Winners and losers on The Voice: Life-defining moments and the role of counselling

18th April 2016

This week's blog post is by our psychotherapist Beccy Lindsay:

Have you been watching The Voice? It’s BBC’s answer to ITV’s X Factor, a singing competition where the winner is promised stardom and a recording contract. Why do we watch? What’s the hook?

It’s partly that the show offers a rare chance to witness life-defining moments. When the votes have been counted and we’ve sat through the melodramatic pause, the presenter announces who’s in and who’s out. As we wait for the result, we watch the faces of competitors whose fates are about to be sealed. How confident are they? How generous will they be to those they beat, or those who triumph over them? How much does their estimation of their own worth hang on this moment?

In the closing minutes of a recent episode of The Voice, the two finalists were Jolan, in his early twenties, and Kevin, who looked as though he was skimming forty. Kevin won and Jolan struggled with his disappointment. One of the presenters tried to smooth the moment by telling us what close friends the two had become during the competition. But Jolan couldn’t altogether sustain his good cheer: he smiled a tad bitterly and said that Kevin had been like a second granddad to him. Ouch! It is for these moments that we watch: to see how people come through their test of character, however artificial.

Life-defining moments are compelling because they are surprisingly rare in real life. Most important outcomes are more ambiguous than a simple yes or no telling us whether or not we ‘passed’ the test as human beings. True, there are some such moments: ‘will you marry me?’, ‘is it a boy or a girl?’, ‘have I passed my driving test?’

Mostly the narrative of our life just evolves or unfolds. Only in retrospect can we spot the important turning points. As our lives become our stories, we look back to see when we changed direction: ‘that was when I realised I had to leave that relationship’ or ‘that was when I knew I didn’t want to teach any more’.

But day to day, we play it by ear and are not conscious of how a decision made now will have consequences. We have experiences, but only later do we label them as important snapshots in our narrative: ‘that was the last time my mother came on holiday with us’; ‘that was the year I got pregnant’; or ‘it was after I broke my wrist that I decided to go back to studying and change career’.

Along with the absence of defining moments, ordinary life usually lacks a judge or a score - or a celebrity in a spinning chair to tell us we are or are not the best. We may have a hunch that we’re right or that an objective voice would be on our side, but we’ll never really know. Mostly, we just have to decide for ourselves and answer to our conscience. If we are fairly self-aware, then we know when we are being truthful and when we are not, when we are being brave and when we are not, and indeed, when we are taking responsibility for ourselves and when we are not.

That’s where counselling comes in. I work with many clients who feel lost or stuck and don’t know how to attune what they want from life or from themselves – or what they’d do if they did know. But counsellors generally don’t give advice or tell clients what ambitions they should have. It’s more that counselling helps clients to disentangle themselves from other voices in their lives that have already given them too much advice. Their families, especially, may have had too many ideas about who they are, but they have not felt helpful or right.

On The Voice, as they are about to step onto the stage, contestants often say “this means everything to me”. They mean that it’s ‘make or break’, win or lose, stand or fall. In real life it’s not just that turning points are harder to spot. It’s also that success or failure comes more slowly. Over and again, we have the chance to pick ourselves up and try again. If this relationship is not to be, then we might find another one; if this job is not to be, then perhaps we need a different one.

The point where someone asks for counselling is often when they realise they may not be able to come unstuck alone. If they find themselves in a repeat episode, with hopes always being dashed, then it could be time to get a bit more forensic about it. Counselling helps us to look deeper.

Although a counsellor aims to be non-judgmental, part of the appeal of counselling is to have someone pay full attention to the way you live on the stage of your own life and to feed it back to you in some way. In The Voice, the judges often try to play down the irrevocable nature of their pronouncements. After a contestant has lost, they say “don’t give up” or “you were meant to sing”. A counsellor is not meant to be a trusted advisor – but sometimes, yes, the counsellor can also use their ‘authority’ to soften the harsh judgments of life and encourage clients – back onto the stage or to join the audition queue again.

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