Opening channels #22 Helping?


Helping? (Volunteering with Care4Calais)

Today (29.3.17), at team brief, I was asked to go with another volunteer to visit refugees held at the Detention Centre in Calais. Two of the students volunteering with me had visited on the previous day and had returned with a daunting story of police officers, body searches and waiting.

My first job was to phone the three zones in the Detention Centre to collect names from the refugees detained in each zone; there are phones in the communal areas and any of the detainees can pick up and answer. I was advised to try and get at least three names and to ensure that I obtained exact spellings as the Police could refuse entry if names were spelled incorrectly. This was my first challenge. The guys answering the phone were from Ethiopia, Albania, Sudan, Ukraine and all of the obvious language barriers were made even more challenging by us trying to communicate over a mobile phone with crackling reception. I managed to get details from three men and a list of needs – simple things; socks, pants, toothpaste and biscuits. My colleagues and I packed bags with supplies and I felt a familiar sense of me taking for granted the privileges I had.

The Detention Centre is a bizarre place – this is a high security police station located in Cite Europe, a huge shopping park on the edge of Calais. I found its proximity to a huge ToysRUs store particularly unsettling. The Centre is a forbidding building with razor wire and electronic gates and we stood outside watching vans with members of the Police Nationale driving in and out of the compound. We had to ring a bell then speak into a camera, telling the desk that we were from Care4Calais and requesting to visit. My colleague spoke fluent French which made this easier but at each ring, at 10 minute intervals, we were met with a very curt ‘You wait!’ After an hour we were escorted through the gates.

The pat down and physical search we received was thorough. Our passports were taken and our bags searched and the biscuits removed ‘Food is forbidden!’. We were escorted downstairs and locked into a small room with chairs and a table. This looked out on to a small courtyard and we watched as two young men, Jaroslav (Ukraine) and Yassine (Ethiopia) were led across the courtyard to our room and locked in with us.

How do you start a conversation in such unreal circumstances? Through broken English, a little French and many gestures, we learned that Jaroslav had been detained for two weeks but was unclear about the reason and any likelihood of release. Yassine had been detained for three days and was due in his Court hearing the following day. Both men were heading to the UK, and both told us they were fleeing war, bombings, shootings and  fear. When I asked about family, Yassine answered bluntly ‘Dead. Father dead. Mother three months after, dead. Small brother and sisters, I don’t know. Sudan. I don’t know.’ At that moment, I found his pain and grief raw and overwhelming and had none of my usual social work (offering advice and support) or counselling responses (reflecting, paraphrasing) to shield me from that raw grief. All I could do was sit and feel some of that pain and I found it nearly impossible to meet his gaze.

We were allowed forty minutes to sit with those bewildered, lost young men. We heard that they slept four to a room and had no access to interpreters or language support. We learned that they were given one meal a day and that this was usually inedible. We heard that the French police were curt, autocratic and unwilling to speak. We tried to offer reassurances about contacting Legal Services and apologised for not having biscuits to offer and we handed over socks. This was all I had – pairs of socks – to support these young men to deal with the awful circumstances that caused them to leave their home, family and country to travel miles on foot or stowed in trucks only to be caught and detained by French authorities. I felt helpless and utterly useless. I felt completely tied by my lack of language and the right words to use. I was torn by guilt that I had the freedom to walk away, get food and sleep in a safe bed whilst these men, with none of those freedoms, were looking to us to help. I could offer socks. Ridiculous.

My learning from this is my way of shielding myself from feeling during counselling is how I use my words. I can skilfully reflect the feelings away from myself and back to the client. This protects me, makes me feel useful and allows me to feel like I’m helping. Walking away that day feeling useless, and now, after returning to my very safe home and my personal counselling, I started to understand that I had done ‘something’ very small. By being there and willing to be present for his grief I had allowed a brief connection. I cared. I allowed myself to feel for someone I knew nothing about without any of the shield I would usually employ. The socks are small, but as a symbol – useless in themselves, a drop in the ocean of this man’s grief, but backed by real and genuine human care that drives the organisation and the volunteers in it, they are a message that humanity is still present and available for this man and all of these people. I can do ‘small’ and offer ‘big’ and remember that I am human.


Opening channels #21 Red Coat


A lot has happened this week and I was feeling a little defeated when I arrived for my appointment. My counsellor asked how I was feeling and, from nowhere, I let loose

“I’m furious…”

Going on to explain what had been happening at work and how I felt about it, one of my overwhelming sensations was pure red rage – I cried, ranted, swore – loose and very raw emotion. So raw that I’m finding it so difficult to write about it now. I have never done Anger very well. I tend to turn this inward so it manifests as sulking, seething and, ultimately and painfully, depression and self-loathing. I genuinely dislike myself when I am angry. I feel out of control and scared of where my anger will take me. I guess it makes me vulnerable as it one of the few times I worry about what other people think about me and I feel stupid for losing control.

Of course I apologised to my counsellor…for the tears, snot and profanities flying around the room…and she gently asked me what I thought I was apologising for. Immediately, I had to confront my real fear about appearing to lose control, losing my carefully constructed ‘together’ Colette who is rarely rattled, scared, anxious or vulnerable. I wondered what was so important about this persona that I would deny or judge what I was genuinely feeling. So many times, I have spoken to clients about Anger and how we question or deny it. How we treat it differently to Joy, which we value and celebrate and rarely try to hide. Now here I am, feeling like a fraud because I am not doing myself what I expect of my clients – accepting the realness and ordinariness of an emotion that has a part in every Self. How can I ever help anyone if I’m unable to do the very thing that I ask my clients to do?

My counsellor was clear – here I’m being hard on myself. We don’t need to be ‘sorted’ to help someone but we do need to be aware and comfortable with what we are aware of. I feel like I’m trying on Anger like a new coat and I’m walking around in it to feel if it fits. It is a red coat and very striking. I’m also aware that it is noticeable and that it will draw potentially negative attention to me but it is mine. This red coat has been stuck in the back of my psychic wardrobe for far too long and it frightens me deeply to wear it openly. I am coming to the understanding that I must wear all my coats comfortably if I am to encourage my client to try on theirs. I cannot recognise, work with and unconditionally accept anger, rage, fury in all its glory in my client if I’m unable to accept my own.

I really admired the way my counsellor sat with me in all this and her gentle way of scooping me back up in time to end the session. For all that I worried about my relationship with her after the last session, today, for this hour I felt safe to let loose knowing that she ‘got me’.

Opening channels #20 Doors




I started the session with my observation that, last week ,I felt I had been a ‘perfect client’ by talking freely and offering just enough grit to make the session interesting. My counsellor commented that this was the reason counsellors were okay charging lower fees for counselling students as, generally, ‘…they didn’t have massive issues…’.

What an interesting observation. I had several immediate thoughts: firstly, was I boring her? Did I have mundane ‘student-like’ stories that she has heard before? Was I taking up a session that a more interesting or higher-paying client could have had? I have chatted with hairdressers before about the quick ‘dry-trim’ or ‘short-back-and-sides’ and heard that although hairdressers feel these are dull, they still bring in money and so are tolerated. Am I the counselling equivalent of a ‘dry-trim’?

My most important thought came later. I began to wonder what I was permitted to take to the sessions and what her definition of a ‘massive issue’ might be. This lead me to assess my particular bag of issues – relationships with family and ex-partners, work stresses, losses and grief and my concerns over progressive health condition. All of these are important to me and each may have an impact on the way I relate to and work with a client. Fundamentally, I identified my existential wonderings: at 51, I have fewer tomorrows than yesterdays and I wonder how I will fill them in a way that is genuine, valuable and makes sense. Am I too old to make the leap to change careers? Am I really fulfilled by what I do now? Surely these are BIG Issues – life, the Universe and Everything questions. So am I paying enough to be expect her to sit with me while I unpick them?

If I was being truly congruent, I would ask my counsellor these questions – certainly, members of my group have challenged me about this and I honestly must say that I am not sure why I didn’t ask. What it has caused me to reflect on is, firstly, the quality of our relationship – the money I pay causing me to pause and edit the issues I want to bring to counselling is not creating a space of safety, equality and non-judgement. Secondly, how easy it is to shut a human down with an unthinking remark. I wonder in all of my encounters with people, how many times a quick reply, comment, witty quip from me has prevented the other from truly explaining what is going on for them in that moment? I can’t redo those moments but I can make it my responsibility in the future to take a pause and consider who the person is and how she might feel right now if I want to respond in a way that enables the other to open, rather than close, their doors.


Opening channels #19 That dance




I felt really excited as I was walking to my counselling appointment – I’ve had ten sessions of counselling before and really enjoyed the opportunity to see how it should be done. I also really relished the space for me. I’ve long thought of counselling as an opportunity to get out all of my Jewels, the good and bad experiences, hopes, fears, losses and loves, and examine them before putting them away safely.

I wasn’t sure how I imagined what my counsellor would be like. I must have had some image in mind because I noted that she wasn’t exactly what I expected, however, strangely, I still can’t establish what I actually did expect. Very formally, she asked me to complete a registration form and assessment form which I dutifully filled out, finding myself irritated when I made a mistake on the form. She clearly explained contracting and boundaries, including safeguarding, as expected and I listened carefully. She then invited me to tell her a little bit about myself and my expectations of counselling. I took my time to explain that I wanted to examine some issues that might come up during my work with clients including some significant losses in my life. I noticed that I was offering carefully measured elements of my experience – clean and sanitised with just enough ‘grit’ to present me as flawed. I also noticed that my counsellor appeared tense, holding herself separate enough but offering sufficient responses: ‘It sounds like you have a lot of regret?’ and ‘You have set up quite a target to achieve’ which invited me to consider what I was saying in more depth.

I realised that I was trying to be a ‘perfect client’. I was getting straight into the work but in a measured and controlled way. There was a logical path to my disclosures – easy for my counsellor to follow and track, and these built upon each other in a systematic way allowing the counsellor to hold my story respectfully and with minimum effort. My story was nothing like the often messy stream of consciousness that I’ve experienced with my clients. I notice that I was making this easy. My counsellor didn’t need to coax or invite me to explore emotions, rather I brought them out in expressive words. I also noticed that my counsellor was being the perfect practitioner, offering accurate observations and reflections but my underlying impression was that she appeared bored and almost relieved when our time was up. There was no sense of connection or ’relational depth’ that Mearns & Cooper (2005) and Knox (2008) describe. My counsellor did nothing wrong. Neither did I. I feel however, that whatever complex dance went on between us was not altogether right. It has given me some things to think about but nothing to feel.

It makes sense to do something differently. This is my session, after all, and at its most superficial level, I am paying money for this opportunity. If I want to present a perfect image of something, I can do this in my hairdressers or in my teaching. My counselling sessions should be about the rawness of my Self in all of its glories. I can risk loosening my ‘Be Perfect’ corset and getting down and dirty with the crappest, most loathsome, embarrassing and shameful bits of me and working with them until I can reach some equilibrium that allows me to let go of some of my high expectations. It is fine to know that these things are there but the real work lies in feeling their influence on who I am.

A next step might be to confess all of this to my counsellor during my next session and seeing where that goes.


Knox, R. (2008). Client’s experience of relational depth in person-centred counselling. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 2008; 8(3): 182-188

Mearns, D. & Cooper, M. (2005) Working at relational depth in counselling and psychotherapy. London, United Kingdom: SAGE


Opening channels #18 The Walk



The Walk

I’m wondering if other counsellors have a similar difficulty?

If you, like me, meet clients in a waiting area then walk together to your counselling room, what do you talk about? I have tried all of the usual topics – travelling and the idiosyncrasies of public transport, questions about the quality of directions and ease of location and, of course, The Weather, as the mainstay of all British small-talk. At one agency, ours is quite a long journey through a public area then up the stairs and, as there is no space to walk side by side, I find myself shouting over my shoulder. These small conversations are essential to client care I believe – Desmond Morris (2002) calls these ‘grooming signals’– smiles, eye contact, small elbow touches, questions about travel and the weather – which show the other that we are caring for her/him. I know from personal experience that, when I am nervous or anxious, these small conversations can really help me relax so I try to use The Walk as a precursor to the counselling session.

My difficulty is during The Walk back. After the session, despite our work to negotiate an ending that suits the client, she or he is, at best, thoughtful or contemplative and at worst, sad, tearful, embarrassed, angry, uncomfortable. We know that much of the change work done in counselling frequently happens towards the end of the session with the familiar ‘door-step comment’ and more is done after the session on the journey home when the client begins to process her new understanding or senses around the issues she brought to counselling. With this in mind, The Walk takes on new significance and I wonder what works best. Do we chat again or stay quiet?  In the interests of balance, do I resume the small talk that I started with on meeting?  Walking in silence obviously allows the client some quiet time and enables her to start or possibly continue processing. It also allows me a pause to get ready for the next client. Does the client need the fuzz of the small conversations to detract from where she is at the moment? I wonder if it is better to allow the client to walk out alone and whether she needs me to see her to the door.

Separating after the counselling encounter feels difficult. I understand cognitively that we are alone in our experience of the world and that the counselling relationship allows me only a small glimpse into the experience of the other. There is an intimacy though in witnessing another human’s innermost thoughts, hopes and fears and it feels cold to step away from that abruptly at the end of the hour. I am aware however, that the client remains alone with her experience and will continue to exist even after I have stopped witnessing. I cannot be there for every moment and this is why I must stick with my boundaries and take care with time to make sure that the client returns to her aloneness with a comfortable sense of ‘ending’. My challenge is for me to accept the comfortable sense of ending.

Any counsellors/therapists out there with any advice? How do you do The Walk?



Morris, D. (2002) Peoplewatching. London, UK: Vintage

Opening channels #17 (the existential counsellor)

We were asked to produce a ‘model’ of our counselling standpoint to present to the group.  The aim of the exercise was to encourage us to explore the theory and concepts behind our counselling practice and think creatively about how we would represent this to others.  I found this a difficult exercise, firstly because I am just really starting to explore existential counselling (my standpoint) and I am not 100% clear or confident about some of the ideas.  Secondly, I wasn’t sure how I could find symbols to represent some of the philosophical concepts that underpin the model.  With some searching and rooting around the house, I eventually came up with this….


From the top…

String = Life

I chose two strings, one is blue and silky and very grand whilst the other is basic parcel string.  I wanted to show the concept of life being finite, with a start and end and how it is relatively short.  By choosing two different strings, I was trying to show the contrast between an ordinary life controlled by injunctions (the parcel string) and a life lived authentically – rich and beautiful (the blue string).  Both strings have a knot around two thirds through, showing a moment or event that has brought that life to crisis and possibly counselling.

Fortunes;  I chose the cards and rune to explain my model as these represent some of the ways human beings have sought to understand and make meaning out of a complex, messy and unpredictable world.  They also quite neatly symbolise our common hope or fear that something ‘higher’  (deities, fate etc.) is managing our life, rather than acknowledging that we have free will and choice.   The four tarot cards here represent the four main challenges of human existence (Maquarrie (1972) explains these so much better than I can!) and I think symbolise some of the main issues brought by clients to counselling.

The Hermit shows us that we are essentially alone in our experience of the world around us and, as intelligent beings, we have the capacity to reflect and ponder on the uniqueness of our experience in order to consider what authentic living means for us. This unique experiencing can be fraught with misunderstandings however, as we can never fully understand the experience of another person – it can be a fearful place to be alone in our view of the world.  Clients will often bring this sense of ‘never really being understood’ and it is the counsellor’s challenge to value and prize this uniqueness whilst acknowledging that they can only ever understand ‘as if’ they were the client.

The Juggler represents the challenge of managing our freedom to choose with the inevitable restrictions on our choices.  Every freedom, choice and decision brings consequences and whilst we have ultimate freedom in our pursuit of an authentic existence it is necessary to juggle the guilt, shame and penalties following the choices we make. As Sartre (1946) argues, we are ‘…condemned to be free.’ (Maquarrie, 1972).  Clients will often bring a dilemma or choice that they are faced with and their terror of acknowledging the inevitable result that ‘alternatives exclude’ (Yalom, 2001)

Death represents the certain knowledge we all have that we will die. The challenge is how we as individuals face our death and how we live the life preceding it.  Facing death and loss is an important challenge as it can cause us to question the meaning and purpose of the existence we are leading.  Clients will often seek counselling following a death of a family member or friend or following the ‘death’ of a relationship or lifestyle.  These remind us of our own limited time and our ultimate fear of ‘non-existence’.

The World in the Tarot, this card represents wholeness, completion and fulfilment.  I’ve chosen this card to represent the fourth existential challenge of meaning. Many writers gathered under the ‘existentialist’ banner (see Camus and Laing) consider the human’s search for meaning in life as being the key reason for existing.  Finding meaning completes us and a client’s search for meaning to events and experiences is frequently present in counselling.

Odin’s Rune;  I chose the blank rune (Odin’s Rune) as it is considered to be the most terrifying and the most exhilarating of all the runes.  It represents ‘nothingness’ but is also fertile with possibilities and I wanted a symbol of the uncertainties human beings face and often bring to counselling.  It also represents the uncertainty in the counselling relationship – as counsellors, even with our most perfect strategies and interventions, we have no way of knowing what will happen in our client’s life and I would argue that this uncertainty is both terrifying and exhilarating for us.

The Mirror; this is me as the counsellor.  My job, I believe, is to bracket my values and prejudices and act as a mirror whilst the client works her way through her unique challenges, reflecting back her thoughts, ideas and emotions and occasionally shining light on the answers she is finding during counselling.  The mirror also fits as it prompts me to remember that I also face these existential challenges and there might be times that the client’s struggles mirror my own.

Jewels;  I have for a long time thought of the counselling relationship as a place for the client to open up her bag of experiences, strengths, weaknesses, fears and joys, (Her Jewels) to examine them carefully, have them valued by another, then put them carefully away again.  Existential counselling offers this place to artfully arrange one’s jewels to meet the challenges brought by the ‘unfolding event’ (Hoffman, 1993 in Cooper, 2012) of her life.

Quotes; I have included three quotes which I love and wish I was responsible for!  For me, they represent ways of exploring the givens of existence

“To wish you were someone else is to waste the person you are.” (Unknown author)

“Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer injury to one’s self-esteem…” (Thomas Szasz)

“Wisdom outweighs wealth.” (Sophocles)

There were so many other quotes I could have chosen but I feel that these sit well with the need to live an authentic life, the need to consciously give up or adjust part of our Self in order to learn fully and the drive to acquire wisdom and understanding.  These neatly sum up the purpose of existential counselling as they remind me to work authentically with the client, to be prepared to change and learn alongside her and to gather the wisdom I witness in her working.

As a reflective exercise, gathering the elements of my model was fascinating.  I felt it was important to find symbols that not only worked for my understanding but also would enable others in my group to get these challenging philosophical ideas.  I hope I have managed it here.  I’m still not sure I fully understand or agree with all of the concepts, nor have I represented them perfectly here, but this learning is surely part of my own unfolding event.



Cooper, M. (2012) The existential counselling primer.  Ross-on-Wye, UK: PCCS Books

Maquarrie, J. (1972) Existentialism. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books

Yalom, I. (2001) The gift of therapy. Reflections on being a therapist.  London, UK: Piatkus Books.

Opening channels #16

open-arms-elbow  (Thanks to Elbow)

Music is brilliant, isn’t it?  Songs to sing to, dance with, cry along with and songs that pick me up and hurl me against the wall.  Some songs are my time machines and will whisk me back to a time – sometimes I want to go there and other times, I have to turn off the tune.

I found this again on my i-Pod and found myself crying with joy as I was driving to work.  “We got open arms for broken hearts…” Guy Garvey sings and relates a story of a friend or relative returning to friends and family who are celebrating his return.  The reunion isn’t a happy one, we understand as the line goes on “…like yours my boy…” and we get the sense the return isn’t fully his choice.

There is no judgement however  “You’re not the man who fell to earth…you’re the man from La Mancha!” acknowledging the returner’s feelings about coming home without the success he imagined when he set out on his adventure and trying to reassure him that he is still regarded as brave and intrepid for setting out in the first place.  “Tables are for pounding here…” suggests that the returner might be angry, distressed and in need of a physical release of those feelings. You can pound tables with us, Garvey seems to say and we’ll not think anything less of you.   The song goes on to list all of the people who are there to see him home – all human “Rooney’s face down in a puddle – everyone’s here!” the song ends triumphantly.  We feel that the adventurer is back where he needs to be now, he will heal and may even set out again with the strength of everyone behind him.

I would argue that the song is a lovely symbol of unconditional positive regard, genuineness and warmth and reminded me of therapy.  Clients are adventurers, living life but experiencing an adventure gone off track.  They need to come ‘home’ a place where arms are open and there is no negative judgment.  They expect and should receive a human face (maybe not ‘face down in a puddle’ though) who will support them to pound the table, if they need to and who will value the adventure they’ve undertaken.  Clients are the man, or woman, from La Mancha and will take what they need to embark on their adventure again.

Music is wonderful isn’t it?  Just a few words cleverly and beautifully bringing together the fundamentals of a therapeutic relationship.  Give the song a listen…