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…