The following made-up stories might offer some awareness of what our counselling work is like. Each story is an amalgam of different peoples' experiences and are therefore realistic in that they portray human experience.
However none of the stories are based on any of our clients as such. Confidentiality is essential and each person can feel comfortable in knowing their privacy will always be respected. If someone were to recognise an aspect of themselves in these stories, it would be coincidence only; and not a great coincidence given that many people’s life challenges share so much in common. What clients learn from counselling and psychotherapy is that everyone shares human characteristics but that each of us is unique.
“I feel flat and not really enthusiastic about anything much. I go out because it seems better than staying at home and doing nothing, but I don’t enjoy being out either.”
“Several people suggested I needed to get help but I didn’t really know what I was going to ask for help about. I knew my mood was affecting my whole life and that even work, which I had previously found enjoyable, was becoming an effort, so I felt moved to do something, anything. So I went for counselling.”
“I was surprised at what I felt when I started talking; I started to cry before I’d said anything. Just the fact that someone was patiently waiting and quietly sitting with me set me off. I realised afterwards. I wasn’t just flat – I was miserable. I was just so used to coping and ‘getting on with it’ that I had no idea what I was really feeling. I think I had spent my whole life not really being able to identify what I felt. It was a whole new language for me and I began to learn what feelings were being triggered by what comment or event I experienced. I was supposedly bright and cleverness was what was praised in my family but feelings were not identified let alone discussed. I learnt that it wasn’t anyone’s fault, it was just that I needed to have help in accessing another world of feelings and sensations and life changed as a result.”
“I was so unhappy in my marriage and I didn’t know why my wife was so distant. It seemed like years since we had been close and yet we used to laugh and enjoy things together.”
“I struggled with the concept of counselling; it was not something that was approved of let alone considered when I was growing up and became a young adult, but I had to try something. I was so unhappy. I didn’t know what to say to my wife and it seemed that she was never available to listen to me anyway.”
“I was surprised at how easy it was to talk. I was also amazed at the words and phrases that came out of my mouth; things I had not voiced to anyone before or even acknowledged to myself. I built up the courage to address my fears and discontent with my wife. We had drifted apart and she was surprised when I suggested we take a fresh look at our lives together. She was reluctant to engage with me at first but when I challenged her to grow and learn new things and then pointed out that I was going to do that on my own if she didn’t want to come along for the ride she relented and slowly started to open up about how lonely she had been in the marriage. It took months but we learnt a great deal and found we didn’t know each other at all. We are building a whole new relationship. While interesting it was also quite hard to think of the years we had wasted. I know now it is not easy just to effect change on one’s own – most of us need another mind to enable us to clarify what it is we want. My wife had to realise she might lose me unless she joined me in the fresh quest for meaning but I’m so glad she did.”
“I was curious as to why I often experienced uncomfortable bodily sensations, felt tight in my chest, and got butterflies in my belly mostly when I was with other people.”
“I noticed that I worried about what other people were thinking about me and starting avoiding going anywhere except work. I had thought everyone was like that but it bothered me so much I wanted to check and so I went to counselling. I was able to talk about why I was self conscious and learnt that ever since I’d had a dreadful experience at school, I had not been comfortable being close to anyone. It was so painful to revisit parts of my life but I can’t imagine how it would have been if I hadn’t plucked up the courage to explore them with someone who was accepting and supportive. Reading books just wouldn’t have helped in the same way; it would have been all theoretical. I still notice the tightness and the heat at times but I know what is happening and I can deal with it, even smile at it silently to myself.”
“I am worried that I am not going to find the ‘right’ person to settle down with.”
Mark was concerned about his inability to sustain a long term relationship. He had had many short term experiences but they always ended when either he finished it or his current partner did.
He reported that friends and girlfriends had told him he was afraid of commitment. That made sense to him in a way but deep down he knew he longed for a fulfilling, loving, relationship with someone he could build a life with. Drinking with his mates was fun, sometimes, doing sport individually and with groups of people was satisfying to some extent, work was challenging and he was paid reasonably well but there was an emptiness which was hard to describe accurately.
As we explored his experience he was able to see that after an initial attraction he tended to find fault with what he termed little things but which bothered him considerably. He became critical of physical appearances, mannerisms, and behaviour that he called weak, and this gave him an excuse to finish the particular relationship believing that this person was not the ‘right’ one.
In therapy he became aware that many of the things he had disdain for in an intimate relationship was caused by his disdain for parts of himself. This was a revelation and he began to explore how he had developed as he did having always previously assumed he was just born this way.
During therapy he learned a lot about himself and began to accept his shortcomings but also his strengths and found he was better able to tolerate much of what had bothered him before and to stay focused on his own experience rather than judging others. After another couple of short term flings he hooked up with someone that he enjoyed being with and built a satisfying relationship. He was amazed at how fulfilling it was to be with someone who cared about him and was willing to stay the distance. At that point he realised it was because he too was willing to stay the distance and although he still looked at other women it was with detachment and he became aware his whole attitude had gradually changed in therapy.
Sarah found most aspects of life stressful and wondered why she was always worrying. It seemed that as soon as she had completed a task that was bothering her she began to worry about something else. It was hard to relax. Other people thought she was a high achiever and was complimented on her ability to get things done but she could only find fault with her achievements. Nothing she did was good enough.
She had long wondered about going to a counsellor but didn’t really believe anything would help. She thought what she experienced was just how life was. She was aware that perhaps she worried more than others but had managed by keeping busy. That strategy was no longer working for her.
After a couple of sessions she realised that she was becoming aware of herself in great leaps and bounds. Once she started to talk she was surprised at how easy it was to keep disclosing things about herself: things she had not articulated clearly before or even really realised. She decided to stay in therapy for a while and after a while she found that the revelations she experienced in the first few sessions didn’t come quite as quickly and regularly but she quietly began to notice that she felt differently inside and could dwell on what was happening around her without worrying. It took a while for her to consolidate the gains she made quickly in the beginning but expressed her relief that she could look forward to finding enjoyment and contentment in life not just years of stress.
“I went to therapy because I found it hard to be faithful, even to women I liked and wanted to start a serious relationship with. I would somehow sabotage the relationship by having a one night stand or flirting with their friends. I went to therapy without telling a soul. I didn’t seriously believe that anything could change but one part of me knew that I needed to take a look at myself.”
Sam talked about what came up when he met someone he liked and was willing to explore the thoughts and feelings he had when he started to get close. There were times when it felt awkward and difficult but gradually he found that the relief of saying things out loud and having those comments reflected on without judgement led to him to learn that it wasn’t his fault he was behaving as he was; it was the result of earlier experiences that were being played out again. Once he knew what was prompting him it became possible to face those feelings and change the patterns that had built up over years. That way he knew he wasn’t tied to his past experiences; he could change things. He had a sense of agency about his life and what he wanted from it.
Mary Anne , 35.
“I can be really nasty. I say the most dreadful things to my partner and I don't know where it comes from.”
Mary Anne had noticed that she was irritable a lot of the time and impatient with what she said were own shortcomings and those of her partner. She didn't realise that irritability is a form of anger. Not full blown rage but a niggling kind of anger. She had thought of herself as a 'nice' person and although could be kind and thoughtful, had noticed she'd become quick to snap and rise to provocation.
She came to therapy because she thought her behaviour was threatening her relationship which she knew it was important to her. Her partner told her she wasn't very pleasant to be with and was making excuses to do things apart.
Mary-Anne painted a picture of a sunny, happy, childhood and described her parents as wonderful but couldn't understand why she felt as she did. The relief of a place where no expectations were placed on her and the growing awareness that she could be honest with no repercussions, enabled her to learn how her feelings were different from her thoughts and how this is so. She gained a more realistic picture of her parents and their experiences growing up, and found comfort in knowing that it is human and acceptable to have mixed feelings and she didn't have to be available for everyone else when they wanted her.