Monday, 20 September 2010


Francis looks 60 but is 42, a year younger than me. He wears the same clothes – clean and neat – to every counselling session and reeks of cigarettes to the point where I can barely endure 50 minutes in his company, the cigarettes taking up more space in my head than what he says. Over three sessions he talks about the damp kitchen and how the Council refuse to do anything about it, how he needs to be moved not only because of the damp, his asthma and sensitivity to noise but also because the house is such a mess. He can’t tidy it up because it always goes back to how it was. I ask him what he expects from counselling. “Can you get me a little holiday out of London?” I explain why not. “Can you write a letter to the Council, to get me a transfer?” I explain why not.

We don’t like each other at all and I can’t make much sense of the tension between us despite focused and helpful supervision. In our next session the client does something I find repellent: he pretends to cry. There are no tears and no snot but lots of sniffing, many tissues and glancing up to see my response which is to become more and more punishing. I become stiller, my face seems frozen into impassivity and I feel cold towards this man. I absolutely do not prize him let alone feel unconditional positive regard. Although not verbally congruent my feelings must be apparent and somehow I am unable to do anything about them.

If you need to access state benefits or get a roof of your own there are a number of things you must do, perhaps the most important of which is to learn to demonstrate how honestly pathetic you are. You must dress respectably but in worn clothes and keep your voice and eyes low. At the same time as filling in incredibly complex paperwork it’s necessary to do the equivalent of tugging your forelock, bobbling and cringing to demonstrate how worthy you are. Tears are part of this charade. You have reached the end of your tether, all is lost, please, please help.

Stereotypes of cringing, begging, whining people who are in reality prosperous because of their calculated undermining of the State while laughing at upright, hard working families, have a long and terrible history.
When we see the redundant population (as it is fashionably called) selected as the butt for every effusion of paltry spite, as the last resource of vindictive penal statutes, – when we see every existing evil derived from this unfortunate race, and every possible vice ascribed to them – when we are accustomed to hear the poor, the uninformed, the friendless, put, by tacit consent, out of the pale of society – when their faults and wretchedness are exaggerated with eager impatience, and still greater impatience is shown at every expression of a wish to amend them – when they are familiarly spoken of as a sort of vermin only fit to be hunted down, and exterminated at the discretion of their betters: – we know pretty well what to think, both of the disinterestedness of the motives that give currency to this jargon, and of the wisdom of the policy which should either sanction, or suffer itself to be influenced by its suggestions.
Hazlitt (1821)

Francis and I didn’t last long. I was unable to be compassionately congruent and found myself too close to repeating behaviours that I believe this client will have encountered before: disdain, dislike, swift and negative judgement. I came close to wanting to bully him. Counselling is a very different paradigm from central government support but whether we like it or not we remain in a perceived and often actual position of power over the client. Clients like Francis will have learned that people who are in power very often like being in power and have the power to block their client or to open doors.

My fantasy is that Francis, being under nominal attention from the mental health team, had learned that when he is depressed and cries he gets more attention than when he doesn’t. Because I wasn’t skilled enough to offer sufficient basic UPR or congruence a positive relationship wasn’t possible. It may be that Francis also lost interest once he realised I wasn’t able to support him in getting his external and genuine needs met. And I suspect he was as aware of the disdain that the ‘redundant population’ are held in as Hazlitt was.

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