Counselling, Supervision, Training, Research, Teaching, Writing. Providing therapeutic services to the people of East Lancashire and beyond.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Keep Listening in HM Prisons

I was concerned to read in a Guardian article here that the prison listeners service may be under threat because of government cuts. Prison listeners are trusted prisoners who volunteer to be trained in listening skills by the Samaritans. Whenever other inmates are feeling suicidal or depressed they are padded up with a listener who can then help them to talk and share their feelings. The article states that prisoners volunteering as listeners help the prison staff to manage suicidal and depressed prisoners. I have visited prisons that have a listener's cell on each wing. It's a little roomier than your average cell, in recognition of the valued work that's being done in there and the need for more space. Prisoners rightly wear their volunteering as a badge of honour because when you are a listener you are in a position of trust.

So the listener service benefits those prisoners experiencing distress because they have someone to talk to who has an idea what it's like to be in prison, separated from family and friends. It benefits the prison service because they are having suicidal prisoners monitored in a cost effective way. It helps to rehabilitate offenders because they are learning and applying listening skills underpinned by empathy and compassion and one of the greatest challenges in the rehabilitation of offenders is making up for deficits in empathy and compassion. So rather than cutting the listeners service I would expand it: teaching as many prisoners as possible basic counselling skills, running prisons in more democratic ways, modelling constructive rather than aggressive ways of using power. This approach has been used in Therapeutic Communities and in institutions committed to the principles of restorative justice. It needs to operate across the whole prison - inmates and staff - and is an alternative to the power dynamics that currently rage in HM Prisons, where might is right and were it makes complete sense to remain emotionally detached and physically aggressive.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Personal Reflections: New Job, Good Feelings

Thursday was an important day for me. I attended a job interview at Blackburn College and was successful in my application for the post of part-time lecturer in counselling. An 18.5 hour contract in the place where I have enjoyed more than ten years as an hourly paid lecturer. I am very happy and excited to be given this contract, it's an exciting time for our expanding range of counselling courses at the University Centre.

Something unexpected happened during Thursday which has had a major impact. It was the amount of support, the good wishes and the affection I felt from so many people. There were Facebook comments, text messages and emails, as well as the support from friends and colleagues all around the building. I felt loved and valued to a degree I have not experienced since my counselling diploma ended ten years ago. I think I played a part in that too. I let people know that I was going for the job, I asked for help and gave people opportunities to offer kind words and encouragement. I think the old me (and it still happens) was too mistrusting of people and too frightened of feeling rejected to ask for help. Of course this does my friends a disservice and denies me the love I need and deserve.

As well as feeling loved I felt a strong sense of belonging. As I walked around the University Centre I knew so many people and have known many of them for such a long time. I attended the college as a 17 year old in 1986 to retake my 'O' Levels. A couple of my good friends were teachers back then, teaching government and politics and helping me get into university. That's not to say I am institutionalised. I've worked in private industry, the voluntary sector and for the probation service. When I worked in the private sector and with probation I never had a sense of belonging and neither job enabled me to live my mission quite like teaching at Blackburn College.

So, lots of learning from this week. If I continue being open about my feelings, ask for help and offer love and respect to others, then I create opportunities to feel love in return. I can travel all the way up Maslow's hierarchy of needs: to esteem and self-actualisation. I am not a religious person but I am sure Ecclesiastes had it right: 'Cast thy bread upon the waters and it shall be returned unto thee".

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Getting Back at Dad - Edward II at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Last night I watched Edward II by Christopher Marlowe at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. I first saw the play in 1996 at the Bolton Octagon, when the production was given an optimistic ending, suggesting a spiritual reunion of the lovers after death: Gaveston as murderer, holding Edward in his arms beneath a cascade of rose petals. On reflection that ending seems out of sympathy with the play's pessimism. It romanticises Edward’s love for Gaveston, portraying it as some Platonic ideal, rather than an expression of hubris and defiance.

Toby Frow, director of last night’s production, provides a more faithful ending that also uses the same actor to play Gaveston and the murderer Lightborn (the excellent Sam Collings). It reminds us of Gaveston’s role in Edward's destruction and helps to provide the play with its sense of tragedy.

The production is excellent. It is set in the 1950s and begins in a rather louche club with a jazz band playing. The movement of furniture between scenes is sufficient to anchor a sense of changing time and place. Sometimes the place we are in is the disintegrating mind of the defeated King. In the final scenes the helpless Edward remains visible in his dungeon whilst we return to the Court to hear the plots of Queen Isabella and Mortimer.

The historical Edward II was emotionally deprived and bullied by his warrior father. When Edward’s affection for Gaveston, a childhood friend, became too intense, Edward’s father sent Gaveston into exile. Imagine how that must have burned in the young man’s heart? Chris New brilliantly plays the King as an emotionally undeveloped and slightly camp young man. In Act One Edward is prone to adolescent anger and flights of haughty rhetoric, but there is innocence there too, beautifully captured by New. The innocence turns to murderous wrath as the Lords opposition to Gaveston unleashes unresolved Oedipal rage that is never quenched.

Marlowe's play is a bleak portrait of human nature: each character is corrupted by the power they seek. Edmund's expresses his love for Gaveston but soon chooses another favourite once Gaveston is dead. It is a symbol of defiance that Edmund needs not a man to love. Edward’s love for Gaveston is narcissistic and reckless. It provokes others to take away his Kingdom so he can have his revenge. In the end he is undone and we are left feeling pity for a man brought down not by love but by hubris.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Book Review: Resilience by Boris Cyrulnik

Boris Cyrulnik is a French psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who has worked with deeply traumatised children in Rwanda and Columbia, children who have survived genocide or served as soldiers. I mention this because Cyrulnik himself points out that an individual's traumatic history is often revealed in his or her choice of career, and Cyrulnik's history is certainly traumatic: a child during the Second World War, he evaded the Nazis by working on a farm, whilst his parents, like thousands of other French Jews, were arrested by the French police and deported to Auschwitz where they were murdered by the Nazis. Cyrulnik says that after the war nobody wanted to hear his story, it didn't fit with France's need for de Gaulle's narrative of resistance and liberation. So, like numerous victims, before and since, Cyrulnik adapted to his environment and developed a secret history, 'splitting' his personality into acceptable and unacceptable parts until the day when he would have enough strength to tell the whole story. There is a subtext here, and an insight into the French 'collective unconscious', still coming to terms with the events of the Second World War. Cyrulnik points out that cultures often need a narrative that negates the true horror of things. Thus the French war in Algeria, which resulted in the death of 28,000 French soldiers, was termed a 'policing operation' and the conflict in Northern Ireland, with over 3,500 deaths was known as the "Troubles".

Narratives are important for Cyrulnik, they have the ability to defend an individual, as well as a culture, from the horror of things. Cyrulnik's style is aphoristic and discursive so there is no bulleted list of protective factors contributing to a child's resilience, instead Cyrulnik argues that, 'Biological and developmental forces are articulated with a social context to create a self-representation that allows the subject to see his or her life in historical terms' (51). It is the historical perspective that offers redemption: 'The things I've been through. I've come one hell of a long way. It wasn't always an easy journey' (51). The trauma of the victim is reframed as the triumph of the survivor, victor in the face of death! So, Cyrulnik's message is an optimistic one because he believes our histories do not determine our fate, that many individuals experience traumatic events in childhood and go on to live happy and meaningful lives. Like another psychotherapy optimist, Bill O'Hanlon, Cyrulnik argues that the wounds we suffer have the potential to give our lives substance and meaning, they are, or can be, to use Cyrulnik's metaphor, the grit in the oyster that transforms into a pearl.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

New Term Excitement!

Next week I begin another term of teaching at my local HE college - the University Centre, Blackburn College. I'll be teaching a course called Contemporary Psychotherapies to two groups of BA(Hons) degree students. The course looks at Motivational Interviewing, Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and evaluates what they offer to those working with difficult to engage young people and unmotivated adult clients. I'll also be teaching counselling skills to 'eager for knowledge' first year students on the Foundation Degree in Positive Practice with Children and Young People. All the sessions are written, with the resources ready and printed, so they'll be an absolute joy to teach!

Just as exciting are the two new foundation degree courses we are running in Counselling with Coaching and Mentoring and Counselling with Brief Therapies. I am mainly involved in facilitating the personal and professional development modules and I'll be a personal tutor too. In the second year I'll be teaching modules on Motivational Interviewing, Solution Focused Therapy and Group Work Skills. I can't wait for the teaching to start!

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Book Review: Pluralistic Counselling and Psychotherapy by Cooper and McLeod

If the counselling and psychotherapy profession had a cricket team then Cooper and McLeod might make a fine opening pair. Historically Freud and Jung are the greatest openers we've ever had, though they ended their careers on opposing teams. Sorry, I'm being silly! Cooper and McLeod have written an excellent book on the need for a pluralistic approach to counselling and psychotherapy. They argue, convincingly I think, that no one school of therapy has all the answers when it comes to helping clients make changes; instead the authors recommend an approach based on goal setting and collaboration: an exploration with the client of the changes they would like to make, the tasks that need to be completed to get there and the methods most appropriate to achieving those tasks. Interestingly Cooper and McLeod extend their pluralism to counselling research, training and supervision. So the book advocates a sea change in how we approach therapy, one that is inclusive, drawing on many traditions to makes sure 'each client gets the therapy that is most suited to them' (vi). This seems to be the trend in therapy. I'm reminded, for instance, that Yalom talks of the psychotherapist creating a therapy for each individual client, though I would call it co-creating. It's an approach I follow and I'm grateful to the authors for producing what amounts to a manifesto for the pluralist approach. It's going to be essential reading for students attending my courses on brief therapies, giving coherence to the plethora of different but equally valid approaches they'll study.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Book Review: Tales from the Therapy Room by Phil Lapworth

There are numerous great story tellers amongst the psychotherapy fraternity, even if I can think immediately only of Sigmund Freud and Irvin Yalom - a lack of knowledge on my part rather than a lack of style on the part of my colleagues. I can reveal another name to join my brief list of fine story tellers, because Phil Lapworth has written a lovely collection of ten short stories about therapy and what goes on in the therapeutic relationship. I read his Tales from the Therapy Room in a couple of ways: firstly, I read them for enjoyment, because each tale is full of humour and pathos; and secondly, I read them with a critical eye on the role of the therapist and the observations and interventions he makes. So each of the stories is both an entertainment and an education. On reflection there is a third way of reading this book, an invitation I have yet to take, and that is to use each story as a starting point for an exploration of practice issues, ethical dilemmas and counselling theory. The book contains what Irvin Yalom calls, "teaching tales". Lapworth helps with this process by providing an interesting final chapter, in which he recommends further reading and asks questions about each of the stories he has so beautifully written. So I will revisit each of these tales and reflect on what they have to say about me, my practice, psychotherapy and the human condition. Thanks Phil!

Lapworth, P. (2011) Tales from the Therapy Room: Shrink Wrapped, London, Sage

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Trainees and Personal Therapy

I think it's true to say that out of all the clients I have worked with, those in training as psychotherapists have initially proved the most trying. Not all of them. There have been notable exceptions where the trainee’s excited absorption in the theory and practice of psychotherapy has been duly match my devotion to an intrepid exploration of themselves from the start. One might expect that this would always be the case, but others have arrived reluctantly, even resentfully, seeing their attendance immediately as a course requirement rather than an opportunity for self-discovery and transformation. They see little, if anything, in need of discovering or transforming. This in itself is, of course, a self delusional problem, much in need of discovery and transformation. While I don't quite put it like that, I do suggest they go away and think about how they might want to use our time together therapeutically.

From ‘Not Playing it by the Book’ by Phil Lapworth in Lapworth, P. (2011) Tales from the Therapy Room: Shrink Wrapped, London, Sage

When I began my diploma in counselling thirteen years ago there was a requirement for twenty hours of personal therapy. In the end I had 50 hours and I've been back since, with different therapists, from different traditions, using different models of therapy. I see this as part of my personal and professional development, an investment in me as a therapist, committed to connecting with others and addressing those parts of me that unconsciously sabotage working at relational depth.

There is, of course, an argument which suggests trainee counsellors ought not to be forced to have personal therapy, that to make someone attend counselling contradicts the counselling ethos of promoting individual choice and autonomy. I see the point, but those same courses see nothing wrong with setting and assessing assignments, and the student who asserts their autonomy by not handing in their assignments doesn’t pass the course. Maybe that isn’t an appropriate comparison; I am not much good at rhetoric, despite a degree in Scholastic Philosophy, so let me instead promote the merits of personal counselling for trainees with a little list:

Personal therapy can promote self-awareness and reflexivity

It enables trainees to experience what it feels like for clients when they come for help

It's an opportunity to work on personal issues in a safe space. It provides a confidential place to take personal issues that may result from reflective practice and supervision

It’s much better to work on distressing experiences in personal counselling than to have them activated by a distressed client during a counselling session

Working with an experienced therapist provides an opportunity to model how they work and to experience a therapeutic relationship. It is also an opportunity to experience different approaches to therapy

I’d be interested to hear arguments against personal therapy for trainees, especially from those providing personal therapy. I think I will need some convincing before I stop advocating personal counselling for trainees. And if Liz Johnson my first therapist ever reads this – thanks for what you did Liz and how you did it!

Friday, 2 September 2011

Joan Halifax on Compassion

Twitter promotes serendipity - one of my favourite words - to make fortunate discoveries by accident. I was sat at my desk, doing some lesson planning for the upcoming academic year, when I just happened to check my Twitter feed. I found a post from @psychoBOBlogy which contained a link to a video of Joan Halifax giving a short talk at a TED conference.

She talks about compassion and she says that compassion means, "To see clearly into the nature of suffering". She says that compassion is to desire the transformation of suffering but that compassion is not being attached to an outcome, but instead to be "fully present to the whole catastrophe". I think this credo could be a guiding light for counsellors and psychotherapists, sometimes we need a guiding light to guide us home, and then we can stop fixing things and be fully present to the whole catasrophe.

Well I watched Joan's passionate and moving presentation and I wanted to share it with you on this Blog. Maybe someone here will stumble across it by accident and be moved to share as I was moved.