Making a living vs making a life

never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life

The busy trap

‘I don’t have time for personal counselling.’

It was just an off-hand jokey comment that slipped out without me thinking. A friend had asked me if I was planning to see my personal counsellor again. (It’s OK, she’s a fellow counsellor, we have conversations like that. ‘Honey, your process is showing.’)

We both laughed. But that sentence kept on echoing in my head. And after a while it didn’t seem funny anymore. I’m a counsellor. I fundamentally believe in the value of counselling yet why wasn’t I doing what I recommended for my clients for me? Was I really so busy I couldn’t clear a 50-minute slot in my schedule for myself?


It’s become fashionable to moan about how busy you are. As a person I have a tendency to try and do all the things. Collapse with exhaustion. Clear space in my schedule. Forget, and try and do all the things. Well, you get the idea…


But let me run through my schedule for you. From 9-5 I work at the day job, five days a week. From 6-9 four evenings a week I work in my dream job as a counsellor,  I sees my supervisor, I update my website or I go to peer group. From 9-11 I see my husband, eat and ‘relax.’ Two weekends a month I do counselling training which left a luxurious six days of freedom a month which I filled by seeing friends and family. Looking at this now, it sounds insane. My life wasn’t meant to be this way. When I trained to become a counsellor I was searching for a job that made a difference, fulfilled me and paid the bills. After graduating and setting up my private the first two conditions were fulfilled  but earning enough to support myself… that’s been tough. Books are expensive, you guys!

When did you stop dancing?

I’ve hinted around this in this blog but for the last six months if you are a friend or family member you will be intimately aware of how fed up I’ve been recently with my day job. For a year now I’ve searched for a way out and felt increasing stuck at work. Writing about it here felt like revealing my secret shame that I wasn’t where I wanted to be life-wise.

In many ways the day-job has been the best job I’ve ever had. I love the people I work with. Plus it’s a editor role, in Brighton. Aah, the wonder of the no commute.


That doesn’t change the fact that I feel as if I’ve been at work, oh about four years too long. It bores me, the same questions, the same drama. I feel as if I am making a massive difference when I am counsellor but as a editor I’m just moving deck chairs on the Titanic.

It made practical sense to stay in my day job. Staying there allowed me to do my counselling training without having to pay tuition fees. It gave me time to set up and grow my private practice. It’s supported me financially.

But I became sick of being practical. The urge to leave and to strike out on my own over the last year has become almost unbearable. We spend a huge proportion of our lives at work and if you no longer enjoy what you are doing that’s a huge proportion of time to be bored, frustrated and unhappy. I needed a change, stat.


The treadmill

In February, I was offered a role as a counsellor. I was ambivalent. Pros: a counselling job. Cons:  it involved a massive pay cut, a commute and HWSNBN’s job was shaky. I couldn’t make it work. I chose my head over my heart and stayed in my day job.

Returning from holiday in March I asked to go part-time at work. The week after my head of division left and we were absorbed into another team. The day job became thrown into chaos. I have the best timing. The answer was of course, not now. Wait until things calm down in a couple of months, hah!

For next couple of months I continued my superhero life – editor by day, counsellor by life. I asked periodically at work to go part time but was told ‘wait’. At this point I was only working three nights a week in a futile attempt to keep exhaustion at bay. I was getting increasing unhappy and frustrated in my day job. Even though when I was counselling I came home at 9pm at night I was animated and happy. On my nights off when I only worked my day job I was drained and miserable. Why had I trained so hard for two years to become a counsellor only to go back to exactly the same life?

I felt stuck. One job paid the bills but I was beyond over it and the other I loved but couldn’t yet make it work financially. I was in limbo.


In May, I made the decision to lean in. If I took on more clients in my private practice I could earn enough to leave my day job and just work as a counsellor. As a back-up plan I applied for every counselling job I saw. But I wasn’t hopeful. Getting a paid job as a counsellor in this economy was a tough ask. I started actively hunting for more clients by rehauling my website and advertising. I increased my prices. Instead of counselling three nights a week I began working every weekday and training at the weekend.

The more clients, I took on the more exhausted I got. Even my eyelashes felt tired. I was working 12 hour days and in between trying to fit in friends and family. I felt like I was failing at everything. If only I was better, cleverer, quicker I could do it all (hah-fucking-hah).

Around this time I said ‘I don’t have time for counselling.’ I don’t have time became my mantra. I didn’t have time for anything. Everything I enjoyed fell by the wayside. I stopped dancing, writing, reading. I worked, I worked, I slept. I began getting sick because I was so run down. Life was a treadmill and I just needed to get off.

Finally I snapped. It was a Sunday and I was so tired I felt like I was moving in slow motion. My parents asked me to fed their cats while they were away. I love feeding the cats so much. But that day it felt like one tiny weight being placed on back that was already bent double. When you don’t have time to feed cats you know your priorities are messed up. They asked if there was anything they could do but there wasn’t really. I had been flailing around hoping somebody would say ‘Rowan. You need to stop.’ (They did often. But I was too tired to hear by this point. My thoughts felt confused and lumbersome.) But I needed to take that decision myself. I sat on the beach crying so hard my glasses filled up with salt.

I asked work to go part-time again the next day. I told them if it wasn’t possible I would have to leave. I may not have any money but I would find a way to survive. I just had to jump and have faith that I would find my wings on the way down.


As I waited and waited and waited for an answer I desperately tried to make a life as well as make a living. I started meditating daily which had a huge affect on my thoughts and mood. I did acupuncture. I started 100 days of happiness in order to fill my life with more things that nourish  me.

In July the day job told me it wasn’t possible to allow me to go part time but it would happen once we’d recruited more people in October. I knew that if I stayed I would lose parts of myself until there was nothing left. That severe exhaustion was looming for me. That given the chaos at work it was unlikely they would recruit before January. I started drafting my letter of resignation.

That day I got a phone call about a job I applied for months ago. The same role I turned down in February except this time it was in Brighton and for a little bit more money. I expected that they might be asking me to interview. But they were so impressed with my previous interview, they offered me the role. It was part time which allowed me to continue my private practice. It was a life-raft that I grasped with both hands. I handed in my notice that day in a gesture my lovely colleague labelled ‘Sticking it to the man.’


I still can’t believe it but in a month I’m going to be a full-time counsellor. Life changes in a instance. I’ve got so accustomed to tragedy falling from the sky that I’ve forgotten about joy. Dreams do come true. It still feels miraculous that a year after graduating I will be working full time as a counsellor. I’m filled with lot’s of worries. What if I hate it? What if they hate me? What if I am so broke all I survive is Cup-a-Soups?

I’ve learnt a lot this year about myself. Life lesson’s learnt:

Be flexible – 2014 wasn’t meant to be the year of the career. But life had other plans and the more I fought against that the more stuck I felt. The minute I realised that I needed to stop settling and find a new job everything fell into place.

Avoid being a victim – I have a tendency to go ‘poor me’ especially when I am tired. I desperately wanted somebody to step in and save me this year. But there was no millionaire waiting in the wings to pay me to help people and keep me in bon bons. I chose to be a workaholic and although my reasons were valid I needed to take responsibility for taking care of me. In the end I learnt how to save myself.

Self-care is fundamental – eat well, sleep, meditate. If any of these fall by the way-side I’ll know I’m in trouble again.

Work to live rather than live to work – I have work-a-holic tendencies to equate being busy with being effective. This is bullshit. Working effectively means taking a lunchbreak. It means taking five minutes each hour to stretch the cracks out of my back. It means saying No to things.

Take more risks for big payoffs – I am not a natural risk-taker. I like certainty, lists and big books full of big words. Risks terrify me. However, once every half a dozen years I feel something outside of myself begin to move me to take a chance.

When I was 14 I cut my hair of at home in the bathroom mirror. My family and friends thought I was having a break down. But I knew this was my rebirth

When I was 22 I left my cushy job to travel by myself driven less by a desire to see the world than to get away. I hated it at first missing my family and my new boyfriend (now husband). But when HWSNBN and I travelled together I changed. When I returned I moved to Brighton, he followed two years later and we never looked back.

When I was 28, based on a feeling of envy. I took an introductory counselling course and then another.

When I was 31, I took a risk and left a comfortable job to become a full-time counsellor.

And in one bound she was free.


Turning towards


Blogs by their nature are exercises in navel gazing. And I’ve never kidded myself that my blog had a wide appeal, mostly I ramble on about things that interest only me/hair.  But this post is so incredibly narcissistic that I give you my regular reader aka mum complete permission to skip this post.

But I have to write about turning towards. Because this revelation has been so fundamentally important in my life that to not mark it here feel wrong. Maybe this might help other people struggling with the same thing. Plus when I inevitably forget this lesson, before the universe slams my head against the wall again I can re-read this post again and tell myself turn towards doofus, turn towards.

As I hinted in my beginning of the year post for the past six months I’ve been struggling. In short:

There are two things I really want. I’ve been doing anything I can think of to accomplish these goals. And running face first into the universe’s indifference as I realise how completely out of my control everything is.


In response, I’ve felt very sad, hopeless and useless. I don’t like feeling sad, hopeless and useless  – these feelings bummed me out. So I would do whatever I could to make myself feel better. I have *takes deep breath* journalled, gone to therapy, cleaned, seen friends, isolated, eaten chocolate, meditated, drunk many fruity cocktails in different shades, gone on the holiday of a lifetime, distracted myself with books and TV.  I even whisper it exercised. That is how desperate I was 😉

And all of these things worked. I’d feel better for an a hour, an afternoon, a week. But inevitably because I want things, and those things aren’t happening, I would feel very sad, hopeless and useless again. I flipped so fast between hope and despair I gave myself emotional whiplash.

Even worse the negative thoughts began: ‘you’re a trained counsellor. If you’re so good at fixing your clients, why can’t you fix yourself. What’s wrong with you?’ So in addition to feeling crappy, I then beat myself up for feeling crappy. It was if I imagined after gaining my diploma that I’d be teflon coated never suffering again. Fellow counsellors, I’ll give you a moment to stop laughing at me.

This cycle (feel sad, try to make self feel better, while beating self up for feeling bad) might have continued ad infinitum. If not for one weekend when something happened.

During the break in a experiential counselling group (think a therapeutic group for counsellors) I took a walk. It had been an emotional day and I’d connected with an old wound from childhood. I felt off, like a small animal was scritching a hole in my breastplate. I needed… something. I went into the bookshop and stared at my books, my drug of choice and familiar companions. No, that wasn’t it. I went into Waitrose and stared at sugary things, hoping they could satiate my pain. Nope, not it. I walked scrolling through my phone desperate to find somebody who could help take this feeling away.

In that moment I would have done anything, taken anything for the momentary cessation of that scritchy feeling.

Instead I did something different. I sat down on a bench and (in my head) I began to talk to myself. ‘OK’ I said to myself. ‘What up with you?’ I turned towards those feelings blossoming within me like a dark flower. And I felt it all the sadness sloshing inside of me bigger than any ocean, the anger juddering like tectonic plates moving and there at the base of it all a raggedly old wound that never healed.


It took almost everything I had to not turn away from those feelings. Instead as each feeling emerged I acknowledged it. I tried to name the feeling: was it grief or despair that I was drowning in? I put my hand to where the feelings where located and breathed through it.

Was turning towards those feelings pleasant?


It felt like shining a light into my soul and seeing creatures wiggle in the darkness. It was intensely painful but mixed up in that pain was a relief at those feelings being heard. An ‘Ah yes, there you are!’

In that moment I drew on a couple of ideas that had inspired me but I’d struggled to integrate. Buddhist notions of acceptance, vulnerability from the work of Brené Brown, and techniques from mindfulness and focusing. I accepted those feelings. I embraced my vulnerability instead of turning away in shame. I open myself up to my current experience whatever they were.

I knew from my counselling training that feelings need to be heard. But I had been ignoring mine and worse telling myself that what I felt wasn’t valid.

Let’s get all metaphorical for a minute. It felt emotionally I was in Hull but I really wanted to be in Brighton. It was almost as if for the last six months I spent all my time either distracting myself or being self critical that I wasn’t in Brighton. Neither of which actions got me anywhere. If I ever want to get to Brighton I need to accept I’m in Hull.

I need to accept the reality of my current emotional experience before it can change to make way for something new. 


For years I’ve had this quote pinned to my fridge. ‘The only way out is through’ by Robert Frost. The thing is going through our feelings hurts, it’s uncomfortable, the terrain is unwieldy. Wanting to avoid pain is human nature. It’s in my nature. But when I avoided my pain it only reinforced my secret fear that my pain is bigger than I am and I am not resilient enough to handle it. By trying to shut of my pain I’d limited my ability to feel pleasure. By turning towards I remembered that there are no shortcuts, the only way out of a feeling is through.

So for the last month I’ve been practising turning towards my feelings. I can feel the ripples spreading. I don’t know where I’ll end up but this feels huge and revolutionary.

For the first time in months I’m feeling like myself. I feel… better (she says tentatively eyeing the skies for more thunderbolts).  Nothing externally has changed but I’ve changed. I still want things that aren’t happening. I still feel sad, useless and bummed out. But instead of ignoring those feelings or telling myself I’m not allowed to have them more often than not I turn towards them. ‘Who are you?’ I ask. ‘What do you need me to hear?’ And whatever I hear and no matter how uncomfortable it is to bear I try to turn towards.

Smelling the flowers


I’m gloriously happy at the moment, happier than I can remember being for a long time. My cynical alter ego is squinting up at the sky waiting for it to start falling but the rest of me is enjoying lying back and smelling the flowers. In some ways it’s not a big surprise:

  • I qualified with honours in my dream career and, perhaps more importantly, got my evenings and weekends back;
  • I celebrated my first wedding anniversary with the love of my life HWSNBN;
  • I’ve recently returned from an awesome honeymoon trip to Cuba – full blog, when I can be arsed soon;
  • I’m working on a new novel;
  • Plus there are a couple of exciting and TOP SEKRIT projects on the horizon.

Any one of these events would be enough to account for my happiness. What makes this different and blog worthy is that a couple of my closest friends are struggling through some very difficult times and I am so desperately sad for them. But although that sadness is present and I am mourning for them I also feel a surge of deep joy for myself and neither feeling lessens the other.

I can see some of my well-adjusted readers shrugging as they read this: ‘doesn’t everybody emotionally multitask?’

But this is very new for me. Two years ago I would not even have been able to register the thought of being happy when people so close to me weren’t. Like a human sponge, I had so little boundaries I found it difficult to separate my feelings from the people I loved. Can you say enmeshed, fucked-up and unsustainable? Last year I would have been able to acknowledge my happiness but only momentarily before the guilt would set in. How could I be happy when others were suffering?

It has taken two years of counselling but I have finally learnt the difference between feeling empathy and responsibility. I can finally let go of feeling like I don’t ‘deserve’ to be happy because people around me are struggle. It is one of the horrible secrets of life that if you look hard enough, somebody around you will always be struggling. It seems like such a minor change but for me it has been fundamental. If I lived by my old rules, it was never OK for me to be happy.  So I am able to not only recognise but revel in how amazingly lucky and blessed I am at the moment. And I am fully conscious that this too shall pass and it will be my ‘turn’ soon enough. But until it does I am going to enjoy every moment. As my bestie Kurt says:

“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point “If this isn’t nice I don’t know what is.”
– Kurt Vonnegut

And in case that quote gives you the mistaken impression that I am cultured innit. Look, cat fonts!


On finishing my degree


Today I learnt that I passed my counselling degree with distinction, drawing a line under four plus years of training and studying.

As an editor and wannabee writer it’s rare I am stuck for words. But I am have been putting off writing this post. Firstly because after ESSAY HELL there were no more words left to scrape from the exhausted void that was my brain. But if this course has taught me anything is that sometimes we know more than we can say. Even HSWNBN, who has lived through this course with me in a way neither of us anticipated, can never truly understand what it was like. I felt that my course mates and me were battered survivors weathering something that outsiders could not understand. It was like ‘Nam ‘You don’t know man. You weren’t there.’  🙂

How can I ever summarise the journey I have been on these past two years? To borrow from Dickens:

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.’

And somehow, god knows how, I survived it.

I feel so cheesy writing this, but in becoming a counsellor I have realised a life long dream. Ever since, I was first in counselling myself, sat in the client chair thinking ‘I could do that and better than you!’ I’ve wanted to be a counsellor. But I put off studying counselling for a long time rationalising I did not have enough money, time or the right experience. Deep down I was worried that I wouldn’t be a good counsellor and how that failure might make me feel about myself. I clearly remember shaking with fear before I met with my first client. I had loved the theory and the experiential classes, but what if I hated being alone in a room with a client? But it was so much better than I ever could have imagined. I love being a counsellor, even on the bad days when I so tired and overwhelmed. I can see that I make a difference, that I have touched people and when I leave this world I will have made an impact.

This course was a healing experience for me. In school, college and at University the feedback was always the same: ‘Rowan is talented but unless she tries harder she will never fulfil her potential.’ Except I was trying, really, really hard. But although verbally I got great feedback, my written work always let me down. It wasn’t until I was in the final year of my degree that I was diagnosed with dyslexia. I knew when I started this counselling degree that I wanted to attempt to achieve what I knew I was capable of. And I did but in a different way than I envisioned. Throughout the first year writing essays was like opening a vein, I could not have been more depleted mentally, physically and emotionally. I could not have tried harder. Then Lianne died before the beginning of the second year and I realised that surviving was more important than writing the perfect essay. There were moments when I thought grief would drag me under, where outside events would force me to make for sure. I am a coper and a survivor but this course tested me to my limits.

Any of you who have ever studied while working knows what a difficult balance it can be. Add in placements and reading and essay writing and the time I had for anything other than studying and sleeping shrank. What made this infinitely harder was that we all were counselling other people while in the process of deconstructing our selves, pulling the bits apart piece by piece. It has been the most emotionally intense experience of my life. And I both glad and sad that is over.

When I started this course, my secret hope was that I would make friends. I always watch HWSNBN enviously as he can talk to anybody. On this course, I met some amazing people some of whom I may not see again, others who I hope will always be part of my life. Everybody on this course has taught me something about myself and being in the world. Even if I lose people along the way, I feel happier just to know they are out there somewhere.

I am very good at skipping past endings but for now I want to pause and just take in the fact that I achieved this. I am so proud of myself (I’m so proud of all of us!). It wasn’t easy but by God I earnt it.

It was epically wonderful, it was soul destroyingly painful and now it’s done.

Loving myself


Over the next couple of days I will be posting my three new years resolutions in the hope that declaring them publicly will give me an incentive to keep them!

The first is deceptively simple (and a little hippy dippy): work on loving myself. However, I expect that this may be more of a lifelong struggle than a one year blitz.

I know I am not alone in having trouble with this. At the end of my first counselling session with a new client I always set them a task. To do something during the week, just for themselves, that makes them feel good. It shocks most people that they cannot think of something. Most of us spend our lives focused externally, never considering how we can best take care of ourselves.

One of my favourite meditations metta is focused on offering up loving kindness to groups of people. First you visualise loving kindness surrounding your loved ones, then acquaintances, strangers, enemies, all beings and finally yourself. Always I struggled with the last part of the meditation offering myself the same love and respect I easily offer up to other people; even my ‘enemies.’

Throughout my adolescence and through my twenties, I hated myself. And I was really good at it. No matter how hard I tried I was never good enough. I would compare my insides to other people outsides and always find myself wanting. I had to hide away that sad, bitter, angry, jealous, judgemental side of me because if other people saw they would never accept me. But I knew that shadow self was there: an empty void I would do anything to hide.


I strongly believe that loving and accepting ourselves improves our relationships with everybody we encounter. If you hate yourself and are constantly striving to hide aspects of yourself how can you possibly connect authentically with others. If you do not respect yourself, how can you reinforce boundaries and ask for what you need. If you cannot love yourself how can you ever love another. As the Buddha said ‘You could search the whole world over and never find anyone as deserving of your love as yourself.’

Counselling is an ongoing process of learning to accept myself.  Falling in love with HWSNBN was a great healing process . I love him and respect his opinions. And if he could love me unconditionally then surely I could try too. I suspect loving myself will be something I always struggle with but this year I really want to work on getting rid of self hatred and start loving and respecting myself. Here’s how I am going to do it.

Be kind
Act as if you love and respect yourselves and your thoughts will begin to follow your actions. Take care of yourself: eat well, move your body, give yourself the time and space you need. Make sure you do something you enjoy everyday.

Silence your inner critic
Often we catastrophise, ‘I am such an idiot, I always get it wrong.’ Stop. Take a deep breath and reframe the thought. ‘I did an idiotic thing. Sometimes, I get it wrong. But that’s OK.’ Daily affirmations can help replace the inner cycle of negative thoughts. For example: I am always learning and growing. I am good enough.

Be honest with yourself
If you are sad or angry or frightened, acknowledge it. Feelings are not good or bad, they just are. And they are all valid.

Forgive yourself
When I client is being particularly self critical I ask them to flip the perspective. ‘If your best friend was telling you this story what would you think and feel.’ It is much easier to extend kindness to others rather than ourselves. Reframing allows us the distance to examine our actions.

In one of my favourite chick flicks Bridget Jones Diary, there is the following exchange:

Mark Darcy: ‘I like you, very much.’
Bridget: ‘Ah, apart from the smoking and the drinking, the vulgar mother and… ah, the verbal diarrhea.’
Mark Darcy: ‘No, I like you very much. Just as you are.’

When she tells her friends they are amazed ‘Not thinner? Not cleverer? Not with slightly bigger breasts or slightly smaller nose?’. ‘No just as I am.’

Like Bridget, I am worthy. I am good enough. Just as I am. And you are too.213217363578654495_1af7TTu6_c

Comfortably numb?

I am really enjoying the process of studying to be a counsellor. I love reading the different theories about why people are the way they are. The other people on my course inspire me with their generosity and willingness to share their experiences. And its indescribable how fulfilled I feel when I work as counsellor.

But, it’s hard too. Although I believe training to become a counsellor is one of the best things I have ever done, I am finding it incredibly tough. It’s not just the practical considerations of taking a massive pay-cut and fitting study and placement hours around work. What I find difficult to bear is the constant emotional upheaval. It’s not like studying engineering. As part of the course, we have to be self reflective, picking every thought and feeling apart. Some aspects of myself I was already so familiar with they seemed like old friends like my inability to say no and pathological need to make everything better. Others blindsided me, you mean everybody doesn’t spend their life in a constant battle to not feel so shit about themselves? Self analysis is uncomfortable at best, painful at worst and some days I just want to exist on the surface not down in the murky depths where darker memories lurk like sea creatures waiting to gobble me up.

Before I started this process I was comfortably numb, under rigid control. Now like opening a Pandoras box feelings are emerging I’ve buried for years. I don’t like feeling this vulnerable and shaken. As if the foundations on which I have built my life are cracking and now I’m wondering what, if anything, I can save from the rubble. A fortnight ago as I was preparing to go to personal counselling I was so over it. (As trainee counsellors we have to be personal counselling throughout the duration of the course. Thank God!) In the past I had always started counselling at my nadir and talking made me feel better. But this time I started counselling when I was in a great place emotionally and digging up the past had started to make me feel worse. I just did not want to talk anymore. Then a friend sent me a link to this Ted Talk by Brene Brown on vulnerability.

And I knew I had a choice to make. I could continue to try to shut out my pain and inhibit my ability to feel joy. I could continuing existing, never really living.

Or I could trust the process and keep going. Accepting that paradoxically my vulnerability was my greatest strength.

So I have. One foot after the other, and again and again. I keep going because I don’t want to feel comfortably numb anymore. I want to be present, inhabiting every inch of my body. But, when shutting certain feelings out has become habitual how do you start listening to yourself again?

Well, on the advice on my counsellor I have been ‘checking in’ with myself. Yes it sounds very hippy dippy but stick with me. (Plus, with a name like Rowan, what else would you expect?) We use check ins at the beginning of our practical workshops at University. The rules are simple we go round the circle and you may share in a short sentence or even a word where you are today. The idea is that you can quickly gauge the emotional weather of the group. And also it’s really helpful to be mindful of what you feel in each moment.

Albert Camus, graphic via Pinterest

So for the past week I’ve been checking-in with myself. Am I angry, sleepy, frustrated, cold, hot, happy, hungry, sad, tired, excited or overwhelmed? Mostly I’ve learnt I’m hungry and sleepy 🙂 Ah January, thou art the cruelest month. Joking aside, I’ve noticed that there are certain emotions that feel more familiar and comfortable (sadness) than others (anger).

The challenge for me has been simply noting what I feel and not doing anything with that feeling. Burying myself in activity is much easier than sitting with my feelings. If I feel something I need to, no have to change it.  One of the paradoxes of change we learn about in counselling is only through acceptance does true change occur. But at the moment acceptance is a step too far. One day I hope I will be able to accept the things I don’t like about myself but for now naming and identifying those experiences is enough. Baby steps 🙂

Humanistic counselling: or “you’re studying what?”

When I tell people what I am studying, a PGDip in Humanistic Therapeutic Counselling natch, often I get confused looks. Only the truly foolhardy or desperately curious will ask what does that actually  mean? The PGDip bit is easy enough, it’s a postgraduate diploma that once (if!) I graduate will qualify me to practice as a counsellor. But humanistic counselling is more difficult to explain unless you have experienced it. As over Christmas I have to write a whole 5,000 word essay explaining humanistic counselling (pray for me dear reader), I’m going to use this post as a way of organising my thoughts on the theory of humanistic counselling.

There are three main branches of counselling: psychodynamic, behaviourism and humanism. At a simplest level all counselling theories strive to answer three questions: how do human beings develop, what causes humans distress, and how can that distress be alleviated. The vastly different answers each theory provides, tells us a lot about the cultural and historical climate as well as the people developed them.

Psychodynamic counselling

Let me start by defining what humanistic counselling isn’t. It isn’t lying on a soft leather couch, “Tell me about your mother”, and truth derived from dream interpretation. This stereotypical image of therapy lodged in our collective consciousness is of psychodynamic therapy, and the founder of modern-day therapy as we know it: Freud. Psychodynamic theorists argue that many of our thoughts and desires are buried in our unconscious, often inaccessible. Think of the mind as iceberg, only the  tip, our conscious thoughts and feelings, emerges into the icy air. The vast majority is submerged in the watery depths, our unconscious inaccessible to us except through dreams and freudian slips. Psychodynamic theory paints human beings as conflicted, torn apart by warring drives, the id, ego and superego all in constant battle. Using the therapist as expert interpreter the therapist and client dig into the past to discover the root of trauma.

Behavioural counselling

Behaviourism is the attempt to create a scientific, empirical model of human behaviour. Behaviourism argues that human behaviour is learnt and can be reconditioned. If you think of human beings as like a computer, by rewriting the programme and combating negative thoughts and beliefs you can change your behaviour. Like Pavlov’s dog behaviourism works by reinforcing helpful behaviour, becoming conditioned or used to certain phenomena and is generally very good when combating the habitual behaviours associated with conditions such as OCD and eating disorders. Behaviourism is very firmly located in the here and now and not interested in the past. Because of this I feel that behaviourism treats the symptoms, but not the problem itself.

Humanistic counselling

Humanism, the counselling theory I study and practise, is about recognising an individual’s autonomy, subjective reality and capacity for growth. The term humanism covers a broad number of different therapeutic philosophies (person-centred counselling, existentialism, gestalt and transactional analysis to name but a few). Broadly speaking all these different strands have certain core ideas in common:

The relationship as vehicle for therapeutic change.

As human beings, we exist in relation to those around us. Using the model of the relationship we can see how the client acts in the world outside the therapeutic room and model change using the relationship as catalyst.

Individual as expert on their inner world.

Humanists believe that it is the client subjective experience which guides therapy, not the therapist’s expertise. Only the client knows what hurts and how that pain can be alleviated.

Non directive.

Following on from this, the therapist attempts to bracket off assumptions and instead of leading or pushing the client, follows the client wherever they wish to go as a companion rather than a guide.

Focus on the here and now.

Instead of exacavating the past, the therapist stays with the current lived-in experience of the client. As people are constantly changing the focus is on what the client brings into the room and where to go next giving a forward direction to therapy.

Treat the whole.

Instead of emphasising parts of the person (id or thoughts over feelings) humanistic counsellor try to work with the person as a whole. This means avoiding diagnosis but accepting the person and their lived-in experiences


It our greatest gift and simultaneously our greatest tragedy that we are free within certain finite constraints (time, ageing and death) to choose. This is often the concept, that most newbie counsellors struggle. Yes, sometimes tragedy falls from the sky, uncontrolled or motivated by ourselves but it is how we react to the hand we are dealt, how we frame that experience that we can control.

In practise

I’ve tried to give a brief overview of humanistic counselling theory, but it’s only when you see the theory in action that you can understand how it works. In practise as as a humanistic therapist: you are warm and accepting, you are present, you go where the client leads constantly checking your understanding, you are genuine not hiding behind the role of expert. If you are interested in humanism then let me leave you with the late, great Carl Roger’s in action. Filmed in the 1960’s the concerns Gloria talks about to Rogers are still relevant today: