An account of how I learned to be a helping professional – not an instruction manual, but a prompt for you to explore your own story .
The sense then of what it means to be important is built on such foundations. I still had much to learn. Rather later, having moved to the voluntary sector to provide counselling and family work, as previously mentioned, I found myself with clients who came to see me merely because they chose to. The nature of that choice was varied of course – it had individual personal meaning for each individual. That meaning was often indescribable and perhaps a puzzle to some clients. Some gave only occasional clues to the intensity of emotion that they brought for help. I remember a Lebanese man would come to see me, and receive me into his home for reasons that were never really discussed. He was out of work and there was I believe some violence to his wife. I cannot now recall any details of the case, except that he saw me as if he had to, without apparent resentment, passively but regularly. It was always hard to know why he came or what he took from our meetings. What does stay in my mind some decades later, is when he spoke of the difficulty of living in England. He described his life in Lebanon in a way that highlighted the profound isolation of English life, stuck in his house, no street cafe life with friends; long cold wet nights, no beachside fishing (legal or illegal). Listening to this gave me a sense of how for some, the stories are the way in which depth of feeling is conveyed. Perhaps this is true for all of us, but we disguise it through more analytic, apparently direct expression. Nonetheless, the idea of being important as the receiver of stories was planted in my mind – the importance of the witness.
For others, how people behaved was the more striking sign of one’s importance. Here we get closer to an interpretation of the world that can attract great scepticism – a way of looking at the world where everything that happens is some unconscious process in which the therapist is at the centre of things. I had a female client with marital troubles who in one session lost her temper with me and threw something across the room. My supervisor saw this act as a sexual one, a kind of aggressive sexual attack. I was a bit shaken by this remark, sufficiently to have recalled it some four decades later, but then I was still relatively ‘green’, sheltered or hiding away from some of the complexities of sexuality.
In looking back therefore, it is not so much that I think my supervisor was ‘right’ in making such interpretations, as that being ‘right’ can often be an over-rated virtue, especially in the helping professions when dealing with emotional distress. What is more important is to be helpful, and in this respect, the interpretation was part of a growing process for me. I was forced to look more closely at the power of human desire, and to struggle with my own confusions and anxieties in this respect.