Honest conversations viewed as counseling
and counseling viewed as conversations that allow for honesty
Preface: I wrote this essay when I was teaching a class on peer counseling. I was trying to describe in everyday language some of the good things that happen in counseling, that also happen often in friendship, good parenting, mentoring and ministering.
According to the psychotherapists Carl Rogers (in the 1960’s) (1), Margaret and Jordan Paul (in the 1980s) (2), and Brad Blanton (in the 1990’s) (3), there is one main reason people suffer in their relationships with one another. And it’s not best understood as some jargon about ids and egos and superegos. It’s that we need to face more of the truth and tell more of the truth about what’s happening in our lives, about how we feel and about what we ourselves are doing.
Many people, probably most of us at some time or other, struggle to deal with troubling feelings and problem situations in life by using a whole range of avoidance maneuvers: we may pretend nothing is happening, focus on blaming others, or try to find ways of avoiding embarrassment, distracting ourselves and/or minimizing conflict. The problem with these ways of dealing with inner and outer conflicts is that they don’t work well in the long run. If we try to deal with our problems by pretending that nothing is wrong, we run the risk of becoming numb or getting deeply confused about what we actually want and how we actually feel. And from tooth decay to auto repair to marriage, avoidance maneuvers won’t protect us from the practical consequences of our difficulties.
Now what, you may ask, does this have to do with counseling? Well, a counselor is someone you can tell the truth to. And as you start to tell more of the truth to the counselor, you can start to admit the more of the truth to yourself, and rehearse compassionate ways of talking about it with others.
This is not an easy task. Early in life, according to Rogers, we discovered that if we said what we really felt and wanted, the big important people in our lives would get unhappy with us (and, I would add, perhaps even slap us across the face). And since we needed their love and approval, we started being good little boys and good little girls and saying whatever would get us hugs, birthday presents, and chocolate cake. If we are lucky in life, our parents and teachers help us to learn how to recognize our own feelings and tell the truth about them in conciliatory ways. But this is a complex process, and more often, our parents and teachers didn’t get much help on these issues themselves, so they may not have been able to give us much help. As a result of this, many people arrive in adult life with a giant gap between what they actually feel and what the role they play says they are supposed to feel, and with no skills for closing that gap.
For example, as a child you were supposed to love your parents, right? But what if your dad came home drunk every night and hit your mom? How do you handle the gap between the fact that you’re supposed to love your dad and the fact that you don’t like him? These are the kinds of situations that bring people to counseling (or to the nightly six-pack of beer). And life is full of them.
It all boils down to this: Life is tough and complex, ready or not. It is always tempting to try to get what you want (or to escape what you fear) by saying or doing whatever will avoid conflict, even if that means saying things you don’t really mean, doing things you don’t feel good about, or just blanking out. After you’ve been around for a while you start to realize that the cost of this kind of maneuvering is a heavy heart.
From what I’ve seen, there is no secret magic wand of psychotherapy that can instantly lighten a heart thus burdened. Psychotherapists are in the same human boat as the rest of us; they get depressed and divorced and commit suicide just like ordinary folks. You and the person you are trying to help through peer counseling are in the same human boat. There is no life without troubles. Roofs leak. The people you love get sick and die. Our needs turn out to be in conflict with the needs of people we care about. The best made agreements come unglued. People fall out of love. And it is always tempting to pretend that everything is just fine. But I believe very strongly that we will all like ourselves a lot more if we choose the troubles that come from being more honest and more engaged, rather than the troubles that come from various forms of conflict avoidance and self-deception, such as “I’ll feel better if I have another drink.” or “What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.” etc.
Our truthful lives will probably not get any easier, but they will get a lot more satisfying. Good counselors, psychotherapists, mentors and friends, whatever their degree (or not), hold that knowledge for us, as we struggle to learn it and earn it. As adults there are many new possibilities open to us that were not available to us when we were children . We can learn to negotiate more of our conflicts, to confront more of our difficulties and to be honest about our feelings without being mean. So the fact is that we don’t need to run away from our problems any more. What we need is to get in touch with ourselves and to learn new skills.
A counselor is someone who does not condemn you for your evasions, mistakes or lack of skill, and believes in your worth as a person, your capacity to tell the truth and your strength to bear the truth, no matter what you’ve done up to now. That’s what makes counseling similar to being a priest, rabbi, tribal elder or a really good friend. When we started pretending in order to please others at age three or four, that was the only way we could figure out how to get what we wanted. Now that we are adults we are capable of learning to tell the truth in conciliatory ways and we are capable of getting a lot more of what we want just by being courageous enough to ask for it. A good counselor, whether that person is a peer-counselor or a psychiatrist, is someone who invites us out of the role of maneuvering child and into the role of straightforward adult.
A counselor won’t force you to tell the truth. It wouldn’t be the truth if it were forced, it would just be one more thing you were saying to keep someone off your back. But a counselor is willing to hear how you actually feel. In this approach there are no bad feelings, there are only bad actions. It’s OK to hate your drunken father; it’s not OK to pick up a gun and shoot him. A big part of counseling is teaching people to make that distinction. In fact, the more people can acknowledge their feelings, the less they need to blindly act them out.
It’s not the counselor’s job to pull that stuff out of people; it’s the counselor’s job to be there to receive it and acknowledge it when it comes out in its own time. And to encourage the new skills and all the little moments of honesty that help a person toward a deeper truthfulness. There’s a direct link between skill and awareness at work here. People are reluctant to acknowledge problems they feel they can’t do anything about. As counseling conversations help a person to feel more confident about being able to talk things over and talk things out, a person may become more willing to face and confront conflicts and problems.
As we realize that the counselor accepts us warts and all, clumsy coping maneuvers and all, we start to accept ourselves more. We are not angels and we are not devils. We are just ordinary human beings trying to figure how to get through life. There is a lot of trial and error along the way and that is nothing to be ashamed of. No one, absolutely no one, can learn to be human without making mistakes. But it is easy to imagine, when I am alone with my mistakes, that I am the stupidest, crummiest person in the world. A good counselor, (…friend, minister, parent, support group member) is someone who helps us develop a more realistic and forgiving picture of ourselves.
These relationships based on deep acceptance help to free us from the fantasy of being all-good or all-bad, help to free us from the need to keep up appearances. Thus, we can start to acknowledge and learn from whatever is going on inside us. Freed from the need to defend our mistakes, we can actually look at them, and get beyond the need to repeat them. But these are hard things to learn alone. It really helps if someone accompanies us along that road.
Sometimes you will be the receiver of that acceptance and sometimes the giver. Whichever role you happen to play at a given moment, it’s helpful to understand that honest, caring, empathic conversations (Carl Rogers’ big three), just by themselves, set in motion a kind of deep learning that has come to be known as “healing.” “Healing” is a beautiful word and a powerful metaphor for positive change. But “healing” can also be a misleading word because of the way it de-emphasizes learning and everyone’s capacity to learn new ways of relating to people and navigating through life.
Here are five of the “deep learnings” that I see going on in almost all supportive and empathic conversations.
- In paying attention to someone in a calm, accepting way, you teach that person to pay attention to themselves in just that way.
- In caring for others, you teach them to care for themselves and you help them to feel more like caring about others.
- The more you have faced and accepted your own feelings, the more you can be a supportive witness for another person who is struggling to face and accept his or her feelings.
- In forgiving people for being human and making mistakes and having limits, you teach people to forgive themselves and start over, and you help them to have a more forgiving attitude toward others.
- By having conversations that include the honest sharing and recognition of feelings, and the exploration of alternative possibilities of action, you help a person to see that, by gradual degrees, they can start to have more honest and fruitful conversations with the important people in their lives.
These experiences belong to everyone, since they are part of being human. They are ours to learn and, through the depth of our caring, honesty and empathy, ours to give. I believe they are the heart of counseling.
(1) Carl R. Rogers, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1995.
(2) Margaret and Jordan Paul, Do I Have To Give Up Me To Be Loved By You. Minneapolis: CompCare Publishers. 1983.
(3) Brad Blanton, How to Transform Your Life By Telling the Truth. New York: Dell. 1996.