Basic Assumptions about Co-Counseling
The theoretical assumptions of co-counseling (sometimes called Re-Evaluation Counseling or Re-Evaluation Co-Counseling) are (1) that the healing of psychological hurts is a spontaneous, inherent process which we are taught, in growing up, to discourage, both in ourself and others; (2) that given a safe, secure situation and the presence of a trusted counselor who will not “freak out” if we vent our deepest feelings, this healing process can be set in motion by self-directed efforts to discharge old distress experiences; (3) that effective discharge requires a simultaneous awareness of the old, hurtful experience and the present, secure situation; (4) that the counselor’s main task is to help the client keep his or her attention balanced between the old distress experience and the secure present situation; and (5) that if the work is either “too shallow” or “too deep,” there will be no discharge.
Counselor and Client Roles
As a counselor, you are expected to listen attentively, to encourage discharge, to return the client’s attention to emotion-laden material, to call the client back to the present if he or she “gets lost” in feelings, to refrain from giving advice, to react without either “stroking” or expressing hostility, and to refrain from interrupting discharge.
As a client, you are expected to come to a session with some idea of what you would like to work on, to be responsible for your own progress, to act like a client only during sessions, to stop at the end of the time period, and to refrain from ” acting out” your feelings in a way that might harm either persons or objects.
An Oral Tradition
The printed materials on co-counseling, all by Jackins, range from a fascinating, homespun, rather simplistic system of psychodynamics (The Human Side of Human Beings) to a spare, tough, completely practical manual (Fundamentals of Co-Counseling Manual) to a collection of short papers (The Human Situation) to several books of Jackin’s poems (Zest is Best, etc.). While the books, especially the Manual, give a good introduction to the ideas and practices of co-counseling, it is essentially an oral and not a written tradition. Guidelines for classes are in a process of continual review, both in the classes themselves, and in monthly teachers’ meetings. The regional and national organizations are clearly secondary to the classes and the local community of co-counselors, and there is a notable antihierarchical emphasis. Local and national leaders are expected to retake the beginning class as students from time to time, and to continue co-counseling just like everyone else.
Getting in Touch
Even though you may never have heard of it, there may well be a co-counseling community in your area. Jackins offers to put interested persons in touch with co-counselors in their own area, but you may be able to make contact by mentioning your interest among your present acquaintances. When I did so, I found that a number of my friends were active co-counselors, and that one neighbor was a co-counseling teacher. When I called to ask about upcoming classes, she suggested that we meet to discuss co-counseling.
After a brief discussion of principles and methods, she loaned me the Manual and finally arranged for us to meet for a short co-counseling session.
We ended up exchanging ten minutes each. I found myself recounting a difficult experience from the previous day and I was surprised by the intensity of feeling I was able to reach—speaking to someone who was practically a stranger—in this very limited time. I found myself experiencing several of the bodily signs— yawns, shaking, sighs—that the manual lists as signs of emotional discharge. When we had finished, she invited me to come to the introductory session of an upcoming class.
The first class meeting was at a friend’s house a few blocks away. There were a dozen students and two teachers. Nearly all the faces were familiar. One of the students was a woman who had been co-counseling for four years.
We went around the room introducing ourselves, and the teachers asked each of us in turn to say our name (“Tom Ferguson”), to share where we lived (“Inverness” ), something special about ourselves (“I’m a good writer and I work very hard”), something we’d like to change about ourselves (`’Like to be more sensitive to other people’s feelings”), how we spent our time (“Writing articles, reviewing books, answering mail, being with my family, running, taking walks”), and something new and good in our lives (“A twenty-mile hike, alone, from Bolinas to Inverness last Saturday”).
Next we broke up into pairs and spent a few minutes telling, then listening to our partner tell, things we liked about ourselves. After the teachers talked a bit about the theory and technique of co-counseling, we broke up into pairs again—with a new partner—and had a ten minute co-counseling session each way. The class ended with a “closing circle.” We came together, arms around shoulders, and progressed around the circle, telling the person beside us something we’d noticed and appreciated about them during the evening.
Nearly everyone wanted to be part of the class. I did, too.
Co-counseling puts the responsibility for taking good psychological care of yourself squarely in your own lap. It provides tools and structure, but the work is up to you.
It’s something that comes slowly. You proceed at your own pace. No one tells you what you should work on or how. The best learning experience is watching experienced co-counselors work on their own material. It’s often most impressive. Awe-inspiring, even.
As a counselor, you learn to be more and more comfortable simply being there for your client, without being upset by what he or she is going through, without putting any of your own demands on him/her. After a session, you feel a pleasant combination of gratitude and being needed.
It seems so much easier to be vulnerable, to explore your own hard places, when you know that in a few minutes your counselor will be exploring his own hard places with your support. Some people may be able to work as well with a paid, professional, more “objective” therapist. I know I can’t.
Tom Ferguson, M.D. (1943-2006), was a pioneering physician, author, and researcher. Dr. Ferguson studied and wrote about the empowered medical consumer (now termed an “e-patient”) since 1975 and about online health resources for consumers since 1987. In 1993 he organized the world’s first conference devoted to computer systems designed for medical consumers. His work lives on at e-patients.net.