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The Importance of Connection

The Connections Model
The Connections Model

In my experience of working with people over some 30 years, there is a common problem that seems to be at the heart of their distress. I have come to describe this problem as simply a lack of connection.

Here, I aim to explain what this means and how disconnection from ourselves, others, the world and something greater than ourselves, can lead us to feel alone, afraid and unable to identify and express how we feel. It can lead to physical discomfort, mental and emotional distress and spiritual crisis.

In the world today, more than ever before people are becoming isolated or disconnected from community and as we are designed to be social animals, this way of living cannot fail to have a major impact on our wellbeing and mental health. Iain McGilchrist, a former consultant psychiatrist, writer and Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists states that “Over recent years, urbanisation, globalisation and the destruction of local cultures has led to a rise in the prevalence of mental illness” This is my experience through my psychotherapy practice too. Family is often fragmented, people have a closer relationship with their mobile phones, than they do with their neighbours. We are tending to live insular lives,made worse by the home working habits that are becoming more commonplace, devoid of connection to ourselves, each other, nature and soul.

We look for quick fixes to all our problems and use all kinds of tactics to desensitise or distract us from uncomfortable feelings, searching instead for happiness and contentment, excluding anything contrary to this.

The Connections Model simply aims to draw attention to the concept of their being more to us than just our minds and the need for meaningful connections with all of ourselves and others. People who spend a lot of time in their heads, thinking and worrying may have no idea of the impact that this has on their emotional wellbeing, their physical body and their soul. The model which I have used in my practice for many years now, is offered to help people to be mindful of the potential for healing that arises when we ourselves connect to our holistic self.

I want to state here that when I refer to Soul, I refer to something that gives life meaning. For some this will be a religious belief, for others it will be nature, sport or art. It may be family, meditation or helping others. When I mention soul, please interpret this in a way that is meaningful to you. I have no intention here of trying to pass on my belief about what soul is but encourage you to find your own meaning.

Thomas Moore in his book Care of the soul suggests “soul is not a thing, but a quality or a dimension of experiencing life and ourselves” He goes on to say that “We can’t care for the soul unless we are familiar with its ways”. Moore, a psychotherapist and former Catholic Monk, suggests that symptoms such as emptiness, meaninglessness, vague depression, disillusionment and yearning for personal fulfilment all reflect a loss of soul.

Making sense of suffering with the mind alone is unlikely to tend to unresolved and unexpressed emotion or trauma. Working with thoughts and perceptions, although valuable, is not enough, in my opinion. We need to bring the body, the emotion and the soul into our work to help establish, develop and maintain a connection between all these parts of the self if therapy work is be lasting and effective.

Iain McGilchrist again, “Emotion is inseparable from the body in which it is felt, and emotion is also the basis for our engagement with the world.”

As people we naturally want to avoid suffering and unpleasant emotional experiences, yet they are very much part of being human and if unrecognised and unexpressed, can stay with us as unfinished and unexpressed experiences that can haunt us and contribute to ill health, mentally, physically and emotionally.

“The first truth, Buddha taught his disciples, is that suffering is part of the human condition. If we simply try to avoid confronting painful experiences, there is no way to begin the healing process. In fact, this denial creates the very conditions that promote and prolong unnecessary suffering.”

The Connections Model highlights four aspects or parts of self (of course there are countless parts of self, but for simplicity the model draws attention to just four, mind, body, soul and emotion) The jigsaw pieces in the model represents the need for a connection, or relationship between these parts of self. So, when I become aware of a negative thought, I am aware of the impact of this on my emotions, my body and the soul. Or, when I become aware of a painful emotion, I am aware of where in the body it is experienced and what thoughts I have at the same time. When I am caught up in the fears of my mind, I am aware of the connection to soul and can inquire into what it might offer in relation to the problem. I believe that it is in tending to and working with all these parts of self that we can become holistically well.

The central circle brings our attention to the need for relationship. It encourages us to develop and maintain a relationship between these different parts of ourselves and relationships with others, with something soul-full and with the environment. In the case of counselling and therapy, the relationship between myself and my client is central to the success of the work we do. Professor Mick Cooper has researched the importance of the relationship between client and counsellor and has found that 30% of a client's improvement is due to the relationship between therapist and client.¹ Through placing the relationship in the heart of the model, my aim is to show how important it is not just to counselling work, but to the wellbeing of the client in life generally.

So, the Connections model, serves to highlight the need to attend to the whole person, not only to individual aspects of the person. It also acts as a guide to a range of theoretical approaches and to their integration in my counselling and psychotherapy practice. The theoretical approaches used in my practice have been carefully chosen for their success and usefulness with a wide range of problems. Given that everyone I work with is different, then it makes sense to me that each person I work with might want different things from me and from the work we do together. For example, one client may want to think more clearly about something, while another might want to work on their troublesome anger which is affecting their relationships. Another might want to feel less depressed while another wants to explore the feeling of having no direction or purpose in their life.

The model helps me to find a theoretical approach that might best suit the individual and their needs. To work with the mind, it guides us towards Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). We can often be troubled with unhelpful thinking habits, which if left to run through our minds unchecked can, cause us emotional distress and in turn this can have a huge impact on our behaviour. When it is a client’s thoughts that are causing the distress, it makes sense to draw upon some CBT concepts to work with the problem. Albert Ellis, the founder of CBT offers “If people stopped looking on their emotions as ethereal, almost inhuman processes, and realistically viewed them as being largely composed of perceptions, thoughts, evaluations, and internalized sentences, they would find it quite possible to work calmly and concertedly at changing them.”

If someone is experiencing emotional problems, perhaps anger, sadness, depression etc, then we may need to work with their emotions as well as their minds. For this we might combine some Gestalt concepts into our practice. Gestalt therapy was developed in the late 1940’s and much of its development is credited to Fritz Perls, although there were others involved in this work too. Gestalt guides us towards awareness. Awareness of what is happening for us in the present moment in mind, body, emotion and soul. Fritz Perls wanted to teach us how important it is to live in the present moment. He said, “I have one aim only: to impart a fraction of the meaning of the word 'now.'

Gestalt offers some creative and powerful ways to help raise things into awareness. In my practice I draw on the Gestalt concept of “unfinished business” in most sessions and offer my clients the chance to firstly become aware of the unfinished business they may hold inside themselves (the unshed tears, the unexpressed scream, the unsaid things, the unmet needs from early life) and offer a chance to complete the unfinished business.

When it comes to working with the soul, then transpersonal psychology can help me to work with clients presenting with some of the things that Thomas Moore spoke of earlier, meaninglessness, disillusionment etc. Transpersonal psychology (also known as transpersonal counselling) is a humanistic approach to therapy that was developed by American psychologist, Abraham Maslow in the 1960s. The term 'transpersonal' means 'beyond the personal', and this reflects the core aim of the therapy - to explore human growth and help people to discover a deep and more meaningful connections.

And finally, but by no means least, I draw upon the work of Carl Rogers and his Person-Centred Approach to establish, develop and maintain a trusting and real relationship with the client and in turn a genuine relationship with themselves and with others. “In my relationships with persons I have found that it does not help, in the long run, to act as though I were something that I am not.” Carl R. Rogers, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist's View of Psychotherapy.

The Connections model places great emphasis on relationship being at the heart of the work I do with clients and Mick Coopers research shows how important this is. By building a real and trusting relationship with my clients, I hope that in turn this may help clients to form or develop connections with people and themselves that make life more rewarding and fulfilling.

Carl Rogers - In my early professional years I was asking the question: How can I treat, or cure, or change this person? Now I would phrase the question in this way: How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth?

So, we have seen how the model draws our attention to the whole person and how it guides me towards using some well-respected theoretical approaches for counselling work. It encourages an integrative approach (using more than one theory in practice) to working with my clients, quite simply because everyone is different and therefore requires something different from their work with me.


1. Mick Cooper's (2010) Essential Research Findings in Counselling and Psychotherapy

Iain McGilchrist , The Mater and His Emissary, 2009

Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, 1992

Perls, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim,1969

© Mark Hartshorn 2016


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