'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
'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
'My partner and I went to relationship counselling for about eight months last year. We did it for a whole bunch of reasons, all of which could essentially be summed up as 'We couldn't remember how to be nice to each other'. I was so wrapped up in my own self-pitying anxiety that I couldn't understand why he didn't pity me too. He was so convinced that my sadness was a weapon with which to hurt him that he didn't pay much attention to the reasons I was sad.
Then we went to relationship counselling, and now I'm an evangelist. Here are some of the reasons (there are more) why I think it worked.
One, it gave us a set time and place each week to talk to and about each other. If you need a nudge to actually do what you say you're going to do (as we both definitely did), then having that appointment each week is a great way to make sure you do it.
Two, counsellors ask questions you'd never have thought to ask yourself. When we sat down with a counsellor, one of the first things she asked us was "What were the primary romantic relationships you saw when you were growing up?" We each talked through our family history - parents, step-parents, grandparents - and the ways in which each of these couples modelled love. Discussing it in this way, led by a counsellor probing with all the right questions, gave each of us a much deeper understanding of where the other one was coming from.
Three, relationship counselling teaches you how to argue. All relationships will include conflict at some point; it's how you navigate that conflict that really matters. Relationship counselling gave us the skills we needed to talk about things effectively, in a way that is kind to each other and doesn't dismiss what the other one says.
Four, relationship counselling gives you time to breathe. This is the most important point, and it's the one my other half wanted me to hammer home in this article. He wants other people to get the same feeling he did: that big wave of relief when you accept you've got a problem, and you take the first step towards fixing it. It was no longer 'me versus him', but 'us versus the problem', and just the fact that both of us admitted there was a problem made a significant and valuable difference.
Five, you get to become and expert on 'you'. If the person you love really is a significant love of your life, you probably think about them a lot: in good and bad ways. When those conversations and thoughts are all I n your head, it can be tricky to get perspective because we have no one to bounce those thoughts off, and we're also adding our own layers of interpretation to every action they take. Relationship counselling gives you the opportunity to examine these assumptions - led by someone who can call you out when they spot you doing it - and become better acquainted with what your partner actually thinks.
Relationship counselling might not help in exactly the way you expect, but it will buy you the time and the headspace to really explore what's happening with your relationship. It can teach you new skills for listening to and understanding your partner - and these skills aren't just useful inside romantic relationships, they can help you outside those relationships too.
When we first walked into the counselling room, we knew we still loved each other, but in a powerful but abstract way. Relationship counselling reminded us that 'love' is a verb, and we have to practise it every day.'
Extract from article in Therapy Today. June 2019: Volume 30:Issue 5.
'I didn't walk out that day feeling "fixed" or free from my pain, but I did walk out with more wisdom and perspective'
On 13 October 2107, my 30-year-old brother David died peacefully in his sleep. He went to bed the night before and just never woke up. It was a complete shock and so very painful.
As soon as I arrived at my parents' house and my dad blurted out what had happened, I saw him in a way that I had never seen him before - so broken and vulnerable. At that point, I instinctively told myself that my parents had to come first, my emotions came second: I needed to do whatever was needed for them.
As you can imagine, the following days, weeks and months were very difficult. I was at my parents' house every single day for the first month, doing whatever was needed. For the most part, I kept strong - on the outside at least. I made teas and coffees. I tidied up, I went shopping. Keeping busy meant I didn't have to stop and absorb what had happened.
At home, I tried to remain composed in front of my children but would crumple every night in my husband's arms. He was really good. He would always ask me if I wanted to talk about it, but I never did, so he just held me while I sobbed.
I've always found it difficult to verbally express how I feel, but after my brother died this only intensified. I didn't feel that anyone could understand my pain. Yes, we had all lost David, but no one else had lost their brother. No one else had to watch their mum and dad broken and in pain and know that there was nothing they could do. So, like many of us, I buried it deep.
As you can imagine, the pressure was building. I know this is a metaphor, but there were times that I swear it felt physical. My dad had been seeing a bereavement counsellor and kept suggesting that I do too. After months of declaring 'I'll be OK, I can deal with it myself'. I gave in. I put myself on the waiting list to speak to someone out loud, truthfully, about how I felt.
When my first session was booked, I vowed to be completely honest. There was no point doing this if I wasn't going to do it properly. I knew that speaking to someone external and impartial would be better. I just wanted to be heard. I didn't want to be interrupted or given the 'It'll get better with time' dismissal that essentially invalidated my emotions.
I went into that first session not knowing fully what I was going to speak about or where to start. I had an idea, of course, but the lady I saw was amazing. She let me lead the conversations but gave me prompts when I struggled. She also told me that I didn't have to fill the silences - that I could just sit with how I felt until I was ready to speak. She gave me permission to be honest without having to worry that I would be judged. She listened to how far I had come and the coping mechanisms that I was currently using and suggested ways to build on what was already working for me, as well as some new ideas. She helped me realise it was OK for me to speak to my loved ones about how I was feeling, and about my brother - silly things he said how he made us laugh, and how much I missed him. Because I was no longer struggling to push my emotions down, I felt lighter and liberated and had space in my own mind for new and exciting things.
I didn't walk out that day feeling 'fixed' or free from my pain, but I did walk out with more wisdom and perspective. That was my first and only counselling session, not because it wasn't helpful but because the counsellor made me realise that no one can 'fix me'. I realised that I didn't need a specific day and time to speak about how I felt. I realised I have the power and the tools to help myself.'
Extract from article published in Therapy Today, May 2019, Vol 30, Iss. 4. The author, Rhiannon Jones is a writer and trainee life coach. Her book 'The Web of Grief', is available on Amazon.
'There is no point in trying to force yourself to do something if you don't want to, or if you are doing it for the sake of other people. You have to want to do it for yourself.'
"Being 14 wasn't an easy year for me.. I got back in brief contact with my father through email, but it was exactly that - brief. He and my mum split not long after I was born and, by the time I was about five, he had completely cut himself out. I also found out that I had a rare, inherited condition that my mum had too, which is why she was in and out of hospital when I was growing up. I felt my family had kept this a secret from me for all these years, and my relationship with my mum, which had always been good before, took a turn and went toxic. When I wasn't at school, I spent most of my time in my room, to avoid any confrontation or hurt.
I was really struggling to decipher how I felt. I didn't know how to vent, or deal with the mix of emotions and feelings - the anger, sadness, fear, worry and even excitement and happiness. It all felt too much. Then, when I had just turned 15, my mum insisted I spoke to someone who could help. My guidance teacher at school, who had supported me through a lot before, referred me to a counsellor who came to the school each week.
I had no idea what a counselling session would be like, but the counsellor was lovely. She was so welcoming and down-to-earth and promised me that everything said in the room would be kept between us unless she thought I was in danger. Some days she would bring along her dog, a chocolate Labrador, and he would sit next to me through the session. Just his presence was so comforting.
When I first began counselling I didn't feel ready to begin 'the recovery process'. Talking to a counsellor felt like an admission of weakness. I didn't just spill my life story out to her. It took time to open up, to fully trust her and feel safe. Over the course of the sessions, she identified I had anxiety and depression, which I knew very little about then. I just thought it was who I am, part of being a shy, quiet person; that how I felt was normal for someone who had been through my experiences. I guess I wasn't completely honest with myself.
Even after I began counselling, I definitely relapsed. For the first eight months I had some terrible days - terrible weeks even - before I decided I was sick and tired of feeling the way I did. Only then did I manage to find the strength to open up. Through talking to the counsellor, I learnt that there's no point in trying to force yourself to do something if you don't want to, or if you are doing it for the sake of other people. You have to want to do it for yourself.
As time went on, the counsellor taught me techniques to help overcome negative thinking. What seemed like simple exercises have become tools for me to use whenever I feel down. She always reminded me to 'take control'. Those two words that will stick with me as I go through life. I wear a bracelet with 'Take Control' on it as a constant reminder.
It took a year of counselling for me to feel better again. It felt like I was emptied of the negativity that for years had dragged me down each day. I am better and stronger. Even though there have been bad times since when I've slipped back, or had overwhelming feelings, I remind myself that everyone has bad days and these are just some of mine.
If I hadn't spoken to the counsellor, I don't think I would have ever taken control. Counselling saved me. We can all benefit from a safe, confidential space to talk to someone who won't judge you. I hope my story will give other people out there the motivation to ask for help. It's important to know that everyone is deserving and you are strong enough to take control!"
Extract from article published in Therapy Today, April 2019. Vol. 30. Issue 3 by Kathleen Campbell who works at Bright Light, the Scottish Relationship counselling charity. This article is based on her blog on the Bright Light website at www.bright-light.org.uk.
'In a moment of frustration, I leant forward, locked eyes with her and said: Kate, I'm afraid I don't buy it"'
'It's a cold, bright, winter's day and I'm sitting on a tightly upholstered sofa, opposite my client, a diminutive 80-year-old lady, who is tightly clutching a tissue and staring at me, wide-eyed, from under her many layers of woolens. Silence. The clock is ticking on the mantelpiece and my heart is racing.
Kate had just been telling me how, following the death of her husband, she was struggling to cope with her lifelong agoraphobia and depression - all reported through the observations of others. "The doctor told me when she gave me the medication and the children tell me I'm depressed too, so I must be, mustn't I?"
Yet, as we talked, she had also revealed another narrative - one of extraordinary resilience and resourcefulness. In a moment of frustration, I lent forward, locked my eyes with her and said: "Kate, I'm afraid I don't buy it." A stare, a blink. "I think it is maybe only others who think you can't cope."
Needless to say, I took this moment to supervision. I am still not sure what prompted me to be so direct. As soon as the words left my mouth and she made her small "Oh" in response, I experienced a post-climatic rush of doubt. Was this too much? But I know that, in that exact moment, I was passionately committed to creating something new for Kate.
It can be hard as a caregiver, family member or professional to transcend the visible signs of frailty when we see them in others and to resist assuming the role of a rescuer. Freud ridiculously believed that older people were not able to make effective use of therapy: Erikson argued that the final stage of life is about integrating past, present and future to merely find acceptance of the life that has been lived. I would argue that, even in very old age, it is still possible, indeed crucial, to actively challenge long-held life narratives and dare to write new ones. This moment with Kate allowed me to see that apparent fragility does not mean that we avoid challenge, as long as it is held gently and appropriately.
I think we can find a balance between treading carefully and providing an environment where challenge and active discourse can happen. if we can only engage in surface-level, inauthentic talk, we are missing the magic of what happens when two people really meet. I could have said "Hmm, I know things are very hard for you at the moment", or even made a gentle reflection: "You feel unable to cope". But I certainly wouldn't have been authentic (I was frustrated as hell), and I'm not sure I would have been serving Kate terribly well, as this is what everyone else seemed to be telling her. We can value our clients' frailties while allowing them to depart from the norm of their experience.
Sadly, there is no happily-ever-after denouement. In our three remaining sessions, we had planned to reflect on the coping mechanisms Kate had devised many years before, which had worked for her, to try to find some confidence in her own abilities. The day before the next session, I had a voice message from her daughter: Kate was feeling unwell and wouldn't be up to our next session. The following week, another message: "The doctor feels the counselling isn't a good idea for her as it is bringing up things that are difficult. Thank you, but she doesn't want to have any more sessions."
My hope is that we had a least challenged together the construct that she 'couldn't cope' and re- imagined it as 'I can find my own ways of coping', but I can't know for sure. However, this moment serves as a constant guide and touchstone for me if I think I am retreating into 'tea and tissues' with clients who seem to be vulnerable, particularly those who are profoundly old and infirm. My plea is that we all consider when we might be filtering or making allowances based on our own perception of a client's weakness. it is, of course, and illusion, and the pull to rescue is powerful. Yet we all confront the realities of our own lives when we close the door on our counselling room - a poorly relative, a challenging child, a marriage in trouble. We all cross the boundary from "I'm ok" to "I'm not ok" in the blink of an eye.'
Extract from article by Helen Kewell a humanistic counsellor in private practice in Sussex and who also volunteers as a counsellor and supervisor for Cruse Bereavement Care. Her book, Living Well and dying Well: tales of counselling older people, will be published this month by PCCS Books. Article pub in Therapy Today: March 2019: Vol 30: Issue 2
'I went home knowing that I was no longer having to cope on my own'
"The doctors came across the cancer tumour in his lungs by chance. My husband has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and we had taken him into hospital because of that. It was a moment of utter disbelief and total shock. We were told there was absolutely nothing that could be done, that we should go home, put everything in order and basically just wait.
Our minds were in turmoil, trying to come to terms with the news. I began to feel desperate for someone to talk to. Our families live quite some distance from us and I didn't want to burden them. I didn't feel I could speak to my husband as it only upset us both. So I bottled things up. My husband had nurtured and supported me throughout our marriage and, all of a sudden, our roles had changed.
It was as if my prayers were answered when I read in the local paper about an organisation offering places in group therapy for people affected by cancer.
Attending my first group session, I met five complete strangers, but, as the weeks went on, I went home knowing that I was no longer having to cope on my own. As the weeks progressed our friendships grew and we all felt confident enough to open up and discuss things that we could not talk about with anyone else. We found most of us were feeling/thinking similarly. We all felt we were being selfish in wanting to talk about how the cancer was affecting us, as carers. What is going to happen to me? How do I cope? It sounds selfish even now, but that's what I needed and I got reassurance from the group and the counsellors that it was OK to think of myself. I was scared -what would life be like without him? I wanted someone to help me through this, to wrap their arms around me and tell me it was going to be all right.
Our two counsellors were absolutely amazing: they were patient, understanding and had an ability to know what to discuss and how to get us to express our fears and concerns and put them into perspective.
Up until week nine of the sessions, I'd joined in all the discussions, but my reason for being there had never felt real. I hadn't accepted my husband's diagnosis and the ultimate consequences of it. That week we participated in a mindfulness session. Almost immediately I felt my whole body relax in a way I'd never felt before. I didn't want it to end; I wanted to stay in this happy, carefree place forever. As the therapist brought us out of it, all my pent-up emotions came out too. It was the first time I'd cried, and it was then that the reality of what was happening and why I was there hit home. And all of a sudden, it all made sense, I knew what I needed to do; my mind was no longer full of cotton wool. Everything I'd learned from the weeks of counselling and discussion clicked into place. This was my turning point.
The course went on for 12 weeks and it that time we laughed a lot, cried a lot, spoke honestly and reached our personal targets. For me, that was to be able to talk about the situation without getting emotional and to feel confident that I would be able to see this thing through to the bitter end, and beyond. We are all still strong friends, still supporting each other and there for each other when things get tough.
If I hadn't accessed this group, I really don't know what sort of state I would be in now. It changed me completely. People say that I am more confident; my husband says he knows now that I will be OK when he has gone. I think he is proud of me. I now say how I feel and I think I am more open, more caring, less critical and more honest - all because of counselling".
Extract from Therapy Today; February 219: Vol 30: Issue 1. The author of the article was a client with We Hear You (WHY), a charity in Somerset that provides free professional counselling to anyone who has been affected by cancer of any other life-threatening condition. For more information, visit www.wehearyou.org.uk.