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BACP Senior Accredited Counsellor

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Repetition; Normality or Folly. A Counselling Perspective

Blog Entries

One challenge of writing a monthly blog is that topical issues tend to repeat on a regular basis as the year moves on. An obvious link with the beginning of April is April Fool’s Day. As that is an issue I have written about on a number of occasions it seems sensible to avoid the subject on this occasion.

This act of avoidance can sometimes need to be a very conscious decision. It is rather easy to slip into a pattern of repeated behaviour whether that is writing an article, driving a familiar route or always listening to the same type of music. Repeating patterns are comfortable.  We know what is going to happen and although not exciting, these repeating patterns of behaviour are easy. And also safe. The likely outcome is known.

Yet repeated behaviour can be troublesome particularly if we recognise that the action is inappropriate or unsuccessful in achieving a specified end.

Einstein is widely attributed with that famous remark that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result.  Interestingly Einstein never actually accepted authorship of the remark which has also been attributed to Mark Twain and Benjamin Franklin but then why should facts ever be allowed to get in the way of a good story!

In any event the source is irrelevant. The fact that the phrase has become such a well known cliché is testament to the issues which abound when we are trapped by repeating behaviours.

Habitual patterns work well when the desired result is achieved. Often that repeating behaviour is as a result of practice whether conscious or unconscious.   The ability to Bend it like Beckham only became possible because of the footballer’s constant practice.  Driving a car becomes a natural habit because of training, practice and repetition.  And perhaps the same is true of our personal behaviours and emotional reactions in other areas of life whether we are aware of that pattern or not.

Of course some reactions will be an immediate spontaneous response to undergoing a specific event for the first time. This may be experiencing an acceptance, a rejection, an outburst of joy or a distressing collapse. Yet even with these first time events it is quite likely that we will manage the experience by an unconscious reference to an internal pattern of behaviour and emotional reaction that has already been set up within our internal world. 

We will have already established our personal reference frame and a way of being  If we can become aware of that framework and these patterns we can place ourselves in a position where we are better able to control how we wish to be in the future.

To change reactions requires consciousness, patience and perseverance. For example to decide to listen rather than speak out, to walk away rather than engage, or to apologise rather than to attack, are all examples of behavioural and cognitive processes which require understanding and effort.

Of course our current way of being exists for a reason. We became creatures of habit because our reaction carried a payback.  Anger produced a momentary pleasant omnipotent physical reaction.  Those tears from long ago ensured that we were held by a loving carer. And our helplessness abrogated any need to take responsibility for our situation.

Back there in another time, the payoff from these behaviours was helpful to us and was appropriate. As a result the behaviour may have been repeated and eventually become engrained in our way of being.  But now?  Perhaps now as an adult, things are different.

Perhaps now that momentary feel of omnipotence can result in physical altercations followed by an unwelcome visit to magistrate court on a Monday morning.  Those tears which had been so effective just do not seem to work with this new partner who remains unmoved. And now as adults, our helplessness in the face of a threat is of little comfort to our children who look to their parent for support when the unexpected occurs.

Some of our behaviours and our emotional reactions formed years ago can of course be valued. These are endearing traits much valued by friends, lovers and colleagues. Those behaviours are part of who we are and who we want to be.  But sometimes there may be a need to change. And then the hard work has to begin.

If we want things to be different then things have to be different.  We do not need an input from Einstein, Twain or Franklin to recognise this. 

And how to change?  And how can therapy help?  I have commented before in these notes about different types of therapy be that Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Solution Focussed Counselling, Existential Therapy or Psychodynamic Counselling.  All can have a positive role to play.  It is not that one type of therapy is superior to another, merely that these are different tools to be used to meet different needs.

For example, some repeating patterns of behaviour and feelings can be relatively superficial. In these cases it is likely that some cognitive behavioural techniques may prove helpful. CBT strategies can help clients in a very conscious way identify some immediate changes to thought processes or actions which can promote behavioural change.

If however the behaviour and feelings are integral to the individual and seem to be a fundamental part of her or his emotional fabric and way of being, then it is likely that some longer term work may be required.

A key part of bringing about change is to identify and understand what actually needs to change and why.  If that is not easily apparent then it is likely that a rather formulaic approach to therapy such as CBT or Solution Focussed work may not provide the best treatment fit. Deeper therapeutic or analytical work may be required such as psychodynamic work or alternatively a less structured approach such as existential therapy may prove to be more effective

And as this talk of therapy, structure and process all seems rather heavy and a long way away from ideas around April Fool’s Day let’s end on a lighter note.

Repeating patterns do not need to be repeated. Habits can be modified. You can change what you decide you want to change.  Usually.  Within limits. When someone walks into my room and tells me that they are five foot eight and angry and want my help to become be six foot two and peaceful, I have mixed feelings. 

Now one of those issues we can certainly work on. But the other?   Even though I think therapy can be a really powerful tool for change, there are limits.  Alas…..




Geoff Boutle

added on 1st April 2016

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