Becoming a Counsellor – a Trainee’s Perspective

by Lena Lenehan

Wisdom accepts that all things have two sides

Carl G Jung.

In writing this article I am conscious of looking at the two sides of counselling training, one being full of excitement and hope while the other is one of doubt and struggle.  This was confirmed for me by reading my journal from the last two years as part of my preparation before putting pen to paper.  The process so far can be summarised in one word ‘change’.

Before commencing this training programme I tested the waters by doing some night classes in psychology subjects.  These were undemanding in that they were assignment and exam free, yet opened the door to new knowledge.  I then proceeded to do a diploma in human resource management.   This course was delivered by a wonderful lecturer whose encouragement and support instilled confidence in me and lessened my fear of assignments and exams.

It then came to a choice of ‘what do I really want to do’?  I had always been interested in counselling so I decided the time was now right to begin training.

Course Outline

The course is a 4-year degree programme.  It comprises skills training and academic subjects.  It places a specific focus on the psychodynamic and humanistic approaches.  Attendance is mandatory and students attend lectures on a weekly basis plus one weekend per month.  During the first 2 years students are also required to attend group work for 30 weeks per year and are expected to do personal therapy. In 3rd and 4th year students begin to work with clients under supervision.

 Beginning

The first weekend together began tentatively, yet there was a sense of looking forward to a new journey.  We had all come from different walks in life and one of the first exercises we did involved walking around, introducing ourselves to one another, and finding out what we did to help us relax.  At the end of the weekend I felt excited and exhausted.  My head was full of timetables and reading lists, and it all seemed a bit daunting.  The fact that we all had a shared purpose helped the formation of bonds of friendship between us.  The collective doubt of ‘are we nuts to be putting ourselves through this’ strengthened that bond!

Group Work

‘Oh wad some power the giftie gie us
To see ourselves as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An foolish notion’
Robert Burns

Weekly group work began with 10 of us sitting in a room in a circle and wondering; what’s this about?  The silence at the start was deafening and I remember just noticing the table in the middle complete with a large box of tissues.  Our facilitator informed us that it was a process group as opposed to a therapy group and that we did not have a working agenda!

We muddled around for the first few weeks discussing the safe topics of college work and assignments.  These topics featured time and time again during periods of stress and tension and when we became fearful of addressing the real issues.

I began to feel very frustrated and felt the need to chance going to a deeper level and in so doing, I became very familiar with that box of tissues.  I risked being honest and exposing myself and felt vulnerable and frightened in doing so.  In the third week the group felt a sense of achievement in challenging our facilitator.  However, the next weekend we were in college we found out that all the other groups had done the same thing and we began to think we weren’t so original after all!

I began my personal therapy at this time also.  This was mainly due to a new awareness from group work that made me realise that I had quite a lot of stuff neatly packed away.  It was now overflowing and demanding my attention.  At times I became overwhelmed with sadness and a sense of abandonment and loss.  I also think that the dynamics of the group had a domino effect in that what was happening for one member very often struck a chord with the rest of us and gradually helped us to be more real in our sessions.

Over time the gap between my outer self that I had presented to the group and my inner self that I had felt compelled to protect lessened.  I found the group hugely supportive and also challenging.  I feel it is a good idea to be in personal therapy in addition to group work as it can act as a back up so that if something is triggered in group, there is a safety net to process it further.

All this sounds as if we were very serious in our group work.  And sometimes we were.  We had our conflicts and for me the way that these were handled became the greatest learning.  The expression of anger and the experience of conflict had always evoked feelings of terror for me.  Yet the way the group worked through this reduced my fear and helped me recognise the healing power of anger.  We also had a lot of fun and laughter.  I was constantly amazed at how our facilitator could pull the various strands of our spoken thoughts together and produce a theme for each session.

I miss group work.  I think we had reached a point where our masks were dissolving and we could have gone on to do good work together.  It’s like the words from my daughter’s favourite song at the moment “you know when you’ve found it cos you feel it when they take it away”.  I’m glad to have experienced two years of group work, it strengthened me and I made some really strong friendships in my group.

Personal Therapy

‘People’s backyards are much more interesting than their front gardens’

 John Betjeman

As mentioned I started my personal therapy at the beginning of 1st year.  It was good to have the excuse of it being a compulsory part of the course, as I may not have gone at all, even though I needed to, if left to my own devices.

Personal therapy is the foundation block of my training and I find it a great support system.  It works on many levels.  It has enabled me to understand what it means to be a client.  Sitting opposite my therapist for the first time I was full of apprehension. Looking back on it now I can see how it took quite a while to establish our relationship and for me to learn to trust her.  My backyard was a jungle and exploring it with her was at times terrifying.  I felt like I was swimming in a sea of emotions.  I cried a lot of tears and became needy and reached out to those close to me to mind me.  I am so grateful that they did and their gentleness helped me through stormy waters.  I have now learned to mind myself (most of the time) and going to personal therapy has been a form of re-parenting.  This does not mean that everything is solved, but rather that the load now seems to be a lot more manageable and I feel a great sense of liberation.

Another value of personal therapy is being able to observe how my therapist works.  I notice how she uses her skills and I feel comfortable talking with her about the development of our therapeutic relationship.  She also provides a space where I can bring my doubts about my progress in training and she helps to build my confidence and belief that I can do a good enough job.  Going to therapy has confirmed my belief in the benefits of counselling and therapy.

Skills Training

Our skills’ training involves reading material around the theory of counselling, coupled with skills practice in the classroom setting.  The practice is mainly in the form of role-play.  I think initially I struggled with this part due to its false setting.  At times our trainer was subjected to our innovative methods of resistance as we engaged her in discussion on any topic so as to avoid actual practice.

This year our trainer has proposed a mixture of role-play coupled with the use of personal material.  The course material for theory and practice has also increased. However she has put this in a very structured format and in doing so has alleviated much of my anxiety.

We are also giving and receiving more constructive feedback.  This is probably due to the fact that we all know each other a lot better at this stage and though we are positive with feedback, we also recognise the need for each of us to be aware of the areas that we could improve on.  This honesty in feedback is very productive and thought provoking and feels better as we are being given a clearer picture of how we are doing with our skills development.

Body matters

‘I think therefore I am is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothache’

M Kundera.

The stress response module to our course provided us with an opportunity to study the relationship between the body and the mind.  We learned how sometimes our physiological, cognitive and emotional states can be in disharmony with each other and looked at how working with each individual part can lead to a more integrated state.

The relaxation part of this module was extremely valuable.  The benefit of taking time out for relaxation was much needed on our weekends in college.  Sometimes the exercises were so soothing that they resulted in the sounds of deep breathing and at times snoring as soon as our bodies hit the floor.

This part of the course also helped us to realise the importance of taking care of ourselves and our bodies in this work.  By paying attention to my body it became easier to notice symptoms of stress and fatigue as well as feelings of anxiety or depression.  We also looked at somatics and trauma and the role of the body in both of these areas.  Being able to recognise the symptoms of trauma and noticing my difficulty with doing the body exercises gave me insight into exploring different parts of my life from a new perspective.

Assessment

Assignments and Exams!  Two words that are almost guaranteed to produce panic and anxiety.  The good bit is that getting through each year and passing exams is exhilarating and provides a great sense of achievement.  We celebrated each year by going away for a weekend together after the dreaded exam month of May.  I think it would be helpful if we had a time management workshop at the beginning of the course.  I know I spend more time thinking about writing an assignment rather than actually sitting down and writing it.

We were required to work in groups for some of our assignments.  Working on group assignments helped me to learn the difference between being responsible for and responsible to another person.  It helped me look at my perfectionist bit that is my cover for not being good enough. It also helped me recognise my need to be a caretaker and how this can impact on my relationships with others. I learned to trust my colleagues to do their part and it was a comforting feeling that helped to lessen my sense of responsibility overload.

The academic part of our course covers a wide range of subjects.  Most of them are interesting, some less so.  However I think they serve a very useful purpose as it feels like I can pick and choose the relevant bits and add them to a toolbox of knowledge.

Client Work

Before beginning my placement I worked for two years as a telephone counsellor with a voluntary organisation.  This gave me an opportunity to solidify my skills training.  It also felt good to be part of a team of volunteers who wanted to give time to be there for others when needed.  In addition it helped me to identify which area I would like to work in long term.

We attended a workshop in the college at the end of 2nd year to help us with the practicalities of client work.  Finding a placement can prove to be a catch 22 situation for students in that, quite a lot of agencies want people with client work experience. But how do students get that if they cannot find a placement to build up their hours?

Each student received a letter from college recommending us for client work and detailing the course outline.  I found this very helpful when approaching organisations for work.  However, I wonder if in an ‘ideal world’ counselling training colleges could look at setting up low cost counselling services.  This would benefit clients who cannot afford a full counselling fee and would also be an avenue where students of the college could work with clients under supervision.

Finding my own placement was like a dream come true.  I remember driving home after my interview and being over the moon with joy that they had accepted me.  I was so impressed with the organisation; they have a very structured approach to placement work.  I had an induction meeting and was given outlines of supervision and also the practical aspects of work such as keys for the building, noting appointments in the diary, becoming comfortable in the therapy rooms and meeting the team of therapists who work there.

Before meeting my first client I was both excited and nervous.  I got great support from my colleagues beforehand with comments such as ‘you won’t notice the camera in the corner’ and ‘the microphones are well hidden’!  It was exactly what I needed, I felt accepted and their teasing good humour helped me to relax.

I was reading Michael Kahn’s book ‘Between Therapist and Client’ recently and found comfort in the passage where he described his great satisfaction ‘at the moment students realise that whey they are in the counselling room, they don’t need to don a therapist mask, a therapist voice, a therapist posture and a therapist vocabulary.  They can discard those accoutrements because they have much more than that to give their clients’.

When I am with a client I am not conscious of ‘using skills’.  I sit with whatever is happening for the client at the time and feel really present in the room.  When I think about the session afterwards I sometimes remember moments when my client would have said; ‘exactly’ or ‘that’s it’ and I then realise that I must have been reflecting, paraphrasing or summarising and feel glad that my client felt that I was listening and trying to understand his world.

Supervision

I have group supervision in college and I also have personal and group supervision in my placement work.  This is very much a new experience for me.  I find it a great support for my client work and for me, both in and out of my work.  I also feel I will learn a lot from my supervisor.

At this new stage my immediate thoughts on supervision are that I need to be honest and open with my supervisor and that I need to look at our relationship as well as the work we do therein.  My first reaction to her was one of total admiration as I think she’s an amazing woman.  However, my being in awe of her stifled me and I remember feeling relieved at the end of our first session.  I then needed to risk letting her see my feelings of vulnerability and nervousness.  It didn’t feel like a risk afterwards as she helped me feel safe and normal.  I now feel enthusiastic about our work together and feel supported in a respectful and understanding environment.

Life Now!

‘There is no cure and no improving of the world that does not begin with the individual himself’

 Carl G Jung

I am ending with this quote as it sums up how I feel about counselling.  My life has changed a lot since I began this course and I embrace that change.  There are still moments of sadness and doubt and sometimes the journey feels like one step forward, two steps back, but my overall feeling is one of hope.  When I was writing this article I asked my daughter what she now thought of my training to be a counsellor.  Her response was ‘it’s cool’ – the ultimate affirmation in my book!

Lena Lenehan is a 3rd year student in Bachelor of Arts in Counselling and Psychotherapy at DBS School of Arts.

References

Kahn, M (2001) Between Therapist and Client : The New Relationship (Rev.ed.) New York: Henry Holt and Company.