Book Review: Voices from the Field – Defining Moments in Counsellor and Therapist Development,

Edited by M Trotter-Mathison, J Koch, S Sanger and T Skovholt:

Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group 2010. ISBN: 978 0 415 995757

Reviewed by Ursula Somerville

Have you ever wondered what you would identify as your defining moment in life?  Voices from the Field is just such a book. The book was born from a series of brief story-like articles, by Tom Skovholt and Patricia McCarthy, from the counselling profession in a special issue of Journal of Counselling and Development in 1988 relating to “critical incidents/turning points” in a counsellor’s life. Three of the above named editors explored the stories as part of their doctoral seminars.

The book is set out covering the “Lay Helper Phase”, “Beginning Student Phase”, “Advanced Student Phase”, “Novice Professional Phase”, “Experienced Professional Phase” and the “Senior Professional Phase”. Each chapter is: Introduced, has a Chapter Summary and a unique section of Questions which can be used to self reflect, to create further dialogue regarding what counselling is “supposed” to “look like, be like or feel like”. Some 84 practitioners, at different stages in their professional development, write about their defining moments in both professional and personal lives. It is an easy to read book with each experience taking two to three pages in length.

The lay helper phase is for the non-professional who uses themselves to help others. At this phase they would not be trained and so could be with friends, siblings, co-workers and I might add the voluntary helper. It is noted that often times the lay helper will use this skill to bring them into formal training in this work. In “An Obstructed View” the anonymous author tells of his/her defining moment where they attempted suicide as giving them a perspective of “…from the inside out the fragile balance that depressed individuals sometimes maintain between life and death, hope and despair, moving forward and ceasing all motion”. and “… gaining distance from the attempt….showed him/her that …depression can be insidious and that it lies”.

In the beginning student phase Andrew Weis tells us of the supervisor who thought that the “secret knowledge” therapists are sometimes presumed to have of their clients should be kept so as he worked with a client in a humanistic way while she was suffering with bulimia. They collaboratively worked through treatment options which would best suit her. This experience with his supervisor showed him that sharing knowledge with your client and supervisee can be empowering for them.

The advanced student Laura Sobik talks about the loss of a client to suicide and about her fear of speaking about it in print. Notwithstanding this she speaks about the effect this event had on her and the support she looked for and received and how this had been a defining moment for her in her work. All therapists who have experienced this and indeed all of them who fear it will “happen to them” would do well to read this article. Jeffrey Rings takes us through the existential work of a dying client. He frankly talks about “not giving her illness much notice ….. turning instead to the next client who would turn up….”. He talks in the present tense about his client’s pending death and shares how, even as he writes this defining moment up, he is allowing “more than a couple of teardrops to be released from his eyes”. In another chapter a Geropsychologist talks about his elderly patients who die and he quotes a simple remark from Dr Seuss “Don’t cry because it’s over – smile because it happened” as he explains his personal experience of losing his patients.

In the novice professional phase we meet with Sally Hage who shares her experience of meeting with a client who was abused as a child and now more recently has become an abuser and Sally talks through how she manages this in her work and personal life and how this was a defining moment for her she talks about being “in over her head” her co-facilitator was very different to her as she describes him as ….older, reserved and cautious. She interpreted his deep sighs as weariness and so she pulls on Skovholt’s theory of the two sides of the Turtle, the feeling underbelly and the hard shell – one to attach to empathise and the other to protect the worker from getting hurt/burned out.

In the experience professional phase we meet with Richard Ponton as he talks about his own wife’s suffering from a brain tumour and how this impacts on him and his work. He talks of suffering being a process of letting go. “The dying patient lets go of life, dreams of the future and the illusion of control” the suffering husband “lets go of wife, mother, friend, dreams of the future and illusion of control”. He further states that the “client suffering with addiction, the unemployed, the depressive, the grieving … each lets go of something and all let go of dreams of the future and the illusion of control”. In this chapter, also, Sarah Hastings describes the transition of moving from clinical practice to academia.  She reflects how her personal temperament is humanistic and she describes that the academic setting is geared to “… one looks within to chart one’s own course … less focus on others’ needs than on what the individual scholar wants to demonstrate.  Perhaps suggesting a different set of skills for academic and for clinical work!

In the senior professional phase Tom Skovholt talks about the birth of his beautiful children and includes the time of birth. He laces his experience with Bowlby’s attachment theory to further help his reader understand how his attachments were formed. He gives an analogy of the three-legged stool when he says “… we sit on a three legged stool when we do our work.  The legs are theory and research, practitioner experience and personal life.  All three legs give stability to the stool as we try, as practitioners, to understand and help most complex of all species.  He further states “my life as a father has given me much that feeds into the personal life leg of the stool”.  I wondered, as I reflected on this image, if we start off with a “milking stool” and if this stool increases in size as we progress through our professional/personal development. He is still counting the days of his defining moments which are 9,033 days for the birth of his daughter and the magic of his son’s as 7,832 days.

Also covered in this book was the chapter about a school shooting and how one therapist trusted her personal experience to introduce her school to Animal Assisted Therapy and, in particular, Canine Healing.

This really is a “one size fits all” book. As I read this book I was thinking of all the people that would benefit from having it on their shelf, and the book makes it very clear, that students, supervisors, trainers together with practitioners would be the benefiters. But what really struck me was the therapist who may be in a quiet corner of Ireland or indeed in a busy city. If you are one of the therapists’ who feels isolated and lonely at times in this work then I would urge you to pick up a copy of this book and instantly you will feel “connected” to many others out there all over the world who talk so candidly about their defining moments. I found that, as I read this book, I was aware of being a part of this bigger outside world and that good work was taking place in each corner of the world for both clients and practitioners.

Ursula Somerville is a Psychotherapist, who works in private practice in Rathfarnham and Dublin City Centre