I recall feeling optimistic about the potential for our relationship and the client’s ‘state of readiness’ for counselling. She was decisive about improving her level of functioning and showed an admirable willingness to explore her feelings. Session two brought an opportunity for the growth of trust as the client took the risk of sharing feelings she described as ‘pathetic’, and received acceptance and understanding. She had arranged for her hairdresser be at her home when she returned from our session.
However, that morning she had seen an advertisement for the Yellow Pages and, subsequently, did not want her hair coloured as her feelings of contamination were too high. At a superficial level, the client faced a decision to cancel or keep the appointment, but in terms of her determination to ‘fight’ her problems, the situation held enormous significance. She worked through the positive and negative consequences of each option and subsequently chose to keep the appointment, despite her concerns about levels of subsequent anxiety.
She returned the next week having experienced much less anxiety than expected and I felt this was a distinct victory for her in terms of empowerment and could be seen as a temporary restoration of her trust in the dependability of her organismic self. I remained congruent by offering congratulations on her achievement, but stated that my positive regard was not conditional on her movement towards growth. Following the first two sessions, I was questionned in university group supervision about my feelings for the client.
I was privileged that an individual experiencing such self-rejection, had perceived an environment of sufficient safety to disclose personal material, whilst risking my rejection of her. I believed that the client’s experiencing of warmth and unconditional regard was the most important ingredient for the fostering of trust between us, and that my communication of positive regard lessened her feelings of alienation; from self and others.
Lietaer (1984) uses the term counter-conditioning to describe the process of the counsellor’s unconditional positive regard breaking down the link between meeting conditions of worth and being valued. In session four, the client had described the level of emotional support she received from her husband, and through reflection, became aware that his patience and warmth felt time-limited and conditional. It became apparent that our relationship was the first time she had been freely given the time and space to feel truly understood, and was consequently able to articulate her feelings to her satisfaction.
Through reflection on my feelings, I was aware of a non-possessive warmth and respect, plus an initial desire to protect. My group supervisor questioned how such feelings might impede/facilitate the process, which I needed some time to consider. I feel my ability to communicate warmth and acceptance to be a personal strength, and believe it facilitated the client’s feeling of being valued. However, a potential negative implication of feeling protective, would be to ‘hold the client back’ through the desire to shield from potential failure or painful experience.
I would be concerned if my response to the client was of pity, sadness and a desire to rescue her from her immediate experience. The desire to protect has lessened as the client’s appearance of anxiety has reduced. In session four, the client was as low as I had ever witnessed her, experiencing nihilism with regard to her family and job. She did not return to any of the material we had focused on in previous sessions, instead talking about the difficulties with her family and job. On reflection, this could be indicative of her need to gain further strength before moving forward.
At the end of session three, she had been contemplating showing her husband her affection by hugging him – if discussing other concerns she avoided potentially disappointing me with her ‘failure’ to act on this. She had perhaps realised that she was at a point of no return, but to go on would lead to considerable life changes, and session four may have been a pause to gather energy and coherence for the oncoming difficulties. I am aware that clients who drastically improve their self-acceptance may end up being ‘a new person in an old life’ (Mearns and Thorne, 1990).
The client’s close relationships may flourish with her personal growth, or they may have relied upon the client being troubled, weak and physically distant. It would be ethical to encourage the client to consider these issues within therapy. I saw myself as a companion through this phase of regression, and I realised the futility of pre-empting sessional content, as the client will bring whatever is important at that time. It also emphasised the client’s belief that I am strong enough to cope with her regression, that I would still value her and not attempt to remove her from her desolation.