Historical context and developments in Britain

Historical context

Co-Counselling is a therapeutic process that uses catharsis to change rigid, maladaptive modes of feeling, thinking and acting. It is usually learned and practised in pairs, with each participant alternating the roles of counsellor and of client.

The techniques of this reciprocal system may also be used effectively in the more usual therapist-client dyad [Pierce, Nichols & Dubrin, 1983]. The reciprocal co-counselling relationship forms an excellent training for such expert psychotherapy.

Co-counselling began around 1950 with the founder, Harvey Jackins, having a dramatic personal experience of the healing potential of emotional discharge. [Jackins, 1977, p. 199]

`I tried to get a man to stop discharging, but allowed him to because he was so intent on it. ...Early along the line I decided it was good for him to cry. When he started to shake I told him to quit and go back to crying. A few days later when he started to laugh I became very indignant, told him we had indications that crying and shaking helped him; to quit laughing and get back to shaking.'

Jackins, a man in his thirties from a poor farming family, was so impressed with this experience that he began to study emotional discharge processes; how to encourage them, and their beneficial effects. Although he made no general studies of other therapies, there are indications that, like Fritz Perls, he was influenced by the ideas and practice of Dianetics.

By 1952 Jackins had set up a counselling agency in Seattle, called Personal Counselors. This allied a core staff group with part-time student helpers. It was in this setting, often working with highly distressed clients, that many basic techniques of co-counselling were established.

The other characteristic feature of co-counselling—that the counsellor is always a client too—also came from the early days of Personal Counselors. Jackins [1977, p. 205] says:

`We intuitively made the decision that these counselors had to be counseled. We noticed that students who came in because they wanted to help others would be good counselors for about three weeks then became foggy with restimulation.'

Teaching in ongoing classes started in the 1950's and introduced the idea of reciprocal counselling—people worked in pairs and each person spent half the time in the role of client and half the time as counsellor. By the mid sixties there were several groups of co- counsellors established in the Seattle area.

Theory and practice developed hand-in-hand from a pragmatic base. Jackins [1973, p. 18] says they decided

`to include nothing in the developing theory ... simply because ... someone had wrote a book saying it was so.'

By the early 1960's a theoretical framework based on their own experience had been developed by Jackins and Mary McCabe; published as The Human Side of Human Beings [Jackins, 1965], the account uses a general information processing approach.

The theory integrated cognition and emotion, pointing out that while hurting physically or emotionally, our flexible human intelligence stops functioning. However information input from our environment is not shut down, with the result that unevaluated data gets into the memory. Such data is isolated from other memories, and when recalled it comes as chunks of feelings, thoughts and actions, rigidly tied together.

Consequently the person's flexible intelligence is reduced, and a rigid program is compulsively run whenever we meet events similar to the recorded distress experience--a process called Re-stimulation. Such rigid programs are known as Patterns. It is these patterned effects which are interrupted by emotional Discharge, freeing the person's flexible intelligence, and integrating the information from the original distress experiences into the person's general store.

Another conceptual achievement was to specify the conditions facilitating therapeutically effective catharsis. Namely the emotive re-experiencing of past distresses whilst also being aware of present safety. Thus expression of negative feelings without such a Balance of Attention is not catharsis, but rehearsal of Patterns.

The spread of co-counselling beyond Seattle resulted from the migration of teachers of co-counselling around the USA, and permeation of co-counselling through existing networks, such as Quaker Meetings. Then Jackins himself travelled around giving introductory lectures and running workshops.

By 1970 there was, distinct from Personal Counselors, a Re-evaluation Counseling organisation (RC). This name arose from the oft repeated observation that spontaneous re-evaluation followed clients' emotional discharge. The RC organisation expanded until by the 80's there were organised groups of co-counsellors, known as communities, in more than 30 countries of the world.

The primacy of intelligence led to an emphasis on formulating theory as a guide to improving practice, with new theory developing out of the best practice. Issues were addressed by running a series of workshops which combined everyone working on their distress on a topic, with a sharing of the thinking produced. One such issue was liberation.

`The conclusion was that we have to necessarily tackle sexism, racism, adultism towards children and other forms of oppression both inside our community and outside ... If we do not, the workshops reasoned, then the daily load of distress visited on our co-counselors by oppression is likely to make them lose their war for re-emergence even if they win battles in their sessions. [Jackins, 1977, p. 11].

This conclusion resulted in new therapeutic techniques within RC, and also in much application of Co-Counselling strategies to change institutions at grassroots level. Education, health care, child rearing, challenging sexism, racism and oppression of all kinds are areas in which many co-counsellors have been active throughout the world. Beginners classes in RC always deal with oppressive behavior and encourage acting against it from the start.

Throughout the growth of RC, Jackins has remained a powerful central figure and has demanded and maintained that RC be characterised by consistency of practice/theory/organisation. Any sustained disagreement with Jackins meant people left or were excluded from RC. Though most of these people abandoned co-counselling some did not.

Consequently co-counselling groups outside the RC organisation became established, initially on the East Coast of the USA and in Britain. Contact between these groups was established by Dency and Tom Sargent and John Heron, and a network called Co-Counselling International (CCI) started in 1975. This too has spread, with long-standing communities in Holland and Ireland, and newer ones in New Zealand and Hungary. It lacks the organisational coherence of RC, with local groups being self-determined and very varied in style.

Co-counselling also goes on outside any organised networks; in communes, women's groups, men's groups, and groups within the caring professions.

Developments in Britain

In 1970 Tom Scheff, a Californian psychologist, taught the first RC workshops in London. He came again the following summer, after which some of the participants were authorised as RC teachers, and a skeleton organisation was set up. John Heron, then Director of the Human Potential Research Unit at the University of Surrey, became involved and ran the first indigenous class in 1971. Heron then ran a series of beginners' workshops throughout Britain and continental Europe. Jackins subsequently came to Europe and authorized ten more teachers. The present authors were first introduced to co-counselling at a Heron workshop in 1973.

Early 1974, after some fundamental disagreements with Jackins, Heron left RC, but continued to teach and develop the methods; as did some of the other early teachers, Savitri Shinya, Eve Godfrey, Valerie Rose who had also left for a variety of reasons. When CCI was formed there were only a few teachers of co-counselling outside RC, including by then the present authors. The first CCI international workshop was organised in Connecticut in 1975. A second workshop in England in autumn 1975 established an international committee, guidelines for CCI communities and a Newsletter.

Since that time co-counselling in Britain has expanded both within and outside RC. Currently there are about 45 CCI-style teachers actively running beginner's classes. Inside RC there are 42 organised areas, plus several dozen teachers outside organised areas.

RC in Britain takes an active part in the world organisation and in applications of co-counselling. It is not highly visible, due to a low profile policy.

CCI, with fewer resources and, in Britain, lacking coherent organisation, has been in some respects more visible. The Human Potential Research Unit has continued to teach co-counselling, and when John Heron became Director of the British Postgraduate Medical Federation he added co-counselling courses to their training programme. However the lack of organisation in CCI in the UK is leading to differences in theory and practice between different groups.

Cathartic intervention methods, in group and individual work, have been spread through the Six Category Intervention Analysis and the Facilitator Styles courses also established by Heron. More recently Rose Evison has naturalized the identification of Patterns in her interpersonal skills work in organisations. In her model of personal change strategies she uses Changing Situations, Developing Skills and Breaking Blocks, where Blocks have the same definition as Patterns. Her Blockbreaking exercises use emotional discharge to bring about change.

The present authors have been concerned to integrate co-counselling theory and practice with wider psychological and therapeutic principles. They teach classes specifically aimed at members of caring professions. Since 1983 the bookshop sale of their co-counselling manual [Evison & Horobin, 1995] has made co-counselling ideas and methods more widely available. Their chapter in Innovative Therapies in Britain also established a place for co-counselling strategies amongst recognized therapies [Evison and Horobin, 1989].

Theoretical assumptions

The theoretical assumptions are presented from the viewpoints of the three schools which teach co-counselling with defined concepts.

Image of the person

'The theory assumes that everyone is born with tremendous intellectual potential, natural zest, and lovingness, but that these qualities have become blocked and obscured in adults as the result of accumulated distress experiences (fear, hurt, loss, pain, anger, embarrassment, etc.) which began early in our lives. Any young person would recover from such distress spontaneously by the use of the natural process of emotional discharge (crying, trembling, raging, laughing, etc.) However, this natural process is usually interfered with by well-meaning people ("Don't cry", "Be a big boy", etc.) who erroneously equate the emotional discharge with the hurt itself. When adequate emotional discharge can take place, the person is freed from the rigid pattern of behaviour and feeling left by the hurt. The basic, loving, co-operative, intelligent, and zestful nature is then free to operate.'
[cover of any issue of RC magazine Present Time; see References].

This statement, originating with Jackins and his collaborators, would also be subscribed to by co-counsellors within the CCI tradition. There are however differences in the way different writers express the image of the person, and the intellectual framework used.

In John Heron's intellectual framework, existential tensions in the human condition are considered to cause primary distress; the accumulation of which leads to interpersonal tensions and hurt which he calls secondary distress. Heron says:

'Human infants have remarkable though undeveloped capacities for love, understanding and choice, but lack the information, skill and experience with which to actualise them. They await wise and loving education, but are also highly vulnerable to interference by others--the blocking, frustration, rejection or neglect of their deep human potential. The result of such interference is a line of distress in the mind-body, the emotional pain of grief, fear, anger, shame and embarrassment, together with correlated physical, often muscular tension. The effect of such distress is to suspend the effective response of human capacities--of love, understanding and choice--so that the child is left with an undiscriminating recording of the traumatic interfering reaction, including the child's own maladaptive response. These distress recordings ... are the source of unaware, compulsive, maladaptive and rigid behaviour patterns.' [Heron, 1979].

The present authors have a biological/psychological framework, and relate the image of the person to evolutionary and learning theory perspectives. Three points are taken as basic:

These three capacities are inter-related. Thus, our emotions are not unfortunate vestiges of our primitive animal nature; humans are excellent at learning and problem solving because they are highly emotional, not despite it. Moreover some of our basic emotions are social, e.g. love, embarrassment and shame.

For a discussion of emotions as motivators see Tomkins [1963]. A more detailed discussion of the authors' theory is provided by Rose Evison's [1989] article on stress management and counselling psychology.

Significantly, just as recognition of threat acts to switch on negative feelings, humans have innate off-switches for inappropriate negative feelings. These processes are activated when a person perceives a threat to have ceased. The processes triggered by the off-switches are those of emotional discharge, which act to reset our mind/body systems back to a peaceful and alert baseline. The reality of the physiological reset following catharsis has been demonstrated in several studies [eg Karle, Corriere and Hart, 1973].

Figure 2: All human beings experience Person and Pattern modes of being

Person mode

Flexiblly intelligent in thinking and acting.

Caring and co-operative with others.

Freely able to access store of experience and skills.

Able to learn.

Enjoying positive feelings.

Faces of man and woman
Masks Patterned mode

Rigid and repetitive in thinking and acting.

Distructive of self and others.

Blocked from store of experience and skills.

Only conditioned learning possible.

Driving by negative feelings

Concepts of psychological health and disturbance.

Psychologically healthy people proceed from birth to death as active learners enjoying the challenge of solving problems; they enjoy working with others; they develop their all-round potential through each stage of life; they react with appropriate negative feelings to immediate threat, physical or psychological. If they succeed in mastering a threatening situation the knowledge is added to their experience and skills. After failure, recognising when the threat is past, they spontaneously discharge their inappropriate emotional arousal. After discharge ends they have a body/mind state of alert flexibility, with maximum choice over the next task.

Psychological disturbance is considered to consist of rigid, compulsive responses—feelings, thoughts and behaviours. Such responses are termed Patterns. Unlike habits, Patterns are not under direct voluntary influence and do not change when circumstances alter. Indeed, Patterns are highly resistant to change: even when the individual, perceiving him/herself as destructive to themselves or others, tries to change. It is considered normal for everyone to have some Patterns.

The extent of psychological disturbance will depend upon how many Patterns a person has, how intense are the negative feelings involved, and how much the Patterned behaviours clash with social norms.

These concepts are assumed to apply to the more extreme manifestations of psychological disturbance, not just to those people labelled neurotics, in therapeutic diagnosis. This does not ignore psychological disturbance produced by damage to body and brain, nor assume that all psychological disturbance is reversible.

The psychologically healthy person will have very few Patterns. Such people will be expressive of positive and negative emotions with their bodies and creative in terms of problem solving and the expressive arts. They will not be subject to feeling depressed, powerless or alienated. They will have a strong sense of self-worth, while being caring and co-operative with others. They will be assertive and negotiate with others when needs clash. These ideas are expressed as the Person-Pattern model of human beings illustrated in Figure 2.

The acquisition of psychological disturbance

Psychological disturbance results when a distressing experience with no positive outcome is followed by failure to discharge the negative feelings aroused. The whole sequence is recorded in the person's memory. Subsequent reminders of the original threatening situation, arising when elements of it re-occur, result in a perception of current threat and production of the relevant distressing feelings.

These feelings then drive the negative thoughts and futile actions with which the person previously responded, as no other responses are available. The whole set of responses is labelled a Pattern. (See figure 3)

Patterns equate with neurotic responses. The normal person learns from their experience, the neurotic is condemned to repeat it. Patterns are not limited to neurotics; in normal development there will be many distressing experiences in which the child fails to obtain a positive outcome. Such experiences may be traumatic, like sexual assault, or they may be minor but occur frequently, as in the basic socialisation processes of weaning and toilet training.

Although the most influential Patterns are usually established during infancy, they can develop at any age; battle neuroses are examples of Patterns from traumatic situations to which all normals are susceptible. [Swank, 1949]. John Holt's [1964] book "How Children Fail" provides vivid documentation of Patterns produced in school situations.

A mechanism for the acquisition of self-punishing Patterns is shown in experiments by Stone and Hokanson, reported by Martin [1972]. In these experiments participants learned that a self-inflicted electric shock prevented a worse shock being inflicted by another person. Once learned, this self-punishing behaviour continued after the other-administered punishment had ceased, because there was no way for the person to learn that the situation had changed.

Patterns which are destructive of others arise from situations in which the child has been a victim of adult aggression. Undiscriminating input of information by the distressed child means that the words and actions of the person causing the distress is also memorised in a patterned fashion. These behaviours are then available to the victim when in later life they find themselves in the power role. Thus, those people who have been victims of oppression become oppressors themselves when circumstances give them the chance.

Wyre, in his work with sexual offenders, notes both the difficulties of changing their ingrained violence and that many of them had been victims of sexual assault themselves [Swift 1986]. In his research into child batterers Frude [1982] notes strong correspondences between the forms of physical assaults they use and the way they themselves were punished as children.

Further models of Pattern acquisition are provided by Seligman's ideas on acquisition of anxiety and his concept of learned helplessness [Seligman, 1975].

As there is no way to prevent distressing failure experiences, the key factor producing psychological disturbance is the inhibition of the emotional discharge processes. (Figure 3) Anything which prevents emotional discharge taking place will increase the chances of Pattern formation and hence increase psychological disturbance. Figure 4 shows the range of Patterns acquired by the mechanisms outlined here.

The perpetuation of psychological disturbance

After a Pattern has been established, the unevaluated data present in memory from the original situation can be triggered by a fragmentary reminder of that situation. Thus smelling hospital disinfectant can evoke the anxiety which was part of a distressing illness; a mocking laugh can bring back the helplessness experienced when being bullied by an older child. The more distressing the experience, the more generalisation of threatening stimuli is likely—a rape experience may leave a woman unable to trust any man.

This production of negative feelings through situational reminders is termed Restimulation. This is a general phenomenon, as is shown by asking people to talk through recent upsetting events in their lives, when many report re-experiencing the feelings not merely recalling them. The remainder of the associated Pattern is evoked through the feelings.

Restimulation is demonstrated and made use of in Interpersonal Process Recall, a therapist training system developed by Kagan [1980], in which viewing of interview videos restimulates memories of influential thoughts and feelings the person did not verbalise at the time. Some research made continuous physiological measurements during the initial interview and during its review. These measurements showed parallel emotional arousal between an episode in the original interview and during recall of that interview [Kagan 1986].

Figure 3: Core theory on the acquisition of psychological disturbance

Figure 4: Psychological disturbance is expressed using the concept of Patterns

Concept of Patterns

The consequences of Restimulation are always limiting. Minimally the person's finite attention span will be partially occupied by the negative feelings and thoughts; hindering perception and thinking. Mandler [1979] discusses how negative arousal takes up attention both because of the physiological arousal and because attention is compulsorily focused on the threatening stimuli. Restimulation will have more negative consequences when the Patterns driven by the restimulated feelings include self—or other—destructive behaviour.

Each time a Pattern is restimulated it is strengthened. So if the person does not find an opportunity to discharge the distress which holds the Pattern in place, the disturbance worsens throughout the life span.

Another way Patterns are perpetuated arises from the socialisation of the emotions. Discharge is reduced or eliminated, using comforting, distraction or punishment, ("There, there dear, there's no need to cry!", "Oh, look at that funny doggy!", "If you don't stop, I'll give you something to cry for!").

The Patterns acquired through this socialisation are key ones which shape the person's personality. Tomkins [1963] discusses this, linking various adult psychological disturbances to family styles of socialising emotional expression. An example is the parents' use of shame to control a child's emotional expression, which in the extreme results in the syndrome of emotions, thoughts, and actions observed in paranoia.

The Patterns directly set up when discharge is inhibited are known as control Patterns. These constitute intrinsic psychological disturbance, and because they inhibit discharge processes, they act to perpetuate existing Patterns and increase the chances of future Pattern formation.

A lack of trust in others is a further factor in Pattern perpetuation. The Patterning process is like conditioning. Modern views of human conditioning emphasise the importance of cognitive influences. When experimental subjects were told conditions had changed and punishment would no longer follow a signal, conditioned fear responses previously produced to the signal were immediately eliminated for many of them. A recent re-analysis showed that this only occurred for people who trusted the experimenter. People who distrusted the experimenter only ceased to react when they had experienced the truth for themselves, [Dawson & Schell, 1987].

In everyday life, opportunities to check that conditions have changed are often minimal; particularly in cases where a Patterned response originally pre-empted a worse punishment. Since Patterns are typically installed by those persons who give the child care and affection, so the child learns that positive figures in their life cannot necessarily be trusted. This lack of trust usually is generalised and acts to perpetuate Patterns.

A further force acting to perpetuate psychological disturbance arises when Patterns are tied into the person's self-concept. These Patterns arise when children are prevented from exhibiting spontaneous human behaviours, e.g. emotional discharge and sexual behaviour. Such inhibition can only be achieved by some form of punishment, applied on numerous occasions.

The implicit message to the child is that some important parts of him/her are not valued or acceptable. This will frequently be reinforced by explicit value judgements of goodness and badness applied to the whole person. Because such Patterns are attached to the person rather than to specifics of the person's behaviour, they are in continuous restimulation and hence thought of as part of the personality and not susceptible to removal.

Finally, many Patterns are perpetuated by being reinforced by the social and political institutions of our culture. This arises when poor self-concept Patterns key into a person's membership of a particular population group, e.g. "You're emotional and weak because you're a woman!". Although the social basis of such oppression is economic, the psychological basis is the installation of Patterns in individuals.

Thus, individual psychological disturbance is perpetuated by society's norms and institutions: black children in our society who have had inferiority Patterns installed will experience corroborating evidence in the unemployment and discrimination to which they are subject. Once such Patterns are set up, socialisation processes will ensure that they are perpetuated across the generations not just within an individuals life. (See Figure 5)

It is difficult for the psychologically healthy individual to exist without a culture which promotes health. Co-counselling considers that an important index of health in a culture is how far it encourages positive attitudes to catharsis, without being permissive to destructive acting out.

A cathartic culture will be one providing opportunities for emotional expression with a Balance of Attention. Both inhibition of emotional discharge and encouragement of compulsive emotionality will be strong forces for perpetuating Patterns.

John Heron [1977] discusses the non-cathartic society. Play and sport form avenues for cathartic expression. A detailed discussion of the cathartic role of drama and religion has been provided by Scheff [1979].

Figure 5: Patterns are perpetuated down the generations

I'll teach you to hit each other! So this is how it's done.

For this cartoon we thank the artist Jess Gilmour, of the National Children's Bureau of Australia, and also Peter Newell of EPOCH who provided us with it.

Figure 6: Co-counselling strategies for facilitating change


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