When I first began my training to become a Children’s Counsellor in 2013, I had no idea what the person-centred approach meant and had never even heard of the term before. I just knew that I wanted to work with children and young people in a helping capacity, something which I distinctly remember was lacking from the adults in my life as a young person.
Witnessing domestic violence as a young child, growing up with very little money or social privileges and being exceptionally shy led to severe bullying and a subsequent ‘phobia’ of attending school.
As I grew older so did my insecurities and the discrimination I felt from my peers and teachers for having time off school and being ‘different’, which all only seemed to add to my low self-esteem and anxieties.
I began to experience somatic illnesses (physical symptoms such as pain and fatigue- which cause emotional distress) and at the age of sixteen I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome and depression. I saw doctors, social workers and psychologists throughout my childhood who all focused on diagnosing, medicating, teaching (through reality correcting) or frightening me with warnings of my mum being sent to prison for not sending me to school.
Needless to say- none of these approaches helped me, instead I felt that they did the opposite and after each appointment I came away feeling ashamed of myself and became convinced that my mental health problems indicated a fundamental flaw in my personality and who I am as a person.
As I developed into my adult self, these thoughts and feelings never left me and I had very little faith in myself. What’s more I began to depend on others and believe that these ‘experts’ knew more about me than I ever could! There was always a feeling deep within me that perhaps I could be more than the labels I had been given all of my life, I could prove everybody wrong and more importantly I could prove myself wrong and believe in myself again.
During my first few weeks of training, I was slightly skeptical and somewhat aggrieved by the amount of ‘personal development’ required from me by my course leaders. I just wanted to get on with the actual skills I needed to learn to become a qualified counsellor. The non-directive approach from my tutors and PD facilitator felt like an alien concept to me and I was left feeling like I hadn’t been taught efficiently. After all, that’s what education is all about isn’t it? Somebody else who knows better than you do, telling you how to think and what to do in order to become a person of greater value to your society.
It wasn't until I read Dibs (Axline, 1964), the true story of a young boy who, to everybody else in his world was considered mentally retarded. However, his therapist and the author of this book found him to be extremely intellectually gifted and helped him to find himself, using non-directive play therapy which was influenced by Carl Rogers’ person-centred approach (1957).
This was a revolutionary read for me and helped me to see the effectiveness of the person-centred approach. At that point it was like a light had switched on within me and I realised this was what was missing from my own childhood. Furthermore, It became clear to me that this ‘way of being’ (Rogers, 1980) was not a skill or intervention which I could be taught to use with my clients but rather an attitude that I needed to internalise and inherit to enable me to form strong therapeutic alliances at relational depth (Mearns et al, 2005).
Suddenly it all made sense, the non-directiveness of my tutors and the personal development which seemed to take up the majority of our course was the learning.
By the end of my first year of training, I was flooded with a mixture of feelings including fear and apprehension, for I knew by then this would not simply be an academic course but a lifelong commitment to change, self-discovery and leaving my vulnerabilities and defences with nowhere to hide.
The next three years were a paradox of the most difficult yet awakening times of my entire life. The journey was hard to stay with at times, I experienced strong feelings which I had never allowed myself to get in touch with before. I uncovered the conditions of worth, introjected values, denials and distortions which all made up part of my self-concept (Rogers, 1959). In fact, true to my previous distortions, I began to believe that I wasn’t cut out for this and I almost quit the course but remarkably I couldn’t keep myself away. It was like a strong force coming from deep within me urging me to push through the psychological pain and difficult experiences that faced me with every day.
With the weekly occurrence of PD, reflective journals and personal therapy, I learnt to stay with those previously denied feelings and adopt an existential method of enquiry into them. By learning to ‘trust the process’ I could actually feel myself opening up and becoming curious about my experiencing with a distinct lack of defensiveness or a need to ‘control’ my thoughts and feelings. Rogers (1989) called this process ‘becoming a person’ and that is exactly what I was doing… becoming myself.
With this new understanding about myself I developed a deep sense of sincere compassion towards my inner child, younger self and all that I had been through. The societal and circumstantial influences which left me feeling distressed suddenly felt OK to not be OK about. This learning was something which I now appreciate more than any other form of knowledge I have learnt in an educational setting or indeed from any other therapist I had encountered previously. Furthermore, I finally began to feel free to believe in myself again, for this phenomenological approach to human life felt in such alignment with my own core values which had been buried deep within me waiting for the right conditions to flourish.
Those conditions were empathy, unconditional positive regard (UPR) and congruence, otherwise known as the three ‘core’ conditions of Carl Rogers’ six necessary and sufficient conditions for therapeutic change (Rogers, 1957). In addition to experiencing these conditions from my peers and tutors, I began to extend them to myself and effectively become my own therapist! This experiential way of learning has become such a valuable source of inner wisdom that I am convinced of the effectiveness of the person-centred approach because I have experienced its effectiveness for myself.
My training to become a person-centred counsellor has been so much more than a career change, it has been the path back to my inner self.
At that point forward, I knew where my passion to help children and young people had really come from. I didn’t need ‘experts’ to ‘fix’ me, all I needed was a compassionate, empathic and patient adult to believe in me and my own capacity for growth. I eventually healed the hurt within me whilst training to help others to do the same. This is what I hope to extend to all of my future clients, the philosophical belief system which is fundamental to the person-centred approach, that no amount of direction or guidance from me will help ‘cure’ them of their emotional distress. The respect and belief in each and every one of them and their actualising tendencies to become their own expert into their unique lives, and more importantly the privilege to become their companion on the biggest and most important journey of their lives.. The journey of self-discovery.
Claire Austin lives in Suffolk and is in her fourth and final year of training, currently volunteers at a secondary school as a trainee counsellor and is passionate about promoting children and young peoples mental health. For self-care she enjoys listening to music, long walks and down time with her Dalmatian ....oh and reading. If you'd like to get in touch with Claire you can do this via email here or take at look at her new blog here
Axline, V. M., 1964. Dibs: In Search of Self: Personality development in play therapy. United Kingdom: Penguin Books
Mearns, D. and Thorne, B. 2005. Working at Relational Depth in Counselling and Psychotherapy. London: Sage
Rogers, C.R. 1957. The necessary and sufficient Conditions of the therapeutic Personality change, in Kirschenbaun, H. and Henderson, V. L. Eds.1990. The Carl Rogers Reader London: Constable. Ch. 16 Pp 219-235
Rogers, C., 1959. A Theory of Therapy, Personality and Interpersonal Relationships as Developed in the Client-centered Framework. In (ed.) S. Koch, Psychology: A Study of a Science. Vol. 3: Formulations of the Person and the Social Context. New York: McGraw Hill
Rogers, C. R., 1980. A Way of Being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Rogers, C., 1989. The Carl Rogers reader. Boston: Houghton Mifflin