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…



Opening channels #15


I’m sure this is painfully familiar to every counsellor and therapist – the client that doesn’t arrive.  I’ve made a number of appointments for clients; I’ve spoken to them over the phone, checked that the date and time works for them, given them a number to cancel the appointment then sat and waited for them in the Centre, only for them not to show.  There are a myriad of reasons for clients not attending – the women I am working with have numerous challenges to their time management and organisation.  Some are fleeing abusive partners and are vulnerably housed – often sofa surfing with friends or family.  Most have children and often cancel our appointment because of childcare falling through or because a child’s appointment at school or the doctors takes precedent.  Some women are still with their partners and make the appointment with full will to attend but find themselves locked in the house or fearful of explaining where they are planning to go.

I sit and wait (we have a 15 minute rule at the Centre) then I try to phone, if it’s safe to do so and usually leave a voicemail asking if the client wants to rearrange. It is a rare treat if the client rings back.  I get what’s going on and I empathise with each woman’s difficulties in attending and I have tried to use the waiting time to check out my frustration and test how patient I have to be.  I’m not good at waiting – I have a real horror of being late and I’m frequently irritated by people who have a more relaxed idea of punctuality.  I have to consciously convince myself that the client will have a reason.  So during those long fifteen minutes, I find myself wondering what the client might be like – tall or short? Hair and skin colour? Sad or angry? What she might bring to the session.  Then I wonder how I can start the session – contracting and business-like or friendly and informal?  Should I ask straight away for permission to tape the sessions?  Shake hands or just smile and say hello?  Those fifteen minutes are full of possibilities and uncertainties and I feel the butterflies.  As sixteen minutes pass by I feel the cold certainty of a ‘Did Not Attend’ creep in but I ignore it, thinking about town centre traffic and missed buses.  By twenty minutes, it’s all over and I’m acknowledging my frustration as I’m firing up the computer to record DNA in the notes.

Waiting is work for me but counselling is harder work for the client.  I know that not everyone is ready for that work – facing the reality of choices and consequences, the uncertainty of change and progress, spilling your darkest thoughts in front of another person.  It is my work to wait – those testing fifteen minutes are practice for the waiting I’m obliged to do in the  counselling room while the client is trying out her possibilities and uncertainties.   This placement is pushing me to become patient and work at another person’s time frame instead of mine.


Opening channels #14

TFD will-today-be-included-in-your-memoirs

It’s been nearly a year since I wrote here.  I’m still in counselling training and finding the challenge of dealing with experience rather than just getting to grips with theory.  I’ve been away on residential with our group – going to the ‘dark places’ and hugging it out – which I’m sure is standard for these experiences and honestly is not intended as flippant or disrespectful.  Some stuff really was scary to get immersed in.  I have started real counselling with Real People, rather than practice sessions with my fellow students, though I’ve yet to have a client keep their appointment.  I have met with my supervisor and I found myself babbling like an idiot to convince her (or me?) that I am competent and safe enough to be let out amongst REAL PEOPLE to poddle around in their stuff.  Yet I haven’t written about any of these moments here…

I’m working on research around reflective thinking, writing and practice and have recently published an article on the challenges of teaching reflective practice so you would think that I would be reflecting like a demon everywhere!  Sadly no – the biggest problem I’m finding with reflective writing is that I am extremely good at telling others that we should be doing it but really trying very hard to do other things (cleaning shoes, clearing out the shed, reading trashy novels etc. etc ad nauseum) instead.  I am the Queen of prevarication where reflective writing is concerned and I am committing the cardinal sin of

“…superficial discussion of having paused for thought from time to time…” (Thompson & Pascal, 2012, p.311).

as far as my reflective Learning Reviews are concerned.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m happy to explore my experiences as I’m training to be a counsellor but I’m not sure that I’m exploring deeply enough to gain some real learning from them.

There is something liberating about writing here though.  The anonymity might allow me to be freer in my exploration perhaps?  The fact that it isn’t being graded or explicitly judged – or even read – by anyone else gives me a freedom to write any way that I want?  I do know that it feels good to be back…



Thompson, N. & Pascal, L. (2012) Developing critically reflective practice. Reflective Practice; International and Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Vol, 13 Issue 2, 2012.  pp. 311-325

Opening channels #13

It has been a while since I last wrote here.  I’ve been busy finishing an article for publication and I think I might have had all of my ideas wrung out of me…

I was offered a place on  the  next level of counselling training offered here but it turned out that the compulsory residential is on the same weekend as I’m running the Great North Run.  So there was my choice – hand back my place on a half marathon which I earmarked as a 50th birthday present to myself or miss the residential and not be allowed to go on the course.    (The course leader did offer me deferred entry to start in September 2016 but this would cause other timetabling problems.)

Alternatives always exclude.

So I’m running the Race and I have applied to start on a different Counselling Diploma programme in September.

Opening channels #12

A Word.

Since I had trouble a few years ago, I have always tried to keep work and social media separate.  I think that social media sometimes gives us a window on colleagues’ private lives that is unwanted, unnecessary and occasionally inappropriate.  Against my better judgment though, I accepted a ‘friend’ request from a person I know through work and found myself wishing I hadn’t.  After months of ‘inspirational quotes’ and photographs of cake in my Facebook timeline, I really wanted to go back to not knowing this person.  I wanted to revert to the professional distance we’d held briefly at the beginning but was worried that ‘unfriending’ the person might cause awkwardness in our work relationship – this was becoming almost as bad as sleeping with a colleague after the Christmas party (yes, I have a sad history of fluid boundaries that I’m still paying for).

So, the person posted a status that included a highly derogatory word.  I was deeply shocked by this as my virtual ‘friend’ had frequently railed against discriminatory language, stereotypes and name-calling and had threatened to unfriend people who shared statuses linked to racist and supremacist organisations.  After sitting on my shock for more than a day, and seeing no-one else call the person on The Word, I decided to send a direct message stating how unhappy I was to see this in the post.  The person agreed graciously that it shouldn’t be used and offered to delete the post but felt it necessary to announce the reason in another post.  The saddest thing was that more people commented on this announcement (‘Let he who has committed no sin cast the first stone’ was a classic comment) than on the original post containing The Word.

I learned a lot from this small event. 1) I should trust my experience on mixing work and social media: I never need to see pictures of my colleague’s cakes. Ever.  2) Facebook is theatre – loved by people who love an audience and if a FB ‘actor’ has more than 500 in the Audience, all life is open and will be viewed.  Berne (1970) talked about human’s Hunger for Incident, long before social media was even a twinkle in a computer grad’s eye.  Facebook is a perfect theatre for Incidents. 3) Honest, direct challenges are grist for the mill for an actor intent on incident (I need to remember this in therapy) and can be used to garner bouquets from a sympathetic audience.  4) If I had been honest at the beginning by unfriending when I got fed up with the cake, I would never have known that my colleague used The Word.  I have to work at preventing myself losing respect for the person – a real test for UPR.  5) I am manipulative – I used this as the reason for coming off the person’s friends list but I need to make sure I maintain clear boundaries from now on.  6) I can’t ever accept a client’s ‘Friend’ request – I can’t risk seeing a client use The Word or similar and I can’t risk becoming bored with their cake.

Opening channels #11

Skills practice – Emotion Focused Therapy (Greenberg)

Four questions to reflect on following skills practice where I was working with G.

1. What was the experience like as a listener?

I found focusing difficult, especially listening out for process markers – those tiny points in a person’s narrative that say that s/he is ‘working’ or at least ready for looking at what is going on.  We were to look out for strong or vivid descriptions or words, or variations in vocal tone, or facial expressions, gestures etc. that show the processing of emotions in the present.  Calling these emotions forward and inviting the client to look at what is going on felt risky – I kept checking in to see if this was me or G.  The job of trying to create an empathic connection felt to me like trying to catch a bubble on the end of my finger; the very act of trying broke the moment, or so it seemed.  I felt awkward and consequently conscious of my awkwardness and when I tried to focus on G’s emotions but check in on mine, I may as well have been trying to pat my head and rub my stomach simultaneously.  So I stopped ‘doing’ and just ‘was’ with the hope that G would lead me along his process

2.  What were the challenges of working in EFT?

It felt like a really exquisite balancing trick – I wanted to dig into emotions but needed to remember G’s right to alight where he chose; I wanted to feel but wasn’t ever sure whether what I was experiencing was my connection with G or just my own bits of stuff.  I guess I need to get better at asking?  More than anything, I didn’t want to just take over – I know I have a role in therapy, but, just for once, it isn’t all about me.

3. What emotions arose in you?

Fear – I haven’t worked with G before and wasn’t sure what he would bring.  He has been open about his experience of therapy and I felt the ghosts of previous practitioners waiting in the wings to be compared against.  Awkwardness – just the feeling of trying on new boots.  Classical person-centred listening is relatively comfortable now and I am expected to try a more directive approach.  What would happen if I got it wrong and what would G think of me?

By the end of my skills time I found myself feeling real sadness and loss and because I risked asking here, I found that that this was G’s experience and I had been successful in linking to this.  I made that empathic connection!

4. What was the experience like as a speaker?

G was open and genuine so I felt that I owed him the same. Letting loose a little.  Irvin Yalom in his own inimitable way, tells his experience of unpacking a woman’s handbag in Elva’s story “I Never Thought It Would Happen To Me” (Yalom, I. D. (1989) Love’s Executioner and other tales of psychotherapy).  Tonight I got some bits out of My Bag – the Biro that doesn’t work, the crumpled tissue, the old hairclip…stuff that is well used, useless now but still carried around.  When I started to rummage a little though, I found a Bunch of Old Keys and I’ve no idea what they might unlock so they can stay in My Bag a bit longer!

Opening channels #7b – ‘Be strong/Be perfect’

Back to the drivers…

These are major drivers for me and often cause me the most pain, even though I’m fully and exquisitely aware that I’m being driven by them.  They are twisty little b*stards that often work in tandem.  ‘Be strong’ means  I find it difficult to ask for help or to admit that I can’t do a thing.  I will take on extra work and favours, almost to the point of exhaustion, then feel resentful and put on.  I feel at my most strong when I’m doing it all by myself, yet crave the offers of help from others so I can refuse, masochistically, and struggle on alone.  ‘Be perfect’ means it is easier to do it by myself as I won’t trust other people to get it exactly right.

This twisted logic comes from two psychodynamic sources – firstly, my role models growing up were two immensely strong maternal figures who fought and struggled till they took their last breath.  My mother would never acknowledge she was  ill, taking in turn her model from my grandmother who refused help moving furniture even after her second heart attack.  These women were giant, formidable figures, right on through my childhood and, as with all heroes, took on an even more glittering mythology after they died.

My second source is simply my own locus of evaluation.  There is immense energy here.  Rogers talks about the necessity of self-evaluation and rejecting the ‘conditions of worth’ imposed on us while we are growing up,  whilst Steiner talks of ‘stroke economy’; fundamentally we are taught to crave and work for other people’s acceptance, praise and regard but these are usually conditional on us earning or proving our worth.  It feels as if I am constantly trying to show how brave and strong and perfect I am.  I accepted the utter loneliness of proving that I am totally independent and not needing anyone – paradoxically needing everyone to witness my ‘strength’ and ‘independence’  preferably by telling me what a hard worker, or how helpful or how strong I am.  There is no self-acceptance here – only a load of measuring myself through the admiring comments of others and when I don’t get these, I get resentful and sulky.

I’m bellowing, “Look at how brilliantly strong and wonderful I am”  but under my breath –  It all feels a bit ridiculous now that I’m writing it.

What this does is  it prevents me getting close and putting my trust in others and is self-fulfilling.  When I do need help and others around me don’t guess I need it and do it telepathically, this proves how untrustworthy other people are and drives me in the direction of ‘Be perfect’.  Why would I ask for help when I won’t trust people to get it absolutely right?  My way or the highway people, particularly if it means giving up a task that I know will prove how strong I am.

The big problem with these drivers in client work is how I use them to measure others. Will I judge clients as ‘not strong’ for asking for help and will I judge others as ‘imperfect’ for not getting it all absolutely right? Will I dislike a client for not doing  ‘perfect’ therapy?  Is it simply time to give myself a rest from trying to control other people’s opinions of me by allowing my weaknesses and imperfections to be fully out there?  It’s bloody exhausting trying to be fantastic at all times and I think it might be liberating to acknowledge that I’m not very good at other people’s ‘brilliantly strong and wonderful’, whatever that might be.  Being honest and flawed and real will make me a better counsellor and a much more bearable human.