What Counselling (and Lobsters) Can Teach Us About Change and Vulnerability
Change and growth involves discomfort and risk – maybe they are called growing pains for a reason?
But you don't have to take the risk alone - counsellor Alan Madin explores the support counselling offers
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As a person-centred counsellor I love a good metaphor or an image that can be used as an analogy for something my client and I can relate to together. I love it even more if it comes from my client in a way that immediately resonates with me too.
Here is one that I can claim no credit for but I would like to think that my client and I took a stage further and developed in a way that has also been valuable to other clients – and, actually, to myself.
Some of you may be familiar with Rabbi Dr .Avraham Twerski’s 'If Lobsters Took Xanax...' I was introduced to it by my client:
The concept that we build a shell around us to keep us safe is easy to relate to. After some time we all might experience that sense of being constrained, restricted, trapped even, in a role that was once comfortable to us. Our shell that was our safe haven has now become the cage that imprisons us; and is even now stifling us, not just preventing further growth but potentially also crushing us.
That reality, in my role as a counsellor, I know impacts many of my clients. Even more so now as Covid and working from home means that their own house/flat/room is no longer the safe space away from work.
There are times when the constant thing in our life – our shell – must change. However, to change means we have to become vulnerable. That is scary. We can only be truly vulnerable if we feel safe. So how do you feel safe in a time of great risk, when any minor knock could cripple you, at a time when you are open to any predator?
You find a safe place. As a person-centred counsellor I am used to providing a safe, non-judgemental space for my client to be vulnerable in; somewhere where they are free to shed their stifling shell for a while and to explore who they really want to be and, in doing so, to change, to grow. To become more than they were. And without external introjections.
For the client it is scary but they will often recognise for themselves that the old life, the old shell is no longer serving a purpose and is preventing them living, preventing them from growing. It is time for them to shed the old shell. To be vulnerable for a while. But in this vulnerability becomes the opportunity to grow in a new way and to become that what they want to be.
Many clients now feel confused and become stuck. If the shell was so important how can I leave it behind? How do I just walk away from the very thing that has kept me safe and allowed me to reach this place? What will I do without it? Unfortunately the old shell is most painful just before it crushes our hopes for the future. Rather than change we might, for many, learn to live with that pain and stay in the old shell.
Lobsters have the answer. Lobsters do not just shed the old and walk away. That shell has lots of valuable resources they need for the future. It has the nutrients and building blocks of a new shell. It is valuable. They eat it. They feed off it and grow anew.
Our clients come with a lifetime of lessons that have helped build the shell around them. Many of these lessons are important and valuable. Some are outdated and now restrictive. Some serve only to stop us from growing and becoming who we really are. In this concept lies the idea that some of the old uncomfortable shell was made for us: a hand me down shell if you will!
Like the lobster, some of the old shell we need. Like the lobster, we can digest it, be nourished by it and carry those elements forward with us in our new life. Other parts we leave behind.
I have clients who have been enabled to become that which they want to be by recognising that which they were can still be part of who they will become.
To be simpler: If change is needed, staying the same is not an option – but in changing we can build on that which we need to change from. Rather than being held back by our current shell it gives us the means to build a new one.
To put it another way, Klass, Silverman & Nickman propose 'continuing bonds' as a paradigm for grief. I wonder if it is also a concept of change in ourselves? We keep a connection with who we were in order to become who we want to be rather than being smothered, trapped in its memory.
Did you know lobsters are not known to age; they just get a year older. Only predators and ill health/injury kills them. They are effectively eternal. Perhaps we should all be more like a lobster. And not a lobster on Xanax.
Klass, D., Silverman, P. R., & Nickman, S. L. (Eds.). (1996). Continuing bonds: New understandings of grief. Taylor & Francis.
Rogers C (1959) ‘A Theory of Therapy, Personality, and Interpersonal Relationships, As Developed in the Client-Centered Framework’, in Koch S (ed) (1959)