Couples Counselling and Personal Agency

Personal Agency

People come to therapy for a number of reasons. Regardless of the stated reason, one of the commonalities often seen is a perceived loss of agency. What does this mean? Some people believe themselves unable to make their own choices and believe that their lives are the results of choices and actions of others. Of course, there are times when others give us little choice in a given instance – that is not the topic here. There are a number of areas in which this perceived loss of agency shows itself, but a common one is in the context of amorous relationships.

Agency Within Couples Relationships

How is this loss of agency seen? If you find yourself talking consistently about things being done “to” you, you might have ceded your agency. An example might be when a person reviews their relationships and repeatedly says that “he [or she] did this to me” when discussing every major amorous relationship of their life. As a therapist, the question often arises – “But what did you do?” Therapy is ALWAYS about the person in the room – the person in therapy, not others – so the therapist attempts to bring the conversation to the choices, actions and beliefs of the client sitting in the room. Of course, people do things that can cause us incredible difficulty, but if you review the relationships of your life and this is all you see, it might be worth considering whether you are attracted to a sort of person to whom you are able to give your own power.

Lack of Choice

There are times when all of us experience limited choices. This can be difficult to accept, but sometimes we have to work with what life has given us. Other times, we have choices, but must be willing to make them. Even choosing to not make a choice (or giving that power to another) is itself a choice. Understanding your power helps you know when you actually don’t have a choice, or if you are avoiding making choices yourself out of fear.

Understanding Choice

The Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Sometimes choices are about practical events and sometimes choices are about our responses to events.

Regaining Your Agency

How do you regain your sense of power over your choices? Sometimes this involves negotiated changes to the relationship. Sometimes this involves consideration of the beliefs and fears that power your interpersonal dynamics and choices. Sometimes this involves taking time to learn more about yourself, before you become involved in new relationships. There is not a single answer to this question, but the first thing in bringing change is realising that whether you give up your power intentionally or not, you have still given up the power over your own life choices (speaking of adults in relationships here).

Couples Counselling Wellington and Online

If you are struggling with agency within your relationships, or you would like to consider your approaches to relating before getting into a new relationship, contact us to book a counselling session.

When the Therapist Shares

Some therapists feel comfortable with detachment (or emotional distance) from their clients. Some imagine that they will do their best work as a therapist if they are able to be “objective”. I disagree entirely with this concept and resulting practice. Part of this self-enforced detachment involves not sharing any more than is necessary about their own lives. Of course, the therapy session should always be about the client and his or her needs and keeping a clear boundary between the therapist as a person and in the role of therapist seems a logical way to keep the focus on the client. How would I respond to this?

Sharing Brings Connection

When people are aloof, we either don’t share ourselves, or we find that we are giving much more than we receive. People feel connected when sharing with others and having others reciprocate. These connections help to build positive relationships.

Sharing Brings A More Equal Relationship

When we tell others about ourselves, we give them a form of power. They know things about us that isn’t common knowledge. If one person gives entirely of themselves and receives nothing in return, a one-sided relationship exists – this is not the sort of relationship building that we want to model in a therapeutic relationship. Narrative Therapy moves away from this therapist as “expert” model, to one where the client is the expert in his or her own life. The therapist becomes a companion on the client’s journey of self-discovery. The therapist sharing when appropriate can foster the companionship needed to take this journey together.

Sharing Brings Privileged Positions

If I share something special or intimate from my life with another, I am saying to them that they are special enough to know or be a part of my life. Therapists are in very privileged positions and – only when therapeutically advantageous to the client – sharing with the client can help them to understand that they as clients are also privileged.

Sharing Brings Empathy and Models Behaviour

We want to understand clients in order to help them. Clients need to understand their significant others outside of therapy in order to progress through their issues. It is extremely one-sided to imagine that we can understand clients and that they will have no concept of who we are. This is a very unnatural and one-sided “relationship”. When we share appropriately, we help the client develop empathy for us and we model behaviour that many need to practice in their own lives.

Sharing Emotions Can Be Comforting

When a person is telling you about their sadness, pain, fears or other difficulties and you verbally or tearfully respond (for example), it can help the client to feel comforted and understood. This is not to say that the therapist will respond to all difficulties, but when there is a need or desire to share emotionally and the therapist represses it for fear of boundaries, clients tend to feel this self-imposed distance.

Sharing Limits and Considerations

The therapy session is for the client. The therapist does not share because he or she has a bad day and unloads on the client. The therapist does not share to impress the client. The therapist does not share from personal reasons, but only does so when it is felt that this will help the client. The client should not demand that the therapist shares, as sharing comes in the development of relationships – not from demands.

Sharing With My Clients

As a therapist, I do not want the session to be about me and will not focus on myself generally, but I do understand that the client may want to know more about this person with whom they are sharing their heart and soul. One of the ways that I am able to share of myself with those who want to know more about me is by sharing my thoughts and experiences on this site. Clients and others are able to get a glimpse into me as a person and as a therapist and decide how our relationship might develop.

Looking for a Therapist

Over the years, I have said this many times – find a therapist that suits YOU. Don’t just select a therapist because they are a convenient drive from your house. Don’t just select a therapist simply because someone has recommended this person. Find a therapist with whom you think you will be able to share and who will help you. If you want a counsellor who will share something about themselves, rather than just a single page website and a mobile phone number, do a bit of research online to see what she or he shares with others.

Addiction Counselling in Narrative Therapy

Addiction Counselling Conceptualised

The founder of Narrative Therapy, Michael White, had an interesting approach for conceptualising the journey for those wishing to free themselves from alcohol and other substance dependencies. White used the analogy of a rite of passage, where the person would go from a separation phase to a liminal phase – where there was a great deal of displacement and confusion – to finally reaching a reincorporation phase, where life without the substance(s) becomes the new norm.

Addiction Counselling as a Process

Many people fail initially in their goal to break free from substance abuse. This can be incredibly disheartening. There is a tendency for many to minimise our successes and maximise our failures. Those who are not immediately able to give up alcohol or other substances can become discouraged and give up on their attempts at freedom. White attempts to get clients to conceptualise freeing themselves from addiction as a process.

Perspectives on Freeing Yourself from Addiction

Few of us would be able to attempt a marathon without rigorous training. If we attempted to do so, we might make it a few kilometers, but would we become despondent and say negative things to ourselves? Likely not, as we know that running a marathon is a significant task and requires training for all but the most advanced atheletes. Comparing to addiction, I have known a couple of people who have given up alcohol “cold turkey”, but in both cases they were told they had months to live if they did not. That is inspiration that most of us wouldn’t want!

Preparing to Free Yourself from Addiction

So, in this conceptualisation, the client realises that preparation and training are required. The finish line may not be reached on the first attempt. There is a lot that supports addiction, from friendship with others also caught in addictive behaviours, to social gatherings that focus on addictive substances. Preparing for a marathon requires getting up earlier in the morning to exercise, changes in diet to meet new energy needs, having appropriate shoes, seeing your doctor to make sure there are no immediate physical risks in you training for a marathon, etc. White’s separation stage involves consideration of what re-enforces addiction and planning for success.

Understanding Your Feelings While Freeing Yourself

The liminal phase is what is to be expected when life has changed dramatically and you are trying to get your footing again. Perhaps you have lost friends who are still addicted to substances, perhaps you don’t know what to do with yourself when you have all of these now free hours that you used to spend drinking or perhaps you are looking for a new focus for your life. This phase is going to be unsettling. You need to be ready for this. Knowing that this is a normal transition will help you get through it.

Celebrating a Life Free From Addiction

Finally, the reincorporation phase arrives when you have started to get settled in a life of being substance free. This is what you have been longing for. You have prepared for this journey and you have struggled through the hills, heat and exhaustion of your marathon of freeing yourself from addiction. There can be a number of ways to celebrate crossing the finish line, including Narrative Therapy’s Definitional Ceremonies.

Perhaps you will want to help others, once you are free?

[While I referenced my Narrative Therapy text in writing this article, White’s original article is (at publication date of this article) available online at https://dulwichcentre.com.au/articles-about-narrative-therapy/deconstructing-addiction/challenging-the-culture-of-consumption/.]

Looking Forward to 2020 and Beyond

I have been away from this site for a few days, including a few days of tramping for my physical and spiritual well-being. A lot is happening for me and my family. In addition to my counselling research – which is always happening, whether I am actually at work, or not – I am looking at some changes this year and planning ahead.

Counselling

Counselling is something I love, but something that over the last few years has taken a back seat to other commitments. Parenting, adjusting to life as a single person, loss of the man I considered my father and many hours of work have had me putting my head down and moving on with required tasks, with not enough time to expand myself professionally. I have made moves over the last several months to change that, with therapy once again becoming central in my life.

Spiritual Pursuits

I here use “spiritual” in the broadest sense – not a religious one. I meditate regularly, and love doing so, but sometimes I shave a few moments off my practice here and there, when busy. When I am busy I need it even more, so I am taking away from myself something that nurtures and nourishes me. I am expanding my practice this year, not only making more time for meditation, but more time for chanting and learning from others about their meditative practices and what these mean for their lives.

Self-Expression

I love writing. Working on this website, trying my hand further at short stories and poetry and other ways to share of myself bring me great joy and contentment. I want to encourage this part of myself further, including more writing experience and, in another related way, to express myself more in music. Singing to those I love has always been important, but I am trying to expand more in guitar and darbuka (Middle-Eastern drum).

Physical Care

I grew up in a cultural environment where care of one’s body was a low priority. Work, study and other pursuits were considered significant, but self-care (whether physical or spiritual) were considered of low importance. As I have been working on developing more compassion for others, as well as myself, I have realised the tender care I need to give myself.

So, there is a lot to look forward to in 2020! I am trying to build and nurture further development in each of these areas. Some of these efforts I will discuss on this website, both to encourage others and to further encourage myself.

Lee Jordan, MBA, MEd, MCouns
Lee Jordan, MBA, MEd, MCouns

Stages of Psychology

We are entering the second stage of psychology, but the third can be imagined.

Psychopathology

The first hundred years or so of psychology was focused on illness, especially within treatment. Having been initiated by physicians, the discipline was saturated with concepts of illness, wellness and a medical model of treatment. Anything that looked at prevention and positive emotional development was considered simplistic, or just not scientific.

Positive Psychology

Positive psychology began to gain momentum in the late 1990s, as Martin Seligman and others began to look at what was conducive to mental health which allows people to thrive (“Thrive” became the title of a later book by Seligman). Questions were asked about what characteristics and external factors would help a person to develop and maintain strong mental health. Research holds great promise not only for individual psychology, but for group and other dynamics.

Philopsychology

Ancient philosophers saw their craft not as a academic career or a way to stimulate esoteric conversations, but rather as a way to attempt to determine what constituted “the good life”. Plato was among their number. Speculation revolved around what was required to live well, from morals to social interactions. The West is not yet ready to return to this area of study, but when it is ready to bring these considerations back into therapy, there will be Cynics, Stoics and other ancients to light the path.

Considerations for my Practice

How are these stages relevant to me and my practice? I devote very little time or energy to psychopathology. There are plenty of others who are in this stage, still. My emphasis is on Positive Psychology as an emerging movement and on the considerations of philosophy which might be helpful within the therapeutic environment – from Stoicism to Existentialism.