Counselling – A process of Change
There is a popular saying that despite all the countless films, books and plays that have been produced there are really only a limited number of story lines in literature. These plots are recycled in disguised form but the essence of the each remains constant. The narrative is given variation by being reset in different time periods and locations. The key characters may be recast through variations on age, gender, ethnicity and personality type but the general structure of the tales continues unchanged.
A good example is the eternal love story. A couple meet and fall in love. All is well but there follows a time of confusion, misunderstanding and separation before some form of dramatic resolution and reconciliation after which the story usually concludes. That reconciliation may be tragic or light, erotic or farcical but there is a coming together in an emotional moment of finality.
This sense of the familiar is well illustrated within a really fun disc, Harry Enfield’s Guide to Opera – EMI. Enfield fronts a compilation of popular opera tracks. The extracts featured are well known and good listening. Yet what makes this great fun is the monologue from Harry Enfield which precedes the music.
Enfield debunks the pomposity which can surround much opera whilst still acknowledging the majesty of the music. He does this by amusingly pointing out the constant plot line which runs through most of the classic operas including Verdi and Puccini. He highlights the standard way in which the story unfolds before concluding in the inevitably tragic finale. I challenge anyone listening to Enfield’s description not to find themselves smiling.
You may ask however as to what this has to do with counselling work. Well perhaps there is a comparison to be made between story lines in literature and what goes on within the counselling room. I hasten to add that I am not suggesting that individuals repeat a familiar narrative. In fact the opposite is true. Every client is unique. Each person has a story line containing important features which are sovereign for that individual alone. Indeed the key task for any counsellor is to be constantly on guard for that mischievous inner voice which starts to say that ‘I have heard this before’. The reality is that we have not.
Nevertheless there are similarities which present within counselling work. These relate not to the content of the client narrative but to the process which unfolds within the therapy room. In other words there are a very limited number of ways in which the actual counselling work is completed.
There of course are a myriad of different styles of counselling and I have referred to a number in earlier notes. On closer examination the differences between these various approaches are often marginal. That degree of difference may be stretched to ensure that articles can be written, books published and training courses run. Yet the difference is in the detail not the substance.
My focus for this note is however not on these techniques of counselling work but on the overall therapy process. Just like those limited story lines in literature so the reality of counselling work reveals a very limited number of processes which are followed in the room. In fact it can be argued that there are just three main processes.
The first concentrates on understanding. At some time in the work there will be a question voiced as to ‘why’. This concern to gain some understanding of ‘why’ will surface at some time in the work irrespective of the modality. What is the underlying causation of the problem which has brought the client into the room? Some counsellors may expect to focus on this from the outset. Others may explore the emotional foundation later in the work perhaps when an attempt to foster change in the client’s thoughts, behaviour or feelings has stalled. Whatever the timing it remains very likely that at some stage that need to understand why will take centre stage in the work.
The second process step is likely to be the move to ‘what now’ particularly if that work on understanding the problematic narrative has made progress. What is the process by which we can bring about some form of change or resolution? This transformation process will often take one of two distinct paths.
The first encourages the client to engage with the issue in an assertive manner. This process acknowledges and challenges rather than avoids. There is a form of head on engagement with the issue whatever that may be. The client is encouraged to work to contain, manage and control the emotional situation with a view to gradually reducing if not removing the pain and emotional discomfort.
The actual way in which that process is delivered can vary. CBT techniques and Psychodynamic work are seen as very separate and distinct approaches. Yet in reality both embrace this process of engagement. Each suggests a way of working which if I may amend a well-known counselling phrase encourages the client in the therapy room to ‘face the fear and talk about it anyway’.
Perhaps the actual language used may be different but nevertheless the essential plot line remains the same. The client is empowered and supported to walk towards the issue and not run from it. Through the work in the counselling room we can see the reality of what is happening. Let us recognise and acknowledge that and then find a way to safely work through this.
A second possible pathway in this process of change takes a very different road. Having understood and recognised the source of the pain and distress, this focuses on achieving resolution through avoidance, deflection and eventual removal.
The key task is to create a safe distance which separates the client from that which has causes emotional anguish or disruption. The intention is to create a new way of being where there is safety. The demons are to be weakened, ignored and eventually banished from day to day consciousness. They are to become of no importance. New ways are developed of thinking and being which ensure that this irritant is transformed into the irrelevant. And the irrelevant can then be removed from sight. One walks in a controlled way away from and not towards the source of emotional pain.
Again the ways in which this is achieved may vary. During the work in the counselling room the language, the actors and the tools may differ but the overall story line has a constant theme. If encountering this phenomena is distressing then avoid the contact. Banish the spectre from sight. Stop thinking about it. Stop returning to it. Rise above and beyond it but do so in a controlled way that works for you.
This binary analysis of the two roads that a change process can travel down, seems deceptively simple. Is it of value to the individual who is considering taking up counselling work? The answer is yes.
Let’s go back to literature and the arts. When we read a review of a film or a play we will do so against a knowledge of what works for us. We have a view based on previous experiences of what is acceptable and enjoyable for us and what is does not. That will guide our decision as to which book to read, which film to go to and which play to listen to. The same is likely to be true of our approach to counselling work.
What do we want from therapy work? Do we want to come away from the counselling session emboldened by having faced the unthinkable and survived? Do we seek the comfort that comes with knowing that we can now safely confront and vanquish the spectre whenever it next appears in our lives?
Alternatively does a more helpful resolution lie in ensuring that our journey will never again intersect with that of the emotional spectre that has been the cause of so much distress? We want that freedom which will come through knowing that it will never be necessary to engage again with that which has caused distress?
The choice of which road to take is one for us to make. We will have our own preference. Both resolution processes of engagement or avoidance can be helpful. It is up to the client to decide which best fits with his or her way of being.
And a final comment. Perhaps this is also a good time to reaffirm that the most important step will be the one taken by the client at the very outset of the counselling process. This is when she or he first decides to step into a therapy room. This is a unique and a potentially brave step. It is that step which underpins all successful counselling work. The process is just the way by which that personal journey will be completed.