For many, taking the first steps into training in counselling and psychotherapy is an exciting and daunting endeavour. The desire to help others, to facilitate change and to create a space where people can explore their own path is one that is rooted in many things. Have we encountered difficulties and challenges ourselves and now, having come through the other side, wish to give something back? Are we motivated by the good feeling that comes from assisting? Do we seek this career as a mechanism for making sense of our own past? Or is a leaning toward the empathic professions an innate, natural drive? For many, the decision to train as counsellor and psychotherapist is influenced by all of the above. Learning to explore our motives is just as important as learning the theories and practice of the profession. For that reason, good therapy training is multi-faceted and will contain a solid combination of theory, skills, personal development and reflective practice.
Having a deep and abiding understanding of theory is hugely important. Even the best listener in the world needs a framework from which to understand a client’s story. While some single modality schools exist, many training programmes encourage integration of at least two core counselling and psychotherapy theories. Every client is different, and the ‘different strokes for different folks’ adage is hugely applicable to our field. The ability to draw from and utilise techniques from myriad counselling and psychotherapy schools only comes with solid comprehension of the theoretical foundations of said approaches.
That being said, theory alone does not make a good therapist. The ability to apply key skills, to discern when each should be used, to weave them seamlessly into a natural, intimate conversational style is paramount. It is impossible to learn these skills alone and in this profession, interaction with others is vital. The best counselling and psychotherapy training institutes will have a dedicated Counselling Skills training team. One lecturer delivering skills training is simply not enough. Formative feedback, ongoing supervision and support in gaining competence and honing the core counselling skills are crucial aspects to skills training. Master practitioners view their skills as an art that improves only with practice.
Furthermore, and perhaps the hardest part to teach, is the need to understand yourself and let go of ego – and yes, we all have one! Personal development is an evolving and emergent process. It never ends. No matter our age or how much personal therapy or work we have done on ourselves; we are still, and always will be, human and prone to the inevitable fragilities of the human condition. While training as a therapist, you will be challenged to explore your own life and story; your strengths and limitations, your blind spots and shadow side. This challenge should always be supportive and respectful. It is only when we are safe that we can cope with exposure and vulnerability. To enter this profession, one must be willing to go where you seek to bring future clients.
In his treatise, ‘The Art of Helping Others’, Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard sums this up beautifully when he asserts that true helping stems from humility and an ethos of service. Ultimately, training as a therapist is a rigorous, challenging, exciting and dynamic journey of discovery; discovery of knowledge, skills and competencies, of the other and importantly, of the self.