I am a firm believer that any counsellor or psychotherapist must have been in therapy themselves. We cannot truly understand the experience of the person sitting opposite unless we have sat in that chair – and academic understanding cannot teach us how it feels to be vulnerable and exposed. Rogers saw this vulnerability as at the core of the person coming to therapy experience.
1. Two persons are in psychological contact. 2. The first, whom we shall term the client, is in a state of incongruence, being vulnerable or anxious. 3. The second person, whom we shall term the therapist, is congruent or integrated in the relationship. 4. The therapist experiences unconditional positive regard for the client. 5. The therapist experiences an empathic understanding of the client’s internal frame of reference and endeavors to communicate this experience to the client. 6. The communication to the client of the therapist’s empathic understanding and unconditional positive regard is to a minimal degree achieved.The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change Rogers, Carl R.
A false divide between “client” and “therapist” seems to have grown up, which ignores that we have also sat in that chair, vulnerable and anxious, and many of us continue to do so. Rather than either/or we need to return perhaps to the roots of the psychological therapies where it was acknowledged we are both/and. In one moment we inhabit one chair, in another, the positions are reversed.
The divide never appears more apparent than in discussions about the regulation of counselling and psychotherapy in the UK. It may be necessary to explain a little background here. Many people assume that one must have some kind of licence, or qualification to practice in the UK, but, other than for psychologists this is not the case. Whilst there are minimum standards to join the bodies which regulate therapy in the UK (BACP, NCS and UKCP are the largest three) membership is completely voluntary.
It is this situation which Jordan Dunbar explored in his program for File on Four – The Therapy Business. I spoke to Jordan as he researched the show, and his own personal negative experience may have originally motivated him, but his concern for the public at large was clear. One of the cases he highlights in the documentary is the case of “Maria” familar to those of us who are concerned with protecting clients, and/or work with CSA surviours. Maria was retraumatised by three therapists who frankly, tortured her, in one of the most shocking abuses of a vulnerable person by a therapist possible. The regulatory body in this case recommended training and supervision, a judgement which would be laughable if it were not so horrific.
If you listen to the File on 4 documentary Jordan’s shock not only that this, and other abuses by therapists take place, but that they could continue to practice, is clear. I believe most non therapists would be equally shocked. However, when we try to discuss how to avoid this situation the us versus them split seems to become a gaping chasm. Rather than considering what protections they might want when they occupy that space of vulnerability many become defensive. At the same time the documentary seems to forget that the majority of therapists have been, and often continue to be, clients. This is not us versus them, but the same people who should be sharing the same space, working together to make it safer for all.
Change can of course always feel threatening. But, other professions have had to consider radical change to ensure their growth and development. Nursing and teaching are two comparable professions which moved from largely unregulated to regulated. Who now would argue for unqualified nurses and teachers being preferable? Of course some good and decent people had to retrain, or leave the professions, when those regulations were brought in, but that was seen to be a necessary price to pay.
I cannot ignore that I approach the idea of regulation not only as someone who sits in both chairs, but as a member of a community who has had conversion therapy practiced upon them. Conversion therapy was used to attempt to make LGBTQAAI+ people cisgender and/or heterosexual. It still occurs around the world, and due to a combination of lack of training and prejudice undoubtedly still occurs in private in the UK. One only has to speak to trans people about their experiences of counselling to know that despite the publication of the Memorandum Of Understanding therapists are still denying their gender, and trying to convence them they are cisgender. Whilst efforts are being made to improve training, such as the Pink Therapy GSRD aware trainers course, there is currently little that can be done to stop organisations like the Core Issues Trust or individual therapists offering conversion therapy. Yes, they can, if a complaint is made, be removed by one regulatory body, but they can continue to practice, and to harm.
The title of this piece is “who do you see when you look in the mirror”. I believe we need to see all that we are, the intersections and multiplicities. Not only the professional whose working conditions might be changed by stricter regulation, but the client who needs protection. We also need to see those vulnerabilities which can be exploited, and the need, and desire to be protected. Only when we can see all of these will we be able to unite in taking the counselling profession forward in the UK.