The garden of supervision

Starting out as a novice gardener, you don’t have a clue where to begin – what to buy, how to plant, what’s an ‘annual’, what ‘perennial’ means. You’ve bought the book and asked Google, but then there are other books and other websites which have differing opinions and advice. You buy plants you like the look of, plant them in the ground and hope for the best; you’ve got the newly bought gardening tools, compost, and gloves, and are eager to get going. Blimey, how quickly some plants grow and overrun the garden, some just get eaten or die. You don’t ask anyone how to do it and, in the early days, there wasn’t even the internet to consult so you just carry on hoping that you look like you know what you’re doing. You enviously observe next door’s garden and they seem to know what they’re doing but you dare not ask for advice for fear of looking stupid.


As a trainee counsellor/psychotherapist, we are told that, once we begin seeing clients, supervision is something that is a necessary ethical requirement for good practice, ideally to be part of both a group and to have an individual supervisor, too. It can be a minefield; each training establishment dictates how many supervision hours per month are needed dependent on client hours and this is dependent on whether you are a student or qualified.

My experience of this was so confusing; who with, group or individual? The quagmire of confusion is endless and never seems to be fully explained or shown how to navigate it in the early days of training or how to be in your first interactions with peer supervisees and supervisors. I felt as if I should know these things and it left me feeling inept for not knowing. There are conversations with other trainees but everyone seems to have a different take on it which makes it even more confusing. Even when you start to present case management at college (the pre-cursor to real supervision), there is no guidance, just present and see what happens – obviously, this is all part of your learning experience and personal development. 

So, you arrive at your first supervision, nervous, not knowing what to expect. You’re wanting to be a good counsellor, armed with client notes and positive interventions that you have used, looking for validation from your supervisor but then negatively comparing yourself to your peers who seem to have far more interesting client presentations and insight. It is only now, with hindsight, that I can see supervision through a different lens, it feels far clearer and I understand it from my personal perspective, which is unique to me. As is my life’s journey, which has led me to become a supervisor.

Some plants have the ability to chemically damage others; they are called allelopathic (this comes from the Greek meaning to damage or harm another); they can stunt the growth or even kill other plants. Sunflowers are a good example, tall and majestic, they look beautiful but can suppress the growth of other plants around them, claiming the earth for themselves with no compassion for the plants around them. 

Interestingly, marigolds are also allelopathic but can be used in a positive way when planted, to deter weeds and keep other plants around them pest-free. Looking at the 60 x 20 ft garden, it was a mess. Overgrown with weeds 10 feet high, rubbish, and broken slabs – where do you start? The garden is totally uncared for but there is a glimmer of hope for what it could be; there in the far corner is a clump of violet-blue flowers (bluebells), small but noticeably standing out, blurring out the chaos around them.

So where did my supervisor journey begin? My huge Irish family gradually one by one descended upon London in the late 50s, all looking for a new start and to make a better life for themselves as Ireland had not been able to support them financially or morally. There was lots of love though and, more importantly, laughter with tough women at the helm, well, tough when having to get on with things, not with the men in their lives. Living in a North London Irish community was busy, it was diverse and vibrant. It was pretty commonplace to be faced with racism but it offered freedom from religion to some degree and, most importantly, a way out of poverty. I was born into difficulty; starting with what mum told me was a traumatic birth. My Irish parents really did love each other but, because of their own issues, were doomed to fail and so I was then brought up by a stepfather with mental health issues that impacted upon me and mum.

All plants have Latin names and avid botanists can reel them off at the drop of a hat but I’d say most people know plants by their more recognisable names. For example, Digitalis Purpurea is more commonly known as a foxglove. Gaillardias such as aristata have dazzling daisy-like flowers, with yellow-tipped red petals; they are easy to grow, tolerant to drought and attract beneficial insects such as bees and butterflies, thriving in most soil types. My favourite flowers are daffodils; they grow up through the harsh late winter despite frost and snow. They stand side by side with their tribe bright and bold, defiant to the weather. 

At the age of 16, I changed the spelling of my name from Jacqueline to Jacqui. I cannot for the life of me remember why but I like to think it was about beginning to shake off my core belief that you have to keep a low profile in order to survive, blend in and not make a fuss, act like everything is OK. It was now time to seek out individuality and create a new me. After a mildly rebellious time at college, then into the limelight of the city, there came a settling time and I flourished in my role as a mother and partner as well as beginning the gathering of dear and lifelong friends.

Looking at next door’s garden, it looks amazing, absolutely perfect and its owner knows all the proper botanical names and who got a gold prize at Chelsea. Who am I to think I can do this gardening lark; my colours all look wrong together and my peonies are drooping. I should stick to a window box and not have such big ideas. But talking to the next-door neighbour, listening to her obvious passion for her garden and all the learning she had gone through, began to motivate my desire to learn and experiment. And you can learn a lot from watching Gardener’s World, too.

How interesting that Latin words are known for being scholarly and generally adopted by the elite and educated, required and used by the liturgy, in particular the Catholic Church! No wonder I felt less than given my family’s Stockholm Syndrome relationship with religion. Intimidation was in my make-up and a hard-core belief to shift.

Being told I was a good listener (in hindsight, an excellent rescuer), I embarked on a counselling course in my 40s and I soon became immersed in theorists, models, and theories such as transference, countertransference and projective identification to name but many. Although I felt like I’d come home, it all seemed so complicated and hard to remember or understand, theory books became a chore and I began comparing myself to others who seemed to ‘get it’. The good old core belief of not being good enough raised its head again. But then I came across therapy books that hooked me due to the humanness the authors brought; Victor Frankl’s A Life Worth Living and the numerous books by Irvin Yalom, blew me away. I then realised that I learnt more about my new craft by connecting to real-life stories and case studies which helped illustrate the theories. The use of metaphors was a particularly shining moment for me and helped me communicate and invite creativity into my client and supervisee work.

I stand back and look at the new flower bed I have planted and feel pleased with the outcome, all looks as it should according to the plan I designed but I turn my back for two weeks of holiday and come back to something unrecognisable! Weeds have marched in, pests have eaten the hostas that had just begun sprouting and an unexpected frost has killed off my tomato plants. I feel deflated and stupid. How could I have not seen this coming? How did I get carried away thinking I knew what I was doing? 

This gardening lark is hard work and I feel like selling up and buying a flat with no garden but a quick tidy-up and de-weeding restores my faith. It's tiring, though. Why can’t my garden stay lovely all the time without constant attention? I pick up my bruised pride and consult my gardening books and make queries at the local garden centre. I notice that they don’t laugh at me for not knowing and are actually keen to offer their knowledge and expertise. I even join the amateur gardening club where I meet lots of other eager gardeners keen to learn and not afraid to share horticultural disasters.

Early on in my training, I came across ‘core beliefs’ and how these could stealthily creep up and sabotage me on a daily basis. Who was I fooling thinking that I could shake these, they just kept popping up and were very clever at sneaking in when I wasn’t looking. It’s a painful process going through therapy but what a godsend, opening up a window to my shadow side I had never met or knew existed. Then came client work and entering into group and individual supervision. How terrified I was prior to that first group I joined, it felt like I had imposter syndrome and that my peers and supervisors would quickly cotton on that I didn’t know what I was doing and would say “Sling your hook. Who are you kidding that you think you can be a therapist?” 

I would arrive early, ready with my case notes, trying to think of something intellectual to say about the interventions I had used and be seemingly all-knowing about my knowledge and understanding of theory. Back then I could only bring all the stuff I thought would make me look like a good pupil. I would regularly blush or just keep quiet, but slowly and surely I began to realise that the various supervisors I had really were genuinely interested in my work and in offering other perspectives for me to think about. 

I won’t deny that there weren’t difficulties during my interactions with supervisors and challenges to overcome, but empathic and caring supervisors have helped and supported me to this day and my self-belief continually grows, allowing me to see that it’s OK to get things wrong. We’re human after all and how do we learn if we think we always have to get it right? I actually welcome being able to talk about situations such as when I forgot I was meant to see a client or why a client didn’t come back for their ending session; I am fascinated and curious about all the nuances and unexpected occurrences in sessions. Looking at the process is far more interesting than the avoidant narrative expressed by the client or supervisee.

The garden is looking pretty good now and I am able to tackle most predicaments that occur. I feel relaxed as I wander around the shrubs and trees, taking in the smallest detail of a leaf or flower, soaking up the smells, and am even able to laugh when a squirrel has dug up a just-planted shrub in search of hidden acorns. I have now stepped up and joined the Royal Horticultural Society no less. I regularly visit and look in awe at the wonderful displays and botanical miracles but do not feel as intimidated. I feel inspired and happy with my modest oasis of tranquillity back in suburbia.

My journey of self-belief versus self-doubt carried on and I wait 10 years before ‘I can do it’ kicked in (along with a boot in the backside by my persistent supervisor) and I take the step of embarking on supervisor training. I realised that a predominantly experiential training was what I needed so, back in the training room, I realised how far I had actually come and thrived on the new interactions with my tutors and fellow peers. I feel the universe made me wait until I came across ‘The Seven Eyed Model’ of supervision training and that it was meant to be. I can’t say it was all plain sailing but it certainly got me thinking about how I work again. The triggers that sparked difficult feelings in me were turned into an enlightening experience, not to be ashamed of. The discovery of the ‘sparkling moment’ made me smile deep within, to be able to acknowledge these for both myself, my clients and my supervisees was magical.

It was then into real life and me supervising a couple of groups and some individual therapists. I must say, it was really nerve-racking being ‘supervisor’ (boring old self-doubt again) but it became boring thinking this way and being bored of it got me thinking about how it was preventing my creativity in my supervising. I started to find my style, which continues to grow. I started to listen to my memories of the encouragement and appreciation I received from Joan and Robin, my tutors. How they supportively challenged me, shared their ‘in the moment’ feelings and most importantly invited me to go with whatever was happening in the moment with them; share it, be curious, expand upon it, to own my authority.

Trials and tribulations continue to challenge my ever-growing gardening skills; drought, pestilence, and even the dog whose urinating habits create yellow circles on the grass. I react by being mad and disheartened and I know this can lead to me wanting to give up with a voice saying ‘Why do I bother!’ I bother because I care and it is important for me to continue, I just need to work out what’s going on and problem-solve. I chuckle when I think of the funny side, it’s of no benefit for me to keep stuck in a state of ‘what’s the point?’. 

I join a forum and soon find I am not the only one going through this and feel a sense of warmth and camaraderie with my fellow garden warriors – hearing their stories but most importantly their encouragement to keep going is heartwarming and gives me the extra energy needed to get creative. There is a saying by Lao Tzu, “The heart that gives, gathers”; in essence, this means that to offer the gift of giving is to mirror the universe and become self-nourishing. 

Having supervised for some time now, I realise that being a supervisor is an ongoing journey and that difficulties (both personally and within the supervision relationship) arise. I have found that having compassion for myself and others is so very important, it allows flexibility and builds the supervisor/supervisee relationship in order that it can withstand the difficulties that will inevitably arise. I particularly like to give supervisees the opportunity to use fantasy in order to un-stick themselves with clients and work situations. Saying what they really feel can allow them to see what’s really keeping the work stuck.

A particular example comes to mind when my supervisee kept having a meeting with her line manager cancelled, although she didn’t seem to mind this as she didn’t really know what to bring to the meeting. When we brainstormed 10 ideas on what might be happening and what she’d like to do, she finally came up with ‘I’d like to do tequila shots with her’. This resulted in us both laughing and we realised that she wanted to ‘loosen her tongue’ and be able to have a free voice to say how she was really feeling about her work. Interestingly, the meeting happened the very next day and with a productive outcome!

My offering to you is to keep it real, trust how you feel and use it… and keep the humour, it stops us from taking ourselves too seriously and allows us to be in free and creative child. If you are reading this and have been putting off supervisor training, I encourage you to take a risk. Contact that training you’ve been looking at – what have you got to lose?

By Jacqui Dale


  • Victor Frankl – A life worth living
  • Irvin Yalom – various publications on psychotherapy
  • Lao Tzu – founder of philosophy of Taoism


Writing this article got me thinking about how our profession could learn from hearing about trainees' and novice counsellors’ early experiences of discovering supervision and how their shared, diverse encounters could help promote awareness and growth within training establishments and agencies providing placements.

I decided to find out what other counselling colleagues thought and began to have conversations with my own supervisees, my supervisors and fellow peers and discovered that there was a keen interest in revisiting the early days of their training and some interesting vignettes of their experiences to be heard. My interest in their stories seemed to be something that had not previously been thought about, well at least not by the people I spoke to and this led to some lively debate.

Who should take responsibility for guiding trainees through supervision, and should this be uniform throughout the profession? This is a difficult one as there is not one generic training for therapists but something that did come through was the consensus that supervision is a constant and ethical requirement across the modalities. Listening to an array of viewpoints, it seems that the dedicated training institutions that keep their supervision in-house, alongside an in-house counselling service seemed to create the least confusion and most grounding foundation for their trainees. In addition to this is the fact that these colleges use supervisors rooted in the same modality, adding to the solidifying and understanding of the supervisory process.

This paralleled, to some degree, the recount of agencies who feel it is important to use in-house supervisors rather than asking placement trainees to take clients to their personal supervisors, thus alleviating the possibility of conflictual views on case management. To have a strong connection between agency and training institution also promoted a good holding and working alliance, one where all parties share the support of students learning. Trainees experiencing group supervision within an agency who used an integrative supervisor as well as being part of a diverse peer group allows for opportunity to broaden thinking and a sharing of ideas for the greater good of the client, counsellor and supervisor. 

This line of enquiry seems like something that could be taken forward as a useful research project. Having checked the internet, I could not find anything along these lines, although there is a lot of research around the impact of supervision. Definitely food for thought.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Sidcup DA14 & Maidstone ME15
Written by Jacqui Dale, MBACP Accred. Indiv/Couples Counsellor & Supervisor
Sidcup DA14 & Maidstone ME15

If you are looking at my profile then you may be anxious, stressed, worried, feeling down, overthinking, experiencing panic or all of this and totally overwhelmed and not sure which way to turn .  You may be a couple having relationship difficulties and not able to communicate with each other w...

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