Whether you want to offer online counselling, be an agony aunt or just a good friend online, it’s important to be aware of the skill of giving emotional support through the written word.
A Question of Jealousy
Take a look at this question:
“I’m always worried my boyfriend is going to cheat on me when he’s out with his friends. I’m always texting him when he’s out and it annoys him but I have no confidence that he won’t cheat. We live together and have been together for nearly two years. I can’t help thinking ‘what if?’ even though he says he has never cheated. I can just imagine that in the future he’ll decide he’s had enough and I will lose him. I really don’t want that. I’m pushing him away, I don’t want to but I am. Help me.”
How would you go about answering it?
Have a look at this extract below:
“It sounds like you are a jealous person which is causing problems for you. It sounds like you have no reason to be jealous as you say that your boyfriend has never cheated on you and is starting to get annoyed by your behaviour. It is therefore understandable that you want to try and get over these feelings of jealousy in order to move your relationship forward.
Communication is important. Try talking to your boyfriend about how you feel and your worries. You could also try going out and pursuing your own hobbies and interests so you are not always at home waiting for him – remember that you don’t own your boyfriend and that he has a right to go out with his friends as well.”
This answer is focusing on the events in the world (the fact that he has actually never cheated on her and that her boyfriend is getting annoyed with her) rather than how she is feeling and why.
In fact, it sounds like she would feel this way regardless of what is going on in the world. The answer provides some useful information about ways that people in relationships who do not feel jealousy might behave. But it gives no more empathy or understanding than a factsheet designed to be read by anyone. It does not focus on this individual’s situation, as online counselling should.
A Better Answer Recognises How She Feels
A good answer will provide more than this. This might be part of an introduction:
“Jealousy is a difficult emotion and a lot of people struggle with it, whether it is founded in truth or not. It’s good that you are writing-in to try and resolve your feelings about this as it does sound as though it may be starting to affect both your wellbeing and your relationship.
There can be a number of reasons why people start to feel jealous in a relationship and they are not always directly related to anything that is actually happening out there in the world. Sometimes it can be a reaction to something that has happened – a past betrayal of trust for example. Other times it can be more to do with your own feelings of insecurity or low self-esteem. For example, if you feel negatively about yourself then you might struggle to believe that you are worthy of someone’s love. As a result of this you might feel convinced that there is someone better out there for your partner – and that he might meet them next time he is out.
In your case, you mention that you have low confidence and that you worry that one day your partner will decide he has had enough. Do you feel that if you were more confident in your relationship and your boyfriend’s feelings for you then you might feel less jealous or worried about him cheating? Hopefully by exploring the ways that you can understand and manage your feelings – and communicate them to your partner, you will find that you can start to think about things you can do to make the situation easier for yourself.”
While the first answer recognises that her jealousy is probably unfounded it disregards the fact that this is still how she feels. In fact, she even says ‘I can’t help…’ – suggesting that she is aware that this is not something she should ideally feel.
We need to be saying, yes, this might not be ideal but we understand why you might feel this way and can start to work with you to try and help you understand, manage and hopefully, eventually overcome your feelings. This approach to online counselling promotes empathy and emotional support that is so important in helping people move forwards.
The first answer briefly covers why she shouldn’t be feeling jealous (which she already knows is a problem) and then goes straight into practical things she can do to ‘stop’ it happening. If the reason for her jealousy is her feelings of low self-esteem and lack of confidence, then an answer like this may end up making her feel more inadequate or resentful when she next ‘can’t help’ feeling jealous. This is especially the case with an emotion like jealousy – one that is not going to go away instantly after the implementation of a couple of potential ‘solutions’.
A list of information or suggestions about other ways that they could feel about the situation is part of the answer, but empathy, reassurance and understanding that they might not be able to feel this way right now is a very important part of online counselling too.
Creating a Reassuring Situation
This is often the fundamental role of anyone working in online counselling – it’s more about creating a situation where the person getting in touch feels reassured that how they are feeling is a normal part of the struggle that is human experience. They need to feel that someone understands the position they are in and is helping them explore different perspectives.
What Would You do if You Were Face-to-Face?
It can sometimes help to imagine what you might do if someone was upset and approached you with an issue face-to-face. If someone came to me in tears with this issue it is unlikely that I would just hand them factsheets on ‘Communication as a Couple’ and ‘Improve your Social Life’ and tell them that their worries are unfounded, their boyfriend won’t cheat on them and they need to sort themselves out. I would focus on stopping them crying and getting them into a state where they are ready to accept how they feel and start to think about why they might be feeling this way; whether it is something within themselves, something going on in the world or a combination of both. I would try and give them the reassurance and strength to face a problem that, at the end of the day, only they can actually solve.
With Online Counselling, Don’t Try and Solve Things
This is not easy stuff – everyone has a tendency to try and ‘solve’ the problems that people ask us about. But don’t gloss over how they are actually feeling as they are sitting writing the question. Try and look through the question for the users’ feelings as well as for the issues, try and understand why they are feeling this way and make sure that this understanding comes across in an answer.