Opening channels #17 (the existential counsellor)

We were asked to produce a ‘model’ of our counselling standpoint to present to the group.  The aim of the exercise was to encourage us to explore the theory and concepts behind our counselling practice and think creatively about how we would represent this to others.  I found this a difficult exercise, firstly because I am just really starting to explore existential counselling (my standpoint) and I am not 100% clear or confident about some of the ideas.  Secondly, I wasn’t sure how I could find symbols to represent some of the philosophical concepts that underpin the model.  With some searching and rooting around the house, I eventually came up with this….

existential-humanist-counselling

From the top…

String = Life

I chose two strings, one is blue and silky and very grand whilst the other is basic parcel string.  I wanted to show the concept of life being finite, with a start and end and how it is relatively short.  By choosing two different strings, I was trying to show the contrast between an ordinary life controlled by injunctions (the parcel string) and a life lived authentically – rich and beautiful (the blue string).  Both strings have a knot around two thirds through, showing a moment or event that has brought that life to crisis and possibly counselling.

Fortunes;  I chose the cards and rune to explain my model as these represent some of the ways human beings have sought to understand and make meaning out of a complex, messy and unpredictable world.  They also quite neatly symbolise our common hope or fear that something ‘higher’  (deities, fate etc.) is managing our life, rather than acknowledging that we have free will and choice.   The four tarot cards here represent the four main challenges of human existence (Maquarrie (1972) explains these so much better than I can!) and I think symbolise some of the main issues brought by clients to counselling.

The Hermit shows us that we are essentially alone in our experience of the world around us and, as intelligent beings, we have the capacity to reflect and ponder on the uniqueness of our experience in order to consider what authentic living means for us. This unique experiencing can be fraught with misunderstandings however, as we can never fully understand the experience of another person – it can be a fearful place to be alone in our view of the world.  Clients will often bring this sense of ‘never really being understood’ and it is the counsellor’s challenge to value and prize this uniqueness whilst acknowledging that they can only ever understand ‘as if’ they were the client.

The Juggler represents the challenge of managing our freedom to choose with the inevitable restrictions on our choices.  Every freedom, choice and decision brings consequences and whilst we have ultimate freedom in our pursuit of an authentic existence it is necessary to juggle the guilt, shame and penalties following the choices we make. As Sartre (1946) argues, we are ‘…condemned to be free.’ (Maquarrie, 1972).  Clients will often bring a dilemma or choice that they are faced with and their terror of acknowledging the inevitable result that ‘alternatives exclude’ (Yalom, 2001)

Death represents the certain knowledge we all have that we will die. The challenge is how we as individuals face our death and how we live the life preceding it.  Facing death and loss is an important challenge as it can cause us to question the meaning and purpose of the existence we are leading.  Clients will often seek counselling following a death of a family member or friend or following the ‘death’ of a relationship or lifestyle.  These remind us of our own limited time and our ultimate fear of ‘non-existence’.

The World in the Tarot, this card represents wholeness, completion and fulfilment.  I’ve chosen this card to represent the fourth existential challenge of meaning. Many writers gathered under the ‘existentialist’ banner (see Camus and Laing) consider the human’s search for meaning in life as being the key reason for existing.  Finding meaning completes us and a client’s search for meaning to events and experiences is frequently present in counselling.

Odin’s Rune;  I chose the blank rune (Odin’s Rune) as it is considered to be the most terrifying and the most exhilarating of all the runes.  It represents ‘nothingness’ but is also fertile with possibilities and I wanted a symbol of the uncertainties human beings face and often bring to counselling.  It also represents the uncertainty in the counselling relationship – as counsellors, even with our most perfect strategies and interventions, we have no way of knowing what will happen in our client’s life and I would argue that this uncertainty is both terrifying and exhilarating for us.

The Mirror; this is me as the counsellor.  My job, I believe, is to bracket my values and prejudices and act as a mirror whilst the client works her way through her unique challenges, reflecting back her thoughts, ideas and emotions and occasionally shining light on the answers she is finding during counselling.  The mirror also fits as it prompts me to remember that I also face these existential challenges and there might be times that the client’s struggles mirror my own.

Jewels;  I have for a long time thought of the counselling relationship as a place for the client to open up her bag of experiences, strengths, weaknesses, fears and joys, (Her Jewels) to examine them carefully, have them valued by another, then put them carefully away again.  Existential counselling offers this place to artfully arrange one’s jewels to meet the challenges brought by the ‘unfolding event’ (Hoffman, 1993 in Cooper, 2012) of her life.

Quotes; I have included three quotes which I love and wish I was responsible for!  For me, they represent ways of exploring the givens of existence

“To wish you were someone else is to waste the person you are.” (Unknown author)

“Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer injury to one’s self-esteem…” (Thomas Szasz)

“Wisdom outweighs wealth.” (Sophocles)

There were so many other quotes I could have chosen but I feel that these sit well with the need to live an authentic life, the need to consciously give up or adjust part of our Self in order to learn fully and the drive to acquire wisdom and understanding.  These neatly sum up the purpose of existential counselling as they remind me to work authentically with the client, to be prepared to change and learn alongside her and to gather the wisdom I witness in her working.

As a reflective exercise, gathering the elements of my model was fascinating.  I felt it was important to find symbols that not only worked for my understanding but also would enable others in my group to get these challenging philosophical ideas.  I hope I have managed it here.  I’m still not sure I fully understand or agree with all of the concepts, nor have I represented them perfectly here, but this learning is surely part of my own unfolding event.

 

References.

Cooper, M. (2012) The existential counselling primer.  Ross-on-Wye, UK: PCCS Books

Maquarrie, J. (1972) Existentialism. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books

Yalom, I. (2001) The gift of therapy. Reflections on being a therapist.  London, UK: Piatkus Books.

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