"Away From Distress" Doesn't Mean Repressing Discharge

Dear Harvey,

I think there is quite a lot of confusion within the Communities about just how to counsel with attention away from distress. It seems that some counsellors insist that clients focus solely on the beauty of the world and not be permitted to voice any of their unpleasant, "bad" thoughts. Whilst I know that working in this way can bring copious discharge for some people from a position of feeling good and knowing the reality of the world, I think that for many people it is inappropriate not to allow them to say how hard things have been. It silences some clients and can leave them with a sense of futility and frustration. (It may, of course, leave the counsellor feeling comfortable as they have not had to listen to the client's pain.) With some types of hurt experience where there is an extra, deep layer of denial and silence imposed (incest, for example) it is essential that the client be allowed to talk, tell the story, and have a sense of being heard. Of course, it is quite correct to ensure attention is kept in the present, safe reality and not allow clients to stay stuck with lots of "bad" feelings. But to not allow complete expression of incidents of hurt I believe can leave unfinished business, hopelessness, and a further pull to rehearse distress in order to get someone to pay attention to us.

For some clients, telling details and discharging about how they feel suicidal is working with attention away from distress, as paying attention to the distress would be to die.

The counsellors that work with attention away from distress successfully, seem to manage to combine irreverence and a sense of fun with gentleness and compassion - truly communicating their understanding of the client.

I have seen counsellors "mock" or exaggerate a pattern and, whilst I've seen this practised effectively in demonstrations by experienced counsellors, I see many who forget that there is a whole load of painful emotion behind the pattern. Many of us have been humiliated and teased in the past and this can just serve to restimulate and is basically disrespectful. It's fine to be tough, creative, and resourceful when counselling, but we must remember that we are privileged to be assisting another human being and must work with an attitude of love and respect.

I would like to see more clarification of this in workshops, especially communicated to teachers and leaders, so they can then disseminate the information. Part of the oppression of mental health system survivors, which I believe includes all of us, is that discharge is severely interrupted, should it be seen as anything outside of "normal." The person is led to believe they are ill, or "mad," or, in RC, "too deeply distressed."

I believe that we have internalised this so much that we find it hard to accept or see the need for heavy discharge. Possibly there are other factors operating as well. Because of unawareness of how severely this oppression operates, I think it is important especially at workshops and classes to state clearly that it is right and correct for humans to discharge from beginning to end if necessary. Maybe for some people it would be necessary to clarify the difference between discharge and dramatisation, or disruption may occur. I appreciate that lots of noisy discharge would interrupt a time when information was being given. It may be appropriate for people to go discharge elsewhere for a while with the attention of a counsellor. I think the important point is the making visible (giving permission) of it being fine to discharge. Shaking, crying, trembling, and laughter make a workshop a wonderfully safe and inspiring place to be. We need to model in our workshops and classes something of how our world will be when people are freed of the need to hide away their tears and trembling. In order to contradict the controls that keep discharge inhibited, people need to know it's okay again and again.

Sue Lemon
Merseyside, England

Dear Sue,

Thanks for your long and interesting letter. On what you are saying about the need for clear application of the attention away from distress, I agree with you entirely, and you say it very well. We have tried to clarify this over and over again in workshops, and the fact that it doesn't get communicated well is, I guess, just an example of the fact that patterns do interfere with and substitute for communication, whenever there is any leeway allowed them. All breakthrough notions in counseling seem to be miscommunicated a lot at first, and then gradually become clarified. I think I will print this portion of your letter in the January Present Time, perhaps with my approving answer as a contribution to clarification.

With love,

Last modified: 2016-12-20 06:43:20-08