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
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’.
(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…
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.
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?
“Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself ” ~ Mohsin Hamid
I’m partnered with J for skills work and we’ve been filming ourselves listening and trying to create Rogers Core Conditions. I was anxious about working with J simply because I thought the only thing we had in common was that we were both enrolled on this course.
The act of listening is work and so much more when I cannot find a link with the other person. I find myself drifting, or analysing, or asking questions and simply not being ‘there’ with the person and their concerns. I feel myself retreating into my own head and tramping around in there. With J I knew I had to make a conscious effort to shut my head up and try and immerse myself in J’s experience.
In the last session, by listening, I was allowed to “…enter the private perceptual world of the other…” (Rogers, 1980:142) and whilst I wasn’t yet completely at home there, I realised that her experience of and feelings around her family were very like some of my experiences. When I brought myself back from thinking ‘This is what I would have done’, I was able to allow myself to feel what J was feeling, albeit briefly, and named the feeling. For a moment, there was an echo and a link with J that might just teach me that I can deal with the uncertainty of creating space for the relationship.
I can’t know how therapy will be with everyone I work with and I really don’t need to know if I can trust the just being.