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Counselling – An issue of choice?

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I was not intending to return so quickly to the issue of existential therapy but I would like to reply to some interesting comments expressed following my last blog.

In that earlier note I referred to the freedom to choose as a fundamental existential issue. I suggested that this was key to our sense of ourselves. The choices that we make belong to us. They illuminate our view of ourselves, of those around us and of the world. Our choices fashion the path ahead of us.

One critique of this view questions whether such a freedom to choose actually exists in the real world or whether it is illusionary. This persuasive argument suggests that there are important occasions in life when choice deserts us.  Events and therefore consequential decisions are forced upon us, leaving us with no alternative but to acquiesce to forces more powerful than ourselves.

The examples given usually include unexpected events.  Whilst driving we do not choose to be struck by the car which has spun across the road because of a burst tyre.  We do not ask to be physically assaulted by an angry partner and we do not decide to be in that train which just happens to break down at a crucial time and delay our arrival at an important meeting. 

Unfortunate events, so the argument goes, can happen to us and we do not have any responsibility for what takes place.  In many occasions, we are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rather than allowing us to exercise choice, these apparently random  events are seen as refuting and denying our freedom to choose.

It is an interesting argument but not one which I accept. Conversely I would see this contention as actually reinforcing rather than undermining that existential view of ourselves and our place in the world.

Some aspects of our personal freedom certainly are limited by forces we cannot control. The process of ageing is perhaps both the most obvious and the most fundamental example. Although Methuselah may have outlived the usual three score years and ten by a substantial margin, even his tenure eventually came to an end.  I may resent ageing and the prospect of my own mortality but the unfortunate reality is that I have no choice in the matter.  I have to accept that my life span is finite and it will end.

Equally if someone drives into my car there will be a dent in the bodywork, if someone cuts me I will bleed and if someone assaults me and takes my phone I will be physically hurt.  I may not like any of those consequences but I have no choice but to suffer those results. (note to any potential muggers who may be reading this – mine is alas a particularly ancient blackberry which is the very antithesis of a smart phone!).

Those observations are of course valid. Nevertheless an existential response would be to accept that whilst these things will happen I still retain the freedom to choose how to respond to them.  In particular I have the freedom to decide how to think about these potentially annoying events and how to react.

For example I can either sulk about my mortality or decide to have some outrageously hedonistic fun in the limited time left to me.   I can utter profane curses at the mugger who has attacked me or harangue the police into taking action.  I can decide to drive around in a dented car or invoke an insurance claim.   

Whilst I may not have choices about what has happened I can decide how to respond. Even in the most difficult of circumstances we still retain this freedom – and as I mentioned in that earlier blog, it is this point that Viktor Frankl so poignantly makes in Man’s Search for Meaning.

Some therapists will argue that we albeit unconsciously, influence even those unexpected events. An example could be ostentatiously speaking into a new expensive phone in a very public place and then being assaulted with the phone taken. Those therapists who are enthusiastic about all things psychodynamic may be particularly swayed by the power of the unconscious.  

There is a discussion to be had here but on this occasion I will avoid joining the usual psychodynamic or CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) debate.  Instead, if we can allow ourselves to lose some of the jargon I would suggest that counselling in the broadest sense offers three very clear opportunities for clients. 

The first is to understand on a personal level why things are as they are.  The second is to encourage clients to think about how she or he wishes things to be and the third is to begin that process of change, if change is what is sought by the client.

How we want to be and how to go about achieving that change is something that we are each responsible for although working with a counsellor may also assist that process.  There is something liberating about recognising that within the reality of our personal situation, we are free to decide upon our future path.  

Existential thought highlights the reality and the power of personal choice. It is an option you have and it is up to you to decide whether to exercise that choice or not.    No one else.  Just you.  

Of course how others around you will react to the choices you make is a very different matter and maybe a potentially awkward one. We are of course only too aware that choices will usually have consequences and those consequences may sometimes be quite challenging.


But then existential thought is only ever proposed in this note as way of thinking and not as a magic wand !

Geoff Boutle

added on 1st September 2013

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