Re-search, me-search

Back from retreat, and with a momentary detour into the activities of marking and exam boards, back into retreat….of sorts. A research retreat: a chance to indwell in the data I have collected at the back end of 2023. I interviewed five humanistic therapists who had undergone the training journey of counselling then onto psychotherapy – my curiosity being what their experience of that process has been, and how they view these two words: are they discrete activities?

I had put aside a three day block for analysis of the interviews; and I write this post halfway into day 3 by way of a “pause” on the formal research process invited by IPA (interpretive phenomenological analysis). As various researchers that have contributed to the development of IPA have warned, the process of data analysis and mining for emerging themes can become somewhat dry and conceptual. Whilst data analysis has been revealing thus far, I wanted to spend some time “indwelling” – re-living the interviews in a way that took me back to the encounter(s) themselves, the personhood of the participants, the relationship that was felt: all to help me understand how the ideas were co-created in the dialogue. It has been an engaging morning; enlivening and enriching.

And one thing that came to mind, something that became re-membered, is that I too have been through this journey. In developing the research interest and question, I had in mind my experiences and role as an educator facilitating the path of counsellors (and in some cases) onto psychotherapy. And as with my last research project, this is a process I hope will act as a spring board onto a book, my second. What I had to re-remember was the more first person lived experience. I don’t know how many of you will relate to this, but it can be quite a shock to re-remember something you already knew – so obvious yet so placed to one side at the same time.

Maybe the role of therapist is so deeply embedded, I no longer relate to a Helen of before who had to go through the becoming?

But she did!

And like my research participants, I completed a two year initial training to become a counsellor. When I graduated, I started up in private practice and simultaneously enrolled in the two year Masters programme to become a psychotherapist. Incidentally – but maybe significantly if we think of fractals and repeating patterns – at the end of my MSc, I graduated and simultaneously became the Course Leader of the course I had just graduated from. Note to self, noted.

Trajectories and arcs, looking for ourselves along the way.

And so, when I consider the research question “From counsellor to psychotherapist: the experience of humanistic practitioners”…how would I speak to that?

When I first decided to re-train, I think it is true to say I had my eye on the counselling aspect: in part, maybe I wasn’t very aware of the MSc training route; and at that time in my (stressed) life, I was more intent on “getting out” of the stormy ocean of my current work than starting out on a new career path. Counselling was something I had been experiencing*, a life raft that was helping me to not drown. Two years of training also felt enough, given I was relying on my ever-so generous partner to support me through it. I was also training as a meditation teacher, so there was also a sense of “enough” there, too.

BUT, I think my little professor energy got ignited not far into the counselling course: philosophy, developmental theory, mind….yep, hooked! What was more of a surprise was the power of becoming-a-part-of a community, meeting others on a drive toward authenticity and the depth of relating that became manifest.

Maybe that is an important aspect of my experience of counselling (training) – those first awakenings into authenticity and the existential questioning that SO supported my mid-life journey at the time. I was, in effect, engaging with uncertainty, becoming a student in it, of it.

I remember coming toward the final semester of the two year training DESPERATELY not wanting “it” to come to an end: the course, the learning, but also the sense of being through belonging, being-a-part-of. Not many of my friends on the course were considering the MSc, but even then it felt like everyone else was choosing to leave rather than me being the one choosing the stay (on). I remember talking in therapy about my ability to end (or more accurately, to leave “home”) I had been at the same institution for study and employment for 20 years by then. Cross reference the repeating fractal above…no gap, no dropping into the fertile void, continuing, staying, certainty.

“Home” and “belonging” are consistent themes as I look back over my life; and of course, that recurrent search has been outside of my awareness for much of my life. It is a pang that took me to the Buddhist path; it is a yearning that takes me to the East coast of America for retreats; and it is a fuel that again and again has me bringing people together in community. I have little doubt that it is a big contributor to me staying on to train for another 2 years.

The first two years of my training, as a counsellor, helped me toward finding “self”. Its existentialism had me asking the right questions; its phenomenological through line took me into my experiencing.

I wanted more; I was predicting “more of the same” would take me deeper. And it did. But undoubtedly, it was those initial two years that provided a bedrock of being.

And from there, the MSc helped extend my reach. I learnt more theories, more strings to my bow. I expanded my awareness of different ways of viewing the world, the self, the other…and how all of that could be explored through a sensitivity to being in relationship, through relationship. It was more intellectual, more conceptual – but simultaneously, I was able to use these like new hooks upon which to hang my experiences: past and present.

So much of what my research respondents are saying about their own experiences of counselling and psychotherapy resonate with me. The two words point to processes that are neither the same, nor different at the same time. I will take more time to share the findings of the research in the coming months as I move to finalise the research for publication; and as I develop the ideas for book number 2!

But before signing off, one very helpful step in helping me immerse myself more deeply in the encounter with my participants and “plug into” their way of being and seeing the world was to play with the enneagram. A couple of the participants have shared their enneatype with me: and knowing this has helped me see where their attention was placed during their training experiences and in their trade as psychotherapists now. It also helped me understand how we were bouncing off one another in the room. I imagine if they were interviewed by others, different threads and themes would have emerged – an important reminder and signal to an intersubjective “third” that is always being created in nuanced ways between self and other.

It was also fun to hypothesise what enneatype my other participants might be – and while the typing of others is always discouraged (rightly so, I would never share my formulations with others) – it WAS helpful to help me tease out what was of importance to them rather than what I was filtering out based on my own Six process. I do wonder now if THIS is a research project in and of itself: impact of Type structure on research interviewing and outcome!

Enough of that Helen…maybe that is of the stuff book 3 can look at. For now, finish one thing before embarking on the next.


*actually, CBT but in a short-term, “counselling” model.

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