As a counsellor with a thriving private practice, I’m passionate about the impact of therapy on our emotional wellbeing and bringing this into the mainstream. This isn’t about the perceived ‘me first’ narrative that may seem prevalent in today’s culture. Nor need it be the antithesis of the ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude familiar to the older generation. Rather, effective therapy creates a middle ground that allows for a greater understanding of how we relate to ourselves and others – living life well, free from the heavy load of emotional baggage we tend to carry around.
A few lucky people travel light, without excessive angst to weigh them down. But many of us carry a surplus load, clinging on to every memory, interaction and experience until the weight becomes overwhelming.
Counselling can be a place to safely unpack the bag, examine the contents, then decide what to take with and what to leave behind. To look at our lives and start to understand what’s working and what isn’t. What patterns of behaviour and thoughts are we repeating to our detriment? What is the origin of emotions such as sadness, shame, anxiety or anger?
‘AS THERAPISTS, WE’RE LOOKING FOR THE STORY BENEATH THE STORY – THE PATTERNS, THE TRIGGERS, THE HISTORY’
Relationships are probably the most important and challenging content of our emotive cargo. They shape our reactions, our moods and wellbeing. Even at times of adversity or trauma, how we experience others is an important aspect of how we cope. Throughout our lives, we are always asking the same questions of our partners, parents, family, colleagues and friends – ‘Are you there for me’? ‘Do you have my back’? ‘Do I matter to you’? So many ruptures and rifts hinge on our perception of the answers.
From an evolutionary survival perspective, our brain wants us to worry, not only in order to anticipate physical danger, but also to fret over whether we are good enough, if we fit in, whether people will stay or leave us behind. This ‘negativity bias’ is what keeps us safe and functioning – it gets us out of bed in the morning, drives us to work, keeps us connected, enables us to care for ourselves and others.
The problems arise when memories of emotional trauma, chaos, disappointment or neglect leave us on high alert, and the alarm system becomes self-defeating. We may end up acting out the same pattens of relating and behaviour that seem familiar even if not logical.
As a therapist I help clients repack their emotional baggage with an alternative more realistic load. Therapists are different to friends, family and colleagues. We’re looking for the story beneath the story – the patterns, the triggers, the history. The goal of therapy isn’t to respond perfectly to everyone and everything, to never feel unhappy and to be completely self-satisfied. Instead, the lighter load includes an ability to pause and respond rather than react, a recognition of our own and others’ vulnerabilities and an awareness of what’s our stuff and what belongs to others.