One of the things that people who come for counselling most frequently want is a strategy or technique to help them to cope with whatever it is they’re finding difficult. Of course they do; that’s why they’ve turned to a counsellor for help. One of the more challenging but ultimately rewarding aspects of counselling is helping people to shift their focus from strategies and techniques which they can ‘apply’ to their lives, to the deeper emotional change which helps them to live their lives. For example, someone may seek counselling because they are feeling stressed, are stuck in a cycle of self-destructive behaviour or are having difficulties in a relationship. They may turn to a counsellor in the same way that they would turn to a gp when they have a medical problem, seeking a diagnosis and possibly a ‘prescription’ for a cure.
Indeed, it may only take a few sessions of ‘telling your story’ for you and your counsellor to come to a pretty good understanding of what’s going on, and there are many things you can do (to your behaviour) to make positive changes in the short-term, whatever the situation is (e.g., increase exercise, improve nutrition, cut back on alcohol, spend time outside, pay attention to sleep routines). To support such changes, your counsellor might help you to explore the way that you’re thinking about your current situation and the type of thoughts that get in the way of change: from the self-loathing ‘I’m useless’, to the catastrophizing ‘there’s no point’, to the generalizing ‘this always happens’. In a fairly short space of time, therapeutic approaches like cognitive behavioural therapy can help you to identity, ‘reframe’ and challenge such thoughts and the behaviour they support.
Thought and behaviour are, of course, only two sides of a triangle which is completed by emotion. It is relatively easy to reflect on the things we do and the way we think as they are conscious processes, already in our awareness. To become aware of the way we feel is a more nebulous process. Given that most of us spend our lives responding to the frequently asked question ‘how are you?’ with the word ‘fine’, it’s hardly surprising that most of us don’t have a rich vocabulary to describe our emotional state or a sensitivity to what our emotions might be. While it may be a cliché of counselling to ask ‘how does that make you feel?’, it’s a radical and challenging question in our culture, which has little patience for experiences we can’t easily measure and compare.
To work with your counsellor at an emotional level takes time, trust and tolerance for dead ends and false starts. A skilled counsellor will be sensitive to your feelings and to the ways in which you may avoid them by lots of activity or rationalise or dismiss them by thinking in particular ways. Rather than quickly dismantle what are, after all, your longstanding coping strategies, counsellors will work at an appropriate speed to help you to become attuned to your emotional life at a tolerable pace. While you may start counselling wanting techniques to change yourself or your situation, you may come out of it with a new and sustainable compassion for yourself as you are, having cast off the scaffolding of habitual behaviours and critical thinking that have been propping you up for so long.