Counselling Class and Politics

Counselling - PoliticsUndeclared influences in the therapy room.

During my training years, part of my studies included a module on equality and diversity , I was asked to think about how my own experience of being ‘me’ may impact on working with clients from different cultural backgrounds.

I remember the opening of my equality and diversity assignment which stated –   “As a working class kid I was brought up to the chants of “Two World Wars and One World Cup,” a reference to the England football teams defeat of the Germans in the 1966 world cup.

You see, I focused on the easy option, that of Xenophobia, most students do!

At the time I was grateful to my tutor for introducing me to seminal piece of work – A book by fellow Mancunian ,Anne Kearney named ‘Counselling Class and Politics – Undeclared influences in Therapy’.

It fundamentally altered my thinking and approach to client work, asking me to challenge my own perceptions and values, which for over a decade continues to be ongoing piece of personal development and internal dialogue.

As a lecturer in counselling studies, I set the same assignment for my students every year, and regularly get thoughtful and reflective pieces of work returned, but very few with any observations of class or the political nature of counselling.

When the word ‘Politic’ is used most people’s mind think of party politics, that of Conservative, Liberal Labour etc. . (Other parties are available!)

What I am referring to is personal politics, that of the choices we make which in our everyday lives – What we read, watch on the TV, the clothes we buy the food we eat  etc , etc, .

Personal politics can have a big influence in the therapy room and the therapeutic alliance, let me give you an example-

A few years ago I was teaching a student who stated that he was “ very non Judgmental “  , I asked him how would he feel about counselling a merchant banker who was upset because his bonus was  not big enough to buy a new Porsche and had lost face with his very rich friends ?

I was basically asking him to consider working with the emotion of shame.

He responded…. “Bastards” before embarking on a bit of a rant about bankers, the government and seemingly anyone else who had a bit more money in their pocket than him.

He had all the empathy in the world for someone from his social circle, but seemed to struggle with someone who was in a different financial circumstance or class.

And that is how personal politics can collide with the therapeutic alliance…

Not being aware of our own political values, can have a detrimental effect on how we engage with, and sustain a therapeutic relationship with clients.

Ask most trainee counsellors what type of client they would struggle to work with and the response is usually ‘paedophiles’, again the obvious.

Have a think about these client scenarios, and consider how your personal politics may interrupt the therapeutic process, try to identify what outside influences such as the media, friends or relatives may influence your opinions on these clients.

Client A

Is on disability allowance but admits to “putting it on a bit “when she goes for her assessment so she can stay on benefits, and stated she does not like the idea of working.

Client B

A women who has recreational sex with any man she fancies and is married with two young children.

Client C

Works for a large electrical retailer and tells you that part of his job is to ‘circumnavigate’ consumer protection legislation, so customers who have faulty items cannot return them or get a refund.

Client D

Tells you that she struggles to communicate with people on low incomes and really hates socialists!

What feelings are present when you read the above? , how would you resolve them?

One of the greatest challenges we face as therapists is to enter the client’s frame of reference, to do this we need to have a clear understanding of our own frame of reference and be able to leave it at the therapeutic door.

Without a firm understanding of out own political views , we may inadvertently pass judgment or believe our own values to be universal .

Ann Kearney’s book ‘Counselling, Class and Politics: Undeclared influences in therapy’ is available from our friends at pccs books.