What comes to your mind when you think of a place for counselling? Perhaps an office with cold, white walls? Abigail Lee, the founder of “Healing Hearts Centre” is determined to change that perception.
Her office tucked in a little corner of Joo Chiat stood out from the other traditional Peranakan shophouses. With its signboard that reads “Hope Oasis”, it’s definitely not a place that sells delectable cuisine.
The interiors of Healing Hearts Centre doesn’t remind you of a counselling place. It looks more like a Scandinavian house for a family of two.
This may sound weird but even the toilets feel comfortable.
As we entered the room where most clients would spend an hour pouring out their hearts to Abigail, we were again pleasantly surprised by the number of toys displayed on the open shelves. It’s like a toy museum!
Abigail tells me that the toys are used for sandtray therapy.
“Some of the toys are given by my friends – their kids have outgrown them. I also buy them when I’m overseas but provided it’s cheap (laughs).”
Our eyes were also drawn to the sand tray next to the shelves.
These techniques are used as part of the sandtray therapy where both kids and adults can use to express themselves.
Abigail is a counsellor by training but is also a Play Therapist as she has received specialised training in that approach for counselling.
She was working with a lot of trauma survivors and children and she realised that traditional therapy approaches had its limitations.
“There’s a lot of talk in traditional therapy and children has limited vocabulary. Their attention span is short too so I thought there has to be other ways to help them express themselves.”
Abigail has been specialising in counselling for about 15 years now. She started her journey in Play Therapy training about 10 years ago.
According to her, it was very scarce in the local context back then but has gained more awareness these past few years.
Overcoming the stigma of mental health
Mental health is no longer as stigmatised as it was in the past. Even Prince Harry and Prince William opened up about how they felt when their mum (Princess Diana) passed on.
To Abigail, mental health is as important as physical health.
“ I liken it to physical health. We’re always encouraged to go for health checkup to ensure we’re physically fit so we can live longer. Same for mental health – we don’t have to wait till a major depression episode before seeking help. It’s just to have regular checkups.”
The immediate past President of Association of Psychotherapists and Counsellors Singapore (APACS) worked with the Healthcare Services Employees’ Union (HSEU) to conduct lunchtime talks for healthcare workers in Singapore.
During the 45-minutes health talk, she covered topics ranging from stress management to increasing emotional resilience to conflict management.
She said that nurses whom she spoke to are mostly stressed from their work.
“The stress is mostly from workload which can be divided into two portions – time required to complete the work and intensity of work. For example if you are in A&E department, the work could be more intense compared to another department.”
APACS is one of NTUC’s U Associate (UA) partners and they have formalised the union-UA alliance last September. It is the first union-UA alliance.
Counsellors also need to counsel themselves
Every job comes with its own set of challenges and a counselling job is no exception.
“I think I have grown in this field. My anxiety was very high when I first started off as a rookie. I would worry whether I was doing the right thing or giving the right help, rather than focusing on the client and what they need.”
Over the years, Abigail has developed a stronger sense of self-awareness which she defines as knowing what she can and cannot handle.
She realized that it’s false responsibility when she is taking on way more than what she can handle.
In short, she understands that she cannot be losing sleep over a client’s problems. This blurs the line as to what constitutes the counsellor’s work and what the client needs to work on.
Abigail also finds ways to manage her emotions. It may be too much to bear when she gets emotionally caught up with her clients’ cases.
“I have my own supervisor whom I can share case information with. This is strictly for supervision purposes – Clients are made aware that of this and are agreeable to it when they sign the informed consent form. My supervisor will assess my skills and point out my emotional triggers.”
Her triggers were mainly related to her credibility as a professional counsellor.
“When I first started, I always get triggered by old people. Even when I put on more mature clothings, my older clients will still think I am some receptionist. I’ll end up trying to please the client, which is not right.”
Her supervisor then asked her if she has unresolved issues with her own parents or if she holds certain personal beliefs on how she should communicate with her parents.
“When I still feel lousy, I will go for counselling sessions myself. I’ll also exercise, hang out with my friends and have my “me-time” which usually involves coffee”.
What it really takes to be a counsellor
Counselling is not a job for everyone so I was curious to know if there are any useful indicators to tell the suitability of the job.
Abigail tells me that you have to want to help people and if looking at people totally puts you off, then you might want to consider other career options.
“Having said that, your strength can also be your weakness. You can help and help till you burn yourself out. So I think self-awareness is really important. You need to know how much you can handle.”
I found out that one useful indication is how quickly your tears flow when you listen to sob stories.
“If you are crying uncontrollably every time when watching movies or dramas, would you be able to handle the dramatic and traumatic stories that you hear from the clients?”
Abigail tells me that some of her clients cry for the entire session because they have no permission or safe space to do that.
“You feel it and just be with them.”
It’s been two hours since I’ve spoken to Abigail and I can understand why she’s a counsellor.
She’s patient, empathetic, able to guide but at the same time, able to keep herself sane from all the problems she listens to everyday.
Healing Hearts Centre is truly a place “where hearts are understood” and “where hope is restored”.
Special thanks to Abigail Lee for sharing her thoughts with us.
A millennial with an old soul. I love adventures and being totally spontaneous but I would never ever bungee jump.