Suzanne Foster Counselling Counsellor for Battersea, Clapham & Balham

February blog

'Counselling didn't cure me of my personal demons, but it did give me the tools to work through the obstacles in my way'

Asking for and relying on anybody's help has never come easy to me. Incongruence has a price. I had kept a debilitating secret for more than 30 years. I was consumed with a fear of what could happen during counselling and embarrassed by the fact that I needed the help in the first place. I was afraid that counselling would not work. I was afraid of the pain I felt and of releasing it, but I also had huge trust issues. I have always carried the shame of what happened to me but longed to be fixed and really thought it was possible.

The relationship with my counsellor was key. Counselling helped by enabling me to unlock the silence at my own pace. I was heard and believed. I was able to be myself without fear of judgment. I didn't have to pretend. In that space, I was nobody's mum, wife or friend. I could be me. I was able to share things I thought would be unbearable for another person to hear. My counsellor never once made me feel uncomfortable.

During counselling, I realised I had developed several coping mechanisms over the past 30 years. I had separated out the various roles I played, and I put on different heads to switch between each role and to keep each contained. I could be physically in the room but emotionally completely disconnectedd and distant. These strategies helped me to survive, but changing heads was tiring and less effective than I thought. Being disconnected meant I could keep all the roles separate, but counselling helped me see that what I really needed was to be one connected, joined-up person, with a choice.

Counselling helped me to become that functioning person. There will always be triggers and things that knock me off balance, but my reaction is different now. For me, there is no such thing as 'recovered' and 'healing'. Counselling didn't cure me of my personal demons, but it did give me the tools to work through the obstacles in my way. More of me has become available to my family. I no longer use what happened to me as a frame of reference in my life. There have been enormous changes in how I cope wth daily life - real, lasting benefits that I've been able to continue after counselling. I have learnt that coping strategies I evolved during childhood are no longer necessary now I'm an adult. I am now able to look after myself and practise good self-care. I have been able to turn overwhelmingly negative thoughts and feelings completely around. I have learnt to take time out for myself, to relax, be part of the present and not to feel guilty about that.

Through the counselling service I attended, I also had the opportunity to be involved in the research and interviewing process for a diploma in counselling for trauma they were developing for counsellors on working with adult survivors of sexual violence. It was a really useful and fulfilling experience. It gave me a sense of empowerment, positivity and belonging and boosted my self-regard. My past has defined me for many years, but now I feel like I'm worth something: I feel valued for who I am.

Counselling has shown me who I really am. I am proud of me - I often catch myself smiling. I will always be grateful for all the that counselling service gave me. It was a hand to hold at one of the darkest times of my life. I have been able to calm the inner turmoil and find strength to keep moving forward. I am able to stand on my own two feet and feel alive again. I am now living.

The author wishes to remain anonymous. She was a client of New Pathways in Wales.
First published in Therapy Today, February 2020:Volume 31: Issue 1.

December blog

'Working at the hospice helped me to come to terms with my partner's diagnosis more quickly that I would have done without it'

I still remember the day it happened as clearly as if it were yesterday. My partner called me at work to tell me that he'd just been diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia.

I knew that he'd been for blood tests - he'd bee feeling exhausted and having migraines for several months, but I never dreamed that, at 37, he'd be diagnosed with cancer. He was too young. We were too early in our relationship for this to happen. I battled with a lot of feelings in those early stages, including shock, sadness and huge waves of anger about how unfair it seemed.

At the time of the diagnosis, I had just been for an interview for a counselling position at the hospice. Even though my partner's treatment wasn't going to be palliative, I knew that I would be working with people in the hospice who were at palliative stages with their illnesses, and I wondered if I would be able to separate my 'stuff' from that of my clients. I felt in a real dilemma when I was offered the job. Would I really be able to support palliative clients when my partner and I were going through so much in our personal lives?

I felt passionately that I wanted to work at the hospice. I'd done my counsellor training placement at a different hospice, working with bereaved clients, and I'd continued to volunteer there for a few years.

I spoke to my supervisor about my dilemma and whether I would be able to meet the needs of my clients, given my personal situation. I also told my would-be manager about my partner's recent diagnosis. They were not concerned from their own point of view: there would be a two-month induction phase to the new job where I wouldn't be required to see clients anyway. Personally, after the initial shock we understood his condition was very treatable and I felt myself beginning to stabilise emotionally. This window of time before seeing clients and my discussions with my supervisor helped me decide that I would start the job and see how I got on within the hospice environment.

Looking back now, I'm sure some could argue that I wasn't working to BACP's guidelines on self-care by immersing myself in ill health all the time. But I feel that working at the hospice helped me to come to terms with my partner's diagnosis more quickly than I would have done without it.

Growing up, I didn't have any experience of ill health or death in my immediate family and was quite protected from it. Throughout my teenage years and early 20s, I saw ill health as something that happened to older people. I certainly felt invincible in my youth, and I expected my partner to be as well.

Working at the hospice helped me realise the proximity of death with which we all live. My thoughts about my partner being 'too young to have cancer' were soon challenged when I went with a colleague to visit a nearby children's hospice. These beliefs were again challenged when I found myself working with clients who were dying in their 20s.

I have been on an amazing personal journey in the past year while working at the hospice. I have learned the true meaning of the phrase 'Time is precious'. Ilness may fall upon any of us at any point; there's no such thing as fair or not fair where health is concerned. I still feel angry about my partner's diagnosis, but he is living with cancer and we intend to make the most of whatever life throws at us next.

article by Emily Fozard who works as a counsellor in a hospice, seeing palliative care patients and their relatives. She is also a lecturer in counselling at the University of Chester. She is currently studying for for Doctorate of Professional Studies in Counselling and and Pyschotherapy at the University of Chester, where she has an interest in parental conflict. First published in Therapy Today. December 2019; Volume 30; Issue 10.

November blog

'Divorce is like scaling a series of mountains. With the right counsellor, the mountains can become molehills'

I had been with my partner for about 15 years. We have no children. Over time, for numerous reasons, our relationship became more toxic. I realised that divorce was the appropriate option for me; the relationship was no longer working.

Initially I was OK with the process. My work took me away from home, so we didn't have to be in the same town even. However, not long into the proceedings, my contract ended and I had to return to our shared house. At this point, my own stresses and anxieties began to increase. I felt guilty about initiating the divorce and increasingly anxious about what the future held. Being a man, I told myself I could cope. Counselling was what weak people needed, not what Alpha males did.

Yet I knew there were problems. My sleep was all over the place - I would lie awake, churning over possibilities in my head and not really resolving anything. I was increasingly rowing with my family and overreacting to ordinary life events. Minor setbacks would send me into the doldrums; minor victories made me overly celebratory. I could see that I was swinging back and forth across the emotional spectrum and had lost sight of 'me' in the midst of the maelstrom.

My first counsellor was a bit of a disaster. She came froma CBT perspective and I found her approach too prescriptive, too harsh. I felt she took me in directions that were not helpful; that she was trying to trammel my thinking into a very narrow channel, mostly dictated by her own interests rather than what I needed to unpack.

My second counsellor took a person-centred approach. She initially offered video-counselling via FaceTime, and I knew from our first contact that she would be right. She listened, explored and allowed me to work through some of the pain involved in ending my marriage. What I needed was active, reflective support, not to be beaten into submission. This second counsellor gave me exactly that and enabled me to work through the trauma at my own pace.

Before my counselling, I was facing the wrong way in the starting blocks; in fact, I wasn't even sure what direction the race was meant to go in, so I kept running into walls and getting angry that I wasn't making any progress. We are now eight months on. I've progressed from baby steps to huge strides and am now sprinting through the last stages of the divorce process, with the finish line in sight. I wouldn't say I am ready to compete in the Olympics, but things are much better. I am more rational, less stressed, calmer and better able to deal with life's turbulence than I have been in both recent past and the medium term.

In truth, an unhealthy relationship took its toll on me and 'fixing' stuff will take a while longer. I still see the counsellor, but now, rather than firefighting, she is helping me construct a better future from the rubble that is left.

Men tend to bottle things up; we tend to fall back on our own stereotypical expectations of ourselves. It doesn't have to be this way. Divorce is like scaling a series of mountains. With the right counsellor, the mountains can become molehills.

Extract from article published in Therapy Today: November 2019; Volume 30; Issue 9. The author wishes to remain anonymous

October blog

'I wondered what it was like for him, playing with his shoes. So I gently asked him. After a few moments, he looked up at me and smiled. "They were spaceships, he said" '.

Many years ago, when I was a youth worker in a school, I worked with a boy who had been referred to me over concerns about his behaviour. His teachers believed he was 'not fulfilling his potential'. I introduced myself and went over his referral notes with him, and then I asked if he knew what the word 'potential' meant. I was surprised by his answer - really surprised. In fact, it changed my life. 'It's stored-up energy, Mike,' he said.

He had learned this in his science class - that potential energy is stored-up energy.

I had thought I knew what 'potential' meant. But it was only when I heard it described as energy, and was introduced to the notion that energy could already be stored up inside us, just waiting to come out, that I really conneted with its meaning. It struck me as so clearly the best way to describe what had previously been indescribable, yet so familiar to me. At that moment, I began to realise what motivated my work with children and young people. It was my wish to help them grow and make the changes they wanted in order to have a better life. I had trusted, from my own experience, what Rogers tells us - that we all have the potential to change and grow.

I a now a counsellor with children and young people, and I still see our potential as energy stored up inside us. Having this belief can open up so many more possibilities in therapy.

More recently, I had a client who told me some horrific stories about his childhood. There was one incident that stands out for me. He described being regularly locked in a room as punishent, with only his shoes to play with. He was still upset and angry about this. I remember breathing and just being silent. I felt some anger, and also great sadness, and was unsure how best to respond. Then I wondered what it was like for him, playing with his shoes. So I gently asked him. After a few moments, he looked at me and smiled. "They were spaceships", he said. And then he beautifully mimed these imaginary spaceships flying above his head.

I learned from him that day about his resilience, and, indeed, my own; we had perhaps touched on the essence of potential - that is always there, and that, when we look for it, or even just imagine it, it will always find ways to emerge. Both stories still have great meaning for me and continue to inspire me. With every client, I see their potential for growth and change sotred up inside.'

Article by Mike Moss who is a counsellor for children and young people at West Lothian Council. He is also a trainer and has a small private practice offering supervision in Edinburgh. First published in Therapy Today:September 2017:Vol. 28. Issue 7

September blog

'Even though I was working with the "whole" client, these two sides were always in the room'

'We live in a world where these days the 'authentic' self has so much to contend with, including constant bombardment with images and information on social media. As the potential for more and more conditioning surrounds us, is it any wonder that so many young people are suffering with their mental health? I see living an authentic life as the antidote towards this conditioning.

In training, we are taught about the uniqueness of our clients. Yet, in my early years as a counsellor, I started to see a pattern with all my clients. I found this commonality intriguing, I even watched the Gloria Films (training videos of Carl Rogers, Albert Ellis and Fritz Perls counselling 'Gloria', a female client) again, to see if it was there - and it was. Over time, I realised that what I was witnessing was a direct conflict between the 'conditioned self' and the 'true/authentic self'. These two powerful dynamics are pulling the client in opposite directions. The conditioned self wants to maintain the status quo, because it feels safe and familiar, but the emerging true/authentic self is fighting to experience itself. This inner conflict can cause so much anxiety and depression in clients.

I became intrigued by the whole process, because it seemed to me that, even though I was working with the 'whole' client, these two sides were always in the room. They had their own characteristics and needs and I knew I had to acknowledge both. Once I understood this dynamic, I was better able to understand why clients sometimes present in contradictory ways. These contradictions are the result of the 'push-and-pull' dynamic caused by both sides. The process can also create resistance with clients. Hence, a client may take big strides forward, only to revert back to old patterns of behaviour. Fully understanding this dynamic answered so many questions for me.

For instance, why do clients get stuck sometimes? Why do clients sometimes present in a very confused, disjointed way? Now I understand it, I am more in tune with my clients.

The 'push-and-pull' dynamic can swing from one extreme to another, from moment to moment, in just one session, in direct response to the dynamic between the two sides. The disparity and contradictions between the two sides is where much of the therapeutic work takes place. But overall, the driving force behind both of these sides is the actualising tendency. These two sides are necessary as they act as a measuring tool towards self-actualisation. As clients move towards self-actualisation, it is inevitable that they start to live a more authentic life.

Over the last 10 years, positive psychologists have revisited the work of Maslow and Rogers and there is good evidence that being able to live authentically leads us to a happier, more fulfilled life. However, living an authentic life can seem increasingly difficult. That's why, as a therapist, I try to facilitate and enable clients to work towards this. Being part of this whole process is such a privilege; it's the reason why I am so passionate about my work.'

Extract from article by Tracey Revell a person-centred and REBT therapist in private practice. Her passion is helping therapists deepen their understanding of incongruence within clients and how this understanding helps facilitate change towards authentic living. Published in Therapy Today; April 2019: Vol 30:issue 3

August blog

'We all benefit when the roaring two-year-old grows into a roaring, assertive young adult'

'I'm not a darling, I'm a lion.'

This is the response I received from a two-year-old child recently, when I called her 'darling'. And how ruddy fabulous. Such a clear statement of identity. So strong and assertive. So healthy, in my view. I'd love to hear more like this from my (adult) clients.

Then I reflect. Would my two-year-old friend still roar regardless of who she was with or the context in which she was was roaring? Or was it that she felt safe enough to do so with me? I'm beginning to think the latter, and that I had better start being more cognisant of my responsibility as a listener to what is communicated.

I think of Meghan Markle's words: 'Women don't need to find a voice; they have a voice'. She argues that what stops women from speaking out, from occupying their potential, is not their individual failings but that the rest of us - society, social structures and systems - aren't hearing them. Similarly, Zoe Krupka notes the framing of 'difficult experiences of therapists as deficits, rather than seeing them as organisational and systemic challenges. A recent article in the Guardian illustrated the ubiquity of this individualisation of responsibility when it criticised the assumption that mobile phone addiction is all about the inability of users to take care of their own wellbeing. It argued that placing the responsibility for wellbeing solely with the individual masks 'deeper structural issues within the tech industry'.

So often, in the Western world, this is how it goes.

This isn't just about my role in relation to my counselling clients or supervisees. Taking a systemic view means accepting we all benefit when people are able to assert themselves - it doesn't just benefit the individual. One such advantage is clear communication; another is that it is generally easier to be direct with someone else who is direct, supporting a virtuous circle of communication. So, responsibility for nurturing this rests with all of us.

But, to bring it back to the counselling room, I want my clients to feel free to express themselves clearly and decisively - fiercely even - if that is how they feel. A starting point for nurturing this mode of expression is - as ever - unpacking my unconscious prejudice. For instance, do I unconsciously welcome assertive communication from some individuals more than from others? Answering such questions stretches far beyond supervision; it reaches to my everyday experiencing, including films, books and conversations.

This heightened appreciation of shared responsiblity for communication sharpens my empathy too. Working solely on a client's assertiveness, for example, may 'miss' the kernel of their experience: the resolution for an overworked client may not be to stand up to their employer. If we were to focus in therapy on that, it could be damaging, implying that the client is responsible for their distress.

Acknowledgement that the client may not have been listened to establishes empathy with the client's world. It recognises power structures and their impacts. It demands that we as counsellors are alert to catching their communications sensitively and accurately. Not to do so risks colluding with oppression and disempowerment.

For me, this means getting comfortable with sitting with my clients' sense of powerlessness; respecting the limits of what they can work on, and acknowledging the influence of institutions, systems, cultures and technologies, however subtle. This is the most respectful and authentic stance I can offer, and I strongly believe that this itself is an empowering experience for clients.

Given the growing pervasiveness of systemic power imbalances, it seems likely to me that some clients aren't roaring to their heart's content. And we all lose in that scenario. I may be adding to the problem by not consistently honouring my share - the listener' share - of the responsibility for what is communicated. I'm primed to think more in individual rather than collecting terms; I have my unconscious biases. Being alert to all of this deifies my respect and empathy in the counselling room. Roar.'

article by Rakhi Chand a person-centred psychotherapist, supervisor and trainer (MBCAP Snr. Accred) published in Therapy Today, July 2109. Vol 30. Issue 6

July blog

'I understand now why people say recovery isn't linear. It's taken more than 10 years of slowly peeling back the layers'

"I am adopted and, as the only brown child out of three siblings, I have always looked different. My parents wanted me to be independent and individual, but all I wanted was to be like the rest of my classmates. My emotions were so huge I felt like no one could handle them, so I shut them away and an ache in my chest began to grow. I went completely off the rails as a teenager and ended up having some very traumatic experiences, which I cannot fully remember. I coped by wearing a mask and being a different person depending on whoever I was with.

It's been ten years since I first stepped into a therapy session. During that first appointment I described the confusion I felt in my mind. Driven by fear and embarrassment, I explained to the therapist as I was leaving that I probably wouldn't be coming back. I did go back, religiously, every week for the next six months. It was a slow process of unravelling and challenging myself to grow. During those sessions I laughed, I cried and I began to learn that I wasn't a hideous monster who no one would ever love, but just your average human being who needed to learn to look after herself. I felt a million times better and it gave me this feeling of euphoria every time I made a choice to do something differently.

I finished therapy feeling like I was cured. I began to live a happy life with friends who loved me and I started to care about tomorrow. I met a man, fell in love and a year later we married and now we have two beautiful sons.

I thought that was it, that the hard days were over; I could love and I was loved. But things were slowly unravelling in my head and the ache in my chest was growing again; the mask was back and I was living two very separate lives - one that looked perfectly functional from the outside and the other a deeply sad struggle behind closed doors. I tried therapy again but it didn't have the same magical effect as before. I was using it as a dumping ground and only getting a brief feeling of relief each week. I didn't tell the therapist about the mood swings, how I was seeing smoke in our flat, the way the walls felt like they were closing in, that I lay awake at night because I was terrified of ghosts and thought the neighbours hated us.

Last year I was referred to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed me with emotionally unstable personality disorder, prescribed medication and suggested I find a cognitive analytic therapist. I finally felt like I had a plan. I've been seeing my therapist once a week for the past seven weeks and it's very different from the therapy I've done before. We've been talking about the scary things that happened in the past, which is an incredible thing. For days after each session I've felt drained and find my dissociating increases tenfold. CAT works by looking at your cycles of feelings, thoughts and behaviours and helping you find better ways to cope with negative feelings by having alternative exit strategies.

I really understand now why people say recovery isn't linear. It's taken more than 10 years of slowly peeling back the layers. Now that I'm in a safe place with a good support system, I feel ready to do this intensive work. This time I am not feeling euphoria but the beginnings of self-acceptance. Healing, in my experience, has happened in stages, and with this stage I see it's more about learning to be me, just as I am, with my big moods and vulnerability. I am a child who feels she doesn't fit in, a teenager who is feisty and protective, a victim who is angry and self-destructive, a zooned-out girl, and finally there is the me who was built through love, great therapy and hope for the future. All these parts of myself deserve love, understanding and compassion.

I've been climbing this mountain for the past 10 years and it's been a really tough journey, but I am really looking forward to seeing the summit."

Extract from article published in Therapy Today:July 2019: Vol. 30: Issue 6

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