Mike: Any ideas how we could start?
Simone: We could talk about the power dynamics between us: how your being from a middle-class background means that you can represent a figure of authority and power for me, and how this can create a tension between us.
Mike: Phew! Straight in there – directly to our relationship and how our different backgrounds are enough to cause tensions between us. You seem angry, and I notice I’m feeling defensive. What have I done to deserve this? Whatever our backgrounds, we’ve both ended up as counsellors, with similar values.
Simone: I’m sorry you feel attacked but yes, there is a part of me that wants to attack you for the power you have in society. Certainly a part of me feels angry about that.
In terms of us having similar values now, I agree, but I imagine we have a very different self-concept. As a female, working-class young person, I’m sure I didn’t get the same messages from society as you about my value and worth to society when I was growing up.
There are cultural norms that most working-class children have to adapt to when entering school that most of their middle-class peers have already learnt from home. A working-class child discovers early on that their own and their family’s culture is not modelled or valued in the same way in the school environment – I’m curious and concerned about the impact that has on a child’s sense of self. I believe it would benefit pupils/clients if all teachers and counsellors become more aware of their personal/class values so as to avoid imposing them onto others as the ‘norm’.
Mike: Teachers and therapists imposing their values on vulnerable young people – sounds like abuse. You’ve moved away from the conventional discussion of class, which is about occupation and income, to values and self-concept. I wonder if it’s worth trying to pinpoint what these different values are? Can you give me some examples of how you experienced the middle classes when you were younger?
Simone: When I was growing up, the middle-class people in my life were not friends, family or people with whom I had intimate, trusting relationships. They were my teachers, my GP, my parents’ employers – people who had much more power in society than me. Today this can sometimes affect how I feel in relation to people from more privileged backgrounds. I’m not always able to be spontaneous in their presence and I can need extra reassurance before I can trust that I will be accepted as I am.
As a working-class young person, I didn’t feel entitled to go to university or to own my own home. I also didn’t feel entitled to manage or help support people who were middle class. Today this can result in my not always feeling good enough to be a counsellor to people from a more cultured and educated background than mine.
I grew up believing middle-class people were entitled to manage and support me so I sometimes give my power away to them, just like our clients might with us. I think there are lots of messages in society that lead us to believe that middle-class (especially white middle-class) people are more capable than working-class people. I have to remind myself that this is not true and be careful not to have lower expectations of my working-class clients or collude with the stereotyping that goes on around us.
From my experience, the middle classes don’t always take working-class people seriously, and this can result in them not taking themselves seriously either. I know that a sense of working-class inferiority has affected my self-esteem and can be a constant hurdle for me in reaching my full potential and I believe this is the same for some of the clients you and I work with.
Mike: You seem to have been aware of class differences from quite a young age. I grew up in a protective bubble and I don’t think I was aware of anything. There was never any question but that I would go to university and get a ‘good’ job. Only in my second year at uni did I become aware of a dissonance between how I thought the world operated and the evidence that started entering into my awareness. A bit like Rogers’ self-structure – up till then I was distorting or denying reality but then the self-structure had to change to accommodate new evidence.
It seems the same is going on for me now. You are giving me evidence that is assaulting my self-structure. I thought I was ‘right-on’ and aware, but it seems I’ve been at best naïve. While I deal with the shock of that insight, could you say a bit more, perhaps, about how you ended up feeling lacking in entitlement – to go to uni, to manage or support others, to have a big house? Can you hear voices from the past putting you in your place?
Simone: Sometimes it’s more about what people don’t say. University was never mentioned in my household and I didn’t know of any working-class people who went. So I had no working-class role models. I was brought up in council housing and my family expected that I would be given a council flat, just as they had been. You knew that you would leave school at 16, like those before you, to get a job serving or assisting others: bus driver, secretary, hairdresser etc. In my family we viewed education as something to get through. I understand some things have changed in education since the 80s but I still recognise the low self-esteem that comes from class inferiority when I sit with my vibrant, funny, intelligent working-class young clients, who are often treated with contempt by society – for example, with the white underclass being described as ‘chavs’.
Mike: That is so different from my experience and my awareness when I was at school. I went to boarding school and I do remember that certain groups of people were seen as inferior. I was in one of those groups, in fact, because I wasn’t sporty, but that’s nothing compared with what you are talking about.
Simone: I’m sure that being considered inferior is never a good feeling for anyone in any situation.
Mike: How have your experiences as a teenager and your current reflections on class helped you empathise with your clients?
Simone: I have more confidence to name class issues in the counselling room and engage more fully with this aspect of my clients’ lives. When appropriate I might disclose something about my not so obvious background. I have found that this can reduce the power imbalance between us and helps develop trust. I certainly don’t think you have to come from a working-class background to empathise with that aspect of a client’s life or to build a trusting relationship but you do have to be mindful of it and not dismiss it as something without relevance. Frantz Fanon, a black writer,1 questioned whether you can ever have a fully authentic intimate relationship with someone when you feel inferior to them. From my experience, where class is concerned, I think you can, but you need to engage with this dynamic within the relationship.
I will always aim to acknowledge issues relating to poverty or inequality, such as not being able to have nice clothes and holidays etc, and the unfairness clients might face through overcrowded housing or lack of opportunities. We need to address our own issues, such as shame, which can get in the way of us being fully present with our clients when discussing issues around poverty and inequality.
We need to be aware that, when a working-class young person talks about going to university or being a lawyer, this could feel like a huge leap into the unknown for them. It could be taking them well outside their comfort zone and causing stresses linked to class, such as ‘Will I find anyone who looks or speaks like me?’ and ‘Will I be accepted?’. There could be other issues around a sense of belonging and not wanting to leave friends and family behind. These are some of the issues that may stop working class people having ambitions and dreams, let alone fulfilling them.
I know I’m viewed by some members of my family as having gone ‘above my station’. Being ‘too big for your boots’ was something I often heard if I dared to be knowledgeable or insightful in any way. Rather than knowledge being valued, it was experienced as a threat – the threat of being looked down on by someone with more power than you. Now that I am a university-educated professional, this alone puts me into a more privileged class – and, sadly, this can sit between me and my working-class clients and others from the working-class community. In some ways it can feel like I now belong to the ‘perpetrator’ group.
It’s not obvious that my background is working class, but it helps me feel more at ease and connect more easily to my working-class clients. Certainly, around adults, I sometimes think I need to be on my ‘best behaviour’ – annoyingly, I can’t seem to free myself from that!
Mike: I can see how your background does help you put your clients at ease and empathise with them, particularly if they are from a similar background to your own. But I notice I am having a reaction to your use of the word ‘perpetrator’! First of all, I don’t like one word labels. I find that different people have different meanings, even for frequently used labels such as ‘perpetrator’. Second, and more important, for me the word is just too strong. It has connotations of domestic violence, even rape. I agree with your views about the power imbalance between classes, and that sometimes this can be oppressive. But I don’t believe that the power imbalances we have been talking about can be represented as systematic rape. But maybe I’m blind and am also trying to impose my middle-class values on you.
Simone: I would argue that oppression and the taking away of someone’s human rights to be treated with equal respect, often for the whole of their lives, is a violent act.
I am drawn to using such strong words partly because I want to shock people into engaging with the damaging effects of inequality. Moreover, if we belong to a group that, arguably, often sits back in silence while benefiting from the suffering of others, then we need to take responsibility for our part in their suffering.
Mike: I think we’ll have to agree to disagree about that issue. Backtracking a bit, it seems that you feel in two minds about the ‘middle-class values’ you’ve acquired: you benefit from them but perhaps you also feel you’ve ‘sold out’, betrayed your class?
Simone: Yes, I definitely carry some shame around having sold out. And I benefit from being viewed by many as being middle class and educated – for a start, I am in less danger of being shamed and looked down on. You only have to watch comedy panel shows, which are so often dominated by white, middle-class men from public schools mocking the working classes. It seems they invite women such as the businesswoman Katy Price or characters from the reality programme The Only Way is Essex just to make fun of their lack of education, and this is considered acceptable. White, middle-class people are more likely to be greeted with a smile than with suspicion out in society. There is much that they take for granted.
Mike: And you believe that counselling, like teaching, is firmly in the hands of the middle classes, and that will have an impact on clients, particularly working-class young clients?
Simone: I think it’s important to take into consideration the conditions of worth that young people are picking up from society in terms of their class. We need to be aware of the power dynamics between middle-class counsellors (and teachers) and working-class young people. These power dynamics mean that it’s probably a lot easier for young people from the white middle classes to achieve their potential in life than it is for those from the working classes. This issue can also be a significant factor for adult working-class clients.
One way forward would be to have more diversity among trainers to challenge any class blind spots. Those who have such a powerful influence on counsellors’ personal and professional development need to reflect more on the significance of client diversity. Otherwise, who else is representing them?
I would like BACP to challenge colleges that have a disproportionate amount of white middle-class staff and students. If it is not happening already, I would like to see it made part of their accreditation criteria that colleges are proactive in recruiting students and staff from diverse backgrounds.
Mike: That’s a radical proposal, and I agree with it. It also has implications for the ‘measuring outcomes’ debate; the effect of the class of clients and counsellors doesn’t seem to have been considered at all when trying to measure the effectiveness of counselling. It does have profound implications for counsellor training. I wonder how many counselling training courses explore class issues. Did you cover class in any way when you were training?
Simone: I recall a two-day unit during my three years training where we looked at class but it was a subject that my tutor openly admitted to finding difficult and it certainly did not seem like a requirement that we should explore it in any depth.
When I look back, it felt like we had ‘ticked the box’ – I’m hoping that things have changed but, from my experience of talking with colleagues who have trained in various institutions, it seems not. Class still isn’t an issue that is considered to be particularly important.
Mike: How should class be looked at in training?
Simone: I think it is important for counsellors to gain an understanding of our identity and how this affects the way we experience the world. It’s also helpful to explore what it might mean to come from privileged or under-privileged backgrounds and the effects that may have on self-concept. It’s also important to consider how low status can create feelings of shame and humiliation, especially when meeting people with a ‘higher status’ – for example, when joining a high status university such as Oxford or Cambridge. Part of me now wishes I hadn’t trained at my prestigious training provider. I chose it because of the prestige and because I knew it would open doors for me, which it has. But I missed out on studying with a diverse group of people who have lived lives similar to those of my clients.
I’m disappointed by the elitism that exists within our profession. Those in the know are aware of where to go if looking for high status and, as with private schools, such places effectively restrict their intake by charging high fees. The locations are often in nice, leafy, middle-class neighbourhoods, some in imposing buildings. Home from home, for some. It all seems set up nicely for the white middle classes but others have to come out of their worlds and enter into something different – like working-class kids when they enter school.
Mike: Have you felt understood by your counsellors and supervisors?
Simone: I’ve been in therapy for around 10 years on and off with various therapists but whenever I’ve mentioned class-related issues my sense was that my therapists didn’t want to talk about it or didn’t pick up on my shame. There has been an exception more recently when I saw a counsellor who did meet me in my anger. It was encouraging that he didn’t withdraw in the way I had experienced before; instead he matched me and stood alongside me in what had previously been an isolated place. I felt he not only accepted but understood this part of me. This enabled me to reconnect with the working-class part that I often left outside the room or disassociated from. His acceptance and perceived lack of fear enabled me to be more authentic in relationship with myself and him. I found it freeing and I’m now much more able to accept those parts than I ever was.
I remember an ex-supervisor telling me that clients would laugh at me if I told them I was working class. I get what she was saying but it was not a helpful response for me as I found it quite shaming and we never talked about class after that. My current supervisor appears comfortable with engaging with this aspect of my clients’ lives and fully accepts class as a valid factor. I can safely bring such issues and trust this will be accepted.
Mike: We’re running out of words – any final conclusions?
Simone: I feel it’s important to say that I don’t want to be a spokesperson for the working class. Not all working-class people are the same and my life now is in many ways far removed from my working-class childhood.
I want to share my experience in the hope of bringing these issues out into the open more and offering some insights. I’m speaking about how it was for me as a young, white, working-class teenager and as a client and counsellor whose background isn’t middle class. My hope for the counselling profession is that we take the social/political aspects of a client’s life more seriously. There is a view that we are all individuals and class issues do not matter or, worse, that it’s all projection, but I haven’t yet found anyone from a disadvantaged group who agrees with that. I think training institutions need to encourage students to be considering race and class perspectives continuously, and not on a one-off basis to ‘tick the box’. I’m interested to hear other people’s experiences and to know what they think about the issues we’ve raised here.
Simone Daniels MBACP is an experienced person-centred relational therapist working part-time as a school counsellor in West London and also in private practice.
Mike Trier MBACP (Accred) is a youth counsellor at Rotherham Youth Service Youth Start Project, and a private practitioner and supervisor in Sheffield. He has run peer listening and working with anger groups, specialising in the use of video.
This article is based on an article published in the March 2013 BACP Children & Young People journal.
You can also read our April 'In conversation' where Colin Feltham interviews Simone and Mike.
1. Fanon F. Black skin, white masks. London: Pluto Press; 1967.