A Series of Small Steps: Jon’s Counselling Journey

6 October 2021

This series tells fictional stories of the counselling journey. Drawn from our counsellors’ extensive experience, this story recounts how a man overcomes his mental health challenges through counselling and begins to rebuild his relationship with his family.

Jon was not sure at all about coming to counselling. His colleague from work recommended it to him after noticing that he was struggling with his mental health. Jon decided that he’d give it a go, so got in touch with us to book an assessment.

man climbing staircaseInitial Meeting

Jon had come because he was feeling depressed and, to his surprise, anxious. He hadn’t yet been to see his GP for a mental health diagnosis, but he felt unmotivated, low, sad and anxious. He also felt angry. Jon had little patience with his teenage boys, leading to him snapping a lot. And he was arguing and bickering regularly with his partner.

We talked through what had happened for Jon in the last year. Lockdown had meant the whole family was in the house, with the two boys home schooling. This had been very difficult – no-one had the space they needed. And Jon didn’t have the outlets he’d usually use, such as going to the pub on a Friday night or watching sports with friends.

The rest of the family went back to school and work, but Jon continued to work from home. He was finding it very difficult to be motivated for work. He described often finding himself staring into space thinking about things rather than working.

Surprised by anxiety

As life began to open up, he was looking forward to going back to his usual social circles. However, he was surprised by anxiety. He had clammy hands, felt a bit sick and wanted to leave – he didn’t want to be there, even though he’d been looking forward to it. Even thinking about being at the pub left him feeling really nervous.

He also talked about the poor relationships in his family at the moment. His partner wanted him to talk about how he’s feeling, but he didn’t know how and it always ended in an argument. He couldn’t connect with his teenage boys and often argued with them too.

Jon also wasn’t convinced that talking was going to achieve anything. However, he agreed he’d give it a go and see what happened. We also talked about going to see the GP for medical support if his depression or anxiety get worse.

Techniques for anxiety

Before we ended this assessment, I talked through two techniques for managing anxiety. The first focussed on senses:

  • Find 5 things you can hear
  • Find 4 things you can see
  • Find 3 things you can touch
  • Find 2 things you can smell
  • Find 1 thing you can taste

Focussing on your senses brings you back into this moment and roots you in this place; it prevents your anxious thoughts from spiralling out of control.

The second one was 4-4-6 breathing:

  • Breathe in for 4 counts,
  • Hold for 4 counts,
  • Breathe out for 6 counts.

By focussing on your breath control, you calm your heartbeat and slow your breathing down, which calms your mind and emotions too.

Jon wasn’t sure about the idea of doing these in public – he felt like it might be embarrassing! But he took them away with him as a possibility.

Understanding counselling

In our next session, we talked about why counselling can be effective. This was an important conversation for Jon, as he was sceptical about the idea.

The conversation involved some psychoeducation – learning about the impact on the body and the mind when we suppress our emotions.

Jon explained that the thing that bothers him the most is having to talk for 50 minutes in the session – it felt like a very long time to fill. So we started with a particular topic: understanding the cycle of anger.

We identified what Jon’s triggers for his angers are. Jon said that, within the family, anger is triggered by his partner not feeling like he’s doing his fair share of the chores. It came from disagreements around how they manage the house together. Jon also experienced anger when his partner asked him about how he feels, and pushed him to express himself. He also found it is triggered when his teenage boys refuse to do what they’ve been told, or don’t respond in the way he expected of them.

At work, Jon had a few colleagues that he clashed with. The personality clashes between them quickly caused a rise in anger for him.

The behaviours that arose from this anger include yelling, arguing, bickering… often causing a response that further triggered anger.

We talked about how to break the cycle of anger. One of the techniques I offered Jon appeals to him as it feels safe to do – no-one will notice what he’s doing. Whenever those feelings of anger arise, Jon is to walk away from the situation and give himself time to calm down. When he’s calm, he can go back and communicate with the other person, not out of the heat of the moment but having let his anger settle.

Releasing emotions

Jon tried this technique and really liked it. He found that when he came back from calming down he was able to avoid an argument and address the problem. He and the other person could communicate properly with each other.

Jon was now gaining confidence in the counselling room. As he saw the fruit of some of the techniques we talked about, he became more willing to open up.

I asked Jon to think about how his family dealt with emotion when he was growing up. He can remember many arguments, but once the argument had ended, it was never discussed again. It was dropped, swept under the carpet and everyone moved on. Jon recognised that the suppression of all those emotions wasn’t good. There were never resolutions, so the same clashes happened repeatedly.

We also talked about how the men in his family expressed emotion. As the bread-winners, the strong ones in the house, no emotions were displayed. He’d grown up in an environment in which emotions were for women, not men. For his family, strength did not have emotions.

As we discussed this over the course of a few sessions, Jon noticed that his relationships with his family improved. He saw that he had managed his emotions better and communicated better.

Not responding when he was angry had huge benefits. He was having better conversations with his children, who were also communicating better. Jon walking away to calm down gave them the space they needed to calm down. The family unit was changing its culture around how to communicate and how to disagree. They were all opening up more about their feelings. Because Jon is not suppressing his anger, he has helped removed stigma around expressing emotions in their home.

Hearing and being heard

As we drew towards the end of our time together, we talked about ways in which Jon could improve his relationship with his partner. He recognised that they needed better ways of communicating.

I invited him to have a conversation with his partner about what each other’s expectations were around communication. What do they need from each other?

She talked about not wanting to be interrupted or talked over. She also found it frustrating that Jon quickly assumed she was getting at him for something.

Jon and I talked about techniques they could use to be better communicators. Things like being really clear about turn taking in conversation: when one person has their turn, the other listens without interrupting or completing their sentences. They can then respond when it’s their turn, equally respected and listened to.

Jon and his partner carefully chose a time where they could talk without interruption from their boys, and regularly practiced communicating in this way. It made a huge difference. They both felt understood and closer to each other. For Jon, all the tension had gone from the home: he and his partner were working as a unit, there were less arguments and the whole family was much closer.

Ending well

We reached our final session, where we reflected on Jon’s journey.

Jon felt so apprehensive about counselling and embarrassed by the techniques I shared with him. But using them has been hugely effective. There are big improvements in family communication, and everyone’s working together. Jon feels less stigma opening up about his feelings because he can see the benefits for himself and everyone around him.

He looks back to how he felt when he started counselling six weeks ago, and everything has changed. He feels a lot more motivated for work because there is so much less stress in the family home. Jon can focus more on his work and complete it in his working day. So he’s not trying to catch up in the evenings, which means he’s sleeping better and feels more positive.

Improving relationships at home means he doesn’t feel sad anymore. And he’s taken some small steps in going out again. Using some of the techniques we discussed has reduced his anxiety. His mental health is much better.

A series of small steps

I observed with Jon as we end our time together that we had tackled the mental health problems he’d faced one small step at a time. First in simply coming to counselling; then in anxiety techniques, then anger management…and so on. The series of small steps had built up to better mental health for him and better relationships with his family. And if he finds himself stuck again, he can take that first small step and come back to Relate Northamptonshire for more support. We are always available if he or his family needs it.

Individual counselling is not just for women. It is for men too, as Jon’ story shows. Take that first small step today and book individual counselling with us.

This story has been told by Kelly, Relate Northamptonshire counsellor specialising in person-centred therapy.

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