The film Educating Rita has won a number of plaudits for its portrayal of a working class woman who feels her education has been inadequate. It explores her deepening relationship with her initially aloof tutor. It is a classic tale of mentorship, of how a good mentor learns from those around them, and is themselves educated. One of the tensions in the film comes from the reaction of Rita’s peers to her desire to attend university, another from the reaction of the tutor, who feels he has nothing to learn from this loud, unconventional student. I love the film for what it tells us about assumptions, confidence, and willingness to learn.
It may seem odd to start an article about counselling talking about a classic British film, but the question of learning from our clients has been much on my mind, especially since the release of the new BACP ethical framework. A change to how we should be educated about issues clients may bring has caused a certain amount of controversy, with some sounding a lot like Rita’s tutor in the face of newness and disruption. In the new Ethical framework, tucked away in the discussion of what respect should look like, is a new criteria:
recognise when our knowledge of key aspects of our client’s background, identity or lifestyle is inadequate and take steps to inform ourselves from other sources where available and appropriate, rather than expecting the client to teach us
BACP Ethical Framework (2016)
Hiding behind competency
The first part of this revision to the framework is probably the least controversial. Assessment of competency is a dilemma which every counselor must constantly examine. That it is a dilemma that may come as a surprise to non therapists and clients reading this. After all isn’t it obvious if you are qualified to work with a specific issue? The reality is more complex. Imagine for example a client who 5 sessions into an open ended counselling relationship discloses they have been a victim of rape. A counsellor may not have specific training in sexual assault, but a good therapeutic relationship has been built, the client has come to trust, has revealed something long buried, and offered it, raw and vulnerable to the counsellor, hoping for help to heal. Is it demonstrating a loving attitude towards this (hypothetical) client to respond with a rejection? Competency is not as cut and dried as it at first appears, Of course there are certain issues which specialist training may be needed for, however all too often rather than admitting to fear, to being less than perfect, counsellors may hide behind the issue of competency, referring the problem on, and pushing the fear back into a closet marked, referral. This is especially an issue with suicide.I have experienced this in my own client work, where an admission of suicidal ideation has only been made once trust had been established. Reticence to disclose was explained by previous counsellors ending the sessions because they had discussed suicide. Always the excuse was competency.
So, part of being an ethical practioner is to examine the issue of competency honestly. Not to overinflate or be complacent about your abilities, but at the same time not to hide behind it as a way of disguising your own fears.
The second part of this new addition to the ethical framework speaks to how we should educate ourselves, when a client comes with something new, or relatively unfamiliar to us. The obvious answer, and one I have seen used by those opposed to this revision is “just ask”. Sounds simple doesn’t it, someone uses a term, has an identity, comes from an culture, has an experience that you do not know about, well just ask them.
Lets use a real example, from my own life. I have an unusual accent, unusual in that people struggle to place it. Speech Therapy as a child for a lisp, moving in my teens, and being greeted with incomprehension by people encountering a geordie accent for the first time, have led to an accent which hovers somewhere between generic northern and simply ‘English’. This is often seen as a challenge, and on meeting new people a guessing game of “where are you from?” can be a fun icebreaker.
“Where are you from?” is a very different question for people of colour however, carrying as it does, the weight of colonialism, racism and rejection by the white majority. People of colour report that even if they give the reply of Doncaster, Darlington or Davantry, the response so often is; “Where are you really from?”. A question which for me carries no hidden baggage, and can actually be an interesting way to discuss living overseas is a very different question for someone on the receiving end of xenophobia or racism (or both).
The concept of microaggressions can be very useful for understanding why “just ask” is not always a helpful response. Psychology Today defines microaggressions as:
“everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.”
Psychology Today Nov 17th 2010
Clients report to me how tiring these microaggressions are, how they make them feel that defending their identity, disability, culture, size (fat people are often on the receiving end of microaggressions) or other factors, is simply not worth it. Constantly being undermined, in subtle, but hurtful ways, leaves them feeling that having to explain again, educate again, go through the process of explaining why X is hurtful, again, is emotional labour they do not want to engage in. If we want to remove the barriers to building a therapeutic relationship,and work at relational depth, as described by David Mearns and Mick Cooper, these barriers can prove to be insurmountable.
Squaring the Circle
It is the case that we can only ever, should only ever work with what an individual client brings, leaving all preconceptions and assumptions outside the therapeutic space. One person may find being asked to explain what their identity means to them empowering, the therapy room may be the first time they have been able to talk about being LGBTQ, or from a particular ethnic minority or religion. They may enjoy sharing their culture, or be proud of a heritage which is little known by the mainstream. Another client however may be tired of having to explain, be hoping for a space where they do not have to repeat a lifetime of having to defend and explain their existence. As counsellors being asked to educate ourselves might challenge some of our fears around competency, as well as coming against old fashioned attitudes which resemble Dr Bryant’s of Educating Rita. An objection I have heard is that both client and therapist learn from each other, by sharing their differences. Unfortunately this is based on the idea that clients from a minority are somehow ignorant of the mainstream culture which surrounds them, and seems frankly, egotistical. The only time therapeutic disclosure is encouraged being so (mainly) white (mainly) cis (mainly) male people can talk about their lives.
Whilst we all learn constantly from our clients, from their courage, strength, determination, the core of this issue seems to be an expectation of being educated, Combined with, in the minds of some, that they will educate the client (as cross cultural counselling suggests). Whilst this may on a rare occasion happen, from talking to clients who belong to minority groups, it is their feeling that they have to spend time educating counsellors, and gain nothing from the process.
Moving forward, with honesty around competency, a lack of ego around our own supposed uniqueness, and a willingness to not demand clients educate us, can only be, in my opinion, positive for clients, counsellors and the profession as a whole