I was recently in a conversation that intrigued and strongly brought home to me how much of what I call counselling is about basic human needs. I was speaking with a client, and he was telling me how important to him was the feeling of family, the feeling of belonging to something larger than himself and of which he was an intimate and valued part. For him, not to have that meant he felt lonely, which he described as a kind of darkness.
As he spoke and I listened within the intimate setting that counselling is intended to provide, my mind kept holding onto two words that he had used, family and darkness, as if, for reasons I wasn’t completely aware of, I wanted to maintain some connection between those words that the client was describing as being so distant from each other in their meanings.
It wasn’t until the end of the session that I suggested that maybe the darkness was being excluded from his life for obvious reasons. It wasn’t being invited to those “family gatherings” that take place inside him and which are made up of the different aspects of his being. Most people recognize that each of our personalities contains a diversity of different, sometimes conflicting, opinions and desires that we do our best to integrate into a functioning whole. In addition, many of us divide up our inner experience into categories such as good and bad, and then we chose which thought or feeling we want to keep company with and which ones we don’t want to know about. The consequence is that though a dark mood is, so to speak, a member of our family in so far as it is a part of our experience, we do whatever we can to avoid contact with it because we tell ourselves it makes us feel bad. But a bad, dark mood is not the cause of our misery, it is a symptom. Pain does not cause a backache, nor does trying to ignore the pain help us get rid of a backache. Such a response is similar to shooting the messenger who carries bad news, but which nevertheless may be news important to our survival.
Let’s go back to what the client was saying, that he is lonely and experiences his life sunk in darkness. He yearns for family–a partner, children. He tries hard not to feel lonely, to fill up his life with as much activity as possible, but it doesn’t help: the loneliness is still there. He then falls into a darkness that has now become deeper because he has failed once again to get what he wants. He senses he is going nowhere.
So, family is what he dreams of having, and darkness is what he has. If he now begins to look at what he has rather than what he dreams of, he’s confronted by things he doesn’t like, things he has labelled bad. If he can bear to be with that bad stuff, however briefly, he begins to form a tenuous relationship with a part of himself, his loneliness for example, that he has avoided talking to for most of his life. He learns that this lonely man inside him feels no one attends, listens or cares about him, not in any deep way, and, furthermore, no one ever has. In this internal conversation, after allowing himself to fully take in the sorrow of this estranged aspect of himself as if it belonged to another, the client, moved by a sense of compassion, might ask if there is anything he can do to help. A response comes back in the form of a request: “Be with me.” What often follows is an extended silence during which the client may experience an inner struggle, sometimes accompanied by tears, between his desire to be with and his shame in relation to his loneliness.
This imagined, what if story, does not have an ending. It’s one of those never-ending stories that leave us with numerous questions. We can be fairly certain, however, that should the client, in a measured way, engage with his own darkness, that new possibilities will emerge. He will have taken a first step in getting to know a disavowed part of himself that he once saw as darkly threatening. Long-separated family members will met. They will talk.