This blog was originally posted in January 2018 and later published in the BACP’s professional journal magazine (March 2018) – Therapy Today
Expert by experience
Steph Jones argues that personal experience of mental health problems can add to a counsellor’s skills
I was recently thumbing through a back issue of a psychology magazine and came across one of those ‘short interview with a therapist’ articles. The therapist in question had only decided to retrain after he reached retirement age; his motivation was, he said, to ‘give back to society’. As I continued reading, I felt more and more unsettled. The interviewer asked, ‘Have you ever been in therapy?’, to which he replied, ‘No, I’ve never needed to be.’
This spun me back to a lecture on my own counselling training course, where our professor uttered these words, now permanently etched on my brain: ’Never trust a therapist who hasn’t had therapy.’
In my late teens and early 20s I struggled like hell. I grew up in a single parent household, and my mother battled (although mostly in complete denial) with alcohol. Sofa-surfing and jobless by 17, I found drugs, boys and alcohol were fun alternatives to escape the crushing pain of abandonment and rejection (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 ‘contaminated’ hands by age seven, a latch-key kid by nine, and hauled into the GP’s surgery aged 10 by my hysterical mother demanding to know what was wrong with me. She later gave me hell for not showing the GP my ‘real behaviour’.
I first went for counselling when I was 25 and had accepted that, although my life was by then relatively stable, something didn’t feel quite right. My counsellor (a trainee CBT practitioner) didn’t seem all that interested in my journey of abuse and neglect, my presentation of 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 focused 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, through an IAPT service, with a kind, funny, attentive and authentic male counsellor. Each week I would pour my heart out as we did ‘the work’. Together, we painstakingly collaborated in trying to make sense of my life and helping me learn the art of self-acceptance. I screamed, I got angry at him, I wept in grief and anguish; I projected all the unresolved dysfunctional toxic material from my relationship with my mother into our dyad, and he held it 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,’ my therapist said.
One afternoon he remarked that he thought I’d make a good counsellor, and I admitted that I’d previously looked into it but hadn’t pursued it, ‘because… reasons’. 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 BACP-accredited university course. I worked 60-hours a week to achieve my goal, and burned out on several occasions, collapsing under the strain of the essays, and feeling incredibly alone. But I stuck with it. All we trainees did.
Through the mill
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 told me that he communicated with aliens to help him in his practice). It may seem like a gross over-generalisation, and I know many skilled counsellors who have travelled the academic route, but, in my experience, those that have been bang-on-the-money in terms of their awareness, observations, communication style, interventions, empathy and guidance had all been through the mill – they had lived the syllabus; they spoke from a place of core wounding and subsequent healing.
What is that about? How does my own mental health experience shape me as a professional? What exactly is the special ‘thing’ that I bring into the counselling relationship to help the work? When I attempt to solve this riddle, I realise just how difficult it is to quantify. But maybe that’s the point – it is almost impossible to capture in words an intuitive skill that extends beyond the five recognised senses and is, therefore, in the eyes of science, situated somewhere in the realm of Woo-Woo. Isn’t this part of the problem – that, in our Western culture, we seek to dissect and label all we see in order to ‘understand’ though our limited senses? A shamanic culture, by contrast, would take interconnectivity and acute empathy as a given, without the need for any scientific research to make it ‘real’ or true.
This is my humbly offered attempt at an answer. I believe pain and suffering allow us a glimpse of the truth. I’m suggesting that, when you’ve experienced a high degree of pain and suffering in your life, you naturally cultivate a wider emotional spectrum.
Perhaps, at a biological level, this is about having an over-stimulated sympathetic nervous system, and learning to manage this effectively enough (adapting) so that the world is no longer perceived as a constant threat. I sometimes visualise this as a kind of variation on the window of tolerance – that, when you’ve done enough work on yourself, a hyper-aroused state can be cultivated so that your senses become cat-like, useful, and not just unpleasant.
Could it have something to do with the brain’s mirror neurons – could therapists who have personally experienced mental health issues simply be picking up on strong and familiar subliminal clues, even before the client has verbalised their concerns? By this same token, having been to the depths of despair yourself might suggest that your transference receiver is already finely attuned to the suffering experience – a bit like a sniffer dog checking for explosives in an airport check-in queue.
This exquisite sensitivity used to frighten me – I used to consider it a ‘weirdness’ and try to hide it away from others, but I now regard it as a magical power in my counselling toolkit. To put it another way, therapy is hard work, my experience of mental health issues has given me the tools to be an empathic badass, and you don’t learn that in class.
My decision to write this article was met with some concern by one of my peers. ‘I’d feel really uncomfortable disclosing that, Steph. What if a client read it?’ Their comment (although well-meaning) highlights something that I think lurks in the background of our profession. Many of us come to the work as a ‘wounded healer’, yet there seems to be a tangible undercurrent of shame and embarrassment at the mere suggestion that we were (or are not) ‘100% mentally healthy’. I know countless practitioners in the caring profession who pour themselves into helping their clients but secretly cry their eyes out in the bathroom over lunch. But we’re fine, aren’t we? Nothing to see here, people – just dust in my eye.
I’m not suggesting for one moment that we ‘reveal’ ourselves, ‘warts and all’, to a client (of course, boundaries are critical), but that we use appropriate self-disclosure, and that we seek support to understand our feelings of shame or inadequacy when anyone (client or colleague) ‘finds out’. The more we dismantle the concept of the ‘expert therapist’, the easier it will be for our clients to trust us. In the words of another peer, ‘Vulnerability helps even out the power imbalance a bit more.’
I once worked with a highly-regarded doctor who had been through a great deal of psychoanalysis to deal with his own childhood issues. He talked about how his experience enabled him to ‘feel’ the psychological pain in another person, and really ‘lock into the source’. He believed this made him a better clinician, and we often talked about how whatever happens in the patient–professional transaction does so at a level of meta-cognition – an unspoken communication that says: ‘I can see you’ve been there too.’
But it’s not pain-by-proxy, that’s for certain. I am deeply and consciously aware of whose material is whose, and have a passionate and curious supervisor who works with me to help ‘sift out the lumps’. Nor is it about personally identifying with their experience (the all-unhelpful, ‘Hey, I know how you feel’), or an unprocessed desire to heal vicariously through the work.
For someone who is lost in the dark, perhaps it provides comfort that their therapist has not only been into the darkness but has come out the other side. There’s a famous quote from the film Good Will Hunting that seems to encapsulate my point. During an intense therapy session, Sean, the therapist, says to Will, his client: ‘So, if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the Pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling, seen that.’
High empathy is beyond the observed, assumed or inferred. It is beyond cognition – it is existential, intuitive and instinctual.
When a client walks into my office I am not assuming the role of a perfect professional. I am flawed, just like everyone else, and I am honest about that. In retrospect, every ‘Eureka!’ moment in my own personal therapy arose from the therapist spontaneously disclosing their own private pain, and so demonstrating to me that this pain could be overcome through blood, sweat and tears. They were the proof, and now I am. Of course, we ‘wounded healers’ are never fixed. Life-long, hard-wired patterns of negative behaviours and processes do not vanish in a puff of smoke just because you’ve got a string of letters and qualifications after your name. In times of stress my pure-O 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 (even though I’m viewed by others as a fun-loving extrovert) and my severe numbing depression gives way to occasional low days (I self-care the shit out of low days).
I have learned to accept my past, overcome the stigma and shame, and not let it define me or my future. I am 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 practise what I preach.
I would personally be extremely cautious of any counsellor who hadn’t sat in the client seat at one time or another. It offers a world of valuable insight to integrate into practice. A client whose therapist claims ‘I’ve never needed therapy’ should perhaps have a good long think as to whether they’re the right person for them. 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 overall mental health stigma. I guess that is the whole point of sharing this piece – to proudly shout that I’m human, imperfect, messy, authentic and bloody good enough.
Steph Jones is a BACP registered counsellor and psychotherapist supporting individuals and couples at her private practice in Stockport, Cheshire. She is a former Executive Board Member of Mind Manchester, and a radio presenter, musician and journalist. She writes for a number of wellbeing publications, is currently working on a book, and lives with partner Mike and Ziggy the cat.