When a person chooses to go for counselling it is often due to experiencing a feeling of unhappiness, anxiety or being stuck, combined with a sense that one is unable to overcome it on one’s own.
The first stage of counselling is to gain greater self awareness, to understand what is causing these feelings of anxiety. This occurs through a process of exploration, in which one explores the current situation as well as the past.
Often what is discovered is that a person’s problem is rooted in his/her own self defeating behaviour. Commonly, people who have had difficult experiences in the past, adopt certain protective behaviours in order to deal with them. These behaviours, however, can become the cause of problems later in life.
For example, take the hypothetical case of a man who has an anger management issue which is damaging his relationships. Through exploration of the past, he remembers that at school he was very sensitive and was bullied. To protect himself, he learned to become very angry and aggressive whenever he felt threatened. This behaviour became habitual, and as an adult each time he feels threatened he reacts with anger and aggression.
The process of gaining greater awareness is known as “making the unconscious conscious”, since we can often be completely unaware of our own self defeating behaviours. There is a story of a man who would repeatedly complain about his lunch. “I hate cucumber sandwiches,” he would say every lunch time. One day his colleague said to him, “Why don’t you ask your wife to make you different sandwiches tomorrow?” He replied, “You don’t understand; I make them” .
There are many deterrents to gaining greater self awareness. In therapy these are known as defence mechanisms. I will enumerate a few below.
Someone who is in denial about his/her own attributes, thoughts or emotions, may unconsciously ascribe them to others. For example, a person may avoid the discomfort of admitting his/her faults by projecting these faults onto another.
2) Turning against oneself
This is the reverse of projection. A person does not allow him/herself to experience aggressive or negative feelings toward others, and these feelings are directed back on themselves. They create negative self condemnation, such as ‘I am no good’, ‘I am unworthy, shameful,’ etc. This person assumes too much responsibility and may idealize others, thinking they can do no wrong.
When one is faced with a fact that is too uncomfortable to accept, one may refuse to admit it, or admit the actual facts but deny its seriousness.
This consists of one’s refusal to encounter situations, objects or activities in order to prevent having to deal with a difficult situation. One example of this is keeping so busy that one has no time to think about important issues.
Other strategies include intellectualisation, where a person uses abstract thinking or makes generalisations to avoid acknowledging something; and rationalisation, where one uses logic to explain away a matter but avoids its true reason. Understanding these strategies gives us greater insight into why a person has to truly search in order to understand him/herself. From this awareness, one can begin to change.