As a counsellor I draw on philosophy. But how can that help you, compared to a psychological approach? I will reflect on why, and how, philosophy enters into my counselling, and how that can benefit you.
The first thing to say is that psychology and philosophy are not mutually exclusive. Indeed they integrate well: I am a mainstream counsellor in my qualifications, registration, competencies, and recognition by others, and my work is as psychological as any other counsellor. For example I am deeply influenced by insights from psychoanalysis. But it was the love of philosophy that drew me to counselling, and that is a vital dimension of my work. So how does philosophy come in?
In the modern world philosophy is mostly an academic activity, but this was not always the case. In the ancient world philosophy was often a way of living. One of the greatest philosophers of ancient Rome, Epictetus, was born a slave. For him, philosophy was about facing the pain and difficulty of life well, and creating a good life. Ancient philosophy was reflection, aimed at helpful insights and truths, that could become guiding attitudes, which in turn could shape our actions and emotions. As I often say, you need a perspective that is as good, and as true, as possible. And you need to embody that as well as you can.
So ancient philosophy was about living deeply, meaningfully, and strongly, with our heads, hearts, and hands. And for some of us it is still mainly about that. I grew up in a tiny rural town in the dust of the Mallee. Despite the poverty there, we counted as poor by comparison. But hard-working. My love of philosophy is rooted directly in my attempts, beginning there, to face life’s hardship well, and to flourish, and to love life, no matter what. I know from experience that in the face of hardship, philosophy can deeply nourish our lives for the better, guiding us not only to find strength, but to grow and improve. More on this in a moment. In the last twenty years I have met many people who practice philosophy as a detached intellectual activity—which has an important place in society, but also serious limits—and have also met people (from many different classes and backgrounds) who are drawn to philosophy as a practical guide to living well. People like us do not fit well into the academic context. Our philosophical talent and passion lies elsewhere.
While doing postgraduate research and teaching at The University of Melbourne and elsewhere--the beginning of an academic career--I realised I was heading in the wrong direction. Scholarly work did not align with what drew me to philosophy: that passion for living well. I saw that counselling possessed the practical and emotional engagement I valued, and could integrate philosophy with psychology. So I took up studies in counselling, alongside everything else, and eventually that became my professional focus.
Counselling is an activity that does many things. Some of these things are explicit: for example we analyse a problem and strategise a solution, then I coach you to make that happen. But other things are implicit: for example, through our work together over time, your sense of yourself unconsciously changes—maybe you lose that shame or self-loathing, and start to feel like a worthwhile person, without even realising consciously that this is happening. These are only two examples from the wide range of things that we do, or which happen, through counselling. There’s much more going on and being offered that people realise. This applies also to the use of philosophy in counselling.
Sometimes philosophy has an explicit, more intellectual place in counselling. For example you have a problem in your romantic relationship, and aside from the emotional work we do, there might be a philosophical aspect; perhaps we spend time thinking through your ethical perspective on what you should do next. The moral or ethical side of how we behave matters, of course, and it is not just a psychological issue. There is more to life than just psychological functioning; there are values, and questions of love, and decency, and meaning, and so on, which are the subject of a philosophical exploration. That exploration can be done alongside the psychological work, but it is different to it and it should not be reduced to psychology. It has always shocked me that such issues are so central to many of our concerns and struggles, and yet psychologists have no training in thinking about them with discipline and depth.
Sometimes philosophy can have a more implicit place in counselling. For example, my own practice of philosophy enters the therapeutic space in how I interact with people. One way this happens is by helping people experience, or glimpse, a different relationship with life, by being present as somebody who has dedicated my life to exploring and living with philosophical depth and its emotional or spiritual richness. Both my parents grew up with violence and abuse and, like many people, the standard traumatic pattern took place: they coped through surviving and functioning, admirably, whereas the overt emotional fall-out took place in the next generation. And so, from my earliest memories on, I have struggled against melancholia, oftentimes to a dreadful degree. When something like that is old and deep in you, it can be helped by, but it may not go away through, psychological interventions--instead it is something you have to learn to live with. And that includes developing skills to live well with it, and also developing an inner depth that nourishes you more than it harms you. I often point out that each individual has a tendency to suffer to a certain level, as a part of their nature. Perhaps they are regularly melancholic, or anxious, or enraged, or overwhelmed, et cetera. On top of that, life can cut us off at the knees through injuries, disabilities, diseases, deaths, betrayals, misfortunes, cruelties, and so on. So you have a tendency, which is particular to you, to suffer to a certain degree, and you also have a capacity as a human being, to suffer deeply because of bad events. The overall point I am making is that, in the face of this depth of suffering, you need a meaning that goes even deeper. Otherwise you will not survive the suffering—it will damage you, whether through killing you, or more likely through distorting you. That "meaning" will be a perspective, but it must more than that. For one thing it must be embodied--it must shape your emotions and actions. Nothing will make you bullet-proof, but to the degree that you can embody a perspective which gives life real meaning to your life in the midst of the varieties of suffering, to that degree you can survive, and in the aftermath repair, heal, grow, and even flourish. Philosophy has done this for me, radically. My melancholia has forced me to look harder and work harder at finding and embodying meaning in my life. These days, feelings like utter gratitude and hope are spontaneous and strong emotions that colour my days. And they have led to courage, and so to actions--to creating a life--that arouses more of the same.
That is what philosophy has done for me. But I am speaking about how it comes into counselling, in an implicit way. All that I have just said is an example of what I carry inside thanks to twenty years of philosophical practice, and the point here is that not only has this enriched my life, but that this confident, hard-won, embodied knowledge shapes my way of being with my clients. I think that I share, in a deeper sense than only words, the heartfelt conviction of life’s deeper meaning. I share it as a lucid perspective, because suffering can purify our vision, especially when it comes to understanding life's goodness, provided one's vision is clear and integrated. That which I share is philosophy as something lived. And it’s not something special about me--I see this in others all the time. A person’s character overflows, all that is good and bad in it colours the experience of others who get close to them. Counselling is one of my particular ways of sharing what is best in me, in this case with respect to a life dedicated to living with philosophical depth, and wanting to share that with others, with respect to suffering and flourishing.
There are many ways that philosophy enters into counselling. Some of it is explict, while other ways are implicit. Philosophy is counselling, as I understand it and practice it, is a search for truth and goodness in our way of living, so that we can nourish ourselves, others, face hardship well, and create a flourishing, meaningful life. To my mind it is obvious that philosophy has a place in counselling alongside disciplines like psychology. Certainly, after more than a decade in this profession, that has been my experience.