ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Liz grew up in Sydney where she met, married and had 2 boys with her first husband. After the end of this marriage, Liz moved to Newcastle in 1993 with her new life partner and their children.
Liz began to study welfare in 1988 after volunteering for an agency helping families of children who had been sexually abused. After moving to Newcastle, Liz continued to study in welfare and obtained her Ass. Dip in Social Sciences and her Bachelor of Social Sciences from Newcastle University.
Liz is an active member of the gay and lesbian community in Newcastle and runs her own bookshop online catering for alternative life styles.
Liz continues to teach and to work in the welfare area in Newcastle.
Ten years ago, whilst working in the counselling service in a tertiary educational setting, I began working with a client whose stories touched me deeply. Over time, we worked in a number of different therapeutic ways – many at my client’s own creative initiative.
Our conversations had such a compelling impact on me – and I felt so privileged to hear her stories. The impact was both on a professional level, and would shape the work I would do with other clients from there on; and also on a personal level, challenging my own evolving journey of self discovery, so that I began to more richly experience my own world.
So, how did this happen? What was the nature of this encounter, this relationship? Why, to this day, do the stories of this client’s ‘lived experience’, and the therapeutic activities we engaged in, still imbue my professional practice and my personal reflections?
Well, I guess up until the time I began working with Liz I’d worked therapeutically in an emotionally focused and person‑centred way. That would involve, for example, listening to the client’s story, focusing on the client’s emotional experience, and reflecting back what I was hearing and perceiving, checking that out with the client, then helping the client formulate plans and goals, and so on, occasionally integrating other micro‑skills and tools from the different theoretical frameworks I had been trained in. Only now do I realise how much that focused so prominently on the verbal dimension. But Liz was such an articulate person, and recounted her life stories most capably and with ease. So this was the way we initially worked together. Liz, herself, would admit that she ‘did a lot of talking to avoid the feelings part.
Working in this way was okay for a time, but I sensed Liz was struggling to connect in any way with her feelings. She seemed really ‘split off’. She would speak about her anger and her sadness, but seemed to resist really connecting deeply with or experiencing the feelings associated with these words or labels. I was challenged too, to facilitate a process whereby she might safely express and experience these feelings, but in a way that was going to work for her and would assist her healing.
Yet during this time I found myself reflecting on what was happening in the therapy, and feeling challenged about how to work differently. I knew I needed and wanted to work outside of the verbal domain to facilitate her accessing other parts of herself, and to allow her to safely feel her feelings, not just talk about them; I also didn’t want to interrupt her story telling. Liz’s strength was around verbal expression, and her stories were so powerful. Over six months or so we had developed a good working relationship, and I trusted the environment we had created for further exploration to happen. But to facilitate Liz to safely access those blocked feelings – and even to transcend them – I knew we needed to work somehow differently with the oral accounts. In fact we were both challenged to find another channel.
There were times when I would check this with Liz. In fact, there was one significant time when Liz came to see me, just after the death of her mother. She told me that she felt her whole world ‘had come tumbling down’, and that ultimately she needed a way to get her ‘building back together’. What emerged from our conversation was a metaphor of rebuilding, of discarding the broken and chipped bricks, and of building a new world, a new life; of remaking a sense of self. Further reflection overnight on Liz’s part resulted in a suggestion that was to be the catalyst for the very amazing and powerful journey we were both about to embark upon.
Now that I consider again that metaphor, I acknowledge how extremely significant it was. In fact, it was to become central to our therapeutic focus – all about ‘restoration’ and ‘renewal’. You see, Liz’s suggestion was to use personal photographs she had in her collection at home as the bricks of her re‑building. We discussed together how she might select each photo one‑by-one, stop to reflect on and reconstruct the visual memories and stories associated with each photo and decide which to include in the new building’s structure, and which to discard. At that stage I don’t think either of us knew what sort of conversations this would lead us to or the relational connections we would experience!
I’d not really worked in that way before, with the client so eager to collaborate and contribute to ideas about ‘how to work’, particularly in ways more useful to them. And the experience I had was as if a different connection and a different therapeutic space had been created – and Liz indicated that she experienced that as very enabling and very empowering.
The experience was not of a clinical interview or personal history taking or assessment. It was more like we had an on‑going dialogue, a conversation, or series of conversations, of differing types, in different places, over an extended period of time. I’ve always thought it was important in therapy to help clients find their own ‘voice’ as they recollect their experiences and describe significant life events. The therapeutic process evolved as Liz told her story.
To go back a little, my very early therapeutic practice was influenced by, amongst others, the work and writings of White (1989, 1995, 1997) and Epston (1989, 1994). Guided in part by their approach to therapy, and the emphasis on deconstructing dominant narratives and ‘re‑authoring’ alternative life stories, I suppose I came to see my role not just as a facilitator of change in the therapeutic context, but more as a companion or co‑traveller with the storyteller on their narrative voyage.
This role of co-traveller has an impact. As Kottler (1994) put it, ‘it is virtually impossible for us to avoid being profoundly moved by some of the changes that we become part of’. We become, as Freeman and Hayes (2002) describe it, ‘part of others’ transformation.’ I experienced this strongly whilst listening to Liz’s personal stories, prompted by the visual connection with the photographs that held her life story.
Now as I reflect on my experience of these therapeutic conversations with Liz and the creative possibilities that emerged, I must admit that working with Liz was sometimes challenging, but always so rewarding; sometimes painful, but not always sad. The ever‑present awareness I had was, as White (1997:133) describes it, ‘the experience(s) of being so powerfully included in the lives of others.’ This realisation took on real significance in the subsequent shaping of the stories I had about myself – both in relation to my work, and to my life in general. I found myself reflecting on what skills and knowledge my therapeutic practice was based on – both formal training and personal experience. Some were acknowledged and re‑shaped during our conversations, many others were co‑developed and found expression in other innovative ways of working.
For example, Liz and I met in parks and cafes, as well as the therapy room. We met in a museum, where a relevant exhibition was on display; we travelled 200 kilometres to literally retrace the steps of her childhood stories in a major city. I ‘baby‑sat’ over a weekend her internal ‘younger girls’. We physically ‘built’ from photographs a new life‑structure of safety and stability. I really enjoyed and was challenged by Liz’s eagerness to construct and to participate in new experiences of therapy.
In honouring Liz’s stories, which involved predominantly recurrent themes of loss and abuse, I began to reflect on and explore new possibilities for thinking and living, particularly about my own childhood and early adult years which were so different to Liz’s. McLeod (1997) refers to this as an opportunity for the therapist ‘to reflect on the stories that they themselves inhabit’. By assisting Liz to attribute new meanings to the incidents and events that made up the stories of her life, I came to value more highly expressions of struggle and survival, inner strength and perseverance, the power of love, the importance of humour, of joy, and of hope.
What is always so special when it happens in therapy is the experience of ‘going beyond the ordinary’. Sometimes I think we can under‑estimate the significance of the trust invested in us by our clients. What touched me in these conversations with Liz was the compelling nature of the stories, openly shared by a person who described how, for virtually all her life, she had shut down her feelings as a means of dissociating from the events that happened. But who admitted, after experiencing what she described as ‘being heard deeply’, was able to start feeling, but also able to start experiencing a new and deeper way of being. These experiences, or ‘key moments’ in therapy, can be very special – and a reason for celebration!
So where has all this taken me? Well, my experience of these shared therapeutic conversations have had me reflecting on what are the appropriate skills and knowledge that support our therapeutic practice and what is the nature of the relationship between client (storyteller) and therapist (narrative companion), that impacts on us both. Monk and Gehart (2003:19) refer to the positioning of the therapist or ‘narrative practitioner’ as ‘conversational partner’ (Anderson, 1992). I like that expression, and the meaning it evokes – I think this really places the emphasis on an equal relationship, and what resonates for me is the mutual dynamic of a shared conversation. Furthermore, it challenges the oft‑held notions of power and control, and therefore vulnerability, even some of the ethical considerations around transference, and limits and boundaries of professional practice. As therapists, we are often reluctant to go to ‘spaces’ that we have not entered before, or to take the risk and draw on personal resources that we either don’t acknowledge or don’t see as available to us in the context of therapy. I wonder, therefore, do we miss opportunities, both for our clients and for ourselves as therapists that might impact favourably on and enrich both our worlds.
These reflections have influenced my own journey, and subsequently my current research interest. The therapeutic encounter surely must be unique in the realm of relationships! I’d like to have a closer look at how that evolves, what it adds to the counselling process, and how it is experienced as mutually transformative – and I thank Liz for being the catalyst to want to go there!
Dr Susan O’Loughlin
Consulting Psychologist, Armidale
CHAPTER ONE - part sample
Over the years, I had experienced many forms of therapy. Some were more helpful than others, and some were overwhelming, and intimidating. I had enormous problems with expressing my feelings. I became scared of anger, never allowed myself to cry or feel pain in an emotional way. This, of course, continued to affect my life and relationships with others. I studied welfare at TAFE and then at uni, but nothing seemed to hit me as the therapy “for me”. While many times I thought, “this is it”, it seemed difficult to get a therapist to work in the way that I wanted to.
I found it hard to go in each week and automatically get in touch with the feelings or experiences of my past. Sometimes I’d had a really good day and I just didn’t want to look at anything that might upset me. I felt in my heart that anything I did in therapy would upset me.
I knew it was extremely important for me to find, feel, accept and own the feelings that I had been blocking for so many years. I felt that this was my only answer to becoming a whole person, as at the time, I felt like I was missing a lot.
When I entered therapy, I did a lot of talking to avoid the “feeling” part and I must admit it would have been extremely hard for any counsellor to get me to experience uncomfortable feelings. If I was pushed, I had a habit of shutting down and leaving mentally, and it would usually take some time before I could get back to where I needed to be. This happened to me quite a few times when I started psychotherapy with my first therapist. It was also a good thing to happen as I began to learn who I was as a person, and with the support of my therapist, what affected me and how, and then begin the very first steps of changing these affects.
Trust was a very big factor in my learning and it would take many years before I could make steps in the direction I needed to go. Throughout it all, I thought I was learning to place trust in my therapist. At that stage I believed what I really needed to do was to place trust in myself and allow myself to dig deep and get out all of what I was holding on to; look at it, deal with it, and finally move on, learning from these experiences.
My fear was of not knowing what to do once the feelings started to rise. I knew I had the support of my counsellors but it didn’t seem enough. I had to deal with the feelings and try, somehow, to cope with what they felt like. My only excuse to my counsellors and myself was that I didn’t ever want to feel that bad again. The only way I could explain it was to ask the person I was speaking to if they could remember their most painful experience. Usually people would answer and tell me that they never wanted to feel like that again. Well, that was how I felt; scared, alone, and very unsure about handling the rising feelings that touched in such a painfully deep way.
Therapy, of course, was meant to get to those feelings, but I didn’t have an answer as to how to deal with them. I felt completely powerless and a victim of my own feelings. I was too scared to feel anything, just in case it brought other feelings with it. This also meant that I was incapable of having an intimate relationship, incapable of feeling love. I lived life one day at a time and never allowed the truth of who I was out to anyone. I met men, got married, had kids, but always knew that my life had some type of barrier that stopped me from reaching my full potential. The barrier was, of course, me.
My first shot at therapy brought new understanding about who I am. Many times I reacted to situations, not understanding why, and then I punished myself for responding in a most inappropriate way. When I learnt that there were reasons why I responded in certain ways, then I was able to change the situations so that they didn’t affect me any more. For example, very early into my therapy I had arranged to go away with two women from my workplace. We arrived at our destination and were all having a good time. One of the women, without my knowledge, had invited the rest of her family and when they arrived, they moved into the cabin next to ours. This destination happened to be a place her family visited regularly and it was not uncommon for them to turn up on any given weekend. Of course, her family, which consisted of Mum, Dad, sisters and sisters’ husbands’, came into our cabin to socialize. That, of course, was quite normal and acceptable, except I was unable to cope with it at all. I stayed in my room and did not come out. I couldn’t really talk to anyone. The next day, I felt like I wanted to go home. I went for a walk by myself as I didn’t want to go back to the cabin. It was really awful. One of the women I had originally come away with came after me and we ended up in a big fight. I couldn’t tell her what was wrong with me because I didn’t know myself. It wasn’t until I went back to therapy and explained what had happened that I gained some insight into what was going on.My therapist explained to me that at that point of time, I very much needed to control my space. I needed to know who was in it and when. That was very important for my feelings of safety and security. If that space was violated, then my response was completely normal under the circumstances. Her explanation was such an eye-opener to me as I had felt this way and done this so many times in my past. Finally, I had an understanding of what was happening and why I responded in such bizarre ways.
Click on the cart below to purchase this book:
Prices in Australian Dollars CURRENCY
(c)2008 Zeus Publications All rights reserved.