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The New Year, OCD, Counselling and Existentialism

If these notes were the script for a game show the next question would be to invite readers to spot the odd one out of the above seemingly random subjects. If having glanced at the heading you have already made a choice it would be interesting to learn the reason for your selection particularly as there is no obvious answer. We may all have a valid view on which one of these four stands out and why!

My choice would be ‘Existentialism’. The reasoning for me would relate to the idea of personal choice which is a key aspect of much existential thought.  A common feature of the other three subjects of New Year, OCD and also much counselling is the presence of some form of repetition. There is for example ritual involved in the celebration of the New Year from the predictable countdown to midnight to customs such as first footing and also the obligatory excess alcohol! OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) is clearly related to repetitious behaviour in very different areas of life both inside and outside the home. This behaviour can often link with repeating patterns of obtrusive and disturbing thoughts.

The suggestion that counselling work involves repetition may bring a frown from some of my colleagues but the phenomena is certainly there in counselling modalities such as psychodynamic work and CBT. Within traditional psychodynamic work there will be much emphasis on boundaries, on the anonymity of the therapist and on the importance of holding meetings at the same time, same place each week.  CBT is perhaps even more grounded in repeated practices with a didactic approach in which some CBT counsellors will be expecting clients to be rigorous in the weekly or daily completion of forms and thought diaries.

With each of these three subjects, counselling, OCD and New Year celebrations there is a pattern of behaviour which can be foreseen. In extreme cases such as well entrenched OCD, the individual freedom to act or think can be so severely curtailed that the client becomes a virtual prisoner in a world of their own creation.

By contrast existentialism will place an emphasis on an individual’s freedom to choose.   The existential proposition is that there is always an element of choice to be exercised whatever the predicament that we find ourselves in.  For example we may be forced to act in a certain way but we still retain the freedom to decide how to think about the action and the other people involved.

I see that as particularly important at this time of year.  For many a key part of the New Year ritual will for many be the setting out of resolutions for the New Year. This may be an annual obsession even if there is a parallel awareness that these good intentions will probably not be followed through or maintained.  Perhaps this is where that existential thought can be helpful.

We may feel obliged to set some resolutions. It is expected of us. But what happens next is where our freedom to choose becomes important.  It is not a given that resolutions must be adhered to or ignored.  We retain the freedom to choose. We have a choice whether to stay with that decision not to drink for January, whether we will spend more quality time with our children, parents, partner, lover, friends (delete as appropriate), whether to save more and spend less and either whether we promise to stop being grumpy on a Monday morning.  Choice will remain with us not just in January but throughout the year. It is our life and the decision on how to live it rests with each of us.

Sometimes that can be difficult to accept particularly when change is involved.  It is then that work with a counsellor or therapist may prove helpful. Whether we are in Chichester or Chester, Bognor or Berwick, there will always be challenges to meet and difficult decisions to be made. Within the existential proposition we are invited to accept accountability and responsibility for our own actions rather than to hide behind a ritual that others may be wanting us to follow.  That can be challenging. That is why a supportive counsellor may sometimes be able to help a client break free of ritual and constraints.  That support may assist the client to change and follow a new choice.

There is however a counter argument which I should acknowledge before the first email response arrives in my inbox!  It is sometime said that as existentialist therapists, we also display a repetitive pattern with our continued focus on this issue of perpetual choice. I have to accept that there is something in that!

So in keeping with one of my resolutions I will gracefully accept that there will always be another view point whatever the subject.  And so whatever your views on these issues may I just wish you well for the year ahead.  And may all your choices turn out to be good ones!