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Counselling, September and an Ellison’s Orange

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So what is September about?  It can be a difficult time to describe. The early part of the month is warm but summer is past. The month is autumnal but the leaves are still on the trees. And those cloudy days hint at winds that will become chilly and cold but not yet.

September presents many different faces. It can be a confusing month. A chameleon. Perhaps we identify the month by relating to those attributes that resonate strongly for each of us. Alternatively we may describe the month in the way that we wish it be.  A warm embracing temperature or a crisp awakening from summer slumbers.

It is easy to recognise what is expected or familiar. We can see September as uplifting or depressing. September is back to work, school, college or other. It is a return to what is routine or normal.  Normal that is for each of us as individuals. Those ideas of what is normal may of course vary according to our personal expectations.

It is these comments around the concept of normality which take me from musing on this month of September back into the therapy room.  I have sometimes likened the therapy experience to that of looking in a mirror at the hair salon. The angle that mirror is held at enables the observer to see a different reflection of themselves. That difference can invite a comment. 

We usually see ourselves in a face on face way which reinforces our normal perspective as to who we are. That image looking back at us confirms our emotional way of being as well as our physical appearance. We are as we expect to be. We look normal.

Yet it is often fears around normality which bring clients into the therapy room. It may occasionally be to do with appearance but more often there is something around emotions, thoughts or behaviours.  

Is my behaviour normal? Am I like other people?  Are these disturbing thoughts normal?  It is a familiar and understandable refrain.  

Normal is usually a good place to be.  Normal suggests that it is okay, whatever ‘it’ is.  Normal indicates that my behaviour is acceptable and I can face the world knowing that I belong. I am safe. I am one of many and there is that safety in numbers.

But can I be sure?  Is this behaviour okay? Are these thoughts really acceptable?  If other people knew what I was doing. If these others knew what I was really thinking then…..

And what to do with these concerns when they start to cause real anxiety?  Where can I voice them? Who do I talk to?

Perhaps a suggestion about counselling is then made by a friend which is followed by some time spent on the internet, a phone call or email and suddenly here you are. Sitting in a therapy room talking to a stranger about things that you have never voiced before. Expressing concerns you have never acknowledged and thoughts that would previously have remained buried beneath layers of suppression.

So what may be reflected back to you in therapy?  Perhaps much depends on the therapist you talk with. Sometimes the counsellor may present a rather formulaic response to your concerns triggered by the expectations of the NHS or whatever body may be overseeing the work of the counsellor. Other discussions may be less bound by structure or dogma and yield a greater insight.

And the approach of this particular therapist? What do I regard as important within the counselling room?

Well that search for normality may not always be the most helpful focus for therapy work.  Normality is defined by others rather than ourselves.  Normality refers to an external world and not our internal sense of self

If however we are determined to search for normality then let us at least see normality for what it is, as a set of ideas that are limited, restricted and time bound.    History shows us that some ideas and behaviours that were once normal, acceptable and commonplace are now regarded as repugnant crimes to be condemned. Alternatively there are actions which just a generation or two ago were treated with distain and disgust but which are now openly celebrated.

Examples around sexual ethics may come quickly to mind but perhaps a relatively non contentious instance of this change is the shifting view on drink driving. Once broadly accepted this is now a practice which is loudly condemned. The drink driver who was once seen as a ‘local character’ is now regarded as a pariah.

That ebb and flow of values, morals and behaviours will continue. It can however be difficult to identify changes when we are actively involved and engaged in the process. Yet some of what today is seen as reprehensible and to be loudly condemned will one day be acknowledged as no more than a human frailty. There also will be those behaviours we see today as readily acceptable and which will in the not too distant future be banned and punished. 

That changing view of what is normal is a realistic one. And if it may be helpful if we are able to bring that realism rather than ideas of normality into the therapy room. I encourage clients to be realistic and endorse the view that to be realistic is far better for our emotional health than to continually strive to conform to this notion of normality. 

In the therapy room time can stand still at least for an hour or so.  If we can risk just for that hour of letting go for ‘normal perhaps we can turn instead to consider what is acceptable, okay and realistic for you.  What is realistic given your life story, your circumstances and perhaps your unspoken wants?

Thoughts remain private until they are voiced. When thoughts become words then words can encourage actions and actions carry consequences.

The therapy room is a safe place to examine thoughts, feelings and perhaps those consequences. A place to check out why those views are held and those feelings experienced. Sometimes that may invite some deep reflection with a retrospective journey to an earlier time. The psychodynamic approach can facilitate that process of review albeit back along a winding road which may invoke some memories of an uncomfortable and challenging time.

Alternatively the therapy room can hear concerns about current actions and consequences which will not be acceptable and where remedies need to be sought. And quickly before those consequences adversely impact upon us. From a counselling perspective we may then want to use techniques from Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) or Solution Focussed work to help identify what needs to be different now and what needs to change.

Another approach can be an existential focus on who we are in this moment, the decisions that we are making and just who we are to be. Society will always apply restraining norms to our behaviour and try to curtail our freedom by restricting our very thoughts. The state will try to intervene in areas where we may prefer self-determination including issues as diverse as faith, politics, sex, food, substances through to even the clothes we wear.

As the state’s partner, society will form a majority view and expect us to conform. But how we respond is our choice.

If you still wish to hold tight to a safe semblance of normality then perhaps the starting point for your normality is the internal view that you wish to see and the values that you hold.  Therapy can help you clarify that view and assist you to understand why you hold that view. Unlike those moral guardians who today rigorously police the media whether traditional or social media, the therapist will not judge you.

And as for those difficult consequences? Well the therapy room is a safe place from which to envisage the possible outcomes which may result from your actions. Those consequences and how well you will cope with them, such as enlightenment, imprisonment, ridicule, adulation, divorce or revolution can be examined, considered, laughed at and cried over in a safe place.

If as a consequence, you then decide that a change is needed then perhaps that change process should begin even if others may not like that.  As far as the view of those significant others is concerned I am reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s comment that;

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.   

I rather like that. I regard the counselling room as a place to be totally unreasonable. It is a place to be self-centred and demanding.  But of yourself. You decide what to accept and what to reject. You decide what to take forward. You decide what to believe.

Look again at that quote, substitute the word normal for reasonable and then think again.  As a therapist the only normal I am interested in that which you wish to adopt as normal for you. If we always try to adapt to that which others want from us, be that the state, society or just those ‘significant others’ close to us, we may eventually find adaption to that particular normal to be too repressive.

That adaptive behaviour may eventually demand too much of us. The real tragedy may be however that by the time we realise this, our story may be too close to an ending.

Let’s conclude this note by returning to September.   You will of course decide how you wish to view the month. For me September is more than just another month sitting somewhere between August and October. It has something else. It does feel special. It is full, mellow with wonderful evocative smells reminiscent of bonfires and apples.

And as far as apples are concerned I guess there too we have our own expectations and preferences. I think in particular of an apple called Ellison’s Orange. If it is not an apple you are familiar with I would recommend a taste if you can find one that is.  

It is an unusual apple. The taste is not to everyone’s liking. It is very different from the usual supermarket fare.  I guess one could say that it is certainly not a normal apple but that is not a critcal comment just a realistic one!


Geoff Boutle

added on 1st September 2016

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