Okay, so more than a few times on this blog I have wanged on about counselling. In particular I have written about the form of counselling I have been active in for a very long time now. I refer to it as peer to peer counselling. It does have two other names that I can’t use because of copyright/trademark issues. So far so very boring.
Now I’ve had a pretty chequered career as far as my relationship with counselling is concerned. So I thought I would try and get some of it down. Given I started this journey way back in 1969*, (perhaps a bit before that) and I am now 71 years old. It feels somewhat, a bit of a daunting task.
Mention the word counselling in any conversation and you’ll get one of a number of responses. Anything from a beatific smile to a yawn with raised eyes. The word seems to be bandied about all over the place now, usually in the form, “you need counselling” or “why don’t you see a counsellor?” or “a good counsellor will sort you out”. Before I go any further, let me correct that last statement. A counsellor of any description or discipline doesn’t sort anyone out. Nor in my experience, for a fair percentage, does the client.
You see, there seems to be something of a rose tinted view about counselling. That with just a few hours spent chatting to a patient listener over a cup of tea and with a box of tissues to hand, that all one’s problems will simply dissipate. Oh I wish. More often than not the process is a visceral blood and snot battlefield; with a terrain to be navigated that is littered with craters, mangled corpses, minefields and unexploded ordnance. And guess what? The counsellor gets to go through all this hand in hand with the client. I wouldn’t mind but the ungrateful so and so’s often resist going over the top, insisting that you go first. Something the counsellor can’t do, for the simple fact that the client is the only one with the map and compass.
Another bit of mythology is that counsellors are special people who have had special training and have gained their qualification. Nah!…complete bollocks. The quality of counsellors can vary enormously, believe me I’ve worked with a few. I also, back in the early 1990s, got myself on to a 2 year diploma in counselling course at a university. That was a real eye opener. I really didn’t rate the tutors, who I’m sure were normally engaged as lecturers on the psychology course. Our counselling practice was with our fellow students and were recorded on videotape. Group work was one evening a week and seemed to be a situation where everyone studiously avoided talking about anything personal at all. There were essays to write and the quality of our progress seemed to be measured according to the answers we gave on questionnaires. The whole process felt to me just too academic and mechanistic. Not exactly conducive to the development of trust and safety. So we parted company after one year.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean that there aren’t excellent counsellors out there who many people see as being special individuals. However, if one were able to examine their life path I’m willing to bet that they have had a broad experience of life’s emotional challenge’s. Which they have either managed to process well on the way, or they have been lucky enough to have been able to work through any negative effects retrospectively. So I don’t believe that these individuals are special in the way that we tend to view that word.
Occasionally, not often thankfully, counselling can be a quite literal battleground. I know of someone who set up a men’s support group and ended up being physically assaulted. I have personal experience of being held down on the ground by a group of people. I’ve had a workshop leader, after I’d retired to bed with a migraine, try to drag me out of the bed and back into the group. All the time berating me for letting everyone down. I’ve been taken to one side in a group and told that I was too distressed for counselling; work that one out. Then there was the time a woman I was counselling fainted. Luckily I had some presence of mind and knew what to do, so she recovered quickly.
Not so much now (or so I’m assuming) but certainly in the early days, there were situations where the counselling was closer to individual or group grooming. This usually happened in some of the larger meetings where a visiting experienced leader would either select or ask for volunteers to be counselled in front of the group. This was an activity I was never completely convinced was not so much to demonstrate the counselling method as to make the leader look good. I’m sure there was a certain amount of leader worship around too. I see something similar to this in some tv interviews that become somewhat intrusive as the, no doubt trained, interviewer attempts to squeeze a few tears out of the grieving individual on camera.
There is one aspect of the formal model of counselling, as it stands, that has always bugged me. And that is the separation of the two roles in that relationship. The idea that there is an expert and a lay person. That one person has a set of problems that are uniquely their own and with the help of an expert they can work through those problems in isolation from what might be going on around them. In my view the thing that always gets overlooked in this model is the fact that those two people are also a part of and have to function in a society. A society that will always seek to impose certain rigid constraints on each and every individual within that society.
So how about we give those constraints another name and simply call them – oppression? Just assume for a minute that it was possible for someone to recover their full humanness using a counsellor. How long do we think they would last once they were back out in society as it stands?
Something I appreciate about the network I consider myself to be a part of is the fact that, even as I was starting to explore getting involved back in the Seventies, some people were beginning to see and recognise this stumbling block to human progress. They started to set up support groups for people from particular backgrounds. Groups were established for people who were oppressed because of their class background, their ethnic origin, their skin colour, their religion, their gender. Later, groups were set up for the support of gay and lesbian people, parents, young adults, survivors of sexual abuse. The latter I think initially referred to as – victims – of sexual abuse until they decided that – survivors – was a more empowering word.
All of these groups exist to provide a safe space for individuals from each oppressed group to tell their stories. Particularly the stories of how oppression continues to affect and traumatise them. The fundamental rule in all of these groups is that time is shared equally and that everyone is listened to with full attention and respect. Key to the atmosphere of safety in these groups is that each speaker is not subjected to any cross examination or suggestion of an alternate position or viewpoint. These groups are not forums for discussion or debate. Rather, they are spaces for individuals to end any sense of isolation they may have, and to begin the ending of their sense of powerlessness necessarily installed for the oppression to continue.
*(see, Blog post, Manchester 69)