For the therapeutic relationship to be truly effective, it’s vital for therapists to be aware of their own ‘emotional baggage’ in order to help clients understand their own, and that’s why undertaking personal development work is so important.
Last weekend, we had a training event at the therapy centre where I see clients. It was a personal development workshop for counsellors on the subject of unconscious messages or beliefs about ourselves that we absorb from parents as very young children and which may still be holding us back today — messages and beliefs like ‘I’m worthless’,’I don’t deserve to be happy’, ‘I have to be perfect in everything I do’, etc. The messages are different for everyone, but they can have quite an impact on how we live our lives and what we believe we’re capable of.
To take a relatively superficial example, I remember being told as a very young child not to ‘waste the paper’ I was painting on. A simple cautionary statement on the face of it perhaps, but on a subconscious level, I took it to mean that unless I drew beautiful things and did it well, then the paper would indeed be wasted — on drawings that just weren’t good enough.
The effect of this was that for many years I felt a huge resistance to making a mark on a blank sheet of paper unless I knew it was going to be ‘perfect’. It also affected my ability to express myself in writing, because I feared that my scribblings had to be ‘perfect’ from the moment they appeared on the page. Later, when I started making radio programmes, I had the same difficulties in making a start on each project; I felt anxious, frustrated, embarrassed and stuck — what if I ‘made a mistake’ and the project wasn’t good enough? Would it all have been a waste?
I still find it a bit of a challenge to put paintbrush to pad, and I consciously have to turn down the volume of my mother’s voice in my head saying ‘Don’t waste the paper!’ before I can make a start. But not all of the messages we absorb can be resisted with such relative ease, and it can take time to uncover and work with them, particularly those which make us feel worthless, undeserving, unlovable, etc. — messages which are deeply-held and which can feel shameful to bring into view.
So what enables a client to bring such difficult feelings into the therapy room? I believe that it comes down to trust: trust in the counsellor and in the relationship between the two of you. When I first meet a client, one of the questions they often ask is ‘How does therapy work?’. And I try to explain that in my understanding of the process, therapy works through the building of a close, trusting and respectful relationship between therapist and client; a relationship in which the client feels safe to reveal deeply troubled aspects of themselves, in the knowledge that their counsellor’s role is to help them make sense of their feelings and experience. At the end of the process, I hope that the client has a better understanding of themselves and is better equipped to take care of themselves in the future.
But for this process to happen, and for the relationship to be a truly therapeutic one, I think it’s vital that as counsellors and therapists, we also work to gain insight into our own issues, problems and behaviours. Otherwise there’s a real risk that we may unwittingly project our own unconscious messages and self-beliefs onto our clients, rather than recognising them for what they are — our own bits of ‘emotional baggage’. And that would not only be doing an immense disservice to our clients, but would also be potentially harmful as well.
So whenever possible, I try to attend training events and personal development workshops because I don’t believe that the journey of self-discovery ever really comes to an end; there are always new parts of our experience to reflect upon and learn from.
Last weekend’s workshop was thought-provoking, informative and quite inspiring, and although I felt drained and mentally exhausted by the end of it, I was also elated, because I knew that I’d learned things about myself which add depth to my understanding of who I am. And that will be of benefit not only to me, but to my clients as well.