Posted on August 18, 2013 by in

Why all those years of Training as a Counseling Psychologist just to be able to “have a chat”?

My name is Clare Hickey and I am a Counselling Psychologist working at the Novara Centre Bray.

The question that sometimes arises in conversation when work comes up is:

Why is psychotherapy any better/ more useful than having a conversation with a good friend?

I would like to address some of the issues that may answer that question.

Firstly I believe having a friend to talk to is one of the most cherished gifts we can have! I myself am very grateful for the good friends I have whom I know are there for me in times of trouble, so, a friend is wonderful gift.

What goes on in our professional development as psychotherapists then that warrants in my case five years of full time training? What goes beyond my abilities as a good friend?

One of the most important issues I feel is that each therapist being trained in any course, must undergo their own therapy i.e.  They must explore their own life experiences and what ways they have responded, and dealt with them. We have to continually examine our perceptions, thoughts and conclusions, consciously and more importantly unconsciously  carried within.  This is crucial because even as a great friend, if I have not dealt/ am dealing with my own issues, beliefs and defense mechanisms, then when someone comes to explore whatever is going on for them I will not be able to stay with them, either physically or emotionally . We absent ourselves  by using any number of ways.

This can take the form of responding with some words such as “ah sure it will all be grand” or distracting our minds, or getting lost in their panic etc. lots of ways we may look like we are listening but in fact have shut off, not because we are uninterested but because we haven’t the ability because we haven’t processed our own psychic material.

Why does other people’s pain affect us at all? Why can’t we just listen, support and not be too affected?

The research that is exploring what is known as Mirror neurons gives us some insight into what is happening when we are physically together. Our bodies and minds are so incredible!   As a person is speaking, and for example if they are talking about something disturbing, our brains have what are called mirror neurons that fire in correspondence to the firing that is happening in the speaker!  So, we also feel in our bodies and minds what they are telling us about! This is why, if we have not dealt with  the perhaps painful issue that the person is speaking and feeling about , when our bodies and minds start responding  firing similar neurons,(empathizing) we have to defend ourselves .  Our own, either conscious but often unconscious defenses kick in and we close the feelings, and thoughts down.

This is just one aspect of our training, that in order to be able to listen actively we first have to have explored and continually explore what we encounter in the therapeutic session, through our own ongoing therapy and supervision, (a requirement of our governing bodies, mine being The Psychological Society of Ireland) to enable us to sit with, support and delve deeply into what the other person brings to be explored in therapy.

I hope this is useful in explaining something of the complexity of what happens in the training of a therapist and what we bring to the therapeutic encounter.