Congruence: getting real about counseling

by Judy Harrow

Carl Rogers taught us that the real heart of the counseling process is a special kind of relationship between counselor and client. This relationship is focused on the client's feelings and needs, while the counselor offers consistent empathy, warmth and respect. Given these "core conditions," people seem able to explore their inscape and their issues; not just the easy ones but those that go deep, perhaps hurt bad, and potentially release real change.

Now, fifty years later, the very latest research still shows no correlation between any particular therapeutic method or theory and successful results. What really counts, as always, is the relationship in which two people meet to engage on a deep level with the issues of one.

As Witches and as counselors, we know that spiritual, magical or psychological growth comes from the client, from the client's own motivation, courage, and wisdom. All of us have within ourselves the capacity to make and implement good decisions about our own lives, to grow. All a counselor, or priest/ess can do is offer conditions that support our use of this natural capacity for healing and growth.

These core conditions can't be faked or techniqued. They only work if they are real. So, the next critical counseling dimension is often called "congruence," a fancy word derived from the Latin congruere, meaning to meet together or to agree. Other writers simply call it "genuineness." We'd call it walking our talk.

Here's a bitter little joke:

Question: "Do you know how a New Ager says 'screw you'?"

Answer: "No. How?"

Punchline: place hand gently on their forearm, look deep into their eyes, make your voice soft and intense and say: "Trust me."

Although there are techniques you can use to let people know you are listening to them, no amount of "I statements" or eye contact or any other stereotyped patterns of words or gestures will convince people that you care if you don't really. No one can fake empathy, warmth or respect.

People who have had emotionally rough lives usually have excellent phoniness filters, filters that they may have been developing since early childhood. In dysfunctional and abusive situations, good phoniness filters are nothing less than a survival skill. They aren't going to open up, they shouldn't open up, unless their own gut is telling them that this space is safe, that this person is genuine.

We can't fake it, but as Witches, we can create it. We can generate within ourselves real (that is unfaked) and accurate (that is undistorted by our own projections) empathy, warmth and respect. We can shape our own consciousness in accordance with will -- that's a classic definition of magic -- but, like any other technology, this magic has limits.

Your consciousness, my consciousness will only stretch or bend so far, can only encompass so much. These limits are different for different people. so it's important to understand and respect your own limits, whatever they are. Know, for example, how much training, experience and skill you have. Don't take on situations you can't handle with confidence. Know what situations may hit on your particular sore spots -- if you come from an abusive, alcoholic household, you may not be able to work supportively with an alcoholic. Know how much time and energy you have, while still honoring all your other life commitments. Don't commit yourself to anything you can't realistically follow through on. Of course, all of this applies equally well to your coven work.

And, unfashionable and embarrassing though they may be, know your prejudices. If you have an irrational aversion to gay people, or fat people, or older people or any arbitrarily defined group of people, seek counseling of your own to help you work towards resolving this handicap. But until it is resolved, don't try to push yourself through it on your client's time. At best you are exploiting the client. Think about how many Witches you've heard complaining about having to spend the first several hours of therapy educating the therapist about Wicca -- and, often as not, paying for the privilege of doing so. Worse, if it doesn't work, the client may sense your prejudice -- and that may actually do them harm.

Another thing to watch for is to what extent you may be unconsciously using your role as a priest/ess or counselor to fill your own long-unmet needs or desires. A common example is the person who needs to feel needed, and so fosters dependency in client or covener instead of helping them grow toward autonomy.

Empathy, warmth and respect are the essential conditions of the counseling relationship. We can nurture these ways of being within ourselves, develop them over time, but we cannot fake them or force them. We might hurt ourselves or our clients if we try faking or forcing them. So it's best to be honest about our limits and only attempt to enter into counseling relationships where genuine empathy, warmth and respect are really possible. Where theory and practice can meet together and agree, there is congruence. 

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  • Originally published in Covenant of the Goddess Newsletter (Mabon, 1995)
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    Contents of this page are copyright © 1996, 1999, 2001 by Judy Harrow.