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Therapy Thoughts

Daily Musings on the World of Counselling and Supervision


March 15, 2018

Who Needs Counselling?

Who needs counselling…?

Probably the most common opening to a first counselling session is “I’m not sure I need counselling, but…” And I imagine a lot of you reading this might be having the same thought, and the same feelings of hesitation and wariness. So how do you know if you need counselling? It is usually not too difficult to tell when we are unhappy or dissatisfied with life. Often the reason is an obvious one. Maybe a relative or friend has died or we have lost something precious. Maybe we are behaving in ways which are making day-to-day living difficult, obsessing about dripping taps or exploding with anger at work or at school, or harming ourselves in different ways and becoming secretive or dishonest. Sometimes the reason for our unhappiness is less clear. We may feel flat or stifled even when everything is apparently going well. We may be feeling alone despite lots of Facebook friends. We may even feel cross with those we love, parents or partners. And we may feel ashamed that we can’t make everything ok for ourselves, that we should be happy. Or even that we are somehow not like everyone else, that we are bad or evil. But what’s the use in talking to a complete stranger about all that?

Our friends, peers, colleagues and family often notice when we are unhappy. “You don’t seem your usual self today,” they might say, or simply “What’s up? Are you alright?” And we will often answer, “Oh, I’m OK” or, “It’s nothing, I’m just a bit tired”. The point is that it is not easy sharing how we really feel, even when we have suffered a loss and it should be understood by those around us why we are sad. There are many reasons for this. The most common one is being afraid of the consequences. Telling our parents that we are cutting on our legs is likely to lead to a massive row and blame and more upset. We may avoid telling our Line Manager that we feel depressed, for fear that we will be seen as weak or even passed over for promotion. Our friends will listen and be kind but our fear is that we are becoming less and less attractive or fun to be around – that they will tire of us because we are needy and bring down the mood. The ideal person would be somebody with whom we have no ties. Who will listen but not judge us as a fun or dull friend, good or bad child, a weak or strong colleague, a kind or evil person.

Counsellors offer this. A counsellor will listen to what we are saying and also to what we are not saying, what we find difficult or impossible to put into words. A counsellor will accept us exactly as we are, whatever we think of ourselves or what we have done. A counsellor will not give us answers, or tell us how to live our lives, or offer sympathy. A counsellor will work hard to allow us to see for ourselves how other people see us, how we affect other people and how our behaviour links to our ways of understanding the world around us. A counsellor will believe in our potential to be different or to realise our dreams or to make changes when we are struggling to see how that could possibly be.

And, yes, it may feel funny or wrong that we have to pay for this service. It may even feel a bit embarrassing to ask for help. Counsellors train hard to be able to listen to, care for and understand people in this way and to this depth. It is not easy to do this well.

So...who needs counselling? All of us at different times need somebody by our side who knows us, understands us and values us. And once we feel known, understood and worthwhile, then we can start living again...or, maybe, even for the first time. 


February 14, 2018

The Emperor's New Clothes

“I am the credulous man of qualities, ages, races,

I advance from the people in their own spirit,

Here is what sings unrestricted faith.”

(from Starting From Paumanok by Walt Whitman)


Counselling is a profession in crisis. Not because of statutory regulation or fighting over differentiation with psychotherapists or having a thousand different ‘approaches’. Counselling is in crisis because it is a non-profession desperately running away from its own sorry status. It is a profession that demands long drawn-out training, intense and painful self-examination, private funds to train and no job once qualified. Counselling is a middle-class cul-de-sac serving to manage the emotional excesses of middle-class clients (the only ones who can afford it) in order to keep people in employment in order to keep our sophisticated late capitalist economy ticking over. Discuss.

Ok, I’m playing devil’s advocate. But if your back was up reading this opening statement then good! There’s hope yet, and I’m not alone. Counselling is a strange profession: it would be hard to argue that the above is not accurate – yes, we can all argue about the exceptions; the client we see privately at a specially reduced fee; the school counsellor; the NHS counsellor; the counsellors (like me) from a working class background who somehow managed to find the money to train – but these are exceptions that pretty much prove the rule. But then so what? What’s wrong with keeping the economy ticking over? What’s the problem with giving somebody (who can afford it) a bit of time in a complicated and pressured world?

Well, nothing – if that is what you are doing. But if you believe that you are addressing something more fundamental – say, the autonomy and potential and uniqueness that all individuals possess – then, well, we have a problem or two. The first is that if you believe this then everybody deserves this service but only those who can pay will get it. The second is that if you are serving a social, political and economic status quo but believe you are going on a philosophical journey with prized individuals, then you are being about as self-deluding, un-critical, smug and un-genuine as you can get in a profession that expects you, of all professionals, to be the absolute opposite. And if you think this is not you then just pause for a moment and imagine how you would deal with a client who insists that he is quite happy to keep photographing children naked, or embezzling from her smutty boss, or determined to smash in all the windows of a cheating ex. Whose interests would you be drawn to serve then?

But the chances are that you won’t have clients like that. The average price for an individual session on the directory I advertise on is around £38. Think about that. Not defensively (I’ll get onto that in a minute!) £38 for 50 minutes. Of talking. And feeling vulnerable and exposed. Possibly for unclear reasons. With a stranger. Hmm...

Ok, let’s look at defensiveness. Counselling is a bizarrely defensive profession: “Counsellors are the same as psychotherapists!” “We need to earn a living just like everybody else!” “The training has to be long and expensive because that’s how the profession gains truly dedicated members!” “Talking does help!” What does this reveal to us about our profession? Why do counsellors feel the need to explain, justify and prove? Do Fire Fighters do this? Teachers? Lawyers?

Is it because, just maybe, that we are deeply unconvinced about the value, fairness or even usefulness of what we do. That therapy is too elusive to grasp or illuminate. Or even that we are in a profession which is fundamentally religious (but claiming to be empirically scientific). Carl Rogers believed that people were basically good: “[Such a process] involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life. Yet the deeply exciting thing about human beings is that when the individual is inwardly free he chooses as the good life this process of becoming.” (Rogers 2004). I believe this as well. Most psycho-therapeutic approaches which focus on enabling people to reach their potential are not really expecting people to become the most ingenious bank robbers ever or the most poetic serial killers or the most persuasive suicide cultists. We kind of expect the view to be improved from the top of Maslow’s pyramid, the world to be just a little bit of a nicer place. We are in the business of hope and belief. But did your university diploma course, in amongst all the exposing and analysing of psyches in your PDG, the accumulation of techniques and theories, the subtle and intricate un-picking of inter-personal dynamics, ever simply ask what you think of the idea of ‘hope’? Or what your take is on the idea that change has to be something you ‘believe’ possible? This is not the language of a science. Are we afraid of being exposed or of being some weird hybrid? Why not just hold up our hands and admit, yes, we believe life, no matter how hard, is worth living – there’s no evidence for that, it’s just that we are spiritual, hopeful people. Problem is: sounds too hippyish to be taken at all seriously. Not a good position to argue from when faced with governments formulating ideas about standards and regulation.

So the non-profession walks the streets naked but nobody says a thing. How else do we clothe our Emperor? By jumping onto the Accumulation Roundabout. When was the last time your GP told you she’d been busy this last weekend at a workshop which was offering a radical new approach to the problem of Hay Fever management? (And you realised that this was the 10th weekend of professional development she’d been on this year!) Counsellors are constantly, and I mean constantly, inundated with chances to learn a new approach on top of the multitude of theoretical divisions and subdivisions that already exist in our profession (BACP suggests spending at least 30 hours a year on CPD). In a fiercely competitive (no matter how pleasant we are to each other) and overcrowded profession the obsession with building up our CPD and showing that we are actively learning has become a weapon in the war for clients and status. Mindfulness is the buzz therapy; clients want to learn to be mindful; we pay more money – crazy amounts, averaging £100 a workshop – to be able to offer Mindfulness. (Maybe CPD serves to weed out those poverty stricken counsellors still hanging around...) What happened to all our training? All those inspiring theories of Rogers, Perls and Frankl, those pioneering examples of counselling practice? Are we committed to a career of never-ending updates clumsily consolidated with or pushed into a forced marriage with our original style and ways of working? Are we again deluding ourselves: thinking that accumulation is the same as enrichment; becoming shallow and all-performing rather than deep and really good at one thing? Didn’t our training show that it can take a lifetime to be really good at counselling? Rogers and Co. worked really hard to be good at this because it is really hard to do well. Read that last sentence again. And again. If you don’t agree then you are in the wrong profession. Seriously. Poor counselling, lazy (i.e. unreflective) counsellors, counsellors who won’t acknowledge that to work privately means running a business, counsellors unable to articulate their business, and confused and dissatisfied clients do not help our profession look professional or have any coherence or to even look like we know what we are doing.

Why is counselling so difficult? Because it is both laughably easy – sitting and listening well – and dauntingly complex – maintaining a human connection that feels warm and caring with an unhappy client whilst keeping track of all the physical, verbal, subtle, unsaid, elements that constitute such an encounter whilst being intelligent and creative about this and not becoming distracted by working on several levels simultaneously and still staying in the moment to be affected by the client’s distress but not compromised by it (...deep breath). And it’s hard for another reason: it requires empathy.

I broke my hand recently, the first break in my life. I thought of all those Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan or James Bond movies in which bones are (fictionally) broken and how they had seemed cartoony. Now I recall those scenes differently. The pain being represented could now and would forever be communicated to me in a language that I now understand. I imagined the pain before. Now I know. Empathy is tricky. You can imagine; but you can never know. This is not an article about empathy and others have written very eloquently and intelligently about this elsewhere (Mearns and Thorne 2007). The point here is that the task of empathising also makes counselling hard to do. It is a difficult skill to master and one that requires a lot of reflective practice, philosophical thought and really good supervision. Not £200 workshop weekends.

I love counselling. I love guiding counsellors through supervision. I am passionate about it. None of this would matter to me if I wasn’t. I can be creative, philosophical, intelligent, caring; I can be myself whilst benefitting another. I do believe (how casually we use that word) that we are in a time of turmoil both internally (the nature of our work, CPD, lack of employment) and externally (regulation), and part of my agenda here is to - at the very least - encourage counsellors to acknowledge this. I hope (that word again) that as a profession we are finding a clear identity, and can wear that identity with confidence. I’d like to be proud to be a counsellor. I deserve to be. We all do. We’ve worked hard to qualify. And it would be good if everyone knew what I did, just as everyone knows what a teacher does, without a complicated explanation and a sort of half-expected soft critical attack.

And then when the child says what everyone else is thinking – that the Emperor is naked – well, he’ll be mistaken, and on a second look he will see something attractive, regal and proud of itself. And he’ll tell everyone all about it.


Whitman, Walt. Leaves Of Grass. New American Library, 1855, reprinted 1980.

Mearns, Dave, and Brian Thorne. Person-Centred Counselling in Action. Sage Publications, 2007.

Rogers, Carl. On Becoming A Person. Constable, 2004.

Craig Smith is a counsellor and supervisor in private practice in Bristol and Bath and working for the NHS.  With his partner Anne Shiner he runs Erdkinder, a Montessori inspired Saturday nature club for children, just south of Bath (

He is currently planning a series of (affordable!) workshops called Pause Workshops which will allow practitioners time to explore the ideas in this article in greater depth.

Contact for details.

©Craig Smith 2010


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