I was sure I would be a counsellor one day, but there was no way I could see that. I felt a million miles from therapeutic anything. The impulse that propelled me to understand myself more so I could understand people’s pain was gone, well and truly gone.
What do Catholics say when they stop being nuns? ‘Lost their vocation.’ Was it a calling I had felt when I swapped careers mid-life? I must have felt, heard, imagined something, but it hadn’t come out as a meaningful ‘gestalt’ yet. I suppose at least I knew what ‘gestalt’ means.
Today, I am sitting opposite a soul in pain. I hold them with empathic interest. I want them to feel they can talk freely to me and I will receive their thoughts and feelings, expressed through their words, their silences and their gestures.
The amount of pain out there! Where does it come from? What is the purpose of such suffering? Well, for me the pain was a compass point, a direction finder, part of a map of a life. Where I am in myself when whatever I’ve been doing doesn’t work any more.
That’s what happened to me. I was a German lecturer being appraised as part of a new re-fit process at the university. At the question ‘So what kind of a lecturer are you?’ I saw red, or even crimson or maybe scarlet.
Something like a firework went off in me, some sort of live exasperation at a system that was as preposterous as it was useless, where human beings are seen as no more than resources, ‘factors of labour’.
I was offered counselling. I accepted. I turned up. I wanted to know: Was I there for my own sake? Or was it for the university? For my own sake! What a thing, to be listened to for my own sake, what an hour it became. I got hooked. I talked myself out of my misery and on to a counselling course.
Now I was sitting in an airless room with someone talking about their pain. I could let air in by opening the window, but I felt green, amateurish and awkward. What if my opening the window made my client feel they were boring me?
I thought I would develop an expertise and get there. But I didn’t, I didn’t get anywhere quickly. Inner pain isn’t something you ‘cure’ by being next to it. In treating chronic physical pain we know that people are asked to stretch and bend, sending messages down the nerve endings, through and round the pain. In my first sessions as a counsellor that’s how it felt, my mind being stretched to the point of wanting to give it all up. But slowly, it got better.
I began to see the usefulness of a structure for me, vaguely at first, getting a sense of where the client was in themselves, opening that place out and exposing it to light, trying to grasp where it had come from and why it had such power and then thinking about it a different way. If that could happen, my client would be in a different space. Maybe the pain was still there, but boy could they see the enemy.
I’d like to say that I worked ceaselessly to refine a framework that worked for me. That enabled me to sit for hours with no perceptible change occurring on the outside but scenes being shifted on a massive scale on the inside. But in reality, it happened naturally, of its own accord. That was the most important lesson of all; apparently things were the same, but those deep processes were beginning to drift to the surface.
As time went by the framework became clearer, a bit like a piece of music, because each element of my process overlapped, went backwards, changed order, but it didn’t matter because what was helpful to me was my very own counselling code, I listened, we explored, understanding was brought to the surface. What to do then? Where can you go when there’s no dark cave of despair to hide in like a welcome prison?
You face the changes you need to make, you prepare to move on. I wished there was a reference book with five sections in, Listening, Exploring, Understanding, Facing change, Moving on, interchangeable fluid sections that went together sometimes, maybe flowed if I was lucky but kept me on track, kept me clear-sighted as the counsellor, not only within the bounds of each counselling session, but also on a bigger scale, like in time-limited or even open-ended counselling.
Just as you might remember the colours of the rainbow by Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain and there you have all the seven colours, my secret process for making counselling come alive for me with clients is: Leave Eggs Under Floor Mats. It looks facetious written like this, but I’ve found it a useful mnemonic allowing for a quick recall of the five different steps when under pressure in a counselling session.
Counselling is closely bound up with story-telling, the stories coming from your clients, multi-layered, complex, with constantly shifting perspectives. Stories you can hardly believe, stories that leave you gasping, stories of lives not lived. I can see how a five-step reference guide book could help new counsellors unravel their clients’ stories. I hope my ideas will stimulate, support and sustain them. I’ve written fifty stories or case studies, all within five sections, and there is ‘Running Away’, a therapeutic journal with integrated workbook. Have a look at www.counsellingkit.com.
If I have one message it’s that counselling is about us being human. Maybe we all need to become counsellors of sorts to live our best lives. Learning to put the other person first, seeing them for their own sake, yet doing things together with them, drawing on the interactive skills reflected in the five steps above and steadily growing into our own lived humanity.
As I became more experienced and more relaxed with my clients, I introduced writing into the mix. Just like mustard to certain foods, writing adds a kick to the ‘therapeutic nourishment’ received by the client. It adds value to counselling because it captures and preserves moments for later reflection. But above all, it can develop a meditative quality in us where our beginners’ fear, our clinging to what feels like the safe use of reliable skills, gives way to a freer, more intuitive human response to each moment in the counselling process.
What is my biggest hope? To carry our stories forward, work with them, becoming more human every day, because if we want to live our best lives we all have to be counsellors and clients at the same time. I write, my client writes, I read, I reflect, my client reads, my client reflects, the one inside me just the same as the one gazing into my eyes from across the room. Where do we meet? We meet in our story-telling, in our journaling, in our journeying to the centre of our personal universe.