Counselling - a place of tolerance in an increasingly intolerant world
"Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding" – Mahatma Gandhi
"It is thus tolerance that is the source of peace, and intolerance that is the source of disorder and squabbling" – Pierre Bayle
It would be surprising if the political, social and cultural aspects of our world did not affect us as individuals. Just as the 20s, 40s and 60s had their own feel and fostered a certain sort of way of being, so too does today's decade. When people come into our counselling rooms to talk about the troubles and problems in their own lives, all too often there is some mention of the wider world. None of us lives in isolation. Our town is our local habitat, our country a big part of our cultural viewpoint, our world and its environments affect us the way the condition of the pond affects the fish and the wood the badger and the owl. Without a doubt, the troubled nature of the world both near and far has an impact upon us all. It can directly affect our moods (I speak to many clients who now refuse to watch the news as "it is so depressing") and the way those around us deal with each other. That is not to say that all times don't have their troubles. They certainly do, but time after time we hear people from young to old saying how difficult life is today compared to a certain number of years ago.
These days, every time you read the newspaper, watch the tv news or look online, there seems to be an increasing amount of intolerance, anger and aggression – and a huge amount of commensurate suffering. Only today, there was an item about the great increase in violence to NHS staff and how almost all hospital staff have now suffered some sort of abuse or assault. The list of countries where the political situation has become increasingly polarised grows – the latest one to hit the news being Brazil. Clients tell me of increasing levels of racism in the UK, and it can be more widely focussed on people of different European and world nationalities as well as ethnic types. We also have increasing levels of world-wide terrorism, and in some quarters, misogyny, religious hatred, xenophobia and suspicion. It seems that even diplomats and journalists are not safe to do their job without being threatened with murder or actually assassinated. The environmental situation worldwide is a huge concern for most of us, and this is both amplified and endangered by the current mood of isolationism rather than globalism.
You can see the intolerance on a smaller day to day level, too. Social media is an excellent example. It is not that this is bad per se, but rather it is often misused and abused, and one of the worst ways this happens is that it seems to encourage a herd-attack when a group of people disagree with an individual. Whether or not you feel that sometimes the criticisms are apt, without doubt, many of them are bullying and often a "kangaroo court" is employed, finding people guilty before they have had any sort of a chance to defend themselves – or upon the flimsiest of evidence or even rumours. You can see intolerance too on the pages of friends or "friends of friends" on Facebook, where people chip in and state their point and if someone disagrees with it, there can often be no attempt to compromise or listen.
"Listen"... now there is a word! It seems to be lacking today, doesn't it? Lots of people talking, shouting, swearing, judging, blaming, labelling and insisting that they are right. What happened to compromise or to debate or to negotiation? Recently I've picked up on the very loaded and frankly irritating word "fudge" when used in a political context. Isn't this divisive and dangerous as well as dishonest? Since when was it wrong to talk and try to reach an agreement? Since when has it become a sin to seek commonality and not insist on things all our own way? It doesn't matter what the subject is, surely it's better to discuss and then meet part way rather than to hurl insults. What would happen if, in our own lives, we never negotiated a deal for a house or a car or where our family were going on holiday? What would happen if we let our partners and friends have their own way none of the time or all of the time? These things wouldn't be a "fudge," they'd be a mess. We may ponder the implications, too, of how the very word "liberal" (dictionary meaning – to accept or respect behaviours and beliefs different from your own) is now used as an insult by some people and is changed to "snowflake." Words have power and can be abused too. Intolerance takes many forms and it's probably a good idea to be alert to this.
When we look at the ethos of counselling we see how diametrically opposed it is too much of what seems to be happening in the news and on social media. It values tolerance, respect, empathy for others, gentleness, warmth, non-judgementalism, wise discussion, calm, the notion of positive action above stuckness or negativity rather than arguing and fighting for arguing and fighting's sake. The counselling room is for many people an oasis of human kindness and understanding in a world that seems torn, angry, selfish and narcissistic; a small antidote to the intolerance of the world at large.
We hear that mental health issues are on the rise all the time throughout the world but particularly in the West. It's said now that between 1 in 3 and 1 in 4 people suffer some sort of mental health problem at some point in their lives. It's impossible to believe that the wider contexts of the planet and human behaviour do not contribute to this in addition to people's individual issues. The increase in mental distress seems to echo the distress out there in the world. The issues discussed above seep into the consciousness of all of us and can only create greater isolation, dismay and meaninglessness.
Counselling seeks to provide a safe place. Perhaps it does that not only for an individual and his or her troubles but also in a wider sense by providing sanctuary away from the stresses of a troubled world. We should certainly celebrate that... but not for too long. Actually, we are not the solution but part of the struggle to make things a little better. We don't cure people, but help them cope; we help couples negotiate rather than fight, and we help individuals see more clearly and decide rather than get stuck in a negative loop.
Part of the training of most counsellors is to provide the three core conditions of empathy, unconditional positive regard (a form of warm respect) and congruence (honesty and openness). Unfortunately, many people, perhaps even most people, feel and see little of this in their own lives nor the lives of others they hear about from friends or in the news. All the more reason then why counselling is so powerful, so necessary and so effective at helping people to change to better things. Whether it's greater meaning, confidence, calm, peace, understanding, contentment, or better relationships, counselling certainly can help people change their lives for the better and it's to be expected that it's a service that will be much in need in the near future. Until the only thing that people won't tolerate is intolerance itself, then maybe it will always be needed.
A challenge to change
Finally, if anyone is reading this and asking, "should I go to counselling?" I'd say "yes"... take the risk, have a go. I think you may be surprised at just how different things appear when, perhaps just for once, someone actually really listens to you and wants to understand and help.
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About David Seddon
David is a BACP accredited counsellor. He believes that counselling and tolerance are closely linked and is passionate about helping people to have happier, better lives. He has an MA in counselling and a BA in philosophy and works in a person-centred and existential way. He runs a private practice in Congleton, Cheshire and worldwide via Skype