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BACP Senior Accredited Counsellor

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Counselling and Mayday – A different take on a familiar story?

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May Day.  May Day.   So what is in a name?   I am writing this on 1st May.  This is Mayday -  and it occurs to me that as far as some readers are concerned, that word Mayday can conjure up very different meanings.

For those in the countryside, Mayday could evoke immediate gentle thoughts of rural fairs, of May poles and country dancing. For others by the sea, the word Mayday might induce images of distress, of a ship going down with a frantic call for help. For the revolutionists amongst us, Mayday perhaps suggests a noisy city centre parade behind trade union banners celebrating the dignity of the working man and woman.   

That phenomenon of hearing a common word or phrase which is capable of very different interpretations reminds me of some discussions around the use of what can be called narrative therapy.

Our narrative is our story and we will all have stories to tell. But we are each individuals with a unique lifeline. The meaning, the interpretations and the anticipated outcome of our personal stories can be very different even if there is a common basis to some of those stories. Events which seem very similar can have diverse implications.

For example, a classic double meaning is evident in the tableau of the door suddenly opening to reveal someone kneeling outside with their head parallel to the key hole.  Is the individual bending down to retrieve something that has just fallen from a pocket or perhaps kneeling to spy through the proverbial keyhole.  We can choose what to believe. 

We may quickly accept that the bruises seen on the arm of a minor result from an alert parent quickly grabbing an infant to prevent the child from running into the path of a speeding car. Alternatively we could regard those marks as possible evidence of ill treatment. We can view the individual running from a building as someone escaping a dangerous fire or alternatively see her or him as a thief running from pursuers.

In these and many similar situations the facts are clear enough but the important issue is the understanding we place on those facts.  If we make the wrong interpretation, the consequences could be dire for ourselves and others.  At the very least we may help the thief to escape or collude with the child beater. Conversely we may wrongly accuse a friend or colleague of inappropriate acts which can ruin reputations as well as friendships. 

The acceptance that our personal narrative can also have very different interpretations is something we regularly consider within the counselling room.  A key part of this work is to consider the story anew, to look from a different perspective and to robustly test what is being construed or understood – particularly if that dialogue is an internal conversation which just keeps going round and round within us.

Have we been lucky in life?  With regard to our careers, have we achieved important milestones or just failed to live up to our potential?  If we have had to deal with abuse are we a bullied victim or a brave survivor?  If a colleague embraces us do we regard them as a misguided admirer who wants a relationship or a rapacious predator?  Is the fellow worker who takes a different view to our own, stubborn and obstinate or just someone with an alternative view which they genuinely hold.  If someone changes their mind are they a weak flip flopper or an individual with the maturity to accept that their original view may not have been right.

When we think of our relationships are we caring and loving or do we suffocate and suppress?  Do we help our partners to achieve or do we just focus on what we want whilst being deaf to their concerns.  Does our personal story demonstrate a willingness to graciously receive or just a readiness to grab.  And can we enthusiastically and generously give or do we grudgingly just hold out a hand forcing others to have to walk forward to take?

What is important to our emotional well being is our personal interpretation of that narrative.  Sometimes we can get stuck within an internal video loop which plays a melancholy film in which we have unfortunately have the starring role. From a slight disappointment to a profound self-disgust, we may see the play of our lives through a negative filter. That can discourage any celebration of the high spots and prevent us from seeing the good that is there.

That is when work in the therapy room can be helpful.  Sometimes we need assistance to remove that disconsolate filter and recognise instead the positive narrative that others see.  The facts are the same but with a different interpretation.

One advantage of talking with an experienced trained therapist is having the opportunity to hear our own voice reflected back to us. Effective counselling can help us to look anew at what we are doing and to listen again to our own words but perhaps with a nuance which provides a new non-judgemental window to look through.

We cannot alter the facts of what has occurred but we can amend our view of our personal narrative.  It may be that when we look admiringly at others we do already hold many of those traits ourselves. We have just not allowed ourselves to have that positive interpretation of who we are and what we have achieved.  We can choose to see things differently if we wish to.

Counselling of whatever type, from the introspective psychodynamic work to the more structured cognitive behaviour therapy (cbt) and through to a more challenging existential approach, can help us to understand and use our personal narrative to make a different choice.   If we can revise our interpretation of what has happened that can encourage a more positive way of dealing with what is to come. 

Let’s go back to the start of this note.  Your personal reaction to the word Mayday will have been influenced by your previous experiences and earlier stories. That reminder that of very different meanings which can be applied to the word may expand your appreciation of what today may be about for colleagues as well as for yourself.

With regard to personal therapy, if you are able to look at alternative meanings for what has occurred in your life, that may encourage a greater appreciation of who you are, of what you have done and what you can do in the future.

And my personal interpretation of Mayday?  Well situated here on the outskirts of Basingstoke close to the beautiful countryside of North Hamphire, I probably warm to the rural theme - although I do also find myself wondering about just how to interpret that maypole dancing!





Geoff Boutle

added on 1st May 2014

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