnerable, to feel (or indeed to find) their feelings, and to explore distress. The counselling room can be a very challenging place, for it is only by challenge that we can change and move on. Challenge is not aggressive, but it gentle and direct.
There is nothing more healing than to explore issues, especially shameful ones, in the presence of a non-judgemental person. Hence, this person of the counsellor is extremely important. It is important that they are well trained and have done a significant amount of personal therapy themselves. It is the job of the counsellor to create conditions, which will enable the client to feel safe enough to explore the issues and ultimately to lead an independent life. So many people are in controlling relationships (personal and work- related) that they lead dependent lives. A good counsellor can skilfully challenge them to change, to feel their power and to become more independent.
In the case of humanistic counselling, there are specific core conditions which the counsellor must strive to create, so that the counselling relationship with the client will allow this to happen. Humanistic counselling is about relationship. It is called the therapeutic relationship, which is a professional but deeply human one. The core conditions are (1) a process of empathic understanding, (2) an attitude of unconditional positive regard and (3) a state of being called congruence (genuineness).
Empathic understanding means being able to step into the clients shoes and experience the client’s distress as if it were the counsellor’s own. It is a process of being with the client. It is important for the client to feel understood, if empathy is to be an effective healing process.
It is also a process of being able to see behind the client’s words and sense what is in the subconscious. This requires much self-awareness by the counsellor.
The attitude of unconditional positive regard is a difficult one. We are all reared in a conditional way. Our parents, teachers, clergymen, employers and significant others lay down the conditions for us and if we wish to be valued we must follow them. The humanistic counsellor must value (prize) their clients no matter what they are revealing, no matter how shameful it is. The counsellor may dislike the behaviours of the client and sometimes may not even like the client, but they must always see the client as a person of worth. This helps build self-esteem, because many people who come to counselling lack self esteem.
The final piece of the core conditions is congruence or genuineness. This means that the outward responses of the counsellor match how he or she actually feels. Anything else is merely a pretence or even a defence, and it hinders rather than promotes healing. It means having real contact with the client. It is also important for the client to see that the counsellor is genuine.
All three of these core conditions must be present for therapy to be effective, and all three must be evident to the client. It is not possible for the counsellor to be perfect in having them, but they must be aspired to. The more personal therapy a counsellor undergoes, the more likely that these conditions will be present.
Bereavement and grieving
As the anniversary of the death of my youngest son approaches, I would like to write a number of articles on bereavement, which I hope will help those suffering loss.
The emphasis is on loss. This does not mean only death. People may experience loss when they retire, especially if they are forced to retire through ill health, they experience loss if their health fails, if a relationship breaks down; children experience loss at the death of pets and so on. Indeed the word ‘bereavement’ comes from the word ‘reave’, which means to be dispossessed or robbed of something.
In the first of articles on grieving, I hope to explore normal grieving and later I will devote an article to delayed or complicated grief, which normally takes counselling to unravel.
People who are grieving usually experience 4 types of reactions – feeling, physical sensations, thoughts and behaviours. I have experienced these in my own life, and they are painful and sometimes a devastating process. But it is a process that must be endured. There is no shortcut through grief. I recall that the pain was at times so great in my grieving that I often wondered if it would ever end or would I ever be happy again. There are many feelings associated with grieving. Not all bereaved people experience all of them.
The range of feelings involved in grief are as follows: sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety, loneliness, fatigue, helplessness, shock, yearning, emancipation, relief, horror and numbness. Please remember that feelings are a part of you. They are your friends. They will ultimately liberate you. Allow them.
I do not have the space here to explore each feeling, so I will concentrate upon a few. The one that seems to be the most problematic to people, especially older people is that of anger. When I was learning the catechism, I learned that anger was one of the seven deadly sins. So I grew up with a feeling that anger was a sin; even more, a deadly sin! Anger is not a sin. It is a normal healthy feeling which should be allowed expression (not however in violent behaviour towards others). I recall stopping the car and shouting my anger at God, at my child for being so careless on the road, for leaving me bereft and suffering. God can take it.
Another feeling which is hard to bear is loneliness. In a sense it is a feeling of desolation that part of ones life is gone and will never return. I experienced this not only following tragedy in my family, but when I retired from a busy job. Then there is the feeling of helplessness. I was unable to do anything to prevent the death of my child. I have mentioned the feeling of emancipation. This is also Jproblematic for the grieving person to admit. But relief and emancipation are feelings that arise when the survivor is released from a life of cruelty and abuses inflicted by the person who has died.
In conclusion, it is only by allowing the feelings that arise that the grieving person can move on. It is possible to accept anything and to move on. What is the alternative? That does not mean that the feeling of sadness and loneliness will return from time to time throughout one’s life. Neither does it mean forgetting about the person who has died.
Counsellor from Furze, Thurles.