Head of Student Counselling, Jackie Head, writes about the importance of opening up to others.
One of the strongest pulls for humans is the desire to make sense of experience within our community.
That could be in our family, our friendship group, our workplace or even within looser networks, like the crowd who experience something unexpected or unusual and look to their neighbours, sharing expressions even if they don’t talk.
As meaning-makers we are rarely off duty, often thinking about things, replaying memories, trying out mental solutions ‘What happened there?’, ‘If only I hadn’t’, ‘What if I had?’ until we get to a more settled state of mind.
Often we need others’ input to really make sense of an experience as our own take is a partial, rather than a 360 degree view. Making sense of something on our own (those personal insight ‘aha’ moments) can give us relief and sometimes joy but very soon comes the urge to share it.
The same is true of peak experiences; where we see as if for the first time, when we drink in something extraordinary…the view from the top of the mountain, the moment when live music is beautifully performed or the time we do a presentation and feel we have the audience in the palm of our hands.
There is a moment where we can personally relish the experience and then we want to let others know.
These days Facebook, Instagram and Twitter give us quick access to a broad audience for our experience and we can then take pleasure in the number of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ that show our news is spreading.
These reflective mirrors on human experience also allow us to normalise our own feelings and to create a narrative of our lives to build a sense of ourselves over time.
In social media, we can edit experience, repackage it to draw approval and choose to keep things private where we want to, but sometimes this can backfire when all that we see are the shiny happy faces of our Facebook friends, making it look as everyone (apart from ourselves) is having a great time. This in turn can make us feel lonely, different or unlovable.
In the Student Counselling Service, we often meet people weighed down by a sense of shame that is kept in place by negative self-beliefs…
So, comes the question, how do we share the parts of ourselves that we believe are less attractive, or indeed the behaviours, thoughts or feelings of which we are ashamed?
If we feel we have failed, how can we admit that in a culture that rewards success? Unspoken guilt can gnaw away at us as we tell ourselves we are to blame, we are unforgivable.
In the Student Counselling Service, we often meet people weighed down by a sense of shame that is kept in place by negative self-beliefs.
When people pluck up the courage to talk about their feelings and experiences, and discover that the listener feels compassion rather than the disgust or hatred they fear, it is a powerful medicine.
…when someone hears compassion and acceptance from their peer group it can completely alter their sense of themselves in the real context of their lives.
Often more powerful still, is the impact of sharing one’s experience in a group context. In a safe space, facilitated by counsellors, students talk to students and even if their course of study, age, ethnicity and gender is different, there is the shared experience of being a student at the university.
When a counsellor in a 1:1 session says they ‘get’ something, it is all too easy for this to be dismissed as ‘well that’s your job’ but when someone hears compassion and acceptance from their peer group it can completely alter their sense of themselves in the real context of their lives.
Students use our groups as a rehearsal space for sharing with their more natural peers outside the group, or for letting family or friends know how they are feeling and what they need.
It is heartening how often we then hear that they have told someone else and improved a relationship as a result.
Of course there is a time for discretion and choosing to maintain internal boundaries around our own privacy, and sharing with others is always a choice.
Sometimes the very thing we most want to hide is the thing that others most what to see, an apparent ‘weakness’ can be endearing, and holding back on sharing who we are is what prevents others getting close.
It can even be that admitting something to ourselves, by saying it out loud, allows us to let it go and walk a bit more freely, without the burden of shame and guilt.
The Student Counselling Service runs a range of group work interventions. Some groups are open to new members all term, others are closed groups where people commit to attend each week in a 6 week block. Bookings for Summer Term groups open on our website from 24th March.
Thank you to the Student Counselling Service for their contribution.