Understand the past, embrace the present, enjoy the future

BACP Senior Accredited Counsellor

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Useful Therapy and not an April Fool

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One phrase I often hear in the counselling room is…’.I know this is going to sound silly but…….’   

That comment is then usually followed by a description of what the client regards as an odd behaviour or a disturbing line of thought.  What is being seen as ‘silly’ will of course vary greatly but whether it appears as bizarre or commonplace, my response is always the same.

Whatever is being said may indeed sound strange but it should not be thought of as silly.  The words and ideas can sometimes provide an unexpected insight into whatever has brought the client into the counselling room.

Normal laws of social interaction are suspended in therapy.  In our day to day world, we usually think carefully about what to say and how to phrase our comments.  With effective counselling those rules and those requirements should not apply. Words are a key tool in the work between both client and therapist but there is no need to think too carefully about which ones to use.  In fact the forefathers of the counselling world such as Freud, exalted in the value of just saying what comes to mind, a practice which came to be known as free association.

If there is some ongoing emotional distress or disruptive behaviour, anything which provides an understanding into what is happening whether at a conscious or an unconscious level, can be helpful. That applies if we are working with the more traditional psychotherapeutic strategies such as psychodynamic or person centred work and also if we are looking at a more populist technique such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). We know though that this spontaneous approach seems to run counter to our expected way of being.

The concern not to look foolish in the eyes of others is ever present in what we may regard as the real world. From teenagers embarking on their first relationship and desperate to appear cool, through to the older generation concerned about sounding too old fashioned, we carefully craft an image of how we wish to appear by the words we use.

Within therapy no such masks are needed.  We try to look together at how things really are.  And sometimes if the thoughts and ideas sound a little strange perhaps that is just a reflection how things can be in our lives. 

We can all identify some absurdities and contradictions in life.  We live with people whom we may love with great intensity and yet aspects of their behaviour can cause us great frustration and irritation.  Each morning, rather than stay late in bed relaxing, we force ourselves to get up and go to work to earn money which we then use to buy a holiday for a few weeks of the year where we can stay late in bed relaxing.

And when the dishevelled adult on the bus sits and talks loudly to an imaginary friend next to them, other passengers look away in embarrassment. Yet those same people may be on their way to a religious centre where in their Sunday best, they will pray to a god they cannot see and ask forces the like of which they can only imagine, to look after them and take care of their families. One of these behaviours is regarded as a symptom of an illness to be treated by the NHS and the other is a tradition to be valued and a subject to be taught in school.

Just as facets of national life may seem strange to some, so aspects of our individual behaviours may also seem odd to those looking in from outside.  And yet if we allow ourselves time to think and understand rather than condemn and criticise, there can be a good reason for these seemingly contradictory behaviours. 

Those with faith hold fast to the notion of a deity because of an inner conviction that there is something which is unseen and yet greater than ourselves. And that faith can encourage a generosity of spirit which may benefit others.  The quality of that extra hour in bed on holiday is enhanced by the sense that the rest has been earned and that allows for enjoyment and not guilt.  And those irritating behaviours can be accommodated because beyond all the myriad of frustrations there is an overriding love and affection for the partner.

We talk within therapy about the existence of ‘a good reason’ to explain what is happening.  This is not a qualitative ‘good’. It is not a ‘good’ with a moral or a celebratory meaning. It is just the identification of something functional. There is a good reason why we act out what we do and why we think as we do.  

Difficulties occur when those behaviours or thought pattern become too rigid or give rise to continual emotional distress. Then there is a need is to try to understand the reason behind the behaviour or the thought process. That understanding can then help to bring about that change which will ease that distress and hat is when counselling and therapy can be effective.

April may start with April Fools day but no one should fear looking foolish in the counselling room. It should be seen as a safe space within which the client can voice the most outrageous or the most conservative thoughts. Fantasy has a purpose, a function and that can be explored within therapy.

So let’s conclude by going back to that phrase……. ‘I know this sounds silly but…’  

In the counselling room nothing is silly.  There is a reason behind what is going on. And your willingness to give spontaneous voice to those thoughts and to describe those behaviours is a first step in understanding just what that reason is.  


Geoff Boutle

added on 1st April 2014

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