The third in our occasional series of some person-centred fundamentals.
‘There are many ways of describing people who use services such as housing, education and health. Some of these are also used of counselling clients: this client is “manipulative”, that client is “dependent”, another client is “attention-seeking”. What is happening when we use such labels?
The first thing is that we can lose sight of one of the basic premises of person-centred theory: that people have reasons for everything they do. Take someone who is described as “manipulative”. He might have learned early and painfully that asking directly did not result in his getting his needs met. He might, for example, have had a parent or carer who was impatient and needy herself and who could not cope with the demands of a young child. He might have absorbed a condition of worth along the lines: It is bad to ask for things. Wait until they are given. In his experience, the only way to get his needs met without being punished is to wheedle or “trick” others.
Another person is described as “attention-seeking”. Who among us does not want attention? Once this label is applied, though, the covert message is that to give attention to such a person would be in some way encouraging them to continue with a bad habit. One can argue that people need attention as much as they need food. And the parallel – that we should not encourage someone to eat today, because they will only want more food tomorrow – is clearly nonsense.
The third example is of a “dependent” client. Many among us will have depended upon others, particularly when we have been going through a painful or traumatic time in our lives. How many times have you heard someone say, “I wouldn’t have got through it without X”? They may not mean literally that they would have died, but the phrase does express something of the neediness and desperation they felt and the gratitude they experience for the person who was able to respond.
There is a subtle shift in wording from “depending upon” to “being dependent” which changes the natural activity of turning to others for help when in need to some kind of fixed way of being. This is the real danger of labels. Implicit in the sentence “X is dependent” are the notions that X’s dependency is unnatural or even dangerous and that it would be counter-productive to meet her needs. The counsellor becomes a superior being who has made a judgement about X which makes it okay for her to become detached from X’s feelings.
What is happening here for the helper? Being depended upon can feel quite overwhelming. As a counsellor, I can become aware that I am the only person in someone’s life, that their hour with me is so important that their survival seems to them to depend on my being there. I can feel trapped by this intense neediness – perhaps I feel inadequate in the face of their pain and the barrenness of their life.
Here, yet again, theory is my lifeline. I must – and do – trust that the person’s self structure is gradually loosening, that they are integrating more and more of their experience, that when the time is right they will begin to form new and more honest relationships based upon a growing sense of their own worth and the trustworthiness of their own instincts.
When we classify or label someone, we are often disguising our own fears and insecurities. We try to make it their problem and not ours.’
Skills in Person-Centred Counselling & Psychotherapy: Janet Tolan
Janet describes this beautifully, with the salient theoretical points and therapeutic implications:-
‘The counsellor becomes a superior being who has made a judgement about X which makes it okay for her to become detached from X’s feelings.’
Empathy diminishes/switches off.
‘When we classify or label someone, we are often disguising our own fears and insecurities. We try to make it their problem and not ours.’
The therapist fails to identify their own triggered process material – lack of awareness and a perceived threat to self structure, leading into projection and blaming.
We are creatures of our culture, and no-one is immune from the cultural values and norms which surround us. The attitudes and behaviours that go with the judgmental language Janet describes are endemic, normalized, socially accepted – even required. That is present to a high degree in the therapy world, in the writer’s experience.
Culturally, we tend to teach conformity, rather than independent and rigorous thought. Many people, including therapists, have been able to develop little ability to dive deep into their beliefs and base them out rationally (let alone relate them to personal emotional landscape). It matters to be able to say ‘I believe this, and I believe this because I also believe…and because I have observed… and because this seems to mean [x], and ethically my stance is….’. Few of us have learned to do this, or even that it exists as an ethical task.
It is equally true that it is extremely difficult to find in our culture the kind of relationship that supports personal growth and awareness, and that goes for therapists too. Many therapy trainings place emphasis on teaching theory/techniques, and ‘ethics’ in the sense of rules, at the expense of a focus on personal therapy and in-depth exploration of personal landscape. This approach produces therapists who are neither independent thinkers, nor deep divers in terms of their own process work. A dangerous combination.
The writer has a particular inward catch when she hears other therapists use the words Janet gives as examples. There are many others – ‘narcissist’ and ‘sociopath’ take a bow (and indeed the DSM ‘disorders’, which are in essence circular, subjective and dehumanizing labels applied to behaviours/experiences that in reality have meanings as diverse as the unique individuals to whom the labels are applied). The writer experiences use of these words as unthinking, lacking in empathy or compassion, and fundamentally unhelpful – as well as being wholly incompatible with any in-depth understanding of the person-centred approach.
Labelling of this nature always seems to cause harm, never to advance anyone’s well-being or understanding or relational or social connection. Even where there is an accurate perception of harmful behaviour, we cannot judge or punish people into change, in any meaningful way. We cannot judge or punish people into ‘accountability’ or ‘responsibility’ – the effect is the reverse…. the more we experience blame, shaming and condemnation, the more armoured and defensive we become.
We may support empathic engagement, and a willingness to explore the other person’s frame of reference – so long as they remain one of ‘us’. From that place, most of us are up for some form of Martin Buber’s ‘I/Thou’ relating, at least in theory and on the surface. That can change rapidly and radically, however, as soon as the other person makes the short and unpredictable trip from ‘us’ to ‘them’. We shift into ‘I/it’ relating terrifyingly fast in our current culture, and it harms all of us.
Judgmental language of the nature Janet describes is supported and rationalized through our cultural tendency towards simplistic binary division – ‘abusers’ or ‘perpetrators’; ‘victims’ or ‘survivors’ – replaces meaningful engagement with the complexities of human perspective, behaviour and experience. Challenge to this cultural orthodoxy rapidly attracts its own judgements and labels, e.g. ‘victim blaming’, in an attempt to shut down the conversation and coercively impose the cultural values implicit in the language.
The ‘basic premises of person-centred theory’ to which Janet refers, are set out in Carl Roger’s observations set out in the 19 propositions. We have a page on this blog, which sets out his original words, and our rewrite – no link today, sorry, see below re technical issues. It’s summed up in propositions 1, 2, 3, 7 and 8 (the text underneath is our rewrite):-
All individuals (organisms) exist in a continually changing world of experience (phenomenal field) of which they are the center.
I make sense of myself, others and my world based on my own constantly changing experiencing.
The organism reacts to the field as it is experienced and perceived. This perceptual field is “reality” for the individual.
My sense of ‘reality’ is unique, formed out of (1) what I experience; and (2) how I process and understand my experience – my ‘story/ies’.
The organism reacts as an organized whole to this phenomenal field.
My entire way of being/doing arises out of my personal sense of ‘reality’.
The best vantage point for understanding behavior is from the internal frame of reference of the individual.
You can adequately understand my behaviour only through understanding how I see myself, others and the world.
Behavior is basically the goal-directed attempt of the organism to satisfy its needs as experienced, in the field as perceived.
I behave as I do in order to meet my needs, as I experience and perceive them, and as I experience and perceive ‘reality’.
We are having some technical issues today, so will add the link to Janet’s excellent book tomorrow (and apologies if anyone is experiencing intrusive ads – we are on to it, and they will be short-lived).
Palace Gate Counselling Service, Exeter
Counselling in Exeter since 1994