Today was week two of the introduction to counselling course that I’m taking, and I was almost as anxious going in this week as I was last week. Having met and gotten to know some of the group last week, I didn’t feel much more confident about engaging with them this week. They were back to being strangers again, and I didn’t know if I could trust them to accept me back in. I knew this feeling would get in the way of me being able to engage with the session properly, but any attempt to overcome the anxiety felt like I was putting pressure on myself, so I just carried on feeling anxious and somewhat detached for most of the three hours.
During the break in the middle there was some embarrassment when I tried to sit at a table with two of the group members in the canteen. Just like being back at college again. I didn’t know what to say to them, so I sat there while they carried on talking like I wasn’t there. Fortunately I was rescued after a few minutes when a couple of others from the group joined us and started including me in a conversation. Any effort from me to get involved in the group chat without help would have been out of the question.
After break we were asked to form groups to do an active listening exercise. One person would talk, one person would actively listen (like a counsellor), and another person would observe things. We’d then swap roles so that each member in turn got to be in each position. I remembered doing this in the counselling course that was part of my psychology degree, so I should have been excited about playing the counsellor again. But I could only think about finding a group that I felt safe with, and how difficult it would be. For every group exercise the tutor asks us to pair up with people we haven’t worked with before, so to find partners I have to talk to strangers, my worst nightmare. This was the part of the session I’d been dreading all morning, the reason I hadn’t been able to be present.
One of the women who’d spoken to me at the break luckily came straight over to me to include me in her group, which I felt grateful for. When it came to the exercise, the tutor encouraged those of us playing ‘the client’ not to make stuff up. Instead, we might get more out of it by talking about things that were really going on for us, how we were feeling, etc. When it was my turn to talk I couldn’t think of anything else to talk about other than the anxiety I’d been going through in the group. I said that I felt sad about being anxious in week two, that it was stopping me from engaging with everyone fully. I was honest about not feeling safe there, and feeling guilty about that.
We had five minutes to talk, so I was able to get quite a lot of it out, and I felt immediately better afterwards. There’s nothing quite like owning one’s feelings, as I’ve discovered in AA many times before. My colleagues were as kind as one would expect, telling me that they too find opening up and engaging honestly with strangers difficult. I realised that to get the full benefit of this course, I will need to keep doing that. I can’t be closed off. Essentially, I need to be myself there, fully. To do that I need to trust that it will be ok, something I can find virtually impossible in all manner of social situations. It’s clear now that I will never really feel like it’s ok – there may never come a time when I believe in my gut that other humans can be trusted completely. So I’ve just got to get on and do it, regardless, or I’ll be stuck forever. That’s what faith means. For years I’ve been waiting for something inside me to change so that opening out and connecting to people gets automatically easier, and it’s never happened. I have to step out onto the ice and start walking, all whilst feeling like it could crack underneath me at any minute. There is no other way across the lake.
One might wonder why opening up and overcoming group anxiety is so important when I’ll only be working with individuals as a counsellor. Well, clearly if I can’t work through this then I won’t be able to help a client who’s going through it. We’ve been told from the start of the course that personal development and change is essential when training to be a counsellor. I was already looking at a lot of this stuff before the training started, as it kept coming up in AA during the past year or so. Now I am throwing an even stronger magnifying glass on it, and I don’t like it, but it’s got to be done.
I wasn’t going to go to the big meeting this week. I was going to try a new local meeting down the road, to see if I could branch out for the first time in years from the safe gay meetings that I’ve always done. In the end, despite my best intentions I just went to the gay meeting. It seemed easier, I’d know people there and I might not feel so resentful after a two week break. From start to finish, the meeting was packed with fabulous, heart rending sharing of the sort I could only dream about doing. There were some gaps in which I could have jumped in, but as ever, my mouth wouldn’t open when the opportunity was there.
For the counselling course I’ve been reading some Carl Rogers, who talks about things like ‘congruence’ and ‘self actualisation’. These are concepts I know well – in AA they just have different names. At the beginning of his book ‘A Way Of Being’ Rogers shares some anecdotes about times when he felt listened to, and times when he was able to really listen to someone, and how happy it made him. They’re the kind of anecdotes that make one feel warm inside, because I think really being heard is something we all crave in life. From the day I came into AA I’ve had a forum where I can always be heard, but I haven’t been able to appreciate it all the time because I’m so shit scared of vulnerability. In his writing Carl Rogers reiterates the point that real authenticity and growth only happens when we’re being honest and vulnerable with others. In a moment when one shares something personal with another, without embellishment or self editing, that magical connection occurs that we all dream of, allowing change to happen. I never thought of myself as an advocate of Rogers’ person-centred view of therapy, but I find myself nodding along with it now, and I also find myself wondering if I’ll ever ‘self actualise’ enough to share my true self in all situations.
At the end of tonight’s meeting someone called B opened their mouth and spoke what seemed like an unplanned, random jumble of words, but what was really a clever, funny, authentic story about their life. There was humour and insight, pathos and intelligence; it was fluent and relatable, like a friend talking to you over coffee. When I was sharing my anxiety in the counselling exercise earlier in the day, I had had some of that fluency; there hadn’t been any of the usual anxiety beforehand about what to say, none of the self editing and careful scripting. I had just allowed myself to say what seemed relevant in the hope it would pay off. It really, really bugs me that I can’t just say things in an AA meeting without scripting them beforehand; that I have to wait for a suitable gap in the sharing before opening my mouth and saying my name. What I wouldn’t give to be able to do what B did, just open up when I feel like it and say something that the whole room agrees with, without having to think about it at all.
On the way home I couldn’t help thinking about Carl Rogers and authenticity. Evidently I want to be able to be authentic when I share in AA meetings, to let others in, but I can’t do it when I’m sitting there trying to think of the funniest, cleverest thing to say. Anything I script in my head beforehand can never come out authentically because it just sounds like a script. I put so much pressure on myself to say the best thing I can in the short time given, it’s no wonder I rarely end up sharing.
When I next share in a meeting, I could refuse to script it out beforehand, and just say the first thing that comes to mind. I don’t script everything I’m going to say when I’m talking to a friend like P, for instance, and I don’t beat myself up afterwards for things I’ve said to him. If I could just start talking fluently and normally in a share, like I do in one to one situations with friends outside, it might be the beginning of an authentic change in my life. I immediately balk at the thought of saying things in a meeting that I would normally say to P, or on here – but why? You’re supposed to be able to share anything in an AA meeting, it’s supposed to be a safe space where we’re really honest. I’m coming to realise that I’ve never really been honest in an AA meeting, not for a long time. I’ve just said things that I thought would sound clever or relevant. I haven’t really reached into my soul and blurted the whole truth out, not like I do on here.
I’m not the same person in AA meetings as the person that writes this; nor am I the same person with P. I seem to be another person entirely in the counselling class. There I’m calm and collected, thoughtful, silent. A blank, almost. With P I’m silly, judgemental, superficial. In AA meetings I say things that sound profound but are really just paraphrases of what other people have said. On here, I guess I’m my real self…though it’s hard to tell. How can I tell? Most of the time here I’m anxious, over analytical, extremely self obsessed – but is that really me? I honestly don’t know. I’d like to think I’m more than my anxiety and self obsession, but any other facets to my personality don’t tend to get written about here because, well, I don’t know how to write like the person I am with P, with friends, when I’m happy or excited.
After a meeting the other day I briefly chatted to an old timer about shyness. We were talking about someone else in the meeting who has apparently been avoiding this old timer for a while. I said that they’re probably just shy – it’s the impression I get of them, I didn’t think they were deliberately giving this guy the cold shoulder. The old timer replied with something along the lines of “oh, shyness can be so unattractive sometimes.” To which I protested “but I’m shy!” His answer: “yes, but with you it’s endearing.”
Now, it was nice of him to say that, and I appreciated it. Does that mean the real me is an endearingly shy character who comes alive occasionally in one to one situations with trusted friends? I still don’t know. I just get the feeling that in order to ‘open up’ more in the world I’d need to know who I really am first.