We all know that a therapist should possess good self-awareness. But how do we know what good self-awareness looks like? After all, we do not know what we are not aware of. We do not know what lurks in our unconscious until it arises into consciousness. For this reason, I think that self-awareness can never be declared to be achieved. We become increasingly self-aware as we uncover more about ourselves and our experiences, however self-discovery is not something we stumble upon, or even work to one day achieve; it is a lifelong process.
Steve Page looks at elements of the counsellor’s unconscious which may impact on therapeutic work through the lens of the Jungian concept of shadow in his excellent book The Shadow and the Counsellor; one of my takeaways from reading the book is that our unconscious processes as individuals, and also as a profession inevitably influence our work (and indeed our lives) at all levels, and it is our responsibility to manage our own shadow material as it emerges, whilst also acknowledging our unconscious’s ubiquitous, albeit often silent presence.
Countertranference responses in particular might not always be immediately apparent to us. I think that by being non-defensively aware of their potential to emerge, we give ourselves the best opportunity for making the unconscious conscious, and for appropriate reflection.
If we acknowledge the potential of unconscious material to emerge without our awareness or conscious control, it follows that a client may spot unconscious material before the therapist. This is where our capacity for self-reflection is really important.
It may be tempting, for example, in response to a client saying something like “What you said really hurt; I think you are frustrated with me” to respond immediately with a consciously congruent response such as “No! I am not frustrated. You misunderstood my intention.”.
The trouble with an immediate and non-reflective response such as this, is that it runs the risk of invalidating the client’s experience of the therapist, and presumes an instant understanding of processes which might be outside of the therapist’s awareness. Perhaps the therapist really isn’t feeling frustrated at all, which is perfectly possible, but to jump directly into a rebuttal without first exploring possible unconscious feelings runs the risk of being seen to be defensive or incongruent. Much better to explore this feeling together and work out what is happening in the relationship through here-and-now discussion.
Not all unconscious material will have a negative impact on the relationship, and it is likely that many things emerge from unconscious responses which are never picked up upon by either counsellor or client. In moments where an unconscious action jars with the reality of the relationship or the role, we are more likely to become aware of its presence. I feel that any awareness we can glean of our unconscious is a positive thing, though it’s perfectly feasible that nothing will need to change as a result of bringing something into consciousness, so long as it is not negatively impacting on the work. The positive part of its movement into awareness, is that it may then be monitored and reflected upon moving forward.
Rollo May (1965) makes a distinction between “intention” (conscious motivation) and “intentionality” (unconscious motivation) which I believe is a useful frame through which to view every intervention made in the therapy room. I think it is important to look at what we are doing with clients and ask ourselves not only “What is my intention?” but also “What is my intentionality?”.
So rather than aiming for an unmeasurable level of self-awareness, I am focusing my energy on developing my capacity to self-reflect and be reflexive in my work and my life as a whole. My feeling is that this is the food and sunlight required to allow my awareness to continue to grow.
For me to achieve this, I think I need to continue to accept my unconscious, to welcome it as a part of me and continue to be curious about what it has to teach me. Working with a non-defensive openness to how others, especially clients view me, is a crucial part of that process – both for forming good working alliances with clients, and also nurturing and allowing movement in my own self-development.