As wellness counsellors, we know that the core conditions of counselling, as established by Carl Rogers, a prominent humanistic psychologist, are considered fundamental to the therapeutic process. These conditions create a supportive and non-judgmental environment that fosters growth and facilitates positive change, and strengthens the counselling relationship. It is also crucial to remember that Rogers believed that the therapeutic relationship, built on these core conditions, in and of itself has the potential to be therapeutic.

To quickly recap, those conditions are:

  • Empathy

Empathy refers to the counsellor’s ability to understand and appreciate the client’s experiences and feelings from their perspective. It involves actively listening, being non-judgmental, and demonstrating a genuine concern for the client’s well-being. By conveying empathy, the counsellor establishes a safe space where the client feels understood and accepted.

  • Unconditional Positive Regard

Unconditional positive regard means that the counsellor accepts and respects the client unconditionally, without judgment or evaluation. Regardless of the client’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviours, the counsellor maintains a non-critical and accepting attitude. This helps the client develop self-acceptance and self-worth, allowing them to explore their thoughts and emotions openly.

  • Congruence (Genuineness)

Congruence refers to the counsellor’s authenticity and genuineness in their interactions with the client. The counsellor communicates openly, honestly, and transparently, without hiding behind professional facades. By being genuine, the counsellor fosters a trustworthy and authentic therapeutic relationship, encouraging the client to be open and authentic as well.

These core conditions work together to create a therapeutic atmosphere that promotes personal growth, self-exploration, and self-acceptance. They form the foundation of a client-centered or person-centered approach to counselling, emphasizing the importance of the therapeutic relationship and the client’s autonomy in their own healing process. Although the creating of this therapeutic space is the counsellors primary role and responsibility, there are situations where introducing other interventions can also be beneficial.

One approach that holds significant promise is the practice of gratitude. By incorporating gratitude exercises into counselling sessions, counsellors may provide clients with a powerful tool to cultivate positivity, enhance well-being, and promote emotional resilience.

As counsellors, we need to be exceptionally careful though, as this is very different to simply trying to find a silver lining for the client’s challenges.

When a counsellor quickly tries to find a silver lining in a client’s difficult experiences, it can unintentionally minimize or dismiss the client’s genuine emotions and struggles. By focusing on the positives or potential benefits, even with the best of intentions from the counsellor’s side,  the client may feel invalidated in their pain, frustration, or sadness.

The importance of simply actively and patiently listening to a client during your sessions, cannot be emphasised enough. Clients need a safe space to express their emotions fully, and attempting to find the “bright side” for your client, or on his or her behalf, undermines the therapeutic relationship and hinders their healing process.

It is crucial for counsellors to balance empathy, validation, and support while respecting the client’s unique journey and perspective.

What do we mean when we refer to “practicing gratitude”?

Gratitude can be described as the quality of being thankful and a readiness to show appreciation. Gratitude is more than just a fleeting emotion; it is a practice that can be cultivated and integrated into daily life.

Practicing gratitude, therefore, refers to the intentional and regular engagement in activities or exercises aimed at cultivating a sense of gratitude and appreciation for the positive aspects of life. It involves actively focusing on, acknowledging and being thankful for the blessings, experiences, relationships, and even the simple everyday moments that bring joy, meaning, and support.

The Benefits of Gratitude practice may include:

  • Shifting Perspectives

 Gratitude exercises help clients redirect their focus from problems and challenges to the blessings and positive aspects of their lives. By cultivating gratitude, clients can develop a more balanced perspective and counteract negativity bias.

A study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that a gratitude intervention led to significant increases in positive affect and life satisfaction, while decreasing negative affect and depressive symptoms in participants. (Krejtz et al., 2018)

  • Promoting Resilience

Gratitude serves as a coping strategy that enables clients to navigate difficult emotions and adversity. It activates the brain’s reward pathways, fostering positive emotions and building emotional resilience, which can contribute to better mental health outcomes.

In a study published in the Journal of Counselling Psychology, researchers found that a gratitude intervention was associated with increased resilience and decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety. (Yi et al., 2020)

  • Enhancing Well-being

Regularly practicing gratitude has been associated with improved overall well-being. It can lead to increased positive emotions, reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, improved self-esteem, and greater life satisfaction.

A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Happiness Studies also found that gratitude interventions were effective in increasing well-being and reducing depressive symptoms. (Rash et al., 2018)

  • Strengthening Relationships

Gratitude exercises often involve expressing appreciation to others. This practice fosters positive social connections, enhances empathy, and deepens relationships, which can contribute to clients’ social support network and overall sense of belonging.

Research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that gratitude was positively associated with relationship quality and satisfaction, and it mediated the relationship between perceived partner responsiveness and relationship well-being. (Lambert et al., 2017)

  • Empowering Clients

By respectfully encouraging clients to make use of gratitude practices, counsellors empower them to take an active role in their own well-being. Clients learn to focus on what they can control, finding gratitude in the present moment, and developing a sense of agency over their emotions and experiences.

A study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology and Wellbeing found that practicing gratitude was associated with higher levels of self-efficacy and positive emotions, and lower levels of stress and negative emotions. (Harbi et al., 2016)

Take note:

It is crucial to note that it is so tempting for us in the helping profession to want to save our clients from their emotions, to make things better, to help them to look on the bright side, to reframe negative circumstances into beautiful silver lined clouds. Encouraging your clients to start with  incorporating the practice of gratitude in their lives might therefore seem like a no brainer. And although there could be significant benefits to this, you have to remember what your role is, as wellness counsellor.

Your job and your role, first and foremost is to hold the space, to let them sit with it, to help them unpack it and to facilitate a process, whereby awareness can gently come about.

Yes it’s tempting to bring things to your client’s process that you, yourself might find valuable and beneficial, which is completely understandable, but it is important to remember that your client might not be ready for such suggestions, or your suggestions might not resonate with your client at all, or not at a specific point within your counselling process.

When it comes to gratitude practices, the key is for the client to incorporate them regularly into their routine and approach them with sincerity and mindfulness, so your client’s buy in is absolutely crucial.

Some examples of practising Gratitude could include:

  • Gratitude exercises, such as keeping a gratitude journal, writing thank-you letters, or engaging in mindfulness-based gratitude practices. These exercises can be tailored to clients’ preferences and integrated into the counselling sessions or assigned as homework.
  • Encouraging clients to reflect on the reasons behind their feelings of gratitude. Through guided discussions, exploring the values, strengths, and support systems associated with those moments of gratitude, this reflection may facilitate self-awareness and personal growth.
  • Collaborating with clients to set gratitude-related goals aligned with their needs. For example, a goal might be to identify three things they are grateful for each day or to practice expressing gratitude to a loved one regularly. These goals serve as reminders and encourage clients to incorporate gratitude into their daily lives.

Remember that gratitude practices are flexible and it should be adapted to suit your client’s preferences.

In closing:

If introduced correctly; in other words, in a gentle, timely, respectable and client centred way, taking into account your client’s needs at that specific point in time, integrating gratitude practices into counselling can be a transformative addition to your counselling work. Not only could it benefit clients during counselling, but it could also equip them with a valuable life skill that can support their ongoing personal growth.

By encouraging clients to embrace gratitude, counsellors could empower them to reframe their perspectives, enhance their well-being, and cultivate emotional resilience.

Author: Anri van den Berg