On Being the Counselor

A transcript of a talk by Tim Jackins at an RC Community Gather-in in Tel Aviv, Israel, in October 2000

We’ve learned a variety of ways to work on distresses in Co-Counseling. One important thing we’ve learned is that the counselor shouldn’t believe the client’s negative feelings but instead insist on a better picture of reality. We have a model that says that people are good, and smart, and that they like each other. If there weren’t any distresses, we’d be happy, we’d cooperate, and we’d enjoy life. We use this model to notice and be suspicious of patterns.

When we have clients who cannot feel good about themselves, it is our job as counselors not to believe it, even though we probably have similar feelings about ourselves. It is our job to push our distresses to the side and think about our clients as wonderful human beings, no matter what happened to them, no matter how lost they ever got in their distresses, no matter what “stupid” things they did.

Not only do our societies install massive oppression on us—by class, by gender, by race, by religion, by anything—but we’re also kept from challenging this oppression because we’re all hurt in ways that make us feel bad about ourselves, so bad that we feel it’s impossible to challenge society’s oppressions.

As Co-Counselors we know that people are good. We know they are smart. We know they are capable. We know they are dear. The distresses they carry may confuse that picture, but we know that the people remain all those things, in spite of the ways they got hurt. The essence of being human isn’t destroyed by collecting distresses, it’s only obscured. We know that people simply need to discharge to re-emerge.

How do we help them discharge? They feel miserable, and helpless, and ugly, and stupid, just like we do. Who’s going to move first? One of us has to decide to counsel the other on it. One of us has to decide that we can’t tolerate the other person feeling that way, even if we feel that way. Somebody must step out of this so that he or she can help the rest of us.

Let’s say you are the one who decides to do this as counselor. What do you do? There are many choices. Sometimes I argue with the person. I’ve had good sessions in which my client and I would yell at each other. She would yell, “I’m stupid!” showing me the recordings that run in her head all the time that she usually hides, and I would yell back, “You are not!” and she would say, “I am too,” and cry and cry and cry. Somebody taking her side against her distresses, somebody not believing them, made it possible for her to cry about them. It wasn’t the yelling, it was that I insisted. Sometimes you can say very softly, “I think you are wonderful,” and the client says, “You do not,” and you say, “Yes, I do. I think you are wonderful.” You try to make your voice sound the way you’d like it to sound.

We are not yet very good at sounding warm to each other. If we try to tell someone we care about that we love him, we say: “You know I love you, don’t you?” (using a bored tone of voice), and he says, “Huh?” and we say, “Well, I do” (defensively). And if we try to be warm, our voice gets out of our control, and we say, “I love you” (voice cracking like a boy during puberty). Our embarrassment and awkwardness take over and get in our way of supporting someone else.

We all deserve to feel good about ourselves. We even deserve to be hopeful. (laughter) Part of what society does to us is make us feel hopeless. The best we feel we can do is survive. We can’t figure out anything new or better than what has been done before. Of course, that’s not a true picture. We have lots of new, intelligent solutions in our minds. It is important that they get out of our mouths sometime soon—so that they can help other people think, and be hopeful, and not keep making old, unworkable attempts at solutions.

In a mini-session now, I want you to try to think about being pleased with yourself—actually pleased. Not just the words. I know you can say any words I would tell you to say. I want your mind, not your voice. I want you to think about the last time you were pleased and enthusiastic, even if it was fifty or sixty years ago. (Sometimes it is.) I want you to talk about what it would feel like to wake up pleased tomorrow morning.


Another important thing we know about is our ability to be close to each other. You know how much children like to be close. If you’ve had your own children, or gotten to be close enough to young ones, you know how much they like to attach themselves. They want their noses in your neck, they want to smell your skin and rub into it, they want to remember how it feels. Nothing feels like your skin, and being that close is very important to a child. It is no less important to adults. We just don’t seem to know how to do it anymore. And we certainly don’t know who to do it with! We get very awkward with each other, and very embarrassed, and we cover up our embarrassment by being proper and efficient and talking from a distance, because if we get too close, we get confused. If we get close, we know we want to get closer, and we don’t know how to do that, and we are pretty sure that no one else wants to do that, especially with us.

This is one of the reasons even bad movies are popular. People in the movies are at least pretending to be close to each other. If no one were watching us, and we had a videotape of two people actually caring and being close, we’d watch it over and over and over again. It would be showing something we don’t get to see very often. Some of us never saw much of it at all. By the time we were born, our parents had forgotten how. They couldn’t show us what being close was. They were too worried and busy.

Everyone longs to be close to other people. This isn’t about sex, though our distresses about sex make us confused here. It isn’t about being dependent on someone, or having someone take care of us. It’s about being close to another equal person. There is something we learn and remember if we get that chance.

How many people here have a memory of being close to someone? Good. The rest of you will find one, if you work at it a little. Most people have had at least small chances. We need to take some session time remembering those, and talking about how we would like to be close to other people. Most of us have sort of given up on it, especially as we get older. “It’s too late” for us. “Nobody wants someone as old as I am.” This is not true. It’s not about age. It’s about being with another human who is there thinking, too.

Let’s try something. Lean against the person next to you. For one minute, just lean into her or him. (laughter and other noises

Could you notice and actually feel that person? You have to decide to notice them. It’s not automatic anymore. We all have too many struggles. To be close we have to decide and notice. It works even better if someone else is paying attention, too. It can even work fine in three-way sessions, when someone pays attention to the other two trying to notice being close. Wouldn’t life be better if we could lean against someone at the start of every day . . . at the office? (laughter) We could. We just think other people don’t want it.

This has to do with going public with RC. (laughter)

I was a graduate student in mathematics. Mathematics departments are not warm, cuddly places. We mathematicians are a little . . . strange. Mathematicians sit alone in their offices and think, and many people end up in mathematics because they don’t know what to do with people. That department was not very pleasant. 

I found a secretary in the department who had been there for twenty-five years and was planning on leaving in three more years, so she was ready to take chances. We agreed that every time we passed each other in the hall we would throw our arms around each other, twirl around three times, and continue on our way. This made it a much better place for me, and for her. And it woke up a lot of people.

We lose track of each other if we can’t be physically close. You know what a difference it can make in a session if your counselor holds your hand. It is much different than sitting across from each other.

The heavier the distresses we try to work on, the more we need that contact. It is a way of telling that somebody is really there with us. We learn things from being physically close that are a little different from looking at, or talking with, each other. For most of us, physical contact cuts through our isolation better than words, probably because it is what we relied on at the beginning. We relied on being able to get our cheek into somebody’s body, and have him or her hold us there so that we knew it was mutual between us.

If you as counselor can remember not to stay physically separate, you will provide a lot of reassurance to your clients and contradictions to their distresses. Sometimes it is holding their hand, sometimes it is touching their cheek, sometimes it is having your arm around them.

Especially if people are working on heavy fear, they need to wrap their arms around you and hang on tight. (The phrase in the United States is “to hang on for dear life.”) And they need you hanging on to them just as hard. This will take some work on your part, because you have to be thinking and aware as you do it. Both people have to consciously feel and be aware of each other physically.

Almost all of us, when we first put our arms around someone, clasp our own hands. This seems natural to us. But if you think about it, it is very strange. If we are trying to hold the person, why are we holding ourselves? Because we are awkward.

Sometimes we hold someone using the palms of our hands—being almost afraid to feel with our fingers. Somehow that is too personal. We are trying to be personal. We are trying to be very personal as counselors. Counseling doesn’t work unless it’s about two particular people. When you are counselor and you have your arms around your client, it’s not because they are a client. It is because they are that person, and you know them, and you want to help them in their struggle with their fears. The way to hold them that will reassure them most will be different from how anybody else needs to be held. It will be close, and personal, and unique, and it is your job as the counselor to figure out exactly what that is. And you can’t do it by holding yourself back.

If we dare to be that involved as counselors, if we don’t stay distant and we really try to be there for the other person, we will probably start feeling some of our own distresses. If someone is working on a deep sadness, and we put our arms around that person, and he or she starts crying hard, most of us feel like crying, too. This is because we have similar hurts that we’re not done crying about. At that point most of us get confused. Knowing it is not our turn to be client, we try to get control of ourselves, and stop discharging, and hold our position as counselor, even though we are not thinking well anymore. That’s actually a mistake. It is all right if we cry with our client—as long as we don’t let our minds get pulled into our own distresses, as long as we keep thinking about our client and his or her struggle, as long as we stay counselor. For most of us as clients, it is reassuring if our counselor starts crying. We know that somebody is actually there enough to understand what was going on for us.

Sometimes to be a good counselor you have to discharge. To be able to stay there and keep thinking, you have to be crying. You may have done this with people you care about outside of counseling. You know the fights you have had that worked? When both of you ended up crying at each other, and you stayed there, and you talked, and you cried, but you didn’t give up? You know those were the good fights because both of you were so happy afterward, because you were able to discharge enough to not lose contact with each other. It was a victory over both of your distresses that you were able to talk, and communicate, and keep discharging enough that the distresses didn’t separate you. It’s a little like that in counseling sometimes—to stay there and stay thinking about the person, you have to be crying, too.

This isn’t permission to become client, or to act on our frozen longings for being close. Discharging and being client are not necessarily the same things. Being client means it is time to discharge and think about our struggles. But we can also discharge without becoming the client. Very often, when people face challenges in their lives, if they feel they have enough support they start discharging as they do it, and it usually lets them think farther and do better. Lots of people shake and perspire all the way through talks they give to people. Many people have to cry as they talk about things that are important to them. Lots of us have to giggle and sweat off our embarrassment as we try many different things.

Don’t let the fact that your feelings come up as counselor stop you from being counselor. You will be a much better counselor if you keep going after your client, no matter what runs down your face. 

Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00