As an existential-phenomenological counsellor, I believe that people exist in relationship to one another and the world around them. To put it another way, I believe that people are fundamentally relational beings and that our concept of ourselves as individual beings comes later. This is at odds with our capitalist society, which treats us as isolated individuals first and foremost. There’s a great example of how relational we are which was given to me by a mindfulness practitioner – that of eating an apple. From a capitalist perspective, a woman eating an apple is merely an isolated act of consumption. From a relational perspective, we come to realise how many people are involved in this simple act – from the shop keeper, the people who transported the apple to the shop, to the farmer who grew the apple. More than that, we can think of the sun and the rain that was needed to grow the apple, and the worms that helped form the soil from which the apple tree grew. Knowing that we need food and water to live, we begin to understand that this woman’s existence is completely interdependent on the world around her, and this simple act of eating an apple becomes a beautiful snapshot of our interconnectedness with the world and with each other.
I used to be very cynical about this kind of talk, which can sound a bit ‘hippie’ and overly earnest, even a bit ‘spiritual’. On reflection I feel that my cynicism partly came from feeling very isolated at the time, and anything that smacked of love, connection and spirituality felt false because I could not relate to it. Thankfully I don’t see things in that way any longer, and I feel that the example of the woman eating the apple is actually very grounded in reality. All this leads me onto talking about mental health, and how it is not an isolated part of ourselves, but very much connected to our bodies (since when have they been separate anyway?) and the world in which we find ourselves. Sometimes the focus around mental health in the media is on reducing stigma and encouraging people who are suffering to talk to someone. While I do think this is necessary, it can sometimes distort the reality of how impacted people can be by the world around them, instead focussing on mental health as if it is an isolated, individual problem. In doing so it almost feels as if the person suffering is being blamed – as if just talking to someone would end their suffering. Now, as a counsellor, I certainly advocate talking! However I mean to say that government policy, the impact of Brexit, financial uncertainty, war, institutional racism, sexism and climate change (to name a few) have a huge impact on our mental health, and that to ignore these issues is to let those in power off the hook. The world we live in is increasingly uncertain, but both our connection to it and its impact upon us is not.
So where does this leave us? At times the impact that the world has upon us can feel overwhelming, and these national and global issues mentioned above seem far beyond our individual sphere of influence. Everyone has developed unique ways of dealing with this through our varied experience of being in the world and with other people, and sometimes these strategies work better than at other times. Feeling depressed or overwhelmed could be seen as ways of dealing with our relationship with the world, as can attempting to ignore these issues, or becoming an activist and fighting them head-on. I don’t believe there are objectively better or worse ways of coping, it’s just what works for each of us right now based on the tools we have available. To an outsider our ways of coping might look harmful to us, and they might have negative effects on others, but equally they might be the best options available to us at the moment. I think one of the jobs of a counsellor is to explore our ways of coping, looking at why we came up with them, the positives and negatives of continuing with them, and even looking at other options. Realising that we have a choice, even if paradoxically we only have one choice right now, can be empowering.