Why counselling works
“It’s good to talk.” We hear that all the time, don’t we? It seems to be a given that talking about troubles can help at difficult times, but why is that? What is it about counselling that works?
It’s all about you
In counselling, the focus is solely on you. And that’s pretty rare, if you think about it. How often, otherwise, do we get to talk about ourselves without worrying about taking too much time or what others will think, or feeling under pressure to find solutions?
The experience of talking openly with an empathic, curious and impartial listener can be enormously freeing. It can enable us to unpack what it’s really like being us – what concerns us and why that might be.
Making sense of our lives
Often when we begin counselling, the reasons for our struggles can be difficult to put a finger on. The process of talking freely can help us get to the root of what’s going on. This might be about beginning to piece together our understanding of who we are and how our life fits together.
Or it could be about getting in touch with how we feel on a deeper level. Sometimes, to help us survive painful or traumatic experiences, we bury how we really feel to prevent us being overwhelmed by the reality of a situation. This is a really useful strategy in the short-term – it helps us to continue functioning. But as our lives carry on and more ‘stuff’ gets added to the pile, it needs to find a release. Think of a pressure cooker needing the valve to be removed. If we aren’t able to find a helpful means of doing that, our minds and bodies will find any number of ways for us. Anxiety, depression, explosive anger, irritability can all be tell-tale signs that something within us needs to be unburdened.
Counselling gives us the opportunity to safely bring our ‘stuff’ to the surface. We can begin to put words to our experiences and give them meaning. It also provides us with the insight to understand what gets stirred up when difficulties arise in the future. We then have the opportunity to respond differently, with thought and from a place of deeper understanding.
Putting us in touch with our own humanity
Many of us are concerned about what might happen if we are truly honest with others about how we feel and what we think. It may be that, in the past, those who cared for us would become distressed when we were sad or hurt, and we learned to hide our feelings so as not to cause any upset.
Or perhaps it was simply never safe enough to show how we really felt – we might have been met with disinterest, anger or ridicule, triggering feelings of shame that were so painful, we resolved never to trust others with our feelings again.
As we grow up, we can receive powerful messages about what it is acceptable and unacceptable to feel, which can often be reinforced by the culture around us. Anger, envy, aggression, vulnerability, hate, rage, sensitivity are just some of the emotions sometimes chalked up as ‘unacceptable’. And when these get pushed down inside, it can cause havoc later on in life.
In counselling, there is no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ way to feel. Counsellors welcome the full range of human emotion. They do not place judgement on what is felt, opting instead to be curious about why it is felt. As a result, we often see an increase in self-acceptance and a deepening of our ability to tolerate a variety of feelings in ourselves and others.
Counselling doesn’t happen in a vacuum…
It happens alongside someone else: your counsellor. This is significant because having our struggles witnessed and thought about by someone else can begin to reduce the belief that we have to deal with our pain alone. And it often follows that if we’re able to trust our counsellor with the vulnerable parts of ourselves, that we begin to be able to trust others with them too. Inevitably, this can lead to deeper and more fulfilling relationships as life goes on.
As writer and psychiatrist, Irvin Yalom, writes, “It is the relationship that heals”. Whilst the ‘talking’ part of counselling is important, it is the experience of being with someone who seeks to understand us deeply that can be transformational.
As we begin to find the words to describe what’s happened to us and how we feel, it is also the active process of having them listened to that sets us on a path to change. Talking is just the beginning.
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