Today was a real learning curve for me in terms of how personal experience with a problem expressed by a client can have so many implications in terms of the helping relationship. I am usually good with expressing empathy and have even been told that it seems to come naturally to me.
However, in skills practice today my primary feedback from both peer and tutor was that I wasn’t fully engaged with the client’s emotions. In particular, I wasn’t recognising his anger at the situation he was in.
On reflection, I do feel that I remained slightly disengaged in order to protect myself. The scenario was very close to my current situation in that it involved the client dealing with a parent being in a care home. My mother, who is only in her 50’s, is currently in a care home, which I have found very difficult. The feelings of guilt and sadness are prominent, but I think I discovered in skills practice today that I also have some underlying anger, which was also expressed by the client. In order to avoid experiencing this anger, an emotion that I am very uncomfortable with, I resisted going too deeply into the client’s emotions in case they opened up my own.
This wasn’t on a conscious level, but something I can recognise on reflection. Until now, I hadn’t fully realised just how much personal experience can impact the helping relationship and in ways that seem out of your control.
In this case, my own personal experience prevented me getting into the ‘hole’ with the client, seeing things from their internal reference point, and truly offering the empathy that is a core component of the helping relationship. I was unable to be fully congruent because of my subconscious attempt to protect myself.
I am disappointed with myself because it seems as though I have taken a step back in skills practice. At the same time, I have found this extremely interesting and most certainly something I can learn and grow from.
If I relate this to the four stages of learning, this was an example of ‘unconscious incompetence,’ not knowing what I didn’t know. I didn’t know that I had underlying feelings related to a particular situation that might surface during work with a client.
Now that I am aware of this, I have moved into ‘conscious incompetence,’ knowing what I don’t know. I now know that empathy can be particularly challenging for me in situations where I feel I have to protect my own emotions.
With practice, I am hoping to move into ‘conscious competence,’ where I know how to handle such situations. Ideally, I want to reach ‘unconscious competence,’ where I can naturally deal with these situations. On the other hand, I can see how that might not ever be possible. I am sure that counsellors always find themselves in challenging situations that they learn and grow from.
Being a good counsellor is an on-going process that requires continually working through these four stages of learning in order to be personally and professionally proficient.