On paper, it’s relatively easy to counsel. Rape Crisis and other counselling courses teach that the main components of effective counselling include active listening, observational skills, body language, counsellor self-awareness and empathy. All of these skills allow for the opening up of a field of healing – a space where the client is the central focus and as a counsellor, you become a facilitator of healing in this safe space.
The difficult part of counselling comes in the form of having to manage your responses to the pain people offer you to hold for them. The number one question I am asked is ‘that must be so heavy. How do you deal with that?’ well, Rape Crisis had us trudge through our own hurts, our histories, our responses and our triggers, to essentially build a protective barrier. This boundary acts and looks like a stronger version of ourselves so that we are solid when the bricks of another’s identity try to intercept our foundational truth. Those bricks are heavy, and they tend to fly in from nowhere, unannounced.
It is only when faced with a survivor, who has their own histories and hurts and foundational truth, that we realise there is universal pain. Regardless of their background, gender, race or sexual orientation, something in their honesty or their world-views will trigger a feeling in you. And that is because of the magic of empathy- the ability to feel someone else’s reality so deeply, that it appears to be your own. There have been moments with a client when they say ‘It made me feel so gobbledegook- like a spider with a tail’ and all of a sudden, you know what a gobbledegook is, you know what that tail feels like, you can see where that feeling sat in their body and suddenly it’s sitting there in yours. It’s pure magic. Pure, terrifying, electric magic and it can hurt you if you do not know yourself enough to facilitate this person without having them change you fundamentally. You must have deeply planted roots, support and self-care!
Rape Crisis taught us the value of being able to hold ourselves. We were told early on, that when things feel too chaotic in your own life, look after yourself first. There is no way that you can effectively hold the space for another person when it’s cluttered with your own pain. This is where self-care comes in- the ability to make time for yourself and your own needs, the ability to check in with yourself regularly and ask yourself what you need right now to make yourself feel safe, loved and happy.
Rape Crisis as an institution has a mandate of empowerment, and that is where the difference lies between it and other organisations. Every aspect of the counselling at Rape Crisis is a response to a survivor having had their power stolen from them by a perpetrator. As humans, we instinctively wish to fix what’s broken- but telling people how to heal after being raped, or telling survivors what their pain should look like, is the most disempowering thing you can do. There is no ‘how to’ guide on finding your strength, or telling your family what has happened to you, or having to face your rapist in court.
The most profound thing Rape Crisis taught me is that everything the client feels is legitimate and normal and important. Everything. The path to healing and empowerment will therefore look different to everyone, and will happen in its own time. As counsellors we do not fix, because a survivor is not broken. They are some of the strongest people I will ever meet, simply because they walked through the doors and asked for their power to be echoed back through the safety and support of others.
My journey as a counsellor has only just begun, but I know now that counselling someone is more than just learning how to listen, or learning to be comfortable with silence, or learning how not to give advice. It is a humbling responsibility and turns you towards yourself in such a beautiful and frightening way, that really, the survivor heals the counsellor as much as we may offer them the space to heal themselves.
Robyn moved to Cape Town from Johannesburg to study psychology in 2011. Having completed her Honours degree and a number of counselling courses through various NGO’s, she is now a counsellor at Rape Crisis’ Athlone office. She is also currently volunteering at an early intervention centre for children with autism. She hopes to pursue a career in the advocacy for mental health in South Africa, with a specific focus on access to mental healthcare structures for Womxn and Queer-identifying individuals.