When I trained in counselling, we were all encouraged to develop a kind of personal theory of how counselling might work. In fact, we learned dozens of models of the human psyche and development, and were asked to evaluate, criticise and adapt them.
One of the main personal theories of counselling, which has stuck with me since then, is what we might call a theory of balance. When I observed many of my clients, it seemed to me that all humans suffer from an imbalance between extremes. Frequently, the counselling process was, in part, an attempt to collaborate in finding out what part of a client’s life felt ‘lopsided’. Once that was done, it seemed to be a question of identifying what dimension that lopsidedness existed on, and finding gentle ways to balance things up.
THE DIMENSIONS WE LIVE ACROSS
By dimension, I mean a continuum between two extremes. Typical examples are:
- the balance between activity and rest
- the balance between dependence and independence
- the balance between controlling things and accepting things
- the balance between being controlled and exercising freedom
There are thousands of these dimensions, as many as we care to identify. The art is in finding out which ones apply to us at any given time, and in developing ways to manage the relevant balance.
It’s like learning to ride a bike. When we begin, we lurch to one side or the other. We may need stabilisers while our skill is low. After a while, we develop the ability to last for some time without crashing. Eventually, if we are lucky, it becomes second nature to manage the constant competition between apparently opposing forces. Even further on, and we can move on to other skills which utilise the one we have mastered.
Through a lifetime, there are an infinite number of these dimensions to negotiate. We return to them time and time again in different guises. We see children encountering the extremes of ‘mine’ and ‘not mine’ when it comes to possessions. Adults can re-encounter these extremes in new guises, such as ‘mine’ and ‘not mine’ when it comes to relationships… or projects… or ideas.
This theory of balance sees the mind as maturing through constant negotiation between extremes. We are repeatedly surprised by life, ‘thrown’ by it, and so we need constant vigilance and responsiveness if we are to develop new skills, and embed old skills.
THE ART OF COUNSELLING
In this light, I have often experienced the art of counselling as the art of helping a client to first perceive, and then negotiate, a current imbalance. If not perceived, an imbalance is felt as nameless anxiety. It can take a bit of time to tease out an identification of where the imbalance lies, and between what extremes we are negotiating.
THE USE OF LANGUAGE
I am also a poet, and I find language a constant source of help. I am amazed by many clients’ diligence as they try to dig out suitable words and phrases that describe what they are going through. It can take a while to find a language for each imbalance. But when we do, the flow of a therapeutic relationship can find new freedom, and greater empathic ease. Quite subtle ‘in-jokes’ and ‘in-phrases’ can emerge as signposts in the territory being explored.
Continuously through life, we suffer from imbalances between extremes. We have to manage tensions between activity and rest, dependence and independence, controlling and accepting things, being controlled and exercising freedom – and countless other tensions.
As with learning to ride a bike, with time and practice we get better at balancing. We embed the present skill, and then move on to other skills. We become a maturing creature, mastering balance after balance, developing higher and higher skills.
In terms of mental health, good counselling can help a client to perceive, name and negotiate any current imbalance or tension between extremes, and move on with a greater sense of skill and maturity.