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  • Writer's picturepippa

Fear, shame and self-loathing in the therapy room ... exploring the mythology around counselling

Trojan princess Cassandra, who was cursed by Apollo to speak the truth but never to be believed. Wearing a draped cobalt blue dress with a cross over bodice, pulling her auburn long hair with both hands.
Cassandra by Evelyn De Morgan

My first experience of counselling was not a positive one. I was visibly shaking, my mouth was dry. Following a peremptory introduction, the counsellor sat opposite me in a silence which I couldn't bear as it felt loaded with expectation and a cold detachment. I filled the space between us by blurting out some of my most painful and shame-filled memories, tears streaming down my cheeks.

My idea of what therapy involves was drawn from books and films, often depicting people crying and reliving traumatic events. I had a confused idea that you can only heal if you tell the therapist your deepest, darkest secrets. Shame, tears, forgiveness, blame, a distant, expert counsellor... these were all part of the narrative I'd constructed about the counselling experience.

Fast forward to a few years ago, when I started my training as an integrative counsellor, partly motivated by a strong sense of wanting to give people a different, compassionate and safe experience of counselling. My training involved an intense and rigorously in-depth exploration of the theory and skills needed to support clients in therapeutic counselling. An unavoidable part of it is to understand your "self" and to challenge every idea and thought and experience you'd had in order to be able to sit in front of a client and be able to hold them through whatever they are bringing to you.

My understanding of theories such as person-centred therapy (PCT) helped me to dispel a lot of my preconceived ideas of therapy and some of the unhelpful mythology that surrounds it.

One of my 'lightbulb' moments as a trainee counsellor was recognising that it's the client who's the expert of themselves. The counsellor's role is essentially to support them and help them to recognise patterns of behaviour that may have been holding them back or leading to unhealthy relationships and behaviour. A key feature of PCT is that the therapist has to offer 3 core skills: empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard. Actually there are 6 "necessary and sufficient conditions" but I can tell you about this in another post!

Looking back to that experience with my first counsellor, it's fair to say that it's unlikely she was trained as a PCT counsellor, as I felt that she was judging me and allowing me to continue without any words of comfort, though I was clearly confused and in distress. One of the the first things we learn as counselling therapist - and have an ethical duty to adhere to - is that we do no harm. Being given the silent treatment when I needed to really be listened to, felt harmful to me at that time as it left me feeling like Cassandra in the picture above - I was shouting my truth into the wind but I wasn't believed.

If I could revisit my younger self in the guise of the counsellor I am now, I would spend time at the start helping her to feel at ease; going through the therapeutic contract and asking what her expectations were of counselling so I could address any concerns and explain how we could work together. For me, it's always about the strength of the relationship between the counsellor and the client, combined with the right therapeutic conditions (providing a safe, non judgemental, confidential space), that allows you to show vulnerability and explore painful experiences.

Shame often shows up in the therapy room. It's connected to most of our experiences of unhealthy patterns of behaviour. If you remember being told "Don't wear that dress, you look tarty" as a teenager by your mum, or an uncontrollable physical reaction such as blushing or sweating excessively at school... these experiences can teach you at a young age to adapt your behaviour in order to please your parents or go under the teacher's radar. These "injunctions" which protected you as a child can persist in adult life and cause problems, such as meeting a partner who is controlling as it feels familiar (we're always drawn to the familiar).

A skillful, relational counsellor will help you to be aware of these injunctions and patterns by shining a light on them in the course of the therapy sessions, over time.

Another myth to explore is people are often really scared and put off by counselling as they worry that it will reveal some painful trauma which has been lying dormant. In my experience, while this may be the case, the source of distress is often something incremental that may have been triggered in extremely early infancy. Something as subtle as not being picked up by a parent and held when you were tired, scared or hungry, when part of a pattern of repeated behaviour, become engrained as a condition of worth ("I'm not important") which plays out in all aspects of your life and affect all your relationships.

These injunctions and conditions of worth can be gently explored in therapy and the resulting understanding and increased self knowledge can be life changing.

My advice would be to ask your potential counsellor lots of questions about their style of counselling, their training in the consultation call - you should be able to get a good sense of whether you would be a good "fit" for each other. There shouldn't be any obligation to go ahead if you're not completely sure.

I hope this has helped dispel a few common myths and misconceptions about counselling - please comment if this resonates in any way, I'd love to know your thoughts.

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