This week we were asked to explore and reflect on a couple of thought exercises relating to our self-awareness.

One was to think about a time you were not helped by someone from whom you expected help from. For me, this would be a couple of years ago when I thought I had some kind of physical problem in my bowels. I had to go to a treatment centre and have a camera inserted into my bottom so they could have a good look around. The event itself wasn’t too bad to be honest, it didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would, but it did leave me feeling bit emotional for some reason. Combined with the hunger pains of having to fast the day before and the day of the procedure, and then the fear and uncertainty of waiting for results afterwards, I was fragile.

My wife never once asked how it went. I know she probably didn’t do it consciously, and she had a million other reasons why she didn’t ask or was too busy doing other things, but it left me feeling invisible and unloved. Not even at the end of a busy day, both lying in bed together, did she ask. In short, I was expecting my wife to help support me emotionally, but she did not. Again, I know she probably didn’t do it on purpose, but it did make me feel like I was very, very low down on her list of priorities. I probably was, to be fair, and it felt like crap, being so very low on her list. All I wanted was a little bit of comfort from my preferred person to get comfort from. I did learn a valuable lesson that day though, and it was a key early incident in the chain of events that lead to my breakdown and subsequent rise back up. All was ok in the end, by the way, there was nothing found during the procedure.

This is interesting, as it gives me an idea of how a client could feel if they didn’t think I, as a counsellor, was helping them. I can understand how such things happen, as finding a counsellor you can trust and allow yourself to be vulnerable to can be very hard. I can also envision a situation where, despite their best efforts, a counsellor and client don’t gel properly, and the therapeutic relationship doesn’t yield success. It is important for the counsellor to not take it personally, even when the feelings of rejection and failure rise up. Not all clients get on with all counsellors; not all therapeutic relationships flourish.

The next thinking point was to think about a time you were helped by someone you did not expect help from. One of the only times I can think of help coming from an unexpected source was a few weeks ago when I was feeding dinner to my son, and after having been fed too much trifle, he didn’t really want to eat his spaghetti. I bargained with him that if he ate one more spoonful then that would be ok. A second after the spoon left his mouth, he threw up. My sister-in-law got cloths and towels to wipe up the sick from the floor. Her boyfriend went off to run a bath for us. My mother-in-law came and took his sick-covered clothes away and put them in to soak. All in all, I was very thankful they all chipped in and helped out. I would have gotten there eventually myself, but many hands do make light work.

I am finding this harder to integrate into a counselling framework, as surely if someone has come to counselling, then they are hoping for or expecting the counsellor to be able to help. A person wouldn’t come to counselling and then be surprised when the counsellor actually helps them; unless of course, they are there because they have to attend, rather than choosing to be there of their own accord.

Another thing we were asked to discuss was how you protect yourself from unwelcome emotions. Personally, I have become better at protecting myself from unwelcome emotions by practising meditation and mindfulness, and have also started something called positive self-talk. I like to sit for thirty minutes a day and meditate. I just sit in a quiet space, and rather than consciously trying to not think of anything, I watch any stray thoughts that appear in my mind and just “shoo” them away. New thoughts often quickly appear again, but I “shoo” them away as well. I realise that I am not my thoughts, and that my mind can conjure up the most random things. I used to believe these anxious thoughts and feelings were accurate reflections of reality, and they used to ruminate round and round until they made me physically sick with worry; what started as a random thought ended up controlling my physiology. I like being able to choose what I think about and feel, rather than having my feelings and thoughts control me. Also, having a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has helped, and it synergises beautifully with meditation. Negative thoughts, behaviours, physical sensations and emotions can all feed off of and amplify one another. Knowing this and nipping a thought pattern in the bud before it germinates, or noticing a physical sensation such as hyperventilating and then consciously slowing your breath down can greatly influence a downward spiral, and maybe even stop it completely.

Mindfulness is similar to meditation in that it brings your consciousness to the fore, as it directs your attention to the here-and-now of what is happening. So much of life is done on auto-pilot. While carrying out tasks with your body, your mind is elsewhere. Thinking about the bad things that happened in the past or the good things that could happen in the future, you are not really paying attention to what is going on in the moment, and as you can only really live in the moment, you are missing out on so much. If someone triggers anger inside of you by saying you look silly wearing that hat, be mindful of the anger inside you. Notice the anger. Acknowledge the anger. Accept the anger. If you understand that it is only a chemical reaction caused by your amygdala, then rather than fight it, resist it or be swept along with it, you can simply choose for it to not have any control over you.

Positive self-talk is another thing I use to regulate my own thoughts and emotions and the control they have over me. In a nutshell, and I admit this does sound a bit twee, whenever your mind criticises or suggests you shouldn’t do something because you will fail, you consciously reply back to that thought as if it were your best friend and you care for them and their well-being deeply. I have found that this almost always diffuses the negative thought cycle, and stops the thoughts from going round and round in my head until they cause me to feel unwell.

In relation to my self-puzzle, I can see that procrastination and cowardice towards trying new things had been a personal defence mechanism of mine for a while. I thought that if I never tried anything new then I would never fail at anything. This is a flawed way of thinking though, and it is what kept me trapped for so long – the flip side of never trying anything so as to not fail is never trying anything and never succeeding. More childish and unreliable ways I used to use to protect myself from unwanted emotions were to sulk, ignore the person I feel bad feelings towards, or to be passive aggressive. At the time I felt these helped in the short-term, but now I realise that even although I felt vindicated by treating them poorly it didn’t help in the long term as a lot of things were left unsaid, and resentment was built up. All this resentment and ill-feeling would then explode out over a smaller and more trivial problem, which would then make it look like I was overreacting, so these methods wouldn’t really protect me in the long run from further unwanted negative emotions.

And finally, we discussed the impact that different defence mechanisms have on relationships. Defences are mostly unconscious internal mechanisms that prevent full awareness of unpleasant or unwanted thoughts, behaviours or emotions. There are various maturity levels of defences. Defences like throwing things to express anger, denial of a problem or issue and people projecting their own issues on to someone else are immature reactions. A person getting mad at their boss but being unable to take it out on them for fear of being fired only to go home and displace that anger by kicking their dog, or someone repressing unpleasant feelings or impulses by blocking painful memories are using less primitive defences than the ones mentioned before, but ultimately they do not really help with the situation.

Sublimation is the channelling of unpleasant thoughts, behaviours or emotions into more acceptable ones. Using the example above of a person being angry at their boss but being unable to take it out on them for fear of being fired, instead of going home and kicking the dog, sublimation would be going for a run or doing vigorous exercise. Compensating is another defence mechanism that used sensibly can help rather than hinder. If someone is poor at maths but great at writing, then focusing their attention on their strengths rather than their weaknesses builds their self-esteem. Being assertive is probably the ultimate defence mechanism in that it communicates a person’s needs in a balanced and fair way. Being too passive in expressing your emotions can lead to mind-reading and resentment whereas being too aggressive in expressing your emotions can upset others. These are the best, most useful defences and are mature, conscious and well formed – they not only help a person shine a light their problems, but also give a person the self-esteem and courage to confront and overcome them.

In a therapeutic relationship, defences in a client can be blocks to opening up and feeling at ease with a counsellor. This is usually due to their fear of confronting the unpleasant feelings on their part, or their uneasiness of exploring the root cause of their problems.

Defences in the counsellor are blocks to truly listening. They stunt empathic understanding. Things like sarcasm, prejudging, lecturing, advising, listening selectively, ignoring, moralising and ordering on the part of the counsellor can be indications of their unconscious defence mechanisms. These defences could stem from a counsellor’s desire to feel needed, or to be seen as an authority figure or a superior person. Regardless of why they exist in a counsellor, they are non-accepting attitudes which undermine unconditional positive regard. If a counsellor can understand their own defences, where they come from and what triggers them, then they are better equipped to push past the edge of their own defences safely and do what is best for the client rather than make themselves feel better about themselves. Counsellors that understand their own defences are also better able to deal with a client’s defences, to understand where they come from, and not take their activation personally. Together, through the creation of a safe place to talk, a trusting relationship and unconditional positive regard, a counsellor and client can work together to get past a client’s defences.

From the research I undertook to answer this last question and the short discussion we had in class, I have developed an interest in this particular topic, and look forward to learning about emotional defences from our tutor in the future. I feel it is an interesting facet of not just counselling, but psychology and sociology as well. It brings to my mind the saying “The truth hurts”; as defences are often triggered when confronted with a personal truth that the person wishes was not a truth. For example, if a person was lying to themselves and incongruence inside them had been uncovered, then their defences activate, it could make them get angry and vociferously refute the claims or go off and sulk thereby removing themselves from the conversation.

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