I was prompted to write this article when I noticed how opportunities for reflexivity occur in the counselling room, in supervision and, simultaneously, in other areas of my life, highlighting how all aspects of our lives tend to speak to one another. Likewise, I felt this showed how all aspects of our lives construct our sense of self in and outside of our work as counsellors.
Bondi and Fewell1 have described the impossibility of separating our personal and political selves in counselling relationships. This idea of the inseparability of our multiple identities speaks to my own reflections that they shape our ‘selves’ as counsellors and psychotherapists. This article explores this idea – that working with our multiple selves offers something useful in terms of ‘doing’ social justice in a meaningful way.
We occupy positions of power in the therapeutic relationships we build with clients. Consequently, as therapists in a caring profession, we have a collective responsibility to care: not just within the therapeutic relationships we aim to sensitively and carefully build, but also by directly examining the social structures that can be troubling and distressing for many of our clients. This kind of work can be described as intersectional.
Intersectional work can be defined as an intentional effort to directly examine the social structures of which we ourselves are part, and it is hard work. Embracing the complexity of privilege, vulnerability, difference and ‘otherness’ is not straightforward. But, as practitioners in a relational profession, I would argue that we cannot avoid reflecting on the social structures that influence and inform how we inhabit and work through these very relationships with our clients and colleagues.
Reflection and reflexivity
Reflection and reflexivity are central to how we understand the relationships we build with clients, colleagues and peers. Reflexivity is underpinned by the idea that the client-therapist relationship is co-created.2 It is generally accepted that the therapeutic use of self can be an effective way of working relationally and at relational depth, usually to enable deeper insight into the client’s process and ways of being.3 In other words, the client’s ‘out there’ world can be revealed through the therapist’s experience of the client ‘in’ the counselling room/relationship.
This being so, reflexivity is generally framed as something that counsellors and psychotherapists do as a self-practice – a way of looking inwards, reflecting on the ‘self’ in relation or response to the ‘other’. While this kind of self-awareness is crucial, I would like to reflect on what this might say about the meaning of ‘self’ and ‘other’ in counselling contexts and relationships.
In many respects, the idea of the ‘self’ in this context is self-explanatory: the ‘self’ may indeed refer to the ‘self’ we bring to the counselling room and to the clients we work with. However, this notion of the ‘self’ tends to privilege the ‘counsellor’ or ‘professional’ self, while obscuring other parts of our identities that also contribute to our sense of self and how we relate to others. Therefore, the ‘self’ in the counselling room may indeed produce the ‘other’ and, therefore, the ‘other’ as different. It is this notion of ‘other’ that speaks to the social justice agenda.
It is here that a dialogue between intersectionality theory and reflexivity might be productive. Intersectionality theory makes sense of power relations by highlighting that we cannot understand one aspect of identity in isolation. It emerged from feminist and critical race activism and academic work (eg Crenshaw4), initially as a way of understanding the intersections of gender, class and race. It offers a relational and social framework through which to understand how individuals experience the very contexts that may (re)produce their marginalisation and/or privilege. From this view, it is necessary to acknowledge that social structures and power relations are central features that thread through our lives and the lives of our clients, meeting in the therapy room and extending beyond.
If trauma and distress are produced through relationships and social structures that can be damaging or distressing, then, arguably, making sense of these experiences and, indeed, ‘recovery work’ can be viewed as relational too. As we navigate an increasingly neoliberal context, it becomes crucial that we directly address power and difference. Sara Ahmed5 has argued that these social structures create conditions for belonging. Consequently, for those who are different, not-belonging becomes a familiar experience and expectation. In other words, social structures create conditions for ‘othering’.
Difference and inequalities
Difference and (in)equalities are therefore not something we can neatly address by diligently ensuring we are aware of our own position in relationships, as most of us were trained to do (that is, by recognising when our gender or our age or race differs from that of our clients). This kind of work is also not something we can do by ensuring we adhere to our Ethical Framework, as, again, we were trained to do. It may be necessary, but it may not be sufficient to ensure fairness, collaboration or justice is achieved without directly exploring the social conditions in which lack of fairness, disempowerment or distress was produced.
Difference and inequalities may be more deeply rooted than this. Ahmed has also argued that diversity is not the same as intersectionality. Celebrating difference as a form of inclusion is not the same as directly exploring the social structures that we come up against in our daily lives. Therefore, working with difference and exploring these power relations may require a more deeply rooted and intentional approach.
Issues of difference and (in)equalities are central to our profession – we, too, exist in structures that can hit and bruise us. We too can simultaneously experience belonging and not belonging. We may or may not be hit and bruised in the same spaces and places as our clients, but it is necessary to think about what happens when the ‘other’ we reflect on when we are reflexive becomes, or has become, ‘othered’. Do we make invisible our own vulnerabilities when we focus on those of the ‘other’? What might happen if we embraced our own humanness alongside the struggles of clients we work with? Perhaps we may, in other contexts, occupy positions of ‘other’ too?
Burnham, in defining relational reflexive practice, talks of the therapist and client ‘bending backwards together’, rather than the therapist reflecting on ‘self’ in response to the ‘other’. I would extend this by suggesting that a focus on power relations, embracing all parts of our ‘selves’ and those of our clients, might be valuable. This kind of focus on power might be defined as an intentional effort to ‘do’ intersectional work. It is because of this focus on power that I consider intersectionality speaks well to the counselling and psychotherapy profession. In the therapy room, we occupy a role that (usually) offers us privilege. This is important to acknowledge and necessary to explore.
Social justice in action
Having explored how intersectionality could contribute to a relationally reflexive way of working, I will conclude by reflecting not only on the idea that difference and inequalities are central to relational and reflexive practices but that, perhaps more importantly, relational reflexivity, which centralises power, can be viewed as social justice in action, both within and outside the counselling room. It can be viewed as part of acknowledging our own humanness and the social reality of our clients’ struggles. It can be part of acknowledging the role our profession has in collectively embracing the complexity of multiple identities and difference.
I hope my reflections contribute to dialogues about how the counselling profession can work within a social justice agenda in a wholehearted and intentional way. I will end by extending an invitation to counsellors and psychotherapists to explore these questions: what can our communities do to embrace difference in a meaningful way? How can we embrace our multiple ‘selves’, alongside our clients and colleagues? How can we instigate dialogue within the very structures that, as Ahmed wrote, can hit and bruise us when we come up against them?
Tanya Beetham is a researcher at the Centre for Child Wellbeing and Protection at the University of Stirling. She is a humanistic counsellor and psychotherapist, working most recently with children and young people who are looked after or adopted. She is also a PhD student and interested in social inequalities and intersectional narrative research.
1. Bondi L, Fewell J. Getting personal: a feminist argument for research aligned to therapeutic practice. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research 2017; 17(2): 113–122.
2. Burnham J. Relational reflexivity: a tool for socially constructing therapeutic relationships. In: Flaskas C, Mason B, Perlesz A (eds). The Space Between: experience, context and process in the therapeutic relationship. London: Karnac; 2005 (pp1–17).
3. Finlay L. Relational integrative psychotherapy: engaging process and theory in practice. London: Wiley-Blackwell; 2015.
4. Crenshaw K. Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: a black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989; 8(1).
5. Ahmed S. Living a feminist life. London: Duke University Press; 2017.