Configurations of Self in Person-Centred Counselling
The concept of ‘Configurations of Self’ in person-centred counselling was developed by David Mearns and Brian Thorne. It describes the philosophy that we develop various alternative personalities or configurations of self that come to the fore in certain circumstances and that result in thoughts, feelings and behaviours that may surprise us.
‘A configuration of self is a hypothetical construct denoting a coherent pattern of feelings thoughts and preferred behavioural responses symbolised or pre-symbolised by the person as reflective of a dimension of existence within the self’ (Thorne and Mearns, 2000).
According to Thorne and Mearns, these configurations develop as a means of self-protection, as well as self-expression. Various configurations of self allow us to be extremely adaptable in a wide range of circumstances and to express seemingly contradictory traits.
These conflicting configurations of self can be the cause of negative or self-destructive behaviours that would otherwise be ‘out of character.’ While some configurations of self may be very positive, the existence of configurations that limit personal growth, happiness and well-being since they trigger certain destructive emotions or behaviours needs to be addressed in person-centred counselling.
The client will often seek counselling specifically because they have become aware of a destructive configuration. For example, when a client says that they behaved in a manner that is contrary to their self-concept, they are identifying a situation during which a configuration of self that was alien to their self-concept came to the fore.
The role of the therapist is not to ‘analyse’ negative configurations, but to support and empathise the client so that he or she is able to explore and examine the configuration that is causing self-defeating behaviours, thoughts and feelings. A counsellor is able to build relational depth by sharing and attempting to grasp these feelings, and the empathy of the counsellor allows the client to explore aspects of themselves that they would normally be reluctant to consider. This can be a frightening process, both for the client and the empathic counsellor. Absolute honesty must be maintained and the counsellor also needs to be aware of the reaction this visceral process is triggering in themselves.
Transference is an aid to empathy, but if this becomes overwhelming, counter-transference may create a barrier between therapist and client. For example, when dealing with a client who has anger problems, the therapist may find themselves reacting to this configuration by becoming overly passive, or by becoming angry themselves. A great deal of emotional robustness is required of the counsellor in order to avoid this pitfall.
The adaptability of self that allows one to switch to different configurations depending on circumstances is also used by counsellors in building empathy. A counsellor may adopt one of their own configurations of self that allows them to become sensitised to the clients’ emotions. Configurations of self are not cast in stone, but can assimilate related elements or change completely. There may also be triggers that return them to their original form during times of stress or trauma.