People have many reasons for choosing a career as a psychotherapist or counsellor. One important reason maybe the desire to come to terms with one’s own conflicts. Another reason may be the desire to help others. Whatever the initial motivation, the decision to train as a psychotherapist or counsellor can be the beginning of a demanding, stimulating, testing, and rewarding journey.
An exploratory study of Australian training bodies identified the personal qualities needed to be an effective psychotherapist or counsellor. Not surprisingly, empathy was at the top of the list, followed by self-awareness, a strong sense of self, a genuine interest and respect for people, and intelligence and wisdom. Other characteristics included a non-judgemental attitude, ethical behaviours, courage and resilience, and patience and perseverance.
But are personal qualities enough? Some researchers say that a therapist’s most valuable tool is his or her own self, yet others say that we don’t know enough about the “therapist factor” to determine if it matters more than technique.
Training does, therefore, need to incorporate personal development, theoretical knowledge, and practical skill development. The balance of these factors will depend on the training body and on the therapeutic approach being taught.
Some people believe that their personal life experience qualifies them to work with others. Life experience-the amount one has struggled with life’s challenges and found their way through them -can offer a valuable basis for studying the complexities of the human experience. Unfortunately, it does not automatically result in maturity or wisdom and can leave people with inflexible ideas.
Many educators have observed that even the brightest students in their classes have false ideas based on enduring misconceptions that have developed through their own life experience. These ideas are notoriously difficult to change: Until you confront your “private universe” you cannot develop true understanding . . .
One of the first modern researchers to investigate this was Kurt Lewin, founder of social psychology. Lewin developed a practice he called “unfreezing”–a process of disconfirming a person’s former belief system by examining fondly-held assumptions about self, others, and the world. He found that:
Disconfirming information is not enough . . because we can ignore the information, dismiss it as irrelevant, . . .or, as is most common, simply deny its validity. In order to become motivated to change, we must accept the information and connect it to something we care about.
In other words, if new information is going to replace an existing belief, idea or habitual response, it has to involve feeling.
What does this mean for students of counselling and psychotherapy? The answer depends on the goals of training programs. If the goal is to teach students theory and a step by step application of theory, then the course may avoid confronting the “private universe” of students. If the goal is for students to connect theory with emotional and embodied experience, the curriculum will need to involve some exploration of each person’s “private universe”.
So, if you are motivated to choose a career as a psychotherapist or counsellor, be prepared for a journey of discovery about yourself and some of your fondly-held assumptions about self, others, and the world.
Click on the link to read more about Dr Kaalii Cargill or her Professional Developmental Program for Counsellors and Psychotherapist Next Intake April 18th to May 30th, Wednesdays 7-10pm at Qi.