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Turning the inside out: can counselling change society?

Perhaps most of us associate counselling with ‘private’ or personal problems: anxiety, depression, relationship difficulties or loss seem to belong to the inner world of our individual psyches, or to the private realms of our intimate lives. Counsellors emphasise that they provide ‘safe spaces’, client confidentiality and emotional ‘containment’, for sound ethical reasons. Such language, however, can reinforce the sense of counselling as a secret, almost furtive activity, undertaken away from the more public aspects of our lives.

But how ‘private’ and personal are the concerns of the counselling room? I’m not suggesting that counsellors don’t actually mean what they say about affording their clients privacy. But counselling often deals with the relationship between our individual, interior worlds and our exterior, social contexts. This makes it both public and private on a number of levels. For example, bereavement can evoke intense and often unfamiliar emotions. Clients might turn to counselling because they are overwhelmed by these emotions, often feel alone with their grief, or simply don’t recognise their feelings as grief. This is partly a consequence of living in a culture where death is much feared but little spoken of, and where death itself often happens ‘in private’. In this context, the task of the counsellor might be to ‘normalise’ and broaden the individual’s experience, to recognise its uniqueness while helping the individual to place it in the context of their life. That is not to say that grief is a singular, universal experience; rather, that it takes on the contours of the griever’s history, from the nature of their attachments in infancy, to the cultural norms and beliefs with which they grow up, to the ‘role’ they perform in society as adults. Counselling, in effect, can help to make private grief socially understandable, as well as bringing internal distress into external awareness.

But is the relationship between the inner and outer worlds in counselling ever played out beyond changes in individual clients; can counselling make an impact in society? Distress can make us withdraw, to lose hope and to take ourselves out of society. To the extent that counselling can give an individual insight into their own needs and increase their ability to assert those needs in their relationships, it has an impact on their social context. But can it lead to broader social change? When faced with intractable social problems (poverty; inequality; discrimination) can counselling do any more than equip individuals to tolerate the intolerable?

In a recent article in the journal Therapy Today, Professor Mick Cooper offers a way of thinking about individual and social change as synonymous processes.[i] Individuals are happiest and healthiest, he argues, when they understand what they want, and when what they want is commensurate with their ability to have it. Similarly, a ‘good society’, he argues, is one in which ‘as many people as possible have as many opportunities as possible to get the things they really want in life, whether that is relatedness, autonomy or security’ (p.12) and, crucially, when those ‘wants’ do not undermine the happiness and well-being of others. This is hardly revolutionary, but I find it powerful. Cooper is not arguing metaphorically, that societies are simply like individuals and vice versa. Rather, he suggests that a society in which individuals reduce the internal conflict between their own various own wants and needs and understand those wants and needs in relation to, rather than in competition with, those of others, is more likely to produce a society of happy, healthy people. In our current political context, that is, I think, quite a revolutionary proposition and it is empowering to therapists and clients alike to believe that counselling can play its part in such change.

[i] Mick Cooper, ‘Social change from the counselling room’, Therapy Today, Vol.26, Issue 1, February 2015, pp.10-13

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