Friday, 3 March 2017

What Is A Person And Why Does It Matter?

Why is ‘Person Centred’ counselling not called ‘People Centred’? And what’s this got to do with class?

The definition of  ‘A Person’ is ‘A human individual, an autonomous being.’ In law, a person is ‘An individual guaranteed of equal protection of laws and Due Process of Law.’  “A human being considered as capable of having rights and of being charged with duties; while a "thing" is the object over which rights may be exercised.”

Being an individual, being autonomous, is absolutely fundamental to the Person Centred model. It means that we aim to be with the people we meet as equals, both of us self-governing, free persons and as a matter of principle we aim to meet every single person in the same manner. We meet persons, not patients or clients and whilst most of us will use shorthand to avoid torturing language therapists, health care workers and social workers have very different understandings of the Person Centred Model.

As therapists we understand that the person in front of us knows what is best for them. That we do things for reasons that make good sense to us. Whilst that may be a philosophical foundation for social workers and nurses and (god help us) businesses who are trying to use this model to increase their profits, nurses and social workers require levels of compulsion that therapists will be opposed to in their own work.

All therapy models recognise that culture is kingWe know that the idea of free will is a bit of a red herring: we may think we’re making choices based preferences but those preferences are seldom our own. They will be different from home to home, country to country and change over time. It’s why older people across cultures tend to think that younger people are not doing things properly and why we don’t hang criminals any more.

However open and liberal a culture we all treat each other differently depending on our culture. We are, after all, just mammals responding to pheromones and other unconscious cues as well as cues that we have become aculturated to. It’s something that many Person Centred therapists can get a bit defensive about because our own culture can tend towards the cheery in ways that the psychodynamic model tends not to. We can be inclined to prefer optimism over pessimism: many of us think about Rogers’ potatoes in terms of an unstoppable urge for growth rather than a desperate struggle to survive, and forget that the actualising tendency is just that, a tendency: a predisposition rather than an absolute fact.  

So how is our own culture affecting us as therapists?

Have you noticed how EU nationals who are currently feeling threatened by deportation are described? Do a search for “Hard working deportation.”

Do you care how hard anyone works? If you just go to work but don’t break a sweat are you less valuable? What about if you’re not employed but have a spouse that supports you? What if you work hard but don’t earn enough to pay tax? Are you still as valuable as a Hard Working Tax Paying EU National?

Fear and loathing has spread across the Western world blossoming into Brexit and Trump after steadily growing for 40 years. We know that working class communities were destroyed and their remnants abandoned in the 80’s and a majority of the country voted for that. A majority of us voted to buy our own council houses and were shocked when a broken boiler or an old roof forced us to sell the home we were born in and move to somewhere that would need even more upkeep – with no hope of return to social housing. Most of us voted to scale unions down and have accepted steadily worse terms and conditions. When I first entered employment in 1983 the average working week was 37.5 hours; 34 years on it’s 43.6. We voted for that.

What on earth made us vote this way?

It used to be that living on the dole was a way for people who could not or did not want to work regularly to survive. Artists, musicians, writers, people who frankly were a pain in the arse in conventional employment could function happily, if frugally, on benefits. With bullying a normal part of working life you’ve got to wonder how many very miserable people are now forced into shapes they hate and take it out on everyone around them. It’s become taboo to say that living on benefits could be a valid choice for some people, absolutely outlawed. 

Over time it’s been acceptable to brand the poor, to put hot pokers through their ears, to whip them, to confine them to their parish, to starve them, to prevent them from sleeping, to separate husband and wife, parents and children and make them work in degrading, harmful jobs for no pay. Their deaths were not much mourned, if they were noticed at all. Today it’s much the same other than the physical assault, and instead of confining them to one area we will force them to move far from their homes, schools and communities.

 “An individual guaranteed of equal protection of laws and Due Process of Law.” “A human being considered as capable of having rights and of being charged with duties; while a "thing" is the object over which rights may be exercised.”


Thursday, 2 March 2017

Whatever You Do, Don't Mention Politics!

Kitty Jones

A particularly toxic piece of legislation was forced through last week.

Last month a tribunal of judges ruled that claimants with mental health conditions such as severe anxiety have a right to claim even the higher rate of PIP for help with going outdoors. It was a decision that put an end to years of the DWP deliberately misinterpreting the law. It meant that many thousands of people with serious mental health conditions finally had a chance to gain a little bit more independence.
 The government acted with remarkable speed.
 Bypassing the social security advisory committee, who are supposed to get the chance to comment on all changes to social security law, they published a statutory instrument that will reverse the judges’ decision. In an effort to justify overturning the judges’ ruling, Tory policy supremo George Freeman mocked as “bizarre” the idea that claimants with mental health conditions should be eligible for PIP. Instead, he said, PIP should only be for “the really disabled people who need it.”
 The changes will apply to all claims made from 16 March, 2017.

It’s been across the internet and in the mainstream news and no counsellor beyond the Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy that I’m aware of has said anything about it.

The whole subject of benefit cuts has been swept under the carpet, we either don’t know or don’t care to know about it. Where we do talk about cuts is when they affect the agencies we work in.

For several years the DWP have been supported by our professional bodies to get therapists working with unemployed people in an environment dictated by the DWP. This simply beggars belief. It’s like offering to care for the mental health of children put up chimneys or people transported by slave ships, so they can get back to work. It falls into the trap of believing that because something is legal it is moral.

The 5 largest organisations, finally, after unknown numbers of people killing themselves or suffering hunger, hypothermia, homelessness, clinical anxiety and depression and just plain despair after being sanctioned, and in the face of thousands of deaths of people who have been found fit for work, wrote a little letter to the government to ask them please to stop sanctions. The government haven't replied. Why would they care about what these organisations have to say about sanctions? About anything?

What would have got the governments attention is if the Big 5 stopped tugging on Daddy’s trousers, turned towards their members and told them that working with the DWP is unethical and that no member should apply for or take this work.

This is an area where counsellors can directly empathise with clients. We are forced to work for no payment – sometimes we, like unemployed people, pay to work via fares and other expenses and it’s called ‘volunteering’. If we refuse to work without payment we are sanctioned simply by not being allowed to train as a counsellor. Our attitude to compulsory work is sharply attended to and we are expected to feel grateful for the opportunity to make money for other people.

True, our period of compulsory work is much, much longer than anything people on benefits were expected to perform. But like them, the chances of gaining employment after that period of enforced work is minute and we certainly won’t find it as a counsellor in the agency. Like the organisations that made use of Workfare, why would they employ people if they can get work performed for free?

Like unemployed people, we are expected to attend therapy and demonstrate that we are making progress. Our attitude will be examined closely. Unlike people on benefits, our attitude and attendance won’t determine whether we’re allowed to heat our homes or eat.

But we don't empathise with the unemployed. (A few weeks on the dole in the 80's and 90's are nothing like long term unemployment, or unemployment since 2010.) Do the unemployed represent our Shadow, the rejected, the despised, the stigmatised? We long to be recognised as 'professional' and 'registered' and 'accredited' and respectable so to identify ourselves in people who are historically abused and scapegoated will be very hard. 

Therapists talk up a storm about ethics, it’s a word that’s often used as a kind of threat: “I think that doing this or that is unethical.” Yesterday I heard a counsellor flatly say that they believe it is unethical to discuss politics with a client.

In this climate I’d say it’s unethical not to be able to. Sadly, because we are so separate from the worlds and experiences of people who are unemployed, very few of us are in any manner able to discuss their situation with them at all, let alone the politics that they’ve found themselves immersed in. At this point, counselling a person who is unemployed is likely to cause that person harm.

When we don’t know the difference between ‘voluntary’ and ‘compulsory’ how can we trust ourselves to meet with people who are trapped in a system of compulsion that can kill them?

Monday, 6 February 2017

Turn It Off And Unplug

I don’t know about you but I’ve been shaken by the last few months. In the UK, the instant rise in racism days after the Brexit vote and a massive 41% rise in hate crimes in the month afterwards was shocking. 

Comments sections in the online versions of newspapers have shut down and a quick look at the comments elsewhere tells you why: a tsunami of sneering and contempt. This is by no means only from people whose education has been limited.

Anyone with a slither of empathy is feeling pressured. Added to our own stresses of emptier purses, job instability and end-of-winter gloom it can all get a bit much. Here’s what I’ve done to keep it together.

1. I disengaged from social media.

It’s where many of us get our news and it can be febrile. We’re now at a point where nothing but the grinding of law or impeachment will stop Trump and nothing but the Lords and a general election have any power to hinder what’s happening here.

I deactivated Facebook and Twitter. Instantly it felt as if there was newly available space and time. Oppressed groups are not depending on me as an individual. I didn’t consciously know that until I stepped away.

Deactivation is not the same as deletion and you have 30 days to reactivate.

2. I stopped watching or listening to anything to do with news or current affairs. 
The Today programme was my alarm. Now it’s classical music. I would fall asleep to the World Service, now it’s a non-political podcast. Yelling at the radio achieves precisely nothing.

3. I reminded myself that that the work is never finished.
If a snap election is called tomorrow and all homeless people are given a home and all vulnerable people are tended to by armies of skilled, compassionate and valued carers, and the Living Wage goes up to £20 an hour there will still be endless injustice and unhappiness. There is no end to injustice. There never has been.

4. I tried to keep the basics under control.
I’m eating a decent breakfast, lunch and dinner and always have a bottle of water with me. Getting enough exercise remains an issue but there it is. Getting a deep sleep is more dependent on the cat than on me, but I’m in bed by 9.30pm most days.

5. I don’t waste my time on unhelpful people.
If someone says that I should give Trump a chance I smile and talk about the weather. If they go on about immigrants/drug addicts/ alcoholics/ people on benefits being responsible for their own misery I smile and talk about the weather. On an email list I have to be on, a subject that I have a great deal of experience came up and followed the usual annoying path that this subject takes when education and experience aren’t involved. I amazed myself by being able to let the group take that path. It’s not my job to educate, persuade or stop anyone - until they become an immediate danger to themselves or others.

6. I do spend more time with people like me. 
Hoorah for the echo chamber, say I. In a world of insults and cheap shots talking with a friend about transcendence and immanence across cultures was refreshing. So was listening to a friend talk a load of old nonsense about the digestive systems of rhinos, and so was thinking out loud about the use of data in expanding another friends business. We knew that we had the same basic philosophies so we didn’t need to visit them for more than a few moments.

7. I’ve upped how many kind things I do.
All of my neighbours are good people. All of them have also expressed opinions that have been brutally violent, racist, anti-Semitic and misogynistic. Coming to terms with this complexity has been a matter of making my own life easier: I don’t want anything but an easy life in my own home. When I cooked a meal for a neighbour who was ill, passed over some flowering cherry branches to another, spent some time chatting with another and got a key cut for another who is always losing hers it made me feel better.

8. When things have become overwhelming I root myself in the immediate present.
 “I am here in my warm living room. I have food in the fridge. I can go to bed if I want. I can go out to a café if I want. I do not need to do that important thing right now.” If things get really bad I see 5 or 6 objects and name them.

A friend gave me a magazine whose cover and entire content was New Age Random Word generated. The cover featured something about honouring the feelings that emerge in the perfection of this moment. I cannot tell you the pleasure I had in dumping it in the bin.

Take time to enjoy the little things.

9. I did not go for a walk in the woods because there are no woods anywhere close to where I live. 
Neither is there a mountain, a beach, hills or a horizon. Like most of the world I live in a city where parks tend to be loaded with dogshit and mud. If I go to the nearest decent park I am surrounded by incredibly wealthy, high status people who allow their children to violently impose their status on pigeons.

But if I get there at dawn I can feed the squirrels by hand and the pigeons by stealth without any of the Friends threatening to call the police* or anyone yelling about rats with furry tails or the plague. There is nothing like the warm ear of a squirrel as she sits on my lap, or the delicate, soft body of a pigeon eating from my hand. No mindfulness practice comes close to what happens when a robin settles on my hand to eat.

10. I listen carefully to what clients are saying and not saying. 
Since Brexit, political distress has overtly entered my room at least twice a week. Strained friendships. Job instability. The value of sterling. Feeling newly powerful. Feeling newly disempowered. The failure of determined and artificial positivity. Cut services. Despair. Even if your client is in an enclosed religious Order politics is in the room because you are. Being able to listen to and understand what clients are talking about is about as basic as it gets, and my sense of being informed about the greater and lesser movements in the world helps both the client and me manage the often overwhelming sense of insecurity these movements bring.

10a. I know that snowflakes defeated Napoleon, Hitler and the Red Army 

and that the armed forces take a lot of snowflakes gathered together very seriously indeed.

Taking stock of and attending to our own wellbeing is part of being a competent practitioner. We might need to go on a 4 week retreat somewhere sunny, but if all we can manage is turning the computer off for one day then do that.

*Holland Park has a number of peacocks and peahens. They will eat from your hand like chickens. Pigeons eat what the peacocks don’t. A couple marched up to us and demanded that we stop. We didn’t. The man became apoplectic. “We are Friends of Holland Park,” he said, “We make the rules here and you may not feed the birds.” I told him to call the police, so he did. A policeman wandered into the park a little later and began feeding the peacocks with a sandwich that he had in his hat!

           The fate of the Friends is unknown.