Counselling and Constellations

Over the last three or four years I’ve undertaken a couple of different rounds of psychotherapy. I liken the experience to that of spotting constellations in the night sky.

A deep red sky over the silhouette of a treeline, with stars beginning to appear. Six crisscrossing straight lines each connect three to five stars in a row, giving the illusion that their location is not random.
If you’ve got enough arbitrary points, of course, you can draw whatever lines you want. But that’s not the metaphor I’m going for.

That’s probably the result of the goal I stated when going in to the first round: I’d like you to help while I take myself apart, try to understand how I work, and then put myself back together again.1 I’m trying to connect the dots between who-I-once-was and who-I-am-now and find causal influences.

As I’m sure you can imagine: with an opening statement like that I needed to contact a few different therapists before I found one who was compatible with my aims2. But then, I was always taught to get three quotes before hiring a professional.

Two abstract constellations of stars drawn onto a picture of stars over the hills as the last of the sunlight begins to vanish.
Constellations are necessarily subjective. It’s always pleased me to think about how Orion the Hunter, one of the Northern hemisphere’s most-recognisable Winter visitors, was  interpreted by the Lakota people to represent a bison, and some Indian traditions see it as a deer.

It’s that “connecting the dots” that feels like constellation-spotting. A lot of the counselling work (and the “homework” that came afterwards) has stemmed from ideas like:

  • This star represents a moment in my past.
  • This star represents a facet of my identity today.
  • If we draw a line from one to the other, what does the resulting constellation look like?

I suppose that what I’ve been doing is using the lens of retrospection to ask: “Hey, why am I like this? Is this part of it? And what impact did that have on me? Why can’t I see it?”

When you’re stargazing, sometimes you have to ask somebody to point out the shape in front of you before you can see it for yourself.

A silhouette of a person sits on a rock, gazing up at an incredible number of stars in an inky black sky.
A better writer would make an allusion to looking into one’s past through the symbolism of looking into the Universe’s past, but I’m not that writer.

I haven’t yet finished this self-analytical journey, but I’m in an extended “homework” phase where I’m finding my own way: joining the dots for myself. Once somebody’s helped you find those constellations that mean something to you, it’s easier to pick them out when you stargaze alone.


1 To nobody’s surprise whatsoever, I can reveal that ever since I was a child I’ve enjoyed taking things apart to understand how they work. I wasn’t always so good at putting them back together again, though. My first alarm clock died that way, as did countless small clockwork and electronic toys.

2 I also used my introductory contact to lay out my counselling qualifications, in case they were a barrier for a potential therapist, but it turns out this wasn’t as much of a barrier as the fact that I arrived with a concrete mandate.

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  1. Spencer Spencer says:

    I’m curious to know more about your experience finding a therapist to help with your mandate. Do you think it was your specific mandate that was a barriar for some therapists, or did they object to the whole premise of attending therapy with a concrete goal? Do you have any advice for finding a therapist who is open to this kind of mission, or did you just talk to many until you found one that you got along with?

    1. Dan Q Dan Q says:

      @Spencer: None of the three counsellors I brought that approach to outwardly objected to me arriving with a to-do list, but the “vibe” was such that I felt one was less-comfortable with it than the others.

      I used the BACP’s Therapist Directory to find potential therapists. For now at least, counselling in the UK is an unregulated profession, i.e. there’s absolutely nothing to stop absolutey anybody calling themselves a therapist/counsellor. Requiring that they’re registered with a professional body is a safer bet (BACP requires a level of qualification, ongoing development, insurance etc.).

      I filtered potential therapists based on, among other things, theoretical basis. Unfortunatey doing that is probably beyond the reasonable reach of many folks (do you really want to read up on psychological theories before you even contact a counsellor!?). But in my case, because I had a bit of a grounding in advance, I was able to specify what I was looking for: a humanist/Rogerian basis felt essential to me, I don’t object to transactional analysis, I wanted nothing to do with psychoanalysis, for example.

      This all came from the fact that I wanted to do my own heavy lifting; I just wanted an extra pair of hands. I didn’t want anybody to tell me what I was experiencing; I wanted somebody to get all Socratic on me and ask the tough questions until I found my own answers. Other people/situations may be different. But for me, I wanted very much to start from a metaphor that I heard long, long ago and love: psychological change is like moving furniture: a chair you can move by yourself; a bench you can move by yourself, but it helps to have somebody hold the other end for you; a piano you can’t move by yourself. I believed that the furniture I needed to move was of the “bench” variety, so what I really needed was the mental health equivalent of somebody to stand nearby and say “can you twist it this way? what if you brace it against the corner? to you… to me…”

      I’ve emailed something like six different counsellors with an initial brief; I went on to have a 15-minute meeting with the three of them who got back to me positively (one got back to say they couldn’t help, another never replied, one replied but I didn’t like what they were saying); I went on to have an initial session with one of them, after which I suggested a further six sessions (and then did something similar again some time later).

      That’s way more structured/planned than most people going into therapy, but it’s what worked for me, and it was an incredibly valuable process. I might well have another round in 2023, depending on how I get on with my “homework” in the meantime!

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