Common Themes and Issues Explored in Counselling

Martin Handy

7 Jan 2019

When I began thinking about having counselling I found it difficult to really grasp what was actually explored in those 1-1 sessions. I heard of people having 6-10 sessions of work. Some people might have about 6 months. Some people actually wanted open-ended therapy because it was so useful in their lives. It had become a weekly part of life that deepened and enhanced their life.

But when I looked at counsellor’s websites they only provided what the counselling could help like feeling stuck in life, having depression and anxiety, anger issues or grief and loss, for example, and maybe that the relationship was non-judgmental. But the explanations never really went further than that.

In this article I decided to provide 7 main themes that are often explored by clients in a counselling relationship. They are themes I explored in my own counselling as well as the types of issues explored with my clients. They give you an idea of content and outcome direct from the conversations and explorations between a client and counsellor.

I hope it helps give you some insight and understanding of the work explored in counselling.

  1. Motivation

The role of the counsellor is to support us in moving towards a sense of self-awareness, self-analysis, self-reflection and self-transformation because we deep down need to be self-motivated, that we can change things if we want to. Present circumstances may place huge limitations around what we can and can’t do but we do have the ability to realise that we can overcome hurdles to change things; resilience grows. For this to happen we may need to see things in a different way and to accept that changes require the understanding that there are options and choices. We do not have to be limited by past experiences. If a new outcome is desired then a new input may be required; same input, same output. Insanity is doing the same things over and over again but expecting a different outcome. Sanity is the realisation that new ways of thinking, seeing things, speaking, doing and being are the initial changes required to bring about a newer and better situation or experience. Sometimes we do not want to change the way we are doing things and stay in the same old cycle and are not motivated to change it. Counselling can help us address these very obstacles and find out why we are so worried about dealing with some very deep and painful issues: relationships, our old hurts and avoidance of confronting things from the past, fear of being judged and condemned as terrible individuals by ourselves and maybe the counsellor who we fear may not understand. Sometimes we are just not in a good place to know what we want either. The present situation can be so emotionally draining. It takes a little time to be able to identify what it is that needs to change and what it might look like in a potential future time. It is good to focus on small steps: we may need to build in some time to soothe these emotions, overwhelm, confusion and doubt. When I am more centred I can see better. What does this look like? What things can I do? This gets us to what we call the warm and fuzzy feeling.

  • Feeling Good

What makes us warm and fuzzy? We forget who we are and what we need. A significant importance is placed on self-soothing and giving us time to relax and just be. We forget that we need time to do what we need to do for ourselves. What have we been neglecting? Are we finding a balance in our relaxation, personal and work life? Do we give ourselves time to do the ‘warm and fuzzy’ things in life? When we are children we love to play. It is important to build on that through our adolescence and adulthood. Yet some children do not develop this and many of us go through adolescence and adulthood thinking that we must stop activities that are not considered adult or related to work and acquisition of material things. What things used to make you feel good and what things could make you feel good? This can take some time to develop and reap the benefits. Tai Chi, Qi Gong, Yoga, meditation, relaxation activities are great for soothing. For more physical stimulation sports, cycling, walking, running and the gym provide another valuable tool for self-development. More mentally relaxing and engaging tasks like crafts, knitting, sewing, crochet, painting, playing an instrument, sculpture, model-making offer the mind, spirit and body another useful area of self-soothing and warm and fuzzy nurturing. Listening to music, drama, film, theatre and the arts develop something else in our personality and psyche. They support us through difficult times and they offer a chance to switch into different ways of being in ourselves. They also have many benefits for when we live out other aspects of our lives. We become better in relationships with others and ourselves, improves the productivity of our work lives and builds better family. What makes you warm and fuzzy? When I create some relaxation and clarity I can then look at areas that are in my control and responsibility.

  • Building personal responsibility

This can be a very painful aspect of self-development. We are often conditioned to think our parents, community, state institutions like health, education, social security are all there to support us no matter what. However, that is not reality for many of us and we may have either been let down by these institutions, like the family and state, and realise we are on our own. Sometimes we can become hugely resentful and angry when ‘others’ have not given us what we think we are entitled to and for many of us we have been terribly treated, neglected, abandoned and abused. Our faith in ‘others’ has been shaken and even squashed and this is often turned on ourselves from within and we now ‘beat ourselves up’ and have replaced the very tyrannies and cruelties that were inflicted upon us from the outside. Alternatively we may have turned all guns blazing onto others and blame others for everything that has happened in our life. The critic is turned away from ourselves and is turned towards others. In both the internal critic and the external critic, we have to patiently work through these very real issues of personal psychology to realise the only way out of these cycles of self-persecution or persecution of others is acceptance of personal responsibility and that only we can make the choice of throwing everything to the wind and taking a risk that only us as individuals can change the course of our lives. We eventually accept that we will get ourselves out of this negative cycle and into a positive one of self-transformation, self-responsibility and self-change. We start to make decisions to increase our independence and freedom from the shackles of dependence on others. We might get more mobile, maybe change our job, maybe even get a job to increase our self-belief and faith in ourselves. We may stop trying to save others, confront unhealthy abusive relationships in our lives by maybe getting others to change the way they treat us or maybe even leaving them altogether. Taking responsibility means believing in ourselves again and that we can shake things up and do things differently. It can be scary and put us into unfamiliar situations. Sometimes the old ways, no matter how miserable, are too ingrained for major changes to happen but small ones can. For some these changes can take a few months of counselling. For others it may take a couple of years. It depends on the courage and self-belief we have and are willing to nurture to create change and find our truth.

  • Finding our own truth.

Human beings like us might be unconscious of our own self-defeating and self-destructive habits. These habits might be as material as addictions to alcohol, drugs, medication, eating, sugar, caffeine, sex and gambling that all compensate for some greater need or desire that we feel we are not getting. They might be more subtle as internal defence mechanisms such as avoidance, procrastination, denial, self-persecution, rumination, blaming or self-hatred. They might be a phobia like a fear of outdoor spaces, enclosed spaces, going out, flying, driving, heights, animals or unclean spaces. Behaviours such as washing repeatedly, counting before leaving the house, checking windows and doors several times before going out or going to bed, washing or cleaning in a very particular way all signify an area for analysis and exploration. Behind them lie truths and beliefs that we are not fully conscious of. These issues can bring out what is unconscious in our behaviour or thoughts and then into the conscious to help understand them and ourselves. What are these habits and behaviours teaching us about ourselves? These issues help us listen to hard truths, accepting them and asking us if we think they are healthy or not and whether we want to continue them or replace them with something healthy that does not have such a destructive or restrictive effect on our life. Sometimes the counsellor may help bring unconscious patterns to the conscious level for exploration and analysis. Occasionally this may result in a defensive response which suggests there might be something to look at with some level of compassion and understanding. Counsellors help us look at things in an open and understanding way and never in a confrontational or judgmental manner. This helps us apply a more compassionate and understanding approach to our own mental and emotional patterns and habits and not be so harsh on ourselves as we are deeply human and complex. As our own truth unfolds we can then look at some of the sacrifices we may have to make to find our desired goals.

  • Sacrifice

New changes will always require a sacrifice of some kind. It may be money, a relationship, the place where we live or even pride. If we can change it means other people may see us as weak. We may not want to look at the very issue that is holding us back from change. That will require a sacrifice; to let go of what other people might think. We may be on a very good salary but know deep down the job we are doing is causing us misery yet we will convince ourselves it is great because of the benefits it brings. We will even fight letting it go until we hit a nervous breakdown or even worse. Letting a well-paid job go may require taking a risk but working through a process of self-change means taking a risk. That requires a sacrifice of something and then mitigating as many of the negative effects of that risk such as working through a gradual move from one job to another while meeting the responsibilities around us. Counselling is a good way of exploring that and working through the issues in a self-guided and counsellor-supported process because perspectives and options, choices and decisions can be better weighed up. Then we very much open up to the things we are grateful for in our life.

  • Gratitude

Gratitude is an art and builds more of what we are grateful for in our lives. Showing some level of gratitude for our blessings each day attracts more of it into our life. We begin to notice the good things in our life more when we start being grateful for it. Gratitude for knowledge, friendship, spirit, God, nature, the world, technology, food, human values, generosity, charity, love, wisdom, peace and safety build a greater way of being in yourself and the world. It reinforces what is meaningful and has purpose. It generates that warm and fuzzy feeling and promotes positive emotions and stabilises and soothes the challenging emotions that keep us stuck and trapped. Out of gratitude comes the guidance in our goals, aspirations and dreams. Sacrifices feel less like sacrifices and more like the normal ups and downs of life that we accept and work with. The benefits just melt into a more daily reality of peace of mind and contentment rather than a constant striving for more material things and help you see the changes that are coming in your life.

  • Change

As more stability is achieved within and feelings of anxiety, depression, frustration, stuckness and loss gradually disappear we begin to look outside and see what is around us and decide to change what we do and how we do it. This is really the icing on the cake and comes towards the end of much of the internal exploration but does happen along the way too. When we process some of the above issues we come to a realisation of simplified living; we might make more effort to declutter our lives (our minds, hearts, bodies and home), we appreciate ourselves more and look after ourselves better, we appreciate what others can do for us and so seek and create better relationships. We develop a more healthy relationship with our surroundings and world. Fears and desires may lead to excessive material consumption and in consequence more environmental exploitation. When we become healthy internally, we are more healthy externally. We grow better relationships for ourselves and others. Towards the ending of counselling, and most counselling does come to an end for us, there is a shift more towards outer life and changes in our outer activities. Goals and aspirations change. Our thoughts are healthy. We don’t criticise ourselves so much and we don’t criticise others so much. We are more discerning in our thoughts and we are more reflective in our associations with other people. We know ourselves better and we get to know other people better and develop stronger bonds of trust with good people. We also become more conscious of how we affect our environment and as we grow into this we see the good in ourselves and others and the world. It becomes a better loop of positive thoughts and feelings, habits and behaviours. We become more peaceful and can work though intense feelings more purposefully and achieve greater meaning in our lives.

As you reflect on this article identify the issues that seem most beneficial to you for your exploration and bring this to your counselling sessions either with a counsellor, a friend or even in your own inner self-counselling work.

What benefits might this reflection bring for you? What goals and aspirations does it inspire for you?

Jot down some ideas and streams of thought about how this article can focus some of your issues that need to be integrated into your personality.

© Martin Handy 2019