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Am I Doing Therapy Right?

Coming to therapy can be daunting. As a client, you are on the spot, the focus is on you. This can feel really uncomfortable at first. It is an unusual and potentially confusing dynamic in that the counsellor is the one trained in a profession (the so-called ‘expert'!), yet it is the client who, in the main, directs the session. Therefore, I find it unsurprising when the question ‘Am I doing it right?’ crops up regularly and I really empathise with the challenge of the work of counselling feeling ambiguous and hard to pin down.

When I’m asked ‘Am I doing it right?’, I usually respond with something along the lines of “See what comes, what do you feel, what isn’t right, where is the pain? Let’s find a thread and I will follow it with you.”

I like the idea that the endeavour of counselling is a bit like emptying a jigsaw puzzle onto a table between two people, and together picking up a piece at a time, looking at it, turning it over, striving to get a sense of how it might fit into an emerging picture. Perhaps, on reflection, a piece was in the wrong box. It can be placed to one side, or discarded altogether. Another piece is selected and placed on the table. Maybe the piece looks and feels different in relation to the other pieces that are now in view. A past experience can take on a new meaning in light of the present, as equally a present experience can change its hue when held in relation to the past.

A client might bring their day, their week, interactions with people, relationships, family, work or the thoughts that just keep spinning around their head. They might bring past experiences - earlier life. Rather than steer a conversation, I do my best to step into my client’s frame of reference, to understand - and to feel - what they are thinking and feeling, in the present, about their emerging narrative. As I monitor my client’s responses, I will also be paying attention to my own. I might name what I sense between us in the room, as this both feels authentic and might increase a client’s awareness of what they are experiencing. Being present, empathising, accepting what is there - this is the ‘Person Centred’ approach my work is grounded in. I also think in a ‘Psychodynamic’ way. While I am listening and paying attention to my client I also allow my attention to float around different possibilities: why is this happening, why is this particular thought stuck on a loop, what experience in the past might be colouring this person’s present? Particularly, what defensive patterns did this person develop that are now getting in the way of their satisfaction?

I love what Susie Orbach writes in her book ‘In Therapy: The Unfolding Story’:

“(therapy is) ...a process of clearing and examining, what needs repairing, what needs sorting, what needs protecting, what needs discarding, what needs nurturing, and in what order these things can be done.. Therapy is a deep practice. It searches for veracity. One truth can open to another which may shade what is first understood. The intricate constructions of the human mind shift during the course of therapy.” (Orbach 2017: 278)

Ultimately, there is no ‘right way’ to do counselling, only whether it facilitates growth, or not. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the evidence is that the success of therapy depends more on the quality of the relationship between client and therapist than it does on what is actually said. In one sense, the content of counselling might be thought of as surface noise while the 'real' work of counselling - authentic human to human connection - happens. To me, there's a real beauty in this.

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