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. But often with the added factor you recognise this isn’t something new.
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 described 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 the practical outcome is that you can’t 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 stress he’s 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 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 also 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 most importantly the part that you play in creating this ‘negative’ scenario. So you start with the assumption that what at first doesn’t make sense when looked at rationally, 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, became an experience where he felt ‘I have to do everything before I can get on with my work’. Obviously this wasn’t a rational thought that he was thinking, rather an unhelpful perspective – a felt thought, you could say, he placed on the situation which in turn made him unhappy and stressed.
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 the part this kind of thinking is playing in these situations. In CBT you do this by making a clear distinction between what you feel and what you do, doing being an action or a behaviour that someone can observe - and most importantly seeing and understanding how you think, and this is the key – the negative emotional thinking you bring to the situation. Feelings do change, but you can’t change a feeling, but you can look at your negative thoughts about yourself and the situation you’re in, 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 - your actions that are contributing to the problem and start thinking about how you can 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 trying to fix everything and into getting on with his projects. But over a series of 12 sessions he was able to make some real changes in the way he related to the difficulties he'd been facing. Sometimes therapy may take longer, but often it can be more therapeutic to just get on with your life, and it’s best if you can do that.
Getting on with your life
I think it is more helpful to see what you have been struggling with as a tendency, a part of who you are that can express positively, or negatively depending on the ‘hooks’ out there - the stresses that come your way as you go through life. So with David there was this tendency to try and fix things too much, but this 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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