Content vs. Feeling


hen I was doing my counselling training in 2008 and 2009 one of the course leaders made a passing comment. She said that the content (or story) of what a client spoke about was almost irrelevant when compared to how a client felt about the content. At the time I found this statement hard to hear: "Surely it makes a difference whether a person is talking about a divorce, the death of a relative, or the hoover breaking?" I thought. Over the years this statement has stuck in my head - probably because it felt so counter-intuitive at the time. Yet, my trust in this truism has grown.

So, what makes feelings more important than content you might ask? As humans we are always in contact with life, and our experiences blossom from this contact with the world around us, be that another driver on the road, a beautiful moorland walk, or an abusive parent. Experiences shape us, along with our genetic inheritance, to make us who we are. But we are not stationary: we are constantly experiencing, and therefore constantly shifting, even if only in tiny ways. I believe that we are constantly trying to "make sense of" ourselves and the world around us. In order to "make sense of" these two things, we have to look at the feelings that we have about these experiences, and then how they have altered our behaviour and feelings towards the world around us. So, in terms of therapy:

 if:  the content in a session = the experience a client has had,

then: the feelings about that content = an opportunity for a client to understand themselves, and the world around them, via those experiences.

Time for an example after all that abstract talk! I have put the content in bold, and the feelings in italics

I am outside using the chainsaw to chop up a birch tree for firewood. I run out of fuel, and curse myself for not bringing a spare fuel can down into the woods as now I will have to walk back up the hill to get the spare fuel, taking time and energy. While walking back up the hill, I become aware that I am really angry with myself. After some time I realise that I am angry because I do not like the trait of always rushing as it leads me to wasting time and effort in the long-run. If I slowed down a bit at the beginning of the task, I could be more mindful of what I actually needed to take down to the woods with me to chop firewood, and then I would not have to expend more time and energy having to walk all the way back to get the spare fuel. 

My chainsaw in pieces as I try to mend it...yet again!

My chainsaw in pieces as I try to mend it...yet again!

So, using this example it can be seen that the personal trait of 'rushing and not taking time to plan ahead' could show itself in many ways. I could have run out of fuel in my car, or missed some vital ingredient in my lunch, or in my haste, omitted a washer when rebuilding the chainsaw to the left - not a fictitious example this time! While the content would have been different each time, the feeling would be very similar: frustration with myself. Hence, the content is secondary to the feeling as it doesn't matter all that much what specific experience I have, only how it makes me feel, and then what that teaches me about myself and the world around me.