Why Can’t I get Over It? A look at counselling in the person-centred tradition.
People come to therapy for a huge array of reasons, wanting to feel good again. They may have suffered a devastating loss, a relationship that is falling apart, or be constantly pulled through a cycle of depressive thoughts into despair.
The prevailing ethos of our time is to believe that we can and should be quickly fixed. Life as it was before, or as we are taught it should be (ie positive and successful), must be resumed. We are encouraged to believe that if we can only be more organised, didn't ruin our weeks of abstinence with a monthly binge, didn't get bogged down in that black spiral, then everything would be fine.
Of course these things are deeply painful and we do want them to end. Of course it’s natural to want to be happy. Yet happiness may not come simply through a return to normality. That’s hardly possible after bereavement or other devastating blow. A deeper change may be necessary, resulting in a life that never forgets but can carry on.
It's possible that symptoms can be shored up by a bout of positive thinking or other techniques, but still something deeper inside us may need to be attended to. It is by locating and working with this deeper place, over time, that things can really change; that symptoms can be healed and not pushed down just to return in a different form.
The person-centred approach believes in people, in our deep and honest resourcefulness that can take into account painful experiences and still find a way to move on. It is inclusive rather than simply pushing away what hurts. This deep resourcefulness is known in person-centred terminology as ‘the actualising tendency’. It is seen as a natural movement towards happiness and towards becoming a fuller self.
For this movement to happen isn't necessarily easy and it may take time. The actualising tendency may be lost far inside us. For change to occur, for the actualising tendency to become strong once more, a unique set of therapeutic conditions provided by the counsellor, are needed. In classical person-centred terms, these are known as empathy, unconditional positive regard and congruence (or genuineness). What this translates to from the client’s point of view, is therapy which is warm and non-judgemental, a safe space where a client can feel deeply understood in all their contradictions, in the parts of their character that they consider dislikeable as well as the good sides, in their inability to cope as well as their competence. Therapy becomes a place where it’s OK to be real.
Feeling you are finally understood and accepted is incredibly powerful and ultimately transformative. It happens almost nowhere else that I can think of in life. For most people life teaches us just the opposite. It teaches us that we have to be a certain way, feel and think a certain way, for us to be lovable, likeable or acceptable. We have to act our age, be good, get thinner, get richer, have more things, have less things, and so on and so on.
Person centred counselling looks at who we really are right now before we become perfect. Successes and failures, happinesses and sadnesses are all acceptable here. Person-centred therapy doesn't ignore what is crying out for help inside us and simply concentrate on how we should be.
So in answer to my title question, we get over things when we are good and ready and often we need help for that to happen. Or we may not get over them, in the sense that what we have experienced is what we have experienced and won’t go away. But how we feel about it may change. I believe it is possible to regain a sense of the richness and beauty of life and contact once more the fullness of our potential, not through denial, but through awareness, feeling understood and accepted.