“‘I want to help people’ is an easy answer when asked about pursuing a career in counseling. However, it masks an underlying uncertainty as to what is in store for that journey. It’s often accompanied by some fairy-tale vision of deep conversations with clients and plumbing the depths of the human psyche. What follows is through the sheer power of active listening and providing a safe space, revelations will occur with immediately powerful behavioral changes. Please trust me when I say that this image is not meant as sarcastic. Rather, it is an acknowledgement of the very real and very raw emotional need accompanying the calling to therapy. Fantasy is not always about avoidance, sometimes it is a representation of a primal desire. For the counselor/therapist, that need/desire is to search out and explore the myriad examples of a shared humanity.”
When I consider such a point I am brought to Mahoney’s words from “Constructive Psychotherapy: Theory and Practice (2005): “Can we help one another change? Most definitely. In fact, most change takes place in contexts of human relatedness. We are fundamentally relational beings. Our relationships with one another are crucial to our survival and adaptation. We live in and from the bonds of belonging.” The call to counseling is based on this felt, though not always well articulated, belief. Humanity calls to itself, which means pain calls to pain and love calls to love, leading inexorably to some version of the above fantasy. What’s missing is that all too often the dream and the practice of it are completely dissimilar.
Instead of pointing out the obvious missing parts: the paperwork, the bureaucracy, a lack of funding for programs, the diminished pay for services and the perpetual need for self-care that the work demands of us to stay healthy and present; there is something buried within the vision, the connection itself. We as human beings are not mere talking-heads, as if billiard-balls on the table of life, waiting to careen off one another to find out in which direction we’ll be traveling. No, instead we exist in a maelstrom of connection, where our thoughts and emotions are as much the stuff of our relational existence as they are solely “ours” to claim. Daniel Siegel has coined the phrase “the Me that is We” and it is in there that the vision of a fantasized therapy loses sight of our relational identities.
In every conversation we engage not merely with the client in front of us, but their families and friends, their societal constraints and the behaviors they’ve learned to walk through life’s challenges. Equally so the client is meeting our families and friends, our picture of our place within society and the behaviors we’ve learned through trial and error and education. All of these variables have gone into each one of us and in that open and vulnerable space of the therapeutic dyad, connections are inevitably growing in ways that even the greatest therapist can never hope to see. A word, a phrase, a gesture, can mean the difference between thought-provoking and triggering, whether in this time or down the road of a life.
We speak of transference and counter-transference but this is an academic version of the initially-offered fantasy, sterilized from the humanity none of us can run away from. The reality is more fluid, more visceral, more of everything that makes the psychology of humanity the birthplace of cathedrals and air-flight, ghettos and acid-rain. Can we help one another? Most definitely. Our shared humanity calls to us to mend the tapestries of our lives and provides us the means of doing so through relationship.