The Meaning of Silence

How comfortable are we with silence? Are you somebody who will happily sit for hours and enjoy the peace and tranquility of a silent place? Or are you somebody who will immediately switch the radio on the minute things go quiet?

What about in the therapy room? (and I think we can ponder this either from a therapist or client perspective). Do silences bring with them, anxiety? Do you find yourself thinking “Has this gone on too long?”; “Should I speak?”; “I can’t think of anything to say!”; “Aaargh!”?

I think most people can probably relate to that at some time or other. I particularly remember feeling that way in my early experiences of working with clients. I think my anxiety was about not feeling ‘enough’ and that this silence would lead me to be ‘found out’ by the client. What those thoughts did, of course, was draw me away from the present moment. I became so anxious about what was to come next that I probably missed a great deal of what was happening in the here-and-now.

Silence often takes place in my own therapy. My therapist has taught me that I don’t need to have a response straight away, and nor does he. I can now give myself permission to sit with what I am feeling and see what emerges. This gives me an opportunity to communicate with myself, find out what is happening for me, and also to notice what is being communicated, unspoken, in the therapeutic relationship.  I have also grown to be comfortable when silence emerges with clients. In my view it can be a vessel for trust and connection, when its value is recognised, and we remain present, in the moment, noticing our own responses and what we can see occurring for a client. There is also value in discussing silences, how they are experienced and what meaning they hold for the client. Far from being a hindrance or awkward exposure of my impostor status, silence is our teacher and an invisible facilitator of therapeutic movement.

Ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu told us that “silence is a source of great strength”. I do think it has the power to strengthen our relationships with each other and with ourselves. I think it also provides energy, shifts energy, and allows us to notice where our energy is focused, offering us the opportunity to refocus if we feel stuck, or in need of redirection.

I am not somebody who leaps for the radio when things fall silent, so my understanding of the value of silence in therapy is somewhat shaped by personal attitude to silence in general. But I do want to encourage anybody, not just in therapeutic relationships but anywhere, with anyone, or even by yourself – just notice what happens when things go silent; notice where your thoughts go, what happens to your breathing and where your energy is. So much of what is happening in our bodies and our psyche goes unnoticed as we rush from one thing to the next. Let’s experience the unexperienced, both in therapy and beyond.

BACP Governor Elections 2018 – Who’s Getting my Vote and Why?

This year will be my first time voting in the BACP Governor Elections and I’m really looking forward to having my say on the future direction of the professional body I have chosen for membership.

I’ve read the candidate statements in detail, and there’s one that really stands out for me, so I thought I would just write a little piece about who I am voting for and why.

Karen Pollock is relatively recently qualified (2015) and I find her statement encouraging in a number of ways:

  • As a recently newly qualified practitioner, I feel like she is likely to have an understanding of the issues facing newly-qualified therapists today, particularly the lack of paid employment post-qualification. Karen also benefits from a recent experience of being a counselling student – I think it’s really important that we have a governor who can represent the needs and concerns of the BACP’s student members.
  • Karen has personal experience and professional training around LGBTQ+ issues and I think it’s important that this expert knowledge is present in the BACP. The BACP has been a leading voice against so-called conversion ‘therapy’; I feel appointing a governor like Karen would compliment and strengthen the ethical framework’s commitment to equality and justice.
  • Karen touches upon a couple of areas in her statement which are of particular interest to me as a therapist and as a client. The biggest of these is her commitment to valuing and hearing the voices of those who have experienced harm in therapy. While the BACP has a complaints procedure, I also think it’s important that we hear the voices of those who have been harmed in other, positive and constructive ways, and the fact Karen has the courage to raise this and speak about honouring those experiences is very encouraging to me.
  • Karen wrote in her statement about wanting better regulation of the profession. I messaged her to ask some more about her views on regulation and I found her open and positive about the role regulation has to play in the future of the profession. I am hopeful that her appointment will be a boost for client rights and the promotion of ethical practice.
  • Karen speaks in her statement about having a personal boundary statement which her clients are able to read, which shows me a deep understanding of the importance of clear and consistent boundaries in her practice. I feel that her commitment to and understanding of ethical practice will be of great value to the BACP and its membership.

Profiles of all the candidates for the upcoming governor election can be found here: BACP Governor Elections 2018

Parallel Process

Parallel process is a supervisory phenomenon whereby relational interplay, feelings or experiences which occur in the therapeutic relationship are re-enacted in the supervisory relationship. This can be a result of identification with a client, countertransference processes, or even just an unconscious means of making sense of what is happening in the therapeutic dynamic. I think it is a curious and fascinating occurrence in supervision and that’s why I wish to talk about it here.

I make no secret of the fact that I am deeply intrigued by unconscious processes and the way in which our unconscious minds operate seemingly entirely independently with great complexity and purpose. The fact that parallel process offers us a way to notice, explore and utilise our unconscious functioning to enhance our therapeutic work with clients is absolutely thrilling to me.

Without discussing the work I bring to supervision, I want to briefly explore an example of parallel process which once occurred in my own supervision: One session, as I discussed my feelings around some therapeutic work, my supervisor explained how we could explore this in supervision. I suddenly, unexpectedly and disproportionately became very angry with him for explaining supervision to me. The more cross I became, the more he explained himself, and the crosser I became, until suddenly, in a moment of clarity, I realised we were experiencing parallel process. I reminded my supervisor of the previous session where he had stated that my tendency to over-explain therapy and the therapeutic process to my clients in some situations, particularly when I felt under pressure, may not allow enough space for open exploration and self-direction in therapy. I pointed out that he had been doing exactly what he had advised me not to do, and sure enough I had felt stifled, frustrated and not heard.

I think that, on this occasion my unconscious was looking to find a way to make sense of my own process as a therapist, and what potentially could have occurred for clients, and additionally, I feel there may have been an element of projecting my anger and frustration at my own over-explaining onto my supervisor. Those feelings were brought into the room and unconsciously became part of the interplay between me and my supervisor. My supervisor appeared to take on my feelings – wanting to explain himself – without either of us being conscious of the significance of the exchange in the moment.

This tense and difficult session provided a very worthwhile and productive conversation about what was happening for me (and for my supervisor) in that moment which I was able to hold in mind going forward in my therapeutic work. I felt energised from the supervision session and in awe at what both my, and my supervisor’s unconscious had to offer the supervisory process.

This week is International Supervision Week, and today I have met with my current supervisor for the last time as he moves towards semi-retirement. So this feels like the perfect moment to honour the supervisory process, and to thank my supervisor for his part in my journey as a practitioner. Moments of learning such as the one I describe above, undoubtedly nurture my growth as a therapist and teach me both the value of supervision, and of paying attention to the wondrous unconscious.


Stigma, Mental Health and Being a Therapist

I’m back to pondering about my comfortable spot on Twitter, engaging with the kind of thinkers, musers and (largely) therapists who inspire me, whom I can relate to and who frankly affirm my world view.

Therapists such as Steph Jones are blazing a trail when it comes to talking about our mental health as therapists. I think it takes a great deal of courage to talk so openly about personal struggle, and I think it important that we recognise the value of our experiences as therapists, whilst of course, remaining mindful of how they might impact our therapeutic work.

My therapist once said to me that my experiences are likely to be the source of my greatest strengths AND my greatest vulnerabilities as a practitioner, and this curious dualism is present in my awareness and my process as a practitioner, as a client and as a supervisee.

In the short time I have been on Twitter, I have seen Steph’s work towards raising awareness of therapists’ mental health go from strength to strength; recently I read her brilliant piece in Therapy Today. She is being heard and that is wonderful. We are talking about our mental health, and the outpouring of support for this topic has been heartwarming. But yet, anecdotally I am still hearing stories of unsupportive colleagues and fellow trainees. I am hearing that judgements on therapists’ competence to practice are being made on the basis of diagnoses, and I think these anecdotal instances indicate that there is still a worrying misconception in some areas about what makes a good practitioner, and the nature of mental health difficulties. While decisions are rightly made about competence at an educational level, employment level, supervisory level and at a personal level, sweeping generalisations, where they still exist are unhelpful and damaging. It is for this reason that I believe we need to be discussing this topic more. We are all managing our mental health. Every human being is managing their mental health. Any therapist who believes themselves to be invulnerable to mental health difficulties is, in my opinion, even more vulnerable to not recognising their own mental health needs, and perhaps susceptible to denial too.

Therapists sometimes say “therapists are human too” and that phrase makes me cringe a little. As I write this, I pause to think about why I have such a response to that idea, and I think it is because of the inference that there is an assumed superhuman quality to therapists. Perhaps it is true that some people do believe therapists to be beyond human vulnerability, and I think I must own my own discomfort when that notion is acknowledged. I am aware that one of my core personal processes centres around rebellion against, and rejection of hierarchical power-dynamics in relationships, therefore it stands to reason that I should feel an intense discomfort around the notion of being thought of as having somehow figured out the secret to eternal happiness. This, of course, is mine to manage and I will undoubtedly further reflect on what is emerging for me as I write this.

As a profession I think we are very good at talking about self-care and yet sometimes less keen to explore why self-care is so important. Burnout, vicarious trauma, and emergence of unresolved material in our own processes all happen, and can be harmful to both ourselves and our clients if we do not address them. I feel that we are headed in the right direction – we are starting to speak up, we are engaging with personal therapy when we need to, we are talking about self-care. I think the key to changing attitudes within the profession is in challenging misconceptions and continuing to speak the truth. As therapists we have the right and responsibility to co-create the kind of profession we want to be a part of.

Endings, Transitions and Change

I am experiencing quite a few endings and transitions at present, and I have more to come over the next few months.

My university course is now finished, and my newly-qualified peers and myself are dispersing and moving on to new and multifarious next steps.

I will change supervisor next month, which brings with it both sadness and excitement; I have enjoyed working with my current supervisor, but I am pleased to have found a new supervisor with whom I believe I will be able to continue to develop and grow as a practitioner.

In the next couple of months I will be leaving one of my placements, which of course means endings with clients, and I am mindful of the difficulties this transition might bring for them, as well as managing my own feelings about ending.

I have recently embarked on a new thread to my career, as a content writer for an online educational counselling resource, which is very exciting and challenging, and represents a wonderful opportunity to bring together my twin-passions of psychotherapy and writing.

Lastly (I think!), I will be moving house in the next couple of months. So the landscape of my life and my routine are likely to look quite different by the time I start my research master’s in September.

So how do we manage endings? With regards to my university, I notice in my own process a sense of unreality about finishing the course. This has probably been reinforced by the fact I am returning for the master’s top up, however I will not be seeing peers, engaging with PD and so on; things will be very different and I don’t think my heart has caught up with my head when it comes to the reality of that.

With ending at one of my current placements, I find myself very focused on managing those transitions in a way which is helpful for my clients. While this is undoubtedly an appropriate focus for the therapy room, I need to be aware of the potential emotional impact which these losses are likely to have, probably in part at an unconscious level, and how those processes might become conflated with other change which is occurring in my life. I am in an ongoing process of examining this in supervision and in personal therapy to ensure that my needs in this regard are met outside of my relationships with clients. This isn’t a perfect science of course, but I hope that my awareness of the challenges ahead, and awareness of my patterns in dealing with loss and change will allow me space to navigate this in a way which is as helpful as it can be for all concerned.

I think it is especially useful to look at how we manage change and loss because we will inevitably come face-to-face with loss, grief, feelings of abandonment, difficulty with change and upheaval, and all the feelings which go along with it – from sadness, powerlessness, fear, anger, to excitement and uncertainty – in our work with clients. So our responses to it, how we manage it, our own discomfort and previous experiences are always present and in need of attention in supervision and beyond.

I know from my own experiences as a client that even extended breaks can feel like difficult transitions in the therapeutic relationship, and it may take time for trust and rapport to reestablish after a therapist returns from leave. Are we sufficiently attuned to our clients’ feelings around breaks and changes to the therapeutic frame? I think endeavouring to hear each client, and an openness to therapeutic meta-dialogue are, as ever, vitally important.  I would argue that even changes to session time or a room change may represent difficult transitions for some clients, and it’s important to be alert to this, and open to therapeutic discussion.

So as I take these floating thoughts and feelings and try to make sense of them in my own process, I return to my own imminent transitions and uncharted territory ahead. As I reflect on what is to come, I feel rather comforted by reminding myself that many of the relationships, experiences and memories I will carry forward with me into my master’s year were, just a few years ago, uncharted territory too.

Regulation of Counselling and Psychotherapy – The Search for Common Ground

My latest realisation will probably be old news to anyone who is involved with social media: It has come to my attention that Twitter is something of an echo chamber. That is to say, I have found that my views about issues pertaining to counselling and psychotherapy have been almost completely affirmed by the therapists I have engaged with on Twitter, and somewhat naively, this has lulled me into the false assumption that most therapists in the UK are in accord, particularly when it comes to the issue of statutory regulation of the profession.

My views on regulation of counselling and psychotherapy in the UK have been touched upon in this blog before. I believe that the current situation does not do enough to protect vulnerable clients, and affords too many freedoms to anyone who fancies calling themselves a psychotherapist. I think there is an assumption of accountability which simply does not exist when a therapist in private practice chooses not to be a member of a professional body. For the dissatisfied or abused client, there is nobody to complain to, and nobody to turn to. To me, this is completely unacceptable, and by allowing the status quo, I feel we as a profession are failing in our collective duty of non-maleficence to clients.

So anyway, back to my naive assumption that most therapists think along these lines. Recently, on a closed internet forum, I have been engaging with therapists who are overwhelmingly against statutory regulation. In fact, I believe I have been the sole voice in favour on some of the forum discussions. So much for pottering around my comfortable corner of the twittersphere!

So why the divide? Why is there seemingly this silent split in the profession? And how do we constructively bring these these sides of the debate together for meaningful dialogue?

I do want to say that I think many of the anti-regulation arguments are actually valid concerns that need to be addressed. How, for example, do we ensure that regulation does not lead to homogenisation of the profession? I think it’s very important that any move towards regulation is respectful of the diversity and evolutionary development of psychotherapeutic practice in this country, and does not seek to standardise or snip at the edges of the relational tapestry.

Recently, several professional bodies have come together to work on a framework of competencies for counselling and psychotherapy. I find this encouraging and concerning in equal measure. On the one hand, it seems like common sense that the public should have clarity about what therapy entails, and crucially (to my mind) what the minimum requirements for qualification are. On the other hand, its development has hardly been inclusive; not all professional bodies have been invited to take part (read here for the NCS’s open letter in response to the framework) and membership consultation has been invisible as far as I am aware. I think, if we want to move towards regulation, we need to think carefully about whom we want to do the regulating, and how we ensure that we properly represent the needs of the practitioners who will be impacted by it, as well as their clients.

I have heard a (kind of) compromise suggested, whereby the titles of counsellor, psychotherapist, psychoanalyst etc, become legally protected titles, and anybody wishing to practice under these titles must join a register, justifying their use of the title and stating which professional body they will maintain membership of, adhering to their chosen body’s ethical framework and being accountable to them in the event of complaints. To me this sounds like a promising compromise, avoiding the need for non-expert interference from state regulators, reducing the risk of homogenisation, and also safeguarding clients. While a lot of work would be necessary to realise such an ambitious project, I think it has mileage, and should not be discounted. It has to be preferable to division and mudslinging, which, sadly, I am beginning to feel exists, in pockets, on both sides of the current debate.

From the perspective of a client, I know how a no-regulation system can disenfranchise and disempower. I say this with caution, as I am aware that my own experiences could be used to attempt to invalidate my perspective. I would argue that there is no objective voice in this debate because everybody with investment in the regulatory process brings their own perspectives. So I will say this. My first therapist claimed to be a member of the BACP; this was a lie. Several unethical actions later, I would have liked to have had the opportunity to make a complaint. Of course, this was not possible; there was nobody to complain to. If this individual chooses to practice again, they are free to do so. I have found this set of circumstances extremely difficult to accept, and I sought further therapy, in part to come to terms with this injustice.

I have heard it argued that there are such a small number of these types of cases (I’m not sure how we would know) that mitigating this risk is not worth the risk to the wider profession. I feel that, if there is an identified risk to clients that we can mitigate, then we need to mitigate that risk. If any clients at all face this avoidable situation, we are failing them.

I am still confident that we can find some common ground. That we can work together to achieve something positive. I don’t want a split in the profession, and I don’t think anybody really wants a split in the profession. It will take hard work and respectful dialogue from all sides, but I see no reason why we can’t develop a way forward which both protects clients, and protects psychotherapy, in all of its diverse and creative forms.

Social Media and Ethics – A Therapist’s Online Presence

In my recent blog on Googling therapists, I touched on the subject of the therapist’s responsibility to manage their own online activity. In this blog post I would like to expand on that and highlight some ways in which therapists can ensure their online activity meets the standards of ethical conduct we all aspire to.

I was heartened and inspired by Cathy Knibbs’s recent blog post raising the issue of therapists posting about clients online. It is something I have witnessed on a number of occasions, mostly in Facebook groups and on Twitter. As Cathy Knibbs points out, even that which seems anonymous can be narrowed down, and can even become identifiable information, especially when combined with the poster’s Facebook page details, in the many instances that the therapist’s workplace is listed on their profile. Supervision exists to ethically discuss client work, and posting about it on social media, for whatever reason is very difficult to justify in my opinion.

I think a large part of the problem is that therapists are not always as aware as they perhaps should be of how their online presence can impact on clients. As a relatively tame example, I was once searching for a supervisor, and as part of my process of narrowing down potential supervisors I looked to see if any of my shortlist had social media profiles. One supervisor did, and had written in a public post about how glad they were that it was the weekend because being at work was such a bore! I thought about how their therapeutic clients in particular might have felt if they had read this. I imagine it could be quite hurtful and potentially damaging to the therapeutic alliance. In addition, due to the feelings of shame which can emerge for clients around searching online for their therapists, this hurt may never be brought into the room and never be addressed in the relationship. All of this potential risk of harm to client relationships could have been avoided if the therapist had simply altered their Facebook privacy settings more appropriately, and/or anonymised their personal Facebook account. (This supervisor was promptly crossed off my shortlist).

I feel that any therapist using social media needs to feel confident that they are able to manage their content ethically and safely. If not, there are many resources to help. From online tutorials to help with managing Facebook privacy, to ethical blogging workshops and social media coaching, help is out there and we are each responsible for any gaps in our competency.

I was recently at an event where online conduct and ethics were debated. It seems to me that dilemmas such as “What do I do if a client sends a friend request?” are easily resolved by the presence of a social media policy, which can be made available to the client at the contracting stage outlining what the therapist’s boundaries are around online activity. Hazel Hill has an excellent example of this on her website. Like any boundary consideration, clarity, consistency and dialogue are crucial for avoiding harm. Think ahead and remove the need for reactionary social media policy, which could be received as shaming by any client involved in its creation.

As I have written before, I am aware that by engaging with social media, I am allowing my clients access to thoughts, opinions and areas of my experience which would not be presented in the therapy room. I am self-disclosing with every tweet and blog post. I am mindful of how my words could be received by clients, and I have brought this part of my professional activity to my supervision in order to ensure I am properly reflecting on it.

To me, social media is a valuable platform, both on a personal and a professional level. I love to blog, and to read blogs; I find engagement with other therapists enriching and I feel the knowledge I gain from other bloggers and social media users (including therapists, other professionals and therapy-users too) contributes to my awareness in counselling practice and also in research and professional issues.

The ethics of social media use is a subject gaining traction, I think, and I am hopeful that our awareness will continue to grow. The latest BACP ethical framework requires that “reasonable care is taken to separate and maintain a distinction between our personal and professional presence on social media where this could result in harmful dual relationships with clients”. I feel a significant expansion on this area of ethical conduct would be beneficial for its members and their clients going forward.