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….

existential-humanist-counselling

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.

 

References.

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 #15

warhol-wait

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 #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 #10

I had my interview this week to progress to the next stage of counsellor training.  The first part was a group introduction where we each had the opportunity to talk about ourselves and our motivation for embarking on training.  I’m always really interested in the dynamics of these events and like to test out how I feel about other applicants – these are my potential partners in training and development and I’m always interested in my first impressions and how they change over time.

I try for UPR – honestly.  I push myself toward this end every day but because interviews make us all present a front, I find it difficult to positively value the front others present.  These events often have the stereotypicals too – including Mr Superconfident, Ms Earnestly Compassionate, Ms ChangeTheWorld, Mr Philosopher, Mrs EarthMother and Mr WoundedButBetterNow.  I’ve assigned genders here just for titles but these are interchangeable.  In this session, I met a new one – I’mMakingASpeechUnderGuiseOfAQuestion.

I was fascinated by this person.  She asked lots and lots of questions but these always started with a summary of what had been said – a bit like “Can I ask a question? So you’ve said that there is a placement requirement and that means we will need to secure counselling hours to complete the course and I’m thinking that this means we have to have a placement in order to achieve the qualification.  Am I right in thinking that?”  Every question.  I am honestly going to struggle working with her.

Which stereotypical am I? I have managed annoyingly to be every single one of them at some point – irritating cow that I am.

Opening channels #4

So here’s the thing…unconditional positive regard

Rogers says it is ‘…experiencing a warm acceptance of each aspect of the client’s experience as being part of that client’.  Standal refined it stating there are ‘no conditions’ of acceptance and no feeling of “I like you only if…” and there is a real emphasis on ‘prizing’ the person.

Now I get all this in theory.  If I’m going to be any way effective as a counsellor, I must accept and care about the client in a non-possessive and non-judgmental way.  I recognise that this will be easier with some clients than others – I’ve had my fair share of challenging encounters with people I’m trying to work with and I’ve come away with some scars, both physical and emotional.  I’ve been trying really hard to offer UPR in all of my dealings with other people and it does get easier with practice but…

There is a person who I find difficult to be around. This is an acquaintance, not a client.  My feeling is that the image he wants us to have of him is more important than the feelings of anyone around him.  I want to analyse his motives and to challenge the way he communicates and I can feel myself wincing when he speaks about himself, which he does often, loudly and at length (see – already I’m judging)  How would I manage if he was my client?  What happens if I meet a client who reminds me of him?  I know this is the stuff of a nightmare supervision session because I now have to dig in me and find out why I’m not able to prize him and warmly accept his experience and his view of his world.  Meeting and dealing with people like this, who push my buttons, make me question whether I’m really cut out to be a counsellor.

It’s been a tough day today.  I’ve listened to him do ‘his thing’ for most of the day and find myself with an aching jaw where I’ve clenched my teeth to stop myself telling him to shut the f*ck up.   Talk about being genuine – I’ve just smiled and gritted and tried to tune him out.  How do other therapists get on with this?