Somewhere in my boyhood I developed a hyper-vigilance to spot potential anxiety-provoking situations and automatically adopted strategies to cope. When I entered counselling as an adult, I had few words for my experience: I just knew I couldn’t remember many extended periods of being comfortable in my own skin.
The process of managing anxiety is mostly unconscious. I don’t remember thinking “Wow, I have pretty low self-esteem and am afraid other people will see that, so I had better get good grades and get people’s approval and obsess about health and spirituality and act out by attracting other women into my life. Oh and I should do all of that and take pains to appear ‘well-adjusted.’ ”
When trying to manage anxiety leads to more pain
The tragic paradox of anxiety is that the unconscious attempts to manage it by avoiding or numbing is of course that those behaviours just exacerbate our pain: it ends in a cycle of addiction to seeking a state of temporary relief. There are endless ways to find temporary relief from psychic pain, and they all represent a need to exert control.
We may ‘act out’ with aggression, passive-aggression, affairs, conflict, or gossiping. Or we ‘act in’ with eating disorders, or addictions to substances, sex, work, screen, exercise, or any behaviour that has the conscious or unconscious intention of numbing or avoiding unwanted feelings. I tried many of these, resulting in deep personal crisis.
It is with enormous gratitude that I find myself today living a life with a great sense of balance, depth of feeling, and purpose; this miracle is the result of the trust and support of my wife and family, of my own willingness to change, and the compassion and acceptance of my counselors and mentors. As a counselor, I am no longer afforded the luxury of merely ‘talking about’ healing, but have to ‘be’ that healing. While that sounds a bit lofty, it is a fantastic way to live.
This shapes my mission – to help my clients make sense of their experience, to help them become aware of and integrate the dis-integrated aspects of their lives in order to make healthy choices moving forward.
Observing myself through a frame of curiosity
I came to change my life for the better by learning to foster curiosity and by becoming a student of my own life, as opposed to trying to micro-manage my relationships and exert control over my external world. Instead of avoiding or numbing I had to face my anxiety and move through it. Believe me it was the last thing I wanted to do, for unconsciously I believed I might discover that my worst fears about myself were true. Who the hell wants to risk that? It never occurred to me that what lay on the other side of this rigorous self-reflection could be anything but terrifying, let alone liberating, peaceful, or joyous.
So what is the process of counselling and what does a good counsellor offer?
Counselling is a process of illumination and integration.
An overwhelming body of evidence of clinical meta-studies shows that positive personality change (meaning the reduction of rigid self-inhibiting patterns of behaviour, and self-reports of life satisfaction) is affected by two factors:
- The client’s own willingness to change, and
- the quality of the therapeutic relationship.
I found that my own willingness to change actually increased as I progressed in counseling, for I was having a new experience of life, and liking that new trajectory. In other words, in the nurturing environment of individual and group sessions I was having an experience of myself and others that was connective, life-affirming, and frankly exciting!
So counselling sessions are a place to:
- practice ‘being known’ by another human being,
- uncover our guilt or shame, and
- risk sharing the vulnerable parts of ourselves.