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…


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!