Some Aspects of Your Learning
This essay aims to address a number of aspects of counselling that I have found particularly interesting since starting the introductory course in Counselling in October 2012. This will include a brief history of counselling; what it means to help in a “counselling way” from both a client and counsellor’s perspective and what the course has taught me as an individual.
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Reflecting on the history of counselling and considering today’s society and culture, I believe there is now a greater need to help others in a counselling way than there has been before. A variety of factors such as the media, social networking, advanced technologies and an increasing focus on individualism have arguably resulted in us being less able to recognise our inner identity at a deeper subconscious level, thereby leaving us feeling less attached to who we really are and to others we might have relationships with.
Many of us have had some experience of helping others in a counselling way, although we may not perceive that help to be any more than genuinely listening to someone’s problems and providing them with the space, time and encouragement to resolve them. In fact, the role of a helper, in a psychological context can be performed by anyone, not just a trained and qualified counsellor or therapist. Nelson-Jones, R (2004 p. 3-10) suggests there are seven main categories of people who either use or can use counselling skills in a helping way.
Some of these key categories are: • Professional counsellors and psychotherapists who are suitably trained, accredited and paid for their therapeutic services • Paraprofessional counsellors those trained in counselling skills but do not hold an accredited counselling qualification e. g. Social Workers • Helpers using counselling skills as part of their jobs where the main focus of the job may be nursing; teaching; supervising or providing services • Informal elpers such as friends; parents; colleagues Counselling skills are often used to help individuals deal with particular personal or emotional problems that can’t be resolved independently. The process of counselling aims to provide individuals with a deeper awareness of who they are, an inner strength to create their own happiness and ultimately the courage and knowledge to be able to help themselves (www. sagepub. com, Chapter 1). This was not something that personally resonated with me eighteen months ago as I failed to recognise the value of counselling and the impact it could have on an individual’s outlook in life.
What the Introduction to Counselling course has taught (and is still teaching) me is the importance of self-awareness and the feeling of being comfortable in one’s own skin. As a helper, in order to be effective in understanding an individual’s issues, I need to first understand myself. As a result, I decided to start Psychodynamic counselling in January 2013. I believed it was important to experience what it felt like to be in the role of a client and understand how a relationship is formed with a counsellor.
As well as being able to seek a deeper connection with my subconscious, I find myself using my counselling sessions to validate some of the discussions we have in class and put what I am learning into practice. When helping in a counselling way, it is essential to understand what this really means and to recognise the key elements that are associated with this type of helping process. One of the most important aspects of any counselling relationship is active listening. A successful relationship can only be built where there is trust, acknowledgement and understanding.
When a helper is actively listening to an individual, they are “experiencing something with the other” (Kennedy, E & Charles, S, 1990, 46), they are not just being physically and intellectually present, but they are being emotionally present. Mearnes and Thorne (1999) in Nelson-Jones (2006, p107) who have extended Carl Roger’s person-centred theory state that counselling is based upon three key elements: trust; intimacy and mutuality. “Developing trust is important not only at the start of therapy relationships, but as they continue”.
Another key aspect of any counseling relationship is that a helper be self-aware and non-judgemental when using counselling skills. It is imperative that one’s own views on race, class, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation and so forth are put aside and not translated into prejudices. This can be quite a challenge given some of these views can be deeply-rooted. Saunders (2011, 36-38) argues the importance of acknowledging differences between people, which gives them their identity.
Understanding an individual’s identity and behaviour, which is ultimately a manifestation of values, beliefs and attitudes, can help counsellors to develop strategies in how they can best support them (Aldridge, S. , Rigby, S. 2011, 63-82). When some counsellors offer their clients a couch to lie down on during their therapy sessions, it can often provide an extreme way of behaving in a non-judgmental way: the client does not have a view of the counsellor’s face and therefore cannot interpret changes to the counsellor’s facial expression as any kind of judgement.
Providing a safe and secure environment for an individual to be themselves in is essential for helping in a counselling way. This may not only be manifested by the material environment that surrounds an individual, but also the boundaries that are created by the helper. Within my managerial position at work, it is important that I set the appropriate boundaries with those who I am helping, however, I have come to recognise that I have not done this as effectively in all situations. An extract from my personal journal dated 19th October 2012 recounts my efforts to help a work colleague who was suffering from severe depression.
I would set up an hour with my colleague each week and actively listen to what he wanted to share with me. I recall making a conscious effort to not be judgemental and to be more empathetic to his situation. Unlike a professionally qualified counsellor, I offered to meet with his parents who were significantly worried about his personal welfare. We interacted on a couple of occasions and although it proved to be a fruitful approach for this situation, I am well aware that this type of set-up would not be appropriate in a professional counselling environment that adheres to boundaries.
A number of core elements required for counselling also coincide with Abraham Maslow’s original hierarchy of needs (1954) – a concept taken from his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”, which describes the stages of growth in humans. His original five stage model can be divided into basic needs (physiological, safety, love, and esteem) and growth needs (cognitive, aesthetics and self-actualization). In order to build the right foundation, an individual must satisfy lower level basic needs before progressing on to meet higher level growth needs. When helping in a counselling way, a helper is often equired to provide a set of “basic needs” to the individual they are striving to support. This helps to set the right foundation for an effective therapeutic relationship. In providing an individual with the feeling of safety, trust, security, stability, honesty and warmth through a counselling relationship, an individual has the opportunity for personal growth, independence and self-fulfillment. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs stems from the Humanistic school of counselling and therapy. This school of thought focuses on an individual’s innate ability to progress towards self-development and personal growth.
Carl Rogers (1902-1987) was the founder of the person-centred approach which centred around six core conditions that were necessary for therapeutic change “namely empathy, congruence and non-judgemental warmth” (Sanders, 2011, 34-39). The model assumes the client can be empowered to help themselves towards self-fulfilment and the role of the helper is to be more of a “cooperative companion rather than expert” (Sanders, 2011, 36). Interestingly, it also assumes that “helping can be done by anyone who provides the core conditions, regardless of age, status or professional qualification” (Sanders, 2011, 38).
Conversely, the Psychodynamic school (derived from the work of Freud (1856-1939)), focuses on the past and emphasises the importance of unconscious influences on how people function. The theory also explores the impact of childhood experiences on an adult’s personality. This model assumes the helper (specifically a qualified counsellor), is the expert in this relationship and their aim is to increase an individual’s ability to exercise greater conscious control over their lives. This is mainly achieved through understanding historical behavioural patterns, exploring hidden meaning and the interpretation of dreams.
The model assumes the counsellor acts in an educative capacity, rather than a therapeutic one. Notwithstanding the differences between all three schools of counselling, the underlying connection between them all is that the foundation of their theories are built around the core elements of helping in a counselling way: for example, being an active listener; providing empathy; being non-judgemental and so forth. However, it should not be assumed that helping in a counselling way will always result in a positive outcome – particularly if a helper is not effective in adopting the required skills.
For example if they are not actively listening to the person seeking help, this could have an adverse effect on that person’s feelings or behaviour. Some helpers could get too emotionally involved in trying to address an individual’s issue and in doing so, fail to provide a non-judgemental, warm stance. Nor should it be assumed that all individuals can seek to resolve their issues if they are being helped in a counselling way. Some individuals may need professional and medical support in order to truly diagnose and understand their problem.
An extract taken from my personal journal on 22nd February 2013 describes my experience of helping a fellow student after class. At times we would meet for more than two hours to talk through her experience of severe OCD. Meeting her on a number of occasions made me realise my intrinsic need to help others and my selflessness in giving them my personal time. Although my classmate regularly seeks specialist support to manage her condition, in trying to counsel her, I felt a sense of gratification in that I may have been able to positively impact her life.
However it must be noted that there are significant differences between a professional counsellor and someone who uses counselling skills to help others, such as a friend. Friends tend to be more subjective and less self-aware and whereas friends might give advice and solutions, counsellors empower their clients to seek the resolution themselves. Friends tend to get emotionally involved, sharing statements such as “oh, you’re always like this” etc, counsellors remain neutral and identify patterns of behaviour. Friends follow up with friends to see how they might be feeling.
Counsellors keep to regular, structured timeslots purposely set up with their clients to listen to their issues. Studying this introductory course has certainly reinforced my capacity to be more empathetic towards others. An extract from my personal journal dated 25th February 2013 shares an example of this. A friend and I were going to a concert together and I had texted her to say I wasn’t sure if I could make it as I needed to take care of my mother who had just had an eye operation. I didn’t receive an empathetic response in return and felt as though my comment regarding my mother and her wellbeing was totally disregarded.
I chose not to feel upset or hurt by that, although it would have felt natural to have done so. I believed there must have been a reason for her behaviour and her lack of empathy. I later found out that my friend has a very tumultuous relationship with her own mother and has never been able to feel attached to her and thus has no affection towards her. This made everything clearer. If she did not feel a sense of connection between her and her mother, how could she be expected to feel the connection I had with mine? What all of this has shown and taught me, is that anyone can use counselling skills to help an individual.
It’s a universal technique that has no limitations around an individual’s gender, age, religion, sexuality or social class. From a professional counsellor’s perspective, helping others to understand themselves better is a satisfying role to play. It provides a feeling of fulfilment, a sense of recognition and a notion that it’s possible to make “a profound difference to the life of another human being” (McLeod, J. 2009). From a client’s perspective, the process of having their personal stories genuinely heard, in a non-judgemental and compassionate manner, can have a positive impact on their life.