As a therapist I give you my self. In fact, whichever therapist you saw; beneath their training, their professional identities, and their theories, you would also get the self, the person of the therapist engaging with and responding to you in their uniqueness. The Boston Change Process Study Group (2010) wrote about this: that what we remember about having therapy, what stays with us, is the lasting personal ‘signature’ of our therapist. So when I say that I give you my self, what is it then that you’re getting? In this blog I want to explore that a little.
I’m a nice guy. I genuinely want you to feel good about yourself and to feel like I’m someone you can trust, because I know how precious it is to be able to trust someone. I’m also fascinated by you, and your story, and I reflect on what you’ve told me after you’ve gone. I hold your story session by session, such that when you arrive we can go straight back into it – you know that I know, and that I understand the importance of what you’re telling me.
I am an unshakable optimist. I believe that there are always things we can do to move in the direction of our most treasured values and visions. I’ve written about this in more depth in my blog post ‘Living with a compass, living with the absence of one’. So I suppose I subscribe to the view that hope springs eternal. And as your therapist there may be times when I hold your hope when you feel that there is none.
As a musician I listen out for harmony – in ideas and forms that transcend language; that may be translatable between lives and situations. I feel a similar thing walking in nature. As a University lecturer this probably accounts for my love of theory including the many forms of psychological theory as shared with my characteristic geeky enthusiasm for our students. Thus as a therapist I can offer you approaches which are pluralistic in nature (Cooper and Dryden, 2016; McLeod, 2018) – that come from different schools of thought, but have elemental truths about human experience within them.
At the same time I find myself to be something of a devotee of an approach called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. I’m sold on its core ideas: of the transformative potential of acceptance and of committed action, and I will have lots of thoughts on how these ideas can apply in your life.
I also believe there is something very powerful about being able to know and accommodate our ‘dark sides’, what Carl Jung might have called the Shadow: those parts of us that we feel are shameful, unacceptable, and that we have to work so hard to conceal. It can be tremendously liberating to share our darker sides in therapy – to have these accepted and understood, perhaps even embraced, within the context of the whole of who we are – and as your therapist I want you to feel safe enough to be able to share your darker sides with me.
I have also always pivoted towards beauty, in people and in life; it has been something of a compass point for me. To some extent I agree with Plato where he declared that ‘beauty is truth’, and yet it is also true that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. I love to know what you find beautiful, because I think that embedded within that is your truth.
I am an introvert by nature and thus solitude is an essential part of my life too – I’ve often seen solitude as a wellspring of creativity as well as energy. I am also quite a shy person. What this means in practice is that as the group gets larger, I get quieter and more withdrawn – something of an inverse proportion relationship. I share these things because they reflect some of the vulnerability that you will see in me – that are part of my ‘realness’ to you.
At the same time the constancies of my life are the core people that are in it: like priceless jewels which sit at the heart of it all, and give life its fullness and meaning. I notice this mostly when I’m travelling for work: not quite lonely but otherwise somehow empty.
I have a decade’s experience as a therapist now – and I share with each new client I work with something new and utterly unique. I see us all as making a great journey – like the great migrations of animals in nature – life and death stuff - and I’ve felt so privileged to travel with others at different stages of their own journey. I aspire to be a worthy fellow traveller.
And I am just completing my PhD research – in which my obsession has been with change in therapy: what does change look like, and how is change facilitated? There are many things that therapy can be ‘about’, but perhaps what you would find working with me was that change is always on the agenda. You will have your own ideas about what change means to you, indeed where change needs to happen in your life. Recently a student remarked that this approach to change was like taking a taxi: you climb in, you say where you want to go, the driver has some knowledge of how to get there but as we pull into the block it is the passenger, the client, who recognises it: “Ah this is me, this is my where I need to be!”
So there are a few of the qualities you might ‘get’ from me, and may be part of the lasting personal signature I leave for you beyond our time together. Likewise other therapists will have qualities that are simply not part of my own signature. Which is a large part of the reason why we will click with some therapists and not with others. There are other things about me that other people might see but I cannot: my ‘blind spots’ in the Johari window model. It is distinctly possible, if not likely, that my clients see things in me that I haven’t anticipated here: little glimpses into the kind of person that I am, and which make up that lasting signature.
But the key point is that part of what is precious about therapy is not just what you and your therapist have in common, but also your experiences of difference – of your uniqueness from one another. Much of what is valuable about me giving you my self is that as a fellow traveller, trying to see and understand your world, that I can offer something that is somehow radically new: there is something about the chemistry that can happen in therapy that you can learn to see things from a different vantage point, or discover options you never realised you had before.
Boston Change Process Study Group. (2010). Change in Psychotherapy: A unifying paradigm. New York : Norton Professional Books
Cooper, M. and Dryden, W. eds. (2016). The handbook of pluralistic counselling and psychotherapy. London : Sage Publications
McLeod, J. (2018). Pluralistic Therapy. Oxford : Routledge