How counselling helps

One of the things that happens when you study therapy is that people ask you what kind of therapy you do, and so you describe it.  Then they say their neighbour’s cousin once did something completely different. But you hold on to the key features, and one of the key features of a person-centred approach is that the counsellor has respect and empathy for the client. The counsellor must honestly feel that and the client in turn feels that respect and empathy from the counsellor.  In a way, counselling reaffirms your value as a human being.

That should not be a challenging feature of counselling and yet the idea that we spend time with someone who believes we have intrinsic worth can trigger judgement, scepticism and annoyance.

Another aspect of our study was each week in class we’d feed back on client sessions and every week, every single one of us doubted that we offered our clients enough. We should do more than ‘listen and be nice’.

Counsellors and clients share the same evolution. We have the same problem-solving brain that thinks it’s in charge and likes to be busy. Up to a point it works, but sometimes you need a new plan. Despite knowing this, as trainees with the same brain as our clients, we fell into the same hole. We felt we should do more. Even though we’d experienced it for ourselves, we still doubted that giving clients empathy and respect would suffice. But that is therapy: the counsellor demonstrates acceptance until the client feels it for herself.


Carl Rogers, looking back on years of practice and research which became the person-centred approach, summarised:  "To my mind, empathy is in itself a healing agent. It is one of the most potent aspects of therapy, because it releases, it confirms, it brings even the most frightened client into the human race. If a person is understood, he or she belongs."

He noticed that often, when things went wrong, people blamed themselves. He noticed that people didn’t trust themselves and instead went on the opinions of others. He traced this back to childhood patterns. Bear in mind this was 1950s America, so his clients were children in early C20th, when children were seen and not heard. He noticed that you had to be a certain way to belong. You had to be quiet, hurry up, pass the exam. And if you learn that works with one set of people, you try it with others, repeating the formula with friends, partners, employers.

Things go well, but it’s all conditional – you belong only if you do X or say Y.  After a while, you end up second-guessing or ‘overthinking’ every choice: you lose touch with what you want or what you think, because that’s irrelevant, it’s what other people think that shapes your world.

The opposite of these ‘conditions of worth’ is unconditional positive regard, or respect. You have intrinsic value in yourself. That’s the positive regard. And before you think it’s not healthy for someone to think they’re ‘special’, this is not a zero-sum game: we are all worthy of respect for being human. It is unconditional because your counsellor believes you act for the best: however misguided, whatever mistakes you made, your aim was to survive.  


We fear that sympathy leads to an unproductive life on the sofa, eating toast in our pyjamas. We need, we argue,  a touch of the whip to motivate us. But how much is a touch? Take the classic stress response of ‘flight or fight (or freeze)’. It’s a reaction to a critical situation that affects the whole system, from hormones to heart, from guts to brain. After the crisis, if we survive we can withdraw, rest and regroup. This wasn’t meant to be a permanent state: a build-up of stress with no recovery time is dangerous, without relief, the adrenalin pump gets jammed ‘on’ and we can’t turn off. Pumping out the stress hormone cortisol has us reaching for doughnuts and then blaming ourselves for putting on weight. What sleep we do manage might be spent grinding our teeth  or sweating through anxiety dreams.

This is not a good state to be in; we weren’t designed to be on permanent high alert, but this has become more and more the norm for many people. A common response, including my own, is to see this state as a failure - which heaps more blame onto a system already at breaking point.


That’s where positive regard comes in: to acknowledge the suffering and suspend the blame. To stand down the threat mechanism, so that your brain and hormones can recover and then see what needs to be done. Imagine the smoke alarm going off at 3am: the first thing you do (on checking there isn’t any smoke or fire) is to turn it off, because you can’t think with a high-pitched metal scream in your ear. Counselling gives you the space to turn off the alarm and work out what triggered it. Positive regard is saying you’re entitled to that space. Empathy understands why you’re distressed and holds that perspective, until you absorb it for yourself.


It is not self-indulgent to recover so you can get on with life. That’s what resilience means – the ability to bounce back - after a rest. There’s a rhythm of action and rest; we need both.  Over the last two years as a therapist, and before that, working with carers, I found the common theme in sessions was the need for a period of recovery. I told clients: ‘You can’t go on like this, not because you’re weak, but because exhaustion is a normal response to abnormal circumstances.’

It seems we distrust the notion that we have limits, or even needs. There is something now, in this country, that makes us very angry at that suggestion. It takes time to get used to the idea. @DennisTirchPhD, founder of the Center for Compassion in New York, notes that “Just the idea of compassion [or empathy] can evoke anxiety. So, if you're learning self-compassion + it feels unpleasant or uncomfortable, that's actually very normal.”


Here’s an idea: we accept that every working system we own, like our car, needs servicing. What’s so different about a mental / emotional MOT?  Our mobile phones last about two years – what about updating our own software? Our own antivirus protection?  Let’s check what we expect of ourselves and, just for a moment, ask if it’s reasonable.

If you recognise yourself in this and think person-centered therapy might help, get in touch Let’s talk about how you feel @kavacounselling.