"I don't need counseling! My colleagues need counseling!"
Updated: Dec 13, 2018
Recently you've realized that there are certain colleagues in the team that always seems to annoy you. Or there is a weekly meeting that always ends up in fights. Or your family dinners always result in you feeling more stressed or hurt than before. Or your partner always leaves the clothes lying on the floor, and you're trying to avoid fighting every night, so you rather stay silent, but notice that there is a volcano brewing inside you, waiting to erupt. When you notice any of these, then you may also realize that it is time to change something about it. But how to bring about that change? Counseling may be an idea – but deep down you feel, that if you went to counseling, that would really not change your colleagues, your partner or family, and until they change, nothing will be resolved. In short: it feels like there is no solution and you're feeling powerless. If you find yourself in a situation like this, here are a few points worth considering.
In an earlier post I've suggested reframing the "do I need counseling?" question to "would I benefit from counseling?" and I suggested finding the right answer to that in two steps: first, see if there is something in your life that you'd like to change – and then, second: see if there is anything that you can do to change it. If you find yourself in the same, or similar situations as mentioned above, if you're regularly feeling anxious, stressed, sad or angry, then there we can check off the first question and assume that yes, there is definitely something there that is ready to be changed. But then, the second question is often a very difficult one. When it is 100% clear that it is the other person(s) to blame for the situation, then how on earth would me going to counseling have a positive effect on any of this?
What this question really takes us to is having a little more complex approach to responsibility. When my partner leaves dirty clothes all around the apartment, then clearly he/she is responsible for that action, and only he/she can also be responsible for changing that behavior, that is clear. On the other hand, how I react to it – first emotionally, then, as a consequence with my words and actions – is entirely my responsibility. Blaming another person for my emotions or my reactive actions is essentially putting myself into a position of powerlessness, letting go of any sense of control in that situation. In short: there are some external factors that you cannot control, but there are certain other factors – both external and internal – that you certainly can.
I do know that this thought is a really tough one to process, and even tougher to integrate into our everydays, especially when the situation is highly charged, when there are intensive emotions involved. That's why it is beneficial to re-visit a situation once it is a bit behind us in the past, giving it another thought when it has have cooled down. In Yalom's words, "Beat the iron when it is cold", i.e. think back on the situation once the emotional charge is not so intense, and see if you could have done something differently, reacted differently, etc. Definitely do not blame yourself – if you can make it about learning, not about guilt, then it can prove to be a beneficial exercise.
Then there's that option of asking for outside help, and considering counseling. I know that it is hard. I see people managers who are insecure in their leadership skills, but rather than going to coaching or counseling themselves, they send their employees to coaching "to fix their problems". I see people who realize they are unhappy in their relationships, but even having realized that perhaps there is a wound inside that has something to do with this and is worth taking a look at, they will rather go to couples therapy and hope for a solution there. And don't get me wrong: coaching and couples therapy are great and are beneficial in many cases – but are not to be used as a shield against you facing your own demons.
Taking that step to counseling for yourself often seems counterintuitive, for some it may be even interpreted as an admission of failure, but it actually is quite the opposite: it is an important step to evolving, and to finding the solution to the situation. Sometimes even a one-off consultation can be beneficial and can help you see the problem from a different angle. Then, considering a second opinion, formulated from an outside, perhaps more objective perspective, you can make a decision on what the right next step for you is.
If you decide to go to counseling, here are three benefits you may start noticing:
1. You will start noticing the more subtle ways in which you can influence the situation.
Perhaps the way in which you've been addressing the problem is simply not the best fit with that particular situation or person. There are actually many ways to resolve a conflict, but when we're in an emotionally charged state, we tend to default to the ways with which we're most comfortable. In other words: we choose a conflict resolution strategy, but we don't choose it consciously but unconsciously, and on the surface we feel that we have no other alternatives. As a result of counseling, you may start making this choice conscious, rather than unconscious. You will notice something like:"Oops, here we go again, that same annoying joke again. I'm furious again. But wait, let me try to handle it differently. This time, instead of doing this, I will try to do it like this..." In other words: you will start looking for alternative resolution strategies – one which you couldn't access earlier, because they were blocked by your intensive emotions – and in most cases, you will end up finding a solution that actually works.
→ Grab the unicorn by the horn, or simply avoid coming face-to-face with it? Check out some of the conflict resolution strategies that fairytales teach us.
2. You will start interpreting the situation differently.
In more than half of the cases, we humans misunderstand each other. Projection is a psychological defensive mechanism that we all develop in our childhood, and continue using throughout our lives. In a nutshell, it works like this: things that I don't like or accept about myself, I will deny that they exist in me. But because they do seek an outlet to be expressed, I will attribute those things to the people around me. As a consequence: when I interpret the actions of another person, I will project my shadow on them. And we are unaware of all of this, we do this completely subconsciously. Projection – and a host of other defensive mechanisms that I will not go into detail about here – actually have a tremendous impact on our relationships and everydays. There are some schools that claim that by default (i.e. before you start going deeper into yourself and understanding your own motives) up to 80-90% of everything that I perceive of the other person is actually my projection. If that is true, just think about it: I see that colleague, or my family member, or even a loved one, "objectively" in only 10-20% of the cases, in others, I see in them a distorted reflection of myself! In counseling, you may become more aware of yourself, which will in turn help you see the other person more objectively – and eventually, also interpret many of their actions very differently.
3. Your attitude – and emotional reaction – to the situation will start changing.
The reason why a certain situation doesn't bother the other person, however it drives me absolutely crazy is because the situation has deeper roots in me. Roots that perhaps come from previous experiences, childhood memories, etc. Understanding these sensitivities and processing them will not only help you gain new awareness of the whole problem, but will also immediately help you be emotionally less negatively affected. And don't misunderstand: it is not at all essential in all cases to go down to the very bottom of things and talk about the whole of one's childhood, often these wounds can also be healed by talking about the present, or by using symbols (I have written about how fairytale counseling helps heal wounds with use of symbols here). In short: you may not need to spend years uncovering deep hurts in order to finally not be annoyed by that colleague – a few sessions using the right methodology might just be enough. And the end result: you will feel better in your everydays.
Once you realize that there is something you can actually do about the challenge you're in, suddenly a world of options opens up. Whatever direction you choose, take the next step! The path may be short or long, but it will definitely take you there eventually. And in case you're considering counseling as an option, feel free to book your first, free consultation with me – and then decide on the next steps accordingly.