What are the things that are commonly assumed about you – something about your age, your nationality, how much money you have, your ethnicity perhaps? The assumptions made about us by other people influence the interactions we have with them, both negatively and positively. In the same way, the assumptions our clients make about us influence what happens in the counselling room. They need to be thought about and, where possible, explored.

As with anything that occurs in the counselling room, it is important to look at the driving force behind assumptions. Could it be an attempt to reduce you from a whole person to one aspect of you, based on a stereotype? Or could it be more of an attempt to find something out about you as a way to connect? It could be the client’s way of addressing the imbalance in the relationship – we are likely to know lots about them, but they will know little about us. Perhaps all they know is what we look like and the assumptions they make about us are based on our appearance.

Assumptions function at both a conscious and an unconscious level and their purpose varies for each client. Assumptions can feel personal, particularly if they are wrong! They do, however, communicate something about the client and about their perception of us. In this article, I will be looking at the role assumptions play in my counselling relationships with children and young people. I will explore the ways in which I experience these assumptions and the impact they can have on the therapeutic relationship. I will also discuss my own feelings about assumptions, based on my experiences outside the counselling room.

You must like hip-hop

Think of a racial stereotype and I bet you it has been assumed about me. Some clients make the assumption that I am from Africa, ignoring the fact that Africa is a continent of many countries and peoples, not one country. They assume that my taste in music must be urban or hip-hop because of the colour of my skin. I recall a session with a teenage client in which she was describing the band Arctic Monkeys. I said that I knew them. She paused, looked at my face and asked: ‘Wait, you actually know them?’ I wondered if she was checking out whether I hung out with Alex, Matt and the crew. I liked the assumption that I was cool enough to be mates with a band.

I clarified my statement, telling her that I knew the band’s music. My client shook her head in disbelief and said: ‘I didn’t think you’d be into that kind of music.’ I asked why. She fell silent and looked a bit embarrassed. I wondered whether her assumptions about my taste in music were based on race, gender, age or even based on what she assumed a counsellor should be listening to. Over the sessions that followed, we explored her assumptions about age in relation to her parents and teachers. She spoke about one teacher, saying: ‘He has no clue and no life.’ I noticed she often used ‘He has no clue’ to refer to her dad too. I wondered out loud how it was to feel not understood by adults because they seem so out of touch. I wondered how it might feel to have a counsellor who could be perceived as ‘clueless’ too. Exploring the assumption allowed us to explore our relationship as well as those relationships she had with people outside the counselling room.

People of colour

Some assumptions bring humour, like the occasion when I went to collect a primary-aged client for his session. As I met him, he raised his fist at me, indicating that I should greet his fist with mine. I couldn’t help chuckling and obliged because I didn’t want to leave him hanging. As our sessions continued, he behaved more and more ‘street’. I wondered if this was because he had me, a Black woman, as his counsellor and he was trying to find some commonality. I named this thought and we explored his need for connection over the course of our time together.

An adolescent client was talking to me animatedly about her Kenyan boyfriend. She told me how amazing he was and that he even cooked. She mentioned a particular Kenyan dish I’d never heard of and looked at me for some kind of recognition. I said I didn’t know it but it sounded delicious. ‘Oh,’ she said, looking confused, ‘I thought you would because…’ She trailed off and I was left wondering what she thought. I had a good idea because, in a previous session, she had assumed I was married to the other therapist of colour.

I struggled with finding a way to explore this at first because I felt irritated. In later sessions, I was able to simply clarify that I was not Kenyan and not in a relationship with anyone she knew when similar assumptions came up. I was also able to name what I interpreted as a look of disappointment that she had got it wrong and what that felt like.

I regularly get asked versions of ‘Where are you from originally?’ A 10-year-old client was talking about his family’s views on immigration and asked me when I moved to this country. I wondered out loud why he thought I was an immigrant and immediately felt guilty as I watched his cheeks flush red. My intention wasn’t to embarrass him. I questioned my response and wondered if it was too loaded with my frustration at hearing this question on a regular basis. I named what was in the room and what emerged was a fruitful conversation on assumptions. This client was able to talk about the assumptions his family made about him, which were further exacerbated by his peers. The core of the work was to do with identity and the discussions we had really signified a shift in the therapeutic work.

Transference

If I’m honest, sometimes I’m wary of discussing racial assumptions with clients because it can feel difficult not to pursue my own agenda. In my personal life, I tend to ask myself three questions before deciding whether to engage in a discussion that appears to be based on racial assumptions: Is it worth it? Will this person listen to me? Will they be willing to question their preconceived assumptions?

There is something about any discussion on race-based assumptions that leaves me cold. I remember discussions about race and identity during my counsellor training. We spoke about how certain things that provide clues about our identity can be removed, such as a wedding band or the Kippah (the Jewish skullcap). I remember wondering what it would be like if I could take off my skin colour and how changing my colour would change my relationships with my clients. But race is not a switch I can flick on and off; I live and breathe it every single moment of every single day. Typically, for the people I discuss racial assumptions with, this is simply an area of interest, and not personal. So, on occasion, I feel I have to protect my mental space and not engage in the conversation. Perhaps this is the reason why I sometimes ignore assumptions in the counselling room – what happens outside gets brought in and played out in the transference. Counselling is emotionally and mentally taxing enough, and sometimes I don’t have the energy to unravel another layer that is probably about my own stuff rather than the client’s.

When race-based assumptions are made about me, I sometimes struggle to tap into the unconditional positive regard that Carl Rogers states is an important aspect of the therapeutic relationship.1 This refers to the counsellor’s unconditional positive regard for their client, without judgement. My training was psychodynamic, meaning I work with the transference in the room, believing that the feelings, assumptions and communications made within the counselling relationship are an indication of significant relationships outside of it. Sometimes, what occurs in the transference is unhelpful and gets in the way. In the therapeutic relationship, I am faced with the question of how I explore the great big race elephant in the room.

I ask myself the question: ‘Is what I’m picking up on about the client or about me?' Stereotypes serve a purpose. These generalisations allow us to place people into categories in order to make sense of them and our relationship to them, and this helps us to feel safe. My issue with stereotypes is that they are limiting, particularly if the person relying on them is unwilling to examine their preconceived notions. Racial stereotypes are frustrating, and challenging them can feel exhausting. So, when a racial stereotype comes into the counselling room, I am faced with those familiar feelings and forced to decide what to do with them. Do I park them to one side and reflect on them later, privately or in supervision, or do I explore what is going on with the client?

Sometimes, I reflect back what they have said, exactly as they have said it. This gives the client an opportunity to hear their assumption out loud, reflect on it and explore it. It is common and perfectly natural for clients to be curious about me. Perhaps the comments about my race serve that purpose, to place me in a certain category so that the client can relax and get on with the task at hand. But sometimes they serve as a barrier, placing me in the box marked ‘other/different’, which leaves me wondering how a therapeutic alliance can be formed.2

Bridging the gap

Assumptions aren’t just made by clients; they come from the staff in the school or college too. Assumptions can be made about a student’s intentions and my ability to recognise them – I’m advised: ‘He is playing you’, ‘She just wants to get out of lessons’. Assumptions are made about my ability to set boundaries – ‘Let me know if you need me around or if he acts up'. Assumptions are made about the purpose of counselling – ‘Can you make sure he knows he is in danger of failing his GCSEs if he doesn’t get his coursework done?’ These assumptions stop real thinking about the young person’s needs. Assumptions get in the way of collaborative work because they shut down conversations. I feel comfortable in challenging these kinds of assumptions and thinking through with staff how we can work together to support the young person.

The truth is that counsellors, like clients, come in all sorts of wonderfully diverse shapes, sizes, ages and colours. I think that’s changed a lot in the 10 years since I trained, when it didn’t feel like we were so diverse, but that’s for another article. I often experience race-based assumptions as an attack on my identity. This taps into my fight-or-flight response and means that sometimes I’m hesitant to address assumptions in the counselling room.

A client's assumptions tell me a lot about the client, first and foremost, and about their relationship to me and to others in their world. I try to remind myself of that and to treat those assumptions as an invitation to explore the symbolic communication.

Kemi Omijeh is a BACP-registered counsellor working in a secondary school in London and in private practice in north London. She offers one-to-one therapy for children aged five to 16 years and training for school staff on how to be more attachment-friendly. Kemi also works as a Relax Kids wellbeing coach.

This article was first published in BACP Children, Young People & Families 2019; June: 9–11

References

1. Baldwin M. Interview with Carl Rogers on the use of the self in therapy. Journal of Psychotherapy and the Family 1987; 3(1): 45–52.
2. Horvath AO, Greenberg LS. The working alliance: theory, research and practice. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons; 1994.