As therapists we witness the effects of societal change, could we do more?
What made you decide to become a therapist?
It grew out of my job as a nurse. I wanted to be able to help people emotionally as well as physically and to know what to say when asked difficult questions, such as ‘Am I dying, nurse?’ Learning basic listening and responding skills in my diploma in counselling was incredibly useful and transformed my relationships with patients and their relatives.
Eventually I decided to practise therapy full-time, and I retired from nursing to train as a humanistic and integrative psychotherapist.
What were your hopes when you became a therapist?
Consciously I wanted to be helpful, to make a difference, to help alleviate suffering. I now realise that unconsciously I also wanted to understand and heal myself. I hoped I would be able to make a living too.
Have they changed and if so, in what ways?
Not really, I love what I do and I hope that I will be able to continue for a long time yet. I hope to write more. I am particularly pleased with Integrative Counselling and Psychotherapy, co-written with Ariana Faris, which was published recently.
What do you think makes a good therapist?
Warmth, empathy, humility. To be mindful of ‘not knowing’. To remain open –minded and open-hearted. The ability to connect quickly and deeply.
What is the best advice you have received, and why?
A tutor and supervisor told us to ‘never know first, and never know best’. I keep this phrase in a place where I see it every day! I value the stance of ‘not knowing’ – the danger of thinking ‘I know’ is that it puts the client in a box and what is the point of that?! It also honours the essential ‘mystery’ of our being.
What values do you hold dear?
Truth, authenticity, equality, connection. Also respect – for each other and for the natural world.
What do you enjoy about being a therapist?
It is a privilege to do this work. I enjoy the independence. I like both focused, brief work and open-ended depth therapy. What I like about the brief work is being able to connect with people quickly and help them to face what is going on, which often results in clients making significant changes. The long-term work is very different: there is time for development and to visit deep places together, without knowing what we will find there. I find this deeply rewarding.
What do you find most challenging?
Negative transference can be difficult – being seen as someone who is not me –although there are, of course, always hooks. Remaining curious as to what is happening and connecting with the client’s pain is helpful, as is the knowledge that successful working through can provide important healing.
Which books have you read that inspired you?
Oh, gosh, there are so many; I am an absolute bookworm. The Gift of Therapy by Yalom, anything by Christopher Bollas or Jungians such as James Hollis; An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum; Donna Orange’s Emotional Understanding.
Has becoming a therapist changed you?
Altogether, my various trainings span more than a decade, so there has also been a process of getting older and maturation. The personal therapy and other personal work required to become a therapist has helped me to feel more truly myself. I have slowed down and generally feel much happier and more relaxed in myself. This is also helped by my wonderful partner and daily mindfulness meditation practice.
Has your view of the role of therapy in a changing society altered since qualifying?
Yes it has. As therapists we see much of the effects any changes in society have on people’s lives, which is why I have recently joined Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility (PCSR). I am increasingly aware that we are living in a ‘mad world’, where the status quo may need to be challenged. I am sad about the current tick box culture that wants to measure everything and thus runs the danger of learning nothing. I am deeply concerned about issues such as global warming, over-population, the way we treat asylum seekers, inequality and generally the unthinking way we live – particularly in the West. So yes, I do think that as therapists we should perhaps do more about these things, if only by drawing people’s attention to them – individually and perhaps collectively.
Dr Els van Ooijen is a psychotherapist, counsellor and supervisor in Bristol. She has been a visiting lecturer at the University of Wales, Newport since the early 1990s and currently co-teaches the postgraduate diploma and masters programme in Consultative Supervision.
© British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy 2011.