Understand the past, embrace the present, enjoy the future

BACP Senior Accredited Counsellor

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Counselling, Broomsticks & Halloween

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Halloween has become a very visible event at this time of year. It may now be a commemoration, a celebration or just a name for a specific date in the calendar.  Whatever description we opt for, it is clear that we cannot easily ignore Halloween especially with that knock on the door from the ‘trick ‘n treaters’ dressed as ghouls and ghosts.

But does Halloween have anything to do with counselling and therapy?  Perhaps surprisingly the answer can be a resounding yes – and that may be particularly so for some of those clients who are dealing with difficult issues from the past. 

Halloween is the eve of All Saints Day.  This provides a focus on remembering things past. For the Christian faith this includes the saints, martyrs and departed believers and for pagan alternatives, festivals of the dead such as the Gaelic Samhain.  If all that has a rather sombre tone, Halloween or All Hallows’ Eve was also a feast day and we certainly see that sense of celebration in what goes on around us at the end of October.  It is that mix of emotions around the past which can resonate with activity within the counselling room.

For some clients, events and recollections from the past retain a powerful ability to disturb. Ghosts from long ago which have laid dormant in our memories can be reawakened by contemporary events and then reappear in our mind to create emotional mayhem. Sometimes these spectres will be recognised for what they are but on other occasions there may just be an underlying sense of disquiet and it will be difficult to pin down the source of the unease.

Those triggers may come from very ordinary life events. An example could be linked to normal child development.  As the infant becomes a child and then an adolescent that period of growth may reawaken for a mother, memories of events that occurred when she was at a similar age.  If those events were enjoyable the recollection can be a good experience. On some occasions however the recall may come as a more threatening shadow and that can cause real emotional disturbance. That may be when some counselling work could be helpful.

The counselling room can create a safe space in which to examine these recollections particularly if the memory is not a good one. When we laugh at the costumes of those who appear on the door step at Halloween we are of course expecting those sights.  Alternatively those ghosts from our past who materialise at an unexpected time have the potential to shock and to cause real distress.

The therapy room can provide a safe place within which to look back at those issues from the past. It allows for those frightening spectres to be brought safely into the full light of day in a way which can diminish and reduce the fear factor.   

I encourage clients to be aware of their internal conversation and the way they think about things. One example can be to look at how we regard ideas around ghosts and ancestors and the difference between the two.  Ghosts, or at least the unfriendly variety, are associated with the haunted house with the scary things that go bump in the night and of those unpleasant things that we run and hide from.  Ancestors on the other hand are common to each of us.

We all have ancestors stretching back in time. Without those ancestors we would not be here.   Some we recognise, others remain unknown and some are lost in time.  But they are all part of our history and our narrative.

Some cultures will venerate ancestors and use Halloween or All Saints to hold a special remembrance.  There will be a sense of celebration rather than avoidance.  But those different names for Halloween also acknowledge that for other societies this was also a time when spirits were to be warded off and bonfires were seen to have protective powers with fire regarded as a cleansing agent.  Perhaps this also reflects what can happen in the therapy room.

With the support of an experienced counsellor, clients who are aware that they are still haunted by issues from their past can begin a process of review and acknowledgment.  This type of work is probably more typical of psychodynamic counselling than some other types of therapy such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) or person centred work.  This form of therapy can be challenging but with the right professional support it can provide an opportunity for liberation from the emotional chains of the past.

Those events whether from long ago or from last year, were real.  They actually happened and will have had an impact on us. That impact can be for good or for ill, uplifting or disturbing and motivational or depressing.

Perhaps for most of us there is a mix of all of the above.  We cannot change what has occurred but we can improve our understanding of our story. With that understanding may come much greater internal control over our emotional way of being.

Our past forms part of our story, our narrative. With increasing understanding we can start to ensure that our personal ghosts really do become ancestors. They may stay there as part of our story but they will lose the power to alarm us. Maybe that is just like those plastic Halloween masks and vampire teeth which somehow do not seem that scary when stacked on the shelves of the supermarket close to the baked beans!    

Halloween can be a fun time of the year.  It is also a reminder that a better understanding of our past can help to ensure that we are able to fully enjoy the present.  


Geoff Boutle

added on 1st November 2013

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