Since launching Counsellors Together UK in July 2017, we have been one of the few counselling groups rooted in politics – campaigning to effect change on both a social and political level. There are other groups, but CTUK has grown to over 5,500 members and we are now the UKs largest Counsellors campaign group. At CTUK we, and myself personally, have always been subject to challenging questions, criticism and unfortunately abuse, both from those outside, but mostly from those within the therapeutic profession. Whilst this has been challenging for me to deal with at times, it’s not something we have shied away from, as we expect and understand that a lot of what we talk about, what we campaign for, makes people feel uncomfortable and nervous. People don’t like change, even Counsellors at times, and even if its for the better.
In the last few weeks as we head towards a General Election, these challenges and criticisms have spiked. As I have shared my thoughts about politics and counselling I have been judged and silenced. And on the basis of this, I want to share my experience with you, but I want to ask you something first.
Is politics relevant in counselling?
It’s a simple question, yeah? Well, apparently not, because as we’ve found out over the last few weeks, an awful lot of Counsellors don’t want to discuss politics at all, often saying that it is not relevant and then taking action to try and silence those who do want to speak out.
I want to be clear here that for me personally, I believe politics should be a core part of any therapeutic training, that politics is absolutely integral to the work we do, and that it is impossible to separate it. And I get that talking about politics make us feel uncomfortable, but should we not be talking about that which makes us uncomfortable?
Let me ask a few more questions before we move on.
If we can’t handle this feeling of discomfort, then how can we appropriately contain our work?
If we can’t question political issues, then how can we move forward and develop as a profession?
If we don’t encourage critical thinking and exploration of such important issues, then how do we grow?
And most importantly, if we silence Counsellors, especially trainee Counsellors, then what does this mean for our clients? Is it then ok to silence our clients too?
I imagine there are people reading this who probably think I’m immature or silly for even asking that last question, and would immediately answer it with, ‘no, of course it’s not ok to silence a client,’ as if that is the obvious answer. But let me ask you this.
How much of what we do and say comes from unconscious processes?
It’s well known that we only use 5% of our cognitive activity. This means that most of the decisions we make, the actions we take, the emotions we feel and our behaviour, depends on the 95% of brain activity that is beyond our conscious awareness. If we are telling Counsellors that counselling is not political and that we should not be discussing these things, then I would say that this will most definitely impact on a Counsellors work with their client….. because somewhere in that 95% where they have stored the words ‘counselling isn’t political’ and ‘we should not talk about politics in counselling,’ and ‘it’s ok to be silenced when trying to do so,’ – unless we challenge these words, and we are open minded enough to think beyond our training, then it can’t not impact the work we do.
In saying this, I hope that I don’t come across as patronising, it is certainly not my intention to do so. I just realise, after 17 years of counselling, how much I was influenced by tutors and other experienced Counsellors, both in training and when newly qualified. It’s taken me years to find my own voice. I was lucky to have some amazing trainers who encouraged me to think, and to be political, but I’m also aware of the power they had over me, my need to impress, to get good grades and to pass – after all, they said if I was able to go on and work with clients or not. I’d hope that all trainers would do the same, to be aware of the power they hold and to encourage their trainees to explore politics and to find their own voice within.
And this leads me onto Facebook.
And to offer SOME CONTEXT to this post!
The fact I’m writing this today is the direct result of a Facebook post which was written by a well know counsellor, Mick Cooper. Last week Mick shared a personal post of his to numerous Facebook groups in which he stated, ‘I would like to make a personal appeal to all counsellors and psychotherapists at this election time to vote for progressive parties (Labour, Lib Dems, Greens, Scottish and Welsh nationalists), and to keep the Conservatives out of power.’ After, he went on to give a very clear and concise list of the reasons he made this statement. Myself and many others applauded Mick’s courage and efforts to try and encourage people to think, and to speak out about something which, as what I will share below will demonstrate, many Counsellors think of as being wrong to do so.
After Mick shared his political post, it was then deleted from several Facebook groups with reasons given ranging from it not being relevant or that he was being judgemental and trying to tell people how to vote, with some people saying that politics wasn’t relevant to our work and how they voted was their business and no one else’s. Mick himself got a lot of stick which was totally uncalled for and I was very sad to see happening.
I personally wasn’t too concerned about the posts being deleted in some groups, except for one particular group. A group, which I won’t name but for which I will say is a large tutor/training group with over 27,000 members, mostly trainee Counsellors, some of who pay to be a part of an exclusive membership program to receive extra tutoring. In the group, Micks post was silenced and then removed.
Why did this bother me so much? It bothers me because it is a training group full of counselling students and because of the power held within that group by the tutors and their ability to influence the profession.
That evening I shared three posts in that group which I’d like to share with you now.
This is the first and second post combined. I hope that makes sense, I’ll explain below after you’ve read it.
The first time I shared this post, commenting was turned off, although it still received over 200 positive reactions. I then screen shot it and shared it again and there was a lot of support, with people saying well done for re-sharing, how grateful they were, asking why commenting was turned off and an acknowledgment that we needed to talk about politics in our training.
As well as my own posts, there were many other people posting, many of whom were also being silenced and there were many differing views.
As well as support for Mick, myself and others, a lot of the comments were not so supportive, and many people suggested that we as Counsellors should remain neutral and non-judgemental, we shouldn’t let our views impact on our client work and we shouldn’t be mixing counselling and politics. Also, people thought that the admin in the Facebook group had the right to ban such discussion, and we should just accept that. I mean shit! If our clients were being silenced, would we tell them to accept that? (See, I often digress!) So, just to briefly comment on some of this before I show you the third thing I posted that evening. Well, yes, in an ideal world and a world where our actions outside of the room didn’t affect the people inside of the room, this would be grand! However, we are not and cannot be 100% neutral or non-judgemental all of the time – whilst we wouldn’t direct our clients journey or disclose our political views and we certainly wouldn’t tell them how to vote, clients pick up stuff about us unconsciously all the time, we can’t escape this. They may also Google us and find out about us that way. But this is about way more than what happens inside the counselling room. It is about two things that should happen outside of the counselling room. Firstly, we need to understand how politics affects our clients lives so that we can understand them and support them in the right way. Not everything that happens to a client, or how they feel is the result of an internal process. An awful lot of clients present in counselling with problems caused by external factors, more and more these days. (See my Facebook post above re austerity). Secondly, we need to be aware of how our own actions, the way we vote, etc. could affect our clients. I’ve asked on social media many times, and I’ll ask again here:
How can we sit opposite a person and hold them in their pain and suffering if our actions are a direct cause of that pain and suffering?
To me, we can’t do that. Or at least I couldn’t. Take for example, Tory austerity. If we are aware of a political parities manifesto, and we vote for that manifesto, then are we not at least in part responsible for the outcome of that manifesto on people’s lives? I believe we are, because we are all each responsible for the decisions we make. How do you sit opposite someone who has been referred for depression and anxiety and the only reason they are depressed and anxious is because they’ve been hit by both Universal Credit and the bedroom tax and are now struggling to live, work, heat their homes and to feed their children? And if you think that it is possible for a counsellor to do this, for a counsellor to make such decisions outside of the counselling room which directly affect their clients and then to be able to sit with them and support them through this pain, then I’d argue that as a counsellor they’d have to be, to a degree, detached from their client. And that isn’t what counselling is about. Counselling is about connection and intimacy, it’s about being attached and nurturing that attachment. It’s about fostering an open, trusting and congruent relationship. That’s the basic requirements for healing. And we can’t heal someone if we are also the source of their pain.
And on that basis, I’d like to share with you my third post to that particular Facebook group.
I don’t think I need to expand on what I’ve said here. I stand by it and believe it 100%. What has angered me since, is that the man who runs this group has since released a video saying that he doesn’t have any power. To me, someone, such as a tutor/trainer and especially someone who takes money from people, is most certainly in a position of power, and to deny this is in itself an abuse of that power. It also shows an extreme lack of awareness regarding not only political issues in counselling and psychotherapy but also the power dynamics that play out in all relationships, including in counselling training where there is already an imbalance of power. One has to wonder how this lack of awareness would creep into the counselling room where there is most certainly an imbalance of power. To disregard this is both insulting and gravely concerning, especially for the students they teach and subsequent clients.
As you can probably tell, this stuff feels personal to me. In fact, I’ve written most of this with tears in my eyes, so it makes sense to share a little of why that may be.
I’d like to share something personal with you now and it is this….. the effects of politics affect a persons life, sometimes forever.
I grew up in working class area, Sunderland, one of the most deprived cities in the UK. I grew up as a child under a Thatcher government living right between many coal mining towns. We had no money, and I mean none. My Dad used to shoplift to earn money by selling his stolen goods, and that money was mostly given to my Mam to spend on food and clothes. If he couldn’t sell what he’d stolen, then he’s simply steal the things we needed. New school uniform – stolen. New shoes – stolen. Dinner – stolen. Birthday presents – stolen. And so forth. There was no work. There were hardly any opportunities and a lot of the families around me were the same – deprived and poor! What has this done to me? For many years it left me with a constant sense of anxiety, a knowledge of how bad things can be, and a fear of ever living like that again. In the past it’s contributed to feelings of worthlessness, not being good enough and being ashamed of my history. Fortunately, with the help of a good therapist, I’ve been able to see that it has also given me a lot of gifts…. humility, compassion and empathy for others, a sense of wanting to help… I’d literally give my last £1 away if it meant someone else would benefit. My Dad – he broke the law which is wrong, of course it is, but that doesn’t make him a bad person. In fact, he helped a lot of people to just get by, to survive. Growing up I’d answer the door to people who had come to buy things from us, not luxury items, but food and basic personal hygiene products. That’s right, his best selling products were meat, coffee, cheese, razor blades, sanitary towels and deodorant. Our house was full of them and people would knock on the door and I’d sell them half price. And often, if people couldn’t afford that, my Dad would just give them away and tell them to ‘think no more of it.’ This resulted in a lot of free drinks passed his way in the local pub! And what does that say? When people don’t ask for luxury items to be stolen, but they ask for food and personal care products instead? I joke now that this is where I gained my entrepreneurial spirit, but jokes aside, because it’s not funny, this is again the state our country is in, people stealing simply to eat, to survive, to NOT die.
BACK TO POLITICS IN COUNSELLING (because I digressed again!)
Of course politics isn’t the only thing that brings a client to counselling. Many issues do, but if you look in the counselling Facebook groups you’ll see an increasing number of Counsellors telling us how the referrals they are seeing are rising hugely due to 9 years of austerity. How, the clients they are seeing who are extremely vulnerable, depressed and anxious are feeling this way because of how politics have affected them. We can’t deny this to be true when so many are speaking so openly about it – both clients and counsellors.
As Counsellors we don’t need to agree on everything, but we do need to be open to discussing politics with our peers given how important politics are in our clients lives. And we don’t all need to vote the same. I think you’ll probably have guessed by now that I will vote for Labour and I would never vote Tory, but this doesn’t mean I can’t speak to my Tory voting peers (and try to change their minds!). We need to make politics accessible in counselling, and for me this starts on training courses.
And as Counsellors, we cannot and we should not underestimate the effect that our actions, including how we choose to vote, has on our clients lives. To do so, is of a disservice to our clients.
Let’s digress a little more!
Surprisingly, a lot of Counsellors are reluctant to talk about love in counselling, about loving their clients. For me personally, love underpins all of the work I do. My aim as a counsellor is to love my clients enough so that they learn to love themselves so much that they don’t need me anymore. Within this work of learning to love ourselves, we often focus on self-care, and we often ask ‘how can we best ensure our clients are caring for themselves, so that they can learn to love themselves?’ To do this we need to ensure that a client has enough of a secure and stable environment. That, first and foremost, they have their basic needs met. And if they don’t, we need to be open to question things such as;
How can a client look after their body and eat healthy nutritious food if they are using a food bank?
How can a client have a relaxing hot bubble bath if they have no heating?
How can a client take pride in their appearance if they can’t afford toothpaste and soap, let alone a new pair of shoes?
How can you talk about staying safe with someone who will be sleeping under a bridge that night?
How can we begin to focus on self care when such basic human needs, human rights, are not met?
And for anyone who thinks this is extreme, it is not. Today, there are now more food banks (2,030) than McDonalds (1,250) in the UK, with food banks now requesting more personal care items such as soap and sanitary towels.
COUNSELLING IS POLITICAL – we can’t escape it!
I’d ask that those involved in the recent Facebook discussions or those who are only just seeing how this has unfolded now, take some time to reflect on what has happened and try to be open to engaging in and discussing politics in counselling training and amongst our peers in the same ways we would or should be open to discussing racism, sexism, and all other social issues.
Please think about what we want for our clients, think about our most vulnerable clients and how our actions outside of the room influence not only how we are in the room with them, but also the impact of external factors on their lives.
Think about how you can help your clients to become themselves, to learn to like and love who they are, to be part of a kind, caring and accepting society…. think about your influence within that.
Recognise that whilst the room we sit in with our clients may be warm, snug, cosy and safe, all of our clients need to leave that room and go face the world alone, and politics is something which will affect every single person sitting opposite us.
I’ll end by saying openly that I am known for being a little out there, free speaking, loud and emotional….. I’ll take that, that’s me, but I’d also like to think I’m passionate and caring! I am also dyslexic and I know I don’t write as articulately as many other professionals do, I’m certainly not an academic. I don’t use big words or relate much back to theory, I mean I could…. but I just often don’t see the point. One thing I’ve learned is that people appreciate my ability to connect with others and to be able to break things down into simple language that anyone can easily read and digest. So I hope I have been able to do that here. What I can also offer you is some humanness, some kindness, some common sense and a honest look at what is happening right now in relation to politics and counselling, and I would hope that some who read this will think about my words and hopefully begin to acknowledge just how much politics does affect counselling and be more mindful of this in all they do.
Written by Maria Albertsen – founder of CTUK
NOTE: Since writing this post a colleague has alerted me that the Facebook group I speak about is now reviewing their policies to decide if they are going to allow political content. Whilst I am sad it has taken a few days and a huge amount of pressure for a different stance to be taken, I wait in hopeful anticipation of how this new policy works in practice.
- This is an account of Maria’s views and beliefs. It does not represent all CTUK Members.