Counselling Counsellors
8 Dec 2015

I want to specialise in counselling counsellors. It is my passion to walk with others in my field so they can be all they can be.

Belonging is important to all of us. When we feel a part of a group or a cause, we experience (on a good day) connection, acceptance and our identity has somewhere to rest its weary head. The “Who am I?” question can be hung back in the closet, along with the other bits and pieces that tell others our style, or our tribe.

This belonging business drives us to do silly things like wearing the Christmas cracker hat, or scrunch our socks down or pull them up to our ears. (Which was in fashion for you at school?) I baked in the sun for hours as a teen, frying with the ubiquitous baby oil, rotating like a rotisserie to ensure I was evenly coloured. Naturally, we like to think we left those silly things behind when we grew up. Have another look in the closet. Go on. I dare you! Nothing there from the Eighties? No pieces from five years ago that seemed so trendy back then? No dust bunnies collecting in shiny shoes you wouldn’t “be seen dead in” now? I’m thinking we are still driven by fashion, and not just in the closet department. (Having said that, the expression “coming out of the closet” also relates to belonging/not belonging, as well as to no longer hiding.)

What fashions are we driven by in our professional lives as counsellors?

I was a part of the eighties, and not just because I wore the shoulder pads. There were eighties leftovers roaming the halls of psychotherapy in the early nineties, like headless ghosts spooking we initiates into the world of “personal work”. There were, for example, marathon weekends: occasions when the facilitators and their teams stripped us of our defences through deprivation, isolation and eerie sound effects to amplify and speed up the recollection and resolution of primal or traumatic events in our lives.

Now we shudder: this is so last year in our therapeutic world. In 2014 we like to see ourselves as so enlightened, so well-researched, and so BALANCED. Now we talk about being conscious of the power imbalance, the need for safety, respect for the client’s defences and so forth. I agree. Yet which of our current practices will we abhor in twenty years? Will we blush with shame that we ever thought it was ok to limit our clients to 6 sessions? Or will we keep it quiet that we ever allowed our clients to talk about their faith, or their sex life, or their family of origin? Fashions change and we succumb to them, and not always because it is best practice: but because it is said to be best practice. Things shift. I’d like to be blindly optimistic, but I am not sure how history will see some of our therapeutic trends in a hundred years.

Do we really critically reflect on our work, or does our critical eye have cultural and belonging blinkers that keep us on the pre-set race course so we don’t get startled. Or run off. Or shake off the saddle and roam free.

Sometimes our sense of professional belonging comes from a particular approach that we use. We feel comfortable in that group of people, with the ideas that underpin a specific model. My “tribe” is experiential therapies/ emotionally focussed/relational/existential approaches. I guess that is pretty broad. Some prefer more cognitive or structured approaches: so that is their tribe.

Other ways we identify our particular place in the therapy world is by the types of clients we see: children, families or couples. Another way we frame our professional identity is by the areas of specialist expertise: addictions, trauma, grief and loss, sexual identity. Others identify themselves as “generalist” counsellor. There are many ways to “place ourselves” in this profession. Yet what is common is the need to place ourselves there in some way. I’m intrigued.

As I have rumbled these ideas about belonging around in my head, I have realised that there are many benefits for each of us. Social groups do have positive functions, ensuring safety, defining purpose, giving meaning. Sometimes we avoid shame because we toe the line of a particular group. It is also true that we often play it safe so we are not ostracised. I began to ask myself how I continue to play it safe in my own professional connections with other counsellors. How do I continue to shore up reputation so I might be seen to be what I often call “a proper counsellor”? Perhaps by that I mean respectable, composed, “together”.

I began to realise that I have long carried a deep desire to develop a specialty in my work, but that I feared the responses of others in the field. It may seem a small thing but it feels like it is risky. Do I risk being seen as presumptuous or conceited if I put my hidden professional passion out there? Will that mean judgement from others? I have been missing out on naming it clearly: especially to myself. Putting words to internal reality is a big part of our lives as counsellors, but usually it is the client who struggles to feel safe or clear enough to do so. My supervision this week unplugged a long held deep yearning: to specialise in working with counsellors who wish to explore their inner places.

I want to walk alongside those who work with people so they can deepen their work with clients, and also so they can face their deepest grief and shame, joy and pride. This intense longing has been growing steadily through my years of personal therapy, as I have watched my responses to clients deepen and become more congruent as a result of facing my own pain. I have felt the tug ever more strongly as I have increased my supervisory load. Counsellors often feel inadequate, blocked or unsure. It is our job as counsellors to be confronted with unexpected feelings and inter-personal moments of great import. So we are challenged to dig ever deeper inside the wells of our own knowing: about life, about people and (mostly) about ourselves. Supervision often unearths themes that need further exploration in a more focussed and sustained way.

I can attest that dealing with our own pain is difficult. It costs. It is also important to mention here that many counsellors feel deep shame about their own brokenness, which I find sad. Surely we are strongest in those places where we have been most wounded and then healed? We give lip service to this notion but I am not sure there are many tribes in the psychotherapy community who have deep respect for wounded healers. Some have a suspicion, usually unnamed, that somehow those who are “more wounded” are pathetic. See a list of synonyms for being pathetic, listed below:

feeble, woeful, sorry, poor, pitiful, lamentable, deplorable, miserable, wretched, contemptible, despicable, inadequate, meagre, paltry, insufficient, negligible, insubstantial, unsatisfactory, worthless

I know that sometimes counsellors are afraid that they will be labelled with some of these words if they disclose to a colleague the depths of their own inner anguish. It is not unusual to carry deep yearning within for an undefined …something. That hunger is part of the sweetness of our humanity, and an important clue for us as we seek to become all we can be as therapists, and as people. The desire to be seen to be a valid and acceptable professional can prevent us from facing those aspects of ourselves that might be deemed by others to be “deplorable, despicable or unsatisfactory”. Then that counsellor misses out on becoming all they can be, and clients miss out on the depth that counsellor is capable of giving from her own healed places. The desire to be seen to belong, to be “proper” or “together”, can block her from risking being fully alive in her most vulnerable, lost places. Belonging then comes at a huge cost. That cost is firstly the counsellor’s: an emptiness, or wearing a façade is costly. Secondly, it is a loss to clients who may have connected more deeply with the counsellor if she had been supported to risk being seen to be vulnerable, lost or confused in her own personal work.

I know what a painful costly and lengthy trek it has been to go to my own cracked places. I now deeply embrace all of my broken complexity and all of my past terrors as strengths in my work. Those fears and that complexity have forced me to grow, where I might otherwise have run away from myself. I have more growing to do: I haven’t “arrived” at some Nirvana. However, I am far enough along to reflect on some of the themes of the journey. I am confident enough to wish to shine a torch beam on the path I have trod for those who wish to follow, or (more correctly) to help them find their own path. Professionalism, acceptability or reputation don’t help us move forward. They may help us feel a part of something, but I am not sure those things of themselves will satisfy.

I know how much my story and its healing have demanded from my therapists. They have had to hold themselves deeply as I have raged, evaded and then confronted a difficult history. If they had not faced some darkness deep within themselves the dragons and goblins of my inner landscape would have sent them into panic. Or worse. They could have tried to rescue me. Or judged me. Or distanced themselves from my pain and thus re-traumatised those bits of me that were abandoned way back there in that dark world of terrors.

I watched those therapists as they either ran away or entered the fray, holding their nerve as darkness descended on us both. Those that knew their own landscapes of inner pain were the ones who made the most difference. They had been dragon-hunting before and recognised a few landmarks which helped us get to higher ground and survey the battlefield after the noise died down. I sensed a patience, a vulnerability of soul, and a dogged determination to prevail with me.

I needed them to be honest when they were rattled, or they felt nauseous. Their deep congruence in those times matched the courage and tenacity they had displayed in hanging in there with me during battle. They let me see them, as people: they were raw and exposed, usually without words, but naked as beings in the room nevertheless. Of course they needed theoretical frameworks to contain the process or to make wise responses in key moments of vulnerability. Yes, they needed years of experience to feel confident in making appropriate choices for pulling it together and keep me safe. But mostly, above all this, what they brought was their own history of pain and courage. They did not have to tell me this. I knew.

As I unpacked all this in my own supervision I found that this yearning came with its own metaphor: moving from a desert to a flourishing place with water to drink and a gentle place to recuperate. I feel I am more often in this rainforest of replenishment, and less often in a desert full of dry bones. I want to own just how much I want to counsel counsellors. It is time to come out of my falsely meek and self-deprecating hole and own what is my most comfortable place. I would like to be part of the oasis in the desert for others who can then travel further with others. It’s funny, but this is where I find I belong after all! Perhaps belonging is firstly a place inside ourselves, and the rest follows. I’m not sure who my tribe is anymore, but I do know I am content to rest here.