Understand the past, embrace the present, enjoy the future

GEOFF BOUTLE
BACP Senior Accredited Counsellor

My office provides a safe environment in a pleasant relaxed location on the outskirts of Basingstoke, with easy access and ample parking
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Counselling – and a break away

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There can be an interesting difference between what is anticipated from therapy work compared to that which is expected from other disciplines or professions.

If for example, we have a problem with a computer, car or even an aching tooth, we expect the specialist engaged to resolve the issue.  There is usually a zero sum outcome and the problem is either fixed or it is not.   

Yet within the world of counselling and therapy, outcomes can sometimes be far less clear cut.    Perhaps that ambiguity should be expected.   Unlike the computer or a car, human beings do not come into being, accompanied by a manual. There are no clear instructions as to how to fix things when we malfunction, at least on an emotional level.

There of course are some obvious comments that can be made with regard to external interventions and our general health. Pharmaceutical products correctly prescribed can have a direct beneficial impact on our physical being. The targeted antibiotic will cure the localised infection. The operation to set a bone will assist our recovery from an accident. This suggest that the more overtly somatic the issue, the more accurately the outcome for any interventions can be predicted.   

Emotional reactions to difficult events may however vary considerably between different individuals as can the impact of therapy.  From my experience, the reality of that lack of certainty around outcomes is an important reason for therapists to be open when talking with clients about undertaking counselling work.

This variation in outcomes also underlines unease about the trend to talk up any one type of therapy. There are suggestions made that certain techniques will usually work and that this assertion is so called ‘evidence based’.  Sometimes on closer scrutiny that evidence can seems to be rather thin.

If evidence for effective therapy does continually point in one direction, it is often to highlight not the technique but the importance of the relationship in the counselling room between client and therapist. If that therapeutic alliance is sufficiently strong, it is likely to enhance the effectiveness of the counselling work. If that relationship is open, it can also enable the client to develop their own realistic expectations of the counselling work.

I was musing on this issue of expectations as the holiday season approached.  Having just returned from a relatively early summer break I feel relaxed by the time spent in a different place, energised from new experiences but also drained by the jet lag.  Overall, I think the two positives in that emotional set are sufficient for me to regard this as time well spent!

Yet sometimes there can be too much emphasis can be placed on that time away. Sometimes our expectations of that time spent on holiday can be out of step with the reality.  

We have probably all seen the various narratives around the summer break. The individual or the family unit is stressed, challenged, overworked and under rewarded. There is an accepted need for restitution, reinvigoration and a recharging of the batteries. It is agreed that this will be achieved by the obligatory two weeks in Spain, a trip to the activity camp or that three week trek across the Andes.  Or perhaps not!

That long anticipated vacation certainly allows for the expected relief of change and ‘a change is as good as a rest’ as we are often told.  There can also sometimes be an expectation that once the vacation commences, things will be different. The belief may also be that this change will persist upon the return.

Once away from home, the vacationer will be in a different place. Some of us certainly do behave differently when faced with a new environment. But what about our inner world. Will that also change?

What of our sense of who we are.  What of our cognitive being and our emotional self.   Can that really alter along with the changing scenery? 

Holidays can encourage some to act out of character.  The introvert may erupt into a frisson of activity (occasionally fuelled by a mix of substances) whilst the extrovert can practice that quiet walk in the woods or a leisurely read by the pool. The fabled personality ‘type A’ can play at becoming ‘type B’.  

Yet after a while it is likely that the deep rooted sense of self will gently or perhaps turbulently come back to the surface.  Our real self is likely to eventually reappear wherever we are.

If we have a concern as to what others think of us, that unease will eventually become evident whether we are in South Devon or the South of France.  If we struggle with a form of social anxiety and seek refuge in solitude, that apprehension is likely to eventually surface whether we find ourselves in Northampton or North Carolina.  And if we find that the world is spinning too fast and a profound sense of anxiety begins to grow, that will develop whether we are in Washington County Durham or Washington DC.

So if those precious two or three weeks are unlikely to meet the ambitious expectation of cognitive recharge and emotional realignment, what are these holidays really about? Could it possibly just be about simply taking a break?

Perhaps just for this brief period we should deliberately turn away from those profound questions of who we are, and from analysing emotional strengths and our cognitive frailties. Instead we could turn to one of the current populist approaches which has gained traction in recent years within the counselling world.

There are many different views on mindfulness and perhaps we should acknowledge that there is a degree of pretentiousness in some of the claims surrounding this technique.  Although the wrapper may be new encouraging some to overhype a new approach to emotional wellbeing, much of contemporary mindfulness is taken straight from long held Buddhist traditions.

A very simplistic interpretation can be to us too just stay in the moment. As far as vacations are concerned that may be sufficient to just encourage you to feel the sun on your skin, savour the different tastes and listen to the unusual sounds. Try to twist your tongue around a different language, experiment with travelling in a different way and wear clothes that reflect where you are and not who you are.  Stay in the moment.

The world you have left will still be there when you return. Some issues will be sorted and some will not. You will look different and you will look very much the same. The world will have widened for you but neighbours and friends will still be in place. You may be happy or sad, excited or withdrawn, tired or elated.  And that is how it will be when you walk back in to work or home.

But for now?  For when the holiday starts?  For that time when you step of the plane or walk off the boat?  Perhaps this year that will be the time to decide to just stay in the moment. Be how you are and suspend those expectations.

A holiday is not about solving problems.  It should not be about fixing you. In fact it may actually be more about deliberately taking time out from ‘fixing you’.  After all, in addition to those neighbours, bosses, lovers and friends, it is very likely when you return that the therapist will also still be there!

Just enjoy the holiday!

 

By
Geoff Boutle

added on 3rd July 2015

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