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  • Vicky Tan

A useful analogy for counselling

When I first started studying psychology, I remember trying to explain to my parents that no, therapy is not about "fixing people" and no, people can't "just get over" mental illness. I recently came across a useful analogy that describes the counselling process by Tumblr user @centrumlumina:

Here’s a thought I had about how therapy & treatment works (vs how many people imagine it works). This is based on my experience with depression and chronic illness, but I hope it applies more broadly as well.

Imagine you have to take a road trip on a deserted road alone. Halfway through the trip your engine starts to splutter and the car breaks down. What do you do?

A lot of people imagine that therapy and treatment is like calling a mechanic to come and fix your car for you. You make the call, and then you just have to wait around until the mechanic has fixed the problem, and your car is good as new! Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. There is no on-call mechanic. No-one is able to fix this car except for you.

Instead, it’s like you pull a toolbox out of the trunk, pop open the hood, and dial up the mechanic on the phone. You have to try and describe the problems as clearly as possible, and follow the advice they give you as well as you can.*

Sometimes you won’t understand the advice, and you’ll need them to explain it again or suggest something else. Sometimes you’ll do what they say and the car still won’t run, and they won’t be able to explain why, only give you something new to try. Sometimes you’ll think you fixed the problem and start driving, and the car will break again two minutes down the road. No matter what happens, it’s going to be hard and messy and frustrating work.

But at the end of it, not only will your car be running again, but you’ll know how to fix it now. Which isn’t to say that you’ll never need another mechanic again, but next time you get stuck, it’ll be that little bit easier to handle.

*I will add that although it's useful to follow the advice a psychologist/counsellor/therapist gives you to the best of your ability, you can turn it down. It's your car, after all. There could be many reasons why someone may not want to follow advice (or wants to try but it's hard), and I like to explore why - maybe you're scared, maybe you've tried it before, maybe there are other barriers getting in your way.

When I was sharing this analogy with my husband, he wondered whether how we look after our mental health could be like looking after a garden.

I liked his idea because our minds are organic, living things, like plants in a garden. Both are formed over time and experience, and need nurturing in order to flourish. Both are subject to sunny days and stormy ones. Both can be adapted, changed, pruned, and healed - for our brains, this ability to change is called neuroplasticity!

When a plant isn't thriving anymore, you start to see signs of stress - for example, leaves start falling off or the tree doesn't produce fruit. It can be hard to know what has gone wrong unless you have experience. You might eventually call a gardening expert - I think of talk-back radio listeners calling in to describe their plant problems to horticulturalist Sabrina Hahn and how she uses her knowledge to identify the problem and make suggestions for the caller, who then tries to apply it to their garden on their own. It may take some time to see the effect of these changes, or it may be that something else needs to be tried.

Like our minds, each garden is unique and requires specific care, so consulting with a gardening expert can also help you learn about your garden's particular conditions - soil, climate, layout, and so on. Knowing these patterns can help you to work with what you've got, as well as how to maintain your garden in the best way for you.

People have asked me if it's ever too late to start counselling - what if my garden is barren and overrun by weeds? As I've said in a previous post, sometimes people ask if their issues are too insignificant to start counselling - what if my garden is surviving, but I have never seen flowers grow in it? Our brain pathways are much like plants that stretch towards light and water, marvellous in their adaptability and determination; there is still something to be done, and you will grow again.

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