Self and Society

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Person centred counsellors are members of a wider society and just as likely as non-counsellors to hold prejudices and beliefs about sections of society. We are taught a language and manner of approaching clients which may alter our way of being with people but which may not fundamentally alter our private beliefs about people. If this were not the case there would be no professional debates and there would be one approach to PCT. As it is there are differences of opinion, some polarised, about how counsellor and client should be together.

Further, counselling thrives within developed countries all of which operate a particular understanding of money and people. Although some counsellors might be emotionally content to exchange their time and expertise for food or services this is unworkable in a world where the counsellor cannot pay her rent in carrots.  An exchange of expertise, of counselling in return for, say, plumbing or accountancy, opens a chasm of ethical dilemmas some of which might be satisfactorily addressed if the imagination and will existed but would still isolate the unskilled. And counsellors charge very different fees for the same service.British culture has historically had a punitive response to poverty and this remains the state of affairs today. Counselling as a culture discriminates against the poor at every level: do people who function within a milieu of reflexivity discover new ways of being or repeat the attitudes of most powerful voices around them? How? Why?Counselling doesn’t occur within a vacuum and the life of the client outside of therapy is recognised as an important aspect of his wellbeing. (Sotsky 1991) Person centred authors all agree that equality and client autonomy are important but few address the foundations upon which this might be based. I’ve found that this discussion is most reliably to be found in Rogers original writings and in the work of those who worked with him. Rogers himself is clear that

. . . knowledge needs to be supplemented by experiences of living with or dealing with individuals who have been the product of cultural influences very different from those that have moulded the student.

1952: 437

Guilfoyle argues that

therapist and client are institutionalised “primary positions” that significantly, though often invisibly, regulate the circulation of power in the interpersonal dialogue, and thereby influence the production and shape of “secondary positions” in the client’s dialogical self.

2006:101

Institutionalism is central to the issue. Old paradigms die hard.

Therapists are more likely to be white and middle class whereas clients are generally poorer, more disabled mentally and physically, older, younger, more dependent and less socially supported . . . people from oppressed groups who become therapists may take on characteristics of the mainstream group in order to survive and ‘pass’.

The introduction to the chapter Class Distinctions in Pilgrim’s book Psychotherapy and Society asks

. . . not whether psychotherapy is an elitist practice, but why

The answer is, he suggests via historical, sociological and broad political discussion, that

The inertia in individual psychotherapists is part of a wider, cultural inertia within psychotherapy about lower class patients. The latter were rejected from the outset or were treated reluctantly or paternalistically as an addendum to the ‘proper’ work of engaging with fee-paying, middle-class neurotic clients and (later) special soldier patients. Ordinary working class civilians were rarely of any interest to psychotherapists of this century and their ability to pay shaped this to a large extent.

We’ve known for decades that there are real class distinctions within counselling. These began to be addressed by Rogers and others in the 60’s and 70’s but overall, therapy has never not been dominated by people with money. Like every other profession we reproduce society: as with nursing and primary school teaching, counselling is largely populated by women but a disproportionate number of men hold influential roles (an observation, not a criticism of those men.) The numbers of non-white counsellors does not reflect the proportion of non-white people.  In 2008/9 (the latest available figures) 22% of the UK population were classed as ‘low income.’ Are nearly a fifth of counsellors from a low income background?
Guilfoyle, M. (2006). Using power to question the dialogical self and its therapeutic application. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 19 (1), 89-104.
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