Opening channels #24 The things we know

Counselling practice placements are a very small pool to fish in, it seems.  I am working for an agency that recruits a large number of trainee counsellors, including a colleague from my course.  Last week, I was allocated a new client  and in the introduction, the placement co-ordinator mentioned that the client had worked previously with my colleague.  I was immediately intrigued – what had made him return so quickly to counselling if he had completed his twelve sessions with my colleague?  Had there been difficulties, challenges in that relationship or had his previous counselling unearthed an issue that he needed to explore?  The placement co-ordinator gave me an overview of a domestic issue that the client wanted support with and introduced us for the first session.

I started with my introductions and explanation of my boundaries and contract.  My client (I’ll call him Bill for ease here) stopped me to explain that he understood the contract because he had had fourteen counsellors before.  I joked that, as I was a trainee counsellor, he probably knew more about contracts than I did but that I still felt it was important to go through the contract with him.  As usual with clients who have had counselling before, I asked what had worked best for him and what hadn’t worked.  Bill went into detail here about a counsellor he had had for two years and who had asked him the ‘right questions’.  When I asked him to give an example of these questions, he couldn’t but explained that he felt ‘loved’ and that this had been absent in his life.

Empathy and unconditional positive regard can feel like ‘love’, especially if we are not used to receiving this ‘warm prizing’ and understanding from others.  If I’m honest though, I started to wonder about Bill’s background and his need for validation from all of these counsellors?  To have met fourteen counsellors and to have spent two years with one of these started to feel like a person stuck in the revolving door of care or possibly a professional story-teller – clients who thrive on presenting their life and issues to a succession of professionals.

So stop it, I told myself, and view the unique human being unfolding in front of me.  It is my privilege, I told myself, to witness and walk with Bill as he explores his experience and meaning.  Bracket that crappy pre-judgement and tune into Bill’s frame of reference!  I gave myself a quick talking to and tried to get back out of my head but something was nagging and getting in the way of any chance of connecting with him.  Then it hit me.  A few months back during group supervision,  (a great place  for us as trainees to bring our client work and its challenges), I remembered my colleague discussing a client that she was having difficulty connecting with.  She had described working with this man for eight sessions and feeling that he was simply using the sessions to talk rather than feel.  She had questioned the value of those hours for him and the ethics of sitting with him when, deep down, she felt that it was not working.  I also recalled that she had made the decision to end counselling with this client on the basis that she wasn’t sure how much use any further sessions would be for him.  I felt absolutely sure at that moment that Bill was the client she had agonised over.

While all this was rattling around for me, Bill was still in front of me and well into relaying his story.  I tried to tune back into the ebb and flow of his experience, and building our relationship in the here and now, but I recognised that I was distracted by ‘knowing’ Bill.  The mythical Bill that had troubled my colleague was in front of me and I was horrified that I wasn’t able to shake this off.  The session was coming to an end and I summarised the information that Bill had offered. As always at the end of a session, I asked how it had gone for him and whether he wanted to continue the following week.  Bill told me that he felt that we could work together and was looking forward to returning next week and I was struck by how easily I could offer an image of caring counsellor with all of this going on behind my eyes.

Now here is the dilemma:  I know Bill will be an excellent client.  From his history with previous counsellors, he appears to be reliable and I know he will attend regularly and promptly to relay his stories.  He declared that he had a lot of stories.    I have practice hours virtually guaranteed here.  I know Bill is an adult, he is self-directing and will use the counselling hour in any way he wants.  I also know that it is not my place to decide if it is useful for him and I cannot set a criteria for success.  I can bracket what I think I know about him and try to work genuinely and honestly with him to support his development.   I can ask what brings him back to counselling over and over again in the hope that he will examine this for himself.

Okay.  And yet I know that this doesn’t feel right.  I know what brings him back.  He is lonely and he wants a place to be heard and us professionals will provide this temporarily without him ever being able to get to what prevents him from having a genuine, equal and fulfilling relationship with a person who will be there longer than twelve hourly sessions.  His stories are carefully crafted and I know they will stand in the way of him making meaning out of his current experience.  Despite my best intentions to work congruently and authentically, I know that I will eventually question what I can actually do for him.  As Alice Hoffman declares…

“Once you know some things, you can’t unknow them. It’s a burden that can never be given away.”

Alice Hoffman, (Incantation)

 

 

Opening channels #23 Trust

This is a difficult one to write.  Our taught sessions have finished and now we are pulling together portfolio evidence and notes on our counselling practice hours.  Towards the end of the course, I found it difficult to focus on the learning, group sessions and skills practice in class, due to commitments and challenges in my paid work.  I knew that I was disengaging from the group – bored if I’m honest – and looking forward to finishing the taught sessions so that I could concentrate on my practice hours with clients.

My relationships with other members of the group have been predictably unpredictable.  I have always found with courses, where personal development is an integral part of learning, that relationships in the learning group can ebb and flow (as in real life) and I felt naturally that I worked more comfortably with some group members than with others.  I had detected some friction with two individuals but nothing that was overt enough for me to tackle.  With one of these people it felt very much that her own, openly disclosed, insecurities caused her to raise a defensive wall and even constructive comments and praise from me resulted in a prickle.  I admit that I backed off and rarely chose to work with her if it was possible to work with others.  On her part, she formed a very strong alliance with another member of the group that effectively protected her from having to work with others.

We limped along to the end of the taught sessions and during community time, I openly shared my regret that I hadn’t made more of my time with the group and that I had found it difficult to share information with some group members as I wasn’t fully trusting what they would do with this information.  No-one challenged this during the group time but this was ‘normal’ for our group – community time had ceased to be used for addressing challenges or issues in the group since an incident in the first few weeks of the course.

The course tutor had arranged a catch up and sign off session for group members who had not completed their work and I attended with my partly completed portfolio.  I left the session shortly after arranging another date to meet my tutor.  Later that evening I noticed that the group member mentioned above had written a celebration status on Facebook and I scrolled through to add my congratulations for finishing the course.  In the middle of the comments from several of her friends was a series of comments about me written by her and two other members of the group.

There is a saying – ‘Eavesdroppers rarely hear good about themselves.’ – and it was clear that these people had forgotten that I was a ‘friend’.  I wasn’t tagged to include me in the conversation and the whole thing felt inappropriate and glaringly out of place in the congratulations that surrounded it.  Nothing in the comments was exceptionally malicious but there was a veiled undercurrent of glee that I was still behind on my practice hours.  After getting hold of what I was feeling I emailed all three individuals and pointed out that I had noticed these comments.  I asked what made them think it was appropriate to discuss my circumstances in a public forum and expressed my shock and anger that they had done so.  It went quiet and I noticed that that I had been blocked from this person’s Facebook.

Then came a reply from her by email – one line:

‘It appears that this is more your issue than mine.’

Anyone who has attended a counselling course will probably have encountered this comment as a way of closing down a challenge and pushing the challenger to look in on herself to identify what is eating her.  I’m not sure what I expected as a reply but I know I would have honoured any acknowledgement that the comments were inappropriate.  I sensed her anger at being called out – this is a professional course which gives us the right to practice and the responsibility to adhere to professional standards – and I know she is proud of her status.  I replied and agreed that this was my issue and pointed out that I would have expected her to feel the same way, had I commented publicly on her circumstances.  I also stated that I didn’t feel it unreasonable expect the same principles of integrity, trust, confidentiality and professional behaviour that we had all agreed to, to be applied here.

There is nothing here for me to gain by continuing the argument – I ended by appealing to her empathy and understanding and have left it there.  The other two group members have not replied or even acknowledged my email and I am disappointed.  My expectations may be too high – we are all at different stages in our professional and personal development and may have different ways of reconciling disparities in our private and professional behaviour.  This might be a cautionary tale in the use of social media (remember who your ‘friends’ are) or it might simply be a rant about our inside and outside voices – I get that people will dislike me but don’t make it so obvious if you don’t want to be challenged!

Rogers talks at length about integrity and genuineness as a counsellor – this is a thing to be, qualities to permeate our everday lives, not something to turn on just in the counselling room and ultimately I felt that these comments were dishonest.  Each member of this small sub-group have had opportunities to speak to me or contact me privately, ask what my deal is or challenge me on any behaviour that has caused them to feel uncomfortable.  They chose not to and I expected better from them.  I’m blocked from trying to resolve this by each person’s reluctance to be in contact with me and work it through and I’m left discomfited by this justifying my feelings of mistrust in the group processes.

Opening channels #22 Helping?

care4calais

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.

www.care4calais.org

 

Opening channels #21 Red Coat

PERSONAL COUNSELLING (3)

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

door

 

PERSONAL COUNSELLING (2)

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

we-dance

 

PERSONAL COUNSELLING Session 1.

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.

References.

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

 

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?

 

Reference:

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