Gillian Proctor on power in person-centered therapy

‘Rogers challenged the power inherent in the role of the therapist in many revolutionary ways. Rogers’ person-centred theory is based on the principle of respect for each individual and their autonomy. It is a radical theory of therapy and is heretical to psychiatric understanding of mental illness. The theory of psychological distress is based on internalised oppression, and the effect of person-centred therapy is to reduce the power that others have had over clients and thus increase their own sense of personal power, or ‘power-from-within‘.’

The Dynamics of Power in Counselling and Psychotherapy: Ethics, Politics and Practice: Gillian Proctor 2002

There are all kinds of issues to tease out here, of course – and Gillian covers various aspects in her book.  She makes the point that much depends on perspective. Clients and therapists inevitably bring personal and cultural beliefs about power into sessions. Our societal structures model power imbalances as the norm, supporting and perpetuating ideas of authority, the powerful ‘expert’ and disempowered receiver of ‘expertise’, external locus. None of us stand outside those cultural influences.

It is clearly important therapists hold their own power landscapes in awareness, and are sensitive to the power landscapes of the people they work with. In the focus on awareness and sensitivity, this is no different from any other aspect of the therapeutic relationship. At best, we work with constantly shifting, subtle awarenesses of what is happening in the room, inwardly and relationally; our empathic connection, presence and intention to offer the core conditions to the other person; our readiness/ability to sense into and hold our own material (both in the moment, and outside sessions)….Can we remain alongside, in the service of the person we are working with – and not accept the ‘invitations to the dance’, be that a dance of power imbalance/perceived authority, or any other kind?

Both clients and therapists can bring overt or more hidden expectations and assumptions about power imbalances in therapy. In our view, a key underlying question for each of us as therapists is: ‘what do we actually believe?’. Because at some level, this will inevitably communicate to the people we work with, over time. If we openly or covertly see ourselves as having some form of ‘power over’ (be that in our awareness or not), we will communicate this. If we believe ourselves to be fundamentally and inherently equal (whatever the task in the moment, or our differing temporal experiences), that sense of equality will communicate.

The writer’s belief might sound like this: ‘We are all human beings, of infinite and equal value, each making sense of our experience and engaging with ourselves/others as best we can from the unique perspective of that experience. We all have our gifts, our wisdom, our potential to become our fuller selves, and blossom and flower in the world, we all have our fears, our darknesses, our shadows. We are endlessly diverse, and we are all in the great mystery of this life together. So in our relationships with ourselves and each other, it fits to bring carefulness, gentleness, compassion, respectfulness, humility. Right now, in this room and this hour, the task to which I commit is to be as fully present as I am able to be with you, empathically, authentically, with love, in support of your experience in this moment. My belief is this will create the conditions for your growth (and so mine too).’

What would yours sound like?

Here’s the link to Gillian’s book:-

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dynamics-Power-Counselling-Psychotherapy-Politics/dp/1898059403/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1431592340&sr=8-1&keywords=The+Dynamics+of+Power+in+Counselling+and+Psychotherapy%3A+Ethics%2C+Politics+and+Practice%3A+Gillian+Proctor

Palace Gate Counselling Service, Exeter

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