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How Does Peer Counseling Work?

The one-to-one peer counseling service that is mentioned at the close of each open talk group often raises a lot of questions among the people who are new to the Ninth Street Center. When I first started coming to the groups I had some very strange ideas about what went on during peer counseling. At that time, the typical response to my questions on this subject was that it was something that was better experienced than explained.

As my willingness to find out for myself what counseling was all about came only during a period of crisis and desperation, the very general overview which follows was prepared with the hope of removing some of the mystery for others. Choosing counseling from the edge of the cliff as I did places an extra strain on the experience which can otherwise be used more creatively to improve the quality of your life.

Some advance preparation is helpful before you ask for counseling. First, attend enough of the open talk groups to get a feeling of what the work of the Center is all about, that is, to become more familiar with the independent psychological focus of the place and its aims. Also, attending the talk groups allows you to hear the personal views and experiences of the different members and this information can be useful in your selection of a potential counselor. Second, try to become more familiar with the written works of Paul Rosenfels. Paul is one of the founders of the Center and his ideas have shaped the community's overall point of view.

Paul saw that taking responsibility for your own mental health was far too important a task to be left to the care of the "professionals". Toward this end, he developed a conceptual framework for a science of human nature that did not require a special background or an elaborate previous education to be understood.

All of the counselors at the Center work with Paul's understanding of human nature as expressed in his books and monographs together with their own discoveries. The teaching that goes on in peer counseling uses no other system of psychology. Therefore, I would suggest the two readings described below as a foundation for understanding the new ideas that will be brought up in most any counseling session.

For primary reference, there is Paul's Homosexuality: The Psychology of the Creative Process. This book is filled with challenging concepts: it covers a lot of human territory in a radically different way and teaches its lessons primarily through comparative discussions called "analogs". Homosexuality was the first psychological text that made any real sense to me because it spoke the truth and did not rely on the jargon of psychoanalysis as a cover for ignorance. But it is not easy reading, primarily because of its scientific structure.

On a more intimate level, there is a monograph entitled A Renegade Psychiatrist's Story. This is Paul Rosenfels' own history and it contains his personal reflections along with many interesting anecdotes. Renegade has served people who are new to the Center as a good introduction to Paul's other works as it presents his key psychological concepts in an everyday narrative format rather than a scientific one.

People enter counseling offered through the Center for a variety of reasons. It provides an opportunity to learn about what is best in a homosexual identity and how to use this information creatively in our relationships with friends and those whom we love more deeply. It is a place to question what taking a healthy role in society means and to examine those personal issues that are part of this question. It is a private laboratory for testing new ways of dealing with those problems which detract from our goodness and our beauty.

If it is to have any lasting value or residue, peer counseling requires a commitment to the growth process for both the counselee and the counselor. The growth process is another of Paul's concepts. I see it as a life-long search for an understanding of human behavior that is ever expanding and paired with a willingness to do the work of making changes in your life as a result. This is quite unlike the machinery of conventional therapy which promotes psychic exhaustion, cover-up, and insight based largely on intuition and "digging through the attic". In peer counseling, the focus is on the enjoyment of living and therefore you can expect to have a hand in determining how much "growth" you can handle and what the subject matter of your exploration will be. If you are able to be honest about your problems and agree not to make your problems bigger than you are by saying "I quit," you have the potential to enrich your growth through counseling.

Hopefully, a person who asks for a counseling relationship has recognized that new information from someone who "has the goods" and who cares about his development is needed to redirect the course of his life; that old patterns and values are just not sufficient to sustain his needs; that a greater knowledge of both what is true and what is right in human affairs is necessary in his life for real happiness and contentment. Ideally, the person who wants to make use of this service welcomes the opportunity to learn about and deal with his areas of human ignorance and incompleteness -- but not in the sense of "I've got to get it all together before I can live." Yet, without some readiness to look at the "dark side" of one's personality, counseling takes on a false and hollow note that becomes apparent soon enough.

Although the photographs on the Center bulletin board represent the staff currently available for counseling, it is generally true that any member of the Center can be approached regarding this service if you think that that person can be of special help, either because of his particular insight, his mastery of psychological material, or his plain good sense in knowing what to do. However, the peer counselor or member that you've approached may be unwilling or unable to take you on as a counselee. This may be because of his other commitments or for a variety of other reasons, most commonly your own limited exposure to the Center. Don't be too discouraged by any initial rejection. If you are sincere in your desire to grow through counseling, approach the same or other counselors on a selective basis over a period of time. In the meantime, have faith in your own goodness. I know that this is easy to say but often hard to do.

If you are accepted for peer counseling, your counselor will arrange a mutually convenient meeting time and place, either at his house or at the Center. The initial sessions (an hour or so long) may be offered on a "let's see if we can work together" basis. And, although some notice may be expected on either side, it is usually understood that either party can end the relationship when it no longer proves to be useful. After the first session, a fee based on the ability to pay is charged for each of the further weekly sessions (a portion of this fee goes to the upkeep of the Center).

Normally, a counselor does not earn his living from appointments made through the Center and the fees are kept low by general agreement to discourage counseling based on income rather than personal commitment. However, as some adaptive effectiveness (as demonstrated by the ability to pay a small bill on time) is desired on the part of the counselees, this service is usually not offered free of charge.

There are no goals in the conventional sense in peer counseling as the journey itself is given more importance than the destination. What follows is only an attempt to describe the transitions that may take place rather than to predict what the "end-product" should look like.

There is no attempt to make your life problem-free, only to guide you to a position where you can choose those areas of your life that you want to take seriously. With an increased awareness of your right to choose your own battles instead of automatically fighting those set up by society, you can begin to select those human problems that you specifically want to work with. What was once a beast ready to swallow you up becomes something that can be set aside for as long as necessary. Or, the former beast can be dealt with as an invitation to learn more or as an opportunity to put into practice what you already know. Implied in all of this is your perfect right to fall on your face in the trying as it is all your own experiment.

A person in peer counseling is shown specific instances over time where defensive behavior and thinking has resulted in deafness to the truth when it was heard and blindness to the opportunities that were available. This increased self-knowledge gives you access to previously unexplored ideas and experiences. When this happens beauty lets itself appear in the most unlikely people and places and what is true becomes more real with new experience.

Peer counseling offered through the Center is in itself a first hand demonstration of the positive value of homosexuality in terms of the commitment and responsibility for growth that can be shared between two persons regardless of gender. That this is possible is not yet acknowledged by an immoral society. The work of taking care of someone else begins with yourself and as you become more skilled in this task, you can teach the techniques to others. The tools of love and power that are developed can be of great benefit to you, to those whom you choose to include in your family, and to society in general.

Through counseling, you become more conscious of the existence and the nature of your inner identity. By this I mean that you become more aware of whether you are basically feminine (submissive) or masculine (dominant) at core. The understanding of femininity and masculinity is part of yet another of Paul's concepts called "polarity" and it has little to do with the conventional meanings for these terms that are tied to gender. In the very simplest terms, it can be said that a feminine personality is more at home with learning through conceptual thinking and has an easier access to the truth, while a masculine personality is more comfortable with learning through experience and has an easier access to knowing what is right. The classical analogy of the life of the priest as compared to the life of the soldier can be used as a rough model for grappling with these terms. To understand, accept and apply this new knowledge about yourself has far reaching implications in terms of how the challenges of a personal creative life will be met, and to a lesser degree how the obstacles of an adaptive life will be handled. The questions that are raised by this understanding of the nature of an inner human identity are explored in detail within the context of peer counseling.

While the counselor takes the lead in probing and guiding and also in doing the analysis of the content of the sessions, the "dynamic" or thrust of counseling offered through the Center is based upon a mutual sharing of information and experience. This is done in a setting where the counselor relies upon his ability to see the counselee in a bigger way and not just as another appointment on his calendar for the purpose of a fee.

It is likely that your counselor will be generous in his support for the changes that you have made or are still trying to make. It is equally likely that he will challenge you when you are dishonest, when you speak dogmatically, or when you engage in defensive behavior. You have every right to repeat the same old mistakes (up to a point), but don't expect a permissive response when you willfully engage in behavior or thinking that you know is personally unhealthy. Counseling, however, does not support prohibitionistic thinking as this eventually leads to the same old problem breaking through the "slipcovering" at one point or another. But there is typically no encouragement offered other than "Well you failed, try again" for repeated adventures in areas that you have acknowledged to be bad for your mental health. You'll not be encouraged to jump into the lion's den with Daniel for the sake of "testing" your strength.

The content of peer counseling varies according to the specific problems of the counselee and the individual style and experience of the counselor. Again, what follows is a very general description. The first session is usually spent gathering the counselee's history (family data, significant past and present relationships, "coming out" experiences and the like). Some time may be spent during this session in a discussion (primarily by the counselee) of what he thinks his specific problems are -- why he decided to enter counseling in the first place. There may not be an immediate and direct response to the counselee's discussion during the preliminary sessions. However, as it is fairly common for a counselee to be in an overstimulated state, the peer counselor may offer some advice on how to go about calming yourself down. Or, the fact of the overstimulation by itself may be pointed out and the counselee advised to spend some time looking for its sources. This begins the process that is necessary for new information to be received or for new action (or inaction) to be tried: it is called "turning down the dial." This is a skill which will always come in handy.

The further sessions are spent working from week to week on the significant problems of the counselee as they appear in his daily life. In general, the counselee is asked to become more aware of his inner identity and how it relates to the way he responds to other people and to situations in general. Specific incidents of defensive behavior and thinking, whether seduced and masochistic (typically masculine) or intimidated and sadistic (typically feminine), are examined in some detail.

Ideally the counselee begins to see the series of events that led up to the defensive reaction. From that point, the counselee can begin to recognize whether or not his reaction is healthy in the moment. If the reaction is unhealthy (the counselee learns to rely on his own internal signal system) he can start or renew his exploration in peer counseling of new and healthier ways of dealing with or avoiding situations that have the potential to make him sick. This is done by using the techniques of selective indifference for masculines or selective withdrawal for feminines.

For the most part, there are no human problems that are barred from discussion within the context of a peer counseling session. However, a pre-occupation with the problems of the work world is not at all supported as this aspect of life leaves no residue. Hundreds of on-the-job victories of yesterday can be wiped out by today's single failure, by a change in the pecking order or by the latest electronic marvel. This is not to say that a counselor won't ever listen to a work related problem, but you will be told soon enough when the same record has been played too often.

Ultimately, peer counseling as offered through the Ninth Street Center provides a framework for thought and action that can be carried through your lifelong exploration of the human scene. Counseling shows by its very action the positive force that homosexuality can be in society if it is guided by committed love and responsible power. To learn how to take responsibility for your own mental health is a task worthy of those who want to see the victory of truth and right in the world.

-- reprinted from The Ninth Street Center Journal 3, Winter 1983

See a 1990 interview with Bob about Paul Rosenfels
See a recent statement by Bob about peer counseling


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