What is Psychodynamic Counselling?
Situations or relationships in early life can lead us to develop ways of being that persist throughout our lives: expectations of how others will treat us, for instance, or assumptions about our own self-worth. Sometimes negative assumptions which have their roots at an earlier stage of our development continue into adulthood in ways which cause us distress or unhappiness. This might only become apparent over time, when we realise that we are repeating self-destructive patterns of behaviour, or that we ‘keep making the same mistakes’ without understanding why.
The psychodynamic approach is not about trying to ‘uncover’ some specific trauma or event from our childhood, nor is it about simply trying to blame our problems on things that happened to us in the past; it is a way of exploring how our past has shaped our present. Through recognising patterns in our ways of relating and understanding how past experiences have shaped us, it affords us greater insight into ourselves. Such insight not only helps us to understand why we are the way we are, it also opens up the possibility of change. When we become aware of the unconscious assumptions which underpin our behaviour, we can start to think about doing things differently. Of course, there are things in life which cannot be changed: bereavements or other losses, relationships which have broken down irreparably, or past suffering. Counselling can help us work through, mourn, and ultimately to accept these losses so that we are able to move on with our lives.
The Client / Counsellor Relationship
The relationship between client and counsellor is central to the psychodynamic approach: it is the frame within which the work of personal growth and self-discovery can take place. The psychodynamic approach is not directive - as your counsellor I would not have any agenda or expectations of you. It is for the client to bring whatever they wish to bring to each session, and to work at the pace which feels right for them.
Difficult memories and painful feelings might emerge during counselling and it is important that this process is managed safely and sensitively by the counsellor. Sometimes, the client begins to relate to the counsellor in a way which reflects experiences or relationships they have struggled with in their past. As the work progresses, they might experience negative as well as positive feelings towards their counsellor. These feelings are an important part of the process and, once talked about and reflected upon, might offer important insights into a client’s experience. Honesty is important in the counselling room: there is nothing that cannot be talked about within a robust therapeutic relationship.
Continuity and consistency are also vital to the quality of the counselling work. You might find that counselling begins to bring up feelings and memories for you, and it is important that you know you will be able to talk about and reflect on these at the same time each week. Once we have agreed a regular session time I will keep that slot available for you for as long as you require it, and I will always give you plenty of advance warning about my breaks.
Short-term or Open-ended?
Clients sometimes ask how long I think they will ‘need’ to be in counselling, to which there is no simple answer. Every client is different and it might not be until you start counselling that have a sense of how you want to use it, or what you might get out of it.
If there is a specific issue or crisis that you want to talk about – perhaps you are trying to come to terms with a traumatic event like a recent medical diagnosis, or a bereavement, or a relationship breakdown – then you might prefer a short-term counselling arrangement. Short term work would usually consist of 8-12 sessions and would focus on a particular issue or problem, to give you somewhere to offload your feelings in a confidential space and reflect on what is going on for you at the moment.
Ongoing or open-ended counselling would give us time to work at greater depth, to explore some of the underlying issues which might be contributing to your distress. As a rough guideline, open-ended clients often find that 18-24 months of counselling enables them to work through their difficulties and allows them to think about making changes in their lives. However, many clients decide to stay for longer.
Sometimes clients come for short-term counselling but decide they would like to continue on an ongoing basis. It is your choice to decide when you feel ready to finish, and you are under no obligation to commit to counselling for any longer than feels right for you. Endings in counselling are an important part of the work, however, and I would always recommend a planned ending, so that any feelings evoked can be worked through and discussed.