journal post 25; March 25th 2013

Today’s session was, well, odd. It had a very different feeling to previous weeks. I know I am in a different mind-set to how I have been. I confess, although I have been very much on top of the placement, supervision and personal therapy side of this course in the last few weeks, I have fallen slightly behind with the writing side of things. My change of meds seems to have given me a jolt, and I can feel myself in a much more positive frame of mind than I have been for a long time – of course, I am a little concerned that this could send me into a hypomanic phase; the new found emphasis on having a personal life, and the vigour with which I am pursuing it does seem alien to me (it has been so long since I have had any inclination to do so), and the fact that I am suddenly 2 journals behind does feel like a little alarm bell ringing to warn me of a potential danger that could lie ahead. But this course; the self -awareness that it has taught me, the discipline of examining my behaviour and feelings as they happen; my focus on the here and now, the learnt skill of examining both my internal and external processes; has (I think) given me a valuable tool in monitoring myself and learning how to enforce self-care – not just for my own benefit, but for the benefit of those around me, my friends, family, colleagues and clients. After all, no-one can be counselled by a crazy woman!

Self- care has been a recurring theme within our group for many weeks now. In a way I feel  that perhaps I hit that wall before some of the others did, but check in today revealed a strong sense of anxiety resonating with the other members; a fear of the ‘ever sooner looming’ exam ( we have only 8 weeks) , and the end of the course shortly thereafter. It was also painfully clear that our tutor, J, was not feeling her usual self. Check in was much briefer than usual, and an anxiety radiated from her that is not usually present. As it turned out, she revealed later in the day that she wasn’t feeling up to teaching on this day, she was exhausted by a very stressful family situation, and she recognised that she felt a little ‘unsafe’ and took her leave early. Of course, I am perfectly okay with her doing that, but before I knew that this was going on with her I did feel slightly unsettled, and it did make me worry, and immediately wonder if I, or any of the other members of the group, had done something wrong. I guess this is how a client will feel if a counsellor practises when they really shouldn’t.

So, having spent the morning revising exam techniques, trying to keep us within the discipline of writing from a strictly humanistic perspective (not always that easy when the other theoretical perspectives are always there, lurking within my mind), and most difficult of all; sticking to using humanistic language . There are times when each theoretical school will have their own terminology for describing a similar psychological process. For instance, the psychodynamic concept of transference and countertransference occurs, and could well occur within a humanistic counselling relationship too. It’s just that in humanistic terms this would be described as ‘working with the client’s feelings towards the therapist, and the therapist in turn recognising their feelings towards the client, using immediacy, having the feelings brought to their awareness within the here and now.”

The afternoon, without our tutor, was spent discussing further, going through an old past paper and discussing it within the group. One of the other group members took it upon himself to take charge of the discussion and sat in the tutor’s seat, writing on the white board and generally leading the debate, something which the other group members didn’t seem to mind very much, but I got really annoyed by! How dare he think that he knew better than anyone else in the room? My inner rebellious streak was activated, and I found myself disagreeing with him on purpose, actively, and arguing his points, insisting that I was not going to accept what he said, purely because it was he that had said it! The other group members were a little surprised at the open friction between us, but actually he seemed to take it in very good humour, welcoming the debate. Thank goodness. I did apologise for it in the process group immediately afterwards, and he seemed to not be too upset. I explained to him that actually, in a weird way to me, my feeling comfortable enough with him to challenge him and not feel worried that he would hate me for it was a big step forward for our relationship. I think it was.

I took the feeling of elation at the progress I felt our relationship had made further within the process group, and I made it my place to continue being the rebel, and challenged a couple of other group members. I took care not to sound aggressive, but I wanted to make them think. Sometimes (as if often the case within the counselling relationship) it seems perfectly clear what is going on with people, but they can’t see it themselves. A counsellor should never tell the client what their thought process is or means (an abhorrent idea, and the absolute opposite of what a good counsellor should do) but should be able to challenge the client into thinking about their process for themselves, and helping them come to their own conclusion. In fact, this is vital, as no person can ever make an assumption about what another person is thinking or feeling or acting out. Carl Rogers firmly believed that, it is one of the corner stones of person centred theory. It is hard, as a counsellor, to challenge though (as I discovered) as there has to be a huge amount of trust within the relationship for it to be acceptable, and not detrimental to the overall process.

Of course, if choosing to challenge for their own needs, as I think maybe I did at the beginning, one must be able to study why they do that, and whether that is significant. For me, I know that it follows a behaviour pattern for me. I do not like being told what to do or think, particularly not by men, it seems. A hangover from growing up in a house full of women (one of 3 daughters), going to an all-girls school, being ‘the boss’ for most of my working career, and being an independent divorcee in recent years. As behaviour patterns go, it is not one that I am too worried about actually. Maybe if it starts hindering my future relationships this will have to be something I re-address, but for now I am kind of okay with it. I don’t see the harm. I think I have intuition enough to know when to use it and when not to. Of course, my exes may not agree with that, but I like to think that that is why they are ‘exes’, not ’present’s…

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journal post 17; monday 21st january 2013

Today was a snow day. The weather had turned, the schools were shut, it was impossible to get cars moving out of the side roads, and so I reluctantly had to accept that I would not be attending college on this day. To be truthful, to have an enforced day of rest was probably a bit of a blessing. I was quite exhausted, having spent a busy week getting my new counselling placement organised.

I am very pleased to say that I have committed to working two days a week at a Young Person’s hostel –  assisting clients aged between 16 and 25 by providing them with accommodation, and expecting them to participate with the helping services provided within the building, of which there all sorts of activities and support available – counselling being one of them. These kids present with many different situations; there are young mothers living there, ex-offenders, drug users, orphans,  victims of dysfunctional families and abuse, mental illnesses and learning disabilities, to name a few of the obstacles up against these clients. I think the only assumption it would be fair to make about the work will be that no two days will ever be the same!

On my initial meeting with the service manager , I was immediately grabbed by the challenge of the work, and very pleasantly surprised at how well we seemed to ‘click’ and understand what our task together was going to be in this capacity. I suppose you could say, we straightaway realised that we were reading from the same page! He is also a trained counsellor, and firmly believes  that the key to success in the work of the hostel is by dealing with the mental health of the clients – the trouble that he has had in the past, though, when trying to provide counselling services, is that of engaging the client. He currently has two other counsellors working there, also on placements, who are working to a traditional counselling model – one of pre-agreed contracts, firm boundaries regarding venues, times of sessions and durations, and both have reported back with frustrations about the clients not sticking to the contracted arrangements; taking mobile phones into sessions, arriving late – if at all, not engaging with process generally. Carl Rogers stated that in order for any counselling to be successful the client must be in psychological contact with the therapist; put simply, these clients are not!

T (the manager) and I discussed how we felt the service needed an ‘in-between counselling service’; one where the clients could be gently acclimatised to the process involved. With these clients, some  have never experienced any real kind of boundaries in their lives so far, for one reason or another – they kick against rules purposely and instinctively. For most of them this is their first home of their own, and they are testing out what that freedom means to them; many don’t get out of bed till late, many struggle with working or attending college, with paying their bills, and the day to day drama that being any adolescent involves, let alone a traumatised adolescent (which of course, most of these clients are – how they came to be living at the hostel).

Ellen Noonan’s book ‘counselling young people’ (Routledge, London) which, although drawing heavily on the ideas of Klein and Winnicott, also puts forward the idea that adolescence can be seen as a period of mourning – an extended grief, made more complicated by fluctuating hormone levels and the fact that there seems to be nothing tangible on which to base the focus of the feeling of loss. Even in a non- traumatised young person (and the people surrounding), there is a natural denial (the 1st stage of grief, in the Kubler-Ross model, as we all know) that the end of childhood is something to be mourned. Anger, bargaining, and depression are common reactions to be seen in young people as they go through this; they are forced into change and growth, often against their will, and the lack of control they experience will often push them into a mind-set and behaviour that appears confusing and unfathomable to those around them, often leading to even more problems than they began with.

If you consider this myriad of trauma which presents to every teenager, even those with the most ‘normal’ and ‘understanding’ of upbringings – consider how very hard it must be to be facing this when coming from a ‘dysfunctional’ background; coming out of care, being kicked out of the family home because Mum has a new boyfriend (horrific I know, but it happens),  perhaps a strict religious family that can’t cope with the teen’s newly discovered homosexuality, or as already mentioned – drug abuse, alcoholism, the list goes on and on… These kids really, really need the psychological support that counselling can offer them – sometimes the ones that can’t stick to the terms of the counselling agreement are the ones that may even need it the most – and my discussion with T was about how the service needs to be made more flexible, in order to give these kids a chance to make use of it.

We agreed on a strategy, which is perhaps a little unorthodox, in terms of the traditional counselling placement, where I will set up a new ‘drop in’ counselling service; a clinic type operation, advertising my availability between certain hours on certain days, and inviting clients to book time with me as and when they feel they are in need and/or able to attend. In order to promote this service, and really let the clients know what counselling is for, and about, I will try to get to know the clients a little better; perhaps knocking on their flat doors and introducing myself, asking questions where I try to ascertain what kind of counselling service would suit them – would they like me to come to them? Does the thought of a whole hour seem daunting? Is the idea of sitting in a room with ‘what is essentially a stranger’ to begin with seem frightening? How can I bridge the gap between these kid’s lives and the traditional counselling format? Once I have feedback, T and I can design a counselling service that serves the clients more effectively.

Exciting? Hell yeah! I was itching to get cracking straightaway, and did so, with amazing results almost immediately! I can’t express how happy I am with how the placement is working out; the clients are fabulous, the rest of the staff support team are fabulous too, and I feel completely at home there already; totally valued, totally respected and a real sense of validation from the work that I have done there already. There have been learning curves (don’t expect too much in the way of non-pre-arranged client contact before midday – they are all still in bed!) But overall, the response to the service I am offering has been positive, and in only a few weeks of being there I have already completed many valuable counselling hours.

So as you can see, although the Monday college session was missed this week, there has still been lots and lots of hard work going on – and so much learning, and joy gained from this learning, too! The pleasure of being taken out of my own head, and into someone else’s for a few hours during the day, has been phenomenal!  I have loved the work, really REALLY, loved it; Affirmation that despite all of doubts in my own abilities, I think I have made the right choice in this path. I really do.

Journal post 13; Monday 10th December

The following day, and my head is still reeling from this session! It began at check-in, with the same feelings of anger and upset that I have already reported in these journals, resulting from the impact of absence on the group as a whole, and a need for self-care arising from both this, and the general increase in the workload (it is accelerating, as the term goes on) And again, as I have also reported in these journals – I did not particularly share these feelings, although I certainly empathised. My outlook at the beginning of the day was actually quite bright and optimistic (!), as I had had a good weekend and was feeling quite together and organised about my workload.

A more experienced counselling student came in, to do some work on ‘mindfulness’ with us. I already had a fair idea of what mindfulness involves, having been a yoga and meditation fan for many years, but I think a fair definition would be to say that Mindfulness refers to being completely in touch with and aware of the present moment – essential for a humanistic counsellor. The process of constantly checking in with yourself throughout the therapeutic process (and at all other times too, actually); questioning how you are feeling, what this is creating for you, how that may manifest and therefore how must the client be feeling in relation to both that, and what is going on for them at that moment – valuable, valuable process material that must be noticed in order to have an authentic process and relationship.

The exercise itself was similar to other meditations I have done in the past – what I felt was interesting about it was the questionnaire that we did, both before and after. It was the same questions, but the answers were quite different. I found that I had pots and pots to write on the ‘before’ sheet (it asked us to note what our thoughts and feelings were, what was distracting us – any physical feelings; aches pains etc. and that sort of thing) – my mind (even though it felt quite relaxed and happy, to me) was busy; active, even. In contrast, after having done the meditation, my answers flowed out of me quickly, with ease. There were no blocks – everything had been cleared, and strangely, I suddenly felt ravenously hungry! What was that all about? Had the blocks which I automatically put up within my body, the ones which shut out hunger and pain (being a ‘sort of ex anorexic’ living with crohns disease, pain and hunger are ongoing feelings residing within my stomach) been released by the slow deconstruction of the thoughts within, that the exercise had taken us through? So interesting…

After a break (and some food) we returned to read a piece describing a demonstration counselling interview that Carl Rogers did with ‘Gina’, a client who was struggling with death anxiety. It was a transcript of a session they did together, showing how Carl Rogers’ non directive technique, combined with his core conditions; empathy, unconditional positive regard and congruence, could be so very effective in leading a client through her fears, so that she could feel that they were fully acknowledged, understood and that she therefore, felt more able to deal with them.

It was wonderful; so simple, natural, honest and effective – and yet again, in my life – this acknowledgement of synchronicity (Jungian, I know) as reading this piece where Rogers dealt with darkness, fear and existentiality, and most importantly – ‘Gina’, so beautifully, seemed to coincide with the place I had been finding myself in recently when considering my own theoretical leaning; the full circle I feel I have travelled, through many other theorists and back to Rogers again. The power of the core conditions cannot be underestimated – not just in a counselling relationship, but in almost all of the key relationships in our lives, and I love that!

We followed that piece with a quick survey that assessed our own levels of unconditional positive regard towards ourselves – it measured how we regarded ourselves, and contrasted that with how much our own self-regard was dependent on how we perceive others as seeing us too. I realised that although I am working hard to build my own self- esteem, and I am succeeding to a degree – so much of that is still dependent on how I think the rest of the world sees me. As if I don’t full trust my own judgement? Hmmm… I don’t think so; I like to think of myself as intuitive and fairly insightful, but I am aware that the last few years have ‘knocked the stuffing out of me’ somewhat, and this has had a marked effect on how I, and in turn others must, perceive myself, and how much I now trust my own perception. I discussed this further with K – my partner for the practical part of the day – and discovered much more that I must take to my therapy sessions.

Next, the process group, which completely blew up!

I described at the beginning of the journal, how others in the group were feeling the pressure at the moment, and struggling with that. Combining that with the theme of ‘unconditional positive regard’ that we had been left with before lunch, the  break had been spent trying to assist that group member with her issues. She was at a real crisis point; even feeling that she was on the point of leaving the course (and as other group members have left us along the journey, knowing that impact, I think I am not alone in saying that as a group we do not want to lose anyone else) As a result we arrived back to the classroom late. Not just a bit late, ridiculously late. It was completely accidental – the 4 of us involved had been so engrossed with trying to help this lady that we simply lost track of the time, but nonetheless  – an awful breach of our group contract, understandably upsetting for the others in the group who felt let down by us.

And so, it was raised in the the process group. Except it wasn’t raised in that guise; it came out in a much more aggressive way, with one of our tiny group exploding in a rage; upset and tearful at what she felt to be ‘a small inner group within the group leaving her out’.  She was new to the course this year, and as such, felt insecure within the group; understandable. But I really thought I had understood; I have made a point of working with her several times; I always stop to chat with her whenever I can – I was new to this group myself at the beginning of last year, and so I fully remember how bewildering and intimidating it is, trying to fit in to a bunch of already formed group dynamics. Still, she was angry with me – she conceded, not as angry as the others, but that I was still guilty. I felt horrendous!

I am glad that she got it off her chest – it had obviously been troubling her for quite a while, and I am glad that she finally felt safe enough with us to be able to. Now it can be worked on, and we can try to improve things, and finally – we have a feeling of being congruent as a group.

For me personally though, I am sad, really sad (my eyes are filling up a bit even as I write this). I feel awful that I made someone else feel awful, even if it was unknowingly. I guess others perceive me totally differently to the way I think they do. I had thought I was trying. Not only that, I am aware that the last few weeks I have been quite self-absorbed, getting deeper and deeper into my own self-awareness and the counselling process than I ever had before. I had sort of thought that was a good thing though, what I was meant to do on this course. I suppose the lesson learned is that I must keep a foot on the outside too; not get to focussed on myself, even within this group – there are bigger things going on, that I am not always aware of…