How Does Counselling Help? - Part Two Understanding the "why" of something

Part Two - Understanding the "why" of something.

Do you understand how the air conditioning in a car works? I just looked it up on a website a minute ago and I'm not even sure I can explain it. It's quite a complicated process that goes on. What I can tell you is that you press a button and hot air becomes cold air and cools the car down. Let's call it magic.

But what would happen if instead you pressed the air con button and the hazard lights came on? Or it turned the radio to Classic FM? Engaged the ejector seat? That's problematic...

The thoughts and feelings we have are based on a combination of our prior experiences, our beliefs and the current circumstances we find ourselves in. Sometimes the rationale for those thoughts and feelings are obvious - if we meet someone for the first time and they're rude to us we might take a dislike to them. But what if you meet someone and just have an immediate sense of dislike, distrust or unease with them, even though you don't know why? Chances are that it's your prior experiences or beliefs that are playing into that feeling.

In that example the "why" of where your feelings come from might not be that important. But what if the feeling is something more frequent, such as a feeling of anxiety from being in public? There might be no particular threat from being out in public right now, but previous experiences might have led to associating being in public with feeling anxious. That has the potential to have much more of an impact. In that situation understanding where it comes from is much more important as it enables you to change the feeling or behaviour. Part of a counsellors role is to help you understand where the feelings and behaviours come from. To understand the "why" of it. These origins are often buried and not immediately obvious, and most of the time they happen unconsciously, out of awareness. Once the origins are understood, it's possible to change how you respond to the circumstances. When we can see that the air conditioning button is actually wired up to the radio we can understand what needs to be done to fix it.

Let me give you another example - if I walk past a fence with a sign on that says "Wet paint - do not touch", you can be certain that I'm going to touch it to see. I can't help myself. It's not just curiosity, it's part of my behaviour and something in my past has led me to the point where the need to know is too great to resist. So obviously I've ended up on more than one occasion standing there with sticky paint on my finger (and my fingerprint left behind as evidence). There's a strange sense of satisfaction from finding out if it is wet or not. If I was to peel back the layers of this to uncover what makes me feel that I can't walk on by without checking I'd probably link it to being a shy child growing up, and not always feeling comfortable asking questions, and so I'd go through my early life faced with lots of mysteries I was too afraid to ask about (and as a child everything is a mystery). The wet paint presents another potential mystery, and it unconsciously brings up the same feelings I had as a child, I'm just not aware of it in the moment.

I can feel quite sad about that, and really empathise with the younger me who carried so many unanswered questions. I can understand why I'd feel the need to get answers if I could - knowing the answer negates any feelings of uncertainty, doubt and potential shame that comes with feeling shy. I can tell myself that it's okay not to have the answers, because as an adult I'm okay with asking questions (plus, you know, Google exists), and because the feelings that I've associated with not having the answer aren't relevant to the current situation. I can feel okay about not knowing and make the choice to walk on by without touching the wet paint. Mostly.

That's a bit of a light hearted example, but it applies to a lot of things that people feel and how they behave. And part of how counselling works is to help you uncover these answers so you can make a conscious decision to think and feel differently. It's not always easy and can take a little time - you've often been behaving/feeling this way for a long time so it takes some time to create a new pattern, but the result is that you live in a healthier more autonomous manner in the here and now.

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