There is no denying that helping others with their challenges is a privilege. To experience someone else’s journey is a gift. I have always been passionate about people and their wellbeing. As a teacher and faith leader, it comes as second nature to teach trust and belief, encouraging individuals to use self-help while quoting holy and inspirational verses. As a therapist, divinity is left unmentioned, unless brought up by the client, though for those who believe, it is ever so present in the counselling room. In all these multiple caring roles, it is almost instinctive to be optimistic and encouraging in the face of a fellow human being’s challenges and their tricky journey. I can do it virtually in my sleep. That being the case, I wonder time and again, why is it that when it comes to facing one’s own difficult times, the positivity does not flow as easily? Where is the stumbling block?
While reflecting on the sharing of positivity employed by clerics, educators and counsellors, one could be forgiven for wondering if the words they say come from the heart. One might question if all practitioners inwardly truly believe in the words of faith being taught or the values and positivity being shared. Some may perhaps speculate if at times these are just the regurgitated words, instructed by religion and learning, and said for the benefit of maintaining a façade of faith and forced positivity that comes with the job. If that was so, the moral and ethical code of all these three professions would be in jeopardy. In order to be effective, it takes genuine words, which are likely to enter the heart.
My father used to say, life is the best school. There is nothing more beautiful than a human being and their complexities. There is no greater leaning opportunity than life’s journey itself. As a therapist, there is nothing more stimulating than watching individuals’ emotions and external influences vie with common sense, fighting for balance and for a way forward.
For as long as I am the observer of the travesty that is the inner game of life taking place in the internal arena of others, I am, overall, OK with it. I can then, with a heart full of genuine love and compassion, understand and perceive the strands of different feelings and thoughts fighting for supremacy within the individual sharing their problem. I can walk into their life, sit inside the emotive picture they paint, and see with a level of clarity where disturbance is coming from. Together we can explore the multifaceted narrative and give the individual the confidence to analyse, dissect and reconstruct different scenarios that make up his or her life, past and present, which are causing trouble. The outcome is usually one of a ‘light bulb’ moment where the different components of a challenge begin to emerge, clear and unpolluted, building a sharp picture, allowing for reality, hurt, hope and possibilities to begin working together.
As a pastoral leader, the process is somewhat similar, if less intense, with the added flavour and energy of looking at the interplay of the divine influence on a person’s conflict, and its effect on the inner self. There is something extremely precious and holding in helping others find faith within themselves. Whereas, in the therapeutic world, a therapist facilitates the client to turn on the light bulb of insight, in the faith world, a pastoral leader helps a congregant or pupil find the already lit bulb within them, which has been dimmed by layers of problems covering their inner light.
So why is it so difficult to use the same process with oneself? Why is it that standing at a crossroad of life, with no light to show the way, one cannot simply follow the same analytical process of thinking and of faith one would use to help others?
Person-centred therapy expounds the importance of acceptance and congruence as core conditions for therapeutic movement.1,2 Unconditional acceptance and congruence are unqualified positive regard and recognition of others, without judgment. In order for this to be effective and perceived as genuine, it has to come from the heart. It is often easier to feel true unconditional acceptance for a client, congregant or pupil than it is to feel them for oneself. This is so because, when a self-aware professional enters another’s inner world, they consciously make an effort to leave their own insecurities behind. He or she focuses on the facts, feeling and the narrative being recounted by the teller, without the complication of his or her own personal baggage and emotional handicaps playing a central part. An example of this is cited by Rogers as being the therapeutic experience of a client: ‘We were mostly me, working together in my situation as I found it.’1
As a therapist, when walking into a client’s life, one can appreciate their inner world with its goodness and achievements, while being aware of the individual’s struggles and insecurities. These struggles and insecurities often come from mistakenly absorbed messages of significant others in their lives, or from experiences. The individual, in order to make sense of what is happening, creates unhealthy and unhelpful rules for survival in the misguided hope that it will protect them from further pain. Healing is brought about when the person, through experiencing positive regard in therapy, begins to appreciate their inner goodness and see themselves with renewed confidence.
As a faith leader and teacher, I can appreciate the beauty of a person’s soul. Sometimes the need to find answers to questions that have no answers and to accept the disparity of fair and unfair, may lead people to create the unfounded belief that the Divine is either non existent or that the individual is so worthless, they are undeserving of divine providence and protection. The more they feel helpless, the more they feel hopeless and abandoned. Inner trauma can cause faith to be shattered, leading a person to unwittingly lose connection with their inner light and feel disengaged. By helping someone to appreciate the transcendence existent in the good and miraculous, hidden or otherwise, within their inner and outer world, equilibrium is restored.
Yet the question remains: why are we so able to be objective and enlightened about other people’s challenges while remaining so lost and helpless when facing our own times of darkness?
Eric Berne, in his theory of transactional analysis, alludes to the interplay of diverging inner messages spoken by what he calls the parent (a form of critical self), adult (nurturing self) and the child (our inner vulnerable self).3 Conflict is caused when the critical self does its best to be the louder voice, controlling the vulnerable self while ignoring and undermining the messages of the nurturing self. The result can vary from self-doubt or confusion to total despair. A similar process is explained by Freud in the interplay of id, ego and superego where the id (our primordial and instinctive impulse), ego (our rational mind) and super ego (our conscience filled with rules for living) all wrestle for supremacy.4
Yet another source of teaching for this very same process can be seen in Kabbalah and Chassidic teachings (part of the Jewish mystical traditions), where they talk about ‘the two kings fighting to take control of the small city’. The two kings are an allusion to the nefesh habahamit, also referred to as yetzer hara (animalistic soul/evil inclination) and nefesh haelokit, also known as yetzer tov (Godly soul/good inclination), fighting for mastery over the ‘city’, which is the person.5
When an individual seeks help and gains proper support from an active listener, they enlist a second adult or nurturing voice to take part in the interplay between the different messages being heard by the inner child. The ‘borrowed’ extra nurturing voice adds strength to the client’s own inner nurturing self. It becomes two against one, which then gives a much better chance for the inner child to stand against self-defeating thoughts and processes. This causes conflict to lessen and some degree of peace and clarity to become restored within the person. Many of my clients talk about ‘hearing’ our conversation when challenging moments arise. One client alluded to feeling as if he had internalised the counselling voice.
Despite all the theoretical knowledge and experience, without the dynamics of two strong positive voices against one self-destroying voice, it makes sense that professionals facing their own inner conflict might struggle to make their lone nurturing voice be heard above their critical voice. The greater the challenge and emotional confusion or pain, the harder it is for even the most successful teacher, faith leader or counsellor to resolve inner conflict on their own, without support. That being so, why do some professionals have an inner expectation that we ought to be able to practise what we preach?
Despite all the competence, self-awareness and self-care knowledge, which inform us when to seek help, even seasoned professionals may unwittingly underplay the impact of events on our core self. When I slipped on water at work and suffered a serious accident that left me housebound and dependent for many weeks, I watched with fascination my personal transition of moving from normal daily routine into shock and then falling headlong into post-traumatic stress disorder. After all, it was a classic case study. As the weeks wore on, the ongoing flashbacks, panic at the sight of water and the fluctuation between sleepless nights and nightmares was something I could diagnose as PTSD, but I could do nothing that was effective to help myself. I tried to ‘self-help’ or therapeutically talk myself out of it. I then realised I needed a second adult self to help me through the mess and to lend me strength to internalise positive self messages and affirmations.
For us as counsellors, self-awareness and helping others overcome emotional blocks are the bread and butter of our everyday lives. At times, given our line of work, some of us might feel quite inadequate not to be able to access within ourselves the help we give others. The answer is simple: we need to find someone to talk to. We need to obtain an empathic and nurturing external voice to join our inner adult voice and help us get through the challenge. In Ethics of the fathers, we learn ‘appoint for yourself a teacher’ (chapter 1: 6).6 Recognising and owning our needs, and accepting that we can’t do it on our own, is one of the greatest signs of true self-help.
Esther SM Cohen has been a counsellor for over 12 years. She is Head of Religious Education in a Primary school and is a registered ‘Pikuach’ inspector, which is the recognised body (by Ofsted) that inspects religious education in Jewish schools. She is a ‘Rebbetzen’ (female counterpart to Rabbi) to a Jewish Student congregation in the Midlands and is the founder and director or Kadimah Counselling, a service dedicated to supporting Jewish university students.
1. Rogers C. Client-centred therapy. London: Constable; 1951.
2. Thorne B. In: Dryden W (ed). Handbook of individual therapy. London: Sage Publications; 1996 (p133).
3. Clarkson P, Gilbert M,Tudor K. In: Dryden W (ed). Handbook of individual therapy. London: Sage Publications; 1996 (p222).
4. McLeod J. An introduction to counselling. (2nd edition). Milton Keynes: Open University Press; 1998.
5. Shneur Zalman of Liadi. The book of Tanya. London: Kehot Publication Society, The Soncino Press Ltd (English translation of text with the original text); 1973.
6. Ethics of the fathers. Mishna Avos. (Oral law).