Counselling may seem like something quite mysterious. It’s an intangible process that takes place between two people, historically explored with theory and increasingly understood by neuroscience, but really best described with metaphor. It deals with strange phrases such as our ‘inner landscape’, our ‘sense of self’, our ‘felt sense’, our ‘emotional awareness’ or ability to ‘meet parts of ourselves’. If you are curious about counselling and want some insight then I highly recommend the book ‘Counselling for Toads, A Psychological Adventure’, written by Robert de Board.
This delightful novel creatively, clearly and at times poignantly presents a narrative of a counselling journey. It is written as a sequel to Wind in the Willows, in which we meet the normally pompous and energetic Toad in the midst of suffering a depressive breakdown after all his adventures. His good friends Badger, Mole and Ratty come to his aid:
‘First they nursed him. Then they encouraged him. Then they told him to pull himself together… Finally, Badger could stand it no longer, “Now look here Toad, this can go on no longer,” he said sternly. “There is only one thing left. You must have counselling!” ‘
We follow Toad on his psychological adventure with the counsellor, Heron, who works from the Transactional Analysis model and explains much of the theory to Toad – and the reader – as the story progresses. We learn with Toad about emotional or psychological states we all inhabit: Natural or Adapted Child, Critical or Nurturing Parent, and Adult; we learn about a feelings thermometer, about the reality of living out a life script that has been set up for us in our earliest years, and the value of working towards a place of acknowledging that ‘I’m ok, you’re ok’.
Heron characterises the strange role that a counsellor provides by not rushing to fill silences; in asking questions rather than offering answers; and in non-defensively holding Toad’s eventual angry outburst, allowing him to process trapped emotions he had held towards his strict father.
The story is full of gems of realisation as Toad becomes familiar with himself. Having written a list of childhood strategies he had used to placate his parents Toad remarks:
‘You know, I am beginning to realise this list describes not only my past, but also my present.’
Reflecting on how it had felt to tell Heron his life story Toad realises that:
‘he was beginning to gain the capacity to recall without condemning. He made connections between events and looked at them objectively without feeling guilty’
The immediate impact that counselling had on Toad was that he had never before experienced somebody giving him exclusive, undivided attention. Over the course of the story we follow Toad rediscovering his enjoyment of boating, learning to hold boundaries in a conflict with Badger, and eventually making new plans for himself to build a life that is really his own, rather than a childlike facade of his parents’.
In their last session Heron congratulates Toad on his work, and explains the value of feeling things: ‘In counselling, we work not only with our brains but with our feelings. Whilst you can begin to understand behaviour intellectually, you can only fully understand yourself through getting in touch with your own emotions. As these become clearer to you, you realise that your feelings are not optional extras that can be ignored, but they are the very centre of yourself.’
You don’t need to have read or remembered the original Wind in the Willows to understand or appreciate this beautiful little book, nor do you need to already know anything about counselling. It is light and entertaining, and full of relationship and warmth. Just reading it will help you to understand more of yourself, and perhaps help you to begin your own psychological adventure.