‘For so long I’ve been battling my emotions, unseen terrorists that hide behind trees and around corners on sunny days – and then strike me down. But somewhere along the line I learnt not to fall over, not to show an inkling of this... somehow I’m beginning to realise that these terrorists are really my freedom fighters.’

This isn’t one of my clients. Before I started out on my counselling course I used to have taped personal therapy and listening to this again reminded me of how I have both moved forward but also have moments of doubt. Brought up in this cognitive Western culture and having a difficult childhood had left me struggling to express myself. Three years on and I find that my clients are tutoring me in how to deal with these moments of doubt, these cries from the unconscious that need to be heard.

I’ve been counselling now for about eight months. Those first few terrifying sessions are out of the way and both counsellor and clients have survived relatively unscathed. I am slowly ditching the idea that to be a counsellor I first need to be ‘sorted’ myself. It’s an ongoing process where I learn from my clients in every session and hold close to my heart the words of Barbara Somers: ‘If ever we think we have the answer for another human being – or indeed for ourselves – we’d better pack it up and do something different.’1

‘Janey’, a 40-something woman, came to counselling because she had been identified as suffering from PTSD. In her early 20s she had been overpowered, held down and sexually abused. In our first session she talked non-stop. ‘OK,’ I figured, ‘it’s the first session and this is what she needs to do, it’s her space.’ About 20 minutes in, I developed a very tickley cough (I didn’t have a cough or cold). I tried to fight it down and keep the focus on her. It defied me; the more I tried to suppress it, the more it needed to come out. I had a serious coughing fit, but recovered. The session continued as it had started.

The second session was a repeat of the first, including the coughing fit. I knew that I felt overwhelmed and deskilled. When I did intervene Janey either listened politely or just talked over me. It felt out of control. When this happened again in the third session, and the coughing fit was so bad that she, parent-like, poured me a drink of water, I knew that I had to find out what was going on.

I mulled this over for a couple of days and then it came to me: the cough was happening because I felt I couldn’t speak; the desire and need in me to ‘do my work’ was so strong that I was unconsciously interrupting the session. My ability to have a voice was being taken away from me to the extent that I felt useless and impotent in the sessions. My client felt powerful but I felt fearful. Indeed, it seemed I was feeling as she had felt during the attack – helpless, powerless. Once I had accepted this and reconciled my own feelings with what was happening in the room, the cough disappeared, I could hold Janey’s feelings and was able to protect her space so she could test out her right to be and her potency.

Then there was ‘Harry’, a teenage lad who came in and told me that all the people he’d seen in the past (counsellors, child psychiatrist and other mental health professionals) had been ‘f---ing shit, useless and patronising’. I’m sure you can imagine what was going through my mind at that point. Once I’d put my immediate feelings to one side, I could more clearly hear his message: I was going to let him down just as others had; he was beyond redemption.

Yes, I could accept how he felt towards himself but instinctively, of course, I could never concur with his own judgment. Yet I’d known that feeling and still do sometimes. I was sitting opposite myself; I heard my own beliefs and they were shocking. His wrath at the world that he directed inward so destructively was heartbreaking, yet it didn’t diminish me; it allowed me to feel a deep empathy not only with him but with the younger me that still sometimes recklessly comes out to play.

By listening to my clients I’ve been able to start listening more to myself. Perhaps this is my experience of what the philosopher Heidegger meant by ‘coming-into-the-nearness of distance’.2 By being witness to the emotions of my clients, I’ve felt the deep sadness and frustration of their struggle and within it are echoes of my own.

The clients in this column are both composite case studies.

References

1. Somers B, Gordon-Brown I. Journey in depth: a transpersonal perspective. Blandford Forum: Archive Publishing; 2002.
2. Heidegger M. Conversation on a country path about thinking. In: Heidegger M. Discourse on thinking (trans. John M Anderson, E Hans Freund). New York: Harper & Row; 1966 (p86).