Co-Counseling: Therapy Without Therapists

The co-counseling community is a nationwide network of people offering to support other community members. Experienced teachers offer classes—usually in their own homes—on how to ask for and give support. The classes themselves serve as support groups, and as an opportunity to meet other potential support people.

If you and I were to have a co-counseling session together, it might go something like this. First, you’d be the counselor and I’d be the client for, say, an hour. During this time I’d have the opportunity to talk about how I was feeling, trying in particular to focus on difficult, stressful experiences and relationships, both recent and past, and to discharge feelings I’d been unable to express.

As long as I seemed to be dealing with authentic feelings, you would remain silent. You might not sneak a word for the whole hour; but if I seemed to be avoiding my feelings you would gently guide me back to my emotion-laden experiences. If, on the other hand, I were to be so swept away by recalling difficult experiences that I lost touch with the safety and security of the present situation, you would gently call me back.

At the end of this time, we would reverse roles. You would become the client and I the counselor.

The skills of co-counseling—what to do when you’re the client and what to do when you’re the counselor— are now being taught in classes throughout the United States and in several other countries. The basic course meets once a week, two and a half hours per session, for sixteen weeks. It costs approximately eighty dollars, of which sixty goes to the teacher or teachers, and twenty to support local and national co-counseling networks.

Class time is divided between co-counseling demonstrations by experienced co-counselors, short lectures on the theory behind the practices, and co-counseling mini-sessions, with the class breaking up into pairs. In addition, students exchange out-of-class counseling time with at least one other student each week. During the sixteen weeks of the class, each student has an opportunity to co-counsel with every other student at least once.

When the class ends, each student receives a list of class members with addresses and phone numbers. Thereafter you may call—or be called by—any of the class members to request a co-counseling session. The person called may either accept or decline the session.

Students are encouraged to exchange time frequently with those class members with whom they feel most at home. Many co-counseling relationships continue for years, although “socializing”—establishing relationships other than that of co-counselor with persons met in class—is actively discouraged.

The co-counseling community now numbers over twenty thousand people. It began in Seattle, in the early 1960s. Co-counseling’s founder, Harvey Jackins, has written a number of books and manuals on the method (available from the national headquarters in Seattle). Jackins now serves as International Reference Person for the co-counseling network.

The co-counseling community is not widely known, largely as a result of efforts to discourage press coverage of their activities. They consider themselves a network of friends, and admission to co-counseling classes is by invitation only. Their approach to recruitment is notably different from self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, which maintain “open-door” policies. Co-counselors are advised to invite only people ” in the very best shape we can find . . . those we would be delighted to have as co-counselors.” Inviting “very deeply distressed” persons is not advised. Co-counselors are asked to refer such persons for conventional, “one-way” counseling.

Basic Assumptions

The theoretical assumptions of co-counseling (sometimes called Re-Evaluation Counseling or Re-Evaluation Co-Counseling) are (1) that the healing of psychological hurts is a spontaneous, inherent process which we are taught, in growing up, to discourage, both in ourself and others; (2) that given a safe, secure situation and the presence of a trusted counselor who will not “freak out” if we vent our deepest feelings, this healing process can be set in motion by self-directed efforts to discharge old distress experiences; (3) that effective discharge requires a simultaneous awareness of the old, hurtful experience and the present, secure situation; (4) that the counselor’s main task is to help the client keep his or her attention balanced between the old distress experience and the secure present situation; and (5) that if the work is either “too shallow” or “too deep,” there will be no discharge.

Counselor and Client Roles

As a counselor, you are expected to listen attentively, to encourage discharge, to return the client’s attention to emotion-laden material, to call the client back to the present if he or she “gets lost” in feelings, to refrain from giving advice, to react without either “stroking” or expressing hostility, and to refrain from interrupting discharge.

As a client, you are expected to come to a session with some idea of what you would like to work on, to be responsible for your own progress, to act like a client only during sessions, to stop at the end of the time period, and to refrain from ” acting out” your feelings in a way that might harm either persons or objects.

An Oral Tradition

The printed materials on co-counseling, all by Jackins, range from a fascinating, homespun, rather simplistic system of psychodynamics (The Human Side of Human Beings) to a spare, tough, completely practical manual (Fundamentals of Co-Counseling Manual) to a collection of short papers (The Human Situation) to several books of Jackin’s poems (Zest is Best, etc.). While the books, especially the Manual, give a good introduction to the ideas and practices of co-counseling, it is essentially an oral and not a written tradition. Guidelines for classes are in a process of continual review, both in the classes themselves, and in monthly teachers’ meetings. The regional and national organizations are clearly secondary to the classes and the local community of co-counselors, and there is a notable antihierarchical emphasis. Local and national leaders are expected to retake the beginning class as students from time to time, and to continue co-counseling just like everyone else.

Getting in Touch

Even though you may never have heard of it, there may well be a co-counseling community in your area. Jackins offers to put interested persons in touch with co-counselors in their own area, but you may be able to make contact by mentioning your interest among your present acquaintances. When I did so, I found that a number of my friends were active co-counselors, and that one neighbor was a co-counseling teacher. When I called to ask about upcoming classes, she suggested that we meet to discuss co-counseling.

After a brief discussion of principles and methods, she loaned me the Manual and finally arranged for us to meet for a short co-counseling session.

We ended up exchanging ten minutes each. I found myself recounting a difficult experience from the previous day and I was surprised by the intensity of feeling I was able to reach—speaking to someone who was practically a stranger—in this very limited time. I found myself experiencing several of the bodily signs— yawns, shaking, sighs—that the manual lists as signs of emotional discharge. When we had finished, she invited me to come to the introductory session of an upcoming class.

The first class meeting was at a friend’s house a few blocks away. There were a dozen students and two teachers. Nearly all the faces were familiar. One of the students was a woman who had been co-counseling for four years.

We went around the room introducing ourselves, and the teachers asked each of us in turn to say our name (“Tom Ferguson”), to share where we lived (“Inverness” ), something special about ourselves (“I’m a good writer and I work very hard”), something we’d like to change about ourselves (`’Like to be more sensitive to other people’s feelings”), how we spent our time (“Writing articles, reviewing books, answering mail, being with my family, running, taking walks”), and something new and good in our lives (“A twenty-mile hike, alone, from Bolinas to Inverness last Saturday”).

Next we broke up into pairs and spent a few minutes telling, then listening to our partner tell, things we liked about ourselves. After the teachers talked a bit about the theory and technique of co-counseling, we broke up into pairs again—with a new partner—and had a ten minute co-counseling session each way. The class ended with a “closing circle.” We came together, arms around shoulders, and progressed around the circle, telling the person beside us something we’d noticed and appreciated about them during the evening.

Nearly everyone wanted to be part of the class. I did, too.

Co-counseling puts the responsibility for taking good psychological care of yourself squarely in your own lap. It provides tools and structure, but the work is up to you.

It’s something that comes slowly. You proceed at your own pace. No one tells you what you should work on or how. The best learning experience is watching experienced co-counselors work on their own material. It’s often most impressive. Awe-inspiring, even.

As a counselor, you learn to be more and more comfortable simply being there for your client, without being upset by what he or she is going through, without putting any of your own demands on him/her. After a session, you feel a pleasant combination of gratitude and being needed.

It seems so much easier to be vulnerable, to explore your own hard places, when you know that in a few minutes your counselor will be exploring his own hard places with your support. Some people may be able to work as well with a paid, professional, more “objective” therapist. I know I can’t.

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Written by Tom Ferguson MD

Explore Wellness in 2021