Here is a short introduction to some key concepts in humanistic and integrative counselling and psychotherapy that come up regularly in Mary’s work with clients.
Both counselling and psychotherapy begin with awareness. Very often, it’s only when a new client begins to relate their situation to the therapist, that they allow themselves for the first time, to express fully what they already know about their problem and why they are struggling with it. We push things out of our immediate awareness when we cannot deal with knowing them or feeling them yet. Paying attention to our inner life, our thoughts, feelings, dreams, actions and body can tell us more about how we interact with the world, our beliefs about ourselves and others, our past experiences, our needs and desires in life and our ever-fluctuating selves. Staying open and curious about what’s unfolding in our inner life is important in counselling and psychotherapy. Only with good awareness of our present situation can we begin to change it. Learning to live more in the present also releases us from the competing demands on our attention that arise from living in the past or for the future.
Accepting ourselves as we truly are, along with our weaknesses, mistakes and shortcomings, and accepting others as they truly are, is the basis of compassion, which can lead to greater contentment and peace of mind in an imperfect world. When we accept something as part of our reality, we are no longer spending energy on trying to resist, change, hide or deny it. We can let go of that effort and direct our attention to something more purposeful, usually to what we can actually change in our life now.
“Being genuine involves the willingness to be and to express, in my words and my behaviour, the various feelings and attitudes which exist in me..it seems extremely important to be real” (Carl Rogers).
Being ‘real’ or ‘genuine’ in the sense expressed here by Carl Rogers, founder of person-centred psychotherapy, is what’s important in counselling and psychotherapy rather than being ‘right’ or ‘perfect’. Carl Jung believed in the concept of being ‘whole’ of embracing all of our Self, including those parts that we do not like or that we are not fully aware of. We sometimes wish to eradicate our awkward feelings or our contradictions, or put ourselves beyond criticism, to dispel all doubt and negativity and concentrate purely on what we perceive as ‘positive’. This can lead us to override our vulnerability and the opportunity to connect to our deeper selves and to that deeper self in others. When we are cut off from our vulnerability, we can also be cut off from an appreciation of the simpler things in life.
Feeling safe is crucial to building trust and making progress in counselling and psychotherapy, especially for clients who have been bullied or traumatized. Learning about how to protect our personal safety through good boundaries, clear communication, assertive action and strong supports can also be part of this process.
Although our lives may appear to us to be completely random, there are underlying psychological patterns at play within us that are shaping our interactions with the world and that draw us towards certain situations and away from others. We are not always conscious of these patterns even though they may be apparent to others. Usually, we only start to become aware of them when we find a painful or destructive pattern repeating itself and ask ourselves ‘Why is this happening to me again?’. When we explore these patterns in psychotherapy and identify their likely cause and impact in our lives, we start to see how what we are doing, or not doing, is part of the problem that we are trying to change. Our experience of relationships in early childhood may be affecting our lives now. We may need to revisit old hurts, losses or disappointments to see how we developed our coping strategies in our formative years. It is through our coping strategies that we filter many of life’s experiences. When we start to make conscious changes at this level, we are opening up our lives to new growth and potential. Seeing that we have choice and responsibility in our adult lives, if we have the commitment and support to exercise them, can be the beginning of lasting change.
Taking responsibility for our lives ultimately means letting go of blaming self or others, or of wanting to be rescued from our situation by someone or something else. It’s about stepping into our adult lives and taking account of what we cannot change about the past and what we can about the present and the future. This is associated with the final stages of psychotherapy when we have a better understanding of how we came to feel, think and act as we do and what we can change if we are prepared to give ourselves a chance.