Our Counselling Paradigm

The Relative Truth

The art and science of understanding how we think, feel and act remains in two constant states of existence: one is grounded in relative truth (what we tend to believe in most today) and the second state being we accept the fact that what we know and believe about the human brain today for example will change tomorrow. One of many examples of this in counselling is how the definition of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has changed in diagnosis and treatment since it was first written about after the American Civil War in 1865 (initially called "Soldier's Heart" before it became shell shock, war neurosis and then PTSD). Hence, it should not surprise us that what we believe today that creates happiness and well-being in the human brain will change a few more times over the next several years.


Counselling, psychology and psychiatry have been the benefactors of research, new technologies, improved medications and integrated healthcare systems over the last 60 years that has led to a vast improvement how we perform counselling. Today there are over 22 schools of thought in psychology that influence counselling and therapy, each school or theory having their own relative truth if you will on how to achieve and sustain well-being. St. John's Cathedral Counselling Service has embraced two highly acclaimed evidence-based models from these 22 schools of thought for counselling: positive psychology and cognitive behavioral psychology (where CBT arises from). Yet, remembering that what we believe today may change tomorrow and therefore as a long-standing mental health centre since 9177 we constantly seek new knowledge and tools for the counselling profession.


Many articles, books and research has been done on the pursuit of happiness and once we catch it, how to keep it. Martin Seligman, Paul Martin, Jonathan Haidt, Daniel Gilbert and countless others have provided us with rich research and fascinating articles and books on the universal pursuit of happiness. One model we use at St. John's Cathedral Counselling Service is Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues model entitled "the architecture of sustainable change" that influence the chronic happiness levels in all of us.


We believe that when a person comes into counselling there is a need to understand the genetic aspect of a person more than ever, especially with those who have chronic psychological and physical healthcare issues. For example, understanding family history of medical issues and associated risk factors actually helps us at St. John's Cathedral Counselling Service set a more effective counselling program for our clients. The second area, where psychology and psychiatry have always focused on - the 10% factor - deals with those events and experiences that have happened to us from others that eventually influenced our (negative) ways of thinking, feeling and acting. A classic example is how a child who experienced chronic bullying at school grows up with a conflict avoidance personality. Thus, up until the advent of positive psychology, the main emphasis in counselling was to remove or diminish as much as possible the negative 10% of one's life if you will. Positive psychology research and clinical practice highlighted for many years that simply "reducing the bad and not improving the good" did very little for sustaining happiness and well-being. Hence, at our Counselling Service we focus more on a person's 40% if you will, exploring resilience, character strengths, values and "good" behaviors that increase our well-being and happiness index. Having said as much, we still look at the 50% and 10% factors of our well-being in counselling, but we spend more time on making the 40% stronger as life will always present change and conflict.


From the above model we now see an interesting trend with our clients' daily lives: 60% of the time they experience joy and happiness, 30% of the time is with the routine things in life that give them a sense of predictability and control, and 10% of the time change and conflict. At our Counselling Service we note the true test in life is not really how much and often happy we get our 60%, the interesting test is how we embrace, learn and grow through our 10% throughout our lives. Thus, it should come as no surprise that most of our clients see us for their 10% world. If there is anything consistent about life regardless of your social, economic, relationship, gender and racial-ethnic status, it is the forever human experience of change and conflict. Change comes in many sizes and colors; understandable or confusing, believable or with doubt, planned and/or unplanned, evolutionary (slowly over time) or revolutionary (quickly), sad or happy, for the many or for the few, with open arms or with defiance. Conflict on the other hand (not arguments or fights) is basically a misunderstanding and/or a disagreement that arises due to many reasons, the most common being inadequate communication skills when dealing with conflict, or if you will, our 10% world.


Concurrently, the advances we have seen in our lifetime with media, technology, education, entertainment, medicine, science, travel, telecommunications, global economics, politics, and lifestyles remind us of another constant factor in life that remain central to well-being: lifelong learning. We can all agree that certain things in life we would like to remain the same (i.e. my favorite sofa for an afternoon nap comes to mind). Tradition, maintaining a sense of the status quo, and being (realistically) content with most of our habits and preferences in our life are normal.  However, with today's ever changing world (and let's not forget the ever evolving human brain), what allowed us to get here today may not be enough to get us where we need to go tomorrow. Thus, as Robert C. Gallagher once said, "Change is inevitable . . . except from a vending machine."


Yes - it is about change


Which leads us to the processes of change in therapy and counselling. In general, in any given time when a person decides to modify his thinking ("maybe I will try spicy food for once tonight"), feeling ("I never liked the Beatles before but now they're ok"), or behavior ("I'll give it a go with salsa dancing tonight"), each one is basically a change process. In other words, whether we recognize it or not, we actually do change on a regular basis throughout life. Some changes are significant, others less so (the sizes and colors of change as shared above). Thus, even with change being a normal and regular aspect of life, why do we often hear the following comments when we ask a loved one, a friend or work colleague to consider counselling: "people can't change," "I've tried stop smoking before, nothing works, " "change is way too difficult," and the universal favorite one: "you can't teach an old dog new tricks?"


We believe the answer lies in the following quote: "the first step towards change is insight (increasing one's knowledge on a topic that will facilitate change in attitude and then behavior). The second step with change is acceptance." Regarding insight, most people as we stated previously are unaware that change is actually an everyday reality for all of us. Therefore, regardless of why a person comes to counselling (by choice and/or by the nudge), we enhance our clients' sense of awareness/insight with not only what type of change options are available to increase their well-being (for example new ways of thinking or new ways of behaving), but we also ensure the client is aware of what change stage they are in throughout the counselling process. With respect to acceptance, once a person is aware of the dynamics (the desire as well as the fear) of the stages of change, we then collaborate with our clients on defining what areas of life they desire to change: if you will, their map of orientation (who am I) and their map of direction (where and how do I want to go).


Change in a less than perfect world may not always be a smooth journey. As a Buddhist monk once said to a young student, "if the road you're on is with no stones and pebbles, then clearly you're on the wrong road." We accept that change we desire or change that we must  enact upon (sometimes with resentment) is not always an easy process, but our 38 years of counselling experience reminds us daily that with a bit more insight of how the brain denies, resists, fears or desires change, getting a person to accept he or she needs to change becomes a greater reality and actually a more optimistic and positive journey. Give change a chance.


click here to see the six basic stages in counselling