Counselling journey and review

Day 1 – Sun 30 Sept 2018

While most of the year was simply a case of getting by, the last few weeks has seen change, some positive, some I’m still not sure about.

Let’s go with the positive: I have begun a counselling skills course and have set a goal of becoming a counsellor. Originally I wanted to learn these skills as they could help me manage/combat/overcome elements of condition that I feel hinder progress. As I had little help with any of my issues I’ve now decided that I don’t want others to suffer in the same way and that if, by any small means I can help, I will.

Looking at the choices out there, I think CBT, NLP or Psychotherapy could be any of my specialisms. I wouldn’t want to get ahead of myself, but it does no harm to consider these options.

Speaking of NLP, I did an introductory session an found it incredibly helpful and positive. I think that alone pulls me to it. Simple concepts, yet so affective, such as removing negative terminology from communications; comparing who you are on a bad day/good day and figuring out how to stay in ‘good day’ mode more often. Once I’ve saved up enough I will do the foundation course and then onwards from there.

The counselling skills course will no doubt be challenging, but you can’t help someone fight their demons if you can’t fight your own. I’m going to use this blog as part of my self-reflection while doing the course. This session was mostly admin, but we did cover something interesting: a group contract that lays out a framework for helping via mutual respect, understanding, empathy and a safe place. All good groundwork for establishing a contract with helpees.

The contract lays out what the helpee can expect from the helper, with some caveats. While the discussion is confidential, should the helpee disclose something that leads the helper to believe the helpee is a risk the themselves or others, or involved in illegal activities, such as child endangerment, drug trafficking, money laundering and terrorism, then the helper is bound by law to report this.

So we established a group contract that will lay down a framework in which we can discuss and practice freely, safely and in confidence. Anything we think breaches this will get escalated and dealt with accordingly.

Day 2 – Tuesday 2nd Oct 2018

Today’s session introduced us to boundaries and ethics. The line between personal and professional will be something for me to develop, while I’m always focused about whatever job I’m doing, I’m always the same person; I don’t have a persona for work. This is something I may well have to adopt, particularly in the helping profession. It’s very clear how much this work can have an emotional impact on the helper and how vital it is for one’s own wellbeing that they learn to distance themselves.

We were given some recommended reading: Counselling Skills and Studies by Fiona Ballantine Dykes, Barry Kopp and Tracey Postings. The first two chapters cover the contract and ethics and there’s some really interesting takeaways such as:

  • Have a framework for looking at what appropriate behaviour and attitudes are
  • Recognise the limits of your ability and monitor your own values
  • Convey the limits of what you can offer to the person you are helping
  • Enable the helpee to find other support where appropriate

Boundaries clarify the helping relationship so that both helper and helpee know what to expect from the relationship. Boundaries outline what is acceptable in the relationship. That could be boundaries on time and length of session. the limits of confidentiality and frequency of meetings, what would happen if helper and helpee met on the street or at social situations.

We often feel uncomfortable when our personal boundaries are challenged; it’s good, therefore, to know one’s boundaries and how they could help or hinder us during a helping session.

Time boundaries are something I hadn’t really considered, but what if we had reached a breakthrough or were discussing something emotional then I suddenly said it was time to end the session? Setting a clear limit and a ‘countdown’ to the end will give the both the chance to naturally end the session and set a focus for the next one. It will also allow the helpee a chance to gather themselves before leaving.

  • Boundaries may have limits and these need communicating at the start of the session
  • A helping session needs to have an appropriate ending
  • Boundaries must be clear
  • Appropriate and context-specific
  • Firm but caring
  • Neither controlling nor manipulative
  • Neither hurtful nor harmful
  • Neither invasive nor dominating
  • Respectful 

Another challenge is that of empathy: I’ve always struggled with seeing things from another’s perspective. I know my way of doing things and philosophies and have difficulty understanding how no-one else does things the same way. I think this is more to do with the Aspergers; tunnel vision is part of it. Another thing that concerns me is showing empathy, as my voice is quite monotone and I don’t have much inflection, so I sound uncaring when I talk. I can work on this as part of my development plan. 

Sometimes it’s easier when expressing sympathy, when something is done to someone, rather than stepping outside of oneself and into another’s mindset.

Day 3 – Tuesday 9 October 2018

Tonight we wrapped up things from last week, looking at boundaries, and we had a discussion about what Safe, Legal, Moral and Ethical means, or what we thought it meant, in relation to the job.

I was wary and a bit trepidatious when it came to the second half of the evening as we started to practice listening skills. We arranged ourselves into triads, taking turns being the helper, helpee and observer. I always fear saying the wrong things, or not responding when expected, or responding when not expected, or just not knowing what to say (though if you don’t know what to say you shouldn’t say anything).

We were developing the ability to listen and paraphrase. Right at the beginning of the course we were told that whatever is said in these groups is confidential, and it was recommended that as we were just getting started, we should keep the conversation light. With that in mind, we began practice.

It was very interesting seeing how the others approached this. I felt they did it better than I, as I thought at one point I may have lead the conversation with my helpee, but post session we mentioned being aware of that danger and noted I simply followed a thread the helpee started, so we didn’t go ‘off topic’. It wasn’t my place to lead or direct, it’s the helpee’s time to discuss whatever they want to, so I kept out of their space.

The paraphrasing was a bit tricky. Though I’m quite eloquent and know what to say in my mind, as soon as I try to speak it all seems to go wrong, so I left myself and the helpee some room, for both of us to reflect on what has been said and then for me to show that I understood. Then I could back out of the conversation and let the helpee continue.

We had 10 minutes each, and as we reached 2 minutes, we decided that would be a good time to wrap up and ‘cool down’, as it were, ensuring that the helpee was ok with what had been disclosed and they were happy to leave it there.

Day 4 Tuesday 16 Oct 2018

The session was some more admin, but also getting to grips with the contract. I found this very interesting, if a bit daunting. While the purpose of counselling is to forge a respectful, trusting relationship with the client, it is still a professional relationship and there are legalities that underpin it.

The contract considers the approach, confidentiality, expectations and even payment preferences. While is it is formal and binding, it still has to be clear and personal enough to not intimidate the client.

We looked at a few different versions of this, as there’s no singular way to write the content but the above conditions frame it.

In the Approach we could lay out our limits of ability, counsellors are not there to offer treatment, but can direct to those that can; also it should make it clear that we practice a person centred approach and believe that the client is the expert on their own life and we are there to help them understand themselves.

Anything that is discussed is in the strictest Confidence, and that is underpinned by an ethical framework; however, the client must be made aware that confidentiality can be broken under certain circumstances such as intent to harm self and others as well as committing a serious crime such as child endangerment, drug trafficking and terrorism. Also, conversations could be shared with a supervisor, so the client needs to be aware and so to if the conversation be used for training purposes (any names are always omitted and left out of notes). Speaking of which, any documentation is to be kept safely locked away. 

Some counsellors are quite happy to let clients have personal phone numbers and email addresses, though I’d prefer to keep things separate, so there must be a stipulation about this, and by extension, how to interact if at all, should there be an accidental social meeting (the client may not have informed family of friends about receiving counselling).

Aside from payment, there’s the question of boundaries. Some of the above keeps a line between the personal and professional, but there’s also time boundaries. The client needs to know how long they have and that the session shall be drawn to a close with a few minutes to spare for the sake of reflection and grounding. Plus this helps to focus the discussion and establish what to discuss at the next session.

I’ll start sketching out a contract and host it here.

Day 5 – Tuesday 6th November 2018

After a half term break we picked up by looking at Carl Roger’s counselling principles and the core values. I already knew about these due to previous reading, but it was good to have a refresher.

Certain things made more sense, particularly the core values of congruence, empathy and unconditional personal regard (UPR). I have struggled with empathy; not from a definition point-of-view, but personally. Maybe it’s due to the Asperger’s or maybe it’s because I am very analytical (says he analysing his condition in relation to the study). I don’t suppose one can learn empathy, but I’m going to give it a damn good try as unless I can move out of my head mind into my heart and gut minds then I’m wasting my time.

I’ve begun to see an overlap with other models of therapy, such as NLP (which I am studying). Self-actualisation and congruence are discussed within the ‘ecosystem’ and ‘communication’ models which looks at how people can only know the world via their interpretation, not the world itself. What a counsellor/therapist must do is to take the client as they are, understanding that external factors have helped to shape them. For instance, people from a poor area will grow up believing that the world is a harsh and desperate place,  whereas people who are from affluent backgrounds will have a hard time when encountering extreme poverty as it is something that is so totally different to their world view.

It is within the role of the helper that they accept and respect these differences and by exploring them, come to understand the helpee – only then can true empathy emerge.

The helper may be challenged in this and ask questions of themselves, but through self-awareness we develop congruence. 

There was a really good video we watched about empathy by Dr Brene Brown; not sure if it was from one of her TED talks, so I’ll do some digging.

After the break we continued with our skills practice. We’re all finding this bit tricky, but I think awareness of the core skills helped us during these sessions. We agree that is is difficult to not say something, or hold back from saying something and just let there be silence. We find it difficult, and disconcerting, for there to be silence in the middle of a conversation, especially one that could be emotionally charged. Perhaps saying ‘would you like a moment to reflect on what you were saying’ or ‘thanks for telling me that, can I have a moment’, may be a good thing to say? There’s the risk of the response becoming mechanical though, but it’s best not to overthink it.

For me, though, during the session I found I was a lot more tuned in to what Student A was saying, and finding that I didn’t really want to speak, but let Student A just talk, and occasionally repeat or paraphrase. The situation though feels unnatural, but I guess that will pass with practice. Once I start to relax and stop thinking too much I may find the process easier and this will help to put fellow students at ease.

We also got to try out our contracts. That was very interesting and we all picked up pointers off each other. It was enlightening to read and hear what others included. That was the feedback generally, and in my triad we definitely felt that each other’s contracts were better than our own, but we collaborated by exchanging phrases and ideas.

Day 6 – Tuesday 13th November 2018

In tonight’s session we reiterated the core values, particularly empathy, which I feel I struggle with. Sometimes it’s better to not speak and let the client know they are valued and understood in different ways. This could be via non-verbal cues such as body language, composure, eye contact, nodding, staying present, silence (giving time for reflection), facial expressions (remaining calm or mirroring the client’s expression). Showing support via a gesture such as offering a tissue  or glass of water.

I’ve had a chance to practice this at work, by listening more, not speaking and paying more attention to people with whom I have little in common. It’s very easy to empathise when you have experienced something, so I can understand a colleague who talks about depression, as I have a lifetime history of it, but for something I’ve not experience? That would be where I have lots of room for improvement.

I did set myself a challenge though. As well as what I’m trying at work, I’m also reading real life stories on some of my favourite Reddit subs. There was one in particular that struck me about a competitive power lifter whose wife died in a car accident before his competition, so he promised he’d win it for her. The look on his face as he pressed above his personal best and won gold made me feel. I tried imagining what it would be like to be that guy; giving everything and pushing beyond your limits to keep a promise to your dead wife.

It was a rare experience for me and quite uncomfortable, as typically, I don’t experience much emotion. 

It was a rare experience for me and quite uncomfortable but isn’t this the point? To challenge oneself? This can be difficult for me as I if something is out of my direct experience I have trouble relating. I have trouble relating to people in general. Maybe I should study psychology instead!

However, upon considering the core values I now see them as the engine that powers self-actualisation through realisation. This helps me with an assignment for next session where we have to depict what the values mean to us at this time, in relation to others. I did a picture of Nietzsche as Ubermensch for my research degree and it sums up how I feel about the above.

When I started my research degree I had no knowledge of Nietzsche other than what I knew from history: the connection to Nazism, the nihilism and madness. If I was to understand his ideas fully, I had to put all that aside and understand the man, then his ideas could be put into context. That is Unconditional Positive Regard – accepting someone for who they are; no judgements, no assumptions.

There was a part of my book where I just couldn’t find an adequate means of representing a concept and had to get inside Nietzsche’s head, to truly understand how he felt about the concept in order to write new dialogue in his rhetoric. That’s empathy. And it was exhausting.

And finally, the Ubermensch character represents Congruence. A person who accepts and brings together all parts of themselves into a unified whole; all parts of their being acting as one, realising the idealised version of oneself via self-actualisation.

In this respect I hope I get the grasp of empathy. To put oneself in another’s place; to feel what they feel. This can be difficult for me as I if something is out of my direct experience I have trouble relating. I have trouble relating to people in general. Maybe I should study psychology instead!

However, upon considering the core values I now see them as the engine that powers self-actualisation through realisation. This helps me with an assignment for next session where we have to depict what the values mean to us at this time, in relation to others. I did a picture of Nietzsche as Ubermensch for my research degree and it sums up how I feel about the above.

When I started my research degree I had no knowledge of Nietzsche other than what I knew from history: the connection to Nazism, the nihilism and madness. If I was to understand his ideas fully, I had to put all that aside and understand the man, then his ideas could be put into context. That is Unconditional Positive Regard – accepting someone for who they are; no judgements, no assumptions.

There was a part of my book where I just couldn’t find an adequate means of representing a concept and had to get inside Nietzsche’s head, to truly understand how he felt about the concept in order to write new dialogue in his rhetoric. That’s empathy.

And finally, the Ubermensch character represents Congruence. A person who accepts and brings together all parts of themselves into a unified whole; all parts of their being acting as one, realising the idealised version of oneself via self-actualisation.

We had a chance to research referral services; this was a great activity and very useful information, should we ever have the need to refer a client on if we reach the limits of our abilities. The trio I was in got Anxiety as our topic and we found some local support services. (Actually there was some overlap with other topics in mental health). The main one is Anxiety UK; a national service with groups across the nation. Their website is quite good with links to CBT, Counselling and other local organisations. Mind, Lancashire Wellbeing, The Richmond Fellowship and The Sanctuary network are others. (I found it ironic that the name of a support organisation, Richmond, is the same as personification of my depression).

I really enjoyed the group discussion about open questions. Though a tip was to not ask questions if one can avoid it, having this tool was very insightful, as I do struggle with know what to ask. So in the discussion we applied some open questions informally. I learned that open questions usually being with how, what, why and discuss. These types of questions give control to the other person and let them explore their feelings.

Closed questions are typically used for information gathering, are quick to answer and keep the control in the hands of the helper. These questions could begin with: if, will, would, are, do and also can be ended with additional questions such as: isn’t it? Can’t you? Etc. These are to be avoided.

Day 6 – Tuesday 20th November 2018

Tonight the class discussed what the core values mean to us, at this moment. We had triad practice scheduled, but the stories were that engaging and emotional the tutor decided to give the entire session over to them.

I was very nervous about this, as I don’t talk much and particularly not about myself, so this was a chance to throw myself into this challenge. I became clear that we were all equally nervous about this – but as one student commented it took courage to share these stories and that people were brave to do so. I also think it speaks to the nature of the course, and the group, that we all felt comfortable enough to share.

My turn was towards the end of the session. I equate the core values to being the engine that drives self-actualisation, so I used an image I’d drawn of Nietzsche as Übermensch to illustrate this and how it related to the confluence of circumstances that lead me to the course in the first place.

I hope I wasn’t too rambling!

Day 7 – Tuesday 27th November 2018

Due to working 10-12 hour days over the last week, I was unable to attend the session but am told that the topic of ‘endings’ was discussed. This gives me some reading ready for next session.

Day 8 – Tuesday 4th December 2018

Tonight we looked at the therapeutic relationship and the differences/similarities between that and personal relationships. Personal relationships come with history, shared knowledge and experience, common ground; are not likely to be confidential and others soon get involved in the issues: with therapeutic relationships trust has to be earned; there’s no shared experience so both parties much get to know each other. The sessions are confidential and non-directive and also there’s payment.

After break we had practice and were given observation sheets to complete. These are great for feedback and seeing where we can improve.

I think we are all still in the same boat when it comes to this, quite nervous and unsure what to talk about, so I suggested we just talk about anything. It doesn’t have to be anything heavy or emotional, as we’re not fully prepared for that I guess.

We went through the contract and I asked if it was ok that I use the timer function on my phone to measure the session, as a few minutes before the end we will wrap up and reflect.

As I’m uncomfortable with eye contact I made a concerted effort to focus on that tonight so when I was working with Student A, I paid a lot of attention to it. Sometimes paraphrasing doesn’t quite work for me, so I stuck with using Student A’s own words, not parrot fashion, but restructured with the same vocabulary to ensure I understood.

Once I understood what Student A was talking about I found it difficult not to offer directive advice, however, I did use gentle challenges: ‘You said ‘X’ and that you have a goal, but you don’t do anything about it; I invite you to think of that goal and what your life will be like once you achieve it. What would that mean for you?’

Student A’s reply was very positive and affirming so I believe Student A is in a position to make some changes for the better. I then recommended we reflect as the session was ending and how was Student A feeling.

I share the same thoughts as Student B, namely, what am I doing? Where will this lead? Though this was a positive experience I must be prepared to weigh it against a challenging one in order to fully embrace this course.

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