Musician and counselling therapist Jennifer Bojm, on the universal benefits of therapy, exploring our neurological trenches, and the potential harms of an individualist-focused society.

Tracy: What led you into counselling? I've always known you to be a musician, but were you interested in psychology all along?


Jenn: Well I've always had, let's say, a soft focus on the world and an interdisciplinary outlook on things. A lot of counsellors and people in the helping professions will tell you, "I've always been counselling" and where that has somewhat been the case for me, becoming a therapist wasn't something that I'd grown up thinking I would do. I’m well aware of the privilege inherent in this story, but I actually almost went to law school in Manchester; but when I arrived, I had a huge realization where I thought, "What am I doing? This is not who I am, or how I think." So I went back to the drawing board with the support of my parents which was really helpful. I started looking inward at what I loved to do and who I genuinely was. It makes a lot of sense now, but one’s early 20’s have a way of scrambling the picture for many of us. When I first visited the idea of pursuing an education in counselling psychology, it was really intriguing to me on the one hand, but I also had my doubts. I secretly thought, “who needs this?" I thought that maybe it was sort of flakey or unnecessary. But the more that I delved into the field of psychology and practice of counseling, I learned so much about myself, about others, about inner worlds, about neurology and cognitive functioning. What’s more, I’ve seen incredible positive changes in people’s lives and relationships as a result of counselling. I’ve come to believe very passionately in the importance of the work, especially in this day in age where we are technologically more connected than we’ve ever been and simultaneously more disconnected than we’ve ever been.


I'm not sure if it's a societal thing or if there’s a deeper psychological reason, but we seem to have a negative conception of emotions. We stigmatize individuals who are struggling internally so heavily that society is suffering - in terms of drug addiction, heavy crime, institutionalized corruption and abuse, suicide, you name it. So why are we so reluctant to admit that emotions are worth our time and attention?


One idea that often comes up in a discussion regarding the stigmatizing of emotion is the Western cultural value of individualism. For better or for worse, we tend to view the ‘self’ as an independent entity. Experience is often conceptualized as taking place within the individual. Emphasis is placed more so, on personal progress, personal goals and personal autonomy. So emotions, which by and large are relational, become a personal experience. And the bulk of what we focus on becomes a sort of exo-experience which doesn’t leave a lot of room for healthy acknowledgement and open expression of inner experiences or the processing of thoughts, feelings, emotions, and depth of intimacy in our lives. Emotional processing can become sequestered to our very private lives and this sequestering can show up in our closest relationships in the form of communication barriers, relationship and family conflict, depression, and anxiety, among others. Stigma toward emotional processing is not gender-specific. Whatever one’s gender identity, repression of emotional and inner processing has the potential to manifest itself in all kinds of ways and can become problematic. Suppressed emotional experiencing has the potential to start showing up in harmful behaviors and in the body, in the form of physical complaint and illness. And some peopel feel it’s more acceptable to seek medical attention than emotional connection; we’ve seen a significant rise in the use of medications for emotional symptoms. So counselling can help to bridge the gap between medical and psychiatric approaches to mental health in an important, empowering and more holistic way. It allows a safe, neutral and non-judging space within which to process inner and emotional experiences, gain awareness and skills for bringing that emotional connection into our personal and relational worlds more openly.


The medical model often looks at something separate from its environment and says, "Okay these chemicals are absent or not working properly, so let's make synthetic ones to replaces them" while not actually looking at the environmental reasons why those neurochemicals aren't working in the first place. Which brings up the old adage "nothing happens in a vacuum".


Yeah, I’m always going on and on about context because, nothing does happen in a vacuum, and when it comes to mental health the big picture is important. Of course, it can be very helpful for some people to have a diagnosis - and medication works incredibly well for some people. I don't want to downplay any of that, but yes certainly the context has to be viewed - the whole picture; the history and background before deciding on appropriate treatment plans of any nature. I also do believe we need to be mindful not to allow clinical terminology and diagnosis to overly claim experiences such as introspection, solitude and tears as unhappy and unhealthy terrain. Although they’re less publicized, these are some of the beautifully natural parts of life. If we do overly allow clinical definitions to claim these experiences then their informative, inspiring and creative potential may be swallowed up. And if they are, they become unable to actualize within individuals and among communities. They become unable to encourage holistic healthy connection and creation.


How important is touch and affection, and what some might call ‘community healing’ on the mind? I’ve heard that the presence of others plays a role in reducing anxiousness or stress within an individual.


Connection is a human drive. We have drive for self and individuation and simultaneously for togetherness, connection and belonging. Babies develop attachments to primary care-givers; they develop an understanding of the world, a concept of self, and an idea of their agency in their surroundings. In healthy development primary caregivers come to act as ‘secure base’ which is a family systems theory idea. [The] baby can depart from this secure base knowing they can come back to it safely, and community is an extension of that as we get older and as we go further into the world. We develop and learn from those around us. We develop a sense of self worth from these relationships, a sense of security and connectivity. Our togetherness informs the strength of our individuation, and that individuation informs the strength of our togetherness. In our evolutionary history we were so often together in tribes, communities, and villages - that’s how we survived. We developed uniting myths and shared meaning making. Actually, there's a book by Rollo May called The Cry for Myth. He writes about how the disintegration of myth gave rise to the need for the ideas of psychology and psychiatry, arising as an answer to the absence of myth; myth being “a way of making sense in a senseless world”. And these are just some of many ideas toward a conversation about community healing and the power to connection. Ultimately though, maneuvering toward a context specific balance between individuality and togetherness goes a long way in maintaining mental health. 


That’s very interesting: myths as a collective experience, I like that. Especially when isolation can physically alter the brain - offset the delicate chemicals that are important for feelings of joy and the regulation and healing of stress. 


Yeah, we’re a community species. We need to be around others and to connect, although we so often stray from that knowledge. The changes that can occur just from simply being around in a community are moving. Through some of my work I’ve seen the changes that occur when people start building connections and resources. They can begin to thrive, develop a sense of confidence and ingenuity. And then this develops networks of relationships and further growth. 



Which reminds me, I was reading about rumination and how when you hold something in and isolate it inside, it snowballs; it gets bigger and bigger and more consuming. When on the flip side if you have a neighbour, a relative, or a friend to tell from the get-go, once it's out there it just --


-- it just dissipates. Rumination can get us! We’ve got to share the load sometimes. This is very evident in counselling work. Sometimes clients come in and you can see the struggle in their bodies. Then through the process of sharing, being witnessed and having their story contained in a neutral relationship in a safe place, they begin to relax. They may have come in saying, "I don't do this. This is not my thing." But once they start connecting and talking, by the end you can see the shift in their physicality and they'll tell you, "That was really helpful." And because the work of counselling isn’t a really tangible experience, it can be hard to describe what it was that allowed for that relief, but the connection, witnessing of [another person] being open to receiving what's really going on for somebody takes so much weight off of a person, this invisible weight. It's really remarkable [for] myself included - just to be able to reach out really makes that difference.


You mentioned that if you don't have a safe place to get emotion out that it can show up somatically. Maybe it'll be severe eczema or other chronic illness, because if people are holding it in and experiencing that stress in their mind, they're having a physiological response to a perceived threat. And that has to be dealt with - it has to be eased.


Yes, unacknowledged experience can manifest itself elsewhere in the body. Not always, but it certainly has the potential to. I’d also like to make it clear that counselling opens up a safe space for people to be witnessed, share their thoughts, feelings, and emotions and process their inner worlds, but at least for myself and I know for many others, the counselling experience is not meant to be a further sequestering of private experiences. The hope is that through the process of counselling, clients can develop self-awareness and an understanding of how to bring themselves more wholly if not entirely, into the world and live-with that awareness. The neutrality is important as well, because many of us talk to our surrounding support networks about the challenges we are coping with, but it's not always neutrally received. People have biases which might not necessarily allow their experience to thrive, and be understood for what it means to them, in their context, in their relationships, in their bodies. When it comes to the therapeutic process it's more about allowing things to be; to unpack them so that a person can understand them for themselves. And there are not a lot of other opportunities in day to day living where this kind of reflection is possible.


I read this book called The Power of Habit, and it talked about repeated behaviours. If you do something over and over, it can become so powerful that your conscious thoughts are no longer able to disrupt the habit, or the ‘cue-routine-reward’ circuitry (that creates a habit). You're doing it automatically because of the neurological path you've treaded, due to that repeated behaviour.


I call that cognitive thought repitition neurological trenches - when your thought patterns become so ingrained that you don't even notice these other tributaries on the side, to use the metaphor of a river. There are all these other ways you could go but you always go straight because your thoughts seem to flow in the path of least resistance. Having the opportunity to confront that can help to raise awareness, so you can start to see other options around you; so that you can uncover patterns, some which may be beneficial, some which may not be, or maybe some which used to be beneficial, but have ceased to serve their original purpose. Remaining in tune with patterns can help you towards an increasingly balanced and adaptive experience in the world.


As a musician, are you interested in looking at music as a mode of therapeutic process?


I don't think I'll necessarily go down the road of music therapy but certainly creativity is a big part of counselling. Part of the reason I love this work is because it entails so much creativity - in the way that you interact with people, in trying to be creative and fluid around ways of thinking about and holding the space for others to explore their experiences. I wrote my thesis on my perception of the minimized presence of philosophy and philosophical thought in the study of counselling and how important I believe these subjects are in the cultivation of complex thinking and fluidity of thought and being among counsellors. Writing it gave me the opportunity to explore my understanding of the innate relationship between philosophy and counselling and my belief that deepening this pairing can invite depth and creativity of thought into counselling curriculums more openly; thus honouring that creative force within the work of counselling both in classrooms and in practice.


Could you talk a little bit about your music? You’ve just started recording again? 


Sure. I'm recording my second record now. I recorded my first about a year and a half ago now. It’s called ‘Nightingale, diving loon’ and was recorded as a five piece band. This time I'm stripping it down, with minimal instrumentation and keeping it really simple and spacious. I’m recording with Malcolm Biddle of Dada Plan as well as Colin Cowan. I also play bass in Colin’s band - Colin Cowan & The Elastic Stars and sing with a lot of different bands and projects including Rob Butterfield and also with the Sun Ra Star System which is a 10 plus piece Sun Ra band.


How do you come up with most of your lyrics?


I used to hold my involvement with music and my involvement with counselling as somewhat separate entities in my life but, as is often the case, they are actually quite connected. Sometimes I'll be thinking about certain relational dynamics or some element of depth of experience - trying to deconstruct them and distill them for my own comprehension. I can’t help speaking in metaphors so in my attempt to distill facets of experience I’ll try and bring them to some description and flush out what that idea means. Sometimes it ends up being a poem in a sense, and then the poem becomes a song or something like that.


Lovely. Well our time has come to an end, but thanks for sitting down with me to discuss all of these ideas Jenn.

Capture Queue is a one woman team, so it's always greatly appreciated if readers feel inclined to bring my attention to any typos or corrections.