I was recently thumbing through a back-issue of a psychology magazine and came across one of those ‘short interview with a therapist’ type things.
The gentleman therapist in question had only decided to retrain after his retirement, expressing how he felt he wanted to give back to society. However as I continued reading something bristled deep inside leaving me feeling rather unsettled. The interviewer asked, ‘have you ever been in therapy?’ to which he replied, “No! I’ve never needed to!”
It spun me back to a lecture we had at University in which the professor uttered the words now permanently etched on my brain: "Never trust a therapist who hasn’t had therapy."
Now of course that is a huge generalisation and for the record I’m absolutely not saying qualified-practitioner-therapy-virgins don’t know a thing or two about the profession. I know many skilled counsellors who travelled the academic route without living the syllabus, but in my experience those who possess that certain instinctual flair speak from a place of core wound and subsequent healing.
In my late teens and early twenties I struggled. I struggled like hell. Raised in a single parent household my mother battled (although mostly in complete denial) with alcohol all her life. Sofa-surfing and jobless by 17 I found drugs, boys and alcohol were rather fun alternatives to escape the crushing pain of abandonment and rejection (N.B Mum left me for a violent and abusive man who shared her passion for alcohol. Both are now deceased due to their addictions).
I remember my early childhood as being a very confusing time, Mum would lavish me with love and attention but fly off the handle for no particular reason. She would talk to me like an adult friend after she’d downed a bottle of wine - I had absolutely no boundaries. I was obsessively washing my hands by aged 7, a latch-key kid by 9, and hurled into the GP’s office aged 10 by a hysterical mother who demanded to know what was wrong with me. I later got into trouble for not showing the GP my ‘real behaviour.’
By aged 25 I entered into counselling for the first time accepting that although things in my life were now relatively stable, something didn’t feel quite right.
My counsellor (a trainee CBT practitioner) didn’t seem all that interested in my journey in which I had experienced abuse and neglect and clearly presented with emotional instability, attachment issues, no confidence or self-worth, major depression, anxiety, frequent panic attacks, dissociative states, some self-harm, impulsivity, maladaptive behaviours and evidence of substance abuse. Instead we focussed on what HE deemed to be the main problem: why I didn’t have the confidence to talk to a guy I had a crush on.
It wasn’t until several years later that I had 21 - sessions of Cognitive Analytic Therapy courtesy of an IAPT service with a fantastic, kind, attentive and authentic man. Each week I would pour my heart out as we did ‘the work.’ Together we painstakingly collaborated (on one occasion him holding his head on his desk) helping me to make sense of my life and learn the art of self-acceptance.
'Over the years I have had around 70-sessions of counselling of different types with different practitioners; some good, some bad, some bloody awful..'
I screamed, I got angry at him, I wept in grief and anguish - I projected all the unresolved dysfunctional toxic material from the relationship with my mother into our dyad which he held securely, compassionately and patiently.
He made me realise (much to my initial resistance) that I was in a relationship with an abusive narcissist (I was) and that I was making excuses for his terrible behaviour because I could understand where his pain came from: Jones knows her onions, said the therapist.
One afternoon he mentioned that he thought I had what it took to be a very good counsellor and I explained how I’d often thought about it but couldn’t because of ‘reasons’. It was at that moment I realised all my ‘reasons’ were in fact ‘fear-based excuses’ and within the next few years I had qualified with a postgraduate diploma in Counselling and Psychotherapy on a recognised BACP accredited University course. I worked 60-hours per week to finance the goal and burned-out on many occasions. During essay writing times I would scream and sob into pillows, collapsing under the strain of it all and feeling alone. But I stuck with it. All us trainees did.
Over the years I have had around 70-sessions of counselling of different types with different practitioners; some good, some bad, some bloody awful (one therapist informed me that he communicated with the aliens to help him in his practice). Those that have been bang on the money in terms of their awareness, observations, communications, interventions, empathy and guidance have all been through the mill. They have lived the syllabus first-hand.
And are we ever fixed? Do lifelong patterns of negative behaviours and thought processes vanish in a puff of smoke because you get letters and awards after your name? Of course not. But the knowledge and self-awareness acts as a constant referee to the habitual and destructive thoughts until the frequency of them slowly diminishes and gradually peace begins to creep into your life.
'My experience of mental health issues has given me the tools to be an empathic badass. They don’t teach you that in class.'
In times of stress my OCD will make itself more apparent. I like to nip this in the bud by visualising a bloody big red stamp smashing out the thought and then making myself a cup of tea. These days my anxiety has become a manageable and endearing shyness (despite the fact I’m viewed by others as a confident fun-loving extrovert) and my severe numbing depression gives way to occasional low days (I tend to self-care the shit out of low days). I have learned to accept my past but not let it define me or my future and I’m now a very happy 38-year old with an incredible partner and a fluffy feline familiar. I let go of what doesn’t serve me (jobs, friends, situations) and I now practice what I preach.
When a client walks into my office I am not a fake stuffy clinical practitioner assuming the role of a perfect professional. I am flawed, just like everyone else, and because of this I am honest. In retrospect, every ‘Eureka!’ moment in my own personal therapy arose from the therapist spontaneously disclosing their own private pain, demonstrating to me that it can and will be overcome through blood, sweat and tears. They were the proof and now I am.
Therapy is hard work and if it doesn’t feel like it perhaps you’re not being challenged enough.
My experience of mental health issues has given me the tools to be an empathic badass. They don’t teach you that in class.
I would personally be extremely cautious of any counsellor who hadn’t sat in the client seat at one time or another. It’s a world of valuable information and insight to integrate into practice. And as for any practitioner who remarked: ‘Well, I’ve never needed it!’ – have a good long think as to whether they’re the right person for you. For me, that comment smacked of ‘them and us’ which certainly does nothing to equalise the power imbalance in the therapeutic relationship or help reduce the stigma.
Connection and relationship is everything in this field of work. Trust your instincts and go with your gut.
Steph Jones is a BACP Registered Counsellor and Psychotherapist supporting individuals and couples at her private practice Steph Jones Counselling and Psychotherapy in Stockport, Cheshire. A former Executive Board Member of MIND Manchester, radio presenter, musician and journalist, Steph continues to write for a number of wellbeing publications and is currently working on a book. She lives with partner Mike and Ziggy the cat.
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