Working with suppressed and denied experiences and feelings.
I want to explore how clients who come into counselling that are unable to experience parts of their lived experience, how a Person Centred Counsellor using focusing (Gendlin, Focusing –Orientated Psychotherapy, 1996) can enable them to bring into their awareness these denied experiences. There are many reasons why a client would deny or suppress lived experiences, and while this psychological defence has enabled them to live through that experience, subsequently these denied or suppressed experiences can cause psychological problems and affect their day to day life and personal relationships.
These experiences could for example be a child feeling they could not grieve for the loss of a parent as they feel they need to be good child for the surviving grieving parent, so they suppress and deny their feelings of grief, only to experience in their adult life anxiety and insecurity in their personal relationships. While I am using this as an example, there are many other experiences clients find they need to deny and suppress, from experiences of sexual abuse to other traumas that stay locked in the body and affect them in their lives by leaking out through feelings of anxiety, depression, insecurities, lack of self worth, and behaviours from self harm, drug and alcohol dependency to name but a few.
I am outlining here is how the Person Centred Approach can be a very powerful therapeutic process, especially if the counsellor uses focusing with denied and suppressed experiences and feelings. So considering the client who comes to counselling because they are experiencing anxiety and insecurity, and through working with the client the counsellor becomes aware that the client is unable to experience all of their feelings, and to enable the client to unlock their feelings and the experiences behind those feelings the counsellor focuses on these as unknown to the client feelings and experiences.
What do I mean by focusing, the counsellor helps the client attune themselves to their internal experience, as Gendlin termed ‘the felt sense’ (Gendlin, Focusing –Orientated Psychotherapy 1996, pp. 20, 58). The Counsellor creates the conditions in which a client can go inwards, inwards into their ‘felt self’ by framing their responses of how a client might be experiencing their inner world, thus introducing the possibility to them that they can experience themselves more instinctively. By focussing the client on their bodily sense to their world a counsellor can enable a client to experience their world as they experience it through how their body experiences it; this could be about present situations like a relationship or could be about a past traumatic experience. What I want to consider is working deeply with denied and distorted feelings and experiences, when the client denies and suppresses a traumatic experience they might lock it in a part of their body and can only experience the feeling and experience through other feelings, like anxiety, insecurity, depression and anger. It is through enabling the client to experience what is happening in different parts of their body in a focussed and intuitive way that can help unlock these feelings and experiences.
How then could the counsellor them enable the client to unlock their experiences and their feelings, through working with how the client experiences different parts of their body, almost like enabling them to give a voice to parts of their body they have locked the trauma in. If they had a tightness in a part of their body, the counsellor will help the client attune themselves to that tightness, through a series of questions for example how does the tightness feel, does the tightness have a voice, could it speak to the client, all this gentle prompting could enable a client to be with their denied experience and feelings, and start a process of accepting that experience and their feelings from that experience. What is important in focussing work is working with all that the client brings into the counselling room, in such a way that helps a client come closer to what they have denied, distorted or suppressed, and can lead to working deeply with all their feelings and experiences by enabling the client to bring these fully into their awareness.
The strength of the Person Centred Approach is that a counsellor can by establishing a trusting relationship with a client, that enables the client to feel acceptance and understanding, it’s through these qualities that enable a counsellor to use focussing with a client, and can be particularly powerful phenomenon, which could be described as working at relational depth (D.Mearns & M.Cooper, Working at Relational Depth in Counselling and Psychotherapy, 2005). This process can eventually enable the client to reintegrate their denied and suppressed past experiences and feelings with the present and through this integration their feelings can start to shift about their past experiences and personal healing can take place, yet I need to lay a caveat here for some clients it might not be that easy a process, especially if a client has needed to disassociate themselves from the trauma they felt and could be having flashbacks. With working with disassociation, it is important to enable a client to feel grounded in their present reality and any focusing work under taken needs to be about ensuring a client is ready to explore their past denied and suppressed experiences, otherwise a counsellor could in fact recreate the trauma and make the client feel stuck with the trauma, rather than feel they can be with the trauma and draw strength from being able to move on from their trauma.
Returning to my example of the client who had suppressed and denied the grief they felt as a child for the loss of one of their parents to protect their surviving parent from their feelings, in a sense to be a good child. Through focussing work in counselling they were able to reconnect with the grief they felt as a child and the responsibility they felt for ensuring they didn’t lose their surviving parent by being a burden to them with their feelings by internalising their grief, which resulted in them experiencing their grief through anxiety as an adult and feelings of insecurity in their personal relationships. By tuning into their ‘felt self’ they were able to experience the grief they had internalised and through experiencing this grief their feelings started to shift from anxiety, to sadness, to acceptance of their feelings and through acceptance they could move through the grieving process and live their life fully in the present, no longer experiencing anxiety as a reminder of their denied feelings, and be facing their loss they were able to stop fearing loss in their personal relationships.
How then as a client when you have a sense you have blocked off from your experience some past traumatic event, yet are experiencing feelings and behaviours that mask that trauma, which counsellor do you choose? This is after all the most important decision you are going to have to make, if you want to go down the road of counselling and psychotherapy to address your psychological health. What I’m advocating is Person Centred Counsellors who work using focusing, how can you be sure the Person Centred Counsellor you see is able to work with you and your denied and suppressed feelings and experiences, especially if you are not fully aware that you have denied and suppressed your feelings and experiences? This is a tough one to answer, I would say you can make sure the Counsellor has had a thorough grounding in the Person Centred Approach, check what training they have had, that they are a member of a recognised Counselling and Psychotherapy association, for example the biggest one being the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, yet most of all trust in yourself, if it feels right stay with it, if it doesn’t you have a choice to change counsellor or psychotherapist .The relationship between you and the therapist is what really determines whether therapy will work, and particularly with focusing it will be whether you trust the counsellor or psychotherapist to help you explore parts of you, you have tried to push away or block to cope with your life.
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