Counselling, Catchphrases and a remarkable Venezuelan Painter
Well worked phrases can reach out and hold our attention. A catchphrase is just that. Words which capture our interest and stay with us. Many people may have a favourite slogan or saying which can resonate at key times. As a child my earliest memory of a catchphrase was seeing a large Christian Aid slogan set on a wall which I passed most days. This was a well-known refrain of ‘feed a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for life’.
Now in counselling work I will often find myself using two particular phrases to help clients with some of those emotional challenges which can come into the counselling room. The first is that ‘nothing changes if nothing changes’. It is a way of acknowledging that therapy is usually concerned with bringing about some form of change. The second is about encouraging clients to be able to stay in a difficult place. I talk of ‘being comfortable with being uncomfortable’.
Words can be important in counselling. There may be common misgivings about the very directive way in which some structured therapies such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) are used particularly within some formalised settings. Nevertheless the way in which we talk to ourselves and the actual words that we use can have a very real impact on our way of looking at the world. Words can affect our emotional wellbeing in either a positive or a negative way. Sayings which encourage a new way of looking at life can sometimes be really helpful. Provocative phrases can move us away from a fixed view of things and prompt a fresh look at the issues that we face.
These thoughts are prompted by a comment made by the influential Venezuelan painter Luchita Hurtado. In a recent article she is attributed with saying that ‘I am not who I was, I am who I am’.
The phrase has remained with me. Often clients will walk into the therapy room because of disruptive events and difficult relationship issues. There has been a rupture in the fabric of life with emotional convulsions. The experience brings stress and even trauma. There is often a stated aim to return to an earlier happier state of being. ‘I want to get back to who I was’. ‘I was care free and I have lost that feeling’.
The comments are understandable and will resonate for many. There will be a recollection (perhaps true or perhaps false) of a halcyon time when life was simpler. Days were easier without that cloak of concern which now seems to be permanently draped across shoulders. This sense of yearning to go back to an easier time in life is understandable but if this longing is too intense, it may invite some unhelpful reactions.
The reality is that we cannot undo that which has occurred. For example with physical trauma the scars which follow a major operation can fade but the body retains a knowledge of what has taken place. We can take more exercise, improve our eating habits and do whatever is necessary to help the body to recover. But we cannot undo that which has taken place. The same applies to our emotional being. We can contain and manage unpleasant memories but what has occurred is now part of our narrative.
I should quickly add that this is not intended as a pessimistic or negative comment. Quite the opposite. With those physical conditions, once the inflamed tonsils are permanently excised, the appendix removed or the broken leg mended we can look forward to a life unencumbered by those persistent sore throats or stomach aches which seemed to erupt with irritating regularity. That experience of the broken leg may also encourage us to take a little more care and actually help us to avoid a more serious injury in the future. The same benefits may also eventually emerge from that emotional trauma.
The reality is that we are the sum of all that has happened in our lives. The good, the ill and the mundane. No matter how strong our wish to do so we cannot put the clock back. To pretend that things could be just as they were ten, twenty, thirty years ago is just that, a state of pretence, a fantasy. Not that fantasies are in themselves somehow wrong. Fantasies do have a place in our lives and in our emotional world. All sorts of fantasies. But eventually we do have to return to the world as it is now.
Perhaps an alternative approach is to enjoy the day dream, acknowledge the fantasy and to then accept that change has occurred. We have managed to come through painful and difficult experiences. These may have impacted on our emotional health and sometimes we may still feel shaken. But we have survived. We grow and develop. We can continue to look forward. We are able to not just enjoy life but also to remain open to new experiences, new sensation and new relationships.
Luchita Hurtado’s maxim that ‘I am not who I was, I am who I am’ encourages us to accept all those experiences which have been part of life. Her comment provides a validation of life.
Things have changed and that change will continue. Perhaps it is now time to accept change and to start to shape that future in a way that will enables you to look forward. But just in case it is a grey rainy day when spirits are low and further encouragement for action is needed, well there are many sources available. This can include my therapy room in Chichester but there are many other external options.
For example the latest Hurtado exhibition is at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London until October. Even if you cannot get to the exhibition you may be interested in her story. Inspiration can come in many forms. It can be found not just in her recent work but also in her narrative about a way of being. She is a quite remarkable artist.