The Art of Counselling

In reading Rollo May’s book the The Art of Counselling I found the chapter on empathy to be particularly enjoyable. He refers to Adler and he looks at empathy as a creative and mystical process but also one that involves a direct experience of another.


He talks about Levy-Bruhl’s idea of ‘direct and intimate contact with the essence of being, by intuition, interpenetration, the mutual communion of subject and object’ and ‘full participation and immanence’ (p67). I agree that empathy is an creative process and involves an experiencing of a person. More than this it involved setting aside, temporarily, the knowledge that we have about a persons patterns and behaviours.

Where I start to diverge from Rollo May is where he starts saying the following: – ‘if telepathy is scientifically demonstrated, as it may in some future time be, we shall have a very vivid and cogent illustration of one aspect of the participation of personalities in each other.’ (p68) This seems a little far out to me because while I admit that empathy, transference and countertransference involve remarkably subtle processes and the use of intuition I do not believe in non-physical communication by means of telepathy. May’s hypothesis of mental telepathy does benefit the counselling situation in another way though. May experienced moments of fright when thinking thoughts about his patient. He was terrified that they might be able to read his thoughts and he took these particular points as opportunities to come out and be directly honest with his counselees.

While a belief in telepathy could now be characterized as ‘thought insertion’ under the DSM criteria for psychosis it also here represents a mislabelled intuitive process. There is definitely an attunement process that occurs between two people and is no doubt mysterious enough without having to include the notion of telepathy. It would be my guess that this process would result in very well timed interruptions that would have had a particular resonance with his counselees.

Reading Character

The chapter Reading Character appeals to me as well because it taps into Symbolism which I see as being my subject. Here again we return to the theme of the special symbolic value of actions within the therapeutic hour. In this chapter a number of things are deemed potentially important of value in determining the character of a counselee. One of the first things he mentions is the importance of the manner in which the counselee shakes hands. This is not the first time I have seen this hand shaking point stressed. I saw it before in Whoever Fights Monsters by an FBI profiler Robert K Ressler. In that book he talks about hand shakes being determinative of the quality of his interviews with serial killers.

May goes on to discuss the way a counselee dresses and particularly change in dress as indicative of the counselee’s character. Further he discusses the importance of physical distance between the counselor and counselee and the position of counselee in their family as important.

May also uses the way people enter his office and knock on his door symbolically. Some people are timid and others are confident and so forth. Yalom does something similar in that he gives his patients the same directions to his office and treats their responses symbolically. For someone who earlier in the book hypothesized telepathy it seems a little unusual to be so careful in noting that these indicators are not conclusive of a particular situation but markers in a particular direction.The reality of his therapeutic/ clinical practice as he described it seemed to suggest to that he did go through these markers in a rather systematic fashion.

At several points he notes the position of a counselee in the family as a factor he considers and he also views their a being a pallor and particular type of eyes that often belong to the neurotic.

The Courage of imperfection

Later in the book the creative potential of suffering is discussed as well as the counsellor’s need of the courage of imperfection. He refers to Adler and talks about the need for an ability to fail. He talks about counsellor needing to enjoy the process of living as well as the goals. The point is made that ‘this will enable us to escape the  ‘all or none’ compulsion: enjoying the process means deriving enjoyment ‘on the wing’ as one moves towards ends. He also says that enjoying the process relieves of us of the necessity of having ulterior motives for our actions.

This talk about enjoying the process of life reminds me of a Carl Roger quote:-

The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction not a destination.

This idea particularly appears to me as does another one of  ‘destructive struggling’. Destructive struggling encompasses the idea that the more we struggle against something the more we actually end up doing that thing. It reminds me of Karen Maroda talking about Enactment and how therapists denying feelings towards patients actually end up acting upon those feelings.


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