Opening channels #24 The things we know

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…

“Once you know some things, you can’t unknow them. It’s a burden that can never be given away.”

Alice Hoffman, (Incantation)



Opening channels #21 Red Coat


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

“I’m furious…”

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’.

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 #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?

Opening channels #2


“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.