I enjoyed the article ‘Learning from experience’ by Turner et al, in September’s CPR. perhaps because the phrase is so evocative of learning both for clients and counsellors.
Learning from experience
I enjoyed the article ‘Learning from experience’ by Turner et al, in September’s CPR. perhaps because the phrase is so evocative of learning both for clients and counsellors. But there is something about the beginning of this process that illuminates so much about the learning that goes on all the time, however apparently ‘learned’ we become. I think it was in Truax and Carkhuff’s classic text1 that I was first made aware that a problem for experienced therapists was their ‘learnedness’. It is reassuring to have arrived at a state of ‘learnedness’ and to be allowed to relax in the knowledge that one now knows what one is doing and how one helps, and nowadays with the additional bolster of evidence based practice to ease any residual doubts!
In their article the two researchers bravely record their initial steps as trainee counsellors and unearth some fascinating experiences. They record the ways in which they learnt from their experience how to counsel more effectively. However, I was struck more by what they learnt within themselves about their clients. Sarah writes about her lack of confidence: ‘I didn’t feel I came across as very confident during my first few sessions as a therapist. I was nervous. I questioned my abilities, and even if my personal characteristics were suited to counselling.’
I wondered how her client might have described her feelings. I imagined that her lack of confidence might well have filled her mind in those early sessions. I am struck by how my feelings at the beginning of work, or indeed of a session, can be vivid reflections of how the client may feel. Of course I can not assume that, and part of the work of reflection at the time and in supervision, is to try to separate what is mine and what is theirs, when they are often so alike in those initial stages. If we can grasp the beginning like a trainee – and maybe that is what we always are in beginnings – we have a unique opportunity to experience within ourselves the raw material of accurate empathy.
In his illustration, Neil goes some way to demonstrate how one can begin to separate one’s own feelings from those reflected by the client. He has learnt that he has particular issues about time and hurrying his clients, and about being ‘right’ rather than ‘wrong’. As a current client I can echo those feelings exactly. I’m very concerned about how long my therapy is going to take and I am anxious about getting it ‘right’ and avoiding as many client ‘mistakes’ as I can. Personal therapy of course helps us identify our specific issues, which are likely to be affected, even exploited, in our work. Listening to GPs, Balint2 coined the phrase ‘apostolic function’ to help them recognise when their patients were nibbling away at their particular issue, all be it unconsciously to them both. Clients are rightly interested in how we manage the difficult bits not the easy ones. If Sarah can work with and survive her real nervousness and lack confidence, then there is hope for her client in a way there wouldn’t be if she exuded confidence and ability.
Endings, like beginnings are important learning opportunities as well. Sarah went on to write about the aftermath of her work: ‘When I spent an hour with a client who has suffered several huge losses, it felt a huge weight in the session, almost unbearable. Very painful. Overwhelming, numbing… Long after the session ended, I still felt a heavy tightness in my chest and throat… as well as a weighty sadness.’
Again my imagination had me seeing her client, now embodied in Sarah, giving her an amazing sense of how it is to be under the weight of such sadness. Of course she had told Sarah all about it, but until Sarah actually felt it in herself, her client won’t have communicated her pain in the way she needs to. Often I have been struck by how in bearing a client’s burden, with the attendant anxieties about myself and my ability to cope, the client has had the space to come out from under the weight of their pain. I seem to have incarnated and borne her heaviness for awhile, as she has moved on less impeded by that weight. As trainees we have the advantage and the burden of being fresh and undefended. Our clients can unconsciously inhabit us and we have not yet learnt to expel them. Time, ‘learnedness’ and much weight on our psyches will make us less inviting and our clients will have to work longer and harder at breaking us down for our own good as well as theirs.
I wondered about Sarah’s and Neil’s apparent unconsciousness about learning from their clients embodied within themselves physically as well as mentally. Mattinson3 in her work on the parallel process in supervision suggests that the unconscious knowledge which trainee therapists bring to supervision is all the richer for being unconscious. When it emerges into consciousness in the supervision group its clarity and authenticity are so much the greater than if it were manufactured as clever interpretations. Thank you both for your revelations and their affect upon me.
John Foskett, BACP Fellow
1. Truax CB, Carkhuff RR. Towards effective counselling and psychotherapy: training and practice. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co; 1967.
2. Balint M. ‘The doctor, the patient, and the illness’ in Problems of human behaviour. London: Marefield Library; 1955.
3. Mattinson J. The reflection process in casework supervision. London: The Tavistock Institute of Human relations; 1975.