Is Counselling Unlearning?

We usually come to counselling with a pain or problem we want fixed. It may be that we find we need to unlearn patterns of feeling and behaviour. It may be that counselling is more about unlearning than learning.

This post is a follow-up to my previous one (see “Is Counselling Learning?”). It was provoked by the comments on that post: they are insightful, stimulating and thought-provoking. Please read them if you have the time.

Most of us go to counselling when we feel something is wrong or we are dissatisfied with something.

Part of the process is often discovering that ways we have done things are counter-productive: that what we do is contributing to our dissatisfaction. Sometimes (depending on the type of counselling) what we do is traced back to the past.

Through counselling, we can find that some of the things we haven’t learnt to do have a part in creating our dissatisfaction. These things need to be unlearnt.

This can be a difficult process. We thought our way of doing things would lead to something desirable (safety, pleasure, a fulfilling relationship) and find that it doesn’t. At this stage we can feel bereft: if I can’t do that, then I don’t know what to do.

Here’s an example of what I mean. I may have grown up believing that certain forms were to be observed in relationships — that there were proper and improper ways to respond to different occasions, that there were things that should be said and others that shouldn’t. I may discover that on some occasions this gets in the way of intimate relationships. But then I don’t know what to do! What is one meant to say?! To reply, “Whatever you feel like”, may be experienced as annoying and frustrating rather than helpful. (And the times when I said what I felt like and this was badly received may spring to mind.) This is the kind of experience we can have when we are unlearning our way of doing things. It can be a difficult time.

So why do it? Because we find ways of living that fit better for us. We can live in a way that feels more like us, once we have unlearnt the unhelpful ways of living and doing. It seems to me that this may not be all there is to counselling, but it seems to be an important part.

What do you think? Does ‘unlearning’ seem to be a good way to describe counselling for you? What words would you use to describe your experience of counselling?

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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