Confessions of a Student Counsellor

Confessions of a Student Counsellor

by Andrew Dib
Counselors can most definitely benefit from the age-old adage “Healer, heal thyself!”

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Both Sides Now

At the time of this writing, I have one semester to go before completing my Master of Counselling degree, and I am sixty-five hours into the one hundred required hours of counselling contact hours of my student placement. I am still unsure as to who has received the lion's share of therapy during these sixty-five hours, my clients or me?

At forty-seven years of age, I have undergone many transitions and life experiences
This has not been my first exposure to the rudiments of counselling, however—I had some years of experience in addictions counselling and case management and no shortage of support work in various fields to ease me into the relative displacement of a professional counselling placement. At forty-seven years of age, I have undergone many transitions and life experiences.

Nevertheless, the Masters has been quite a proficient primer and prodder of the all-too-many things I didn’t (and still don’t) know about counselling practice, and of the myriad of things that I need to know in order to provide effective and ethical therapy for a range of concerns and to a broad demographic.
Having had experience in various counselling settings—and being quite familiar with both sides of the counsellor’s chair—together with the fact that I consider myself an avid collector of knowledge, particularly in this field, I still felt a strange cognitive dissonance of both excited preparedness and complete inadequacy to the task at hand at the commencement of my placement. But that was then. At sixty-five hours in, I am a worldly veteran!

The first thing that stood out to me about my placement experience was how pretty much every session turned into a countertransference case study from my ethics class, except that I was the subject. I knew about countertransference. I had studied it. Experienced it. Was consciously aware of it. Prepared, I thought. But I never really had that meta-cognition before that one develops, both while counselling and in the post-session self-flagellation...ahem, reflective practice.

Almost every session seemed like a mirroring of the personal life struggles I had faced
Almost every session seemed like a mirroring of the personal life struggles I had faced, parallel processes of my current situations, relatables that were bone deep. The client I was sitting with was recounting the very relationship issues I had struggled with. Of course I was batting for him! My heart was filled with sympathy, my responses were, albeit textbook, empathetic, while my mind was firing off mostly Andrew-shaped responses ready for delivery. Often, I would catch myself before essentially counselling myself instead of my client. Sometimes I was too late and would realise, embarrassingly, later that day or week. More often than not, in supervision. Or because of past supervisions.

Or I could be sitting in front of the horrifying ghost of my mother-self. That is, this particularly triggering, discomforting, and disquieting quality that my mother possessed which I painfully one day realised I had inherited, now (mostly) exorcised out of me (thank you therapists circa 2000-2004, 2008-2009, 2012-2013 and 2020-2021; you know who you are). Noticing the life force draining from my being, I would sometimes sit across from the ghost-client in a sorrowful-seething state of frustration, compassion, bewilderment, intrigue, and hopelessness. I could swing between feeling annoyed and way out of my depths to such misguided compassion that I would feel the urge to take them home and care for them.

Going it Alone

Something I knew before but re-experienced in a fresh new light during my placement is that a significant part of learning to be a counsellor is essentially done alone. There is generally no direct supervision. There is no one in the room to monitor the minutiae of one’s work. There is no direct feedback loop. It is not as if your supervisor has a document to proofread. There is no material structure to assess for imperfections or to correct. No one is surveying clients at the end of sessions to establish trainee performance. No one is there to say, “Hmmm, maybe when you froze for a minute and a half with silence…” or “Perhaps Texas Hold 'em Poker isn’t the most appropriate game to play in a session with a six-year-old…” Of course, there are opportunities to be observed by colleagues and supervisors or to record sessions and review them. But this is limited in its scope and practicability. And daunting as hell! Or as daunting as having my own personal therapy sessions broadcast to the world, perhaps. Being utterly exposed. Vulnerable.

Perhaps Texas Hold 'em Poker isn’t the most appropriate game to play in a session with a six-year-old
Sitting with clients who have just expressed something, there are a plethora of potential responses in any given moment of a therapy session. Sometimes they flow readily and easily. At other times they feel forced. And in some cases, when a response hasn’t felt right, an also potential plethora of self-reflective doubt and questioning can follow: “Did I say the right thing?”; “How am I going with this client? Doesn’t seem to be any progress being made”; “What is the correct intervention to use here?”; “They have been coming for three sessions now, why won’t they volunteer something... anything?!” Being left to one’s own devices (well, me to mine) can leave one unsure at times about particular interventions to use, ways of progressing through impasse, whether or not to refer, whether I am beyond my professional competence, and one’s capacity to be a counsellor, which can undermine self-trust and even self-worth.

at other times, when I am feeling in my flow
And then at other times, when I am feeling in my flow, when I have recognised counselling greatness in myself—you know, when a client has expressed eternal gratitude or you witness a breakthrough or an insight emerges—then I can quite easily develop that very shiny, bulletproof sheen of self-satisfaction and self-congratulation, feeling like the king of the counselling castle! Either polarity can be both misguided and unhelpful to me, I have discovered, and, left alone with such musings, can be a potentially missed opportunity to see beyond my own perspectives and to develop my practice.

Thank goodness we are not completely alone during this, at times, trial by fire. Having practicing colleagues around is such a comforting and valuable scaffold of support. I am fortunate to be doing my placement in a medium-size clinic providing both psychology and counselling services, so there are usually at least a few others to talk to or debrief to if needed. I am aware, however, that others’ placements are more isolated and devoid of such support, and I have witnessed the emotional and psychological strain that this can take. I am very grateful to be developing in the kind of environment where I feel supported and not alone. Hmmmm, maybe there's a market for a Tinder-like app for counsellors in isolation?

it is in individual supervision, however, that I have the greatest opportunity to be vulnerable
I think there is a limit, however, to how far collegial support can go. There are certainly limits to my own (and I am guessing other humans’) capacity to expose oneself in the workplace. Especially as an up-and-coming trainee counsellor, wanting to exude competence and confidence at every opportunity (I am willing to admit that could just be me, but I suspect not). Clinical supervision during my counselling placement has been a great support and I think the site of my most focussed learning during this Masters and certainly during my placement. I am fortunate to have both group and individual clinical supervision. They are both supportive, instructive and provide opportunities to develop and learn from others’ practice. I have found that it is in individual supervision, however, that I have the greatest opportunity to be vulnerable and to shed light on the more shadowy areas of my practice. It feels a bit safer than group supervision and I like its structure, containment, consistency, and predictability.

Maybe Not Completely

I am fortunate that I was paired with an external clinical supervisor by my university placement team whom I like and respect, but, most importantly, with whom I feel safe. Safe to say (almost) anything to. Safe to expose my insecurities and doubts to, to be able to tell them what I did and said in a session, for example, without any debilitating apprehension. They provide safety and security in calling me out when needed, ensuring I understand my limits and blind spots. Kind of like a parent's love in providing firm and consistent boundaries to an overly exuberant child. They encourage me and validate me, sharing their own stumbles and falls. But the catch is, as I recognised a while ago, I must be willing to be vulnerable and uncomfortable and wrong, again and again, to gain the most from this. I must be willing to be a beginner again and again and again if I am to grow and develop as a person and as a therapist. But this is hard to do at times. For fear of judgement (self and other), feeling inadequate and for (the generally unfounded) fear of finding out that maybe I am not cut out for this profession. The most satisfying, albeit challenging, learning I have experienced during this placement, and the Masters too, has been exposing myself in supervision.

It was frustrating and challenging, but a great experience to have in the sandpit
Like when I reluctantly discussed a client I had seen once whom I suspected to be beyond my scope of competence. Reluctant because I was personally and professionally very curious and they claimed they weren’t in a position to engage in costly treatment options and so I really wanted to keep working with them. And I suspected that if I spoke about them in supervision (and to my line manager) that they would advise referral. But I did. And it was right. And I referred. It was frustrating and challenging, but a great experience to have in the sandpit. And I incidentally had reflected to me my potential for a hero complex. Ouch! But yes, probably accurate. Or when I spoke about how I responded to an awkward situation with a child client and their mother, suspecting I didn’t handle it very well and wanting input. And then getting feedback that challenged as well as expanded me, reinforcing that I really do not know what I do not know as well as not knowing what I do know, too. These things can sting for a bit, but I am a better counsellor for it.

Just like when I have been in therapy myself, the more I am willing to be vulnerable and uncomfortable and reveal those shadowy parts of myself, so too in my counselling role (especially as a trainee), the more I allow this, the more space I make within myself to expand. I make the space for learning and growth and development and career and life satisfaction and ideally to be a more effective therapist and, of course, to do no harm.

***

I was reflecting on the challenges of not knowing it all and bemoaning if I would ever feel competent as a counsellor
I recall a brief conversation I had with a university lecturer this year, a seasoned counselling psychologist and academic. I was reflecting on the challenges of not knowing it all and bemoaning if I would ever feel competent as a counsellor. Their response was heartening to me, then and now. They related to this feeling, stating that they still occasionally felt this way. But they also knew that they are a damn good therapist and a valuable resource for their clients. Nice.

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Bios
Andrew Dib Andrew Dib, B.A., has recently completed his Master of Counselling at Monash University, Australia. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Cultural Sociology and Political Economy (Griffith University) and a Diploma of AOD (Alcohol and Other Drug) Work. His professional work history has been in AOD counselling and government administration, and he is now working towards a career in generalist counselling with a view to becoming a practicing psychotherapist.