An essay written as part of my counselling training.
Development of Self-Awareness
Counsellor self-awareness, which encapsulates self-knowledge and self-insight, has long been recognised as being a critical component of a successful therapeutic process (Brown and Lent, 2009: 306). Indeed, it has even been hailed necessary for ethical practice (Rubin, 2000: 270). The aim of this essay is to provide an account of my own personal history and the development of self-awareness. Both recent and past experiences will be explored, along with a comparison of past and present patterns of behaviour. The focus will be on exploring how, over time, experience has impacted my awareness of self. I will also discuss areas of self-awareness that require further development as I pursue a career as a counsellor.
The Early Years
My first memory is of walking into the lounge . . . silently . . . no thumping of the feet . . . no breathing . . . no words. I was invisible. At 3-years old, with curly blond hair, chubby cheeks, and big brown eyes, I was already trying to fade into the scenery – to not be seen or heard, to not be a ‘nuisance.’ I remember seeing my mother on the floor, pressing some buttons on the video player. Despite my efforts to be quiet, she must have heard or sensed me as she turned around and beamed at me. She had a beautiful smile that filled her entire face, making her eyes glisten and her dimples try to ‘suck’ you in. I wish there were more such memories, but smiles were limited in the household that I grew up in. More common was shouting and screaming or tears, as is often the case within families of alcoholics. This is why they call alcoholism a ‘family disease’ (Stephens, 2012: 1).
My self-awareness at this young age was relatively strong. I knew I wanted to fade away. I also knew that I couldn’t because my mother needed me. I wiped away so many of my mother’s tears that I never got to wipe away my own. I didn’t mind though, not if I could get that smile back . . . not if I could be the little girl who could make everything better, not if I was the little girl who could put a smile on her mummy’s face. That would take a special little girl.
My self-awareness changed dramatically the day I found out I wasn’t a special little girl, the day my father, my daddy, made me close my eyes as he abused me. It was this day that I realised I didn’t exist. Close your eyes and everything disappears and everything you hear or feel is happening to someone else, somewhere else, by someone who is not your daddy.
It was from around age 4 to 11 that my father abused me, as did one of his friends. When it stopped, I became visible again. I started secondary school, by which time I was very overweight. My mother used to comfort eat and since I was around her much of the time, I had adopted her eating habits. I had always been bullied at primary school because of my weight, but it got much worse at secondary school. Young children can be cruel and teenagers can be even crueller. So, while I was visible again, I was very aware of the fact that I didn’t want to be visible.
The Teenage Years
I started to take a lot of time off school because of the bullying, which alerted one teacher to my struggles. She was instrumental in helping me lose weight and adopt a healthier lifestyle. I started to develop a self-awareness whereby I recognised that I had some control over my life; I had choices. However, this was the first time I had ever received any positivity about my weight. It was also the first time I had ever had any control over my life. Being able to say ‘no’ was new to me and as a result I ended up taking the diet too far and developed anorexia. A need for control has been linked to eating disorders, especially anorexia, and I certainly needed control in my life (Sternheim et al., 2011: 1). In addition, emotional abuse, physical neglect and sexual abuse have all been found to be significant predictors of eating disorders (Kong and Bernstein, 2009: 1). Some studies have found that depression mediates the association between some forms of childhood trauma and eating disorders (Kong and Bernstein, 2009: 1), and although I was not aware of it at the time, in retrospect I do feel that I was a depressed teenager and this was manifesting through an eating disorder.
Nevertheless, now that I wasn’t being bullied, school had become my sanctuary. I had always loved reading and writing, but was now able to become even more absorbed in it. Despite my struggles I did well in my GCSE’s, gaining 9 A-C grades before starting my A-Levels. It was during my A-Levels that the anorexia turned into bulimia. This is quite common, as described so sensitively within the memoir, ‘Wasted’ by Mary Hornbacher (1999: 1-304). I became very aware of losing the control I had gained and was now out of control. It remained this way throughout my University life. I did seek help, however, and was referred to a Clinical Psychologist. This could have been my saving point, but instead my trust was again abused and I fell into years of cycling between anorexia and bulimia. At all stages I remained fully dedicated to my studies – it has always been within my self-awareness that academia, learning, writing, etc. were part of who I was and who I wanted to be. My main areas of academic interest were Psychology and English; the former for the questions and exploration and the latter for the reading and writing. These two passions would combine to make me who I am today – a Doctor of psychology and a freelance writer.
Finding Passion through Love and Academia
Despite sharing a house with four other students while at University, I was extremely isolated and spent much of my time avoiding human contact – in person, that is. There must have been something inside of me that also yearned for human contact, as I spent my evenings seeking it on the Internet. It was here, in an eating disorder support room, that I met my now fiancée, who I have been with for about 12 years. It was our shared love of psychology that connected us and that led us to chat online every day for almost a year before meeting in person. With Alex’s support, I continued to fight the depression and eating disorders whilst also pursuing my education. After completing my degree in Psychology, I was to go on to do a Masters in Health Psychology and then a PhD in a health-related theory that we developed ourselves.
I had always wanted to go on to help people with eating disorders, even though I was trapped in the disorder myself. However, after doing my degree dissertation on eating disorders, I became self-aware enough to realise that my life was so consumed by this illness that to start aiming towards helping people with the disorder before I was even better would only allow it to consume my life more. My desire to help people became more generalised, hence my focus on health psychology.
Despite my academic success, I always felt ‘thick.’ I didn’t realise it at the time, but my academic pursuits were my way of trying to gain evidence of the contrary, but I would always disregard the evidence and seek more. After achieving my PhD, while I was over the moon, I did have a hard time adjusting to it because I was still left with a ‘hole’ inside me. I had got to a point where I had no idea what to do next in order to try and prove that I wasn’t ‘thick,’ like I had been told as a child. It wasn’t until I gained my PhD that I realised how much effort I had been putting into trying to gain a sense of self-esteem and to challenge the negative messages given to me as a child. On reflection, this makes me feel that I wouldn’t change my past because it has helped me with the achievements that have provided me with a job and opportunities that I absolutely love. I may have spent a lot of my life history searching for something or striving for better, but it is that which has ultimately given me what I have today – a job and partner I love. My past has not hindered my ability to achieve, nor has it hindered my ability to have a healthy relationship. However, relationships do feature within past and present patterns of behaviour, as discussed next.
Past and Present Patterns of Behaviour
In writing this essay and reflecting on my life history, there are a number of clear patterns I have identified. These patterns tend to involve relationships, both with myself and with others. In terms of my relationship with myself, I have demonstrated a pattern of actually trying to avoid a relationship with myself. I have consistently submerged myself in academia and study in order to focus all of my energy outwards. In many ways, I have tried to keep my mind busy in order to prevent there being any ‘quiet’ in my mind, any opportunity to be alone with my own thoughts, so to speak. My mind has always had to be filled with knowledge, theories, and academic questions in order to prevent me really taking a deep look at myself and how I feel about myself. Saying that, I did break this pattern when I started my own personal counselling a couple of years ago, which has provided me with a regular weekly hour where I do explore my relationship with myself. While this was difficult at first, I do now see it as more of a luxury than a chore. So, while I still have some work to do on developing a loving relationship towards myself, I do feel that I am and will continue to break this pattern. I have no regrets about my passion for academia, but I do recognise that everyone, including myself, also has to have a passion to take care of themselves – possibly even more so in the pursuit of being able to cope with the demands of being a counsellor.
In terms of patterns I have displayed in my relationships with others, these patterns have mostly been influenced by my childhood and past experiences. In close relationships, such as with my partner, I need regular reassurance about myself and about the relationship. I find it very difficult to take it for granted that someone is with me because they love me and tend to always be on the lookout for signs to the contrary. This can be counterproductive and actually acts to push people away. My relationship with friends has always been somewhat different. I have always found it very easy to make friends, but less easy to maintain friendships. I do recognise, however, that rather than this difficulty being anything to do with the friends in question, it is more often than not to do with myself and my insecurities. As friendships develop and become stronger, I tend to get scared. I still need to work out exactly what I am scared of, but feel it is a mixture of fear of letting friends down, fear of them later rejecting me, and fear of being myself around people. Therefore, I tend to back off or ‘run away,’ which has prevented me from forming strong, stable friendships. I anticipate that as I continue to work on my relationship with myself, my relationship with others will start to fall into place.
Today, I am the most self-aware I have ever been, which has been assisted by personal counselling and training to be a counsellor. My passion for psychology and writing remain, my appreciation of being in a loving relationship is stronger than ever, and my desire to work on my self-awareness in order to become an effective and ethical counsellor is at a peak. Self-awareness is an empowering gift that I look forward to developing further as part of my training and further life experience.
Brown, S.D. and Lent, R.W. (2009). Handbook of Counseling Psychology (4th ed.). New York: Wiley.
Hornbacher, M. (1999). Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia. HarperCollins; 1st HarperPerennial Ed edition.
Kong, S. and Bernstein, K. (2009). Childhood trauma as a predictor of eating psychopathology and its mediating variables in patients with eating disorders. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 18(13), pp.1897–1907.
Rubin, L. C. (2000). The use of paint-by-number art in therapy. Arts in Psychotherapy, 27, pp. 269-272.
Sternheim, L., Konstantellou, A., Startup, H., and Schmidt, U. (2011). What does uncertainty mean to women with anorexia nervosa? An interpretative phenomenological analysis. European Eating Disorders Review, 19(1), pp. 12–24.
Stephens, B. The family disease of alcoholism. Available from: http://www.al-anon.alateen.org/the-family-disease-of-alcoholism [Last accessed 30/04/12].
Mearns, D. and Thorne, B. (2007). Person-Centred Counselling in Action (3rd edn.). Sage Publications Ltd.
Rogers, C.R. (2004) On Becoming a Person. Constable; New Ed edition.