Friday, February 06, 2004

Session One 

Regular readers (I’m led to believe, against the odds, such a breed does exist) will know I’ve been struggling with an inner conflict, unable to find a satisfactory compromise between being the person I need to be to do my job effectively, and being the person who writes this blog. They’re not the same; they don’t even seem capable of co-existing. I’m not prepared to abandon writing, and I’m not prepared to continue to put in a sub-standard performance at work (and performance, standard or otherwise, is all it will ever be). Impasse. So since my employer offers counselling services as part of the benefits package (up to five sessions), I decided to go down this road and see if I could find a resolution.

When I was doing basic counselling training myself, I used to keep a personal journal. So it was natural that I’d follow that practice now, and a logical extension to think about publishing it, or parts of it, here. I wondered about putting an extract on the blog, but to do so loses the immediacy and therefore much of the value. So I’m posting the whole thing, session by session, as it happens, as I experience it. I have absolutely no idea where it will lead… Oh, and I’m afraid it’s rather long…

The room is quite small, but bright – a large window at the end opposite the door looks out over a grey and drizzly London afternoon; inside, the furnishing is sparse to the point of being Spartan – a small table by the window, a large plant breaks the room’s exposed angularity and adds a touch of life, and directly facing each other across it’s narrow width, two upright chairs. Gloomy though it may be outside, the room has a warm, bright feel. There is no apparent distinction between the two chairs; I take the nearer one.

Someone once defined counselling as two scared people sitting in a room. I don’t think either of us is scared exactly, but that definition does convey something of the equality in what follows. There’s no feeling of expert and subject, doctor and patient, barely even of leader and follower. Just two people, one of whom wants to help the other.

Even before we’ve entered the room I already have a sense of optimism; a strong positive feeling growing inside, of anticipation, of knowing this will be good, that she and I will understand each other; of excitement even. What sparks such a feeling? Who can say. Places of healing, of learning and growth, where people are valued and honoured and allowed to be, where humanity is central and all else peripheral; these places often have such a feeling about them, tangible as soon as you cross the threshold. And there’s body language, appearance, expression – all of those things that enable you unconsciously to gain an impression of someone the moment you see them. And the more authentic the person, the more accurate the impression, usually. I couldn’t at that stage say what specifically gave rise to that positive impression; perhaps it was not anything specifically positive so much as the complete absence of anything negative that might appear to be a barrier. The whole combination of her appearance, manner, voice and expression was open and created a welcoming space, yet without filling that space with anything at all.

So we sit, facing each other. Simple administrative formalities are soon dealt with. I was expecting some opening questions from her, yet she hardly takes steps to launch the conversation, but sits with an expectant smile, upright, hands folded in her lap. Perhaps she is allowing me a space to settle, but not expecting the silence, I take the lead. I’d been going through beforehand what I might say, but of course all those thoughts are forgotten in the moment. So I stumble and flounder and talk far too fast – she has to interrupt because words were misheard – and occasionally parts of my pre-prepared thoughts find their way into the stream of words, which skips and branches, flows and halts. I’m very conscious to begin with that I’m doing maybe 95% of the talking – which at this stage is probably reasonable. She has some questions, exploring the work issues – how do I feel, being this person at work that I don’t want to be? But I’ve been away from work for a week now, at home with my wife who is convalescing after a back operation, and the work issues have thankfully faded into the background for a while. Being someone who lives very much in the present moment it’s actually quite difficult to recapture the force and intensity of the troubling feelings from a week and more ago.

All through the session, she sits mostly upright, completely attentive, her face responding to the feeling in my words. It is unusual yet pleasant to be able to maintain eye contact naturally for extended periods – the majority of the session in fact; far from feeling a need to look away, the reverse is true - eyes seemed drawn to each other; hers are deep brown. It seems simply a natural expression of the complete focus by both of us on the exchanges between us.

So I only know what else was in that room from the few seconds entering and leaving; unusual for me as I normally carry away a comprehensive visual memory of such occasions. I can tell you she was wearing a simple turquoise zipped cardigan, earrings that matched the colour perfectly, and out of the corner of my eye I think I caught another glimpse of the same colour; a scarf maybe, perhaps laid across a coat on the floor. Next to her a few of the leaves on the plant were turning brown at the tips; what was outside that field of view I couldn’t say.

I may be imagining it, I don’t know, but I think something changed in her attitude when I mentioned I’d had some basic counselling training myself. Something showed in her eyes – a thrill of recognition I think. Discovering any commonality with another is usually good, and to find it unexpectedly in an area so central in one’s values… I’m making assumptions here about her values; nevertheless I don’t think I’m being fanciful if I say that her eyes lit up with something akin to excitement. Perhaps something fell into place at that point.

I thought about this afterwards; it felt one of the most significant parts of the whole encounter; a minor watershed, empowering for me and uplifting. My counselling training was only very basic, the first year at evening classes of a much longer programme, but I learned enough about empathic responses to recognise the possibility, especially later in the session, that her rising energy levels were at least in part her empathic reflection of my own expressions of enthusiasm as I talked about my hopes and desires. Yet at this point in the session, I was still under the influence of the troubles at work, so she was responding, I think, in a different way, with something beyond professional – or personal – empathy. Perhaps it was what they call deep empathy – being able to reach in and identify something not at that time apparent in consciousness to the client. Or perhaps I simply misread her expression.

Whatever. The experience was good.

We talked about the difficulty of owning creativity. How in truth it is part of me, yet I see it only as something that comes and goes – sometimes I have it, sometimes I don’t. Earlier we had talked about fear, how disempowering, how paralysing fear can be. At the time I couldn’t identify the source of my fear, or even whether it was fear I was feeling. Fear of losing my job? Fear of being “found out” – of only putting a minimal effort into my work? Fear of losing my new and therefore (to me) fragile reputation as a writer? Perhaps the latter to some extent, but it was only later that I realised the real fear was of losing whatever creative ability I may have, and even worse, of losing the insight that fuels it.

Creativity. I’ve long know that’s a thread that has run through all the successes in my life; nearly all of the things I’ve achieved of which I’m proud. Yet I’ve never really owned it; not as a core part of my being, always there to be called upon. Too often I’ve felt disconnected from that creativity – and I don’t altogether know why, don’t know what separates me from it, preventing me from recognising it within myself. Something to think about for next time.

The first half of the session was spent mostly exploring the negative issues that brought me there. But the second half dwelt much more on the positive, creative side. If she deliberately steered it that way, it was so gentle a touch that I didn’t notice; the conversation seemed naturally to flow that way. And through that second half I could feel my own energy levels rising; certainly a smile on my face much of the time and more open hand gestures, and I saw all of that reflected in her face, in her voice, in her eyes, in her gestures. Indeed, she remarked on it as evidence of how deep-seated within me, how much a part of me, is this desire to create, to write, to help.

And to be honest, she hasn’t been the first person to notice that. Or the second. Or the third.

I’m hesitating between two views. One that says she is a professional counsellor, very skilled and capable at what she does, and the light I saw in her eyes was an empathic reflection of my own natural enthusiasm and positive outlook once we had got away from work and onto creativity, writing and helping. A skilled empathic response on her part it may have been, but that in no way devalues it; it would be insulting to call it a “trick of the trade”. That response was allowing me to reconnect with an inner energy I haven’t felt in its full force for quite a while – not at any rate for more than a few moments at a time.

The other view says her engagement and energy was more than just a reflection of my own coming-alive; she was returning more than I was giving, because what she saw in me had value for her. And so that created a cycle of positive feedback; a spiralling rise in energy, presence and aliveness.

Perhaps it was a bit of both. But whatever the analysis, there’s no doubt that in that single 55 minute encounter I was able to reconnect with something that has lain dormant for a very long time. I left in a state both other-worldly in its sense of floating detachment from previous “problems” yet intensely in touch with the world immediately around; and also profoundly happy.

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