One of my favourite children’s books is The Wind in the Willows. It’s a classic, the kind of book that often gets passed down through the generations. The story revolves around the lives of four animal characters that behave like humans (think Peter Rabbit). They’re all friends and neighbours living happily in the English countryside down by a river. It’s a cute read, but it wasn’t until many years later, having studied psychology, that the book took on a whole new meaning. All the characters exhibit very different personalities, seeing the world through their own unique set of filters, thus determining what each one sees, hears, thinks and feels – ultimately seeing how such filters would influence behaviour.
Interestingly, the characters in the original story have been used as the basis for Robert de Board’s book, Counselling for Toads. In this adaption the character of Mr. Toad, who is usually full of life, a tad reckless, noisy and quite outspoken, is found by his friends to be in a very depressed state. After much encouragement and nursing, finally the frustrated Badger says, sternly, “Toad… you must have counselling!”
The thing is, like many of us out there, Mr. Toad didn’t know what counselling was. Sure, he had heard of it, but he didn’t really want to do it as he couldn’t see how it could help him. He didn’t understand the process and had visions of himself lying flat on the couch, arm across his forehead, talking in a dream-like state about his childhood to a bearded therapist facing away from him wearing a suit.
So, why do people seek counselling? If we flip the question over it might be reasonable to assume that people who live satisfying or fulfilling lives and are not in any particular crisis do not seek counselling. The reality is that most of us at some stage in our lives will be confronted with some form of physical or emotional crisis where some kind of counselling is needed. Some people may have a partner, friends or family to help them through, or perhaps they have enough resolve to get through on their own, but many simply may not. In Mr. Toad’s case, he has friends but would do better disclosing his intimate personal information to someone who is neutral, offering empathy combined with unconditional positive regard.
The bottom line is that counselling allows one to talk about their problems with confidence in the hope of finding solutions and feeling better. One of the processes is ‘self-disclosure’, where the client will self-disclose private information that they may not have felt comfortable sharing with anyone else. As trust develops within the counselling relationship, the person seeking help will often start to peel back the layers to get to the core of the issue.
Effective therapy is mostly achieved once a good relationship between client and therapist has been established. The client should see qualities in their therapist like congruence, empathy, confidentiality and being non-judgemental. If the relationship between client and therapist is not a good one, progress can be hard. It’s worth pointing out that there are many different kinds of therapy, both individually and in group settings. Some styles will appeal more than others, with therapists often using a mix. Mr. Toad was following what is known as ‘transactional analysis’. I tend to use more old-school methods such as ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’, with a bit of ‘existential’ and ‘transactional analysis’ thrown in.
There isn’t a great deal of black and white when it comes to counselling. Although some would beg to differ, psychotherapy doesn’t necessarily follow the traditional medical model where you have an illness that is diagnosed and then treated. Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely a process when it comes to a clinical diagnosis, but I’ll often say to my own patients that one plus one doesn’t always equal two in therapy – there’s no magic wand or pill.
So, what should we do if, like Mr. Toad, we’re not feeling quite right and we’re not sure why? The first step is to try and recognise and validate that the feelings exist, what those feelings are doing to you and how they are making you behave. If you are having trouble with this and you feel that talking with people you know isn’t helping, seeking professional help is recommended.