In the middle of the shitstorm life was throwing at me, I decided I was coping so well with things that helping other people to cope with their own shitstorms was my new calling. I’d had enough of spending all day with my computer screen and wanted a bit more interpersonal interaction, so I began following the path to become a counsellor/psychotherapist (it’s the same thing, by the way: a professional listener).
After about 3 years of courses, thousands of pounds, and half way through my qualifying training, I realised it wasn’t for me after all – the career prospects and way of working weren’t really motivating me. I was gearing up to qualify so I could get some voluntary position, then I’d set up on my own (again. Turns out this is what I wanted to get away from). Eyes-to-the-ceiling emoji.
Oh well. But it was not a waste of time/money – I learned sooo much!
Firstly, to be able to help other people make sense of their minds, you really have to know yours. A lot of the training is therapy itself in a way, and I came to understand all my peccadilloes, my history, why I am like I am, and most of all, to accept that I am like I am and like it!
I also got to practice and develop some shit-hot interpersonal communication skills. To get under the surface of social veneers, examine what people really mean, to be challenging but not confrontational, to not respond in the expected way. If you know a counsellor, ask them how they are! You’ll always get a multi-layered, complex, honest answer rather than the superficial “fine, thanks!”.
We learned some psychology theory, like Transactional Analysis (see below), Freud and that. We also analysed relationships and social interactions, particularly things like power dynamics.
But mostly we learned the theory of counselling, why and how one person simply listening to another talk about how they feel can bring about enormous psychological change (which it can! I saw it happen with my two clients in my placement). The ‘father’ of these theories that most modern counselling is based on was a psychotherapist called Carl Rogers who first developed his ideas in the 1950s. It has become known as ‘person-centered counselling’.
How the therapist behaves and responds is based on three key ideas: Empathy; Congruence; Unconditional Positive Regard.
Empathy is a term du jour, but how many people truly show it in interactions with others? It’s not how you’d feel if that was you (that would be sympathy), it’s really getting into the other person’s perspective and understanding the problem as if you were them. Standing in their shoes. Feeling what they feel.
Congruence is being outwardly consistent with what’s going on inside. It’s naming what you’re feeling, not putting a social gloss on it.
Finally, Unconditional Positive Regard is showing the person that they are good, valuable and worthy of attention (whatever they say or do).
The therapist uses these three pillars to create a safe space in the therapy room, to hold up a mirror for the person to examine themselves without judgement. It’s astonishingly powerful, especially given how rare that is for most people.
I would have made a good therapist – I was a good therapist! – and perhaps I should have carried on and qualified. I just hated the course and was obsessed with Spanish. Who knows, maybe I’ll come back to it one day. Doing some training in this field has certainly made me someone with high self-esteem, fearless and frank in social situations, and an even better listener. Two of the most important lessons? Being comfortable with silence and the power of not giving advice.