Hopefulness, patience and the counselling relationship
“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer’.
I remember coming across Albert Camus’ words many years ago and thinking ‘that’s me’. Certainly, in my work with clients, I am always hopeful that we will, together, find a way forward to a better place. Often to start with this feels like an act of faith – I may not be able to see the way ahead but I believe it is there to be found. I have heard it said that we do not always need to know how therapy works for it to work, and it is true to say that there is often an element of mystery. This requires a therapist to demonstrate two particular virtues, one often talked about – the ability to tolerate uncertainty – and one rarely mentioned – patience. Being prepared to hold firm to the faith that something better will come is a necessity with a client who feels defeated and has very little hope within themselves that things can be different.
Gisho Saiko, the Japanese Buddhist psychologist, suggests that the client ‘catches faith’ from the therapist. The therapist holds the belief initially that change and healing are possible, when the client may have very little. Over time the client's faith grows and comes to match that of the therapist, leading to a highly fruitful and equal working alliance between the client and the therapist. Finally, the client seems to move out in front of the therapist who, knowing that the important work is done, steps back.
However, a therapist’s faith in the possibility of change and healing must be balanced with an unflinching acknowledgement of how bad things can feel and, sometimes, the client’s own assertion that ‘nothing is changing’. When I was a new counsellor, I would sometimes start a session with ‘and what has changed this week?’, in an attempt to bring even small signs of progress into the client’s awareness. After a while it occurred to me that some clients experienced this as a pressure to please me, to be a ‘good’ client. Now I see the importance of meeting clients wherever they may be. For clients who feel a pressure to please other people in their lives, being able to say that nothing has changed is important in itself and can reflect a growing trust that I won’t lose patience or abandon them.
It is important that I demonstrate an ability to ‘stick with it’, see it through and stay hopeful. And that hope may be rewarded the very next time I see a client. They are rarely where I left them and quite often after a really bleak session they may in fact have moved on, because if I carry the hope, they hold the key.
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About Helen Thomas
I am an integrative/person-centred counsellor with a particular interest in working with people experiencing hopelessness and searching for meaning in life. I combine this with many years' practising as a social worker with adults and developing other social workers in relationship-based practice and personal/organisation change.