How I work as a counsellor
When you first come to see a counsellor, almost invariably it is the ‘symptom’ that is talked about. You’re too stressed at work, another relationship has run into difficulties, you’re not sleeping well, you find you’re not getting on with the things you want to do – in short it’s the specific unhappiness and stress that’s brought you into therapy.
At first the hope is that now you have come to talk, these ‘symptoms’ or problems will go away. But the issue here is that this symptom is a part of you, of your energy, of who you are, but getting expressed in a negative way. To give an illustration, David was self-employed and came into therapy because he wasn’t getting on with the projects he needed to do. This made him quite anxious, which had a knock on effect in terms of other symptoms, like not sleeping well and getting very down and negative about himself.
David went on to describe how he was ‘spending a lot of time fixing things’. In itself 'fixing things' is fine and David did find it satisfying that when he applied himself to his work, he enjoyed the meticulous attention required in the projects he took on. But what he was articulating was an ‘emotional logic’ that he needed ‘to get things all right, all sorted out’ before he moved on. But it is not possible to get things ‘all right’. There’s always something that isn’t fixed or completed and so David became stressed because emotionally he was trying to do something that couldn’t be done, rather than engaging in a more practical way with the actual work he needed to do. This then feeds back in a negative loop where the increased stress he’s now under makes him feel he should even more try to fix things.
Identifying the emotional pain
But this getting things fixed, which has gone off in a negative direction and underpins these 'symptoms' is also a part of who he is, and makes him successful at his work. So the first step is to identify the emotional pain, to have it put out there in a shared space, and then it becomes possible to acknowledge what you’ve been getting caught up in and have a good look at it. To walk around it so to speak and see what’s been going on and that it doesn’t make sense to keep on relating to situations in this negative way, and at the same time to acknowledge it’s been making you stressed and unhappy.
'The well worn path'
I sometimes describe this as ‘the well worn path’ that you have often travelled down, and though you can see it here in the counselling session, it has become a habit that can have a lot of emotional energy invested in it. So when you have this kind of dynamic or tendency, as you go about your life whether at work or outside, there will be these ‘hooks’, which are basically stressful situations, that catch you and reel you in, so before you know it you’re heading down that path.
Making sense of what's going on
Sometimes it can help to look at a repeating negative experience like this by using Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). Here you can ‘unpick’ the experience – an experience that often feels like it just happens to you. Then you can begin to see how it does come about and can take over in spite of your best intentions; but more importantly the part you play in creating this ‘negative’ scenario. So you start with the assumption that what at first doesn’t make sense, does have a meaning, or what I sometimes call a ‘subjective or emotional logic’ – a logic in which for example, David wanting to fix everything, rather than working for him, becomes an experience where he thinks, ‘I have to do everything before I can get on with my work’. Obviously this isn't a rational thought, but rather, an unhelpful perspective – a 'felt thought' you could say, that he places on the situation which in turn makes him unhappy and stressed, because in reality he is not getting on with what he really wants to do, which is his work and the projects he wants to complete.
Distinguishing between feelings, actions and negative thoughts
So once you get this kind of experience into a shared space, you can start to understand what’s going on and how this negative thinking is affecting you. You can then start to make a clear distinction between what you feel and what you do, doing being an action or a behaviour that someone can observe and that you can change; but most importantly, it is seeing and understanding how you'r thinking, and this is the key – the negative emotional thoughts you bring to the situation. Feelings do change, and though can’t change a feeling, you can look at your negative thoughts about yourself and the situation you’re in which do have a real effect on your feelings, and step back from it and challenge this way of thinking. This is turn gives you room to think more strategically about what you’re doing and your actions that are contributing to the problem. You can then start thinking about how to handle these situations in a better way, so you don’t go down that ‘well worn path’. At first this isn't easy to do, and David had to work quite hard in channelling his energy away from first trying to fix everything rather than getting on with his work projects. But over a period of six months he made some real changes in the way he related to the difficulties he'd been facing and went on to change the way he worked.
Getting on with your life
I think it is more helpful to see what you have been struggling with as a tendency rather than a fault or a problem you need to get rid of, or put another way, a part of who you are that can express positively or negatively, depending on the ‘hooks’ out there - the stresses and strains that come your way as you go through life. David had recently stopped working for a company and was setting up his own business and this was where the stress was arising, which he coped with by trying to fix things and have everything all sorted out before getting on with his work. But this 'tendency' is also what helps him in his work and that energy or talent is a part of who he is. So I don’t think there can be a complete resolution to this; rather it’s better to think, with the knowledge you have gained and the strategies you’ve learnt, to work with these stressful situations and to use this energy in a more creative way. But sometimes this ‘tendency’ may slip into the negative zone. Life can be stressful, but rather than staying in therapy until you reach that imaginary goal where ‘it’ is all resolved, you can come back again when you need to talk things through and get some support.
The analogy is to life. There isn't an answer to life's conundrums except to live your life and use your talents as best you can. The same is true for therapy. You won't find an answer that solves your 'tendencies'. But hopefully you'll find some understanding and acceptance of who you are, and a new found hope to get on with your life and use your talents, as best you can.
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