Counselling and Social Change

I don’t conceive of counselling as a navel gazing activity, nor as one which encourages the individual to take either the blame or the responsibility for their circumstances. It is not my intention to imply this when I state that although we did not create this structural, institutional power imbalance under which we live, the only way we can change it is by empowering ourselves to take action.

When I began counselling, here in Poland, as a volunteer in a women’s centre in an extremely poor, conservative, rural area, I found out very quickly that it was to have little in common with the counselling experience I had in a university context in the UK. The person centred counselling model in which I acquired my final diploma (after a diploma in more integrative counselling) lays particular emphasis on allowing the client space, being tentative in offering contributions which come from my, the counsellor’s, frame of reference rather than the clients’, and generally trying not to impose myself or my beliefs on them. This attitude in my new counselling room led my clients to look at me as if I was mad.

The criticisms of therapy that I had come across and partially agreed with in the UK, that counselling was a conservative, bourgeois endeavour which individualised the social and blamed people in effect for their own distress, also seemed to fade into irrelevance. Here too, the problems presented were certainly primarily social, to do with poverty and the rigid power structures within families and society which were extremely disadvantageous to women. Counselling was, however, on the side of subverting the powers-that-be, which was clearly illustrated by their reaction to our activities. As I write, the centre has been closed down for fictional reasons invented by the police. Client notes disappeared in mysterious burglaries. They referred to acts of domestic violence perpetrated by men in power in every area of society. The notes were anonymous, of course, but they knew who they were. The therapist running the centre spent as much time in court as in the counselling room. But we succeeded in helping a few clients to victory in domestic violence and sexual abuse cases, something which was previously almost unheard of.

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What I am saying is that I don’t conceive of counselling as a navel gazing activity, nor as one which encourages the individual to take either the blame or the responsibility for their circumstances. It is not my intention to imply this when I state that although we did not create this structural, institutional power imbalance under which we live, the only way we can change it is by empowering ourselves to take action. While in my university counselling room I heard how people’s sense of self can cause them┬áreal distress; in my work with these disempowered women, the very concept of ‘myself’ as a person with agency, my own rights and needs, even likes and dislikes, was at first an abstract notion, seemingly completely out of reach. Once they discovered that sense of self, they wanted to liberate themselves and their children, and they trained to become leaders, to undertake projects working to change the reality around them.

What I’m saying is that just as therapy can (I suppose!) be a self indulgent and expensive perpetuator of neurosis, it can also be radical and deeply necessary, not in order to gain a level of ‘ordinary unhappiness’ and self consciously stop there, but to be agents of positive change in this world.

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