Counselling and the Art of Self-Advocation
How counselling can help you blossom
"It's lovely to see you so happy. You've really blossomed!" my dad said to me one September evening in 2018. We'd just got home from a family party, and I had spent the entire night dancing with various cousins, breaking only for another drink purchased by the Bank of Dad - I was a poor student after all.
It was the first time I had ever considered myself as "blossoming" and it left me with a warm glow in my tummy and a sense of pride: whatever I was doing was working, and I was finally becoming somebody I could like. I don't think I really understood the semantics of the phrase and, as much as I was happy, it was coming on the tail end of an eternal darkness.
"A twenty year dark night,” if you will (thank you Taylor Swift for always providing the perfect metaphor). In truth, it had been a few very low months after a few years of anxiety and bullying at the hands of my worst critic: myself. But that night I had blossomed. I was confident - something I only ever felt on the dancefloor and had tried desperately hard to bring into every other area of my life.
Looking back now, while I had definitely gained some self-confidence and was “doing better than I ever was,” - (Okay! I’ll stop with the Taylor Swift references now...), I think I seemed so incandescently happy because I was just relieved to feel something other than sadness, and it was short-lived. The confidence that I had gained was wrapped up in validation from other people: I’d done a fantastic job of moulding myself into the person I felt everybody wanted me to be and if other people liked me, I could finally like myself. The fall from that high was brutal.
I started counselling in May 2021, in the midst of a spectacularly intense anxiety spiral brought on by the prospect of dating. Global pandemic aside, my reptilian brain had woken up for a number of reasons. The main one being the idea of trusting and being vulnerable with somebody new. On top of that, COVID-19 had thrown me into an entirely new role at work that I was neither trained for nor sure I even wanted. I'd watched all my fellow graduates start new grad jobs, and I was wandering around with no idea what I wanted to do for a career, along with the suffocating pressure of needing to have it all figured out.
I knew how lucky I was to still have a regular income. I could surely do what I'd always done: smile, agree, and deal with the overwhelming mental consequences later.
Before going any further, it must be noted that I'm speaking from a place of significant privilege here; I was able to pay for private sessions as soon as I knew I needed help, without a heart-breakingly long wait. I had also had a few attempts at counselling in the past which hadn’t stuck: third time’s the charm, right?
The first thing that Helen says to me after our initial chat is: "You're telling me something incredibly sad but you’re still smiling!”
I can feel the familiar ache in my throat that tells me I’m about to ugly cry, and all I can think is that this feels awkward enough already, without me turning into a mess of snot and tears. I’m upset because I lost somebody dear to me a couple of months prior and I don’t know how I’m supposed to grieve: it was complicated enough when they were alive. All I know is that I’m desperately sad, and incredibly relieved. Both emotions are a betrayal one way or another.
“What would it be like to just allow yourself to feel everything you feel?”
This is a regular technique that Helen employs in our sessions, even a year on from that first meeting. It felt incredibly silly at first, considering how wonderful it would feel to just do whatever the hell I wanted when I was trapped so heavily under the weight of everybody elses’ expectations.
I wasn’t prepared for how significant this one question would become in my day to day life. “What would it be like to…” It didn’t matter what came after that sentence, just that I was learning to consider my own feelings, needs, desires amongst the deafening noise of societal pressure.
In the following few sessions, Helen introduced me to theories and phrases that are completely unfamiliar to me, even with my Psychology degree. We establish that I am, as she puts it, a “classic adaptive child.” This means that I spent my childhood learning that if I adapt myself to fit the needs of my role models and peers, my emotional needs will be met. My parents are wonderful, but they haven’t always been the best communicators, and this manifested in me pinning a smile on my face and playing the role of peacekeeper for a lot of my childhood: if I make sure that Mum and Dad are happy, I can be happy. Classic Adaptive Child. It’s hard to rewire your brain when you’ve been doing this for so long, especially when both caregivers have played the same role in their upbringings. Old habits die hard.
Things that now seem completely obvious to me blew my mind when Helen first suggested them. “You spend a lot of time listening to the critical parent, and it’s hard for the nurturing parent to be heard.” The idea here is that I have spent most of my life listening to the voice in my head telling me “You can’t do this, you’re not good enough, you’re too fat, too boring, too loud, not pretty enough, not smart enough…”. This is my critical parent. It’s no wonder your own needs take the backburner when you’re constantly telling yourself that everybody else is far more worthy than you.
Through my sessions, Helen has taught me how to slowly tune out the critical parent. It has its place, like anything does, but the nurturing parent is equally important. We learn how to reframe those thoughts. “You’re not perfect” becomes “you are good enough” and “you can’t do this” becomes “why couldn’t I do it?” With this comes a sense of inner confidence. The more you start to believe that you are worthy, the more the need to listen to your own desires and needs starts to become paramount.
There was a time when we were encouraged to “just start being a bit selfish” but in truth, I don’t see how we can describe this act as selfish. I am still somebody who wants to help people in need and take care of my loved ones, I just know that I am no longer willing to do it at the cost of my own mental health. I don’t think there’s anything selfish about that.
I’m coming up to my year anniversary of counselling and I’m not sure when I’ll be ready to stop. I have learnt some incredibly valuable lessons and doing so, I have finally started to feel something that is worth more than the number of zeros on my payslip or the size on the scale: I finally feel at peace with myself. Counselling has taught me how to look after myself and I wouldn’t trade that for the world.