As a counsellor and Trustee working at Lifeways, I was asked if I would like to contribute to their website by writing a short article, and some useful topics were suggested: perhaps bereavement, trauma, depression, anxiety, relationship difficulties?
In fact, although many clients I see do come into therapy with some, or all, of these issues, I had to admit that I was far from an expert and would be reluctant to talk knowledgably about any one of these areas. This can be a difficult thing to sit comfortably with, and of course, the dreaded ‘imposter syndrome’ does inevitably creep into consciousness from time to time.
As a practicing Person-Centred therapist who has worked for several charities, mental health agencies, the prison service (and latterly in private practice) for over two decades, one might imagine that I had, by now, acquired some specialist knowledge of commonly presented issues.
Far from it. Of course, I may know generally, how an anxious person may have a quickened pulse or rapid breathing, but every single client I encounter experiences their problems, struggles or issues in a unique way. ‘I’ve got depression’ one client might say. My job as a Person-Centred counsellor is to find out (using the philosophical approach of ‘phenomenology’) how the client experiences his distress.
What it is like for that particular client; what are his thoughts, his feelings and his behaviours, and, most importantly, to do this while putting my own assumptions, beliefs and expectations to one side. My aim is to focus wholly on the client’s experiences.
According to Person-Centred theory, the client is the only expert in their internal world; it really is up to the individual to decide what to make of their life, what meaning to give it. My role is indeed a skilled one, but I do not know the answers.
At times it can seem insurmountably challenging to remain present and attentive, empathic and accepting, in the face of extreme anguish or personal torment, with no recourse to expert knowledge or trying to ‘fix’ or ‘rescue’ the client. It can feel frustrating and anxiety-provoking too. But from the client’s perspective it can be life-changing.
Here is someone who won’t recoil when I’m at my worst, who isn’t trying to change me, or tell me how to live my life. They can really hear how difficult it is for me and help me make sense of my overwhelming feelings. Occasionally therapy doesn’t work, and there can be many reasons for that. The therapeutic relationship, the bedrock of any successful therapy, and one which we hope will develop, may never get off the ground.
It takes trust and hard work from both sides to build something that can inspire the client (and the counsellor!) to grow, to take responsibility for making changes, and perhaps engage more fully with life and living.