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 #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 #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!

Opening channels #7

A full day working on skills and personal development.  I haven’t done direct counselling skills practice for a couple of weeks but I have been asked to observe and give feedback on other group members’ skills practice.  I’m very pleased that people trust me to give honest and constructive feedback and I try carefully to give feedback in a real and genuine way.

For personal development, we were tasked to draw our ‘jigsaw’ to illustrate the component parts of us.  I’ve always enjoyed these self-analytical art task, I use them in teaching and I know I should use them more in my own journals and reflection.  This is mine….

Counselling Jigsaw

I know about my drivers but I’m not totally aware of how they motivate my way of acting and being. I’m going to use this to reflect on and really try to get to grips with how some of these damn things might affect my way of being with people – in therapy and in other relationships.

Loss is a biggie – it’s very close to my central ‘core’.  I’ve lost some very important people, roles and bits of me.  Some of my losses I can kiss and let go and my memories of managing and working with them can help me with the inevitable losses that will come in the future.  Not all though.

Here’s a story that might explain where I am with loss.  Over 30 years ago, I met a woman who considered herself a psychic.  She asked specifically for me to come and speak to her and told me that she saw me ‘surrounded by tears’.  While I can rationally take this apart – she was after business, wanted to show her ‘power’, she was deluded (I’m not a believer in any afterlife) – this has haunted me (no pun intended) and I know I expect sadness often rather than really experiencing happiness.  I sometimes pull myself back because I notice that I’m not planning for people, skills, roles to end.  I have locked off love, joy and happiness because it is safer than waiting for it to end and I don’t want to really feel sad because I’m living up to her prophecy so I end up with everything slightly muted.

In therapy, sad, angry, happy, overwhelmed, are all grist for the mill (Yalom, 2001) and I cannot mute my clients feelings or their impact on me. I’m afraid of being surrounded by tears and should be able to use this experience of fear, genuinely and transparently to accept that my clients will do anything not to feel that fear – and will like me lock down and mute the hell out of being overwhelmed by anything.

To make a change I have to accept that I will lose something – allowing me to feel means losing my safe space, carefully constructed shell and my huge ‘Be Strong’ driver.  Giving it a go slowly feels okay and I’m still not sure I need or want to open myself up to every bloody emotion that comes my way as long I’m okay and accept where that leaves me.